The Colored Lens
Table of Contents
- The Sycamore Tree by David Kernot
- Lady Bird by Natalia Theodoridou
- The Rising by Steve Simpson
- Dust and Blue Smoke by Robert Dawson
- A Case of the Blues by E. Lillith McDermott
- Coming Home by Lynn Rushlau
- Sluicing the Acqua by Juliana Rew
- Perfect Arm by Robert Steele
- The Darkness Below by Bria Burton
- The Whale Fall by Sean Monaghan
- The Right Decision by Carl Grafe
The Sycamore Tree
By David Kernot
When I first heard the legend that a sycamore tree stood at the eastern gates of heaven and rewarded those who lived within its shadow, I didn’t realize they meant my tree—the one on the hilltop at Two Rivers. I didn’t believe in the magic until I turned seven and dreamed I’d died.
I stepped outside into the morning shade of the three-hundred-year-old tree. Legend said that if the goddess allowed, anyone born within its shadow could be reborn there. But rebirth was the last thing on my mind, and I rubbed my chest, fresh from the death dream memory of car exhaust fumes, hot engine oil, and grease.
I ran to school because Games Day was the school’s big event of the year, and I was late. I kept to the edges of the oval, away from teachers and sports jocks.
Hugh Wintergreen ran past with a stupid grin plastered over his face. He tugged at my shirt. He said, “Catch me!” and headed toward the main gate.
I gave chase. I caught him and we ran onto the road, into the traffic, where he dared me to follow and play chicken.
I recognized the car and a feeling to stop tore at me. With the death dream fresh in my mind, I froze mid stride, and tried to grab Hugh.
He kept running and dodging cars until the car I’d seen screeched to a stop. Hugh disappeared underneath it.
I screamed and felt every one of his ribs snap.
The smell of hot rubber, car oil, and engine grease, tore at my nostrils. My stomach churned and I threw up into the gutter.
People came running.
Mariana Blackburn, a girl from my class, arrived first. She screamed. “Stu McBane pushed him.”
Her family didn’t approve of my single mum and her birthing clinic. I looked up, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, ready to deny I’d pushed Hugh, but I recognized her voice as the girl who yelled in my dream. The dream had come true, and I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been me who’d died.
The taxi driver was Hugh Stevens’ father, another boy in my class, and he vouched for me, but still, a seed of doubt grew from Mariana’s claim.
Games Day was cancelled, and I trudged home. Mum waited in the kitchen. She’d heard. Two Rivers was a small town.
She checked me over. “You’re fine.” She ruffled my hair. “Go and thank the goddess in the sycamore tree.”
I frowned. “Now?”
She put her hands on her hips.
I nodded and put my boots back on and stepped outside. The door slammed shut on its sprung hinges and I heard her again.
“Take a bag of compost with you and sprinkle it around the tree when you’re there.”
Mum ran a birthing clinic by the tree when the moon was full, and didn’t care what the rest of the town thought. I always thought her a bit crazy, but I loved her all the same.
The day I turned eight, Two Rivers Elementary School hosted another Games Day. They dedicated it to Hugh Wintergreen, and the local protestant minister came to say a few words.
We stood on the oval, and when the minister commenced his sermon, we faced the school gates. He mentioned the accident and paused, glanced over at me in the second row and nodded.
My ears burned. I blamed my mum’s non-protestant beliefs in the sycamore tree, but whatever the reason, he knew I’d been with Hugh when he died.
After prayers, everyone dispersed to the running tracks, the high jump, triple jump, and the areas set up for shot put and discus. I ambled over to the start of the 200-meter sprint. I had never won a race and wanted to see how I’d go now that one of god’s ministers had his eye on me.
I lined up and waited. The starter pistol fired, and I ran to lead place and stayed there. I pushed on and powered ahead until my legs grew heavy. At that point, Hugh Stevens leveled with me. I grit my teeth, pushed harder, determined to beat the boy whose dad had killed Hugh Wintergreen. Ahead by a pace, I approached the finish, but Hugh leveled with me. He took the lead and crossed the line half a step ahead.
I doubled over, hands on knees and gulped in air. Hugh approached, as puffed as me. I smiled.
“Well run.” He grinned and raised his hand in the air, palm toward me.
“Congratulations,” I said and slapped his hand in hi-five style.
He waved Mariana Blackburn over, the girl who, the year before, had accused me of pushing Hugh under the taxi. Inside, I groaned.
That feeling returned, and an urge to distance myself from Hugh.
I took three steps backward and air whooshed past me.
A stray javelin struck Hugh and pierced the center of his chest. He never flinched. A breath later blood swelled over his shirt and Hugh’s eyes bulged. He fell to the ground.
Mariana screamed, and pushed me.
Had the javelin been for me? Now death had passed me over twice on my birthday.
Some of the town said it was a strange coincidence. After all, Hugh Stevens’ dad had driven the taxi that killed Hugh Wintergreen.
Mariana said it had to do with me, but she was always a mean girl.
At school I mentally projected the same message. It was an accident. I hadn’t pushed Hugh Wintergreen or touched the javelin that killed Hugh Stevens.
After school, I spent that month at the sycamore tree and made the area around it weed free.
Perhaps the tree goddess watched out for me, I couldn’t be sure, but Two Rivers was a small town with only one school and memories ran deep. Nobody forgot I had twice been death’s companion. Nobody wanted to stand near me after that and my small circle of friends dwindled. I hoped people would forget soon.
I first noticed Joanie the day of my twelfth birthday. She and her twin sister, Fran, were the hottest girls in school, and they were two years older than me.
Whenever I crossed paths with Joanie, I’d smile at her, but Joanie never noticed. I didn’t exist. I’d grown accustomed to that.
At the end of last period, Joanie dropped her notebook at her locker and walked off. I picked it up and followed her outside to return it.
“You dropped this.” I handed her the notebook.
She took it and smiled. “Thanks—”
That feeling returned, a desire to move away, to flee.
“No worries.” I hurried away, lost in thought and stumbled into a group of boys outside the school.
“McBane,” one of them yelled.
I recognized Wolfgang and smiled. He was older, trouble for some, but we got along well enough.
His troublesome grin vanished and with it my smile fell. “What?” I asked.
He leaned in and poked me in the chest. “Leave. Joanie. Alone.”
I didn’t understand but stepped back until I found myself trapped in a tight circle of older boys.
His fist landed in my face before I could dodge it.
“Don’t,” I yelled. My vision blurred and tears streaked my face.
I raised my arms but a fist hit me from behind. Somebody kicked me in the ribs. I doubled over and a foot smashed into my face.
Warm fluid ran down my chin. I tasted blood. They picked me up and threw me into an industrial rubbish container. I smelled a match flare, and the contents in the container caught alight.
I choked on smoke and climbed out to their laughter, and I pushed through them and ran toward home, angry I hadn’t thrown a punch. I didn’t want anyone to see my blood-covered face, convinced my nose had been broken. I skirted the town and out of impulse I climbed the hill to the sycamore tree.
I was out of breath by the time I reached the top, and as always, I stopped to admire the glorious view of the town and distant hills.
“Hello,” a girl said.
I faced the voice, and Joanie stepped into the sun from behind the sycamore tree, a book in her hand. She smiled. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Why’d you run off today?”
“I had a feeling it was for the best.”
“Ah. That feeling. Did anyone die?”
I wasn’t surprised by the comment, but I didn’t want to talk about it. “What’s with you and Wolf?” I asked.
She shrugged. “He thinks he owns me.”
“Does he?” I grinned.
Our eyes locked, and something like electricity passed between us. I shuddered and a tingle climbed up my spine.
“Nobody owns me,” she said. “Wolf’s an idiot. He’s going to be sentenced to Juvie for breaking into old man Steven’s home.”
I nodded. There was that mention of old man Stevens, one of the dead Hugh boys. Perhaps that was why I had the urge earlier.
“He won’t bother you again.” She walked over to the tree, spread her arms, and swayed about its base to music I couldn’t hear.
She looked beautiful. Enchanting.
Joanie squeezed my hand, and a warm flush filled my cheeks. “So you know about the magic of the sycamore tree?” She raised her eyebrows.
I remember mum’s stories and nodded.
“I come up here all the time, to pull out the weeds, keep it tidy for her.”
“Her?” I said unsure.
“The tree goddess. Don’t you know anything? She’s what’s takes care of us down there.”
I thought about my near misses with both Hughes and the fact that I stood alone with the hottest girl in Two Rivers. Perhaps she was right.
Joanie became my new friend. She called me Stuart, and I liked that. I became interested in school again, and my grades improved. But Joanie had a wild side too, and we were always in trouble for swinging from the rope under Patterson’s bridge, or standing underneath the live cables from the town’s power station. Life was fun around her. I spent all my weekends with Joanie, and time before and after school. I carried her books. I read teen-girl magazines. I talked about hair removal. By the end of our second year we were in love and inseparable.
At fifteen, too young to know any better, I proposed underneath the sycamore tree. We planned our lives together, where we would get married, who we’d invite, when to announce the news to our folks. We confirmed our feelings to each other on the sycamore tree, the place we first kissed, and carved our names inside a heart shape, deep into its bark.
One summer afternoon after school, I stood at the sycamore tree with Joanie and felt the wind blow over me. Joanie walked over to me. I loved the way the sun lit her hair so it glowed. “We’ll die old together.” She put a finger to my lips, and her eyes dilated and took on a faraway look. It gave me goose bumps. “You’re not the only one with psychic powers, Stuart.”
“I’m not psychic.”
“It’s true,” she said. “I’ve seen it. Never forget. I’m coming back to this tree. This is a magic place where events unfold. No matter where I am, when I turn twenty, I’ll come back and say something clever. We can plan our wedding.”
A trickle of dread ran over my scalp. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Perhaps nowhere?”
It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. How could she leave? She refused to take her eyes from me, so I kissed her, long and hard. “You’re crazy,” I said, and my voice caught in my throat. “What’s so clever that you’ll say it when you come back?”
“Burghers. The town is full of Burghers!”
“What?” I frowned. “You mean like take out?”
“Not burgers. Burghers—town managers, leaders of society.” She laughed. “It’s just a way to say something weird and drive the olds crazy.”
“You’re weird,” I said, and I kissed her again.
She stood and twirled her hair between her fingers. She did it often, and her blue eyes sparkled like jewels.
The next day she had gone. She’d said her goodbye. Her family moved. I didn’t know where or why. I tried to find her but I couldn’t. She didn’t contact me, and I withdrew. I became a loner and dreamed of death all over again.
I never forgot about Joanie, but I never talked about her either. It hurt too much.
At the end of my final year of school, I rode down the main street on a bicycle I’d outgrown. It was just after Two Rivers’ had shut up for Saturday afternoon.
A taxi drove by.
I stopped and stared at the driver. I recognized Hugh Stevens’ dad. I had never forgotten him since the day he ran down Hugh Wintergreen. He drove slow and smiled at me, adjusted his black suit and tie.
That compulsion, the odd feeling, returned, and I shivered. I wondered if Hugh’s dad was going to die.
He looked odd all dressed up, and I followed him out to Church Hill, just to the north of town, where he pulled up his car and entered the church.
I sat on my bike a safe distance away and waited.
Another car arrived, an antique one from up on East Downs, all decked out with wedding ribbons. I smiled. Old man Stevens was getting hitched again. I wanted to step closer, but that feeling returned, and I waited. Hugh Wintergreen’s mum climbed out, and I shook my head in disbelief. How could she marry old man Stevens? He killed her son. Both their children had died near me. I pulled at my hair. People called me Stu McDeath. They never let me forget I had been at both Hughs’ deaths. I didn’t understand, so I waited near the church.
The newlyweds stepped from the church together, had their photos taken and made their way to the reception. They looked happy.
The feeling left me and nobody had died. Perhaps my life had improved.
I stood outside of their reception for a long while. I think I lost sense of the time until hunger called. I decided to go home, but one of the town councilors stepped out, and I smiled. “Who got hitched?” I asked as if I didn’t know.
“Archie Stevens and Winsome Wintergreen.”
“How was that possible?” I frowned and didn’t hide my surprise. “Didn’t he kill—”
The man held up his hand, and he lowered his voice. “Yes. But that be distant water under a very old bridge.”
“Yep. Seems that it brought them together.” He leaned closer, and I could smell wine on his breath. “Now that their other kids be old enough, they’re doing the right thing. I heard there’s a child on the way.”
“Really?” I was shocked. “Aren’t they a bit old to be starting another family?”
He shrugged. “They’re in love. Who can argue? Anyways, it’s happening everywhere. All manner of folk are hitchin’ up again and populating the world over.”
I left him. Good luck to them I decided.
I joined the state force as a police officer and heard the Hughs’ parents had twins. They named them Joanne and Hugh. It was the same time I suggested that mum should come and live with me, but she wouldn’t entertain the idea.
“The tree needs me,” she said.
I had to agree with her, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Over several visits back to Two Rivers, I stated the tree had been around hundreds of years longer than her, and it would survive.
Two years late mum moved. Perhaps she had an inkling of those moments when she forgot, and bit-by-bit, the slabs of her life’s memory disappeared. I made the arrangements to have her things shifted to my home and arranged for Harry, the local bookseller, and his wife, Alice, to keep an eye on the tree.
When you’ve had a taste of wonderful it’s hard to settle for second best. Joanie was like that for me. There wasn’t another woman alive to live up to my memory of her. Nobody I met could match her humour, her beauty, the way she rolled her eyes. She made me feel right. Perhaps it was that she was my first love. Whatever the reason, Joanie had spoiled me, and I had little interest in other women.
On the day Joanie turned twenty, I drove back to Two Rivers and had a picnic lunch at the sycamore tree. I waited, still caught in the dream of my Joanie. I even pinned a note to the tree, but I never heard from her. I wondered why I had those feelings. What was it that made me special enough to deserve them? Without them I might have died at the hands of a taxi, or a javelin.
As a police officer those feelings saved me from being shot by armed robbers. Another time, an overzealous cache of stolen dynamite exploded, and I had wandered away to answer the radio just before the house I’d been inside disintegrated. It helped me find a wayward blind girl in the Badlands after she wandered off at night. I found a use for it within the department, and I racked up quite a collection of successful case closures, even a murder. I thought that perhaps, in my own way, I had found a way to serve the goddess and the sycamore tree.
Still convinced I’d see Joanie again, I always returned to the sycamore tree each year. It was like it had a hold on me. I visited the majestic tree for twenty–eight years and each time I wondered where Joanie was. I wondered what the mother tree goddess could tell me if she spoke.
Mum got sick with cancer. She was as light as the wind the final time I took her up to the sycamore tree. She sat there in her wheelchair and basked in the tree’s shadow. Half lit up by sunlight, she smiled but didn’t say a word. Her memory had gone by then, although every so often the light behind her eyes came to life and the skin in the corners of her eyelids crinkled.
I expect she remembered the high points of her life with the tree. Perhaps she thanked the goddess for her protection. Perhaps she thought about the children she had brought into the world on that windy hilltop. I couldn’t be sure. All I knew was I would miss her when she was gone.
She passed away a few weeks later, and I became even more lost and empty. I knew it had been coming but you can never be prepared enough. I kept her ashes after the cremation service and quite my job. I’d had this idea to move back to East Rock for some time, perhaps even to Two Rivers and find work.
I drove back to Two Rivers to sprinkle her ashes around the sycamore tree. The town had changed. It had lost some of its vibrancy, but mum would have been pleased to know East Rock, her birth town, shone.
I checked into my room, and I found a park at the mall. Long shadows from the sycamore tree kissed the ground where I stood. It’s funny how all these years on I would still look for her shadow. I walked into the shopping complex in a hurry to buy flowers for tomorrow’s dawn ceremony before the shop shut.
A woman with two screaming kids crashed her shopper cart into me and pulled me from my daydream. I stepped away, backed into a man and turned and apologized.
Joanie’s dad stared at me. I stood, mouth open, speechless.
He shuffled past. He hadn’t recognized me.
I stood silent. I never asked after Joanie, and he walked away.
I walked toward the flower shop, torn between chasing after him and buying flowers. My heart pounded until I turned and ran after him and searched the car park.
I found him as he reversed out of the parking space, and I threw myself in his way.
His knuckles whitened on the car steering wheel. I half expected him to drive away, but he waved me closer and wound his window down.
My heart raced. What would I say? Did I have the courage to ask what had been on my mind for almost 30 years?
“I was Joanie’s friend at school.” The words tumbled out.
His eyes clouded. “Sorry. My memories aren’t what they should be.”
He stared at me for a moment and half smiled. “Stuart!”
“Yes.” I felt warm tears slide down my face. “How is she?” Pent up emotions churned and sought release.
He looked at me and I saw his pain.
“She’s dead, Stuart.”
My heart almost stopped. Pain racked my insides. It tore at me with daggers.
“Both my girls are dead. They died in a car crash just after they turned eighteen.”
I didn’t know what to say. I nodded, drained, and I stepped away from the car. I had no right to revive those painful memories.
“She always talked about you, Stuart.” He forced a smile. “Even after I took her away.”
I nodded. “She made a difference in my life.”
He reached out through the window and grabbed my hand. “I’m sorry I took her from you, but we had to leave. Her mum, my beautiful wife, had cancer.” He let go of my hand. “I tried to save my Alice, but all I did was lose them all.”
I was dumbfounded.
That was why they moved? I was lost for words.
“She made a difference in my life too, son, they all did.”
I nodded and wiped away tears.
“It would have been their birthday tomorrow. I’ll send them your wishes in my prayers.” He smiled at me.
Numb, I stood and watched him drive off. I think he left happier, perhaps because he shared a memory with someone who cared. Perhaps I was the son–in–law he never had.
I looked up at the clear view of the sycamore tree and noticed I stood in her shadow. It was too late to ask the tree goddess for help, but I knew what I could do.
The next day, when the sun just cleared the hill above Two Rivers, and the goddess cast her longest shadow from the sycamore tree, I sprinkled mum’s ashes around the tree. I laid flowers on the ground at her base, for mum, for Joanie, for her sister Fran, and for their mother, Alice. I wondered if it might be my last visit.
I had closure in the sense. Joanie had passed from this world.
I stood at the tree for a long time and remembered Joanie. I put my hand on that heart we’d carved and said goodbye.
The feeling returned, so strong it almost bowled me over. I knelt down, giddy.
“What are you doing?”
The young woman’s musical voice made me stand, and I faced her and rubbed my tear-stained face. “Who’s there?”
My vision cleared and I watched a woman size me up. Her eyes danced over me. She put a hand on her hip. “I’m—”
“Joanie?” I had a crazy sense it was her; that somehow she’d found her way back to me.
“Close.” She laughed and tilted her head. She brushed the long golden strands from her face. “I’m Joanne,” she said. “I’m thinking about setting up a birthing clinic here.”
“I’m a midwife.”
I remembered the way the town had treated my mum, and I smiled. “Good luck with that.”
She held out her hand. “I’m Joanne Stevens.”
I took her hand and my arm tingled. “Joanne Stevens? Does your dad still drive the local taxi?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It’s complicated…” I wiped my face free of tears. I daren’t say I’d been at both her stepbrothers’ deaths. I recalled the compulsion to avoid the church the day Hugh Stevens’ dad married Winsome Wintergreen. Her folk. She was their Joanne, a twin like my Joanie. I opened and closed my mouth, tried to form words.
“Don’t die on me, Stuart. You look much younger than I had imagined.”
I frowned. She knew my name.
“How do I know you?”
“Well burgher me if I didn’t have a dream.”
Time stood still.
I was back with my Joanie. Her words echoed loud inside me, and I heard her say it again as if she was there now: I’m coming back to this tree, no matter where I am, and I’m going to say something odd that will pull at your memory.
My knees buckled, and I sat down. “What did you just say?”
“I said burgher me!” She laughed. “It drives my old mum crazy. She thinks I’m swearing every time.”
“What are you doing here?” She could have been my Joanie.
“I had a dream about you, Stuart. I’ve been dreaming about you and this tree all my life. There’s magic here.”
I could feel my face crease when I frowned. “It’s the tree goddess,” I said.
“Of course it is,” she said. “Otherwise, how odd would it be to dream about the man responsible for my folks meeting?”
My frown couldn’t deepen any further. I didn’t know what was the strangest, that she dreamed about someone she’d never met, or that she was like the ghost of my Joanie.
“My twin, Hugh, was named after them both, and you were there when they died.”
I closed my eyes and nodded, struggled to push away the powerful memories.
“You’ve come back to live here,” she said it like it was decided.
“I have no idea,” I said, although I had decided to stay. There was a lot to like about Two Rivers.
“You will.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the tree. “Come, and I’ll show you where I want to build a birthing unit.”
We stopped and stood away from the tree. She pointed and described what she wanted to build. “I can’t do it alone, Stuart. What do you think?”
I was speechless. I squeezed her warm hand.
“No, on second thought, don’t say anything.”
I faced the tree. This was where I’d grown up, and I was convinced it was where I would also died one day.
“Come on, I want you to meet someone.” She tugged at my hand, and I allowed myself to be led away.
Joanne marched me down the Two Rivers’ Main Street. She stopped outside the second hand furniture shop, the one with the front windows filled with antiques, and she led me though the wide double front doors.
We climbed the stairs, and I slowed at the top to admire the stained glass windowpanes over the table tops. A woman stood at one, soldering. She could have been sixty or seventy.
“Mum, there’s someone I want you to meet.” Joanne stopped in front of the woman.
The woman put the soldering iron down and looked up, startled. She removed some earphone buds and music chattered through them. This was Mrs Stevens. The last time I had seen her was her wedding day at Church Hill years before.
She squinted at us. “Sorry, Jo, I was miles away.”
Joanne glanced at me and grinned. “Mum, this is Stuart.”
Mrs Stevens’ eyes widened, and her smoky-blue eyes sparkled when she smiled. I had a sense of what Joanne would look like once she grew older. “So he was there.”
“Everything. Just like my dream.” She laughed.
It was beautiful to hear, and I realized I couldn’t remember the last time somebody laughed so much in my presence.
“Stuart,” said Mrs Stevens and offered her hand. “I remember you growing up here.”
I shook it. “Lovely to meet you again, Mrs Stevens,” I said. Her grip surprised me, strong and determined.
“Call me Winsome.”
I smiled at her. “Okay.”
“We’ve talked about you often,” said Mrs Stevens.
“Seriously?” I couldn’t help it and laughed.
“The virtues of a small town,” said Joanne.
“Have you told him the rest? Joanne’s mum threw her daughter a mischievous smile.
“That I’m going to marry him?” She put her hands on her hips in mock anger. “I was going to give him a couple of days to find out.”
I laughed again, this time with disbelief, unsure if I’d been teased.
“Did Joanne tell you she cancelled a trip away with friends to visit the sycamore today?”
Caught in the love these two women held for each other, their warmth was contagious, and my cheeks flushed. “She’s very determined, isn’t she?” I said to Winsome.
“You’ll find that it’s not a bad attitude to have in a daughter.”
It was as if Joanne had grown in stature when I faced her. “I had a dream we are having a boy first.” Her face colored as red as my cheeks felt.
I chewed my lip and wondered what else I didn’t know about Joanne’s dream.
I stepped up from the sycamore tree and breathed in over the sharp pain in my arthritic knees. I stared at the compost on my worn sandals, and the dizzy twenty-five-year-old memories faded.
Young Winsome ran ahead of Joanne toward me. I smiled at our granddaughter, and at our daughter, Joanie, who followed. She looked fresh out of college, arm in arm with her husband, Mark.
I never doubted I’d been blessed. Why else would Joanne and I marry a month after we’d met by the sycamore tree? And like Joanne had seen in her dream, we’d had a son first, and it seemed right to call him Hugh. When Joanne suggested we call our daughter Joanie, I had cried.
We bought the land around the sycamore tree, built our house in its shadow, and Joanne started up her birthing clinic that year. I was thrilled not to have to traipse up the hill and sprinkle manure anymore.
I gestured to Winsome, “Come over here, little poppet. Stand with me in the shade.”
I put my arm around Joanne, and I ruffled young Winsome’s mop of long, golden hair and stared up at the tree.
I smiled. In my heart I understood there was magic here. Only family, the blessing of a goddess, and a sycamore tree mattered.
I knew if I looked hard enough, the heart and the initials Joanie and I carved out would still be visible.
I squatted down and groaned as my knees gave way. “Winsome,” I said and pointed to where Joanie and I had carved out our initials on the tree’s bark all those years ago. “I wrote my name up there once. Maybe one day, you can do the same.”
“It’s healed, Grandpa,” she said with a smile older than her years.
A frown creased my smile and I forced a laugh. “Why would you say that?”
“The lady in the tree said so after I had a dream.”
A shiver tickled the back of my spine. I turned and leaned closer. “Lady?”
“You know. The one that makes us sprinkle stuff around her base. She looks after the babies.”
Joanne laughed and put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me and I knew what she was thinking.
“I think the tree goddess has chosen wisely,” I said.
By Natalia Theodoridou
She leaned forward, bringing herself closer to the edge of the cliff. She often wondered whether everyone could see the way she saw. Especially when she was on the rope with her head between her legs, or hanging from the trapeze, her heels underarm. She thought then, can they see these lights? These shapes on top of the spectators’ heads, their most secret secrets untangled against my tangled body, and these darknesses in their palms, and the birds in their mouths, can everyone see them?
She peeked over the edge. A steep fall, then jagged rocks. Then water.
These birds, crammed between their teeth, are they swallows?
The man pulled her back. “Be careful,” he said. “You’ll fall.”
She pursed her lips. “You shouldn’t say things like that to an acrobat. It’s bad luck.”
“Does Lady Bird care about such things? Born on the rope. Isn’t that what the ring master says every night?”
“You think you know so much about me, don’t you?” Her eyes fixed on the ocean, she caressed the wooden box that lay between them. She tapped the crudely carved spade on the lid. “But I know nothing about you.”
“You know everything. Why do you talk like that?”
“What’s in the box, then?”
A gush of wind ruffled his hair. The girl shuddered in her transparent costume.
“You could have at least changed before dragging us up here,” he said.
“What’s in the box?”
“Why is this so important?”
She looked around. A wasteland. Can everyone see this? she wondered. The beach beneath them almost beaten by the tide. The pleasure wheel fading in the distance, its lights dim and pale. And the circus tent, off-white specked with desolation.
“Why are you so scared?” He reached out, his fingers brushing her cheek. “You know my life before the circus means nothing.”
The girl pulled her leg over her shoulder, pushing his hand away. She peered at him behind her thigh. No secrets over your head, no lights. Who are you? Why are you hiding?
“You say that, and yet you hold onto that box,” she said.
“Let it go. It’s just a box.”
“Throw it in the sea then, why don’t you?”
“Can’t you leave me this one thing? Everything else is yours,” he said. It wasn’t a complaint. Merely a statement.
“Everything?” she asked. “Even your lions?”
“Yes, even them. Say the word and I’ll bring you their heads.”
She put her leg down and glared at him.
“I would never do something like that.” Her eyes softened. “Bring me their heads… Silly.”
He chuckled. “I always had a flare for the dramatic.”
“True.” She rested her forearms and chin at the edge of the cliff and thrust her pelvis towards her head. She then bent her knees and hung her feet over her face. She looked at him behind her soles. Nothing. How are you hiding? You are the only one who can. “What’s in the box?”
“Oh, come on. Milk. It’s just milk.”
“Yes, snake’s milk.”
She frowned. “Very funny.”
“All right,” he said. “A watch.”
She sat up and put her ear to the lid. “I can’t hear anything,” she said. “Be quiet.”
“I’m not making any noise. It’s the wind. The waves.”
“Hush them, then. What kind of a useless tamer are you?”
“Do you enjoy hurting me?”
“There is no watch in there. Tell the truth.”
“It’s dirt from my birthplace.”
“You were born on a ship.”
“You forget nothing.”
She remembered the first time he entered the circus tent, his lions on a leash, the box tucked under his arm. She was hanging upside down above the ring, yet she saw no shapes. No darknesses, no birds. Most people hide their secrets in their hearts, at the back of their heads, or under their tongues. Where are his? she had wondered. “Tell me.”
His face grew serious. He studied her small feet, dangling over the edge. “Fine,” he said, “I will. But you won’t ask for anything ever again.”
“It’s two pieces of paper. One holds my name.”
She laughed. “Your name? Aren’t you the Desert Lion?”
“Aren’t you Lady Bird?”
“All right. And the other?”
“You said you’d tell me.”
She stared at him counting three breaths, an old balancing habit; one, earth, two, sky, three, my body in between. “Show me,” she said with the fourth.
“You promised not to ask for anything else.”
“I lied. Will you open it?”
“Why are you doing this? You know I can’t refuse you anything.”
“That is why I do it.”
“I’ll have nothing left.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Am I?” She put her weight on her palms and lifted her waist from the ridge.
“All right. All right. Sit straight.”
She obeyed. She sat cross-legged by the box and waited.
He fished for the small key hanging from the chain around his neck. He opened the box, pulled out two yellowed sheets and handed them over.
“Is that your name?” she asked.
“It doesn’t suit you.” She glanced at the second page, then looked at him.
He gazed at the horizon, silent.
“Was that all?” she asked.
He nodded again.
“Why keep it for so long, then?”
“I just wanted to have something that was mine,” he said. He retrieved the pages and put them back in the box. He locked it and tossed the key in the water. “Are you happy now?” he asked.
“Very.” She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Is that a birdie between your teeth?
They sat side by side, shoulders touching. He stared at the sharp rocks underneath.
She suddenly turned to him as if she’d just remembered something.
“I’m working on a new number. Want to see?”
“It’s not perfect yet,” she said, and threw herself over the edge.
A swallow soared by, almost brushing his cheek.
By Steve Simpson
Iracema didn’t sleep well, she tossed and turned, sweating and sore, and in the early hours she crept out of bed and dressed, wincing when she pulled her top over the bruises on her breasts.
He was on his back, a snoring drunken mouth with a wasp’s nest inside. They didn’t sting him, but they were going to chase her. She was certain of that.
She searched, but there were only a few coins. He’d flushed the rest at the bar the night before. She took her backpack out of its hiding place and left.
The magnetometer signals were strong. The ore body was close enough to the surface for open cut, a no-brainer, but Doctor Ana Fliess was puzzled. She’d read the report on the area west of Marimbondo from the year before, and there was no mention of it.
Still, there it was, and she’d have to do a full survey. She looked out across the low ridges, the scrub and baked red clay, and her geologist’s eyes saw contours and grid lines. She unloaded more equipment from the back of the truck, electromagnetic transmitters and receivers, and set to work.
She was olive skinned with the widely spaced eyes of the Guaranis, and sunburnt, with her clothes and backpack covered in dust from walking all day. She asked for a bottle of water, and counted out the coins as if they were made of gold.
