Search Results for: always on my mind

Always on My Mind

If you cut the main artery from some living organism and laid it out across an arid wasteland then, Sabbi supposed, you would have something much like the Strip. True, the Strip was inorganic, a man-made thing cast in concrete, steel and glass, but still it lived. There were places where you could stand and see the Strip stretching away like a ribbon of light across the night-time desert, unspooling for mile after mile, blurring into one featureless splash of neon advertising hoardings.

And sooner or later, it would bleed out and die.

But Sabbi had become expert at letting tomorrow take care of itself. Save your worries for the here and now: there were plenty of reasons to.

The crowds of shoppers ebbed and flowed–and that was good. They provided her with anonymity: a hundred thousand or more, thronging the broadwalks of the Strip on a hot summer afternoon, closeted by endless store-fronts and restaurants and coffee-houses–imprisoning them within the Strip’s rapacious jaws.

From behind the gleam of her sunglasses, Sabbi scanned faces, trying to avoid flat-foots mingling with the shoppers. Most of the cops wore the Strip-sponsored uniform–visibility a key part of their deterrent–but they came in a plain-clothes variety too. They knew all about the petty thieves, the grifters like Sabbi who worked the lower echelons of the Strip’s ecosystem. Flat-foots carried the authority of no lesser person than the Chairman herself to arrest-and-deport on sight. They also carried tasers delivering kick-ass voltage–not intended to be lethal but not something Sabbi was inclined to put to the test. Worst of all, they carried attitude.

And now the stolen bracelet was burning a hole in her pocket. Every fiber of Sabbi’s body could sense its bulk as she moved, its cool sleekness pressing against her thigh. You could find plenty on sale down the Strip worth ten times its price. But this one was special. This was a commission, lifted to order. These days, Sabbi only worked to commission. The payouts were lower but the work was steady, so it balanced out in the long run. And it helped make her feel more… legitimate. The way a professional business-woman ought to act. Yeah, go me with my worthless career aspirations.

Something didn’t feel right, though. A vague uneasiness gnawed at her. Nothing she could pinpoint, but you didn’t survive on the Strip without learning to trust your instincts. And right now those instincts were telling her this wasn’t worth the risk.

So just do it–and do it quick.

There was no shortage of marks to choose from. There was never any shortage on the Strip. That was the whole point.

She drifted closer to a young woman browsing store-fronts arm-in-arm with her boyfriend. Strip-standard attire said everything there was to say about her: wealth, privilege, arrogance. Perfect. Sabbi stumbled lightly into the woman, mumbled an apology, and the bracelet slipped into the woman’s shoulder-bag in one smooth motion.

Sabbi would drift for a while to get her composure back, but stay close. If all seemed okay, she’d find an opportunity to ‘reacquire’ the bracelet. No sense in wasting a commission payout. Nobody would be any the wiser. And no harm done, except maybe a tiny dent in profits for one particular Strip merchandiser, and frankly she considered them good for it.

Sabbi noticed a man watching her from thirty feet away, the way you do when one pair of eyes seems to be locked on you in a sea of oblivious faces. She felt her heart jump. She lifted her head, looking straight at him, letting him get a good look at her shades.

With the sunglasses on, Sabbi looked as if she had bug-eyes. The lenses had a clever faceted-prism design: transparent for the wearer, but appearing to everyone else like the compound eye of some nightmarish bipedal insect. And while the casual observer was trying to make sense of it–a hundred tiny reflections of their bemused face staring back from those lenses–Sabbi was checking them out, working out what kind of mark they might be, or what threat they posed. Or maybe sussing out an escape route. Definitely one of those, and sometimes all three at once.

She loved those shades. Sure, people noticed them, but they were meant to. And because they only ever noticed the shades, not the person wearing them, when she took them off it was like throwing an invisibility switch.

She side-stepped away into the thickest part of the crowd, slipping the glasses off, changing direction at random. Glancing back a couple of times, she caught only the briefest glimpse of the man. His movements seemed to lack urgency, but he was shadowing her moves and that couldn’t be chance. Sabbi quickened her pace, beginning to shoulder her way through strolling couples who didn’t move out of her way in time.

And now Sabbi could feel a buzzing at the base of her skull, a kernel of pain threatening to blossom into a headache. She ignored it and pressed on, puzzled at the surge of people suddenly moving in the opposite direction. A moment later, she heard it. Or felt it. Or–

Perfumes for the ladies! Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else! All kinds of perfumes!

The words slammed into her frontal cortex, assaulting her with almost physical force. No sounds though, just fully-formed words straight into her brain. Around her, people were dipping their heads and turning away, like a shoal of fish cleaved in two by a predator. Some were rubbing their foreheads, others muttering curses.

Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot–

Unwelcome thoughts and images exploded in her brain, thundering around inside her skull until she was sure she could feel her eyeballs vibrating.

She saw the hawker twenty yards ahead, his hand-cart piled high with bright packages of cosmetics. Sabbi knew most of the street traders in this zone, but here was a new face–frozen into a rictus smile that was fooling no one. In front of his stall, tethered to it by a thick ankle chain, the Thal paraded miserably up and down, issuing forth the mental torrent of advertising slogans.


Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else!

Maxine à la Mode!

Too hot–

Too hot–

Sabbi had never seen an actual live Thal, and certainly never got this close to one. As far as she knew, the few that had survived into adulthood had all been taken to isolation centers once the geneticists had finished dicking around playing god and the federal legislators had closed down the labs. This one had a stocky build, classically prominent brow-ridge with receding hairline and thick black hair allowed to grow long, but otherwise normal-looking. Not all Thals were strong broadcasters, but most showed the symptoms: predisposal to unilateral telepathic projection, an ability–if that was the right word–that laid bare their soul to everyone around. She tried to imagine what it would be like to uncontrollably broadcast your innermost thoughts to anyone within range, to forego even the most basic level of privacy.

And now this? Using a Thal as some kind of all-pervasive advertising gimmick? That had to be a new low. Though never underestimate the Strip’s ingenuity if there was a quick buck to be made. Sabbi shuddered, but she was damned if she couldn’t nearly smell that perfume now.

The Thal was tiring. His thoughts were losing focus, breaking up into an incoherent babble that mostly radiated hurt and loneliness and longing. The hawker yelled something incoherent at him but the wash of emotions only fragmented further.

The Thal continued to parade up and down, his head endlessly questing from side to side in that curious manner of the slow-witted, as though searching for something long since lost. He looked forlorn.

Sabbi let herself be carried with the flow of the crowd away from the hawker, the Thal’s thoughts beginning to fade from her mind. She’d lost sight of her pursuer, and that made her nervous. And she’d almost certainly lost her commission.

Something hard and claw-like gripped her arm, tightening inexorably. From behind, a voice spoke into her ear, foul-smelling breath assaulting her nostrils. “Prosser wants a word, my little lady-bug. Wants to know when he gets paid.”

“Ow! Let go of me! You’re going to cut my frackin’ arm in half!”

“Prosser’s not happy.” The grip tightened. Sabbi half expected to see blood staining her sleeve.

“I told you before, Crab. When I’ve got it, Prosser gets it.” Her fingers skittered uselessly over the pincer-like artificial hand squeezing her upper arm, trying to pry it loose. A tingling numbness was beginning to spread from the loss of circulation. Rumor had it that Crab had once snapped a man’s head clean off at the neck, like dead-heading a flower. Some poor unfortunate who had seriously pissed off Prosser. Just like her.

With no lessening of pressure, Crab began to maneuver her towards one of the narrow service alleys leading away from the Strip. The people flowed around them in an ill-temper, unsettled by the Thal’s blunt advertising message. Even now, something akin to the Thal’s carrier wave reached out to anyone within a hundred yard radius, broadcasting its jumble of resentment and misery; a cacophony of sub-vocal thoughts. It was like having some whiney two-year old living inside your skull. She glanced back and saw the hawker slip some kind of gauze hood over the Thal’s head–and immediately a calm descended.

“Look,” she told Crab. “Maybe there’s another way.”

“Oh yes, lady-bug. I like the other way.” The grip tightened a fraction and Sabbi yelped.

“Listen! What if I could set Prosser up with a shot at the Lakenbys store?”

Crab seemed to think about this. The pressure eased a fraction. She could almost hear the gears turning in his brain. “Lakenbys is not possible.”

Well, yes. They all thought that. The smart grifters stayed well clear. Lakenbys took security to a whole new level on the Strip: i-cams everywhere, beam interferometry on the display cases, item tagging–you name it, and Lakenbys had almost certainly implemented it. And there were too many staff with suspicious eyes. Management policy was ruthless prosecution of all grifters to the maximum permitted in law. But even Lakenbys had a weakness. Customers. You had to entice customers into the store–so long as they came with big fat credit chips. Draw them in, sell the goods, complete the transaction, send them on their way. In and out. And that meant being open and inviting. A pro like Sabbi sneered at the unsubtle nature of snatch-and-run, but really it was no different to the usual mode of business–except for the bit about the credit transaction. You had to be audacious and quick, and the staff had to be slow or off-guard. But it could be made to work.

“No, not possible. Not Lakenbys,” Crab repeated.

“Yes, possible. With the right kind of distraction. And I know just the thing.”

Always a Sunrise

Forgive me. This story’s a jumbled mess. I guess the drugs got the better of me. No idea where to start this, so I’ll start with the uniformed lady with a face like white dogshit.

“Miss Lynch. Why do you want to go to Mars?”

Why indeed? Nobody sane wants to go to Mars. All good. I’d practiced this line before, even drunk, even stoned, like I was right then. “I always dreamed of exploring the stars.”

“Your family, your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues? You’ll never hug them or shake their hands again. Only video chats with a three minute lag. You’ll miss birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Are you willing to make that sacrifice?”

I hoped the sunglasses covered my bloodshot eyes. I hoped my breath and armpits, reeking of Bombay Sapphire, didn’t carry. “Yes.”

“No more blue beaches, you’ll never feel the cool ocean swallow your toes in the warm sand, no more green forests full of fog and silence and rain so faint it tickles as it touches, no more snowy peaks that tower over the clouds and awe you to silence. You’ll never see anything but rusty red craters and white dry-icecaps. You really want that future?”

I never gave half a shit about the stars or the planets or anything like that, I wasn’t one of those kids with my neck craned skyward, those kids who ate up movies and stories about space, the final fucking frontier. Wonder was never a word in my world. “I’m an explorer at heart.”

“You’ll never run through an open field without a suit, and only hours at a time, lest the radiation bake you. You’ll never see a breathtaking pink or orange or red sunrise or sunset again, just a tiny gray smear on the Martian horizon. You’ll miss out on what it means to be human. Why do you want to go to Mars?”

Because dad had found me. “I love space, loved it since childhood.”

A window opened behind her. A rocket forty stories tall loomed on the launchpad and rolled my heart along a gravel path. She smiled. “You step aboard, goodbye Earth. Life flutters away forever. You’re really going to throw it all away?”

She wouldn’t stop me. If anyone’d stop me, it’d be me. A thousand people before me’d gotten weak-kneed at the sight of that rocket and turned back. I was about to too. What the hell was I doing?

Dad’d pinged my private email days ago. I’d read his brief words about wanting to reconnect and my chest clenched and my childhood came back and I cried. I recalled a warm summer day when I, bruises ringing my neck, crept to the garage and took one of dad’s rifles, the old breechloader he called the forty-five seventy, and placed the barrel in my mouth. It tasted cold on my tongue, it tasted of motor oil, it tasted bitter and burned a little, and it smelled of synthetic orange-citrus, that cleaning solvent I loved to sniff. The barrel was too long for my hand, so I braced the gun on the ground and stuck my big toe on the cold trigger. I laughed and wailed at the same time. It’d be so easy to stop the pain, but I couldn’t do it, as if an invisible, immovable hand clenched my big toe and stopped it from twitching a titch to throw my brains across the garage ceiling. I was eleven.

“I want to go to Mars.”

The lady with the white dogshit face nodded. “Very well. Sign here, and it’s all over.”

My hand hovered, pen ready. I was afraid that invisible hand would stop me again, stop me from signing the form, stop me from this long-overdue suicide. I thought about the beauty and ugliness Earth offered. I thought about my coffin-sized flat that gave me panic attacks, and thought about how much worse it’d be on Mars. I thought about all those bowls of kush and bottles of Bombay Sapphire and acid blotters that’d colored my life, drugs I’d never find on Mars. I thought about the times I’d escaped the social credit ratings, only to return to buy bread or be deemed “not a deviant” on the dating nets or to snag a bottom feeder job to earn a few dollars to dream with. I thought about how dad’d found me no matter how many times I tried to disappear from Earth.

I took a deep breath. I signed the waiver.

With All the Soul of my Chemical Reactions


[1]

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield, just after sunset.”

“Say that again, Mr. Flax?”

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield. After sunset.”

“Yourself.”

“Yeah. But I was on my bike.”

“What did you—” the cop, who’s been asking questions through his boot-brush mustache groomed, or not, to hide the crooked buckteeth his slick cop benefits should’ve fixed by now, looks at his partner and flares his nostrils. “What did you do?”

“I foot-braked hard, swerved onto the gravel, called out.”

“And?” says Bootbrush. The other cop has been drawing what Pete can only guess are dicks in his notebook, bored as hell, saying nothing so they can get out of this shack, trying instead to make Bootbrush laugh. Pete watches him tilt the notebook over his paunch, ever so slightly toward Bootbrush, who strives valiantly not to look.

“He didn’t stop. I got back on my bike and came here, called you.”

Bootbrush, who had introduced himself as some dipshit cop name like Officer Sanderson or Anderson, makes a show of clearing his throat. Pete wonders if he ever chokes on one of his pubey mustache hairs. He raises his notebook, pretends to read from it. “So let’s get this straight. You were biking after sunset. You saw someone running in the ditch between the road and the cornfield. That person looked exactly like you in every respect. You stopped and called out. He didn’t stop.”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

“Yep.” Pete lolls his head back and sighs like an airbrake, but Bootbrush trucks on.

“What was the other guy wearing?”

“Jeans, white t-shirt, Kaepernicks—no, I don’t know, but nice shoes, real nice.”

“You sure you got a good look at his face?”

“Yep.”

“And he was running?”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

Pete opens his mouth to blurt some smartass joke about the definition of insanity—

“Mr. Flax, I think what Officer Blanderson”—Blanderson, dammit, thinks Pete, should’ve known—“is getting at is that it’s hard enough recognising someone in the day, let alone at night. And this guy was running.” The Dick Artist pauses, tilts his head to look curious, uncreases three neck-rolls in the process. “Have you ever consumed illegal substances?”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

The Dick Artist rolls his eyes theatrically. This guy gets all his preteen-girl emotes from Andy, Mandy, Brandy, & Brad. “Just doing our jobs, Mr. Flax.”

Bootbrush—Blanderson—looks knowingly down at Pete’s pants, black tights with neon green pot leaves all over them, draws his lips into a messy line, nods I-told-you-so-y.

“Okay, first of all, no. Second of all,” Pete looks squarely at Blanderson, “your idiot government is still grandfathering out all the pot plants.” The second Harper government—led by the monomaniacal Harper, now using a wheelchair and a vat of stem-cell cream after a salvo of strokes, propelled by some unquenchable thirst for his since-won title of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (23 years, 7 months)—had re-criminalised marijuana, after it had been legalised for nearly a full dozen years, in the first of Trudeau’s three lazy terms, and was now struggling to make good on that. “So this,” he pinches his tights and snaps them back to his leg, “wouldn’t be illegal if it was pot, which it isn’t. It’s fucking pants.”

A mischievous, no, a dangerous light glints in the Dick Artist’s beady eyes. “Don’t you fucking swear at us, Peterson. We’re here because you called us here, and you’re clearly fucking around. If we wanted to, we’d haul you in for one of the hundred other laws you’re breaking.”

Pete fumes, but sits rigidly still. Blanderson looks a little uneasy, keeps checking his oversized reinforced-poly watch.

“Whoever you saw, it wasn’t you. It’s not a clone. We don’t live in the fucking Black Mirror.” The Dick Artist, groundlessly proud of his thirty-year-old pop-culture reference, gathers his baggy legs under him and teeters off the low couch. “Don’t call us again, unless it’s serious,” he wheezes, clutching at the thin rail beside the door to catch his breath. “And stay away from the elections signs.” He turns to go, and Blanderson hops up and follows him out.

My Grandmother’s Garden

My grandmother was a witch.

By saying this I do not mean she was cold-hearted, or evil, or even that she treated me poorly. She was a wonderfully sweet woman, with a mild temper and an adoration for all children; especially me. But, she was a witch. An honest-to-goodness, black cauldron stirring, incantation reciting, spell casting witch.

I did not know this growing up. I heard rumors, and my parents occasionally made comments about her when they thought I wasn’t listening, but I never understood the significance of what they were saying. To me she was just Grandma. Even when I would go visit – which was quite often – she never said or did anything I would consider out of the ordinary. She did typical Grandma stuff. She baked cookies, took me out to movies, and bought me gifts for no reason other than that I was her favorite grandson. To be absolutely honest, I was her only grandson, but that distinction is meaningless to a child. The long and short of it was I loved her, and she spoiled me rotten.

When I stayed with her I always had the most amazing time, and she would let me do just about anything I wanted, short of injuring myself or burning down the house. I went to bed late, got up at noon, ate junk food all day long, and did all the things I could never get away with at home. There were almost no rules to follow. In fact, there were only two rules that mattered. First, I was not permitted to go into the basement. Second, and most importantly, I must never touch my grandmother’s garden.

I thought this a bit odd in the beginning, particularly the fact I could not go into her garden, since she spent a great deal of her time there. But neither of these restrictions were too onerous and, after my initial pangs of curiosity had ebbed, I soon shut both places completely out of my mind. With so many other bits of mischief for me to get into, I could leave the basement and the garden alone if that made her happy and kept me in her good graces.

The first time I truly understood what my grandmother was, and what she could do, was when I was thirteen years old. That year, my parents sent me away to live with my grandmother for the summer. I had never before been away from home for so long, but my mom and dad were in the middle of a personal crisis and needed some time alone to deal with their own problems.

My mom sat me down to talk to me before I left. With a straight face she told me they were having “marital difficulties,” like I hadn’t guessed that already from the constant yelling and arguing, and the fact that dad slept in the living room on the couch more often than he slept in the bedroom with mom. She said that a counselor had recommended they spend some time apart, but they didn’t want me to get caught in the middle or feel like I had to choose sides, so they were sending me to Grandma’s. I guess they figured it would be too hard on my fragile, underdeveloped psyche to see them separated. That, or else having a teenage boy underfoot was an added stress they were not prepared to handle on top of the other issues with which they were wrestling.

I know they had the best of intentions for me, but as much as I normally enjoyed spending time with my grandmother it still felt like I was being banished. So, without any say in the matter, I went to live with Grandma.

The first week away from home passed slowly. My grandmother did everything she could think of to keep me entertained. She cooked my favorite foods, bought me a new MP3 player so I could listen to music, and tried to include me as much as possible in her everyday routine. She even offered to teach me to drive, but all I wanted to do was sulk. I sat around the house for hours watching TV and obsessing over how my parents wanted nothing to do with me. I imagined they must have hated me quite a lot to send me away for the entire summer. It wasn’t true, and deep down I knew that their problems had nothing to do with me, but that did not change how I felt at the time. I continued to mope and ignore every effort my grandmother made to cheer me up.

One morning during the second week of my stay, my grandmother sat down next to me on the couch. She pretended to watch TV with me while she absently stroked the wrinkles out of the hand-crocheted covers draped across the back and arms of the sofa.

“You know, Jason,” she said after a few silent minutes had passed between us, “I need to do some yard work out in the garden today. I know you’re very busy in here, but I was wondering if, perhaps, you would like to give me a hand.”

Well, now this was interesting. I had never before been permitted to go anywhere near her garden. Despite my best efforts to remain depressed and sullen, I was immediately intrigued. I tried to sound nonchalant as I answered. No thirteen-year old wants to admit that he is actually excited about something an adult suggested. “I suppose I could. If you want me to.” My heart beat faster, and I know she heard the excitement in my voice, but she did not let on. She merely stood up and held her hand out to me.

“Thank you. I really could use the help today. I have let the poor thing go much too long without the proper care.”

That was a lie and we both knew it. She had the most perfectly tended garden I had ever seen. I am sure she would sooner have allowed the house to collapse around her than to permit the slightest neglect or harm to come to her plants and flowers. But just as she pretended not to notice my own growing eagerness, I could ignore her little white lie for the sake of kindness. I stood up, took her hand and let her lead me into the back yard.

Though I had seen her garden many times before, it still amazed me anew each time I gazed upon the perfect, unspoiled beauty of it. It covered over three thousand square feet of ground, taking up a large part of her yard. Six fruit trees bordered the north edge, lined up along her property at the furthest point away from the house. There were two orange trees, one lemon, one pear and two apple. Currently, the branches of the pear tree hung heavy with almost ripe fruit. The other trees also were heavy laden, but their fruit was still small and green and would not be ready to eat until late into the fall or early winter.

To the east, several dense rows of corn flourished, several feet high already, but not yet topped by the shimmering gold tassels that decorated fully mature plants. Shorter bushes and stalks of various plants such as tomatoes, peas, bell peppers, bush beans, and a dozen others filled out most of the rest of the available space. There were a few bare patches of ground as well that I knew from past experience would soon hold sprawling vines of various winter squash that my grandmother harvested and stored in her root cellar to consume and share with the neighbors throughout the cold months of the year. There would be spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, and even a few pumpkin vines, planted to produce their huge orange gourds just in time for Halloween.

Every row of plants had their own wood or plastic markers identifying what grew there, and the entire expanse was interlaced with watering hoses that ran to innumerable sprinkler heads and drip lines. It seemed impossible that one person could maintain such an immense and flawless yard, yet my grandmother was the only person I had ever known to so much as touch a single plant growing in this protected space.

Until now.

I paused outside the tiny, wooden picket fence that surrounded the garden, savoring the moment. The fence was only three feet high, and the gate was never locked. The fact that no one ever entered the garden was testimony to the respect people had for my grandmother rather than any security protocols she had put into effect. I flipped up the latch on the gate and, with a last glance at my grandmother to make certain she had not changed her mind, I stepped through onto the dark fertile soil.

As excited as I was to finally be in the garden, I was equally nervous. I felt like a child in a shop full of delicate glass figurines. I slipped my hands in my pockets for fear I might touch something I shouldn’t. Staying close to the fence, I stepped out of the way of the gate so my grandmother could follow me in.

“What do I do first?” I asked her. “What does the garden need today?”

“Today, we are pulling weeds. They are starting to grow a bit thick around my artichoke bushes and I don’t want them choking the roots.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I had never seen a weed growing in her garden. I figured that just as my grandmother had never allowed people inside her fence, weeds were equally forbidden. And no weed would dare intrude against my grandmother’s wishes. But I didn’t say anything. I closed my mouth, the words unspoken, and followed her to a raised planting bed on the east side, next to the orderly rows of corn stalks. In the bed were three artichoke plants, each about two feet tall and just as wide. And to my great surprise, surrounding those plants was a carpet of Bermuda grass and flowering weeds.

“Do you know the difference between a weed and an artichoke?” my grandmother asked.

“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.

“Good. Then get to work.” With that, she knelt down beside the planter box and began to pull at the stubborn grasses that had invaded her yard. After a moment, I dropped onto my knees and joined her.

It was hard work, but I did not shirk my responsibility. I still felt the honor of having been allowed inside the boundaries of the garden fence and I did not want to give my grandmother any excuse to rescind the privilege. I kept my head down and my hands busy.

An hour passed in this manner. When we were done, my grandmother stood up, placing her hands to her back and stretching to work the kinks out. I followed her example. I was sweating, and my back had grown fatigued from the hunched over position we had maintained during our labors. In addition, my hands and fingers had grown cramped and sluggish from the tedious work of grabbing each individual weed and ripping it from the ground, roots and all.

“I think that is enough for today,” my grandmother told me, admiring our handiwork. With all the weeds eradicated, the planter box now looked as immaculate as the rest of the garden. “The goal is just do a little bit every day, that way you never fall behind.”

I silently agreed with her. Not necessarily the little bit every day part, but certainly the ‘enough for today’ part. “What are we doing tomorrow?” I asked her. “In the garden, I mean.”

“I think it’s time for the squash to go in,” she told me.

The Science of Alchemy

“Math doesn’t lie,” I insisted.

“Well then, maybe you mistranslated it,” Haley replied.

“No. I’ve found a second way to conceptualize the world.”

I’d driven up the western coast of Michigan with my girlfriend. We both deserved a break from twelve-hour days of research for our fellowships at Harvard.

Hundreds of walkers streamed by us. Once a year on Labor Day, they open the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge over the straights between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to pedestrians. Folks probably assumed we had stopped to admire the unobstructed view, but I was in a different world. I held a scribbled page of equations up in the wind. “Look at how beautiful this is. All three of these variables cancel, leaving a second entropic local minimum–call it EM-2. There must be a set of simple real-life physical concepts behind it.”

Haley pulled away the strands of auburn hair the crosswind had blown across her face. “Okay, Martin, now you’re talking crazy. Since when was your handwriting beautiful?”

“Smartass,” I said and pointed to the top of the paper. “Look. This is Boltzmann’s Law. It equates the entropy in a system with the randomness in a system’s microstates.

I moved my finger down an inch. “Boltzmann’s law is promiscuous–it applies to any physical property–but it’s normally used for pressure and temperature like this.”

I moved my finger down again. “But here I have an orthogonal set of concepts. These equations play together so nicely with Boltzmann’s Law that it has to mean something. A second local minimum implies there is a second way of conceptualizing the world.”

“You sound like the Ojibwa medicine man who gave me the Petoskey stone. White men run so fast they have forgotten they can fly.”

“No this is science, not superstition.”

“And when he called you a great winged warrior of grandmother Earth, that was superstition too?”

“Of course. That jumble of words could mean anything. I’m talking about a mathematical truth. Though I admit, I’m in the stage Einstein was before he understood the implications of his equations of space-time. But eventually, he came up with things like mass increasing with acceleration and gravitational lensing. And it all began with a simple set of beautiful, formal equations like these.”

“So now you’re comparing yourself to Einstein?” Haley said.

“That’s not the point. New laws of science mean new technology. New technology means new inventions for the benefit of everyone.”

Haley waved me aside. “Chill out. I can see this is important to you, but can we start walking again? My headache is coming back. Maybe we shouldn’t have left the Petoskey at the motel after all.”

“See,” I said. “That’s how superstitions spread. Now you think you have evidence for the Petoskey stone curing your headaches. But if you hadn’t gotten a headache, you wouldn’t have counted that as evidence the stone didn’t work.”

When we got back to the motel, Haley’s chronic headache went away. We changed clothes and went out for dinner, leaving the stone behind. Her headache came back. We retired for the evening. Her headache went away again. Haley was excited, but I knew better. Coincidence. Random noise. These things happen.

The next morning, I set up a double-blind experiment to prove that the stone did not possess magical healing powers. I got two identical boxes from the McDonalds next door and, out of Haley’s sight, put the Petoskey stone in one and another equally sized rock in the other. Then out of my sight, Haley put a sticker on one box, so I didn’t know which was which. I used a coin toss to pick which box to bring close to Haley’s head first, behind a blanket, so she didn’t know which box it was.

After ten trials, the score was Petoskey 10, other rock 0. I couldn’t believe it. I got two different boxes and made her do ten more, then ten more after that. The stone really did cure headaches.

We hurried to the town plaza where we’d met the Ojibwa, but he was nowhere in sight. We asked around, but nobody knew who he was. The owner of a local bookstore said he’d noticed the medicine man hanging around yesterday, but had never seen him before that. We browsed in the bookstore while we waited for the medicine man to come back. He never did, but we found some interesting books.

In the antique books section, Haley found an illustrated Hamlet. She opened it to a picture of some men talking while a ghost lurked nearby. “How appropriate, don’t you think?” she said. “‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'”

“Alchemy,” I said.

“What?”

I had opened a fat tome titled “The Science of Alchemy.” I read a passage from the introduction. “You must become as a child and encounter the world for the first time, for that which is fundamental to alchemy is not in the ordinary way men perceive the world.”

I leafed through the book. How to select the right plants and minerals. How to distill concentrated solutions. Recipes I didn’t understand.

“Alchemy is the answer,” I said. “Alchemy had a well-developed, empirical, alternative way of conceptualizing the world before science came along and displaced it. Alchemy will help me develop EM-2 theory.”

A Diamond in the Mind’s Eye

Smears of cryogel stuck to the explorer’s eyelids, the back of his neck, his genitals. A single shower never got rid of it all, but in his rush to resume scanning for the diamond planet, Maitch Esso hadn’t taken time for the second or third he’d really need to get clean. He noticed a stray patch of gel on his left forearm; taking a greasy towel, he rubbed at the goo, gradually releasing it from his skin. Underneath, a part of his personal scrapbook came into view: a red rose with the name Achelle, his wife, and a simple diamond formed from a few crude lines. The first, he remembered, he’d paid for after their first date; she had a matching one with his name. He wondered if she had kept it, after he had left. The second he had done himself, at fourteen, poking out the shape with a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. Somehow, it had lasted as long as the professional one.

“Refocus, buddy!” Maitch stared at the flat-screen, punching up the 3-D view. Stars leaped about with the change in perspective. Nothing looked right as yet.

This time he felt sure. He could feel it more strongly than any of the previous twenty-six times. When he found the diamond planet, the first one to do so since Earthmen had been talking about, searching for and believing in this one precious object, he, Maitch Esso, would be a legend among legends. To speed his search, he had created a unique algorithm, processing centuries of myths, tall tales and observable facts, along with geology, chemistry and the astrophysics of solar energy fields. Each factor had its own alphanumeric in his formula. As a result, he was searching for a binary star system that had captured a passing white dwarf. Together, this trio would have applied pressure and heat for a millennium to cook down a nondescript carbon planet into the largest, most valuable jewel in the universe.

Cosmological analysis had yielded a catalog of points jumbled across the constellations, and Maitch had tracked them one by one. They had all proven dead ends. Next on the list of likely targets, the algorithm pointed to an area just inside the Capricornus Void. That alone comprised a massive territory, but he had programmed the trip anyway. One more stop on a long series of stops.

Now, the ship’s computer had woken him from the sleep freeze again. “How long have I been down?” Maitch said aloud.

In response, the computer flashed a chronometer on the screen. It would have read him the time, except he had turned off its damned voice a long time ago. Too irritating. The vocal circuit had developed a fault, so it dragged out certain vowels and one consonant in particular: “s.” The drifting thing sounded like a giant anaconda, hissing and sputtering away. One day, the fault would spread to the other circuits, and then he would be bunched into the fourth dimension.

Maitch stared at the clock. Thirty-eight years of freezer burn.

“Danglers,” he swore. “My whole life passing before my dreams.” Twenty-six times he had woken like this, sometimes after five years, sometimes after decades; more than fifty, once. All in all, probably five or six hundred years, give or take a few. The computer would know; none of it would matter once he found the diamond.

Back to work. The computer had divided the area into blocks one astronomical unit per side. He pushed the scanner’s viewplate across the current cube, examining every celestial body from dwarf planet on up. Maitch took on the search himself. When you’re hunting for something that doesn’t exist, like Atlantis or Lemuria, you have to drift with your intuition rather than navigate by fact and figure alone.

After days at the scanner, loneliness dragged at his mind. Maitch could make it a couple of days without hearing a human voice, especially when he had something to busy himself. Now the work had become rote. Luckily, he had saved all Achelle’s voicemail messages when she was contacting him to find out where he’d gone, to get him back, to make him feel guilty for abandoning their life together. Needing to hear his wife talk, Maitch set the computer to continue scanning before taking the speaker bot from the cupboard where it lived during his cryosleep periods.

The robot, simply a cheap, generic android with limited functionality, had a blank plastic face and rubber lips. The lips, he noticed, were cracked and crumbling from dry rot. The plastic skin had yellowed. Its eyes had been installed so they moved to add expression, but they seemed dull, blank, lifeless. The paint on the molded hair had faded, and much of it had flaked away.

Maitch touched the magnetic key to the back of its neck, and the bot jerked briefly, masticating its lips in a parody of facial exercise.

“Talk to me,” Maitch said. “Play the recordings. Start with number C-sixteen.”

“Maitch! This is your wife again,” the robot’s lips moved in crude approximation of the words. Achelle’s voice, musical, warm and soft despite her frustration, came through a speaker hidden behind the rubber flaps. “Remember me? Please call me when you get this message. Dacta has been asking about you. I think you should tell him yourself where you’re going. Old Sol knows I don’t understand.”

“I’m close this time, Darling,” Maitch said, speaking to the robot. “This is it. I’ll bring back proof, and then I’ll be famous. Book tours. Speaker’s fees. Exhibitions of stones and photographs. We’ll be rich. You’ll be famous, too. I know you’ll like that.”

“The money’s running out, Maitch.” The tape continued. “You didn’t leave enough for the bills. My job alone can’t cover them. Your clients are threatening to press lawsuits. What am I going to do?” Her throat caught in a sob, pinching off the words.

“I know. I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to follow my dream. You always said I should follow my dream.”

“You said forever. We’d be together forever. Life’s adventure. The shop, a home, a family. That would be enough for you. What happened? Wasn’t I enough?”

“Yes, darling, I know. You were enough; you were great. I don’t know why I did it. But here I am. It will be over soon. Then I’ll come back.”

Now his heart had clotted with a thick soup of grief and loss; his mind ran through all the regrets. He’d had enough of the old words for now.

“Stop the tape,” he told the bot. “Voice circuit activate. No recording.”

The robot turned its head from side to side and pursed its lips. “Hello, Maitch.” It was Achelle’s voice, taken from snips of the recordings and stitched together into new words, new sentences.

“Hello, Darling. Come with me to the kitchen.”

The android stumped after him. Its left foot dragged; its left arm dangled, useless.

“How’s your arm?”

“It’s okay today. My foot doesn’t want to cooperate. I’m sorry I’m moving so slow.”

“I’m sorry I messed you up. If I hadn’t left that floor hatch open, you wouldn’t have stepped in it.”

“You tried to fix me.”

“But then I messed it up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I disconnected the wrong circuit and disabled your arm.”

“You did your best with what you had. The manual wasn’t clear. At least you cared enough to try.”

They made it to the kitchen at last. “Have a seat,” Maitch said. “Would you like a nanny block?”

“No, thank you. I don’t know how you can eat those things. Nanny blocks are for little kids.”

“What’s not to like? Sweet, milky, chewy. Like treacle, but with all the nutrients a man needs. I’ve always liked ‘em.”

“They’re gross.” The cracked lips approximated a rictus of disgust.

“Nanny blocks are perfect for space travel. Never spoil, never lose flavor.”

“They never had any flavor.”

Maitch ignored the remark. “Besides, they take me back to the days of my youth, good times. Simpler times. That’s important in a long voyage.”

“It didn’t have to be so long.”

“That’s the way it happened. I might have found it in the first year. But it didn’t happen that way.”

“You look tired.”

“I am. I need some jet-nap.”

“You should get some real sleep. The computer can monitor the scanning process.”

“This is too important. I can’t spare the time.”

My Girl, Kumiho

25 February, 2007

The train was busy despite the late hour.

“Where are you from?”

I looked around as I always did when I heard my native tongue, though I didn’t know if it was directed toward me or not.

The carriage was full of drunken salarymen and preening teenagers. A few ajummas, older women in neon tracksuits, scoured the world with their eyes. I was on my way home from a party on the far side of Seoul, dazed from soju and beer cocktails. It took a few moments to realize who was talking. It was a Korean girl, early 20’s, who stared straight at me.

“Me?”

She had boarded at Seoul National University and hovered by the train doors, toying with her phone and glancing around cautiously. She was wearing large pink headphones that covered her ears completely, and had been bobbing her head to her music. I’d pretended not to look at her, but she caught me staring more than once.

“Yes, you.”

“England.” I tried to look nonchalant as I swayed.

“England? I thought you must have been American.”

“Everyone seems to think that.”

“You have a big nose.”

I stared at her. “Thanks.”

The train pulled into Sincheon. As I offered a farewell smile and stepped off the train, she whispered to me, “Only 315 days to go.” She flashed me a smile in return, showing off pointed teeth the color of pearls, and returned to her phone. The carriage doors shut and the train pulled away.

As I approached the turnstile to leave the station, I found my wallet was missing. Cursing my bad luck, I tried to explain what had happened to the subway worker at the turnstiles. He quickly grew frustrated with my miming and ushered me through the gate, complaining with jagged tones.

I walked home, bemused. Despite the pressing issue of my lost wallet, one thought returned to me time and time again; what was happening in 315 days?

Final Exam at the Academy

Jhest waited for the toadstools to stop singing before emerging from his cocoon.

He peeled aside the gossamer threads of small magic that had cocooned him safely during the process of incarnation. The delicate web melted away to nothing, leaving him blinking in the bright starlight.

He was crouching on a beach of white pebbles, a lazy sea hissing up to brush his feet; further to landward, Jhest could make out the silhouettes of the toadstools he had heard, their strange booms almost completely closed now that their song was done.

To wait for the singing to stop, that had been the first rule the Warlocks had impressed on their young apprentices, five years and a whole lifetime ago. A diligent student would know better than to emerge from his cocoon before the singing was complete, lest they find themselves in a world not yet fully-formed, with dangerous currents of unearthed potential roaming the landscape, just the sort of thing that was liable to take an unwary apprentice before the exam had properly begun, and turn them from a promising candidate into a warning in tomorrow’s lessons.

Jhest stood, his lithe, efficient frame unfolding warily into an unconscious half-hunch, and tested the scent on the air. He could smell salt and sulfur and ozone, the bitter-blue tang of a freshly minted reality. Beside his feet, the last lambent strands of his decaying cocoon melted silently into the pebbles. He scanned the horizon, but saw no sign of any other nearby apprentices, no other flicker of magic draining back into the core of this little world.

For a moment he wavered, caught up by the unbearable solidity of the pebbles under his feet, of the sea as it rose to touch his bare toes, and of the impossibly bright stars that flamed in the sky above. The lessons had always made a point of emphasizing the solidity of this unreal exam world, the final hurdle after years of study, of how it would look and feel and taste, even, as real – no, more real – than the everyday world of lectures and libraries and endless hours of study. But even though Jhest had thought himself prepared for it, he and his little coterie of fellow apprentices, he realized now that understanding something on an abstract, intellectual level was no real preparation.

Then his months of training took over. First things first! He thought, and forced himself to concentrate on scanning the ground nearby. He made one pass, then a second, then a third. A feeling of panic began to rise within him. We’re meant to be sent with one, he thought desperately. They promised us! One amulet with every cocoon, so look carefully for it before running off into danger unarmed!

He stopped. Something faint glittered under the waves, a few feet out from the line of foam where the sea met the shore. Almost not daring to hope, he splashed out into the surf and bent down. The small amulet he pulled from the waves was silver and seemed to hold more weight than it had any right to. He turned it over, and smiled when he saw the blue lightning emblem that was engraved on the other side.

A lightning totem.

It could have been worse. A lot worse.

Good Guys Always Win

All of this will be gone soon, he thought, looking out his living room window at the quiet neighborhood. Ed Richards sipped his first coffee of the morning, admiring the poplar trees that lined both sides of the main road before it branched off into his cul de sac.

His house was on a higher elevation than most in this part of Poplar Cove, and that gave him an extra advantage when watching the sunrise peek just over the trees. He wondered about the people who planted them – did they have families too? They probably had never lived here, and likely never even visited the street again once their job was done. Could they have imagined the saplings they were putting into the ground would one day grow up to be such magnificent relics, standing guard over the families who breathed them in? Could they have imagined how the lives of these trees, of those families, were going to end?

He took another sip of coffee, not waiting for it to cool. It burned, and he held onto it until he could no longer feel its sweet black bitterness on his tongue, and then he let it continue its path down his throat.

The television had been unplugged since the weekend. He didn’t want to know any more about what was happening. Several evenings ago he’d watched the bombs take out a dozen cities on the east coast in just a few hours. Boston, New York, Charleston, Atlantic City, even as far south as Jacksonville. All gone. When they started hitting further inland, he just couldn’t watch more of the same. It was total destruction of every place that got hit, and they were hitting every place. Their country was helpless. The president hadn’t been seen for days. It was bad, and it sure as hell seemed like THE END. He didn’t want the kids to know about any of that. He wished he hadn’t known it himself.

His wife walked up behind him. He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed softly.

“I think I’m going to make some eggs, how do you want yours?”

He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from those trees. They seemed extra vibrant today and their solidarity felt comforting. “Thanks, hon. I don’t think I feel like eating anything. Not this morning.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “Any idea how much longer?”

“No,” he sighed. “Just feels like today could be the day, you know?” He felt her head nod.

Ed couldn’t tell how much time had passed as he stood there holding Carrie, and he was fine with that. Time was something they had spent far too long paying attention to, and he was done with it. Her hair smelled like cinnamon and he was quite alright with that.

The poplars just stood there, looking back at him, and they hadn’t so much as swayed since he’d gotten out of bed. They were like the Royal Guard, standing at attention despite the world making a fool of itself right under their noses. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a bird in this area. He wondered where they’d all gone, and if his family could go there too.

The house was still. The boys were asleep and the only sound was the hum of the fridge (the air conditioner had not yet switched on due to the unusually cool summer weather). Earlier, Carrie had plugged in the coffee maker just long enough to make a single pot, and then she unplugged it again. Conserving electricity was the rule now. The President had addressed the nation briefly before the attacks, and with his signature game show smile he assured everybody that the United States would prevail, and that sourcing every working power generator in the country toward that one goal would somehow help. Not once did he ever refer to this thing as a WAR. Of course that was back when Manhattan was still an island.

Several days ago, a tall man with a white moustache on an otherwise clean face stopped by the house. A badge dangled from a blue lanyard around his neck. On it was a black-and-white picture of a clean-shaven version of himself, and the letters DOE spread across it in all caps. Ed knew that the letters stood for Department of Energy. He also found it odd that there was no name on the badge either. The Moustached Man announced that he was operating under Executive Orders and going door to door, checking electric meters and walking through homes, making sure people were complying with the Emergency Energy Conservation Act. Maximum kilowatt hours had been established nationally, with southern cities being allowed more kWh per month than the northern ones during the summer. The Moustached Man quickly made his sweep through the lower level of the house, like a trained dog in a canine unit, and then walked upstairs and did the same. After a few moments he briskly descended the stairs, and with a nod and a cowboy grin, he told them ALL CLEAR and thanked them kindly for their service and to have a fine day. The screen door whacked sharply against the doorframe as he left, like a rimshot at the end of a bad joke.

