by Aliya Whiteley

Part One

My real name is gone, so far in the distance that the thought of it coming up fast behind me seems an impossibility. Age, however, has displayed no such qualms; it has pounced, shaking me between its teeth, until my skin sags and my gums flap.

But I have decided to not dwell on the things that have happened and the marks they have left. It is enough to have my place in the biodomes. I am now a product of my situation; that is, the forcing of life into forms and shapes it would never assume if left to its own devices. But it must be made to fit the space that is assigned to it, and the truth is there’s not much space left.

We are squeezed together, the melons and I.

‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil. I should be paying attention, but instead I’m chewing over the fact that he started off as a worker too, and now I must call him Mister while he uses a nickname for me. ‘How’s impregnation going?’

‘Areas twelve to twenty-two are done.’

‘Good, good. Anything you need?’

A fresh life, Mr Cecil, I should say. ‘No, thank you.’

‘I’m off to Courgettes, then. Shout if there’s a problem.’ Off he goes, in his little motorised buggy. I watch it recede along the rows, and then the calm of the melons reasserts itself. No sound. No sound at all.

Home grown, the labels will say. Organic home grown cantaloupe melons, low carbon emissions, no pesticides, 100 per cent UK workers, and they will cost more than an entire synthetic pig, but that’s fine. Some people are rich, and they spend their money on the strangest things without ever once finding a space in which they fit.

Today is impregnation day, in twenty areas. The paintbrush must be dipped into the male flowers, so that a dab of pollen is collected. This is an orange powder, so bright, so fine. I use a sable brush so I can see the pollen clearly. I like to know exactly how much I have collected; I would hate to waste this precious stuff. It has the most important job in the world to do. Here it goes – I take it to the female flower, and stroke it inside her opening.

Do you know how you tell a female flower? At the base of the petals, she bulges into a ball, a perfect sphere, a promise of intention. If she receives the pollen she will continue to swell to giant proportions, long after the pretty little flower dies and drops away. Instead there nestles a monster, and the stem thickens to support it. A melon grows, to the size of my head, larger. I will put it inside a net that hangs from the pole structure to which the plants cling. Inside each melon lurks so many new seeds, to start the process all over again.

This is my favourite part of the job.

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Communal dinner hour is five to six o’clock. Some complain about the earliness of the hour for the final meal of the day, but it suits me; I’ll be asleep by nine, after spending a little time on my slides. I don’t know why everyone enjoys complaining so, or how they have the energy for it. None of us are spring chickens any more. Chickens in spring, scratching and pecking and laying their eggs. Apparently they still do this, in the Livestock part of Blossom Farm that I have not seen. Imagine – spring chickens. Their tender drumsticks must fetch a fortune.

I’m eating a cheese-flavoured sandwich when Lonnie and Jim carry their trays to my lone table at the back of the dining room. They take the seats opposite me, and continue a loud conversation. I get the feeling I’m meant to overhear it.

‘It’s always the same in Strawberries,’ says Jim. ‘Too much temptation for us old ‘uns. That sweetness takes years off you.’ He smacks his lips together, under his white moustache. How is it possible to have that much hair on your mouth and none on your head? The shiny, greasy expanse of skin hanging loose on his skull is too much reality for me. I put down my sandwich and sip my water instead.

‘Mmmm,’ says Lonnie, shaking her head. Her cumbersome earrings jangle. The lobes have been stretched to incredible proportions over years of abuse in the name of decoration, and now she must always wear big earrings or leave her ears flapping in the simulated weather of the Satsuma section.

I’m cruel, I know, I know. I am a cruel old lady, and I am no less ugly than they are. My distaste is centred on them only because there is no mirror here with which to catch my own reflection.

‘Out in the cold,’ says Jim, mournfully. ‘Straight out, with nothing but a coat and that collection of teddy bears, stuffed into two bin bags.’

So now I know who they’re talking about. It’s Daisy. Daisy has been caught stuffing her face with strawberries stolen from her area, and has been kicked out of Blossom Farm.

This is why Jim and Lonnie chose to sit here. They know about Daisy and me. She had such fresh blue eyes, even though she was older than many here. And a laugh! A laugh I loved.

But that was a long time ago.

I wonder what made her eat those strawberries.

‘You knew Daisy, didn’t you?’ asks Jim.

Why does he want a response from me? What possible entertainment could it give him?

‘No,’ I say. ‘Not really.’

I feel another little part of what is left of my emotions shrivel up and crumble away to dust as Jim and Lonnie exchange glances, then change the subject to that old favourite, the weather.

‘Minus ten out there today,’ says Jim. ‘Not bad for the time of year. Wind chill will take it down, though. Northerly, isn’t it? I checked the board first thing.’

Lonnie huffs.

We have all become expert meteorologists, and our habit is fed by the board, updated daily, with information of what blows and falls outside the biodomes.

They talk on, and my thoughts turn to those teddy bears. Daisy loved them so, making them from scraps of clothing that you would have thought unsalvageable. If you had a shirt you thought beyond stitching she would bother you for it, offering to fetch you a replacement from stores, and the next thing you know it would have been turned into a cheeky little fellow, fuzzy and friendly and determined to make you smile. She kept them all in her room, and gave them names, at least three syllables long and sounding like they belonged in a world of stately homes and tea parties. Peregrine. Terpsichory. Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third.

Enough. I get up. I leave behind my sandwich, and ignore Jim when he calls, ‘Aren’t you going to eat that?’ to my back. I walk through the dining area, with its bright white lights shining down on the stained table tops, and then I walk through the communal area where mismatched armchairs and sofas jostle, each one bearing knitted covers courtesy of the workers, and down the corridors that lead to my room.

We all take up our spare time with these silly obsessions. Antimacassar making, or putting boats in bottles. Teddy bears from scraps of material. And the scraps of my memory lead to my obsession: the slides.

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I paint a moment of my life on each glass pane. The good moments stay in my room, where I can see them often. The bad ones go elsewhere.

The glass comes from the very beginnings of Blossom Farm, when tomatoes were grown in greenhouses rather than the biodomes. I remember a greenhouse. It belonged to my grandmother. I can see it standing at the bottom of an orderly garden, behind the tall, tied sticks around which peashoots twirled. The strange thing was that the little building did not seem to be made of glass. It was so full of grapevine, cuttings, and plants just starting their growth that the whole space within appeared green to my eyes, green to the point of bursting forth and overrunning the structure.

I used to be a little afraid of it, and of the bottom of the garden.

My grandmother, I have never remembered as clearly as the greenhouse. I would like to make an image of her face, but we don’t choose what we remember, do we? And I only have space in my head for emotions, not people. It’s the fear I paint.

My room is small and safe. I work for a while, stopping whenever somebody stomps down the corridor outside, on my painting of the greenhouse. I have only black paint, left over in metal pots from when the farm had a Welcome sign out front, but that is good enough; why are so many people unhappy with what they have? It must be made to suit, and that is all. Mr Taylor, the forerunner of Mr Cecil, gave me the code to the old storeroom, where all obsolete things lurk. He was very kind to me, in many ways.

Enough. Bedtime.

I pack away my paintbrush, stolen from the task of melon impregnation, and evaluate the black lines that make my greenhouse on glass.

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Slide 117

‘It’s nothing to be scared of,’ said Nane.

But Flori resisted. She didn’t want to go inside, no matter what her grandmother said. The earth, the smell, the brush of damp leaves, the touch of tendrils.

‘Come help me with the plants,’ said Nane, and pushed her inside.

It was a different, denser world in there, and hardly had room for the little girl. And what was that sound? She crouched as the low thrum of a wasp manoeuvred around her head, driven dizzy by the sweetness of the grapes, and then it was in her face, zipping and dipping, and prickling her ear.

Nane said, ‘Stay still. Stay very still.’

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I don’t remember what happened next, and I’m too tired to care. My little bed calls to me. I stack the latest glass pane under the bed, with the others, and then turn out the light.

I can’t hear the wind, but I imagine it’s blowing. I can’t see the snow, but I can picture it piling high, drifting and blizzarding, blanketing the biodomes throughout the night.

Somewhere out there are two binbags filled with teddy bears. Goodbye, Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third. You were, once upon a time, my favourite.

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Mr Cecil likes to talk about yield. He manages a team of five, and insists on making a presentation for our weekly meetings. It was his big innovation, upon taking over from Mr Taylor, two years ago. How much will each section yield? He doesn’t seem to remember that the growing of plants is not a matter of them yielding to us at all. One of these days they will grow so fast and so free that they will dominate once more, and that is how it should be.

He provides his estimates in brightly coloured bar charts that he prints out on paper, and hands around the meeting room. What a waste. Well, not entirely a waste; we save up the sheets for Brian from Peppers, who creates very amusing wordsearches on the reverse. Brian has a knack for resurrecting the past in bite-sized, bittersweet chunks that don’t choke us. The wordsearches hide within them makes of chocolate bar; names of English counties; types of car. It’s amazing how much we remember about things that are gone, and how little we want to retain about our here and now.

Mr Cecil has reached melon yield, and I don’t care. Just let me be amongst them, warm and safe. Just let me be. Still, I’ll make my polite face, and the others are doing the same thing. Melons. Peppers. Chillis. Courgettes. Butternut Squash. We’re an odd group, I’ll give you, lacking the obvious coherence of berry fruits, say, but we rub along. Mainly through the mutual bond of Brian’s wordsearches.

Suroopa – Courgettes – looks tired this morning. Usually her clothes are clean and pressed, and her short black hair brushed well, but today she yawns and her face is as crumpled as her shirt.

‘Are you not feeling well?’ Mr Cecil asks her, after a particularly large yawn. ‘You look all at sea today, Suroopa.’

She reassures him that all is well. What an expression. All at sea. It reminds me of old rhymes, sailing away to the Land of Nod, owls and pussycats and beautiful pea green boats. But they didn’t sail, did they? Not in reality, not when they all left, and took the fairy tales with them. They sailed, on one of the last ferries; I watched them go from the bus.

‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil, and his voice cuts through my dreams, and brings me back to the here and now. ‘Don’t tell me you’re busy woolgathering as well today?’

‘No, Mr Cecil,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry.’

He carries on.

Where does he get these ancient expressions from? He must have a thesaurus tucked away in his room somewhere. He probably reads it in bed every night, looking for another obscure thing to say, thinking – that’s an interesting one, oh yes, I must use that.

Today, in sections five to fifteen, I must take soil temperature readings. It can be hell on the back, all that stooping, so my first thought when the alarm bell rings is annoyance. Not another drill, not today. I really can’t be bothered to hang around for hours pretending to care.

I look at Mr Cecil’s face, and that tells me something I don’t want to believe. This is not a drill.

He doesn’t know what’s happening.

The alarm whoops, a long wail that climbs up and falls down, over and over.

I stand up.

‘No,’ says Mr Cecil, putting up his hands, ‘It will stop, it will stop, it’s just a – a problem with the -’

‘A malfunction?’ says Gregor, who is small and well-muscled for his age, and looks like the sort of man who has learned the hard way not to trust anyone when alarms are ringing. He stands up too, and then so does Suroopa, and Brian, and Zena. Mr Cecil, in the face of overwhelming odds, changes his tune.

‘Adopt lockdown procedures,’ he calls, and then he leads the way from the meeting room, out into the curved corridor where the alarm is louder still and others are scurrying to their own positions, their faces scrunched up with surprise and fear.

Mr Cecil sets a fast pace, and we move as a group, single-file. My body aches but it’s a pain I’m used to, and I’m better off than Brian, with his chest complaints. I can hear him wheezing behind me as we make it back to Sector K.

At the entrance to Sector K, Mr Cecil turns and waves us all through. We know what happens now. We will all be locked inside, with the plants. Something in me says this is a really good idea today. You don’t live as long as I have without getting a gut instinct for things.

I wait until the others are through, and then call back to Mr Cecil, who looks up from fumbling with his utility belt.

‘Mr Cecil,’ I say. I can tell what he’s thinking. He means to stand outside, break protocol, and I have to shake that thought from his head. I know why this system was set up. I’ve seen the reason why.

‘No, I think, today, I should…’

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No.’

But he says, ‘Stop fussing, please, Mel,’ and closes the door. Through the safety glass panels of the door I see him type in the special code to shut down the door, and then he disappears from view.

Brian wheezes on. Suroopa gets him seated in Reception Area, at the orange plastic table and chairs next to the water dispenser. The others stand around, staring at him.

Reception Area K reminds me of a hand. There are five walkways leading off, like fingers, from the square palm of the main room. Beyond lie the areas, segmented parts of our dome. I want to go into mine, and start work, alone and safe.

‘Breathe,’ Suroopa tells Brian. ‘Breathe.’ The others watch, spectators to the private battle. Is he losing? No – he nods, nods, and there, he is controlling his lungs, mastering his body.

‘Well done,’ says Suroopa, patting his arm.

The alarm winds down, slowly falling in pitch until it cuts out and leaves an eerie silence. It has never done that before.

‘Right,’ whispers Zena. I don’t know why she’s whispering. ‘Someone page Cecil and get him to let us out.’

‘Not yet,’ I say, and am surprised to find it comes out as a whisper too.

‘I don’t think we should wait,’ says Suroopa. ‘Brian needs to see the Doctor.’ She straightens up, and pushes the button on her pager. We all listen. There it is; the tinny sound of his pager, from the other side of the door. Then it stops. He must have turned it off.

Someone walks past.

‘Who was that?’ says Gregor, and then says something in his own language. He moves to the door, and puts his face to the glass, then retreats to behind Brian’s chair.

‘I think it was Jack from, ah…’ says Suroopa.

‘No,’ I say. ‘It wasn’t.’

There are voices outside, voices I don’t recognise. This is a secure compound, there are many guards, automated systems in place, nobody gets in without permission. But I don’t recognise those voices.

Mr Cecil replies. I can’t make out the words, but his voice is high. He has been trained for this sort of situation. He has a weapon, that he carries on his utility belt. I’ve seen it. A taser. Has he drawn it? Does he have it ready, in his hand?

Shouting. It builds, it is loud.

Then everything goes quiet.

They will make him open the door. They will force him to, and I would not blame him, not when I think of all the things they could do to him. I know the things pain can make you do. I would open the door too.

No. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t open the door. I would protect my safe place, my growing plants, because there is nothing else left.

The silence stretches on, and it is long enough and deep enough for doubts to form. Is this an elaborate part of the drill, just to check we won’t open the door under any circumstances? The relief I feel at that idea is crazy. I want to cling on to it. All we have to do is hold on for a few more minutes, and then Mr Cecil will appear with a wink and tell us we did well, as if we are children who have been left unattended in a school room.

I’m lost in this concept when a face appears at the safety glass.

It’s a man. A very young man, with a beard tinged with ice, bluish lips buried deep, and red-rimmed eyes. I had forgotten how beautiful young men could be. The chill of ice is stuck fast to his skin.

An outsider, that’s what springs to mind, and Suroopa wails behind me. He looks at us, in turn. His eyes linger on Brian, who is still slumped over in his chair, but breathing regularly. The man can’t hear that, of course; as far as he’s concerned Brian might be dead. His eyes don’t register any emotion. He points downwards, I’m guessing at the keypad for the door.

I shake my head.

He doesn’t seem bothered by my refusal. He points again, but none of us move.

He walks away.

If he can’t get in, if he’s relying on us to input the code, then it can only mean one thing – Mr Cecil is incapable of giving him what he wants.

‘Don’t let him in,’ says Gregor, and Zena says, ‘What does he want? What does he want?’

Brian sits up and wheezes out the thought that has invaded my mind. ‘Agro-terrorist.’

Please, no. The destruction of the good things to eat that only the rich can afford, in the name of fairness, for the idea of making this a natural world once more. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘No matter what happens, we can’t let him in. The guards will sort this out, but we need to be strong. We’ve got water, and food. It’s an emergency – they’ll understand if we eat a bit of the fruit. We can stay here for days, and keep the plants, and ourselves, safe.’

‘Days?’ says Suroopa.

‘It won’t take that long,’ I say. ‘This place is top security. They’ll get it under control in no time.’

‘Where’s Mr Cecil?’ says Zena. ‘Should I page him again?’

Gregor and I exchange looks. If I’ve thought about Mr Cecil’s chances out there, then Gregor has done the same, and has come to the same conclusion. That’s how his mind works.

‘No,’ says Gregor. ‘Do not page him.’

‘He’ll be busy,’ I say. ‘Negotiating.’ It sounds official. It’s the right word. The others visibly relax.

‘Sit tight,’ wheezes Brian. He manages a smile.

I look at them. Four old, scared people. And I make five. How quickly things change. Ten minutes ago I was thinking about my soil samples, and my problems were molehills, but I didn’t know it. I thought I would have my melons to care for, and my slides to paint, and that would be enough for the tail end of a beast of a life. But although I was done with difficult times, it seems they are not done with me.

I can wait this out. I can survive, and so can my plants.

‘We’ll take it in turns to see to our areas,’ I say. ‘There’s no reason to let the plants suffer, and it will keep our minds off -‘

A new face appears at the glass. Not a new face. An old face.

Daisy.

Her eyes are blue, bluer than ever before. Then I realise they only look that way because of the blood on her face. It’s so red against her white skin, and her eyes are translucent, but they see me clearly. They focus on me, and hold me close.

The blood is a smear that stretches from her forehead to her cheek, daubed on, like warpaint. She puts the back of her hand to her face, and wipes it, and that’s when I realise it’s her own blood. She’s daubing herself in the blood that is coming from her heavily bandaged fingers. Ripped material has been wrapped around and around, and it has soaked through, turned bright red.

Not good enough for a teddy bear, Daisy, I want to say. Not even you could salvage that old rag.

She looks so tired. No, that’s not it; she looks destroyed. Worn down to pieces that are somehow still managing to move around. Her mouth is forming shapes.

Open the door, her lips are saying, without sound.

Mel. Open the door.

I don’t move.

Please open the door.

Gregor comes to stand behind me, so light on his feet. He says, ‘Don’t open the door,’ and I feel his hand on my back, just a slight pressure. But he’s too much of a coward to do anything to stop me. I’ve seen him cover his face when one of the supervisors shouts; he’s trapped in some past that will keep him forever fearful.

Please.

She looks as if she’ll die, right there. She died once already to me, only a few days ago. This time around I have a choice. I don’t have to let her die alone.

I move forward, to the door, and put in the key code. The lock releases. I step out into the corridor and take Daisy in my arms.

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‘Everything will continue as normal,’ says the man. This is another new face amongst many, but this one is definitely in charge. He carries it on his shoulders.

I look around the refectory and find the face that first appeared at the Sector K door. He is eating a plate of beans, not far from me. I take care not to stare, but observe him from the corner of my eye. He shovels the beans in with a spoon as if hot food has not passed his lips in years. Maybe it hasn’t.

‘There is no need to worry. All we need is your co-operation,’ says the man in charge. He stands in the centre of the room, on a table, so we can all look up to him. He is a little older, but still so many years away from becoming like us shrivelled wrecks of workers. There are about thirty young people among us now, and they are joined in some purpose that is about to be passed down to us like divine wisdom. We’ve seen it all before.

‘The food you are producing will be given to those who need it, not those who can afford it.’

Ah, I see. This is a zealous enterprise. They are fighting the good fight. No doubt they, above all others, are deserving of my melons.

‘Keep fulfilling your duties, and you will be fed and watered as usual. Nothing has changed for you, that’s all you need to remember.’

Jim, sitting next to me, raises his hand. Is he asking permission to speak? I can’t help but despise him.

‘Go ahead,’ says the man in charge.

‘Where are all the supervisors? And the guards?’

‘That’s not something you need to feel concerned about.’

‘Blossom Farm won’t let you get away with this, you know,’ Jim says, quickly, then sits down and crosses his arms.

The man in charge ignores him.

‘My name is Stephan,’ he says. ‘If you want to talk to me in an equal and open way then I am here. But I’m not here to answer stupid questions. Try to remember that we are all in this together now. Enjoy your lunch.’

All in this together – he’s as bad as Mr Cecil. What a fatuous phrase. If we’re all in it together why did the newcomers, his merrie band of men, get fed before us workers? People always say what they think will bring them an easy life, and others believe it for the same reason. But not me. Not this time.

We queue up for our beans. I take an extra plate for Daisy, ignoring the stares of those around me. There is no guard to stop me now. I carefully manoeuvre around all the extra people who fill up the space, and carry both plates back to my room.

Daisy lies still in my bed. I stand for a while, beans in hand, and watch her. It’s years since I’ve seen her this way, in sleep. Safe. But here’s the thing. Her skin is waxy, and her breathing is fast. As I look down on her I can see that she is not safe, not really.

I put the plates on my small table and carefully lift the blanket to look down at her body, still bundled up tight in her clothes. If I was to remove them, I think I might find patches of black. Black toes, black fingers. If there are any fingers and toes left. The bandage around her hand is useless now, and the blood is seeping through to my mattress, but I can’t unravel it, and face what is underneath.

She coughs, a weak rumbling at the back of her throat. ‘Be up soon,’ she says, ‘Strawberries. Doctor?’

I tuck the blanket back around her and sit on the side of the bed. I put my hand to her forehead like a professional. ‘No doctor, I’m afraid. Nobody’s seen her since your friends arrived. But you’ll be up and around in no time.’

She seems to come back to herself, blinking, as if clearing her eyes from sleep. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she says, in her usual voice. ‘I thought we were all done.’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Apparently not,’ she mimics. How cruel she can be. ‘Still better than the rest of us, aren’t you?’

I wish I’d never told her a thing about me, not one real fact that she could use as a weapon. I should have told her I was once a farmer’s wife, or a baker, or unemployed, in a council flat; some simple thing she couldn’t find fault with. Not a schoolteacher to the privileged elite; somebody who came to this place through having connections. I had never suffered the right kind of suffering for her.

‘Why did you help them?’ I ask. ‘They’ll destroy the domes.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘No, they won’t. They want a better world, Mel. They deserve their chance to fight for it. Don’t you remember what it was like to want to fight?’

‘I never wanted to fight.’

‘No.’ She coughs again, a softer sound. ‘I believe that.’

How do you say to someone – I think we should make up now because you’re very probably about to die? I sit quietly, my hand on her head, and try to think of a way to work that particular sentiment into the conversation. How very controlled I am.

‘I’m so, so sorry,’ I tell her. ‘For everything.’

‘It’s like that, is it?’ She nods her head on the pillow, seeing right through me, as always. ‘Thought so. They found me too late, I suppose. I had the bears with me, and I lay down with them in the snow, that was all I wanted, and I could still taste the strawberries. But then there was this young face in front of my eyes and all the bears were gone. I don’t know where they went. All gone. The young man said – help me, help us, help us get in and take what should belong to everyone, and it just seemed so sensible, Mel. Not that it should belong to everyone. But it should belong to them, to the young. To the kids who grew up without ever tasting a strawberry. That’s not right, is it? That’s not how it’s meant to be.’

She stops talking. All her energy has been sucked up by that speech. I get the feeling she’s been saying it to herself, over and over, in her head. Her reasons for getting them in.

I lie down beside her, and she doesn’t have the strength to tell me to go away.

‘I loved you,’ I tell her.

‘I’m not going right this minute,’ she slurs, but she turns over towards me and puts her good hand, in its thick mitten, on the old, loose curve of my breast. How could she have given up on me, on this? How could she have told me that she wanted to sit at a different table for every single meal, and never hear my voice again?

I lie there, trying not to breathe, until she falls back into sleep. Then I peel her hand away and stand up. The two plates of beans have congealed, but I don’t care. I eat them both, passionate for their flavour, their scent, their taste. I’m alive, and I eat for both of us.

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It comes to me, as I work through the afternoon under the guise of normality, that I’m not just alive, not in the same way I was before. I’m more alive. Every breath sings in my chest. Every time I stoop to take a soil sample the pain in my back is an epiphany – a promise that I hurt, I hate, I love, I live.

The feelings swell as the hours pass. I don’t care whether the others are working, or what happens outside my area. The feelings swell to the point of bursting open.

I hear the approach of Mr Cecil’s buggy.

I feel hope with the sharpness of citrus in the mouth, a long-forgotten taste, but when I turn around I make out, behind the wheel, the face of the man who stared at me through the glass panel in the door to Sector K, and I remember that Mr Cecil is probably dead, and that I never liked him much anyway.

The buggy comes to a juddering halt a few yards away – he needs some driving practice – and he climbs out, a smile set in place, as if we’re about to be introduced at a garden party.

‘Mel?’ he says.

I don’t answer.

His lovely face has lost all signs of the cold, and his beard is brown, and dishevelled, a sturdy, thriving mess of hair. How tall he stands. No softness to his body at all. And he has left his thick coats elsewhere to reveal strong arms the colour of milk. He must be boiling in this sudden change of temperature.

‘I’m Lucas,’ he says. ‘Has Daisy talked about me?’

‘No.’

‘I found her, out in the snow. She’s in your room, right? The others said she’d be with you. How is she?’

It surprises me, that what felt like a lifetime for me was obviously just a blip to the other workers. Mel and Daisy – still a couple in the eyes of the biodomes, intertwined like the roots of the plants that surround us. That’s how it appears, if you’re outside the experience.

When I still don’t respond, he changes tack, and his smile drops away. ‘I’m going to be looking after Sector K,’ he says. He has a strange accent. ‘We’ll be working together.’

‘Good for you, young man,’ I tell him, trying to remember my schoolteacher tones. ‘Now let me get on with my job.’

‘Daisy said you could be difficult.’

‘So you know all about me, do you?’ I don’t care if he’s in charge, or if he killed Mr Cecil himself, or even if he kills me, just so long as he goes away.

‘No. And you don’t know me.’

‘No, I don’t.’

He looks around at the high, curved dome of white, and the orange globes amidst the tall, curling tendrils. Can he recognise paradise when he sees it, or is it just an asset to be jotted down on the plus column of what he feels he is owed?

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I need to see Daisy.’

‘Why?’

He swipes at his forehead with his palm. ‘You should stop asking so many questions.’

‘Actually, I don’t care for what I should or shouldn’t do.’ I turn around, and pretend to be absorbed in the plant growth behind me. But he moves around to stand my eyeline once more, and now he’s wearing a deep frown as if he’s only just realised that this place is unfamiliar to him.

‘She’s dead,’ I tell him.

This piece of news doesn’t change his expression.

‘Come on, then,’ I say. ‘Let’s go and see her. Since you don’t believe me.’ I march past the buggy, toward the sliding door that seals up tight to keep in the moisture. A moment later I hear him reversing the buggy, and then following along behind me.

‘You can ride with me,’ he says.

‘That’s for management.’

‘I’m not management.’

‘I thought you said you were in charge of Sector K?’

He doesn’t respond. I walk the entire way. At some point, in the corridors, he abandons the buggy.

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I don’t like the way Lucas holds Daisy’s bandaged hand, as if he had a right to touch her, and she would not have minded. The fact that she is dead does not change my feelings about this in the least; to touch someone, you should definitely have their permission.

He stays very still, sitting on the side of the bed, just as I did a few hours earlier. The empty plates, stained orange with bean juice, have a strong smell that fills the room. I wish I had returned them to the refectory instead of leaving them on the small table.

‘At least she didn’t die alone,’ he says.

‘We all die alone.’

‘I’ve seen a lot of deaths, and some of them were better than others.’

‘Then you weren’t seeing them properly,’ I say. ‘Are you trying to thank me for staying with her? Or blame me for going back to work afterwards?’

‘I’m not saying either of those things,’ he said.

How incredibly easy it is for him to make me feel angry. What makes a good death, and what makes a bad death? Who is he to decide?

‘I think you should go now,’ I say. He looks up at me as if he might refuse, but then he puts down Daisy’s hand and stands up.

‘I’ll get a crew to come by and take her – the body – away.’

‘No hurry.’ I step back as he passes by me, folding my arms over my chest. I’m determined not to look at his face, but I can’t help myself – I need to see what’s there. The rough surfaces of his cheeks, the plain of his forehead, and more; there is something I recognise in his eyes, and in an uncontrollable instant I feel my expression change to mirror his. It’s a great task, then, to hold on to my emotions until he’s gone, but I manage it. And then I’m alone.

The sound spills out of me and uncurls to fill all corners of the room. It’s a deep, low growl – the equal and opposite of the alarm that led to this moment, but it means the same thing. Danger is here. It is breaking down the doors, ripping its way through my warm, safe places, bringing an icy wind.

God. Now there’s a name that has not graced my lips for many years, but the concept comes back to me easily, and I curse it. God, fate, everlasting life, whatever: I curse it all, in my head, while the sound coming from my open mouth winds down to nothing.

I get up. I pull the blanket over Daisy’s head, taking care not to look at the mouth that I am not allowed to kiss.

How long will it take Lucas to come back, others in tow, for disposal duty? I’m not sure. I have the feeling that time isn’t running right anyway. Outside the bedroom it is sprinting in circles, hands around the face of an ancient and unstoppable clock. But not in here.

I kneel down, and reach under the bed for my stacked glass slides, carefully searching through them until I find the one I want. Four black lines topped with a curve for a handle. A paint pot. And underneath, one word: Eurydice.

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Number 32

 

The arrival of new workers always upset her.

They had been given fresh clothes, but they still wore the outside world in their expressions, and what Mel saw there was pinched, and cold, and desperate. But those expressions never lasted too long. They all sank into the stupor of the warm, and the fed. The mind was always so keen to forget.

The new ones were dotted between the familiar faces in the common room: Miriam and Barry were doing a jigsaw puzzle, and Gareth was strumming something cheery, using big open chords, on his battered guitar. He had attracted a crowd, as usual, who mumbled through the familiar lines of the few songs he was able to play. I Want to Break Free, which might have had some meaning in this place if everyone didn’t sing it so happily and without a shade of self-consciousness. And that song Ironic, ironically. Like rain on your wedding day, they all sang, and all angst disappeared, and soon everyone would go off to bed with a smile.

Mel sat alone, digging the dirt out from under her fingernails, and considered what to paint next. She painted many aspects of her past, capturing a range of experiences, trapping them on glass so that she did not have to feel them any more. She never wanted life to feel fresh and newly opened again; she didn’t want anything else to happen that might take her attention from the past.

She thought about being left with only melons to paint, and the idea made her smile. To paint a melon – yes, she should do one, at least. A big, round, juicy one, for posterity. She got up and left the noise of the common room behind, taking her time down the dimly lit corridors, the floor level solar lamps glowing so yellow that they reminded her of candleflame. A real fire – that was another thing she should paint. A fire like her father used to make. How easily subjects were coming to her tonight.

The corridors were empty apart from her. They curved around the domes to link everything together in loops and twirls that had once made her dizzy. It had taken her months to learn the patterns of the pathways, but now she did not need to think about the route to the storeroom. She could have found it with her eyes closed.

Mel reached the door, and entered the code on the keypad. It clicked open, and the drop in temperature hit her as she stepped over the threshold, into the darkness, where the metal shelves ran in rows, high, holding crates and containers that were once essential to the running of Blossom Farm. Signposts, stacked in the far corner, back when the place had wanted to be found. But the only thing that interested Mel was the paint. The tins filled up the shelf on the back wall, and she was always relieved to see so many of them, like a promise. And in this place, where only a wall separated her from the outside, she could hear the wind. It howled with lonely pleasure, and she felt she understood it.

Outside a woman was waiting for her. She was round and creamy and gave the impression of being filled with something heavy. None of the shock of the new sat upon her, although Mel had never seen her before. She felt certain she would have remembered somebody who seemed so much more real than the rest of the place.

‘You’re from up north, right?’ the woman said.

‘No,’ said Mel.

‘I saw you in York. That meeting. You spoke about fuel prices, and then it all kicked off. Twenty years ago.’

‘No,’ said Mel again. ‘I’m from Portsmouth. I was. From Portsmouth.’

‘That’s only down the road.’ The woman looked at the paint tin, and Mel decided to answer no more questions.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, and the woman said, at the same time, ‘I followed you.’

‘What?’

‘From the main room. The jigsaws, the guitar. You slipped out. You looked like you were going some place better. You should cover your tracks if you’re not meant to be in there.’

‘I am allowed to be in there. I have permission.’

‘Great! Good for you. Privileges.’ The woman reached into the pocket of her knitted cardigan, no doubt made by the endlessly creating brigade of Sue, Poppy, Alicia and Geoff, and produced a small stuffed bear. ‘This is Eurydice.’ She made four syllables of the name.

It was the mixture of accusation and charm that befuddled Mel to the point of actually smiling. ‘Hello Eurydice,’ she said, taking herself by surprise.

The woman leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘She can’t actually speak,’ she said. ‘Nobody gave her a mouth. I made her when I was a little girl, and I didn’t think she needed one back then.’

‘You could make one for her now.’

‘Oh no. I don’t think she’s actually that bothered. There’s nothing that facilitates the abdication of responsibility so much as not having a mouth in the first place.’ She said this long sentence in one breath, like a well-rehearsed speech, and Mel felt a sudden bond, as if she had more in common with this person than with anybody else she had met in such a long time, even from before coming to the farm. If those words were a test, Mel felt certain that she wanted to pass it.

‘Have you been allocated an area yet?’

‘Me, or Eurydice?’

‘I’m assuming your beautiful lost soul of a bear will get to be a lotus-eater.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right. The winery, they said. But no room allocations yet. We’re meant to bunk down in the big room tonight.’

‘The common room,’ Mel said. ‘You won’t get any sleep in there. Come on. You can stay with me tonight.’

‘Will you tell me what that tin is for?’

‘Nope,’ said Mel, and the smile she received in return was an affirmation. Yes, she passed the test. She passed the test on that day, at least.

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Three of them come for the body. They are two men and a woman, and Lucas is not among them. They have a dirty trolley that usually takes seedlings from the nursery to the sectors, and they lay her on that, keeping my blanket over her. It’s fine. I don’t want it any more anyway.

When people die here –

When people die here there’s a process, but that seems to have been overturned. I didn’t give it much thought before, except that the process made sense. Everything worked in a certain way. But these new young people know nothing of it, and don’t care to ask. They set off down the corridor with Daisy, and I follow along behind until one of them turns around and says, ‘Get back to work. There are mouths to feed.’

He’s a tall man, bone thin. The other man and the woman both stop walking and stare at him. Something tells me this is the first time he’s assumed such a level of command, and he’s enjoying the sensation. They look at his enjoyment, and they say nothing.

The only replies that come into my mind are pathetic variations on, ‘You’re not the boss of me’ and experience has taught me nobody emerges from such statements with any dignity. In fact, there’s no dignity to be salvaged here at all, no matter what I say or do. There are words that this man would be happy to throw at me; there are labels that would begin to define me as less than him. I need to keep myself free from such words, but I also have to know what they’re going to do with Daisy.

I choose my words so very carefully. ‘I just need to see her laid to rest, please.’

‘Want to sing a hymn or two, do you?’ He laughs, and the woman lays a hand on his shoulder from behind him, so gently. Ahhhhh, I see what this is: he has had such a hard life, she is telling herself as she touches him. He’s only known the toughest way to be, to survive, and he can’t express himself any other way, but he means well. She’s determined to back up his pain as the most important in the room. Oh, the difficulties of being such a strong young man in charge.

‘Fine,’ he says, and the woman smiles at me, as if she’s done me a favour. She’s hardly more than a teenager, and she’s already well practised in feminine idiocy.

We start moving again. The woman checks a piece of paper as she pushes the trolley along, looking at a map perhaps, and we cross through the sectors, working our way out to the grapevines and the winery beyond, which would be a perfect place for Daisy. The corridors are mainly empty – it’s still working hours – and everything looks quite normal, apart from one buggy that has been overturned, right on to its roof, like a practical joke, without explanation. The men and the woman steer the trolley around it without comment.

We pass through the winery, where the large wooden vats stand and the smell is sharp and sour. Green bottles sit on a long trestle table, each one bearing a label that says Blossom Farm’s Finest Table Wine in curly letters, and a picture of a bunch of beautiful grapes. The workers take care to not look straight at us, and the way they know to avoid their eyes tells me that there have been quite a few trolleys passing this way.

Beyond the winery there is a place I’ve never visited before – a corridor, crates of bottles piled against the walls, that ends in a door. The lock has been prised free, and dangles loose on two electrical wires. This must be how these agro-terrorists got in here, away from the cameras and the guards. An emergency exit, of all things, forgotten about. Except that Daisy found it, once upon a time. She did always love to explore.

‘Stay,’ the tall man says to me.

‘Let her say goodbye?’ says the woman, and when he doesn’t reply I think he won’t mind if I touch Daisy one last time. But here’s the thing; I don’t want to touch her, not here, not in front of them. Besides, I tell myself over and over, she’s dead, she’s dead. What does flesh on a trolley mean? It means nothing at all. Whatever happens next, it doesn’t matter.

‘No, it’s fine,’ I say.

‘Let’s do this quick,’ says the other man.

The woman pushes the door, and when it doesn’t give the men join in, all three straining until it moves, and a drift of snow tumbles in to the corridor, along with the freezing cold. Outside, I can see only white.

The men take either end of the body, and carry it out.

‘Why out there?’ I say, to the woman, who stays behind, wrapping her arms around herself as she watches them.

‘The snow will cover them,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, the ground’s too hard for a proper burial.’

‘So they’ll just leave her?’ I come and stand beside her, and look out at the afternoon, the sun already low in the sky. It’s not snowing right now; the drifts stretch away, so beautiful, and the cold is a hammer to my chest. I gasp, and look around, and see the men, not far away. They are already coming back, leaving behind my blanket, and the body wrapped within it, lying in a dip between two mounds of snow. In fact, it’s a field of these regularly spaced mounds. Bodies, covered in white. Many bodies, making hillocks. The guards, the supervisors, and now Daisy.

The woman grabs my arm and pulls me back.

‘Why?’ I ask her, knowing I have only moments before the men return and she will no longer speak to me.

‘Why what? I told you.’

‘No. No, Don’t you understand? We’re not important. It’s the plants. You die, and you go under the ground in your sector. To feed the plants. Out there -‘ I point at the broken door, the way outside that is swallowing our heat so greedily, ‘- is no good to anyone. The plants need the nutrients.’

‘You bury people under the plants?’

‘Of course. The nutrients. That’s where Daisy should be. In Strawberries. She worked Strawberries, in the end.’

The man return, and slam the door shut, then kick their boots against the corridor walls, flinging around snow. ‘It’s strange how quickly you get used to the warm,’ reflects the tall one, and then he remembers me, and assumes the tone of command once more. ‘Off you go, then,’ he says. ‘Work.’

And off I go.

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There is an hour left to the day. I return to Sector K, and find Lucas there, standing on my soil. He touches the fruit with his fingertips.

The rage that comes over me can’t be contained, even though it is dangerous. I walk towards him with the plan to slap his face, for something I can’t define. He sidesteps me, and then I’m deep in the tangle of the plants, and my leg is caught. I fall to the earth. It’s easier to hit the soil than to hit him, anyway. It gives under my weight. It understands me.

Lucas stands over me, hovering on tiptoes, like an idiot.

‘Go away,’ I tell him, when I have enough control of myself.

‘Are you all right?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Can I help you up?’

I don’t take his hand, and after a while he squats down next to me. Here, in the green, it’s harder to hate him.

‘They put Daisy outside,’ I say, to his knees. ‘It’s a waste. Tell them. Bodies go in the ground. Here.’ I pat the soil, and then meet his eyes. His youth, his newness, is so alien, like the wings of an insect or the bright yellow beak of a bird. ‘Here’s where I want to end up. Right here.’

‘You’d give everything to Blossom Farm.’

‘Not the farm.’ Don’t they see it? They all act as if there are only institutions in this world, and nothing else worth talking about, nothing else worth saving.

‘They don’t care about you,’ he says, and I know he hasn’t understood.

‘Neither does your lot.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘You’re probably right.’

He sits down next to me. After a while he says, ‘This place is too beautiful to survive.’

‘It’s the beautiful things that live on.’

‘Not any more. Not out there.’

‘We’re not out there.’

He shakes his head. ‘Daisy said you came in here before it got bad. That you were working in a private school and there was a special arrangement, friends in high places…’

‘Daisy said an awful lot to you considering she hadn’t said a word to me in three years.’

He laughs. His smile is clear and strong. ‘Maybe she’d been saving it all up, then. Her need to talk about you.’

Think clearly, I remind myself; this is no time to fall back in love with youth. ‘Please leave me alone,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll take care of the melons. You can have the fruit, eat it, give it to orphaned children, dance round it in your underwear, I don’t care. But please leave me alone, and don’t come into this area again.’

‘What are you afraid of?’ he asks, and that undoes me. I put my dirty hands, fresh from the soil, over my face and whisper, ‘It’s not always about being afraid.’

‘Isn’t it?’ he says, reflectively. When I take my hands away I see, in his eyes, a lifetime of being afraid, more than any fair share, more than I have felt. Fear as a default setting – not just in waking hours, but creeping into all dreams, even the good ones. I have had moments of safety, of love, of comfort, and they have kept me going through the lean periods. I’m not sure Lucas has.

‘Did you really care about her?’ I ask him. ‘Why?’

‘I don’t know. She seemed… real to me.’

‘Don’t tell me. She reminded you of your mother.’

‘She wasn’t anybody’s mother. Not like you.’

‘I never had children,’ I tell him.

‘That doesn’t mean you weren’t a mother. She told me. You loved those kids. You fought for them. To get them away.’

Yes, I did, I fought for them, and even though it sounds clichéd I can’t deny that I was all those children had in those difficult moments, and I did my very best by them.

‘It’s a good thing,’ says Lucas, ‘to be a mother. But Daisy wasn’t one. I could see that as soon as I found her. People think I’m a follower. Lucas, who does what he’s told. When she got better, she started to talk to me as if I could make my own decisions. I’ve not felt that before. It’s a different way for people to be.’

‘What kind of way?’

‘Friends,’ he says, simply. ‘We were friends.’

I feel something open within me. It is pride, flowering. I’m proud of this man, this stranger, who would call a prickly old lady a friend. A description of equal terms.

‘Help me up,’ I say.

He stands, and holds out his hands once more, and this time I take them, and let him pull me up. We emerge from the plants and stand on the walkway, side by side. The dome looks different. Perhaps the lights have started to dim as part of the cycle. Soon the sprinklers will kick in.

‘The storeroom,’ I say. ‘Why did you want to get in there?’

‘Daisy said there were materials in the storeroom.’ He wets his lips. ‘Paint.’

‘You want paint?’

‘Not a lot. Just a little.’

The way he says it tells me that Daisy has told him about this side of my personality too.

‘Right. Right.’

He knows that I have the code to the storeroom and he didn’t pressure me for it. Is that decency, or manipulation on his part?

Either way, it helps me to make a decision. ‘I’ll let you in. But I won’t give you the code. You only come in and out with me, understood?’

‘Certainly. It’s your space, after all.’

Does he really believe that? He’s wily enough to keep any streak of sarcasm out of his voice.

Either way, the deal is done. We walk along together, and talk of what life is like for a child on the outside. I wonder if maybe Blossom Farm shouldn’t have given their jobs to the very young, rather than the very old. But it makes perfect sense. I’m ashamed to realise that the old are so much easier to control.

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Part Two

 

I no longer have a blanket.

But this doesn’t matter, because I no longer have a room.

‘It’s a reallocation to make sure everyone gets a place to sleep,’ says the woman standing in my doorway. Behind her, another woman is sitting at my small table, polishing a long knife with a cloth, taking care not to look at me. ‘Go to the Common Room and they’ll set you up.’

‘But this is my room,’ I say. All I want is to get inside it. Coming back down the corridor from the Store Room, I was thinking only about the fact I had no blanket. What was I going to do? No warm blanket any more. It’s strange, how quickly priorities can change.

‘We all have to make sacrifices,’ says the woman. ‘It’s not that you don’t have a place to sleep. It’s just this is a big room, and we thought the original workers might want to stick together, so you’ll have been allocated a place in with your own kind.’ She nibbles her cracked bottom lip; the change in temperature must be playing havoc with her skin.

‘So off you trot,’ says the woman with the knife, who looks as clean and brutal as a teenager. She doesn’t even bother to make eye contact with me. She is a parody of a threat, like she’s practised it for hours and now is happy to seize her chance.

‘Keep your knickers on,’ I tell her. I’ve had a bad enough day to no longer care. Besides, she’s obviously all bark and no bite. Who seriously polishes a knife just to scare an old lady?

‘We could throw you out in the cold instead,’ she says. Something in her voice suggests to me this isn’t the first time she’s thought of this idea, or voiced it.

The other woman, the one at my door, says, ‘I put your stuff in here.’ She reaches around the door and brings out a white plastic sack, about half-full. I take it and look inside: my clothes, books, hairbrush, cream for my legs when they ache. Not my slides. They must still be under the bed. I can’t leave them behind. But carrying them would be a job for more than one person, and where would I put them? How would I explain them? The one with the knife – she would smash them if she suspected they were important to me. I’m beginning to recognise this look some of them have, as if the things they’ve experienced outside will justify the things they do in here.

‘Thanks,’ I say, to the one at the door. I set off for the Common Room. It’s nearly dinner time and my body is hurting. No doubt it will only get worse tomorrow. I want my bed. I want my slides, my happy places. I want. I want my blanket.

I want to see Daisy. I want her to ignore me over dinner, sitting at a different table, feeling hatred, feeling disgust, just feeling something personal and real and Daisyish at me.

In the storeroom, Lucas said, ‘Look at all the stuff in here. People get killed for this outside. Petrol. Look. Batteries. Torches. Inflatable tents. Solar warmers.’ He spoke softly, in awe, as if entering a cathedral.

‘I thought you wanted paint,’ I said, watching him from the door. ‘It’s against the far wall.’

‘Thanks.’ But he didn’t move quickly. He examined each shelf in turn: top, middle, bottom, as he walked down the rows. ‘How come they gave you access to this place? They must really trust you.’