Ana had already paid, but she waited outside by the gas pumps.
“Would you like a lift, senhorinha? Which way are you going?”
The woman was startled, like a sparrow, as if nobody ever called her senhorinha, at least no-one like Ana.
“I’m traveling east to São Paulo, senhora.”
“I’ll be staying overnight in Marimbondo then going on to São Paulo tomorrow. You’re welcome to come with me. I’m Ana.”
“Thank you, Senhora Ana.” She almost smiled. “I am called Iracema.”
As they pulled out of the gas station, a loud continuous noise began, the sound of bending, tearing metal, and in the rear vision mirror Ana saw the green and yellow roofing over the gas pumps peeling back. It twisted around its last attachment to a support column, ripped it from the ground and flew upward like an enormous origami bird.
Iracema’s scream brought Ana back from frozen astonishment, and she rammed her foot down on the accelerator. The motor raced but the truck didn’t move forward. Its wheels had already left the ground.
It was late, and the straight run into Marimbondo was a monotony of scrub and patched bitumen. The tanker routes in the north of Paraná were long hauls, and that meant time away from family and friends. A lot of the Petrobras drivers weren’t interested, but Carlos didn’t mind. There were compensations.
His thoughts drifted to back to the prostitute he’d negotiated in Pinhal the day before–Iracema, at least that’s what she’d said. She was a little the worse for wear, and there wasn’t a moment’s pretense. She’d gazed at the wooden walls without moving, except for the motion he’d impressed on her when he climaxed.
Now there was change in the monotony, and it took Carlos a moment to realize what it was. The road noise had disappeared, as if he was travelling on smooth concrete and not tired asphalt. The tanker was slowing–he pressed the accelerator–and drifting to the verge–he tried to correct–but nothing made any difference.
As the tanker rose into the night, Carlos forgot Iracema and remembered his wife and son, framed on the dash. He touched the Saint Christopher medal beside them, opened the cabin door, and jumped out, but he was far too late and far too high.
Through the night, Iracema and Ana prayed and comforted each other. They wondered whether they were destined for the vacuum of space or to plummet back to earth, and tried to understand what had befallen them.
“It’s no use dwelling on the unknown. We must do what we can with the here and now, and the Holy Mother will take care of the rest,” Iracema said.
Ana looked out the window, “I think we might have stopped going up. The lights of Marimbondo aren’t getting any smaller.”
They decided that the best in the here and now was to get some rest, and they slept clinging to each other, with the truck rocking gently in the breeze.
At first light they woke to find themselves floating in a Sargasso Sea of metal, surrounded by water tanks and guttering, corrugated roofing, and rusted cans and scraps. In the distance, they saw another vehicle, and they called out, waved through open doors, but there was no response.
“They’ll come for us, won’t they, Ana?”
“I’m not sure they even know we’re here.”
“Then we have to send messages.”
They tore up Ana’s maps and wrote on them, rolled them in pieces of floor mat tied with wire ripped from under the dashboard, and threw them out the windows. There was activity below, trucks crawling along the roads like tiny insects, and they hoped for the best.
In the afternoon, they found a screwdriver under the seat. Ana popped the hood, and Iracema, tethered with wire, clambered to the front of the truck and retrieved the plastic container that fed the windscreen washers. The water tasted a little soapy.
At sunset they saw a helicopter.
It was from the Globo TV network, labelled ‘Globocop’ along its tail, and there was a cameraman filming out one window. They waved and shouted, and the pilot banked to come in closer. But when the helicopter had almost reached the iron sea, its nose bucked violently upward and it began to precess like a top, spinning wildly out of control.
Ana and Iracema watched it fall and explode on the ground, a distant flare.
Iracema crossed herself. “Those poor men. What happened to their helicopter?”
“The helicopter was lifted by its blades. It must have been thrown out of balance when its metal nose came into the upward force that holds us. Helicopters aren’t designed to handle anything like that.”
Iracema nodded, and thought for a moment. “Whatever the force on the metal is, it’s just at this altitude that it exactly balances gravity. The force must decrease with height. It must be stronger below us.”
“Yes, I guess it has to be.”
Ana didn’t see what use the information was, but to know there was logic even in the incomprehensible was a candle, a comfort.
The stars came out, and made sisters by fate, Ana and Iracema told each other their secrets.
Ana talked about geology, her profession, her career. “The rock strata, the secret patterns hidden in the ground. That’s all my life has ever been. I told myself I’d take a break, go on a holiday. Volcanoes. I wanted to see the volcanoes in the south of Chile.”
She sighed. “But there was always a reason to put it off. And now… and now it might be too late.”
Iracema took her hand. “It’s not over yet, Ana. We have to have faith. Our messages are down there, someone will find one.”
Ana nodded, but in her heart she knew there would be no rescue.
Iracema talked about the man she’d escaped from.
“I was so young, so naïve, still in school in Paraguay, and he was a Brazilian, a man of the world. He took me to the cinema and the amusement park, bought me chocolates and silver balloons shaped like hearts. I ran away with him and we came to live in Brazil.”
Iracema hesitated and Ana said nothing, just waited.
“I was completely dependent on him. I had no money and no documents, and that’s when it all changed. He said I had to earn my keep.”
Ana held her as she sobbed.
“I’ve been studying. I can type. I want to get an office job in São Paulo.”
The next morning was windy, the truck rocked from side to side and there was movement in the metal sea.
Iracema saw it first. “Look, over there.”
It was a floating Petrobras tanker, side on to the wind off the Andes and driving towards them like a sailboat.
“I think it’s going to hit us.” Ana tried to imagine a traffic accident in the sky.
As it approached, the tanker gathered metal driftwood before it like a plough. Eventually it tipped onto its side and stopped moving.
“I think I can hear something. Do you hear that, Ana?”
Ana listened and heard the sound too. There was a deep thrumming beneath the whistle of the wind through the floating metal. “A motor. Its motor is still running. I don’t like that, it might–”
The tanker exploded in a massive fireball, and there was roar of sound, shrapnel slamming into the truck and shattering glass.
She felt a stinging blow to the side of her head and lost consciousness.
Ana looked around at the rides, the Ferris wheel, the Russian mountain, the funhouses. Where will we go next?
Iracema was holding a cluster of heart shaped balloons. I’m going to fly, she said, and took a ball of string out of her pocket. Here, tie this to my leg.
Ana knotted one end around her ankle, and Iracema and the balloons rose into the air.
—Hold on tight, she called down.
—How can you float like that?
—It’s easy, this is all upside down.
—Come back, Iracema, I don’t think I can hold you. The string was pulling hard and her fingers were slippery.
—It’s fine. You have to let go. And wake up.
“Ana, wake up, you have to wake up now.”
When she opened her eyes, she saw blood on her hands and glass diamonds, in her lap and all over the seat. She touched the side of her head with her fingertips. It felt sticky. Chunks of torn metal floated in the cabin and outside, and the windscreen was gone.
“Iracema, darling, are you alright?” Iracema was turned away from her, looking out the window. Ana touched her shoulder and she fell back against the seat. Her clothes were soaked in blood, and a metal shard protruded from her chest.
Ana was silent for a time, until the dry sobs melted into tears and screaming.
It was a violation, the last violation. She stripped the clothes from Iracema’s body and tore up the outfit she’d saved in her backpack, cleaned and pressed for job interviews in São Paulo, and wet everything with tears.
The military had closed off an area the size of a football field outside Marimbondo, and only certified scientists and connected politicians were permitted to enter the rising, the zone where iron had no interest in the current laws of physics.
Following the principle of monkeys with typewriters, the scientists collected data from a wide range of instrumentation, hoping that something would turn out to be useful even if it wasn’t a line of Shakespeare.
Unrestrained iron was strictly forbidden in the rising, and the politicians discretely played with ball bearings they’d hidden in their pockets.
On the fringes of the rising, a fair had appeared overnight. Holy men urged the crowds to accept that god had come to Paraná, the media chased stories, and locals swore that their discarded beer cans had risen off their back porches and floated for five famous minutes. When they were bored, the curiosity tourists wandered down rows of hastily erected stalls and purchased coffee, snacks, and mementoes.
One visitor from São Paulo noticed a piece of trampled matting and wire on the ground, and was vaguely curious about it. But his wife called to him, “Darling, come and look at these ‘I rose at Marimbondo’ tee shirts,” and that was that.
At midday, someone looked up at the sky and pointed, as if superman had flown out of a comic book, and a contagious buzz ran through the crowd.
Ana was close to the ground now, but the upward force on the metal in the knotted cloth bags tied to her ragtag harness was still increasing. She pulled a wire cord towards her, grabbed another piece of shrapnel from the exploded tanker and let it fly upwards.
Iracema had told her how. It’s easy, this is all upside down.
Her hands were cut and bleeding from the sharp edges on the metal shards, but really, it was easy. Ana was the upside-down balloon and the metal was her upside-down ballast. She’d discarded enough pieces to start falling and then released more along the way to keep descending.
She touched down like a feather and untied the last of her ballast, let it return to the sky, and the crowd around her clapped and cheered.
With the media held at bay by the military, Ana was given food and water, and her wounds were sterilized and bandaged. Colonel Lima, who accompanied her, politely didn’t ask too many questions.
“I think it would be best to have the doctors at Londrina Hospital check you out, senhora. I’ve arranged an airlift.”
The bottles on the shelves in the first aid tent rattled and shook, and Ana was startled.
“A minor earthquake. It’s the third one today. The scientists are looking into it.”
Earthquakes in Paraná were rare, but not unheard of, and the impossibility of the rising overshadowed anything that was just a little out of the ordinary, like a small tremor. Or like the ore body that Ana had discovered, even though there was nothing in the survey from the year before.
She tried to focus her thoughts. Most people’s thinking stopped at ground level, but that was where Ana’s began. The force of the rising was higher at lower altitudes, and it didn’t stop at ground level either.
“Colonel, I think something is going to come out of the ground, something big,” and she told him about the iron ore deposit she’d mapped out two days before, and what it meant.
“You’re saying the rising is coming from this … thing, underground.”
“Yes. It’s a mile long. You’ll have to evacuate the whole area.”
He was making his way counter flow through the crowds that were leaving, holding a dog-eared photograph and accosting disinterested strangers. He was unshaven and his eyes were bloodshot.
“My wife. She came through here. Have you seen her?” He sounded desperate.
Waving the photo towards Ana was a mistake. She kneed him hard in the groin and he doubled over, choking, unable to breathe.
Colonel Lima seemed slightly bemused. “Do you need any … assistance, senhora?”
The man with the photograph began vomiting and Ana shrugged. “It’s not important, Colonel. I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”
The ground heaved and split, erupted, and the battered craft rose upward on glaring tails of flame. The crowds watching at a distance saw the unbelievable, the certainty of extra-terrestrial life.
Ana had to stay overnight at Londrina hospital, and she joined an audience of patients and nurses in front of a television set. The camera followed the great vessel skyward until it scattered the terrestrial metalwork that had floated for two days, and then it tracked the objects themselves as they fell back to earth in a dark meteor shower.
Ana thought of Iracema’s dream, her flight, her hours of freedom.
“It makes you think, doesn’t it?” someone said, “How insignificant humanity is in the universe, how meaningless and trivial our day-to-day struggles really are.”
Ana wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She didn’t know much about the universe, but she knew that was horseshit.
Dust and Blue Smoke
By Robert Dawson
Kennit Martin charged into the playground like a tumbleweed on a mission. “Hey Jeff!” he yelled, still thirty feet away from me. “Steenrud’s bought a whole gallon of gasoline!” He gulped air. “I was at the post office when the creeper came! He said he’s already put the wheels on!”
I threw my boomerang down by the climbing frame. Across the playground, kids dropped bats and balls, put VR glasses and dolls into backpacks. Our lazy summer afternoon had just come into focus.
Old Mr. Steenrud had the only car in town. Sure, there were some biodiesel tractors and electric carts, and the big cargo creepers that crawled slowly along the rough roads. But those weren’t exciting, not like a real old-fashioned car.
It was a Chevrolet, red as blood, and about fifty years old. It lived inside his barn, up on blocks, wheels stacked beside it like giant checkers, and every kid in town was in awe of it. Its speedometer went up to a hundred and fifty miles per hour, ten times as fast as a tractor. Twenty-four hours… I did the multiplication. Why, in one day, it could go anywhere! Minneapolis, Chicago, Winnipeg… maybe even Alaska or Oz!
In ones and twos, kids left the playground, all heading past the drugstore toward the Steenrud place. Soon there was nobody left but me and Luther Petersen. “Come on, Luther!” I said. “Bet he gives us all rides!”
He scuffed a shoe in the dust. “Can’t.”
“C’mon, it’s not far!”
“My mom’d kill me, Jeff. She hates cars. She says they’re why the climate’s in such a mess today.”
“You could come and just watch.”
“Better not.” He turned and walked off towards his home. I felt sorry and relieved and guilty all at the same time: I’d been wondering if being a real friend might mean staying and watching with Luther instead of riding in the car myself, and I didn’t think I could do that.
Outside Steenrud’s barn, it was almost like the county fair had come early. Not just kids, grownups too. Horses tethered everywhere. People had brought plates of cookies and pitchers of lemonade. Oranges and lemons were big crops around there in those days; now they grow most of them up in Canada. I got a gingersnap and a glass of lemonade, and joined the long line. I thought of putting my VR glasses on while I waited, but didn’t. This was better than any of my games.
Mr. Steenrud was already giving people rides, circling the dirt track around the edge of his big field. I stood there, sipped the thin tart lemonade, and watched. There was no wind. Dust and blue smoke hung in the air, harsh and exciting.
Behind me, Ms. Steenrud was talking to somebody. “Never thought I’d see it again, Angie. Six years back he bought some gasoline from somebody, and next day he was swearing fit to bust. Crap wasn’t gasoline at all, it was some kind of cleaning solvent. Gummed her up so bad it took him three months to fix. He swore, if he couldn’t get proper gasoline anymore, he’d just leave her on the blocks. ‘Let the old girl rust in peace,’ he said. But looks like he’s found some. Still won’t tell me what he paid for it.” She laughed, but she didn’t sound quite happy.
Finally it was my turn, with the very last group. The car rolled up and stopped where we were waiting, the red paint gleaming in the warm March sun. Up close, you could see where it had been touched up with paint that wasn’t so shiny, and the front window was cracked. The doors creaked open, and the other passengers lingered for one last moment, then climbed carefully out. They were a few yards away from the car before they started chattering again.
And then we scrambled in. I’d imagined sitting in front, but Amie Telford got to do that. Paul Hartshorne’s dad got in back, in the middle, one foot straddled on each side of a big bump in the floor; I got one window and Paul had the other. Inside, it smelled of straw and horse manure, like the barn. We closed the doors. Mr. Steenrud turned around with a grin.
“Seatbelts all done up? It’s the law!” We fiddled with the awkward metal buckles. He nodded approval. “That’s right, that’s how you do it.”
I reached out to touch a little silver switch on the door. He shook his head.
“Better leave those windows down, the air conditioner hasn’t worked for years.” He grinned and faced forward again.
He pushed on the black steering wheel, and there was a loud honk, just like in the videos. He did something, water squirted onto the front window and two skinny black arms wiped it off again, leaving clean semicircles on the dusty window. The car coughed, and started to make a long, low purr, like a giant cat. And then we started to move.
It felt cooler almost immediately. We went faster and faster. I strained forward to look through the gap between the front seats. The red needle of the speedometer pointed to twenty miles per hour. I couldn’t imagine what a hundred and fifty would be like. We rattled over the bumps in the dirt track, and I was James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger or somebody, in an old action video. And we hung out the windows, and pointed our fingers like guns, and felt the wind in our faces, and tried to forget what we’d heard about cars making you sick to your stomach.
We went all round the field twice, and partway round again. Then the engine started to hesitate and stutter and went quiet. The car slowed and stopped.
“Sorry, kids!” said Mr. Steenrud. “Think the gas just ran out.” He tried the starter again, but it just coughed. He bent down and did something else, and the red metal lid ahead of the front window jumped a bit. He got out, walked around to the front, and opened it.
We couldn’t see anything with it up, so we climbed out too, and came around to look. Inside, the front of the car was full of strange shapes in shiny metal and black plastic. What he was looking at was a metal gallon can, with a hose rigged to it with a pipe clamp.
He shook the can; there was no sound but the dry whack of the hose against one of the metal parts. “Yep, that’s it. She’s out. Nothing left. Ride’s over.” His voice was quiet, as if we weren’t there and he was talking to himself.
Back by the barn, a bunch of the others had noticed that the car had stopped. A straggle of grownups and kids were on their way across the field to help.
“Something wrong, Bill?” one of the men asked, when they got there.
“No, she’s fine. Just out of gas,” Mr. Steenrud said. He was still smiling, but he looked tired from all the driving, and his eyes were red from the dust.
Gently, he lowered the lid down. It clunked softly into place. Then he climbed back behind the black steering wheel, and closed his door, and we all pushed the car back to the barn, like a parade.
A Case of the Blues
By E. Lillith McDermott
Subway platforms always make me claustrophobic. Don’t know if it’s the being underground, the heat, or the people. Maybe all three.
Clint’s glaring at me. “Martin, stop it! You’re gonna pop a button.”
I look down, confused. My fingers have a mind of their own, twitching up and down my lapel. Damn starch. Years it’s been in my closet and this suit’s still stiff. Clint’s right, a lost button’s just one more thing to worry about. I push my hands into my pockets. Look up at Clint. He nods, approval. Patronizing.
“So Yolanda said you had to interview today, huh?” He knows this of course, just trying to make me talk. Get out of my own head. Probably not a bad idea.
I answer. “Just to keep up my disability.”
Again Clint nods, like he understands. He doesn’t. He’s one of the few of us not getting Federal Aid. Stop – Clint’s the only friend you’ve got. Quit being a dick. After all, the rules and regs of G.O.D. welfare aren’t his fault.
I need to talk. “I don’t know why these case workers insist on making us run this gauntlet of humiliation.” I let my eyes drift across the empty tracks, land on the graffitied-over station sign. I like the new name better – Blue Barrio. Better fit. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hired.”
“I did.” Clint’s voice is small. This is well-worn territory.
“Sort of.” I gesture toward his coveralls and I.D. badge. “But you’re a teacher, not a… Recycling Technician.” Glorified garbage man.
“And I’ll teach again.” As always Clint’s nothing but confident.
“You really believe they’ll open schools for us.” Not a question. Not any more. Clint’s a true believer–his face hardens. He believes, I don’t.
“Of course they will. Every day more kids are born with the Blues. They’re gonna need some schools, and soon. Special schools, just for us. Like the housing.” He nods across the tracks – toward the name of our state sanctioned ghetto. He’s right, of course. Got to keep the infected out of the general population. Schools, hospitals–a whole separate world is slowly materializing.
The 9 train rattles to a stop and the doors swoosh open. A clean-cut young man, maybe about my age, in green scrubs pushes past. He smells strongly of hospital and disinfectant. The smell overwhelms me, and suddenly it’s 6 years ago, in Dr. Polson’s office.
I was back in my clothes, sitting on the crinkly white paper–waiting. My mom was in a chair by the door and my dad couldn’t stop pacing. Dr. Polson had given the diagnosis with about as much feeling as if he’d been
reading a weather report. Glaucous Otteric Deficiency syndrome.
“What happens now?” I asked his shoes.
My mother sobbed.
Polson cleared his throat. “Well, the disease is still new. We’re learning things every day. For now, what you need to know is we don’t believe it’s fatal. This isn’t AIDS2, no matter what the Internet is saying. You’ll probably suffer some hearing loss, which seems to be pretty universal. But other than that, well, the obvious is the pigment change.”
“How long?” I was shocked numb, no feeling, just questions.
“Depends.” The doctor focused on me, ignoring my mom’s increased hysterics. “But given how pale your coloring is, my best guess is you’ll see it pretty fast.”
“What about law school? I just started.” I needed answers.
“No reason you can’t finish, but in all honesty Martin, you should be prepared, you’ll have a full blown case before you graduate.” My mom sobbed, bolted from the room. After a long glare, my dad followed. That glare still burns, even all these years later.
Clint moves forward, stepping onto the train first. I let him. My heart races and my stomach threatens revolt. I’d like to say the first reactions are the worst, but that’d be a lie. They’re all just various degrees of horrible. Clint never gets quite the reactions I do. Not with his ebony skin. He’d probably have been able to go right along in the outside world if the whites of his eyes hadn’t finally given him away. They always do. The last to go. The final straw. But at least he’d had a few more years. Not like me. All Nordic paleness. No more healthy melanin left in my cells.
I take a deep breath. I have a right to get on this train. One foot in front of the next. The reaction is instant. Audible intakes of breath. Nervous movements. The old lady next to the door tries to make her shifting look natural – but I know. They can’t take their eyes off of me. They barely notice Clint. He blends. Not me. If I meet their eyes, they look away. But they can’t look away for long. Curiosity – morbid curiosity. Like driving by wreckage on the interstate. That’s me–road kill blues.
I pretend to look out the window. Let them stare. I watch them in the reflected glass. Try not to see myself. But I can’t help it. I’d stare too, if I were them. My once blond hair is now a dull gray. The disease has eaten up my ivory skin and replaced it with the pale blue seen throughout the Barrio. But it’s my eyes that really freak people out. Once I had the most perfect crystal eyes, little oceans. Only now, the ocean fills my entire socket. Like some possessed sea monster.
The man next to me shifts and re-shifts. Folds and unfolds his paper. But he won’t move. That would be discriminatory – and he’s not that sort of man. I bet if I started coughing he’d run.
I bet they’d all run.
How many times a month did I read new rumors about G.O.D. turning airborn? Clint smiles, finishes winding his watch. That’s his thing, says it gives folks a chance to take him in, calm down. He nods at the uncomfortable man to my right. Just like Clint to appreciate even the most half-assed efforts. The train pulls into the next station. Uncomfortable Man is already on his feet. Wonder if this is actually his stop?
He steps out the door and is immediately replaced by a 20-something woman with dirty blond dreadlocks. She scans the car, sees us – lights up. She pushes her way into our little demilitarized zone and drops into a seat, enveloping me in a cloud of patchouli. “You from the Blue Barrio?” she asks way too loudly. She wants to be noticed. She keeps looking around, demanding attention.
“That’s right.” Clint answers. Calm, you’d think he had conversations with uninfected women all the time.
She nods, smiles encouragingly. “I’m a member of the Glaucous Defense league at my university.” Am I supposed to be proud of her? Clint smiles. “We’ve staged a bunch of protests to make people realize that you’re people too!” Once again, she looks around. Bile stings the back of my throat. “Your human rights are being violated!” She just keeps talking. “We’re pushing for legislation. We’re gonna get you protected status.” Protected status. Like a spotted owl? A manatee?
“So what’s it like in the Barrio?” She leans forward, curious. No pause for an answer – not that curious. “I’ve heard conditions are pretty bad. We’re gonna change all that, you know.” She shifts and her backpack knocks Uncomfortable Man’s discarded newspaper to the ground. She grabs at it. “Oh!” She disappears behind the gray pages. A pause. “Look at this!” she commands, pointing to a page. My eyes follow.
Splashed across the front page is an oversized photo of a nondescript ranch-style house surrounded by emergency vehicles. 15 Dead in Blue Cult Mass Suicide. Again, bile. “I know.” The Good Samaritan commiserates, shaking her head. The dreds shake out another cloud of patchouli. My nose tickles. If I sneeze, will she leave? She scans the article. “So disgusting.” Is she still talking to us? I try to ignore her.
“These cults just keep popping up. I mean, come on. The Chosen People? Do you feel like the chosen ones?” She glances between Clint and me. I stay still. Clint shakes his head. I want to kick him. “It’s all because of the name you know.” She turns back to the paper. “Blue bug chasers – too sick.” New term: Blue bug chasers. Haven’t heard that one yet. “Totally muddies the issue.” I wish she’d be quiet. “Accidents happen, but come on! The first thing anyone in the Defense League does is swear to practice the safest sex possible and to get tested after every encounter. I mean the last thing any of us want is to be an example of irresponsibility and get infected.”
She looks up, conversationally. I raise my eyebrows – can’t resist. Red begins to color her cheeks. I hold my face still – but I want to laugh. “Uh…not to say you were acting irresponsibly…I mean…accidents happen…right?” Her blush grows. The train comes to a stop. She looks around, her eyes wild. “Oh, this is… I gotta go.” She bolts. We rattle on. The next stop is fast approaching, my stomach tightens.
“You gonna be okay?” Clint’s worried. I nod. I smile. I lie.
“Uh, thanks. For coming this far. I know the work bus would’ve been easier.” He doesn’t pretend – I’m glad. Just nods and takes off toward his transfer. I slide across the empty seats, putting the mechanic’s closet against my shoulder. I become tiny – inconspicuous. Commuters pile into the car, but not around me. I have my own little pocket of space. I catch a man stealing a glance. We lurch to another stop. One…two…three…four…not many more stops left.
A young mother drags her son onto the car. Her head is bent over her huge purse and she’s fiddling with a cell. She looks up, scans the crowd and pushes her boy toward my open seats. She gestures her son into a seat and then returns to her bag and phone. I push up against the metal of the wall; feel the cold through my blazer.
The boy looks at me. “What’s wrong with you?” I’m not sure what to say, how to respond. I glance over at his mom. She’s still busy – distracted. How will she react? Should I answer? “Well?” The boy presses. He’s young, no more than 7 or 8, maybe younger. Mixed race, adopted? I can’t tell. Definitely darker than his mother, by about 10 shades.
“I caught a virus,” I whisper, try not to be overheard.
“Like a cold, only instead of making me sneeze, it made me blue.” Again I glance at his mother. Still busy.
“Cool!” The boy smiles and nods.
“You think this is cool?”
“Totally. You look like an alien…or…oh!” His face lights up and he begins to dig in the backpack at this feet. I look past his bent head, but his mom is busy pushing buttons on her phone. The boy pops back up. He holds up a comic book – well worn. He taps the cover. I look. A bright blue man is frozen in a mid-karate kick.
“Who’s that?” I whisper. I can feel more and more eyes turning to our conversation. My stomach tightens and my pulse quickens.
“Only the best crime fighter ever!” Apparently that was supposed to be obvious. “He’s part of this group of mutants that work together to fight evil. They have all sorts of cool powers.” He pauses, his eyes narrow. “Do you have any powers?”
I want to laugh. But his face is so hopeful. I shake my head. His face droops. “At least, not that I know of.” I feel myself smile. Foreign. I shouldn’t be talking to this kid – his mom’s gonna freak.
The boy looks thoughtful, eyes me up and down. “Maybe you’ll get powers. Or maybe,” his eyes sparkle. “Maybe you’re actually an alien.”
I shake my head. “Sorry, no.”
“Maybe you don’t know it. Like a sleeper agent. And then, when the ships land, you’ll wake up or something.” His smile is contagious.
“Maybe.” I shrug.
He keeps talking; his words rush out tripping over each other. “Or what if you’ve been secretly infected by another race of aliens who are trying to protect earth and when the invasion happens, you’ll like turn into some sort of super man and–”
“Joshua, stop bother–” His mother’s mouth hangs opens, her words dead on her lips. She stares at me.
My heart thumps…
Her face contorts. Panic wars with decorum. She glances around the car. Those nearest go quiet. The train stops. In a flurry of movement she collects their belongings. “Come on Joshua, this is our stop.”
He pulls at her arm. “But Mom–”
“Josh, quiet,” she hisses – teeth clenched. I meet his eyes, nod – one small head bob. They are gone. I wish I was Joshua’s superhero. Then I’d have the power to…
The next stop comes up fast. The ride gets worse. Two punks slip through the doors at the last second. And they’re…blue. Not blue like me, Clint. But really blue. Blue and proud.
The girl’s – amazing. I can’t stop looking. I barely notice him. She’s not remarkable in height or beauty, but she’s so…out. Her hair, it should be gray, but its not. She’d dyed it neon blue. So bright it makes my eyes water. Her clothes- blue, black and purple. Purple lips and midnight eyelids. Even her nails are blue. No shame – she looks around the car meeting eyes and making them look away.
Only now do I even look at him. What she lacks in height he makes up. Sweat beads on my neck. He’s shaved his hair into a Mohawk, bleached white. Torn jeans, lug-soled boots. Metal clinks on his worn leather jacket.
They see me. His face doesn’t move, but she lights up. She walks like she wants people to watch – they do. She drops into the seat next to me, lithe. She leans toward me, too close. My breath catches. She smells like vanilla, and cinnamon. Her companion turns his back on me, scanning the commuters. Like a recon scout. I can’t believe my eyes. The back of his jacket has been spray painted “Beware the GODs”
Blue Girl reaches up and runs a finger through my hair, over my ear. A trail of goose bumps follow her touch. My stomach turns inside out. “Where you going?” she whispers – still too close.
“Yeah.” Her companion turns back, leans over me. “That’s a nice suit.” He smiles. Still scary. Are they being friendly, or making fun?
“Yes.” She runs her finger under my collar. “It is a nice suit, but it doesn’t suit you, does it?” A smile plays around her lips. Full, perfectly painted lips.
I’ve never looked at a blue girl like this before. I want to know more. Her name. Her life. Blue Guy clears his throat. A business-sized card has materialized in his hand. On autopilot, I reach up, take it. “In case you’re curious.” He winks.
“You should call us,” she whispers, her fingers once again play with my hair. “You have questions.”
Blue Guy leans closer, whispering. The car’s completely still, no way he won’t be heard. “We have answers. The world’s changing.”
The train lurches to a stop. My bubble pops. “Excuse me.” I push away. Stand. “This is my stop.” They both smirk. My heart’s beating too hard. I’m surprised it doesn’t echo down the train. I walk to the doors.
“Call me!” Blue Girl yells and the doors hiss shut.
I see the sidelong glances. The double takes, the sudden shifts in movements – but I can ignore them. I can’t get the blue punks out of my head. The card in my pocket is insistent – demanding.
I reach my address. A shiny monument to man’s conquest over nature. I enter the lobby. More looks. Walk toward the elevators. Blue girl walked like she owned the world. I don’t. I need the 7th floor, no sense in walking. The elevator dings open. I enter. Not surprisingly I have a private ride. First floor…second…third. It stops.
The doors open. An overweight man with a pink face does a double take. Glances up and down the hall. No one comes to save him. Steps deliberately onto the elevator. He doesn’t look at me. Later, will he tell his friends of his close encounter and how he barely survived?
Sweat is beading up on his forehead. I feel wicked. I’d like to shout, “Boo!” He’d have a heart attack. I feel a laugh erupting. I squeeze my lips tight. The door opens, floor 6. He gets off. I let go. He hears my laugh. I can tell. The doors close between us.
Floor 7. Showtime. I open the firm’s big glass doors and march purposefully toward the receptionist. She looks up. Drops her plastic smile. “I have a 9 am with Ms. Peterson.”
The smile returns – forced. “Of course, and your name?”
“Just have a seat and I’ll let her know you’re here.” Wonder how long I’ll have to wait? How long should I wait? Yolanda should be more specific in her requirements. I pick a seat directly facing the large glass doors. Perhaps that will hurry this along.
“Martin Dover?” Crisp, direct. I stand. The severe woman doesn’t flinch. Did the receptionist warn her?
“Ms. Peterson?” I step forward.
She spins on one sharp heel. “Let’s head over to my office, why don’t we?” She gestures me forward. I follow her down a hall into a room full of cubicles and chatter. I walk past the first row of cubicles and slowly the noise dies. Like ripples echoing from a stone in a pond. I focus my eyes on Ms. Peterson’s slate gray jacket.
Her glass-walled office sits on the far side of the cubicle bay. I have no doubt her mere presence behind that glass goes a long way to keep behavior in check. “Please shut the door behind you, Mr. Dover.” I do as ordered. She sits with admirable posture. My chair is stiff, almost painful. Her tiny brown eyes inspect me, top to bottom. She flips open a file on her desk, but never takes her eyes off me. “Interesting resume Mr. Dover. Impressive school credentials, but then absolutely no job experience. Nothing at all. Not just in Law, nothing. Should I assume you’ve been spending your time doing…” She gestures toward all of me.
No beating around the bush for Ms. Peterson. Honesty. I tell the truth. “Pretty much. That’s why I’m applying for the internship program. I wouldn’t be qualified for anything else.”
She raises an eyebrow but skips no beats. “True. Of course our internship program usually applies to more recent law school graduates.”
“Once again, my extenuating circumstances.”
“Yes, that.” Her eyebrows crease. “You failed to mention your infection status on your application.”
Shock. No one’s ever been this direct. My brain buzzes. Blank. Yolanda’s voice from far off coaching sessions fills my mouth with words. “I wasn’t aware that I was required to disclose my health status.”
Her face is a mask of calm. But I’ve touched a nerve. Her fingers twitch on the desk and her eyes flash. “That’s in some debate, now isn’t it?” Her voice is ice.
My chest tightens. I sit up straighter. “You do advertise as an equal opportunity employer.” Are these my words? From my mouth? We sit across the table, our own little standoff.
We both jump. Ms. Peterson hits a button on her phone. The receptionist’s perky voice fills the room. “Ms. Peterson, Mr. Singh would like to have a word with you in his office.”
“Excuse me.” She stands. Back ramrod straight. Alone. In a fishbowl of an office. My back is to the door. She must have left it open; I can hear little snippets of conversation.
“–give him a job?”
Deep breath. Tune it out. Turn it into just so much chicken coop chatter. Singh. Might be the managing partner. Wonder if it’s about me?
The wall clock ticks. My hands are sweaty. I rub them along the side of my hip. Feel the business card stashed in my pocket. I pull it out. On one side; a number. On the other, “Got a bad case of the blues?” I swear I can still smell that sugary cinnamon.
My heart begins to speed.
Why am I here?
What am I doing?
I can hear my pulse in my ears. It’s not like they’re gonna give me a job anyway. I stand up. I’m halfway through the cubicles before they notice me. Words die on their lips. They look sick, shocked. But I don’t care. I’m gone.
Out the door.
Into the elevator – empty. I smile.
I press the card in my pocket. Think. My apartment. Quiet. I have a lot to decide. My phone.
The lobby has become crowded. Too crowded. I’ve spent enough time on the periphery of the barrio to recognize concern. The low drone of chatter is growing in volume and tenor. They cluster around the plate glass walls, too agitated at first to notice me pushing through. Some of them step aside, but most only glance in my direction, caught up in the chaos. I am not the biggest threat.
Too curious to hold back, I shove my way to the doors. I cannot believe my eyes. Outside it’s raining. Obese droplets coat the now deserted street. Covering cars, sidewalk, and street in a steady sheen of blue. Not the blue of water, the ocean.
The blue of me.
I push through the doors. The rain soaks my hair, runs down my face, drips off my nose. The city has gone still. The murmur of the rain is parted by a familiar voice. “Do you like it?” Blue Girl stands alone on the pavement, palms upturned to the blue droplets. I nod.
“Come.” She holds out a hand. “The revolution’s just beginning.”
I take her hand, lift my face to the rain, lick my lips. I taste sugar and cinnamon.
By Lynn Rushlau
Trembling, Brettel touched the iron gate. It didn’t burn. She huffed. Foolish woman, why would it? She gripped a bar tightly and held onto the solidness of home.
Reaching through the bars, she raised the latch and pushed the gate open. Silently. Before it had made god-awful noises. Her breath caught. No. Oh, no. Holding the gate open, she studied the house before her.
She knew the sage bushes and willows that lined the path to the door. The swing hanging on the left side of the porch was an old friend. To the right stood the same rocking chairs that had stood there since time immemorial. Brettel smiled. This was home. This was where she belonged.
Someone had oiled the gate. In all these years, someone should have. It was a small change. Things would have. She had. But this was still home. Still where she belonged.
She hurried up the path, took a deep breath, and knocked. She’d been gone too long to just walk in.
An adolescent girl yanked the door open a few heartbeats later. She looked Brettel up and down, raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes?”
Who–? Brettel frowned and shook her head. It didn’t matter. “Is this still the carpenter’s residence?”
“He takes orders at his shop.” The girl pointed to adjacent building.
Brettel sighed with relief. “Is his wife home?”
The girl turned away and hollered, “Mom! Someone here for you.”
Leaving the door hanging open, she disappeared into the house.
Brettel heard footsteps and braced herself. An older woman, auburn hair streaked with grey, came around the corner and walked to the door. “Can I–?” Her brow furrowed momentarily. Her jaw dropped open. She whispered, “Brettel?”
Brettel bit her lip. “Mom?”
“Oh sweet lords! Brettel!” Her mother threw her arms around Brettel and pulled her into the house in a bone-crushing hug. Through eyes swimming with tears, Brettel saw the adolescent girl creep up to the parlor door. Brettel pulled back a little. Her mother let go and saw the direction of Brettel’s gaze.
“Delial, run to your father’s workshop. Tell him Brettel’s returned!”
The girl raised her eyebrows and disappeared back around the corner.
Brettel’s eyebrows shot up. That sulky almost grown girl was little Delial? Her sister who’d been in pigtails when Brettel left?
Their mother’s eyes raked across Brettel’s face. “Are you home? Are you home to stay?”
“If you’ll allow me–”
“Of course, of course.” Her gaze dropped lower and the frown returned between her eyes as she took in the well-cut dress of expensive linen and the finely tooled leather bag hanging at Brettel’s hip.
“Are you married?” she asked.
Brettel shook her head. Her mother paled and briefly closed her eyes. “You’ve become as a courtesan.”
Her mother waved a hand at her clothes.
“I’ll tell you both when Dad gets here, but I promise I’ve never sold my body for money. I had a job. My employer wished us to dress well and provided the clothes. The bag was a parting gift.”
Her mother still looked worried, but she closed the door and escorted Brettel to the kitchen. Her father burst in mere seconds later. “Brettel!”
His hug knocked breath from her lungs. As soon as he let her go, a young man pulled her into his arms. Brettel froze for a second and pulled away. He grinned. Oh, wow, how could she have not recognized him no matter how old her little brother had grown. “Garnan!”
Delial had returned as well, but she hung back. Arms crossed, she leaned against the wall.
“Where have you been all this time?” Garnan demanded.
Brettel looked at her parents. “You said if I wasn’t going to help out in Dad’s shop that I’d have to find work.”
Her parents exchanged a look full of pain and recrimination.
Brettel smiled sadly. “I’m sorry. I know I was an utter brat over the idea. For years I’ve wished I could do them over, and that wasn’t how you remembered me.”
“Ah, you were young,” her father said. He clasped her hand. “Only sixteen.”
“Sixteen is old enough to know when you’re acting like a brat.”
Delial frowned. So did Brettel. Delial couldn’t be that old yet.
“Anyway, I knew work was inevitable so I left that morning to attend the hiring fair.”
Her parents exchanged a look.
“Releigh had offered you work in her bakery,” her mother said.
“I remember, but I hated the idea. So I went to the hiring fair instead. There was a woman there, dressed much as I am today, looking for people to work at a huge estate. She said very little of the estate, only enough to give clue to its size and that it was on one of the islands, not here in Dwankey. When she offered me a seven-year position as an upstairs maid, I couldn’t say no. It sounded so elegant!
“A young man from a farmstead well north of us wanted work in the gardens, and a girl from the fishing huts took a position in the estate’s kitchens. We all followed the woman to the docks, where a beautiful white ship awaited us. It wasn’t any larger than the fishing vessels, but so dainty and well-kept.” Brettel shook her head.
“The woman ushered us aboard, but didn’t get on herself. She had served her time and finished her final task in hiring us and now could go home. She’d introduced herself at the fair as Trudy, now she told us she was related to the Millers.”
“Trudy Miller!” her mother shrieked. Her parents exchanged a stunned look. Garnan’s jaw dropped. Delial stepped away from the wall, her arms falling to her side and eyes wide.
“That woman claims she spent the seven–” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. “Seven years she was gone on the White Isle.”
Brettel nodded. “That’s where the white ship took us. We had to restrain the fishmonger’s girl from jumping over as we drew near and it became obvious the White Isle was our destination.”
“I remember,” Garnan said dreamily. “I remember the Isle was visible that day. My friends and I spent quite a bit of time that morning watching the glitter of the sun on the white towers, discussing what it might really be like. Did you see the Fae? Did you see magic?”
Brettel shuddered. “Yes to both. Luckily, I didn’t have much to do with either. I was just an upstairs maid. I made their beds and cleaned their rooms and avoided them as best I could. My life wasn’t much different than a maid at any grand estate, I have to believe.”
“But what of the Fae? Who is the lord there? What is he like?” Delial took a seat at the table. Her mouth hung open.
“He–His name–” The name hovered on the tip of her tongue, but dissolved before she could form it. His image stayed behind her eyes. Tawny hair, chilly gold eyes. The image blurred. Brettel shook her head. “I’m sorry. They said it would all fade the further we got from the White Isle. I don’t seem to remember much of them. ”
“You were there for seven years. You must remember!”
Brettel’s brow furrowed. “I remember cleaning. I remember my friends among the human staff. The boy who came from the farm fell in love with one of them. He chose to stay on permanently.”
“One of the Fae?” Delial’s eyes were huge.
“That’s so romantic!” Delial squealed. “What was she like? Is she beautiful beyond words? Will they marry?”
Startled, Brettel laughed. “No, I don’t think they marry. She was–she was beautiful. All raven blue locks and deep…dark eyes.” The image dissipated as Brettel tried to describe her. She shook her head. “I–I do recall she was beautiful.
“I served the seven years of my contract and came home. They did pay me well. I have money for the household.” Brettel started to dig through her bag.
Her father caught her arm and said, “Are you telling us that Trudy Miller knew exactly where you were all this time? She let our hearts break with worry for seven years and never did us the kindness of passing on your location?”
Brettel blushed. “She probably didn’t know whose child I was.”
“We asked all over town for months and months!” her mother exclaimed. “Had anyone seen you? Did anyone remember you leaving Dwankey on any of the carts from the fair? A couple of people have always insisted they saw you at the fair, but since no one could say and we never heard from you, we feared the worst.”
“I’m sorry. If I’d had any way of getting word to you, I would have. I didn’t understand when I accepted the contract where I was going. Not until we were halfway across the bay to the White Isle and even then I didn’t believe we were really going to the White Isle until we actually docked there. No one’s ever reached it before. How was I to know we’d stepped onto a Fae boat with Fae sailors?”
“But she knew,” her father said. “That bitch knew all along how distraught we were and that you were safe and–I’m going to kill her.”
“Dad, no.” Brettel shook her head and squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment. She didn’t want to say this, but knew she must. “It was her final duty to find new servants. Few choose to stay on beyond their seven years. The estate is immense. You would not believe from the glimpses we see from shore, how truly big the island and the estate is. They need servants.”
“What are you saying?” her mother asked.
“It is the final duty for departing servants. To find replacements.”
“Today was the hiring fair,” Garnan said. “Sol and Nerles were planning to look for better work.”
“Brettel?” Her father frowned. “Did you go first to the fair this morning?”
Brettel nodded. “I had that duty, yes.”
“Who? Who did you send off to them?” her father demanded. Brettel shook her head.
“No, you can’t do this, Brettel,” her mother said. “You must tell their families. You cannot allow another family to go through the grief we’ve suffered. Who did you send to them?”
“I can’t remember.”
Garnan insisted he could finish the current job alone, but their father returned to the workshop with him. Delial disappeared. After several miserable attempts to question Brettel about her life on the White Isle, her mother focused on catching Brettel up on seven years worth of gossip.
Mother made them tea, but wouldn’t let Brettel help. The teacups rested in the same cabinet as ever. The sugar, milk, spoons, all were where they should be. Brettel would have made the tea for them, but her mother brushed away all offers of assistance and served Brettel as if she were a guest.
Delial must have run to tell friends and family, for both showed up in droves that evening. An impromptu party replaced dinner. By its end, Brettel felt more exhausted than spring cleaning ever left her.
Everyone grilled her about the Fae. Many seemed frustrated that she could tell them nothing. More than one older relative took her to task over the pain she’d caused her parents–as if she could go back in time and fix that at this point.
Brettel’s bed had never been such a refuge, not even when the White Isle was at its scariest. She frowned. Memories of terror increased her heartbeat, but what had happened? The question drew a shiver down her spine. Better to not remember.
Her room remained her room. No one else needed the tiny space with the tattered patchwork quilt. Her old, dusty clothes filled the miniscule wardrobe. Faded drawings hung on the walls.
“I couldn’t bear to pack it up.” Her mother twisted her hands as she stood in the hall.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m back now.” Brettel hugged her.
She shut the door and breathed in the silence.
Home was not what she expected. She thought she’d feel safe here. She thought it would be familiar, but she missed her friends in service. She missed the camaraderie. She missed the singing and the gardens and the beauty and peace. The White Isle felt more like home than this tiny dark house filled with inquisitive people, who stared at her like she was a spook!
Brettel climbed into bed and curled up under the strange blankets that had covered her for most nights of her life.
It would be better tomorrow. Today had been a shock for them all. Tomorrow life would start getting back to normal.
A thud drew her upright. Glass shattered. Another thud hit the wall. Brettel shrieked.
Lantern in hand, Garnan burst through the door. “What–?” He saw the rock lying in the pool of shattered glass. “Bastards.”
Their parents crowded in the door. “What’s happened? What’s wrong? What does that say?”
Garnan knelt in the glass and cut the note from the rock. He read aloud, “You’ll bring back them you’ve stolen, bit–” He shot a frantic glance at his mother. “You bring them back now.”
Brettel didn’t sleep well. The board her father hammered over the shattered window left the room too dark. She woke sandy-eyed and tired. Morning made nothing better.
Breakfast was well underway when she got downstairs.
“I’m sorry. I never sleep in this late. What can I do to help?”
“You have a seat. We’ll have the food ready in a jiffy,” Mom said.
“Let me set the table.”
“It’s your first morning back. Delial will do it.”
Delial shot Mom an outraged glare, slammed down the breadknife, and stalked out of the room.
“Delial! Get back here!”
“It’s okay. I’ll get it.” Brettel finished slicing the bread and set the table. It was her first and last triumph.
Offers to help were met with protests that it was her first morning back, her first lunch, her first afternoon, her first week. Her mother allowed her to do nothing. Her father needed her not at all. Delial scowled at every rebuffed offer.
Brettel attempted to ignore her mother’s refusal the first night at dinner and assist Delial, but Delial grabbed the flatware from Brettel’s hands and insisted she could handle her own chores.
Brettel needed to find work. Leaving the White Isle, she’d known she’d need to, would want to, but she hadn’t expected to be dying to escape her home again. Nothing like several years in Faerie to demonstrate beyond question what it means to be an outsider. She expected to fit right in at home.
The constant rebuffs had her ready to flee again.
She needed work, something to make proper use of her time. If her parents couldn’t provide, she’d find it in town.
Brettel dressed in her best dress, coat and gloves and went down to breakfast a week to the day she’d come home. Her mother looked up to greet her and dropped her knife with a clatter.
“Are you leaving?” Mom’s face paled.
“I thought I’d seek work in town after breakfast.”
“Oh.” Her mother dropped her hand over her heart. “I need to pick up a few things at the market. I’ll walk down with you.”
Delial huffed and stormed out of the room.
“Delial! The porridge!”
“It’s okay. I can get it.” Before her mother could protest, Brettel plucked the spoon from the pot and planted herself before the stove.
Her mother sighed, but didn’t say anything as Brettel finished the rest of Delial’s breakfast tasks. Delial’s obvious discontent killed any satisfaction Brettel might have gained from actually being able to help.
Brettel found the walk into town more perplexing than the walk home had been. Surely that house had blue shutters before, not dingy brown. And hadn’t that one been yellow? Was this a different route? What happened to Miss Oliandra’s roses? The sheared yard left Brettel unsure if she identified the right house. Vastly overgrown hedges no longer hid the house at the end of the lane.
An old man approached them from town. He doffed his battered straw hat and said hello. Brettel echoed her mother’s response.
“Good to see you.” He nodded to Brettel as he passed.
Brow furrowed in confusion, Brettel leaned close to her mother to whisper. “Who was that?”
“Donnod. You remember him.”
Brettel gave her a blank look.
“He owns a fleet of fishing boats.” Her mother smiled. “Well, he has seven sons and son-in-laws and owns all their boats. You must remember Methew. He courted you.”
The name pricked at her memories. “Reddish blond hair, brown eyes? Really skinny?”
“That’s the one. He’s still single.”
Startled, Brettel blushed. How had her mother known she was wondering about that?
They turned a corner and started down main street. The roofs of the homes of Dwankey’s rich could be seen over the shops.
“Do you want me to meet you back somewhere here in town or just see you at home?” Brettel asked.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Her mother bit her lip.
“Seeking employment? How could it not be?”
Brettel visited seven houses before exhaustion led her back to main street. No one needed anyone right now. Those who’d been shorthanded hired at the fair last week. Of course. Brettel felt foolish to have not thought of that.
But her efforts might yet bear fruit. Several housekeepers took her information and seemed to think their mistresses would be interested to have a maid who’d worked on the White Isle.
She would keep her fingers crossed, but the day’s search had done nothing to solve her immediate problem of uselessness.
Wondering if she’d need to leave Dwankey to find employment, Brettel headed back to Releigh’s Bakery to meet her mother. Mere feet from the door, bruising hands grabbed her arms and whipped her around.
“What have you done with my wife?” Spittle landed on her face as the man bellowed. He shook her. “You had no right to take her away from me! Harlot! Demon!”
Brettel flopped helplessly in his arms. She could hear people shrieking, but couldn’t catch her breath to add to their cries.
“Thief! You had no right! How do I get her back? Tell me!” He shook her so hard she nearly lost balance. “How do I get her—oomph.”
Garnan socked the man in the side. He pried Brettel free of the man’s hold and pulled her away. “Are you okay?”
Her mother and a flurry of older women surrounded her all asking the same question. Brettel’s head spun.
“You leave my sister alone, Coffard! Everyone knows why your wife left you!”
Coffard swung a punch, but Garnan ducked out of the way. Guards bustled through, breaking up the fight before it went further and dispelling the crowd.
Brettel couldn’t sleep that night. She truly missed the White Isle. The housekeeper would have had a salve and a cool drink that would have soothed her throat in no time. Back on the Isle, she wouldn’t be lying here with a burning throat throbbing too much to allow sleep.
The witch hazel-infused cloth around her neck felt good when first applied, but its comfort dissipated in minutes. Brettel refused to consider dipping into the funds she’d provided to the household for the apothecary and a better painkiller.
She rolled over and took another sip of lukewarm honey-filled tea. The honey helped, but again, its succor disappeared too quickly to allow escape into sleep.
The White Isle would be visible somewhere tonight. On it, one forgot to look across the waters, but once in a rare moon, she would remember the world outside its shore and steal a glimpse of the mainland.
Some nights the moon illuminated forested rocky shores without a sign of human habitation to be found. Other times, she caught glimpses of immense, formidable cities that stretched as far as the eye could see.
She never saw Dwankey. Not once until this week when she climbed back into the faerie boat to come home.
Why had she wanted to return so badly? Her family had missed her; she must acknowledge that. But she wasn’t needed here. No one knew what to do with her.
Her parents wouldn’t accept the money she’d hoarded all these years to give them. They kept returning it to her room. She moved it back to the house coffer every morning. Her father even refused to let her pay for the glazier to give her this new window. She rolled over and glared at it.
The night sky looked paler than usual. Brettel frowned and climbed out of bed. Maybe she was remembering wrong. Everything was weird on the White Isle. The sky often seemed darker, the stars brighter and closer there.
The world outside looked eerily orange. The connection took only a moment. “Fire!”
She pivoted and flew out of her room. Still shouting “Fire!” she clattered down the stairs. Doors slammed open. She burst outside and gasped. Her father’s carpentry shop was aflame.
She needed to raise the town.
Brettel ran for the gate. She heard her father yell to her brother not to go inside the shop. She flung open the gate and, glancing back to make sure Garnan wasn’t risking his life, slammed into someone solid.
“Oh, sorry! Can you help? I’ve got to get to the emergency bell.” Brettel tried to pull free of the hands that caught her.
“No. What you’ve got to do is take me to my wife.”
The man caught both her wrists in his left hand and shoved a rag in her mouth. He pulled her away from the house. She dragged her heels. She couldn’t stop him, but they weren’t moving very fast.
The emergency bell clanged. Running footsteps drew closer to them and filled Brettel with relief. But Coffard heard them as well. He threw her over his shoulder and took off at a stumbling lope.
Hands free, Brettel yanked out the gag. She screamed, kicked, and beat his back with her fists as he ran. No one stopped him. His distraction had been too good. The entire town was awake, oh yes, but they hurried to help her parents. No one heard her screams over the uproar about the fire. Coffard cut through yards and dragged her down back ways where they passed no one.
At the docks, he threw her to the ground, knocking the wind out of her. “Shut up! No one’s going to help you. You don’t deserve help, thieving demon-tainted bitch like you. Leading good women astray. You’re going to fetch back what you stole.”
Brettel scooted away, but he caught her arm and yanked her to her feet–about pulling her shoulder out of socket.
“Your wife chose to go! I didn’t lead her anywhere. She was at the hiring fair!”
“I can’t get you to the White Isle. I’m human like you. The Isle’s not there. Can’t you see that?” She gestured towards the harbor. Dark outlines of islands were barely visible. Coonie, Sperko, Laseey, and the tiny mounds of Little Fess and Upper Fess, but not the glowing, glittering shore of the White Isle.
He slapped her across the face. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth.
“Let her go!”
They spun to face Delial. Arms akimbo, she glared at Coffard. “Your wife left because you beat her. All of Dwankey knows that, and no one would ever help you get her back! She’ll have taken a lifetime contract. You’ll never get to the White Isle, and she’ll never leave it.”
“You shut your face! You’re a stupid child. What do you know of anything?”
“I’m not a child,” her father huffed up behind Delial. “You know Delial’s words are true. You let my Brettel go. She rescued your wife. Something all of us should have done long ago.”
“You want your daughter, you help get my wife!”
“How?” Garnan demanded. Startled, Brettel watched Garnan shove past their father, their mother on his heels.
“She came from there! She can get back.”
“She came from here,” her mother growled. “That’s my daughter. Our family! She was born and raised in Dwankey. This is her home. She worked there. That doesn’t make her from there any more than it makes your wife from there now that she works there.”
“She cannot go taking good people off to that decadent land! It’s wrong!”
“And beating your wife senseless on a weekly basis, isn’t?” Garnan asked.
Coffard flung Brettel aside and advanced on him. “I did not beat my wife.”
Her mother pulled Brettel into her arms.
“Yeah? Where’d those bruises come from?”
Coffard threw a punch. Garnan ducked. His return hit caught Coffard in the stomach. He didn’t wait for the man to recover, but served a quick uppercut to the chin and knocked him out cold.
“I can’t do anything about his wife,” Brettel said as she stared down at him.
“And you shouldn’t. Adara deserves her life free of him.”
“Yeah, but is he going to leave Brettel alone?” Delial kicked Coffard’s foot.
“Stop that,” their father ordered.
“He set fire to the shop and tried to abduct my sister! Are we going to just ignore that?”
“Of course not, we’ll press charges—”
“The shop!” Brettel exclaimed. “What are you doing here? The shop is on fire!”
“The fire was about under control, but we better get back.” Her father bit his lip.
“I’m sorry.” Tears filled Brettel’s eyes.
“This isn’t your fault,” her father said.
Brettel shook her head. “It is. I ran off to the White Isle. I got involved with the Fae. And then I came back and brought this all down on you—”
“You stop right there!” Her mother dropped her hands to her hips. In her anger, she looked just like Delial. “You belong here. You should have come back and you should stay. Everyone else will just have to accept that. You’re here to stay, you hear me? This is where you belong.”
Encircled by her family, Brettel climbed the hill back to where she belonged.
Sluicing the Acqua
By Juliana Rew
Even at a distance in the hazy daylight, Sylvana could see Captain Ruggero Barsetti frowning at her as she walked down the dock carrying her diving suit. It was easy to read his thoughts: Her belly was growing, and it wasn’t seemly for her to be working so hard.
“What are you doing here, little one?” he said gruffly. It wasn’t his usual custom to be tender.
“I’m going out to Gate 38. Giorgio reported that something was causing it to snag. He could see it on his sonar on the big boat, but he didn’t have a diver. If it turns out to be a building, we are going to have our work cut out for us. Another big incursion is coming.”
“I appreciate your dedication, but I am aware of the gate problem,” the Captain retorted. “We are working on it. You should just go on home and take it easy until the baby arrives.”
Sylvana looked down at her calloused hands. “You know I can’t do that, cugino,” she said to her older cousin. “If I quit my job, I’ll never get back on. I’ll soon have another mouth to feed now, you know.”
“You’re a member of the clan. We’ll take care of you,” Ruggero said. He added, “Have you thought of joining the farming initiative after the baby comes?”
“And what will we use for fresh acqua? The only measurable rainfall is out over the sea. No, I don’t think the farming is going to happen soon.”
The Amborgettis were building freshwater collection platforms several miles offshore, but it was a risky venture in her view. The storms could be ferocious, and it was still too dangerous to subsist out on the exposed ocean. She’d stick with diving salvage from old buildings.
Sylvana felt a little guilty about playing the baby card, but she was the chief diver for the Barsetti clan. Maybe someday she could take it easy if the new farming project got off the ground. Or on the ground. There would be plenty of easy work then dusting off solar panels, to funnel back energy and provide additional light for the crops. But for now she had to keep her independence with Franco gone.
Sylvana and her relatives lived, barely, in one of the few coastal cities on Earth to survive the Gemini, the twin extinctions. The first disaster was widespread starvation initiated by runaway global warming. People moved from drought-stricken areas to the continental shores, only to fall victim to flooding and tsunamis. Then, as if humanity were not facing trials enough, an untracked extra-solar system ice ball struck Mexico in nearly the same spot as an asteroid had 66 million years ago. Any species unable to live on sludge, worms, and detritus had a difficult time in the aftermath.
Fortunately, humans are omnivores, and Sylvana’s scavenger ancestors had been fairly clever about turning dead plant and animal material into foodstuffs for people. Also luckily, there were a lot fewer people who needed to be fed. Those living in what remained of southern Europe clustered around Tristezza, or Trieste, as the Italians used to call it half a millennium ago. Now the name simply meant “sadness.”
Since the Gemini, Tristezza had watched its sister city across the Adriatic slowly succumb to the rising sea levels. Venezia had battled encroaching waters from the surrounding blue Adriatic Sea for centuries, and spent multiple fortunes hiring Dutch engineers to remove river silt and hold back the tides that threatened to overwhelm its lagoons. Venezia’s MOSE, with its series of gigantic steel sluice gates anchored below the surface, was a wonder of the world. When high tides threatened, the gates would float to the surface to protect the city. But after the Gemini, Venezia’s population dwindled, and, sensing a bargain, Tristezza negotiated to buy, dismantle, and move Venice’s gates to its own waterfront. Then the ocean erased any other signs of the great city.
Sylvana’s clan all worked to preserve the coastline and maintain the gates of Tristezza. Another clan, the Amborgettis, was responsible for running the pumps that constantly filtered the Adriatic waters for food and potable acqua. Although the climate had cooled considerably, the Adriatic Sea’s low salinity and moderate temperatures provided a climatic refuge for the remaining human population.
Sylvana’s scientist husband, Franco, had spent most of his life aboard sailing ships that Tristezza sent out each year, traveling around the boot of Italy and up the Ligurian Sea, looking for pockets of surviving species that might be suitable for refilling ecological niches or providing sustenance for humans. Franco had died five months earlier when his ship Santo Antonio tragically sank on the rugged Cinque Terre coast. Everyone thought it must have been in one of the aftershocks that continued to radiate across the ocean bed. Icelandic volcanoes regularly spewed ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, cooling and darkening the hemisphere.
The argument over for the moment, Sylvana donned her suit, while the captain waved to Giorgio to bring the rowboat closer to the dock. The Barsettis owned 16 boats of varying sizes, all created from digital models and constructed of liquid plastic.
Giorgio rowed with one of the plastic oars and nosed the boat up, holding it steady so that Sylvana could step in.
Sylvana flashed a smile and clambered aboard. She sat near the prow to monitor the echo locator, perching her helmet in her lap. To save fuel, Giorgio made the two-mile row out to the gates. Sylvana silently counted his strokes to estimate when they were close to the 38th sluice. The sea was a touch choppy today, making it a bumpy ride.
As the water slapped against the sides of the boat, she unsnapped a long telescoping pole from the interior wall and unfolded it over the water. Giorgio rowed in a tightening circle, while Sylvana poked into the murky water. The tide was not yet officially an incursion, so it should be low enough that she could find the gate without having to try to inflate it with compressed air.
Ah, luck was with her. Her pole hit something solid.
“Let’s stop here, Giorgio,” she said. Her red-bearded oarsman tossed over a heavy anchor, which would slow them down, although the rope wasn’t always long enough to reach the sea bottom. The rope would be her lifeline if she was unable to see the surface, which was most of the time.
Sylvana tucked in her long braid, as Giorgio helped her don the helmet and twist the air hose onto the valve. She slipped into the chilly water and began descending the anchor rope. As the surface closed over her, she could see only a bit of pale sun overhead. It was a short journey to the obstruction they had located. She could barely make it out with her torch, but it appeared to be part of an old wooden dock from the original Trieste marina that had slipped under water about 80 years ago. It should have floated out to sea, but part of it was stuck about 50 feet below the surface, maybe on one of the gate pylons. Chunks of plastic and other trash were accumulating on the obstruction. She pried a piece loose and tucked it into her catch bag.
She tugged on one of the timbers, but it didn’t budge. She would have to surface and get more rope. And more help. Maybe with two or three boats they could dislodge it and pull it inland. Wood was a valuable commodity, even if waterlogged.
Sylvana’s efforts to move the dock kicked up a dark green slow-motion cloud, probably dead algae that would have been useful as food, except that now she couldn’t see anything. She swam around for a while without finding the boat. She reminded herself not to panic and hyperventilate. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard Giorgio pounding on the rowboat hull. She swam in what she hoped was the right direction and with relief grabbed the anchor rope.
Giorgio pulled her in, and said, “What took so long? What did you find?”
Exhausted, Sylvana began shedding her suit. She noticed that Giorgio stared a little, and was a little embarrassed that he probably was looking at her expanding stomach. She started to tell him about the submerged find, but suddenly she felt queasy, and spots swam before her eyes. She sank toward unconsciousness, and the last thing she remembered was Giorgio shouting soundlessly as he struggled to pull up the anchor.
Sylvana sat up and looked around. She was in a strange bed, but the room was familiar. Whitewashed plaster walls with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the bureau. She was at Ruggero and Anna’s. Her salt-flaked diving suit lay across a bench.
“I’ve got to get back home,” she muttered, throwing the blanket aside and clambering out.
“Oh, no you don’t,” her cousin Anna said, appearing from nowhere and insisting she get back in bed.
“Here, I’ve brought you some soup. You need to gain your strength. Ruggero said he doesn’t want you going out again until after the baby is born. Eat up; this might be the last for a few days. Someone vandalized my slug sterilizer in the backyard, and some greedy gulls got most of this week’s harvest. They’re worse than rats.”
Reluctantly, Sylvana took the bowl and spoon. Maybe she was a bit hungry after all. Sniffing the warm garlicky broth appreciatively, she could see what Rugerro saw in the little Anna. She was a great cook and handy with tools. As Sylvana drank the liquid in the soup in a single draught, Anna announced, “The queen said she wants to see you.”
Oh great, Sylvana thought, nearly choking on a rubbery but tasty slug. I’m totally broke, and now I’m probably going to get banished.
Sylvana sat on the bed wearing her best dress, as Cristina swept into the room. Tristezza’s queen held a lion cub in her arms, which she nuzzled and then sat gently on the floor next to her. The kit was on a leash, but Sylvana had never seen a lion up close and was a bit nervous. Among all the animals saved from the old Trieste Zoo, the lions were Tristezza’s pride and joy. So, of course, Cristina had to have one as her mascot.
“How are you doing, darling?” the queen said. Officially there was no such thing as royalty, but everyone called Cristina the queen, because she handled all the administrative duties for the clan and served as a liaison with the Amborgettis.
“I’m fine, thank you, Queen Cristina. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I’m anxious to get back to work.”
“Well, we’d like to talk with you about that,” Cristina said. “We don’t think you’ll be going back to that job. . . You see–”
“What? Why not? I’m a certified diver, and my troubleshooting record speaks for itself.”
“That’s not it at all, dear,” Cristina said. “Please don’t interrupt me. We just think you’re the right person to take over for Franco.”
Now Sylvana felt confused. I’m no explorer, she thought, and Franco died in a freak accident. Didn’t he?
“What can I possibly do?” Sylvana asked.
“Franco was on a mission for the crown,” Cristina said. “Er, we mean, we were working with him on a special project.”
The queen held out a red leather-bound book. “This was Franco’s journal. It explains everything. You know, after Franco, you are our best technically trained citizen. I think only you will be able to figure out what he was onto, before he was so sadly taken from us.
“Rest and read the journal, and after the baby’s born, we want you to go to Cinque Terre to investigate.” Sylvana knew what that meant. It was royalty-speak for: You do what we want, or we’ll take one of your loved ones hostage.
“But what about the baby? I need to be here for him–or her,” she protested.
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the little one, no matter what happens,” Cristina said.
“You can’t keep my baby from me,” Sylvana repeated, her voice rising.
“Just think of it as extra motivation, dear,” Cristina said. “The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll be back.” The cub at her feet let out a yowl, and she glanced at the orologio on her wrist.
“We’ve got to be going. We’ve got another meeting about the farm initiative with the Amborgettis. You know, if you play your cards right on this thing, you might get a position on the farm board, and perhaps a share of the sea farm. If we find the fresh water we need, that is.” She scooped up the lion and hurried out the door. Sylvana jumped to her feet to bow as Cristina left.
Sylvana disgustedly pulled off the lace scarf Anna had lent her to cover the gap in the back of her now-too-tight dress and paced back and forth. The heavy kohl eyeliner she had applied so carefully had run down her cheeks. She wiped a hand across her eyes and sat down again on the bed. Her eyes fell on Franco’s journal.
He’d often told her the history of the Gemini disasters. The Earth had always been an ocean planet, but recently sea level had risen another 200 feet, and a good deal of the remaining inland was high plains deserts and mountains. Freshwater lakes had vanished long ago. It was said that when the ice sheets melted, Greenland would spring upward, but that only been a few feet, and the continent was under water.
Though familiar with Franco’s scientific work, Sylvana had never violated his privacy by looking in his private journal. How had Cristina gotten it anyway? She opened the cover and began to page through the book. It seemed to mostly be painstaking entries about species and quantities of resources he was cataloging for his work. Not really a private journal, after all.
Ah, here was an entry that mentioned Cristina:
Pressure from queen. No choice, with S.
Did the “S.” refer to Sylvana? Had Cristina threatened to do something to her if Franco didn’t do her bidding? She determined to get to the bottom of this, and started reading more carefully, diving until she was totally immersed. She reached the bottom without finding anything.
Franco had traveled to the rugged coastline of Cinque Terre on two occasions, but Sylvana didn’t see anything unusual in the entries, except the reference to Cristina near the end of the journal.
She had to get home and look for Franco’s private journal, if there was one. She told Anna she was returning to her own cottage, over her cousin’s objections.
“I’d be more comfortable at home,” she said, thanking Anna and gently shooing her out of the way to slip out.
When she got home, she was not too surprised to see that all of her and Franco’s belongings had been ransacked. Obviously Cristina’s people were looking for the same thing she was. She surveyed the damage and began putting chairs right side up and dishes back on the shelves. Dejectedly, she surmised that she was not going to find anything either.
She felt a kicking in her stomach, and said, “All right, all right, I’ll sit down, bambino.” She lay on her mattress, which she had left bare since hearing of Franco’s death five months ago. She hadn’t even had the chance to tell him he was going to be a father. . .
She dozed fitfully, dreaming that Franco had returned to her. “I thought you were gone,” she said to him. “Never, my beautiful one,” he replied, stroking her hair and embracing her. They kissed and made love until the chill air awoke her. Another dark dawn. Franco was dead, and the baby was jumping, telling her to eat some breakfast.
The next night she dreamed of Franco again. He bent over his journal, writing in the small yellowish pool of light thrown by the solar lamp. The lamp took days to charge up on the porch outside, so he always used it sparingly. He smiled when he saw Sylvana and held the book out to her. “I’ve found something wonderful, cara.” Then she woke up.
This was getting to be an obsession, she thought to herself, making up a cup of bitter espresso substitute. Although it was still breakfast time, she wished she could have a mug of alcool. She missed the sting in her throat and the radiating warmth afterward. But that was a pleasure to be saved for after the baby…
She could even see the color of the journal in her dream. It was dark blue, not like the one Cristina had given her. Sylvana walked over to Franco’s chair, with the solar lamp sitting on the table beside it. She had picked it up from where the searchers had tossed it and put it back in its place. Luckily, the panel hadn’t been damaged. The panel. It was dark blue.
She ran her finger over the glass surface, feeling the bumps over the diamond shaped separators holding the pieces in the casing. To her surprise, the glass slid aside, revealing a slim book inside.
She read the first entry:
Funny, isn’t it? “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”
She recognized the line from the famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Franco detailed how he had come across some articles in the Tristezza database on early attempts at seasteading. It seemed that the technical challenges on the high seas were too difficult, with the sea expected to demolish or capsize even the most solidly built floating domiciles. And floating residences built near the shores would inevitably be subject to political disputes and water shortages. Critics called them “paradises for fools.”
Franco had laid the idea aside for a while, reporting that he had made an encouraging discovery. He had encountered some large swaths of chlorophyll-rich plankton in the Mediterranean a dozen miles off the Cinque Terre coast. And equally surprising, he saw dolphins and fin whales. The ecosystem was making a comeback! He felt this held great promise, and was eager to report it to the queen. The increase in chlorophyll signaled an increase in solar radiation, which could be harnessed to start to grow crops on land again. Although there was still the limiting factor of the scarcity of fresh water, some could be distilled using solar energy and solar stills, now that there was more sunshine available.
Still, Sylvana had not seen anything too startling in Franco’s journal. Everyone knew solar radiation was increasing as the atmospheric dust settled out; that was why the queen had proudly announced the new farming initiative, in cooperation with the Amborgettis. She didn’t see why the queen would be after Franco–and her–from what she read. Sylvana felt the baby kick again, and closed the journal, replacing it in the solar lamp. She would read more tomorrow.
Sylvana didn’t get back to the journal the next day, or the next. The baby had decided to make an appearance. She walked slowly down to Anna and Ruggero’s place, wincing as the pains came closer together.
Anna called for the midwife, who appeared quickly, accompanied by two goons from the queen’s retinue.
“You can’t come in here. Wait outside,” Anna ordered them. They settled at the front door, prepared for a long wait. First children often took their time. Anna closed the door, as Sylvana began her work. “The queen’s men have arrived before the baby even comes. It’s disgraceful.”
The birth was a difficult one, and Sylvana got to spend time with little Mario while she recovered. Guards remained in front of Ruggero and Anna’s house to make sure she didn’t leave without warning.
Sylvana agonized over whether to tell her cousins about the journal. She felt it was key to resolving the mystery of Franco’s discovery, but she didn’t want to involve them if it might endanger the family. Finally, she decided to talk with them as soon as Ruggero got back from the gates. He had been overseeing the effort to free Gate 38 from the obstruction she had identified, and it looked like all the sluices were now lifting and sinking properly.
“Why would Franco hide a journal from the queen?” Ruggero asked quietly as they sat around the dinner table that night. “He was her pet scientist, and she was always parading him around at public events.” Sylvana said she wasn’t sure yet, but she pointed to the guards outside his door as evidence that something hadn’t been right between them.
“That might help explain the piece of rudder I found in the junk hung up in the gate,” Ruggero said. “Now I’m sure it was from the Santo Antonio. I built that ship from scratch. I think the rudder was intentionally damaged and probably failed completely by the time Franco got to Cinque Terre. Very dangerous on that rocky shore.”
Anna shivered and crossed herself.
Finally they agreed that Anna would go to Sylvana’s house and retrieve the diary, telling the guards that she needed to pick up some clothes and supplies for Sylvana and the baby.
Anna returned an hour later with a basket of diapers and a container of seaweed flour.
“They actually had the nerve to search me and the basket,” she said. “But I put Franco’s idea of a false bottom to good use. I’ll bet those men were the ones who tore up my drying rack. Here you go.” She handed the slim blue volume to Sylvana.
Sylvana retreated to the bedroom and opened the book to the page where she had left off. She spotted something that drew her interest. Franco wrote:
Apparently the Israelis were onto the idea of seasteading. Living in a country with enemies on three sides, they sought to build a structure that would support a thousand settlers in the Mediterranean and move on the open ocean. They would operate floating farms using stocks from seed banks all over the world and design a fresh water generating system that used solar stills. If solar energy was lacking, electricity would be generated using heat exchangers that captured energy from ocean waves or even radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) like those used on satellites. This is interesting, since radioactive material from old nuclear power plants along the coasts is plentiful. But the problem is how to get to it, because those plants are now submerged.
Sylvana wondered what became of the project, which was certainly ahead of its time. Israel had ceased to be a country about 200 years ago, and its former citizens were forced into another diaspora. “So much for being the chosen of God,” she said under her breath.
Sylvana read several more entries about Franco’s preparations for his next voyage and his interactions with queen Cristina.
Serious error in judgment. Shared the story of the Israeli seastead with the queen, and she latched onto it with a vengeance. Pressing me to find this legendary sea city for Tristezza. The problem is, it isn’t even legendary–no one knows if it ever existed, or where. Probably at the bottom of the ocean, rotting away, like Atlantis.
An entry dated a week later:
Pouring through some of the records regarding the disbanding of Israel. Now have a clue where the floating city went. It was indeed being built in the Mediterranean, possibly off the southern coast of Italy near Sicily. It was real!
Sylvana’s heart quickened, and she began to read faster. Franco’s investigation led to the plans for the city, code-named Simcha.
Initially skeptical about this plan. Pontoons not sufficient for long-term. Thought the ocean would almost certainly eat up the little city, just like others before it. Then saw the additional plans for sluice gates similar to those in Venice to be built near Palermo. In case of extreme weather, the city would float to a position centered on the gates, which would rise to protect it from flooding. But this can’t be right, can it? The Venice gates are much too fragile to work on the open seas. . . But Palermo still exists; it’s on high ground. . .
It appeared Franco hadn’t told Cristina what he’d found. Sylvana sat down to write a letter and called to Anna to ask her to deliver it personally. Anna tucked it into her bosom and headed out the back door.
Sylvana inhaled deeply and then held her breath as she tore out the page, stared at it one last time, and threw it in the fire. The flickering fire was one of the few colorful things left in the world. Mesmerized, Sylvana watched as the page caught, blue flames licking the edges and curling it until only black ash remained. Only then did she exhale.
Equipping for another voyage around the horn of Italy. Told the queen it is another trip to the Cinque Terre. Wish I could take S. with me. She is the best deep sea diver in Tristezza, but C. denied my request. I’ll bet S. would give her eye teeth to see such gates, with their feet sunk deep in bedrock. Truly a godsend.
That was the last entry. Sylvana tore out the page and crumpled it before adding it to the fire.
Suddenly she heard a pounding on the door. Anna burst into the room.
“The guards! They found the lamp. I must have left it open in my hurry to bring the book.”
Two burly men pushed Anna aside and pounced on Sylvana, tearing the book from her grasp.
“That’s private property,” she yelled, struggling against the iron grip binding her.
“You’re under arrest,” the guard said. As they dragged her to the hallway, Sylvana saw a hooded woman slip out the front door carrying something she treasured even more than the book. She screamed.
Cristina’s masque of joviality was slipping rather badly.
Sylvana stood before a curved table of clan elders, with the queen at the center. Rubbing her wrists, Sylvana tried to get feeling to return. Off to the side, a nursemaid held Mario. Sylvana was charged with treason.
“By God, you’ll tell me what Franco’s journal said, or you’ll never see your child again,” Cristina warned. Sylvana’s stomach felt like it was filled with broken glass. She noted that several Barsettis had managed to barge their way into the hearing, as well as a few Amborghettis wondering what all the excitement was about.
She had spent two nights in the cells below the Tristezza city hall. Although she was used to being in cold, dark places from her years of diving, she couldn’t help thinking this might be the end and that she’d really blown it. She agonized over the trouble she’d caused for Franco’s cousins Ruggero and Anna. The queen held Ruggero responsible as head of the family and had confiscated his boats. Sylvana was terrified that the queen held Mario captive–what could she do when they had taken everything?
But now that she could see the baby, Sylvana felt better. They seemed to be taking good care of him, at least. She thanked the stars that Franco had kept his theories to himself, or she would have no leverage at all. Sylvana straightened her shoulders and spoke.
“I demand a public trial.”
“Are you insane? You have no rights, here, you traitor,” the queen said.
“Perhaps not, but unless you release me, my baby, and my family’s property, everyone will know that you murdered my husband.”
“That’s preposterous,” Cristina said. “I had nothing to do with his death.”
“You wanted his discovery all for yourself and sabotaged his ship. You thought you had Franco’s journal–the red book you originally threatened me with–but you were disappointed to find it held nothing about the whereabouts of Simcha.”
“Simcha? What is that?”
“It means ‘joy’ in Hebrew. I believe it is the seagoing city we’ve all been looking for. I’ve sent word to Palermo with Giorgio offering my services in recovering it.”
“But I took your family’s boats!”
“You must have missed one,” Sylvana countered, her confidence growing. She grinned inwardly at the thought of red-haired Giorgio rowing the little boat out beyond the sluices under cover of night until he could turn on the pulse engine. She fervently hoped her vision was a reality.
“But– Palermo? Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Franco thought it was too important for you to keep all to yourself, Cristina. We’re going to share it with everyone. We all thought the ocean had taken our cities away, but we’re going to learn to live in the new ocean world, you know.”
“You foolish girl. You burned all of the evidence in Franco’s journal. No one will know you even existed, once we execute you.”
Sylvana took a moment to savor her impending escape from the trap Cristina had laid for her.
“Not everything has been burned. I already mentioned Giorgio, didn’t I? One thing I didn’t mention is that Franco sent all the plans and locations to Palermo before he went on his last trip. They know everything, and they are waiting for me there. You may as well release me. And you may as well resign, because otherwise Palermo will only negotiate with the Amborgettis.”
The room erupted as the Barsetti clan mobbed their heroine and made to carry her out on their shoulders. But she resisted the tide for a moment before joining the flow, her arms outstretched to snare the prize the nursemaid held out to her. In the confusion, Cristina slipped out a side door.
Sylvana gazed out over the flotilla of ships from Tristezza gathered to start a new life as seasteaders in the archipelago. A small pod of dolphins skipped alongside the boats in greeting.
Ruggero shouted, “Sonar’s showing something big below!” A cheer rose from the crowd. Anna stood beside him at the prow, clasping a cross on a chain around her neck as she prayed for blessings on her husband and the new citizens of Acqua Simcha.
She shifted the sling holding three-month-old Mario and pointed toward the “island” of Palermo and its submerged sluices, where the floating city of Simcha would harbor.
“Look, Mario. That’s where we’re going,” Sylvana said. “Mama’s going to help bring up Papa’s city.” The sky glowed a light silver along the horizon, and Mario was the first baby to feel the warmth of the sunrise in a long time.
By Robert Steele
We had nothing but peace at the Lion’s Paw for as long as I can remember. Ted Parros was a connected fellow, and he looked the part, with matted white hair and a face that rarely smiled. He used to frequent the place, now and then doing business deals in the back poker room, and he didn’t want some punk causing a fuss and drawing any unwanted attention.
He never had to get physical with anyone, but he made damn sure that any troublemaker knew who he was. All it took was a sharp glance, or a tap on the shoulder.
Kenny Heachem was the exact type of guy Ted didn’t want around. He was a bit of a rowdy fellow, but not the loudmouth drunk type that I’ve seen over the years. On occasion, Kenny would wander into my establishment buying rounds of drinks and throwing money all over the bar. He’d place bets with strangers, which wasn’t abnormal at the Lion’s Paw, but he’d want people to put down their earnings for the week, and such a thing rattles the room with all kinds of commotion.
From what I knew at the time, aside from the bets at the Lion’s Paw, Kenny wasn’t involved in any illegal activities. But there was something peculiar about Kenny. He was a large, soft looking man, and he had a shuffle when he walked. The peanut shells on the floor would collect around the tips of his shoes. And whenever I served him drinks he’d give me a long look as if he was waiting for me to say a little more to him. I never let it bother me though. He was a generous tipper, polite enough, and I’d be fine with twenty more customers just like him.
I knew for sure that Ted didn’t care for Kenny. He was quite vocal, once saying, “That piece of shit makes any more noise I’m going to find a way to sew his mouth to his barstool.” Ted said it loud enough so that Kenny would hear it, but Kenny just turned around and looked back at Ted with a laugh.
And there was also that night in the spring, when Kenny sat at the bar drinking some scotch, watching baseball on the television monitors over the bar. A young patron, likely from the college just up the road, sat in the only empty seat in the house, which to his luck happened to be right next to Kenny.
“Do you care for baseball?” asked Kenny.
“I don’t mind it,” said the college kid. “I used to play in high school. I follow it enough I suppose.”
“What do you know about this game, Yankees and Indians?”
“I know the Yankees are going to win. They have Tamada pitching.”
“But the Orioles have this new kid dealing. Pichardo.”
The college kid shrugged. “I don’t know much about him, but his triple-A numbers don’t look all that impressive. They called him up because Crangle got hurt.”
“Well I’m a bit of a believer in this Pichardo. I’ll even bet you on it. Yankees are big favorites, but I’ll give you even odds.”
The kid tipped his head from side to side. “I don’t have all that much to bet you. Maybe a twenty.”
“A twenty? But you think the Yankees are a lock.”
“I do. It’s just all I have really.”
”You can’t dip into your college fund a little?” Kenny said, and he gave the kid a playful nudge on the shoulder.
“No, sir. I can give a call to my father. He likes playing the ponies, and he loves baseball. He might be willing to put up some money.”
“Well, sure. Go on and give him a call.”
“Like hell,” said Ted as he walked up to the bar between the two of them. He pointed a finger close to Kenny’s face. “You can go ahead and bet the kid twenty, but like hell you’re going to let the kid go on and tell his dad about it. His dad could be chief of police for all I know.”
“He isn’t,” said the college kid. “He’s a factory worker.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ted keeping his focus on Kenny. “Don’t do it, and I’m not going to tell you again.”
Kenny nodded, but as Ted walked away he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the kid. “I’m fine with keeping it a small bet. I’ll even sweeten the deal. I bet you Pichardo throws a no hitter against these Yankees.”
The kid nodded with a smile as he put his twenty on the bar. Kenny put his twenty on top of it, ordered a beer for the kid, and a whiskey for himself.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the game. The bar started to fill with more people, coming in from the concert around the corner that just ended, and damned if my hired hand, Jen, didn’t call in sick to have me all by myself for serving the customers.
I really only noticed the change to the atmosphere when someone shut off the jukebox in the corner, and when all the bikers stopped playing pool to look up at the TVs.
“This bet still going?” I asked.
“Sure as hell,” said Kenny. “Bottom of six.”
“They’re swinging at bad pitches,” said the college kid.
The ballgame continued, and as it did, the bar got real quiet.
“Last hurrah for the Yanks,” said Kenny.
With two out, and two strikes, the Yankee shortstop ground his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box. Pichardo dealt a perfect curve that arched through the strike zone, and down and away from the batter. The shortstop swung a big hack over top of the ball to end the game.
The silence and tension inside the Lion’s Paw broke and the room erupted with cheers. Everyone but the college kid celebrated with drinks. Kenny picked the two twenties off the bar, and the kid laughed, shook Kenny’s hand, and walked outside for a cab.
That’s when I saw Ted lean in and say something into Kenny’s ear. I couldn’t hear what, but Ted asked me to come to the back room after he returned from taking a piss.
When he left the washroom, I headed to the back poker room. “You stand guard outside the door,” said Ted.
I closed the door and rested my head on it so that I could hear their conversation. In all honesty I was worried Ted was going to kill him right then, and I felt anxiety about the thought of a bloody crime scene to clean up.
“How’d you know that guy would pitch a perfect game?”
“I didn’t. I only said a no hitter.”
“Let’s not get cute with the answers. I don’t know if anyone’s told you who I am—”
“They haven’t, but I’m well aware.”
“Very good. So I will be direct with you, and as a courtesy, I ask that you do the same.”
“So how did you know the kid would pitch like that?”
“Wasn’t certain he’d pitch a perfect game, but I know he’s a good pitcher.”
“Bullshit,” said Ted. “That college kid said the guy was a no good bum.”
“I see you make a lot of bets in here, and I don’t recall you ever losing one.”
“I just do it for the fun of it.”
“Well, I don’t do anything for the fun of it without getting paid. You’d be wise to do the same.” There was a long pause in their conversation, and I was tempted for a moment to peak in through the doorway, but I didn’t.
“We got numbers,” continued Ted. “Did you already know that?”
“You could make a lot of money. You could either work for us or against us. I wouldn’t recommend working against us.”
“Like I said, I just like having a little fun.”
“If it’s for fun,” said Ted, “then you keep it for pennies like they do the poker games in here.”
The door opened behind me and I stumbled back into Kenny as he shuffled his feet out of the room. I looked back and Ted put an unlit cigar to his mouth, looking down at the ground as if it would give him some answers.
It was a Sunday afternoon and there was no one in the bar except for a few of those bikers playing pool. Ted walked in with a dark-skinned, tall kid who looked no older than about twenty-two.
I walked to the table as they sat. “Any drinks or food I can get you guys?”
“Get the chef to do up some of those fish and chips for my friend here,” said Ted.
“Certainly. And a drink?”
“Agua,” said the young man.
“That’ll be water,” said Ted. “Get me a Cutty.”
I put in their orders to the chef and returned to watch as Ted and a couple of his pals spoke to the kid.
The kid seemed able to understand English, just not as comfortable with speaking it.
“We just want to know how,” I heard Ted say. “It was impressive is all.”
I could have smacked my head off the brass bar rail for being stupid, not realizing that it was Luis Pichardo, in my bar, just days after he threw a perfect game for the Indians.
Kenny shuffled in the front door, but he stopped when he saw Pichardo. I thought maybe he was dumbfounded, star struck, something like that, but then he raised a flabby arm at the table. “Luis. Don’t bother with these guys. Don’t listen to any of their bullshit.”
He went to the table, and Ted and his entourage stood. He took Pichardo by the arm trying to pull him out of the seat, but Pichardo didn’t budge. “You don’t listen to anything from these guys. Bad guys. Malo.”
“And how the fuck do you happen to know him, Kenny?” asked Ted.
“Not important. He needs to come with me.”
“Like hell he does. He wants to enjoy the Lion’s Paw’s finest foods.”
“Luis, I’m going to be just over there,” said Kenny, and he pointed over to the bar.
“What are your chances on winning another game?” asked Ted.
Luis held up a thumb.
“You’re not tired or anything?”
Pichardo shook his head dismissively.
Fifteen minutes later I brought over the fish and chips, and Pichardo ate in silence. Ted didn’t say much to him, he just flashed a few smiles, which was weird to see coming from him.
After Pichardo finished eating, Ted shook hands with him, and had one of his pals drive him home.
Ted scrambled toward the bar as Pichardo left. I don’t think I’ve ever saw him so angry. His face was tense as he yelled into the back of Kenny’s head. “Just how the hell do you know Luis so well?”
“He’s an old friend of mine.”
“You have an obvious inside edge you never told me about. I asked you a few days ago and you were all mum.”
“He’s an old friend is all.”
When Kenny up and left, saying he had to go to work, Ted asked me to do him a favor. I’d never done a favor for him before, and I never had the inclination to do so. But I obliged with him being him, me being me.
Since his pals were gone, he asked that we get in my car and follow Kenny to his work. Ted sat in the passenger seat real low so that his eyes could peer just above the dash. I tailed Kenny by letting a couple cars move up ahead of me. It was only a ten minute drive, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed behind a wheel, that includes those snow storms so white where you can’t see the lines in the road.
Kenny pulled into some warehouse, passing the security at the front gate with a wave out of his window. I pulled up and parked across the street as Ted leaned over my shoulder, watching Kenny walk up the stairs. As he opened the door, we noticed the small, rusted sign that said, Tumbler Robotics.
“He ever tell you what he does for a living?” Ted asked me.
“Not that I can remember. He might have told me he was an engineer, but I can’t quite remember if that’s right.”
“Your girl, the buxom brunette, Jen, she told me he worked in sales.”
I started remembering. “Yeah, I did hear that once. He went to school for engineering, but he’s a salesmen.
I guess you need to know what you’re selling for those robotics.”
“Pull on up there.”
“Through the gate?” I asked. “I’m thinking you need to work here.”
“Pull on up. I’ll do the talking for you.”
I drove up and stopped before the candy striped stick. A guard in a blue shirt leaned out of his little box. “Are you here to see someone?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Ted. “Kenny.”
Ted poked me in the arm. “Kenny Heachem.”
“Hmm, I’ll call on in.”
“No need to do that,” said Ted. “We’d like to surprise him. We’re old friends of his.”
“We always need auth’.”
“Authorization. It’s a secure area.”
“Why so secure?” asked Ted.
“With the robotics and all. They worry about people seeing what they’re not supposed to.”
“Well,” said Ted, “I don’t think we need to bug him. We’ll just catch up with him later.”
Ted had us all dressed up in black — me, him, and four of his pals. He gave us balaclavas, trench coats, and crowbars. I told Ted real plain that I’d never done such a thing before, but he said not to worry, that it was easy work. He said I was already in part way, and once you’re in part way, you need to go all the way.
To be honest I just wanted to get it done and over with, because Jen was texting me on my cell phone about how she wanted to duck out from her shift to meet up with her boyfriend. I said I’d be quick. I figured a break and enter was meant to be quick.
Ted told us that he paid a drunk to harass and distract the night security, and that put my mind at ease a bit.
I held the crowbar, but never used it. Ted and his boys did all the prying to get that door open. An alarm tripped, but it beeped only once and the tallest of Ted’s guys put a stop to it by pinching something along the door frame.
“Keep moving,” said Ted.
We walked through the corridors, through the confusing layout of the building, and it looked like they were renovating. Someone had ripped up all the floors, and tore down all the walls. It was nothing but concrete and a wooden frame.
We saw blueprints lying about all over. Ted picked it up and unrolled it, looking like some pirate searching for gold treasure.
“Do you know what it is?” I asked.
“Some lines,” he said. “I don’t know what they mean. All these calculations.” He looked at the man who silenced the alarm. “Can you make sense of this? Is it electrical shit?”
The man looked at it and sort of sniffed, but maybe only because of the dust. “I can’t say what.”
We continued on, finding the end of the corridor until it opened to a large room.
Ted was up ahead, and when he reached the room I saw him open up his arms and look to the roof.
“Sonofabitch,” he said. “Look at all this shit.”
There were stacks of metal, wires, all kinds of tools. They were messy, like kids playing with toys but never bothering to put them away.
I walked over to a pile of them and took a knee. They were made of solid material on the inside, and real spongy, wire pieces over top. They were all different colors and some were stacked together like a pallet of rainbows. The metal bent in to v-shapes when I picked them up. There had to be near a thousand of those things.
“What are they?” asked Ted.
“Nothing I can tell,” I said.
Ted picked one up and looked at it with his eyebrows kept low. He put one up on top of the sleeve of his coat, letting the bend in it align with his elbow. I don’t know a hell of a lot about anatomy, but those pieces sure seemed to look like bone and muscle fibres. “What do you think? Maybe arms?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Explains how Kenny knows Pichardo. You think that guy has one of those under his skin? Is it throwing his pitches for him?”
“Could be. Would make sense, wouldn’t it? How that kid, that dreadful pitcher, threw a game like he did.”
“Shit. That’s too much.”
Ted shut it down for the night. He took the blueprint, but made sure we left everything else as is. And we did, finding our way back out through the winding corridors.
Business at the Lion’s Paw had been slow all week for some reason. People seem to go away with their kids in the summer once they get out of school. Ted was there all day, every day, which I didn’t mind so much, he kept me company, but I was nervous about why he was there.
He was waiting for Kenny to show his face and that made me nervous. My back stiffened every time the door made a little creek like it did whenever it took a strong gust of wind, or if someone entered from the street. When it opened it was nobody in particular, just the other regulars, out to have a few beers or whiskeys after work.
Ted seemed bored of my place, and he paced around the joint, hands in pockets, looking at those brown dress shoes of his.
“Why don’t you just let me give you a call if he comes here?” I asked. “Or we could take a run down by his work again.”
“I want to see his face as soon as he walks through that door. And I want him in here, in a nice private setting, in that back room of yours. It’s not ideal for us to start lurking around his workplace again.”
Maybe Ted didn’t trust me, I’m not too sure. Or maybe he was just a guy who thought it was best to do a job right by doing it himself. I know I’m not too different in that respect.
Kenny showed up about a week and a half later, only fifteen minutes before close. There were about a half-dozen people in the place, and Jen, thankfully, was with me, needing to pick up a shift for some extra money to cover her rent.
I thought Ted would be in Kenny’s face as soon as he stepped to the bar, but Ted hung back at his table, watching Kenny as if he wasn’t all that interested.
Jen poured Kenny a drink and I walked up and talked with him. “Any bets for tonight?”
“No, no,” he said. “I’m a bit burned out from work, just looking at getting a drink and relaxing.”
I saw Ted nod at me and walk to the back room. “I think Ted wants to speak to you,” I said.
“I figured as much,” Kenny said. “Just let me finish my drink. Tell him I’ll be a moment.”
I stood by the door again, waiting for Kenny, who seemed to be taking his time. I could see he gave Jen a nice tip since she batted her eyes at him. He shuffled over toward the back room. “I won’t make you wait long,” he said to me as he passed.
I leaned my head on the door again to listen.
“How much do you know?” asked Kenny.
“I have this,” said Ted, and I imagine he showed Kenny the blueprint. “I’ve had people in the know give it a look.”
“And you have two choices. You cut us in on the operation you’re running, and we protect it, or you let us know who else you’ve given this treatment to. You let us know when we should be making some heavy bets in our favor.”
“I can’t do that,” said Kenny.
“Correct. I can’t do it. I know what you’re all about Ted, but you don’t know what my people are all about.”
“Secret government agencies.”
“What kind? CIA and all that? Don’t think I don’t know a few.”
“They’re ones you’ve never heard of. Getting major leaguers to use it is just the trial run. They want military, soldiers with super strength, unlimited endurance, stuff beyond the human body’s normal capabilities. They want an army of these guys. The ability to win any ground battle. Absolute accuracy with weaponry.”
“Yeah, but I know one guy who’s using it now. I can out him. Then your whole technology is out there. I could sell it to the Chinese if I needed to.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Kenny. “I’ll overlook that and forget that you said it, but you need to let this one go.”
Kenny was true to his word and he kept the conversation brief. I had a feeling I wouldn’t see much of Kenny around the bar a whole lot after that.
Ted wouldn’t let it go. I’m not sure if he ever had a time where he didn’t get his way. Before he left for the night, Ted scrawled his number onto a napkin. “He comes in here again, you give me a call.”
But I was right, I never saw Kenny again. And I never saw Ted again either.
In the fall, Pichardo was all over the news. The Indians were in the World Series, and there was discussion about him having a chance to win a CY Young award, although he had competition from the other pitchers on his team. The rotation had set all kinds of historical records for earned run average and strikeouts.
A man came in to the Lion’s Paw the night of the first game in the series. The man wore a dark coat and had a face that drooped down into his beer. He watched Pichardo take the mound while he sipped his drink.
“Did you hear the story about that guy?” he asked keeping his eyes fixed on the game.
“Pichardo?” I asked. “What about him?”
“He’s supposed to have an arm made by a machine.”
“Yeah? Go on then.”
“Well, the story goes, his Tommy Johns surgery didn’t replace no ligament like it’s supposed to. They replaced his whole damn arm. They peeled the skin up like a banana peel, took out all his bones, all his muscles, and they threw in a fake prosthetic. But not no ordinary prosthetic, one that he had lots of control over. One that the medical reports can’t detect.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Some guy I work for over on Euclid. Forget performance enhancing drugs. That’s a thing of the past. Cyborgs like him are the future.”
“Well,” I said, “explains how he pitches like he does, I guess.”
“Damn right it does. But that’s not all.” He stuck his elbow against the bar and pointed his finger at the T.V. screen.
“What else then?”
“This Mafioso looking guy — he’s been around the city — he comes looking for Pichardo with a bunch of goons. He starts asking him all kinds of questions, about his arm, about how he needs someone to protect him. But Pichardo gets all defensive, saying he knows nothing about it.”
“What did this guy look like?”
“I dunno, typical. They start getting into a fight right in the street. The Mafioso guy hauls him into this back alley, but my boss, he keeps an eye on them. The Mafioso guy reaches for his gun, so Pichardo puts his arm up, his pitching arm, and he put his hand on the guy’s neck. He uses all of that strength from his arm and pushes the guy up against the wall.”
“Yeah, shit is right. He chokes him right there with his cyborg arm. He squeezes the life right out of him, as they say. And he drops the guy and leaves him for dead, clipping them goons with some heavy punches that knock them silly. He books it around the corner hoping no one saw it. Except my boss, Kenny, did. Imagine that, mafia kingpin,” the man snapped his fingers, “dead like that. Killed by a pitcher with a robotic arm. Can you believe it?”
“Quite a tale,” I said.
He looked me in the eye, solid, the way Ted used to look when he meant to get his point across. “It’s no tale.”
Before I could answer — not that I knew what to say, and maybe it was better that I didn’t say anything — Jenny leaned over, lifted up the man’s drink, and wiped the ring from under it. “I’ve heard bigger nonsense in this place.”
I looked at the other customers toward the back of the bar. They didn’t seem like baseball fans. They were all dressed in dark clothing. I realized that the Lion’s Paw had a new clientele.
The Darkness Below
By Bria Burton
Three lasers streamed into the blackness ahead. Captain Erin Waite aimed her executer and led her squad deeper into the cave. They were more than a mile in. Her unit moved in formation behind her surrounding a scientist, Sandra Moore, and a waste-of-space journalist, Thyme Bransford.
“It’s coming,” Thyme whispered, her voice trembling.
“Where?” Erin kept moving, scanning the narrowing rock walls with the executer tight to her shoulder.
Thyme didn’t respond.
The semi-automatic weapon, a rare commodity, fired tiny proton explosives encased in a bullet that reduced objects to dust while leaving the surrounding matter untouched. Ford Reams, the Southerner to Erin’s right, claimed he blasted a Russian terra-tank the size of a house to ashes back when the Army could afford to supply executers to a small portion of infantry. The bullet waiting to be fired held the laser. A dimmer red light fanned out from the barrel, penetrating the dark, showing a narrow, empty cave. Erin was losing patience with this girl.
“Thyme, answer me.”
“I don’t know. But it’s coming!” she screeched.
“What is that condiment saying?” Brody Halverson left his position at the rear to approach Erin. He wasn’t the type to coddle anyone.
Probably why Erin loved him. And why she would never tell him. He would’ve broken her heart after one night together. She met him years ago, but only worked directly with him once before. “Anything?”
“Nothing. I’ll keep walking backward to make sure.” He returned to his position.
“Tom?” Erin glanced over her left shoulder at Tom Eagle, her second-in-command.
“Clear,” he replied.
She groaned, tempted to order a spit-shine to clean the goggles. “Only report a sighting if you actually see something, got it?”
The group, including Thyme, echoed understanding.
They pressed on, and Erin determined to ignore Thyme. If she cracked up, Erin could send her back to base.
“Here I thought alien-huntin’ bored a woman like you, Thyme,” Ford said. “Back in the canyon, we’re saddlin’ up and you yawn like this is some cake walk.”
She said nothing.
Ford sniggered. “Not so confident now, huh, twig?”
First day back at base camp, he had made cracks about Erin in front of the other soldiers, too. “What Xdream-injectin’ politician voted some chick as team leader?” he asked, unaware she stood a few feet behind him.
“You don’t know Erin Waite,” said Tom. The one person on the planet Erin genuinely trusted always backed her up. She knew Tom from several Russian tours in the 20’s. He saved her life during an incident the higher ups claimed never happened.
“You heard about the slaughter, didn’t you?” he asked.
Ford spat. “Myth far as I know, bro.”
Tom folded his arms, his dark biceps bulging. “I’m not your bro, and I was there.”
“You sayin’ it’s true?”
“I found her outside Treehouse, our outermost post, five bullets in her. A sniper shot had grazed her head, but I still saw fight in her eyes.”
Brody cleaned his executer beside Tom, but neither gave Erin’s position away as she stood behind Ford. She waited to see what else Tom would say.
“You implyin’ she took down those Russians alone?” asked Ford.
“It’s a fact. Colonel made her replace thirty of our guys at Treehouse. I found out, grabbed weapons and anybody who’d come. She only had her knives, but someone left a flack shield. That’s probably what saved her in the end. By the time I got there, sixty Russians were splattered across the tundra. Sliced and diced. When I dropped a rifle beside her, she helped me hold off the rest till our company caught up.”
Ford backed up, arms raised, stopping just before he would’ve knocked into her. “Still, who says she killed ’em all? I’d take her on.”
He looked down. Erin’s knife caressed his inner thigh.
Brody whistled and Tom grinned.
By the time she face planted Ford, knife at his throat, she knew he’d never question her again.
In the cave, the red lights skimmed along the ceiling, the walls, the floor. If Erin didn’t know better, she would’ve thought the cave had been there for thousands of years. Rock shelves jutted out, but nothing else.
“I hear running water,” Sandra said.
The distant noise was faint, but Erin heard it too.
“If the AA is searching for water, we may be close to encountering it,” continued the scientist.
“What’s AA again?” asked Ford.
“My name for it. Animalia Abnormalis,” Sandra repeated for the fifth time.
They walked on in silence for another mile or so. No major changes in the surroundings. The cave walls remained about twelve feet in diameter. The trickling water sounds grew louder. In another mile, the cave narrowed into what looked like a dead end where clay mixed in with the dirt.
Erin pressed her hand against the wall. She checked her GPS. Four miles in and already blocked.
Sandra picked up loose rocks from the ground, observing them in her flashlight. “I’ve never seen this before.”
“You a geologist now?” asked Ford.
Sandra glared at him. “Didn’t you once headline the ‘Wal-World member of the day’ site?”
Brody crowed, “That shirt was tight and tiny! Made your biceps look huge.” He tarried in the back, still facing away.
Ford scoffed, but didn’t reply.
“I’m familiar with every rock known to exist in this canyon, including the meteorite,” Sandra said. “This is not native.”
“Do we dig?” asked Tom. “Try the breathing equipment?”
“I don’t think we’ll need it,” said Thyme.
Erin turned to her. Thyme didn’t seem right. Her goggles gave her eyes a glazed look. “Why?”
“We’re not going lower, just deeper.” Whatever Erin saw, Thyme seemed to snap out of it. “Suits me,” she continued. “Easier to record my notes if I’m not blocked by a mask.”
“You ain’t recorded nothin’,” said Ford.
“Nothing worth mentioning yet.”
“What about, ‘it’s coming’?” Brody mimicked her nasally voice well.
Erin didn’t laugh, but wanted to.
“The monster? How should I know?”
Erin stepped toward Thyme raising a flashlight. “You don’t remember making that comment?”
Thyme shielded her eyes. “What?”
“You clearly said, ‘it’s coming.'” Tom moved in behind Erin. “Twice.”
“Like a scared lil’ girl,” added Ford.
“Please.” She brushed dust off her jumpsuit.
Erin lowered the flashlight. If Thyme proved a liability, she was returning to base. One more “it’s coming” and that would be it.
“Ford, keep an eye on her.”
“What’d I do?”
Brody patted his back. “You earned it, poster boy.”
Ford elbowed him off. “Whatever. That skinny butt belongs to me now if Waite says so.”
“I say so.” Erin scanned the space behind them and then faced the wall ahead. Turn back or try to dig through? No one knew AA’s capabilities yet, except burrowing tunnels and killing animals. Even she didn’t know what to expect. For her, that was unusual.
When Special Agent Daniel Newsome had Erin brought in, she anticipated a repeat of the Area 51 Insurgency of 2199. The first real proof that aliens existed, and they were wiped out in a millisecond. Although she preferred not to exterminate extraterrestrials like her forefathers, Newsome said the president asked her to head up the team pursuing the AA into the earth. The military had been depleted to minimal levels back in 2301. She figured she was chosen as one of the few officers available for a mission on American soil. Currently, President Maria Gonzalez was on the brink of declaring bankruptcy for the U.S. while the top military personnel waged the Great Eastern War against Russia.
On November 11, 2331, a green cloud had descended over the Greater Grand Canyon. No one knew what to make of the cabbage cumulus that never dissipated. A meteor struck the state of Wyoming centuries ago, creating a pit bigger than the Grand Canyon. As the green cloud stalled over the southeastern portion of the pit, the president ordered a quarantine. Scientists worked for months researching the cloud when something black oozed out of the center, disappearing into the depths of the meteorite debris.
Since then, AA had been spotted only twice. Some comparison was made to the old fake photo of the Loch Ness monster; a vague, misshapen behemoth rather than a sea creature.
In May 2332, Newsome shipped Erin to the camp stationed at the edge of the site. He’d introduced Erin to Sandra, who explained what they knew, which wasn’t much.
“We’ve been monitoring from the moment the cloud descended. Every animal killed has been sucked dry. Not of blood, but of water. The men who claimed to have seen it described it with a range of traits, but nothing concrete. At the very least, to our human eyes, AA is a monster.”
“So it needs water. Why wouldn’t this cloud move over the Great Lakes, then? Or the Pacific if it doesn’t mind the salt? Plenty there,” Newsome suggested.
“We don’t know. This so-called cloud contains no water, so it could be a hologram or a trick of lighting from the mother ship.”
“All this talk about dehydrated aliens and mother ships, and you want only four soldiers down there, Dan?” Erin asked.
“We don’t have many resources,” Newsome said. “The equipment we got for this team is ancient besides the executers. The thing has apparently managed to burrow several caverns. You’ll be searching one. We have no idea how deep it is because the scientific equipment here is no better. But Sandra will be coming as well.” He continued before she could object. “We don’t know if there’s a threat to humanity or not. However, the number of animal carcasses found indicates a possible confrontation. Though the president doesn’t want a repeat of history, either.”
Erin expected a vague directive in terms of dealing with the AA. “Give me something concrete.”
“The president wants this done however it needs to be done. If you have to take this thing down, so be it. She trusts you.”
Her team, with a citizen, prepared for the descent. Then Newsome sprung Thyme on them.
“The president wants journalistic eyes down there. Someone who can report something positive for the American people to hear.”
“This can’t be airing on the nightly news.”
“Nothing like that. We’ll have her prepare a special report after it’s all over.”
The revulsion Erin felt contorted her face as Thyme stepped up to the men, shaking each of their hands. The slender woman looked ready to tip over at the first sign of wind.
Erin had no idea why President Gonzalez trusted Thyme. She must be sleeping with a senator. From the little time Erin had to research her before the mission, she appeared to be a flake who wrote articles about why the military should be disbanded for good.
If the government commanded that two citizens tag along, it was on them if one got herself killed. Now Erin welcomed Sandra. She had a vague idea of what they might be dealing with, impressing Erin with her no-nonsense approach. The tall, muscular blond handled a pistol like she owned one.
Still, Erin debated her next move in the cave. Brody slid around her to the dead end. “Permission to try something.” He held up his weapon.
He jabbed the butt of his executer into the wall.
Like chalk, the wall crumbled where he struck.
“Aim!” Erin shouted.
All four beams shot through the hole. The red dots struck a smooth, striped surface. Polished rock walls. The falling water sound was louder, but beyond their sight.
“Eyes.” Erin stepped through the hole and felt just how smoothly the rock had been polished. As her slip-proof sole hit the ground, she slid like she’d walked onto a frozen pond. Her feet went up, and her back went down, hard. She slid to the right where the cave sloped before hitting the side. She grunted, more pride than injury.
“Erin!” Tom dove through the hole, sliding on his stomach. “You okay?”
“Fine.” He helped her up. They skated along the floor, holding each other’s arms. A clicking sound drew her head up.
A red light blinked near Thyme’s ear. “June 27th, 2332. Fourteen hundred hours. We’re four miles in, nothing unusual until this. At a dead end, one of the soldiers smashed through the wall. It’s as if someone spent thousands of years hand-polishing every inch of the cave from here onward. I can only see about twenty meters in, and then the cave appears to turn left.”
The red light stopped blinking as soon as Thyme stopped speaking.
“You really don’t remember sayin’ it, do ya?” Ford smirked.
Click, click. “The team members are professional and dedicated to this mission. The only questionable member is a soldier named Ford Reams.”
“He appears the most volatile of the group. I’ll be sure to keep a close watch on him.”
“I’m watchin’ you. Make note of that.”
The red light vanished. “No more notes needed at the moment.”
“Are we coming in there?” Brody asked.
Tom panted. “You notice the air in here?”
Erin’s breathing, now labored, matched Tom’s. “It’s thinner.” She wondered how the change felt so sudden.
“The pressure in this area is fluctuating.”
When Erin glanced back, Sandra held a metal stick in the air with a gauge at the top.
“Masks on and take off your shoes,” Erin ordered.
The men slung their weapons over their shoulders, obeying.
When the oxygen flowed, Erin’s head cleared and her breathing steadied. The minimal, clear bubble covered her lips and nose just below the goggles, locking in place with suction around the edges. A tube at the bottom led to a small tank on her back. Tom held her shoulders as she unstrapped her boots. When she placed a bare foot on the stone, she had some grip.
“Nothing like our day in Russia.” The bubble muffled Tom’s voice.
Erin glanced up. He grinned in the dark. The guns gave off minimal red light aimed toward the floor. “Not yet, at least.”
The memory struck Erin, and she was there. She saw Beck, the man who tried to rape her, approaching as if he were a present threat. She had just gotten warm under a thermal blanket. He pulled her off the bunk down to the cold floor. While she was trapped in the folds of the blanket, he had an advantage. But as soon as he ripped it off, she elbowed him in the jaw. He stumbled back into the bunk, but recovered quicker than she anticipated. He smashed his fist into her temple, disorienting her. He pulled her onto the lower bunk, face down. When the room stopped spinning, she felt his breathing on her neck. He smelled like sauerkraut. He yanked on her belt. She jerked her head back, smacking his skull hard. He slumped and cursed. She flipped to face him, wrapping her legs around his torso. He held his forehead. She hurled him off the bed. Now on top of him, she crushed her thighs against his ribs. His hand moved, but she reached the knife on his waist before he did.
Colonel walked in. “Lieutenant Waite! On your feet!”
“I know why the president trusts you.” Tom’s voice, quieter in the bubble, snapped Erin out of the trance. He took her hand to help her stand. “The Russian terminator.”
Her arms had goose bumps. She rubbed them, wondering how the memory felt so real. “Plural.” She smacked his arm while the others poured through the hole, gingerly stepping toward them. They helped each other keep balanced.
“If we find the water, we’ll likely find the creature,” Sandra said.
“Eyes open. Watch your step.” Erin’s boots hung at her waist, off-balancing her. As they rounded the curve, she slipped more than once. Each time, Tom caught her arm before she could fall.
“This monster is no match for you,” he whispered. “Even when you’re on the ground.”
Erin turned her head sideways, wishing he’d stop putting her on a pedestal. “Not if you’re with me. Our day in Russia, remember? Not just mine.”
Another memory flashed in front of Erin, pulling her in. The blistering cold tundra winds swept over her. As punishment, the colonel sent her to defend Treehouse, the outer post, alone with only her knives. She stood bloodied, full of lead and adrenaline looking over the Russian bodies. No one else rushed. She was alone again. The blood and guts reeked. She tasted iron. She heard the shot the same moment it hit her head, crashing back onto the flack shield. The lightweight, body-length, impenetrable material had saved her life until now.
Blood trickled into her ear. A whooping noise. She didn’t understand. How could she hear anything? How could she see clouds overhead? She was dead.
The yelling closed in. The enemy would take over Treehouse. Why would colonel give up the post just to have her killed? He could’ve let Beck shoot her in the bunker.
Tom Eagle. He sounded far away, but she recognized his voice. He leaped over her, looking like a bird of prey. He dropped a rifle.
The sniper bullet had grazed her skull, shaving off bone. The other bullets didn’t hit anything vital. Tom’s presence shot fresh adrenaline through her. She sat upright and grabbed the gun, grimacing as pain seared throughout her body. She clamored to her feet, lifted the rifle, and aimed. They held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived.
Both colonel and Beck were dishonorably discharged. Both had been Russian spies all along, and when that came out, they were executed.
Erin slipped again, and Tom’s chuckle jerked her into the present. They traveled until the curve dipped down. Erin motioned for the squad to hold weapons at the ready during the descent. They had to slide on their butts, and her feet hit dusty, unpolished ground at the bottom.
The tunnel opened into a cavern with a musty smell. Light poured in. Erin searched, aiming her executer, but couldn’t find the source of it. At different levels, several waterfalls drained through the walls, creating pools that went nowhere.
Across the cavern, she saw a pair of shoes. Someone hid behind a partial wall.
“Show me hands!”
The squad reacted and moved into formation.
“Please don’t shoot.” The voice sounded female and rickety, as if an old woman’s. “I’m unarmed.” She stepped out from behind the wall into the laser beams, arms raised. She looked clean and wore street clothes.
“Who are you?” Erin asked.
She stepped toward them.
“Halt or I shoot!”
Click, click. “We’ve entered a larger cavern with an unknown light source and waterfalls. Here, we’ve encountered an elderly woman, maybe in her seventies. She speaks English.”
“Not now, Thyme.” Erin wanted to smack her. “Actually, keep the recorder on, but don’t speak into it.” She kept a laser on the old woman’s chest. “Identify yourself.”
“Sandra Moore. I’m a scientist.”
Erin twisted her head to look at Sandra.
Her eyebrows shot up behind her goggles. “How do you know my name?”
“It’s my name,” the old woman said.
“That seems unlikely,” said Brody.
However, Erin saw a resemblance. Same facial structure, tan skin, her arms and legs still muscular, but the white-haired woman must be lying. “What are you doing down here?”
“I came to find the AA, long ago…” She trailed off, glancing at a pool beside her. Water splashing from the falls hit her shoes.
Sandra’s term. “Why don’t you have a mask?” Erin asked.
“Don’t need it anymore thanks to whatever the monster did to us.”
“If you’ll just let me show you. Then again, you always do.”
Erin couldn’t grasp what she meant, but the woman turned and walked behind the wall.
“Wait!” Erin jogged forward, the rest close behind.
An electrified hum, then an explosion blasted the rock wall to the right. Erin stumbled, turned. Ash floated out of a hole between the stalactites and stalagmites. Behind her, Ford aimed his weapon toward the spot where the old woman fled. “Warnin’ shot!” he cried. “Don’t try nothin’ funny.”
Erin marched to the Wal-World trash and tore the executer from his grasp. “How dare you fire without direct orders?”
“Erin!” Tom aimed his laser at the old woman’s chest again. Her hands were still up.
“Do it again and I’ll see you court marshaled.” Erin slammed his weapon against his chest.
Ford bowed his head. “Yes, cap’n.”
The old lady waved a hand. “We’re all coming out, unarmed.”
Four others trailed behind her, two old women and two old men, dressed in similar clothes.
The lasers targeted each person. When Erin looked closer at their faces, she gawked. They all looked too familiar. When the last woman stepped into line with the rest, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “What is this?”
“I’m Sandra, like I said. This is Ford, Thyme, Tom, and this is Erin.”
The woman named Erin had wrinkled lines around her eyes and mouth. She was the spitting image of Grandma Margarita from Mexico. She cropped her white hair short. A scar above her right ear left an unnatural part. Erin’s shoulder length, brunette hair was tied back in a ponytail, covering up most of her scar. Her tattoo, a thin vine trail, was on the old woman’s wrist.
Everyone gaped, speechless as they stared at their aged counterparts. But this couldn’t be real. As much as they looked like older versions of themselves, Erin didn’t want to trust her eyes. Sandra warned the monster might be capable of creating hallucinations.
“You’re supposed to be me?” Erin asked, sounding as snide as possible.
Old Erin nodded.
She wanted to fire and watch her dissolve from ash into thin air like the illusion she must be. “Prove it.”
“You’re in love with Brody.”
And she went there.
It felt like minutes passed in silence. Besides Erin’s breathing in the mask, no sound but the waterfalls rushing into the pools broke it. She wanted to dive into one of them and disappear. She couldn’t turn to look at him, though she was sure he watched her in horror.
Yet it proved nothing if the monster could get into their thoughts. “What’s going on?” Erin demanded. “Are you the AA?”
“No,” Old Sandra said. “But we have a lot to tell you about him. Like the fact that he’s telepathic. He can make one thing appear to be something else. He also makes matter disappear, like a vacuum or a vortex. And he’s not here now. We feel the pressure in the room change when he leaves, but it doesn’t affect our breathing. When he’s far enough away, you’ll be able to take off your masks.”
“Why are you… olders here?” asked Brody.
Erin still couldn’t look at him, but noticed he had no aged counterpart.
“We can tell them. AA is far enough away.” Old Thyme, thin as a rail, had clear blue eyes like her younger self, and the chin-length strawberry hair was streaked with gray. “He can’t hear us now.”
The group of “olders” collectively sighed. “You can take off your masks.”
Though none of this made sense, Erin decided to hear these people out. They presented no immediate threat. She motioned for the team to lower their weapons. They removed the masks and breathed normally.
“After fifty years down here, with a lot of trial and error,” Old Sandra said, “we may have discovered a way to destroy the AA. Before you try to stop him, we need you to help us get out without the monster knowing. And you need to hear what happened to Brody.”
“But why are we meeting you?” Sandra asked. “If you are really us?”
“Listen here.” Old Tom spoke. “Your bullets won’t affect him. That’s why we haven’t been able to kill it. He can make anything coming at him disappear: fire, ice, weapons, including proton and nuclear ones. AA told us he dug too many tunnels in the Earth’s core. To fix it, he created a time loop. We don’t know how, but the year 2332 starts over every January to prevent the eventual destruction of the planet where he intends to live forever. You coming here every year proves it still works.” The smooth and deep voice Erin knew so well crackled. He seemed different than his younger self, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. More…peaceful.
“That’s why you’re meetin’ us. We’ve relived this scene every year for the past forty-nine. Been tryin’ to figure out what can be done differently to keep y’all from bein’ killed. But it happens every time.” Old Ford, the oldest looking with the whitest hair, shook his head. His legs wobbled like he was tired from standing. He reached for Old Thyme’s hand.
The younger pair stared at their counterparts, then at each other.
“Your time loop theory is flawed,” said Sandra. “Wouldn’t you all return to wherever you were celebrating New Year’s on the first? You wouldn’t still be down here, and you wouldn’t age.”
“AA made us immune to the time loop like he is,” Old Sandra explained.
“Why didn’t you come out and find us at the base?” Erin asked.
“He said he’d kill us if we left.” Old Thyme leaned her head on Old Ford’s shoulder. “He brings us food and supplies.”
The animal carcasses? Maybe there were many more they hadn’t found because AA brought them to these people. Erin couldn’t help but grin at the odd couple. Fake or not, after fifty years together, she supposed Thyme and Ford might have succumbed to the “opposites attract” rule.
“The green cloud is an illusion like we thought,” Old Sandra said to the younger. “It’s really his spacecraft. AA chose to come to Earth because he only survives on water. He burrowed tunnels into the Greater Grand Canyon to create this lair. All look identical. Same length and width, blocked at four miles deep with a thin wall, easily crushed. But the wall, including the polished rock, is another illusion. As is the light in this room.”
“Non-native rock.” Ford shook his head. “What’s with the tunnel?”
“When someone enters one of the caves, it somehow alerts the AA,” said Old Sandra. “When the wall is broken, he comes close enough to draw out the memories of those inside, especially their greatest achievement. Of course, it’s always been us, but he seems to enjoy replaying the memories.”
Tom jerked his head back. “Erin, did you have a moment back there where you thought you were fighting at Treehouse?”
“We share our greatest achievement,” said Old Tom.
Brody raised his hand. “I had a memory pop up as well.” He met Erin’s gaze, gave a half-grin, and looked away. Like she thought. No return of the feelings. At least now she knew.
Ford, Thyme, and Sandra raised their hands.
If anyone could convince Erin that their eyes didn’t deceive them, Sandra could. Yet she hesitated to trust what she didn’t understand. “How do we know you’re not an illusion?”
“Because we want to destroy him.” Old Sandra lifted her arms, waving her hands as she spoke. Erin had seen younger Sandra do the same thing. “When we first came into this cavern, AA was waiting. I saw the abominable snowman. Thyme saw a dragon. Ford saw the Mothman. Tom saw Anubis, the jackal-headed god. Erin saw a chupacabre.”
She cringed. As a kid, she got scared watching movies with that blood-sucking creature in it.
Old Erin grinned knowingly. “He scared us, but when we fired, he was unscathed. Then he changed into a small, fluffy-looking thing. He convinced us we were safe, and asked about our world. We told him some well-known events. He seemed indifferent when we mentioned the Area 51 Insurgency. Then he told us about himself, how he’s the only one of his kind. After living 10,000 years, he traveled to Earth hoping to live forever with the abundant water resource. He stole his spaceship, which travels faster than light speed, from another alien race.”
“Not very nice. So what about me?” Brody’s voice had a hint of fear.
Old Erin’s face fell into a deep frown.
“It happened suddenly,” said Old Tom. “AA transformed into a black, gaping hole. I don’t know what else to call it. There was no real form to it. He was coming for Erin, but Brody stepped between her and the monster. He made Brody disappear, but not until he sucked the water from his body. We’ve never seen that Brody again.”
Erin felt a jolt in her chest, like a nerve ending came loose and struck her heart.
“I’m sorry, man,” said Old Tom.
“Okay.” Brody took the news as Erin expected, with a nod and his half-grin. “Now I know. Thanks for that.” He pulled the weapon off his shoulder. “So let’s kill this thing before it kills me.”
“You should know,” Old Erin said, “AA let us live down here unaffected by the time loop because of what you did. He said you were a brave person who had thoughts of sacrificing yourself so that all of us could live. He respected that.”
Brody gripped his executer. “Good to know I’m not a coward.”
Erin debated whether to trust these people or find the monster on their own and risk being sucked into some sort of darkness. “Is this possible?” she asked Sandra.
She shrugged. “We’re chasing an alien that came out of a green cloud. Anything’s possible.”
Erin took the risk. “What do we do now?”
Old Tom rubbed his hands together. “Tell them your idea, Erin.” He was looking at the older one.
“Last year,” she said, “we froze a section of the polished tunnel and it turned into regular cave rock. I believe freezing the ship, exposing it for what it is, will draw the AA inside, causing his true appearance to be revealed. Then maybe we can figure out how to destroy him. Except he obviously stopped you last year. You left to freeze the green cloud with liquid nitrogen. But you never came back. We want to come this time to see what went wrong.”
“This sounds crazy,” Thyme said.
“You were here while we did all the work?” asked Ford.
“We have made progress eliminating what can’t kill the monster,” Old Sandra said. “You would never know if you didn’t meet us every time. Now we’re willing to risk leaving.”
If they were telling the truth, the youngers were expendable, not the olders. “We’ll go, but you should stay until the AA is frozen. Then you can help us destroy him.” Erin looked over the team. “My first instinct is to bring only military. That’s probably what I did last year. This year, Sandra and Thyme will come along. If we don’t make it, I’ll tell Newsome to send another team down here to explain what went wrong.”
“Last year, no one came to tell us what happened to you,” said Old Sandra. “We think AA sucked them up.”
“Then failure isn’t an option,” said Erin.
“But y’all already tried ice,” Ford pointed out.
“We don’t think he’ll vacuum up parts of the spaceship just to make the liquid nitrogen disappear,” said Old Sandra. “He may talk about living here forever, but it’s another thing if he’s trapped.”
“Sounds like way too many ifs in this scenario,” said Thyme.
“We may disappear, but we’ll come back and try again next year,” said Tom. Erin appreciated that he always agreed with her.
Ford pointed to the hole he had blasted. “Did you know I would do that?”
“You fire every three years on average,” said Old Sandra. “Some of the holes, the AA tunnels toward water sources. That’s where the waterfalls come in.”
A cavern behind the wall linked several tunnels and caves where the AA had helped the olders make a home. They had beds, tables, even kitchen appliances that worked. They brought out a long rope from their storage room.
Brody spread the goop he used in his hair along his hands and feet. The stuff gave him traction as he climbed up the tunnel with the rope tied to his pack. He hollered when he stood on the other side of the dead end.
The rest of them wiped their feet and strapped their boots back on.
Erin used Brody’s product on the bottom of her boots, handing it off to Tom. “See you soon.” She glanced back at the olders, wondering if she would. With the rope, she pulled herself up the tunnel. It didn’t take long for all of them to reach the main cave.
“We’re running. It’s four miles, so I don’t want to hear any complaints.” They jogged slowly. She figured the lack of meat on Thyme’s bones meant her energy level would be low. Erin heard her panting, but the journalist didn’t say a word.
The red lights led them through the narrow tunnel. Soon, a circle of sunlight appeared in the distance. They stepped out of the cave and onto the floor of the canyon. The tar-like smell of the meteorite debris singed Erin’s nostrils.
“Hydration time.” They pulled out waters. Erin gulped down the cool fluid until the canteen was empty.
“I’m on the walkie.” Tom reached for the two-way radio. It wouldn’t work inside the cave, so they’d left it at the entrance. “Caveman to base, over.”
The device crackled. In less than a minute, Dan’s voice answered. “Base here, over.”
“Caveman and crew requesting the bird, over.”
Erin dropped her pack. “We’ll eat while we wait.” She tossed sandwiches to each team member.
“Pardon me.” Brody stepped toward the nearest meteorite chunk and disappeared behind it.
The rest of them sat on the ground, munching on PB and J’s.
Ford wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Thyme, what’d your older say? I saw her whisperin’ to ya.”
Thyme swallowed. “She said the AA can speak through a mind weak from fear. That’s why I don’t remember saying it. Because he has killed our group every year, he likes to foreshadow our deaths using me.”
“Your mind ain’t weak.”
“I guess it’s the weakest in our group, and that’s enough for the monster to infiltrate. She told me to stay strong and not be afraid so I don’t let him in when he’s nearby.”
“I’ll protect ya. Remember, I own you.”
Brody appeared from behind the meteorite and sat by Ford. “Looks like you two are ready for your own cavern.”
Ford smacked Brody in the head.
“Hey! We all know what’s gonna happen. I think it’s helpful, seeing you get along so well. Makes us trust them even more.”
Tom crumpled the sandwich wrapper’s recycled paper. “How do we convince the base to freeze the ship?”
“I think I have a way.” A humming noise drew Erin’s head up. The sound of spinning helicopter blades grew louder. The bird landed in a flat, open space.
They climbed aboard. Erin stared into the mouth of the Greater Grand Canyon as they rose, counting fifty cave openings the AA had vacuumed out. Soon, they crested the canyon’s edge where rows of white tents and one building stood. Special Agent Newsome greeted them at the base camp’s landing pad.
“That didn’t take long. You have a meet and greet?”
Erin waited for everyone else before leading Newsome to the communications tent. “Thyme, give him your headset.”
The tech played back the recording, beginning to end.
Newsome listened, and his eyes widened when the olders introduced themselves. When it was over, he asked, “Is this for real?”
Erin said, “I believe them.”
Newsome glanced at the team. He folded his arms. “All right. I’ll get the president’s approval.”
“How much LN will they need?” Erin asked Sandra.
One of the scientists calculated the number and handed it to her. “We estimate ten million gallons. Though the cloud may be bigger than the actual ship.”
“This may take some time.” Dan scratched his head. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The team took the opportunity to rest in their tents. Erin expected to sleep a few hours. When she awoke, it was dark. The day played in her mind like a vivid dream, but she knew it had been real. She’d be ready, whatever happened. If it was her time to disappear, so be it. If things finally worked out, then she was lucky to be a part of it.
She swung her feet off the cot and onto the ground, clicking on a lamp. Brody sat in the corner.
Though her body didn’t jump, her heart did.
“I wanted to talk to you.” He clasped his hands together. “I’m not bothered by anything that was said back there.”
Erin held her breath, unsure how to respond.
“You’re my superior, and I respect that. If what your older said was true, I’m sorry that I don’t feel the same way. You and me, we wouldn’t…” He clapped his hands together. “You know what? You don’t need to hear any more from me.” He saluted and left the tent.
She exhaled. Though she had figured it out, she felt a fresh pang of rejection. Part of her wanted to hit something, but another part wanted to cry. She went with the former and headed for the lodge where a punching bag waited.
By the time Newsome found her, Erin’s fists throbbed, a bloody mess.
“Whoa. Save your strength. We’re on.”
She wrapped her hands as he talked.
“Stetson University had the amount we needed. Some past research project or something. It’s all president-approved. We’re getting updated equipment, even. You ready to board an alien spaceship?”
“More than ever.”
The next day, one hundred aircraft carrying 100,000 gallons each passed over a specified area of the green cloud before releasing their load.
The team watched from the rim of the canyon. The rest of the base stood behind them. Erin shielded her eyes from the sun. As the smoky liquid sprayed the cloud, a silver color bled through the green. In less than an hour, a long, cylindrical-shaped spacecraft hovered above the canyon, frozen.
She turned to the team. “Our bird is waiting.”
One by one, they entered a tent where some of the scientists dressed them. They placed a clear-bubbled helmet over Erin’s head. She breathed and the oxygen flowed. The first clothes layer, like a leotard, suctioned to every inch of her body. The neck snapped inside the helmet. The top layer looked like a biohazard suit and smelled rubbery.
“This will control the temperature inside your suit.” One of the scientists tapped a control panel on her arm. “Right now, it’s room temperature. Before you exit the helicopter, tell your team to press this button.”
It read, TEMP ADJ.
“Your suit will adjust to keep each individual’s temperature at 98.6.”
On the chopper, Erin glanced at the five of them. The soldiers and Sandra looked eager behind the clear helmets. Thyme looked afraid.
“No sign of the AA. We’ll keep you posted,” Dan said into the headsets. “No expense spared this time.”
When they neared the vessel, it reminded Erin of spaceships in sci-fi flicks. Even frozen, the thing had blinking lights, panels, and round attachments. They looked like escape pods, if she had to guess. The liquid nitrogen created a smoky haze around everything. They rose above its rear where three circular thrusters stared at them like full moons behind wisps of clouds. The chopper hovered inside one of them.
“Push the button. Stay close!” Erin touched her control panel. Increasing TEMP flashed in red. She dropped the ladder and climbed down with an LN canister on her shoulder. She stepped onto a frosted metal of some kind, moving aside as each team member followed. The chopper backed away. They walked toward the hull. From what she could tell, it would take about twenty minutes to get inside from where they were now.
“Can everyone hear me?”
Every team member gave an affirmative. Everyone except Thyme.
“I need verbal confirmation.” Erin glanced back over her shoulder. The smoke surrounded everyone. Thyme had that glazed look Erin remembered from the cave. “Can you hear me on your com?” She stopped in front of her and tapped her own helmet at the ear.
The rest of the team stopped and stared. “Something’s not right with her,” said Sandra.
“I’m coming.” Thyme frowned and her eyes squinted. Then her hands shuddered. The movement traveled until her entire body shook.
Ford wrapped his arms around her. “Steady! I gotcha.”
The chopper. Erin looked up just as a blackness rose beneath it, swallowing it whole. The bird disappeared. After that, the blackness shifted and stretched, growing larger.
The team turned to see it coming for them. Tom and Sandra moved into position with their canisters in hand. Ford dragged Thyme into the line. “Snap out of it!” he yelled.
“I’m okay.” Thyme sounded like herself again.
Brody turned and faced the monster approaching with incredible speed.
“Get into position!” Erin feared they weren’t deep enough into the ship for the AA to begin freezing. The canisters were supposed to be a last resort. “That’s an order!”
Brody stepped forward, not back, toward the thing flying at them. “All of you, run! Get farther in to make sure it freezes.”
He was right, and there was no time. “Run!” Erin turned and they followed. With the suit, she didn’t have much speed, but she gave it all she had.
“You know me!” Brody cried. “I’m ready to die so that you’ll let them live.”
A voice, deep and hollow, echoed in Erin’s head. “I know you all.”
She couldn’t help it. She glanced back over her shoulder.
The black, gaping hole hovered over Brody, lowering itself.
She tripped and fell. Her helmet hit the icy ship. She heard a crack. When she opened her eyes, a starburst in her helmet stared back at her.
Hands gripped her arms. Tom and Sandra lifted her to her feet.
“Your helmet.” Tom had panic in his eyes.
“It’s okay. As long as it doesn’t spread.”
AA was getting closer to Brody.
“This is the end,” he said. “I’m not afraid to die. What about you?”
“I’m not afraid of any of you,” the voice said.
“So take me! It’s what you want to do. Make me disappear.” Brody squatted, and then lay flat on his back.
AA moved closer to the ship. His fringe began to ice. The edges grew starbursts like the one on Erin’s helmet.
She sprinted toward them. Fifty meters. She could save Brody. Keep him from disappearing.
The blackness shuddered as it neared the icy ground. The starbursts on him spread, splintering toward his center.
“Come on. I’m ready. Do it!” Brody cried.
AA lowered onto him, the blackness that was left wrapping over his body like a dark blanket.
“No!” Erin pumped her arms and legs harder.
“No,” the voice echoed. AA skated along the ground, moving toward her. A hole in the ship appeared where Brody had been.
Erin skidded to a halt, choking back tears while unscrewing the cap on the canister. AA was ten feet away.
Where the monster’s form had frozen around the fringe, it looked see-through like an ice cube. But the starbursts stopped and now retreated toward his edges, allowing him to lift off the ground.
As he rose toward her, she knelt, swinging the canister back and heaving it into the air with a firm grip on the metal. The liquid nitrogen splattered the blackness above. The starbursts that had retreated splintered again, moving quickly toward his center until they covered him.
“Not…” The voice weakened. “…my…intention.”
The smoke surrounded AA until no blackness could be seen through it. Erin scooted back and stood. Four other streams of LN splashed onto the frozen monster.
“For good measure,” Tom said.
The team panted, holding their empty canisters.
When the smoke cleared, a block of ice hovered in the air. Erin stepped toward the floating cube and stared into it. “I can’t see anything.”
“You brave woman,” Tom said. “That thing saw what making Brody disappear did to his ship, but he still could’ve tried to suck up the LN coming at him. And you.”
She exhaled. “He didn’t want to risk making more holes.”
“That was an assumption.”
“Brody took the greater risk.” She turned to the hole where he had been. “He paid the greatest price.”
“You bein’ here made the difference,” Ford said to Thyme. “You warned us it was comin’.”
“I did?” Thyme’s eyes widened. “Why can’t we see it?”
“It’s possible the AA is…nothing in its truest form.” Sandra touched Erin’s helmet. “We’ve got to get you back.”
The starburst had spread, creating a line down the center that almost reached the neck.
Tom punched the control panel on his arm. “Newsome, we have the AA. It’s frozen in a two-foot square cube. Waite’s helmet is cracked. Send us another bird ASAP.”
When the replacement chopper came, one of the scientists climbed down the ladder. He jogged over holding a metal container the same size as the ice block. “This it?” he asked.
“I’ll keep it frozen in transport.” He pressed the buttons on a keypad, and the container split apart. Sandra helped him close it over the floating cube. When it locked, a red light on the keypad switched to green.
Everyone walked to the ladder and boarded the bird with the cargo.
Back at base, after a hot shower, Erin collapsed onto her cot. She awoke in a sweat, her dreams dark and foreboding. She had been hanging onto the edge of the spaceship, but her hands slipped as something sucked her up like a vacuum. She had glimpsed a giant face that opened its mouth and swallowed her. Brody cried, “Take me instead!”
She woke up, dressed, and left the tent to discover that she’d slept through the night and into the next afternoon.
“Erin?” Sandra came up behind her. “You’ll want to see this.”
She followed her to one of the stations where it seemed every scientist at the base hovered like pigeons.
“Excuse us!” Sandra pushed her way to a table where the metal container holding the AA sat in the center. Newsome stood behind one of the scientists who, strangely enough, peered into a microscope that aimed at the container.
“There’s a small glass window.” Sandra moved the microscope so Erin could see what she meant. “We can look inside without having to open it and risk the AA melting.”
Erin hadn’t noticed the tiny glass circle when they had closed up the cube.
“Take a look.”
She peered into the microscope. The image was difficult to describe, but she knew the words to say. “A neon blue-colored life form that resembles no organisms found on this planet. Structured in a manner suggesting that it is self-sustaining.” She lifted her eyes from the microbe. “Except we know it survives on water.”
The buzz from the murmuring scientists sounded like a swarm of bees.
“Do you know what this means?” Newsome cried. “This is the same type of extraterrestrial the U.S. military destroyed in the Area 51 Insurgency!”
“Looks that way,” Erin said, having seen the pictures in history books. Those microbes looked identical to this one.
“I can’t figure this out!” Dan pulled up chunks of his hair. “If this thing is telepathic, makes matter disappear, and creates illusions out of existing matter, why didn’t those aliens back in 2199 do the same things? They were placed in a sealed room and exposed to radiation. And that was it! They didn’t show up on the microscope anymore.”
“At least now we know how to destroy this one,” Sandra said. “AA obviously can’t wield his power now that he’s frozen. Perhaps those other aliens didn’t show us their abilities because they had no desire to.”
A humming sound drew Erin’s gaze upward. The chopper approached. “Who’s coming in?”
Sandra grabbed her hand, grinning. “Come on.”
Her giddiness surprised Erin, but she let Sandra drag her toward the helicopter pad.
Thyme was already there.
When the bird landed, an older version of Erin stepped out, along with Old Sandra, Tom, Ford, and Thyme. All unharmed though they had left the monster’s lair. They ducked as they walked out from under the spinning blades.
Erin shook each of their hands. It was strange shaking hands with herself, but she smiled at her older. “Good to see you.”
Old Erin shouted over the bird. “I’m glad you’re safe this time!”
Behind them, younger Tom and Ford exited the chopper. When Tom saw Erin, he ran over and saluted. “We went while you were asleep. I hope it’s okay. Newsome–”
“Mission accomplished, Tom.” She patted his back.
They brought the olders over to the microscope.
“How is it possible?” They turned to each other, looking confused. “He was one of a kind, he said.”
“Perhaps something about him was different,” Sandra replied. “The things he could do were never demonstrated by the first aliens. Theoretically, the time loop should end when we destroy him.”
The olders whispered amongst themselves. Old Sandra stepped forward. “We think you should do it. But someone should investigate his burrowing activity. This far into the year, he may have damaged the earth’s core. Without the time loop, the Earth won’t fix itself.”
Sandra and Newsome nodded to one another.
“The transport arrives in an hour to take the AA to the Area 51 facility,” Dan said. “The research on him and his activity will likely last until the end of the year. It’s the president’s call, but she’ll listen to me. Before January, he’ll be exposed to the radiation level that destroyed the others.”
“What if he came for revenge?”
Everyone turned to the journalist, who had that glazed look again.
“Thyme…” Erin stepped toward the girl who looked anxious, but not AA-guided. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe he lied. He could’ve gotten some kind of signal when we killed his fellow aliens, who likely possessed the same abilities whether they demonstrated them or not. So AA got angry and flew here on the ship.” She waved up at the frozen spacecraft. “He planned to destroy us by burrowing endless tunnels, but then he saw our water source.”
“I don’t know if I’m followin’…”
She cut Ford off. “The time loop wasn’t to fix anything, it was to punish us while he potentially lives forever on our water. His kind can obviously die, so burrowing tunnels became his failsafe if we ever figured out how to kill him. Meaning if he died, we died. Eventually.”
Erin glanced at the scientists, whose mouths hung open. Many shook their heads.
“That’s speculation,” Sandra said. “But it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. We’ll have to deal with whatever problems AA has left behind whether he lied or not.” She glanced at Newsome. “We need to figure out a way to seal up the ship and blast some radiation in. Just in case AA has a friend.”
Thyme grabbed Erin’s arm. “You were right! He didn’t want holes in his ship because he planned to go home and bring back more of his own kind.”
She looked ready to implode with this unconfirmed knowledge. The nightly news wouldn’t be prepared for the special report she was about to create. “I’m sorry to admit I thought you were a waste of an oxygen tank, but I’m really glad you were with us. I think Ford’s right, you are the reason we didn’t disappear.”
Thyme’s lip trembled, which surprised Erin. “Thanks.”
She patted Thyme’s shoulder. “Let’s hope AA hasn’t done enough damage to destroy us after we destroy him.”
New Year’s Eve, 2332
The group of ten olders and youngers chanted in unison. “Ten, nine, eight…”
“Seven, six, five…”
“I’ve wanted to say this for a long time.”
“Four, three, two, one…”
“Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year, Tom.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Erin stared at them, shocked.
Their faces faded, their bodies dissolving into air. Empty space remained where Old Tom and Old Erin had been.
Erin’s hand, holding a champagne glass, opened. The glass shattered on the floor.
The rest of the olders dissolved into nothing as well. The five of them gaped at each other in Thyme’s living room.
“What’s going on?” Thyme stepped away from Ford, whom she had been kissing.
“The time loop is over.” Sandra pointed at the television where New York City erupted in fireworks and confetti. The camera scanned the street level in Times Square where people bobbed with “2333” banners.
“Did they…?” When Erin looked up, Tom moved in closer.
“Erin, there’s something I want to tell you.”
Her hands felt sweaty. She rubbed them on the designer suit as subtly as she could.
He took them in his. “I have loved you for a long time.”
Somehow, watching her older kiss Old Tom connected all the dots Erin had never joined. When Brody died, she didn’t want to love again. But Tom was the best friend she’d ever had. Somewhere along the way, her feelings changed without her realizing it until now.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, gazing into the face she knew so well. This tall, dark, and handsome man loved her.
Erin felt the passion behind his eyes transfer to his mouth. His lips caressed hers, and she vaguely heard the rest of the group debating the moment of change for the world.
“How are they kissing? Our olders just disappeared in front of us!” Thyme cried.
“The AA is finally destroyed,” Sandra said. “That’s reason enough to celebrate.”
“What if I’m right about the aliens sending a signal to their home planet when they are killed?” she asked. “What if the research team determines that AA set the Earth on a course for destruction? Are these things to celebrate?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Ford said.
Tom pulled away from Erin, but still held her hand. “We’ll fight for this world again if we have to.”
Erin faced her team. “We can die trying.”
The Whale Fall
By Sean Monaghan
With a stutter the little black Hyundai’s engine gave out. Gemma fought the wheel as the traveler dropped back over loose rock on the steep driveway. Gemma cursed. Why did her grandmother have to live all the way out here anyway? Without even a decent spotline or phone.
Gemma had been up here so many times with her father at the wheel. He’d never liked her driving, had told her never to attempt the hill on her own. But here she was. Instead of being able to say to him “Take that, you” it looked like he’d been right.
Gemma ratcheted on the brake and got out of the traveler.
To her right, across the dark ocean, gray-black clouds rose in rows like a set of gravestones. She saw a squawk of lightning, didn’t need to count the seconds. The storm would arrive before nightfall anyway. The normally rich blue, almost transparent sea became an oily deep green, like dying moss, under the storm front.
The stormy sea reminded her that it might have been an accident. There might not have been anyone else involved. She wanted to believe that, wanted to think it had all been innocent, but part of her hung on, imagining skullduggery. Was that the word?
The wind rolled in and from the trunk Gemma retrieved her sou’wester, the yellow fabric smelling of new polyethylene. The jacket’s inner was soft pelted fabric and it slipped on easily over her old tee-shirt.
Abandoning the uncooperative vehicle, Gemma started walking up the rocky drive.
By the time Gemma reached Grandma Masie’s place the storm’s leading edge was already sending its tendrils high overhead. She wondered if she might have to stay the night. Perhaps, given circumstances, she should stay the night anyway.
A plane buzzed low–lower even than her grandmother’s house–out over the bay, crossing the headland: racing the storm. Gemma watched, guessing it was Mack, who ran three of the six planes out of Cedar Bay, and owned shares in the other three. He always seemed to be taking someone up sightseeing, or training. Gemma waved, knowing she would be too tiny to see from this far off. The plane continued on in the direction of Cedar Falls, engine thrumming.
“Hi Gran,” Gemma said, coming around the side of the house, seeing Masie sitting on the verandah. She had a webtrace loom in her gnarled hands, weaving something conical. A lampshade? How antiquely cute.
“Gemma,” Masie said, setting the loom aside and standing. The loom slipped off the polished wooden table and fell to the decking. “Oh, clumsy!” Masie said. She bent and retrieved it as Gemma stepped up.
“Grandma? Are you all right?”
Masie laughed. “Eyesight and fingers,” she said, putting the loom firmly in the middle of the table and wriggling her fingers at Gemma. “Hips, knees. And hair. At least this thing’s still nimble.” She tapped her temple.
Gemma smiled and hugged her grandmother, taking in her scent of roses and linen and skin cream.
There were flowers in the garden along the front of the porch. Among roses and glenbrooks from Earth, there were tall Vega lilies that beaded with crystals along their petal rims, and puffy deep crimson and skin-pink haritoshan pansies. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble with all these off-world imports, Grandma.”
Masie nodded. “The constabulary has far better things to do than chase up an old woman with a few illegal plants.”
It was almost a tradition between them, for Gemma to point that out. She’d been doing it since she was six, learning to be a good girl.
Now it felt more like another way of avoiding the topic.
“Coffee?” Masie said. “Almost black, one malitol, right?”
“Grandma, I’ve got something to tell you. You should sit down.”
Masie blinked, her dark eyes glistening. She glanced down at the loom, then back at Gemma. “I’ll flick the machine,” Masie said. “You can tell me over coffee. And cookies.” It was almost as if the old woman knew it was bad news coming.
“Grandma.” Gemma didn’t want to wait, it was hard enough dealing with it herself. Grandma, your son is dead. My father. Dead.
Gemma had a flash of memory. Turning thirteen, just five years until adulthood, thrilled that on Earth kids had to wait until twenty-one, only to have that anticipation of adulthood diminished by her father’s explanation: “The Earth year is shorter. They’re still basically the same age.”
She’d known that all along, but hadn’t put it together in her head until that moment. The realization that for every seven birthdays she had, other kids had eight seemed, to her teenaged mind, so unfair. He’d been sympathetic, but still shrugged.
She bit her lip, missing him.
“Chocolate chip,” Masie said. “You love those. Come in.”
Gemma glanced out over the garden. There were divots in the lawn as if someone had removed some heavy garden furniture. Beyond, the clouds continued to roll.
She followed Masie into the kitchen. “I’m not six anymore, Grandma.”
“Really? Didn’t you just have your sixth birthday?” She stopped in the doorway. With a grin she said, “It seems like yesterday.”
The kitchen had changed itself to a lavender hue, almost violet. The ceiling had gone a pastel blue. Masie tapped the coffee maker and it leapt into action, molding a cup right away and plugging its tube into the side of the refrigerator.
“Two,” Masie said. “Two coffees. Black but for one drop of milk. And double sweet.”
“Roger that,” the coffee maker said. Steam hissed from its slim chimney as it molded another cup and closed its doors.
Gemma raised her eyebrows. The little machine had a new vocabulary. “You redecorated?” she said.
“Good grief,” Masie said. “The whole house is on the fritz. I want a white kitchen.” She looked at the ceiling and yelled, “WHITE KITCHEN!”
The walls flickered, went white for a moment and changed back to lavender.
“See,” Masie said. “I’d get someone up here, but everyone complains about the trek. Your father keeps telling me I need to move into town to see out my twilight years. It’s become something of a mantra for him.”
The coffee machine spluttered, specks of hot water spitting from the seals and alighting on its chrome facing.
“I’ll get you a new coffee maker,” Gemma said, finding the words coming far more easily than those she really needed to say.
“Well, I like this old Wego.” Masie turned. “What I could use is one of those utility spinner things. One of the robots that can repair things like this.”
The machine bleeped, and a door on the front panel opened revealing the two steaming cups. Masie put them on the breakfast bar. “Usually I like watching the sunset from the verandah, but it’s getting cool and stormy out so I hope you don’t mind sitting here.”
Gemma got onto a stool and sipped. She winced. Far too bitter.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Masie said, and for the briefest flash Gemma thought she meant the news she was bringing.
“I’m definitely getting you a new machine.”
Masie smiled. She asked how Gemma had come, and Gemma explained about the breakdown on the drive. “I didn’t dare drive on.”
“You have to stay the night,” Masie said. “We can get Jim O’Connor up here in the morning to tow you out.”
“It’s fine, Grandma. I can just back around. It’s all downhill from there.”
Masie nodded, unconvinced.
Gemma stared at her grandmother’s lined face. She seemed older than her seventy years, some of the lines around her mouth and eyes like old worn trenches. Her hair was as white as a book’s screen, but her hazel eyes could have been those of any of Gemma’s friends. Inquisitive, bright.
Masie licked her lips. “But you’re not here to just pass the time of day, are you?”
Gemma gave her head the faintest of shakes.
“Is it Theo?” Masie never called her son Theodore, or Ted, always Theo.
Gemma sniffed and burst into tears.
The guest room smelled of linoleum and glue, as if Masie had actually had someone out to lay a new floor. The room was filled with things Gemma remembered from growing up. Mobiles, porcelain figures from a dozen worlds, building bricks.
They’d visited every few weeks, usually with a sleepover. Her father would stay in his old room and she would sleep in here.
She imagined his ghost, walking the hallway.
Later she was woken by the storm charging across the house like a million unleashed beasts. The rain clattered on the old roof, the thunder made the windows rattle. Gemma crept downstairs for a glass of water and found her grandmother sitting in an armchair, pulled right up to the front window, watching the jagged lightning strikes out over the bay.
Gemma stood for a moment before going back up to bed.
She remembered the first time he’d taken her out on a boat away from the shallows or the reef. She’d probably only been eight or nine. A fun day out.
The ocean so big, the strip of land like a model of an island, dangling on the horizon. The water had been so different. At first she’d hung over the side, watching, but as the water darkened from its welcoming, cool transparency to a full and impenetrable dark, she’d crept back away into the middle of the boat, almost huddling against his side as he watched ahead.
Her stomach had clenched as if it was twisting like an old dishrag. He’d slowed to let her throw up over the side, given her a flask of water to rinse out.
When he’d finally stopped the boat and put on his gear, she’d refused to get in.
“Come on,” he’d said. “It’s safe.”
But she’d shaken her head and clung to the seat. Her father had paddled around for a while, vanished under the surface for a panicky ten minutes before coming back aboard with some plastic vials filled with seawater. He’d sat, labeled them with a black marker and stowed them in an aluminum case.
Without speaking to her, he’d started the boat, turned around and they’d driven back in silence except for the hum of the engine and the smacking of the waves.
The ocean was just not her thing.
Masie made pancakes.
“Maple syrup?” she said, pushing a thick-walled glass flask across the table. “Canadian maples. They’re growing them on the northern peninsula now. Cablehope or Glisten, one of those towns.”
“Grandma. They haven’t found his body yet.” Gemma poured the silky amber liquid, making spirals around the top of her pancake stack.
“That doesn’t surprise me. How deep was he?”
“A hundred and fifty meters. On a whale fall.”
“Isn’t there a record? Don’t they record everything?” Masie cut pieces from her own stack and ate. In the background the coffee maker spluttered, a slightly higher-pitched sound than the evening before.
“Yes. He had on-board recorders, with a shore-based backup, which he linked, but the link got broken. There’s data on the…” Gemma broke off with a sniff. She had to look away. Through the dining room window she was faced with the rising hill behind the house, covered in bright yellow gorse and myriad invasive clovers, throwing their three-leafed tips through the other plants’ spines. They all glistened with drops from the previous night’s rain.
Masie put her hand on Gemma’s. “It’s all right.”
Gemma looked around, almost angry. “Why aren’t you sad? Your son! He’s dead.”
Masie nodded. “Gemma, please.”
Gemma stood up. “Parents are supposed to die first. Not the children. You’re not supposed to lose a child. But you’re not even upset.” Even as she spoke, Gemma remembered seeing Masie watching the storm.
“So now you feel abandoned,” Masie said. “Your mother left, and now your father.”
“She walked out. She had a choice.”
Masie nodded. “I bet you’re thinking he had a choice too.”
Gemma considered this. Nothing could have kept him from going into the water. It was his life. She remembered as a kid finding out that most of her friends’ parents hated their jobs. Her father was the opposite, loved everything about his work, but mostly the opportunity to become submerged.
Was that a choice? Could he have done anything else? If she’d asked would he have stopped? And then, how would she have felt? To be the one who took him out of the water.
“No,” Gemma said. “He didn’t have a choice. But he could have been more careful.”
Masie smiled. “Perhaps it’s better to die doing something you love?”
Taking a breath, Gemma sat. She wiped her eyes and pushed some pancake through the sea of syrup.
Masie put her hand out again. “Gemma. I’m heartbroken. How could I be otherwise?”
“You don’t show it.”
“Not in the way you expect, I suppose.”
The coffee maker bleeped and the doors opened. Masie stood, retrieved the cups
Gemma took another spoon of malitol from the table and sprinkled it in. Masie was right. She wasn’t showing any sign of sadness the way Gemma would expect.
“You’re angry,” Masie said. “Surprisingly so, though perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I always knew what he was doing was risky. Deep sea diving, figuring out those creatures. Very risky. Especially with a child to raise.”
“He was doing what he loved.”
“I’ve got something for you,” Masie said. “Let me go find it.”
Gemma smiled as her grandmother went up the stairs, remembering being a child and losing her doll, giving up on ever finding it. “I’ve looked everywhere,” she’d told Grandma Masie, tearful. Jemima was lost forever.
“Apparently not,” Masie had said. “If you’d looked everywhere, then you would have found it. Don’t just look. That’s what men do. You should find. Look behind things and under things. When you look in a drawer, don’t just root around, take everything out and put it all back. That way you know the thing’s not in there. Trace your steps, remember where you went. Don’t just look: find.”
And of course they had found Jemima, tucked in behind a sofa cushion under a rug. Young Gemma had clutched the doll, tearful again.
Masie came back down with a photo of her father. “Learning to swim,” Masie said, passing it over.
Gemma looked, swiping through the series of images and movers. Theo thin and white-chested in his trunks, standing at the edge of the pool. Jumping in. Clutching the side, shivering. Scrambling out.
“At first he was scared of the water,” Masie said. “But he got used to it. More than that. I think he decided he had something to prove.”
Sitting on the side kicking his legs. Staring angrily at the picture-taker. Lying on his back in the water, gasping.
“I guess he sure did prove it,” Gemma said, thinking that ultimately he was right to be scared of the water.
“Yes he did.” Masie took the photo back.
“We used to fight about it,” Masie said. “Back when he was young, before you were going to school. I told him he could do it all with remotes anyway. I mean, he’d shown me robot submersibles. When I was publishing, everything was done by remotes.”
Masie looked over Gemma’s shoulder. Gemma knew she was looking at the shelf of awards and certificates, and the kernels that held her publications. Dr. Masie Abrique had been a meteorologist, working to shape the understanding of Stinngaser’s weather. Gemma remembered her grandmother talking about how it was one of the last real sciences. “Every planet is different. So many variables.” She’d always said it half-jokingly. Her papers were published on a dozen worlds. Places like Mason and Clock and Yellow One Yellow. Her ideas applied to local weather prediction.
“I went on flights,” she said now. “It is simply extraordinary. Pillars of clouds rising up from broad streaky plains, vast thunderheads expanding as the jetstreams swipe their tops into dagger blades. Chasing the sunset as fast as we could, watching the golds and salmons as they chandeliered through a billion high-altitude specks of ice for an hour or more.”
Gemma said nothing.
“But it didn’t come back to the science. Back on the ground I just worked with the data from the balloons and kites and things. Turned that into something useful.”
Gemma couldn’t imagine that. Even the way her grandmother spoke of the clouds belied her intrigue. No wonder her papers engaged her peers. She opened her mouth to say as much, but Masie spoke first.
“I guess we ought to have a funeral,” Masie said. “Or some kind of service.”
Gemma closed her eyes. She wished Masie felt like she did, wished she would at least show it. “I’m going to find him,” Gemma said. “I’m going to find him and find out what happened.”
Masie blinked. “Oh, are you now?”
At the institute Gladys, the administrator, gave her access to her father’s files. The building was an old herring shed and it still stank of the canning process. Despite calling itself The Cedar Bay Institute of Oceanography, Stinngaser, the outfit was really little more than some secondhand equipment from the fisheries industry, two underpaid and over-taxed grad-students and Gladys.
“What do you think of the building, huh?” Gladys said, leading her along the short, damp hallway to her father’s office. There were old pictures on the wall, some of them with busted optics, of flying fish soaring and the Stinngaser dolphins fighting off predators.
Gemma tapped the corner of one of the pictures and the jam freed up; the tail-dancing whale turned and fell into the ocean with a mighty splash.
As she’d driven in she’d seen the new building nearby. Going up fast, covering an acre or two, robots clambering all over, exuding mesh and surfaces. Noisy and smelling of oil and cordite.
“A new gym?” she asked. “Basketball stadium?”
“Fisheries,” Gladys said. “The Daily Quota Responsible Company. Putting up a new processing plant.”
“After abandoning this place?”
“Well, that’s ten times bigger. Modern. Some contract to supply fish oil and scales off-world. Clock? Somewhere with one of those strange names.”
“Always something like that,” Gemma said. Despite calming down since seeing her grandmother, this made her wonder again about foul play. The industry and her father had butted heads more than once, chucking each other down in the media. One man against the bullying corporate. The sites loved it.
Gladys tapped the office door and it shushed aside. Right away Gemma was back in her father’s world. They’d only had this building a few years, but it was filled with his shambolic collections. Piles of old printouts and paper books, stacked on dusty, dead readers, with rib bones and skulls dangling on top like cranes or teeter-totters. The shelves held murky jars with dead creatures preserved inside: a striated pentapus; a fluffy nudibranch; Kaller’s baby shark with its two mouths, one on top and one below; a dozen others she didn’t know the names of.
On his workbench her father’s practically antique fancalc pointed straight up at the ceiling like a miniature tower. The old-style computer came alive, the fan spreading, as Gladys tapped the open surface. “I don’t think it matters now,” she said as she hacked the fancalc’s password. Gladys chewed cherry gum as she spoke, tossing the wad side to side in her mouth. “I think this place is closing. I’m looking for another job. Probably in Cedar Falls.”
The two communities were separated by a steep hill–part of the same geography that created Masie’s overlook–and a swampy plateau. Cedar Falls had a population of close to fifty-thousand, Cedar Bay less than a thousand. Gemma always thought it was weird that cedars grew in neither place.
“Someone else will take over,” Gemma said. “Dale or April.” Both studying for their doctorate under her father. “They’ll find another supervisor at CFU.”
“But they’ll move to CFU. We always had a stringbean budget, so without your father we’re done. No disrespect.” Gladys stopped chewing, put her hand over her mouth.
“It’s all right.” Out the window she could see the foaming sea washing up around the stone jetty. It wasn’t stormy now, but still overcast. Just at the side of the window she could see the edge of the new building.
“I mean,” Gladys said. “I loved him in a… you know, fatherly kind of way. Brotherly. Oh my, I’m just making it worse.”
“Gladys. It’s okay.”
The administrator took a breath. The fanned out display flickered with data. “There,” she said. “We got in.” Moving quickly she tapped parts of the fan, the images responding. The word “Forget?” came up on the screen and Gladys tapped it. “All done,” she said. “You won’t need a password now, it’s all open access.” Gladys gave up her seat.
Gemma thanked her and sat. As she reached to the display, Gladys touched her shoulder. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks.” The seat felt hard, awkward. Worn to her father’s shape.
Gladys slipped out to the door and Gemma could sense her still watching. Gemma turned.
“Why are you here?” Gladys said.
“I want to find him.”
“I know that much. But you think it was something else, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think they murdered him.” Gladys nodded her head towards the window. “It would be too much trouble. He was a thorn, but that’s all. They’re a multi-million Yuan operation, he was a struggling researcher. They buy politicians like they buy breakfast. The sparring was just that, it never was going to have an impact on their business.”
Gemma turned back to the fancalc. “Maybe,” she said, “they didn’t know that.”
Gladys didn’t say anything else, but it was a few minutes before Gemma heard her leave.
Working on the machine she dug up his last dive, collated it with the currents and all his telemetry.
It took hours, but eventually she narrowed it down to a hundred square miles of ocean that gyred around a bay. Sitting back in her father’s seat she sighed. Far too big of a job.
She was going to need some help.
“Tell me again this idea you’ve got?” Dale Williams blinked up at her from his disheveled sofa. He was clearly hung-over, clearly short on sleep.
“Is this what you’ve been doing since my father died?” she said from his doorway. She couldn’t even step into his room, it stank so much of beer, sweat socks and yesterday’s fried food.
“This is what I’ve been doing since I left home,” he said. “We going surfing?”
“You’re a funny man. You’re still on that stipend, so get out of bed and come along.”
“What about April?”
“Tried her. She left for CFU.”
“Yeah. Well, I don’t work for you.” Dale’s voice had gone up an octave.
“Do you think they killed him?”
“Who? The fisheries? Tallon-Davis? Or Daily Quota?”
Gemma almost gasped. “You do.”
“I don’t,” Dale said. “Not a bit.”
“But when I asked you didn’t hesitate. Right away you knew who might have done it.”
“Well, who else? They’re not in that kind of business. Can you imagine the lawsuits?”
“No. Because there won’t be any. There’s no body. It’s as if he just washed away on the tide.”
“Not really. You know where he is.” Dale’s eyes widened and he stared at her, daring her to challenge him. His eyes were hazel, like Masie’s.
“I have a vague idea of where he might have gone. I’m no expert. You could help.”
Dale shook his head. “I’m hung-over, I’m tired. My girlfriend left me and I owe my best friend three hundred Yuan. Since last year, so now he’s not talking to me. My housemate, she’s… well, she’s not polite about my personal habits.”
“No surprise there.”
“And now there’s you.”
“I’m going to find him.”
“Good luck, then.” Dale flumped back down onto the bed.
“What is it?” she said. “What makes you all want to go down into it?” Down to get lost, to drown.
“You should see these things,” Dale said. “The whales. They’re not cetaceans, strictly, but they fill a similar niche. The oceans here have about twice the water volume of Earth.”
Earth, she thought. They were generations removed from the homeworld, but still talked about it as such a definitive point of reference.
“I know all that,” she said. “School. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“But you still want to go find him.”
“I want you to find him.” She sucked air through her teeth, aware of the whistling. “I’ll be in the boat. Support.”
Dale smiled. “Sure. I heard about you in boats.”
“I was a kid!”
“And you live and work fifty miles inland. Not exactly following in papa’s footsteps.” Dale grinned. “Or flipperwake.”
Gemma opened her mouth to reply.
“Do you want something to eat?” he said. “I’m going to make breakfast. Oats or toast? I think we’ve got some jam or something. Marmalade?”
“It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
Dale rubbed his chin, and his impish grin widened. “These animals, they breathe air, but they can stay down for a couple of days. You swim with them and they’re the size of an ocean liner. Three hundred meters long, fifty across. Fins and flukes the size of football fields. And you look into their eyes and they’re looking right back.”
“My father was more interested in the dead ones.”
Dale nodded. “That you have to see for yourself.”
“Where’s your scuba gear? I’m coming in there to get you and I need to breathe.” She went along the condo’s hallway to the next door. As she pulled it open blankets and a couple of balls spilled out. The baseball rumbled off along the worn carpet. She picked up the football and hurled it through his door at him.
“All right.” He stumbled from his room. He was wearing just briefs, his chest the broad and strong chest of a diver and swimmer. Funny how she’d never thought of him that way any other time. “Have you ever dived before?” he said.
“Little bit,” she said. “Dad took me snorkeling.”
“Oh boy.” Dale sighed. He stared at her for a moment, turned around and closed the bedroom door behind him.
By the time Gemma had his gear in the back of the Hyundai, Dale had dressed and come out to the condo’s verandah. He had a torn surfie t-shirt and Sharkskins board shorts. “That my stuff?” he said.
“Your housemate said to help myself.” She hadn’t even met the housemate.
“What are you doing, Gemma? You used to be such a nice kid. Polite, friendly.”
“I’m not a kid.” Gemma opened the driver’s door. Dale was maybe two years older than her.
“Are you going looking for him?”
Another vehicle drove by, a panel van, its shimmering spheres crackling along the pavement. Gemma caught a glimpse of a schoolgirl looking out the window at her.
“I’ve got a fix on his location,” Gemma said. A tangy waft of ozone drifted, trailing the vehicle. Poor maintenance, she thought.
Dale stared and lowered his head.
“I need your help,” Gemma said.
With a glance back through his front door, Dale came down the steps to her. He rubbed his stubble, shaking his head. “What kind of a fix. That’s a big ocean.”
“What ocean isn’t?”
“Good point. Doesn’t make it any smaller.”
“Are you going to come help me? He had a transponder. I’ve got a map, I can get trackers.”
“And my scuba gear, I see.”
Gemma ran her fingers through her hair, conscious immediately that it kind of mimicked his chin-rub. “It’s not like you’re going to need it anyway.” She opened the back door and pulled out the tank and mask. “You’ve given it up, haven’t you?”
Dale didn’t say anything. He watched her as she unloaded, without making any move to help. With his equipment on the cracked sidewalk, she closed the trunk and got back into the driver’s seat.
“Hey,” he said as she shut the door.
Gemma wound down the window. “Yes.” Glad he was going to relent. Sometimes she knew how to play people.
“You know he was going deep, don’t you? That’s not snorkeling stuff. It’s special gear, with support AI on your boat. Robot subs in the water. You’re down for hours. It takes years of training.”
“So train me.”
He blinked, nodded. “I could do that.”
“But it would take years. Like I said. His body will be gone from wherever it is now.”
“We’ll keep tracking it.”
Dale shook his head. “Can’t do it.” He picked up his tank, slinging it over his shoulder. Gathering up more of his gear, he looked in the trunk. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back in a minute for the rest.” He went back inside without looking over at her.
Gemma watched the dark open doorway for a second. “Home,” she told the traveler and it pulled out from the sidewalk, heading back through the town.
What had she been thinking anyway? Maybe Masie was right. Maybe she should just accept that he was gone.
The next day she hired a boat. A glassy fifteen meter arrow of a craft, with big internal jets that roared as the AI nosed into the open sea, bounding across the plane. There were moments Gemma felt like she was flying. The onboard systems kept the passage smooth, almost as if she was riding a laser.
As the boat rushed out, she felt herself trembling, remembering that first time with her father. That ocean like a vast inkwell, black and bottomless. The smell of salt and guano.
She made herself go on.
When the boat reached the middle of the area Gemma had plotted, she eased back the throttle and let the craft wallow. Around her the ocean churned, filled with cross-chop and momentary foaming crests. The water slapped against the hull. The stabilizers kept it steady.
High above, streaky, icy clouds looked like scratches in the sky. A lone orange gull glided close to the water, making occasional hooting calls.
Gemma leaned over the stern, peering into the water. It was clear and black and aquamarine and jade and black-blue all at once. She could see fish below, a school of spiny sprats darting around. Further below, just as the water became too dim to see through, there were some jellyfish. Their bulbous transparent bodies pulsed, black and green tendrils wafting.
And somewhere down there, her father’s body.
Gemma gasped, pulled herself back into the boat’s cockpit. The salty rush of air, the depth of ocean, the plain everyday continuation of the wilds all felt too much.
Later, it might have been twenty minutes, when she was done weeping, she wiped her face and instructed the boat to return to the port.
“You still have five hours rental remaining,” the AI told her. “I can show you the fjords. Beautiful waterfalls. Seals, ocean swans, the walking snapper.”
“Just take me home,” she said.
Gemma stood up at wheel, the cool air racing through her hair, occasional bursts of spray pelting her face. She couldn’t bear to look back.
Sitting in the traveler she sipped a fruity mangolion. Stimulating, but slightly too hot. She blew across it. She thought about Dale’s gear in her car. A moment there she’d lost her mind. She was never going to be able to put the gear on and go into the water.
She finished the drink, put the cup into the mangler. It bleeped a ‘thank you’ and quickly ground it up.
The traveler took her back through the small town to Dale’s place. He wasn’t home, but his housemate answered the door. Young, pretty, elegantly dressed in a kind of cross between gym wear and casual. No wonder she didn’t like Dale’s personal habits.
“He’s gone out,” she told Gemma. “I’m Sal.”
Gemma shook the proffered hand. “Do you know when he’s coming back?”
Sal shrugged. “I’ve got his fanhash if you want to give him a call.”
“Maybe I can just leave his things. I kind of stole them.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that,” Sal said with a smile. “He might have a caboose of irritating qualities, but he was surprisingly relaxed about that. I don’t know if he’s worried about getting… oh! You’re the professor’s daughter. I’m sorry about your father, huh? That’s terrible.”
“Thanks.” Gemma glanced at the traveler, the trunk open. “Really I don’t want to keep his stuff. I feel guilty. I kind of made a fool of myself, getting all het up.”
Sal smiled again. “I think he liked that about you.”
“What?” Gemma said, then realized. “Oh? Like that?”
“Yeah, like that. You can be flattered, but, you know, he gets crushes as often as I have breakfast.”
“Yeah. He had a crush on me for all of three minutes. I extinguished that pretty quick. Look, let’s get that stuff hauled inside.”
“Thanks,” Gemma said, “I appreciate it.” She was stunned to think that Dale had thought about her like that. It would be easy to let herself get distracted by something, by an affair, something to bury the emotions inside.
After they’d unloaded, exchanged fanhashes and agreed to meet for coffee sometime, Gemma drove back to Cedar Falls.
Dale. With a crush on her.
Far too distracting. She needed to concentrate, and that was just plain silly.
Still, it might be fun.
There was a message on her fan when she got home. Shinako, her work buddy. They went for coffee and tea, for meals, talked about men, about design, about fathers and family. There weren’t that many people Gemma knew who she could just talk and talk with like that. Too introverted.
“Hey, Gems,” the message said. “How’re you doing? I’m thinking of you, but we’ve got to do tea soon. Can’t leave you moping.” The fan flashed a white on green transcript, a couple of words wrong. The iware struggled with Shinako’s accent.
Gemma called right away.
“Now?” Shinako said. “Rick’s here, so I’m, well… you know. How about lunch at work tomorrow? Anyway, I don’t want to rush you.”
“I won’t be at work tomorrow.”
“Ellison thinks you will be. You should call him. I mean, I get it, but it’s been a week. Bereavement’s only three days, which is kind of crass if you ask me, but that’s in the contract. There’s that job on for Sunseekers. Big portfolio.”
Gemma hesitated. Joe Ellison had been almost fatherly in the way he ran things. Checking on her work, her social life, staying out of the way and letting her get on with designs and proposals, being a good listener when she needed to vent about some colleague or client. But he did like his rules, and did run the business with a sharp eye on the profit statements.
“Still there?” Shinako said.
“I can’t. I can’t face it.” Gemma imagined her father out there in the ocean, lost, drifting.
She would have to get back to work sometime, but not yet.
“He’ll fire you,” Shinako said when Gemma told her.
“Yeah, but he’ll hire me back when I’m ready to come back.”
“Don’t count on it. He’s getting really cutthroat now that we’ve lost Kimanner’s.”
“We lost Kimanner’s?” Gemma felt her throat clench. The big tour company was one of Ellison’s core customers. The summer promotion always carried them through. Gemma did the line work and layouts. And especially the colors.
Ships taking thousands of off-world passengers up to see the glaciers. Stinngaser was cooler than Earth, whose polar ice was long-since gone anyway, but people, apparently, romanticized the old days when ‘eco-tourists’ would watch huge icebergs calve from the sheets.
It was her job to promote the vessels as if everyone got a first-class cabin, and stress the lowest of the share-quadruple prices.
Ellison was always happy. The way she could use sunset colors across a middle-aged couple on a private balcony, the blue-white ice face almost within touching distance was beyond anything anyone else in the agency could do.
She was always happy with painting water, so long as she was never immersed over her head.
“He hardly needs you,” Shinako said, her voice seeming distant. “You need to get back here tomorrow.”
Gemma swallowed. “We’ll see.”
Shinako said something Gemma didn’t catch. Rick spoke, right near the pickup.
“Rick?” Gemma said.
“Hey Gem. Shinako can’t talk now. Otherwise occupied.”
Shinako gave a squealing giggle.
“Bye now,” Rick said and broke the connection.
Gemma sat back in the armchair and sniffed. The chair picked up her tension and rolled a massage burr up against her back.
“Stop that,” she growled, standing. She went upstairs and took a long shower.
Job or not, she thought, she was going to find him.
The datanet gave her pages about whale falls, but it was all from Earth research. No one had investigated them elsewhere, except for her father, and he hadn’t published anything yet.
He did have dozens of credits, from principle to co-writer, but all on migration patterns, physiology, even mollusks.
Journals had sent the papers on whale falls back with lengthy revisions. He’d deleted them in disgust.
Even the research from Earth was scant.
The bodies could take years to decay, in the right situations. They were huge. The size of small houses, and sometimes became almost whole ecosystems. They caught up nets and other jetsam. A lab in Earth’s Atlantic Ocean had monitored one for a hundred years, until it had broken down almost entirely, leaving patches of anemones and worms surviving on, creating their own micro-environment.
Here on Stinngaser they occured at far shallower depths than back on Earth. That alone should have piqued interest.
Facts ran by her. The deeper they were, the longer they lasted. Bones dissolved. A new kind of barnacle was found, one that had adapted from living on the whale’s skin to living in the detritus.
Gemma struggled to stay awake. She knew she’d disappointed her father by being less academic. Her grandmother and her uncle both had doctorates too, even though they were in diverse disciplines. All she had were some technical papers in drafting and design.
“Follow your passions,” he’d told her. “Always.”
“Is that what you do?”
Despite that, she still felt like she’d let him down somehow.
She read about currents, about scuba diving, about the remote submersibles he’d been using.
Facts, facts, facts.
At midnight she jerked awake, the fan display dimmed. “Too much study,” she whispered, and went upstairs to bed.
She lay a while, feeling foolish. Her job, her grandmother, Dale, even Gladys. They all accepted he was gone. Why couldn’t she?
It was still dark when her grandmother called. The bedside fan blurred up Masie’s face. The clock below read 5:30.
“Grandma?” Gemma said. “You don’t have anything to call me from.”
“Borrowed Mack’s. He’s portable.”
“Mack?” Gemma still felt blurry herself, roused from deep sleep.
“I told him to keep an eye out for Theo. While he’s flying around. I mean, while Mack’s flying around.”
“I get it. Why are you calling? It’s early.”
“You don’t want to hear from me?”
“Always, Grandma.” Gemma took a swig of water from the side table, getting a mint leaf caught in her teeth.
“Mack says he’s never going to see anything.”
“Well not in this light,” Gemma said. She pulled her curtain back, looking into the glinting lights of the city. The golds and streaky reds of sunrise were beginning to paint the sky.
The thought reminded her of her father again.
“See, that?” he would say. “Someone’s gotten a giant paintbrush from somewhere. This is our lucky day.”
He’d swing her around and around while she squealed, half-terrified he would let her go.
“Funny,” Masie said. “Good to see you’ve got a sense of humor still.”
Gemma stayed silent.
“All right. The real reason I’m calling.”
“Grandma? What?” Gemma sat up, swung her legs off the bed. The air felt cool and she pulled her robe over her knees.
“I hear you’re about to lose your job.”
“How did you hear that?”
Cedar Falls had never seemed small to Gemma. “Shinako told you?”
“She told Mack. He’s known her since his commercial days. Used to fly her father out to Chichibu Island when Shinako was a kid. Mack flew up here as soon as he could.”
“Mack flew… are you…” Gemma didn’t quite know how to ask. “Are you dating him?”
“Of course I am.”
Gemma remembered the hollows in the lawn: indents from one of Mack’s aircraft. “I should have guessed.”
Masie was moving on, Gemma thought. A new boyfriend. At her age. She must have been seeing Mack since before, but it was still uncanny.
“It’s none of your business really. You’d just try to give me advice.”
“Huh,” Gemma said. “I figure that’s why you called me, right? To give me advice?”
“Just…” Masie hesitated. “Just take care, honey.”
Gemma didn’t know how to respond.
Gemma drove right to the ocean. The sun was high by the time she got there. No sign of storms, not even any sign of clouds.
She was so angry. She couldn’t find the words to express it. Everything felt tangled up.
It had been days. Why was she feeling worse?
She walked out on the stone pier, her shoes clacking on the smooth surface. A small local trawler rocked as it came in around the breakwater, nets hanging along the transom drying, masts raised high. Gulls followed, squawking and swooping.
Gemma sat on the end of the pier. She took off her shoes and dangled her feet, the water still meters below. The trawler blew its whistle at her as it passed by. The captain waved. She didn’t know him, but she waved back. The stink of fish wafted over her.
She wondered why she couldn’t let it go.
She turned. Dale, walking along the pier. He waved. Gemma looked back out at the breakwater. Further around, at the main jetty, the trawler was tying up, a woman on the jetty shouting down at the crew. Gemma couldn’t make out the words in the distance.
“I saw your car.” Dale came to a stop beside her. “Mind if I sit?”
“It’s a public pier.”
“Yes it is.”
The woman up on the jetty rolled a big yellow mechanical arm that reached over and began pulling up dripping crates. The crew on the deck rushed around loading.
“If you want to find him,” Dale said, “and you want my help, you’re going to have to get into the water.”
“I can’t. I just…” Gemma shivered.
“Your choice. You know where to find me.”
She expected him to get up, but he stayed sitting. The gulls continued to circle the trawler. Gemma could see another boat further out, just heading in, the sunlight glinting from the waves all around it.
“Sal told me she told you I had a crush on you.”
Gemma didn’t say anything. She felt uncomfortable, wished he had just gone, left it alone.
“I did have a crush on you,” he said just as the silence was becoming unbearable.
Great, she thought, now he’s going to tell me he’s over it and that he’ll teach me how to dive so I can find Dad.
“Years ago. When I was first studying under your father. I saw you sometimes, thought you were cute.”
“Really?” She remembered when she’d first started in with her design training, seeing her father on weekends, sometimes his young students doing filing or data-runs to earn some cash.
“You don’t remember me, of course.”
“If you want to find him, you need to learn to dive. I can teach you, but I couldn’t leave that hanging.”
“Because telling me makes it so much better.” Shut up, she told herself. The poor guy probably feels embarrassed enough just bringing it up.
Now he stood. “I can get you that deep in six weeks. It’s a rush, but with the robots we can still do it safely. If you want to do it, we start tomorrow. Sunrise. Down at the research station. Bring your bathing costume.” He turned and walked back along the pier.
Gemma stood, opened her mouth to call him back, but his slumped shoulders and lowered head made him seem bruised and beaten. By the time she figured what she would say–“it’s all right, I’m flattered”–Dale was already stepping from the pier, heading for his own beat-up traveler.
She ran late.
The sun was already up as the little Hyundai screamed through Cedar Bay township. She’d blown it, she knew, and now he’d never teach her.
But there he was as she slammed the traveler into a park and leapt out.
“I’m here,” she shouted.
He stood from bending over the side of the tiny insubstantial boat pulled up into the shingle and gave a curt wave.
Stepping from the grassy strip Gemma felt like she’d crossed a barrier. The stones scraped and chinked audibly under her feet.
“Thought you’d make it,” Dale said as she came up.
Boxes like the trawler’s fish crates made a stack alongside. The boat was constructed from a series of reedy white strips. It seemed as frail as a child’s stick model.
“I didn’t know if you’d wait.”
“Seems kind of small.” Gemma put her hand on the bow, almost certain that the little boat would fall apart under her touch. It felt cold, sucking heat from her fingers. The boat’s stern seemed almost within reach. It couldn’t be more than three meters long. A boat like the one she’d hired would cut this in half without slowing.
“We’re not going far,” he said, lifting in a crate.
Gemma swallowed. She’d forgotten. They weren’t searching now. It was just lessons.
“Help me here,” he said.
When they had the boat loaded he took her back into the institute’s shed. The smell felt welcoming now, like safety. He spent an hour on principles. How the masks worked–breathe normally–how to unclip the weights, how to ride a robot to the surface, what to do if she got tangled in something, what to do if she lost her mask, how to switch to the rebreather if the extractor broke, how to switch to the ten-minute tank if the rebreather broke after the extractor broke.
“You’re trying to put me off, right?” she said with a nervous laugh.
“I’m trying to keep you alive.”
How to read the pressure gauge. How to read time–apparently it was easy to lose track with little outside light. How to stay pointing in the same direction. How to surface at the correct rate. It was like being back in the worst classes at school. The ones with the laziest teachers, more interested in imparting facts than genuine learning.
“You’ll be surprised when you get into the water,” Dale said, “by how much you’ll remember.”
She shook her head. “The opposite, I’m thinking.”
In the bay they snorkeled and she began learning how to use a rebreather snorkel to go down longer and deeper.
Within a week she was able to stay down for close to fifteen minutes.
“Progress,” Dale said. “Soon we’ll try the ocean.”
Mack put his plane into a cliff. Fifteen miles south of Masie’s house and doing three hundred and eighty knots. There was little left of the plane, and basically only DNA left of the pilot.
Masie stood stoic at the service. Exactly as Gemma remembered her when they’d formally farewelled Theo. Some of his pilot friends did a fly-past, their little planes whistling and low. There was finger food, savories and triangular pink and orange cakes. Gemma had a glass of wine, and a second, wishing she’d had neither as she put the empty glass down. She felt light-headed and she still had to get home.
“I think I’ll move to town,” Masie told her.
“You aren’t going to stay on the hill?” She felt sad for Masie, but wished that her grandmother would show more emotion. How much loss could one person take?
“Well. I realize how much I was coming to rely on him bringing me into town, bringing groceries out to me. I don’t like my own driveway.”
“I can cart your things,” Gemma said. She remembered the driveway, wondering if that was a good idea.
“No. I’ll move.”
Gemma nodded. “It will be nice to have you closer.”
Masie’s eyebrows rose. “Well. I still have to decide where to live. I don’t even know if I’ll stay here. Some of those tropical islands are very nice. Frontierre, The Keys, Dry Narumi. Good property deals too.”
Gemma was about to argue, but held back. If she hadn’t drunk too much she might have been able to order her thoughts better.
“And thank you for coming today.” Masie put her hand on Gemma’s arm. “It means a lot to me.” Masie smiled and faded away into the gathering.
Gemma went home, falling asleep on the way, waking only when the traveler bleeped at her that they’d arrived.
A week later Dale took Gemma out to a sheltered reef in his reedy boat. The sky was clear, the sea as transparent as she’d ever seen it.
They’d already practiced off the beach, but today she was going to try the full scuba set with robots. They went down to nine meters, the sea darkening.
She breathed too fast, she kicked too hard.
When she moved she dislodged the mask and it flooded. The internal rebreather tube reached for her mouth, slipping in so she could breathe.
Dale’s hand touched her shoulder and pulled her around. She couldn’t see a thing. He guided her to the surface.
“Not bad,” he said, back on the boat.
“First day.” Dale started the engine and guided them to the beach.
Gemma sat shivering. All this was beyond her. She was never going to find him, and if she ever did, what would she find? Bones?
What was she looking for really?
Gemma visited Masie. The Hyundai struggled, but made it all the way up this time. Someone had regraded the driveway.
Dale had worked her hard every day, getting her deeper, getting her to trust the robots. She still didn’t quite, but the little swimmers stuck close, monitored her, made sure she rose at the right rate. Sometimes their lensed faces seemed to be almost intelligent. Friendly.
Not friendly enough to remove her terror.
At least she hadn’t knocked her mask off again, or anything else too bad.
Her grandmother had half her own possessions boxed up, and was working on one of the boxes when Gemma came in.
“You look tanned,” Masie said.
“Spending more time outside. You’re really leaving?”
Masie took a porcelain horse from the mantelpiece and put the statue on a sheet of bubble wrap on the table. The wrap curled up, crackling as it worked, and sealed the horse in a vaguely horse-shaped package. Masie picked up the package. “I can’t really believe I’m ever coming back for these, but you never know.” She put the horse into an open box. The box made scuffling sounds as it rearranged things inside.
“I’ll miss you,” Gemma said.
“Likewise. When you’re done with your project, you should come and join me.”
“My job Grandma, I can’t just go.”
“Job? I mean your diving thing. Oh, I was going to ask if you needed some money.”
Masie sighed. “I know you didn’t keep your job. I know you’re looking for Theo.”
“How can you… all right. And you didn’t try to stop me?”
With a gesture Masie beckoned her towards the kitchen. “I’ll make coffee.”
The kitchen was white now, with a stylish black trim and occasional strips of glowing amber. The old coffee maker was gone, replaced with a simple mechanical plunger. Masie filled it with boiling water from the spigot.
“How is the training going, anyway?” Masie said.
“Slowly. I am not a creature of the water.”
“It’s an old adage, but we all are. In many ways. It will come to you.” Masie got cups. “It’s in your genes, of course.”
“I’m thinking of giving up.”
Masie was about to pour and she put the plunger back down on the counter.
“It doesn’t bother you,” Gemma said. “I mean, that there’s no body? Why am I doing it?”
Masie stared at her. “Are you talking about Mack? Maybe you want to be sure, maybe that’s all it is. The courts have enough information to declare him dead. With Mack it was different. There was…” Masie took a breath. “There were enough remains to test and prove it was him. No one’s seen your father.”
“I just freeze up. I hate it.”
“You could go inland again. Find a good job. Maybe somewhere like Carterton or Agnes. They’re as far from the sea as you can get. But how will you feel? Let me tell you: don’t leave things undone. I don’t need to see his body. He’s my son and I know what he was capable of. You, my dear, might be his daughter, but you don’t. You’ve put him in the same box with your mother.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Well, whatever.” Masie turned back to the bench and poured the coffees. “I’ve already transferred money to your account. You’ll be able to stay out of work and keep looking for a while on that.”
“I won’t let you give it back.”
Gemma smiled. “There was money from Dad, anyway. Not a lot, but I’m not going to starve.”
Masie handed her the cup. “Then use my money to pay Dale. Poor kid.”
“All right.” Gemma sipped and the coffee was good.
“Money?” Dale said. “Well that’s very cool. How much? No, that’s rude. Pay me what you think.”
“What were you doing for money anyway?”
Dale hung his head. “Well just some tutoring and spearfishing, actually.”
“So if I paid you, we could accelerate my training?”
Dale shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”
Six weeks later, a van called at her new apartment. Gemma was on the small balcony doing crunches and heard the vehicle whine along. Three men got out, two clearly the driver and muscle, the other in an unusual, exotic suit. He looked up at her, but didn’t call out. He walked across the road and after a moment she heard the buzzer ring.
Standing, she looked over the rail. “You rang my bell,” she called.
“Gemma Abrique?” He stepped back from the entry, craning his head over. Blonde, thinning hair. He looked maybe forty years old. Corporate.
“That’s me.” Now she saw the van’s livery: Tallon-Equate, Fisheries. Fresher Catch!
“I’m Diego Cutler. I’d like to talk with you.”
“You could have been more subtle. Fanmessage me.”
“Oh. That was you.” She’d blocked every message.
“Can I come up?”
Gemma considered for a moment. She knew what they were going to ask, but she had some questions of her own. “Are you armed?”
“What?” He looked genuinely perplexed.
“Are they armed?” She pointed at the other two men standing by the van. They both shook their heads.
“No,” Cutler said. “We-”
“Did you kill my father?”
Cutler waved and both the men by the van moved, stepping around behind the vehicle.
“Tell them to come out,” Gemma said. “Hey. Come out of there.” She stepped back from the balcony railing, wary.
The van drove away. Gemma watched for a moment and looked back at Cutler. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Cutler nodded. “I didn’t kill your father. We need you to stop looking for him.”
“I didn’t mean you personally,” Gemma said. She waited.
“Will you let me come up?”
Cutler pulled out a minifan and spoke at it. Gemma didn’t hear. When he was done, he looked up at her. “I’ll ask again. Please stop what you’re doing.”
The van had turned around and it whined off along the narrow road. It stopped by Cutler and the back door opened.
“Please,” he said.
“We’ll see,” she said.
“Not good enough.” He closed the door and the van drove off.
Gemma went inside and called Dale. “We have to go now,” she told him and broke the connection before he could argue.
“So they really did kill him?” Dale said as the boat motored out. Behind them came the barge covered with the robots and all their gear.
Gemma clung to the ropes. Salt sprayed her face. The water was choppier than she’d ever experienced. The continuous thwack of waves against the side jarred her. The sea was black. She threw up over the side.
“Nice,” Dale said.
“I don’t know if they killed him,” Gemma said. “But the threat was implicit.”
“They’ll know we’re out here,” Dale said. “They can track everything.”
Gemma didn’t reply.
A half hour later Dale stopped the boat and put out the motorized anchor. The machine circled, antennae shivering. Happy with its location it dived out of view, leaving a trail of bubbles.
They were out of sight of land. Dale flipped a switch on the console and half of the robots flipped themselves from the barge. They splashed and paddled over, forming up in two lines of six, bobbing near the boat.
Dale and Gemma got into their neoprene and scuba. Gemma shivered.
“You’ll be fine,” Dale said.
Gemma pointed to a trawler on the horizon. “We’ve got company.”
“Not coming towards us.”
Gemma watched the boat and pulled on her flippers. They tickled as they welded themselves to her feet and the neoprene at her ankles.
She felt bleak. This was the first real dive of the search. It seemed impossible. After all this time he could be anywhere. Nippon, or The Sandastries, or just a couple of hundred yards in the wrong direction, entirely out of sight.
A gull landed on the boat’s bowsprit. The bird flared its grey feathers at her, revealing orange and pink under the wings. It squawked. Even though it was a few meters away, she could smell its fishy stink. “Go catch dinner,” she told it and waved. The gull flew off with another squawk.
Dale jumped into the water. He ducked under and came back up. The robots gurgled in anticipation. Two of them dove.
“One thing I need to tell you,” Dale said.
“Okay.” Gemma settled her mask on her forehead, feeling the strap pinch her ear.
“We’re outside your search grid.”
Gemma swallowed. “Where are we?” She felt beaten. Even Dale, who’d been reluctantly forthcoming was now sabotaging it.
“Something I need to show you.”
“Take me to the–”
“No. If you want to go there, you have to do this dive first. We’re going down a hundred and fifty meters.”
“Nowhere in the grid is that deep.” Mostly it was no more than thirty, with a few small trenches reaching eighty.
“That’s right. Get in the water.”
Cursing him, she complied. He checked her mask and gave her a thumbs up. He plugged in the monofilament and spoke.
“I hear you,” she said.
“Great.” Tipping himself up, he vanished under the surface.
Gemma looked over at the trawler. It seemed no closer, but she was lower in the water now. Distances were deceptive.
“Come on,” Dale said. The monofilament would be unspooling, keeping them in contact.
Gemma followed. She kicked, seeing his light ahead. The robots swirled around him, leaving a double-helix of bubbles as they sped down. She knew hers were doing the same, though the bubbles would quickly run out and they would be in near darkness with only the fading cone glows of their lights.
“Why are we here?” she said.
“Something you need to see.”
“It’s better if you just see it.”
Gemma sighed, checked the readings on the mask’s visor. Pressure rising, of course. Air flow normal. Temperature eight degrees Celsius. It always got cold fast. Another ten or fifteen meters it might be as low as three degrees. The suit’s miniature heaters came on.
One of the robots swam in front of her, its oblong body curling around as it sent out a lens. She gave it a thumbs-up and it drifted out of view.
Descents were boring. Just down and down into the darkness. She couldn’t imagine the appeal to her father at all.
They passed fifty meters. She saw some glistening tendrils as a jellyfish swam by, yellows and crimsons glowed back at her. Two of the robots moved in close to the tendrils, making sure she didn’t get snared.
At seventy-five meters Dale checked in with her, asking if she was doing all right.
“Aren’t you getting my telemetry feeds?” She knew he was.
“Did the beads fix your ears?”
“Yes.” She hadn’t been this deep before. She had to trust the equipment. Had to trust Dale.
“Good.” He fell silent.
Gemma had to give herself an imaginary pinch. She, Gemma Abrique, was below the surface of the water. So far below that even if she kicked right now, as hard as she could, there was no way she could hold her breath all the way to the surface. She was entirely dependent on the equipment. She trembled.
It was cold and despite the efficiency of the suit, she was aware of how chilly it was becoming.
Ahead something loomed up. At first it was like some white disturbance in the water, perhaps a concentration of jellyfish or smaller creatures. Plankton or atomites. Another few meters and she saw there was a solidity to the thing, even as the edges seemed fuzzy. White and massive, like the tip of a curved finger, pointing to the surface. Coated with a whisper of furry tendrils and hairs.
It was thick. As wide as she was tall. Bigger than the boat they’d come out in. And this, she thought, was just the very end. Further down it must widen.
“A rib,” Dale said. He’d come to a stop and hovered in the water nearby. His robots held with him, their little propeller flippers turning slowly. “At least what passes for a rib. Their physiology is very different from ours. The bones have their own systems, almost separate from the rest of the body. Such massive bulk.”
“I read some,” she said. “Organs and circulation.”
“Good, yes. Such big creatures require simplicity and complexity at once.”
“This is one of the whales?”
Dale laughed. “Whales. It hardly does them justice. Leviathans? Behemoths? We struggled with a good name. Technically we labeled them Odonceti praegrandis, but that’s just holding, until there’s full publication.”
Gemma reached out to touch the end. She’d already dropped almost a meter below the very tip and could see the other end dropping into the darkness below. As she reached one of her robots came in close, winding one of its thin arms out.
Her gloved finger made contact. At first the bone felt squishy and she ran her finger along, leaving a trail of lighter green through it. “Algae?”
“Algae, seaweed. Worms. This is the whale fall your father was researching. We’re still a long way from the bottom.” Dale ducked and kicked on down.
Gemma tried to dig through the algae, but it was rubbery and cohesive under her finger. She kind of wanted to take the glove off and chip at the algae coating with her nails, but imagined her hand freezing immediately. She kicked on after Dale.
The bone thickened as they dropped. It became like some giant pylon. A tower on which they could mount a massive wind-turbine. The algae and weed thickened too. She saw small anemones, shimmering through blue and indigo. Tiny white and gold fish darted around, feeding on the algae. Something that looked like a barracuda swept by, arrowing through the tiny fish. Some of them disappeared into a netlike bowl that spread from the long fish’s mouth. The net closed and the fish disappeared into the gloom.
“See that?” she said. The surviving white and gold fish began to reappear.
“Predator fish,” Dale said from a few meters below. He was dropping slowly facing up, watching her. “How’s your air? You feeling comfortable?”
The depth read one hundred and ten meters. Far too deep for any reasonable rational person.
On the bone a five-limbed blob swirled along. Each of its legs curled like a snake, narrowing to hair-width whips. It crept through a miniature vertical forest of anemones and algae branches. “Pentapus,” she said.
“What’s that?” Dale said. He kicked up and touched the camera on his mask. The little instrument flickered. “I haven’t seen one of those before.” He moved close. “Not like that. Mottled body, small.”
“I guess there’s still a lot to catalogue down here.”
“Yep. We just discovered Gemma’s Pentapus.”
She smiled, reached out to touch it. The small creature seemed to burst in a cloud of red. “Oh!” She’d killed it. “I didn’t mean to.” How could it be so fragile?
“Relax,” Dale said. “Defence mechanism.” He waved his hand and the bloom dissipated. He pointed. Gemma saw the pentapus scuttling on up the bone.
“Why would the fisheries try to stop you? Surely you can discover more ways for them to make money.”
“Huh,” Dale said. “Never picked you as a capitalist.”
“Try losing your job.”
As they descended, the growths on the bone thickened and expanded. Soon it was more like a rock face with a garden than a bone at all. There was still a general cylindrical shape, but it became craggy and irregular.
“They would have us stop because we might discover something that means they have to stop.”
“Maybe we find out that they’re killing too much. Or that there’s some toxicity. Or maybe that they’re irresponsible. I can show you some of that.”
The robots’ lights played over the expanding garden of tree-like branches and bright wafting flowers. There were hundreds of fish now, darting around in loops, flocking like birds and spinning off on their own. Some of them had legs and arms with wide paddles on the end, some had long beaks. There were eyes on stalks, fish like donuts with a hole from side-to-side big enough for her to put her hand through, animals like her pentapus, but with stubby legs each tipped with double-bladed flukes.
Some of the creatures were partly luminous, with bright spots along their flanks. Likewise some of the plants, glowing and phosphorescent. It was subtle and she only noticed it in the shadow cast from the robots’ lights.
And they came in a plethora of colors; rainbows from head to tail, stripes both vertical and horizontal, some pleasing combinations of white and black or blue and orange, but others showed warnings of crimson against yellow and amber or sharp jags of icy blue against rusty reds. Chameleon fish changed colors, others had tails that were made up of clusters of green tendrils, waving in the current.
“This is what we did,” Dale said. “We’re nearly at the bottom, then you’ll see something.”
The bone–though she had to remind herself that there was a bone under all that growth–angled now, leading them inwards. Soon the whole thing flattened out. Broad leafed seaweed wafted at them, holding out long translucent pods through which she saw movement.
“Eggs?” she said.
“Sharkweed,” Dale said. “Symbiosis. I was going to write a paper on them. Still figuring that all out. I could go on for hours. This way.”
Gemma thought that it couldn’t get any more fascinating, but as they kicked along horizontally she saw more and more. The barracuda’s cousin, fat and bright, anemones the size of a dining chair, tendrils like ears of corn, schools of fish that swam in patterns like ballet troupes.
“So much color,” she said. “So deep.” She looked up into the darkness, the fish and other creatures like dust above her before the darkness closed in.
She shuddered. So deep.
She was dead, now, if something went wrong. No wonder this ocean had taken her father.
“Gemma?” Dale said. “Breathe easy.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve got it.”
Dale kicked over and looked into her mask. “We’re about at the skull. Is that okay?”
She nodded. “Yes. Show me.”
“I want to show you something else first. Hold here and let me talk to the robots.”
“Attention,” he said. “Give me the star pattern, with lights, focused out.”
Gemma heard the robots give him a series of confirmation bleeps. She saw their lights fading as they swam away.
“Attention number five,” Dale said. “Bring yourself in line.”
The light pattern adjusted. The lead two had all but vanished. Gemma could hear her own breathing. It was scary watching the robots go off like that. They were supposed to help in an emergency and down here that could happen in a second.
But she trusted Dale, she realized. Not because of anything he’d done before, but on this very descent.
“You’re all right, you know,” she told him.
He gave a little acknowledging grunt. “Attention. Come lower, bring on lights. Slow dial.”
The faint glow began to increase. Soon the lights were at their greatest brightness. It wasn’t like daylight, but the illuminated area expanded. No longer did she feel like she was trapped in a tiny bubble in darkness. That darkness receded away at least fifty meters.
It reminded her of Masie’s garden. At its most overgrown, blooming and out-of-control spring burst.
All around, across the seabed, there were young corals and lanky seaweeds. Fish, big and small, darted, alone and in schools. Some moved like clownfish in among the long fronds of anemones. Violet brittlestars the size of goats crept along the green and orange puffs of algae. Triple-shelled mollusks pumped open and closed, sluicing water through their fangs, slim filaments rippling as they drew sustenance from the tiniest particles. The barrage of colors on the urchins and shells and creeping creatures seemed like the results of an unsupervised grade-school paint war.
The thick whale ribs rose up like the arching pillars on a vast underwater cathedral, offering protection to the flock within the new light.
“Teeming,” she said. “That’s the word. Teeming with life.” She remembered her father using it once, in one of his curt conversations.
“Exactly,” Dale said. “And you have to realize that outside the body, it’s almost barren. Crabs burrowing into the mud, worms, some shellfish. Nothing like this.”
“Dad told me. One big ecosystem.”
“The question is,” Dale said, “does it last after the last of the whale has been devoured? There’s little soft tissue left. The bones still hold it together, but they won’t last forever.”
“How old?” she said. In the light she saw some kind of net caught up in one of the farthest of the ribs. The net waved in the slight current, smaller bones and flesh caught in its weave.
She wondered if the fisheries had prevented the publication of her father’s work. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened.
“We think about thirty years since the animal died. We estimate five years before enough of the skin and tissue had gone before higher life forms took hold. We probably won’t be around long enough to see what happens when the bones finally go.”
“My father.” His research was all over now.
“Yes. You should come and see the skull.” Dale called the robots back and kicked away.
Gemma watched as the light faded. The dark rolled in, hiding the magnificent garden away. She hung in the water for a moment longer, the robots paddling by her.
Seeing this, she wondered how important it was to find him. She felt like she might be closer to understanding him.
The skull was the size of her condo block. It lay on its side, twisted from the main body. Dale explained how it must have fallen. Like the base of the ribs, it was covered in myriad different kinds of life, all packed in and jostling for position.
“There must be others,” she said as they swam around. She saw something that looked like a plastic basket, wedged in against a cluster of limpets. At first she thought it was another kind of plant or animal, but she saw the metal clasp and broken braided line tied to it. A crab pot.
“Hundreds,” Dale said. “If not thousands. But it’s a big ocean. This is the only one we’ve found so far.”
He still spoke of her father in the present tense, she thought. Still includes him in part of his routine.
She wished she had that.
“I need to show you this last thing,” he said. “It might be scary.”
“I’m fifty stories under the ocean’s surface. I’m already terrified out of my wits.”
“You’re doing great.”
He was right, she realized. This felt so calming. This amazing animal here, giving life so long after death.
“I guess I am,” she said. “I understand why you brought me here.” After this, the search for her father was going to be mundane, depressing. Swimming grids across that bland wormy and crabby mud.
No, she decided. She was definitely going to find him. Not just look, but find. Masie would tell her there was a difference.
“You don’t yet.” Dale swam in front of her. “We’re going inside the skull. This is different to open water diving, all right? You’ll be in a confined space.”
Right away she felt her heart rate increase, her breathing speed up. “Maybe another time.”
“We should do it now.”
“I haven’t trained.”
“Nothing can train you for this.”
“If it’s so dangerous…” she trailed off.
“Trust me,” Dale said.
She swallowed. She felt hot. The suit felt constricting. She wanted to be back with the robots’ lights throwing the garden into its brilliant Monet of color and radiance.
“Attention,” Dale said. “Cavity swim, regular lights, optimum care.”
The robots swam around them, forming into a line like ants and descending along the side of the skull. Dale took her hand.
“Just follow along. We’ll get out the moment you feel uncomfortable.”
“I feel uncomfortable.”
Dale didn’t let go, though she knew she could pull her hand away anytime. Below a huge hole became visible, a black notch in the skull’s side. The robots trailed into it, lights blazing. Dale brought her around to the hole, only a couple of meters wide. It curved away from them.
“Like the cetaceans back on Earth,” Dale said, “these guys breathe air and have blowholes at the top of their skulls. Nostrils.”
“Some nostril.” When you’re the size of a football stadium, you’re going to need massive pipes, she thought.
“We’ll swim through. It’s about four meters and then we’re in the big cavity.”
Gemma trembled. “The brain.”
“That’s right. Not usually connected, but it broke through at some point. If you panic, just relax, the robots will know what to do.”
“All right.” It was far from all right, but she followed him in.
“Attention, minimum propulsion. Drift. Steady only.”
The robots bleeped their acknowledgment.
The tunnel felt claustrophobic. She felt like she was swimming into a narrowing storm water drain. There was still growth on the walls, strong and as vibrant as out in the main part of the whale fall.
“Attention,” Dale said. “Dim. Quadrants.”
The light faded. With her own lights–still as bright–she saw how the tube opened up to other narrow side tubes. Didn’t the animals sing complex tunes to each other all around the planet? It would take a powerful, complex system create those deep sounds and send them half a world away. She imagined the ear canal being even more complex.
“Here,” Dale said.
The tube broadened and came to an end, letting into a bigger cavity. Dale shifted in, turned so he was hanging upright. He held his hand out to guide her in.
The robots hung in a circle, their lights low.
“The braincase?” she said. She trembled. If only she could have told her father how many fears she had dealt with today.
“Yes,” Dale said. “Go easy with your movements. The water is very clear here, but it’s still easy to stir it up.”
She could see that. Inside the volume it seemed like the robots were weightless in clear air. They might be in orbit, drifting over the nightside in the dark. Inside she imagined the hole could swallow Masie’s house. It might be five hundred cubic meters.
The walls were festooned with gray-green streamers of algae. From the roof hung broad stalactites the color of eggshell. “The skull is thick?” she said. “These are some kind of animal that devours the bone?”
“Exactly.” Dale’s voice sounded distant, reserved.
Careful not to move too fast and stir things up, she turned to face him. His face seemed sad.
“What?” she said.
“Look.” He lifted his arm and pointed downward.
Again slowly she turned and looked.
“Attention,” Dale said. “Gradual lights half.”
The robots wound up the brightness and she saw it right away.
The central bowl at the bottom of the cavity bloomed with as great a variety of animal and plant life as outside in the main area. But there was something else.
Black and tubular. An abandoned dive suit.
Gemma gasped. She pulled with her arms, drawing herself down. “My father’s?” She could see a line spiraling along the suit’s arm, from wrist to shoulder, spaced with big vicious barbed hooks.
“They did kill him?”
“An accident, I think. Come closer.” Dale swam with her, coming right down to the bottom.
One of the pentapusses shot out, tentacles spinning. It vanished through a hole.
Gemma saw the bones.
“You need to breathe easy,” Dale said. “If you get off-scale I’m going to take you back to the surface.”
She kicked closer, aware that she would be roiling detritus, spoiling the perfect clarity.
It was a ribcage, and a clavicle and shoulder blade. Part of the spine. Flesh still clung to parts. A small stalked barnacle had rooted itself in the sternum, shell turning slowly, a series of tongues rippling out from the narrow opening. She saw others, a worm, some fish swimming through the gaps. A big red anemone where her father’s heart would have been.
She couldn’t repress a whimper.
“All right?” Dale said.
“You knew,” she whispered. “You knew all along, and you led me to believe that I still had to search.”
Dale didn’t reply.
Gemma turned on him. “You could have brought me straight in here. Actually, no. You could have brought him to the surface. We could have had a proper burial.”
“Yes,” he said. “All of those things. You’re right.”
She wanted to hit him. She wanted to cry, to curl up in a ball on her bed with the door locked and never come out. Instead here she was stuck at the bottom of the ocean. Stuck inside the skull of some giant cadaver.
Right next to her father.
Right where he’d died.
Right where, she realized, he should be.
“Can we turn the lights down again?” she said. “I think I need a moment.”
Dale gave the order and the light dimmed. She sensed him moving back.
For a moment, she looked at where her father lay. Despite everything, this was, she knew, the perfect resting place.
A school of white tiny-bodied fish with big tails swam through. Each one had a circular black spot right in the middle of their side.
Some glistening bubbles rose up from the algae where her father’s skull lay hidden. A starfish crawled slowly down one of the stalactites. Each limb was as thick as her father’s fingers had been, and each was a different color.
It took almost fifteen minutes before she felt ready to leave.
“I need a photograph,” she said.
“Of course. Just tell your mask.”
She’d forgotten. “All right,” she said when it was done. “Take me back to the boat.”
The dents in her grandmother’s lawn from Mack’s landings had been filled. Gemma watched the bright horizon. Tall white thunderheads lined the wall of the world. Not ready to rain, just holding and swirling. A fresh off-shore breeze tousled her hair.
“It does seem odd,” Masie said beside her, “to have a second service.”
“But this time we know.”
Masie nodded. She had the photograph, a single still image of the barnacle. It was enough, after Gemma had told her grandmother the story. To take a photograph of Theo’s bones seemed too morbid.
“It seems a good symmetry,” Masie said. “Study them, lie with them.”
“I’m glad Dale didn’t bring him up,” Gemma said.
“Dale’s a smart guy. Single?”
Gemma laughed. “Yes. Keep your distance.”
Masie laughed with her and put her thin hand on Gemma’s arm. “Time to let him go.”
Gemma took the other side of tissue-paper print of the barnacle and together they lifted their hands.
“Bye Dad,” Gemma said.
Masie didn’t say anything and together they let go.
The breeze grabbed the translucent page, lifting it up swirling and twisting, carrying it out over the ocean.
The Right Decision
By Carl Grafe
This had better be worth it.
The thin plastic chip feels weightless in the palm of my hand–almost cheap. I clutch it tightly to keep it from blowing away in the light breeze outside the outlet store. It definitely wasn’t cheap. When Tess finds out about the payday loan I took out to pay for it, she’ll be hysterical. I can almost hear her:
Timothy Alan Dunway, you’ve ruined us! Absolutely ruined us! And for what? A piece of plastic?”
But she’ll be wrong. This chip will rescue us from ruin.
I walk down the street towards the high speed rail platform. As I wait for the train, I look down at the chip. But what if I’m wrong? After all, I’ve been wrong before. I was wrong about the house, wrong about the cars, wrong about the credit cards. I was wrong about the investment company that disappeared, taking with it what remained of our savings.
But this is different. This chip will make all those wrong decisions right. Instead of having to rely on my own intuitions, I’ll be able to rely on the chip. It’ll fix things.
The chip is the absolute cutting edge–the latest in tech sophistication. It implants right into your brain behind your ear, where your phone usually goes. Based on sensory inputs, it perpetually runs scenarios to determine which possible outcomes are most likely to be favorable. Every decision I make– caffeinated or decaf? Solar or nuclear? Should I wear that sweater? should I make that purchase?–I’ll have this chip in my brain, running millions of simulations, and determining, based on real data, which decisions have the highest probability of success.
It will fix everything.
The train rounds the corner and slows to a stop. I press the button for the door with one hand, the chip still held firmly in the other. I find a secluded seat and open my hand.
I frown. Why haven’t I put it in yet? This isn’t like those other decisions. This was a good decision! But I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Sure, it’s not technically on the market yet. And the guy at the shop acted a lot like those guys at the car lots. But that’s part of why this is so smart–I got cutting edge technology, and I got it at a fraction of the retail price!
My frown deepens. Well, at least what the retail price will be once it’s legal to sell.
The train starts pulling away from the station. I turn the chip over in my hands, and then turn it over again. I take a deep breath and hurriedly insert the chip into the flesh behind my left ear.
I sit there, staring blankly, trying to detect the difference, searching for some evidence of my new reasoning power. But there’s nothing. A minute passes, and my eyes flutter, blinking away the developing mist. I try to control my heart rate and breathing, but I can’t help it. I bury my face in my hands, and the tears come. I think of the money spent, the promises made, and gradually my anguish contorts into rage. I raise my face from my hands, eyes burning, and reach up behind my ear to rip out the sham chip.
And then I stop. That is not the correct course of action. There’s no warning bell, no flash of data, just a feeling. An intuition. A certainty that I’ve never felt before.
I put my hand back down. It works. I know it, deep within me, more confidently than I’ve known anything in my life. It really works. I grin, sheepishly at first, but then proudly–defiantly. And why not? I was right, wasn’t I? I was right! I start asking myself questions. Should I get off the train now and go celebrate? No, of course not, I’ve got to go home and tell Tess! Should I wait to tell her until tomorrow and make it a big surprise? No, better to tell her right away. Maybe I should have others on the train ask me questions, and see if I can answer correctly. I could bet them money. Should I go to a casino?
My thoughts are interrupted by the overhead speakers announcing that my stop is next. I’m still smiling. I stand and get ready to disembark. I reach for the orangutan bar.
I freeze. I reached for the what? The train slows. I look out the window as the talk show homogenizes. I shake my head again. What was that? The telekinesis canned headstone appurtenance blurs past the analgesia emus brain. Something curtain crying wrong with gullet brain phlebitis chip? Peppery larval train dessert stops usher thick door muslin opens inaugural walk vole down coltish steps. Can’t sporty think miserable doorbell stumble spyglass out despotism onto flashy train gastronomic tracks. Respite conductive lights storefront oncoming librarian train graduate oh–
I open my eyes and see the sky. I turn my head a little to the right and feel the chip, knocked loose, drop from behind my ear. I see my train. I see people from the train coming towards me. They speak to me, but I can’t hear them. I look down at my crumpled body. I look past it to the other train, looming above me. People are coming from it as well. I feel my organs struggling.
I was wrong. About the chip, about everything. I’m always wrong. I think about Tess. She’ll be hysterical. She’ll blame me for everything, for leaving her penniless, ruined. For leaving her widowed. She’ll be angry, and bitter. She’ll be lonely.
But at least she’ll be right.