Ed had wondered why the Department of Energy wouldn’t just have the local government (or even the power company) do such a menial job. Couldn’t Southern Electric just send out their meter-readers and report anybody who was playing too much Xbox? He watched The Moustached Man walk across the street to knock on the Silverman’s door, and that was when Ed saw a large green truck that looked like something out of M.A.S.H. parked at the end of the street. The back of it was filled with men wearing camouflage and helmets, sitting along the siderails and holding M-16 rifles.

These are the good guys, right? he thought.

Ed took another sip of his coffee. It didn’t seem to be cooling off. Carrie leaned up and kissed his cheek and told him she was going to start some eggs anyway, and she’d make him a few over-easy just in case he changed his mind. “Don’t worry, I’ll unplug the stove as soon as I’m done.”

She walked off. In the distance, he heard what sounded like a low roll of thunder, and he thought about Moustache Man and the men holding M-16s, and he wasn’t sure if the presence of the soldiers was supposed to make them feel safe or threatened.

Last fall before any of this, Ed took the boys out to the lake up at Center Hill. He’d wanted them to start learning how to fish, and with Chris in the 2nd grade now (Luke wasn’t far behind him) they were old enough to start getting a feel for it.

They tied down their camping gear into the back of the pickup, and the small fishing boat stuck out past the tailgate. The campground was about a half-hour west, and when they arrived they paid nineteen bucks for an overnight pass. Then they found their campsite and Ed pitched the tent while the boys watched. Then Ed gave them each a paddle and a fishing rod and he hoisted the boat over his head, and they walked the trail down to the water.

Sometime later they still had not caught anything. He hadn’t really expected to, he just wanted the boys to experience sitting on the water, drifting in silence and without anywhere to be.

Then Chris asked him a question he wasn’t expecting:

“Dad, are bad guys real?”

Ed stumbled, not anticipating that type of question. He sure as hell didn’t want to answer it, either.

“Why are you asking that?”

“Miss Tanner told us they were real, and that they were the ones that made those buildings fall down.”

“Your teacher told you that, huh?”

“People died.”

“That’s right, they did.”

“So bad guys are real, right?”

“I wish I could say they’re not, but they are.”

“Do they want to hurt us?”

“Well…they do want to hurt some people, but not necessarily us.” His own use of the word “necessarily” made him cringe.

“Why do they want to be bad?”

“Well son, people have their reasons–”

“Do they even know they’re the bad guys?”

“I don’t know that for sure but I imagine they must.”

“Because we’re definitely the good guys, right dad?”

“Definitely.”

“I would never want to be a bad guy.”

“Of course not.”

“Because the good guys always win, right?”

“Right.” Ed knew better, but what was he supposed to say?

Chris sat in silence, looking out over the water with his fishing rod drooping near the water. Luke may have been listening, but he hadn’t said anything. Ed hadn’t noticed the clouds moving in until he heard thunder somewhere nearby.

“Better get back to shore, guys. We don’t want to get caught out here in the rain.”

They set down their poles in the boat and Ed picked up both paddles and handed one to Chris.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“The bad guys – they aren’t anywhere near us are they?”

The question echoed back at Ed in his living room. He couldn’t remember how he’d answered it, and it seemed like such a long time ago. He figured he’d said something about the bad guys being far away and that the Army men would surely stop them with their tanks before they got too close. And at the time he could have even believed that himself.

There was a knock at the door, and it startled him out of this trance. He hoped the knock didn’t wake the boys.

He looked through the peephole and saw the telltale gator-skinned cowboy hat perched atop his neighbor’s much-too-tan scalp. It was Joe and he was propping the screen door against his back, like he was waiting to get invited in. Ed opened the front door.

“Good morning Joe.”

“Mornin’, Buddy, hope I didn’t wake you. Hey, ya mind if I borrow your boat for the day? I had mine all loaded up when I saw this crack in the seam, and I don’t think it’s busted all the way through yet, but I don’t want to take the chance testing it out on the water. Know what I mean?”

“Sure, I guess. You know where it is, right?”

“You bet. Thanks Eddie-boy, I’ll try to bring her back in one piece!” Joe said, his voice trailing off as he disappeared off the front stoop and ran around back. Ed lunged and caught the screen door before it could wake the kids.

He walked into the kitchen and leaned over the island and looked at Carrie, who had two eggs on a plate and was frying two more. She’d unearthed the “special occasion” cast iron this morning. She asked him what all that was about at the door and he told her.

“He should have invited you to go with him! I’m sure you’d have loved to get on the water one more time.”

“It’s okay. Everybody wants to be on the water today, you know the lake’s got to be packed. Besides, why on Earth would I want to spend today with him when I could be right here with you?”

She smiled. The toast was ready. She pulled it and set it on the cutting board next to the butter, and then unplugged the toaster.

Carrie had a sweet voice and he wanted to hear more of it this morning. She wasn’t saying much, but she seemed content. She spread butter on the toast and cut it in half. Quiet wasn’t so bad either though. The morning silence had been peaceful, and he was grateful for it, for her, for them.

Something suddenly broke the silence behind them and they both jumped, and they saw Chris and Luke on the staircase, leaping off the third step from the bottom. Carrie laughed.

“Look who’s up,” she said. “It’s not even eight! Who’s hungry?”

Both boys raised their hands and ran over to the kitchen. Ed didn’t know why they were in such good moods, he was just thankful they were.

“You boys can fight over my eggs,” Ed said. “I’ll get in on the next round.” He stood up and gave both boys a quick hug, kissing them on top of their heads, then poured himself another cup. “Honey, what kind is this?”

“It’s some kind of summer blend. I’ve never seen it before.”

“It’s good. You’ll have to get more, this isn’t going to last.”

“I’ll be sure to do that the next time I go to the store.” He knew she said that last part out of habit. It was hard to get over the thought of there being something called a “next time.”

He walked back over to the window and looked out over the scores of roofs that seemed to stretch forever into the distance. Their house had been the first one built in this section, and that’s how they’d lucked into being on the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. And it also gave them a sense of security, tucked in the back where nothing could get to them that didn’t have to go through everybody else first.

That’s when he saw the mushroom clouds near the horizon. Not just one, but several. His blood froze, even with hot coffee running through his veins. This must be what happened out east, he thought. He’d expected something different, like explosions or some dramatic flash of light. He’d expected Hiroshima. But these mushrooms were silent and dark, appearing one-by-one across the sky like raindrops falling on a still lake. They seemed alive.

A part of him wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. During tornado-packed evenings the family would huddle in the downstairs bathroom, listening to the static-filled radio until the storms passed. But this time there was no safe place to go, and the radios had been nothing but static for some time.

From the kitchen poured beautiful sounds like he hadn’t heard in months, maybe even years. Carrie was making up silly songs and singing them loudly, making the boys crack up as they tried singing along. He had no intention of making that wonderful painting of a scene end a moment before it had to.

The sky over their street was cloud-free for the moment, but that was about to change. The poplars were still. They were ageless guardians, and Ed’s family was like a fragile figurine collection that the trees had sworn to protect.

But there was only so much the trees could do. Today they could only stare and watch as the clouds moved closer by the second, each one seeming to be larger and darker than the one before. In a few minutes, the clouds would cover their street and invade their homes and bring darkness to everything. But not yet. For now, for at least the next few moments, the sky over their street was still quite nice.

Ed sighed and finished the last of his coffee. He slowly pulled the curtain closed and walked away from the window. He crossed the living room toward his family, unaware and blissful. He placed his mug in the dishwasher.

“We can’t run that anymore, remember? Just set it in the sink instead and I’ll get it after breakfast.”

“Ha! You’re right, I forgot. Hey boys, your mom’s the greatest, isn’t she?”

They gave their thumbs up approval as they began stuffing their mouths with eggs and toast.

She smiled.

He smiled back.

Aaron Grayum is a writer and artist. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Michelle, who is also an artist, and his son Sebo, who is also a ninja.

The Colored Lens #31 – Spring 2019




The Colored Lens Speculative Fiction Magazine – Spring 2019 – Issue #31







The Colored Lens

Speculative Fiction Magazine

Spring 2019 – Issue #31

Featuring works by Geoffrey W. Cole, Andy K. Tytler, Seth Marlin, Jamie Lackey, Kristin Janz, David Cleden, R.K. Nickel, Ana Gardner, Nathan TeBokkel, Avra Margariti, and Paul Crenshaw.



Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Henry Fields, Associate Editor

Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

© Copyright 2019, All Rights Reserved

www.TheColoredLens.com



Table of Contents



A Hunt for Gods

By R.K. Nickel

“Your town cripple told me I would find you here,” I said to the woman who crouched close to the earth beneath her, sowing seeds with more care than was necessary. Sowing seeds at all should have been unnecessary. So little technology on this planet, which meant everything took more time.

I’d had my fill of time.

“Are you deaf? Does everyone on this backwards planet suffer from some malady?”

Finally, she stood, and I could nearly hear the creak in her bones. The motion was eternal, but when she eventually met my eyes, at least there was some spark of intelligence there.

“My name is Aki-Atopo” said the woman, her smile fracturing her sun-worn face into countless wrinkles. “What is yours?”

“Jor Derenell.” The woman, like the rest of the village, was garbed entirely in a vaguely luminescent moss. It was green, and ugly, and gave off some odor I did my best to ignore.

“They say there is a god on this planet, that souls linger after they pass on.”

“Who is this ‘they?’” she asked, chuckling. “Sounds like someone needs a slap on the wrist for spreading our secrets.”

Such distastefully bland humor. “Will you take me to it?”

“Why?” she asked.

“I will ask it what comes next. If it is truly a god, it will know.”

She began to walk away. The gall of these people. I hurried to follow, but she was surprisingly quick, and matching her stride as she marched down the village’s main road took precious more energy than I would’ve liked.

“How did you find yourself here, Jor Derenell?”

“I flew here.”

“On your starship?”

“Yes, on my starship. Obviously.”

My lungs heaved. Even this minor exertion made me feel as though my body were stitched together by a half-blind seamstress. I needed to cycle. Soon.

“You are quite forthcoming in your answers, Jor Derenell. I’m sensing…” she said, rubbing at her temples in a poor pretense of mysticism, “that you are a people person.”

“Just tell me what you want.”

She turned to face me, suddenly serious. “You have not earned the right to know what I want. But do exactly as I bid, and I will show you a god.”


We set out at sunset, leaving the village behind and wandering deep into what were apparently known as the mosslands. An uncreative name, for every surface was covered in the parasitic gunk. It pulsed with a faint glow, as if feeding on the trees and stones that lay hidden beneath it, leeching their life force one carbon dioxide gasp at a time.

Compared to my perfectly sterilized spaceship, the whole place reeked of plant waste, of fertilizer, of water not fit for consumption. What a disappointing terminal planet. No wonder no one made it out this far.

“Sit,” said Aki-Atopo. “Wait.”

I scowled, but still, I sat. I waited. Others soon arrived. Younger, older. They were all children to me. They carried trinkets and knick-knacks with them: a small wooden spoon, a handkerchief, a photograph.

Nothing more than simple back world tradition, then. Another failure. I took deep, slow breaths, doing my best to calm my mounting fury. I could not afford to waste my blood on fury.

And then the first sphere of flame grew in the night.

It came from nowhere, materializing waist-high above the ground, a floating ball of fiery blue.

I had read of mysterious flames before. Air pockets, rising gas, some bit of magic. Never a god. But De-Ha-Ta-Gu-Ee was a planet little researched. Perhaps a god would, in fact, choose to live in a system nearly a thousand lightyears from its closest neighbor.

More spheres materialized, dozens of them, hundreds, hovering among the mosstrees. A villager dropped her handkerchief into one of the rippling orbs, and a thin, white smoke rose from the flame.

How I envied their misguided faith, their “knowledge” that they would live on as something else, still visited by loved ones, still adding warmth to the world. I had spent a lifetime looking for that certainty, had tracked legend and hunted myth, but each mystery I encountered had eventually been explained, and whenever I did meet a so-called god, the being bled beneath my hands–as mortal as I. Some of them had magic, but magic was little more than parlor tricks and misdirection–magic had nothing to do with what came next.

“So these are your ‘Lost Souls’?” I asked, unable to keep the derision from my voice.

“I’m getting the sense you aren’t particularly moved,” said Aki-Atopo, as pleasantly as if I had commented on the weather.

“You know, most people are more put-off when I talk to them.”

“Most people are not Aki-Atopo. And who knows, perhaps I will rub off on you.”

I shook my head, bemused.

“Here. Let me show you.” She placed her hands over my eyes.

The moment her skin touched mine, the bedrock of my being eroded into loam beneath a pattering rain, and Aki-Atopo flowed into me, her essence spreading to my peripheries as vines seeking sun. It took but an instant, and then my eyes were infused with hers, gazing out onto the world before me through a lens of her perception.

All around me, the moss glowed, a garden of symbiotic phosphorescence, a blanket of deep greens and blues radiating on a spectrum I had forgotten. There, the shade of the cobalt sea on Algradon, here the midnight forests of Kytar.

Though the stars in the sky were distant, though the night was moonless, I saw that one need not fear a journey through the mosslands, for each step was guided by the glow, and every footprint came alive.

I turned my gaze to the river that flowed behind us–I had paid it no heed before, but I saw now that it teemed with pink fish which sparkled beneath the surface. Their scales gave off an amaranthine light, which rose above the water and refracted among the steam that drifted leisurely between the shores.

I took a breath, and the air that rushed into my lungs was filled with the scents of rebirth and of growth.

The air was filled with smoke.

I looked again to the spheres of fire, past the hot surface, into the quiet furnace beneath, and I could almost make out a shape, nearly human, laughing, swaying, beckoning, and when a villager, a man brimming with the muscle of the outdoors, added a wooden spoon to the flames, the fire delighted in its consumption, burning an incandescent gratitude, and the man breathed in the smoke, and I could sense the calm it gave him. I reached out to the nearest flame, searching, and–

The shaman pulled away her hands.

I was myself again.

“So?” asked Aki-Atopo.

It took me a moment to adjust to seeing the world once more through my eyes. Where had the song gone? And where the glow?

“A bit of magic,” I said, dismissive.

Aki-Atopo smiled a knowing smile, and the rage built in me. Who was she to think so highly of herself? Who was she to spin a veil of golden lies before my sight?

But as I stood to leave, the moss seemed perhaps a tinge more vibrant, and the steam rising off the water still beckoned.

I might yet find a god.


After a breakfast of strange, spiraling nuts and a long blue fruit with waxy skin, we headed for a cave system Aki-Atopo said was of particular importance to their faith.

It was a hard walk, though it took less out of me than I expected, for the ground was springy and forgiving. Even still, eventually I had to stop. “I need to cycle,” I said.

“You take too many breaks, old man,” said Aki-Atopo.

“Not everyone is lucky enough to have a touch of magic to keep them going.”

“Magic has nothing to do with it. You need to stretch more.”

I took off my pack and removed the god-forsaken Hemalock I’d been tethered to for so long.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“My blood isn’t what it once was,” I said, opening my shirt and removing the sanitary plug from the gaping hole in my chest. “I should’ve been dead a couple decades ago, but this concoction of platelets and O2-absorption boosters keeps me chugging along. Barely.” I pulled one of the cell vials from the pack, clipped it into the Hemalock, and inserted it into my semi-mechanical heart.

“How old are you, anyway?”

“One hundred and eighty-three.” I had needed to fill my ship near-to-brimming with boosters to have plenty for the trip here and back.

“You must have trouble meeting people your age,” she said. She stretched while she waited, as if to rub in her youth. Her very relative youth.

“We don’t need to talk,” I said, gritting my teeth as the cold slurry of the booster crept through my veins. I had enough for three months of exploration, if I kept myself fairly inactive. It was not much time to track down a god.

“Suit yourself,” she said, and dove into an acrobatic routine. She was certainly flexible.

I chided myself, disgusted. It had been decades since I’d last been with a woman, and she’d been substantially more attractive than this faux mystic. What a hideous thought.

Eventually, the cycle was complete, and we continued. Having been only semi-conscious for my journey to De-Ha-Ta-Gu-Ee, I’d been running off weak blood for nearly a month now, and as the fresh concoction ran through me, I felt alive for the first time since the god known as Kalzak had perished in my arms.

When we finally reached the gaping mouth of the mossrock, a family came out to greet us, and a number of overactive children screeched at our arrival, teetering up to Aki-Atopo and wrapping themselves around her legs. I had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with children. Especially these unruly beasts, whose tangled hair flopped wildly and whose hands were coated in a sticky, glowing ooze.

“People live in your holy caves?”

“Of course. These are the Ta-Wah-Nees. Ta-Wah-Nees, meet Jor. Jor, Ta-Wah-Nees.”

A liver-spotted man stepped forward and made his hands into a sphere, placing them over his heart. “Mok-Ta-Wah-Nee,” he said by way of introduction.

“A pleasure,” I lied, mimicking the gesture.

“Aki told us you would be helping with the Rahlen,” he said.

I shot her a glance. This was no holy search. Aki-Atopo’s eyes glittered at her deception.

“You must do as I bid. That is the deal.”

“I–”

“Our god appears at the strangest of times, Jor Derenell. You must trust me. This is the way.”

She took my hand. There was a firmness in those wrinkled fingers, hardened bone beneath sagging skin. “Come.” If she did not lead me to her god, I would find someone who would, by coin or by force.

Mok-Ta-Wah-Nee led us into the caves, which reeked of earthy wetness. Deeper and deeper we went, until the tunnels opened into a massive chasm of stalactites. Down each dripped rivulets of brightly glowing liquid–rains filtered through moss filtered through rock, I learned–which served as the base for Rahlen, the semi-sweet alcoholic drink the locals favored.

Hours we spent, collecting runoff in woven baskets, stomping the blue fruits we’d had for breakfast between our toes, then pouring the strange mush into a flowerbed. The flowers would feed on the mixture, Mok-Ta-Wah-Nee explained, and once they bloomed, their petals would cry. Apparently, fermentation took place within the stalk. The tears were Rahlen, and quite potent.

When the work started, I roiled. I had not journeyed this far, I had not lived this long, to become a common laborer. But as we went, I found my mind clearing. The toil held an agreeable monotony, on par with the calm that came whenever a ship’s medpod pumped you with benzodiazepines before hypersleep.

By the time evening rolled around, I found myself laughing. It was an unfamiliar experience, for joy took even more strength than rage, and a bit of laughter was never worth the blood it cost to produce.

And yet I laughed.

Perhaps it was the Rahlen, of which I’d drunk entirely too much. Perhaps it was something else.

Soon, I found myself stumbling through the caverns by Aki-Atopo’s side, woven cup in hand.

“So, decade after decade travelling the stars?” she asked.

I took another sip. “I wouldn’t call it travelling. I saw no sights. I tasted no cuisine. I simply searched.”

“For gods,” she said. I nodded. “And did you find any?”

“Nine,” I said.

“Nine. That is quite a few.”

“Nine and none,” I amended. She turned a curious eye on me, weaving a bit as she did. I realized I was none-too-stable myself. I hadn’t been drunk in a century. It made me feel…honest. “I killed them all.”

“What?”

“They were not gods,” I said quickly. “If it bleeds, it is no god, merely a pretender masquerading as a god. I did those worlds a favor.” My cup sloshed in my hand.

She looked unconvinced, perhaps even afraid.

“Osh’hahllet was a great wingèd beast who could control the rains,” I continued. “It worshipped gold, and so with gold its people prayed, ever poor, a necessary trade if they wished for crops. The watery veils it cast as protection for its wing membranes were no match for my rifle.” I gestured to the gun strapped at my waist. A more powerful weapon, money could not buy.

“Not all who use magic do so for evil. Or claim to be gods.”

“Of course. I’ll cede you that. But these nine, they had grown beyond reason and into myth, and I was the gravity that pulled them back down planetside. Kalzak, the great warrior whom no blow could strike. Mordianus, the serpent who could slither between stars. Byagrodar, the conjurer. Noshfatur, the blinding light. Each of them a liar,” I felt spittle fly from my mouth. “Not one of them knew what comes next. A god is supposed to create. A god is supposed to exist outside our reality. A god is supposed to know what comes next.”

I panted, and the seams of my being began to come undone. Impossible. I had cycled that very morning. But I had toiled, and I had laughed, and my liver had not been put to work in ages, and what strange, unbidden feelings lay inside me. I could hardly place them. I knew only that without the boosters, they would lead me to an all-too-timely end. An end I refused to accept.

I stumbled, and Aki-Atopo caught me, lowering me to the ground. I leaned against a stalagmite as she put a hand to my forehead. Her fingers were cool and gentle.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I’m fine. But no more of your games, shaman. You will take me to this god, and we will see what it is made of. If it is what you say, then you should have nothing to fear.”

“You know,” she began, leaning beside me. I felt her arm against mine, felt the warmth radiating off of her, the strength of a human heart. “I’m not entirely sure I agree with you.”

“If you won’t take me, I assure you, I can find someone who will.”

“I’ve found,” she continued, “that god is what you make of it. A feeling. A choice. An idea you commit to in the name of doing what is right. I know nonbelievers with faith that ‘runneth over,’ to steal a line. I know devotees whose wells are dry as sand. And perhaps if we were to know “what comes next” as you have so repetitively referred to it, that just might take the fun out of things.”

“Yes, yes,” I said, still working to catch my breath. “I’ve had many lonely hours to read the great philosophers, and yours is a simplistic argument, which is to be expected. You have led an easy life on an easy world, and you know nothing but what was forced into your mind by those who came before you. Let us agree to disagree and move on from it.”

I tried to stand, but my mortal body had other ideas. It had ever been a traitor to me. And I was wasting it on this place, these people, the muck of plants, the relentless dripping of the water, the bitter fruits and hideous fish and ceaseless glow that could keep you up at night. This woman. As the disgust surged in me, I found the strength to stand. My pack wasn’t far. I would cycle, and that would be the end of it.

She stood and took my arm in hers. “I am not so different from you, Jor Derenell.”

I scoffed at her obvious attempt to forge a connection.

“It’s true,” she continued. “I travelled among the stars for many years, planet to planet. I saw the waters at the edge of Perethria. Held my grandchild on the jade moon of Quanrar. But I have chosen this place. It is a good place.”

“You weren’t born here?”

She shook her head. I looked at this strange woman anew and saw the subtle strength in her. Despite her age, she held me up, and reflected in the mosslight of her clothing, her eyes shone as playful and knowing as when she’d first met me, despite all that I had said. Her head sat high on her shoulders, looking ever forward. She had given up a life of wandering. She had chosen.

We reached my pack, and I once more plugged the Hemalock into my heart. The near-frozen sludge forced me to take halting gulps of air. She leaned down and rubbed my arms, generating friction. I could feel her breath.

“So you have grandchildren?” I asked, and I heard the hedging in my voice, the shallow attempt to mask my desire.

She cocked her head, letting the moment linger. Damn her.

“We are a loving people,” she said at last. “I have had many husbands, many wives, many children. Now, I am mostly ‘grandmother,’ and I spend my days among the mosstrees.”

I had taken lovers, of course. Plenty of them. In my younger days, I had almost been able to believe physical pleasures were reason enough for existence. But I had never truly shared myself. Not fully.

There had been opportunities, but no matter how certain I felt about someone, even more certain was the knowledge that it would end. It would always end. Despite what the foolish holofilms might say, love did not conquer death. Death was absolute.

But maybe here, if this truly were a planet of gods, perhaps things could be different. I had time enough to consider it. Vials enough.

Her hands rested on my shoulders, her face still close. It was a good face.


The world spun, the dark night skies rose, the mosses glowed, and we searched.

The god appears here, she said. The god appears there. You must try this, do this, feel this. The god is fickle, she said. We are close, she said. And in my heart–or what parts remained of it–I did not know whether to believe her.

We leapt from the high waters of Ka-Wei-Na falls, screaming all the way down. I learned to dance the Cha-He, a strange shifting of feet and flailing of arms, filled with energy and song, and we whirled, two bodies revolving, locked in a tidal pull of laughter and joy. I cycled. I cycled.

She taught me the hundred words for moss. I dined on countless plants and roots and fruits and nuts, ceaseless permutations of flavor. We raked algae from the whisper bog and tilled it into the gardens to nourish her flowers. We wove the garments of her people, and I reveled in the feel of them, the soft touch, the protection. I cycled. I cycled.

I ran with the children of the village. I communed with the flames, and in their burning light, I could almost sense the souls of the ones who came before, cherishing the offerings bestowed upon them and returning their thanks in an aromatic smoke that filled our lungs with wonder. I cycled. I cycled.

Aki-Atopo took me into her home, into her life, into her. Hers was a kind soul, a brightly glowing moss woven with a loom of belief–in god, in good, in her fellow man.

I delighted in her, a kindred spirit with whom I could share myself. An equal. And her wrinkled face held boundless joy, and she was warm beneath my hands, and I was whole beneath her weight, a conjoining I had often attempted but never achieved. I cycled. I cycled.

And held something back.

For always I knew that it would end. It had not yet proven to be a planet of gods, and though I burned with a longing to relinquish myself, I knew I would have to return to the stars for more boosters, and it was such a great distance, and if it were to end, what, then, was the point?

And as much as I gazed into the orbs of fire, as close as I came, I never fully believed the lost ones danced within the flames.

I cycled.

I cycled.

And had no vials left to spare.


Her eyes shimmered with sorrow. But she had shown me no god. I had lost myself, and I needed to depart or be trapped here forever.

I would return one day, and she would be long dead, and then, perhaps, I could seek my answer.

Still, I was loath to go.

“You never could accept the end of things, could you, Jor Derenell?”

We held each other, watched the sun set, watched the mosslight glow. I gave her a final kiss. I released her hand a final time.

I went to my ship, out past the edge of the village, and could not shake the feeling that something lay just beyond my grasp, like a word I could not recall, even though, somewhere within, I knew exactly what I hoped to convey. As I boarded, I thought of distant stars, of endless cycles, of new rumors, new planets where I might yet find gods. And with them, answers. I thought of what would come next.

I strapped in and felt the metal beneath my palms. It had been so long. The vessel seemed an alien thing, and I a foreign body within it.

The ship rumbled, gaining thrust, and soon I was making my slow way into the sky, staring at the world beneath, but I did not truly see it, for Aki-Atopo’s hands no longer touched my eyes, and I gazed only at a holoscreen, a pixel-hue facsimile of what truly lay below.

I felt myself begin to cry–I had not expected this. Wasteful. Tears cost more than joy cost more than rage. Still, I wept.

Then the boosters failed.

Alarms blared. Safety features engaged. I cast images of the damaged systems onto the screen.

Moss had strangled the drive core.

It wound through the coils, coated the reaction tanks, glowed and sprouted and climbed into every cavity and alcove, turning the lower half of the ship into a nearly living thing.

The ship had not caught it. It had never been trained to guard against such a slow, creeping enemy, and the moss had found a way in.

The propulsion sputtered and died, and I fell to the surface.


I awoke in the bed where I had spent so many months.

“Welcome back, Jor Derenell,” she said, choked with relief.

“Aki.” I touched her face. Why did she look so sad? “My ship?” I asked. “My vials.”

Her eyes told me what I needed to know.

“How many?”

“A few months left, at most. I am so sorry.” And I could feel that sorrow washing off her in waves. She loved me.

And I didn’t care.

I tore out of the bed, grabbed my shirt and rifle, and raced outside. The wreckage of my ship still smoked in the east, but I turned north, into the heart of the mosslands.

The horizon glowed a fiery red as I reached the edge of the village, a mirror to my thoughts. A few months. After one hundred and eighty three years. A handful days strung together on a line, brittling in the sun.

I moved through the moss, deeper, deeper, and lost my way, all around me a monotonous glow, each mosstree the same as the next. I barked a laugh.

I would finally learn what came next.

But I already knew.

Nothing.

It was nothing.

I screamed into the empty air, screamed until I choked and trembled and fell to the ground. The sanitary plug ripped from my chest, and a viscous ooze began slowly to beat out of me, congealing in the mud.

I fumbled for the emergency vial I kept on my belt, fingers clutching, finding nothing. I had fallen prey to the shaman’s tricks. I wheezed. Was the night growing dim? Were the flames going out? No, it was merely my sight.

And then my fingers were on the vial, freeing it from its clasps. I thrust it into my heart. Without the Hemalock, the pain tore the air from my lungs, and I tasted iron in my throat. I could not swallow.

But the glacious booster slowly calved its way through my arteries, and as the wet-spinach glow of the place came back into focus, a sphere of taunting sapphire flame coalesced before me.

I stared into its light, too weak to look away, and as the brilliant bright began to crisp my corneas, I thought perhaps I could see something dancing within. And wasn’t the possibility enough? Couldn’t I simply choose to believe?

I had months left. Days stretched out as leaves along the branches of a great tree, and I could spend mine with her. I did not need immortality. I did not need to know. I still had the rest of my life to live. Love cost more than tears cost more than joy cost more than rage.

The price was a pittance.

I laughed, alone out there among the mosstrees. A full, deep, rich laugh. My lungs burned. My blood soured. I did not care.

I fitted the cap back into my chest and forced myself to my feet. The spent vial rested in my hand, so small a thing to cost so much. Cool and precise and manufactured. I tossed it into the orb of fire and breathed in the smoke. As it swirled into me, the twining heat soothed my bitter throat and cleansed my lungs.

Invigorated, I turned toward home.

Toward our home.

But before I could take a step, I saw it–a strange flame, unlike the rest, nearly human, ethereal, striding through the trees. Where its feet touched ground, moss rose up to meet it, not scorched, but rather infused with a brighter glow.

“My god,” I muttered.

The being turned to face me. Its face was solid flame, always rippling, the features variations in blue, hotter or cooler, tending more toward white or further away. Its body was a coiling conflagration of cobalt depth, somehow deeper and more mysterious than any other god I had lain eyes upon, and I lost myself in the fathomless crackle of its blaze. To stare at a fire is a feeling primordial, and in the flickering embers, I could feel the choices I had wrought, could imagine endless futures, could cast my mind back to the moment man had reached out his hand and accepted that great promethean offering.

Could it be? The one who creates. Who exists beyond. Who knows what comes next.

The hunger, so long corroding the lining of my gut, might finally be sated. What fortune, here at the end of things. What fortune had grounded my ship. What fate had fueled my fury. The answer, at last.

The god reached out a hand.

The bark of my rifle rang clear in the calm night.

And the god bled.

It bled.

It collapsed to the moss. It bled. No better than the rest. A false prophet, conjuring spheres of lies, burning the possessions of the innocent, an all-consuming falsehood that dazzled upon a pyre, and in the end, was naught but smoke.

I turned away, casting my rifle to the ground, but just before my eyes left the creature, its face changed.

“Aki?” I cried out, rushing to the god’s side.

The flames dissipated, leaving only her. She bled from a deep wound. I forced my hands onto the gaping hole in her breast, but it was too wide, and too slick, and too red. Nothing should be so red, here in the green.

“It seems that you have found me out, Jor Derenell.” She winced, eyes searching to lock onto something.

“I’m so sorry, Aki. I didn’t know.”

“You were always a little slow on the uptake.” She cried out, and the sound lanced through me.

“I love you,” I said, and I could hear the pleading in my voice. “I love you.”

I thought she tried to smile then, but she managed only a dwindling grimace. Had I lost her smile?

“I suppose now you have earned the right to know what I wanted,” she said. “I wanted you, to show you the person you could become.”

“I don’t understand.”

I watched her fight, watched her steal back a bit of strength. “I told you you might be surprised by our similarities, my love. A few centuries ago,” she gritted her teeth. Continued. “I found myself where you are now. As the mage’s flamesoul bled out between my fingers, his power transferred to me. Such is the way on this world.”

“Centuries?”

“The people’s offerings to the fire give us endless life, should we meet no undue harm, and in return, we provide them solace, hope. It is…worthwhile.”

I cradled her. “We still had time.”

“I suppose,” she said, trying to laugh, failing, “that god has other plans.”

God. This was the last one I would find. But she knew nothing of the beyond. I think she saw the fear on my face, for she kept going.

“We had each other. Let it be enough, my bullheaded love.”

“How?”

“Is it not wondrous that you came here, to me?”

I wanted to say yes, to ease her passing, but in her eyes, I saw a demand for truth. “It’s only a coincidence.”

“Ah,” she said, and managed to smile then. “But it is a beautiful coincidence. And you are free to make of it what you will.”

With that, she drifted off.

“Aki. Aki!” But I had lost her.

The flames of the forest winked out. The moss grew dim. The world became a shade darker, a shade colder. I had lost her.

And I had not. For as she grew cold, I felt the fire of her spreading into my fingertips, growing in me, as a vine seeking sun. Her flame spread through me, sublimating the machinery that had kept me breathing, making me whole. I felt a surging, roiling potential here at my apotheosis, and I knew that within me lay the power to incandesce a thousand thousand spheres of fire.

And yet, without her, what was the point, knowing it would never end?

All my life, immortal, and when I finally chose to die, to die and truly live–

I picked up the rifle, praying she’d be waiting for me on the other side. My hand wavered. I could hardly maintain my grip, it was so slick. Tears streamed down my face. My finger waivered on the trigger.

I couldn’t. She was right, like always.

I let the rifle slip from my hand, took a breath, closed my eyes, and cast my will out into the world. All through the mosslands, orbs of fire winked into existence, burning for those who’d been lost.

I had killed a tenth god, and now, alone among the glowing moss, I would have to see what came next.



The Memetic Vaccine

By Geoffrey W. Cole

I sold Larry Robfort enough Narcoplex to tranquilize a walrus but I could tell there was something else he wanted. It was quarter to seven in the morning and the two of us were crammed into the bathroom at the Pickled Puffin, that extra-jurisdictional outpost of depravity and cheap booze that sat on the lunar surface fifty metres above Avalon Station.

“Listen, Jayna,” he said. “I gotta ask you something.” He started to undo his pants. “As my doctor.”

“Christ, Robfort,” I said. “Make an appointment.”

But he was already committed. He dropped his drawers and closed his eyes. “Does my bird look alright?”

“This how you treat all the girls?”

“Please, Doc.”

The desperation in his voice got the better of me and I knelt down for a closer look. What hung between his legs looked normal and I was about to tell him so when an alarm sounded in my ear.

“Do your pants up,” I said. Robfort flinched. “Belinda’s calling. Don’t forget my fee.”

He tapped at a keyboard only he could see and a second later I got a little richer. The shiver of victory at carving off a few more hours of my indentured Lunar servitude didn’t last long before Belinda appeared in the tiny bathroom between us. One hundred and ninety centimetres of woven-steel Quebecois female, Belinda wore her shoulder-to-ankle fitted grey dress the way a hunter carries a freshly slaughtered deer. The smoke that spiralled from the tip of her long cigarillo floated in way smoke doesn’t on the moon. Judging by the way Robfort was standing at attention, Belinda had chosen to project herself into his AR lenses too.

“Thirteen miners have called in sick this morning,” she said. “I hope Mr. Robfort isn’t one of them.”

“He was complaining of an upset stomach,” I said. “Figured I’d check him out over a pub breakfast.”

Robfort looked over at me as we waited the four seconds for our message to reach Belinda and the four seconds it would take her response to reach us.

“Have I not made it clear that what you do with your free time is of no interest to me, Dr. Patel? We’re paying thirteen miners double time to fill in for those who called in sick. Chung Fat does not like to see its profits wasted away on petty illness. See that these men are back at work tomorrow.”

She touched something on a desk we couldn’t see and disappeared. For some reason, the AR decided to let the illusory cigarillo smoke linger.


Thirteen miners crowded the small waiting room of my clinic. Their silence spoke volumes: these were men who wouldn’t keep quiet at their grandmother’s funeral, yet they grimaced and clutched their stomachs in absolute silence while I moved through the waiting room to Schedulor’s niche.

“Who’s first?” I asked my robotic assistant.

That broke the silence. Without leaving their seats, the miners jumped into a heated argument over who should be seen first. One faction argued that those sickest should be attended to first, while those who’d arrived early expounded upon the time-tested right of the first-come to be the first-served. Then Luke, a young miner who hadn’t committed to either philosophy, lost control of his bowels and made the whole argument moot.

“Prep subdermal cephalosporin tabs,” I told Schedulor. “And do we have cholera hammocks stocked?”

I hoped it wasn’t cholera, but all the signs were there, and the only way to beat cholera is to assume you’re dealing with cholera and act fast.

“Not stocked,” Schedulor said. “But I’ve already started fabbing them.”

Schedulor’s one good arm patted his belly, which gave off a burning-plastic smell. My assistant could only really be called half a robot. Fortunately, he had the more useful half: a head, one functional arm, and a torso that also doubled as a fabricator. He was a permanent fixture in the clinic in his niche in the wall. He’d been here long before I arrived and, once I paid off my debt, he’d be here long after I left.

His belly beeped and spat out a freshly minted hammock. I stuck the adhesive tabs to the ceiling and helped Luke into the polymer webbing. Just in time. The pouch hanging beneath the hammock swelled like an udder.

“Seeing as you popped first, I’m calling you Patient Zero,” I said to Luke as Schedulor went to work on the next hammock. I put the kid on a saline drip. “When exactly did you start to feel sick?”

“I’d say about fifteen minutes after I took this tincture Dr. Earthborn gave me.”

He took a vial of brackish liquid from his pocket.

“Why are you dealing with Earthborn?” I snatched the vial and slipped it into my lab coat. “You get sick, you come to me.”

He found all sorts of interesting things to look at on the newly printed hammock. “Earthborn said he could help.”

“Help with what?”

That hammock so fascinated him that he wouldn’t look at me again.

“You boys go to Earthborn too?” The other miners nodded their clenched faces. “Anyone care to tell me why?” They clammed up quiet as a bunch of school boys who’ve found a hole looking into the girl’s locker room. “If I find out you all overdid at the Puffin last night, you won’t be seeing any sick pay, got it?”

Grumbling stomachs and corked flatulence answered. A mechanical finger tapped my shoulder. “Should I continue with the hammocks?” Schedulor said.

“Forget the hammocks. These boys don’t have cholera. Go home, lads, and drink lots of water. I’m going to go have a word with Earthborn.”

Across the hall from my clinic, Dr. Doronzo was greeting one of his clients in the clinic Selenity had built for its pharmaceutical workers. He gave me the slightest bow, his botched-rejuve face impassive as always, and I nodded back. For a second, I had a glimpse inside his clinic. Calm blue light spilled out from a spacious waiting room, where the only things doing the waiting were three luxurious leather chairs, so clean they looked like they’d been upholstered that morning. The grass is always greener, I told myself, and prepared to kick some witch doctor ass.


I rode the elevator up to the star dome.

Synthetic rubber mats were scattered around the room like a makeshift triage, the people on the mats contorting in poses that the girls at the Puffin would only agree to for a fat wad of moon cheese. Earthborn was the only one standing. A snow-white braid hung to the dimpled small of his back, bisecting a physiology so lean and fit that it looked like he had a family of snakes living beneath his tanned skin. He spoke in an endless sentence, mostly English, but highlighted here and there with Sanskrit. For some reason I couldn’t fathom, he’d decided that a puffy white loincloth was an acceptable thing to put on that morning.

When the door slid shut behind me, he turned, got halfway through inviting me in, then saw who he was talking to. The pharmaceutical workers all tensed up as the New Age logorrhea stopped tumbling from his lips.

“Doctor Patel,” he said. “I do believe this is the first time you’ve joined our practice.”

“Not here to stretch,” I said.

“Our practice is about so much more than stretching.”

“Is your practice about making my miners shit their pants?”

The snakes beneath his tanned skin coiled. “Go through three more modified Surya Namaskars,” Earthborn said to his students. “While I talk to the miner doctor.”

The way his lips twisted when he said “miner” made me want to slap him.

“We can talk right here,” I said, my voice low. I showed him the vial Luke had given me. “What did you give my men?”

“Privet fruit tincture.” He reached for the vial, but I slid it back into my lab coat. “In low doses, it is harmless.”

I sent him a photo of the scene in my waiting room. “My boys got it in their heads that they needed to take a higher dose. Why?”

A grey tongue licked his glossy lips. “Doctor patient privilege.”

“Chung Fat finds out that a doctor of what, magical herbs and fungi, has made their workers sick, it will take a whole orbital container full of patchouli to buy your way back to the moon.”

“I am a trained physician in addition to a holistic practitioner.”

“So tell me, my trained physician friend, why you gave them the potion?”

“I gave them privet to restore yang in the kidneys.” I stared at him as if he were speaking Esperanto. “They’re suffering Koro. Now let me return to my class.”

“What the hell is Koro?”

“You’re the doctor.”

The yogis stared at me through their legs as I stepped into the elevator. Some were my clients. Let them stare. The moment the elevator doors closed, I summoned a search bar and by the time I reached the bottom, I had a pretty good idea what Koro was and what to do about it.

I put in a call to Robfort as I was hoofing it back to my clinic.

“Send out a message to your men,” I said. “There’s a free pitcher at the Puffin tonight for every one of them who shows between eight and nine o’clock.”

“Got a new treat for us?”

“This isn’t marketing, it’s medicine. I’ve gotta have a little chat with your men, and it will be best if they have a few drinks before they hear what I have to say.”


“Any questions?”

Two hundred and three empty pitchers stood on tables, on chairs, were clutched in hands, balanced on shelves, and forgotten beneath the booted feet of the miners crowded into the Pickled Puffin. They’d drank so much beer that Quinn had to send a few boys down to the Vats to bring up fresh kegs.

Back when the Americans had a real stake on the moon, they’d built a half-dozen modular moon-bases, tin-cans that snapped together like children’s toys. After the disaster at Copernicus Station, everyone went underground. Not the Puffin. Quinn purchased it at auction, ran a tunnel up to it from the station below, and started selling Avalon’s cheapest booze. Most nights it was filled with the sleaziest, drunkest, loudest, meanest men in the station – my best customers – but that night, after I’d gone through what these men needed to know about Koro, the room was silent.

“Last chance,” I said. Again, silence, from men who couldn’t keep their mouths shut even if they were stuck under sixty feet of water. “I’m going to say it one last time and then we can never speak of it again: Koro is a memetic disease, an idea that makes you sick. I know some of you think your penises are shrinking – ladies, you may think the same of your vulvae or breasts, but I promise that’s a delusion brought on by the Koro. Your genitals can’t retract. You don’t need medicine, certainly not the potions Earthborn was selling you. You’re fine. Your genitals aren’t going anywhere. Got it?”

I expected something from them, even a “Show us your tits”, but the men just shuffled their feet, none of them looking at me or each other for that matter. On the walls of the Puffin, I’d put up virtual posters exploring the anatomical impossibility of genital retraction and the history of Koro; those got as many looks as a beggar in front of a strip club.

The bell behind the bar rang and Quinn hollered: “Shots are two-for-one for the next fifteen minutes.”