‘I was friends with the supervisor before Mr Cecil,’ I said.

‘I thought you were… friends with Daisy?’

‘I thought you of all people would understand there’s more than one kind of friend in the world.’

Mr Taylor, I had called him, once I worked for him. Once upon a time, in a classroom not too far away, he had called me Miss Baris. He was a good boy, although he didn’t believe it, and he turned into a better man. When it all went wrong, he came for me.

‘What are these?’ asked Lucas. He touched my slides, the ones that I painted and left behind in the storeroom; the ones that I didn’t want to be reminded of so often, unless a dark mood took me.

‘Nothing.’

He picked one up at random, and held it up. It was a painting of a day I never want to think about. Another day of goodbyes, years ago.

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Slide 58

 

She counted them getting on to the bus, and she counted them leaving it, even though they could not have gone anywhere during the journey. Old habits. There were only five of them left. They didn’t even sit together on the thirty minute trip to the port, but spaced themselves evenly throughout the bus, leaving a pattern of empty seats. Miss Baris wished there was some way she could tell them they needed each other, but she had been a teacher long enough to know that children never, ever, believed such sentiments. They thought themselves invincible, and maybe that would be enough to get them through.

They gathered in front of the doors to Departure, the kids shivering, even in their expensive coats. A light sleet was falling. It looked like snow if you stared up into it, but on the skin and on the concrete it was grey, and wet, and dull.

‘Let’s run through it again,’ said Miss Baris, and they all groaned as one. At least they were united in some things. ‘Natalya, start us off.’

‘Number one: stay together at all times,’ said the smallest girl, so small. So eager to please with her prompt reply and her smart manners.

‘Omar?’

‘Number two: board the ferry and don’t speak to anyone except the people in charge.’ He was a pain in class, big and bullish, but if any of them had grasped the seriousness of the situation it was him, and she saw a determination in his eyes that gave her hope for them all.

‘Quentin – number three.’

The boy gaped at her. He wasn’t the brightest, but he had a soft heart and loved all animals, choosing to spend most of his time in the school stables. He had told her once that he wanted to study to become a vet, and she had told him to work hard. That was what teachers said in the face of unrealistic dreams.

‘Disembark at…’ she prompted him.

‘Disembark at Bilbao and use the Euros to pay for a taxi to the train station. From there get tickets to Madrid.’

‘Well done,’ she said. ‘Number four. Lupita.’

‘Once we arrive in Madrid get to the Russian Embassy. Ask for our parents to be contacted,’ said Lupita, in a bored voice. She wanted so much to be the ideal woman and ended up looking more like a child than any of them with her hitched-up skirt and her practised, sulky attitude. She was the weakest link of the five. If she felt the urge to wander off, she would, and the rest would fall apart in her absence.

‘I’m relying on you, Lupita,’ Miss Baris said, knowing it wouldn’t help, but unable to stop herself. ‘Five, Dimitri.’

‘Five. Stay together at all times,’ recited Dimitri, the cheeky one, working on becoming tall and handsome and trouble to the world in general. ‘Miss, why is rule five the same as rule one?’

Lupita nudged him. ‘Because it’s the most important, you moron.’

‘We don’t call each other morons, Lupita,’ said Miss Baris.

‘And our parents will pick us up there?’ asked Natalya.

‘That’s right.’ Lies came so easily to teachers. She had long since learned to ignore any twinge of conscience. She was the last teacher left in the school, and these were the last pupils. There would soon be no more food, no more light, no more heating. After the extortionate cost of bribing the official to secure five places on the ferry, there was simply no more money.

And at the other end, what happened then? She had contacted so many people, trying to get hold of the parents who hadn’t bothered to come for their own children when the gulf stream began to fail. Powerful people. Dignitaries, celebrities, billionaires. She had to hope that her failure to reach them could be put right by the Embassy. Two of the children had that nationality, at least, and she had sent them an email informing them that any attempt to split up these children would result in the press being contacted. She had an inkling the kids could also make bargaining chips against other countries, but knew next to nothing about politics.

Stop, she told herself, stop. You’ve done the best that you could do.

‘Aren’t you coming, Miss?’ said Omar, managing to look vulnerable.

‘No, I’m needed here,’ she said. ‘But you are all capable of doing this. I have great faith in you all. Just make sure you stay together.’

They groaned.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘Off you go.’

They did. They walked through the doors without looking behind, because this was an adventure and she was only a teacher.

Back at the bus, she sat behind the wheel until the ferry had swung away from the dock. Then she took the printed email and the map from her coat pocket and read the words through again.

I hope you remember me. I was Billy Taylor, in your biology class fifteen years ago at Portsdown. You taught me about plants. I was fascinated. You made it all seem so important. I went on to study Agriculture at college and I work for Blossom Farm now. Have you heard of them? They have a series of bio-farms not far from the school. They’re employing older people, dependable people, to look after the plants, and I thought of you. You inspired me.

Would you consider coming here? I don’t know what’s happening to this country but I heard the school was closing as everyone with enough money to get away was leaving, like rats on a sinking ship, I suppose. I don’t know if you remember that English never was my strongest subject. But if you are staying in the UK and you need a place to go then you are welcome here. I’ve enclosed a map. When you arrive ask the guards at the gate to page me. It’s warm, and safe, and I can get you a good room of your own. 

Miss Baris started the engine, and drove away, hoping the roads were still clear enough to make it through.

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‘Is it a bus?’ said Lucas.

‘Can’t you tell?’ I said.

He frowned at it, then put it back on the pile. He carried on looking around the treasures of the store room, and said, quietly, ‘I won’t tell anyone about this place, okay?’

‘Why don’t I believe you?’

He said, ‘Something tells me you’re a scientist at heart. Don’t believe anything until it’s proved, that’s what you think. So just wait, and I’ll prove it to you. You don’t have much choice, anyway.’

‘That’s true,’ I said.

He picked up a paint tin, and then reached for the signs. ‘Can I take these too? I like to paint. I’m no good at it either. Well, I wasn’t. Back was I was little. I can remember it, a warm room, some paper, a painting kit. Colours. I’d like to get good at it, some day. Maybe we should both get some practice in.’

‘I don’t do it to be good at it.’

‘No. I can understand that.’ He was so very reasonable that it hurt.

He came back to me, at the door, loaded up with his spoils, and said, ‘I think us painters at heart should stick together.’

And even though I knew he was saying it only for his own reasons, I heard myself saying, ‘Yes.’ Yes, with the memory of another time in my agreement. Rules one and five are still in my mind, even if I don’t look at the black lines on glass that make up that bus journey. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Stick together.’

I reach the Common Room, and find it filled with confused old people to whom I don’t want to belong. It turns out the room allocations are not going so smoothly after all.

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It’s not that anybody is obviously angry. Maybe you get too old to show anger, visibly, even if you’re never too old to feel it. But there are so many people in the common room who are unhappy, crying, standing around with white plastic sacks in hand, and I join them, push my way through the groups, looking for somebody in charge.

By the archway to the refectory is a cluster of young people, all women; I recognise one of them. She took Daisy away earlier. She holds a clipboard and the others are gathered around it, frowning. I notice some of them are wearing pagers and utility belts, that must have once belonged to the supervisors.

Lucas isn’t here, and neither is the leader – Stephan, he called himself. Room allocation is obviously not an important topic to those in charge. I’m thinking they must already be ensconced in the supervisors’ old rooms. No question of double bunking in those.

I watch them squabble over the clipboard for a while. This could take all night, and I’m not brave enough to approach them.

‘Mel.’

Jim is behind me, with Lonnie in tow.

‘Have they taken your room?’ He gives me a sympathetic smile. ‘I suppose that would be the first one they’d want. It always was the biggest of the workers’ rooms.’

He’s not holding a white plastic sack himself, I notice. ‘At least you’re okay,’ I say, trying to sound friendly.

‘Well, since we’re a two sharing already I expect it makes more sense to let us keep the space. But we were thinking – if you need a place to sleep, come bunk in with us. We have spare blankets and a pillow. It’s still sleeping on the floor, but I don’t think anybody evicted tonight is going to find a bed of their own.’

His generosity shames me. Of course, he wants something. Everybody does. But even so it’s no small thing to give up your personal space. And it’s the best offer I’m going to get tonight.

‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘Thanks Lonnie.’

Her smile is a little more lopsided than Jim’s. I’m guessing she’s not quite so keen on the idea as he is. Still, she doesn’t complain as we leave the Common Room behind.

Their room is smaller than mine, and there are more personal touches evident in it, from quite a stack of books to photographs of young people, people from the past I should say, stuck to the walls and looking straight at me. The bed has a stack of crocheted blankets upon him. That’s Lonnie’s hobby. I don’t know how she could have got hold of so much wool over the years. What does she trade to indulge her hobby? I’m starting to see that my knowledge of Blossom Farm only scratches the surface. I know it geographically, and even politically; socially, now that’s a different matter.

‘You’ll be okay,’ Jim says, as he lays things on the floor: the blankets, the pillow. We take it in turns to use the adjoining bathroom, and I hate the smell of it. The smell of them, scrunched up together in their own sweat, neither of them able to tell their scents apart. Lonnie removes her enormous earrings and leaves them by the bed, ready for first thing the next morning.

Then we’re three old people in the standard green flannel pyjamas, so laughable, being polite to each other. Am I ready for lights out? Jim asks me, courteously. I tell him yes. It’s only once the dim light is out and everyone is tucked up in bed that Jim begins to speak, and say real things. This is why I’m here. So that I can’t just walk away.

‘It’s us and them,’ he says, softly, into the dark, ‘Us and them, Mel, and they want us to think it’s not, but we’re not stupid. And they say Blossom Farm has been using us, cheap compliant labour, practically slaves, but they’re no different. They’re worse, with their pretence of equality and their big statements: food for all, freedom. And they’ll just run this place into the ground because they know nothing about plants, do they? Nothing.’

‘No,’ I whisper. They know a lot about being cold and frozen inside, and about hating us. But we’re catching up fast.

‘Blossom Farm won’t stand for it. I talked to this Stephan, man to man, I said I was the representative for the workers, somebody has to be. Stephan said all the supervisors and guards were escorted away, but we can stay and keep working, that’s part of the deal. He says there’s going to be a profit-sharing agreement for a peaceful solution. But Blossom Farm would never agree to that, would they?’

‘No.’

So Stephan said the guards and Mr Cecil left. But I saw the mounds in the snow. I could start a war here with just a few words. If I just describe those mounds, Jim will start to mobilise us all with the righteous ire of the fed and warm and unimaginative.

Jim talks and talks and talks.

I feel a new sense of sympathy for Lonnie by the time my eyes start to close regardless of the endless sound of his voice. He’s busy talking himself into importance. Has he done this every night since the terrorists came? No wonder she looks so tired.

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The sound jolts me from sleep.

At first I think something heavy has been thrown against the door, but then it comes again, shaking me all the way into wakefulness, and I realise it’s so much bigger than that. Something has been thrown against the domes.

It’s so dark. There’s another bang, and then I hear voices in the corridor, panicked, and running feet, and I feel fear like I never have, so sharp, like pain.

The melons.

Not the melons, not when everything else has gone, but then someone shouts, ‘Winery!’ and the relief is so keen, like ice on a burn; I go numb, and the aches of my body don’t matter as I get up, get dressed, and head out towards the noise.

I don’t think. I just move, fast, in the flow with the others. Is Jim behind me? I hear a man shouting my name but I ignore it, I’m caught up in the crowd, young and old moving together and I can’t tell them apart any more.

The heat hits me when we reach the entrance to the Winery and the crowd panics, parts, and disperses into smaller groups as I press on past the shelves. There are flakes of snow whirling in the orange glow up ahead, hot and cold, fire and snow, mixing, mingling, making crazy patterns. The back wall of the winery is gone. The barrels are alight, and the puddles, puddles all around, burn. The hole in the wall, like a ragged mouth, is terrifying. The fire runs and roars; it is a monster.

I can’t make out faces, or understand what is being shouted, but I make out the concerted movements around me. Some people are attempting to control the blaze. The young ones use blankets, handfuls of snow, even their feet as they stamp and stamp in the fiery liquid. Stephan is there, a central point, standing tall against the blaze and facing it down with the confidence of one who is used to getting his own way. The fire will lose the battle. It begins to obey.

Someone catches at my arm. It’s Jim. I’m beginning to get sick of his face.

‘Come on,’ he says, ‘come away. They’ve got it.’ He pushes at me, and I nearly lose my balance, but he’s right; we should go. When the fire goes out there will only be the hole, and the cold pouring through it, and this section will be closed off as best as the terrorists can manage to stop the endless winter from touching our plants. And to stop up the sight of those mounds.

‘Where’s Lonnie?’ I say, as we push past the milling crowds, their mouths open, their eyes glassy. Rubberneckers, that’s what they used to be called. The desire to stare at a car crash, when somebody else’s world has gone wrong. Except this is our world – don’t we have the right to stare?

‘I told her to stay in bed,’ Jim says. ‘You took off so fast. I was worried about you.’ He holds on to my arm, so tightly.

‘I needed to know what was happening.’

‘What was always going to happen.’ The corridor is quieter; all attention is focused behind us, on the blaze. Jim slows a little, and loosens his grip. He speaks more quietly, and with well-chosen words. I get the feeling he’s been rehearsing this in his mind. ‘They’ll never hold this place. They’ll tell us all sorts of lies to keep us all working, but they have to know they have a few days more at best. This was a message Blossom Farm was always going to send.’

‘You think Blossom Farm deliberately blew up the Winery?’

‘It’s the easiest and cheapest area to replace,’ he says. ‘It’s just equipment, not even under the domes. Not organic. But it shows they’d rather destroy it than share it.’

I can’t accept it, I can’t; destroy the melons, the strawberries, the oranges, the sugar snap peas, because if they don’t own it they think nobody should.

‘Lonnie is getting more confused,’ Jim says. ‘It’s all this uncertainty. You know what happens when one of us gets confused. They put us outside. There’s no reason to keep someone who can’t work. But if I make myself indispensable, they’ll want to keep me happy, and then she’s got a chance. We have to last out this band of idiots and then, once they’re gone, the farm will need new supervisors, ones who understood the situation here and did their best to help the rightful owners.’

He stops walking and pulls me to a halt beside him.

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘You’ve been here so long, you’ve had privileges, you know how this works. You’ve got access to stuff, and you know every inch of the place. We can keep the workers together, unite them, keep them strong so they don’t help the enemy. Days, that’s all it will take until the cavalry arrives. Days.’

‘You think we should form an underground movement?’ I ask him. Is he picturing us striking some valiant blow for a business that doesn’t care about us one way or another? His desperation is repulsive, but I’ve been in love. I know what it’s like to think you’ll do anything to keep someone close. Still, I’m too old for this nonsense.

‘Listen,’ I say. I step in close to him and hold his gaze, so he can be in no doubt that I mean this. ‘I can’t help you. I’m done with getting involved. I came here for an easy life, and I just care about the melons. That’s it.’

‘You don’t get to have an easy life now, you silly old woman,’ he says. ‘You silly, silly old woman. This is going to be hard, and you’re part of it, whether you like it or not. In the morning they’ll call a meeting, wait and see. They’ll say that Blossom Farm never cared about us, and they’ll try to split us up. They don’t get it. We know we never mattered to anybody but ourselves, but there comes a point where you have to stand up for that. For meaning something, if only to yourself. And you do care, Mel. We’re approaching the moment where you won’t be able to pretend otherwise any more. Then remember my offer, and remember what you need to do to survive.’ He steps back and puts his hand on the door handle. ‘And don’t mention any of this to Lonnie, okay? She doesn’t need to be upset.’

I follow him into the room and in the warm darkness it’s possible to believe that Lonnie sleeping, her unbroken peace, is enough for all of us. I crawl back into my nest on the floor and Jim returns to his place beside her.

Us and them. Everything is us and them. Even if there were just us three: Jim and Lonnie and me, there would be the divide that splits the heart of all humanity, and if it came to it they would both turn on me.

Did Lucas mean it? That we painters should stick together? I wish I had seen him at the fire, just to see his face. But it’s so dangerous to trust. Even Daisy, Daisy who had me in her hand, could not be trusted in the end.

No, I won’t trust anyone. That’s the only way to be. If it must be us and them, then I’ll stand alone, and take no sides, no matter what happens.

Jim’s breathing slows, and I know he’s found sleep. How lucky he is, to believe in his own importance. He protects Lonnie as if he is a superhero.

SuperJim. The thought makes me smile.

Yes, he’s ridiculous, but as I lie there, feeling the inevitable creep towards morning, I loose the reins of my imagination and picture myself as a young woman, running away over the snow, flanked by the people who make me super too. We are so young and pretty and free, Daisy and Lucas and me.

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It’s egg and toast in the morning, with the strange metallic taste of artificial eggs sticking at the back of my throat. I don’t know how they make them, but I always picture robot chickens sitting above a giant conveyor belt, their necks stretching as they pop out egg after egg.

Damn these stupid thoughts, and my old, sore bones, and sleeping on the floor. And damn Stephan, who looks like a proper leader as he stands on the table at the front of the room and shouts, having started softly before working himself up to a frenzy worthy of a politician. I think he’s missed his calling.

‘We offered them a good deal!’ he shouts. ‘A fair deal! Half the produce for the starving, and half for them and their fat shareholders, as long as they left us alone to form a new collective, a place where young and old could work together towards a future for us all!’ He holds out his hands and knits his fingers together. I finish off the last mouthful of eggs.

‘And this is their answer,’ says Stephan. He drops his hands and his voice. ‘They destroy. They don’t care who gets hurt. They don’t care about you, and they don’t care about the future. They would rather blow this place to hell than simply take a little less for themselves! This is the kind of thinking that got us all into this mess in the first place. No care for each other, no care for the natural world, no care for the planet. Nothing but greed. So we need to show them that they’re wrong. We won’t be scared by their tactics. We won’t give in to fear. We’ll stand strong, and take care of the plants and of each other, until they see sense.’

Does he really think this will work? He flicks his eyes over us all and I see calculations taking place. He thinks he has us where he wants us.

From my position in the far corner, I look around the refectory and see the way the young ones are spread out, sitting in twos and threes, alert, none of them eating. Stephan is a very dangerous man.

‘Now, I know that you must be feeling a lot of things about what happened last night. But now is not the time to give into negativity. Let’s all stay strong, and together we can prove to Blossom Farm that although they might have enslaved you once, they never managed to brainwash you. You will always be, in your hearts, free men and women.’

Across from me, Jim coughs, and catches my eye. You see? his expression says, as clear as day. I told you so.

In my expression I try to put the thought – don’t start trouble Jim, don’t start trouble, they’re ready for you.

‘Any questions?’ says Stephan, pleasantly.

Jim raises his hand. He turns in his chair to face Stephan, and all I can see is the back of his head, where the hairs are combed so carefully. He was in the bathroom for ages this morning.

‘Yes?’

‘It’s not so much a question as an observation,’ says Jim.

‘Please,’ Stephan says, waving a hand. ‘Go ahead.’

He stands up. ‘We’re a pretty old bunch of folks, sir. And we’re all heard this kind of nonsense before. You want to fight a war, you go right ahead. Don’t let us stop you. But I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re not about to fight it for you. Not for all the tea in China.’

‘I’m disappointed to hear you feel that way,’ says Stephan, looking disappointed and righteous. ‘I’m afraid the time has come to choose where you stand, and everybody has to make their own choice. I see that you are choosing to stand with Blossom Farm.’

‘Oh, really?’ says Jim. ‘If I’m not with you I’m against you, is that it? I’ve heard that before, son. And we’re for ourselves, by the way. You lot can be for yourselves and we’ll be for ourselves. End of story.’ He sits down. I’m so glad I can’t see his face. I get the feeling he looks pleased with himself.

‘Ah, I’m so sad that life has been so difficult for you that you can’t tell when a good offer comes along,’ says Stephan. ‘I think we can get together, man to man, and discuss this personally.’

If Jim thought this was how he would keep Lonnie alive, he’s such an idiot. I wonder if he’s beginning to realise that.

‘But no matter how you feel about us,’ says Stephan, addressing the entire room once more, ‘I hope we can all agree that the plants come first. Let’s work hard for them, if not yet for each other.’

He climbs down from the table and people begin to move, taking their trays bearing empty plates and cups to the stacking holders, and then setting off for their sectors with dull, tired expressions. Do I care for them? Will I stand with them? No, I won’t.

The man who took away Daisy’s body comes to our table, and says to Jim, ‘Wait here.’

Jim says nothing. He shrinks down in his seat and Lonnie, beside him, looks up and around, as if waking from a dream.

‘What is it?’ she says, and I say, ‘Work. Come on.’ She follows me, thank God, looking back once or twice at Jim, but she still has the sense to come away.

I drop Lonnie off at Satsumas and then lose myself amongst my melons. Some areas are ripening and I check for colour, size, shape, and write yield estimates, just as Mr Cecil would have liked. The fruits are good and heavy, but I won’t pick them, not yet.

Today the desire is strong to taste one. If I split it open it would reveal the perfect colour of sunrise. My mouth moistens. It’s wet all morning with the thought of the taste. It hasn’t bothered me this way for years, but right now my body is on fire with sensation: the aches and pains, the tiredness, only proves that I’m still alive, and grateful for it. I haven’t felt this way for so long. I can remember exactly when I last felt so glad to still have these old arms and legs, this tired and struggling heart.

I remember it, and I want to put it on glass.

When the lunchtime bell goes I pocket my paintbrush and head to the store room. The paint awaits me. It slides thick and easy over the surface of the pane.

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Slide 118

 

The Reception Area of Sector K was a mockery of an earlier time, when there might have been guests to this state-of-the-art biodome complex, but the doors had been shut and the gates erected before Mel’s arrival. The orange seats, the potted palm, and the water dispenser were used only by the workers, and had become invisible, beyond comment. But the stranger looked hard at them, and Mel saw them again, as if for the first time. The orange seats were lurid and the potted palm lopsided. How ridiculous it looked.

The man’s face was slick with sweat. He wore a padded coat that was so bulky he had barely squeezed through the door. But his shoes, and his beard, were still white with snow. He sneered at them both.

Mr Taylor said, ‘Can I help you?’ His voice was very mild.

The man opened his coat. Inside was a bundle, strapped to his chest by a length of sacking material, brown and coarse, looping over his shoulders and around his waist. He unveiled himself, as if something meaningful had been revealed.

Mel thought – a bomb. A bomb. She didn’t move.

She had heard stories. New workers, arriving from the changed world outside, had told tales of separatism, agro-terrorism, people demanding to live under their own rules to make a fairer world. She had eavesdropped on these conversations with vague interest, as if it was happening in another country, far away. Outside – the foreign country. Now the outside was here.

‘Don’t do anything,’ said Mr Taylor. ‘Okay? Nobody needs to do anything.’

The bundle on the man’s chest squirmed. A small arm emerged through a gap in the sacking. It had folds of fat, chubby creases, and the fist clenched and unclenched.

The man stroked the fist, and then put it back inside the material, using only one hand. In the other hand was a knife.

No, not a knife. It was a trowel. One of the small steel trowels they used for planting. He must have come here through the nurseries, Mel thought.

‘Put the knife down, okay?’ said Mr Taylor, who had stretched out his own hands in that classic gesture of placation. Look, I’m empty handed, I mean you no harm.

The man mumbled.

‘What? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear.’

‘I need milk.’

‘You need the meat section. You’re in fruit. Fruit’s no good for a baby.’ Mr Taylor pointed. ‘Here. I’ll show you the way.’

‘Real milk. From a real cow.’

‘Yes, that’s what we do here. Real cows. I promise you. This way.’

The man watched Mr Taylor edge around to stand beside him, at the entrance. How strange, that only a moment ago they had been discussing the weather, as reported onscreen that morning. Another cold one, Mr Taylor had said, can you remember what summer used to be like? I was in the football team and we played out there in shorts.

‘How far?’ said the man.

‘Not far.’ Mr Taylor flicked his eyes to Mel. It was an instruction, so obviously; no, a plea. To do something. What did he want her to do? The man saw it, and read it quickly and completely. He raised the trowel and brought it down, that steel point digging into the space between Mr Taylor’s neck and his chest, right where the collar of his white shirt sat.

Mel looked away. She simply looked away: not there, not there, not there, she heard in her head.

When she came back to herself, she was kneeling by the entrance to her melon area and Mr Taylor was on the ground, not far away. His blood had formed a lake around him, so red, reaching the feet of the orange chairs, the colours clashing.

She crawled over to him. His mouth was opening and shutting. His eyes were on her. He looked very much younger.

‘Billy,’ she said.

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There’s a cheery knock at the store room door, a young person’s knock, and I just know its Lucas. I hate myself for feeling pleased at the thought.

I put down the paintbrush and open the door. He is standing there with a big smile. I let him enter, check the corridor is empty, and then close the door. We are alone in the only space left to me. Why don’t I mind him being here? I should mind it.

‘What are you painting?’ he says. ‘Is that a melon?’

‘It’s not finished yet. And it’s not a melon. It doesn’t look anything like a melon.’

We stand side by side and stare at the black curves on the glass.

‘It looks exactly like a melon,’ he says.

I nudge him in the ribs.

‘Well, what is it, then?’

‘It’s a baby. Look, there’s the head, there’s an eye, that’s a little hand.’

‘Is that a hand, then? Not a flower? I can’t believe I didn’t see it immediately. You’re a painting genius. Look at that brushwork.’

‘Shut up,’ I tell him.

He smiles and smiles, and looks so comfortable with me, like we share something deep. I wish he wouldn’t smile. I have to make him stop.

‘A man got in here. Into Sector K, I mean. Two years ago. He had a baby strapped to his chest. I can still picture it. That baby. I only saw its hand, though.’ I shrug. ‘The mind’s a funny thing.’

At last; he’s stopped smiling. But this sudden feeling of intimacy is worse. The room is so quiet. ‘What happened?’

‘I don’t know. Guards caught him eventually, I heard. He would have been dealt with. I heard rumours, afterwards, that people outside carry babies around to fatten them up, to – eat them, later.’

‘Like a packed lunch?’ Lucas says, and snorts. ‘You don’t believe that, do you?’

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No, I don’t believe that.’ I can see, once more, that man holding that baby’s hand, tucking it safely away.

Lucas touches the glass pane, where the paint is drying, with one finger. ‘Of course, you’ve never been out there since it all went wrong, so you don’t know. And you’re right; the mind is a funny thing. But, trust me, we don’t eat babies.’

‘All right.’

‘Not my lot, anyway.’ He turns away from the picture, and scans the shelves.

‘What are you looking for?’

‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Listen. This whole thing. You and I both know it’s not going to work.’

For a moment I think he’s talking about us, him and me, but he continues, ‘There can’t be an agreement. Stephan was wrong, and he’s beginning to realise it. He’s given the order to collect as much produce as we can and then get out of here before Blossom Farm gets tired of pretending to negotiate and sends in their army.’

‘They have an army?’

‘You really don’t get who you’re dealing with, do you? Blossom Farm has these domes all over the world now. They’re rich enough to buy people, governments, whole countries. Raising an army is not going to be a problem. All it will take is a little time, and they really don’t care if they lose the entire of this place and everyone in it just as long as they send the message that they don’t negotiate with terrorists.’

He spits the word out, and I finally see that it’s become a meaningless word, describing nobody in this situation accurately.

‘But they picked the winery as a target,’ I say. ‘They knew it would be empty, and that it’s the easiest part to rebuild. It shows they’re not totally -‘

Lucas shakes his head. He lowers his voice even though there’s nobody to overhear. ‘They didn’t blow up the winery. We did.’

‘What?’

‘We blew it up. To show Blossom Farm that we’re serious. Stephan thought it might make them negotiate, if they understood we have the capacity to destroy this place. And still they won’t talk to us. I’ve been out there, holding up signs, trying to get a response. It was the final bluff, and it didn’t work. So now it’s just about time. Starting tomorrow, everyone will be asked to pick their areas clean. And then we’re going to try to escape.’

‘You’ll take all the fruit? Every bit?’

He touches my arm. ‘Not the plants, though, Mel, not the plants. It can all grow again. You’ll be left in peace. Stephan can see it now – that it’s not worth the effort to try to reason with these people.’

‘You talked him round?’

‘He trusts me. And not everyone is intent on bloodshed.’

‘Don’t say any more,’ I beg. He puts his hand to my old face, and I’m ashamed of my tears, and my wrinkles. My pouched eyes, no doubt, contain emotions it would be easy to mock.

‘Are you afraid?’ he says.

Yes, I’m afraid. Of what will come next, and of what I have to do.

‘Don’t worry,’ says Lucas. ‘One day, one harvest, and I’ll be gone. Things will go back to normal.’

I’m afraid of that too.

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Knowing that everything will end makes time move in a different way. I go to bed and Jim isn’t there. Lonnie says he’s at some sort of important meeting, and she goes about her business in a daze, climbing into her pyjamas and settling down into her bed. She doesn’t seem to miss him. In the silence, in the dark, we sleep.

In the morning, Lonnie and I go to the Refectory, and Stephan explains that everything will be harvested today and moved to a safe location to protect the fruit in case of further attacks by Blossom Farm. The workers nod. I see one with a bruised face, another holding his arm in an awkward position, and the intruders are no longer sitting down. They stand against the walls, alert. The illusion of working together is so thin you could blow it away with a single breath. Maybe that is why we all seem to be holding our breath, hardly taking in air at all.

After breakfast I take Lonnie to Satumas and then go to mine. Gregor is at the water cooler. His hands tremble as he raises his cup to his lips. Crates on trolleys have appeared next to the plastic chairs. I steer one through into Melons, and look around me.

I pick everything, no matter how small or green. I pick the swollen and the shrivelled, ripening or with the promise of much growing to do. The first crate fills. The plants surround me, brushing my face as I work, tickling my neck. Just before midday I reach the area where Mr Taylor was buried. I put my hands to the soil, and tell him what I’ve been thinking of since my last painting.

‘I think you really wanted to help that man. I think you were trying to tell me not to call security, that day, with that flick of your eyes. I think you wanted to save that baby. I don’t know what happened to it.’

But I do know. They did the things we don’t talk about here.

They killed it. And then I’m guessing they put it under the soil too. We are workers, and assets, and finally we are fertilizer. We are stupid enough to do it all for the sake of a hot meal and a bed, because we think that matters more than being a person.

I pick the nearest melon. It’s a good one: large, and round, and warm. I scrabble at it with my fingers, but my nails are too short to penetrate it. It won’t open for me. Then I take my paintbrush from behind my ear and stab the end without bristles into the melon.

The smell is divine. The juice drips down over my hand; I lick it off, and breathe in and out, in and out, in great gasps. Memories of my grandmother’s garden are so strong, so vibrant, in my mind. I hear the drone of bees, the weight of warm, real sunshine on the back of my neck. The things I have painted on glass are only shadows of these tastes and touches. I haven’t remembered a thing right.

I stab the melon again and again, until it makes a sucking sound, and splits into ragged pieces. My hands are drenched; the liquid soaks into my sleeves. The seeds are wet and glistening in its gash. I scoop up flesh, and eat, and eat, feeling moisture in my mouth and on my cheeks. It will stain me orange, and I don’t care. I eat.

The dome shudders. It is being hit.

I pocket the seeds in my dungaree pockets, even though they try to slide through my fingers to find the soil. I go back to picking in my melons, and I fill the crates, and listen to the strange noises that mean we have reached the end.

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I work hard, and fill five crates. When I’m half-way through the sixth, Lucas finds me. He looks so calm.

I walk to meet him, and he says, ‘You need to wipe your face.’

I feel my mouth turning up at the corners, and I grin, grin like only a girl should.

He lifts his hand and smoothes his sleeve over my mouth, not gently, rubbing at the corners. ‘There,’ he says. ‘That will have to do.’

The dome shudders again. I hear shouts, from what seems like very far away, but I don’t care.

‘Are you ready?’ he says.

‘For what?’

‘To leave with me.’

I never expected this. Never. Even when I dreamed of something like this, I knew it made no sense. I can’t think of what to say, what to do. When words do come, they are ridiculous ones.

‘I’m so old,’ I tell him, even though I don’t feel it at that moment.

‘I told you. We’re going to stick together. I know how to survive out there, and you know how to make things grow.’

‘I don’t. I can’t make anything grow. Apart from melons.’

‘You’re picking one hell of a time to argue about this.’

The shouts are louder. There’s a new sound, too, like someone tapping out a rhythm, fast, with a high drum. Is that gunfire? I’ve never heard it before.

‘Come to the winery,’ he says. ‘We can get out that way. Bring some melons. I’ll fetch some supplies and meet you there. I think we have a chance, since they’re attacking from the main gate. I’ve come up with a way to move fast.’

‘You’ve been planning this for days.’

‘Since Stephan suggested this whole thing. He said to wait for someone who could get us in, and then we found Daisy. It was my responsibility, to get her to trust us. But she made me trust her instead. And she told me that the only real difference between people is whether they’re willing to hurt others, or try to help them.’ His calmness is a mask. Underneath it I glimpse – what? Pain. Fury. And then it’s gone. ‘Listen. Stephan has ordered us to burn the place down. He wants to make some great statement to the world. If it’s not for anybody, then it’s for nobody. I don’t want to be part of his statement. Do you?’

‘No. No, I don’t.’

‘Great. Then I’ll meet you at the Winery. Say you’ll be there.’ He pulls me into his arms. I’m so lucky, I think, so lucky, when the world I knew is about to end and so many will die, and here I am just being lucky, with my boy wrapping his arms tight around me for no reason I can understand.

‘I’ll be there,’ I say.

He steps back. ‘We need to get going. Give me the code.’

‘What?’

‘The code. For the store room door. There’s no time for us both to go. I can move more quickly alone.’

I’ve been such an idiot. Such an idiot.

To think he could be a friend, a real friend, someone who sees past the way I got to this place, the life I’ve lived, and the wrinkles on my face.

This was all about the code. All of it.

I should hate him.

But he has been so kind to pretend this way, and make me believe it. We might both be painters, but he has a lightness of hand that I have never possessed. One can only admire the brushwork.

‘9200,’ I say. I repeat it, to make sure he’s got it.

‘Right,’ he says. ‘See you at the Winery.’ He takes my hand, and squeezes it. ‘Thank you.’

Once he’s gone, I feel very tired. Tired enough to sleep. To shrivel up, and be done. I lie down for a while, amongst my melons. For a while, I think nothing will ever make me move again.

But then a woman walks into my area. The woman who sharpened her knife at my table, and took my room away from me.

She’s holding a petrol can; it’s heavy, and it bumps against her leg as she approaches my plants. That’s what makes me stand. Not that it’s her, but that she’s brought so much petrol along to do the job.

She sees me, but doesn’t stop. She chooses a spot near the areas I have only just impregnated recently, delicately placing pollen on my brush and easing it inside the flowers. She unscrews the petrol can, and begins to pour. The clear fluid drips from the leaves.

‘Stop,’ I say.

‘Go to the Common Room,’ she tells me, without even bothering to look at me. ‘That’s where all your lot is meant to go. Didn’t your supervisor tell you?’

‘Stop.’ She ignores me. I try to think of anything I might say that would change her mind. ‘If you keep killing everything there’ll be no plants left in the world.’

‘That’s rich,’ she says, ‘coming from your lot.’

I move closer to her. The smell of the petrol is strong and sharp in my nostrils. ‘What lot?’

‘You all fucked it up and now you get to act like the keepers of the flame for some imaginary future where we’re not knee deep in fucking snow.’ She shakes her head, and then stares at me, and I see that hatred again. The unique way that the young despise the old for the things we did or didn’t do frightens me like nothing else I’ve seen.

‘So let it all burn?’ I ask her.

She frowns, and puts down the can, near the door. She hasn’t doused many of the plants in petrol. I get it now; she’ll only use a small amount in each area. Once a few plants are alight, the rest will catch easily enough. That one can of petrol could do the entire of the Farm. Who knows how many she’s already done?

‘I don’t get it,’ she says. ‘That you lot would agree to this, this hoarding, rather than try to save us all. But that’s it, isn’t it? Choices. You made yours.’

‘Did I?’ I ask. I don’t remember making them, exactly, so much as following the paths that were presented. And nothing ever quite seemed like my personal responsibility. Not in the way that these melons are my responsibility. Not in a way that I would bleed for.

‘Look what you left us with,’ she says. She reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out a box of matches. I’m too slow and I can’t think of anything more to say. She moves back away from the soaked plants, strikes a match, and throws it.

They catch so quickly that the air makes a popping sound and within moments the flames are high and orange and flickering through my plants, touching them and making them twist and writhe and shrivel. Black smoke gushes upwards. My stomach does the same, and my mind, oh my mind hurts so much I can’t think any more, I can’t bear any more. I walk to the door, and pick up the can of petrol. I was right. It is very heavy. Then I go to her, this woman who thinks I should have solved all her problems before she was born.

She doesn’t think me capable of such a thing, so I surprise her when I throw petrol over her. I don’t know exactly what I’m expecting to happen. I’m not sure how it does, really. She turns to get away from me, and although she is not very close to the flames they jump through the air to her face, and her arms, and then she writhes and wriggles, just like my plants. She screams and screams, and crashes through the area, and feel my thoughts turning away from the horror of her. I put down the can and collect my trolley, and make sure the door shuts behind me when I leave.

I trundle out to the reception area. Her screaming is so loud, even out here. Gregor crouches behind the water cooler. He peers out at me.

‘You need to start again,’ I tell him. I suspect it’s a thought he never quite grasped. I have to raise my voice, to be heard over the screams.

Onwards, down the corridor. People run, and their terror is bothersome. I swat at them, shoo them from my path. The taste of the melon lingers.

Goodbye, corridor. Goodbye, everyone. I’ve done my best, and now it’s time to move on.

I pass into the living quarters, past my old room, where the glass plates lie under the bed still, no doubt. I don’t stop.

Around the corner there are two men in Blossom Farm uniforms, carrying guns, and they point them at me, but I put my head down and mumble to myself, and keep moving. The pretence of being a mad old lady seems to work. Who am I fooling? I am a mad old lady. I could do no harm to anyone. They lower their guns. I crab along.

Behind me, I hear a burst of running feet and then the air is hot and prickly. I smell burning meat, and I don’t turn around.

A man yells, ‘Stop!’ and still I don’t turn around.

Nothing hits me.

I keep going.

I keep going.

There is a dead body is just before the Common Room. It’s one of the terrorists. A woman. Why do people always look so young when they’re just dead? Perhaps its in the way her face has relaxed, just as Daisy’s did, and Billy’s. No more cares. An expression of emptiness only the very young would wear.

She leaks blood in all directions, from the large tear in her abdomen, through the clothes and skin, so that tubes and coils have rushed, squeezed, bubbled up. How did it all fit inside her to begin with?

I can’t get around all the blood; I have to push the trolley through it, and two red lines are left by the wheels. Between the tracks I leave footprints of clear red intent. I keep looking over my shoulder at them, but I go on.

The noise is growing again, and when I approach the Common Room archway it’s so loud. I keep moving, promising myself I won’t look up, but the flashes and the screams are impossible to resist. I freeze, framed in the archway like an actress on a stage, and watch a war. The sofas and chairs are overturned, and the strong smell of burning comes from the drifting black smoke that reveals and obscures. The two sides in this war, I can’t tell apart. There are only bodies, and glimpses of people running and crouching; how can they tell if they’re trying to kill the right people? Of course, the uniform. Only the uniform makes a difference.

I see Stephan, standing tall amongst his followers, wearing power like a warm cloak. But it’s not enough this time, it won’t stop bullets, and he crumples up, like a fallen hero from a painting. Is he dead? I don’t know. But all his magnificent control is gone, and the fight begins to scatter, and spread, and turn my way.

Someone grabs my arm and pulls hard. It’s Suroopa.

‘Come on,’ she says, and tugs at me, with a strength I never suspected she possessed, having thought of Courgettes as quite a dainty job.

‘Come on wake up wake up,’ she screams over another burst of gunfire, and I give in to her, and follow after. But I won’t leave my melons. The trolley comes too.

She takes me to the Refectory, behind the serving area, and I find a huddle of familiar workers sitting on the floor, leaning against the stainless steel cabinets. I know them all, which surprises me, as I’ve never thought of them much before, and haven’t even had a short conversation with many. But I know them, just the same.

Suroopa crouches down and moves amongst them, and I drop my trolley handle and do the same. They stare at the trolley, and the melons.

‘I couldn’t leave them,’ I explain. I don’t expect them to understand.

But then I see them reach into their pockets, or into the white sacks they carry. Sue has raspberries, and Zena has chillis. Geoff is there cuddling a cucumber, and Barry has lychees. Plums, persimmons, pomegranates, a spiky-topped pineapple. There, at the end, pressing herself into the corner is Lonnie, holding out a luminous, waxy satsuma in each hand. We had satsumas at Christmas when I was little; why has that not come to me before? I should have painted it.

The gunfire intensifies, and there is shouting again. The smoke is thickening; why has the alarm system not gone off? It must not be working. Maybe the sprinklers are pouring down on our plants, though, keeping them safe from flames.

When it goes quiet Suroopa says, ‘They burned my courgettes.’

The others nod. Someone wails, for a moment. I have things I could say, but I don’t.

‘Blossom Farm will soon deal with them,’ Suroopa says. ‘Then we’ll grow everything back to how it was. Things will go back to normal.’

I shake my head. ‘No, no, it will all burn. It will cost too much to rebuild now.’

‘No, they wouldn’t -‘

I move away from her. I’m not expecting her to believe me, but there seems no point in pretending that we can simply wait here and everything will pass us by.

It’s difficult to think in the presence of so much wealth. The leathery, crowned perfection of the pomegranates in Miriam’s lap, and the warm smiles of the bunch of bright green bananas beside Poppy. It comes to me that we can’t give up. And our best chance is not here, in the centre of the burning biodomes.

Lonnie says, ‘Jim. Jim. Where’s Jim?’

I think I know the answer to that question. And it gives me some sort of answer as to where we can go. If a place has already been destroyed, why would they fight over it?

‘I can take you to him,’ I tell her. ‘Would you like that?’

‘Jim,’ she says, and I think she’s too far gone to understand, but then she stands up and looks at me expectantly.

I say to the others, ‘We need to get the produce to a safe place.’

‘Where?’ says Suroopa, but she gets up too, and that’s enough to get them all moving.

I pick up the handle to my trolley once more and turn away from the bloody track I’ve left, leading them away from the Common Room. They trail after me. We move away from the noise of the fighting, and in my mind I hold the map of these domes, and how they link. If the plants are burning, the doors might have automatically shut and locked, which will give us a little time. Still, I can’t risk a direct route. I’ll wind around the edges, using the less frequented corridors, where you can almost feel the cold through the walls.

Whenever I look behind me, I’m surprised by the way they walk, in an orderly fashion, pairs holding hands in some cases. When I was a teacher I would have thought nothing of it. Form a crocodile, I would have said, and they would have obeyed. Another image I have failed to capture on glass, and perhaps by now all my slides have melted together as the fire sweeps through the living quarters. It will burn it all: the woollen antimacassars, the cuddly toys and the jigsaws, the board games with the plastic pieces squirming in the heat.

I lead the crocodile. ‘One,’ I say. ‘Stick together.’

We’re not far from the Winery when the alarm bell finally starts to ring. It gives long blasts. I suppose Blossom Farm must have reconnected it, and taken control back in areas. The alarm could be an attempt to summon us workers, because we all know what it means. Return to your sections. Adopt lockdown procedures. But my section is burning.

I carry on walking, and the others follow. The cold intensifies. The solar lights flicker. It must be late afternoon by now. The sun will soon set.

The winery has black walls. The barrels have warped and charred, the green glass on the shelves has produced a smooth mess of strange shapes. The smell of smoke here is older, greasier, and the snow has started the process of claiming the ground through the hole in the outside wall, where once there was an emergency exit, forgotten by everyone but Daisy. I was right; it’s getting dark out there already. Or maybe it’s just that the sun can’t shine through those huge black clouds I can see. They block the sky, and suddenly fear comes back to me again. Fear of that dark sky, the endless snow, and that huge space of freezing, dirty air flowing over those mounds where the dead live.

Lucas will be long gone by now, miles away with the emergency kit, the tent, the solar heater, all the thing he needs to survive, and I am glad.

I stop walking, and the others stop too. They look at me with such expectation, waiting to be told what happens next. All I have to do is assume that tone of voice once more, and they will obey.

But that voice doesn’t come too easily any more. I hear the crack and whine in the words when I say, ‘We need to wait outside.’

Nobody speaks.

I set off again with my trolley, but I can hear they haven’t starting walking.

‘Outside?’ calls Suroopa.

I turn back to her. ‘Where else is there?’

‘Why outside? Why not just here?’

The answer to that won’t come to me. All I say is that it seems important to stand in the snow, and be outside the domes. Perhaps I want to be near Daisy again.

‘The fruits will freeze,’ says Sue.

‘They’ll be all right for a short while.’

‘No,’ says Suroopa, in sudden decision. ‘Let’s wait here.’

‘Jim?’ Lonnie’s loud voice surprises me, from the back of the group. She pushes her way forwards. ‘Where’s Jim?’

I point through the hole in the wall. ‘Out there.’

She doesn’t hesitate. She sets off, still clutching her two satsumas, and I go with her. We walk through that hole in the wall as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, to be outside once more. My lungs constrict. It’s like being clutched in a freezing fist, and squeezed, and it hurts, it hurts, but Lonnie keeps going, getting snow on her plain brown shoes, holding her satsumas before her. In only a few steps I’m shivering.

My eyes adapt so slowly to the dusk. I make out the hills beyond the complex, the lines of the fence, and I look for the mounds. But they are no longer there. The snow has covered the bodies, and made a smooth, level field of them. No trace of them remains.

‘Jim!’ calls Lonnie. She walks further out, and out of the shelter of the building the weather grows in confidence. It can claim us. The wheels of the trolley seize in the snow and they will no longer turn. I have to leave it behind as I chase after her.

I grab her, and lead her to where I think Jim’s body must be. ‘Here,’ I shout. The wind is strong and it steals my voice.

‘Jim!’ she calls. She shakes free of me, and strides away. It occurs to me that maybe Jim isn’t here at all. Maybe he’s in the biodomes somewhere, safe and warm and hoping someone is looking after his Lonnie. I go after her, but she is quick with new-found purpose, and it’s so very cold here; a cold that numbs, paralyses.

What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?

I sink down into the snow and close my eyes. Is this it? This final burst of guilt and pain, is that all I’ve been waiting for?

I want to let go. Maybe now I can let go.

I feel a light touch upon my face.

Lucas. Lucas is here, with me, and he takes his hand from my cheek, and helps me to stand. We retreat back to the shelter of the building, by the hole. He shows me how he has made skis from the signs he took from my Store Room, and he straps them to my feet, and wraps me in extra layers of material. Peering out through the hole are the others, watching these preparations.

‘Why?’ I ask him.

‘Why what?’

‘We won’t survive.’

‘Nobody will,’ he agrees, and the way he says it makes me think it’s not such a bad thing any more. ‘The trick is in how you try.’

The night is falling fast and the crackle and roar of the domes on fire is fighting against the wind for dominance. ‘You ready?’ says Lucas, and I nod.

Suroopa calls my name.

‘Mel!’

She holds out one of the white plastic bags. She doesn’t step through the hole, and her hand trembles as it emerges into the cold. I take the bag, and look in it.

A pomegranate. A banana. Raspberries, chillis, persimmons, plums, a cucumber, a courgette. A handful of lychees. It’s like one of those old still life portraits, with the fruits filling up my eyes, belonging together in a way I haven’t seen before.

‘Keep them safe,’ she says.

It’s a promise I can’t make, but I understand why she asks it of me. I hold the bag tight, and abandon my own melons, still in the useless trolley, to the cold. In my pockets sit the seeds, anyway.

I will have to find a new name.

Lucas and I head out through the snow, away from Blossom Farm, in a direction that leads to places I don’t yet know. Our tracks will leave thin lines upon the white canvas of the landscape; between us, we are making delicate brushwork.

___
Copyright  2016 Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon, UK, in 1974 and currently lives in Sussex with her husband, daughter and dog. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Fox Spirit’s European Monsters and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction I and II. Her recent novella for Unsung Stories, The Beauty, was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a Sabotage Award, and appeared on the Honors List for the James Tiptree Jr Award. Her latest novella with Unsung, The Arrival of Missives, was published in May 2016. She blogs at: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com  and she tweets most days as @AliyaWhiteley.

by Alex Jeffers

 

“’Ware!” called the girl at the top of the mast in a pure, high voice but stillness fell upon the child and Elkannar’s Laddy before she could raise her mallet to strike the alarum bell. If she had not been securely tethered she would have fallen to the deck and perished. In the vessel’s engine well the four laboring trotrots froze but their revolving wheels did not, all at once. Three of the oversized rodents were thrown free while the fourth’s left hindpaw lodged between treads, trapping the insensible creature. Its wheel made one final full revolution, then merely rocked for some minutes, slowing, slowing. The boy who watched the trotrots, tended them, fed them, whipped them when necessary, stilled and crumpled as well in the instant of stroking the ear of his favorite beast, penned on her rest cycle. Below the waterline the four great screws that drove Elkannar’s Laddy faltered to a halt as sympathetic impulses from the trotrots’ wheels failed. The ship slowed. Throughout the merchant vessel all the living went to a standstill, from the pesty bugs that made their kingdoms in the trotrots’ fur to the Holiest, archpresbyter of the Unnamed God, who had requisitioned the captain-navigator’s stateroom for the passage.

Atsarem and her son were taking breakfast on the foredeck when the warning came and the stillness fell. It was a fine morning, cool red sun guttering dully low above the horizon, stars pinking indigo sky overhead and to the west, and Atsarem was in a fine mood. For too long business had discouraged her from travel. Landlocked, she had forgotten how much she enjoyed the sea. Journeying overland from Chandias to Eshek-Hayin and south across the Gulf of Fetour to Errò spared her a month and half a month of her daughters’ quarrels. Her son—lifting her eyes, she glanced across the table. Vyl-atsarem wore black, as was seemly for a youth affianced. The cowl of his robe shadowed downcast features she imagined stoic if not petulant: she knew he was not as resigned to the match as she, although she trusted his obedience. Admiring the delicate tracery of ferns, flowers, vines bleached into the skin of his hands, she recalled with nearly a pang the handsome young fellow who lent the Holiest an arm for his afternoon stroll about the middeck—the handsome young fellow whose languorous glances inspired Vyl-atsarem to sigh and bite his lips.

Atsarem sighed herself when the gilded nails of her son’s restless fingers scored a bloodfruit’s warty rind and she smelled its sharp, sour fragrance. “She will treat you kindly,” she said, “and her consort as well,” but before her son could reply, if he chose to reply, the girl on the mast cried out and darkness filled their eyes.

All its crew and passengers struck down, Elkannar’s Laddy wallowed in low swell on the horizonless gulf. Some moments passed before the threat the watchgirl had spied descended from cool, cloudless sky. From great distance one might take it for a lone, inexplicable black thunderhead flashing with red lightnings—nearer, for a vast roiling murmuration of the tiny scavenger birds called bonepickers that flocked in strange clouds over the Okav Plains at the center of the continent.

Had any person aboard remained conscious to witness, she would have seen how nearly the creatures falling upon Elkannar’s Laddy’s spars and rails and decks resembled bonepickers indeed, in body and glossy green-black plumage pied with crimson on the wings. But their heads were not the heads of birds. Each animal bore the miniature face of a human baby, wide eyes and plump cheeks, nubbin nose, pursed lips that uttered a ceaseless babble of cheeps, whimpers, whistles. The merchant vessel wallowed deeper under their weight as they settled.

Like winged ants they hopped and scuttled all throughout the ship, into every hold, cabin, and cranny. At length, as explorers returned from belowdecks with their feathers fluffed out against the horror of enclosed spaces, a crowd of some hundreds took flight again, whirling together into the apparition of a man tall as the mast, sturdy and muscular, with long hair that whipped about his shoulders as if he rode a gale. Bending, he indicated with his left forefinger the black-clad youth slumped across the foredeck table from his slumbering mother. “That one,” the figure muttered with a multitude of tiny voices. “A worthy scion. We will take him.”

The man-shaped flock blew apart briefly, congealed once more in the form of an iridescent black gondola the length and width and depth of a slender corpse’s coffin, bobbing a tall man’s height above the foredeck. The high sternpost terminated in the form of a strangely twisted tree, the prow in the same uncanny man’s head. He looked backward over what would have been a shoulder had he possessed such, cooing encouragement as many hundreds of unaffiliated baby-faced birds swarmed insensible Vyl-atsarem, gripping their tiny claws into his clothing and hair.

They raised him ungently from his chair and laid him supine in the belly of the gondola, folding his decorated hands on his breast. Lifting away, they shaped themselves into a pair of vast wings at either flank of the gondola. The living figurehead turned forward again, nodded once, spoke a single word: “Away.”

The winged gondola rose in a spiral about Elkannar’s Laddy’s mast. High above the decks it seemed to pause a moment to orient itself, then angled its sail-like wings and flew off above the naked sea on a heading several degrees south of east.

divider

The dying sun climbed past its zenith and descended two thirds toward setting before the first person woke aboard becalmed Elkannar’s Laddy. This was the Holiest ensconced in the captain-navigator’s cabin and bed, an ancient man whose body had grown proof against all spells of rejuvenation half a century before. He turned his fragile skull on the leviathan-ivory pillow, wiped a strand of drool from his chin with the back of a boney hand, and requested water in a reedy whisper.

None of the acolytes responded. Impatient, the old man levered himself up on uncertain elbows and opened his eyes. All about the stateroom his youthful acolytes lay in indecorous attitudes, unconscious. One young woman sweetly snored. Armed against assassins or pirates, the handsome fellow who was the Holiest’s favorite sprawled across the sill of a door swinging wide to the wallow of the waves. Falling, his barbed javelin had ripped down the white silk curtain meant to hide a bas relief carved into the bulkhead: sordid scenes from the earthly life of the demon Elkannar, unholy to the eyes of the Unnamed God’s devotees.

Confused before he became annoyed, the Holiest blinked away from the wretched images. “Arise, rascals, to the command of your lord,” he piped but they did not, not one of the seven.

Alarmed now, the Holiest sat up from the pillow and gingerly pulled his feet from under the coverlet, set them on the floor. “Awake, my darlings,” he bade. Still they did not stir. He attempted to swallow but his throat was dry. He groped along the side of the captain-navigator’s bunk for his hook-headed staff and brought himself nearly upright. Leaning on the crozier, steadier than his legs, he crossed the cabin to a brass pitcher suspended on gimbals above a brass basin. There was better water elsewhere, water meant for drinking in stoneware bottles, but he did not know quite where nor whether his hands had sufficient strength for the stoppers.

Though flat and warm, washing water tipped into the basin and scooped up in trembling hands soothed his throat. Turning from the bulkhead, he prodded the snoring girl with the staff’s foot. She belched and rolled half away but did not wake. The Holiest had been incapable of bellowing for many years—intemperate curses upon unfaithful followers and their immemorial ancestors emerged as quavery whispers. He stumped across the floor to the door, took no care not to kick aside his favorite’s fallen weapons nor to tread upon the darling boy himself, and stepped out onto the middeck.

He saw sailors asleep at their posts wherever he looked. “Fell magics,” he muttered and took another step. He could barely make out a chair toppled away from its table on the elevated foredeck, across which a person lay slumped, elaborate hairstyle spoiled by collision with a dish of jam. “The wool merchant of Chandias,” the Holiest muttered. He had long since lost the habit of not voicing his thoughts. “A heathen but steady. Her son?” He saw no son, only the fallen chair. “Captain-navigator?” the Holiest called—not a thought voiced but intentional command, too thin and weak to be heard at any distance.

Slowly turning, he regarded with disfavor and distrust the twin companionways rising to the sterncastle on either side of the door. Grumbling further curses, he tottered to the stair at his left, his holy hand, grasped the rail, commenced the arduous climb.

On the aftdeck he found the captain-navigator upright solely by virtue of arms caught by the great wheel’s spokes when she subsided into unconsciousness, swaying side to side as Elkannar’s Laddy answered to the limp swell of the gulf. Approaching sidelong, he said, “Ho there, madam,” with some force and prodded her shoulder with staff’s crook.

The captain-navigator collapsed away from the wheel, striking her head against the deck with a sharp noise.

“All the incarnate demons!” she yelled, waking, and sat up, raising her hands to nurse the bump on the back of her head.

“Your vessel, madam, is caught in some sorcery,” the Holiest informed her.

Blinking, shaking her head, the captain-navigator looked up. Recognizing the archpresbyter, she scrambled to her feet and attempted a bow that made her feel ill as the least seaworthy new sailor.

“Divine,” she said, “pardon my oaths. What did you say?”

“All your crew and all your passengers, as best I know, were struck down by occult slumber some while ago, I do not know how long. You and I alone have wakened.”

Closing her teeth against another imprecation sure to offend the Unnamed God’s vicegerent, the captain-navigator raised her eyes to the sky. The last she remembered the sun had risen but a few spans above the eastern horizon—now it faltered the same few spans above the western. “Hours,” she grunted, “most of the day,” and clenched her eyelids tight. A moment later she said in a low voice, “Sheztannit’s toll. May cacodemons gnaw on his stones.” She shook her head and staggered, dizzy. “Divine, forgive me,” she asked, “are all your acolytes yet aboard? I recall three very lovely young men.”

“There are seven,” the Holiest replied, disapproving. “Four men, three women, each equally precious in the Unnamed God’s eyes. All asleep in my cabin. You will explain—this Sheztannit and his toll?”

She ground her teeth again before blurting, “Forgive, forgive, I must rouse my crew, we are much delayed.” Lurching toward the companionways, she gestured at the divan under the taffrail. “Good wine and better water there, if you please, Divine. I shall return shortly once we’re underway again.” The captain-navigator clattered down to the middeck before the Holiest could protest.

She found her first mate asprawl at the top of the ladder to the engine well and slapped him smartly awake. “Sheztannit took his toll,” she told him. His scarred cheeks blenched when he understood—as a youth the man had been handsome until, on the advice of older sailors, he took a hot knife to his own flesh. “Go, go, take the wheel while I rouse the rest. The holy old man is there—he woke first, it seems. If he pesters you, you may tell him the facts.”

“Who?” the mate asked. He’d had his own eye on one of the new youths, a boy from the upcountry too pretty to be scarred before proving himself a sailor.

“None of the divine’s dainty slave-catamites, more’s the pity. I don’t know yet. Go.”

He scurried aft. The captain-navigator went about smacking her crew awake—all but the watchgirl in the crow’s-nest: she sent the mate’s spry favorite up the rigging on that errand. She was half-displeased to discover none of her sailors missing. Every passage she attempted to have aboard a blameless, blemishless innocent or two against the unpredictable toll. A difficult endeavor, as the hazard was well known in every port on the Fetour and most young men with an eye to the sea—few as handsome as they believed themselves—had the sense to follow the same advice as the first mate, if they didn’t travel overland to different ports, different waters. But there was nearly always a naïve son fled from the family farm in the inland valleys, a fresh-faced herdboy come down the mountain in search of nautical adventure, who had never heard the tale and did not take it in when captain-navigator or her agents slurred through that clause of a contract few could read.

She cursed again when she came upon the last, the noisome trotrot boy slobbering asleep across his charge’s shoulder, mouth full of its noisome fur. The Errò bank that insured Elkannar’s Laddy was invariably far unhappier negotiating claims for paying passengers than those presented by sailors’ families or slaves’ owners. Rousing the boy with a well placed kick, she curtly ordered him to get his beasts back in order and their wheels turning, then climbed the ladder again. She had no choice now but to go about waking the passengers, discovering which Sheztannit had appropriated.

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“Toll?” the merchant of Chandias said. “My son? I do not understand what you are saying, madam.” The Holiest admired the steadiness of her tone, the stern calm of her expression, hardly betrayed by a tremor in the hand on the table. A distinguished woman, he thought, despite jam in her hair and bruise purpling her cheekbone. “Where is my son?”

The captain-navigator swallowed her throat clear. “The risk is clearly set out in the contract-of-passage you signed, Madam Merchant.”

“Are your underwriters aware you depend on a contract unlikely to be read to inform your passengers of this risk? Where is my son?”

“They are well aware, for a fact,” said the captain-navigator with a certain fragile dignity. “When I have suggested telling prospective passengers outright, they threaten to raise my premiums a ruinous amount. They have no clients among the landward caravans, you see.”

The merchant slapped the table hard. “Ruinous? I am ruined. I shall see you ruined, madam, and your underwriters ruined as well. My son is affianced to Errò’s despot.”

The office of despot of Errò loomed large in the annals of the Unnamed God’s followers. Despite himself the Holiest took in a hard breath, but the captain-navigator, her features twisted, said quite savagely, “Unless you have newer notice than I, Madam Merchant, I believe her excellence the despot’s consort yet lives and has given her healthy heirs. I do not doubt she will be distressed by the loss before enjoying him of a pretty concubine for whom she surely paid dear, but she knows well of Sheztannit’s toll. I expect if she believed the odds unacceptable she would have requested you escort your son to Errò by land.”

Half alarmed, half amused, the Holiest watched the merchant’s mouth drop open in outrage, her cheeks redden. Before she could utter her expostulation, he said gently, “Your indulgence, Captain-navigator. The lady and I—we are strangers in these lands, these seas. I fear we were not aware of this toll. Certainly we ought to have read our contracts-of-passage more carefully but, please, will you set the matter out for us? With your permission, Madam Merchant.”

She closed her mouth to a thin line, nodded, and reached for her wine.

Ungraceful, the captain-navigator rose and paced to the rail. For a moment she contemplated the western night sea’s choppy surface, fitfully illuminated by tumbling fragments of the moon adrift below distant stars.

“A league outside the mouth of the gulf,” she said at length, still regarding the waters, “lies the island called Neitv, alone in the open sea. It is the demesne of an ancient sorcerer of blackest power: Sheztannit. This is not his true name, of course. It means Lord of the Gulf in some long-dead language, I understand. He claims passage-right on all shipping within the Fetour. The benefice, he has said, dates to the shattering of the moon and shall stand until the sun goes cold. And so he exacts a toll. Not money or goods, which he claims to have no use for, nor of every vessel that braves these waters. No, he selects ships at whim, at intervals no bookmaker cares to predict, and the toll is a single living young man, handsome or lovely or however you wish to say it. Nobody knows what use he has for them. For him, Madam Merchant, your son, the despot of Errò’s fiancé.”

Without turning, the captain-navigator made a noise in her throat. “You will ask why…? and I tell you, it has been attempted over and again: ships on which young men of any beauty are secreted away in disguised, locked compartments—ships crewed solely by women carrying no male passengers—ships bearing no man under forty years or no man not visibly imperfect. You have seen the first mate’s scars. If Sheztannit selects one of those vessels, discovers the ploy, he destroys it and makes certain identifiable wreckage washes up at Errò or Eshek-Hayin so no mariner doubts his displeasure.”

She turned. “And so, madam and Divine, every captain sailing these waters does her damnedest to ensure she has aboard a pretty lad such as might tempt the sorcerer, or two or three, paid sailor or slave. If Sheztannit chooses to take a handsome young passenger instead—well, all we can do is carry a crippling load of insurance against claims like the one you will make, Madam Merchant. Although, I am grieved to tell you, the contract you signed expressly limits the claim you may make and it is a contract the despot of Errò her excellent self would not care to contest.”

The merchant of Chandias’s face had gone bloodless with fury or, the Holiest supposed, additional strong emotions: grief, anxiety. When she became certain the captain-navigator had ceased her say, she pushed back her chair and rose to her feet, glaring stony eyed. “My son,” the merchant said steadily, “has not yet earned his name.” She gave her glass a glance: a bubble of amethyst crystal still half full of syrupy fortified wine. Without another word she cast the glass onto the deck at the captain-navigator’s feet, a musical shattering and a splash of liquid the darkness of blood across scrubbed planks, then strode away toward the cabin she had shared with her son.

Earned his name?” the captain-navigator inquired mildly.

“Peculiar custom of the gentry in Chandias and thereabouts,” said the Holiest. “Daughters, well, they receive proper names at birth as in any country but sons are designated by number until such time as they perform some notable action and choose a name of their own. She called him Vyl-atsarem, I believe I heard: Madam Atsarem’s second. No doubt joining the household of the despot of Errò would earn the boy a name.”

“Elkannar’s stones. Madam Atsarem may well ruin me on the boy’s account,” said the captain-navigator with bitter resignation, “but the bank that insures me she will scarcely trouble.”

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A day late, Elkannar’s Laddy came to dock at the busy port around the harbor from the city proper of Errò and the citadel of its despot. Once the delay was explained, port functionaries regarded the merchant of Chandias with appalled pity. Accompanied by his acolytes standing in a clump on the middeck, the Holiest observed her tight-lipped outrage at that pity and wondered whether the officials knew of her lost son’s quondam relation to the despot. Out of pity, they cleared her to debark first although a hierophant of any faith, any nation, took precedence over any merchant.

Her feet on the cyclopean solid stone of the quay at last, Atsarem arranged for the warehousing of her cargo and hired baggage-wallahs to deliver her own and her son’s equipage to the hostelry in the garden outskirts of the town. For herself she hired a palanquin and bade its bearers carry her to the nearest reputable baths. She had not been able to clean herself properly shipboard. Pale, gentle-handed girls with cropped rusty hair bathed her, soaped and rinsed out the jam in her hair and combed it out neatly to dry while a soothing poultice was held to her bruised cheek. She spent some time floating at the edge of the warm pool under the low brick vault while all about Errovine matrons gamboled in the shallows and gossiped. She did not give ear to their gossip. At length she beckoned an attendant to fetch her a cup of cool water and lead her to her massage.

The milky-skinned slave masseur was bulky, long armed, his palms and fingers unconscionably strong and skilled. Prostrate under the eunuch’s thorough ministrations, Atsarem reviewed her situation. She was angry with herself for, having belatedly read through the contract-of-passage, she had no choice but to acknowledge its terms: acknowledge she had (unknowingly, stupidly) gambled against her son’s life and lost. The sum Elkannar’s Laddy’s underwriters would be obliged to pay out was substantial—sufficient and more to cover all costs of her journey and Vyl-atsarem’s trousseau—but the blow to her business and prestige could not be calculated. Unless out of guilt or sympathy, the despot was unlikely to confirm the trade treaty between Atsarem’s house and Errò. If the despot were meanly unreasonable she might demand return of the groom price. There was no totting up the costs of rearing and educating the boy.

Atsarem began to compose in her head a letter to her daughters, who were fond of their young brother. The eldest, indeed, had raised stiff protest against her mother’s intention of exiling Vyl-atsarem such a distance. Abruptly Atsarem recalled she too was fond of her second son. Quite without volition she began to weep.

“Has this unworthy person hurt you, madam?” the masseur inquired, alarmed, lifting knowing hands from her buttocks.

“My son,” Atsarem sobbed. “My son!”

“Madam’s son?”

“The toll of Sheztannit! I never knew!”

The masseur knew better than to offer a slave’s comfort to a wealthy freewoman. For a moment he regarded the telling contrast between his pallid fingers and the richer color of the woman’s skin before continuing to knead her flesh and muscle. As a youth he had crossed the Fetour himself. He had never been at hazard of being taken by the sorcerer: already cut, his unlovely complexion and shock of copper hair marking him as born of savages. But his special friend, the lad who comforted him after his unmanning, was the son of debt-slaves and possessed a rare, delicate beauty that would recommend him to any cultured household. Nor had he been emasculated. Halfway to Errò all the living aboard were struck down by enchantment. When the eunuch boy woke he discovered the padded shackles chained to his own empty, discarded on the slavehold’s filthy floor. Although he understood the unlikeliness of their joining the same household after being auctioned at the slave market in Errò, he found scant comfort in imagining the dread sorcerer might treat his friend gentlier than whichever Errovine termagant or tyrant would have purchased him.

Massage completed, Atsarem paid the baths’ fees and ordered the palanquin bearers carry her through the teeming heart of Errò and past the ruins of its antique walls to the hostelry. She called for paper and ink. Sitting in a window that overlooked a charming cloister, rigidly calm, she composed her claim against Elkannar’s Laddy’s underwriting bank and had the thing dispatched. She ought, she knew, send compliments and condolences to the despot’s citadel but could not bring herself to do it. Acknowledgment of her own grief was too new. She considered having a meal brought up to her rooms—rejected the notion as weakness and went down to the hostelry’s dining hall.

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Knowing the establishment occupied what had been a convent of the Unnamed God until an iconoclastic despot had had it closed half a millennium ago, the Holiest had installed himself at the same hostelry. “Had it closed,” he mused: “a tidy euphemism.”

Accustomed to his master’s penchant for thinking aloud, the favored acolyte across the table merely dredged a triangle of cold toast through the pâté of bonepicker hearts and tongues preserved in fat, imported a vast distance at vast expense. He offered the precious morsel to the Holiest, who leaned forward with his mouth agape like a baby bird’s until it plopped on his tongue.

In fact, fragmentary annals reported, that long-ago despot had slaughtered nearly all the convent’s nuns, expropriated its treasure, and sold the buildings to one of her magnates. Chewing, the Holiest scuffed his sandals against the floor, reflecting the tiles must have been replaced multiple times since. The current flooring would not be grouted with the blood of martyred nuns. Nevertheless, worship of the Unnamed God was not quite fashionable in Errò, ancient heart of His dominions on earth—hence the Holiest’s missionary embassy.

Tilting his head to be fed another morsel, the Holiest lifted his eyes to the hall’s vaulted ceiling. At first he believed it simply dirty, smeared with greasy soot from centuries of pitch-headed torches and tallow candles—and no wonder, for cleaning it would require erecting scaffolds and putting the place out of commission for a goodly time. But then he began to make out within the stains and mottles forms not entirely obscured, and realized the vault displayed a polychrome map of the Gulf of Fetour: he traced the three-quarter crescent of its shore—Errò on its south point, Eshek-Hayin on the north. West and north of Eshek-Hayin, he worked out the position of Ba, present seat of the Unnamed God’s archpresbytery whence the Holiest had journeyed, though the town appeared not to be marked. Farther north, on the verge of the Great Downs, a smudged and unfamiliar ideograph might indicate the wool town of Chandias. Returning to the pale, greyed, dirty blues of the gulf, he found the archipelago of volcanic islands near its center and then, easterly, in open sea beyond the twin horns, representation of a small island outlined in gold still gleaming through its coating of greasy dust.

He savored and swallowed the mélange of toast crumbs and pâté on his tongue. “I begin to recollect,” he said, “something of the Isle of Neitv.” Lowering his gaze to the stature of ordinary women and men dining and conversing at the many tables, the Holiest saw with a sense of serene inevitability the merchant of Chandias being ushered into the hall.

“Darling boy.” The Holiest’s voice was no stronger than when he mused aloud but the acolyte became alert, a questioning smile on his lips. “You will run an errand for me. First, please, the merchant of Chandias who shared our voyage from Eshek-Hayin, Madam Atsarem—she has just come in.” The acolyte was too well trained to look. “You will invite her to join me for supper. Second….” The Holiest spoke a phrase of a language known only from ancient manuscripts in the pontifical library at Ba. Conditioned since childhood to the peculiar syllables, the acolyte became solemn, his will and memory no longer his own. “You will seek out a person who keeps shop in the street of the incense sellers.” The Holiest closed his eyes, dredging from the sediment of his mind signs by which shop and person would be known and the words to oblige that person to attend him instanter. “That is all,” the Holiest concluded. “Go.”

Without a word and oblivious of the charge never to leave his master unaccompanied, the acolyte rose to his feet and turned away.

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“What will you do?”

The Holiest was such a master of sympathy, condolence, gentle conversation that Atsarem scarcely recalled their meal or anything said over it. Now they had retired to a quiet courtyard with cups of bitter tea and small sapphire-crystal glasses of a rare cordial that breathed mingled fragrances of northern heaths, southern blossoms, and incenses that might be favored by any god. Large moths with glowing eyes fluttered around the lamps and among night-blooming flowers on wings that appeared powdered with dusts of carnelian, lapis lazuli, precious metals. Above the surrounding rooftops danced glinting shards of the moon, and beyond them, incalculably deeper in the night sky, burned uncountable stars.

“Do? I have a cargo of raw and scoured fleeces, dyed and undyed yarns, fabrics of varying weaves and weights to dispose of. The despot must be informed of my son’s fate, the contracts between us renegotiated. I expect I shall be quarrelling a good while with the captain-navigator’s bank.” Atsarem lifted her tea with a sigh but did not drink. “I do not know what I shall do, Divine.”

“Would you…retrieve your son? Rescue him?”

“Divine?” Atsarem leaned forward. No ground fertile enough to nourish hope persisted in her. “I cannot know whether Vyl-atsarem is not happier in the household of this Sheztannit than he might be in the zenana of Errò’s despot—he was not best pleased by the prospect. Perhaps I ought finally acknowledge his wishes over my own schemes.” Grimacing, she looked away. “In any case, how shall an ageing wool merchant and sad mother from so prosaic a town as Chandias challenge a sorcerer? I should be helpless against the least ept hedgewitch.”

Lamplight made the Holiest’s smile frightening, thin lipped, yellow toothed, crinkling his face into colliding nets of wrinkles deep and shallow. “I will speak, Madam Atsarem, of matters so distant from Chandias and your son and this present day of ours you will believe me wandering in mind like any old codger. Indulge me, if you please. I have a purpose.”

He paused, smiled again, lifted his cordial with knotted fingers to inhale the vapors. “I serve the Unnamed God, as you know, in His bastion at Ba. We are a small church, if not so small as generally understood, and an exiled church. Dear Ba on its high scarp with the fertile bottomlands all about is not our home. Once, long ago, we were established here: Errò was our seat and her despots our servants. She was not a great town at first, still less hegemon of a great territory. Indeed, she was not yet a seaport. I speak of an age when the sun burned hotter, before the moon broke into fragments. As legend tells, a shard of the moon fell to earth in that celestial cataclysm, wreaking a terrestrial cataclysm of its own. Our scriptures claim the god cast His own cloak over Errò in the moment of impact, preserving His town and its denizens when the Gulf of Fetour was carved out of solid earth and stone. That is metaphor, doubtless. Scripture also claims the god’s anguish at not saving the millions outside Errò who died led Him to repudiate His own Name.

“Whatever the case, in following centuries Errò prospered. From her new harbor on the new gulf her trade fleets set out to discover goods and peoples heretofore unknown. Her armadas need only appear in the ken of a port’s watch for that port to acknowledge Errò’s suzerainty. On land her legions were never defeated. In all her deeds she celebrated the glory and merciful lovingkindness of the Unnamed God. His worship became widespread throughout the southlands and His church became ever more powerful and wealthy.”

The Holiest paused again and Atsarem, feeling stuporous, looked up from the translucent porcelain shell stained purple by her tea. A young man had appeared while her attention wandered—she recognized him as the person who had extended the invitation to join the Holiest for supper, but not his companion.

“Darling boy,” murmured the Holiest. The youth’s wide eyes and vacant expression did not change until the Divine spoke a further word in an unfamiliar tongue, whereupon he shuddered, blinked, and his lips formed a tranquil smile, and Atsarem abruptly knew him for the handsome youth her own son’s eyes had followed about the deck of Elkannar’s Laddy. Dizziness overwhelmed her for an instant. In her hand the cup trembled and ripples moved through the richly colored tea. The Holiest’s acolyte was, it seemed to her, far more lovely in face and form than her son. Little wonder Vyl-atsarem had been enthralled.

When she raised her eyes again the Holiest had turned to the youth’s companion. “I see you know me. Do you acknowledge me?”

“I do, Holiest, vicegerent on earth of the God Who Has Abjured His Name.” The tall man of middle years and crabbed aspect inclined his head. His garb was the drab fustian of a small tradesperson, stained and singed about the cuffs of the sleeves, but his hauteur that of a dispossessed noble.

“Excellent.” With a languid gesture of his left hand the Holiest invited youth and man to sit. “I have been speaking to Madam Atsarem of the era of the Unnamed God’s benison in Errò, when the town was mightier even than now and her despots bowed before His majesty. I know these histories are among your studies, sir. A thought has come to me. Can it be the island Neitv of which I have recently learned is the place named in chronicles preserved at Ba as Niyatef?”

“I am nearly certain of it, Holiest,” the stranger agreed.

“Just so.” The Holiest’s smile became grave, chill. “Madam, there came a terrible time when a certain despot of Errò renounced the grace of the Unnamed God, proscribed His worship, persecuted His priesthood and followers. The chronicles at Ba are fragmented, confused, but we know, for example, that this gracious hostelry housed then an order of contemplative nuns, no threat to any temporal power, whom that despot butchered without mercy. The place called Niyatef is often mentioned, and the master of the place named a counsellor of the bloody despot. I have formed a suspicion. Sir?”

The stranger spread his open hands wide above the table. “I share your suspicion, Holiest, but my researches cannot confirm it. The island is opaque to me. I believe its substance is unearthly—that is, a fragment of the fragment of the moon which excavated the Fetour. It is certain a person residing at Neitv—or Niyatef, if you will—has imposed the toll we know on ship traffic in the gulf nearly since its formation. It is equally certain Errò’s despots have never in a millennium moved against the island or its master. Other polities as well have been content not to challenge him. When the Unnamed God’s representatives were still established here, they likewise never acted.” He glanced aside, tightened his lips before continuing. “Whether it has been the same Sheztannit all along I cannot say. A lifetime of such protracted duration is not unprecedented for a great sorcerer or—” The man bit off whatever he had nearly said. “A thing you may not know, Holiest?”

The archpresbyter graciously inclined his head.

“Since all your knowledge of Errò comes from books,” the stranger said smugly. “Persistent local legend insists an ancient despot lost a beloved youth to Sheztannit’s Toll—whether consort, concubine, or son varies with the teller—and yet somehow redeemed him. Again, the price she paid depends on the teller, each as unlikely as the last, and there is no determining which historical despot it was. Still, the tale is…suggestive.”

The words concubine and son following Sheztannit’s Toll had stirred Atsarem from her daze of incomprehension. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What are you?”

Turning haughty, half-lidded eyes on her, the man said, “My trade is the formulation and sale of incense. The gods honored in Errò are said to be passing fond of incense. The families of sailors lost at sea are wont to burn it in their memory.”

“He is a faithful son of the church,” murmured the Holiest, “a dogged scholar, and, you might say, my agent in the Unnamed God’s bygone capital.”

Atsarem clapped her hands smartly together. “But what are you saying to me, Divine and…incense trader? This talk of history and legend and cataclysm and dispossessed gods. I am a commonplace merchant in wool who will never see Errò again once I depart. What does any of this mean to me?”

“You are a bereaved mother,” said the Holiest gently. “I head a bereaved church. It seems to me our wants may be harnessed together.”

“I see. The doddering old codger who walks with a stick will adventure with me to the dread island to challenge a thousand-year-old sorcerer. Perhaps the incense-maker will lend us aid.”

“Just so,” the Holiest agreed, delighted.

“Shall we, as well as rescuing my recalcitrant son and refounding your church, also reform the shattered moon and rejuvenate the sun?” Rising to her feet, the merchant of Chandias brushed away a venturesome moth. “I bid you goodnight, sirs. I have a great many tasks to initiate come morning.” As she took a step back from the table, her eyes fixed for a moment on the Holiest’s smiling acolyte. Despair, bitterness, and recollection of Vyl-atsarem’s yearning eyes fixed on the handsome youth spoke in her mind: The sorcerer might have taken that one instead of my son. But perhaps, she reflected sourly as she left the courtyard, he was simple. She had not heard him speak and his expression was perpetually placid.

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The wool merchant of Chandias woke gasping to fluttering lamplight and a firm hand pressed over her mouth. “Peace and calm and quiet, madam,” advised a voice that was strong, deep, young, but which convinced her in the instant it was the Holiest’s. The lamp in another hand moved, illuminating a face above her in all its physical features the beautiful acolyte’s, but animated by a different intelligence, a wiser and more stubborn spirit.

“I will speak a word in your ear,” said a different voice from her other side, the incense seller’s voice. The whispered syllables were not to be comprehended. They followed one after the next without cease. Reverberations echoed endlessly in the boney structure of her skull and sighing echoes breathed from her sinuses down her throat, into her lungs and heart and digestive organs, filtering out into her blood, suffusing her entire substance with a weight and mass that could not be borne. She grew heavier than the world, than the sun. She burned hotter than the sun in its most distant youth. She became something other than Atsarem, wool merchant of Chandias, twice widowed, mother of five stubborn daughters and two sons—one dead, one stolen. She became purpose. She became intention and will. She became dread and awe and all.

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She did not precisely come to herself, Atsarem, for it seemed there persisted next to no space for self within the tolling membrane of her skin. The sun stood high, stars pinked the dusky circle of the horizons. All around shivered a waste of waters. “Madam,” said the red-faced acolyte and rested his oars. Although she knew his features, their beauty transfigured but not lessened by exertion, she knew as surely the mind regarding her through languishing dark eyes was not the young acolyte’s.

Divine, she would have said but could not distinguish that small word within the ringing syllables of the great word.

His smile complacent, the semblance of the acolyte brushed sweat from his brow and eyes. He lifted a dampened finger to the air, sighed. “We had a wind the first several hours, else we would still glimpse Errò behind us.” He glanced down with admiration at his own strong arms and uncovered torso. “But my lovesome boy possesses reserves of endurance he scarcely suspects, and we do not wish to come within sight of Sheztannit’s isle before nightfall. As you intimated, a doddering old codger who walks with a stick could not but prove a grave liability on this adventure. Do you hunger, madam? Thirst?”

Plucking a stoneware bottle from a rank of them propped between two ribs of the small boat’s hull, he twisted out its stopper and smiled again, and frowned. “It’s an intriguing novelty, this flesh,” he said, “but I feel I will not regret surrendering it again to a spirit better accustomed to its vigor and drive and appetite.” Kneeling forward, he held the bottle to her lips. “Drink, madam.”

When he was satisfied she had taken all she would, he swigged off the bottle’s remaining contents in two swallows, glanced over his shoulder, and took up the oars again. A rhythm was quickly established. Between strokes he continued speaking, as if he liked the sound of the acolyte’s voice as much as he had the old man’s.

“We neglected to inform you, I fear, that our friend the incense seller, in addition to being a very great scholar, is also a supremely able sorcerer. Trading one mind for the other was child’s play to him. He feels insufficiently able, however, to challenge the one who calls himself Sheztannit—though I feel that is simple human cowardice. Still, he would not be persuaded or cowed.”

He rowed and rowed, and talked and talked, and rested his oars at intervals, and once he said, “It would be vilest blasphemy, you understand, for the archpresbyter of the Unnamed God to contain the Name his God renounced. I have been fearful of it since I was informed of our friend’s discovery.”

And so Atsarem learned what it was possessed her as the Holiest possessed the body of his acolyte, and wondered if the least thinking fragment of its owner persisted in the laboring sinew and muscle before her, or the gaze not now languishing, as she did within the vast roaring and chiming of that Name.

The westering sun blazed into her eyes. She closed them. She dozed and drifted, rolling on the endless swells of the unceasing Name. If the Holiest spoke further she did not comprehend it.

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Then it was night. Overhead the moon’s fragments hurtled slowly through the blackness between sea and stars, each continent-sized boulder glimmering within a pallid aura. Somewhere ahead a similar nimbus seemed to breach the surface of the waters.

Perhaps the Holiest recognized the inquiry in her gaze past the laboring acolyte’s sturdy shoulders. He rested the oars and twisted toward the prow. After a long moment he said, the acolyte’s voice thin after exertion, “Yes. I believe the incense seller’s supposition as to Niyatef’s origin must be correct. And yes, we have nearly arrived.”

The gleam persisted, expanded, without growing brighter. After a time unmeasured by the clopping of the oars, Atsarem began to distinguish the lineaments of the isle. It was not large, not high—it appeared all to be a single building of many wings and pavilions, a radiant pleasure palace afloat on trackless sea. Sinuous colonnades lined its shores above shallow stairs lapped by the ocean’s waves.

The boat’s prow came jarring to a stop against a step barely washed. Relishing the ache in unaccustomed shoulders and arms, the cramps in his fingers, the Holiest shipped the oars. He found no post or bollard to tie the boat up. Resigned, he heaved the anchor over the side, although doubting any irregularity below for its tines to catch. In any case, for all his bravado the Holiest felt little confidence the pair of adventurers would return to the mainland in the same manner they arrived.

He extended his left hand to the woman propped against the mast. As if she had somewhat mastered the Name that filled her—or as if the Name Itself possessed volition—she rose without assistance, clumsy but sure. Hitching up her skirts, she stepped over the side. Her slippers made little splashes in shallow water on the step. Having gathered up and girded on his acolyte’s weapons, the Holiest joined her on the lunar island’s shore. The lapping water was strangely chill.

Side by side they climbed the stairs and passed between two colossal columns. The stone of the columns, of the paving under their feet and the coffered vault above emitted a cool radiance sufficient to see their way but disorienting. Fifteen paces of his unfamiliar long, capable legs—more for the silent woman—took them across the width of the colonnade. They stood a moment between the opposing pair of columns, above another broad, shallow stair.

The Holiest inhaled a fragrance like costly incenses extinguished in freshly spilled blood. Below them lay a broad, dark expanse of gardens and cultivated parkland they must cross to reach the serried ranks of gleaming walls that made up the sorcerer’s palace. The Holiest saw meandering paths of dimly radiant paving, dark groves and copses and single trees, beds of shrubs and lower plants. “Within, I imagine,” he muttered, “some flamboyant audience chamber or magical laboratory, is where we’ll find him.” And yet he did not move, could not bring himself to move. The acolyte’s blood had grown sluggish in his limbs, the body apprehending fears the interloping mind wished to disregard.

Silent, grave, the woman descended the steps. The Holiest watched until she stepped from luminous stone to black turf, then followed in a rush. She walked forward, he a pace or two behind although he was armed and fully conscious, she not. The grass seemed unpleasantly springy underfoot.

With no breeze stirring, the black velvet leaves of a hedge of low bushes rustled at their approach. Obeying reflexes not his own, the Holiest quickened his pace to walk before her. His fingers strayed to the comforting hilts of twin daggers sheathed at either hip as he glanced about the confusing shadows, but the sudden irruption was not a thing to be battled with blades. All the foliage of twigs and branches rose in a mass like so many thousand humming insects. They feinted toward the woman but recoiled from her gravity and swarmed instead about the Holiest. The daggers had come up and out without conscious bidding and he slashed once, tearing a momentary rent in the roiling black cloud, but then one of the hexes impressed on him by the incense maker burst unbidden from his lips.

Black leaves fell as in an autumn windstorm. The Name-filled woman regarded the Holiest tranquilly. He returned the daggers to their sheaths and glared suspiciously at the denuded, twiggy hedge, slid his foot through what was no more than a drift of dead leaves.

Walking on, they approached a single tree alone on a stretch of black lawn. It appeared tall until they were nearly upon it, when it became clear the strangely pollarded trunk rose little higher than the acolyte’s head. Two stout branches reached upward as if from twisted shoulders and a myriad whippy, leafless shoots sprouted from what might be upraised fists. “I do not like this tree,” the Holiest said. “Its form is strangely…suggestive.”

Suggestion became statement when they came upon a stand of five similar trees. The resemblance of sinuous boles to the agonized bodies of human men could not be natural. The Holiest knew too little of horticulture to understand whether trees could be trained into these shapes. He glanced to the woman. Her expression remained calm but he felt he discerned anguish in the depths of her eyes. “I do not know, madam,” he said. “My knowledge of sorcery is as slight as my acquaintance with horticulture. Perhaps they are a strange form of the gardener’s art practiced over centuries on living trees….”

She strode past him. It seemed they walked for hours through the sorcerer’s parklands, from copse to grove to woods. All the trees resembled men, transfixed in a moment of anguish or passion yet still living. The Holiest kept his hands on the daggers, kept aware of the reassuring weight and rattle of barbed javelins in their quiver across his back. Uneasy, he realized he could not recall how many hexes the incense maker had equipped him with, tapping them into the base of the acolyte’s skull on the points of tiny vermeil tacks. He endeavored not to permit the woman to stray too far, although she did not answer to him so it was a matter of keeping himself close to her. He could not predict which tortured, manlike tree would attract her wordless sympathy so she stopped to caress its bark with her fingertips, press her cheek to the pollarded knot that might once have been a head.

At last their devious route brought them to the palace itself and an arch of luminous stone sufficiently wide a phalanx of infantry might march through without disturbance to the formation. The woman went ahead, climbing broad, shallow stairs, but at the portal she looked back. As if, the Holiest thought, she wished to descend again and visit every tree on the island until she discovered the one that had been her son. “Madam,” he said as he ascended to her side, “he must be within, Sheztannit, the sorcerer who took your son,” and she turned her eyes sidelong at him before walking under the arch.

The hall was little wider than the arch but very high. It curved gradually so an end could not be seen. No doors were apparent in the glowing stone walls. Black-iron staples supported vines with dagger-shaped leaves mottled crimson and a faded, unhealthy green. Blossoms like roses nestled among the leaves, petals the color of newly butchered meat, but instead of the pale generative structures of flowers at their centers were eyes, vivid topaz with wide pupils. As one such swiveled toward the interlopers at the portal, the Holiest uttered a hex. Every rose-eye dulled, petals blackened, and a stench nearly visible of rotted meat billowed forth.

The Holiest coughed. He had felt the tack bearing the hex go dull and fall tinkling down his neck, followed by a slow trickle of blood. “Another used up,” he muttered, then saw the woman had gone ahead, heedless. Before he caught up to her he had pronounced a third hex, felt another pang at the base of his skull, and watched the flowers of a new species of vine wither, blossoms like brazen trumpets that emitted breathy groans as their throats closed.

They continued walking, he a pace behind her. No further unnatural vines cumbered the hall’s gleaming walls. Its deceptive curve deepened, hiding whatever lay ahead and, by now, what lay behind. After some while the Holiest began to feel the walls were diverging, the curve of the wall to his left imperceptibly tightening while that on his right loosened, but the change was too gradual to be fixed. A hex pricked at his nape but did not erupt from his mouth and the pricking either subsided or went on for so many steps he forgot it. The woman’s pace never faltered.

For all the vaunted endurance of the acolyte’s youthful muscles, the Holiest was nearly weary when the tacks piercing his skull commenced humming, unuttered hexes burbled in his chest, and the long spiral reached its terminus. He touched the woman’s shoulder, halting her. Eyes wide and sorrowful, she glanced back but did not protest. “Allow me to precede you, madam,” he said, forcing intelligible words past the magical uproar troubling his throat.

Beneath their feet the paving remained lunar stone, white and gleaming, wide slabs carefully laid, but the floor before them was different: a mosaic of myriads of silvered glass shards, thumbnail size, which appeared sharp enough to shred the soles of the stoutest boots. They glittered like the sunstruck surface of the sea, dazzling the eye against full comprehension of the space encircled by walls of glowing stone. Stepping around the woman, the Holiest swallowed against nausea, headache, dread, the rumbling unease of hexes uncertain of their targets.

He swallowed again, took two steps away from secure footing. The rope soles of the acolyte’s sandals were not torn. He reached back for the woman’s hand and they proceeded, slowly becoming accustomed to the dazzle. Seeming too large to be contained by the spiral hall, the space began to take shape, and the woman made a small sound.

Before them at the center of the vast glassy circle seemed to stand a slight figure. Atsarem blinked, blinked again, wiped burning salt from her eyes. Within her flesh, within her mind, the all-encompassing Name seemed to draw in upon itself like a sea creature retreating within the impregnable fastness of its coiled shell and she began to become herself. “My son?” she murmured, and wondered distantly if they were the first words she had spoken since the incense seller whispered in her ear. She tugged against the Holiest’s cautious grip on her hand. Dazzling light baffled her eyes, the figure faced away from her, since his infancy she had seldom seen Vyl-atsarem unclothed: doubt strove to stifle certainty.

The figure seemed to stand at a little height above the flashing floor as if upon a pedestal. His legs and spine were buckled into sinuous curves reminiscent of a wind-trained tree that appeared unnatural to the strictures of human bones. The left arm formed a yearning arc above a head thrown back, wavy locks of black and rust tumbled between straining shoulders, and the right must be warped around his chest. Atsarem pulled more urgently against the Holiest’s restraint.

It was not a pedestal nor did the youth stand upon it: rather a kind of tub or basin forged of corroded metals. The rolled rim hid his feet below slender ankles. Atsarem’s vision had come clearer: she saw now the slender woven osiers and coils of heavy, dully gleaming copper wire that enforced the captive’s aberrant posture. “My son?” she asked again, slipping free of the Holiest’s hand.

She no longer doubted but nevertheless felt anguish shudder through her to recognize the nuptial designs on the back of the hand splayed over her son’s heart. Wrist and forearm were wired in place but when she whispered, “Vyl-atsarem,” the youth’s fingers trembled and she believed she saw a tremor of breath disturb his chest. Leafy sprigs had been grafted between the fingers, echoing the foliar patterns bleached into his skin. Looking up past the coiled wire forcing his chin into the air, she saw the downcast crescents of his eyes regarding her, saw the tears forming at their corners and trickling down his cheeks. He could not speak for his mouth was stuffed with vivid green foliage. Abashed and ashamed, she turned her own eyes downward.

In the basin, her son’s feet were planted in loamy soil. She saw numerous long incisions in his lower legs, A series of rooted, leafless shoots surrounded him, pallid with mottles of green and pink. The tip of each shoot was inserted precisely into its corresponding blood-crusted incision.

Even as Atsarem felt the Name flex its might within her as if reacting to her horror, the Holiest in his acolyte’s body went to his knees by the basin, hissing with revulsion, keen-edged dagger ready in his right hand. “Abomination,” she thought to hear him say. Neatly, he carved through one shoot, then with his holy left hand tugged its tip free of Vyl-atsarem’s flesh, dragging finger-long, thread-thin bloody rootlets with it. Vyl-atsarem’s body shuddered violently. The Holiest attacked another.

Abruptly Atsarem found herself tearing leafy sprouts from her son’s mouth. Perhaps they had been transplanted only recently for they were barely rooted in his tongue and there was little blood. When she pulled out the last sprig, Vyl-atsarem moaned, coughed out a thin drool of soil and blood, murmured, “Mother?” and coughed again. The knot of cartilage in his throat scraped against the heavy wire that held his head high. Reaching overhead again, Atsarem laid both palms against his cool cheeks. “My poor son,” she replied. A tremor shuddered through him as the Holiest withdrew a root from his leg, then severed yet another and began delicately to tug it out. It seemed the scaffolding of osiers and copper wire alone held the youth upright.

Strangely grieving and hopeful at once, Atsarem pressed her cheek to her son’s chest. Wired into place, his forearm dug into her neck. She listened for his heartbeat over the rumbling of the Name within her, and heard it, ragged but not weak. But as well she heard another noise which was not confined within her flesh or her son’s, like an echo of distant thunder, a cheeping murmur as of ten thousand baby birds. It grew louder by the moment.

Frightened, she stepped back from Vyl-atsarem and looked up. The space was not roofed: above she saw black night sky strewn with stars and three of the moon’s tumbling fragments. Turning about, she scanned all the sky she could see above the nimbus of glassy floor and radiant walls. A billowing dark cloud began to eclipse the stars at one quadrant.

All his remaining hexes pricking at once alerted the Holiest to nearing threat. He sliced through the last six shoots without pausing to draw the grafted remnants from the youth’s flesh. Climbing to his feet, he returned the dagger to its sheath and used his acolyte’s brute strength to uproot the boy from the basin of soil. The merchant’s son uttered a thin whine and a wretched spasm wracked his body as the feet came free and the Holiest saw the multitude of hair-thin rootlets sprouting from his soles.

Wincing himself, the Holiest understood the boy would not be capable of standing upright despite the lashed osiers and coiled wire trussing him rigid. As gently as he might, he laid the youth supine on the glassy floor, and then at last looked up. Unthinking, he reached over his shoulder for a pair of javelins, held one ready in each hand.

The Holiest had not visited Okav, several difficult months’ distance from Ba, but he had heard travelers’ tales. He had heard about the vast noisy clouds of bonepickers that swarmed the skies there, watching out for a fallen mammont or megatherion which they would strip to bones in moments, and knew the scavenger birds had been endemic to the eastern littoral as well before the moon broke up and the Gulf of Fetour was born in cataclysm. They were known to be not invariably discriminating in the matter of whether their fodder was already deceased.

He positioned himself above the recumbent youth, a foot either side of his trunk, and called to the woman. Gazing awed at the massive, writhing finger made up of a multitude of tiny birds plunging toward them, she did not respond or stir. Before the Holiest could call again a barrage of brutal hexes detonated from his lips. Pang after agonizing pang as tacks broke free of his skull blinded him for a instant.

The first several hundred baby-headed bonepickers that plunged upon the Holiest and the youth he meant to protect speared themselves upon the thorns of a cage of sorcerous bone-white vines or were consumed by its flaming blossoms. Tremors wracked the Holiest’s alien flesh with each minuscule death.

The cannonade of living missiles ceased but the creatures did not entirely withdraw. Swarming, they formed a great dome of cheeping, feathered flesh around and above the persons of the three interlopers. The Holiest saw without comprehending how they recoiled from the youth’s isolated mother: she did not require the protection of his hexes.

From a multitude of tiny mouths a single tremendous voice spoke, shivering the Holiest’s bones. “I know you, Archpresbyter, in your purloined flesh. Do you not know me?”

“I am not dishonored by acquaintance with the lord of the gulf.”

“No?” came the resounding reply. “Brave words, Archpresbyter. Brave lies.”

The dome exploded into uncountable trilling splinters, tossed about in a grand whirlwind before coagulating into a single figure: a mammoth person taller than ten men standing on each other’s shoulders, perfectly proportioned, achingly beautiful. Monstrous fingers of the left hand formed a sign the Holiest might not deny. The cage of vines and thorns and burning blossoms collapsed into eddies of chalky dust stirred by divine breath. “Do you know me, Archpresbyter?” the god asked.

Bowing his head in the face of the Unnamed God’s majesty, the Holiest murmured, “At last I do.” He fixed his eyes on the slender legs below him, trussed with osiers and copper wire, marred above the ankles by cuts weeping blood and sap—on the six severed grafts yet anchored in flesh and the rootlets withering from the boy’s feet.

“Do you acknowledge me?”

The Holiest inhaled until his chest ached, then lifted his eyes before resolve could flee—not to the dread face of his god. To the woman the god could not admit he said plainly, “I feel you must speak now, madam.”

Her eyes widened, brimming with more sorrow than the Holiest’s heart. Resigned, he nodded. “It would seem the incense seller failed to reveal all he knew or to explain his entire purpose.”

“Do you acknowledge me?” thundered the god.

Defiant, grieving, the Holiest gazed into the awful eyes. “Better,” he said, “to ask my companion.”

Atsarem parted her lips to the raging Name. With the first tender syllable she felt tiny blood vessels begin to burst all throughout her. It would be better, she almost thought as syllable after unspeakable syllable resounded, to speak my precious son’s name before I die, but I do not know it. She watched the Holiest die in redemptive agony behind his acolyte’s eyes, saw the youthful acolyte return to himself with a start and at once throw himself headlong over her trussed son as if his mortal flesh could protect the boy from a god. Tremendous weariness, unutterable sadness burgeoned within her to fill the volumes vacated by the Name—she knew she was dying instant by instant, killing herself—knew she possessed sufficient vigor to pronounce the entire Name but no more.

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The young acolyte—his uncles had named him Joäth, although he had nearly forgotten during his service to the Unnamed God’s archpresbytery—had spent the greater part of his sojourn in the Holiest’s weary flesh asleep, rousing now and then, uncomprehending, to the incense seller’s murmured heresies and apostasies. Yet in his slumbers he had dreamed: dreamed of the uses and actions the Holiest put his, Joäth’s, body to.

Returned to himself, he was nearly felled at once by intense pain at the base of his skull where the points of unused hexes scraped bone. Ample recollection of the situation left behind by the archpresbyter caused him to pivot with unconscious grace and drop to elbows and knees over the trussed youth. Vyl-atsarem, he was thinking, he’s called, but that is not his name. He is more nameless than the god now. He gazed upon the lovely face below him of Madame Atsarem’s second son—into terrified, bewildered eyes as deep as starless sky, polished like precious gems. “A moment,” he breathed, “and a moment, and perhaps another.” Reflected in the lad’s eyes, his own face mouthed the words, startling him for when last he’d glimpsed a mirror he wore the Holiest’s weathered features. “A moment,” he said again, astonished by his own appearance, reclaimed, as much as by the youth’s.

The Nearly Named God had already blown apart, he had seen before he dropped. Bereft of any capacity to recognize one another, to adhere to a single will or desire or image, thousands of baby-faced birds whirled about in incoherent swarms and eddies. The shrill racket they made could not drown out the ever continuing reverberation of their Name but that Name was too large for Joäth to comprehend, or he, fortunate, was too small.

Stretched out atop the other youth, careful not to crush him, Joäth began to feel powdery impacts against his entire length, less substantial than snow, warm. He glanced his eyes to one side. Flakes of green-black ash, now and then crimson, were falling. They were shaped like perfect tiny feathers but broke up into dust when they hit the ground. Already greasy drifts were forming across glassy mosaic and undifferentiated noise resolving into individual panicked chirps and twitters.

The last cheep was stifled. For an endless moment the final syllable of the extinguished god’s name tolled, rolled, before its vessel too was extinguished. Joäth raised himself to his knees athwart the merchant’s son’s hips. An insubstantial avalanche of ash tumbled down his back. “A moment,” he murmured, “as I said.”

Unbidden, a hex forced its path along his tongue and through his lips. Fascinated even as he steeled himself against the continuing pain of those that remained, Joäth watched copper wire corrode in an instant to verdigris. Released from bondage, the merchant’s son’s chin jerked forward and his hands moved as one to prove the other young man: gripping his thighs, passing over his hips, caressing his belly, rising to his chest.

Brushing them off—although he did not wish to—Joäth dismounted and set to unwinding the web of osiers still trussing the lad. As he worked, he said, “Your mother is dead.”

The orphan nodded: he had already understood.

“As is my master, back in Errò, and, I believe, his bitter god.” Tossing aside the last whippy binding, he brushed ash from the youth’s limbs and bent to yank out the final six grafts. The merchant’s son yelped, but it was a cry of relief as much as pain.

“Tell me,” Joäth said, returning to the precious, grubby face, “what shall we call you?”

___
Copyright 2016 Alex Jeffers

Alex Jeffers’s first published story appeared in 1976. Nearly fifty more have followed (two at GigaNotoSaurus before this one), along with eight books. His most recent novel is That Door Is a Mischief (2014). Forthcoming this year is a collection, Not Here. Not Now. He lives in Oregon.

by Tamara Vardomskaya

Aantselitsha,” Eret’s mother whispered as she died in the hospital’s sterile coldness. Keep it alive.

Or maybe “Re-ignite it.” Eret barely knew the word root — life/light — and wasn’t positive on the prefix.

Their language. Mattaghelit. Five millennia of history, and its last speaker now lay dead in a Sunatnight hospital, Atsaldeian voices all around, including her own son’s, who didn’t think of the Mattaghelit response in time.

Eret watched his mother’s body ignite at the funeral, the three lightforger mages solemnly turning Chigiri’s aged bones into a flare of light. He had been ready to haggle, as people with his looks were always doomed to do so as not to be cheated to their last copper rose coin. It was bad enough that he was simply assumed to be ‘Merezenin,’ no matter that the Mattaghelit people had lived on Atsaldei’s territory long before Atsaldei existed, and had never set foot far south in Merezen; two “M” peoples were too much for the Atsaldeians to keep straight. But this seemed to be the one funeral office that would offer a reasonable price. A chorister’s salary was low.

He wondered for a brief second about converting the heat and light of his mother’s cremation into heat and light for his little flat, whether that would get him a better deal than the cost of the funeral took out of his heating budget. He shuddered at the thought, making his voice quaver in the long keening kodara for the dead that he sang almost unthinkingly.

The few other aging Mattaghelits nodded to him, the younger ones murmuring ‘May she be reborn greater’ in the Atsaldeian fashion as well as the Atsaldeian language; the elders still remembering ‘The moon take her.’ One or two even spoke that line in their own language. But that didn’t mean that they could tell long rhyming, chanted stories about what the moon does to lost souls. What remained of those stories in Chigiri’s brain had at last burned brighter than moonlight.

Except that there was one other place the stories could be.

Eret did not weep. The Mattaghelit were not wont to weep over the dead, and weeping would hurt his throat and he had a crucial rehearsal that afternoon, even if he got the morning off. He still had a little less than two hours of free time, and he used them.

Yira still lived where she had lived ten years before, in the block of aging apartments of brown glass off Ringside East. They looked as shabby as his own from the outside, posters of Na-Melei Tro’s upcoming concerts plastered on the facade to cover the cracks and grime. But Eret knew that a linguist made more than a chorister did: Yira only had to share the bathroom with one other flat instead of twenty, a luxury that Eret often dreamed of while standing in line.

When he knocked, it was her neighbour who opened the door on the shadowed landing, light slanting down from the high slits where the brown glass gave way to clear. The older woman’s dappled features reminded him for a moment of his mother, although her face was too pale and too broad.

“Is Yira in?”

The old woman decided, after close and suspicious scrutiny, that in his musician’s greys, he resembled neither the police nor the mages. “I’ll call her.”

He heard a rapid, muffled exchange between the old woman and the crisp strident voice he recognized. Then Yira herself stood framed in the doorway — taut and precise, lines sharp as the ink notations she had made in her countless notebooks.  She had not changed in a single rust-brown hair in the ten years, he thought, while he had transformed completely. Yet now he felt again as a rawboned boy ten years ago, his voice just breaking. Again he felt like a supplicant before this academic Atsaldeian who had seemed to actually care about the Mattaghelit even as the elders had whispered she was stealing their tongue. Well, Eret was coming, humbly, to ask for it back.

“Sunlight on you. I’m Eret,” he said. “Chigiri’s son. I come from her funeral.”

He looked for signs in Yira’s face: sadness, recognition. There seemed to be only closing off, stiff and polite, and a very formal three quick notes of the kodara for remembrance. “Mirror-wise, and may she be reborn greater. Thank you for letting me know.”

“Wait!” he cried as she moved to close the door. “I…I want our language back. From your notes. I want…” he had carefully constructed the words, running them over and checking them again and again in his head. “Litscha-gii aklerents.” I want my children to keep it alive.

He saw her wince before she hid it; so his pronunciation was wrong after all. “And what,” she said, tight voice creaking, “do you need me for?”

Eret took a deep breath, as for a high note, but all that came out was a sigh, touched with a whimper he hoped she couldn’t hear. “Kre, you won’t do it, after all. You are…the best speaker of Mattaghelit left.”

“Well,” she replied, her voice snide and high-pitched, “at last a younger Mattaghelit admits this. Ten years, and they finally come for my help, instead of scrupulously ignoring my advice about the language I had made my life’s study.”

His anger broke through. “You would let Mattaghelit, our people, our language die! After we helped you so much with your doctorate! Just like all the other Atsaldeians!”

His shout echoed down the stairway, probably scattering the wyverns pecking for crumbs outside. He regretted shouting; it had hurt his vocal folds.

“They would let the language die before admitting that an Atsaldeian could speak it better than them, even if they only knew three words,” she said. “Is it for my health and amusement that I’d keep going to people who resent me? You know what, Chigiri-yakler?” her voice had built to a crescendo, and Eret realized that what he’d thought was anger was really bitterness as she called him the son of his mother. “Too little, too late!”

Eret stuck a trembling foot into the door just before she could slam it. The wood was cheap and thin, but still stung against his boot. “Kre, we didn’t do anything like that!”

“Tell you what,” Yira said from the other side of the door. “I’ll agree to be the one Atsaldeian, of those who give a wyvern’s crap, who doesn’t kindly inform you Mattaghelit of your own history, and I’ll thank you for not informing me of mine. I have detailed notes, and better things to do with my life than show them to you.”

Such a situation as this must have occurred before in some story, but the only stories Eret could recall were the plots of cheap comic operas. At last he understood why Yira had quit working with them ten years back, as soon as she finished her dissertation, and had never returned.

He spoke at last, his pride a harsh note going back down his throat. “Yira, I have things to do as well. I have a rehearsal with a guest singer I need to be at in half an hour, and kso, the Transit station will likely have a queue out the door again. But I need my language back. What do you want for it? Money?”

Money is everything with these Atsaldeians, kwalkii, he remembered his mother muttering, as her hospital visits had become more and more frequent and the jingle of their coin box grew higher and higher pitched from lightness. And even though money hadn’t been everything to the friends he had grown up and played and sung with, he had believed her. Even if he had never learned what kwalkii meant.

“A guest singer.” Yira’s voice was in an entirely different, lower register. “Not Na-Melei Tro from Merezen?”

“It is she,” Eret said nervously.

A long pause he counted in heartbeats in the throbbing bruise on his foot. “Kre, I suggest this,” Yira said finally. “You let me into the rehearsal and let me listen to Na-Melei Tro and speak to her, and…” She took the door off his foot, opening it a bit wider.

“And…”

Ayantseq’uria,” she said with the popping burst of ejective consonant. It wasn’t a promise and it wasn’t a refusal. Let us keep speaking.

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Na-Melei alighted from the train, and at once inhaled the smell of steam and heated steel, of savoury five-fold pastries frying.

The conductor had assured her it was spring, but despite the sunlight, she was skeptical. The train had taken them in two days from Cadrazien, Merezen’s capital, already flooded with lush flowers, to Sunatnight, the capital of Atsaldei, where the trees were just beginning to open their tough little blossoms against the wind and rain, and a coat was vital.

The Atsaldeian language had all those subtle gradations of ‘cold’: chilly, brisk, nippy, biting, a variety of synonyms Na-Melei could never sort out. She silently thanked Master Lazhanor for the invitation gift of a leather coat.

Behind her, Fai-rek and Ivuem followed, the boy with eyes like lakes at the Atsaldeian capital, the elder woman immediately tracking the crowds. Ivuem would note who was old, who was young, who wore the leather and sparkling platinum of the rich or the copperbark and duller silver of the poorer, where were the black-clad mages crisscrossed in coloured sashes, and how many raven-haired heads and olive faces there were.

Na-Melei wasn’t sure what Fai-rek was looking at or listening to. She had adopted the boy two years ago, when he was just five years old. Nearly a third of his life had been spent trailing after her singing career: sitting quietly at rehearsals, sleeping in inns and short-let apartments, every month hearing a new accent, or even a new language altogether. With no sense of what was normal and few chances at regular schooling or friends, though, the boy seemed to absorb everything as a new adventure. Every new city, he welcomed as an additional place to call home, not as a forced change tearing him away from the last one.

Or, at least, Na-Melei told herself this in moments of guilt for taking Fai-rek’s childhood from him. She had to. It wasn’t the boy’s fault that the people in his home village, only on the next hill from her own but speaking Vurkh, had said such evil about his parents before their deaths. If no one would take the son of so-called perverts and thieves, Na-Melei, the one Grasshills villager to make it in the big world, would. She would use her fame to shame them for their prejudices, she had thought.

And she had since grown to love him deeply, in her own way.

“Stay beside me,” she whispered to Fai-rek, checking his tight grip on the valise full of performance gowns.

“Mistress Na-Melei Tro!” There was Master Lazhanor, the man she had only known from letters and portraits. The portraits hadn’t conveyed how short and lively he was. She raised a hand of greeting, feeling odd and constrained in her bone-buttoned gloves in the Atsaldeian style.

“Sunlight on you, Mistress Tro, let us get you to the Transit station. I hope you’ve had a pleasant journey. Kso, are these your…attendants?” The music director spoke heavily accented Merezenin, the pace of his words stumbling and tripping like one of his tempo rubato compositions — or one played by an under-practiced musician with the easy phrases coming fast and the difficult ones stuttering and uneven. The purely Atsaldeian particle kso came as a jarring dissonance to her ear.

“Just Na-Melei is fine and I understand Atsaldeian, if you would prefer,” she said smoothly in that language. “Although I shall have to interpret for my companions. This is my aunt Ivuem, and this is my ward Fai-rek. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

The two nodded on hearing their names. Na-Melei gesticulated to compensate for them, her heart aching in empathy with their shock at the cacophony of the train station.

“I felt the same way when I first arrived in Cadrazien. It will be all right,” she whispered to Ivuem in Phang, and added to Fai-rek in Vurkh, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn fast.”

But even the experience of ten years in Cadrazien had not prepared Na-Melei for the Transit station; lost in awe, she let Master Lazhanor deal with the cost of passage for all four of them from the russet-sashed farleaper mages. They do not use horses here, nor carts — they travel over the city by magic!

Maybe there was something to those mage-controlling laws after all, if such power was used in the public’s service. Na-Melei quickly stifled the thought as unfair, and carefully kept her face still. The rumours of dissent between mageborn and realborn in Atsaldei, of a powder keg exploding soon, had gotten as far as Cadrazien, and she wasn’t sure on what side Master Lazhanor fell, but knew that she couldn’t discuss it in public.

“These are the police, the ones over there in scarlet-and-blue,” she said softly to Fai-rek without pointing or otherwise seeming anything but casual; the odds of those two Merezenin-looking women behind them knowing Vurkh were slim, but she wanted no reason for them to listen harder. The police seemed on high alert, and she had heard enough rumours about Atsaldeians saying the wrong thing accused of spreading rebellion and dissent and imprisoned without trial. “Do not draw their attention.”

One step through the gap that the mage opened, and they were in another Transit station. Down the block was the Opera House she had seen in so many engravings, startlingly…matte in solid gray stone, compared with the shining glass buildings all around it.

Fai-rek laughed out loud, and Ivuem shushed him before Na-Melei could. Aunt Ivuem had turned into a nanny, from her old role of chaperone back when Na-Melei was sent to Cadrazien to train. Someone, her family and village all said, should come to protect our singing girl’s virtue. Ivuem had the advantages of being widowed, childless, and a fluent speaker of the city’s Merezenin as well as the villages’ Phang and Vurkh.

Only for the aunt to learn that in the city, among new music and new values, Na-Melei would decide that her virtue did not lie in virginity and who she slept with was her own business, not Ivuem’s. That shouting match, Na-Melei had held in the Merezenin language, refusing to concede to village values on that matter by using their words. And Ivuem yielded in Merezenin and gradually re-defined her relationship with her niece, her niece’s career, and later, her family in the form of the adopted son.

But that had been Cadrazien, much bigger and much more colourful in everything except languages spoken, but still a manageable size for an old lady and a young boy from a cluster of villages of a few hundred souls each. Sunatnight, cold as it was, held a million people, Na-Melei thought.

“Thank you,” Na-Melei turned to Lazhanor. “That was marvelously efficient.”

“On its good days, yes,” he grunted, and Na-Melei thought she must have seemed hopelessly provincial. Very well, hopelessly provincial she must be, for the price of the people of Sunatnight getting their exotic singer. She glanced over at Ivuem. Her aunt could play “hopelessly provincial old lady” with such skill that most city folk never realized it when she had already tied them into knots. Now lay the challenge of whether Ivuem could do it in a city whose official language she did not speak.

Na-Melei mentally placed a bet on her.

“Madam,” Lazhanor continued, “will we proceed with the contract first? Or would you prefer to take some refreshment after your journey?”

“The contract,” Na-Melei said.

The dance began, of Lazhanor laying out the bilingual contract in Atsaldeian and Merezenin before her on his bronzewood desk in his office, her carefully reading it, sounding out some words and asking them to be rephrased in Merezenin, correcting the Merezenin translation.

There was a blank space for the fee. “Twenty royals for the concert series,” Lazhanor offered.

Ivuem rose from the chair behind Na-Melei where she had watched the proceedings, and tugged at the singer’s sleeve, whispering.

Lazhanor sighed. “Thirty royals?”

“What do you want?” Na-Melei whispered to Ivuem in Phang,

The older woman kept whispering, and Na-Melei shook her head.

“Forty royals?” Lazhanor asked, dubious. “Fifty?”

Ivuem kept with her whispers in Phang, growing more and more urgent and distressed, Na-Melei’s head almost splitting with pressure from two sides in two very different languages.

“Mistress Tro, fifty is my absolute best offer. I cannot go any higher, and I have rehearsals starting in an hour, I need your contract!” Lazhanor burst out in a frustrated melange of Atsaldeian and Merezenin.

“Why, certainly,” Na-Melei smiled. “Of course, I will sign.” She bent to write in fifty royals for the fee and apply her signature in the Merezenin alphabet, as the two of them harmonized in the kodara for sealed bargains. Kodaras, of course, were the same in any language. Stoppering the ink, she looked up at him.

“My aunt would just like to know — where is the toilet?”

Lazhanor met her eyes, blushing redder than his lips. He did not see Ivuem’s satisfied smirk.

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The sheet music in Eret’s hand, still warm from the printer’s hot glass, was in no language he had ever seen before, transliterated into Atsaldeian script in what must be Na-Melei’s flowing, looping handwriting. He had sung before in Atsaldeian, Merezenin, Classical Caldamaran, and even Mattaghelit (although he had never seen sheet music of Mattaghelit songs). He paid strict attention to the vowel quality as Na-Melei herself explained the pronunciation from the front of the stage. She was elegant in a deep gray Merezenin-style walking suit whose white trim seemed to almost glow against her dark skin under the magelights.

It was Yira, sitting in the front row, who spoke up: “What language are the words in, and what do they mean?”

Shrook, Eret thought. Kso, the choir was already suspecting that she was an unannounced censor, rare as it was for censors to show up to a first rehearsal; and asking a censor’s question would just make them all the more politely indisposed towards the linguist. Which she would doubtless notice, and repay in antipathy towards the Mattaghelit and his own need.

Na-Melei, however, hadn’t grown up in Sunatnight, and explained with a smile, “No one knows. It is a tradition among our people to sing ‘Aishi Fau’ and keep singing it, but what language and what people it had come from has long been forgotten in the centuries when we had no writing.”

The old woman who was Na-Melei’s companion, her garishly bright shawl incongruous in the somber high-class leather of an Opera House box, spoke up with a few words. Eret guessed that this was a question, but the pitch varied on each syllable, the language obviously tonal, and he knew his was only a guess.

Yira slowly replied in the same language, and a conversation broke out between the box and the censors’ row, Na-Melei obviously following it, the language completely impenetrable to the rest of the Opera House. Lazhanor and the choir exchanged curious glances, and Eret’s shoulders untensed. Ducal censors came in many ages, genders and styles of clothing, but their one consistent feature was arrogant monolingualism. Yira’s question in Atsaldeian had been clearly motivated by xenophilia, not xenophobia.

Tsii,” Lazhanor called the choir to attention, trusting the foreign conversation would die down of its own accord, “let us run through the music.”

All of them sightread to professional standard; the first rendition of the song floated up and filled the hall, voices drawing together in close harmony on chords never found in Atsaldeian music and polyrhythmic fugal counterpoint in a different style than Eret had ever heard. The alien words seemed to twine around the arches of the vaulted ceiling, challenging, seductive. Exotic, Eret thought, and the automatic jerk of disgust at that word reminded him that he was thinking like an Atsaldeian. Na-Melei, as a person whose marvellous contralto guided the voices, luring and seducing them to match her vowels, to whom the incomprehensible song meant so much that she insisted a choral arrangement be included in her concert series — how did she hear it?

The two other songs they rehearsed were standards of the repertoire for contralto and chorus, ones the choir had done with other guest soloists or even used as audition pieces, one in Atsaldeian, the other in Classical Caldamaran. Eret had heard, in the gossip as the choir warmed up, that Na-Melei was going to sing some classic arias in the solo part of her concert, as well as a song or two Lazhanor had written just for her. Now seeing the director’s face as he listened intently to “Aishi Fau,” Eret wondered if the planned draft of Na-Melei’s bespoke aria would be rewritten, the harmonies changed to fit with those of a long-lost culture’s enduring song.

“Mistress Na-Melei,” Yira’s voice rang out as the rehearsal wound down, not as resonant as the professional singers’ but she did know something about making herself heard. “I am Yira Tsilian, a linguistics professor with the University of Sunatnight. Master Lazhanor, I do hope you will excuse my curiosity in coming here. Eret invited me.”

Eret quailed; he was still a very junior chorister and there were many talented tenors eager to take his spot if he displeased the director. But Lazhanor smiled at Yira. “Sunlight on you. You seem to know the language of Mistress Na-Melei’s people well.”

“Not as much as I would like to,” Yira said. “If I may – if you have not yet made plans for the afternoon, Mistress Na-Melei, I would love to buy you dinner.”

Na-Melei hesitated, her large dark eyes moving back and forth. In Merezen, or in her own culture, the purchasing of meals for others must signify something different than it did in Sunatnight. Lazhanor spoke, “Here it merely means that she wishes your company for an hour or two, and would like to recompense. No further obligations.”

Eret dared. “May I come along as well? On my own bill, of course.”

Having more people there would reassure the soloist that Yira was not planning to seduce her after dinner, or whatever the Merezenin practice was. And he was dying to find out what the linguist would talk about with Na-Melei, and whether she would let slip information about her work on the Mattaghelit that she wouldn’t share with him as a member of the tribe. And honestly, with this very long day, he wanted to postpone going home to his mother’s empty flat, now all his, and having to think about his mother and his people. And, somebody should tell this lovely innocent foreigner what the censors were likely to say when they couldn’t get a verified translation of ‘Aishi Fau.’ Lazhanor, never having to think about these things as a Noted Artist of Sunatnight, obviously hadn’t told her.

Na-Melei’s voice was melodious as ever but her vowels were now much more foreign than they had been during her explanation of “Aishi Fau” — weariness from three hours of vocal work, or nerves? “It would be an honour. But, kre, I couldn’t. You see, my companions Ivuem and Fai-rek, they do not know any Atsaldeian at all. I cannot leave them. And I cannot oblige you, Professor Yira, to pay for their meals as well.”

“You can oblige me,” Lazhanor replied. “Professor Yira, if I can come as well, I would consider it an honour to just listen. I will cover your companions’ meal. And Eret’s as well.” In the director’s eyes, there was an unspoken understanding. So he knows. He knows that my mother’s funeral was today, and I came to rehearsal anyway.

“In exchange,” Lazhanor added, “for Professor Yira teaching me enough of your aunt’s language for me to be able to understand requests for basic directions.” His eyes twinkled, and Na-Melei’s cheekbones flushed, changing the shade of her skin.

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She was finished, Yira had repeated to herself as she strode into the Opera House, chewing her lip. With her doctoral dissertation, her involvement with the Mattaghelit was over. And good riddance to them all.

For ten years, she’d had the peace and quiet of not thinking about it. Kso, if the Mattaghelit people wanted to sink themselves and their own shrooking language with their own shrooking hypocrisy, that was their shrooking prerogative. She had a professorship, lectures to give, books to write and committees to serve on. She had no energy to fight the Mattaghelit to save their language, and she was glad there were no language speakers left to save when Chigiri’s son showed up on her doorstep.

Yet the words she had not spoken since her doctoral defence flooded back to her the moment she heard them again.

Why? She needed to figure this out. She needed time. And good music. And the opportunity to see with her own eyes an artist whose career she had followed in the newspaper for years, and see her more often than just at a carefully polished concert that would cost Yira a month’s rent.

And so she bargained Eret into letting her watch Na-Melei’s rehearsals in the hope that the foreign contralto’s beautiful voice would soothe her turmoil. In the hope that the woman who looked a bit like the Mattaghelit, but didn’t speak or sing at all like them, would somehow fix the unhealed Mattaghelit-shaped wounds in Yira’s soul.

Instead, Yira heard the song ‘Aishi Fau.’

Yira had never been able to hear language without analyzing it. She pulled out her memorandum-book to jot down repeated syllables of the strange song, trying to compensate for the inevitable mispronunciation by the choristers in order to figure out the language’s sound structure, how words interrelated, whether it had case endings or not. Some of the roots sounded similar to those reconstructed for Proto-Mattaghelit, or Classical Caldamaran pre-sound shift, but were they evidence of common descent, or were they borrowings?

As Na-Melei sang, Yira felt suddenly star-struck. You are probably a decade older than this woman. You are long past the age of falling for someone just because they speak a new and beautiful language.

But without thinking, she blurted out a question and found herself speaking Phang, the language she had not thought about in nearly three years, the abandoned project that hadn’t set then. Her grammar was rusty but the words returned as the aged aunt spoke to her. And the return thrilled Yira so much that she, again without thinking, asked the singer to dinner. She was glad that Lazhanor and Eret came along. There was a certain joy to talking languages with new people, not with her fellow faculty, whose responses she already knew.

As their small party walked out the stage door of the Opera House (Yira had not known where the stage door was until Eret had shown her), the little boy, Fai-rek, walked beside her.

“Good health to you,” he greeted her in Phang, very politely.

“Do you know Merezenin?” she asked in Phang, on a hunch.

“Oh yes, I do.”

How many times had she heard that pride in the voices of young children, insisting that they “knew” a language even if they knew one word? “What do you know of Merezenin?” she asked.

“What do you want me to say in it?” The child’s Merezenin was smooth and perfect. “I know some big words. Really big words. Like ‘decrescendo.’ Or ‘philharmonic.’ Do you know that word?”

Yira couldn’t help but mirror his grin. “Not only do you know Merezenin,” she happily switched to that language as it was far more comfortable than Phang, “but that means you know Caldamaran as well. These words come from Caldamaran. What other languages do you know?”

The boy said something in a language that sounded completely unfamiliar, so she couldn’t place even the family from that sample. He saw her puzzled blank look, and switched back to Merezenin. “I can speak Vurkh!”

“Vurkh?” She had never even heard of any publications on that language, and Yira assiduously followed new grammars of understudied languages. The Grasshills of Merezen were famous (in the tiny circles she moved in) for their linguistic diversity, and she now appreciated that. Her ongoing project on tracing the development of verb aspect from Old Caldamaran to Classical Caldamaran rolled off into a corner of her mind. The Caldamarans had left their language so well-documented one couldn’t ask for better, and they all have been dead five hundred years and could wait a little longer. She needed to seize this option of Vurkh.

Very carefully, like a hunter trying not to scare off a seven-point stag, she said, “I don’t speak Vurkh. Can you teach me?”

Fai-rek seemed aglow with the notion of teaching an adult, then paused. “If Na-Melei says yes.”

Just then they were at the restaurant door, and Fai-rek was obviously not the kind of child who would tug at his parent’s skirt for assent before she was ready to pay attention to him. Asking her to say yes would have to wait.

But something in Yira’s cold heart lit up, something that completely ignored the scars from the last time, ten years ago, when she had documented a language.

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“Three dishes?” Na-Melei studied the menu. Her companions looked on silently; they will probably just have what she’s having, Eret thought.

“One chal, one sweet, one sour or salty,” Lazhanor nodded. “It is the Atsaldeian way. Not the Merezenin way of one dish per course.”

Eret had eaten at Merezenin restaurants a time or two, and had always felt a certain unbalance on tasting their dishes one at a time, either being overwhelmed with sweetness or the savoury chal taste, or craving it. Perhaps because he could not afford the really good restaurants. This Atsaldeian one was particularly fine, with the tables separated by partitions so one could barely hear the neighbouring diners and their chorused kodaras. He felt a guilty relief that it was on someone else’s bill.

Ivuem, the old aunt, asked a question, and Yira leaned over and evidently translated the three different lists for her.

“I will take the sweet noodles and the salt fish with carrots, and the baked cheese four-corner pastry,” Na-Melei told the waiter after a quick soft-voiced conversation with Ivuem. The wide-eyed boy Fai-rek seemed to only half-listen. “They will each have the same.”

Even though Yira understood the other language that Ivuem spoke, to Eret’s surprise the linguist had clearly not followed the exchange just then.

“What…is your nationality?” Eret asked at last, hoping that he, a lowly Mattaghelit chorister, did not insult an international star.

“My passport? It is Merezenin,” she said, calm if slightly bemused.

Kre, you don’t speak Merezenin,” he blurted, and Lazhanor and Yira stared at him.

Vailio, ik-re,” Na-Melei smiled. Oh yes, I do.

“I think,” Lazhanor cut in, with the kind of firmness that warned Eret to shut up before any more wyverns came out of his mouth, “that we are curious to know what is your mother tongue.”

“Mother tongue? My mother spoke Phang. Mostly.”

“Mostly…”

“The people in the embassy in Cadrazien asked the same question. I finally had to ask them why they weren’t interested in what my father tongue was,” she said. “My father spoke Vurkh to us. The people in my mother’s village spoke mostly Phang, but my father had come from a village that spoke mostly Vurkh. With Ivuem I speak mostly Phang, but she knows some Vurkh and Merezenin; with Fai-rek, I speak mostly Vurkh, but he knows some Phang and is picking up Merezenin and now Atsaldeian. The school and conservatory spoke Merezenin. To get my Atsaldeian and Classical Caldamaran up to standard, my music teacher often conducted lessons in these languages.”

“And…what language do you speak in the market?” Yira was the first to process this.

“You want to cooperate with someone, you speak their language,” Fai-rek piped up suddenly, in perfectly understandable Atsaldeian that had the air of a sentence memorized as a single string. He couldn’t have learned that much in a single day in Sunatnight, Eret thought. The boy must have already inquired how to say that particular phrase.

“Yes. You want to cooperate with someone, you speak their language,” said Na-Melei in her rich voice, finding it strange that they were finding it strange. So unlike the weak cracked whisper of Eret’s dying mother.

“I know Merezenin and a little Phang, but no Vurkh at all.” Yira mused. “So, the language you speak, and your ethnic identity — they have nothing to do with each other. If Phang died out tomorrow, with no more people to speak it with, you will go on speaking Vurkh. And will keep singing Phang songs, the way you sing ‘Aishi Fau’.”

Eret’s chest clenched at Yira’s pointed look. So for some attitudes, his mother’s dead language and the community’s struggle to preserve it, requesting Yira’s help and all — didn’t matter. Kso, they could just swap Mattaghelit for another. Even for Atsaldeian, the conquerors’ language. What did this beautiful, arrogant singer really know of the treasures that Eret had lost with his mother, that Na-Melei had an abundance of, more than she knew what to do with, more than she knew mattered?

With every clonk as their dishes hit the table, earthenware on wood, he hated her more. What had he thought, bringing Yira here in exchange for her giving him back his tongue, only for the linguist to get ideas that if you have many languages, one doesn’t matter. He felt deceived and betrayed.

The six voices joined the waiter in the kodara before the meal: Na-Melei’s wondrous contralto that made the waiter raise his eyebrows; Lazhanor’s baritone that was musical if not soloist material; Fai-rek’s high treble; Yira’s crisp voice but precise diction more suited to lecturing than singing; Ivuem’s cracking age-worn soprano that must have once been quite lovely; and Eret’s tenor, tense throat noticeably warping his pitch.

“But,” Na-Melei continued as soon as the waiter left, “Phang is not dying out tomorrow. I speak it. You speak it. Fai-rek speaks it.”

Fai-rek said something. Yira replied dryly, then chuckled.

Na-Melei translated, laughing, “He said that Yira’s Phang sounds funny, sounding out e-ve-ry syl-la-ble. She said that this is Phang Professor-speak; it’s a different dialect of Phang.”

“And does he accept that answer?” Lazhanor laughed in turn.

Eret bit his lip silently. Lazhanor continued, “Tsii, there will be problems with your companions not being able to speak Atsaldeian. And with you singing ‘Aishi Fau.’ The censors want to completely understand everything that is being said, too afraid that someone would spill out sedition against the Dukes, against Atsaldeian values, in a transparent code that everyone but they can read and which makes them look like fools. Not,” he paused to flick his fork of sweet noodles like a baton, his usually smiling mouth too level, “that anyone has done that, of course. Not in the least.”

So Lazhanor knew. Eret had assumed he wouldn’t know. Na-Melei froze. Then, in quick Phang, or was it Vurkh, she summarized the issue to her companions.

Eret wondered if telling it in her own languages gave her a different perspective. Mentally, he tried rephrasing the problem in Mattaghelit, stumbling over words; the task was difficult enough to push his anger aside, until the envy at her ease returned.

Finally she replied, “I will sing. And I will see what happens. I am, after all, famous; what use is that fame if not to make my language famous with me?”

Lazhanor did not reply, seemingly intent on his salt-sour pudding.

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The waiter brought them the bill, in Atsaldeian script with the looping style that often meant a Merezenin hand. Lazhanor took it and stepped around Eret over to Yira, so as not to burden their honoured guests with petty transactions.

The quick song of the kodara and the rustling paper of the bill dulled the ring of the silvercuts dropped on it, but just by ear, Eret could tell that this was a lot of money. None of the others seemed perturbed except perhaps for the uncomprehending Ivuem and the child. They all casually rose, with straightening of jackets and the small talk of departure. The old aunt Ivuem addressed the waiter in what Eret recognized from many songs as Merezenin. It must have been a witticism — the waiter chuckled in return, and bantered back to her.

“The moon take Chigiri.” At first Eret thought that a strange voice was coming out of Master Lazhanor’s mouth; the changes in tone and phonetics made it almost unrecognizable.

The music director spoke Mattaghelit! With an accent, and that noun ending didn’t sound quite right, but Eret couldn’t possibly have misheard.

At Eret’s shocked face, Lazhanor switched back to Atsaldeian, still speaking softly. “Chigiri was a nursemaid in my parents’ house when I was a boy, long before you were born. She taught some songs to my little sister and me, and some sentences in Mattaghelit. I still remember them, like music. That was why I pushed for you to be accepted into the chorus after your audition,” Lazhanor added. “So I could do something for Chigiri in exchange for these songs.”

Chigiri had birthed Eret late, after she had nearly given up on having a live child. He had never really wondered how old Master Lazhanor was, the gray streaks on the music director’s temples never as important as the mind they framed. And Eret’s mother was always against teaching non-Mattaghelit the language; Yira had argued with her even for the sake of science and saving it. What had been the path from a little boy and a young maidservant to the dignified music master and the faded waxen face on the cheap hospital pillow?

Eret gripped the back of the restaurant chair, the thick leather cushions reminding him he could never afford to eat here on his own. Those Atsaldeians again, always with their smiles hiding secret networks of mutual understanding, that never included people like him. Now, he realized with irony, for once the networks did include him, and it felt worse — was he really a good singer, or had he been taken in as the nursemaid’s boy, out of charity?

Lazhanor must have read it off his face again. “Kso, I would not have done that if you were not good enough to make the grade, and I would have dropped you if you didn’t improve. But it formed part of my choice among many applicants equally good — you meant something to me, because of Chigiri.”

“She always hated my singing in the opera,” Eret said. “She thought I sold out.” Then immediately he clamped his mouth shut again. Shouldn’t have opened it other than to sing.

His graceful hand on Eret’s shoulder, Lazhanor steered him casually out into the street. To onlookers, it would seem merely a friendly gesture: the men heading out, followed by the chatting women and child. “There are more non-Atsaldeians in the Sunatnight Opera chorus,” the music director said softly, “than you could find in any chorus of comparable size anywhere else in Atsaldei.”

Eret remembered noticing that at his first rehearsal. Then he had forgotten it, the different shapes and colours of eyes and hair and skin becoming as normal as they were in the poor blocks of Second Ring Southeast where he lived. He had rarely seen other choruses large enough to compare.

“Not only does that mean that I get the best voices,” Lazhanor said, “but also…”

The music director scanned the darkening street. The blue magelights haloed his profile, making it sharp and eerie. There were no police nearby, though; Eret was already listening for the officers’ firm regular tread.

“The poorer Merezenin, the Thyans, the Mattaghelit,” Lazhanor said, “get tossed in the lower levels of Vingyar Prison all the time. Petty theft, drunk and disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, not having their bribes handy, looking like the officer’s hated superior… Normal stuff.”

Eret did know the Mattaghelit for “police,” and three words for “jail,” and all conjugations and declensions of “Don’t get under the police’s eye.”

“But,” Lazhanor continued, “they are hardly ever pulled in to Vingyar’s upper levels. It’s their own people that the Dukes watch for sedition and rebellion. Foreign strangers, even six generations Sunatnight-born, are beneath their notice.”

“You want me to get involved in politics,” said Eret. “For the rebellion that people say is coming.”

“Na-Melei may be naive about the power of fame,” Lazhanor replied, very soft, “but you should not underestimate it, either. Not with a new song’s measure. If I don’t see what you do as a crime, I will bail you out and make sure you don’t lose your home. I promise.”

Part of Eret was touched by the composer’s gesture, but then another part tensed. In Chigiri’s accented Atsaldeian, he said, “This is not the first time that Atsaldeians had assumed that the Mattaghelit will be their cat’s paws and henchmen and servants. Kre, I may be a chorister, but I have some dignity, sir.”

The older man almost reeled, and Eret, replaying his words in his head, realized how harsh he had sounded — and bit back his automatic apology.

Then Lazhanor stepped into the shadows and Eret could not see his lips as he said, “I think you and I want the same things. But make your own decisions. Kso, I don’t think you are the kind of man to side with the Dukes against me. You are Chigiri’s son, after all.”

Just then Yira nudged them from behind, and Eret found her passing him a heavy solid object: a book, thick and copper-bark bound. He raised it up to the light: A Grammar of Mattaghelit, by Yira Tsilian.

“I’ll keep my side of the bargain,” the linguist told him, crisp and unsentimental. “Take care of it.”

On her left, Na-Melei, seemingly oblivious, said to Lazhanor, “I was thinking about what you said. And despite this, I will hear ‘Aishi Fau’ sung in the Sunatnight Opera House.”

Tucking the book into his coat’s large inside pocket, Eret refrained from muttering that she had a better chance hearing Mattaghelit sung in the Opera House than this. After all, the Mattaghelit didn’t get jailed for political crimes.

He noticed Ivuem behind them, rapidly conversing in Merezenin with yet more strangers at the side door. His own lost language, the only other one he had, nestled against the small of his back.

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There was no other way to explain it, Yira thought, looking at her word lists, at the laborious sound correlations, at the reconstructed and predicted words that over the last two weeks Na-Melei, Ivuem and Fai-rek had confirmed were close to right or would make sense. The boy looked innocent and unsuspecting in the bright light from the rehearsal-room windows, but the last word he had confirmed made it real.

Vurkh was related to Mattaghelit. The language that every linguist had always called a language isolate with no identifiable relations, the last of its line, had a long-lost cousin on the Grasshills of Merezen. Three vowel distinctions had merged while two that Mattaghelit didn’t distinguish, Vurkh did; S’s had changed to Sh’s at the ends of syllables; the preverb for “in’’ instead meant “on”; and the word that in Vurkh still meant both light-blue and green, in Mattaghelit had long been reserved for light-blue only, the word for green borrowed from Atsaldeian. But they were kindred languages, without a doubt.

Fai-rek’s distant ancestors had been Eret’s too. Or perhaps not, with the easy way that Na-Melei’s home village cluster traded languages. Yira wished that she, or some other collector of folklore, had asked Chigiri about any stories of the people splitting, heading north and south. Did a search party go out and never return, becoming a raiding party? The word for the ironseed mango tree in Vurkh was akin to the name for the northern pear in Mattaghelit; it was hard to tell what had come first, which tree had been the one the long-lost people had in mind when they tagged its name to the other. Did they dwell under mango trees, and some rebellious chief’s son had a fit of pique and took his cronies north?

The Mattaghelit language was still dead, she thought.

What did it mean? What could she tell Eret? Or Fai-rek? A common language did not mean a kinship; having a common language with the Mattaghelits of Sunatnight did not bring her any closer to them. When she spoke like them without looking like them, they saw her as not only an alien but also a deceiver. All a common language meant was perhaps a shorter path to cooperation. But only as an option, to take or refuse.

“Here you go,” she said to Fai-rek; he wouldn’t notice her sigh. “A quarter-silvercut. Kso, you can buy candy. ” She realized that she spoke Atsaldeian, already expecting the child to understand her. And he did, scurrying immediately out the door past the arriving Ivuem’s skirts.

“You’re a tight-fisted woman,” Ivuem said in Phang rather than Merezenin, seizing the advantage with her language.

“No,” Yira replied in her accented Phang but striving for cooperation. “An adult I would pay half a silvercut. There is a fine line in how much you pay. Too little, and it’s not worth their time. Too much, and they would be saying yes to everything to please me. Which won’t help anyone. He should get candy money whether I’m wrong or right. This is a science. I am here to be proven wrong.”

Of course, Yira thought, this principle assumed that every speaker of a language rare enough to be worth studying would be as dirt-poor as the Mattaghelit, not the son of a singer commanding fifty royals per engagement and the fame to do whatever she wanted.

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“We understand your passion, Mistress Na-Melei,” the white-mustached censor replied. “What is wrong with doing a contrafactum, simply writing new understandable Atsaldeian lyrics to this lovely melody? If you have difficulty doing it yourself, Master Lazhanor has several talented librettists at your disposal, and with enough persuasion they can probably put a nice love poem together on short notice. Your choir can learn it in a quick rehearsal. The music deserves to be shared, I agree. And if you don’t actually know what the words mean, does it matter?”

If only he fitted the caricatures of the brusque, dominating censor, Na-Melei thought, biting her lip. If only he would be gruff and demand that everything got changed immediately, and yell. She could deal with yelling. She had been yelled at by her vocal coaches in Cadrazien, by her fellow villagers for selling out, by her own parents. By Ivuem. She had been yelled at for the way she dressed, for who she slept with, for singing wrong, for singing what she thought was wrong, for singing what she thought was right. For the language she spoke, for the language she sang in.

She didn’t expect someone so polite, so gentlemanly, so sympathetic — so deceptively firm. Like ironseed mangos, she thought in Vurkh, which Atsaldei was too far north to grow and probably lacked a word for them. Flesh so soft and tender it was almost sweet butter, but bite in too far, and you would learn how the fruit got its name.

She channeled the ironseed within herself as well. “It mattered to the people who wrote the words. To those who are now long dead.”

“Who you claim to not even know the names of,” the censor replied, with an almost friendly smile. “They are not going to sit in the audience and object.”

Na-Melei remembered her first recital at twelve years old, and her being so flustered at making a mistake in the Rallian Cavatina. Rallian is not in the audience so it doesn’t matter, a friend told her — who had been that friend, even? He and his soft tenor voice had long vanished from her life, but the words lingered on. Rallian had died three hundred years before the Great Amalgamation, back when Classical Caldamaran was still spoken. Maybe the friend, and the censor, were right. Maybe.

“We have forgotten their names and where they came from and what they looked like, and all but one thing of what they loved,” she said quietly. “We cannot forget their song too.”

“Mistress Na-Melei,” the ironseed glinted in his voice. “You have the opportunity to spread your art to living appreciative people in a living modern country. I strongly recommend you do not waste it. Make this melody into a beautiful Atsaldeian love song, or by the law of this land I will be forced to ask you not to perform it at all, which I for one would deeply regret. Tsii, I beg your pardon, but I have another engagement to attend now. It has been a pleasure meeting you and hearing your voice, Mistress Na-Melei, and your art is sublime as always, Master Lazhanor.” He bowed and strode up the raked ramp of the Opera House, the tails of his coat floating behind him, his snow-white hair glowing in the theatre lights.

The orchestra pit railing quivered behind Na-Melei as an enormous breath, the kind you would use for a high C fermata, escaped her in a whistle. Fai-rek and Ivuem were downstairs. They had not seen this and her defeat.

In the choir beyond the orchestra pit, she met the gaze of the young tenor who had accompanied them to dinner her first evening in Sunatnight. He stood out, his amber eyes in a narrow face with skin as deep-olive as hers. Most took him for Merezenin diaspora although she had seen no sign that he spoke more of the language than the bare amount necessary for singing, while for ethnic Merezenin, speaking Merezenin mattered. Ivuem could chat up so many of them; even Opera House cleaning maids were already her friends.

Some kind of minority pre-Amalgamation people, ran a few of the rumours she’d overheard, although Na-Melei knew she only heard a fraction of them, isolated in her own dressing room. She made a mental note to confirm the tenor’s ethnolinguistic identity at tea with Yira that afternoon. Eret, that had been his name. She nodded to him, hoping the strain didn’t show on her face, and looked back down into the pit at Lazhanor fiddling with his baton.

“So, what do I do now? Kso, he’s given me no choice.”

“He did give you a choice. A contrafactum. If you agree, ‘Aishi Fau’ will make a lovely one.”

Na-Melei imagined singing ‘Aishi Fau’ with Atsaldeian lower vowels and trilling r’s. Much as she loved Atsaldeian songs written for Atsaldeian, the idea of twisting her tongue and throat like this somehow made her want to vomit. “And if I just ignore him? Sing at the show the way it’s supposed to be?”

The composer stepped up to the railing and she had to kneel to hear his whisper in thick Merezenin. “Na-Melei, I love your music and I wish we could. But…if I throw my career away, I would rather it be for something bigger than this.”

“You know that this is wrong,” Na-Melei replied, same tone, same language.

“Yes. But now is not the time to move against it; we cannot have the ‘Aishi Fau’ be our song of defiance, not in this Opera House.”

“What if I sing it in the public square?” she said perversely. “On the steps of the War Memorial?”

Kre, Na-Melei, do you want to go to…” He didn’t know the word in Merezenin, so he hissed it in Atsaldeian, which somehow made it all the more terrifying. “…Vingyar Prison?”

“I am a Merezenin citizen. And I am here on cultural exchange. There will be a diplomatic incident if I’m jailed. The Merezenin embassy cares.”

“The Merezenin embassy cares about you, but I suspect they don’t care a whit about Fai-rek or Ivuem.”

That was true. Oh, earth below and otherspace, that was true. Na-Melei’s heart pounded beneath her bodice, tight in the alien Atsaldeian style.

“Take the contrafactum,” Lazhanor said. “I’ll have my librettist whip one up tonight; she is good at this. We—you cannot afford to antagonize the Dukes. Please.”

Na-Melei bowed. “I will. Just — have Yira do it. Please.”

All the three thousand seats of the Opera House seemed filled with the ghosts of the composers of ‘Aishi Fau,’ speaking their tongue she could not parse, but she knew exactly what they must be saying.

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By the time Ivuem finally found where she could buy nutbeans, she needed to borrow a giant pot from the Opera House cooks and purchase an armload of sacks of them, just to make enough of the Grasshills nutbean cream noodles for all the Merezenin she had promised a taste to.

And as a rehearsal ran above and she and the waiter from the first night’s restaurant shelled the nutbeans and ground them, most of these people crowded into the Opera House kitchen, commentating in Merezenin on her every move, calling her Iv-Uyem in true Merezenin fashion. The administrator of Transit blended the cream, sugar and salt while the noodles boiled; she was mageborn but her black clothing somehow didn’t matter as much today as the jokes she told in her native language. The Opera House cook made Cadrazien-style meatballs to go with the dumplings. The fathers of two of the choristers and a trader from the Mercantile Exchange helped dice asparagus and the chal-flavoured tubers that none of them were sure had an Atsaldeian name, but certainly had a Merezenin one.

Fai-rek laughed as he set out the plates. He broke one, but Et-poyi, everyone said, it didn’t matter.

Ivuem stirred the pot and thought that in Cadrazien, Merezenin who looked just the same would laugh at her accent and her manners and her shawl. If they could not honestly scorn Na-Melei once she opened her mouth to sing (although some still did), Ivuem had no such protection. She was old, she was ugly, she was widowed and childless, and she came from the Grasshills. Even the nutbean cream noodles would not be able to buy her respect.

But here, among the people who were in denial that their Merezenin sounded a bit funny to her, that their sentences went down in pitch instead of up at the end and they used kre and kso without thinking — here she, Iv-Uyem, was Merezenin enough that they would share noodles with her, because what mattered was that they were not four-corner pastries nor split into sweet, savoury and sour.

Ivuem suddenly noticed a much paler face behind the crowd. Yira, the linguist, was lurking by the kitchen corner, trying not to draw attention. Knowing that these people would laugh about what fools the Atsaldeians were, or what brutes they could be — things they would not say in front of her if they knew she could understand.

“Ready!” Ivuem announced proudly, to keep the others from noticing Yira. “Hand your plate here!”

Yira stayed at the back as the Merezenin men and women of almost all classes gathered for plates, dishes and cutlery, and Ivuem ladled up the fragrant noodles, dripping with bubbling sauce.

“Delicious!” the administrator of Transit said, breaking a moment’s accidental silence. “Show this one to Ve-Kesh, he’d love it.”

The silence stretched further. The administrator smiled awkwardly. Before her mention of the Dukes’ Court Mage, the others had ignored her blacks beneath her cooking apron. Now the name of the highest-ranked Merezenin in the city reminded them that he, and the administrator, were mageborn. And thus potentially deadly despite the laws regulating them.

Ivuem calculated quickly. She needed the mageborn of the Merezenin community on her side as much as she needed everyone else; that was why she had fearlessly invited every Merezenin mage she met. They ate the same food as the realborn. And having Ve-Kesh as a connection would be an enormous advantage in this city. But if she spoke up now, with her Grasshills Phang accent, and allied herself with the mages, it would unfortunately remind the realborn Merezenin that she was different after all. Different in ways that even her nutbean cream noodles would not smooth out.

Where music cannot find commonality, use food. Where food cannot find commonality — use music?

She loudly sang the preprandial kodara. “Come and eat, all. Nutbean cream noodles!”

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So it was done, Eret thought. So the Na-Melei he had admired for a few rehearsals, for her determination to keep her language — the one she herself understood least of her many languages — the contralto superstar whose voice may have had the power to fight the Dukes and this society; even she yielded. ‘Aishi Fau’ would be sung in Atsaldeian. With made-up words. It had nothing to do with assisting the Mattaghelit, but if even Na-Melei’s fame could not save a lost language…

Well, he had nothing to lose, with no family in the world, not even the people who shared his identity as a Mattaghelit but not at all as a singer.

Again he knocked at the door of the luxurious flat that shared a bathroom with only one other. “Yira! Professor Yira!”

She opened the door herself this time, her other hand fastening her worn copperbark coat.

“You are going…” he said, in very careful Mattaghelit.

“To Master Lazhanor’s, to translate the song,” she replied in Atsaldeian, seemingly not noticing the language switch, but without the antipathy of last time. Maybe she was just preoccupied.

“Could you…” Was that Atsaldeian? Of course; Mattaghelit would feel more laborious. He switched into it; he had planned this sentence on his walk. “Could you make the song ‘Aishi Fau’ in Mattaghelit?”

Silence, the kind of pause that longed for echoes, for the yelp of a poorly-muted instrument. The fading sun had moved away from the windows and they cast no shadows in the filtered light.

“What for?” she said, and this time in the same dead language.

He was rapidly mixed the two languages and for once he didn’t care; his mother wasn’t there to tut and frown and shame him, “Because I had asked you to help me, two weeks ago, but I didn’t know how. This is what I want — if nothing else, for our songs to be sung, the way Na-Melei kept singing the songs of the Aishi Fau people. If you are putting Atsaldeian words to it, why not Mattaghelit words too?”

Yira chuckled with dry irony. “Because it’s hard, for one thing?”

“But you can do it.”

“And for another, kso, we haven’t yet decided what our lyrics are even going to be about. You want a simultaneous drafting of an original song. Into a dead language.”

“About spring waking the earth again. Birds and wyverns flying up. Dawns blazing high. Flames rekindling and rising.”

Litsha-elents,” Yira corrected automatically, and Eret realized that this entire flood of words was in Mattaghelit. Mostly quotations from traditional songs and poems, true, but…

Yira looked strangely beautiful, and it took Eret a moment to understand he had never known how warm her laughter could be. “Write it,” she said. “You know the melody better than I do. I don’t know how libretti should work and you do. I’ll correct the grammar. Write it.”

“My grammar was probably terrible,” Eret said, thinking of the delicious, writhing words like sweet noodles on his tongue.

“A dying language always changes rapidly. What was wrong for your mother was right for three out of seven of the elders who died before her.” Yira headed down the stairs, and he followed her into the glass-fractured sunlight.

He thought of Chigiri singing, of his mother nagging him to speak her tongue, to repeat words and phrases after her. He had never made up his own songs in Mattaghelit. Never dared. Not in front of her.

Dropping his postverb endings and over-raising his vowels, he sang in the Atsaldeian street of his mother’s smoke rising to the sky, sending words of her language after her.

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Only the heavy patterned hangings kept the home of a Noted Artist of Sunatnight from being cavernous and echoing. Hangings of real sheep’s wool and leather, not leafwool and copperbark, Yira thought. She had seen such things at the University, but never in a private home. She resisted the desire to caress them.

Obviously, though, the hangings did not mean much to Master Lazhanor beyond their sound-deadening properties; the great piano meant much more.

Lazhanor now sat at that piano. Na-Melei took her accustomed recital spot in its curve, and still managed to look elegant and formal yet relaxed as she sat on the rug, legs folded to one side. Fai-rek silently wandered the room, looking at the wall hangings, the racks and stands of stringed and woodwind instruments that Yira couldn’t even name, the writing-desks scattered with music paper, some printed, some handwritten, some with the ink still wet. The boy seemed far more at ease than Eret, who perched on the edge of the cushioned curve-legged chair, scared of breaking anything. Well, Eret had just learned that Lazhanor’s apartment had the unimaginable luxury of having a bathroom entirely enclosed in it, shared with no one else but guests.

Yira took the couch near the young Mattaghelit.

The five voices joined in the kodara for urgent enterprises, Fai-rek coming in just a beat late and hastily blurting out the syllable he missed. He must have shared the common superstitious fear of missing even a word, even though the kodara wasn’t one he would have encountered often, and the words were as incomprehensible as those of the song they were about to “translate.” If, Yira was almost certain, kodaras were in a different language.

A similar thought must have struck the boy. “Did the Aishi Fau people use kodaras?” he asked.

The lecturer in Yira rose. “Kodaras are used cross-linguistically the world over. An analysis of the word itself, retracing vowel and consonant changes, shows that kodaras are descended from galdorcraft, the magic that vanished when the worlds amalgamated and otherspace magic took its place.”

She realized that the boy, for all his adeptness with Atsaldeian, could not follow such a complex sentence as had spilled out of her in one breath. She rephrased it in stumbling Phang, just to make sure the child understood. “Kso, kodaras are the records of dead magic. Galdorcraft magic. It doesn’t work any more, but we still keep saying it. Without any meaning. They’re like,” she couldn’t remember whether Merezen used death masks, “the death masks of pre-Amalgamation magic.”

It was having to say it again in Phang that made her think: the documentation she had made of Mattaghelit, to preserve it — it too merely made an empty record on the page that was not the language at all, already abandoned by its people and bereft of meaning.

Kre, I’ve said a kodara every day for fifty years, and I never knew that,” said Lazhanor, striking a rolled chord.

“Dead superstitious legacies,” Yira said through gritted teeth, and she herself didn’t know if she was talking about the kodaras or Mattaghelit. But the habits of singing kodaras like everyone else weren’t easy to break. In her youth, when she learned of their origins, she had tried.

“Legacies that connect us to our ancestors,” Na-Melei pointed out, with a firmness in her gentle voice. Of course she would; she would be the one who insisted on keeping up a song that no one knew the meaning of, or even which ancestors of hers had sung it.

“What for?” Yira said. “Ancestors who will never come back. Ancestors who you don’t even know whether they lived under beech or mango trees. What does it help to try to force these death masks on these people, when they resent you all the while for making them? I spent years trying to make death masks for a dead language, thinking that would resurrect it. Now I meet an even deader one,” she waved at the transcriptions of ‘Aishi Fau’ lying on the floor, “without even meaning.”

Eret sprang up, his face as drained of blood as such skin could be. Na-Melei, who had always solved problems with her voice until this very day with the censor, tensed as if she would solve this one with her fists.

Lazhanor spoke up. “There is a poem in Classical Caldamaran that I’ve tried for years to set to music. I will paraphrase it in Atsaldeian for the benefit of the boy.” He left it vague whether ‘the boy’ was Fai-rek or Eret, whose Caldamaran, Yira knew, was minimal. “A man comes to a temple of the Thyan gods, and asks why they still keep it up when its spirit has flown, are they blind and deaf to this? They reply that they know, but if they keep things ready, another spirit can come by and take up residence, and so the temple can awaken again.”

Even though it was prose, he kept a low accompaniment on the piano, as must have been his unconscious habit when storytelling: a repeated little snatch of melody from ‘Aishi Fau.’

Yira began planning how to set those words to the correct metre even before Eret said,  “Can we set that one as the contrafactum?”

“No,” Na-Melei said, seemingly unmoved by Lazhanor’s poem suggestion. “I’ve sung songs in translation, and, no matter what the censor says, I do not want this to be a translation, for people will take the easy way out and override the original. That would not be keeping the temple clean and ready; that would be razing it to the ground.”

She looked at Eret. “For ‘Aishi Fau,’ we will give a translation, but…sabotage it.”

Eret rose and went to join Fai-rek, who had wandered to the window. Yira watched the backs of the man and boy, muscles moving beneath their thin shirts as they sang something softly.

Brother tongues, she thought. Long-lost brother tongues.

Eret turned back. “If you’re not taking it, I will. I will translate this poem into Mattaghelit tonight, even if my Caldamaran is just as bad.”

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Only two minutes left of intermission, Na-Melei thought, rapidly buttoning up her gold-shot red gown for the second set. Ivuem wasn’t there to help her with the buttons on the back. Doubtless she was chatting with the Merezenin staff again. Well, she was Na-Melei’s aunt, not her attendant, as she reminded Na-Melei often in particularly uncooperative Vurkh.

A sip of water, a quick check of her hair and makeup in the mirror, and Na-Melei sang along softly to the kodara for fortune on the stage that all the choristers were singing before their entrance, some in unison, some in an unplanned round.

The applause shook the hall already, and it had only been the first set. So many people — glittering Atsaldeian nobility in the boxes and stalls, elaborately dressed hair above pale faces and silver and gold or even platinum lorgnettes. In the Ducal Box, the Dukes themselves, elegant Duchess Sazherian and shrewd Duke Derghanet and sneering Duke Oresune. Up in the cheap seats, she spotted some Merezenin faces, and there were some in the mages’ gallery where the black-clad mageborn sat like a huddle of crows on a tree branch, yet they too broke into cheers and applause. Including Ve-Kesh, the Merezenin Court Mage, the highest-ranked Merezenin in all Atsaldei.

No matter how big the halls got, how rich, it never stopped mattering that people liked what they heard from her.

She sang the Rallian Cavatina. No mistakes in it this time, every note on precise clear syllables of Classical Caldamaran, another language long dead but a mark of erudition to understand, and so unobjectionable.

And then, while the applause roared like a great wordless sea, she looked at the choir behind the orchestra on stage behind her…and noticed the gray-suited first row of the tenor section was missing Eret.

He had been there during the first set, she was certain. Yira had said something about him and ‘Aishi Fau’…what was it she had said?

No matter, for the opening notes sounded. She had to remember the words, the Atsaldeian words, the cursed compromise words.

But it was not a compromise, really. Yira had put Atsaldeian words to the melody, but words as close to the original as possible, without any concern for it making any Atsaldeian sense. At one point, Na-Melei and the choir sang in intricate counterpoint about unwed bumblebees spinning pearl goats, just because those were the words that sounded the most alike.  It was introduced as a children’s song — because children love nonsense most and learn languages fastest. It was nonsense, a nonsense that broke open the audience’s own language and made it strange and meaningless. And yet beautiful. And more beautiful because it was driven by all the anger and pride in her soul.

In meaningless words mimicking words of lost meaning, “This is who I am,” she sang. “And this is all of me, all the people who came before me.” She wasn’t conceding to sing her song in an alien tongue; she seized the alien Atsaldeian tongue and made it hers, shaped it to her will and her creativity. It was a material like any other. It was part of her as well.

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Rain drizzled onto Amalgamation Square, framed by the Opera House, the Mercantile Exchange, and the Court of Justice, with the War Memorial in the centre. Still, despite the rain, it was more crowded than ever with people trying to overhear the sold-out concert. “Can you hear it? What is she singing?”

“This!” came a voice with years of training on how to fill cavernous concert halls over a full orchestra.

Eret, climbing onto the silvered statue of men and women in military uniform embracing in peace, took an enormous breath and began to sing the tenor line of ‘Aishi Fau.’ In Mattaghelit. In a paraphrase of the Atsaldeian words that had paraphrased the Classical Caldamaran words he did not know. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an exact rendition of anything else, except what was in his soul.

‘Aishi Fau,’ though, was contrapuntal. Only one line, though pretty, did not stand alone, did not approximate its magnificence. It could not be done alone…

And on the third bar, it wasn’t. A soprano — no, a treble voice joined him, perhaps not as strong but remarkably accurate, even though they were singing in different languages. The original words interwove with the Mattaghelit, vowels fitting against each other in ways never heard before, as Fai-rek climbed up to stand beside Eret, the joy in the boy’s eyes bright enough to light up the entire expanse of Amalgamation Square.

How long had the little shadow been trailing me? Eret thought in the instant between one note and another. And then he could not think any more, as the crowd began to clap along to the beat, forgetting the rain, and Eret became a conduit for the Mattaghelit words flooding from his heart and belly to embrace the dead language that poured from Fai-rek with such vivacity.

Inside the Opera House, a seated audience listened to the four-part choir and orchestra and Na-Melei herself sing the same song that the huge standing crowd outside heard a man and a boy belt out under the rainy sky.

Tsii, enough!!” three police lieutenants in scarlet-and-blue roared in chorus, plainly furious that their first four attempts to demand attention had attracted as little of it as the rain.

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And so the audience, Dukes and mages and teachers and tailors, clapped and whistled and cheered for several minutes, while children waited anxiously by the stage, dwarfed by their clutched bouquets of hothouse flowers. But their summons didn’t work: the soloist and conductor did not come out for the curtain call or encore. Until the orchestra concertmistress finally stepped forward, called for silence, and said that Mistress Na-Melei Tro and Master Lazhanor have encountered an unexpected emergency, but are very grateful for all of the appreciation, and the choir will collect the flowers.

Ivuem’s warning ringing in her ears, Na-Melei did not bother to throw her expensive leather coat on as she and Lazhanor dashed out the stage door and across Amalgamation Square. In time to see the police lieutenant’s club whack Eret across the kidneys, once, twice.

“No!” She seized the police lieutenant’s sleeve, and became the regal imperious diva ignoring the rain splattering her gown. “I am Na-Melei Tro, here on cultural exchange with the Merezenin government. The child is a Merezenin citizen. You cannot arrest them. I will call up the embassy!”

The police lieutenant stopped, and looked at her. “Lady, the chestnutface street urchins go to Vingyar for disturbing the peace. Both of them. Kso, seven days, and you’ll get them out just fine. Talk to the judge.”

Her and Lazhanor’s pleas and fury were futile, as the crimson-and-blue led Eret and Fai-rek away.

Eret looked back and grinned. “I’ll be atsh-gii.” The Mattaghelit for ‘fine.’

Lazhanor gave a quick bow in return.

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Ivuem did not watch Lazhanor and Na-Melei go. Instead, she found the back staircase leading behind the galleries.

Trepidation clenched at her throat. No mage had ever truly harmed her, and the law made Atsaldei’s mages better-behaved and more obvious than most. And the Transit administrator had proved a kind woman who liked noodles. But.

Bright shawl and all, Ivuem stuck her head into the mages’ gallery. A wave of stillness washed over the black-clothed men and women there, conversations halting rapidly enough to make Ivuem suspect thoughtsenders were not as rare as everyone claimed they were. All turned to look at the realborn doing what was not done.

Normally, Ivuem would have agreed. All of her experience in acting like she belonged someplace, even if acting mageborn was impossible, she pulled together to calmly scan faces above black collars as if it were all a normal, done thing.

The Transit administrator was adjusting her russet sash over her coat. “Ah, Iv-Uyem. Wonderful to see you.” Even in Merezenin, her tone was stilted and tense, but her polished manners prevailed. She would have immediately demanded what on earth Ivuem was doing here, but if she could not say that in Merezenin that meant there was a stranger nearby who also knew the language.

“So this,” a voice like dark sweet honey said in Merezenin, “is the lady with the nutbean cream noodles.”

He is very beautiful, the rumours had whispered. Young girls, and boys, would lose their hearts to him if he weren’t so dangerous. But on Ivuem’s inquiries of what was specifically dangerous about a Seventh Level Court Mage other than being, well, a Seventh Level and a Court Mage, she had gotten no coherent answers.

Ve-Kesh ro Sazherian, Court Mage to Duchess Sazherian, was indeed darkly handsome, combining rakishness and boyishness in a way that made even Ivuem remember how long ago it had been since her husband died. He gave her a languid smile. She looked below his face, at the crimson sash with seven Level knots unevenly spaced because it was not designed to hold so many.

“She is Mistress Tro’s aunt,” the Transit administrator said, eager to be helpful.

“Indeed,” Ve-Kesh raised his eyebrows. “Would you be so kind as to explain why there was no encore?”

His word choice was aristocratic, but there was something about his vowels and consonants…very, very subtle, showing in only two or three words, but Ivuem was listening closely to his Merezenin and she caught it. She had no doubt that his Atsaldeian was fit for Dukes, even if it was wasted on her as she still barely understood a fraction of the language; but he had learned his Merezenin from the lowest Cadrazien dockworkers.

Do they know? she wondered. Do these second-generation Merezenin who say kso and end their sentences wrong, do they realize their most successful brother learned to speak in the gutter?

She spoke as much like an aristocrat as she knew how. “Magister Ekt.” Few people would even know Ve-Kesh’s surname in this country where honorifics were followed by first names, but she had asked about it. “Mistress Tro’s young son, and a friend, have just been arrested in Amalgamation Square.”

“What?!” All the aristocratic languor dropped for a moment, and the mages watching this scene craned their necks wishing to understand.

Ivuem wondered whether to let them in on it, then decided not, for the time being. She knew nothing of these Atsaldeian mages, and whether letting a Merezenin ascend to Seventh Level would make them sympathetic to the Merezenin plight, much less the plight of a child from the Grasshills and a young man who was not Merezenin at all.

But whatever paths had led from workhouse to Ducal palace, they had clearly taught Ve-Kesh enough that his next question was not Why?Kso, for disturbing the peace or something. The shrooking…” Either he thought Merezenin curse words were too weak, or he hadn’t learned any.

“Well,” he said at last, “she will need help, won’t she? In a land afar, a wyvern from home is a joy. I will look into it. And I look forward to trying those noodles of yours.”

divider

In all the stories that Fai-rek had read or heard, jail was an exciting place for heroes to be. This was doubtless where they would only stay till midnight before pulling off a daring escape, or where the jailer’s beautiful daughter would fall in love with them and smuggle them out. Fall in love with Eret, Fai-rek supposed. The heroes and heroines rarely had a boy along.

Fai-rek could only read and write Merezenin. Sometimes he played with writing down Vurkh words in Merezenin letters and seeing how strange they looked, or how funny they sounded if one then read them aloud in Merezenin. Phang was even funnier, because the same word as written in Merezenin could look like it meant several different words in Phang. But both written stories in Merezenin and Ivuem’s and his mother’s told stories in Phang and Vurkh featured jail in climactic plot points.

All the benches were already taken by half a dozen sullen men, some very old and some adults like Eret, who eyed the newcomers warily without offering greetings in any language.

Eret slumped down on the floor of their cell and removed his coat. The policeman had hit him across the back there, and he winced as he pulled the coat off. But from the inside back pocket, he drew a thick book.

“Yira’s Grammar of Mattaghelit,” he said to Fai-rek. “Kso, it probably saved my kidneys.”

Fai-rek found their cellmates more interesting. “Will we save them too, when we get rescued?” he inquired very softly. They could not let the guard overhear. He wished Eret knew Vurkh or Phang or even Merezenin, which he was pretty sure the guard couldn’t understand. That way they could have a secret language.

“Rescued?”

Fai-rek gave the same word in Merezenin, just in case Eret could understand; sometimes, it seemed like the man knew it well, while other times he seemed unable to understand the simplest things. “Like Da-Hilai and the bark-tanner’s daughter.”

“I don’t know that story,” Eret admitted.

Atsaldeians were certainly a deprived people, missing out on one of the best stories in the world. So of course Fai-rek sat down cross-legged on the floor, as all the storytellers he’d seen had done, and told it, randomly inserting Merezenin words when there were gaps in his Atsaldeian vocabulary, and Vurkh words where even his Merezenin vocabulary couldn’t suffice.

Noticing that their cellmates were listening, he shifted to the version where when Da-Hilai is imprisoned, all the other people in the prison help him get out, rather than the version where he is in a cell alone. Fai-rek had heard both and often wondered which was true, but right now he decided that having allies and setting a good example mattered more than being truthful.

He finished with the traditional Merezenin flourish. “…And so Da-Hilai and the bark-tanner’s daughter, now a princess, got married and they had the biggest wedding feast all our Alcrist-world had ever seen. And I was there and ate and caroused, but I drank no wine, so what I say is true!” He knew that a nine-year-old boy saying it would get a laugh. He wasn’t sure what ‘caroused’ meant (he’d asked Ivuem once but she told him to wait until he was older) so he tossed the Merezenin verb in wholesale.

Fai-rek, generally shy about meeting people and making friends, was a natural performer, and from his adopted mother he had unconsciously learned that giving people a good performance was what made them like you and give you things.

Their cellmates clapped. “Kre, that was something,” one of them muttered.

“You forgot to say kre-an-kso,” said another one. Fai-rek looked at Eret for a translation.

“In Atsaldeian, you say kre-an-kso when you tell stories. Kso, I suppose kre for you knowing for sure it happened, and kso for you not knowing for sure. I’ve never thought of it before.”

“Where did you get that urchin?” A third man demanded with grudging admiration. Fai-rek wasn’t sure what an urchin was, but rage flashed in Eret’s eyes.

Kre, he is no urchin, he is the guest opera singer’s son from Merezen,” Eret said coldly.

“What’s an urchin?” Fai-rek inquired.

“The poor homeless children with no parents who beg on the streets,” Eret said. But the boy noticed that their cellmates’ attitudes changed more at his question than at Eret’s protest. Urchins knew they were urchins.

“I am one,” grinned Fai-rek. “I’m in disguise as an urchin.” For a prince, or a famous woman’s son, to reveal his identity in jail where guards could overhear was a poor strategic move. “And you need to speak to me in a secret language, so the guards won’t understand. I can teach you Vurkh.”

Eret sighed. “It will pass the time. But I think it would be easier if I teach you Mattaghelit.”

Yet another language, the one that Professor Yira sometimes talked about to herself.  “Done! How do you say We’re in jail in Mattaghelit?”

Yatsaag midaaq’at, that’s the way to say we’re in here,” Eret said. “Yatsaag means jail for small crimes like minor theft and disturbing the peace. Gumagh, that’s downstairs, the jail for murderers and major thieves. Mehaar, that’s jail for rebels, upstairs. Yatsaag midaaq’at.”

Fai-rek pronounced the popping q’ correctly on the first try, and laughed.

And Eret finally smiled.

divider

Na-Melei, Lazhanor, Ivuem and Yira were standing at the gates when Eret led Fai-rek out, softly humming the kodara for release. Behind them, the sunlight glimmered across the city, again refracting into rainbows at each glass pane. After three long days, it was time to head back to Eret’s appreciably well-lit apartment. Back to sharing the bathroom with twenty flats instead of just ten cell-mates.

Ayaqashai,” was the first word Fai-rek said.

“Mirror-wise,” Yira replied before giving him a look of surprise — he had said ‘Sunlight on you’ in Mattaghelit. she corrected herself to the Mattaghelit answer. “Hatseyal.

“We spoke all these days,” Eret said, “in a mix of Atsaldeian and Mattaghelit. But…he is learning my mother’s tongue, and mine.” Fai-rek was not his child, but in three days in the common all-male cell Eret had grown to treat him as a son. He had never seen a child learn a language so fast, but then again he had never been a child like him.

A steaming four-corner pastry wrapped in gift paper in her hand, Na-Melei knelt to embrace Fai-rek, whispering a few words in Phang or Vurkh or Merezenin. Over her shoulder, the boy grabbed the pastry and grinned impishly at Eret. “Mattaghelit-q’ur efelii.” It was now his most beloved language.

According to the Grammar of Mattaghelit, there should probably be another ending on the noun, but Eret really didn’t care. Eret had never had a favourite language. Chigiri had disapproved of the Mattaghelit language being taught to strangers, yet once upon a time she had taught a few words of Mattaghelit to her master’s son, and these words had kindled a song for her own son now.

“The noun inflection is Vurkh,” Yira said. “But using Vurkh to rebuild Mattaghelit is the only way. We cannot get back your mother’s Mattaghelit. But kso, with hard work, your children may speak a new one.”

As they walked together back out of earshot of the scarlet-and-blue, Na-Melei turned to the smiling Lazhanor and said softly, in Merezenin, “That idea you had, of the right time to use a song to upend this country?”

Lazhanor checked that no stranger was in earshot. “Yes?”

It was in Atsaldeian that Na-Melei said, “Kre, I will stay here. And join you. There needs to be more sharing between our lands and languages.” She looked at Fai-rek and Eret together. Her son spent three days in jail and still returned unbroken and even cheerful. Something about co-guardianship can be worked out. The apartment she’d been given had an extra bedroom that could be put to good use.

Eret began to hum the tenor part of ‘Aishi Fau’ and Fai-rek joined in, humming the treble. Na-Melei smiled and took the alto part, and Lazhanor, the baritone. Yira and Ivuem glanced at each other and started a drumbeat slapping their coat pockets, singing, without words.

___
Copyright 2016 Tamara Vardomskaya

Tamara Vardomskaya is a Canadian writer and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has also appeared at Tor.com and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in theoretical linguistics at the University of Chicago.

by Ada Hoffmann

 

I hadn’t had a minute, since getting off the airship, to put down my carpet bag and close my eyes. But Dr. Clarence Fullerton was intent on showing me the entire encampment before I rested. He never paused to allow me a word in edgewise, although at that point I was so exhausted I couldn’t have said much anyway.

“Past the mess tent,” he explained, “we have the path down into the canyon, and the fossil-rich ridges themselves–of course, you won’t be digging there, but I’m sure you can imagine the wealth of discovery available. Go ahead and feast your eyes.”

The sunset over the rugged river valley had turned everything pink, but of course I was more interested in the robots. The encampment crouched at the edge of the canyon, only four tents and assorted machinery. Robots outnumbered humans: four Whitman-651 walkers to carry the plastered-up fossils, one more to carry personal supplies, and a couple of convenience items such as a broken Hamilton-Smith, which was supposed to wash and press clothes with hardly any human assistance. And then this thing looming up in front of me, which I did not recognize. It was large enough for two people to stand in the cockpit, and it sported a considerable array of gun turrets.

I wondered why they needed a machine like that out here.

Dr. Fullerton followed my gaze. “Or, yes, you may feast your eyes on that, too. It’s a KD8102 special from Lovell & Grimm. One never knows what might come calling, you see. Grizzlies, bandits, rival researchers… But in any case, you won’t be touching the KD8102 just yet, nor its ammunition cases. It will be your job eventually, but only once you’ve proven yourself.

“The less, ahem, martially oriented machines are yours to examine as you will. Now, I’m given to understand you’ve worked at fossil expeditions before, but you haven’t worked at one of my expeditions, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I give you a short lesson in fossil handling before allowing you to work on the Whitman-651s. May I schedule that for the first thing tomorrow morning?”

“Yes,” I said weakly. The airship ride had been loud and shaky, and his voice scratched at my ears. He simply wouldn’t stop talking.

“Most excellent.” Dr. Fullerton ushered me into the comparative darkness of the mess tent. “Now I’ll introduce you to our fine colleagues. Miss Howe, may I introduce Dr. Harold Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. Harry and Mrs. Cunningham, may I introduce Lillian Howe…”

I stared at Mrs. Cunningham even longer than I’d stared at the KD8102.

Out west, the social rules were loose for lack of civilization, and I was not the only woman who ever worked at fossil hunts. I had even been on speaking terms with two of the women at Dr. Mandeville’s camp. But neither of these women approached the perfection of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. There was a brightness in her eyes and a surpassing neatness in the way she held herself, suggesting intelligence, warmth, efficiency. She wore practical outdoor clothes, like me, but they were all in black bombazine, with a widow’s cap–the veil shortened, presumably so as not to get in the way. Mr. Cunningham must have died a little over a year ago.

I felt sorry for Mr. Cunningham. Of course he was probably very happy in the spirit world, but if I were him and had a wife like his, I would have wanted very much to stay alive so I could hold her.

Dr. Kerr, a tall thin man, bowed and muttered a greeting. Dr. Fullerton kept talking and talking, and I think I was supposed to introduce myself to the others, but I couldn’t keep my mind on any of it. Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham looked at me in concern.

“Are you all right?” she said. “You’ve gone positively white.”

I fluttered my hands a little as I groped for an appropriate response. “Oh,” I managed eventually, “I’m feeling a little faint, that’s all. The journey here was tiring.”

“Faint” is the safest way to say it: delicate, ladylike, and proper. “Faint” is much better than the truth, which is that if I get too overwhelmed by too many people talking to me, I will begin shouting and perhaps even bite them, even if they are beautiful like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham.

They led me straightaway to a quiet tent, instructed me to keep my head between my knees, and left me to calm myself down.

It really was a nice camp. Not too big, and lots of interesting machines. For a minute, I felt sorry that I’d come all this way to sabotage them.

Fossil hunting is an enormous business. Like a gold rush. Below the 49th parallel, one can hardly set foot in a sedimentary wasteland without running into Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who regularly resort to blackmail, theft, and robot ambushes in order to one-up each other. Up here, in the North-West Territories, our own scientists carry on in much the same way.

I had learned the rules of fossil hunting as a mechanic fixing robots for one Dr. Mandeville–though I had had to hide that from Dr. Fullerton, who was Dr. Mandeville’s bitterest rival. Over time, Dr. Mandeville had grown to trust me enough to tell me his secrets, and to send me on special missions.

I hadn’t thought it was in me to carry out sabotage. But I was shocked when Dr. Mandeville told me about Dr. Fullerton’s camps. Why, when they finished, they dynamited whatever small fossils and fragments were left, so that Dr. Mandeville couldn’t have them. Destroying irreplaceable knowledge in the name of sheer rivalry–can you imagine? So Dr. Mandeville had not asked me to hurt anyone. Only to secretly dispose of the dynamite.

It was still deceptive, and I experienced occasional pangs of conscience, but Dr. Mandeville had offered me a great deal of money should I succeed. The alternative was to sit at home with my brother and his wife and their extremely noisy children, pretending to do needlepoint and having maybe one interesting robotics project per year, since customers in Ottawa preferred men. No, thank you: I preferred a life with autonomy, even if it meant lying to Dr. Fullerton while he talked my ear off.

When I’d calmed down, I set to work erecting my own tent. I was not nearly as good with fabric and poles as I was with machinery, and the whole thing threatened to fall down several times, but I eventually got it straightened out. That done, I sorted all the tools in my carpet bag in order of size until I fell asleep.

The next morning dawned in a very pink way. I woke in considerably better spirits and felt much better able to handle Dr. Fullerton as he walked me around.

“The excavation itself is very delicate work,” he explained. “Suited only for humans, not machines. It’s only later that the machines come in…”

I could see why he wanted me to understand his procedures, but they were exactly the same as Dr. Mandeville’s, so I stopped listening. Instead I looked out over the canyon, an intricate fold in the earth where Dr. Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham clambered about in the cool morning air, worrying at the rocks with picks and whisk brooms. Sunlight glinted off some of the biggest bones. The team seemed to have stumbled onto something very impressive.

All the more reason not to let them dynamite it.

“Ah,” said Dr. Fullerton. “But look at you. I suspect I’ve gone on entirely too long. Perhaps that will be all the lecturing for today! Do you have any questions?”

“No,” I said.

He clasped my shoulder heartily and I tried not to squirm away. I don’t always mind being touched, but the way he was doing it made the edge of my cotton shift scratch against my shoulders uncomfortably, under my jacket. “I am glad to hear it, Miss Howe! I like a woman with nothing to say. I must say I was concerned at first about adding another woman, but you’ve been meek, ladylike, and altogether pleasant thus far. Perhaps you’ll help us keep Mrs. Cunningham in her place!”

I had no idea what Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham’s place was supposed to be, but when he said it, I imagined holding her down to keep her in one spot. This lead to thoughts which frankly were not ladylike at all.

“Thank you, Dr. Fullerton,” I said.

He nodded. “Now, where did you say you learned robotics?”

I had a small moment of panic before I realized he was not interrogating me. He didn’t suspect that I was a plant sent by his bitterest rival. He was simply doing the thing people call Making Conversation.

“From my brother,” I said. “He has a degree in robotics. I borrowed his textbooks. And his equipment. And eventually his customers.”

“Hm. Where was that?”

“In Ottawa.”

“Ah! I have cousins in Ottawa. What church did you go to?”

I swallowed, knowing things never went well when I said the name. “The Ottawa Spiritualist Temple.”

Sure enough, his eyes sprang open. “So you go in for that sort of thing? Materialization of the dead? Girls walking around in little sheets?”

I shook my head. “I do séances with my family at home, Dr. Fullerton. I’ve never seen a materialization. Only the most powerful mediums can even…”

“Splendid! I know just what we’ll do to welcome you to the camp, Miss Howe. You can do a séance for us! I’ve always wanted to see one. We’ll all sit and chat with Mrs. Cunningham’s husband or Harry’s mother or whoever else you can drum up. How does that sound?”

“But…”

He clapped me on the shoulder again and I winced. “Splendid! Excellent! Oh, I’m glad we have you aboard.”

He kept talking after that, and I couldn’t get a word in.

I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t comfortable with this. Séances, however pleasant, were not a form of entertainment. They were for me and my family and our spiritual development. Besides, although I had cultivated enough mind passivity to channel voices, I certainly couldn’t produce the sort of spectacle Dr. Fullerton expected. In the presence of three spiritually disruptive strangers, I wasn’t certain I could produce anything at all.

Still, even if I explained all that to him, he probably would not have cared–and if I started declining his requests, I might look suspicious. So I looked on the bright side. I hadn’t done a proper séance since leaving home; all I had managed at Dr. Mandeville’s camp was a bit of automatic writing. And I was curious about Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham and her husband. I wondered what would happen if she could speak with him. Perhaps she would be impressed with me. And I dearly liked the idea of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham being impressed with me.

It was Dr. Kerr’s turn to make lunch. Dr. Fullerton had left me alone eventually, and I had worked up an appetite inspecting the robots. But when I got to the mess tent and found Dr. Kerr laboring over a badly maintained camp stove piled with stinking meat–none of which I could eat, due to my personal convictions–and carrying on a shouted conversation with Dr. Fullerton, I lost my nerve. I darted in, plucked a bit of cucumber and half-wilted watercress from the side table, and retreated outside to eat them.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham flounced out of the tent herself and sat at my side. I was happy to see her, but it did nothing to calm me.

“Dreadful, aren’t they?” she said. “Pompous, noisy men. I don’t know how I deal with them some days myself.”

“Er,” I said.

“I can see why you’d want to eat out here,” she said. “Such a view! I often take it for granted, clambering about on the rocks every day, but I shouldn’t. One needs to take time to appreciate beauty in this world.”

“Er,” I said. “Yes.”

I hated this part. The trouble with women like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham was that I became fascinated with them too early. I was naturally reticent to begin with, and the presence of beautiful women only made it harder to speak. I had had special women friends in the past, but they had been the ones to pursue me. I didn’t know how to do it the other way round.

I groped for something interesting today.

“What’s your favourite dinosaur?” I tried.

“Mine? I suppose I prefer the Troödons. We’re finding a lot of them at this dig site–little things, up to your waist, with astonishingly large claws at the toes. Deadly predators, if you want to be technical, but I find them endearing.” She looked at me sidelong. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh, I have weak nerves, that’s all. I appreciate you coming out here.”

She smiled at me for the first time: white teeth, charmingly crooked. I liked her smile.

“One gets used to Dr. Fullerton. I’ve been working with him for years. Since before James passed on. And you? Did you make your way here all alone, a quiet thing like you?”

“Yes,” I said. “By small airship from Fort Calgary, though I am from Ottawa, originally.” She had gotten the conversation back onto facts, which was much easier, so long as I remembered not to mention the incriminating ones.

“Then you were in Fort Calgary all by yourself?”

“Yes.” And not just once; I’d been there on the way to Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and again on the way here. But that was incriminating.

“With all the outlaws and cowboys? Were you frightened?” She didn’t sound frightened herself, and I got the sense she was hoping I hadn’t been.

“No,” I said, which was the truth. “Fort Calgary isn’t lawless. There were some men in strange clothes, but they didn’t give me any trouble.”

She smiled again. “You’re so trusting.”

“No.”

People often told me that sort of thing, but I knew it wasn’t true. If I were a trusting person, I wouldn’t have come here as a saboteur, now, would I? I didn’t trust Dr. Fullerton at all. Still, I couldn’t say any of that, so I just fluttered one of my hands.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham caught that hand in hers. Which was something I had thought I had wanted her to do. But the edge of her sleeve was the scratchiest lace I had ever encountered, and I could not bear it brushing my wrist. I flinched, and she immediately let go of my hand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean-”

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s not you, it’s the lace. My skin-”

“Of course.” Her cheeks were suddenly bright red. “I… I really ought to help them clean up in there. Men, you know.”

I couldn’t do anything in response but flutter, and she picked up her skirts and left me there feeling utterly ridiculous.

It’s a good thing that I work quickly. I had a basic inspection done on half the machines before supper, and I’d figured out the problem with the Hamilton-Smith–really just a worn-out drive block. In between doing those things I spent an unseemly amount of time breathing deep and sorting my tools in my tent, thinking of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I kept worrying that she did not like me. I tried not to do it. I told myself that, once I allowed her to speak with her husband, everything would be fine.

Of course, there were other dangers inherent in the séance. It might not work, and Dr. Fullerton might decide that I was a charlatan. Or it might work too well, and some friendly spirit might warn one of them that I was a saboteur. This latter possibility occurred to me a little too late. I’d already taken on the risk.

The mess tent was not exactly a proper sitting room, but they had done what they could with available materials, bringing in the most comfortable cushions and clearing the small table. After dark, the mess tent’s fabric adequately blocked out the moonlight. It was almost cozy.

We linked hands, and I recited a sonnet of which I was fond. Normally in my family we began with a prayer, but I didn’t know these people well, and an uplifting sonnet would do.

“Now,” I said, with our hands linked in the darkness, “the best thing to do is to focus on pleasant thoughts. You can sing or converse lightly. It may take a few minutes.” I didn’t know if I was explaining too much or not enough. I tried not to be frustrated, to remove my own emotions and be a pliant vessel for the spirits.

There was a lot of coughing and harrumphing for a while, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham saved me, raising her voice in the first verse of “Jerusalem, My Happy Home.” It wasn’t strictly a spiritualist song but it would do for now. Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr joined in, slightly off-key, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham carried the tune very well. Her high voice relaxed me more than my own efforts.

The room became indistinct and I felt my own thoughts and volitions slipping away. This was working. Even in this strange company, I was nearing a proper trance, and the room was full of indistinct balls of light.

I wondered why there were so many spirits in these deserted badlands.

“James Cunningham,” I whispered. “Mr. James Cunningham, do you hear me?”

I felt an emotion from Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham, but it wasn’t the one I had expected. Granted, I often misinterpret emotions even in a trance, but she seemed confused or alarmed.

One of the lights moved toward me. Simultaneously, there was a strong, sudden rapping at the table. The others startled a little, hearing the sound though not seeing the lights, and then the table turned in place by thirty degrees.

“Oh my goodness!” said Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I felt that alarm from her again. I wished I could tell her to stop it.

Then my whole mind fixed on the light before me, and I saw its proper shape.

It was not Mr. James Cunningham. It was not even human.

The spirit, if I can call it that, was a sort of flightless bird, perhaps three feet high and standing on the table. It wore clothing, but of a sort I had never seen before: a scaled, leathery robe, and a satchel of the same material. It had huge talons and, despite the birdlike appearance, sharp teeth.

I knew that evil spirits sometimes disrupted séances. But evil spirits still looked like humans: rowdy sailors, for instance, and surly criminals. I had never heard of a monster like this. It terrified me. Yet I could not look away.

The bird spoke. It was a horrid rasping sound–I am not even sure how I identified it so readily as language. My own mouth opened in concert, but nothing came out except a hiss.

I felt rather than saw the others drawing back. This was not what they had expected. They didn’t know what to do.

The bird cocked its head, looking at me through one eye as birds do.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

It paused, rummaged in that satchel, and drew out a small device. I had an impression of gears and circuits, like the robots I worked with, but even more intricate, its component parts mostly too small to see.

It stepped forward and pressed the device to my forehead. I could feel it there like a breath of wind. There was a clicking sound.

When it spoke again, it was still in rasps, but the words came out of my mouth in the Queen’s English.

“Our bones,” it–or I–said. “You walk above us and steal our bones. What are you? Where are your ancestors buried?” I hated the way the words felt. I was used to human spirits’ words pouring through me like water. But these words were not human. They climbed all over my mouth and bruised it. The bird seemed warily calm, curious even, but my own voice rose to an unbearable shriek. “If you are here, you must do as we ask! Our bones!”

At that point it became altogether too much and I screamed. I put my hands over my ears, doubled over, and screamed until I could not see birds, lights, or anything like them.

I could hear the others saying things. “What in the devil-” and “Good Lord, girl-” and “Give her air, we don’t know how-” But I wasn’t really listening, not until a good while later when I’d finished screaming. By then the others had fled the mess tent, leaving me crouched in darkness, until I calmed down enough to realize that I’d just ruined my prospects here entirely.

While I was still wondering what to do, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham crept back into the mess tent holding a lantern. The light startled me.

“I’m sorry,” I said immediately, wondering if she was here to send me away.

“Oh, no, don’t be. We’re all terribly worried, that’s all. You had some kind of fit. I came to check on you.”

“It wasn’t a fit. I just…” I fluttered my hands, unable to explain.

“You saw something,” she prompted, sitting down beside me. “Then you started raving about bones. Or it looked like you. Was that a spirit talking?”

“I think so.” I looked up at her, defensive. “It’s never happened like this before. Usually it’s wonderful and uplifting. But this wasn’t a human spirit, it was a great sort of bird. I couldn’t make head or tail of what it was saying. I suppose I got overwhelmed.”

I wondered suddenly if the evil spirit was a punishment. If some great power had decided that I wasn’t worthy of seeing anything good, or at least not in the very same room as the people I was lying to.

“Dr. Kerr said that you must be hysterical.”

“I’m not.” I had actually been diagnosed with hysteria in my youth and given a vibrator, but while I didn’t mind using it, it had no effect on the fits at all.

“I believe you. It’s just that I didn’t realize séances were so difficult for you.”

“They aren’t. This was an exceptional situation.”

She nodded. “Being possessed by enormous birds, yes. I should be more worried if it wasn’t exceptional. Still…”

“I should have told Dr. Fullerton I couldn’t do it out here. Real séances are supposed to happen in the home with a loving family, not… out here with…”

With my victims. I couldn’t quite say it.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham raised her eyebrows. “You mean to say this was Dr. Fullerton’s idea?”

“In a way. But I knew there might be problems, and I didn’t turn him down, so really it’s my fault.”

Her voice went sharp. “Of course you didn’t turn him down. He is your employer, and you are a woman! You must have been wondering what would happen if you displeased him. Really, Lillian, you’ve done nothing wrong except failing to understand how he used you. You’re too trusting, that’s all.”

I curled my legs up to my chest. “My brother told me I’d never last out here. I’m so ladylike and good most of the time and then I turn bestial at a moment’s notice, and I can’t control it. He told me Dr. Fullerton would throw me out in disgrace and he was right. I’m sorry.”

Actually he had said that about Dr. Mandeville. I figured it was close enough.

She laughed unexpectedly, a big laugh, throwing her head back. “Dr. Fullerton will do no such thing! The man gushed about you all through dinner. You managed half again as many inspections in one day as any other technician we’ve had. You found the problem with the Hamilton-Smith, even. This isn’t like Ottawa. Propriety comes in second to results. If you have fits every once in a while, well, we shall live with them.”

“Oh,” I said.

We sat in companionable silence, and then Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham said, “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“I thought I heard you say my husband’s name, before you started to scream. Did you see him? Was he… with the monsters?”

I sighed. “No. I was looking for him; I thought you’d like it if you could speak to him. But he wasn’t there.”

There was a pause. “It’s just as well,” she said at last. “I miss him, but we were never… You know.”

“Never what?”

“The spiritualist view of marriage is very liberal, isn’t it? You say a true marriage isn’t an economic or family arrangement, but a spiritual affinity between a man and woman. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said, though I would have quibbled substantially with the “man and woman” bit.

“Well, that was the problem. James and I were friends, of a sort, but nothing more than that except on paper. It was my own fault. I wanted an ordinary family, but I never got the hang of spiritual affinities with men.”

With men.

It was the sort of thing I would have missed when I was younger, but not now.

“Neither have I, really,” I said. “I much prefer the company of women.”

“Well, then, we have that in common.”

I didn’t want to be too forward. Just because she was interested in women didn’t mean she was interested in me. Still, this felt like an important milestone, and I ought to say something. I ended up just fluttering some more.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she said. “I’d like to embrace you, if that would help, but this lace…”

“Here,” I said, relieved that she’d mentioned it first.

The bombazine wasn’t nearly as bad as the lace. I arranged her arms around me so that the lace only touched my back, which was covered with a cotton jacket anyway. I leaned against her, resting my face against her shoulder.

“Does that help?” She sounded uncertain, though her arms were firm, warm, and wonderful around me.

“This is excellent,” I said.

She opened her mouth to say more, but just then Dr. Kerr came stomping past the outside of the mess tent and we quickly disentangled ourselves. “How is she, Mrs. Cunningham? Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine,” said Hattie. “Just a moment.” She pecked me on the lips while he still couldn’t see, then grinned widely, as though she had done something terribly brave, and hurried out.

Suddenly I wasn’t so worried about the birds anymore.

I didn’t venture out of the mess tent until night. The badlands were still and shadowy, and Dr. Fullerton’s snoring rang out in the quiet. I felt confident that everyone else had gone to sleep, but I was not at all sure they would stay that way.

I crept out to the KD8102 and picked the locks on the ammunition cases. Inside lay piles of dynamite: some in sticks, some in spheres. It was a good trick, hiding them here. I suspected that the KD8102 was for show, little more than an excuse for the explosives. That would explain why Dr. Fullerton had been reluctant to teach me about it.

Dr. Mandeville had instructed me in how to dispose of dynamite. It was really the percussive shock of the blasting caps that set it off, not the burning of the fuse, so–counterintuitive as this was–the best thing to do was to burn it. I built a little fire out of sight of the camp and got to work, turning the dynamite itself to ash and burying the blasting caps separately. The spheres were heavier than I had realized; I could only carry a few at once, and that made for terribly slow work. By the time I had emptied a quarter of the ammunition case, I was exhausted. So I closed and locked the ammunition case, crawled into my tent, and prayed that Dr. Fullerton would not notice.

Hattie was busy with fossils all the next day. There was a lot of cheering and hopping around; they’d found a really colossal group of those Troödon fossils, as well as something with hip bones the size of wheelbarrows. I tried to cheer back whenever they mentioned it, but my heart wasn’t in it. They didn’t have enough Whitman-651s to carry all these bones home, and that meant many would be dynamited. Yet they were cheering and grinning as though they saw no problems at all. I needed to hurry.

I finished fixing the Hamilton-Smith’s drive block and then wasn’t sure what to do until dark.

“Have a drink with us,” said Dr. Fullerton, winking at me in a way that suggested he was already drunk, “if your nerves will allow. This is a colossal find, you understand. Have you ever thought about devising ways for our Whitman-651s to hold more?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I wasn’t sure how many modifications I could make. There was not exactly a foundry pounding out custom machine parts to my specifications out here. And that was to say nothing of the structural integrity of the legs.

“Hah!” He seemed inexplicably pleased. “So there’s an end to your knowledge. Well, if you’re stumped, then tomorrow we’ll teach you to help with the excavations. Maybe you’ll be responsible for meals and laundry from now on, too. You’ve got to earn your pay somehow, after all.”

So apart from meals and laundry, I was banished to my tent the rest of the day. After a few rounds of sorting my tools in order of size, I grew pensive. I had too much to think about: the dynamite, Hattie, the birds. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the birds were a judgement on me somehow. That they knew I was doing this all wrong.

I decided to try automatic writing. I had often used this method to communicate with my mother in Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and unlike a full séance, it was a thing I could do alone. In case of problems, I could break the connection simply by putting down the pen, and after a short lie-down, everything would be fine.

I took out a pen and paper and spread them out atop the toolbox. It was rougher than a desk, but it would do. I emptied my mind and began to write.

Writing makes no use of lights or moving furniture; there is only a feeling of connection, a vague excitement, and a sense of self-abandonment. I started with gibberish, of course, but meaningful words emerged more and more frequently. Bones. Steal. Buried. Bones.

Our bones must be eaten.

That sentence shocked me out of the trance. Eaten? I hadn’t eaten animal meat for years and did not intend to start again. Besides, the only bones out here were fossils, which had turned to stone over the eras and could hardly be eaten even if we wanted to.

Our bones.

What did they mean, ours? They could not be the spirits of the dinosaurs who had died here. It had been tens of millions of years since the deaths of the last dinosaurs. By now they ought to be advanced beyond recognition and uninterested in our petty physical world. That’s if they had spirits at all. Dr. Mandeville had always told me they were dumb beasts, lizards really.

Far more likely, these bird-creatures were the souls of something still living here. Something which knew about the fossils and claimed them as its own.

But eaten? That made no sense at all.

I picked up the pen again.

We do not bury our dead in boxes. The spirit needs the body no longer, and a body in a box is no use to anyone. The best use for a body is nourishment. Even when nourishment is not possible, we pretend to it. To let the spirit know its body was valued.

My head filled with images: not visual, like the lights at the séance, but tactile. I felt my teeth scraping along an already-stripped thigh bone, not eating but going through the motions of it, baring my canines like an animal. The movement was fraught with importance, much more than the sum of its components, like my own ritual of sorting my tools.

You must pretend to it. In this way you will show respect. We will know you are our friends.

The pen rolled out of my fingers.

I understood nothing. I was not sure I wanted to be their friend. But the scrape of bone lingered against my teeth, like an echo. It was disgusting. I had always hated eating meat; I saw no reason why one animal should live by tearing apart another.

Was this some twisted metaphor for my work here? Was my sabotage a form of predation? But destroying bones for one’s own selfish profits–was this not also predation? How could I judge what was going on?

I tore the paper to bits and stormed off to cook lentil soup for supper.

The next day I woke up awash in pink light with some ideas for increasing the Whitman-651s’ carrying capacity. Even without extra scrap metal, there was a great deal I could do with extra sacks and satchels, hung across the edges like saddlebags, if only I could balance and secure them properly. The legs were designed to hold many times the allotted weight, as a basic safety feature, and if problems did crop up, well, we had me for repairs.

Dr. Fullerton waved his hands distractedly when I told him. “Yes, good work! That’s actually fairly clever. Only we don’t have any extra sacks and satchels at the moment, so why don’t you come down here and learn to help with the excavations?”

He was in such a hurry to get me down there that I realized he must have wanted this all along.

So I spent the day with the smallest fossils, learning to excavate them safely: exposing a surface with the pick and whisk broom, sealing the cracks with smelly liquid cement, undercutting them with a chisel, then adding the layer of rice paper, the layer of tissue, and the disgusting layer of plaster which stuck to my fingers, followed by even more chiseling to repeat the process on the other side. All this for every single bone lodged in the rock. It was exhausting work, and I had absolutely no time to talk to Hattie. At the end of the day I collapsed in my tent with no energy left for dynamite–only a vague presentiment that I was failing.

The sacks and satchels never arrived, but there was plenty of hard digging for the next few weeks, plus equipment inspections, repairs, laundry and meals. I occasionally had time for a word with Hattie, but never as privately as I would have liked.

“You’re working as hard as we are,” Hattie said on one of these occasions. “You’re not as efficient as us yet, but that’s lack of experience; you’re putting in the same effort. So why is he giving you all the laundry and meal duties on top of it?”

“Because my work in the ravine isn’t as valuable as yours, and the robots don’t take all my time. He has to add to my value somehow.”

Hattie’s eyes got very wide. “Did he say that to your face?”

“It’s only the truth, isn’t it?”

Hattie clicked her tongue. “Oh, Lillian. You’re so trusting.”

I don’t know what happened with her and Dr. Fullerton after that, but the next day, we started rotating those duties again.

Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr liked to stay up late, and I rarely had the energy to outlast them. The best I could do was drink a lot of water and wake up in the middle of the night, needing to use the privy. After that, I could usually drag myself to the ammunition box and cart off a few more armfuls of dynamite.

I thought on these nights, sometimes, of Hattie, and of what she would say if she knew I was doing this. Perhaps she would be angry. Perhaps there was a secret coldness in her heart, and she saw no problem with dynamiting fossils. Or perhaps she had never known.

But even more so than Hattie, my thoughts drifted to automatic writing. If these creatures cared so much about how their bones were treated, surely dynamiting the bones was a bad idea. Surely they should approve of what I was doing.

Sometimes on those nights, I saw lights at the edge of my vision or felt my teeth scraping bone, though I had not tried to go into a trance. That worried me. I hadn’t been given to visions like this since adolescence.

We will know you are our friends. Perhaps it would be good to befriend them. Perhaps they would share their secrets. Or perhaps they were monsters and meant us harm. But rich men had an interest in monsters, alive or dead, else we wouldn’t be out here.

Actually chewing on the fossils would be absurd. If I left any marks, that would be an act of sabotage worse than destroying the dynamite. But I was tempted.

Finally the night arrived when the last dynamite crumbled to ash in my little campfire. I felt very virtuous and suddenly full of energy. I wanted to run to someone and be congratulated, though of course that was silly.

Instead, I crept into the ravine and looked at the bones all lined up in the rock face.

I picked one at mouth level, only a quarter of the way exposed and not yet covered in rice paper. If I didn’t actually touch the bone, I reasoned, I could do no harm. I placed my hands securely on either side, leaned in, and closed my teeth a centimetre away from the surface, turning my head as I did, like an animal tearing flesh.

I was starting to understand what the bird-creatures felt. The closing of teeth meant acceptance of pain. The turning of the head meant a willingness to move on. This was how they mourned, and it made a great deal more sense than black bombazine.

I felt invisible flesh on the bone. I bit the air again and imagined muscle between my teeth. I swallowed. I had always hated the taste of meat, but this was somehow different. It was as though, instead of destroying a life, my actions preserved it.

But I could not complete this process with the bones stuck in the rock face. More and more I longed to turn them in my hands. Like an animal.

Like the birds in my vision.

I crept back to the Whitman-651s, each one piled high with fossils. It was easy to pluck a bone the size of my forearm and bite into the air millimeters from the foul-smelling plaster. I spoke in the birds’ rasping language, and this time it was not horrid. It was part of the ritual.

I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice the footsteps until Hattie’s voice startled me. “What on earth? Who goes there?”

I turned, the plaster-covered bone still in my grip. She was out in her nightgown, holding a lantern.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said, and fainted prettily.

I suppose I panicked. I dragged her back to her tent so as not to make a scene, and I meant to leave her there to recover, but I was seized with terror thinking of what she would do when she woke up. I was at my wit’s end, not only fluttering but rocking back and forth, which I hadn’t done for months.

Of course, Hattie took that moment to wake up and sit bolt upright. “What are you doing? What’s going on?”

I said, “It isn’t what it looks like,” but I was still rocking and fluttering, which may have made it unconvincing.

Hattie’s voice rose. “It isn’t? Well, let me tell you what it looks like! It looks like I got out of bed to use the privy, and there you were, making horrid sounds and chewing on our fossils like a ghoul. Furthermore it looks like I trusted you and protected you and even kissed you once and now you’ve repaid me by being irrecoverably mad. Am I wrong about that, Miss Lillian Howe?”

“It was what the birds wanted. They said… It’s respectful to them. They sort of…”

“Right,” said Hattie flatly. “That’s very nice. You stay here, and I’m going to get Dr. Fullerton.”

“But…”

Hattie pushed aside the tent flap, stood haughtily–then froze.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said again.

Outside a robot, even huger and more gun-heavy than the KD8102, was thudding towards us.

It lit a pair of searchlights and swept the area, illuminating the canyon, the tents, the other robots–and our frightened faces. For a second, they also lit up the insignia on the robot’s chassis.

Which said “MANDEVILLE”.

Everyone called me trusting. I never believed them. Dr. Mandeville had told me to remove all the dynamite from Dr. Fullerton’s camp. Why would it be there, if not to destroy the smaller fossils? And I had done it.

But there was another use for dynamite. A camp with the right kind of dynamite could use it in self-defence. The robot had explosives. Thanks to my diligent work, our camp did not.

The robot lobbed a shot at the mess tent, which burst into flames with an appalling boom.

There was one thing worse than dynamiting fossils so your rivals couldn’t have them. And that was dynamiting your rivals themselves.

“The KD8102,” I whispered.

Hattie whirled towards me. “Yes. You’re the roboticist. You know how to pilot it, don’t you?”

This was such an about-face that it shocked me. Besides, I didn’t know how. Dr. Fullerton had never got round to teaching me, and I had avoided reminding him so as to put off his discovery of my godforsaken sabotage. “I thought I was irrecoverably mad.”

“Prove me wrong.” She looked around frantically. “I’ll wake the doctors and get us out of here. Keep him away from the fossils. He’s going to destroy the fossils, do you understand?”

“Yes,” I squeaked.

“I’m not sure if it’s loaded, but there’s dynamite in the ammunition case. You should be able to-”

“No,” I said, squeakier still. “Not right now, there isn’t.”

Hattie went so white I thought she’d faint again. “What on earth do you-”

The robot advanced on us. I didn’t have time to explain. I pushed past her and ran out of the tent.

“Lillian!” Hattie shouted. “Come back here!” But she didn’t move to stop me, and that was something.

The KD8102’s cockpit took forever to reach. I think my sense of time was going a bit funny.

I hadn’t been trained for anything like this. The controls were unlabeled, just a bunch of switches, dials, and triggers. I flipped the largest switch, and the lights went on, with the familiar hiss of a steam engine.

As the KD8102 powered up, Dr. Mandeville’s robot swung to face it, pointing its guns.

I’d taken all the dynamite from the ammunition case. I didn’t know if there was a little left within the KD8102 itself, waiting to be lit and thrown. But if I wanted to try anything like that, I had to aim. There was something very much like a rifle sight to one side, with crosshairs and everything, but the levers beside it either lurched it around at random or did nothing. Frustrated, I tried the nearest joystick, and the cockpit lurched crazily as the KD8102 rose to its feet.

It began to run–just as the other robot fired, leaving a crater in the ground inches away.

I tugged the joystick to the left, to the right, hoping to dodge. More shots rang out, slowly–the other robot seemed to take a while to reload, which was perhaps a weakness–and one caught the KD8102 in the leg. I fell across the cockpit and slammed into the wall, and everything went haywire until I regained the controls. But I was catching on. It wasn’t so different from other mobile robots. I was starting to be able to guess how far left the KD8102 would turn when I tugged the joystick left. Forward, and things went faster. Back, and…

Another explosion knocked me off balance. I started to hyperventilate.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hattie running for the fossils.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned in that direction, too.

Hattie.

I pulled the joystick forward and the KD8102 thundered towards Dr. Mandeville’s robot. The ground lurched past. Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned towards me and fired.

I ducked. A second later there was an appallingly large sound, like the entire cockpit was coming apart. I got thrown into the wall again. Something crashed to the ground. But when I looked up, the cockpit was intact.

The thing that crashed to the ground, however, had been the KD8102’s left arm.

I was past hyperventilating and actually making squeaking noises. But I found my way back to the joystick and pushed it all the way forward.

The other robot tried to dodge. I adjusted course to meet it. It was close to the canyon’s lip now. It shot at me again and this time blew the top of the cockpit clean off. There was a horrible clatter, then a deranged cold whistling as the night air blew across the gap.

I was closing. Five metres, maybe. I braced myself.

The KD8102 crashed into the other robot.

It was a cacophony of crashing, grinding, booming, several jarring impacts, a series of lurches like the worst airship turbulence in the world, more crashing and grinding, more impacts, and then I’d like to say everything was silent but really there was only a reduction in the chaos. I peeked out from behind my hands and saw Dr. Mandeville’s robot looming above me, or perhaps beside me. With the way my head spun, I couldn’t tell.

We were on the floor of the canyon. The KD8102 was obviously totaled. Dr. Mandeville’s robot had been partly crushed by the fall and several of its guns looked broken past repair. But not all. It held out a shaky arm and dragged itself back half-upright. It aimed at something–the half-buried fossils further down the canyon, or the fossils in the Whitman-651s, or Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr.

I pulled wildly on the joystick in every direction. Nothing happened except smoke.

I’d failed. My very bravest charge in the KD8102 hadn’t made up for what I’d done before. And those people I’d been working with, who probably never really destroyed a fossil in their lives, wouldn’t make it out of here.

If they lived, they would never be hiring me again.

Then something moved at the edge of the canyon. Not the side where Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr had their camp, but the other side, where I’d never seen anything at all.

I could not understand why or how, but it was the bird-creatures from the séance, solid now. Rasping strange battle-cries. Swarming down into the canyon.

Climbing all over Dr. Mandeville’s crippled robot.

Crashing it back to the ground.

There was loud trilling all over the canyon, like the howling of a wolf pack. I understood the sound. Victory. I wished I had the strength to trill back.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot did not rise.

“Oh, good,” I said weakly. Then I slumped over and curled up into the smallest ball that has ever existed anywhere.

It’s not that I fainted. It’s more that I was overwhelmed into obliviousness. I remember Hattie pulling me out of the KD8102’s wreckage. Someone put bandages on the places that hurt worst, after being thrown all around the cockpit. There was also a lot of shouting that I couldn’t process, and bird-creatures every which way. I couldn’t do a thing, not even rock back and forth.

Hattie towed me back to my tent and left me alone. I meant to just breathe deep for a long time, but somewhere in there I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the tent fabric glowed with early afternoon light and there she was sitting beside me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Well,” said Hattie.

We looked at each other.

“Sorry about that,” I said, and then she picked me up and clung to me. “Ouch. Lace.” She adjusted her grip.

“You are mad,” Hattie said into my shoulder, “and you were right all along. You saved our entire camp in spite of whatever it is that happened to the dynamite, and I am utterly glad that you’re here.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”

I was still a bit worn out.

“They explained everything, you see. The creatures. They have these things that they put against your head to make you understand them. They said you proved yourself, so they came to help you.” Hattie drew back. “But why on earth did you call them birds? Surely you noticed the teeth and the sickle-toes?”

“The what?”

“They’re Troödons, Lillian, or close to it. Obviously they’ve evolved a bit, and we never imagined them with feathers in place of scales. But that’s why there was all that shouting about ‘our bones’. We’ve been literally excavating their ancestors. Can you imagine?”

I refrained from pointing out that I had seen it, and did not need to imagine.

“I imagine,” I said, “other paleontologists will be very excited.”

“Also biologists, anthropologists, the government and pretty much everyone. Dr. Fullerton says we’re expanding the camp, inviting journalists and who knows what else. But I told him no one else was to talk to you today, on account of you being injured and having weak nerves.”

I frowned. I didn’t like the idea talking endlessly to journalists. I also didn’t like the idea of Dr. Mandeville working out what had happened. And I didn’t like the idea of having to explain to Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr about the dynamite.

But I was unspeakably relieved to have Hattie here. And worse than journalists and Dr. Mandeville and Dr. Fullerton combined was the idea of running off without her.

“Besides,” said Hattie, “I wanted to ask you a few questions myself, before the journalists got to you. I think you know what happened to all the dynamite, don’t you?”

I buried my face in my hands and explained everything. How Dr. Mandeville had sent me as a saboteur. How he had lied. How I had believed I was protecting the fossils, when really I was only taking away Dr. Fullerton’s defenses so Dr. Mandeville could move in and destroy him.

“So you see,” I concluded, “I am mad. And stupid, and untrustworthy. And I would have got you all killed.”

Hattie smiled slightly. “Maybe, Lillian. Maybe you would have. But the instant you worked out what you’d done wrong, you leaped into a robot you’d never piloted and you risked your own life to put things right. Do you know how rarely I see that sort of thing, even in men?”

I looked up at her, startled, and she chuckled.

“Mind you, there are parts of this story we will have to finesse for the journalists, and even for Dr. Fullerton, but I can help you with that. If you would still like to have me around, I mean. I was rather unreasonable last night, calling you a ghoul.”

“Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief, “I would like to have you around for an extremely long time.”

“Oh good,” she said. And she kissed me.

It would be unladylike to tell you what happened next. But I did get all that horrid lace off of her at last, and not another word needed to be said.

___
Copyright  2016 Ada Hoffmann

Ada Hoffmann is a queer autistic computer science student from Canada. She occasionally wishes she had gone into paleontology instead. Ada’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Shimmer, AE, and in Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. You can find her online or on Twitter.

Editor’s Note:

Editors are capricious creatures, and since we’re not all operating out of the same playbook (or any playbook at all for that matter) by nature our job is a subjective one. My goal in choosing stories for Giganotosaurus is in line with our stated value of diversity in storytelling in its myriad forms. I search for stories that I hadn’t seen told, by narrators that provide a new or unique perspective.

Publishing one story a month is much harder work than I expected it would. The caliber of stories we receive is truly impressive. I often regret having to let go of a story that was well written, but just not what we needed at a particular moment, or was unable pass the all important “make the hair on my arms stand on end” editorial gut test.

2015 concluded my second year as editor (officially my first full year of choosing stories) and looking at the stories that did make the cut it’s easier to see themes emerge.

In “Serving Girl,” “The Business of Buying and Selling,” “Blow the Moon Out,” and “Quarter Days,” relationships play an important role in navigating the strange new worlds the protagonists find themselves in.

The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song” and “And the Ends of the Earth for Thy Possession,” tackle the complexity of faith in distant futures and alternate worlds.

We published two stories where the fey play a central role: in spite of my usual resistance to all thing faerie land. “Drinking with the Elfin Knight” and the “The Faerie-Maker” took two unconventional takes on faerie, by two protagonists that don’t often have voices in faerie tales.

Resistance and rebellion, no matter the cost, feature prominently in “Greys of War,” “The Body Corporate,” and “Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande.”

And what can I say about “Bears Punching Bears!” except it was one of few stories that made me laugh out loud, with the hijinx of humans on a broke space casino and the search for a new interstellar Elvis impersonator.

Several of these stories are from first time authors, others from established names in the speculative fiction crowd. All of them make me proud to be an editor.

Below is a brief summary of the stories we ran from January to December, with links to reviews or related materials. You can read them online, or download mobi or epub formats for free to read at your leisure.

 

All the Best,

Rashida J. Smith

editor, GigaNotoSaurus

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Greys of War by Sara Puls 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

War and dance in a complex society where color and sense memory is everything. Goodreads

 

Serving Girl by Phoebe Harris 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

A journey of identity and freedom begins after an escape. Goodreads Made the Lady Business Short Fiction Favorites reading list for early 2015

 

Bears Punching Bears! by Tracy Canfield 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

A comedy of errors about an interstellar casino and an unforgettable bear act. Among other things. Goodreads

 

Drinking with the Elfin Knight by Ginger Weil

 (Novelette, Fantasy)

A rural dark fantasy about bad decisions and Child ballads, featuring unfortunate kisses, minor explosions, awkward conversations, and unpleasant things in the woods. Goodreads

 

Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande by A.S. Diev 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

An out-of-work rock’n’roll reporter has a longshot last chance to save her career – if she can survive in a tough border town long enough to cover a surreal murder trial involving a powerful corporation, a flying yacht, an angry worker, a herd of bizarre genetically-modified farm animals, and some very, very bad luck.  Can she dig out the real story, score a job at a legitimate news site, and catch up with her Mastercard bill? Goodreads Reviews by JsunRed Headed Femme, S.Qiouyi Lu, and Real Tegan, including being named by K. Tempest Bradford at IO9 as one of the “Best Short Stories of the Year So Far.”  Included on Renay’s Hugo Spreadsheet 2016

 

The Business of Buying and Selling by Patricia Russo 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

The parents of a colicky baby, with the help of a nosy neighbor, get more than they bargain for in an effort to get some much needed sleep. Goodreads

 

And the Ends of the Earth for Thy Possession by Robert B. Finegold, MD 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

Red Headed Femme called this one, “This is a lovely, lyrical, bittersweet alt-history tale, with Jews on an interstellar transport and automatons and deimons. Quietly heartbreaking.” Goodreads. Review by BiblioGamma

 

Blow the Moon Out by E. Catherine Tobler 

(Novelette, Fantasy)

In the fall of 1957, four girls wander into the Philadelphia woods, in search of a traveling circus. But what they find is more startling than sirens or wolfmen. More amazing than a stray dog shot into space. What they find is themselves–and something besides. Goodreads. Reviews by Locus Magazine  and Cate Gardner.

 

The Body Corporate by Mark Pantoja 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

On a barely settled planet, Ro must negotiate predatory forests and more dangerous corporate contracts to get a corporate soldier to safety and protect all she holds dear. Goodreads Reviews Biblio GammaVideo Game Geek and Locus Magazine. Included on a list of recommended works for Tiptree award nomination.

 

The Faerie-Maker by Nin Harris 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

Faerie land versus Bollywood in this story of claiming your identity and owning your legacy.  Goodreads

 

The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song by Maggie Clark 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

When all but one monk is murdered on a recently added Network planet, a world-weary AI detective and novice partner have to negotiate local beliefs in order to solve the case. As it turns out, it’s not easy to interrogate the lone survivor of a massacre when his people believe he has to keep singing to maintain the universe–and harder still, for centuries-old Detective Bennett, to know how to administer justice when an entire social system stands at fault. Goodreads. Find Maggie’s excellent reflection on “Stars” and other recent stories on her blog.

 

Quarter Days by Iona Sharma 

(Novella, Fantasy)

It’s 1919, and the war is over. The magical practitioners of the City of London have returned from the battlefields to the only home they’ve ever known. But even here – even after seven hundred and thirty-one years of rhythm and ritual – the world is starting to change. Goodreads. Recommended novella at Too Many Books, Not Enough Time and reviews at Stompy Dragons and Locus.


 

It’s award season: For other work to review or nominate, check out the Hugo Nominees 2015 Wiki and Hugo Awards Spreadsheet, i09’s Nebula nominations opening post and the evolving list from AC Wise.

by Sandra M. Odell

Tully brought the skiff in from the south. The blue mountains of Maya’s feet rose against the sky, each toe adorned with a massive gold ring inlaid with cobras crowned with lotus blossoms. By the looks of the gold and white flags, the feet had already been claimed by the Vatican. It must have galled Pope Innocent XVI to accept the UN award for the feet of a Hindu god.

The god’s legs rested to one side, knees slightly bent, thick thighs leading to the fleshy invitation of her belly. Tully couldn’t see the upper arms, but her lower right arm lay across her midriff, while the lower left arm lay flung to the side, a cosmic afterthought. Immense gold bracelets at the wrists framed the wealth of rings on both hands. Beyond her breasts would be the treasures of her shoulders and head. This looked to be a good haul. Plenty of gold and industrial grade diamonds in the rings; uranium and other heavy metals could be extracted from the bones.

A rush of wind brought the mingled smells of iron, copper, patchouli, and a special scent that was distinctly…Maya. Tully couldn’t think of any other way to label it. The think-boy who figured out a way to bottle that scent would make millions.

Marco nodded in the direction of the UN flyers patrolling the boundaries of the fall zone. “The dogs are out in force.”

Tully allowed himself a moment to admire the view of the younger man against the fore rail. Dark skin, dark hair, nice ass. Too bad Marco had signed on as a helper. Tully made it a point to never mix business with pleasure.

“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.

Marco looked up. “How long did you say we have?”

Tully squinted at the flyers circling the distortion in the air high above Maya’s midriff. The tangle of colors, the improbable angles that echoed in his joints, made them want to bend in sympathetic symmetry. He returned his attention to the controls. Gates always made him a little queasy. “It’s still small yet. The UN says three days, maybe four.”

He eased the skiff around Maya’s toes to the tops of her feet dark with henna. Workers on the maze of scaffolding in the ankle creases watched them pass overhead. A message ping warned that the skiff had violated Canadian airspace and should depart immediately. With a slurp of coffee and an acknowledging ping, Tully turned the skiff over the ankles to Maya’s calves. The Canadians had ground-to-air missiles.

Maya had settled into the ground five, maybe ten feet. In the muggy heat, it wouldn’t take long for the god’s skin to pale to a meaty gray, then she would start to swell. And stink. It would be bad. With any luck and a returned call from Ali Bob, they’d be long gone by then.

A mob of maybe five-hundred strong milled around the Red Cross tent city set well back from Maya’s out-flung left hand. They screamed at the flyers, at Her Most Revered Corpse, at the scrapper teams plundering Maya’s remains, at the aid workers searching for survivors in the surrounding rubble of stone, steel, and shattered lives. Radio chatter claimed at least three-million dead, possibly as high as five-and-a-half million.

Marco settled on the front deck. “You think the mummers are already here?”

Tully took another sip of coffee. After the bumpy 18-hour non-stop to the sub-continent and the four hour flight inland, the inside of his eyelids felt like 40-grit sandpaper. “I’ve never been to a fall where the mummers didn’t get there first.”

Marco put his back to the railing, dada locks flapping around him. “I used to think about them all the time as a kid, you know? I still have every issue of the Mummers’ Parade.”

Great, a fall fanatic. Tully hadn’t scoped that out when he took Marco on. It was going to be a long scrap.

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Dagda fell first, his ornate leather armor filled with the sun and his hair a gold tide in the Irish Sea. Millions dead, two thirds of Dublin destroyed. Numb with grief and the scope of the devastation, the search for survivors continued until the sky split wide and the worms tumbled down for the feast.

Massive, eyeless, segmented horrors, they swarmed over the body, tied themselves in knots to gouge out massive chunks of flesh and bone. They devoured every bit of skin or drop of blood, no matter where it fell – concrete, wood, stone, metal, or human flesh.

Twelve hours later, the sated worms rose from the devastation and returned through the hole in the sky to the unknown, leaving a cold, sinking confusion in their wake.

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Tully set down at a clear point half way between Maya’s ankles and the backs of her knees. Ten minutes later, the UN approved his acreage request, and together he and Marco secured the skiff, pitched their tents, and set the claim lines. This close, the smell of patchouli was overwhelming. It coated the inside of Tully’s mouth, clung to his clothes and hair.

A dozen or so other independent scrappers had set up similar camps. A few had already set their hooks and started torching lines into the blue skin to mark for later harvest. So long as they stayed clear of the choice bits, most corps and countries didn’t have a problem with the smaller licensed operations picking at the scraps.

While Marco made fresh coffee and heated dinner pouches, Tully went around to other camps for introductions and scuttlebutt. One or two crew chiefs greeted him with suspicion, newer claimants judging by their high-strung nerves and clean skiffs, but seasoned scrappers welcomed him with cautious camaraderie.

Farther down the calves, he was pleased to find Lovie Tepaka leading her own team. They’d worked together at Maniisoq when Sedna fell, and he’d pulled her out of the wreckage in Athens back in ’21 when a stretch of scaffolding collapsed under the weight of Athena’s skin.

Lovie offered him a flask and a comfortable crate for a quick sit. “You hear about Richmond and his crew?”

Tully took a sip, passed the flask back. “Yeah. Did any make it out?”

“Not a one. The UN said they lost maybe a thousand men and a couple of million in hardware to the worms.”

Tully let out a low whistle. “Were their estimates off for the gate?”

She shrugged. “No idea. I’m just glad I got held up with repairs. You?”

“Just came off of Apollo and couldn’t close on the payout in time. I did okay, though.” He did even better if he didn’t count how Edgars and Victor had walked after hearing the news, or how he’d had to scramble to find a new hand willing to sit on call until the next godfall. Tully couldn’t blame them, though. There were old scrappers and bold scrappers, but. . .

Lovie nodded and took a drink. She offered the flask a second time, slipped it back in her shirt pocket when he refused. “It’s rough work, you know? Just because you make it in doesn’t mean you’ll. . .”

Her words gave way to uncertainty, a touch of darkness and fear not at all like the Lovie he knew.

Tully slid his foot to the side until his knee bumped hers. “Hey.”

Lovie blinked, shook her head. She gave him a lopsided smile. “Sorry. Scrapper brain. You know how it is.”

“All the time.”

The touch of fear returned, then settled out in her shrug. “It’s like it’s on the tip of my tongue.”

Tully understood that, too, fear and all.

Lovie looked past him and made a small, irritated sound. “Shit. Mummers.”

“Hmmm?” Tully turned around in time to see a troupe of masked figures in brightly colored robes, playing drums and bells, go by in two skiffs. “Yeah. Marco was asking about them.”

“One of your new boys?”

“The only one.”

Lovie looked at him sidelong. “He cute?”

“Of course. Knows his shit, too.” Tully watched the troupe skirt the outside of the claims barriers. “He’s hot on the mummers.”

Lovie spat in disgust. “You kidding me? When Ukko fell in ‘23 they came skulking around our camp in the middle of the night saying they only wanted to touch our torch sites so they could celebrate him. We got so tight for time driving them off that we almost didn’t make it out before the alarm sounded. Nearly lost our entire haul.”

The mummers stopped on the far side of Maya’s knees to make camp, well away from the Red Russians extensive claim to the thighs. The whisper of their bells was lost in the whine and sizzle of torches as nearby crews methodically butchered the dead god.

Tully hitched his shoulders. “It takes all kinds.”

She shook her head. “I never thought I’d see the day when you went soft.”

He stood, putting his hands to his lower back. “It’s nothing about soft. I just don’t see a reason to pull a gun when the other guy’s got nothing but a butter knife.”

Lovie laughed long and hard and got to her feet. She slapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the Tully I know. Hey, what about Maui? I thought you’d be busy fishing by now.”

Tully grinned. “I get a big enough payout this time and I will be.”

She slapped him on the shoulder. “Keep the dream alive, man.”

Best advice he’d gotten all year.

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The top two inches of Maya’s skin curled over itself and dropped slowly to the deck of the skiff secured halfway up her lower calf. Properly cured, the epidermis could be fashioned into fireproof leather, or body armor that could stop a .50 caliber round. The trick was getting it off the body without passing out from the stench of burning meat.  Tully extinguished the torch, set it on the plank, then climbed down the scaffolding to the skiff three meters below.

Marco stacked the folds of blue skin into large, non-reactive plastic bins. Buckets at the corners of the box spigots captured anything expressed under the weight of the folds. He wore a godskin jumpsuit and industrial grade nitrile gloves identical to Tully’s. “This shit gets worse all the time.”

The complaint sounded low and fuzzy through the comm in Tully’s breather.

Tully stripped off the breather, gagging with that first breath. Someone had filled his mouth with dead rats and cotton, and added lead weights to his eyelids.   He and Marco had set to work immediately after dinner the night before, and hadn’t slept more than a dozen winks apiece since then.

He pulled off his welder’s goggles. “Still pays well, that’s all we got to…where the hell are the spare filters?”

“Don’t ask me. They were there when I changed mine out a little while ago.”

“Well, they’re not there now. I can’t work up there without…here they are. You got to put things back where they belong. We don’t have time to go looking for every little thing.”

Marco stared at Tully for a tense moment then turned back to stacking. “Whatever, man.”

Fuck. Tully ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to make some coffee.”

Marco shrugged.

Tully went forward and set water to boil in the thermos. All around the skiff, scrapper crews worked double time stripping everything of value from the dead god, an efficiency of gore. Far above, a swarm of flyers surrounded the gate as it throbbed and thrummed, intent on mapping its every nuance.

He was getting to old for this shit. His father had been a scrapper before he‘d settled down to raise a family. Exercise, fresh air, good money, his father said. The good old days. He never mentioned the broken bones, the stench, having to leave a payout behind or risk not making it out in time.

Tully dropped two coffee bags into the now boiling water and waited. He would make it big with this haul and catch the first flight out to Maui. No more scrapping for him.

When the thermos timer flashed, he filled two mugs and carried them aft. He nudged Marco with an elbow. “Hey.”

The younger man looked over his shoulder, squinted through his blood-splattered goggles.

Tully held out a mug. “Take five.”

Marco pulled off his breather and accepted Tully’s apology.

They sat together in caffeinated silence until Marco spoke up: “What’s it like for them, you think?”

“For who?”

“The Indians. They had another god fall. This is, what, the third? Fourth?”

Tully rubbed his eyes. “India is a country, Hindu is a religion.”

Marco rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”

The coffee was defective. Tully didn’t feel any more awake. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you have to get it wrong. Does India care? Sure they do. They just lost millions of people and a major city. Do the Hindus care? Of course. Ganga, Shiva, and now Maya. Three gods in eight years line a lot of wallets, but can’t be easy on the faith.”

Marco grunted. “You think they still believe?”

“The Christians are still hanging on after Jehovah fell, so why not the Hindus? Seems to me they’d have the better claim. They still got hundreds of gods to go.”

The silence stretched another few sips. Marco crumpled his cup. “I saw the mummers last night while you were setting up the bucket feeds down below. They were singing and dancing up a storm, the skiffs all lit up like they were having a party or something.”

Tully stifled a yawn. “Mmmm.”

“You ever think about them? Why they do all that shit?”

“Not really.”

Marco sucked on the ends of his mustache. “Why not?”

Tully considered their progress since the first cut. They should be able to make it to the top of Maya‘s right calf by early afternoon. If they busted ass, they could make it a third of the way up her left calf before midnight. “No harm, no foul so long as they keep away from my operation.”

“Yeah, but what’s in it for them?” Marco persisted. “It’s not like the gods can hear them, so why the big party every time one of ‘em comes floating down from the sky? You never hear about them getting excited about the scavengers.”

Tully chuckled. “Dead gods don’t eat you if you get in the way.”

The younger man fiddled with the cuffs of his jumpsuit. “Yeah. Listen, if it’s okay with you I was thinking about heading that way tonight. Check them out, see what’s going on.”

Tully shook his head. “No can do. I need you here.”

“What’s to need? It’d only be for a couple of hours, and the radio says we’ve got two days at least.”

Tully yawned with his whole body. Maybe he needed a coffee IV. “A couple of hours is another five yards of skin. You signed on to work, not get a leg up with a tambourine band.”

Marco snorted. “Work shit. I can go when we bed down.”

“If we can spare the hours, you’re going to need to sleep so we can keep going.”

Marco laughed; the sound died when he noticed Tully didn’t join in. “That’s bullshit. You know that, right?”

Tully pointed to the gate writhing far overhead. The unraveling knot of reality had taken on a blue iridescence the color of Maya’s skin. “I know what I see, and that says you stay.”

Marco threw his cup into the garbage. “Fuck that, man. You can’t make me work all the time. I got rights.”

Not enough coffee, never enough sleep, and Marco mouthing off. Not what Tully needed. “Sure I can. You work or I slash your percentage.”

Marco got to his feet. “The hell you will. It’s a piss ass fifteen percent, but it’s mine. We got a contract.”

Marco glared down at him with such pure loathing Tully had to laugh. He stood, topping the younger man by a good three inches. “You got to live long enough to collect, kid. Get on up there with the torch and I’ll spell you here. I want at least another eight yards before we break for lunch.”

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By the time Pele fell on Kilauea, humanity had learned to identify the look of the gate that set the tocks ticking for the worms’ arrival.

The dead gods promised resources to a starving world: gold; uranium; calcium; iron; sulfur; phosphates; diamonds, and more. Soon every country had a plan to get scrapper teams to a godfall site and safely away before the worm gate opened.

The faithful revolted against this final insult. The bombing of Mecca when Jehovah fell on Jerusalem and nations divided the remains. The dirty nuclear strike that wiped out Rio de Janeiro after Ci’s harvest. How the Odinists gutted the Icelandic president and eight members of his cabinet when they approved the butchering of beautiful Baldur.

You will not take our gods from us, part them out like so many fish or bits of wood, they said. We shall remember. 

The world answered with grim practicality.  Look to the dead for your memories. We do what we must to survive.

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Ali Bob’s arrival an hour after lunch saved Tully from listening to more of Marco’s whining.

The broker peered into the skiff’s hold with his flashlight. “Not much to show for your work, eh?”

Tully snorted and leaned against the aft rail. Ali Bob claimed to have his father’s sex appeal and his mother’s love of fine clothes. Tully could have added bad breath, body odor, and a few less complimentary qualities to the list, but the man usually paid the best prices so he kept quiet. “Give me a break. We hit the clock last night and haven’t so much as stopped to take a piss.”

Ali Bob dropped the flashlight in his linen suit coat pocket. “Ah Tully. Always so poetic.”

Fifty meters overhead, Marco secured the last of the scaffolding to the topmost edge of the lower calf. “Good to go!”

Tully moved to the skiff controls. “Hang on a minute.”

He roused the engines, released the hooks, and guided the skiff up until it hovered below the top scaffolding planks. While Ali Bob wiped his hands clean, Tully helped Marco secure the mooring hooks. He passed Marco the torch. “Get on it.”

Near-by crews crawled their way up Maya’s fleshy calves, ants conquering a tree brought down in a storm. Three acres ankle way, Lovie’s team peeled away massive strips of epidermis and sectioned off the first layers of the dermis from the lower calves. Above the knees, the Red Russians stripped muscle and fat from both thighs. Only that morning they’d shot down two skiffs that had nosed too close to their claim.

The largest crews had teams on the ground to suction run-off blood and viscera into 55-gallon drums. Radio chatter had it the Japanese working the left shoulders had figured out a way to automate the entire ground clean up. Big surprise.

Ali Bob mopped his brow and gestured over the side of the skiff. “Those buckets are filled with blood?”

Tully nodded. “Yeah, most of it from box run off, but three from burn weepage. We should have twelve, maybe fourteen, by the time we pack it in. Get me a couple more men and another skiff and I can double that, maybe triple.”

The broker folded his handkerchief and returned it to his breast pocket. “My crews are already spoken for. You are aware – ”

The high whine of the torch split the conversation in two. Ali-Bob’s penciled eyebrows expressed his opinion of the interruption. He leaned in towards Tully and continued. “You have heard that the gate is growing faster than expected?”

“What? Really?” Bad news. Very bad. Tully looked at the sky. The gate still thrummed blue, but didn’t seem any larger. Not really? Maybe? He didn’t have the sensors and gadgets to tell for certain. “Nothing’s come over the radio. Are you sure?”

“Am I ever not sure when I share information?”

True. Ali Bob always gave good intelligence. “Any idea why?”

The broker spread his hands, palms up. “The humidity? The equinox? The phase of the moon? The average rainfall on the Serengeti? My sources did not say. Sometimes the gates open faster than others. You know that.”

“Well, did you bother to tell anyone else?”

Ali Bob arched a brow and sniffed. “Of course.”

That was a load off. How long until word came across the radio? “How long do we have?”

“Until midday tomorrow at the least. I would, however, make certain to stow your harvest in case of the unexpected.”

Easy for him to say. “Crap.”

“Have you seen the French water drill? Cuts through dermal and sub dermal like that – ” Ali Bob snapped his fingers. “ – and straight to the muscle. Such clean lines, too. Three months ago at Hongor I watched a team excise whole tendons from Ay Dede, three meters long at least. Now, you harvest muscle tissue and tendon and I can offer you double the going rate for your poundage. Doctors in Istanbul are screaming for all the muscle tissue they can get to study limb regeneration.”

Tully rubbed his face. He needed sleep, not borderline panic. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He pinged Marco’s comm. Marco grunted in acknowledgement. “Change of plans. Clear a space. I’ll be right up with a torch.”

A three note signal sounded over the radio. “Gate update on all channels. All channels, gate update in three, two, one. . .”

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Tiamat. Ameratsu. Dionysus. Osiris. Marduk. Hera. Monkey. Ah Muzencab. Xi He.

Godstuff expanded new horizons of scientific discovery, lifted third-world countries out of suffering, and challenged the underpinnings of philosophies and religions worldwide.

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Tully jerked his head up, blinking against the glare of a passing searchlight from a UN flyer overhead. An uncomfortable warmth spread over his left thigh and knee. He looked down, swore, and turned off his torch. How long had he been asleep? Couldn’t have been too long. “Marco?”

The younger man was nowhere to be seen. Not in the skiff, not on the ground as far as he could tell. Louder: “Marco?”

The comm line remained clear.

Searchlights from UN skiffs swept back and forth over the beleaguered corpse, catching the glistening stretches of bare muscle and fat. Spotlights from the ground made taffy of the workers’ shadows, stretching them to impossible lengths. Local crews pushed themselves to eke out the last few feet of harvest before they had to abandon Maya to the scavengers. From farther up the body came the muted pop of ribs pulled free. Or maybe vertebrae. He was too tired to tell.

Tully scrambled down to the skiff, hitting the deck two steps before he expected. He clutched the scaffolding until the world stopped shaking. “Marco?”

In the musty, sour space below deck, he found Marco’s bloodstained jumpsuit and breather in a heap on the younger man’s bunk. “Shit.”

The faint buzz of an echo came from Marco’s breather.

Tully ripped off his own breather, swallowing past the up swell of bile. Suit and breather left behind, same with the rifle in the rack. He hurried back to the deck and looked thighward. No sign of Marco, and the mummer camp was lost in the glare of the work lights. “I don’t need this right now. I. Don’t. Fucking. Need. This.”

What to do? What to do? Drag Marco back to the job? Had to find him first.

Tully focused on the bloody expanse of his harvest claim stretching to an equally bloody gate far overhead. Red? How did it get red? What happened to blue? Never mind.

Coffee. More coffee. Tully made himself a quick thermos, burned his tongue on the first swallow. “Fah.”

He’d left the torch perched on the corner of the scaffolding. Should he pack it up? Another swallow, and a third. He’d have to finish the packing, secure the barrels of blood and plasma down below. Load the skiff himself. It would go faster if Marco had hung around. Fucking Marco. Fucking mummers. Fucking fuck fuck!

The radio was filled with the usual prep chatter for clear out. Crews called in commands, supply requests. A few called in for load out clearance. No news about the gate. If he held off until dawn to load out, he could get at the subdermal layers, maybe even the fat or some of Ali Bob’s muscle. A bigger pay out meant fishing and no more scrapping. Ever.

Screw Marco. Let him live it up with the tambourine brigade. He’d drop the kid off at the nearest bus stop on the way out.

Tully carried the thermos, a spare breather, and the rifle back up the scaffolding. He was stupid tired, not tired stupid. You never worked a scrap alone without a gun in easy reach just in case.

He sparked the torch to life and set to work. 40 grueling minutes later, the strip of epidermis came away and dropped to the skiff. He set to work on the dermis, not particularly concerned with size or shape, only finished work. No payout if he didn’t get the scrap out. He eased the first chunk down the first two rungs and let it drop. One down, who knew how many to go. He exhaled and kept working.

Cut, twist, pull, drop. The cut lines blurred; his hands began to shake. Blood and bits of detritus splattered his goggles. Three pieces, four. Patchouli and burnt meat curled insidious and thick through the filter. Five, six. Had he finished the coffee already? Tully shook his head and kept working.

The world began to run like watercolors in the rain, spilling over his hands. Maya smiled down at him, wide blue lips opening to devour his name in the wild abandon of her hunger. The torch traced a path across the sky, a bright white star carving his name on the back of her tongue. Maya would swallow him whole and let him fish out the rest of his days. Yeah, Marco could rot in the belly of a scavenger. It would serve him right, running off like that. Dumb kid. Dumb. . .

The torch dropped from Tully’s hand. He jerked backwards and went down on his right knee. It popped, and a grinding fire exploded up his leg. His stomach clenched and he barely got the breather off before the coffee came rushing out and over the railing.

Bone ground against bone, screaming under the skin. Tully dropped to his side, praying someone would knock him out, cut his leg off, fucking kill him it hurt so bad. He lay there until the haze of pain receded, staring up at the dull black sky. No stars, nothing but the occasional UN flyer and the red gate twisting in on itself.

Tully began to cry. He couldn’t do it. No way he could pack it all in now. Make it down to the skiff and the radio? Hell, he couldn’t even reach the gun to fire a couple of shots to attract attention.

You got to live long enough to collect, kid.

Tully closed his eyes, only for a moment, and fell into Maya’s waiting mouth.

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Isis. Buffalo Woman. Inanna. Amadioha. Ngalyad. Pan.

The godfall treasures inspired a greed that shattered treaties, destroyed governments, left millions dead, and millions more homeless.  The have nots became the haves, the haves became the want mores. Riding on the coattails of that greed came the realization that the worms could open their massive mouths and someday take it all away.

One by one the gods fell, and humanity learned to adapt.

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Maya spit Tully out and he slammed into the railing. He put weight on his right leg to stand and fell back with a scream, a spike of fire rammed through his knee.

The scaffolding lurched again. Tully gripped the railing and pulled himself upright, biting through his lip with the focus of a pain he could control. Voices and the clamor of sirens filled the night. Metal screamed against metal. The scaffolding bucked under him. Maya jerked, rumbled, twitched on the Richter Scale. No, something inside her moved.

Above spun the gate, an angry throbbing red. White threads curled around the edges and dropped from the hole, swelling, stretching, black mouths gaping. They fell on Maya’s belly like calving glaciers, ripples causing the body to convulse. Worms. The gate was open and the scavengers had come for him. “No.”

He was going to die in the belly of a worm.

Fear trumped pain. Tully tumbled to the skiff and dragged himself to the controls. Over the staccato radio chatter and the howl of lifter engines came a strange hollow chanting from below, the tinny jangle of tambourines. He pulled himself along the rail until he reached the front of the skiff.

Far below, in the strobe and shadows of the U.N. search lights, figures moved at the base of his claim. He caught the flash of gold, the swirl of scarlet. How many? Five? Seven? More? The figures gathered around the blood buckets, and there came the pop of a seal breaking open. Tully clutched the rail. “Hey! The gate’s open! Get out of there!”

He swung the skiff spotlight around and down. A dozen mummers stood around the buckets, hands raised. One looked up at the light with a fixed, filigree smile, then turned its attention to a figure on its knees in front of one of the buckets.

“Are you crazy? I said the gate is open!”

Maya’s body jerked again, her flesh trembling under the assault of hunger. The skiff bounced against the god’s bloody flesh with a meaty, metallic squelch that trembled through the deck.

The mummers didn’t move. The kneeling figure turned its face to the light, and Tully’s reality slid sideways. Marco stared up at him with filmy, white eyes, lids swelling and stretching to seal them away from the light. His mouth stretched beyond the limits of flesh, a lipless black pit ringed with jagged teeth. “I am become. I am become,” the younger man sang above it all. “I am hunger, and I am become.”

Other voices joined his. Tully swung the light around and something twisted and maggot white bored through his mind. Worms as far as the eye could see. One scooped up a mouthful of people and debris. Another plunged headfirst into Maya’s bloody flesh, twisting itself to tear away chunks of muscle and fat.

Crowds of mummers raised their hands and sang as the scavengers rolled and thrashed back and forth, shattering matchstick scaffolding, sending men and women screaming to their deaths. Worms everywhere, sliding over one another to reach Maya’s body. Fires burned unchecked, equally hungry and destructive. Black smoke poured from punctured fuel tanks, blotting out the stars.

Reality jammed a railroad spike through Tully’s left eye, the god eye sacrificed for knowledge. He focused the light on his hired hand far below. No one left behind. No. One. “Marco! We have to get out of here! We – ”

Marco dipped both hands into the bucket and bent his head to drink. The mummer’s chant rose to a strange ululation that clashed with the strident voices coming over the skiff radio: “All remaining crews are to evacuate the site immediately. Repeat, all remaining – ” “Get your skiffs out of here! Leave the carts, dammit!” “Immediately. UN forces – ”

And Lovie’s voice: “Tully, are you still there? Jesus Christ, get your ass out!”

Marco lifted his bloody face to the light. His eyes bulged like blind fruits above the black maw, bone white hairs burrowing into his cheeks. In the pool of light, Marco stretched like old-fashioned newspaper putty, distorted along the X&Y to an infinity shown in his beatific, bloody smile.

Tully’s mind filled with a throbbing sonic scream, the gut wrenching sound to herald the end of all things. Death, rebirth, and death again. People, civilizations, gods. Changed, made new. Renewed. People made new. The death of faith, the birth of reason, someday to cycle round again.

Marco expanded, became a bloated, corpse white, writhing creature of endless hunger for sweet god flesh and all reality beyond. As the newborn worm plunged into Maya’s bloody flesh, the mummers raised their arms and sang its praises.

The spotlight popped and sprayed Tully with shards of hot glass. The world went dark for whole seconds before the gate aurora and the strobing lights of fleeing ships brought it back to life. Far below, the mummers, the thing Marco had become, were gone.

Tully stood at the rail, unable to move, until a yellow spotlight from above pinned him to the deck. A voice, harsh and commanding: “Get your ass up here now!”

He turned his face to the light, stepped away from the rail, and collapsed.

A cargo skiff. Rough hands. Lovie’s voice from somewhere near: “Get us clear!”

Up, up, up they went and headed north at full speed. Away from the god, away from the worms. And something else Tully couldn’t remember.

Two men carried him down below to Lovie’s bunk space, stripped him out of his jumpsuit, splinted his knee. Lovie clambered down the stairs soon after, shaking with anger and something more. Fear. She was afraid. “What the hell were you thinking, huh? Were you trying to get yourself killed? Jesus, Tully, I can’t believe you.”

One of the men shot him up with something. Tully’s bicep burned and then a languid warmth poured through him. “Sorry. I had to – ”

“Had to what? There’s nothing so important that you needed to hang around back there. You heard the claxons. You could have been killed.”

“I wanted to get to the buckets.” Tully blinked the world back into focus. “Yeah.”

Lovie dismissed the men, grabbed a towel, and began to clean his face and hair. “Next time leave ‘em. What about your new man?”

Something white and barbed slithered through Tully’s memories and out again. He looked at the bulkhead.

Lovie swore and kept working. She fed him sips of whiskey until the world took on a golden hue. “I should have left you, you know that, right?”

Tully nodded, drifting in the shallows of her words.

“I should have, too. Those things were, were. . .”

Her hands stilled on his cheeks. She looked over his head, her gaze distant, fixed on something he could almost see and was terrified he might. “There were things, weren’t there? I thought. . .”

Tully licked his lips. “Thought what?”

Lovie shook her head and chuckled under her breath, an uneasy, brittle sound. “Never mind. It’s not like I could never leave my man Tully behind.”

She stood. “Anyway, I’m heading topside. You rest here, and I’ll check on you later.”

He grabbed her hand. “Don’t leave me.”

She leaned down and kissed him on the lips. “I got to check on my boys. I’ll be right back.”

Tully couldn’t breathe. He smelled patchouli and blood, heard the distant ringing of tambourines. He held on tight to the only proof he had that he hadn’t been left behind while the scavengers devoured his world. “But you’re coming back, right?”

He couldn’t make sense of the words, but they felt important so he said them.

“I said I would, didn’t I?”

He nodded – “Yeah, yeah you did.” – and let her go, his hand cold without someone to hold onto.

Another kiss, and Lovie walked out, closing the door behind her.

Tully settled back on the pillow, thoughts circling themselves like sharks. He’d ask Lovie for another shot of whatever it was when she came back. She was coming back, right? She wouldn’t leave him alone with. . .something.

Tully shivered in spite of himself and burrowed under the thin blanket. He stared at the bulkhead until visions of scavengers gave way to fishing boats off the coast of Maui, and he closed his eyes.

___
Copyright 2016 Sandra M. Odell

Sandra lives in Washington state with her husband, two sons, and grumpy cat. She is an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE.

by Iona Sharma

(i) Candlemas

On the Monday, Grace put the advertisement for the new apprentice on the door of their chambers; on the Tuesday, she had a couple of interested, and uninteresting, respondents; and on Wednesday, it was the seven hundred and thirty-first Candlemas of the City of London, so Grace went out with all the other Salt practitioners and raised the year’s magic for the City’s lamps, lighting Ned’s as well as her own; and then on Thursday, a little after five o’clock in the morning, Ned knocked violently on her bedroom door and shouted, “Grace! Wake up!”

They’d been raising light magic in the gardens till dusk, and afterwards they had watched the tapers burn away the night into the small hours. If she only had an apprentice, Grace thought ignobly, she could send them to see what was wanted. And then Ned knocked again, and she was on her feet looking for her dressing gown and slippers.

“What is it?” she shouted through the door, thinking reflexively of Zeppelins, and then shaking her head to clear it of that sudden image of fire in the dark.

“A boy came from the station,” Ned was saying as Grace stepped out of her door, casting more light as she went, hanging a luminous globe off the roof. Ned was fully dressed with his battered Virgil closed on his thumb; he didn’t sleep at night, now. “They’re asking for every practitioner – there’s been an accident on the railway bridge.”

Grace breathed in sharply. “Thanet?”

Ned shook his head as they went downstairs. “Not here. Said something about a girl over the water. Grace, this may be our fault,” – and then they were through their chambers and on Middle Temple Lane, standing on cobbles gleaming with last night’s rain.

There was no light in the sky yet and no stars, but across the water, Grace could make out the orange glow on the bridge by St Paul’s. “Come on,” she called to Ned, who was rarely outside these days and catching his breath. They hurried through the deserted gardens, down towards the Embankment. There were not many carriages and motorcars on the roadway at this hour, and over them Grace could hear the distant shouting, the crackling of flames. Looking over her shoulder, she could see the lights coming on throughout the chambers surrounding the gardens, and other figures in flapping mishmashes of hastily-grabbed clothing.

At the entrance to the station, they came up short at a police cordon. The constable looked askance at Grace’s dressing gown – and at the darkness of her skin, no doubt – and then at Ned’s general unkempt air. Reflexively, she and Ned both dipped their heads so their practitioners’ bars were visible through their ears.

“We’re Salt,” Ned said, quickly. “I worked on the signalling systems for the railway.”

“Thank goodness,” the constable said, with unexpected fervour. “You’re to go through.”

On the other side, all was heat and light. Grace realised at once that the cordon had been a magical one made of both Salt and tape: because suddenly the smoke was choking and the heat a vivid presence, and the surface of the platform warm beneath her feet. A half-dozen practitioners had raised their lights and she could see the spilled railway carriages as great sinister bulks looming out of the darkness. Running the debris patterns backwards in her mind, she imagined the accident: a train run straight into the back of another, but the one in front made of stronger stuff so it had stayed upright, its engine and carriages still standing straight on the bridge, with the other train on the station’s landward side, now spilled behind it like confetti. Out of those strewn islands the flames were rising, and in the gloom beneath, there was the shadowy suggestion of moving limbs.

“Oh,” she said, stricken by it, and felt rather than heard Ned step forwards in the dark beside her. His presence was comforting and close, and Grace dismissed the protective instinct telling her to push him back behind the cordon.

“Are you the magical folk?” called another policeman, and without waiting for an answer. “This way, ma’am, please, please…”

Closer-to, Grace could make out people being helped from the shattered carriages by way of splintered doors and windows; others were banging inside, waiting for the rescuers to come. Grace saw Ned look unhappily up and down the track, towards the signalling wires.

“Can’t do anything about that now,” he said, and using his cane to balance, jumped heavily down onto the trackside.

As Grace watched, he leant down beside a woman just pulled from a carriage, and helped her drink some water from a canteen. Without even thinking about it, Grace had begun work herself: she cast spells for cooling and healing, of things as well as people, drawing water up from the river, dumping it on the flames, then beginning again. As the light appeared in the sky, and brightened, more and more Salt folk arrived from Temple: they worked in concert where they could, as to make better use of whatever power they had, and around them the flames burned blue-white with gas. By the time the sun was clipping the horizon Grace’s eyes had blurred with smoke and tiredness. Brought to herself by the aches in her muscles and the ash burning in her throat, she looked around her at the chilled dawn in the east along the river, and the bleak aspect it gave to the passengers and the practitioners, their bedroom slippers incongruous in the light. The fires were still burning low, bright beneath the wooden railway carriages.

“Grace.” Ned was leaning against the platform edge below her, looking up. “Use me, if you must,” he said, with his right hand on his heart.

Grace checked he was fully supported against the edge before she reached into him and did it. It wasn’t perhaps good practice to take the heart out of a layman, but Ned’s qualification as such was dubious, and her doubts were eclipsed by gratefulness as she felt the strength of it.

And, then, somehow, it was morning: the light had risen sufficiently for her to make out the opposite bank of the river, and the slow progress of the injured being taken across the bridge. It was only then, as Grace kept herself still, trying not to fall off the platform edge, that she noticed the flock of starlings fluttering above her, making a neat, low circle about the station. Their wings were soaked through and raining down water, damping the very last of the flames. Grace wheeled around, heedless of anyone who might be in the way, and called out, “Thanet? Is that you? Where are you? Thanet!”

“Grace!” Thanet called, hobbling across the platform, having ducked out from behind one of the shelters. He might have been there all the time, Grace realised gratefully; the three of them in their familiar formation without knowing. “Grace, I’m here!”

Below them, Ned turned, recognisable more by his gait than anything else, his face and hair smeared with ash. “Thanet? Oh, thank goodness.”

Ned leaned against the platform edge again, tipping his head back. Under the starling rain and the efforts of all of them, the fire had died down to smoke, billowing and dissipating across the water. Grace looked down at Ned and up at the remains of the wreckage, and said, “Shall we?”

Between them, Grace and Thanet got Ned back up to platform level, they paid their respects to the exhausted-looking police constables lining the bridge, and the three of them walked slowly and quietly along the Embankment, watching the first of the day’s trams rattle past.

“We were afraid,” Ned said to Thanet, as Grace rummaged for the keys to chambers, “that you might have been on the train.”

“I was late coming back,” Thanet said, his voice hoarse. “It was a girl in trouble, you understand? Didn’t want the neighbours to see. I was walking across the road bridge when I saw the crash. And then, you know, I thought –” He paused, looking pale in the rising light. “Ned, did we do this? I mean – if, say, the signals were faulty, and the train—”

“There will be an investigation,” Ned said, heavily. “We’ll find out.”

“I suppose Mrs Throckley’s not in,” Grace said, opening the door. “After you, Ned. We left in rather a hurry.”

Thanet chuckled grimly as they went inside their sitting-room and opened the curtains, which did little to address the dimness. To make light was properly Salt magic, but Thanet did it regardless. “You know,” he said, “we should think about electricity.”

“We don’t need electricity, we have magic,” Grace said, and then smiled a little. “I suppose they said the same thing about the wheel, once upon a time. Tea for all of us, I think.”

She used the gas rather than magic to heat the kettle, handed steaming sweet cups to both Thanet and Ned, and said nothing for a few minutes. Thanet was methodically picking ashes and burnt fragments out of his hair, and Ned was sitting on the ottoman by the fireplace, his hands shaking violently around the cup. Grace watched them both, and wondered. She had run the practice mostly alone from 1916; after that the nature of Ned’s war service had been mysterious, while Thanet’s had involved driving ambulances around unexploded shells. “If you want to get some sleep,” she said, after a moment, “I won’t open up yet.”

They both nodded, and Grace picked up the loop of heavy keys in time to hear the knock from the other side of the oak door. Normally their housekeeper, Mrs Throckley, would have answered it, but there was silence. Grace thought, knowing her, she had probably gone to the station to see how she could help.

Grace opened the door and looked down at the girl waiting beyond it, perhaps twelve or thirteen, with perfectly oiled braids over both shoulders and a neat dress and coat. “Hello? Can we help you?”

“My name’s Kira,” said the girl, peering back at Grace in her dressing-gown, all-over ash, blood and grit. “I saw your advertisement. I want to learn magic.”

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(ii) Lady Day

 

“Now, before the inquest there’s a libel listed,” Grace said, and was amused to note the slightly hectoring note in her voice. She thought of the old Salt practitioner, Mrs Macomber, who’d taught her in Liverpool when she was a girl of ten, and silently apologised through time. “I’m a practitioner ad litem on the case. You remember what that means?”

Kira, whose braids were done up in blue bows today, looked up at her seriously. “It means,” she said, “that you help the, er. The plaintiff-or-defendant. On a magical case. If they don’t know about it already, I mean. Magic.”

Grace waited, and they advanced a few steps through the Temple gardens, but there was nothing else forthcoming. “I suppose that’ll do,” she said. “And after that, there’s the coroner’s inquest into the rail crash. It may be rather upsetting,” she added, severely. “Talk of dead bodies and suchlike. Are you sure you’ll be able to sit through it?”

Kira nodded, and sotto voce, Thanet murmured: “Still trying to put her off, are you?”

Grace startled. “Kira, we’re early,” she said, looking out over at the gardens, at junior counsel bolting their breakfast in the sun. “Take sixpence and get some rolls from the baker’s, there’s a good girl.”

“For you as well, Miss Thanet?” Kira asked.

Thanet nodded. “Thank you, dear,” she said, and Kira ran off. When she’d gone Grace turned to Thanet with a sigh; once, long ago, they’d not had to fetch their own breakfast. Grace’s father – and Mrs Macomber too, for that matter – would no doubt credit the imminent triumph of the revolutionary proletariat with that particular change in the weather.

“Not putting her off,” Grace said, “at least, not for the reasons you’re thinking. I said I’d let her follow me about and see how she goes, but I’d half-decided to take the notice down before she turned up. Perhaps we don’t need an apprentice, not now.”

“Why is that?” Thanet asked with interest, turning on the spot, and Grace understood what she was trying to say: it was busy and beautiful here now, after the quiet of the last few years. Stallholders sold trinkets for the holding of Bird charms, and tinderboxes full of magical heart’s energy; Salt practitioners unrolled great blueprints out on the grass, to get their colleagues’ advice; up in the barristers’ chambers and the practitioners’, the curtains were pulled back and the plaques and signboards were dusted off, ready for custom. And there were children here: practitioners’ children, who’d never known anything but the Temple gardens and the riverbank, laughing and playing, throwing sparks and bright firecrackers up at the sky (despite the sign: “No Recreational Magic In The Gardens, By Order”). Grace had grown up around the Court of the Tithebarn, the High Court for magical matters up in Liverpool; Ned had grown up here at Temple; and though Grace didn’t like to pry into Thanet’s past too much, there was recognition in her eyes, here, surrounded by all the artefacts of their practice.

“Because.” Grace spread her hands. “Because she’s a sweet girl, and maybe she really does want to learn magic with us, or thinks she does. But with the future of the practice uncertain—” She trailed off. “You know, Thanet. With Ned – how he is, now, and the world so changed. Training an apprentice is a serious business and I don’t know how prepared we are for it.”

“She wants what she wants.” Thanet shrugged. “And in the meantime –” a pause, as they both watched Kira make her way back across the gardens, sedately now and carrying a basket of bread rolls, “—if you want to warn her off, don’t think the dead bodies will do it.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Grace said, with some amusement. “Are you ready for the inquest?”

Thanet looked uncomfortable for a moment; she and Ned had both been summonsed to appear after the Board of Trade investigation. “First I’m going with Ned to see the Registrar. We need to – well, to sort things out, before Ned can address the court. It’s Lady Day, you know.”

Grace nodded, pushing her braids away from her eyes. Registration day for practitioners was the first of the quarter days, the old Roman new year. For her own part, she’d have to make a decision about Kira today. “I’ll see you afterwards, then.”

Thanet shook her head. “I’ve another girl to go and see. I can’t be late, she said if I came this afternoon her mother would be out.”

Grace nodded again. “Good luck.”

Thanet smiled and made her own determined way across the gardens, while Grace accepted a bread roll from Kira. “Now remember,” she said, “you’re not my apprentice.”

“Yet.” Kira looked up and didn’t smile, eating her own bread roll; she was entirely serious.

“That’s as well as may be,” Grace said, one of Mrs Macomber’s set phrases to the letter. “But in the meantime you’ll sit in the public gallery and you’ll behave.”

“Yes, Miss May,” Kira said, still calm. Grace shook her head and led the way through out of Temple, up the terraces and stone steps set amidst the greenery, and back into the noisy space of the world outside.

divider

Among the ceremonial morass of the City, the Worshipful Companies of Salt and Birds-in-Flight were, as they put it, outside the precedence: for them, no tussling over orders of procession and entitlements in the manner of the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors and suchlike, but a dignified existence elsewhere. Which might explain the clerk, Thanet thought: he’d wanted a better position, with more gilt-edging and less dust.

On the other hand, perhaps nothing explained the clerk.

“What kind of a name is ‘Thanet’, anyway?” he asked after a minute, lifting his pen in some irritation, so it spattered a long trail of ink over his page. He glared at it, and then up at Thanet, as if it were entirely her fault.

“Perfectly respectable name,” Thanet told him. “I believe there’s an entire region of Kent that goes by it. In fact I know there is, I spent some time there as a young man.”

“As a…” The clerk trailed off, and seemed to give up. Carefully screwing the lid back onto his fountain pen, he went through to the internal door, knocked and put his head around it. “Registrar, there are some –” He turned back, glared again for good measure, “—people here to see you. A Miss Thanet, and…”

He trailed off again. It had been quite some time since Thanet had heard Ned laugh, but he did so now, and there seemed real mirth in it despite a twist of irony to his smile. “As you forgot to ask,” he said, “here’s my card. You might remind the Registrar of the apples and cheese I gave him in the schoolroom, his mother having neglected to provide him with same.”

“Edward Devlin,” the clerk said, reading off the card; he must be new, Thanet thought. If so he was the only such person or thing around here: looking up, the bomb damage to the building and the piecemeal repair work seemed more apparent than ever. The Salt Guildhall had been the first place in London to be bombed.

After a moment the Registrar came out, holding a fountain pen of his own. “I suppose you’d better come inside,” he said, querulously, and then, raising his eyes to the heavens: “Apples and cheese, Ned, really? Are you able to –”

Ned nodded – there were only a few steps – and they followed the Registrar. Thanet kept careful pace with Ned.

“Well,” the Registrar said, sitting in ungentlemanly fashion on the edge of his carved mahogany desk. “I can’t say as I don’t know what this is about. Miss Thanet, are you here for some particular reason?”

“I wouldn’t let him come without me, sir,” Thanet said, smartly bringing her heels together, also in ungentlemanly – unladylike – fashion. Ned looked embarrassed. From above them, the spring sunlight filtered through the room, making the dust on the books and papers even more obvious than usual.

“Right enough,” the Registrar said. “State your case, Ned. Think of it as advocacy in camera.

Thanet might have been a little thrown by that, but Ned did not seem to be; she remembered from before that it had always been his habit to pace up and down when addressing a judge in chambers, and his discomfort seemed centred on the fact this was no longer possible. He put the cane down with a nearly voiceless sound of frustration and leaned heavily on the back of a chair. “Sir,” he said, “as you are aware, I am a Salt practitioner.”

“One of two in a class of six children,” the Registrar said, with some wryness. “Do skip ahead.”

“I am a Salt practitioner,” Ned said, stubbornly, still leaning forwards with his hands on the chair back. “I was apprenticed and educated at Temple and Wadham College, Oxford, following which I was a practitioner ad litem, in service of the District Court of Farringdon Without. In the spring of 1916, I was asked to fulfil a certain office for the Crown, the details of which I am not able to divulge.”

“Skip ahead, Ned,” the Registrar said.

“Although I remain a trained practitioner-” Ned’s hand went up to the metal bar driven through the flesh of his ear; Thanet, too, found herself with her hand on her own – “I can no longer, ah. Sir, you will be aware I can no longer do magic.” Ned’s hand came down in a gesture of defeat. In that gleam of overhead sunlight, Thanet could see that was there was no rust on his practitioner’s bar – Salt, like salt, had a tendency to rust. “And I do not ask to remain registered as though I could. However, I humbly request that my registration ad litem be allowed to remain. I can still advise defendants and plaintiffs on Salt magic, its history and practice. I merely, cannot – ah.”

He stopped, and this time made no effort to continue. Thanet held a breath for a moment. The Registrar straightened up, his hands clasped. “Ned,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not—” Thanet took a step forwards, her heels tapping sharply. “You can’t possibly—”

“Thanet, hush.” Ned held up one hand. “Sir?”

“I knew you’d come,” the Registrar said.

“Did you?” Thanet asked; she had wondered, herself, if Ned would ever return to practice.

The Registrar gave her a sharp look. “I heard about the inquest.”

“I’ve been asked to appear before it,” Ned said. “We both have. I will have to stand and give my name, and my – calling. My nature.”

“I can’t take what you are from you, Ned,” the Registrar said, softly, “and neither can the District Court. But the rules require that you raise a light, at Candlemas. I can’t renew your registration.”

“Oh, no.” Thanet said, involuntarily, and Ned said nothing at all. “Registrar, in the circumstances, surely you understand –”

“Miss Thanet,” the Registrar said, and then changed his mind, addressing Ned instead. “Remember those apples and cheese,” he said, quietly. “Remember your lady mother and her kindnesses. Think about the kind of accusation that you and I would be open to, if I were – less rigorous.”

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Ned said, after a long moment.

“Ned, I’m sorry. I –” The Registrar waved a vague hand, swinging to his feet.”I wish things were different.”

“So do I.” Ned bowed his head, and reached for his cane. “Thank you, Registrar. Thanet and I will be late for our appointment, if we don’t hurry.”

At the threshold, the Registrar called them back. “Ned,” he said quickly, a little embarrassed. “Go on as you are for the remaining quarter days. I’ll smooth things over if there’s trouble.”

Ned stopped and turned around. “As a kindness?” he asked, standing quite still and straight, his cane gripped loosely in one hand.

“Yes,” said the Registrar, sounding defeated. “Yes.”

“Thank you.” Ned bowed his head again, and Thanet kept step with him, the tap-tap-tap of the cane echoing as they went.

divider

The libel case went as well as expected. Grace’s learned friend for the defence called her forth and the jury listened with all semblance of focused attention, though as she turned away from the lectern she heard a juror murmur “negress.” Grace thought, with some spite, a country jury, then brought herself short for unfairness; city folk could be just as bad. The judge quelled the murmurs with a look. It was Justice Devlin presiding and Grace was grateful for it, but it rankled regardless. And then the matter was adjourned to the Chancery and the court’s usual business finished for the morning.

“Next,” called the usher, “the coroner’s preliminary inquest in the St Paul’s and Blackfriars railway crash of the third day of February in this year of our Lord 1919. With gratitude to the District Court of Farringdon Without for postponing its docket, we reconvene at noon.”

As Grace made her way into the public gallery, there was a hand on her arm. “Excuse me, dear – a quick word?”

“Of course,” Grace said, with a gesture behind her back to encourage Kira to stand up. Justice Devlin was taking off her horsehair wig and bundling it away, but she had quite enough force of personality without it, in Grace’s experience. “What can I do for you, your ladyship?” She paused, then added,, “Kira, this is the Honourable Mrs Justice Devlin.”

Kira looked slightly alarmed at the title, and Justice Devlin smiled, clearly amused. “A pleasure to meet you, little one,” she said. “It’s good to see you taking on an apprentice, Grace.” She waved away Grace’s attempt to correct her with something about a trial period. “Speaking of, I must visit and have a conversation with you about your practice soon.”

Grace nodded, though with her heart privately sinking; she had an idea what such a conversation might involve. “Of course, my lady.”

“Good, good. And how are your parents? I hear there’s been unsettled news from Liverpool.”

“The riots were bad,” Grace said, thinking of her father’s understated letters on the subject. “But they’ve been all right, so far.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Oh, also” – she paused, on the point of turning – “how’s my boy?”

Grace hesitated, and Justice Devlin shook her head. “Still refusing to emerge for anything short of major railway disasters, I see. A bientôt, dear.”

Grace smiled faintly to herself, feeling rather like a hurricane had passed through, and sat down next to Kira in the gallery pews.

“Justice Devlin is Ned’s mother,” she explained. “She used to practise from the same chambers as we do.”

Kira nodded, and then shuffled forwards, trying to see through the gaps in the railings. “What’s a libel?” she asked, when it became clear nothing was yet happening in the court below.

“It’s when you write something about someone else that’s not true,” Grace told her, “but everyone believes it anyway.”

“And you were telling them if they’re true or not?”

“No.” Grace smiled. “I told them the pamphlets were made by magic. That makes it a magical crime, you see? And that’s a different thing.”

Kira was apparently turning that over in her mind. “And what’s a knocking shop?” she demanded, loudly enough for the couple of railway men just filing in to turn sharply. “And what’s a Bolshevik one?”

Grace surprised herself by laughing. “Hush, little one,” she said, “it’s a libel case, the knocking-shops are only allegedly Bolshevik – and I will explain it all to you a little later. Sit down now and be quiet.”

Despite the understandably grave faces of the people coming into the public gallery for the inquest, she was still smiling as the usher closed the doors. When silence had quite fallen, the coroner stepped out and said, “Ladies and gentlemen and Birds-in-Flight, thank you for coming to this preliminary inquest into the recent tragic events at Blackfriars Bridge.

“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that of the seventy people known to have been aboard the rear train, the 5.01 service from Moorgate, thirty-five of them were killed as a result of the accident,” he continued. “Happily, if such a word may be used in this circumstance, the forward train bore only freight, and its driver was uninjured. However, the driver of the overturned train, a Mr Ferguson, was killed at the site of the crash, and his apprentice, a man named Roberts, has been taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and is quite unable to give testimony.

“I don’t propose to undertake a detailed hearing of the evidence this morning. From what I understand from the Company,” he nodded at two dour-looking gentlemen on the front bench. “The railway’s magic practitioners are holding the bodies charmed against corruption. However, in the interests of releasing them for burial as soon as possible, let’s begin. ”

The jury were sworn, and then the coroner called his first witness, a woman with dark skin and heavy curls. Her voice was low but not faltering: she spoke of how the journey had been unremarkable; that she took the early train every day. “I was near-sleeping,” she said, apologetically, “we’re all always half-dead on that train. The witches at the riverside had lit the lamps afresh, I remember. Before that night they’d been dimming to nothing. And then we stopped.”

“At the signal?” the coroner asked, then paused. “I apologise, I understand you would have no way of knowing. What happened next?”

“We went on.” The woman unfolded her hands. “Silent, like. I mean the train made no noise but I saw the lights get further away, if you follow me? And then we were going a decent clip at the bridge, and then –” She gestured, a little helplessly, and the coroner’s sympathy was evident in his face.

“That will do fine. Next, please, I call the two practitioners who were originally responsible for the signalling system, Edward Devlin and –” the coroner consulted his notes, “—Thanet. Thank you.”

Ned and Thanet took the stand together. To Grace’s eyes, they both looked insubstantial, washed-out by the slice of daylight falling through the window. “Before I speak any further,” Ned said, abruptly. “Sir, I am no longer permitted to address the court ad litem. I come as a private citizen.”

“Thank you for informing me,” the coroner said, and Grace thought, as her heart was sinking again, that he had probably understood all that was meant by that, and needed to ask no more questions. Once they had confirmed their names for the record, Ned took on the burden of the explanation.

“The connection between the signal box and the train cab is automatic,” he said. “A silver bell is mounted above each driver’s head, in his cab. Should a signalman wish to raise an alert to every train within a fixed number of chains, all he need do is ring his own bell. Every other bell should ring at the same or almost the same moment, and each driver is well-trained to bring his train to an immediate standstill at the sound of the bell, which is itself designed to carry clearly through the sound of the train in motion.”

“I see,” the coroner said, after a moment. “So what went wrong?”

“In my view, nothing,” Ned said. “The system has been extensively checked by my colleague and by the railway’s magical practitioners, and they believe it was working perfectly on the night of the accident.”

“Did you not undertake a review of it yourself?”

Ned was calm. “I’m not able to assist in that kind of work any longer.”

“I see,” the coroner said again. “Is it possible that your current – ah, state – may have influenced your previous work?”

“No, sir.” Ned was still perfectly calm, though Grace could see his hands gripping tightly on the edge of the stand. “Magic once done is done.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Thanet interrupted. “It’s by no means clear that there was any fault in the signalling system at all. It might have been a mechanical fault in the train. It might have been an error on the part of the driver.”

“The Board of Trade is investigating those possibilities,” the coroner said, repressively. “Mr Devlin, where were you on the night of the accident?”

“At home, above my chambers at Temple,” Ned said. “And then at the station, assisting with the rescue effort.”

“Thank you. Miss Thanet, and you?

“On a professional call south of the river,” Thanet said, blandly, and the coroner paused.

“An odd time of day for a call,” he said, real curiosity animating his voice; after all, Grace thought, it was not the place of the coroner to cross-examine. “Could you care to elaborate?”

“No,” Thanet said, still blandly. “My client’s case is confidential and unrelated to the matter at hand.”

“I see,” the coroner said. “Before we conclude this preliminary inquiry, I’d like to hear from Mr Williams, solicitor to the Company.”

One of the dour-faced men took the stand, removing his hat as he did so. “Yes, sir.”

“Perhaps you’ll give us some information about the driver of the train, Mr Ferguson. Was he a man of good character?”

“Yes, sir,” said Mr Williams, and polished his spectacles before going on; Grace, who had a lifetime’s experience of old, solemn lawyers, hid her smile. “He was a hardworking man, not taken to drink. Certainly he was of good character.”

“Was he recently demobilised?” asked the coroner.

“Yes, sir,” said Mr Williams, this time with some confusion as though referring to some alien state. He’d been too old to be conscripted, of course, and it was true that these days the average age of the male lawyers and practitioners at Temple had taken a great leap upwards. “He returned to his employment with the Southwestern Railway in January of this year.”

“Was he of a magical family?”

“No, sir.” The solicitor was quite definite on the point. “It is a matter of policy at the Southwestern that no driver may be of the Salt or Birds-in-Flight. The risk of interaction with the magical control and signalling systems is too high.”

The coroner nodded. “Was Mr Ferguson’s war service a hard one? Was he injured?”

“I am afraid I am not cognisant—” the solicitor said, and the coroner waved a hand.

“We will leave the matter for the full inquest,” said, conciliatory. “In the meantime, however, I will issue interim recommendations to the Birds-in-Flight and Salt Worshipful Companies. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that is as long as I propose to keep you. We adjourn until further notice.”

There was a small murmur from the public gallery at that, and then the sound of people getting to their feet and beginning to file out. Below, Grace noticed Thanet being waylaid by someone she didn’t recognise, a Bird practitioner judging from the bar through their ear, and from Thanet’s aura of deference, perhaps a senior one. After a moment, the coroner and his clerk joined them. The conversation seemed heated, and Grace looked on with interest, before Kira plucked her sleeve and they followed the crowds down out of court, back to Temple. Ned was nowhere to be seen.

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Earlier, Mrs Throckley had been talking about collecting together their ration books for scones; now, as Grace and Kira let themselves back into chambers, the scent of baking drifted comfortingly through the house. Kira scuttled down to the kitchen, and in the study, Grace was thinking about what the room had been like during the war years, about the quality of the silence, and how much had changed since Ned and Thanet had come home. When Grace looked up, Kira was standing in the doorway, as though afraid to come further. “Come in,” she said, and Kira seemed to steel herself to it, and took a step inside.

“Are the others not here?” she asked, looking around nervously.

“Not yet,” Grace said absently. “Thanet has a client, I believe. Kira, come here. Come and sit down in front of me.”

Still looking a little apprehensive, Kira did so, so they were facing each other over the bench, like client and retainer.

Grace leaned back. “I said I’d give you a fair trial before I make any decision about taking you on, and that’s what we’re going to do. Let’s start with this: who are you?”

“My name’s Kira, I told you when I first came,” Kira said, with a flash of irritation; Grace hid another smile.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said. “Names are a funny thing, in magic – they tend to stick. Take me, for example.” She indicated herself with a gesture. “I’m Margaret Grace, actually. When I was your age my mother called me Margaret. But for magic I was Grace, because that was the name I called myself, in my head.”

Kira appeared to consider that. “So I can’t change my name, ever?”

“Not never,” Grace said, thinking of Thanet, “but not easily, and perhaps, not soon. You don’t want to make life difficult for yourself when you’re just starting out.

“Next – what calls you?”

From the look on her face, Kira understood the question. “I don’t know,” she said, tentative, and Grace remembered the same lacuna on the subject when Kira had introduced herself on the step. Too much explanation, perhaps, with which to begin their acquaintance.

“Your mum’s something, your dad’s something else?” she guessed; Kira looked unhappy, but nodded. “So what do you think you are?”

“Salt,” Kira said. “Like – well, like Mum.”

“And me,” Grace said, gently, “and Ned, too.”

“But I don’t know,” Kira said,. “Dad was like the Birds, you know? And sometimes I can do the things he used to do.”

“You’re young, you haven’t settled,” Grace said, with more authority than she felt – she was sure the girl knew that a mixed magical parentage was rare – “If it turns out you’re with the Birds, well. Then if I take you on – if –” she added, sternly. “If I do, then Thanet will have the majority of your magical teaching, and Ned and I will look after you in other ways.”

“All right,” Kira said, looking up with her eyes fierce and determined again. “What comes next?”

“What do you give?” Grace said, giving the words the resonance of a quotation, though in truth, she did not know – and perhaps, no one did – where the recitation had come from. Perhaps with the Salt itself, from the sea.

“Is this like,” Kira said, leaning forwards to listen so her braids bounced, “when Mum makes the cakes?”

“Cakes?”

“When she’s baking she keeps one aside, sometimes, and then it’s not there any more after but the others taste better.”

Grace laughed a little, but not too much. It wasn’t her place, after all, to comment on another woman’s practice, but the neatness of the trick amused her.

“Something like that. Magic always has a price. Not money,” she added, at the confused look on Kira’s face. “Though it could be, I suppose. No reason why not.” Working quickly in her mind, she raised a light, a tiny globe suspended off the tips of her fingers.

“I did that just with the gift of my own energy,” she said, as Kira looked at the light with wide-eyed, unalloyed joy. It had not been difficult at any point to establish why the girl wanted to learn. “Just my energy,” Grace said again. “So I’m a little more tired than I was. But what if I wanted to light a whole building for a month? Or the whole City for a year?”

“Something bigger?” Kira guessed.

Grace nodded. “That’s right. So what might we do?”

“I’ve seen,” Kira said, again hesitantly, “out in the parks sometimes, they burn rubbish.”

“That’s certainly one way,” Grace said. “You can sacrifice the flames to magic, if you’re careful. There are other things, too.” She hesitated, trying to put it in terms that Kira would understand. “I might give up something I’d made, like your mother and her cakes. Long ago in the Middle Ages people used to give up their arms and legs.”

“Really?” Kira said, fascinated. Grace hurried on.

“And finally. What do you ask for?”

“Light,” Kira said, grinning, and pointed at the one still hanging off Grace’s fingers. Grace grinned in return at her joy.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, exactly.”

“Will I have to do that whole thing every time?” Kira asked, suddenly dubious. “You didn’t have to, when you made your light.”

“Eventually,” Grace explained, “it’ll come to you quick as thinking. Quicker than that, it’ll come to you like breathing. But it’ll be the same in your head, even so: your name, your calling, your gift, and your asking. That’s how magic works.”

“Right.” Kira put her little hands together. “Well, my name is Kira.”

“Good,” Grace said, reserved. “That’s good.”

And Kira looked at her, her eyes still wide with hope, and Grace was saved from facing them by the ring of the outer bell and footsteps in the outer passage.

“Ned?” she called, thinking suddenly that Ned and Thanet would be Mr Devlin and Miss Thanet to any apprentice of hers, and wondering at where the years had gone for the three of them. “Thanet? What is it?”

Thanet was shaking off her coat with far more violence than necessary. “Damn their eyes and damn them all to hell,” she said, caught sight of Kira and gave Grace a quick, miserable look of apology.

“What happened?” Suddenly, Grace thought the worst, imagining an abortifacient gone wrong, and blood tainted with failed magic; she’d seen that before. “The girl – your client…”

“I never got to see her.” Thanet threw herself down into a chair and put her face in her hands. “I’ve just been barred.”

Grace looked at her in confusion. “You mean, Ned…”

“Not me,” Ned said, putting his hat on a hook as he came in and landing heavily in his own chair. “It seems the coroner’s interim recommendation was to bar Thanet from practice until, and I quote, it becomes clear, or otherwise, that her work has not been grossly defective, negligent, or otherwise reprehensible. The Birds-in-Flight Registrar rolled over and agreed.”

“That bloody coroner.” Thanet lifted her head and looked straight at Grace. “Where were you on the night of the accident? Bit of an odd time of day, wasn’t it? Oh, wasn’t it? And now if I don’t get my act together, if I can’t be trusted to work a simple signalling magic—”

“It wasn’t remotely simple,” Grace said, astonished.

It had been the last major project Ned and Thanet had worked on before the war, and had involved months of effort and planning, but most of all Grace remembered the joy they had both taken in it, filling their study with tinkling silver bells, ringing out a different complex melody with each combination of signals.

“Thanet, what exactly did they say?”

“They said, as my work is under suspicion of having caused a railway accident…”

“It isn’t.”

“I’m suspended until further notice. I can’t practise until the situation is resolved.” Thanet pulled a letter from her coat pocket and threw it down on the table. “Bastards.”

Kira was looking on with wide eyes, but Grace found she wasn’t currently concerned about the effect of profanity on the girl’s morals. “Thanet,” she said, firmly. “We’ll talk to them.”

“I tried it,” Ned said, spreading his hands. “I tried telling them the signals were working perfectly on the night of the accident – and by the way, the Board of Trade report has come back. They didn’t find a scrap of evidence that anything had gone wrong.”

“Damn it,” Thanet said, again. “It’s nothing to do with the signals and you know it, Ned. It’s the girls in trouble. It’s always girls in trouble.” With a noise of frustration, she stood up. “I’m going downstairs. I need a drink.”

The door slammed behind her, and Ned looked up at Grace. “I even tried telling them that only I designed the signals.” His eyes flashed with something, not humour. “That Thanet wasn’t involved. After all, they can’t take my registration from me again.”

“I’m sorry, Ned,” Grace said, softly. Ned shrugged, put his head in his hands, then looked up again.

“And now what?” he said, with more bitterness than Grace had ever heard from him. “Jesus Christ, Grace, it’s not – it’s not a job, or a livelihood! It’s my life. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Ned—”

“And now what, for those already half-destroyed?”

“Ned,” Grace said, sharply. “You’re scaring Kira.”

She wasn’t sure, in fact, if that were true: Kira was still staring wide-eyed at them, though whether it was from fear or interest, Grace couldn’t be sure. Ned hesitated, brought short, and then buried his head in his hands again. “Little one,” he said, and Grace took a second to realise he was addressing Kira. “I apologise, and may you be spared the sins of your fathers.”

From her expression, Kira was unsure what to make of that. A minute passed and Thanet did not return, although Grace could hear her voice rise and fall in the distance, and guessed she was relating a version of the morning’s events to Mrs Throckley.

Surprisingly, it was Kira who broke the long silence, getting to her feet and stepping out into the space of the room. “What happened to you?” she asked Ned with interest. Ned seemed taken aback, lifting his head. To Grace’s amazement, he laughed hoarsely, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.

“No one’s ever told you,” he said after a moment, “that there are some questions you don’t ask, have they?”

“You don’t have to answer,” Kira said, composedly. “You can say you don’t want to. Do you not want to?”

Ned paused, then again to Grace’s surprise, patted the edge of his own workbench. “Why don’t you sit down, so I don’t have to look up at you?”

For the first time, Kira looked a little abashed, but she sat on the edge of the bench; Ned leaned back in his desk chair. “It’s a long story,” he said, after a moment. “But the short version is that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Salt Guildhall – perhaps you’ve seen it, or what’s left of it? I happened to be on the premises when the first bomb fell. I’m very lucky,” he added, turning to look at her properly. “I didn’t die and I was pulled out after not too long. But I was hurt quite badly and that’s why I walk with a cane. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes,” Kira said. “Thank you. It’s just you tap your cane like my granny does, and she’s blind.”

“The reason behind that,” Ned said, “is an even longer story, and one I don’t always enjoy telling. So I think I’m going to have to take advantage of your get-out clause, if that’s acceptable?”

“Yeah,” Kira said, and then.”I mean, yes.”

“Kira,” Grace said. “Run along down to the kitchen. If you’re lucky the scones will be done.”

Kira stood not upon the order of her going. Grace walked around the open space of chambers for a moment, taking in the old-fashioned beauty of this space she had always shared with Ned, with its high ancient roof and weathered beams. She walked two circuits, and then tapped her fingernail on the side of their kettle, using a little magic to make it steam. “Tea, Ned?”

“Thank you,” he said, sounding almost normal. Grace felt a rush of gratitude for him: for the years of their friendship, for his continued quiet presence, though the world had changed around them both.

When the tea was poured out, she asked, “Why do you tap your cane?” She held up her hands before he could respond. “If you really don’t want to talk about it…”

Ned shook his head and took a sip of tea. “It’s a little beyond the grasp of a twelve-year-old, that’s all. It’s because of” – he gestured – “the other thing. Without any awareness of the salt in my own bones, I’m less aware of – where I am, relative to everything else. Proprioception, I’m told it’s called. The cane is grounding.”

“I had no idea,” Grace said.

“It’s little-studied,” Ned said. “Due to a lack of experimental subjects.”

“Quite,” Grace said, with affection. “No, Ned, I hadn’t noticed that you were tapping the cane on purpose, not in all this time. And I didn’t notice, but she did.”

“Quite,” Ned echoed. “You’ve time to write to the girl’s mother, before the last post goes.”

Grace smiled at him, tentative. “It’ll be lively,” she said, “to have an apprentice about the place. Like the old days.”

Ned nodded. “Grace,” he said, after a minute. “What can I do, now?”

“Help Thanet,” said Grace, with mute, inarticulable sympathy. “Help her clear her name.”

Ned nodded again. “Yes. And apart from that?”

“Scones,” Grace said, holding out a hand to him. He took it, pulled himself up to standing, and they walked down to the dark-timbered space of the kitchen, lit only with pavement lights and gas. Mrs Throckley didn’t hold with magic around food. Grace helped Ned get along, down the steps, and he carried the tea.

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(iii) Midsummer

 

Their first visitor of the day was a messenger bird made of light and rainwater, already soft-edged as it landed on Thanet’s hand and said its few words before becoming a puddle at her feet. “That’s a beautiful piece of magic,” Grace said, admiringly, as Thanet reached down to mop up the water.

“Not good news, though,” Thanet said. “I’ve a client up by the docks. I was going to see her, but –” She shrugged, looking frustrated. “I shouldn’t – I mean, I must go by the Guildhall today and talk about my suspension, maybe I shouldn’t—”

Grace nodded. “I can drop in, if you’d like?” she said tentatively. “I can’t do your kind of magic, but I’m going up there anyway – ”

“Would you really?” Thanet’s face lit up.

“It’s no trouble,” Grace said, and led the way down the steps. “Kira,” she called down to the kitchen, “ready to go in five minutes.”

“Thanks so much,” Thanet said, and gave Grace an impulsive kiss on the cheek. “Just let her know I’ve not forgotten.”

Grace smiled and went through to the study, which was colder than it had been a few minutes earlier. Ned looked up at the sight of her and turned away listlessly.

“Oh, Ned, look what a mess you’ve made of the fire.” Grace got down on her knees on the hearthrug, trying to find a speck of red in the embers; it was hard to make out in the sunlight. It was strange, to want a fire on a day as brilliant and bright as this one, but there was an unseasonal chill in the air. “If you’re going to sit here, make yourself of use. Don’t just poke the fire because you can’t think of anything better to do.”

Ned was wearing fingerless gloves, poker in hand. He laid it down, perhaps as some sort of apology. “What would you have me do instead?” he asked.

Grace straightened up, brushing the dust from her skirts, and looked at him with some irritation. “You could look over the accounts,” she said. “You could work out how we’re going to pay the rent next month. You could drum up some business for us.”

He looked like he might say something sharp, but then the idea seemed to catch on his fancy. “I could wear a crinoline and feathers and parade along the Temple gardens, advertising our services?”

Grace chuckled. “Of course.”

“Love potions and murders a speciality, of course.”

Grace held up a hand. “You’d be drummed out of respectable practice but I’m sure you’d look very fetching. Now get up so I can measure you for a sandwich board.”

Ned laughed a little but stood up. “I’ll do the accounts,” he said, “will that do?”

“That’s my boy,” Grace said. “I have to be out this morning, I’m calling on Kira’s mother, so it’s just you holding the fort.”

Ave atque vale, then.”

Grace gave him the look she reserved for idiots and the classically educated, gathered up her apprentice and the address Thanet had left, and went out.

divider

The accounts were not immensely thrilling, but, as Ned remarked to the kettle when making the tea, the problem of the rent did tend to focus the mind. He lifted his head from Grace’s immaculate figures at the sound of the bell, and was surprised to find no heat in the teacup next to his hand. Mrs Throckley must be out, he decided as the ringing echoed into silence, picked up his cane and went to answer the door. “May I help you?”

The woman on the threshold seemed nervous about coming any further inside. She was tall, with hair pulled back from her face. “Are you a witch?” she asked.

Ned smiled, and said, “You’d best come in. It’s this way, Mrs-”

“Ferguson.”

“Well, Mrs Ferguson,” Ned said, busying himself with the kettle again. “I have a colleague here, a Miss May, who will be able to help you with whatever you require. She’s out at present but I can get you some tea if you’re willing to wait.”

Mrs Ferguson sat on the chair he indicated, but unwillingly. “You’re a witch, aren’t you?” she said, stubbornly, pointing to the bar through his ear. “And you’re here already.”

“Miss May is very good,” Ned assured her, picking up the sugar tongs. “I’m sure you’ll find her helpful. Or Thanet, she’s – wait.” He tipped his head back and called out. “Thanet, are you in? She or he?”

Thanet peered around the door, the trim of her hat providing the answer. “She,” she said, crossly. “I’ve got to go out, Ned, more registration nonsense. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

She disappeared as swiftly as she’d appeared. “Well,” Ned said, bringing his hands together. “Milk and sugar, Mrs Ferguson?”

Once the essentials had been furnished, Ned went through the next couple of lines of Grace’s meticulous record-keeping. He checked the figures, wrote a note, and then looked up at the unmistakable sensation of eyes boring into him. “You are a witch,” Mrs Ferguson said, a little belligerently. “I’ve seen you before.”

“You know,” Ned said, mildly, “the first time I met a northerner, I quite enjoyed being called a witch. It sounded much more exotic than being a common-and-garden practitioner. You’re from Cumbria, then?”

“The Lakes,” Mrs Ferguson said. “I came to London when I was a girl. So you’ll help me?”

Ned laid down his pen and sighed. “Mrs Ferguson, my colleague will be here shortly and in the meantime I have work to do. So if you don’t mind…”

She stared at him over the rim of her cup, but said nothing. Ned wrote another couple of numbers in a column and somehow wasn’t surprised when she said, “Let me tell you about my trouble. My husband…”

“Mrs Ferguson,” Ned said, controlling his temper. “Yes, I am a witch. A Salt practitioner. I am also not far away from losing my registration permanently and I haven’t done any magic for around six months. If you, or your husband, are in trouble, I’m very sorry to hear it, and if you would just wait…”

“What did you do?”

“Excuse me?” Ned stared at her, thrown by the interruption.

“What did you do, for them to take away your registration?”

Ned put the pen down again. “You don’t give up, do you?”

Mrs Ferguson shook her head, moving slightly into the light, and Ned realised she was younger than he had originally thought; her face was drawn, dimmed by the black she wore, but not lined. “No. Mum used to say I was worse than a donkey at the seaside for going where I pleased.”

Ned chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “Well, Mrs Ferguson, it isn’t what I did, so much as what was done to me.” He paused on that thought. “But I’m sure you understand why I think you should go with Miss May – she’s a northerner like yourself, she’s a skilled Salt practitioner, and she’s not under the sword of Damocles.”

“No,” Mrs Ferguson said, thoughtfully clasping her hands. “I’ll take you.”

Ned shook his head. “Mrs Ferguson, I’m not sure you understand-”

“I understand just fine.” She gestured at the room, at the books and papers and spread of mess. “You’ll do.”

Ned gave in. Getting to his feet, he closed the door firmly, and settled back in his chair. “Let’s begin at the beginning,” he said. “You and your husband…”

divider

Thanet’s client turned out to be a woman of Indian descent. She spoke little English but smiled at Grace, put her hand on her heart, and said, “Kamala.” Above her head, flocks of messenger birds glowed, iridescent and luminous, forming out of dispersed water and then filtering off to nothingness. Grace remembered the birds were being used by the union men on the docks, during the general strikes, and smiled at the thought of them taking flight from here, keeping the movement alive from these unassuming rooms above a whelk shop. Kamala’s husband seemed to understand a little more, when Grace explained her errand.

“We’ll send someone else about your trouble,” she promised. “Even if Thanet can’t come.”

He looked at Kamala, and smiled. Kira was busy, feeding the messenger birds with ice chips from her hands – but Grace gestured and she came reluctantly.

Kira’s mother lived by the old West India quays, on the industrial edge of the City. Grace had assumed Kira’s father must work on the docks, but when asked, Kira said, “He died when I was little,” and subsequent questioning revealed that that meant the summer of 1916. Ned had sighed quite heavily at that, Grace remembered, and smiled to herself.

“Don’t wander off,” she said, as Kira darted away, distracted by the trams rattling noisily past towards Victoria. Services had been restored after the crash, but the railwaymen were striking and the streets were crowded with the overspill. When they left the towpath, Kira seemed reluctant again. “It’s a bit cramped,” she said, in tones of apology, and Grace followed her through the little door, opening on a set of steps that led up to rooms behind an ironmonger’s.

“You’ll be Miss May, I suppose,” said the severe-looking woman who met them at the top, wearing a spotless apron and with hair kept in braids very like her daughter’s. “Come in and have some tea.”

Grace sat in the indicated chair and accepted the teacup, feeling herself appraised. “Sugar?” the woman asked, and turned to get it without waiting for an answer.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Grace said, formally, and set down to business. “Mrs James,” she said. “I’m here, on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Salt practitioners, to propose your daughter enter Salt apprenticeship. She’s spent some time with me over the last few months, and I would be honoured to take her on.”

“Salt, then,” Mrs James murmured, and Grace read something in her expression – something like irritation or distrust.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I was under the impression Kira had said – well, if I’ve overstepped, I apologise.”

“Miss May,” Mrs James said, interrupting firmly, “what’s done is done. Kira, honey, get your old mum some biscuits. And your -” She paused, her expression becoming still, “principal.”

At that word, Grace relaxed a little. “Mrs James,” she said. “Are you quite happy for Kira to train with me?”

Mrs James looked at her seriously, but without hostility. “Kira’s father was a white man,” she said. “If he’d been living, things would be different.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Grace said, automatic, and Mrs James acknowledged her with a nod.

“Her father wanted her trained, and I’m going along with his wishes,” she said after a moment. “If he was around still – but then she went to you and you’ve been kind enough and things are how they are. You from Jamaica?”

Grace smiled briefly. “My grandparents were,” she said. “I was born and brought up in Liverpool, myself.”

“That’s no matter.” Mrs James regarded her. “Better with you than anyone else. And a woman is right and proper. You don’t know where the men have been.”

Grace smiled again at that. “In which case I should mention my two colleagues, Ned and Thanet.”

“Thanet a man, is he?”

“Sometimes,” Grace said, and Mrs James raised an eyebrow. “Birds-in-Flight,” Grace added, “not Salt.”

“Thought they weren’t like that any more?” Mrs James said, and then seemed to recollect herself. “No offence meant to your friend. Just you don’t see them too much now.”

“Thanet persists,” Grace said, with a grin. “In any case, she – or he, depending – would be teaching your daughter as well as Ned and myself. Would that be a concern for you?”

“Not if you’ll vouch for them,” Mrs James said, and Grace sighed again and sat back in her chair: it was time to be truthful.

“Mrs James,” she said. “I’m a practitioner in good standing. But Thanet – Thanet’s registration has been withdrawn for conduct reasons by the Company of Birds-in-Flight. And Ned was a practitioner like myself, raised at Temple. But he’s unwell, presently, and it’s unclear what his future in Salt practice will be.”

Mrs James nodded. “Conduct reasons,” she said, suddenly. “Does that mean, helping people they’re not supposed to help?”

“Something like that.” Grace kept her expression even.

“And the other.” Mrs James paused. “Shell-shock?”

“Not exactly,” Grace said. “But it’s very similar.”

“He was an officer, then,” said Mrs James with a grim humour. Grace understood that – officers came home with neurasthenia, not shell-shock, and she didn’t bother to correct the misconception.

“But I have the utmost trust in them,” Grace went on, “and we will all do our best for Kira. She can stay here or she can lodge in chambers – it’s for her to decide, if you’re willing.”

“I’ll come with you,” Kira said, her little voice clear and bright. She was standing on the threshold with the plate of biscuits held in both hands. “I mean – if I can.”

She was looking at her mother, then at Grace. Grace read fear and excitement and amazement in her face, and regret too. On glancing around, Grace noted the room was sparse but clean and tidy, with books and brightly-coloured ornaments, and photographs on the mantel, and suspected this had been as happy as a home as it could be, for those who were left.

“Miss May,” Mrs James said. “I know the way of things. You people look after your own.”

“Of course we do,” Grace said, startled by her tone. “Ned and Thanet and I look after each other, and we’ll look after her.”

Mrs James nodded. “And in the end, you’ll be her family, more than her flesh and blood.”

“We already are her flesh and blood,” Grace said, suddenly snapping to anger. “She’s already one of us. She’s Salt, and so am I, so is Ned. She’s a sister and a daughter.”

“A white man, raised at Temple? You call him your brother?” Mrs James said, then put her hands up, as though holding Grace’s words away from her. “You’ll show her,” she said, quieter now. “A world more than this.” She pointed out of the window at the street outside, at the dusty road traffic, the stallholders, the dock-workers eating sandwiches one-handed from greaseproof paper, at men with trays around their necks hawking trinkets. “She’ll become – not like you, but almost, and she won’t ever come back here and see it the way she sees it now.”

Grace nodded. “That’s true,” she said, honestly. “Temple is my home. It will be Kira’s.”

“Is it the best thing?”

“We will look after her,” Grace said, knowing she wasn’t answering the question, knowing it wasn’t for her to answer. She held still for a moment, letting the moment take its time in passing. “Shall she come with me?”

“Yes,” Mrs James said, finally. “Yes.”

Kira made a small wordless noise of joy, and Grace said, quietly, “Kira, you should say your goodbyes to your mother properly. We’ll come back for your things this evening, if that’s suitable?”

“Yes, Miss May,” Kira said with an obedience that Grace suspected wouldn’t last. She nodded respectfully to Kira’s mother.

“Good luck,” Mrs James said, perhaps deliberately making it unclear which of them she was talking to, and Grace grinned. As they walked down back towards Embankment, Kira seemed a girl enchanted, quiet and with luminous eyes. Of the two of them, only Grace turned to look back – and that was when the rock hit her in the side of the head.

divider

“My husband is dead,” Mrs Ferguson said, flatly. “Nothing to be done for him now.”

“I don’t –” Ned began, and then sat back. “Your husband was driving the train at St Paul’s.”

“They’re going to make out it was suicide,” Mrs Ferguson said, fiercely. “They’ve been round asking. Was he shell-shocked? Was he drinking! They don’t want it to be their fault is all. And my widow’s pension –” Her expression darkened. “I need you to show them it wasn’t. All that signalling and that, that’s magic.”

“I know,” Ned said, sharply. “I was the one who designed it.”

“Then go and find out what went wrong.” She glared at him, and Ned thought that he might be the first focus for her anger she had had, since the accident. “If you designed it, then who’s right to do it but you?”

Ned brought his hands together, fingers lacing and interlacing. “My colleague,” he said, “may lose her own registration over this.”

“All the more reason for you to get to the bottom of it, then.”

Ned nodded. “With all due respect, Mrs Ferguson,” he said. “Why are you so sure it wasn’t – what they say it was? Sometimes,” he hesitated, “a man won’t speak of what’s on his mind, until speaking does no good.”

“Because of this,” she said, still fierce.

She pulled a card from her bag and handed it to Ned, who took it without thinking. Ostensibly handwritten, it had been reproduced by a form of Salt magic with which he was very familiar, and the letters spelled out an invitation to a wedding in Penrith three weeks hence. “The bride is your sister-in-law?” he guessed from the name.

Mrs Ferguson nodded. “It’s a good family. Alfie was right proud. He was going to make them a proper present – maybe proper silverware, he said, like we never had when we were first married. And we were going to go up for it on the railwaymen’s specials.”

Ned put a hand to his head. “Mrs Ferguson, I’m afraid I still don’t quite understand—”

“He had the money for the present on him,” she said. “He was going straight after his shift. Why would he have – if he was going to—”

“Ah,” Ned said, understanding. “I see.” He paused. “Was your husband shell-shocked, Mrs Ferguson?”

She half-stood up, and Ned thought for a mad moment that she would take a swing at him. As he held his ground, his own hands damnably shaking, the moment filtered away into silence. Mrs Ferguson sank bank into her chair and took a moment before she rose again, this time with dignity. “He didn’t return the same as he went,” she said, voice clear. “But did anyone?”

“Not in my experience,” Ned said, with a calm he did not quite feel. “I’ll write to you in respect of my retention.”

“Thank you,” she said, nodding, and gave Ned no look of pity as he took the usual length of time to get to the door and open it for her. “You’ll do,” she said, again, on the threshold, and departed.

Ned turned to go inside but paused, aware of the sounds of the city, rattling trains and distant crowds, and of the soft comforting heat of the summer air. The morning chill had quite dissipated. He sat down on the front step, pulled a battered paperback from his pocket, and began to read.

divider

When Grace opened her eyes she was lying in the dirt, the sky darkening into azure in a narrow slice between the rooftops. “Kira,” she said, blearily. “Kira, where –”

“I’m here!” Kira sounded terrified, her voice high-pitched. “I’m here, the man helped me.”

Grace forced herself into a sitting position, her head spinning sickly. Her hair rained down street dirt onto her shoulders; she’d been dragged here.

“The man?” Grace turned around, the sudden movement prompting another bout of nausea. Grace put a hand to her head and felt her fingers come away sticky.

“Here,” said a male voice, and someone handed her a handkerchief.

Grace pressed it to her head gratefully while she tried to make him out, through the blur: a man in the rough trousers and jacket of a dock worker, his sleeves dark with dirt and oil. “Kamala’s husband?” she said, stupidly.

“Amir,” he said, nodding, beckoning her to follow.

Grace breathed, willing the dizziness to pass, and got gingerly to her feet. From their shadowy, hiding-place in this alley, the street seemed an unknowable mass of people howling forwards. It had been so quiet, before, and the sky so many shades brighter. “How long was I…”

“I don’t know,” Kira said, her little hand creeping into Grace’s; Grace squeezed tight. “These men were throwing stones. They got you, they didn’t get me but they tried, then so many people, shouting – ” She looked up. “Bad words. Then the nice man came running down, he helped –”

“Thank you,” Grace said. “Out on the street she could hear those ‘bad words,’ perhaps worse than Kira knew; she could make out the scrape of metal on metal, and the howl of the mob.

Amir nodded. “Come,” he said, and Grace and Kira both followed.

Further into the shadows the alley grew narrower until they reached a timbered door hanging wildly off its hinges. As Amir led the way in, Grace’s vision adjusted to the half-darkness, and she realised there were others inside: men dressed like sailors and labourers and dockers, with bright eyes in dark faces, and in their murmurs at the sight of her, she heard India again. They were frightened, holding back; she heard the word “coloured”, and then: “namak“.

“Salt,” she said, lifting her hand to the bar in her ear. “Can I help you?”

“Can you help us escape from here?” asked one of the men, stepping forwards. Grace could make out blood on his hands, scraped and raw, and the recent tears in his clothes. “They think-” and there was bitterness as well as fear in his accented, assured English. ” – that they come from war, and we have taken their jobs, their women. They come wanting blood for it. The Musulmans also, and the ones like you.”

“Damn,” Grace said, aware of Kira’s presence by her side. She wondered how long they’d been hiding and if, in coming to find her, Amir had put himself at risk. “Is Kamala all right?”

He nodded, and Grace was grateful. “If we wait,” she said. “If we hide…”

“It is still dangerous,” said the other man. “But if you can – if you can help us fight, then –”

“They’ll destroy me,” Grace said, flatly. She put a hand to the bar in her ear. “Are any of you like me?”

A murmur, in the darkness, and Amir stepped forwards, bringing another man with him. Grace couldn’t make out how many had taken refuge here, and could barely make out what sort of a space it was other than that it must be a small warehouse of some sort and perhaps abandoned.

“This is Raj,” Amir said, and he gestured to his friend’s ear, where it was a clear a metal bar had been dragged forcibly out of the flesh. Grace shivered. “He is like you. Not you. The others.”

“The Birds-in-Flight,” Grace said, but to her surprise Amir shook his head.

“No,” he said, frustrated. “the others.”

He said something in his own language to his companion. “The others,” he said, again but Grace didn’t understand.

“All right,” she said, after a minute. “You two, me, and my apprentice. We’ll have to work together. Kira, you’ll listen to me and do exactly what I say, do you understand? All our lives will depend on it.”

“What,” Amir said. “What you need?”

Grace turned. “Sir,” she said to Amir, “may I borrow your handkerchief again? Thank you.”

She showed it to Kira with some disgust, the brightness of her own blood dimming to dark brown. “Old-fashioned magic,” she said, wearily, “and not done any more for a reason. Come now.”

“The gift,” Kira said, “The blood –”

Grace nodded. The girl learned quickly.

“Come on,” Grace said again, to all of them.

Still holding the handkerchief in one hand and wishing the world wouldn’t spin so insistently, she led the way to the bottleneck of the alley where the mob milled and shouted in the street. Close-to, she felt the heat of all those bodies massed together, the animal anger.

“I need you both to be ready,” she said, with more determination than she felt. “I’m going to take your heart – your power,” she amended, not knowing how common the idiom might be. “Your magical power, you understand? You have to let me take it, I can’t if you don’t.”

Amir and Kira nodded, both looking scared but determined. After a moment, Raj stepped forward, took the handkerchief out of Grace’s hands, and said something under his breath Grace didn’t catch, but she felt the change in the air: the charge of magic rising, fizzing in her teeth. He caught her eye and Grace decided she had no choice but to trust in whatever he’d done. Out on the street, the crowds seemed to be moving with greater focus, and Grace pictured a black or brown body under that mob, and shivered.

“Ready?” she said, and they all nodded.

Grace held herself still, setting her mind on the clear, quiet image of the last time she’d done this kind of magic: Ned on the station platform at St Paul’s, saying, use me, if you must. At once she became more than herself, hearing scraps of what must be Hindustani in her mind, and seeing the flash of Kira’s memories, brightened at the edges by the intensity of childhood. Then Grace stepped into the street, into the mob, thinking of who she was and what called her, of what it was to be Salt, of her own and Kira’s and these strangers’ gifts, and threw a great wave of energy into the air around them.

In another second the mob’s thrown missiles glanced off that invisible surface, as though deflected by a shield; rocks and stones tumbled away, weapons turned on the surface, and even the noise of the screaming, howling mob dimmed and blurred. The mob had been moving haphazardly, dispensing directionless violence, but they had a target now and the noise grew louder. Within the shield, Amir and Raj called the others out from within the alleyway and the men came out from hiding and fanned out, spliting off in every direction.. Kira whimpered and Grace thought mad thoughts about covering her eyes, so she wouldn’t have to see the mob of white men in pulled-down caps brandishing domestic, devastating weapons: boat hooks and tools and cleavers, and whatever they’d brought home from their wars. The barrier was dissipating, burning off their magic: through it she could hear chanting, mostly indistinct, although with the occasional word that rose with clarity above the general roar. Those words, Grace thought, with a return of the nausea, ought not to be spoken, not so close to home. And then she took a steadying breath, poured the last of her own energy into the shield, and grabbed Kira with both arms.

“Run!” she shouted, into the blackening sky above, and didn’t look back.

divider

“Ned,” Grace said, because when she finally stopped running Ned was on the doorstep, as though waiting for her. “Ned – Kira…”

“Thanet’s got her,” Ned said. He took Grace in on his arm as though escorting her to a ball – which he had done often, in those ridiculous pre-war days – and sat her in the consulting room with her feet on an ottoman. Thanet took over after that, knitting the wound in Grace’s scalp with magic light as gossamer, and as strong. Ned was talking to Kira, asking her short, simple questions, and Grace was grateful that she would not have to tell the story, not tonight.

“Kira,” Ned said, finally, standing up. “Would you like anything? Mrs Throckley can get you a cup of hot milk, if you’d like.”

Dumbly, Kira shook her head. She looked so scared, Grace thought, dimly: this girl who had lived through a war, just as much as any of them.

“Then to bed with you.” Ned’s tone was still gentle, and Grace remembered.

“I forgot,” she said, dismayed, “– I thought…”

She gestured, too tired to articulate the thought. She had planned to take Kira back to her mother’s this evening, for one last night at home before apprenticeship – and, in the way of the Temple folk, adulthood – and to make arrangements for her here tomorrow.

But Mrs Throckley was at the door holding the tin cup of hot milk, apparently set upon on someone drinking it, even if not Kira; the look on her face rested halfway between kindness and defiance. “I hope you’ll forgive me,” she said, “but it’s been so quiet since you all came home. I did hope as the little one was staying… come with me, both of you.”

She pointed up the stairs, so Grace had no choice but to follow, with Kira trailing behind. Mrs Throckley went round several turns of the staircase, holding up a kerosene lamp and opened the door on the attic room beneath the eaves, with the porthole light. It had been shut up since the war, accumulating dust. Grace looked around at the room, aired and cleaned, now with a little truckle bed and a lamp beside it, with a pretty bedspread and neat frilled curtains. Despite everything, Kira looked enchanted.

“Mrs Throckley,” Grace said. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”

Strangely, it was that act of kindness that did her in. She waited to make sure Kira got to bed safely, and thanked Mrs Throckley again, and meant to pour a cup of water in the kitchen before retreating to her own bed, but somehow she burst into tears between there and the staircase, and took the arm Ned offered her again, standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting.

“Come,” he said, moving towards the door, “let’s take a moment.”

Out on their front step, the air was heated and still, carrying the distant sounds of shouting across the river toward them and then away again. Ned lit a cigarette and offered it to Grace, blowing smoke visible in the dimness, and once she’d taken a drag she passed it back. They sat in silence for some time, the glowing tip of the lit cigarette from hand to hand the only light other than the City’s lamps and the waxing moon. Neither she nor Ned had smoked before the war.

Finally, Ned threw the cigarette end onto the cobbles and watched it smoulder. “Tell me,” he said.

“We’re falling apart,” she said.

Ned glanced at her, then away. “Grace…”

“What are we here for?” she said, suddenly fierce. “We’re Salt, Ned. We’re here to serve. When people ask for our help, we give it.”

“With contributions to our minor expenses,” Ned murmured. “Such as the holding together of body and soul.”

Grace didn’t smile. “Those men in the alley came for me because of the bar in my ear. They thought I could save them.”

“And you did,” Ned said, mildly. “Didn’t you?”

“I went out into that alleyway yelling and throwing shields and fireballs about,” Grace said, “and then I didn’t even look back. I picked up Kira and ran. They could have been knocked over where they stood right behind me and I wouldn’t know.”

“Getting yourself killed wouldn’t have helped anyone,” Ned said, with an edge to his voice. “Least of all Kira, and she’s your first responsibility. You did exactly the right thing.”

“Did I?” Grace asked, bleakly. “I told Kira’s mother – today, even, it was only this morning – that we could give her the training she needs and deserves. That we could, you and me and Thanet. But Thanet’s being drummed out of practice and you’re – oh, God, Ned, I don’t know what they did to you, but you know what I mean by it – and now Kira and I are being chased down the streets by a howling mob.”

“Yes.” Ned sighed heavily. “Grace – she’s a sweet enough girl and she deserves training. But does it have to be by us?” He paused. “By you?”

Looking at his familiar face, his grey eyes reflecting the light of the cigarette tip still smouldering on the cobbles, Grace was reminded of what she had said to Kira’s mother about Kira, and about Ned and herself: a sister, a brother, a daughter.

“Yes,” she said helplessly. “Yes, it had to be – it had to be us. I’m not sure I can make you understand.”

“All right.” Ned shrugged, taking it philosophically. “I’ll accept that. But you’re not to blame for fools and animals,” he added, suddenly fierce. “And we’ll clear Thanet’s name.”

“What if we can’t?” Grace asked. “What if Thanet’s right, and it’s really about the people she helps? What if it’s really about what she is?”

“Thanet is part of an honourable tradition among Birds-in-Flight practitioners,” Ned said. “It’s a magical practice built on organic fluidity, for heaven’s sake! They’ll come to their senses.”

“What if they don’t?” Grace asked.

Ned shook his head. “This is Temple, Grace. That’s not how things are here.”

“Even if that’s so,” Grace said, sadly, “we have to leave it sometimes. It can’t be the only place in the world for people like us.” She paused and shook her head. “Listen to me, talking as though we’re the ones who need protecting. When did we become such sorry shadows of ourselves, Ned? When were we so bowed and so – broken?”

Ned shook his head again, and she knew there was no answer.

Arma virumque cano,” he said lightly, and Grace was glad that he still found such comfort in his books. “We came away from Troy, and into greater exile.”

“Speaking of exile,” Grace said. “Your mother is planning to pay us a visit.”

“She’ll have heard,” Ned said. “She won’t come, not now.”

“Not yet,” Grace corrected. “But once all this blows over, there’s the spectre of the rent. Ned, how much longer can we go on? I don’t intend to be melodramatic. I really mean it.”

“It would be,” Ned said, with some difficulty, “grievous, for us to have fought so hard for what is ours. And then, after everything—”

Grace nodded, allowing him the time to finish that sentence, or choose not to. Ned lit another cigarette, and she waited, thinking of how she had kept the practice running even when the windows were blacked-up with crepe and Salt magic was as strictly regulated as sugar and petrol. She had written letters to Ned about it, and had them returned with “Not known” written on the envelopes, by order of the War Office, but in Ned’s own familiar hand. They had laughed about it, afterwards.

“We go on,” Ned said, breathing out smoke. “Like we did before. We just go on.”

“Go on,” Grace echoed, and then fell silent, watching Ned’s hands move to his mouth, and the cigarette tip glowing in the darkness.

divider

(iv) Michaelmas

 

The Temple gardens were turning over into autumn by the time the coroner set the date for the full inquest, and perhaps by then, Ned thought, the revolutionary fervour would have dimmed a little in the streets.

“November,” Grace said, looking up from her letters.

“We’ll know by then, one way or the other,” Thanet remarked. He had taken up needlework, to fill the time, and when that palled, carried tea to the workers on strike.

“Oh, Ned,” Grace added. “Mrs Ferguson was by, earlier. She said that the fireman on the train – not the fireman, the other man in the cab, anyway – he’s come around. He’s still at Bart’s, but he’s well enough to speak to someone. I can take Kira this afternoon and –”

“No,” Ned said, quietly. “If you can spare Kira, I’ll take her myself.”

Grace looked at him for a long moment, and then smiled. “It’s good,” she said, “to see you out and about again.”

Ned returned a tentative smile. “Don’t count your chickens. Wait and see if I make it back alive.”

She didn’t castigate him for being overly dramatic, which Ned was pleased about. In the months since the Armistice, he had begun to wonder if his mental condition were infirmity or melodrama, but he was shamefully grateful for Kira’s presence through the noisy, crowded streets, and then for the clean antiseptic quiet of the hospital corridors.

The railwayman’s name was Jack Roberts, he explained, although the nurses called him John, which put Jack in mind of schooldays and visits from elderly relatives, when he’d been a child. “But who’re you?” he asked after a moment, belatedly surprised at the close presence of a stranger.

“My name is Ned Devlin,” said Ned, putting a hand to his ear and dipping his head. The man’s eyes widened with recognition. Salt practitioners were usually called to layings-out, and Ned couldn’t blame him for being apprehensive. “I’ve been retained by the wife of your driver – your friend, Mr Ferguson.”

That the men had been friends was a shot in the dark, but it paid off; Roberts smiled a little, and something eased in his face. “You’re in the pay of Mistress Ferguson?” he said, rubbing at his eyes; Ned suspected that in ordinary life he wore spectacles. “Better you than me, mate.”

Ned laughed a little and sat down in the hard wooden chair closest to the bed, waving to Kira to keep close to him. The man in the bed blinked at the movement, trying to follow it with his head. “That your kid?”

“My apprentice.”

“Tell her to have a grape, everyone’s been that kind, but I’ve no hope of eating them all. So she’s got you to find out the truth of what happened, has she?”

Ned nodded. “Something of that order. I’m wondering, Mr Roberts, if you can tell me exactly what happened in the cab, before the accident. If we can get to the bottom of this, your friend’s wife may take her widow’s pension from the Southwestern, after all.”

Roberts spoke eagerly. “If I can help I will. Alf was a good mate. They told me he went straight off – didn’t feel any pain?”

Ned leaned back; it wasn’t the first time, after all, that a young man had asked him that question. “I’m told that’s so. You had known each other some time, then?”

“Oh, yeah. I’d been a lampman on the railway before the war, and since I got back I’d taken a fancy to driving. Alf said he’d take me along, show me how it was done, so I went down to Moorgate in a ‘bus bright and early. Alf was telling me something about his sister up north somewhere. Getting married in a month and it was going to be quite a do. His wife was sending him out for a present, straight after his shift.”

“When was that?” Ned asked. “Towards the beginning of the journey, or closer to the bridge?”

Roberts paused. “Later – oh, towards the bridge, I recall seeing the lights up across the river. We were at the signal. I said to him, it’ll be a fine morning, no doubt, and he said, if we only could get this train into depot a little quicker! And I said something about how fast they’d let you go, what with the freight trains ploughing out at night, and he said I’d have to sit down and study it all in a book before they’d let me train to be a driver. And then…” Roberts paused again. “The train moved. I said to him, Alf, should we be – and that’s when the other train came out of the dark. I thought the end of the world had come.”

Ned nodded. “I see. Thank you, Mr Roberts, you’ve been very helpful.”

“Don’t see how,” Roberts said. “But I suppose you folk are a rule to yourselves.” He paused. “You’ll do your best for Mrs Ferguson, won’t you?”

“I will,” Ned promised. “Kira, come along. Thank you for your time, Mr Roberts.”

“Wasn’t any bother. Take some more grapes.”

Kira did, and was eating them industriously as she followed Ned out of the ward and through the long hallways, into the brilliant sunshine outside. “Well,” he said. “What did we learn from that?”

Kira inclined her head. “I don’t know.”

“Me neither, little one. Do you feel up to another errand before we return?”

Kira looked at him with all the perspicacity of twelve years old, and all the kindness: she did not turn the question back around on him.

“Come, then,” he said. “Let’s go and take a look at the railway line. Besides, I could do with someone to help me up if I fall flat on my face in the undergrowth.”

It wasn’t quite a joke, but Kira smiled, and they went on past Temple towards Blackfriars.

“Can’t take you across the picket lines,” Ned remarked. “Your principal would have my head.”

“Really?” Kira asked, seemingly more intrigued than anything else by the prospect of Ned’s possible decapitation.

“Really,” