They Also Feed

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

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

Lie.

“The village watch makes sure nothing befalls us.”

Lie.

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

Lie.

“We all worship you, Feeder King.”

Almost a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fog Queen

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

“Mr. Sidney Bergamot?” she asked.

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

“Miss Wong, please take a seat.”

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

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

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

“Who’s missing?” I asked gamely.

“Ciaran McKay. He goes by Kay.”

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

She didn’t laugh.

“Age?” I asked.

“Nineteen, same as me.”

“What are the circumstances of his disappearance?”

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

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

“What was he doing out by the cemetery?”

“He was hired to sing at a funeral.”

“He’s a singer?”

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

“I see. And you were with him?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this turtle ghost willing to be interviewed?”

“She only talks to me and Kay.”

Of course.

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

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

“Who hired him for the job?”

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

“Is there someone you owe money?”

She shook her head again.

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

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

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

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

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

“You found Hana Yamamoto.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have much, but please—”

“Can’t Mary Lee give you some money?”

“She gave me two dollars.”

“Two dollars?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, sir,” said Greta.

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

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

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

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

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

If A Tree Cries In The Forest

He never saw his mother again after that night.

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

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

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

Unsurprisingly, the boy grew up sad and alone.

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

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

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

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

Small wonder he gravitated towards working in the great outdoors.

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

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

A dozen trees, a hundred, then a thousand.

For him, as good a life as possible.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His mother lay buried under the tree.

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

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

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

Hank stopped him. “No.”

“No?”

“No.”

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

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

All he knew was…he knew.

“We just can’t,” he said.

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

Hank slapped the belt away.

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

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

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

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


Tyree, the siderod, looked like a rat bastard.

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t let you do that,” said Hank.

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

Hank shrugged: So be it.

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A warning, a caution: Stay back.

The Little Bang Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She woke. Without thinking she headed to the bathroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gin? That explains a lot. LOL”

“What? That explains nothing. You nerd!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One by one the alarms grew silent.

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

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

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

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

Then there came a knock at the door.

The Nexus Murders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kraken

1

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

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

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

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

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

I might get Ed a beer.

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

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

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

“Sunderland.”

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

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

“A bit far from home, no?’

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

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

The Demon in the Cage

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

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

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

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

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

“And, the test is not necessarily over.”

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

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

“How many pale blades belong to us?”

“Fifty-seven,” Hinaru answered immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hinaru blinked, unsure what to say.

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

“What?! What do you mean by….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m listening.”

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

Meh Teh

“But surely it’s not unreasonable to suppose a yeti can be taught to operate an automobile,” Henry Graybill fumed against the frosted windshield. The cheap Daihatsu wasn’t doing so well this high in the Himalayas. It’d been this way since he’d visited his brother Richard only to find the “Gone Preachin’” sign hung on his door. If only his brother hadn’t fraternized with those damn monks. They’d distorted his rational faculties. He’d heard how they’d even dowsed their naked bodies in cold water and sat out under freezing skies to meditate, their body temperatures rising to keep pace with the falling thermometer. What spiritual lesson had Richard possibly found in that?

The furry creature beside him in the driver’s seat was obviously intelligent, sympathetic even, but he was hopeless when it came to manual transmission. And hygiene. And Henry’s broken leg wasn’t healing itself.

It was hard on the eve of Whitsuntide, yet this high in the mountains Henry still felt the lingering drudgery of winter. He couldn’t blame the abominable snowman for having difficulty navigating these deeply rutted mountain roads—tracks, more like. Henry knew gangrene remained a serious danger in a situation like this, and the mythical beast in the driver’s seat was his only hope of not losing the leg—or his life—altogether. “Depress the clutch with your left foot,” he articulated slowly. “Check to ensure you’ve selected the proper gear.” The oversized hand on the negligible gearshift was perhaps part of the problem. Could the monster comprehend the schematic printed on the ball?

Why couldn’t Richard remain as loyal as when they were children? Brothers owe that to one another. The strain of constantly attempting to lure his brother back to reason had proved the most wearying experience of Henry’s adulthood. Lessons others learned while at university Richard seemed to have rejected. Becoming a preacher in an age of science placed Richard high in their mother’s esteem, but now that she needed his spiritual counsel he was nowhere to be found.

Not to spite her, Henry hoped.

Now that mother required them both, Henry had made the trip to Kathmandu and beyond to locate his high-minded sibling. It was Henry’s attempt to please her that led to this strange turn of events.

“Let the clutch out slowly as you depress the accelerator with your right foot.” He reached over and twisted the key again, stretching across the vast hairy shape wedged into the driver’s seat, the dirty fur pressing into his face. The wind fulminated outside. “Try it again.”

The Daihatsu choked threateningly. The accelerator pushed to the floor, the engine raced. The yeti slipped the clutch. With a sickening, violent lurch, the car stalled. Again. “Slowly!” Henry cried. “Release the clutch slowly!” He was never going to get off this mountain alive. Where was Richard, anyway? There was nothing for it but to try again.

The worst part of all was that Henry didn’t believe in the paranormal. Yetis, he knew, were a combination of mis-reported bears and tracks in the snow that had melted and refrozen into larger parodies of themselves. How this one had found him, had known to lift him into the vehicle, he couldn’t fathom. The pain had mercifully blacked him out. Shock is nature’s own opioid. He awoke surrounded by a musty smell somewhere between a wet dog and freshly broken fungus, strapped into the passenger seat. The looming, white, furry presence beside him.

How they eventually got down below the tree line, Henry could not comprehend. Yeti had probably popped the clutch and it’d jolted the car forward enough to get it rolling downhill. His monstrous friend was helpless with standard transmission, but steering was something anyone could do. When he opened his eyes they were near a smoky village nestled in the shelter of the mountain.

“How do you nurse your own mother?” he asked the beast filling the space beside him, knowing he couldn’t comprehend. “Parents—they live so long these days and the economy obstructs their children caring for them. Is it the same in yeti civilization? Or have you advanced beyond us? I’m here because I need to locate my irresponsible brother, seeking his own spiritual enlightenment. How selfish can one be?”

Henry swung open the door and almost tried to stand on his broken limb before he recalled he was immobile, fainting with pain. Yeti sensed these kinds of things and had soon scooped him up in noisome but warm fur and shuffled off toward the hamlet. The stench of his own leg wound reminded him that he was in no place to judge the washing habits of this impossible primate. A sudden crack like concentrated thunder stopped yeti in his tracks. Henry could hear the large heart thumping like a kettledrum build-up in the massive chest. “It’s only a rifle discharge,” he mumbled. “Nothing for a person to fear, my friend.” Yet yeti stood, as if lost in thought. As the reverberations from the report died down, Henry winced in pain. Yeti, concerned, plodded on toward the human habitation.

The room in which Henry awoke couldn’t be termed a proper hospital. Clearly it was intended as a place of care. His right leg, now splinted, ached dully. He recognized the somnambulant effects of opium, minimally administered. The memories of finding his brother gone, the sickening snap of bone as he slipped from the steep trail that led to Richard’s isolated hovel, forced themselves upon him. His foot wedging into the cleft of jagged rock as his body continued downward at gravity’s command. Fifty years of manhood sliding out of control. He heard the break before he felt it. Awaking in his hired car next to a creature he knew couldn’t exist. The yeti, he was certain, had saved his life. It couldn’t drive worth a damn, but it was as real as this wooden splint now strapped to his throbbing leg.

A wizened woman looked in on him. Struggling to make himself understood, he tried to ask about the yeti that had shown such kindness. His feverish head swam. The woman, warmly bundled in the peasant garb of the region, fussed about his immobile leg, not understanding his gibberish. What was the word they used here? What did they call the abominable snowman? His thoughts flailed here and there. Finally they stumbled upon a phrase. “Meh-Teh,” he muttered. The woman stopped her ministrations, eyes opened wide. “Meh-Teh,” he repeated, nodding his head. She quickly quitted the room. Henry lapsed into and out of sleep.

The sound of feet awoke him. Yeti, he thought, had returned. Instead his weary eyes revealed an aged Englishman, stooped but sincere. “Yeti,” Henry moaned.

“You must be still,” the old man responded. “I am Rev. Murphy, a missionary on this mountain for thirty years. I gather from your identification that you are related to Richard Graybill.”

“Brother,” Henry managed.

“So I had assumed. I know Richard. He came here as a missionary, like myself. Local culture has overwhelmed him, however. He’s gone his own way. Rest, my son. Aanchal will take care of you. She’s the local healer. Rest.” The missionary departed.

What kind of brother, Henry wondered in the delirium of half-sleep, absconded with family responsibility? Left an aging mother alone while he pursued his own self-fulfillment? And he called himself a religious man! Under the warm blanket of the village healer, his thoughts wandered back to the yeti. How had it known to help him? He’d been told it was a killer. A man-eater. Instead, its warmth and care had saved his life. Even brought him dangerously close to human habitation. Like a brother should. Where was Richard?

When Henry next opened his eyes, the hut seemed even more humble than before. The smoke from a constant fire made the air close, if warm. Curious locals could be espied through the small, clouded window. They seemed to be pointing at him. Their excited voices could be heard, but not understood. Henry strained his ears. Aanchal looked in and saw him wakeful. Some time later Rev. Murphy shuffled back in, heavy parka hiding his dangling cross. “How do you feel, my son?”

“My brother?” Henry asked.

“Ah. I had supposed you might be curious once the opium wore off. He’s become a village leader. Quite a celebrity, actually. Gave up the ministry long ago.”

“The sign?”

“The locals read no English, my son. The use of the sign on his cabin door had been ironic from the beginning. He traded in his Bible for a Remington years ago. Leads hunting expeditions now. Still calls it ‘preaching.’ Leaves the sign up when he’s out on a hunt. Snow leopard’s found at these altitudes. Himalayan musk deer. Other exotics.”

Henry struggled to express his thoughts. The missionary didn’t understand him. The old man encouraged him to rest. The crack of a rifle jolted Henry back to consciousness.

“Don’t worry, my son,” soothed the cleric. “You’re safe here. Aanchal warned the villagers you’d been attacked by Meh-Teh, the yeti. Yes, we know they’re real. You mustn’t worry. Your brother has returned. He’s organizing a search party even now. Perhaps that shot we’ve just heard felled the horrid beast.”

Henry strained to object. Aanchal hurried in with her medication. As his eyes grew heavy under opium he heard the locals shouting with jubilation.

“Ah,” the minister smiled, gazing out the small window. “It seems they have destroyed the troublesome Meh-Teh after all.”

Henry bolted upright in his bed, tears exploding from his eyes. “My brother!” he screamed into the gathering darkness.

The Genealogy of Pops

The first thing I saw was blue. The second thing I saw was Pops. The first thing I feared was God. That’s how I learned to order the universe. My first memory of a place was Boat-Raft-City. It’s a pretty cool place. Everything’s pretty all right. I mean it’s small. But that’s the deal. We only live in small communities now. It’s considered best for everybody. Stronger individuals. Everybody knows everybody. A healthier zeitgeist. Less schizophrenic living.

We live on a boat. Or rather, more precisely, on boats. Correction. Like, we live on boats that are tied together. So like a raft. Or a collection of boats, that on a macro scale operates like a large raft, and, on a regular level, looks and operates like a boat. On a personal scale I live on a boat called the Haphazard. It’s kind of like the ass of the raft.

There’s other dudes out there. Other people on other raft cities. But we don’t talk to them. It’s kind of culturally forbidden on account of our unwavering need to maintain a healthy communal psyche, which would be in severe jeopardy among the presence of outsiders. Outsiders whose thinking can simply not be ac-counted for. Like one time, I saw a boat of outsiders-whose-thoughts-couldn’t-be-accounted-for throwing babies overboard their ship. Which made my throat tight. I’m glad we don’t do that here. And we do some weird stuff. But so yeah, we don’t socialize. I mean we trade. Sometimes. But we never socialize when we do it. Pops said that’s why guns and armpits were invented: so we don’t have to socialize. So-cializing and unhealthy zeitgeists were the reason the Old World ended. Now we just put supplies in lifeboats and hope for honesty.

Back to the babies. The thing about the babies is population control is super important on Boat-Raft-City. Turns out babies are super easy to make. Turns out you and me and everybody can have a hand in the making of babies, but too many babies on Boat-Raft-City is bad for resources, which creates food and water short-ages, which creates unhappy people, which creates an unhealthy zeitgeist, which leads to wild tribal violence and sometimes, confusingly, even more babies. So we control babies. The only time banging is technically allowed is under an Elder Su-pervised Procreation Session or ESPS for short. I’m a little uncomfortable in an ESPS on account of performance anxiety issues and an atavistic sense that an un-known Elder is checking out my butt. Also, when the participants finish, the Elders do a little clap and sigh wistfully.

Unsanctioned bonking is a big no-no but we do it anyway. The Elders try to catch sweaty teenagers off guard but it’s a hard thing to prove if they don’t witness any penetration. I’m a sweaty teenager and a conscientious objector to the policy. If it were up to me I’d be bonking left and right. Personally, I’ve bonked a sum total of one and a half times. The one time was an ESPS with Lilly Simms. This was, to be honest, pretty much a brokered exchange. I’d speared a bonkers Marlin fish that day and brought it to Elder Simms as a sort of let-me-pork-your-daughter-gesture. What ensued was the best, and only, ESPS of my life with a clap at the end and eve-rything. The general consensus is and was that I’m radically beneath Lilly. In that particular instance I was.

The half time I bonked was just for fun and I remember it much better. Lilly and me were in an overturned lifeboat and even though it was dark the water shone emerald with luminescent algae. I remember how flecks of green peppered Lilly’s skin like stars in a cosmic swirl, her body lithe and barely suggested in a sea of black motion, a human constellation. For me the moment was seminal. Lilly made me finish in the water. Which was painful because salt got in my dick-hole. So it on-ly counts half. But I’d do it again, I’d definitely do it again.

The New Nomad

“Chih-Tih!” Nall squeals, probing the translucent air bladder.

“Yes, baby, Chitlids.” My voice comes out tight. The spring has been so late, so cold—I’d thought we’d seen the last of the Chitlids. But this morning we awoke to hundreds of them, dragging their long tentacles through the air between the swaying dandular trunks.

Nall grasps at a Chitlid that puffs just out of xer reach. Pursuing, xe runs through a patch of yellow irrenes, spore pods bursting, and I hurry after. A rustling from a large spench bush pulls xer up short. A turam bolts from it, long legs and orange spots flashing as it disappears into the dandulars.

“Jaff!” Nall cries, clapping with glee.

“It does look like a giraffe, doesn’t it?” I laugh. “But giraffes are from Earth, baby. That’s a turam calf. Tu-ram.”

“Tuhm,” xe repeats, breathless with wonder, and my heart cracks. The turam’s diet relies heavily on spench berries. As our summers shorten, spench yields drop.

A familiar dread settles in my stomach, as I imagine the day I’ll have to explain to Nall that all the animals xe’s learning to name so lovingly will soon be gone. “We didn’t know,” I’ll tell xer. “Not until you were nine months big in my belly. We didn’t know that a solar system away, a star was collapsing, wrenching Coron from its orbit.”

Past the dandular canopy, our sun shines at high noon, a few dozen light-years farther away than it was at this time last year. Next year, it’ll be farther still. And ten years from now, after the last perihelion, we’ll be too far gone for it to ever pull us back. All the humans on Coron will descend into the subterranean caverns we are fervently constructing, to live off geothermal energy as Coron hurtles into deep space.

I wrench my mind back to the present, to Coron’s surface, where it’s, “nap time!” for this toddler.

I carry Nall back to the habitat as xe howls and makes xer joints all loose in their sockets, trying to slip from my arms. If Nall had xer way, we’d never come indoors. We’d explore gladial patches and hunt cardizes until xe passed out from exhaustion.

Back in the nursery, I dim the walls and set them thrumming with white noise. Nall calms down as soon as xe starts to nurse. Our bodies curl together on the bed, and I bury my nose in xer hair, wishing we were simple beasts. Turam and calf. Ignorant of the terrible future. When xer breathing slows to a snore, and my nipple slips from xer lips, I ease up out of bed.

But as I stand, the room reels. My vision clouds with spots, and I have to fight for consciousness. After a few moments, the dizzy spell passes, and I creep from the room, sealing the door behind me.

I must be anemic again. I’ve been breastfeeding Nall for almost two years now, and I get so sick of the daily nutrient injections. The med-droid will remind me to get my postnatal shots, and I’ll snooze its alert again and again, sometimes accidentally shutting it off for weeks at a time. So I keep making myself sick like this.

Now I summon the med-droid from its storage alcove and press my fingertip to the quick-read sensor, flinching at the prick. My vital stats appear on its face. Iron count could be higher, but I’m not quite anemic. I need some B12 too. One line of my health report is flashing red, and the information there is so unexpected that my brain takes long moments to process it.

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin detected.

For a thousand years, we’ve known that HCG in the blood means one and only one thing.

I’m pregnant.