Miners surged toward the bar. I got out of the way. I didn’t like what this would do to my business. If I kept selling at my current rates, I only had six months of service to endure up here, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be moving product anywhere near the rate I had been. No one wants to buy drugs from a woman who just spent an hour talking about the size of their members.


If the Puffin was the dirtiest, dingiest bar anywhere above Near Earth Orbit, the Gannet must have been the dullest. Red pleather benches were filled with Selenity Pharmaceutical employees who sipped on cocktails, never drinking too much, never getting too loud. Most months I barely made enough in the Gannet to cover the fee I paid its owner to sell my wares in his establishment.

I found Dr. Anthony Doronzo sipping red wine in a far corner of the bar. Word had it that Doronzo had been on the moon longer than any other living man or woman. No one was quite sure how many rejuvenation treatments he’d endured, or which of that number had turned the skin of his face to what looked like emotionless plastic. He was a good doctor, his second or third career over his ambiguously long life, who on more than one occasion had helped me sort out a particularly challenging malady.

“I imagine you could use a drink,” he said when I arrived at his table.

“Word travel that fast?”

“Adams’ law: nothing moves faster than bad news.”

“What are you drinking? I’ll get you another.”

He shook his head and showed me a small bladder that he kept in a cloth bag beneath the table. “At my age, you get very particular about what you drink. Made this myself in the Vats. The good people at the Gannet don’t mind if I bring it in. Care to try?”

He filled a bulb and passed it over. Sharp tannins stung my pallet, but beneath the sharpness were hints of cherry and pencil shavings. “It’s wine.”

“That the best you can do?”

“Red wine? Sorry doc, I didn’t attend too many wine tastings growing up in the ruins of Calgary.”

“This is Frappato. A Sicilian red. Still quite green but give it a year or three and it will be perfect. A shame you won’t be here to share it when it’s ready.”

“In six months, if I want Sicilian wine I’ll just go to Sicily.”

“Assuming, of course, that your little lecture did the trick.” He tried to smile, but that’s the thing about a botched rejuve: it makes it really hard to show when you’re joking.

“Seen anything like it before?”

“Koro? Not in my patients.” Doronzo took another long sip from his bulb of wine. Tiny lights flickered against his cornea as his lenses fed him information. “There hasn’t been a Koro epidemic for 250 years. Not surprising that it would appear among the unschooled miners with whom we share Avalon. From the literature, it looks like you did the right thing.”

The literature, in this case, meant the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IX; that great catalogue of all the ways our minds can harm themselves. I’d read the same and had done everything the manual suggested for treating a Koro epidemic.

“I think I’ll write a paper about it when I get back dirtside,” I said. “It would be nice to have something to show for six years up here.”

That face of his, scar tissue sculpted into a grotesque approximation of youth, twitched the way a crab might if you passed an electric current through it. He raised his glass. “To an effortless departure.”

I touched my bulb to his, then had another look around the room. None of my usual customers were here, but there were a few faces I didn’t recognize. Maybe I could unload some of my stash.

“Don’t you worry someone will overdose?” Doronzo said.

I laughed, a bitter sound. “Have any of my clients ever showed up on your doorstep?” He shook his ageless head. “Mine neither. I’m careful.”

“What if they already are on your doorstep?” Doronzo said.

The self-righteous bastard. I pushed the bulb of wine back across the table. “First taste was half-decent,” I said. “But it’s a little too bitter for me.”

I left the crab-faced old man to drink his home-brewed piss.


Damn Doronzo. I lay on the couch in my apartment nursing a whiskey, trying to convince myself to go to bed, but Doronzo’s accusation kept running through my head. He’d voiced what I try not to think about every time one of my clients becomes a patient: did I make them sick? The physician’s mortal sin. Sure, I was using the proceeds from my recreational drug sales to crank down the years I owed Chung Fat for paying my way through med school, but they way I sold it to myself, I was reducing harm: I tested all my products in the lab to ensure they were pure, and I always talked to my clients, checked that things weren’t getting out of hand. I’d coerced several of them into rehab. Doronzo was making me doubt my methods all over again.

But nothing I gave the boys could have caused the disease. There were two main forms of Koro: an isolated form that afflicted lone sufferers, and cultural Koro that came in epidemics which hadn’t been seen for centuries. For my sins I’d been handed the cultural variety. Epidemic Koro was an infectious meme, a disease passed via language from one misguided mind to another mind. “I think my penis is shrinking,” is surprisingly potent when whispered in a vulnerable population. The syndrome received its name somewhere in the East, China or Korea, where Koro epidemics used to sweep through a town, back before literacy became a widespread condition. Epidemics happened in the West too, but no one had ever bothered giving it a name. Women weren’t immune, but men seemed to be more susceptible. Things could get nasty if the epidemic was left untreated, yet all it took to end an epidemic was a well-written pamphlet. Information immunized vulnerable minds. With the advent of mass communication, Koro epidemics went from an occasional bizarre scourge to a historical curiosity.

I poured myself another glass of whiskey and sent Belinda an email telling her the situation was under control. I’d done right by my boys, I was sure of it.

After I sent the email, my right nipple brushed the inside of my shirt. I could swear it felt smaller. This was like med school all over again, when, as we worked our way through the DSM, I became convinced that I alternately had OCD, Chew-Z, and Locutus Delusion. I drank the whiskey and forced myself to ignore what was clearly a figment of my imagination.

Five whiskeys later, I passed out on the couch.


The miner limped into the clinic as Schedulor was pouring my first coffee of the day. Luke, Patient Zero. I remembered that he had a girl dirtside who wasn’t answering his calls. He’d told me all about her a week earlier when he’d bought some Valizoom.

Luke wouldn’t meet my gaze when I asked him what was wrong. Looked like my little talk at the Puffin hadn’t reached everyone. He made sure the door of the examination room was locked before he would so much as take off his toque.

He swore me to secrecy as he climbed up onto the examination table. “My uncle, Marcel, had this lump growing on the side of his head. Didn’t have medical insurance, but he had a knife. He boiled the knife, daubed the lump with moonshine, and toked until he was floating. Didn’t even feel the cut. Stapled it up himself and he’s been fine ever since.”

“What did you do, Luke?”

“Didn’t have a knife, but I had plenty of wire and Valizoom.”

He unzipped his moonsuit. His member hung at a sharp angle, the tip swollen to the size of a grapefruit. When I touched it, he howled. I subdermed morcaine and that quieted him.

“Weren’t you at the Puffin last night?” I said as I applied a cold compress to reduce the swelling.

“I heard what you were saying, about this Koro business, but my cock was disappearing back up inside me, doc. I had to do something or I would’a died.”

The morcaine knocked him out. Anti-inflammatories helped bring the swelling down, and I did my best to elevate him to drain away the accumulated blood. In a few hours, I’d have a better idea if there was any permanent damage. I gave Schedulor control of the subderm feed.

“Keep him under. If he so much as tries to scratch down there, increase the dose.”

When I was sure Luke was sleeping, I slipped into my office. Everything I knew about Koro told me that my information vaccination should have been enough to kill the epidemic, but Luke had been vaccinated, he should have been cured. That meant something else was going on here.

I brought up Luke’s file. Nothing I read made him exceptional, but I cross-referenced him with the others who’d been in my office, Larry Robfort included, until I found a line I could draw through most of the men I knew were suffering the delusion. That line led me to the surface.


I called Robfort on my way to the golf course. His face appeared in a small window in my homeview. He was sitting in the cockpit of one of the big pieces of equipment Chung Fat had crawling across the moon.

“Busy, Jayna,” he said. “Out with a crew trying to convince a busted hauler that it’s got some more kilometres in it.”

“I want you and all your men to drop out of Selenity’s drug trials.”

He placed a circuit tester on the dash. “Mind, now.”

“At least until I know what’s causing the Koro. Something’s got your men all riled up, and the only thing the sick men have in common is that they are all on the same drug trial.”

“All my bys are on one trial or another. With the money Selenity pays, I’ll have enough to actually get my girl into university. No way am I dropping out because you have a hunch.”

He picked up the circuit tester again and dove under the dash, so I could only see his rear end bobbing above the dash, a mutant seal at the surface of the sea.

“I’m not asking, Robfort; either you send out the note, or I will. It won’t be for long, just a few weeks until I’m sure this has been put to bed.”

“My name won’t be anywhere near it,” he shouted from beneath the dash. “You realize you’re lobbing off the hand that feeds? Drug trials are the only way my bys make spare coin, coin they spend on your products.”

“I’ll get by,” I said, and cut the connection.


Earthlight bathed the crater in a gentle glow. Alanna stepped up to the tee, fit the steel spear into her chucker, and did this three-step dance across the rock before she threw. The spear glinted in the earthlight before I lost track of it, then my golf app picked the spear out as a glowing green arrow, soaring across the moonscape. It landed some five hundred metres away, and a good hundred and fifty short of the pin.

I took to the tee and tried to do the same dance she’d just performed and almost fell over in the process. My spear flew too high, landed two hundred metres away. The golf app floated several helpful tips across my homeview.

“Piece of shit,” I said.

“That’s what you get for shutting down my trial,” she said. Alanna worked at Selenity. She sold me some of the pills and potions my clients preferred, and she also happened to be running the experimental drug trial in which all my sick men were enrolled.

“If you can give me some more info on V2P426, I’ll let my men back into the program.”

“You know I can’t talk about active trials. What the hell has you so jumpy, anyway? Most of Chung Fat’s miners participate in our trials.”

“A bunch of my miners are suffering a rather unique set of side-effects. Have you heard of Koro?”

Alanna laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

I did my best to shake my head in the pressure helmet, then realized it was a futile gesture. “Most of my men who are suffering Koro happen to be in your trial. Have you seen the same thing in other test subjects?”

She wagged her index finger at me, a much more effective means of non-verbal communication when wrapped up in vacuum suit. “Not for V2P426, but Koro is a legend around the office. Hell, I thought it was a myth.”

As we finished the hole, she explained. In Selenity’s early days, drugs that promised to non-surgically enlarge male genitalia were a cash-cow for their competition, even if none of the products actually worked. A bright young designer at Selenity’s new Avalon facility came up with an idea to take advantage of that market: why not just sell a drug that made men believe their penises were bigger? Koro, a syndrome that made people believe their genitals were shrinking, was the starting point. If they could isolate a compound that caused Koro, they might be able to cause the opposite. Five trials later, the drug was pulled. The best results were men who reported no change in genital size, the worst were genital mutilations like I’d seen with Luke.

“What happened to the drug formula?”

“It’s in Selenity’s databases, I suppose. Nothing is ever thrown away up here.”

“Who ran the trial?”

“That, I can’t tell you. Not because I’m trying to hide anything; I really don’t know. It was probably fifty, sixty years ago. Now can we play some golf?”

I checked in with Schedulor: Luke was still unconscious, the swelling down, vitals good. Otherwise the clinic was empty. I told her I could play a few more holes.

Shortly after my next drive, all my alarms went mad.


Schedulor sent me the video footage as I was cycling through the airlock: Bleary Ron stumbled into my clinic, blood soaking his pants, and placed a Ziploc bag in Schedulor’s one good hand before the old miner tumbled to the floor.

“Hope my prick is still good,” Bleary Ron said. “The bag had kippers in it.”

He crumpled to the floor.

I hopped down Smallwood Avenue faster than an urchin with pockets full of stolen Placentia Bay noodles. Bleary Ron was still lying on the ground when I arrived. I dragged him through my clinic, inertia more of a hassle than his weight, and lugged him up onto an examination table. Schedulor logged into the room’s manipulator arms and helped me staunch the blood flow and clean up the wound. Then I opened the Ziploc bag to see what we could do about reattachment.

The base of Bleary Ron’s member was as torn as the place it had been attached. I went to work with antiseptic rinses, followed by a growth enzyme.

“Looks like we have another,” Schedulor said.

“Another doctor?” I hoped.

“Another patient. Correction, make that two.”

I left Schedulor to work on Bleary Ron’s severed member while I rushed back into the lobby. Two more miners occupied my waiting room: a man everyone called Dumper clutched an ice pack to his groin, and blood stained the front of Carlo Del Monte’s trousers. Their files popped up in my homeview: both men had been at the Puffin yesterday, they’d been memetically vaccinated. They shouldn’t have been sick.

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Your penises were retracting and you tried to stop them?”

Both men nodded. By the time I had them in separate examination rooms and had convinced them to take their pants off, three more miners limped into the waiting room. One of them was a woman, Carina, who cradled bleeding breasts in both hands.

There wasn’t enough of me.

I hopped across the hall to the Selenity clinic. Dr. Doronzo’s receptionist, John, sat behind the desk admiring the work of art that was his reflection.

“I need Doronzo’s help,” I said. “It’s an emergency.”

John batted eyelashes that should have belonged to a 2130s starlet. “Sorry, hon, Doronzo’s out of the office at the moment. Doesn’t appear to be answering his phone either. Care to leave a message?”

“Tell him to get here as soon as he can. I need another set of hands.”

Back in the intersection between my clinic and Doronzo’s, I hesitated. Six injured miners was too much for me and Schedulor, but there was another doctor on the station, even if he barely qualified.

Larry Robfort stumbled through my rumination. Boots red, tears soaking his cheeks, his hands holding a mass of oil sorbent cloth.

“Get in line,” I told him, then hopped out onto Smallwood Avenue. As I did, the emergency tone rang in my ear. Belinda overrode my AR and placed herself in my field of view.

“Eight men failed to report to shift this morning, including Larry Robfort. I thought you had this little problem resolved?”

I dodged a pair of Selenity employees who were sipping coffee, arms linked. “I’ll stop it, I swear.”

The awning for the Whole Earth Wellness Centre loomed up over the crowded street.

“Those lost wages are being docked from your pay, as will the overtime fees for the replacement workers. Any further absenteeism will also be added to your education repayments.”

A merchant pushed a cart of fruit-analogues into my path and I leaped over it. “You can’t keep me here any longer.”

By the time I arrived at the Wellness Centre, the message returned from Belinda. “We won’t keep you there. If you can’t prevent these men from hurting themselves, we’ll send you somewhere where you won’t do as much damage to ride out the rest of your contract. I hear Ceres is lovely this time of year.”

She flickered out of my field of view as I cycled into the Wellness Centre. Dr. Earthborn stood in front of twelve cross-legged miners, each of whom held a steaming mug that smelled like composting squid. The good doctor wore a long, flowing silk robe over his white loincloth, and he intercepted me before I could get three steps into the place.

“They came to me for treatment and I gave them the tea in the proper dosage.”

“If they aren’t ripping their penises off, that’s good enough for me. You claimed you were a medical doctor, in addition to all that lotions and potions stuff, right?”

“Harvard Medical.”

I grabbed his wrist and dragged him to the door. “I hope you remember your basic surgical training.”

He pulled out of my grip. “All that’s keeping these men from self-harm is my management of their yang. I can’t abandon them.”

Several of the miners tugged at themselves through the fabric of their moonsuits. Earthborn was right: these men would end up in my clinic soon if something wasn’t done to stop them.

“They’re coming too,” I said. “I think I know how to help. All of you, let’s go.”

On the hopping-run back to the clinic, I sent a description of my plans to Schedulor. By the time we walked through the door, Schedulor had finished the first pair. Reinforced chastity underwear, still steaming, slid out out of his belly.

I handed them to one of the miners from Earthborn’s clinic. “Put these on.” He looked at me like I’d just asked him to list all the prime numbers below 1231. “Doctor’s orders.” I led him toward the toilet. “The rest of you, when Schedulor finishes a pair, you put them on. They’re one size fits all, and I promise, they’ll help.”

A yelp echoed from the toilet. “Hey, these things don’t come off.”

“Exactly,” I shouted back.

I led Earthborn into my surgery.

Schedulor was stitching Bleary Ron back together. Earthborn and I started on Robfort, who had calmed down a bit thanks to the morcaine. Earthborn swabbed away the blood and followed my commands.

I dictated a mandatory order for all Chung Fat employees to report to my clinic. While we prepped Robfort for reattachment, I had Schedulor send it out.


Eleven hours later, we were stitching together a nightshift worker by the unfortunate name of Riel Noseworthy who’d come in for a pair of my mandated underwear, but who had torn himself in the toilet when he was supposed to be putting them on. I recognized Riel from the lecture I’d given at the Puffin. All the men who had hurt themselves had been at my information session, they shouldn’t have been sick, yet here there all were. Riel wasn’t part of any of Selenity’s trials. Could the Koro be both a drug side-effect and memetically transmitted? I still had no idea.

“That should do it,” Earthborn said.

For a man who hadn’t touched a scalpel in almost thirty years, Earthborn was keeping his cool. We’d worked without rest and he only stopped once for a quick “Ohm”. Once our patient was stable, I went to see if Dr. Doronzo had returned to the clinic. We still had four more surgeries and Earthborn and I were getting exhausted.

“There she is,” someone shouted the moment I stepped into the hallway between the two clinics.

Over two hundred people were queued up for their pair of Doc Patel Specials.

“No way I’m putting no locking gitch on my Johnson,” said McEwen, a frequent client of mine.

“The underwear will prevent you from hurting yourself,” I said. “They won’t impair normal bodily functions, and once the Koro delusions subside, I’ll unlock them all.”

Orlandia Wright, a burly female miner who was also an occasional client, pushed through the crowd. “These girls fly free,” she said, hoisting her impressive bosom to make her point. “I don’t have no squirrely ideas about my nipples burrowing, so why must I strap them up?”

“Hell yeah,” someone shouted from the crowd.

“A few days,” I said. “That’s all I ask.”

The door to Dr. Doronzo’s clinic opened and the good doctor stepped out beside Lynn Periwinkle, one of Chung Fat’s drilling foremen. What the hell was Periwinkle doing in Doronzo’s clinic?

“Hey, Doc Doronzo,” McEwen said. “I want a second opinion. Doc Patel says I gotta wear padlocked panties. Whadda you say?”

Dr. Doronzo’s inscrutable face stared at me. He might as well have been wearing a pressure helmet for all the information that mug transmitted. “You aren’t the first to ask for a second opinion,” Doronzo said. He patted Periwinkle on the back. “My good man here asked me to take a look at him. Mr. Periwinkle, I hope you don’t mind me discussing the results?” The foreman shook his bearded head. “He was poisoned. I can’t be certain, of course, but my guess is it was the Narcoplex that Jayna Patel sold him last week.”

The crowd started to grumbled. Not all of them were my clients, but enough were that a critical mass formed, fury catching fire on the kindling of their desperation.

“Please, people,” I said. “I test all my product, make sure it is safe. That’s why you come to me, you know you get the good stuff.”

“She’s been selling you whatever garbage she could get her hands on,” Doronzo said. “So she can head back dirtside a few days sooner.”

“That’s not true.”

The crowd growled out their frustrations.

“She wants off the rock so bad,” McEwen said. “Let’s show her the way. Where’s the nearest airlock?”

They surged toward me, suddenly ferocious. I backed up until I felt the door of the clinic against my spine. It opened, but when I tried to walk through I backed into more miners, these ones wearing my underwear, and they too looked ready to toss me out into the void.

“Schedulor, help!”

“Please don’t hurt the doctor,” Schedulor shouted over the PA.

The miners closed in on me. Doronzo’s ancient eyes twinkled with righteous glee in his plastic face. As I stared into those clouded grey orbs, I saw myself through the man’s eyes, some young bitch soiling the honour of the profession, and in that instant I saw what he’d done, why my men got even sicker after my speech at the Puffin. But it was too late to do anything about it.

McEwen tried to pull off my lab coat, and as I struggled with him, I felt something in my pocket.

I slipped Earthborn’s vial out and held it above my head. “Take another step and you’ll all be ripping your dicks off.”

Liquid the colour of cholera swirled in the slim vial. The crowd took a step away from me. I pointed a finger at Doronzo’s immutable face. “I found this in Doronzo’s office.”

“Lying bitch,” he said. “I have never seen your little vial.”

“He’s been dosing the beer at the Puffin,” I said. “It’s an old drug, one of Selenity’s from decades ago. Doronzo was on the team that developed this poison.”

The crowd engulfed Doronzo like an anemone wrapping pseudopodia around its victim. The ageless doctor bellowed about his innocence, my treachery, my shaming of the profession, my utter contempt for life on the moon. The crowd lapped it up. Those hands turned to talons and shredded my lab coat. Doronzo goaded them on, even as miners gave him a taste of the same. Seems anyone with a stethoscope had it coming.

“What in the hell are you bys doing to our doctors?” Larry Robfort said.

All that rage leaked out of the crowd as the big union president waddled out of the clinic.

“One of them’s been poisoning us,” McEwen said.

Doronzo wriggled free of Orlandia’s grip before I could get a word out. “I’ll settle this right now,” he said. “Give me the vial, I’ll take as much as she wants me to and prove it is nonsense.”

I got up on one knee. “Not the tincture. The beer. You’ve been dosing the Puffin’s beer, down in the Vats where you make your wine. Drink the Puffin’s beer, Doronzo. Prove you haven’t been poisoning us.”

Crinkling around the corners of his eyes. “I’m one hundred and seventy two years old. Beer would devastate my system. There is no way I will drink that swill.”

Orlandia wrapped one huge arm around the doctor and pulled him close. “Oh yes you will.”

The big union president nodded. “Those of you who’ve been fitted with your Patel Specials, help me get these two up to the Puffin. Once the rest of you have your privates locked away, you can come see how this turns out.”

The miners were used to listening to Larry Robfort, and they spared no time marching Doronzo and I to the Puffin.


The Puffin’s air circulation system struggled to scrub the carbon dioxide all those sets of lungs were pumping into the cramped tin can. Quinn brought us each another round. I raised my glass to Doronzo and sucked back half of it.

“No problems, doctor?” I said.

Doronzo stared ahead, sipping at his half-litre glass.

The Koro was working in me. My nipples felt like they were hard nubs, little more than skin tags. I tried to pick at them to keep them from disappearing, but the reinforced sports bra, locked with a passcode only Schedulor knew, kept me from ruining myself. I knew that when my nipples finally did retract I’d die, with the same certainty I knew that should a grenade detonate beside my skull, I wouldn’t be around long enough to even think “I’m toast”. Knowing that the delusion was all in my head didn’t make one iota of difference to how terrified I felt.

Heart pounding, sweat pouring down my temples, I tried to distract myself. On the wall, dozens of little plastic plaques commemorated miners lost to the harsh lunar mistress. The crew of ’87, ’24’s fateful accident at North Tycho. A little plaque for Ace Jones. Every one of the plaques meticulously dusted and polished. Loved. People could love this place.

Doronzo coughed, sprayed beer out his nostrils. He covered his cartilaginous mouth with a smooth hand.

“Feeling funny, Doc?” Robfort said.

The union president paced between the two of us, trying to itch and tug at his recently re-attached member through bullet-proof underroos.

“Beer doesn’t agree with me,” Doronzo said.

“Sorry we can’t accommodate.”

All the miners in the place squirmed in their new undergarments. They drank from old bottles of moonshine that Quinn assured us couldn’t have been contaminated.

The airlock door hissed open, way at the back of the crowd, and they moved aside to let the man through. Earthborn, still in his surgical scrubs. He held a stoppered graduated cylinder that contained a sample of the pale ale Doronzo and I were drinking.

“Schedulor finished his analysis. Trace amounts of an IP protected substance: Selenity owns the copyright to it, so we can’t see what it is.”

Doronzo pushed back his beer. “That doesn’t mean I put it there.”

One of his smooth hands clutched with infantile obliviousness at his belt.

I took another swig of my ale. Despite Doronzo’s tampering, the beer was delicious. Crafted with love by Quinn’s crew in the Vats.

“Does it bother you more that I’m a doctor who moonlights as a drug dealer,” I said. “Or that I make more money as a drug dealer than as a doctor?”

That lifeless flesh rippled. He hissed through clenched teeth. “I had nothing to do with this.”

“No, that’s not it either. I see it now, Doronzo. You love this place. Avalon. The moon.”

I wobbled to my feet, which seemed to have grown very far away from my hips. Doronzo also stood, and backed away from me.

“And I hated it. Made a mockery of everything you love up here. I didn’t just disrespect the profession, I disrespected your home.”

My arms went wide. Sure, it was the beer, it was the fear that my disappearing tits were gonna kill me, but it was also this sad old man with a face that couldn’t show people how he really felt.

“I disrespected you, Doronzo, and you’ve spent what, two, three lifetimes falling in love with the place?” I wrapped him in a hug. That ancient body felt like sections of model train track wrapped in thin polyester sheets. His arms remained rigid at his sides. “Come on, doc. Hug it out. Let’s put this behind us.”

He stabbed me. The blade glanced off my impenetrable sports bra, but the next jab sunk into an unprotected kidney.

“Why you slippery jerk,” I said.

By the time I pushed him away, he’d stabbed me three more times.

“Do no harm!” he said. “Do no harm!”

He hopped for the door. Over one hundred miners danced after him, but they stumbled and tripped over themselves, their movements dulled by the restrictive underwear I’d made them wear. Beer and blood leaked out of me.

With a moan, I brought up the spear golf app in my homeview and assigned the back of Doronzo’s head as the target. The app told me where to throw and I did as I was told. For a moment, I could have sworn I heard the Beautiful Blue Danube playing as the half-litre glass tumbled end-over-end through the one-sixth-g.

The glass hit Doronzo in the back of the skull. He crumpled to the floor. I too was falling by then, all the light draining out of the overheads, but hands kept me upright. My throw didn’t knock him out, just knocked him over, and loosened the control he’d been exerting over himself ever since we started drinking the Puffin’s finest. He unzipped his moonsuit, revealing what looked like a mummified piece of bait fish hanging between his legs, and he went to work tugging it free.


Four days later, I came out of the induced coma. Bandages covered my arm and side. Hundreds of digital flowers filled the recovery room. Larry Robfort snored in the chair at the foot of my bed. I watched him for a moment, the big man childlike in his slumber, then I gave him a kick.

“Get back to work,” he said, blinked, seemed to realize where he was. “‘Bout time. We need you out there, Jayna.”

I shook my head. “I’m done with dealing.”

He wiped the sleep from one eye. “Not what I’m talking about. The arse has gone out of her. Bunch of our bys have come down with some kind of rash Earthborn can’t fix it. Schedulor’s doing the best he can, but he’s just a damn robot. We need a doctor. When can you get back on your feet?”

I was about to explain to him that I’d only been conscious for about two minutes, and that I might require a bit longer before I could return to my post, when Belinda appeared in a cloud of simulated cigarillo smoke beside Robfort at the foot of my bed.

“Took you long enough to come around,” she said. She slipped on reading glasses and read from a tablet. “Chung Fat wishes to express its sincere gratitude for your efforts to investigate and put an end to the alleged poisoning incident at the Pickled Puffin. Dr. Doronzo has been transferred to Tycho Station where he will stand trial for his alleged actions. As a token of our appreciation, Chung Fat has offered to grant you a small bonus for your efforts, in an amount equal to the outstanding balance and remaining interest payments on your education loan. The loan shall be considered paid in full upon your acceptance of this bonus. You will be free to leave as soon as you are well enough for travel.”

“Hold on a moment,” Robfort said.

“Should you accept this bonus, you will absolve Chung Fat of all responsibility -” Belinda lowered the tablet. She seemed amazed that someone had dared interrupt her.

“We’re short two doctors up here,” Robfort said. “You can’t be sending her home.” He rolled his chair over to my side. “We need her, Belinda.”

His huge, calloused hand held on to mine as if he expected me to get up out of bed and run to the nearest Earth-bound shuttle if he were to let go. Those eight seconds as we waited for Belinda’s response seemed to take years. Robfort caught me looking up at him and wouldn’t meet my eye, but this was a different kind of bashfulness than the “Does my bird look alright?” variety.

“Should Dr. Patel wish to stay, Chung Fat would of course continue to employ her, but she has made her intentions clear to me since the outset of her lunar tenure. What do you wish, Jayna?”

Belinda removed her reading glasses, and Robfort turned to face me, his shovel-blade jaw chewing something over.

I waited. Let them think I was weighing pros and cons while I enjoyed that moment. With my debt paid off, I wouldn’t owe Chung Fat a thing. I could leave whenever I wanted to. But I could wait another month or two, maybe a few more. My miners needed me, and the pharma staff would need help too. Despite the Koro, Quinn’s beer was pretty damn tasty and I still had so much room to improve at spear golf.

I gave her my answer.



The Hungry Ghosts

By Kristin Janz

“We aren’t here,” Lindsay said. “We’re just echoes of ourselves. Shadows.”

Kate watched Lindsay thrust her arm into the pedestal of one of the lion statues. Like the rest of her, the arm appeared solid, but when she pushed it into the stone it went in as if she–or the statue–were only a projection.

“If I still existed, I’d be able to feel that,” Lindsay said. Her brown eyes were rimmed with thick black liner, and she wore a navy hooded sweatshirt with “#Resist!” scrawled across the front in white fabric paint.

Whether she existed or not, listening to Lindsay made Kate tired. “If you didn’t exist,” Kate said, “you wouldn’t notice that you didn’t feel anything.”

“Consciousness is an illusion even when you’re alive,” Lindsay said. “It’s been proven by science.”

“So,” said Vicki, floating a few steps higher, “how do you know that you don’t feel anything? Maybe you’re deceiving yourself when you think that you can’t feel your arm going into the stone.”

When Lindsay didn’t answer, Vicki laughed. Vicki’s laugh always made it sound like she was delighted with whomever she’d been talking to, never mocking. “Watch out! I lived with a philosophy professor for five years.”

“When was that?” Kate asked. Like her and Lindsay, Vicki had been living alone when she died.

Vicki didn’t answer right away, giving Kate time to regret the question. She always asked either too much or too little.

“Until four years ago,” Vicki said at last. “He died of a heart attack.”

While Kate was trying to mumble an apology for having brought the subject up, Lindsay burst in with her usual tact. “When you say ‘lived with,’ you mean you two were a couple, right? Do you ever wonder what he’s doing now?” Ghosts could only see and hear others who had died within a few days of them. Those who died farther apart saw each other as increasingly indistinct apparitions, and those whose deaths had occurred more than a week apart could not perceive one another at all.

“It has crossed my mind,” Vicki said.

“Really?” Lindsay seemed not to hear the dryness in Vicki’s voice. “See, I think dying has been easier for me than for you two, because I didn’t have any false expectations about what the afterlife would be like. I thought we’d just, like, die, and there would be nothing.”

“How is that not a false expectation?” Kate asked. “Is that what happened?”

“Fuck you!” Lindsay said. “At least I didn’t think I was getting into heaven for not having sex with my boyfriend.”

Kate couldn’t even count the number of times she had tried to explain to Lindsay that her relationship with God was not quid pro quo, but Lindsay seemed unable to grasp any worldview outside her own narrow experience.

“See, I knew religion was crap even before I died and stayed right here,” Lindsay said. “You must feel pretty stupid now.”

Kate unfolded her limbs and stretched into an upright position, hovering inches above the floor. “The only time I feel stupid is when I realize I’ve wasted another hour listening to you.”


A few people had ventured out onto the wide plaza in front of Trinity Church, most wearing surgical masks over their noses and mouths even though the worst was over. The shopping center across the street still showed signs of looting, but the broken glass had been trucked away. A few of the shops seemed to have re-opened; Kate saw two prospective bargain hunters walk through the large hole where the doors had been. A uniformed security guard eyed them with suspicion, but let them pass. Like the people on the plaza, the shoppers and the security guard were careful not to get too close to one another, careful not to touch.

Be thankful you can still touch each other! Kate wanted to yell out at them. But they wouldn’t have heard.

The Shouters had started up again. From outside the library, Kate could hear the ones all the way over at the Christian Science church.

“Our place! Our place! Stay away! Stay away!” About thirty Shouter ghosts had laid claim to the Christian Science library and its three-story globe map of the world. Another gang had taken over the Museum of Fine Arts, and one or two hundred occupied Fenway Park.

It didn’t make a lot of sense. But who wanted to stay in their own house watching their bloated corpse decompose? Or watch people they loved doubled over coughing up blood; or worse, surviving on their own?

Kate wasn’t sure where her body was. Collectors had come four days after her death to take it away to some makeshift morgue, and she hadn’t been able to float quickly enough to follow the truck.

Across the river, past tall, wood-framed multifamily houses, along streets still eerily quiet, Kate drifted, giving a wide berth to the small gallery exhibiting two of her paintings. When she reached her destination, the familiar triple decker with its cracked paint and splintering steps, she hesitated. She shouldn’t be here.

Inside, a baby was crying. More faintly, she could hear the familiar jangle of strings, the scratch of distortion.

Kate passed through the front door and willed herself up the staircase to the third level, passing the apartment with the crying baby on the second. She hadn’t known Shane’s downstairs neighbors; maybe she had passed them on the stairs once or twice.

Shane sat on the edge of the couch, hunched over his guitar. Kate felt a sudden, selfish bubble of disappointment. If only he had died soon enough after her, they could have been reunited. Never to touch one another again, true; but it would have been better than nothing.

Stray copper strands glinted in the sunlight as his brown hair fell over the side of his face. Standing next to him, Kate reached out to push it away, but her hand went right through him.

And yet, was that a faint shudder, a sigh of recognition? Shane’s hands seemed to falter on the strings. A moment later, he stopped playing and leaned his instrument between the couch and end table.

“Shane?” Could he hear her? Kate hardly dared to hope. Everything she had seen and heard in the three weeks since death confirmed that nothing the dead could do had any effect on the physical world, or on the living. But maybe, just maybe, if will and emotion were strong enough…?

Shane slouched deeper into the couch, his long legs stretched out under the coffee table, his face listless.

“Shane?” Once more, Kate tried to touch him, leaning over from behind, trying to rest her hands on his shoulders. She breathed in the scent of his hair, almost drowning in it. But once more, her hands passed through him as if he were made of air.

“You can drive yourself crazy doing that,” said Vicki’s voice from behind.

Kate yanked her hands away. “Yes,” she said, with forced lightness, “but would I really be crazy, or only think I was?”

Vicki laughed. She floated closer, her Birkenstock-clad feet about four inches above the floor. Ghosts had no conscious control over what they wore in the afterlife, and Kate was glad that her own subconscious had not dressed her in such an unflatteringly sack-like sundress. It made Vicki look heavier and dowdier than she really was. Whereas Kate’s expensive jeans and close-fitting black top of variously textured fabrics accented her slight curves and marked her as someone who cared about the face she presented to the world.

“This is your ex-boyfriend?” Vicki said. “The one you told us about?”

“Yeah.” They were silent for a few moments, watching Shane. At one point he reached for his guitar, but then changed his mind and picked up the TV remote instead.

“You know,” Vicki said, “after I died, I spent the first four days at a friend’s house, trying to make her notice me. I jumped up and down and waved my arms, I tried to put my hands through her head. I even shouted, as loud as I could, once for an entire hour.” Her lips twitched with amusement. “I was lucky no Shouters came by to challenge me.”

Kate did not smile. “Did your friend ever see you?”

“It’s not easy to say. I kept convincing myself she had. She looked up a couple of times, right after I’d done something to get her attention, and once it seemed like she was looking straight at me. But now, thinking back….” Vicki shrugged. “I think I saw what I wanted to see.”

Kate glanced around the living room, craning her neck to look into the kitchen. The apartment was a mess, unwashed mugs and dirty clothes everywhere. There was no sign of Shane’s roommate. Kate’s painting still stood in its corner, propped against the wall. She didn’t know whether to be happy that he still kept it out, or resentful that their breakup had meant so little to him that he could stare every day at a picture she had painted and not be overwhelmed by grief.

“Is it okay if I ask what happened?” Vicki said.

It felt uncomfortable to be talking about Shane while he was in the room. “He didn’t break up with me because I wouldn’t have sex with him, no matter what Lindsay thinks. I was the one who broke up with him.”

True, technically, but it left out a lot. The long silence when Kate first told him she wasn’t willing to have sex until she was married. The sudden spark of anger that flashed in his eyes every so often when she would finally pull away from his roaming hands. Lying awake worrying about when he would decide to abandon his experiment with celibacy and move on. The fear of losing him had been making her physically ill, affecting her work at the office, sucking her dry of inspiration when she tried to paint. It had seemed that the only way to be free of the fear of losing him was to walk away.

Vicki’s eyes were the same shade of brown as Lindsay’s, but hers were sympathetic instead of mocking. “Did you love him?”

Shane was watching a music video and mumbling along with the lyrics under his breath. The corners of Kate’s mouth lifted. He couldn’t carry a tune to save his life.

“Yeah,” Kate said. “I did.”

She had never told him so. Don’t say it until he says it first, all her friends counseled, and she hadn’t, afraid to stretch out a hand where there might not be one to receive it.

On their way out, Vicki paused on the landing outside the second floor apartment. The baby was still crying.

“We can’t do anything,” Kate cautioned. “Maybe we don’t want to know what’s wrong with it.” Children made her uncomfortable, and the smaller they were the less she liked them.

Instead of answering, Vicki floated through the door. Kate followed.

The infant was in one of the bedrooms, lying on her back in a crib, on a bare mattress. There were no adults anywhere. The baby was screaming like someone was murdering her, her tiny hands clenched into fists near her head.

“Where are the parents?” Kate demanded. “You can’t leave a baby alone like this!”

“Kate,” Vicki said. “Look.”

The baby’s wailing faltered, breaking off at the sound of Vicki’s voice. And, as if that were not evidence enough, Kate looked, and saw a hint of translucency, not so that she could see through the girl to the mattress beneath, but just a bit of blurriness around the edges of her form.

“She’s dead,” Kate said, her voice dull. She hadn’t died the same day as Kate and Vicki, or she would have looked solid, but it couldn’t have happened more than three or four days in either direction.

“Don’t cry, little one,” Vicki said. “It’s going to be all right.” She reached out a hand. The baby tried to grab it. But of course the tiny fingers went right through Vicki.

The baby’s face screwed up. She reached again, and again her hand went through Vicki’s. She scrunched her eyes shut tight and started to wail.

“Hush, hush,” Vicki murmured, waving the hand around. “Look at me, sweetheart. Look!” But the ghost baby wouldn’t open her eyes. She just kept screaming. No tears, though. Ghosts could only make the sound of crying, they couldn’t cry real tears.

Kate felt a rising pressure in the back of her throat and behind her eyes. She tried to swallow, to make the feeling go away, but she couldn’t, ghosts had no saliva either. Her eyes burned.

Vicki was singing now. Her soothing voice tried to rise above the baby’s anguished wails, but the discord of the two sounds together made the ghostly hairs on the back of Kate’s neck stand up.

Kate fled.


Much later, she found Vicki and Lindsay floating cross-legged above the library’s front steps, outside the main entrance. With the library still closed, it got pretty dark inside once the sun went down.

A young man loitered nearby, talking into his phone in a low voice between drags on a cigarette. Lindsay eyed the cigarette with undisguised lust.

Vicki didn’t have the ghost baby with her. She looked sad. Vicki had mentioned always wanting children, but never being in the right relationship at the right time.

“How was your evening?” Vicki asked.

Kate shrugged. “Fine. I stopped by my church. I guess they’ve started holding services again.”

“The live people or the dead ones?” Lindsay asked.

Kate glared at her. “The live ones.” She made a face. “I ran into a bunch of ghosts who want me to join their Bible study.”

Vicki frowned, puzzled. “How are they going to–”

“Hold the Bibles? They’re not. They’re going to find a Bible study group of live people and haunt them.”

Lindsay snickered. “Are you going to go?”

“What? When I could spend that time listening to you brag about your sex life?”

Lindsay gave her the finger.

“It’s not such a bad idea,” Vicki said, after a few moments. “Most of us are even more isolated from others than when we were alive, and anything that helps build community….”

“Like the Shouters?” Kate asked, sparing a glance for Lindsay. Lindsay had spent some time as a Shouter before latching on to Kate and Vicki.

“Those aren’t so much communities as mobs,” Vicki said. She considered the question. “But maybe even the Shouters are better than nothing. After what Lindsay and I heard.”

“While you were gone, these other ghosts came by,” Lindsay said. “They’ve been trying to warn people. I mean ghosts when I say people, of course.”

“Ghosts have been disappearing, apparently,” Vicki said.

“Yeah,” Lindsay said. “But just the ones who stay in their house by themselves and won’t socialize with anyone else. Other ghosts who knew about them would go over to say hi, and they’d be gone. The antisocial ones, not the ones who went to visit.”

“Maybe they’d just gone out for a while,” Kate said.

“No! Fuck, you’re not listening. These are ghosts who never went out, because they were, like, depressed, or because they were afraid to stop watching their live kids, or something else like that. They vanished.”

“One of the people who came to talk with us thought he felt an unhealthy aura inside the house where a ghost friend had disappeared,” Vicki said.

Kate made a skeptical face. “Ghosts can’t feel heat or cold or gale force winds, but we can feel someone’s spiritual aura?”

“It’s no dumber than believing in the afterlife,” Lindsay said.

“Anyway,” Vicki said, “these ghosts suggested we should try to stay together as much as possible. Ghosts who have companions don’t seem to disappear.”

“I wouldn’t mind disappearing,” Lindsay said. “This afterlife blows. Maybe the next one is better.”


The new ghosts stopped by the library to visit several times over the next few days. On their fourth visit, they stayed to watch Lindsay perform a one-woman play she had been working on in school.

Even Kate had to admit that Lindsay had talent. The bratty, foul-mouthed twenty-year old was switched off, and in her place sprang up a shy, bookish teenager; a harried young mother with a drinking problem; an arthritic old woman with an astonishingly sly and subtle sense of humor. It’s too bad she’s dead, Kate found herself thinking.

Lindsay must have been thinking the same thing. “I guess this is the closest I get to Broadway.”

“Or Hollywood,” Vicki said.

“Nah, you need a fucking boob job for that.” Lindsay mimed hoisting herself to emphasize her lack of natural film appeal. “And mega plastic surgery.” Her face brightened. “Maybe we can start a ghostly theater company. We could do performances on the Common, like those Shakespeare plays.”

“Who’s going to come?” Kate asked. “Shouters?”

Lindsay turned on her. “Who fucking asked you? Maybe some of us care enough about our art to keep doing it even though we’re dead. Just because you didn’t care enough about yours to do it while you were alive!”

“Kate has two paintings in a gallery in Somerville, Lindsay,” Vicki said. The three visiting ghosts all looked embarrassed, but intrigued enough by the unfolding drama not to leave.

“Yeah, I went and looked at them,” Lindsay said. “They’re good. Just think what you could have done if you’d been willing to make some sacrifices.”

“We don’t all have rich parents who can bankroll us through four years of theater studies.”

“Fuck my parents! I’m not talking about school, I’m talking about the rest of your life. I’m talking about your nice safe engineering job.”

Once again, Vicki tried to play peacemaker. “Kate made a lot of personal sacrifices so she could set aside time to paint.”

Kate heard a surprising edge in Vicki’s voice. Or perhaps not so surprising. Vicki had admitted to doing a lot of writing in high school and college in the 70s, but had confessed that as time went on, and life and relationship demands became more complex, it became harder and harder to find time, and by the time of her death her efforts had been limited to journaling and the occasional poem.

“Kate made stupid sacrifices of things she didn’t even want so she could waste time pretending she was an artist.” Lindsay turned to Kate. “That’s the easiest thing to do, isn’t it? That way you have an excuse for failing as an artist, and for failing in all your relationships, because you weren’t really trying at either one.”


Shane was out, but he had left on enough lights in the living room that Kate could study the painting she had given him. I’d rather have you, he had said, and at the time Kate was irritated, assuming he was talking about sex, and hadn’t they been over that enough already? But now she wondered. Was it too far-fetched to think that sex had been only a small part of what he was talking about? Was he, perhaps, also talking about her zealously guarded painting time? Her unwillingness to adjust her vacation plans once he came into the picture, even if it meant a three-week trip to Ireland without him? The way she always answered invitations to tell what she was thinking with “you first”?

The painting showed a young woman staring at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, one hand against the glass, trying to communicate with the image. But the reflection was oblivious, half-turned away, distracted by something outside the frame of the picture. Oddly enough, the woman looked like Lindsay, although Kate was sure she had never seen Lindsay while the two of them were alive.

It was easy for Lindsay to talk about continuing in her own mode of artistic expression after she was dead. She had one of the few vocations in which that was possible. Kate couldn’t even hold a paintbrush now. She had all the free time in the world–she didn’t even need sleep–but couldn’t use that time to do anything she cared about.


As morning began to push away the darkness in the rest of the apartment, Kate realized that she had not heard the crying ghost baby from the second floor, not for the past several hours. Had the baby been wailing when she arrived last night? Kate couldn’t remember. She didn’t always notice what was going on around her when she was feeling sorry for herself.

The second floor apartment was empty, the silence oppressive. The curtains were drawn and the sun had not quite risen, so there wasn’t enough ambient light in the rest of the apartment to brighten the child’s bedroom. The shadows cast by the dressers and changing table felt menacing.

Kate crept over to the side of the crib. It was as empty as the rest of the room.

Had the shadows in the room grown darker? Kate glanced around. Nothing moved. Was this what that other ghost meant when he talked about unhealthy auras?

Something rustled in the kitchen. It was probably only mice. But Kate didn’t wait to find out.


Shane finally came home around noon, hungover. He dropped his guitar and amp in the living room, drank a quart and a half of Gatorade, and collapsed facedown on his bed without taking off his shoes.

Kate hovered near the door. Something stirred inside her as she watched the rhythmic rise and fall of his shoulders.

She moved closer, closer, until she stood over him. In the room’s deep silence, she could almost hear his heart beat.

“Shane? Can you hear me?”

He didn’t respond.

“I shouldn’t have run away. I could have taken the chance that you wouldn’t leave me.” As crazy and implausible as that chance might have been. “I was afraid.”

She ran her hand down the back of his head, over his shoulders and back, her fingers disappearing inside him. She couldn’t feel him any more than she could feel her own flesh.

Desire was another phantom pain. It felt as real as it ever had when she was alive, alive and in this bed, half her clothing forgotten on the floor, every brush of his lips against her bare skin making her crazy with the sweet agony of restraint.

“I wish I had stopped saying no,” Kate told him. “God would have understood.”

Kate didn’t know if she believed that or not, any more than she knew if she believed what she kept telling Lindsay, that she hadn’t expected anything from God in exchange for her good behavior.

She reached for Shane again, crouching low beside his bed. She put her face next to his head, so close that she could smell the reek of his breath. She stretched her hands out into his side. She wished she could feel something, anything, even the warmth of the blood in his veins. But he was like air to her.

She was tempted to try and wrap herself around him like a lover, to sink into him until they occupied the same space. But she held back. Something about that impulse struck her as obscene, like groping a stranger in his sleep.

On the street below, a truck rumbled by. The hundred-year old windows rattled in their wooden frames.

Shane woke. He shot up in bed, his eyes wide.

Kate pulled away, alarmed.

Shane glanced around the room as if he were afraid something was about to leap at him out of a corner. “Kate?”

The pressure in Kate’s chest and head rose, unbearably. “I’m here,” she said. But even when he looked right in her direction, he couldn’t see her. After a few moments, he lay down again and slipped back into sleep.


Kate watched him sleep until early evening, imagining lines of charcoal on a page delineating the shadows his face cast, the curve of his shoulders. Later, she hung just inside the bathroom door while he showered and brushed his teeth. She tried speaking to him again, but he gave no sign that he heard.

Logic told her that it had been a coincidence. The noise of the passing truck had woken him. He had been dreaming about her. Why wouldn’t he dream about her? She had been his girlfriend for six months, broken up with him, and then died three weeks later in a flu pandemic. There was no reason to believe that he had sensed her leaning over him, heard her words through the darkened glass of sleep.

And yet. What if he had? What if the dead really could communicate with the living, if they wanted to badly enough?

Shane called his parents and talked briefly with each of them. Then he ate a bowl of dry cornflakes. When he left the apartment, Kate followed, but he took his car instead of walking, leaving her standing on the sidewalk, staring mournfully at the street.

Alone in the apartment, Kate tried to make things move. If she could rearrange the furniture, or even tip over a glass left on the coffee table, wouldn’t Shane have to suspect some sort of ghostly presence? But it was no use. No matter how hard she stared, even pushing at something with both hands–even praying to the God who seemed to have forsaken her–she could not make even the comforter on Shane’s bed move even a fraction of an inch.

Shane came back just after the clock on the microwave showed 2:00, but he did come back. Good; if he had slept with someone the night before, it hadn’t been love at first sight.

He smelled of beer and cigarettes. “You shouldn’t be drinking so much,” Kate told him. She watched as he changed into sweatpants and an older t-shirt and crawled into bed. He didn’t fall asleep right away. He lay curled slightly on one side, his head and shoulder uncovered, his eyes wide open.

All she had intended was to bring her lips next to his, to kiss him as if he were a sleeping prince. But when the magic didn’t wake him into awareness, as she had half-imagined it would, desperation took her. She stretched her body out over his, inside his, like two insubstantial projections merging into one. She tried to fit herself to him, curve for curve. Again and again, she tried to touch him wherever he was most likely to notice, if he could notice anything she did.

And none of it mattered. Eventually, he fell asleep, without noticing, and eventually Kate withdrew from him, sick with shame.

Would God understand this? she couldn’t help thinking. And did it make any difference, if he did?

If it didn’t, if in the end it all came down to this….


Shane had turned the lights off in the living room this time. As morning approached, and the darkness began to creep away, Kate stood at the east-facing windows. She held up a hand to the pink glow coming in through the blinds.

I still look real. She could almost see the framework of bones beneath her skin, the traceries of blue veins, caught in the new day fire of the sun.

“What the fuck are you doing to yourself?”

Kate spun around.

Lindsay, followed closely by Vicki. Vicki’s brown eyes were all motherly concern. Lindsay’s were pissed.

“Have you fucking looked at yourself?” Lindsay demanded, pointing.

Vicki floated forward, passing right through Lindsay in her haste. “Kate. You’re disappearing. You have to get out of this apartment.”

Kate held up her hand again. She really could see the bones of her fingers and wrist. Her flesh had gone transparent, like a bad projection.

Her eyes met Vicki’s. “The baby downstairs is gone.” The baby, wailing its heart out, alone in the only place it knew.

“You’re going to go the same way,” Vicki said. “If you stay here.”

“But he heard me!” Kate protested. “I was talking to him, and he woke up in the middle of the night and said my name.”

Vicki hesitated.

“So what?” Lindsay demanded. “It’s not worth it. You’re disappearing. Maybe if you try hard enough, you can make him see you once before you’re completely gone.”

Suddenly, there was Shane, standing in the entrance to the hallway. Kate froze in place. He seemed to be staring straight at her.

“He’s only looking out the window, Kate,” Vicki said gently. “The sun is coming up.”

Kate forced herself to take her eyes off him, to turn and see what he saw. The sun was indeed coming up, the entire eastern sky gently afire from within. It was a gorgeous fall morning, perhaps gorgeous enough to make someone forget that his ex-girlfriend, and maybe his roommate, and who knew how many other friends, were dead of something so innocuous as the flu. That the world had seemed poised on the edge of collapse, and it was still unclear which direction it was tumbling over into.

After a moment, Kate heard the slap of Shane’s bare feet down the hallway and into the kitchen. The fridge door opened and closed.

“He’s nothing special,” Lindsay said. “I was expecting some fucking Greek god, the way you talk about him.”

She walked across the room to examine Kate’s painting.

“This painting’s just as good as the other ones.” Apparently Lindsay didn’t notice the subject’s resemblance to her. “You should have been in your studio emptying your soul into trying to make a paintbrush move. It would have been more worthwhile than hanging around here moping over your drunk-ass loser ex.” She straightened from her inspection, looking Kate straight in the eyes. “Are you coming with us or not?”

Kate didn’t answer.

Lindsay shrugged. “Fuck if I care. I’m out of here.” And she slipped outside right through the wall, never mind that they were on the third floor.

Kate watched as Shane stumbled back down the hallway to his room. He didn’t look in their direction this time, neither at Kate nor out the window.

Vicki moved closer to her. Concern wrinkled her brow.

“You realize it, don’t you? The ghosts who disappeared did it to themselves. They poured so much of themselves into trying to interact with the physical world that there was nothing left.”

“Like the baby?” Kate demanded. “It’s the baby’s fault that she disappeared. Is that what you’re saying?”

Vicki didn’t have an answer for that. “We’ve missed you,” was all she said. “I hope you’ll decide to come back.” And she was gone.

Left behind, Kate stood for a moment in the entrance to the hallway, staring at the open door to Shane’s room, listening to the sound of his breathing. She could see her painting out of the corner of one eye, its oils glowing in the light of the new sun.

In the end, she went the way Lindsay and Vicki had, straight through the third-floor wall to the street beyond, heedless of stairs and doorways she no longer needed.

She could see them in the distance, flying through the air. The ground could not hold them.



Always on My Mind

By David Cleden

If you cut the main artery from some living organism and laid it out across an arid wasteland then, Sabbi supposed, you would have something much like the Strip. True, the Strip was inorganic, a man-made thing cast in concrete, steel and glass, but still it lived. There were places where you could stand and see the Strip stretching away like a ribbon of light across the night-time desert, unspooling for mile after mile, blurring into one featureless splash of neon advertising hoardings.

And sooner or later, it would bleed out and die.

But Sabbi had become expert at letting tomorrow take care of itself. Save your worries for the here and now: there were plenty of reasons to.

The crowds of shoppers ebbed and flowed–and that was good. They provided her with anonymity: a hundred thousand or more, thronging the broadwalks of the Strip on a hot summer afternoon, closeted by endless store-fronts and restaurants and coffee-houses–imprisoning them within the Strip’s rapacious jaws.

From behind the gleam of her sunglasses, Sabbi scanned faces, trying to avoid flat-foots mingling with the shoppers. Most of the cops wore the Strip-sponsored uniform–visibility a key part of their deterrent–but they came in a plain-clothes variety too. They knew all about the petty thieves, the grifters like Sabbi who worked the lower echelons of the Strip’s ecosystem. Flat-foots carried the authority of no lesser person than the Chairman herself to arrest-and-deport on sight. They also carried tasers delivering kick-ass voltage–not intended to be lethal but not something Sabbi was inclined to put to the test. Worst of all, they carried attitude.

And now the stolen bracelet was burning a hole in her pocket. Every fiber of Sabbi’s body could sense its bulk as she moved, its cool sleekness pressing against her thigh. You could find plenty on sale down the Strip worth ten times its price. But this one was special. This was a commission, lifted to order. These days, Sabbi only worked to commission. The payouts were lower but the work was steady, so it balanced out in the long run. And it helped make her feel more… legitimate. The way a professional business-woman ought to act. Yeah, go me with my worthless career aspirations.

Something didn’t feel right, though. A vague uneasiness gnawed at her. Nothing she could pinpoint, but you didn’t survive on the Strip without learning to trust your instincts. And right now those instincts were telling her this wasn’t worth the risk.

So just do it–and do it quick.

There was no shortage of marks to choose from. There was never any shortage on the Strip. That was the whole point.

She drifted closer to a young woman browsing store-fronts arm-in-arm with her boyfriend. Strip-standard attire said everything there was to say about her: wealth, privilege, arrogance. Perfect. Sabbi stumbled lightly into the woman, mumbled an apology, and the bracelet slipped into the woman’s shoulder-bag in one smooth motion.

Sabbi would drift for a while to get her composure back, but stay close. If all seemed okay, she’d find an opportunity to ‘reacquire’ the bracelet. No sense in wasting a commission payout. Nobody would be any the wiser. And no harm done, except maybe a tiny dent in profits for one particular Strip merchandiser, and frankly she considered them good for it.

Sabbi noticed a man watching her from thirty feet away, the way you do when one pair of eyes seems to be locked on you in a sea of oblivious faces. She felt her heart jump. She lifted her head, looking straight at him, letting him get a good look at her shades.

With the sunglasses on, Sabbi looked as if she had bug-eyes. The lenses had a clever faceted-prism design: transparent for the wearer, but appearing to everyone else like the compound eye of some nightmarish bipedal insect. And while the casual observer was trying to make sense of it–a hundred tiny reflections of their bemused face staring back from those lenses–Sabbi was checking them out, working out what kind of mark they might be, or what threat they posed. Or maybe sussing out an escape route. Definitely one of those, and sometimes all three at once.

She loved those shades. Sure, people noticed them, but they were meant to. And because they only ever noticed the shades, not the person wearing them, when she took them off it was like throwing an invisibility switch.

She side-stepped away into the thickest part of the crowd, slipping the glasses off, changing direction at random. Glancing back a couple of times, she caught only the briefest glimpse of the man. His movements seemed to lack urgency, but he was shadowing her moves and that couldn’t be chance. Sabbi quickened her pace, beginning to shoulder her way through strolling couples who didn’t move out of her way in time.

And now Sabbi could feel a buzzing at the base of her skull, a kernel of pain threatening to blossom into a headache. She ignored it and pressed on, puzzled at the surge of people suddenly moving in the opposite direction. A moment later, she heard it. Or felt it. Or–

Perfumes for the ladies! Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else! All kinds of perfumes!

The words slammed into her frontal cortex, assaulting her with almost physical force. No sounds though, just fully-formed words straight into her brain. Around her, people were dipping their heads and turning away, like a shoal of fish cleaved in two by a predator. Some were rubbing their foreheads, others muttering curses.

Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot–

Unwelcome thoughts and images exploded in her brain, thundering around inside her skull until she was sure she could feel her eyeballs vibrating.

She saw the hawker twenty yards ahead, his hand-cart piled high with bright packages of cosmetics. Sabbi knew most of the street traders in this zone, but here was a new face–frozen into a rictus smile that was fooling no one. In front of his stall, tethered to it by a thick ankle chain, the Thal paraded miserably up and down, issuing forth the mental torrent of advertising slogans.


Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else!

Maxine à la Mode!

Too hot–

Too hot–

Sabbi had never seen an actual live Thal, and certainly never got this close to one. As far as she knew, the few that had survived into adulthood had all been taken to isolation centers once the geneticists had finished dicking around playing god and the federal legislators had closed down the labs. This one had a stocky build, classically prominent brow-ridge with receding hairline and thick black hair allowed to grow long, but otherwise normal-looking. Not all Thals were strong broadcasters, but most showed the symptoms: predisposal to unilateral telepathic projection, an ability–if that was the right word–that laid bare their soul to everyone around. She tried to imagine what it would be like to uncontrollably broadcast your innermost thoughts to anyone within range, to forego even the most basic level of privacy.

And now this? Using a Thal as some kind of all-pervasive advertising gimmick? That had to be a new low. Though never underestimate the Strip’s ingenuity if there was a quick buck to be made. Sabbi shuddered, but she was damned if she couldn’t nearly smell that perfume now.

The Thal was tiring. His thoughts were losing focus, breaking up into an incoherent babble that mostly radiated hurt and loneliness and longing. The hawker yelled something incoherent at him but the wash of emotions only fragmented further.

The Thal continued to parade up and down, his head endlessly questing from side to side in that curious manner of the slow-witted, as though searching for something long since lost. He looked forlorn.

Sabbi let herself be carried with the flow of the crowd away from the hawker, the Thal’s thoughts beginning to fade from her mind. She’d lost sight of her pursuer, and that made her nervous. And she’d almost certainly lost her commission.

Something hard and claw-like gripped her arm, tightening inexorably. From behind, a voice spoke into her ear, foul-smelling breath assaulting her nostrils. “Prosser wants a word, my little lady-bug. Wants to know when he gets paid.”

“Ow! Let go of me! You’re going to cut my frackin’ arm in half!”

“Prosser’s not happy.” The grip tightened. Sabbi half expected to see blood staining her sleeve.

“I told you before, Crab. When I’ve got it, Prosser gets it.” Her fingers skittered uselessly over the pincer-like artificial hand squeezing her upper arm, trying to pry it loose. A tingling numbness was beginning to spread from the loss of circulation. Rumor had it that Crab had once snapped a man’s head clean off at the neck, like dead-heading a flower. Some poor unfortunate who had seriously pissed off Prosser. Just like her.

With no lessening of pressure, Crab began to maneuver her towards one of the narrow service alleys leading away from the Strip. The people flowed around them in an ill-temper, unsettled by the Thal’s blunt advertising message. Even now, something akin to the Thal’s carrier wave reached out to anyone within a hundred yard radius, broadcasting its jumble of resentment and misery; a cacophony of sub-vocal thoughts. It was like having some whiney two-year old living inside your skull. She glanced back and saw the hawker slip some kind of gauze hood over the Thal’s head–and immediately a calm descended.

“Look,” she told Crab. “Maybe there’s another way.”

“Oh yes, lady-bug. I like the other way.” The grip tightened a fraction and Sabbi yelped.

“Listen! What if I could set Prosser up with a shot at the Lakenbys store?”

Crab seemed to think about this. The pressure eased a fraction. She could almost hear the gears turning in his brain. “Lakenbys is not possible.”

Well, yes. They all thought that. The smart grifters stayed well clear. Lakenbys took security to a whole new level on the Strip: i-cams everywhere, beam interferometry on the display cases, item tagging–you name it, and Lakenbys had almost certainly implemented it. And there were too many staff with suspicious eyes. Management policy was ruthless prosecution of all grifters to the maximum permitted in law. But even Lakenbys had a weakness. Customers. You had to entice customers into the store–so long as they came with big fat credit chips. Draw them in, sell the goods, complete the transaction, send them on their way. In and out. And that meant being open and inviting. A pro like Sabbi sneered at the unsubtle nature of snatch-and-run, but really it was no different to the usual mode of business–except for the bit about the credit transaction. You had to be audacious and quick, and the staff had to be slow or off-guard. But it could be made to work.

“No, not possible. Not Lakenbys,” Crab repeated.

“Yes, possible. With the right kind of distraction. And I know just the thing.”


The Strip opened at noon each day but only came alive at sunset. The pretty young things came then. And the social climbers, and the out-of-state tourists and the rich city workers from the gated communities near the coast. They came in their tens of thousands each evening, looking for ways to flaunt their money and buy themselves status. It wasn’t about the merchandise. You could have the goods droned-in to your personal collection point from the very same warehouses that nestled up behind the Strip’s storefronts. It was about the experience–and there was something almost religious in its intensity. The Strip was the New Church of Latter-day Commerce; a place to worship at the altar of materialism. Its cathedral: a twelve-mile long mall crammed with every conceivable and irrelevant luxury.

But still a façade. The Strip was nothing more than a single great artery of opulence; all length and no width, pulsing to the daily heart-beat of its trade. Step into the stark service-alleys and you encountered a different world: festering trash piles awaiting collection, squalid boarding houses for employees lacking the means to travel in from the city suburbs. There were twenty-four seven basement bars where off-shifters frittered away meager wages on cheap booze. Tat-parlours, brothels, crud-head joints, even backstreet surgeries if you needed a little patching up with no questions asked.

As the sun sank lower, the Strip came alive, glittering with the lights of ten thousand mall-stores. The already crowded boardwalk filled with entertainers and hustlers. It was said that on a hot summer night, half a million souls came.

In different circumstances, finding the hawker again might have been a problem. As it was, a rough location was all Sabbi needed. She had guessed he would hole up in the southern district tonight, maybe try his luck tomorrow further north. And she had been right. Now the faint whisper of miserable thoughts leaking from the Thal made the rest of the job easy.

Sabbi hurried down shadowy backstreets, pausing and retracing her steps whenever the background signal grew marginally fainter; triangulating, closing in. She checked her watch. Prosser’s man would be in place by now, waiting for her to do her part. No time to lose.

She stared at the box-panel van parked up at the far end of an access road, as far away from people as possible. The thudding pulse of a juke-box rose from a basement bar on the other side of the street. As she passed by the van experimentally, the background static from the Thal’s mind grew suddenly loud as though someone had twisted a dial.

He was here.

The driver’s cab was empty and there was no sign of the hawker. He would be somewhere out of range, and glad of it, downing his third or fourth whiskey by this time of the evening. Sabbi checked the street again. Deserted.

She tried the van’s rear door. Locked.

But Sabbi knew about locks. She suppressed a smile. Just one of the many skills a professional woman like her needed on her CV. A moment’s concentration and then the tumblers had fallen into place.

The tone of the mind babble coming from within changed. The Thal must have heard her scratching at the lock. She sensed his confusion and uncertainty.

Good. Her plan depended on that.

Sabbi wrenched open the back door. A low wattage bulb lit the interior giving out scarcely more light than a candle. Most of the space was taken up by a cage: heavy duty floor-to-ceiling bars set a few inches apart, covered with a skin of gauze-like mesh, similar to the hood she had seen the hawker pull over the Thal’s head.

The Thal sat on a stool at the back of the cage, a plate of food cradled between his knees, fork half-raised to his mouth. Off to one side was a chamber pot. A smell of spicy broth and piss hung in the air. There was barely room to stand in the back of the van. The caged Thal could take maybe two paces at most. If this was how he lived, she would be doing them both a favour.

Who you? WHO YOU?

“It’s okay. Take it easy. I’ve come to help.”

WHO YOU?

The Thal had stood, spilling the broth onto the floor, retreating to the furthest corner while his distress beamed out to the world.

“A friend,” Sabbi said, hating herself for the lie. “Come to get you out.”

No friend! No friend!

“Why don’t you tell me your name?”

There was a door set into the front of the cage, made of the same mesh construction presumably designed to dampen the worst of the Thal’s thoughts. She would need to brace herself when she opened the cage.

But the door was secured by some kind of electronic lock, a spot of red light glowing on one edge. “Where’s the keycard kept?” she asked the Thal. She glanced around in case the hawker had hung it on a hook out of reach.

No. Not leave. STAY!

“Listen! This is your chance to go free, okay? Escape! But please–” she touched a hand absently to her forehead and rubbed at the place where a headache was beginning, “can you not shout?”

NOT SHOUT? The Thal reached into a pocket and pulled the gauze hood over his head. Better?

“Much.”

Sabbi tried to calm herself. How the hell was she supposed to break this kind of lock? If she couldn’t get this door open, her plan was ruined. She had promised Prosser a distraction, a good one, and a confused, unhappy Thal blundering his way down the Strip was certainly likely to provide that. But not if she couldn’t spring him. Her tools skittered uselessly around the locking mechanism, looking for a way in that wasn’t there. She tried not to imagine Crab’s relentless grip on her arm, squeezing until the bones beneath began to crunch.

You go now? She heard a note of hope behind the thought.

“Not without you. I need to break you out of here.”

No! Want stay! NEED STAY!

She hadn’t figured on the damned Thal being too stupid to escape, if the chance came. If. Big if.

“Do you really want all this? Living like someone’s goddamned pet in a cage? Only taken out when your master needs you to perform your tricks? Here’s your chance. Here is your moment.”

The Thal stared at her with eyes somehow bright in the dimness of the weak bulb. His head made that curious weaving motion, smooth and sinuous, even though his eyes remained fixed on her.

Teleoman.

“What?”

Teleoman. Teleoman. TELEOMAN!

“Ah. Right, fine. Pleased to meet you, Teleoman.” She squatted by the lock, trying to think, willing her brain to come up with some alternative plan. But her head was filled with jumbled thoughts leaking from the Thal’s mind. Even though he wore the hood, she felt the rushing torrent of white noise as an almost physical thing, drowning out her own thoughts. “Alright, listen Teleoman. There must be something you’ve always wanted to do, some place you wanted to go?”

He seemed to consider this.

Teleoman belong here!

“No, you don’t. No one belongs in a cage. Everyone deserves the right to live on their own terms.” She thumped her hand against the mesh uselessly. “Except I can’t get this frackin’ door open.”

Teleoman stood and moved towards her. Some instinct made her back away, a primitive part of her brain awed by the physicality of the Thal, and the brooding strength in that body. This must have been what those geneticists were after when they spliced neanderthal genes into homo sapiens chromosomes. Frackin’ assholes.

Teleoman drew back a powerful forearm and punched through the mesh part of the cage as easily as if it was made from wet cardboard. He reached through, wrenched the lock contraption from its mounting and the door catches sprang back top and bottom.

Sabbi stared at him. Hell’s teeth, he could have done that any time he liked.

Alright. Teleoman come with you.

“What? No! Not with me. You just run! Go!” She had visions of wading through crowds of late night shoppers on the Strip, this hulking monster of a man dogging her footsteps, mental voice booming out terror and confusion directly into every person’s brain for a quarter mile around. She had promised Prosser a distraction, one that would draw every flat-foot on the Strip. The last thing she wanted was to be standing there when it happened.

She backed away, jumping down from the van as Teleoman stooped to climb out. He tugged the hood off his head as he did so, and Sabbi reached for the side of the van to steady herself as a fresh sledgehammer blow of thoughts assaulted her.

“Go!” she said, pointing to the bright lights of the Strip at the end of the street. “That way. Keep going! Don’t stop for anyone.” Prosser would get his distraction one way or another.

Now Sabbi was anxious to be gone too. If there was some kind of silent alarm on the vehicle, the hawker could come bustling out from a nearby bar, mean as a hornet, at any moment.

She turned and ran the other way into the darkness. A moment later she realized the Thal was following her.

Teleoman come with you.

He caught up to her easily. He grabbed her arm and swung her round, like a parent grabbing a child about to run into traffic. Doors were opening further up the alleyway, pale faces peering out to see who or what was screaming thoughts into their heads.

“Please,” she said. “You’re hurting.”

Teleoman scared. Lady kind to Teleoman. Teleoman come with you.

Sabbi caught glimpses of the thoughts behind the words, fleeting moments of savagery and fear. Endless humiliation. Thought-flashes of incarceration and isolation. Yet beneath these surface thoughts were echoes of human needs common to all; of thwarted dreams and ambitions, of love and the desire to be loved.

More people were piling into the alley to gawk. The Thal had let go of her arm. This was her chance. She could vanish down any of a dozen narrow twisting alleys where maybe the Thal couldn’t follow so easily. Yet she hesitated.

Teleoman stood looking at her, a vague, child-like smile on his face. Burdening herself with the Thal was just about the craziest thing she could do right now. She could forget stealth. Forget quietly disappearing into the shadows. And even if they got away from the Strip, where was there for the Thal to go? Where did you hide a Thal?

Where indeed?

“Stay close to me,” she hissed. “And put the damned hood back on.”

Hell’s teeth. No one had ever called her a lady before.


Once clear of the Strip, the land became a rucked-up carpet of low hills and arroyos. There was nothing much out here, just scrubland sliced and diced by the occasional freeway. Even on a cloudless night like tonight, the sky glowed with reflected light from the Strip; a false dawn that never quite arrived, but sufficient for them to travel by. Sabbi had a vague notion of heading coastwards but they would be walking all night to get there–and with no real prospect of safety at the end of it. So she led them down a dusty incline towards an underpass where a freeway crossed a man-made channel diverting run-off from the distant hills towards the ocean. “Here,” she told Teleoman. “We can rest here for a while.”

A lighter flickered in the darkness not twenty feet away. They froze. Its yellow glare lit a nightmarish face: swirls of purple and red, tattooed images of gaping mouths and teeth sharpened to points high up on the man’s forehead. The tat gang-leader took a step towards them. “Looky here! See what we’ve caught ourselves?” With a sinking feeling, Sabbi realized there were a half dozen others crouched in the darkness around their leader. “Reckon we got ourselves some proper sport tonight.”

If she ran now, it would only make things worse: the hunted and the hunters. She could probably out-run one or two but they would have motorbikes nearby, and on foot her chances were slim.

The tat-gang leader flicked away the glowing stub of a cigarette into the darkness. “Come a little closer, pretty lady.”

“Jeez, man,” one of the others muttered. “My fucking head–”

Teleoman stepped forward. The gang appraised him carefully, sizing up his bulk and muscularity. Impressive. But there was still only one of him, plus the girl, and plenty of them. Those were good odds.

Then Teleoman slipped the hood from his head. A wave of unbridled hatred suddenly swept outwards, animal-like in its intensity. Again it was all Sabbi could do not to stagger beneath the force of the mental assault.

TELEOMAN FIGHT. HOW MANY YOU WANT KILLED?

It took her a moment to realize Teleoman was asking her a question.

“Uh, I’d say… all of them? The smart ones will probably run anyway.” She tried to sound cool about it, but didn’t think she was succeeding. She hoped Teleoman knew what he was doing.

GOOD! TELEOMAN LIKE THAT!

Teleoman strode forward, rapidly closing the distance to the group like this was just some trifling business to be dealt with. Each footstep thumped down hard on the ground.

TELEOMAN KILL ALL!

He broadcast this thought with a curious cheeriness, as if he’d been waiting a long time for this moment.

As one, the tat-gang fled into the darkness.


They found a space up where the steel beams of the flyover met the sloping concrete of the embankment beneath, small and cave-like. “Stay here,” Sabbi told him. “I’ll come back in the morning, once I’ve figured out what to do next.”

Teleoman stared at her with his deep liquid eyes, head bobbing and weaving as always. With the gauze hood back in place, she found it bearable to be in his presence but hardly comfortable. She needed to get away and do some thinking. She also needed to say clear of Prosser who would be mad as hell with her by now.

You come back?

Sabbi choose not to answer. She was imagining what it would be like to live with every thought exposed to the world, no possibility of lying or deceiving.

“Stay out of sight,” she told him. “And keep the hood on.”

Then she walked away into the darkness, not planning to return.


But in the morning she came back. The day after, too. Sabbi brought him food–and each day the reasons changed.

First it was guilt. That first night she hadn’t dared return home to her quarto, a quarter-share of converted shipping container where she lived. It was one of several dozen abandoned in a corner of a disused parking lot, and home to a transient population of Strip support workers or grifters like her, unable to afford workhouse rents. She imagined Crab waiting for her there in the darkness and felt an intense desire to keep all her digits intact.

So she walked the endless concrete flats behind the Strip, through empty lots and back-alleys. When the night air grew chill, she grabbed a couple of hours’ rest next to a hot air vent, trying to ignore the stink rising from an over-flowing dumpster nearby. Maybe she’d move north up the Strip for a few days. It wasn’t her territory, but she could blend in if she kept her head down.

Her thoughts wandered back to the Thal she had freed. What had she been thinking? She doubted he could fend for himself. He certainly couldn’t steal what he needed, not when he might as well be announcing his intentions via a bullhorn from two hundred yards away. They’d been lucky in that business with the tat gang, catching them off-guard. But more thugs could return at any time, tooled up and looking for trouble–enough of them this time to take down a Thal, no matter how strong he was.

And if he survived that? She imagined the Thal sold on to another hawker or returned to some federal institution–and neither seemed like a fair outcome to her. She had created this problem. She couldn’t just walk away.

So guilt drove Sabbi back to the underpass with a packet of food part-scavenged, part-stolen as she’d slunk through the service alleys behind the Strip.

The day after, it was curiosity. The Thal kept himself hidden, staying out of sight in the dark little crevice up between the road supports and the poured concrete. He kept himself hooded, too. She hated how pathetically glad he was to see her.

The day after that, it was a reluctance to let go of a half-finished project.

And by then, she’d just gotten into the habit.


Each day Teleoman emerged cautiously from his hiding place when she called his name, eyes blinking in the sunlight, a sheepish grin on his face. Teleoman hungry! What you brought?

I have my very own troll living under a bridge, she thought.

Being in his presence gave her a low-grade headache. Sometimes she could feel her pulse pounding at the base of her skull as the broadcast babble of his thoughts rose and fell like endless breakers crashing onto the shore.

“Can’t you turn it down, somehow?”

Teleoman stared at her. She saw intelligence behind those eyes; a fast mind despite the appearance of slowness. His strange, questing head movements and clumsy thought-speech could easily fool you into believing he was retarded in some way, but she saw now it wasn’t so. He started to respond–thoughts rising up like a foaming breaker. “No! You’re doing it again! Calm thoughts, okay? Just breathe, or something. Whisper, damn it.”

Teleoman can’t–

But he cut the thought off somehow. The wandering head movement slowed. A frown creased his brow as he concentrated.

Teleoman try–

Now he was concentrating too hard. The wave broke, shattering into a million roaring thought-fragments.

“No, not like that! Don’t force it. Let it flow out of you.” Jeez, what was she turning into? Some kind of new-age therapist spouting psycho-babble?

Difficult.

Sure, and life ain’t no easy ride for me either, you lumbering neanderthal.

Sabbi regretted the thought immediately. He was doing the best he could. Even knowing Thals couldn’t pick up thoughts–it was all send and no receive–she found herself blushing.

Teleoman… grateful.

Now there was a difference. Instead of roiling, white-water waves, the sea of projected thoughts had become more of a swell, rising and falling to a slower rhythm. Not that her headache had gone, but it was a start.

Owner not kind to Teleoman. But Sabbi kind.

“Hey, that was a little better.”

Teleoman beamed at her. What’s in bag? Teleoman hungry!

And this time, his voice in her head was just a voice, not a shout. Sabbi smiled and showed him.


He was good with his hands, too. On his first day in hiding, she watched him fashion a crude chair out of some scrap rebar, wedging the straight rods into an angle of the roadway’s steel beams and bending them into complex shapes. That was a Thal trait, of course. No homo sapiens had the upper arm strength to do the same. Teleoman scavenged an old mattress from fly-tipped rubbish nearby, rammed it into the home-made frame and settled back with a sigh every bit as satisfied as an old-timer relaxing into a porch recliner. When Sabbi next visited, he’d made one for her too.

She tried to coach him, showing him how to breathe–mainly for her benefit, not his. “Watch me,” she told him. She forced some of the tension from her shoulders, letting them slump and took an exaggerated breath; held it. Exhaled. “See? Try and feel all those thoughts sliding away, growing shallower. Like… I dunno. Ripples in a pool spreading out and fading.” Teleoman stared at her without blinking but she did think his broadcasts were not as overwhelming as they had been. She still made him keep the mesh hood on, though.

Overhead, morning traffic began to pick up, the rhythmic da-dum da-dum of tyres on the expansion joints came like some irregular cosmic heartbeat. Sabbi worried about those people. Did they notice the sudden but brief intrusion into their consciousness, like the blare from a sound system heard through an open window? And always the same place each day. Or were they too busy scanning the headlines or talking on the phone or snoozing, as their little automated metal box whisked them onwards to the city in comfort? Did they ever wonder where the intrusive thoughts came from? If so, how long before someone thought to make a complaint to the authorities?

Why you helping Teleoman?

He had come up behind her while she stood staring out across the valley, lost in her thoughts. Something must be working, if he could approach so close without her even realizing. She thought about his question.

“Because no one deserves to be kept in a cage. That’s not right.”

But Teleoman hurts people, if not in cage. With this.

He tapped the side of his head through the mesh hood.

“I know. But you’re getting a little better each day.” She gave him the brown paper bag she had brought. Fried chicken with deli coleslaw and pork-strippers. All cold of course and rescued from a dumpster, but mostly untouched. No pop, but there was a trickle of brownish water in a rainwater run-off which Teleoman seemed happy to scoop up with those big, flat hands of his.

Why you do this?

“Because you’d starve otherwise.”

No. All this. Why YOU live like this?

She was about to point out that he was the one holed up beneath a freeway, hiding away from human contact. He was the misfit, not her. (It occurred to her to wonder what it was like when he dreamed. What images of fractured reality and broken dream-logic would pour from his mind then? It gave her the shivers.) But Teleoman was right. She was only a rung or two further up the ladder: her home a rusty shipping container that broiled her in the summer heat and turned into an icebox in winter. And her job? She might like to think of it as ‘credit-free business transacting’ but stealing was all it was really. Whatever that made her, she was just an insignificant part of the complex food-chain that was the all-consuming Strip.

She sighed. “Because. Because nobody expects better of me.”

Teleoman think you can do better.

She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Life coaching lessons from a Thal? Is that what things had come to?


Sabbi timed her visits for soon after dawn when the Strip slumbered, along with most of its workers. She liked the bite of the early morning air, before the sun burned off its chill. Everything seemed a little quieter, as though the world had been made anew, ready to be ruined again by the day.

She needed a new plan. She needed to move Teleoman somewhere safer. Starting tomorrow, she promised herself, she’d think of something.

Sabbi was a little way off when she spotted a little wisp of smoke curling up into the still morning air from the underpass. She froze. She had a bad feeling about this. For a moment, she just stood watching, listening. There ought to be something, some faint insect-like buzz in her mind. Lately, she felt she’d become more sensitized and could hear his shielded mind from much further away.

Now… Nothing.

Sabbi began to run down the shoulder of the freeway. She’d bought coffee and fried dough-pieces sprinkled with sugar, grease spots already blossoming on the brown paper bag. Bought with the last of her credit–actually bought. Now dribbles of hot coffee squirted from the hole in the lid as she scrabbled and half slid down the slope to the underpass.

Teleoman sat by the remains of a little smoldering camp-fire, bones and animal skin from some kind of meal scattered in the ashes.

“What the hell!”

He stood as she approached and watched her kick over the ashes, stamping down hard until the tendrils of smoke stopped.

“Didn’t I tell you not to do anything to attract attention?”

As if to emphasis her point, a couple of cars thrummed by overhead, reminding her just how close they were to others. Hiding him here had been a stupid idea. She pictured a little convey of unmarked vehicles pulling off onto the dirt strip, the armed enforcers jogging down into the underpass, restraint sticks drawn. Sabbi felt sick.

Teleoman grinned at her and it took her a moment or two to realize why.

He wasn’t wearing his mesh hood. And she wasn’t crumbling under his mental assault.

There was something; a kind of white noise, but nothing worse than the sound of water tumbling in a stream. She refused to let her anger simply ebb away, though. “I told you to stay hidden! It’s not safe for you to go wandering around! What were you thinking, lighting a fire? What if someone had seen?”

Teleoman shrugged, the smile still on his face. Hungry. Catch rabbit. Cooked rabbit taste good!

“Where’s your hood?”

Teleoman practice. Has good teacher! Getting better, yes?

“Yes.” Sabbi approached until she stood right in front of Teleoman. There was a detectable wash of emotion but the waters were calm, nothing like the raging storm-waves from before. When he spoke, she heard his voice clearly but that was all. Whatever other thoughts were buzzing through his brain, he was managing to keep them down. It was the difference between yelling to be heard above the background roar of traffic, and a quiet conversation by the side of a lake.

“You still shouldn’t be out here. Promise me you’ll stay hidden and not go wandering off.”

He nodded slowly.

“I’m going to figure out a plan. Take you somewhere where you’ll be safe. And free.” It wasn’t quite a lie, but almost. But she would figure something out.

Teleoman stooped and retrieved what he had been working on. Like?

She stared at the little wire-frame model of a jack-rabbit sitting on its haunches, lively and alert. The wire looked as though it had been scavenged from a trolley basket, part gleaming chrome, part rust.

“It’s really good. You’ve got a real talent,” she told him. Stashed in the darkness of his hideaway was a growing collection of his wireframe art: a meadow poppy, a gym shoe, an old-style Cadillac, even a tiny replica of one of the distant comms towers complete with dishes and antenna. “But you shouldn’t just copy what you see around you. Invent things. Make things that only you can see inside your head.”

Teleoman looked puzzled. Not real things? Why?

“Because when you make them, they become real.”

What things?

“I don’t know. Dragons, or dinosaurs or unicorns! Things that don’t exist but everyone kind of wants them to. We all dream about lots of stuff–but you have to make the dream real if it’s going to count.”

Teleoman stepped closer. He laid a hand on Sabbi’s bare arm. She almost expected his touch to act as some kind of short circuit, for her mind to fill with unstoppable images, a tidal wave of thoughts that would drown her until she moved out of reach.

Instead, she felt only the soft warmth of his hand on her arm. You have dreams?

She chose not to answer him out loud. Maybe once, she thought. Not anymore.

She stood up, breaking contact. “You need to promise to stay hidden, no matter what, okay? It won’t be for long. Don’t go wandering around when I’m not here. Promise?”

Promise.


The Strip seemed peculiarly alive tonight. The distant north-end lights danced and blurred in warm air rising up from the asphalt despite the sun setting hours before. It transformed the boulevard into a writhing snake of lights as though at any moment a wave might propagate back towards Sabbi and twist the ground beneath her boots.

Tonight she must earn, or too many debts would fall due. She was hungry, too. Hadn’t eaten all day. And she’d need something to take to Teleoman in the morning. Plus she owed rent on her quarter-share of shipping container. She needed currency. Stealing wallets was risky at the best of times, but she couldn’t see any other way. With legit credit she could buy what she needed.

Flat-foots were everywhere tonight, more than she remembered seeing in a long while, patrolling in pairs amongst the crowds. Some had their goggles down, running random facial ID checks.

And there was Prosser to worry about. She’d let him down, and Prosser had never been big on forgiveness.

Sabbi mingled with the crowd, trailing a dozen paces behind one or two possible marks. There was an art to it, as there was with most things. Everyone knew to keep a tight hold on wallets and purses. This was the Strip, after all. But then that exquisite little trinket in a shop window caught their eye and excitement quickened their step. Oh! Look at the price tag. What an absolute steal! That was when one’s guard dropped.

Not tonight though. Hidden behind her designer shades Sabbi diffused through the loved-up couples milling in front of brightly lit store windows, and just as subtly they seemed to edge away from her. Could wealth sniff out desperation, even with her disguises? Maybe.

A hand fell on her shoulder. Not the light touch of an acquaintance stepping out from the crowd. This was the hard slap of contact that screamed out, You’re mine!

As she twisted round to face her assailant, she wondered which she’d prefer. Flat-foot or Prosser’s people? Tangling with authority would mean plenty of trouble, maybe jail-time or county deportation. On the other hand, Prosser liked to see people get hurt if they crossed him. Prosser and people like him, though–they were her people. Maybe she could find a way to sweet-talk him round. In the end, you stuck with your own, didn’t you?

She turned and looked up into the face of the cop, his eyes hidden behind the dark goggles already running a facial recognition scan.

“Yes, that’s her,” said the street-hawker, standing just behind. “She’s the one that took my Thal.”


After the sting of a needle in her arm, events became a little blurry. She remembered being bundled into some kind of vehicle. Then a hard, uncomfortable ride breathing diesel fumes from a leaky exhaust. Typical of government to be the only ones not running electric vehicles these days. And then a narrow cell. She had slept in worse places, though.

By the third day, Sabbi knew they had nothing. By then, they would have confronted her with any real evidence, angling for an easy confession and quick judicial processing. Instead, they played a tedious game of cat-and-mouse: interrogations at all hours; some long, some short–all designed to disorient and wear her down.

Sabbi played dumb. Yes, she’d been in trouble before, but was running straight now, doing courier work where she could get it. No, she had no idea of the whereabouts of any Thal. Yes, she’d felt a Thal’s presence on the Strip a week or so back–but hadn’t hundreds of people? Wasn’t that the thing about Thals? They got right inside your head, the dirty bastards.

All Sabbi had to do was brazen it out. The right-to-detain held good for ten days, but not a minute longer. Patience was going to be her friend and get her through this.

She lay on her hard little chunk of foam mattress in the dark, wondering what Teleoman was doing, what he was thinking when she failed to turn up each day. Would he think she had abandoned him after all?

The last thing she’d told him was not to light any fires, not to leave the underpass; to stay out of sight. Without her daily visits bringing food, how long before he starved? Worse, now that summer was here, the trickle of dirty water in the runoff gully might soon be gone. Maybe he’d get desperate and decide to move on somewhere. If he did that, he’d be caught in no time.

As she lay in the darkness of her cell, she imagined she could hear Teleoman’s voice tickling at her thoughts; a low sigh like the whisper of leaves stirred by a breeze. Impossible, of course. The detention centre was close to the coast, a good fifteen or twenty miles from the underpass. Not even the strongest Thal could project more than half a mile. Even so…

Was it possible she had trained herself to listen for the sounds of his thoughts even as Teleoman was training himself to whisper? But the sounds in her head came and went like the sound of distant surf creeping up the sand and retreating. The more she strained to hear it, the more she became convinced it was only the sound of blood pounding in her veins.

There was nothing left to do but wait, and wonder.

The waiting was the hardest part.


The cops didn’t tag her. Once the paperwork was signed, she was kicked out the back entrance into scorching noon heat, blinking at the bright sunlight she hadn’t seen in days. Nobody said a word to her, just processed her from pillar to post until she was nobody’s problem but her own. What had she been expecting? An apology?

With no money for a taxi ride anywhere, it took her hours of walking to get back, first one interstate and then another, only risking cutting across country when it seemed safe and she was certain no one was tracking her by vehicle or drone. She flattered herself, though. The cops had no real interest in her. To them, she was just another bottom-dweller in the Strip ecosystem–and so what if some hawker was pissed at her for stealing his Thal? Without proof, it wasn’t worth wasting any more of their time.

She had to bite down hard every time she thought about Teleoman.

Had he stayed hidden, unquestioningly following her last instructions–quietly dehydrating and starving to death? Ten days was too long a wait. She imagined the coming of each day’s twilight crushing his hopes once again. Or had he blundered off towards the beckoning lights of a coastal community? The no-man’s land beyond the perimeter fences was a dangerous place, full of biker-psychos and tat-gangs and crud-heads and all kinds of crazies who would have no compunction about hunting a Thal for sport. Thal strength and stubbornness might be the stuff of legends but a dozen gang members against one Thal could have only one outcome. Even if Teleoman made it as far as a gated community, the guards would likely as not shoot on sight if they felt threatened.

Sabbi needed to know he was okay. She’d been the one to get him into this.

With her stomach tightly knotted into a ball of anxiety, she skidded down the familiar embankment towards the dusty track leading to the underpass.

The hiding place was deserted. No trace of Teleoman anywhere. Even his little collection of wire artwork was missing. More to the point, she could sense nothing of his thoughts, not even the vague uneasiness she felt when he was consciously shielding them.

Sabbi stumbled out into the scrub beyond the underpass, wanting only to escape the rumble of passing cars on the freeway above. She couldn’t blame Teleoman for leaving. He had no way of knowing what had happened to her or if she ever intended to return. Now he was gone and that would be the end of it. She had her answer.

She sent a rock skimming off into the brush with her boot. Wasn’t this what she had wanted back at the start? To be a free agent?

She wandered further into the scrub, following a faint trail down the incline, the kind made by wild animals, not humans. After a quarter mile, it turned south and followed the edge of a steep-sided canyon. Forty feet below, a thin stream of water oozed its way around small rocks in the river bed. Sabbi stared.

Below her, Teleoman sat on a fallen tree-trunk, legs dangling over the water, head bent in concentration. His hands worked at something, sunlight glinting from what now looked like a twist of wire.

“Teleoman!” She began to scrabble down the narrow path. “For god’s sake! Have you any idea how much you just scared me? ”

Knew you would come.

He didn’t look up from the object he was manipulating. He didn’t even seem surprised to see her. She’d expected more from him: relief, concern–something.

Heard you coming. From far off. Had to finish this first.

She realized there was something else not quite right. She stood watching him for a long minute, trying to figure out what had changed. Suddenly it was obvious.

No background noise, not even a low-level wash of emotions. When he spoke, his thought-words were clear and strong, but it was at conversational level, not shouting. They still carried an edge, a reverberation like the echo of words spoken loudly in a hushed cathedral. But two weeks ago, simply being in his unhooded presence would have all but pummelled her brain to mush.

The transformation was remarkable.

Teleoman go soon. Waited for you, though.

“Go where?”

He shrugged. Anywhere. Somewhere better. He hesitated. Sabbi could come too?

She thought about that. Somewhere new, where no one knew her. A chance to reinvent herself? There was something appealing in the thought…

She shook her head and Teleoman’s face fell. “I have to stay. Without the Strip… I don’t know how else to live.” It was where low-lifes like her belonged, grifting and preying on the rich.

Sabbi better than that.

“No, I’m not. I’m just like all the others. We’re all trapped playing the same game. If I gain, you lose, but tomorrow it may be the other way round. That’s what the Strip does to you. You look out for yourself because nobody else will.”

No. Sabbi help Teleoman. So why Sabbi do that?

She’d asked herself the same question over and over, and still wasn’t sure of the answer. Perhaps with a little more time to think about it…

Here. Teleoman make. He held something out to her. A gift. For you.

Sabbi took the object; a complex shape fashioned out of thin silver wire. A tiny stallion, its wire outline perfectly capturing a natural grace and beauty–as though it might come to life at any moment, and spring from her palm.

Ah, but no. On its forehead was a narrow, silvery spike.

A unicorn.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, wondering at the inadequacy of her words. “There are stall-holders on the Strip who’d sell this kind of thing for a decent sum. Enough to make a living from.”

No. Not for sale. For you.

Sabbi leaned down and kissed Teleoman lightly on the cheek. His eyes widened a little in surprise. A vast wave of joy radiated out from him and a feeling of such optimism that in that instant all things seemed possible. It washed over her like a blast of heat from an oven, the signal so strong and clear that even those in the coastal communities might have felt something.

And just this once, that was fine with her.



Guinea Pig

By Paul Crenshaw

The day my brother died I told him guinea pigs once grew ten feet tall.

“They weighed two thousand pounds,” I said, “and had tusks like elephants, which they used to defend themselves.”

He was looking out the window. I wasn’t sure if he heard me. The IVs in his arms weren’t working. On the table beside the bed was a picture of us with our old guinea pig Thoreau, whom we had stolen from the Institute where my brother was now housed.

This was about the time the coughing began, back when we thought his difficulty breathing was something he’d grow out of. We lived on the edge of the Institute and above us rose the bone-white buildings. For sixty years the Institute had been a home for tuberculosis patients. Scientists grew guinea pigs like Thoreau to inject them with serums and anti-toxins in the hope they might find a cure for the disease. When they finally succeeded and the buildings began to empty of tuberculosis patients, Mr. Wilkins, the last custodian, took care of the guinea pigs. When he died, we knew they’d be all alone.

The morning we went to save them, my brother had to stop often to hit his inhaler. We rested in the shade of the buildings among the old-growth pines. Pine trees were once thought to be an expedient for the cure of TB, and many of them had stood for hundreds of years. The Institute, despite the disease it holds within it, has always been beautiful. Our mother worked there for ten years, since just after my brother was born, but now she sits at home watching soap operas all day where people are suddenly struck down by terrible diseases.

At the top of the hill my brother said his lungs were burning, but he made it to the bunker where the guinea pigs were held. We had a key we’d stolen from our mother, and when we went in we saw them there in cages. There weren’t many left. We opened the cages and carried the guinea pigs—so small and warm in our hands, their hearts beating madly beneath their frail chests—outside, where we let them go.

The last one my brother kept. He named it Thoreau because they shared the same first name, or so I thought at the time. But maybe my brother already knew what was inside him—Henry David did die of TB, after all. We took Thoreau home, stopping often for my brother to hit the inhaler or rest beneath the big trees, me holding Thoreau and wondering what had been done to him in the secret rooms of the Institute where the scientists had, supposedly, saved the world.

We had him for less than a year. My brother would not cage him, and so Thoreau sometimes chewed through the baseboards and got beneath the house. Or he’d dart outside when our mother went on the front porch for a cigarette, and I’d have to catch him because my brother could not pass through the smoke.

The last time Thoreau got away my brother coughed so hard he began to shake. When he took the kerchief away from his mouth, we saw the fine spray of blood. Above us, the bone-white buildings stood like sentinels.

We always thought it was asthma, that he would eventually grow out of it. Turns out he was one of the first to get the new strain. Turns out tuberculosis can linger in small bodies and old buildings much longer than the scientists thought. We didn’t know then that the old diseases could come back. Or maybe my brother did, because he wanted desperately to find Thoreau. We looked under the house and all through the neighborhood and finally across the highway where the dark woods closed in. I could see my brother stopping often to draw in deep breaths and I thought he was dying, but I couldn’t get him to rest.

“We have to find him,” my brother said, voice almost unrecognizable, the handkerchief turned dark red now. In a month he’d be unable to get out of bed. Six months after that the Institute would re-open its doors, and he’d be the first patient admitted. The World Health Organization would send out its warnings, but it was already too late. The guinea pigs would be brought back. More tests run to try to stop the new strain that had sprung up all over the world. Some of the guinea pigs would escape the sterile halls where they were poked and prodded with needles, and before my brother died we could look out the window and see them all over the grounds of the Institute.

“That one looks like Thoreau,” he said once, not long before the end, which reminded me of the day I thought he was dying. His indrawn breaths sounded like sirens, or the first coming of some great cataclysm.

We never caught Thoreau. I saw him the day before my brother died, as I was walking back down to the house across the grounds of the Institute after visiting hours. He had grown as large as a house cat, but he ran when I got near. The next day my brother said Thoreau probably didn’t want to be caged anymore, which was why he ran.

“Did guinea pigs really weigh that much?” he asked. He would die in the night, alone. He looked so small in his bed. He had lost close to 50 pounds. The thin skin of his arms was bruised from all the drawn blood. We could see our house down the hill, and I knew he was imagining a world where Thoreau was as big as a mountain. Too big to be poked and prodded by men wearing sterile masks. Too strong to be brought down by any strain.



The Spirit Cave

By Jamie Lackey

We sit vigil by the fresh grave, waiting for my brother’s ghost for three nights and three days. The days are warm, but still short, and the nights are cold and long. Spots of snow still cling where the shade protects them.

When my brother finally appears, his eyes are empty, and he doesn’t respond to our voices.

“His spirit will heal,” my mother says. “It will just take time.”

Jehim, my intended, squeezes my hand. The rest of my family, living and dead, nod and mutter agreement. My brother has all the time in the world, now that he is a ghost.

My scrapes and bruises from the fight have healed, but the sick, angry feeling in my stomach has only grown with the passing days. I want vengeance. I want to crush the men who killed my brother. I want to hurt them so badly that it takes their ghosts centuries to recover.

“I am going to go to the spirit cave tomorrow,” I announce. Something that I can’t recognize flickers across my brother’s face. I storm away before anyone can object, and I feign sleep when my mother follows me home.


I rise at dawn, hoping to leave quickly and avoid talking about my decision. But my mother is already hovering over the breakfast fire, her hands fluttering like trapped birds. My father’s ghost stands behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. She hands me a bun filled with spiced rabbit, and says, “We love you. Please don’t do this, Narhana.”

I kiss her on the cheek, and I eat the bun as I take the path into the mountains.

The day is fine and clear, the air soft and filled with gentle sounds–birdsong, the breeze through the grass, the slow burble of the river. The rest of our family ghosts line the path that leads to the road. I ignore their frowns, but I walk quickly, not enjoying the intensity of their gaze.

I turn west when I reach the road, and I follow my shadow up into the mountains.

The sun is almost directly overhead when I reach the sacred spring. A ghost, one so old that her edges blur, regards me from the edge of the spring. “What brings you here, child?” she asks, her voice as gentle as the breeze through fresh spring leaves.

“I seek the spirit cave.” My voice is steady as I give the ritual response.

The ghost nods once and steps aside. “Once you are purified, you may walk the path to the cave of spirits. You must leave all of your possessions, though you are permitted to carry a stone to weight your steps.”

I strip and fold my clothing into a careful pile, then I heft a large, rounded stone to keep from floating across the pool. It takes both hands to hold it.

The steps that lead down to the water are cold and smooth beneath my bare feet. The water is glacier-cold, but I refuse to hesitate as I walk forward, one step at a time.

I almost cry out when the water hits my belly. My toes ache, and I can hardly feel the step beneath them. The water reaches my shoulders, then my chin. I take a deep breath and keep my eyes open as I continue forward.

The water stings, and the world swims around me. The cold seeps through my skin, settles into my bones, and I ache with it.

I’m grateful for the stone’s weight as I step down to the bottom, then start to climb up the steps on the other side.

My head breaks the surface, and I take a sobbing breath.

My grandmother’s ghost sits on a rock beside the spring. I am not surprised to see her. It’s only sensible that she is my family’s chosen representative. Their last hope of talking me out of my decision.

I reach the top of the steps, and drop my stone from shaking hands. I shudder from the cold and think longingly of the spring sunshine. But I stop before my grandmother, arms pulled tight to my body, naked and shivering.

“I understand why you want this,” my grandmother says. “But I also understand the cost.” Unshed tears glimmer in her eyes, and guilt twists in my belly. “Have you truly thought about what you will lose?”

“I choose to focus on what I’ll gain,” I say, tucking my freezing hands into my arm pits.

She nods. “You will have power. You will be able to avenge your brother.” Her hands tense into fists, then relax. “You would be able to protect our family.”

“If you understand, then why are you here to stop me?”

“Because I don’t think you’ve considered the costs.”

I shrug. “My spirit will be consumed, and when I die, I will vanish instead of becoming a ghost.” Ghosts are trapped to watch the world change around them, while they are frozen forever. I do not long to become one.

“But think of your life before then. Do you think Jehim will still want to marry you if you are sprit bound? Will he want to have children with you, knowing that you won’t be able to watch your grandchildren together after death? Knowing that eventually, you will vanish forever and he’ll be left alone?”

Jehim is a constant in my life. Like my parents. Or my brother. Our future has always seem set, immutable.

To lose him, too. It is unthinkable.

My grandmother sees my hesitation. “Your brother will recover. He isn’t gone.”

But his future is. There will be no wife for him. No children. Maybe Jehim will leave me. Maybe he won’t. I can’t control his actions. But I can control my own.

“My decision stands.”

My grandmother inclines her head. “Very well.” Her fingertips, feather light and ice cold, brush against my cheek. “Then you will need the key.”

“What key?”

“It is hidden in the pool.”

I am still cold, still shivering. My body still aches. I look back, at the water’s still surface. I don’t see a key. Still, I wade back in, one slow step at a time.

I pause on the third step. I can’t feel my feet at all, and I’ve stopped shivering.

The first ghost said nothing about a key.

Because there is no key. Only death in this pool, and then an eternity as a ghost. With enough time to forgive my grandmother for her lie.

I turn back toward the spirit cave and storm past my grandmother, too angry to look at her. She calls out to me, but I will no longer listen to her words.

The path is steep and rocky and my numb feet are clumsy. I stumble, right myself, stumble again. Blood drips from my elbow, my palm, my knees.

But I keep climbing, focusing on each step as it comes. Warmth gradually spreads through my muscles, but nothing touches the cold anger in my heart.

I am inside the spirit cave before I even notice it. The rocky ground gives way to sand, and I sag to the floor.

A tiger, his stripes night-dark against fur the color of moonlight, walks out of the shadows. His tail lashes back and forth as he approaches.

I am too tired to speak. I simply crawl forward and rest my forehead against his. His fur is warm, and when he flops onto his side, I curl up against him.

He has consumed a thousand thousand spirits, stripping out what they were in life and adding their strength to his own.

I offer him mine, and he takes it. Our spirits combine as his warmth seeps into my chilled body.

His strength is mine now, till my body fails. Till I die and become one more bit of power at his disposal.

He licks my wounds, his tongue dry and raspy and painful, but my wounds heal. I am no longer cold.

I do not know how long I stay curled against him, but eventually I roll to my feet.

I fashion myself clothing, weaving shadows and rocks into a dress that matches the color of his stripes.

I press my forehead to his again, then on impulse kiss his wet nose.

Even with my new power, I can’t destroy my grandmother’s ghost. But I could do her harm that would take lifetimes to recover. I can rip the men who killed my brother into a million tiny pieces with a thought. Instead, I continue up the mountain, past the spirit cave, to the icy peak. The cold can no longer touch me, and I sit and stare at the stars till the sun rises.

It is the first day of my new life.

My grandmother’s ghost appears beside me. “I didn’t want to lose you. Now, when you die, you’ll be gone.”

“No,” I say. “Now, when I die, I’ll become part of something greater than myself. And I think that is better.”

Soon, I will decide what to do to the men who killed my brother. But for now, I take my grandmother’s hand, because I can. And I forgive her, because I can do that, too. “Come on, let’s go home.”



Vigil

By Seth Marlin

I receive word of my sister on a Wednesday morning in early May. My son Noah is out of school that day for teacher in-services; I’ve taken time off work to be with him at home. I’m making soup and sandwiches for us both when the call comes in–I take it over the kitchen speakers, assuming it to be work-related. “This is Kim.”

“Hi there.” The speaker is a woman, with a sunny voice and a hint of a Southern accent. “This is Judi with Puget Sound Oncology. Would I be speaking with Kimiko Fukada?”

I pause before replying–a phone call from a strange business entity, without video. Not an email, certainly not text or subvoc. I shift into a more formal register. “This is Kim speaking; how can I help you?”

“Great.” A few verification questions follow. “And our records show you as the surviving next-of-kin for one Noriko Fukada?”

I pause over the tomato I’m slicing. I recall a series of letters, dry official notices from the hospital. I started receiving them after our mother died, about eight or nine years back; after the first two or three, I simply threw them away. Now I set down the kitchen knife, slide the kitchen door closed with a gesture. “I’m sorry, what is this regarding?”


My sister is awake. I subvoc my ex-husband Troy, convince him to take our son out to his soccer game. Troy works from home, and so readily agrees. He asks me what’s come up, and I tell him the truth. He doesn’t reply right away. Somewhere in the back of my skull I can feel him composing his reply. Deleting, then recomposing. Do whatever you need to, he says. I hope it goes okay. I expect you two have a lot to talk about.

My sister is awake. This thought repeats itself on my drive into downtown Seattle. My sister is awake. Literally years now gone. Our parents are dead and what will I say? Will she even recognize me? Shock gives way to ragged breathing, to numbness in my cheeks, my hands. Eventually the panic rises up and I have to set the autopilot, let the car drive the rest of the way. I lean back and look out the window as we cross over the Fremont Canal. High-rises crowd in stacks along the water’s edge.

At the hospital, after what must be an hour of filling out release forms and nondisclosure agreements, I find myself in a crowded hospital room with a corner view of Puget Sound. Also present are a doctor, a pair of med students recording, and a hatchet-faced femme in a dark gray suit. Meanwhile in bed is my big sister Nori, twenty-five years old and the same as she ever was. She sits upright in bed, her skin waxen, her cheeks gaunt. Her dark hair is thin and brittle, and the right side of her head is buzzed to reveal a gruesome, bright-pink surgical scar. She watches us with the wary eyes of a shelter animal, regards me with caution but doesn’t appear to recognize me. The doctor introduces both himself and the femme, but neither the students nor myself. I have been asked to avoid speaking. The doctor smiles and asks Nori, “How are you feeling?”

“Where’s Dr. Cospoole?”

He smiles. “Enjoying his retirement, as I understand. Lots of sailing, I’m told.” He wears a sweater vest under his coat and has receding brown hair, with playful eyes and a fatherly grin. “How are you feeling?”

Nori thinks a moment. Rival emotions play out across her face. “I’m… okay, I guess. The nausea’s mostly wearing off.”

“You’ve responded well,” he says. “There’ll be at least two more rounds of treatment, but if the results we’re seeing hold, we could be fast-tracked for FDA approval inside of two years.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Ms. Fukada, what is the last thing that you remember?”

Nori thinks a moment. “My sister’s basketball game.” She would be referring to my sophomore year of high school, junior-varsity. I can remember that day as if I were still there. “I had an aura,” she says. She’s referring to the visual phenomena that came to precede her seizures, after the cancer had spread to her brain. “I had another one. Oh god, I had another one, I’m so sorry.”

“Everything’s fine,” says the doctor. “I promise.” He offers to tell her a story.

He speaks then of her cancer–his language candid, his tone cuttingly frank. The onset of Nori’s symptoms, the path that the illness took, month-by-month, as it tore through her body like fire through the compartments of a ship. He uses phrases like progression of symptoms and pathology tables by age group and suddenly I’m a teenager again, listening to my mother try to explain my sister’s latest round of test results. I still remember those final months, watching my sister sink beneath the waves. Nori meanwhile listens, regards the doctor and the hatchet-faced femme. Several times she glances over at me–she is drawn to something in my features, but cannot yet place me. “Given your unique case,” says the doctor, “and the time-sensitive nature of your condition, the hospital board elected by emergency vote to intervene in your care and retain you for further study.”

“Intervene?” she asks. “I don’t understand. I have a living will. I have a DNR/E.”

“The hospital argued superseding medical interest,” says the hatchet-faced femme, “and was awarded an injunction.” They keep their blonde hair slicked back, wear a shade of indigo lipstick that matches their tie. I suppose I should have expected this, that even now the hospital would work first to secure its own interests. When I was a grieving teenage girl, all I could see was the act of corporate charity, the vague hope that my sister might one day have another chance at life. Now I understand a little better.

“You’ve been unconscious for a time,” says the doctor, “but I do need to stress here that a corner’s been turned. Your prognosis going forward is extremely encouraging.”

“You mean like in a coma?”

“Not a coma,” says the doctor. “In stasis. Do you understand what that means?”

Nori blinks. She regards the backs of her own hands, unlined by age, and frowns. Slowly, I can watch as the picture comes together. “You froze me.”

“Well, strictly speaking, the term frozen is a bit of an oversimplification–”

“What the fuck,” says Nori, “I didn’t give you permission to do that. What the hell kind of doctors are you?”

“The same that saved your life,” says the hatchet-faced femme, “And who now continue to absorb the costs of your ongoing treatment.”

“If I may,” says the doctor. “At the time of your retention, you were already in cardiac arrest. Had we not intervened, you would have died and simply been reduced to another statistic. But we did intervene, and now here we are. I need you to take a moment and appreciate just how historic all this is–what we’ve learned here will completely change the nature of modern cancer research. Medical textbooks will have whole chapters on you; years from now, your name will come up in the same breath as Henrietta Lacks or Maria Navarro. Heroes, saviors of modern science.”

“You mean test subjects used without their consent.”

The hatchet-faced femme smiles. “A terribly cynical interpretation.”

“Returning to the point,” says the doctor. “There are entire wikis now cataloguing diseases we’ve wiped from the earth–polio, smallpox, ebola. HIV. Now this?” His manner softens. “What we’ve achieved here with you will save literally millions of lives. And you are only the beginning. I understand what you must be feeling right now, but please, try to consider the opportunity we have been given here. That you have been given here.” He is very good, I will give him that much. I’m reminded of the old talks given by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, in the early part of the century. The same high-mindedness, the lofty talk of disruption and changing the world. I’m sure he even believes it. I can only imagine the hospital advertising brochures that will arise from this.

What do I say?

My sister glares back at the doctor and his overseer. When she does at last speak, it is very quiet. “How long?” she asks.

“Ms. Fukada, please understand, at the time of your illness, the medical science that we had available was simply not–”

“You said I was out,” she says. “Answer me. For how long?”

The doctor’s smile fades. He looks down at the backs of his hands. “Nineteen years, six months, and twenty-two days.”

Silence. Behind my sister’s eyes, a set of new and awful realizations are clicking into place. “Where are my parents?” she asks. “Where’s my sister?”

“I’m here,” I say. A single crack in the porcelain of my resolve, and my vision goes hot and blurry. I am surprised at how small my voice sounds. I cannot stop myself from smiling. “I’m right here.”

Nori looks at me. Her eyes go wide, and here at last is recognition. Something tenses in her jaw, and I realize then that she is shaking. “All of you get out.”

“This has been a lot to process,” says the doctor. “We can pick this up later.”

“I said get out!” The room quickly empties after that. I attempt to approach Nori’s bedside, but am intercepted by the hatchet-faced femme. “Thank you for coming,” they say. “We will be in touch to discuss custodial paperwork and conditions for discharge.”

Out in the hallway, I take a moment to compose myself. I can still hear Nori sobbing behind the closed door to her room. I subvoc Troy and tell him that I’m finally leaving, and on the way out, I pass both the doctor and the hatchet-faced femme. They appear to be having some quiet but urgent discussion. The doctor sees me and falls silent mid-sentence. The femme watches me go, with raptorine gaze.


By the time I leave the hospital and make it through the afternoon traffic, Noah’s soccer game is nearly over. I find Troy amongst the other parents gathered on the sidelines. Try as we might to encrypt the things that we are feeling, a trained eye will always spot the vulnerabilities. He pulls me into a hug as I walk up, and though there have been no feelings between us for years, I am grateful. “Hey,” he says. “Hey. You’re alright.”

The drive home with Noah is mostly quiet. I focus on the road, attempt idle small talk. His answers are brief and addressed to his cleats. Halfway home he asks me, “Are you all right?”

I glance back at him in the rearview mirror. “You never told me how things were at your dad’s.”

“They were fine,” he says. “You’ve been stressed out all day. Because of Aunt Nori.”

“I see your father has been talking again.”

“It was what the phone call was about,” he says, “I heard you talking on speakerphone.”

“What have we have talked about before with you eavesdropping?”

“You’re not happy,” he says. “I don’t understand. Good news is supposed to make you happy.”

After dinner that night, we lay together on the couch and stream Finding Nemo. We do not discuss my sister, or indeed speak at all. Eventually he falls asleep on my shoulder, and I carry him, as though he were a baby, back to his own bed. For some time, I linger in his doorway in the dark, listening to him breathe. What no one ever told me about parenting was how such small moments could comfort, and yet hurt so much.

Later I pour myself a glass of bourbon, nurse it as I stare out the window across the city. The skyscrapers are spaced out like so many candles, and it makes me think of Nori’s vigil. So many years ago now. I put back the rest of my drink, feel it warming as it settles in my chest. In my work I have attended thousands of funerals, across a multitude of traditions. What should one more be amongst so many? I set down my glass, focus on the constellations of the distant skyline. Soon I realize that I am drunk. So be it. I am allowed to be drunk for once.


The following afternoon I return to the hospital, where I am informed by the desk nurse that Nori has been transferred to another unit. For several moments, I simply stand there at the counter, expectant. When it becomes clear that no further response is forthcoming, I ask and am referred to someone more familiar with her case. What follows is a tense and escalating discussion.

“I don’t understand,” I say. “What exactly does that mean, transferred? What other unit, specifically?”

“I’ve already explained this, ma’am,” says the nurse. “I can only tell you what I see. The rest of the notes on her file are restricted.”

“Restricted, how?” I ask. “The hospital designated me power of attorney. I’m her sister. I have the right to access that information.”

“I’m afraid the law doesn’t work that way in this instance, ma’am.”

“Give me your supervisor.”

“I am the nurse supervisor on duty for this unit.” She is stout and diminutive, with massive black hair lashed back into a bun. She looks perpetually tired, in that way common to nurses and new mothers. “Ma’am, with all due respect, I understand how frustrating this is. Believe me, if I could give you more information, I would. But her file is restricted.

“Meanwhile–” she points to the screen behind her–“these names? The patients listed on my board? They’re the ones I’m paid to concern myself with. Now is there anything else I can do for you?”

I swallow hard. I will not resort to shouting, will not break down crying here in the reception area, though I am certainly angry enough to do both. “That’ll be all,” I tell her. “Thank you.”

“When her status changes,” the nurse supervisor says, “the hospital will notify you. The elevators are around the corner to your left.”

In the days that follow, I pace around my condo in a limbo of dread and angst. Where is my sister, I wonder? Why did they take her from me again? It seems that for most of my adult life, I’ve been a state of suspended mourning. She is not truly dead, I have been told, and so I am forever without closure. So it is again.

I try to keep myself busy with work. I attend two clients’ funerals, one Episcopal and one Jainist. I take on three new commissions to curate clients’ personal archives after their deaths. I receive an invite to speak on a panel at a conference; the subject is said to be population shifts and data-migration over the last half-century. That weekend, Noah goes to his father’s, and I spend as much time at the office as I can. There is always work to do, maintaining the personal records of the dead. For the living there is only anxiety, and dread, and waiting.

It is nearly a week before the hospital finally calls back–not Oncology, this time, but rather Behavioral Health. Nori has had a self-harm incident, I am advised, and she is finally well enough to receive visitors. The call comes in the middle of a work consultation–I end the call quickly and reschedule with my client, to some considerable objection. On the way out, I swing through the old piroshky shop just off of Pike Place Market, then hurry the three blocks to my car with purchase in hand.

I follow the instructions given to me by the information kiosk. Nori is being housed, I am told, in the hospital’s inpatient psychiatric wing. I take the elevators and present my visitor’s badge at the intake desk; I find my sister seated at a table, at the far end of a large common area. She holds a book in her right hand, while the left one is encased in a heavy brace. She looks up from her reading as I enter, holds my gaze as I draw near. I move slowly, as if approaching a wild deer. I realize then that I have never seen a deer outside of photographs. My sister says nothing as I sit down across from her. I point to her wrist, to the cut glued closed above her left eye. “What happened there?”

“Apparently windows have to be shatterproof now.” Her manner is sullen and embarrassed. “Typhoon-resistant, something, I dunno. Stop laughing.”

“Forgive me,” I say. I can only imagine my sister curled up on the floor, clutching her head and hissing with pain, an attempt at a grand final gesture reduced to mere slapstick. I realize of course that I’m being unkind, so I opt instead to try and smooth things over. I pull out the bag containing our piroshkies, unwrap my own and slide hers across the table. Her eyes go wide.

“You didn’t.”

“I did,” I say. “Grilled tofu and cheese. I hope that was alright.”

“They didn’t have the salmon?”

“No more salmon.” She looks at me strangely. She takes a bite of her pastry, wipes crumbs off her lower lip.

“So,” I say.

“So.” She studies me for a long moment, searching my face. After a long moment she finally says, “You don’t look the way I thought you would. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected.”

“We rarely do.”

“The short hair looks good though.”

“Thank you,” I say. “You look…” My words trail off, and she waits for me to finish.

“Like what?”

“Like you never left us.” I find it suddenly difficult to breathe. I focus instead on our surroundings–a pair of old men playing chess; a few other patients watching a movie. Over in the corner, a few of the younger ones are holding some sort of writing workshop. “It’s a nice setup they’ve got here, at least.”

“Yeah,” says Nori. “I was expecting straightjackets and drugged-up stares, but the people here are pretty normal. For the most part.”

“We expect mental anguish to look a certain way.” I think then of my own years spent in and out of therapy. “We find ourselves surprised when it turns out to wear a face that we know. Rational people make irrational decisions every day.”

“I wasn’t being irrational,” she says. “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not crazy.”

“It isn’t a matter of being crazy. But you’ve also been through a traumatic event. It’s not unreasonable to assume that you might experience some difficulty coming to terms.”

“Who said anything about a traumatic event?”

“It is my job,” I tell her, “to understand traumatic events.”


The rest of our visit is spent playing catch-up. I explain what has happened in Nori’s absence, both in our own sphere and in the world at large. This turns out to be not as strange a conversation as one might expect–had it been forty years, rather than twenty, it might be very different, but for the most part, Nori absorbs what I say without visible shock or dismay. Recent elections raise some eyebrows. “And what about you?” she asks. “Married, any kids?”

“Divorced,” I say. “We have a boy, he’s nine now. Noah. He looks a lot like you, I think.” She smiles. I had forgotten what a lovely smile she had.

“And what do you do now?”

“I’m an archivist.” I explain then about the nature of my job, a kind of mortician for the age of social-media. “Everyone leaves behind a life,” I say. “I take that life and shape it into a statement.”

Nori stares. “And, that’s just a thing now, I guess?”

“A very lucrative thing, if one is any good at it.”

“A touch morbid, don’t you think?”

“As a matter of fact, I do not.” The force of my own response surprises me. “Forgive me. I’m simply very proud of what I do, the ways in which I help people. I don’t find it to be morbid at all.”

“Look, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “Though I do have a question, if I might.”

“Okay?”

“I have to ask. About why you did it? I’m sure you understand.”

Silence. She looks around the room, then down at her feet. “It was stupid,” she says. “An impulse decision. I realized what had been done to me and I got scared. I wanted out.”

“If they let you out of here, will you try to do it again?”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Good,” I say. “I spent years wishing to have you back. I don’t want to ever lose you again.”

“You haven’t already?”

“That wasn’t my doing,” I say. “I tried to find you, but they’d restricted your file.”

“You know what I mean,” she says. “We might as well be different people now. Strangers.”

“Do you want to be?”

“I don’t think so, no.” She changes the subject. “Listen, I need you to do me a favor.”

“I’m listening.”

“I’m not stupid,” she says. “I could put it together from the way the staff all try to hide things from me. But when they woke me up, and you were the only one who showed? I need to know about Mom and Dad. I need you to tell me the truth.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. I’ve been dreading this conversation for over a week now. “You meant everything to them. To all of us.”

Nori nods. I can see her trying very her hardest. “I need some time, I think. Just for a little bit.”

“I understand.”

“Promise me you’ll visit. I don’t want to be in this alone. I can’t be in this alone.”

“I won’t let you be.” When the silence at last becomes too much I get up from my chair, turn and make my way for the exit. It is only as I reach the elevators that I realize we never embraced, or said that we loved each other.


I keep my promise. I visit twice a week over the next several weeks. Nori is eventually taken off watch, transferred out of Behavioral, back to Oncology and then out to Physical Therapy. During one of our visits I’m sent home with a packet–it includes a discharge checklist, timeframes, specific things that Nori will need. Top-to-bottom physical, updated driver’s license and passport, collection of belongings from storage. There are printouts for a series of job fairs, as well as a listing of crisis lines and emergency shelters, but otherwise no mention of housing or employment.

One night I’m helping Noah out with his math homework. He has always struggled with fractions. He slouches over his tablet, face buried in his hands, and I remind him, “That finger could be busy writing things out.”

“There’s nothing to write,” he says. “My brain is a complete blank.”

“Tabula rasa,” I correct him. “Reduce it down. Two-fifty over four hundred. What’s a number that goes into both?”

“I told you, I don’t know. I’m not like you. I can’t just magically be good with numbers.”

“No one is ever magically good at anything,” I say. I tell him then how, when I was younger, I had wanted to be an architect. At that age I had loved the idea of building things, of seeing how various pieces came together, but my knowledge was largely cribbed together from what I had learned playing building sims. When I finally did try to test into the AP classes I would actually need, they wouldn’t even let me in. “I only got good at math because I had to learn it for things like STEM Club or AP Calculus,” I tell him. “I had to practice, just like you.”

“What about Aunt Nori?”

“That’s different,” I say. It always seemed to me growing up that Nori was better at everything, but in hindsight I think she only ever cared about her cameras, her photography. She was only perceived as gifted because she was given free rein to indulge her singular focus. I used to hate our parents for that, damning me with faint praise while giving Nori the freedom to explore her gifts. Meanwhile, the problem on Noah’s notebook lingers unsolved.

“Did you and Dad ever think about having more kids?”

“What now?” I ask. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Did you?”

“I don’t believe that’s any of your business,” I say. “Noah, where is all this coming from? Please talk to me.”

“Just forget it.” He rolls his eyes, goes back to staring into his tablet. His shoulders slump the way they do when he’s feeling defeated or ignored. My powers of professional empathy feel utterly useless here. “Show your work, how?” he asks of no one.

At the next soccer game, I bring it up with Troy. “You don’t think it’s a little strange?”

“Kids are curious,” he says. Noah’s team dashes past with the ball, and we cheer him on as he runs by. When it quiets down again Troy says, “This is still new for him. Hell, for everyone.”

“They haven’t even been introduced yet,” I say. “It’s a little early to have the ‘cool auntie’ thing happening.”

“He’s lonely. He wants someone to identify with.” He smiles in that way of his, whenever he’s planning to rib me for something. “You know, you’re a pretty tough act to follow, I dunno if you’ve picked up on that.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything.” He focuses back on the game. “Have you peeked at his sketches though lately?”

“Yes,” I tell him. “I’ve seen them, and they’re lovely. He’s also working on them in class instead of focusing on the material at hand. Why do you think he’s barely passing half of his courses?”

“The point is that he’s passing,” says Troy. “He needs an outlet to express himself.”

“And I agree. Art classes. Summer workshops. By all means. But he still needs to make some sort of effort in the core subjects.”

“Tell me again that any of this has anything to do with Noah’s math homework.” Troy shoots me a knowing look, and I fume. His cavalier attitude can be infuriating, but he isn’t without his moments of insight. I shout out encouragement as Noah sends a shot spinning off downfield.

“It was an offhand remark,” I say. “Kids don’t parse subtext the way we do, but still.”

“I get it,” he says. “And what about you? How’re you holding up?”

“Just fine, but obviously you have other opinions.”

“I forfeited my right to have an opinion years ago. Look, I get that this is bringing a lot of stuff back up for you. It would be for me. But Noah doesn’t deserve to be caught in the fallout.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

“You’re not little Kimi anymore,” he says, “You’re a different person now. Stronger. You’ve got people in your life who care. People who want to help.”

“That’s certainly very kind of you to say.”

“I mean it,” he says. “I’m here. Whatever you need.” He still does this sometimes, still leaves small doors open in our conversations, and I refuse to enter through them. A sense of finality is essential to achieving closure. I turn my attention back to the game.

“I appreciate you listening,” I say.


During visits with my sister, the conversations tend to be relatively anodyne, at least at first. A question about a recent news article, for example, or a discussion about changes in fashion or popular culture. Her inquiries almost always pertain to the larger world, rather than to my own life since her stasis. Occasionally, however, there is some overlap.

On one such occasion, I visit during one of Nori’s bi-weekly physical therapy sessions. They have her on a treadmill, hooked up to monitors, running intervals. Stasis can be hard on the human body, and patients often come out lacking the strength or endurance that they possessed before. According to her doctors, these regimens will help boost her mobility and cardiovascular health. Nori and I talk in between bursts of sprinting, indicated by a chime and a sudden increase in speed from the treadmill. When 60 seconds have elapsed, the pace from the machine slackens again. Nori slows to a walk, still breathing heavily. She gestures to her neck, indicating the pattern tattooed behind my right ear and jawbone. “That your subvoc?”

I smile. “You’re familiar, I take it?”

“Only from what I read on the internet. The Star Trek stuff was always your thing, not mine.” I bristle a bit. I had forgotten how dismissive she could be, but I refuse to let her condescend. I explain the concept: that what started as a way to interact directly with the internet of things, became a way to enable private comms between people. “Legally gray,” I say, “but hard to limit the way people use it. Jailbreaking, they call it.”

Nori looks skeptical. “Doesn’t seem a little bit ‘1984’ to you?”

“On the contrary,” I say, “it’s the only secure communication channel most people have now.” Nori looks unimpressed. The treadmill beeps and speeds back up, and this time I raise my voice as her feet resume pounding out their familiar rhythm. “You know, not all change is bad. Sometimes new tech, new disciplines make our lives better.”

She gestures around us. “Tell me how any of this is better.”

“You’re here now. What about that? Or my subvoc, letting me talk to people without some program snooping in. Advertisers, law-enforcement agencies. What about that?”

“She says, getting her phone literally tattooed into her skin.”

“They’re not even remotely the same thing,” I say. “Christ. You sound exactly like Mom and Dad.”

“Are you lecturing me?” The treadmill beeps, and she slows her pace. “Where the hell do you get off?”

“I am trying to explain to you the way that things work now.”

“I think I get it, thank you.”

“No,” I say, “I don’t think you do. Privacy is a commodity. We live in a very different world now.”

“So enlighten me.”

I glare at her. When I was 22 years old, returning from a post-graduation trip to New Zealand, I found myself detained by customs agents upon my arrival into SeaTac. No doubt they saw the last name Fukada, first name Kimiko, printed on my passport, and saw an excuse to accuse me of traveling under false cover. It was nearly six hours before a law-student friend could get them to acknowledge that I was in fact an American citizen, and not some spy or sleeper-agent of the Japanese military junta. Meanwhile last week, I read that members of a survivalist militia out east were killed by an airstrike, launched upon their compound by an Air Force drone flying high above the deserts of Kansas. I have heard it said that such end-of-the-world types decry tech like the subvoc as the mark of the beast– perhaps they believed that old burner cellphones and ham radios would keep them more secure. “You read the news,” I say. “You can draw your own conclusions.”

The treadmill beeps a final time, and Nori comes to a stop. She shoots me a withering look.


On another occasion, Nori and I are sitting on a bench in the hospital’s visitor atrium. A geodesic roof stretches above our heads, gives shelter to a host of once-native flora: cedar, fern, redwood. Moss covers every trunk, while sprinklers rain down mist that pools into droplets, patters down through the branches around us. I close my eyes and breathe in deeply. Nori asks me out of nowhere, “How did Mom and Dad die?”

I take a moment before responding. I think then of the first time my mother sat me down to tell me about Nori’s cancer. I think of having to explain to Noah, at five years old, why his father and I could no longer live together. “They were quick at least,” I say. “Few years apart. Dad left work with a headache one evening, called Mom up from the bus and halfway into their talk he just started slurring.”

“Stroke?”

“I’m guessing so. Couple of bystanders tried to pull him off the bus, grab him an uber to a hospital, but by the time they got him there, he was already gone.”

“Jesus. And Mom?”

“That was a bit worse,” I say. “How familiar are you with Parkinson’s?”

“Not really.”

“Fair enough.” I explain then about the paranoia, the hallucinations that sometimes accompany the illness. “I didn’t realize at the time just how bad it actually gotten; we weren’t really talking much by that point. Anyway, one day not long after Noah was born, I get a call from the police. You remember the Schindlers next door?”

“Sure.”

“Of course. Well anyway, I get this message from SPD, who tells me that Mr. Schindler came out to find Mom digging up her tulips with her bare hands, talking to herself. He tried to ask if she was alright, and she just swore at him up and down, stumbled out into traffic.”

“Oh god. And that blind curve.”

I nod. “I should have pushed her more to look at assisted-living options, before she really started to go. Maybe she’d still be here if I had.”

“You can’t think like that,” she says. For a long time then we sit in silence.

“You seem to be taking things more in stride,” I say.

“Just trying to come to terms, as you put it. Though I do have another question, if that’s okay?”

“Go ahead.”

“When I was dying,” she says. “When they took me away, what did they do for me? The hospital I mean.”

Silence. I know what she’s hinting at, but I wish that I didn’t. “You mean a funeral.”

“I guess.”

I close my eyes. “Of a sort,” I say. “A vigil, they called it.” I remember how hasty and thrown-together the entire affair had felt, how the hospital had imposed strict limits on how many could be even invited. As a result, I only saw a few of Nori’s friends from grad school, along with several family acquaintances and colleagues of my parents. I recall the smell of disinfectant and incense that had hung over everything, the hard clonewood pews of the hospital prayer-space. I remember my mother sitting stone-faced on my left, my father on my right. I remember how lost and vaguely guilty he had looked, how he spent most of the time trying to meet my mother’s gaze and being ignored. Up at the front, a woman with short gray hair, clad in full vestments – a minister of some kind, intoning words of solace. On the table beside her sat a framed photograph of my sister, lit by candles. Not even a body to display, I remember thinking. I tried to imagine the girl I grew up with lying in some hospital storage unit somewhere, wrapped in plastic and pumped full of refrigerant. I would have nightmares around that idea for months–the thought of the lid closing above me, the transfusion freezing in my veins, the plastic film sealing off my mouth, my lungs. No longer even a person at that point, but an object. A unit of preserved tissue.

“Kimi?”

“Just give me a moment please.” To this day, I hardly remember any of what was said by those who took the podium. What I do remember is how at the end, instead of Amen, the minister had proclaimed Until we meet once more. It felt like a cruel thing to say, a promise that no one had any reason to expect would be kept. After what felt like an unbearable silence, people at last began to get up quietly and leave. I watched them go, heard their murmurs and sniffles. I remember saying to them No, remember saying You can’t leave, it isn’t over. I remember my father’s hand on my shoulder, remember him saying Kimi please. I remember shouting that he was letting them take her away, that they didn’t have the right, that it wasn’t fair. My mother finally started to cry, and my father whispered to me Kimi, not now, you’re making a scene. I hated him then for not crying the way we all were. I told him as much, to his face.

“Hey.” Nori places a hand on my shoulder. “Listen, it’s okay, I shouldn’t have asked. Just forget I said anything, I’m sorry.”

“I’m the one who’s sorry.” I start to cry, unable to stop myself.

“It’s okay,” she says again. “I’m here and we’re okay.” She pulls me into her arms, and for one very brief moment I’m back to being the younger sister again. The trees and ferns around us say nothing, and for a time we mourn what is lost, in silence, together.


On the day of her discharge, Nori calls me from one of the hospital courtesy phones. I can grab my own gear, she says. Just meet me with the car downstairs. We go to pick her up, and on the ride in, Noah can barely contain himself. He bounces in his seat, watches every passing pedestrian. “I don’t even know what she looks like,” he says.

“Like me but younger, I suppose.” It occurs to me that he’s never actually seen a photo of her. “Longer hair. More ink.”

“Ink?”

“Tattoos.” We pull up to the main entrance, and above us looms the hospital, all skywalks and gleaming surfaces. Out front are a throng of patients and their families, waiting for pickup. Some are on foot, some in wheelchairs, many laden with bags or heavy suitcases. Nori however stands off to the side, in jeans and a red hoodie. Her luggage is limited to an old black messenger bag and one plastic hospital footlocker. I smile and wave through the window, pop the car’s rear hatch. Nori tosses her things into the trunk and piles in.

“Get me the hell out of here,” she says.

The drive home is quieter than I expected. Noah stares at her, grinning, from the backseat. Nori meanwhile presses her face to the window, peers up at all the new construction overhead. She takes in the daytime traffic around us, says “The cars are all so ugly now.”


That night, I make us a fancy dinner–garlic-parmesan chicken with twice-baked potatoes. The ingredients nearly double our grocery bill for the week, but I’ve been wanting so badly to do something nice. After our last conversation in the atrium, I finally feel ready to try again with my sister. That she is even here with us tonight, at this table, is a chance most families never receive.

She eats slowly, never seems quite to know what to do with her silverware. Noah plies her with questions, and she tries to answer candidly, but only ends up sounding forced and awkward. At one point he asks, “You ever read any Marvel?”

She looks up. “I’m sorry?”

“Noah here is a big fan of the Hulk,” I say. “Amadeus Cho is one of his heroes.”

“You should check out Captain America,” he says. “The older ones, back when it was still Steve Rogers? He was frozen at one point, I think.”

“Maybe I should sometime.” Nori smiles. “How old are you, Noah?”

“Nine, you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“And if you hadn’t gotten sick,” he asks, “How old would you be?”

“Noah.” I set down my utensils. “Eat your dinner, please.”

“Forty-five.” Nori says this without looking up from her meal. “I’d be forty-five years old.” Noah meanwhile gives me a sideways glance, before going back to his food.

Later, Noah gets ready for bed, and Nori stakes out the futon in my office. I give a knock on the door after she’s gotten changed, find her with a splay of items across the bedding in front of her: a collection of store-bought toiletries, some old clothing, a few books. In an ancient leather case, her beloved Nikon camera, once a birthday gift from our father. She notices me in the doorway, straightens and feigns nonchalance.

“I just wanted to come give you your welcome-home present,” I say.

Her smile is pained. “Listen, I’m fine, I promise. All of this is perfect. Really.”

“Stop.” I produce from behind my back the box containing her gift–she takes it with some hesitation, opens it to find a brand-new computer, black and chrome. She pulls it out slowly and turns it over, runs a thumb along its edges.

“God that’s big for a tablet,” she says. “How do you turn it on?”

“It actually has a laptop mode. Here.” I press and hold one corner, and the holographic display flickers into being. Nori starts. The startup logo spins onscreen, and she looks at me.

“This really wasn’t necessary.”

“I just wanted you to have something to work from,” I say. “You deserve it.”

“Well thank you.” I watch as she begins to experiment with the new interface. “Hey, how do you connect to the internet on this?”

“Everything’s public now,” I say. “I pre-loaded with everything you’ll need. VPN, professional-grade imaging software. I even managed to pull most of your old portfolio.”

“How?”

“Call it inheritance,” I say. I explain then that after our mother died, executorship passed down to me. “For the last few years I’ve been the legal custodian for all our family data. Now that you’re back, I don’t have to be.”

“This is amazing.” Her words are genuine, but her gaze is clouded. I worry that I’ve somehow offended her.

“You don’t like it,” I say.

“That’s not it at all.” She seems so sad. “Listen, I’ve just had a long day. I’m probably going to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. Thank you though.”


That night, I have trouble sleeping as usual. I get up for a glass of water, come out to find Nori curled up in the reading nook by the window. She glances back at me, framed in silhouette by the lights of the city. A wave of déjà vu–for years after they took her, I used to dream of waking to find her in my bedroom, watching me from the shadows. Perhaps I’m still dreaming now. I ask her, “Am I intruding?”

She shrugs, turns her attention back to the skyline.

“I’ll put on tea. Chamomile, if that’s alright.” I pad barefoot into the kitchen, fill the pot with water and subvoc the burner on. I don’t even bother with the lights anymore. After so many years, I’ve grown accustomed to navigating in the darkness.

When I come back, Nori hasn’t moved at all. She takes her mug, and I crawl into the nook beside her. I take a sip. “When I was first looking at places,” I say, “after Troy and I separated, this spot right here was what sold me. I imagined Noah and I would curl up here and read books together. Now he’s too grown up for all that.”

“You’re his mom.” She looks out across the city, all neomodern high-rises and prefab housing blocks. Construction cranes and giant industrial printers dot the horizon. “There’s so much more of it now.”

“I think there was more of it back then than you remember.” I remember reading somewhere that in the last thirty years, some eighty percent of the American population had relocated to either the west or the upper east coast. Some did so seeking work; others, to escape droughts and deadly heat waves. Hardly anyone lives on the Gulf now, and all across the world countless other places are simply no longer habitable. So many places reduced to either silence or static. “Populations don’t just grow or shrink, they also migrate.”

“It doesn’t even look like Seattle,” she says. “Makes me think of like LA, or I dunno, Tokyo.”

“Mm.” I’ve been to Los Angeles; neither of us has ever been to Tokyo. For some moments, we drink our tea in silence. At last I say, “You’ve barely said a word since we came home. Talk to me.”

“What’s to talk about?” she says. “Everyone just carries on like nothing is any different. Like, to the point that it freaks me out.”

“Derealization, they call that.” In truth, I’ve been experiencing something similar–even now, I see her and find myself looking for the seams that will reveal her as some feat of visual-effects trickery. A flaw in the way that light is rendered, some facial expression that seems too flat. I keep expecting her to out herself as an illusion, and when she doesn’t some part of my mind panics, tries to reconcile what shouldn’t be. “The doctor says it’s just a side-effect. It’ll get easier the longer you’re out.”

“Meaning it’ll just start to feel normal. None of this is normal.”


I take the rest of the week off to help Nori with getting reintegrated. The first few days are a blur of appointments: the Social Security office, the bank, the state Department of Licensing. At each location, the staff look at the date of birth on file, then at the young woman standing before them. No one can find her in any systems, because for two decades her data footprint has been completely nonexistent. Tasks like ordering new ID, or opening up a checking account, require at least a supervisor and a retinal scan. There are procedures in place for a case like Nori’s, though no one has ever actually had to look them up.

Credit lines. Insurance history. Debt. Nearly all evidence that my sister once existed has rolled off. All except the student loans. All except the threat of the hospital bill.

There are other hurdles as well. To drive now requires not only a field test, but a written exam–Nori doesn’t even make it past the written. “I don’t ever remember it being that complicated,” she says later.

“Thankfully there’s actual train service now.” Quite frankly, if asked to take the same exam myself, I’m no longer certain that I would pass it. Suffice to say that I’m thankful for the auto-pilot feature on my Hyundai. “We’ll study for next time, but for now you should be able to manage without.”

When not busy with administrative errands, we spend our time shopping for things Nori still needs, chief among them an updated wardrobe. We find ourselves at the old Macy’s on 3rd and Pine one afternoon. She busies herself in one of the fitting rooms, while I wait with our cart. She emerges after some time, tosses her pile of garments down on the bench. “No.”

“No?” I watch as she begins stuffing items back onto hangars. “You took at least ten different items in there. No to which ones?”

“All of it,” she says. “I get out and everyone dresses like a freak.”

“What? I don’t.”

“Yeah, but you’re…” She gestures, and I can hear the implication in her tone: old. I look down at my own ensemble: black Armani blazer, white V-neck, blue jeans with vintage Chuck Taylors. I specifically chose the look to be low-key and casual.

“I’m thirty-four.”

“Exactly. I should have expected this.”

“It’s the fashion now.”

“It’s hideous.” She holds up a pair of burgundy trousers, the material strangely iridescent. “These are supposed to be slacks.”

“The style is a bit young, I’ll admit.”

“Maybe we can just hit up a thrift store later,” she says. “They still have those, right?”

“Good luck finding anything more to your liking,” I say. “You can’t just wear the same five band tee-shirts from twenty years ago.”

“Watch me.” She piles the collection atop the counter and walks off; I rifle through for the items that I think most closely fit with her aesthetic, then toss them back into the cart.

“We still have to pay,” I call out after her.

Later, on the way back to the car, we swing by an electronics store and pick her up an inexpensive phone. We make our way downhill to where we parked, and as we walk she busies herself with the new features. “You’ll be able to take phone calls and access the internet,” I tell her, “but everything’s monitored now, so try not to say or post anything that you wouldn’t want seen.”

Nori rolls her eyes. “Wouldn’t want to risk getting in trouble with Big Brother.”

“Try your employer. Try your health insurer. Try a future lender.” I unlock the car and we climb in. “We really ought to think about getting you a subvoc.”

Nori looks at the markings on my neck, as if they were some sort of infection. “Absolutely not,” she says.


One afternoon a few days later, while Nori is busy with job applications, I come upon Noah curled up in the reading nook. He has his tablet with him, but instead of schoolwork he has his sketchpad open. He hunches over the paper-white screen, carefully drawing out a line. “What are you working on?” I ask.

“The comic.” He flips the stylus over, erases his line and then redraws it. I slide into the nook beside him. Noah has been working on his comic for months now–he speaks little of it, but it consumes nearly all of his free time, at the expense of both homework and chores. He begs me to take him to the library on our days off, spends hours perusing video tutorials, old graphic novels. Last month, when the book fair came through school, he came home with a pair of how-to drawing guides for kids. He knows the names of every illustrator from his childhood picture books. I peer in over his shoulder.

He does have a remarkable gift, I will admit. His lines are uneven, his shading too busy, his hand still unsure in the way of youth, but the books and hours of how-tos have been paying off. No talking heads inside of hand-drawn boxes here; Noah’s panels flow and overlap and dominate the page. I’m reminded of an old Calvin and Hobbes print my father used to keep in his office. I remember asking him once about it once when I was eleven, and he gave me some reply about the creativity and curiosity of children. On Noah’s current page, a boy in goggles and superhero gear encounters a sealed casket, wipes frost from its glass porthole. Sleeping inside lies a young woman. I ask him, “What’s the ‘A’ on his chest?”

He replies without looking up. “The Archivist.”

Later after dinner, Nori and Noah play videogames in the living room. They race over splitscreen, pilot futuristic hovercraft at speeds that threaten to leave me motion-sick. I linger on the balcony with my fingers to my neck, messaging with Troy. He informs me that he’s been thinking about Noah’s soccer league again. I thought maybe once the season was over, I might ask him and see if he wants to stick with it, or try something else.

Why? I ask. He’s doing really well.

He doesn’t enjoy it, he says. It’s something he does because I want him to, not because he wants to.

You’ve never been one to pressure him.

No, but kids pick up certain messages. A pause. From inside Noah shouts, “Who’re you talking to?”

“Your dad. Grown-up stuff.”

“Hey, Dad!” He speaks without taking his eyes off the screen. His hands are a blur on the controller, and Nori curses as she tries to match his dexterity. I go back to my conversation. Noah says hey.

Hey, kiddo. I can feel the smile in his words, in a way that text never connote. He’s been asking for a longboard for his birthday. Things are almost as big as he is.

He made some mention, I say. Tell me we’re not just encouraging him to just abandon a thing, whenever it gets hard.

It isn’t hard for him, says Troy. He just doesn’t care. If you told him right now that his practice was cancelled tomorrow, he’d go right back to his room with his sketchpad and his handheld. It’s okay for him to have different interests.

You guys bond over sports.

I bond over sports, he says. I don’t want to be that dad, pushing his interests onto his kid. You remember my old man–I did JROTC all through school just to make him happy. All it did was make me hate him.

So what are you proposing?

I dunno–maybe we try asking him. From the living room, Noah shouts and pumps his fist in the air. Nori shoves him playfully, and Noah shoves back. They have a real connection, one I admittedly envy. Who knows? Maybe we take him out to the skate park over by my place.

I’m already imagining the doctor’s bills, I say. I’m going to head back in for now. We can talk about this more soon.

Sounds good. See you. I go back inside, join Nori and Noah on the couch. They’re busy selecting their vehicles prior to the next race; I tousle Noah’s hair and kiss the top of his head. “Your dad says hey kiddo.”


That weekend, Noah goes to his father’s house. A week passes, during which time Nori searches for jobs and housing. The results are less than encouraging–housing in Seattle was already expensive, and the years have only seen the problem worsen. Now, more tenants vie for fewer openings. We discuss this one morning, while I check my emails and Nori looks at ads for roommates. “Too creepy,” she says of one. “Too old.”

“What about cohousing?” I ask. “I saw some nice listings over in West Seattle.”

“Ew.” She swipes continually left, as if dismissing a procession of suitors. “Let me pay half of my weekly income to rent a fancy bunk bed. In shifts.”

“Well, considering that right now your income consists entirely of my income, I’d say we’re thinking rather far ahead for all that.” She shoots me a dirty look over the top of her computer, goes back to swiping. From behind, her screen depicts a shimmering illusion of the lower half of her face. “Urban cricket farmer,” she says. “Rents from her parents. Ugh, hopelessly basic.”

“You are entirely too judgmental,” I say. “The fact is, whatever you find in this market is going to be small, it’s going to have shared services, and yes, you’re probably going to have to lower your expectations surrounding roommates.”

She looks around us. “You managed just fine.”

“The difference here is that I can afford it. Who knows though? Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

She doesn’t hear me. She appears to have paused on a candidate, cocks an appraising eyebrow. “Cute,” she says. “Seems normal enough.” Swipes right.

The job market turns out to be even bleaker. I assist Nori with rides to job fairs, call in a few connections for interviews–the Seattle Times, the PI, the Stranger. When those fall flat, we turn to design firms, marketing firms, PR, anywhere that might require a full-time photographer or editor. Perhaps it’s simply a glut of qualified applicants; perhaps the economy has simply changed. Over the week that follows, I watch as leads dry up and Nori’s morale falters.

One afternoon, we’re riding home from yet another interview. Nori stews, looking uncomfortable in one of my borrowed blazers. Out of nowhere she undoes her seatbelt, pulls off the blazer, crumples it up and throws it into the back seat. For several moments, the cabin chimes with the sound of the seatbelt alarm.

I ask, “Were you going to get that?”

She sighs and does as asked. “Such bullshit,” she says. “The entire thing is bullshit.”

“It was one interview.”

“Out of how many?” She looks out the window. “Maybe the articles were right, maybe I need to be looking overseas. China somewhere, or Dubai.”

“You really don’t want the kinds of jobs you can get in China or Dubai. Did they at least offer you any kind of feedback?”

“They didn’t have to. Right out the gate, one guy on the panel said he thought my portfolio work was ‘dated.’ I won contests for those shots.”

“Business types don’t always appreciate creative photography,” I say. “Just give it time. You’ve got degrees, you’ve got work published, you’ve got internships.”

“They wanted something more recent,” she says. She strains to get a better look as we pass Green Lake on our right. Here a break in the endless high-rises, a place where rows of lakefront houses still crowd against the water’s edge. Residential neighborhoods have increasingly become an affectation of the rich. “Any idea whatever happened to the old house?”

“I sold it after Mom died.” I brace, expecting her to be angry, but she just looks at her feet. Perhaps she expected this. “Would you like to go see it?”

Her reflection in the window frowns. “Can we?”


We lean on the hood of the car, parked just up the street from our old childhood home. The day is hot and bright and perfectly quiet, like a thousand summer afternoons from my youth. I have a memory of being Noah’s age, straddling my bicycle and staring down a world of possibilities. Nori says, “I hate what they’ve done with the color.”

I frown. “The pink is an interesting choice.”

“They cut down my tree.”

“Old oaks like that are hard to keep healthy.” It isn’t just her tree–all up and down the block now, yards are being planted with acacia, jacaranda, eucalyptus. Still other homeowners favor hybrid clones found nowhere in nature, engineered for drought and insect resistance. Xeriscaping is increasingly common, though a few holdouts still maintain green lawns, expensively irrigated. That kind of extravagance with water seems alien to me now.

“What did you get for the house?” she asks.

I shake my head. “The number would just make you angry.”

“So? Tell me.”

“Enough for the condo, and for Noah’s college fund besides.” The screen door to the house pushes open, and the current resident, a woman in her thirties, emerges with a tablet in hand, wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses. She takes up a spot on the porch swing they’ve installed, settles in and begins to thumb through invisible pages. She looks like the kind of person for whom work has only ever existed as an abstraction. She reminds me of the trees and the flowers here now–a transplant, beautiful and out-of-place. Nori looks on with an expression like longing.

“You didn’t have to sell it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have sold it.”

“You weren’t around to ask.” The house had actually been a sore point between Troy and I. At the time, Noah had just been born, and Troy thought it would be the perfect place to begin our family. He had never owned a house himself, couldn’t understand my eagerness to be rid of it. I couldn’t tell him how I dreaded the thought of living with so many old ghosts within those walls–perhaps I feared I might long to join them. Troy eventually gave up on the matter, but I know some part of him resented me for it. In hindsight, I think that may have marked the beginning of our end. Meanwhile a police gunship passes thumping overhead; its shadow crosses over yards and rooftops and then is gone again. The woman on our porch looks up, notices the gunship receding, then notices us.

“We should probably go,” I say.


The visit to the house affects Nori more than she is willing to acknowledge. I should have anticipated that it might be hard for her. Part of me longs to say something in my own defense, but what? I sold off our childhood home, because I didn’t want to deal with the grief that it encompassed.

That night over dinner, she asks me, somewhat unexpectedly, about my work. I’ll admit that I’m rather taken aback, but at the same time I’m touched by her sudden interest. I try to answer her questions to the best of my abilities.

“It’s not just social media,” I try to explain at one point. “That’s active data footprint. What I’m talking about is passive footprint, the data you generate just by existing. It’s location check-ins, purchase histories, photos you’re tagged in with other people. It’s about networks you accessed, places you lived, people you connected with. It’s like… tree-rings or fossil tracks; it reflects the shape and trajectory of one’s lived experience.”

She spoons up a bite of polenta. “So then, you get rid of people’s dirty laundry too? Scrub their search histories?”

“I am empowered in a limited way to manage the privacy of my client’s digital estates, per their final wishes.”

Nori seems unconvinced. “So, do Mom and Dad have an archive then?”

I take a sip of water. “Sorry, no. Not currently.”

“Why not?”

I smile. I am uncomfortable with this entire line of questioning. “I’ve worked at the idea some, over the years, but I’ve just never really completed anything.”

“So what would it take to complete?”

“Time,” I say. I’m not sure if I mean in labor-hours or grief expended. “You know, if you wanted to, we could always go out to my place of employment sometime. Visit their urns.”

“I don’t know that I’m ready for that,” she says.


The change in Nori’s mood deepens. Over the following days, she becomes quieter, helps out more with the housework. She responds to questions plainly, without any of her usual snark or pushback. I suppose that I should consider this an improvement, but it feels like a lie to me, a way for my sister to put up walls between herself and the world. I find myself missing her cynical affect. I find it a shame, because I do enjoy her as a person, whatever our differences in age or maturity. I want to know her better, and it saddens me to realize that I don’t.

I decide to take that Friday for just the two of us. I wake Nori early; we head into town for bagels, then cross the bridge over into West Seattle. We order coffees down at Alki Quay, take a stroll down along the waterfront.

The weather that morning is bright and breezy, the waters choppy. I’m told that there used to be a beach where we now stand, though the rising waves have long since claimed it. Now those same waves crash against the pier, while massive hotels block out the sun overhead. I’m reminded of the old paintings by the Spanish Surrealists, black shadows falling across hard bright earth. I mention it to Nori. “Refresh me on the word for that?”

“Chiaroscuro.” She gives her answer automatically, without looking up. The breeze tugs at her ponytail, her windbreaker, and I’m reminded of the weekend outings we used to take as a family. She is so much more beautiful than I remembered. She notices me staring at her, asks me “What?”

“Nothing.” The wind stings at my eyes, and I smile. “We should find somewhere to eat. Are you hungry?”

We take lunch outdoors at a nearby bistro, then back over the bridge into downtown. We wander Pike Place, the New Waterfront, the Amazon Gardens. Nori inquires about the Space Needle, but I say, “The view isn’t what it used to be. All the new development. I took Mom a few years back, you’d just be disappointed.”

“I guess.”

Later, we visit the Seattle Art Museum. The feature that month is an exhibition titled “Here and Now: Pacific Northwest Art in the 21st Century.” It presents itself as a kind of regional retrospective, spanning from turn-of-the-century Instagram photography, to the mixed-media and sculpture installations currently in vogue. All the artists are local to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon Indigenous Administrative Region, and Alaska.

We wander with no particular objective, taking in the featured works. One room is devoted entirely to repurposed Civil-War era relics. Railgun emplacements, troop transports, all graffiti’d and reworked into new shapes by a blacksmith. At the center of the hall, posed upright as if climbing skyward, towers the gutted hulk of an old fighter jet. It is garlanded with cedar boughs, painted to resemble an osprey in the Coastal Salish style. All this, Nori informs me from the placard, is the work of a First Nations artist from Aberdeen, and is titled Reclamation. “This one here’s No. 9, apparently.”

“Mm,” I say. “Swords to ploughshares, I suppose.”

We head deeper into the museum, eventually going our separate ways. I end up drawn to a collection of sculptures, built from the 3D-printed bones of extinct animals. Each evokes a classical work in grotesque negative: The Creation of Adam, Judith and Holofernes, Saturn Devouring His Son. I find myself drawn to the Goya homage in particular, where the human victim is held aloft, half-eaten, by a monstrous assemblage of every great beast our species has ever slaughtered. Polar bear, giant ground sloth, mountain gorilla. The terror-stricken face of the original has been replaced by the gaping jaws of what the placard states is a Siberian tiger, and I find this fitting somehow. The sins of our past consuming our present, and thus our future.

From across the hall, I suddenly can hear Nori exclaiming, far too loudly, “What the fuck. What the fuck.” I look up at the source of the commotion. All around, other patrons are clearly perturbed. I cross the room quickly, seize Nori by the arm before she can embarrass us further.

“May I help you?” I hiss.

“Get off me.” She pulls away, goes back to the feature that has her so riled up: a black-and-white photography series, taking up an entire wall. The featured artist on the placard is a middle-aged woman, with impeccable cheekbones and upswept red hair going gray. Her work tends toward atmospheric shots, stark and heavily-filtered. I don’t recognize her name, though Nori certainly does. “That’s Bly Maddox,” she tells me. She explains then that they were in art school together. “We actually dated for a while. Before I got sick.”

“Oh, how lovely.” I turn back to the display, avoiding the gaze of the curator wandering in our direction. “What a small world.”

“Like hell.” She goes and points to the central work, a panorama depicting carbon-capture towers, anchored off the Olympic coast during a storm. “This was my piece. My fucking piece. I spent months on that shot, I can’t fucking believe her! Where the hell did she even find this?”

“You are making a scene,” I say. I understand that she has every right to be angry, but the attention we’re drawing has my anxiety in overdrive. Off to our right, the curator is approaching us with a concerned expression. Other patrons are staring at us, and at least one person has pulled out a cellphone. “There are better ways to seek redress for this sort of thing. Perhaps we can talk about them more quietly, maybe on the way home?”

“I’m sorry folks, is something the matter?”

I glance over at the curator. She seems eager to avoid a confrontation, to have this quietly brushed aside. “We were just leaving,” I say. “Nori?”

“Whatever.” She looks back at the Maddox exhibit again before we go. Shakes her head. Mouths the word bitch under her breath.


Nori fumes the whole way back to the car, and on the way home. I can feel her shaking next to me. Only as we park in my driveway does she finally speak up. “Listen, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “Perhaps we should file some sort of complaint with the museum. Maybe get an attorney?”

“What would be the point?” she asks. “I’m nobody. She’s somebody now. My word against hers. Like with everything else.”

“Not just your word,” I remind her. “We still have your portfolios. They’re on your computer. Maybe there’s still something there. Some kind of proof.”

“And do what then, sue her? Go through all of that all over again? Look, it’s over and she won. I don’t have the energy to fight about it.” Outside, great thunderclouds are building overhead. “Everyone’s moved on. Everyone has families, careers. You. Bly.”

“It isn’t that simple,” I say.

“You guys have at least done something. You’ve at least got something to show.”

“I think you’re forgetting all that you have to be grateful for here.”

“Like what?” she says. “Some new scars? Permanent nerve damage? My pictures are hanging in some art gallery under someone else’s name. What the hell do I have to be grateful for?”

I say nothing. On the windshield, droplets of rain begin to appear.

“Look, I’m sorry. Just forget it.” She goes for her door handle, then pauses. “What else has changed?”


That night, it thunderstorms, an unusual phenomenon for July, and the news covers it as a once-in-a-decade occurrence. The rain drums on the window during dinner, where we eat in silence. Nori disappears into the study afterward, closes the door behind her. I set to loading the dishwasher and tidying up.

After perhaps an hour, her door bursts open as I’m pouring myself a drink. She brushes past me in tears, snatches her jacket and bag off the hook. Goes for the door, then stops. “I’m going out.” She manages to keep her voice from shaking. “I need you to reload my card for me. Please.”

I watch her. The sound of the rain outside is like steel bearings on hardwood. I set aside the bottle of bourbon, open up my tablet sitting on the counter. “Of course,” I say. “You have my number? You remember how to get to the train stop?”

“I’ll map it. Thank you.” The sound of the rain gets louder as she opens the door, then goes quiet again. I watch her walk off into the night, head down and hood up. I take a sip of my drink and take my tablet into the living room.

The door to her room is open, the screenlight harsh against the lamplit walls. I can’t help but peer inside. There’s something intimate about a space only recently deserted–a sense of trespass, of absence. Like a sleeping face after the life has vacated it, like the data-wakes my clients leave in their passing. That sudden cessation one day of all activity. I have lived inside that sense of absence these last twenty years now. It is the only place I feel safe, the only place I can hear myself think. I slip inside, careful to disturb nothing.

Her computer screen is still up, left open on her social media. I am surprised to find myself looking at the official profile of the woman from the museum, this Bly Maddox. I search my memories and after some effort I finally recall her: a young woman in her twenties, with green eyes and a nose piercing, some partner that my sister brought around while I was still in high school. For all my effort, however, I can’t remember when we would have met, or at what point she stopped coming around. In any case, there is another woman in the picture beside her now. Their recent photos appear to show a beachfront wedding, the pair resplendent in simple dresses, exchanging vows barefoot in the sand.

It is true of course that we only ever know our family members, our parents and siblings, incompletely. It is especially true when we are children, though in the face of illness or family crisis it is also true as well. We speak so much of our loved ones’ perseverance, their courage, though we rarely ask what they battles they must be fighting internally. We rarely ask what it is they have lost. Slowly I sit down upon the futon. Raindrops patter against the window.


I wait up late for Nori’s return, checking messages on the couch. I try to imagine where she might be–out riding the trains perhaps, or out at a club? I seem to recall that she was a fan of dance music, but I have no idea what style or period. I pass out sometime after midnight, wake up late the next morning with the sun in my eyes. I peek into the study and find her safely asleep. When I emerge from the shower, she is awake, already starting the coffee. By the time I’ve gotten dressed she is sitting at the table. I pour myself a cup and join her. “Are you all right?”

She looks at me, shrugs.

“I think I finally figured out where I met your friend Bly,” I say. “Thanksgiving dinner, my freshman year of high school. Mom was talking like you guys thought she might be The One.”

Nori rolls her eyes.

“I couldn’t help but notice you stalking her profile page last night.”

She glares at me. “You went into my room. You looked on my computer.”

“Your door was open,” I say. “I didn’t touch anything. I was just trying to understand, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. You’ve been the one telling me that I can’t expect any privacy.” She falls silent, stares into her mug.

“What happened between you two?” I ask.

“What do you think?” She talks then about being diagnosed, how at the time her doctors were convinced she only had six to nine months. “We all were pretty sure I was gonna die. She couldn’t take it, so she bailed.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Her loss, right?” Nori sniffles and wipes at her eyes. “It’s good though. She looks good. They both look really happy together.”

“I’m sorry anyway.” These things happened decades ago, but for her I imagine the hurt must be far more recent. “How do I not remember you two breaking up?”

She shrugs. “Bigger concerns, I guess.”

“A partner leaving after a terminal diagnosis seems like a pretty big concern. Did Mom and Dad know?”

“They did. I told Mom I was the one who broke it off. I didn’t want her to be mad at Bly. So stupid of me.”

“It’s not stupid to still love someone who hurts you,” I say. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“What were we going to do? Pour our hearts out sitting on your bed? Talk about our feelings? What grade were you even in at the time?”

“Ninth. I would have listened.”

“You were like twelve. Were you even old enough be dating?”

“Fourteen,” I was. “And as a matter of fact, I was.” I think then back to long afternoons after school with my best male friend, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder against our lockers. I remember the away trips with the debate team, the long playlists we made for each other. I wanted so badly to share what I was feeling with someone. “I wanted to be close to you,” I say. “I still want that.”

“And what, you thought this was going to be some sort of second chance?” Her voice takes a mocking tone. “Look, I’m grateful that you’ve been here, I really am. But I never asked for this. I never wanted this. And here I am stuck now in some bullshit future with our parents gone, and you bossing me around, and my ex married to someone else, cashing in on my fucking work.”

I don’t say anything. I can feel my mouth move, but the words refuse to come.

“Look, just forget it.” She drains her coffee and pushes back from the table. “I’m gonna go grab a shower. After that I might take my computer, head into town. Maybe hit up the library.”

“It’s a Saturday,” I call after her. She ignores me and vanishes into the study. When she emerges again, she has her towel and hygiene bag. “What on earth for?”

She calls back from the bathroom. “What do you think?”


She is gone all the rest of that day. By the time I go to pick up Noah from his father’s, she still hasn’t returned. Only after Noah has gone to bed, and I’m sitting down to catch up on work, does she burst through the front door. She drops her bag on the floor in the hallway, in spite of the wall-mounted hook, and disappears into the study. When she comes out, she heads straight for the kitchen, raids the refrigerator. “This pasta spoken for?”

“It’s cacciatore. It has mushrooms in it.” This doesn’t seem to faze her. She reheats the leftovers in the microwave, stares at her feet as she waits for the timer. When her dinner comes up, she doesn’t bother with a bowl, just takes it with her in the container. I ask “How did your day go?”

She shrugs, already heading back to the study. “It went, I guess.”

This routine continues the next day, and the day after that. Only on Monday does she come home at a reasonable hour. I’m pulling dinner out of the oven, and so I don’t hear the door when she enters. I glance back just in time to see Noah tackle her in the hallway; she glances up at me and smiles painfully. I notice that she’s wearing the blazer I loaned her.

“Well this is a surprise,” I say. “Your timing is perfect. You can have a little break from leftovers.” I finish plating up everyone’s tilapia and couscous, look up and realize that I’ve left the TV on. Onscreen, the Pacific Garbage Fire is continuing into its second month. A wall of flame and smoke curtains the horizon, reduces the eastern sun to a pale red orb. Boats of all sizes deploy water cannons, to virtually no effect. Cut to a shot of the fire visible from orbit, a bright smoking crescent like lava flowing into the sea. It must stretch on for hundreds of miles. I swipe the TV off from where I sit and Nori says, unprompted, “I got a job.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful.” I reach for my glass of Riesling. “That was quick. I told you something would work out. Where at?”

“Elliott Bay.”

I frown a moment. “The retail chain?”

She looks up and studies me a moment. I feel as though I’ve missed something. She rolls her eyes and goes back to her fish. “Yeah. The retail chain.”

“So what are you doing? Photography? Marketing? Graphic design?”

“Stocking,” she says. “I start Wednesday.”

“You mean like bookshelves?” Suddenly it all starts to make sense–the sudden hire, how soon they want her to start. No doubt they’re desperate for people. “You know what, it’s still a big milestone and you should be proud. This can be a stepping stone to something bigger.”

She shakes her head, spears up a bite of tilapia with her fork.


Nori quickly launches herself into 12 and 14-hour days. Soon we barely see her at all. She’s gone most morning before I’m even up, doesn’t return again until after I’m asleep. Sometimes she gets home and I start awake at the sound of the door–I can lie there and can listen to her raiding the fridge, bolting her food upright in the kitchen, brushing her teeth in the bathroom sink before bed. I’m reminded of how, after college, some friends and I shared a house for about a year. For roughly two months of that, one of my housemates had a cousin stay with us.

Most of us never even saw her, and those who had couldn’t accurately describe her. One night I remember getting up to go to the bathroom, only to discover her already in there. I remember lurking in the dark around the corner, dreading the prospect of an introduction and awkward small talk at that hour. I never got another chance to say hello, and I never learned why she left. There comes a point when we don’t have the energy for human interaction, when it simply becomes easier to live with the sound of each other’s presence in the other room. It begins to feel that way with Nori.

Noah quickly picks up that something is amiss. One afternoon he’s in the nook, working on his sketches. He asks me without looking up, “Why doesn’t Aunt Nori like us anymore?”

“She’s just working,” I say.

“Because she doesn’t want to be around us,” he says. “I didn’t mean to bug her so much.”

“You have never bugged anyone,” I say. I slide into the nook. “Look at me. What’s going on with Aunt Nori has nothing to with us. She’s just going through a lot right now. Do you remember when you were younger, and your dad and I got divorced?”

He winces, but nods. I suppose it’s my turn now to pick at old scars.

“That was a really rough time, wasn’t it? We almost had to pull you out of kindergarten.”

“You guys were yelling all the time. I didn’t want to come home either.”

“Neither did I.” In my work, I have learned how to cultivate a certain professional distance, a poise that helps me stay centered. I imagine it must be the same for doctors, or for social workers. That ability to exist at one remove from other people’s suffering is easy in the context of a working relationship, but I’ve never been able to do the same with my son. I blink to clear my vision. “That kind of hurt didn’t just go away, did it?”

“No.”

“Of course not. And the same is true here. Your Aunt Nori’s hurting, and it’s still fresh. But it’ll get better, I promise.”

“I guess.” I suspect most children learn to distrust the promises of adults from an early age. “You don’t ever seem like you’re hurting though.”

“I’ve been dealing with it for longer.” I smile and kiss the top of his head. “You should finish your drawing–maybe you could let me see it when you’re done?”


Nori comes home unexpectedly one evening. I’m sitting at the coffee table, busy working on my tablet. She keys in and blows past me into the study. When she emerges in a different outfit, I say, “You’re home early.”

“Saturdays I only work an eight-hour shift.”

“Eight hours would be four hours ago. Like two in the afternoon.”

“I know.” She slips into the bathroom. “I’m going back out. I just wanted to swing by and change first.” She leans over the sink with the door open, takes a moment to reapply her makeup. Something catches my eye, a series of dark geometric lines on her neck. They frame her right ear and jawbone like pathways, reach down to a contact point just above her clavicle. The borders are still fresh, still raw and angry, still shining with a thin coat of ointment.

“What is this?” I say. “When did you get this?”

“You’re going to make me fuck up my mascara.” She ignores my gaze in the mirror.

“I thought you hated the idea of a subvoc.”

“Mom and Dad hating the idea of getting their prints registered. They still did it.”

“That wasn’t exactly a matter of choice.”

“Lots of things aren’t a matter of choice.”

“I would have had to reload your card. With extra, even.”

“Overtime,” she says. “Nice thing about probationary employment.”

“And you weren’t planning on telling me?”

“I don’t have to inform you about every single aspect of my comings and goings,” she says. “I thought you’d be happy: layabout big sister gets up off your futon and finally gets her act together. This is me getting my damn act together.”

“Up off my futon, maybe. I’m not so certain about the rest.”

“Could we please just not?” She puts away her things and zips up the bag. “I honestly don’t know what you want from me.”

“For you to talk to me. For you to let me in.”

“This is really not the time to be doing the whole family-therapy routine.” she says. “I’m going out tonight. On my own money. Don’t worry, I won’t have to ask you to spot me again.”

“That isn’t even what this is about. I’m worried about you. I want to help.”

“I don’t need anyone’s help,” she says. “I’m doing fine. Better than I have since I got out.”

“You’re killing yourself with work. You’re barely sleeping. Those aren’t the coping habits of someone I’d say is ‘doing fine.’”

“At least I’m working.”

“And doing what?” I say. “I’ve scored you opportunities with at least a dozen good places. I’ve tried to find you jobs–good jobs within your field, jobs that use your degree. I would think you’d be grateful, and instead you’ve washed out of every single interview I’ve landed you.”

“Washed out? I got a good job, on my own, and I didn’t need your help. Better than some pity internship that wants to pay me half of basic income.”

“It’s menial labor,” I say.

“So? It’s all menial now.”

“It’s chain retail.”

“It didn’t use to be a chain!” she says. Her sudden outburst frightens me. “Good god, are you that dense? Do you remember nothing?”

For a moment I can only stammer, searching for words. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Elliot Bay,” she says. “Did Dad not ever take you there as a kid?” I wrack my memory. Our father never took me to any such place that I can recall, another reminder that he and Nori always had a different relationship than we did. A stronger relationship. “It was his favorite,” she says. “And they bought it out. God damn it, this town kills everything. They killed it and they took that part of him away from me.”

She’s near tears now. How could I not have known, I wonder? Did our father never choose to share that with me? Was I too selfish, too caught up in my sports and STEM club, my construction sims and my tabletop games? Was Nori just the daughter he cared about more? “I’m sorry,” I say.

“You don’t know anything,” she says. “About me. About this family. You don’t know anything.” She brushes past me and disappears into her study; the door clicks shut behind her.

After a little time has passed, she comes out to find me on the balcony. I can feel her in the doorway, ask her “What?”

“Now’s as good a time as any,” she says. “I found a place. I’ll be moving out probably Sunday. I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” I say. “We can even take my car to haul things.”

“I don’t have that much.”

“I know. Listen, it was wrong of me to downplay your achievements. I’m sorry. You’ve worked really hard. You should be proud.”

“Please don’t,” she says. “Anyway, I should probably get going. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Wait.” I take her hand, clasp it in between mine. With my fingers I can feel the raised welt on her wrist where they’ve injected the probe for the subvoc. The probe opens the channel with touch, and the tattoo transmits the nerve impulses of the throat and larynx. Not so much recorded speech, as a mapping of speech. Once I feel the link, I touch my fingers to the button inked on my collarbone. I love you, I say.

She stares, struggles with the feel of another user’s words inside her head for the first time. After a moment she touches her own throat. I love you too. I’m sorry. Then without another word, she’s out the door and gone.


Noah goes back to his father’s for the week. I go back to working at the office again, rather than from home. With Nori gone, a silence settles back over the condo. It remains in the air even after I pick Noah up again on Saturday evening, hangs over our dinner and our weekly movie night. It begins to feel like she was never there at all.

She wanders into the kitchen on Sunday morning, already showered and dressed, as I’m loading up the dishwasher. She looks at me, then back at Noah doodling at the table. “You guys ready?”

“Just finishing up,” I say. “You need help getting your things packer?”

“Already loaded. It’s just a footlocker.”

“Furniture?”

“My roommate has furniture.” That tightening of the muscle in her jaw. “So, are we doing this?”

Her new place is out in University Park, a small unit located in a high-rise tenement block. Ugly Brutalist constructions, they crowd together like server arrays, dotted with lights. I remember the protests over zoning density that took place when they first went up. Noah peers overhead, jaw slack with wonder.

We pull into the visitors parking area. On either side of the entrance stand a pair of tall, carefully-landscaped junipers. The elevators don’t work, so we mount the stairs instead. Nori drags her footlocker, the wheels thumping over each step, while I carry a few bags of assorted groceries. Ramen, canned sliced tofu, eggs, assorted produce. She initially resisted my efforts at charity, but my fretting instinct isn’t so easily deterred. Bringing up the rear is Noah, hauling a set of bedding. Pillows, a quilt set, but no sheets–I couldn’t be sure what sort of bed she’d have at her new place, and Nori didn’t seem to know either. Such housewarming gifts as I have to offer.

“Roommate’s supposed to be working,” Nori says. “Won’t be back until later this evening.” She opens the door into a small, crowded space, with flimsy-looking walls and sliding doors. Dirty laundry is draped over the sofa, over the coat-hooks, the chairs. There are unwashed dishes on the living-room table, which also seems to double as the dining-room table. There are no chairs. Posters advertising various live concerts adorn the walls. Cutouts from various glossy fashion mags are strewn over every surface, some pasted into collages. There seems to be a recurring focus on hair, femme hair specifically, in various punk or androgynous styles.

“This roommate, what’s she like?”

“Seems alright,” she says. “Works as a stylist.”

“Mm.” It explains things. I glance out the window–one thing this place affords, if nothing else, is a breathtaking view of the city looking south. Morning sunlight silhouettes the skyline in gold. I ask, “Do you need any help with anything?”

“I’ve got it.” She rolls her foot-locker into a corner, instructs Noah to drop her bedding on the sofa. “So.”

“So.” I take her in. A sense again that I’ve damaged us somehow, in some way that can’t be fixed. Not all things become clearer with hindsight. “You’ll subvoc me if you need anything?”

“I should be alright.” For a moment, I think she might become emotional, but the moment passes. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

“It’s nothing,” I say. “Noah, you ready?” He glances back at us, shrugs and heads for the door. Stops to hug Nori as she passes. She smiles. It is the same smile that she gave me, after her diagnosis. It’ll be fine, I remember her saying. I’ve got good doctors, a good treatment plan. Everything’s gonna be just fine, I promise. At what point do we start lying to children and calling it love? Nori and I exchange a look then. “Come on,” I say to Noah.

“Okay.” He heads out the door, and I stand there a moment longer. I know this isn’t goodbye, and yet in some fundamental way it is. “See you around,” I say.

“Yeah. See you.” Rather than prolong the moment, I head for the door.


On the ride home, Noah says, “She isn’t going to come visit us at all, is she?”

I glance back at him in the mirror “I honestly don’t know.” He shrugs, goes back to looking out the window.

Later that afternoon, while we work on our respective projects at the kitchen table, a knock comes at the door. It’s one of Noah’s friends, asking if he can come ride bikes. Noah is up and out the door the instant I call for him. When I return to the table, I notice he’s left his tablet open. On it, the latest panel from his comic: in it, the sleeping woman from before now wanders through an underground ruin, dwarfed by runic symbols. She arrives at a pedestal, pushes a button to reveal a casket like the one she first emerged from. Without a word she climbs inside, seals the lid over herself, closes her eyes as frost obscures the porthole. For a long time, I just stare over that particular image. I rub the bridge of my nose, then turn and attempt to return to my work.

That night, Noah and I visit the Ballard Night Market. The air is alive with music and laughter, with the smell of fried food, dishes from various cultures. We wander among the street trucks, grab pad thai for myself, barbeque-tofu mac and cheese for Noah. We sit on a bench and tuck into our food, listen to the buskers plying their trade, then toss our plates into the nearest incinerator when we’ve finished. Up ahead through the crowds, a familiar face: it’s Troy, out with a woman I don’t recognize, presumably his latest girlfriend. She leans into his shoulder as they walk, and here in the wild I can see how happy they are together. He spies me through the throngs and waves, and though I wave back I resolve not to disturb them. Noah, however, has other ideas. “Dad!” he shouts. “Come on.” He tugs at my sleeve, then slips through the sea of bodies like an eel. I try to keep up but am quickly caught up in the throng. I watch him run up ahead, see him tackle Troy in a full-body hug. Together they all beckon me to join them, but something stays my feet. Something always stays my feet.



This Crated Sense of Anxiety

By Andy K. Tytler



‘This Crated Sense of Anxiety’: 50 Years After Undipetra, Four Survivors Reflect on the Riot that Started a Revolution

by Andy K. Tytler, Features Desk
19 Esinat 7.00 RST

When veteran volitite miners Irro Tonhamgra and Ephrea Burold heard the shouting in the corridor, they assumed it was just the latest in the near-daily scuffles of that endlessly rainy winter. But then came the order from on high: lock it down.

‘We started the lockdown procedures, just going through the motions, you know, following orders,’ Tonhamgra says. ‘Didn’t realise anything was squint.’

We are sitting in Tonhamgra’s frontroom, a small but cosy space with a large picture window letting in the afternoon sun, and providing a view of the quiet street on the northeast side of Ofsoli, where Tonhamgra has lived since first starting as a packer at Undipetra Stand. Now Ofsoli is known for its trendy shops, quaint and affordable single-family detached homes, and excellent view of the stand, but back then it was just a place for the workers to live.

Burold sits on the sofa beside me, working his way through his third cherry biscuit. He lives a block away, also at the same address he was assigned when he first got the job in the laundry room on Rig 12. Each day they alternate hosting each other for lunch, then take a walk along the shore to watch the sun set over Undipetra. Both assert the daily walks and homemade meals are the secret to their longevity. He will be ninety-five this year, Tonhamgra ninety-six. Although Burold adds wryly that it might be all the cherry biscuits.

‘It wasn’t the first time we’d gone into lockdown, not by a long shot,’ Tonhamgra continues. ‘Not even the first time that winter. Everyone was on edge, what with all that sour-rain. It was the fifth week of it, and five weeks inside doesn’t suit anyone, let alone the Aviai.’

‘The whole place thrummed with it,’ Burold tells me. ‘Tempers flaring at the smallest thing, little scuffles and things breaking out a dozen times a day, accidents, sinks, mini-collapses through the roof.’

Tonhamgra nods. ‘The walls felt like they were closing in on us. There was nowhere for a moment alone, and all the time the rain, no sun, and the knowledge that you’re trapped. The whole rig was wrapped round by this crated sense of anxiety.’

She sighs and falls silent. Burold leans back wearing a pensive expression, his brow furrowed. Surrounding them on the walls of Tonhamgra’s front-room are old revolutionary posters and framed newspaper articles, including that now-iconic image of Tonhamgra at the march on the capital two months after the riot, hands up, arms trying to shield her face from the Civic Guard’s acid spray. The scarring on her left cheek, neck, and hands is gone now, long since replaced by skin grafts. Not so on her arms. She tells me when she catches me staring that she chose not to remove it. After all, she points out with a tone hovering between humour and reproach, she earned those scars, and she has nothing to hide.

After a lengthening period of silence, I prompt Tonhamgra to continue, but it’s Burold who picks up the story.

‘I was just about to put in my key so Irro could start the lockdown when we heard the cry for help, to wait, to keep the door open,’ Burold says. He’s still leaning back, his hands clasped together, and speaking without looking at me. The cherry biscuits are forgotten now. ‘We just sort of looked at each other, like “What now?” We both knew the official procedure is hermetic seals on all doors, no exceptions, but we’d also never been in a lockdown where there’s someone in the corridor begging not to leave them to die.’

Enter Tweil*, the Avia on the other side of the door.


Like most Riloans, my first visit to Undipetra Stand was for a school field trip, and I have to admit that I knew I was meant to be humbly grateful and dutifully impressed by the sacrifices of those who fought and gave their lives there, but as a thirteen-year-old first and foremost concerned with finding out how many of my friends and I had got into the same preparatory, I couldn’t muster the zeal. Mostly, I was disappointed we didn’t go any further out than Rig 2, where the visitor’s centre and main bulk of the museum are, and I wanted to see the Cataracts. I grew up on the north side of the island, in away from the coast, where we don’t even get the occasional floating pebble. So to pack onto a coach, and then a ship, and get all the way out to the most expansive stand in the archipelago–and therefore the world–but not see the largest waterrise by both height and volume while there? It was the closest thing to a travesty my thirteen-year-old mind could imagine.

Today, though, I’m seated on the top floor of the restaurant Rig 33 has become, with a perfect view of the rise, though all that rush of water is silent through the thick glass of the observatory deck. Across from me is Tweil, his ears twitching with excitement when I tell him I’ve never seen the rise from up here, looking young to my Riloan eye although I know he’s just celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. He clicks his tongue when I ask how the party went.

‘Now that I’m officially a middle-aged Avia?’ He rolls his eyes. ‘It just means everyone keeps asking me when I plan on starting a family.’

He waves away further talk of families and getting older and goes back to talking about the restaurant he’s chosen for the interview. He tells me with great confidence that it is the best view short of the rock shore on the far side of the rise, where the thick layer of ocean hovers implacably for about fifty more kilometres before tripping down a number of elevations to reach the far side of the stand, and assures me I can have one of his personal passes if I ever want to see it.

I don’t think he’s putting on a show of Aviain politeness. He was delighted by my request to interview him about that first day of the riot–as well as the days which followed–and helped connect me with other Aviai who were there that day but who, for obvious reasons, were reluctant to tell their stories before now. But with the twentieth anniversary of all the stands officially handed back to the Aviai just around the corner, there is a sense of security and stability, and perhaps yet more hopefully, prosperity, coming to the Aviai in the years ahead.

‘Everyone’s happy, everyone I talk to,’ Tweil tells me over a modest lunch of pickled sea star and crimsonberry bake. ‘The stands are finally ours again, and ok, so we had to keep fighting for twenty years after you lot won your war, but it was worth it. We’re nearly done repairing all the damage from the overharvesting of the volitite, and this next generation, they won’t ever live in fear of having their wings pinioned.’

Tweil extends his left wing to illustrate his point, where a careful eye will catch the line between the severed joint and his prosthetic. He’s just one of the over two million Aviai who were punished by the Temiten in this way, but as most Aviai will tell you, the far deeper wound was the Temitens’ policy of writing down Aviain personal names. (As most readers will already know, there’s a deeply held belief among the Aviai that writing down a personal name gives evil spirits, underworld gods, and other demonic presences the power to use it against them.) Even though all Republic of Riloa records have been expunged of Aviain personal names and replaced with the cypher equivalent according to Aviain practice, to the Aviai the damage has already been done. The names were written down, and there is no way to hide that knowledge away again. Never mind that the Temiten government has acknowledged it retains copies of most occupation-era records in its capital, including those with Aviain personal names, and yet refuses to destroy or otherwise expunge them.

Still with his wing extended, and after popping another piece of pickled sea star in his mouth, Tweil draws his longest right foreclaw along the feathers of his prosthetic. Then he refolds the jet-black wing.

‘Usually it doesn’t bother me, but every once in a while it gets to me, not feeling the way the air moves over the feathers out at the tip.’ He chuckles, but in a way I can tell he’s trying to make light of something he can’t change. ‘Sometimes I imagine I can feel it, and that almost throws me for a loop more than not feeling it. Does give me a daily reminder to be grateful, though. Those years not being able to fly were difficult, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, no matter what they did.’

I steer our conversation to that moment in the corridor, and after a few false starts Tweil begins to tell me.

‘Itleili had been grumbling for a long time,’ Tweil says of the Avia usually credited with starting the riot. ‘For years, and even in the weeks leading up she wasn’t grumbling any more than normal. But honestly if it hadn’t been Itleili it would have been someone else. But Itleili, when that Temiten foreliner ordered Oulitchi out to the vent knowing it was overharvested, that it was going to collapse and drop half a layer when it did, Itleili decided she was done.’

What follows depends on who you ask. The Temiten foreliner in question, Neran Danith, insisted from the first report to the day she died that Oulitchi volunteered, and certainly there was a policy at the time awarding additional hazard pay to the type of solitary harvests of failing vents Oulitchi attempted–and it was not the first such harvest Oulitchi had successfully completed. Tweil, along with two other survivors who were in the room that day, have always testified that Oulitchi was picked by Danith because he had reported her for ignoring safety regulations on the rig. There is no record of Oulitchi’s having made such a complaint, but given the Temitens’ hasty purging of records before their withdrawal from Undipetra, it’s impossible to know for sure.

What is certain, however, is that Oulitchi made the flight down to the vent to begin the harvesting of the still-soft volitite, and about 230,000,000 cubic metres of water fell from a height of fifteen metres above non-stand sea level when the vent collapsed, shutting off the flow to seventeen other vents and disrupting the delicate balance between the molecules of volitite suspended in the water and the flows beneath the stand floor.

The other alternating layers of ocean, air, and rock sank accordingly, condensing several in the process, and the resultant force rolled out through the stand.


In the distance through Irro Tonhamgra’s frontroom window I can see the golden light of late afternoon filtering through staggered layers of water, some kilometres wide and long, others less than a handspan, can see the light and shadow playing on water, rock, peeking through a thin slice of air here or a tremendous gap there, a dreamlike layer-cake of ever-shifting beauty. Off to the southwest, I can see the grey-blue line I know are the Cataracts, more than 20,000 cubic metres of water a second rising 804 metres to spill out onto what the Aviai call the Clouds’ Pool.

I ask Tonhamgra and Burold if they knew a layer collapse was the cause of the lockdown. Burold gives a vehement shake of his head.

‘Hadn’t the faintest. It was because of Tweil.’

‘He’s shouting and pounding on the door,’ Tonhamgra picks up the story, because Burold chokes up and can’t continue. ‘That a Temiten tech has been killed, that they’re still fighting, that the order went out for full suppression.’

‘Full suppression’ was the term the Temitens used for gassing a riot. There were eleven ‘full suppression’ incidents during the occupation, three times at Undipetra. Inevitably, given that none of the witnesses survive, it’s difficult to determine from the Temiten case reports the true causes of any of those eleven gassings.

Tonhamgra clears her throat. ‘So there it was. Let him in and then start lockdown–and have our arses handed to us when our foreliner found out–or follow procedures knowing that deck is about to be gassed.’ Her shrug is less nonchalant and more resigned. ‘We both knew we couldn’t do it. So we opened the door.’


Xophil Lingranam is wearing a Riloan flag pin when she opens the door. There is more grey than dark brown in the tight coils of her hair, worn long and loose in the revolutionary style. She thanks me for writing a story on the Undipetra Riot, laments that this newest generation doesn’t understand how hard she and others like her fought to ensure our independence.

I gently suggest that this should be a mark of success, and she waves me off with a laugh.

‘You’re too young to understand.’ Then she grins. ‘But you’re right: here’s hoping you never have to.’

Lingranam has the personality equivalent of a high-summer day. She commands the room, and brightens it in a way that can burn if you’re not careful. But her carefree conversation is like a soft morning breeze, belying the razor-sharp intellect behind her casual words.

‘It was too much rain, for too long,’ Lingranam says. ‘Every single last one of us, and the shield techs on all the other rigs–because of course we had ways of talking, even if we weren’t supposed to–we all agreed: too much. Already Rig 5’s integrity was so low stress cracking had started to creep across the shield, a bunch of rigs had pitting, flaking, spalling–we weren’t the only ones who noticed. We were just the ones who realised how bad it was, and how badly the rain needed to let up so we could replace the shielding.’

She was only in her second month on the job as a shield tech, those workers responsible for monitoring the integrity of the structure protecting them from the acidic corrosion of winter’s rains–not to mention the always-present danger of a layer collapse. I ask her what it was like, being trapped for five weeks on a job she’d just started. But she shrugs this off.

‘What’s it like for any of us in the winter? The sky gives us acid, and we deal with it. That winter was just uncharacteristically bad.’

She’s right. Never before or since has the archipelago experienced five weeks’ straight of sour-rain. Nor five weeks’ straight of sweet-rain, for that matter.

‘You just have to breathe it out again, the antsy feeling, the part of your brain clawing at you because you can’t leave.’ She scoffs. ‘But they made it worse, confining us to our decks after the second week. If they’d had any brains, they would have given us more rig access, not less. If they’d done that, the Temitens might still have control of Riloa.’

Among all the survivors I’ve spoken to there is a shared sense of surreality, even after 50 years, that they managed to take control of so many rigs that first day. By the third day after the collapse the Temitens were concentrated in just four rigs hugging the shoreline, and nobody could believe that in such a brief time they had achieved almost total control of the largest stand in the archipelago. All of a sudden, Lingranam tells me, driving the Temitens out of the islands seemed not only possible, but attainable.

‘There was always that tinder in everyone’s mind, the thoughts collecting like puffs of seed-wool,’ Lingranam explains. ‘You couldn’t help but think it, especially if you were having a bad day: “If the Temitens were gone…” But they didn’t truly catch fire until we’d taken back the stand. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t, “if the Temitens were gone,” it was “when the Temitens are gone”. It gave us momentum.’

Lingranam was one of three shield techs on Rig 12, Deck 3, the same one as Tweil. She knew Tweil, just like she knew everyone on the deck, had gotten to know all of them out of necessity and lack of anyone else to talk to.

‘Danith looks over the Aviai, points right at Oulitchi, and I can even remember the smirk on her snaky little face,’ Lingranam.

Like most of the survivors I’ve met who knew Danith, Lingranam has nothing good to say about her.

‘”You, Oulitchi, you love hazard dives,” Danith said to him, and one of the Temiten techs had the nerve to chuckle behind her, “Vent 12-5 has the highest quality today. Go and bring it up for us, will you?”‘

Lingranam clenches her fist, and I realise she’s still angry at Danith, even after all these years.

‘Itleili tried to intervene, but Oulitchi motions for her to stop,’ Lingranam tells me. ‘He looks Danith right in the eye and says he’ll do it, so of course the other shield techs and I have to open the access so he can fly down there, and the enviros have to give the all-clear on the gas level, and it’s dead silent in there for a minute so all you hear is the pop and spit of each drop of acid hitting the water outside blending together into a distant but persistent hiss, and the enviros say it’s safe for Aviai but we have to use the chamber locks because it’s too high for the rest of us.’

Lingranam lets out a long, low whistle, and she shivers.

‘To this day, I think of that moment and I can’t help but feel claustrophobic. Because there are the shield numbers, and it just hits me: if the layer collapses, the shields won’t hold. All that ocean falling down on us is going to overwhelm the rig.’


‘I was the only one who ran up the corridor to the next deck,’ Tweil tells me with a sheepish wince. ‘It’s only because that door was closest. But that’s why I heard what came through Danith’s radio when she and two other Temiten fled into the riot room. And I panicked.’

He flutters both wings, considers the last piece of sea star, decides against it.

‘Utlullu stayed behind, to try to help Itleili. She was still alive, barely. I can remember hearing a woman’s voice, who I know now, of course, had to have been Xophil shouting that the shield had broken on the roof and buckled on the top four decks on the south side of the rig, but honestly I wasn’t even thinking about drowning.’ Tweil considers a moment. ‘At least, not right then. I’d heard the response on the radio: full suppression. And I just raced out of there as fast as I could go.’

I ask Tweil what was going through his head when the door opened onto Deck 4, and he blows out a long, loud breath.

‘Just relief, honestly. Grateful I wasn’t going to get gassed, because I thought the whole thing was confined to that fight on Deck 3, that once the layers had settled everything would go back to normal.’

But it was in the room with Tonhamgra and Burold that Tweil learned the collapse was much more serious than he realised. Already the top four decks were filled with water, and as each part of the rig failed, it led to yet more structural collapse.

Meanwhile, Danith didn’t carry out the order for full suppression for fifteen long minutes, and because she’s the only one in the riot room who survived, we’ll most likely never know the reason why. She claimed in the first report that she did initiate full suppression, but that the rig failure prevented its being carried out. But when in the course of the Temitens’ inquiry it came out that she hadn’t initiated the procedure until fifteen minutes after the logs show it went through the radio, she claimed that the other Temitens had tried to prevent her from carrying out the order, not wanting to die themselves. And in a third version, in an interview she gave shortly before her death, she claimed that the other Temitens had wanted to carry out the order, and that she had fought with them to prevent it. Her explanation as to the discrepancy was that she was afraid of being punished by the enquiry supervisors for telling the truth. In that, at least, I have to admit I believe her. I’m just not sure which truth she was afraid to tell.

The failure of the rig did prevent the full gassing of Deck 3, and in an ironic twist of fate, the part of the deck which remained largely clear of gas was where the original fight had taken place. The Avia Utlullu who tried to help Itleili was unable to save her life, but by staying he saved his own. And Lingranam survived because she stayed in the room to report the catastrophic failure to stand headquarters.

‘All that relief just turned to panic again, just like that,’ Tweil says, clicking his two foreclaws together in a quick snap. ‘Just, “We’re going to drown, we’re going to drown, we’re going to drown,” just like that, over and over. But then Burold shakes his head and points up. Because Deck 5 is where the laundry room is, and he says he used to work there, years ago back when he first started, and that’s where there’ll be a whole room of spare wetsuits, the tanks, everything.’

I ask him if he was scared of the prospect of swimming up through all that water. He nods.

‘Terrified. I can water-dive as well as the next Avia, and I could swim well enough–better back then, because I hadn’t been pinioned yet–but we only ever make short, quick water dives. You end up back at the surface more because you bob up from the air trapped under your feathers than because you’re swimming for it, and I’d only worked with a tank once or twice, when gas levels were too high even for us. So the idea of making my way up through twenty metres of still-settling ocean?’ He nods again. ‘Terrified.’


‘Not a soul was there in the spare suits room,’ Burold says. ‘And none of the three of us understood why, although we could hear all the commotion. At the time I thought it must be the general emergency of the upper decks’ shield failures, not because the riot had started in earnest.’

Decks 5, 6, 7, and 8 were in full battle mode by then, Aviai and Riloans fighting Temitens for the limited number of saferooms and escape capsules still available while the rig filled with water. But even the people on Rig 12 had no idea that all across the stand, rigs had buckled under the force of the wave racing out from the collapsed layer, and similar riots had started in a mad dash for resources.

‘Tweil was telling us everything that had happened while we’re getting the suits on, and I’d be lying if I said I thought we were going to survive,’ Burold admits. ‘All the time in the back of my mind, I’m thinking that we don’t know what layer’s above the water now. Could be we get through all that ocean to find a layer of solid rock. And even if we’re lucky and we get an air layer, there’s still the matter of those tanks not giving us enough air to get anywhere of import. Certainly not out of the gas, and Tonhamgra and I wouldn’t be able to stay above the surface if the gas levels are too high, and if we’re really unlucky there’s nothing above that water but sour-rain peppering the surface.’

I ask Tonhamgra if she had equally pessimistic thoughts as they were preparing to head out into the water, but she shakes her head.

‘I didn’t think we’d get that far. I was sure someone would stop us, and if we did get to an access, I thought for sure we’d never make it to the top of the layer.’ She lets out a rueful laugh. ‘So no, I didn’t even think about the fact that we might get up there to find solid rock.’

No one stopped them, because any supervisor who might have was too busy either overseeing the lockdown of the rig or overseeing the evacuation. Reading through the transcripts of all the various messages going back and forth, it’s clear that some of the rig staff believed the Deck 9 ceiling would hold, along with the lower decks’ outer shielding, and so focused on restoring order and getting everyone locked up in their dorms. Others had figured out the entire rig was going to fail and focused on getting out as many people as possible. The Deck 7 supervisor, Hylis Yerot, especially believed that no other decks would flood right up until the moment the water swept through his own. It’s not a coincidence that no one on Deck 7 survived.

But down on Deck 5, at the access point in the laundry room, Tweil, Tonhamgra, and Burold were checking the conditions of the water as far as they were able to. All of the churn, and the guttering power outages in the rig, were making it difficult. The unit kept shutting down and taking several minutes to restart, retest the water, and give them the results–and the go-ahead they needed to open the access.

‘At that point I didn’t even care if it came back saying it was pure acid out there,’ Burold says. ‘I had already sort of admitted to myself we were going to die, and I wanted to die trying not to die, if you understand me.’

I do understand him, and I encourage him to continue.

‘Well, the bloody thing finally decides to do its job, and tells us the exterior is a Level Three Hazard: Deep, Turbulent Water, but opens up the access and lets us into the transition chamber. Then the damn thing cuts out again.’

Leaving the three of them in the dark, in an approximately three-metre-by-three-metre space, wondering if they’ll be able to get back into the rig or out into the water–or if they’ll be trapped there to die instead.


‘Do you know,’ Tweil asks me, shuddering from head to tail feathers, ‘that ever since that swim I haven’t been able to tolerate anything on my face? Not masks, not scarves, nothing. It puts me right back in that moment, and I get this nauseating wave of claustrophobia. I have to get fresh air or I’ll get woozy.’

He decides to have the last bit of sea star after all, and leans over to peer at the dessert menu.

‘It’s the exact opposite every time I see blue sky. Because when the power came back on and we were able to open up the outside lock and get out there into that water, and then up and up and up and seeing the undulating fabric of silver so we knew there was air above but not knowing what kind we were going to find and then we find, of all things, a great big bright expanse of blue sky? Every time I see a sky like that, like the wide-open ones we get in the spring and summer, I’m taken back to that moment.’

In all the chaos, the rain had stopped, and all the other layers of rock and water over Rig 12 had bowed out with the initial collapse and slid off into the various vent-zones surrounding. It ensured the survival of dozens of people from the rig at the same time it meant those in Rig 13 had no way to get out. The avalanche of ocean and rock which slid from vent-zone 12-5 into 13-1 made certain no one would survive.

‘Even after I was convicted for instigating a riot and sentenced to pinioning,’ Tweil continues after choosing two desserts because he can’t decide which one he wants, ‘even in the worst parts of the war when there wasn’t enough food and it looked like we were going to lose–again–and I wanted to give up instead of see us fail, all I had to do was catch a glimpse of blue sky–‘

He stops a moment and looks out the window, because the early morning showers have given way to the precise sort of sky he’s describing. The sunlight shimmers along the pure black of his feathers, bringing out the deep blues and dark purples hidden in their depths. He turns back to me, smiling.

‘I would tell myself I could live through the worry, and the fear, and the fighting and the hunger and all the whole mess of it, because at least I wasn’t a dozen metres underwater kicking for the surface not knowing if there was any surface to kick for.’


Tonhamgra and Burold agree, as does Lingranam, and nearly every other Undipetra survivor I’ve spoken to: the memory of that sky sustained them through a myriad of future gruelling times. Whether they swam out or managed to get themselves into an escape capsule or, in the case of those on Rig 38, free-climbed up a tilted rock layer and shimmied along on their stomachs in the five-foot gap of air between themselves and the next rock layer above for half a kilometre before finally making it out, everyone talks about the blue sky. It was seeing that limitless blue sky after five weeks of sour-rain, and two hundred years of occupation, that made it seem like independence was possible.

On Xophil Lingranam’s doorstep before I leave, I ask if she has any advice for my generation of Riloans. She smiles in a way I can tell she’s been asked this question before, but still doesn’t mind answering it.

‘Don’t ever stop demanding a better life for yourselves,’ she tells me. ‘There’ll always be someone trying to convince you that you don’t deserve whatever they’ve got. Don’t believe them.’

A 50th-Anniversary memorial service will be held at the visitor’s centre of the Undipetra National Museum this upcoming Ner, 26 Esinat, commencing at 11.00. Admission is free, children welcome.

*All Aviai are identified by their family names, in adherence to Aviain custom and Riloan federal law.



With All the Soul of my Chemical Reactions

By Nathan TeBokkel


[1]

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield, just after sunset.”

“Say that again, Mr. Flax?”

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield. After sunset.”

“Yourself.”

“Yeah. But I was on my bike.”

“What did you—” the cop, who’s been asking questions through his boot-brush mustache groomed, or not, to hide the crooked buckteeth his slick cop benefits should’ve fixed by now, looks at his partner and flares his nostrils. “What did you do?”

“I foot-braked hard, swerved onto the gravel, called out.”

“And?” says Bootbrush. The other cop has been drawing what Pete can only guess are dicks in his notebook, bored as hell, saying nothing so they can get out of this shack, trying instead to make Bootbrush laugh. Pete watches him tilt the notebook over his paunch, ever so slightly toward Bootbrush, who strives valiantly not to look.

“He didn’t stop. I got back on my bike and came here, called you.”

Bootbrush, who had introduced himself as some dipshit cop name like Officer Sanderson or Anderson, makes a show of clearing his throat. Pete wonders if he ever chokes on one of his pubey mustache hairs. He raises his notebook, pretends to read from it. “So let’s get this straight. You were biking after sunset. You saw someone running in the ditch between the road and the cornfield. That person looked exactly like you in every respect. You stopped and called out. He didn’t stop.”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

“Yep.” Pete lolls his head back and sighs like an airbrake, but Bootbrush trucks on.

“What was the other guy wearing?”

“Jeans, white t-shirt, Kaepernicks—no, I don’t know, but nice shoes, real nice.”

“You sure you got a good look at his face?”

“Yep.”

“And he was running?”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

Pete opens his mouth to blurt some smartass joke about the definition of insanity—

“Mr. Flax, I think what Officer Blanderson”—Blanderson, dammit, thinks Pete, should’ve known—“is getting at is that it’s hard enough recognising someone in the day, let alone at night. And this guy was running.” The Dick Artist pauses, tilts his head to look curious, uncreases three neck-rolls in the process. “Have you ever consumed illegal substances?”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

The Dick Artist rolls his eyes theatrically. This guy gets all his preteen-girl emotes from Andy, Mandy, Brandy, & Brad. “Just doing our jobs, Mr. Flax.”

Bootbrush—Blanderson—looks knowingly down at Pete’s pants, black tights with neon green pot leaves all over them, draws his lips into a messy line, nods I-told-you-so-y.

“Okay, first of all, no. Second of all,” Pete looks squarely at Blanderson, “your idiot government is still grandfathering out all the pot plants.” The second Harper government—led by the monomaniacal Harper, now using a wheelchair and a vat of stem-cell cream after a salvo of strokes, propelled by some unquenchable thirst for his since-won title of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (23 years, 7 months)—had re-criminalised marijuana, after it had been legalised for nearly a full dozen years, in the first of Trudeau’s three lazy terms, and was now struggling to make good on that. “So this,” he pinches his tights and snaps them back to his leg, “wouldn’t be illegal if it was pot, which it isn’t. It’s fucking pants.”

A mischievous, no, a dangerous light glints in the Dick Artist’s beady eyes. “Don’t you fucking swear at us, Peterson. We’re here because you called us here, and you’re clearly fucking around. If we wanted to, we’d haul you in for one of the hundred other laws you’re breaking.”

Pete fumes, but sits rigidly still. Blanderson looks a little uneasy, keeps checking his oversized reinforced-poly watch.

“Whoever you saw, it wasn’t you. It’s not a clone. We don’t live in the fucking Black Mirror.” The Dick Artist, groundlessly proud of his thirty-year-old pop-culture reference, gathers his baggy legs under him and teeters off the low couch. “Don’t call us again, unless it’s serious,” he wheezes, clutching at the thin rail beside the door to catch his breath. “And stay away from the elections signs.” He turns to go, and Blanderson hops up and follows him out.


[2]

It’s true, Pete has vandalised elections signs, but it was a spectacle and for the betterment of society. He and his friends cribbed 106 roman candles from a roadside vendor by attrition over two weeks (justified because the vendor charged a 500% mark-up on the convenience store he bought out annually for Canada Day), salted out the kaolin inside burnt lightbulbs, unscrewed their filaments and replaced them with the roman candles, and then gorilla-taped pairs of them to the signs at three in the morning. The lightbulbs-cum-magnifying-glasses caught the first slants of the sun, lit the fuses on the roman candles, and torched the signs. Everyone in the country blocks near his rural “park” awoke to showers of sparks, glass, and the firecracker-smeared leer of Hope Silver, candidate for the New Right Party of Canada, the NRPC, the Nerps, rebranded old Conservatives merged with the booming Libertarians. Silver had cut her teeth as a self-anointed journalist filming clandestine clips of anti-“immigrant” rallies, clips later revealed to be less clandestine than set up, Silver being one of the rally organisers herself, reciter of the fourteen words, destined for a career in comorbid doubt manufacture and plausible deniability.

Hope is popular among the propertied Nimbies around the parks—clutches of shacks around run-down farmhouses built in response to Harper’s plutophilic land-tax reforms. Hope is popular in the parks, too, despite her anti-poor stances, because the squatters think of themselves not as exploited but as, who said it, Steinbeck, temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They always vote for Nerps, and the only thing they hate more than non-Nerps is other squatters, especially ones who don’t look like them.

It was a funny world where the police shook a candle-charred image in front of Pete’s face, lamenting the besmirched, once-sexy Silver, but didn’t think to mention his using explosives with glass shrapnel. It was pretty much the same with Blanderson and the Dick Artist: the only reason they could think cloning wasn’t a serious possibility was if they didn’t follow the news at all. Everyone was doing it, ever since China fessed up to cloning monkeys in 2018, and the rest of the world clued that they had probably already cloned a human or fifty. Amgen, Novo Gilead, Celgene, Biogen, Baraddur, Regeneron Pharma, Plethora Genetics—underground reports, infiltrations, the occasional exposé unearthed what read like a parody of Crisis Age sci-fi. It was everywhere. Amateurs could probably even do it now, with modified media and a terrarium, high-throughput CRISPR arrays, and a little bit of luck.

Pete sits on his lop-sided concrete steps long after the cops have driven off, their tires scattering gravel into the thin yellow grass and trim helices of dogshit that surround the main drive. He thinks about Hope, her slogan “Hope for a Secure Future,” about its mockery of the beautiful idea of hope itself, of the future itself, about the government’s Virtual Wall program, dismissal of climate science, up-regulation of cloning methods patents, about their dissolution of the genetic engineering oversight commissions, about the death of Percy Schmeiser after his imprisonment, at age ninety-seven, for protesting Bioreactor’s livestock cloning. Pete is a small, loose cog clattering down the well-oiled innards of a vast and needlessly complex machine; at least, on his way down, he might make a little more noise, might jostle a part or two a little more loose.

The door slams behind him, screen peeling farther off its frame, as he gets his GoPro and his phone. He texts Mack from two doors down, Deadfish Dan, so named for his indiscriminate love of all the BeanBoozled flavours (they came in peach, cherry, toothpaste, and dead fish, among others), from three, and Kevin from one lane back.


[3]

Pete leads Mack, Deadfish, and Kevin down the pothole-cratered 13th Line, which had been empty of car traffic since the county had stopped resurfacing and gas passed $3.75 a liter. He’d seen himself north of the intersection with Road 96; there were some half-dozen other parks in the area, so the other Pete could’ve come from any one of them. They’d have to wait and see.

“What’re we doing here again?” Deadfish, fist-fulling his unpredictable beans into his lax jaw, is red-eyed high on his home-grown buds.

“Pete says he saw his clone running beside this field,” Mack says. Mack, formerly a grower himself—they all were—had taken some time to wean himself off Busch and weed. He’s been clean for a full month now, and is melodramatically bitter whenever he’s reminded of it. “You’re not thinking straight, for some reason.”

Deadfish raises a solemn finger. “‘When you high is dry, you plenty mouth.’”

“I just want to get some pictures,” Pete says. “Videos would be even better. Everyone have a camera?”

Mack and Kevin nod, hold up their phones. Deadfish furrows his brow, lost in thought.

“Dan, take my GoPro. I’ll use my phone.”

Deadfish cradles the little cube in both hands.

“I saw me—him—running in this ditch. I don’t know if he’ll be back, but we should spread out, cover the ditch and the near field. Then, if we don’t see anyone, we should check the two nearest parks. Sound good?”

All three nod and begin to spread out, Mack and Pete walking south, Dan and Kevin north. Pete snaps an ear off an unyielding stalk, woody, probably quint-stacked GMO corn, husks it, begins to eat. The borer-, rootworm-, and crow-resistant kernels are hard to bite, rubbery seed coats repelling his teeth, but when he pierces them, they are extraordinarily sweet for cow corn and mouth-dryingly starchy. Mack gives him a sidelong glance every time his mouth makes a noticeably slurpy noise.

“Eat one, man,” says Pete, hunger rekindled, as he reaches for his second cob.

Mack sighs, grins reluctantly, breaks his own off. He husks his cob but stops his arm midway to his mouth.

“Was that Deadfish?” Mack’s eyes widen. “There, again, hear that? Like a scream.”

Pete stops chewing and spits out the kernels he had in his mouth. Sure enough, there’s a distant, eerie wail, like a sad dog whose tail is being stepped on has almost given up trying to get free. Or like a fried Deadfish has stubbed his toe. “I bet it is.”

Mack runs through the corn, and Pete follows, monster-leaves slapping and slashing at their faces, pollen puffing off the tassels. Luckily, it isn’t late enough that dew has formed on the leaves, or the pollen would be stuck to their skin, itchily plugging their pores.

As the wail gets louder, Pete hears a rustling in the corn ahead. “Mack,” he hisses. “Mack!”

But Mack is a few rows too far, and before Pete can reach him, another Pete does. Two other Petes. Mack freezes like a rabbit in the porch-light, imagining that stillness is the same as hiding, planning his escape to coincide with the very moment they take their eyes off him. They’re wearing identical white shirts, jeans, Kaepernicks; they have the same unkempt straw-blond hair, the same brown-flecked blue eyes, the right lid a bit heavier than the left, the same slightly rightward crook to their noses, the same long-lobed ears, pouty lips, corn-silk half-beards, receding chins, broad shoulders, thin wrists. They blink in unison, almost; Mack ducks past them and whips out his phone, filming them as one walks toward Pete and one walks toward Mack.

“Who the fuck are you?” says Mack, Deadfish’s wail in the background, red camera light blinking in the fore.

Pete’s filming, too, as both other Petes turn to Mack’s question.

“Who the fuck are you?” they echo, and, turning to Pete, “And you. You look just like us.”

“No, no” says Pete, and Mack repeats him like a bouncing ball. “No, no—you look just like me.”

The other Petes laugh. “Where are you from?”

“Down the road.”

The other Petes look at each other. “We’re from up the road.” They look like they’re about to say more, but another Pete crashes through the corn, nearly bowling over the first two. All three Petes look at each other, blink, then run past Pete himself, all stiff legs and arms, shoulders knocking into him.

“Wait!” Pete turns and films them run, but their backs are blocked by corn leaves.

“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” Mack’s eyes are wide, he’s hyperventilating, and his hands flounder down to rest on his knees.

Pete slaps him on the back, managing his own shaky queasiness by helping his friend. “It’s okay, Mack. I got some great shots. No way the police will laugh it off.”

As Mack’s breathing slows, Kevin leads a weeping Dan to them. “Did you guys see the Pete clone?”

Mack nods, but can’t answer. Pete does: “Yeah, we saw three.”

“Holy shit,” says Kevin. “We filmed one, but he didn’t say anything, just kind of stared at us. Did they say anything to you?”

“Yeah, they said I looked like them.”

Deadfish snorts wetly through his sobs. Kevin, incredulous, shakes his head. “This is fucking weird.”

The four walk back to their park, no sign of the other Petes on the way, and part one by one until Pete’s home alone. His dad is gone, as usual, hopefully working, probably scheming emptily or stealing something he’ll soon find out was less worthwhile than his initial appraisal had suggested, like this couch, their third in as many months. Pete sits down on it, calls the police station.

“Oxford County Police, Officer McMurphy speaking.” It’s the Dick Artist.

Pete slumps internally. “Hi, this is Peterson Flax. I have another … disturbance to report.”

“Self-reporting, Mr. Flax?” The Dick Artist belches a laugh.

Pete ignores him. “My friends and I saw three clones in the same cornfield, north of 13 and 96.”

“‘My friends and I’—good grammar, Mr. Flax. I’m sorry, but we’ve already been to your place of residence today.”

“Look, this is serious. We have good footage, too.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t spare the officers.”

“Is that why you’re answering the phone?” Pete regrets it as soon as he says it.

The Dick Artist’s voice blooms like a sundew. “On the other hand, we just might be able to send some officers your way. Hold, please.”

“No, no, fine, don’t.”

“Have a lovely evening, Mr. Flax.”

“Fuck you,” Pete breathes, not quietly enough, and hangs up to the sound of the Dick Artist retchily clearing his throat.

Furious, Pete takes a short video of himself explaining who he is and what he’s seen, then thumbs through the clips from his phone. His friends have all uploaded their shots to their cloud, via the patchy internet their park collaborated to siphon from the nearby fibre-optic highway. Kevin’s videos are decent, and Mack’s show two other Petes plus Pete filming, which is good for authenticity. Even Deadfish’s shots aren’t bad, though most of them are crooked pictures of corn. He splices them together using an arduously torrented video-editing program, cleans up the sound, and, many hiccups and reboots later, posts the finished product to YouTube with the title “Three Clones Spotted Near London.”


[4]

By the next day, 7,826 people have watched his video. LaMichael Rose from Brampton comments that he saw two clones of himself in a mall, buying cinnamon buns, his favourite snack. Lili Thibodeau from Montréal, Québec, comments that she saw a clone of herself board a subway, then a clone of herself, maybe the same one, texting on a park bench. A user named PrivateI manages to comment, through a welter of exclamation marks, that they’d been fixing their hair in the mirrored glass of the Bay Park Centre when their reflection started to pick its nose, and two other passersby saw it, too. A user named Clonespiracy69 observes that clones are everywhere and that probably all of them are clones, too. The rest of the comments are more anonymous notes of agreement and concern.

As Pete scrolls through them, clicking links to articles about genetic engineering, a brisk knock rattles his front door. His dad still isn’t home, so, tweaked it might be the Three Petes—or, worse or not, he doesn’t know, the Dick Artist—he peeks through his bedroom blinds. It’s a woman, tall and thin, tailored navy blouse and military bun.

“Hi,” says Pete, opening the door. “Peterson Flax.”

“Hi Pete,” says the woman, extending a vanilla-scented, cream-softened hand. Her cuticles, Pete notes, are exquisite. “Kelly Stiegler, Canadian View.”

“Oh,” says Pete. The Canadian View is a living fossil, the last remaining establishment print news publisher in Canada, formed through the Harper-pressured merger of Postmedia, Torstar, the Globe and Mail, and the gutted CBC. Somehow, it survives, improbably staking its reputation on investigative, long-form journalism, hard-hitting interviews, and actual paper. “How can I help you?”

Kelly has piercing, pale green eyes, with a sparkle of trouble, or so Pete imagines. “I’m just here to ask you a few questions about the video you posted yesterday. Mind if I come in?”

“Oh,” says Pete again, stupidly, fumbling for words. Not often he’s caught without something to say. “Sure, come in.”

He steps aside, holds the door open, and catches his right hand unconsciously neating the rumples of his greasy tank-top.

“Do you have any questions?” she asks as she brushes past him, slips into the welcoming tape-patched folds of the couch. He sits in the vinyl-strap patio chair across from her.

“Not yet,” says Pete, regaining some of the paint-thinning bravado he likes to think he’s known for. He hasn’t met anyone with Kelly’s poise in a while, not since he dropped out of high school a few years ago; it knocked him off his spot, for a second. She reminds him of the debate team—that girl Ronnie, fearless and razor-tongued.

“Good. Pete, your video intrigued me. I’ve been working on a story about clones for six months now—”

“Six months?”

Kelly smiles, hapless, toothless. “Yes. You’re not alone, as I’m sure you know. Can you describe your encounters with the clones?”

“Not that much to say. I was biking to get some milk from the dairy a couple lines up, and I saw this guy running in the ditch beside the cornfield at the corner of the 13th Line and Road 96. I slowed down, because it’s weird for anyone to be running in the ditch, and then I saw that he was me. I called out, but he just kept running. Weird running too, stiff legs, locked elbows. I guess I’d never mentioned that before.”

“What did you do when he didn’t stop?”

“I called out again, but I was spooked, honest. I came back here and had to unwind a bit, then I called the police.”

“How did they handle the situation?”

“They dispatched two officers here, Officer Blanderson and Officer The Di—Officer McMurphy. They asked me a few questions, but … ”

“But?”

“Didn’t do a whole lot.”

“What did they say?”

“They heard my story, asked me the same questions over and over, didn’t believe that I could see his clothes, let alone his face. Then they gave me shit for swearing, for wearing pants with pot leaves on them, and for some stuff I—they thought I did a little while ago.”

“What stuff?”

“Some vandalism.”

“Of what?”

“Hope Silver’s election signs.” Pete looks between his feet, toes touching, catches himself, looks up defiantly. He thinks he can see a grin tickling the corner of Kelly’s professionally set lips.

“Do these cops watch the news?”

“That’s what I was thinking.” Pete snorts.

“Pete, do you biohack?”

This one catches him off guard. He thought they’d been establishing some kind of camaraderie. Guess not. “What? Biohack? No.”

Kelly narrows her eyes ever so slightly. “Do you know anyone who does?”

“Who doesn’t?”

“Who do you know?”

“My friend Mack.”

“What does Mack do?”

“Nothing now.” Pete’s starting to bristle. “He tried to make a glowing strain of weed, almost a year ago, back when he was still blazing.”

“Did he succeed?”

“No. Cost too much money.” Pete grimaces. If this lady knows her shit, she should know she’s starting to toe the line of what’s cool for squatters to talk about. Money’s only a safe topic between zero and twenty dollars, or, of course, above a thousand dollars, a sum lodged safely in the pigeonholes of post-neoliberal fantasy. “And he was terrified of clones.”

“But he never made a clone?”

Pete blows air out through his lips. “No. The money, like I said. And Mack just has this clone-phobia.”

“I saw that in the video.”

“Yep.”

“Do you know anyone else who biohacks?”

“No. Nobody has the cash. Why are you asking me all this?”

“Sorry, Pete, but I have to be sure.”

“What for?”

“There are rumours going around that the clones are being made by backyard geneticists, garage biohackers. You know the story, I’m sure; you’re a smart guy. Anarchists, socialists, anti-government types. One variant suggested it was the last CAW union, but then the union was dissolved, and the clones kept showing up.”

“That’s fucking stupid.”

Kelly shrugs. “We can’t rule anything out, at this point. Who knows, maybe there’s a bleeding heart libertarian out there, intent on changing the world through Reason and Productive Achievement.” She shifts in her seat, uncrosses and recrosses her legs, and winks, Pete thinks, at him.

“I guess.”

“Can you tell me about the video, then?”

Pete shows her all the clips, explains last night, shows her the comments on his video. They get talking about the conversation he had with his clones.

“They didn’t say anything else to you?”

“No.”

“Only ‘You look like us’?”

Pete grunts. “Yep. Do they ever say much to people?”

Kelly pauses, looks at the brown water ring on the ceiling. “Not usually. Clones don’t have much to say. I’ve interviewed some of them. Bad memories, or maybe not that many memories. Weird syntax. But sometimes, they have long conversations with their originals. Once or twice, they’ve met up regularly, had what you might call a friendship. And once… ”

“Once what?”

“An affair.”

“Whew,” breathes Pete. “That’s fucked.”

“I’m sure there are more stories of all kinds. That’s why I’m here.”

“I didn’t fuck my clones.” Maybe he comes on a little too strong, there.

Kelly bites her lip. “No, I know, Pete.”

“How many other clones are out there?”

“I shouldn’t say much about it, but more than five hundred. And that’s in Canada alone.”

Pete whistles. “And backyard biohackers is still the big smart theory?”

“Well, I’ve interviewed other leads, too.”

“Who?”

“A lot of people. Government, but their scientists aren’t working on a lot these days. Military, same deal.”

“What about that creepy fuck at Plethora Genetics? I saw him on YouTube last week talking about their new cloning techniques.”

“Eugene Pearson, CTO. I’ve talked to him, gone through their records, at least the ones they showed me. Clean.”

“Creepy though.” Pete tucks his elbows to his sides, sticks out his forearms, lets his hands dangle in an imitation of Pearson. “Spidery, daddy-long-legs kind of guy. Probably a GMO.”

Kelly’s mouth twitches again. “We talked to Megan Cass, too, CEO of MetaSelection. Same story.”

“Well, Kelly, I hate to say it, but somebody is spoon-feeding you shit.”

“I have a lot of leads to work through.”

“I guess.”

“Have you been outside your community recently?”

“No, just to the dairy, some walks in the fields.”

“No school, hospital visits?”

“No.”

“Have you discarded any garbage lately?”

“What? Yeah, obviously, all the time.”

“What garbage?”

“Uh, everything.”

“What kinds of things?”

“I don’t know, the usual. Light bulbs, food packaging, candy wrappers, paper towels, tissues, bandages—why are you typing all this up?”

Kelly’s fingers rap furiously across her keyboard. “Ever litter, like on the ground?”

“I know what littering is. But yeah, I guess, a few times.”

“What?”

“Same stuff, really. Firecrackers, cigarette butts.”

“Ever spit?”

“Spit? Yes, Miss Stiegler. I also cough, sneeze, pick my nose, fart, piss, and shit. Sometimes, my shit splashes the toilet water into my asshole, and I get scared of tapeworms and use some extra toilet paper. All down the drain, though, not littered on the ground.” Kelly’s hard look interrupts him, and as he calms down, he clues. “Oh, fuck.”

“That’s the theory.”

“They’re, whoever ‘they’ are, they’re picking my DNA off my garbage, my waste.” Or that’s what Kelly thinks, or, at least, that’s what she’s telling him she thinks. He wants to ask why, why me, but as soon as he thinks about wanting to ask, he knows the answer, and he knows it’d be better not to ask. DNA is hard to find complete, hard to isolate, and once you found some good, intact stuff, you’d want to replicate your findings. Even Mack had done that. And besides, why anyone other than him—young, poor, powerless. They must’ve figured that the most he’d do would be to make a YouTube video, if that.

“Nobody has found out where they get it. But your DNA is everywhere. It can’t be that hard. That’s why there seems to be no system, either; if you pick up a Kleenex, you don’t know whose it is. But if there’s at least one nasal cell, you can make a clone. And you don’t know who the clone would be.”

“So there could be a hundred more Petes running around, anywhere in the world.”


[5]

Pete talks with Kelly for half an hour. They revisit his experience with his clones in minute detail, then he takes her to the cornfield. The clones aren’t there, so they go to the nearby park, a ring of houses huddled around a dilapidated red-brick farmhouse with some broken and some plywood-covered windows. Pete follows Kelly as she knocks on every door. Most people don’t even bother to look out their windows, don’t answer. Some stare angrily through whatever they’re using as curtains—garbage bags, taped-together Canadian Views, ragged bedsheets, tablecloths, sometimes even a mismatched curtain or two. Only a small minority open the door, and only a small minority of those are willing to talk at all.

One old lady, wrapped in a feather boa, points a cracked nail far too close to Pete’s cornea: “You.”

Pete stops his Adam’s apple halfway to a gulp. “Hi,” he manages.

“I seen you walking in and out of that farmhouse all day, a hunnerd times a day.” She cranes her neck forward, squints hard, and nods slowly. “Yeah, it was you.”

Pete starts to shake his head, but Kelly interrupts him. “Are you sure, Mrs.—”

“’Course I’m sure. Already called the cops on him twice, ’cause there shouldn’ be noone in that house now, or at least if someone’s gonna be there it should be a park resident, not some stranger—”

“When did you start seeing Pete here, Mrs.—” Kelly leaves the name hanging for the woman to fill with an introduction, but, Pete thinks, nobody in a park is going to volunteer their name to someone in as clean an outfit as Stiegler.

“—and the cops came, same two buggers both times—”

Pete’s ears get hot; he tries not to move. The same two cops—Blanderson and the Dick Artist, must be.

“—they even saw him.” She points at Pete again, who clenches his fists, digs his nails into his palms to keep from saying anything. “And they didn’ do nothing.”

“When did you first see Pete?”

“Oh, on about two weeks now.”

“You first saw him two weeks ago?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Was the house empty before then?”

“Been empty ever since the Marshalls unplugged their old man and took his money to—”

“How long was it empty?”

“—to some island, Cayman, yeah. Somewhere they don’ have to pay no tax—”

“Do you know how long they’d been gone before—”

“—because y’know with this upside-down tax thing we’re all Nits.”

Pete clears his throat, thinks the better of it. This acronym, No Income Tax Sponge, still rankles him and his neighbours, even though Finance Minister Black was caught saying it ages ago, because while it was true they had little income, they weren’t sponges. They got no infrastructure support or anything else taxes were supposed to do.

“And that was maybe three weeks ago, empty since.”

“So it was empty for three weeks, and you’ve been seeing Pete for two weeks?”

The woman cranes her neck again, nods slowly. Pete could swear that by the way she hoists a decrepit eyebrow she thinks Kelly’s slow.

Kelly opens her mouth to ask a follow-up question, but reconsiders, thanks her, and stalks off to the farmhouse. Pete, nervous enough to piss his pants but reminding himself that someone might make a new him out of the soaked dirt, trails behind.

Nobody answers, but the handle gives to the gentlest pressure from Kelly’s steady hand. Pete’s trembling, no, quaking. Kelly pulls the door open, and three Petes tumble out. They blink dumbly in the sudden sunlight, look around at each other, then sprint inflexibly through the park. Kelly edges her way inside, Pete, barely breathing, behind. Inside the farmhouse, dustily lit by chinks of light through the broken shutters and open door, there’s some old wooden shelves, a moth-eaten armchair, and, standing stock-still, arms at their sides, calmly looking in whatever direction they happen to be facing, fourteen Petes. It is a mannequin tableau, except that when Kelly and Pete enter, most of them move their eyes.

Pete has had enough, then, and lurches out, trying his damnedest not to cry. He has to sit down, though, catch his breath, think things through. The grass, he finds, is less brittle than he expected, almost forgiving, or at least not resistant. He notices, then, he feels deep in his marrow, then, that the world is whirling like a drunk and knuckling through the galaxy at a million miles an hour, and his ears pick up its horrible, long, polyvocal Doppler effect—wind blowing, people snoring, cicadas thrumming, blackbirds chortling, mice tittering, a distant engine backfiring, Kelly asking question after question, Petes blinking and stuttering, the sounds all stretching, stretching.


[6]

It has been two months since the journalist arrived. No story has appeared in the Canadian View, and Pete would know, because he has every daily copy stacked beside his front door. His dad hasn’t appeared, either. Last Pete heard, he met some girl “practically your age, Petey” in a bar, possibly a strip club, in London. He liked to shack up with these girls for a few months before coming home. But Pete can’t help wondering if his dad was whatever-it-was’s source of Pete DNA, if maybe, in need of a little walking-around money, he’d sold them some of his son’s genetic matter. Pete also hasn’t seen Mack or Kevin or Deadfish, hasn’t answered their texts or opened the door to them, and eventually they gave up.

And maybe that’s for the better. For it has also been two months since Pete has fired up the pump to wash a plate or a fork or his body, borrowed some bleach to wipe the windows, wheelbarrowed the garbage to the park’s secluded burn pit, hung his laundry to air out, or flushed the toilet. It’s stained black and half-buried in used and occasionally re-used toilet paper.

The flies are the worst of it. Their shit pollocks the windows so thoroughly that Pete can only tell if the sun is out or not, and it covers the countertops, too, so he doesn’t want to eat much, just crackers from boxes left in a heap where there used to be a garbage can, washed down with apple juice, empty tins in a sticky pyramid. Some days, there are more flies in the air, buzzing incessantly, landing, dodging his swat, then landing in the same spot again, over and over, pinging against the lightbulbs browned with fly shit, hammering against the windows. Other days, there are more flies dead on the ground, drying into hollow husks in the window sills, limning the dirty dishes in leggy black, bristly blue-green bellies exposed to the humid air, dulling as maggots wriggle in and out.

But at least there would be no Pete cloned from an apple juice tin in Flint, Michigan, the last place Pete had heard Ontario sent its trash. There would be no more Petes at all, in fact. Nothing leaves the house anymore.



A Skulk of Ghosts

By Avra Margariti

They gather at his backyard every night. They sniff the pine-infused air, dark noses glistening with moisture, and orange-furred ears pasted to their skulls. Ivan watches through the patched screen door, the fine net stitching shallow indentations across his forehead.

The foxes are four in total: a vixen and her cubs. They prowl the swath of scraggly grass that connects his property to the outskirts of the forest. The cubs don’t seem interested in him. They chase, tackle, and nip each other, orange-black-white balls of yarn, tumbling. The vixen’s movements are slower, more deliberate. She doesn’t go near his cabin, only watches him as he stares back through the mesh screen, in his robe and slippers and skin coming apart at the seams.

Plum dusk gives way to muddy night, and the cubs yap and run back into the underbrush. The vixen lingers awhile.

She looks familiar. Painfully human. And he can’t tear his eyes away from her.


Theirs is a small village. On the rare occasion Ivan cycles to the shops for supplies, he hears people talk even when he doesn’t want to listen. The story goes like this: murderer; imbecile; hermit.

The rest he’s pieced together with the doctors’ help, but mostly on his own. He has all these photographs in an old biscuit tin. Baby photos and school photos and church choir photos. Then there’s Vera in a white sundress. Vera in a pearly wedding gown. Vera under a white morgue sheet. This last photo, shown to him while he was still in the hospital, isn’t actually in his possession—not outside his nightmares, at least.

What he knows but doesn’t remember: He was driving to the city on ice-slick mountain roads with his wife and kids when something darted in front of his car. Despite trying to swerve, he hit the creature and lost control of the vehicle. Fur and guts stuck to the grill of his car, which is how they could tell afterward that it was a red fox.

What he knows for certain, without rhyme or reason: The foxes in his backyard are Vera and the kids.

Now, he may have huge chunks of memories missing and little metal screws embedded in his skull, he may not remember how to tie his shoelaces so he only wears holey house slippers, but he hasn’t lost it—not yet and not completely. It’s not that his wife is a vixen, the three cubs their triplets. But maybe his family’s souls are trapped inside the foxes’ bodies. Maybe this is Vera’s reincarnation, there to torture him the way the Furies would torture murderers and breakers of oaths (to have and to hold and most emphatically to not kill in the mountains until death do us part).

At night, he hears them scratching and screaming by the vegetable patch outside his window. He lies awake in bed and counts the knots in the wood-paneled ceiling. Over and over again, he whispers, “I’m sorry I don’t remember you. I’m sorry I can’t feel sorry for what I did.”


His only neighbor for miles is a woman named Cynthia. She’s a good ten years older than his wife. Older than Vera will ever be. She lives alone in a cabin almost identical to his and comes over sometimes to check on him. He doesn’t always know how he feels about that.

Cynthia lets herself in, wrapped in a navy anorak over her floral house dress. A beef casserole emits pale steam between her gloved hands. She sets it before him on the kitchen table.

“Don’t flatter yourself, I didn’t make it for you. The fact that I’m all by my lonesome slips my mind when I cook.” Though meant as a joke, it sounds a little desperate, her voice like rough wool.

It’s the texture of that laugh that makes him say, “Do the foxes visit your yard too?” Do they keep you up at night?

She looks up from the drawer, where she’s rummaging around for some clean cutlery. “Foxes? What foxes?”

“Never mind,” he says and pulls out a stool for her.

“Ivan, I worry about you,” Cynthia says with a hand on his forearm. He’s rolled up the sleeves of his plaid shirt, and her fingers tickle his arm hair.

Sometimes Cynthia makes these soft eyes at him. He pretends he’s dumb like everyone in their village thinks he is, that he can’t understand what those looks and light touches mean. God knows how lonely and touch-starved he is, but he can’t be with her like that. He has no way of knowing if he feels close to Cynthia only because she’s similar to Vera, or because she’s nothing like his late wife. Even worse, he’s scared he’ll superimpose on Cynthia the image of Vera he has assembled in his head, and that wouldn’t be fair to either woman, dead or alive.

That evening, after Cynthia has hiked back to her cabin, he scrapes the leftover casserole onto a paper plate and crosses the overgrown backyard.

He only intends to leave the offering on the other side of the broken fence and return to his house. When the vixen’s snout peeks out from between some wild berry shrubs, however, his joints freeze like a car engine that won’t start in the cold. He finds himself kneeling on the forest bed of twigs and crispy leaves. His breaths are feathery billows of mist.

“Hello, old girl,” he says. In the near-silence of the woods, his voice sounds like a gunshot.

Vera’s eyes lock on his as she steps nearer. They’re as black and glinting as coals, her fur a gradient, flame-like orange, the same fiery shade her hair used to be when she was alive. The cubs follow their mother’s lead, warily pawing the air in his direction. Ivan brings to mind the biscuit tin full of the triplets’ photographs. One cub is darker than the rest, like his son Jackie, who had the tannest skin of all the children. Another cub is missing her left ear, similar to Zoe and her birth deformity. And then there’s the smallest of the three, the spots on her forehead reminiscent of the barrettes Theodora used to wear on her auburn locks during Sunday school.

He opens his palms and extends them toward all four foxes. Fine tremors run through his muscles as Vera’s snout nuzzles his hand, but he doesn’t retract it. Her nose is a cold shock, her fur coarser than it appears. The cubs also creep closer, their body heat a nimbus that melts the frost from his skin. He shifts to grab a fistful of beef—to handfeed and placate his fox family—but he must have moved too fast, or too sudden. Vera’s fur bristles and her belly sticks low to the ground, the cubs picking up on her agitation. She swipes her claw across his palm before scrambling away, back into the copse of shrubs and ferns with her cubs in tow.

Was Vera this hot and cold when she was alive? He might not be the owner of his memories, but he thinks so. He stands, and his chest rattles with the broken pieces of his heart.

Was Vera a good person?

Is he?

On his way back to the cabin, he briefly considers going into the city for a rabies serum, but no. He doesn’t drive anymore, and there’s nobody who would take him. Besides, the thought of hospitals and doctors sickens him. He doesn’t want to spend his life on a cold slab or his brain to be poked and probed. So he puts some rubbing alcohol and a clean piece of gauze on the bleeding scratch and crawls into bed.

He thought going outside would appease his own private ghosts. But later that night, the howling rises to an unprecedented crescendo. He clutches his wounded hand to his chest and listens to the vixen and her cubs until the entire world is a scream.


The howling doesn’t abate. He goes about his daily routine, tends to his tiny garden, pickles his veggies, and gets his monthly disability check in the mail.

During quiet afternoons spent in Cynthia’s cabin, as they do the crossword by the wood stove or watch game shows on her rabbit-eared TV, he wants to ask, “Can’t you hear them? Can’t you hear the howling?”

He doesn’t know how to make it stop.

Back home, he peers out into the darkness through the torn screen door. The cabin is cold as a mausoleum. He squashes the shells of his ears against his skull to drown out the chilling noise. When he closes his eyes, burnt orange flares across his lids.

Ivan treads past his vegetable patch, then through the backyard, now overrun by weeds and covered in thin sheets of ice. His gait is clumsy but his steps hint at no second thoughts. Finally, he reaches the ripped chicken-wire fence bordering the forest. He’s forgotten his slippers. Prickly burs and jagged stones slice the soles of his feet.

They’re waiting for him on the fringe of the forest. Vera. Jackie. Zoe. Theodora. Their eyes follow him as he lies down on the wet, cold grass and spreads his limbs out like a child making a snow angel.

The foxes trot toward him—in the forefront, the wife he may have loved or hated, followed by their children that he can’t remember whether he cared for or neglected. Under his threadbare robe, he’s naked and afraid. He feels their rough tongues on his body, the brush of their bushy tails, their teeth and nails breaking the soft skin of his belly and thighs.

Cold seeps through his pores, down into his bones and the metal screws that hold him together. As the foxes pant and wail above him, he fixes his eyes on the dark sky. Ivan gives himself to them. After all, this is their birthright—their deathright, too.


“So, that was a stupid thing to do,” are the first words Cynthia speaks when he comes to. Soft tufts of brown hair the color of a sparrow’s feathers have escaped from her braid, and there’s a feverish glint in her eyes.

“Yeah.” He’s in Cynthia’s bed, covered in a comforter, white as a flag of truce. His joints are stiff; his wounds have been dressed in gauze and some strong-smelling ointment, and his head feels even woollier than usual.

“I called a doctor. Sorry, I know you hate them, but we couldn’t have you going rabid, could we?”

“I’m sorry, too,” he whispers through a sandpaper throat. For worrying her. For not thinking it through. He wanted so bad to feel regret for the things he doesn’t remember doing, that he was willing to make himself sorry by any means necessary.

The world is mercifully quiet. The only sound to be heard is the kettle boiling in the kitchen and the pitter-patter of rain.

“Why did you do it?” she asks. “Did you want to die or… ?” She feigns casualness, but her sadness spills through the cracks in her voice.

“Or.” He brings a hand to her face and caresses the sleepless midnight shadows underneath her eyes.

“Maybe you could tell me about it someday,” Cynthia says, placing her hand over his.

“Maybe,” he agrees.

Cynthia leaves his bedside to prepare tea. He looks down at his scratched hands, the blood caked in the cracks of his palms. It’s been eighteen months, and he’s tired of being a blank canvas. He wants to make memories that don’t come from biscuit tins full of old photographs or from the howling of red foxes. He wants to look at himself in the mirror and not see the villagers’ words for him written across his forehead.

Cynthia returns, holding two mismatched mugs of fragrant green tea. She smiles at him with her soft eyes and hands him one of the hot drinks.

Ivan accepts her offering.

Maybe someday, perhaps soon, he wants to populate his head with something other than ghosts.



Finding Papa

By Ana Gardner

“It’s a secret magazine.”

Iro’s eyes widened for emphasis, and he looked left and right in the weedy backyard like he wanted to make sure no one could hear the three of them.

“There’s symbols on the last page, and if you read them out loud at midnight—but you gotta be alone, and it’s gotta be exactly midnight, not like, ten-thirty.” He scowled at Sandy, like she was some kid who didn’t know what midnight meant. “Then if you read them right, the aliens come!” Iro threw his hands up, “And they give you secret powers!”

Sandy covered her mouth with her hands. Her loose tooth moved; any day now it’d fall out, and Momma would panic again, even though everyone said losing baby teeth was normal.

“But you gotta really believe in them,” said Cait, her conspiratorial hush barely louder than the rustling shrubbery. “Or else when they come, they put you in the hospital.”

Iro nodded. “This kid Joey from school read the symbols five times. He’s been in the hospital three times…”

Sandy was rapt: “And the other two?”

“Who knows?”

“Whoa.”

She loved staying at her cousins’ house. Iro and Cait were already ten, and they knew all the cool stuff.

They remembered Sandy’s Papa, too, better than she did. She’d been just three when he vanished, and all she remembered was standing by his knee watching the night sky. Iro and Cait had known him better, and they told Sandy about him.

They said Papa loved stories about aliens and stars, so Sandy loved those stories, too.

“You think Papa read the special symbols? Maybe the aliens put him in the hospital!”

Momma said Papa was in the hospital ‘cause he didn’t know when to stop, but Sandy never knew what he was supposed to stop. Maybe he’d read the secret magazine too many times.

“You think that’s why Papa had to go away?”

Iro scratched his chin, sharing an uncertain look with Cait. “Eh…”

“You’re not really supposed to tell anyone when you read it,” said Cait. “It’s a secret.”

“Hush-hush,” Iro agreed, and their twin mops of brown hair bobbed in unison against Aunt Delly’s myrtle bush. Sandy relished in the excitement of their wonderful shared secret.

“I want to read the magazine!” She jumped to her feet. “Where do we buy it?”

But the twins looked mournful.

“We can’t buy the magazine,” said Cait, with a big sigh.

“They only sell it up in the city,” Iro put in. “And only if you got lots of money.”

“And you gotta know a secret code, or the seller won’t give it to you.”

Sandy wilted. “We can’t get the magazine?” What was the point of knowing about it if she couldn’t read the alien symbols and get powers?

“But we know where there’s a copy,” said Iro, and he lowered his voice as Cait looked cautiously around the yard again.

“Mikos keeps it under his mattress.”


Standing at the far end of the hall from Mikos’s room, Sandy felt like her dog Millie, when Momma opened the door to let her out at night and it was raining. Millie’s spotted ears flopped nervously and she tucked her tails between her legs. Going outside was Millie’s favorite thing, but rain was scary.

Mikos was scary, too.

He was Sandy’s oldest cousin. He went to high school and never played with her and the twins. Aunt Delly said they weren’t allowed in his room, and the door was always closed.

“You’re sure Mikos has the magazine?” Sandy glanced warily around the corner, to his black oak door with a big ‘Stay Out’ sign. “Does that mean he has…powers?”

She could picture tall, lanky Mikos lengthening into a horned monster, making her vanish like Papa had…

“Nah.” Iro waved a hand, “I bet he’s never read it. Mikos hates to read.”

“Yeah.” Cait sighed, tragically, “The magazine’s just sitting there… useless…”

“He should give it to us, then!”

“But he won’t,” said Iro, “’cause he’s a big mean dolt. And if he knew we wanted it he’d just hide it and we’d never find it again.”

“We’re not allowed in his room,” Cait smiled, “but Mom and Dad can’t punish you…”

Sandy shifted on her tiptoes, looking down the hall to Mikos’s closed door again.

“Are you sure the aliens give you powers?”

“Totally,” said Cait. “You could fly, or be invisible.”

“Or always know the answers on a math test,” said Iro. “Or have endless pizza.”

“Can they make you find missing people? Or—or fix things that are broken?” Momma said they’d go look for Papa, when she fixed her car. But Momma’s car had been broken forever. They drove Papa’s old car to school or around town, while Momma’s sat in the cornfield behind the house, and Momma was always looking for parts to fix it.

“They can give you anything you want,” said Cait. “Long as you get the magazine…”

Sandy looked back to the black ‘Stay Out’ door. Her heart beat real fast.

“’course, if you’re too chicken to get it, we can always ask Joey…”

“I’m not chicken!” Sandy glared at Iro. “I’ll get it. I’m not scared of anything.”

The twins grinned, and they shooed her down the hall.

“Remember, it’s got a blue cover–”

“She can’t see blue, dimwit! The cover’s all glossy–”

“I can too see blue!” Sandy hissed over her shoulder. It was Momma who didn’t see blue. She thought it was the same as green. “I know all the colors, I’m not a baby!”

“It’s under the mattress,” Iro reminded her. “Oh and if there’s other magazines in there, get all of them. Go on, hurry up before he comes back! We’ll stand watch.”

Sandy turned the doorknob and, hands clenched tight for luck, opened the door.


Mikos’ room smelled weird, like laundry that Momma hadn’t put in the drier in time. Dust floated in the air, and angry band boys in posters on the wall looked at her like they knew Sandy was doing something not allowed.

A dusty telescope sat by the window. Papa used to have a big telescope. Momma said you’re supposed to look at the stars with it, but that Papa looked at stuff he wasn’t supposed to.

Sometimes Sandy asked Momma to show her where Papa was, in the night sky, and Momma pointed to faraway stars and Sandy pretended she could see him.

She peered through the Mikos’ telescope, but she couldn’t see anything at all.

“Did you find it?” Iro whispered from the end of the hall.

“No.” She walked back to the open door, but the twins waved her back in, arms flailing:

“Don’t come out, go get the magazine!” “Hurry up!” “Go!” “Under the mattress!”

Sandy turned back.

Mikos had a big grown-up bed, with a striped blanket covered in papers and socks and books and electronics cables. The mattress was too heavy to lift, but Sandy’s hand fit under it easy. She pictured something under the bed grabbing her, and she yanked her hand back.

The angry boys in the wall posters looked like they were scolding her.

Sandy stuck her hand under the mattress again, until her fingers felt something like paper, and she pulled out a crumpled glossy-paged magazine. It had big letters on the front, and a nice lady in a sun hat. The lady looked like Momma.

What would Momma be on the cover of the secret alien magazine?

Sandy flipped to the end, but there were no secret symbols. Then she remembered: you had to read the whole thing first! She flipped back to the cover. The lady looked like Momma, but she wasn’t. Her eyes were all wrong. They were blue like the sky, and Momma’s eyes were more green than blue…

“What the hell!”

Sandy jumped. Mikos stood in the doorway, angry, scowling:

“You’re not supposed to be here!” He took a step toward her: “This is my room! Get out! Give that back! Hey—” He grabbed the edge of her shirt as she dashed past him. “Stop!”

Sandy wailed a high-pitched scream. Mikos let go, and she stumbled and landed hard on her knees on the hard floor outside his room. The magazine dropped from her hand and slid along the polished wood, and Sandy roared her pain and fear in loud, tearful wails.


“Honestly!” Aunt Delly pressed the wet kitchen towel to Sandy’s bloody knee, causing her to screech again. “Mikos, why weren’t you more careful with her?”

“I didn’t do anything! They’re the ones who were snooping through my stuff!”

“We weren’t even near your room!” shouted the twins.

“Quiet!” Uncle George banged a palm to the kitchen table.

“I don’t see why I’m grounded when they invaded my privacy,” spat Mykos.

Sandy scowled: “’cause you wouldn’t share the secret magazine!”

“Why don’t you just ask your mom for a copy!”

“Mikos!” Aunt Delly shot him a scandalized look. When she glanced again at the magazine cover, her face was red. “I can’t believe you. Where did you ever get this?”

“I found it, okay?”

“That’s not true!” Cait glowered, arms crossed in the corner. “We know where he got it!”

“Shut up, wormface!”

“Don’t call me that!”

“He got it from Uncle Bobby’s garage,” said Iro. “When we went to clean it out last spring. There was a big old box, and Cait and I saw him take stuff out of it and hide it.”

“This was Papa’s secret magazine? So it’s mine!” Sandy hopped down from the stool, but Aunt Delly yanked the magazine away before she could grab it. “Give it back! It’s mine!”

“Sit down!” shrieked Aunt Delly. Then she rounded on Mikos, “You took this from the garage?”

“No I didn’t! They’re lying!”

“Mikos–”

“Who cares? It’s not like he’s gonna come back and ask for it! He’s dead!”

His words rolled through the small kitchen, bouncing off the walls like brown ugly bats.

Aunt Delly put a hand over her mouth.

Uncle George stood up, “Damn it, boy,” and Sandy gaped at them, the world taking on a brown tinge.

“Papa’s not dead. He’s not!” She jumped to her feet, fists clenched. “He’s with Momma’s family in the sky, but we’ll go look for him one day when she fixes her car!”

Mikos rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”

“We are! Momma said…!” Sandy looked to Iro and Cait, who gave her identical helpless looks. “We’ll go look—Papa’s not dead!”

Uncle George stood up, reached for her—“Now, Sandy…”

“My Papa’s coming back!” Sandy grabbed the magazine from Aunt Delly before anyone could stop her, and she ran out the back door, dashing out into the street.


Aunt Delly and Uncle George shouted for her in the backyard, and Iro and Cait ran up and down the sidewalk calling her name. But Sandy, tucked away in the little park behind Aunt Delly’s house, up among the leafy branches of an old oak tree, didn’t answer.

They were wrong about Papa. He was up in the sky with Momma’s family, and Sandy and Momma were going to fix Momma’s car and go find him. They just needed the right parts. Momma was always traveling to look for them; that was why Sandy stayed over at Iro and Cait’s house so often.

“Sandy? Where are you, girl? Come out.”

Aunt Delly and Uncle George walked into the park, looking behind bushes and around the swings. Sandy pulled herself close to the oak trunk so the branches would hide her. But grown-ups never looked up, anyway. They passed right under her and didn’t notice. Sandy could see the top of Uncle George’s head, with a round, shiny patch of missing hair.

“Did you know Celeste did that?” Aunt Delly’s voice was hushed, annoyed. “Honestly George, this brother of yours. The drinking, the delusions—and I told you when he married this strange woman out of the blue that there’s something–”

“Sandy-y-y-y!” Iro’s voice boomed over Aunt Delly’s, drowning out her words. Sandy leaned down so she could hear better. It wasn’t nice to eavesdrop, Momma said—but Aunt Delly and Uncle George were talking about Momma and Papa, so it was alright, then…

“…don’t think she still does those magazine shoots, right? You think that’s why she’s away so often? I mean, I knew it had to be something fishy, the way Celeste never talks about her life before Bobby, and she doesn’t have a real job…”

“I don’t know what she does, Delly, alright? But she’s gonna be back any minute and we better have a kid to give her.”

“I told you there was something wrong with her…”

Their voices faded as they reached the far end of the park and disappeared around the corner. Sandy shifted on her branch and pulled her knees up to her chest, still clutching the magazine.

If she could only read the secret symbols and contact the aliens, Momma wouldn’t have to worry about fixing her car, and they could find Papa. Sandy missed him, but Momma missed him more. She was always looking up to the sky, with her worried look, then back at Sandy, and her eyes got droopy and sad.

Sandy opened the magazine, but the last page held only small writing and an ad for juice bottles called “BACARDI”. She flipped back, through dozens of pictures of shiny ladies with yellow hair. Many showed the lady who looked like Momma but wasn’t. Her face was too round, her eyes the wrong color. Sandy touched the crumpled pages. Was that the secret of the magazine? Perhaps the mystery of those pictures would help summon the aliens and find Papa.

But if secret symbols hid in those pages, Sandy couldn’t find them. In the end she heard Papa’s car pull up to the curb. It always made the same noise, when it stopped—a little rat-tat-tat-tat and a cough from the tailpipe—and it smelled like gas and like Momma.

Sandy slid down from the tree and wandered back toward the house; out front, Aunt Delly was talking in her whining voice:

“–just ran off, we couldn’t catch her, I’m sure she’s nearby but…”

Momma’s head turned as Sandy made her way around the house. Momma always knew where Sandy was, if she was near enough. She said she could smell her.

Momma smiled, and Sandy picked up the pace.

“Oh, thank god!” shrieked Aunt Delly, “Where have you been! Didn’t you hear us calling? Listen, Celeste, you need to teach this child…”

Sandy ran up to Momma and hugged her legs. “I wanted powers from the aliens so we could fix your car and go look for Papa! But Mikos says Papa’s dead!”

Momma tilted her head. Uncle George hurried over from the other side of the house. “Sorry, Cel…bit of trouble this afternoon.”

“Momma, Papa’s not dead, right?”

Momma’s eyes changed colors. They always turned a sort of brown when she was mad. Then she noticed the magazine in Sandy’s hand. “What’s that?”

“It’s Papa’s! Iro said we can read the secret symbols and call the aliens at midnight…!”

Aunt Delly groaned. Momma’s eyebrows rose.

“Oh?” She picked up the magazine, flipped through it. “No, I don’t think that’s going to work. Why are your knees bleeding?”

“I fell when Mikos caught me. And you gotta read the whole thing, and it only works at midnight. Momma, is Papa coming back?”

Uncle George put a hand on Momma’s shoulder. “Listen, Cel, maybe it’s time the kid knew the truth. She’s six now, she’ll understand. And we’re here for you…”

“Why did you have Robert’s things?”

“That was an oversight,” Aunt Delly snapped. “But Sandy went into Mikos’s room without permission—”

“Iro and Cait told me to!”

“—and then ran off, honestly Celeste, this is a dangerous way to raise—”

“We’re sorry!” wailed the twins, “We just wanted to look at Mikos’s magazines.”

“Cel,” said Uncle George.

“Papa’s coming! Right? Right, Momma?”

Momma looked from Sandy, to Aunt Delly and Uncle George, to Iro and Cait hovering behind the rose bush on the lawn. She looked like Millie when confronted with a thunderstorm.

“Your Papa’s gone for now,” she told Sandy.

“But we can go look for him, right Momma? Up in the sky? When you fix your car?”

Momma cleared her throat. “Time to go home, now.” She took Sandy’s hand and walked her to the car, then turned to Aunt Delly and Uncle George. “Thank you for watching her.”

“Listen, Cel,” said Uncle George, “about your job…I mean if you’re strapped for cash, we could lend you some, or—Delly’s salon’s probably got some job…”

“Thank you,” said Momma, and, closing the door on Sandy’s side with a bang, she walked around to the driver’s seat. They pulled away from the house with rat-tat-tat-tat noises, while Uncle George was still waving his hands behind shouting, “Let’s talk…!”


Sandy toyed with the little bear clip on her seatbelt. “Are you mad?”

Momma’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. They were still a little brown.

“No. But let’s not tell people about the flying car anymore. We talked about this, right?”

“I forgot.”

Momma smiled and looked back to the road. But Sandy wasn’t done thinking.

“If Papa’s gone to the sky, does that mean he’s dead?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Is he an alien?”

Momma’s eyebrows made a funny shape.

“No. Your Papa’s not an alien. You know he was born just down the road.”

Sandy did know. Papa was born the next town over, like Uncle George. But it would’ve been nice if he were an alien. Then Sandy would read the magazine and Papa could come. And they’d go to the sky and see all the stars she couldn’t see through Mikos’ telescope.

Sandy sighed.

“Momma? Why does the lady in the magazine look like you?”

Momma glanced back again. Her face changed, from her outside face to her home face. Only Sandy and Millie saw Momma’s home face, and they weren’t supposed to talk about it to other people.

“Your Papa had those magazines lying around, when we met. He thought those ladies were…pretty.”

“You’re prettier than all of them.”

Momma grinned. Her face changed back to the cover lady’s face.

“Your eyes are the wrong color,” Sandy told her, and Momma laughed.

“Your Papa said so, too. I can’t get the shade right.”

It was ‘cause Momma couldn’t see blue, and the cover lady’s eyes were blue.

Sandy looked out the window of Papa’s car, watching the trees go by on the side of the road. “Did Papa ever see your home face?”

She liked Momma’s home face; it was a funny color that she never learned in school, the color of the air when they listened to a specific station on the car radio. It had more angles and big eyes and lots of moving muscles. Momma said the muscles helped when she had to change to her outside face.

“He did. That’s what I looked like when we met.” Momma smiled, “He wasn’t scared of it, like most people would be.”

“’cause people don’t like things that are different?” She and Momma had talked about this, too. “And that’s why we don’t tell them about your car, or show them your home face?”

Momma winked. “That’s right.”

“When do I get a home face?”

Sandy had only a couple of Momma’s face muscles. Momma said most developed later, but she thought Sandy’s might not develop at all, ‘cause they were meant for blending in, and Sandy blended in just fine with her face just the way it was.

Sandy found that very unfair. She wanted a home face and an outside face, too.

“We’ll see,” said Momma, which was grown-ups always said when they didn’t want to give straight answers. Sandy went back to tapping her seat belt bear.

“Are you sure Papa’s okay?”

“I hope so.”

“Why did your family take him?”

“He asked too many questions,” said Momma, and Sandy didn’t know if she was kidding, so she stuck her tongue out until Momma laughed. “After we met, your Papa was curious. He wanted to meet my family, so he tried until he found a way to contact them. They didn’t like it.”

“Why?”

Momma hummed. “They don’t like different, either. Your Papa was different, and they were afraid of him. They didn’t…understand the situation.”

“Why?” Sandy began to wiggle her loose tooth, but then she remembered how Momma panicked when teeth fell out, and she stopped. “Was it because of me? ‘cause I’m different like Papa?” She frowned, “Are they afraid of me, too? Are they gonna put me in the hospital?”

“No.” Momma sighed, “They don’t know about you. We were—hiding, when they came. In my car. But your Papa didn’t listen to me and thought he could talk to them.”

Sandy chewed on her lower lip, until Momma’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror.

“You don’t have to be afraid. No one will hurt you, or take you anywhere you don’t want to go.” Momma smiled, “And if anyone tries, I’ll eat them.” And she returned her home face briefly, to flash a long row of sharp crowded teeth.

Sandy giggled.

Momma pulled off Route 31 onto the little country road that led through the corn fields to their house. Papa had picked this house, miles from the nearest town, ‘cause he liked to look at the stars and the town lights got in the way. It meant Sandy lived too far from school for a bus to pick her up, and in rain season the driveway flooded, but Sandy didn’t mind. If Papa had bought a different house, he wouldn’t have seen Momma’s car break down in the corn field, and they’d never have met.

She rolled the window down to smell the familiar dirt and dusty corn cobs.

“Momma, did you find more pieces today to fix your car?”

Momma’s eyes met hers in the mirror again. “I did. Almost got everything we need.”

“And then we can go look for Papa? Your family won’t mind, right?”

Momma smiled. “We’ll see.”

Sandy wrinkled her nose at her.

Momma parked Papa’s car by the little corn field so they could walk the rest of the way like Sandy liked to do, and they wandered among the tall corn stalks and past the area where they were all flattened in a perfect circle, until they reached the little house, and Millie ran out to greet them, thumping her twin tails, and she began to lick Sandy’s scraped knees.


Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

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www.TheColoredLens.com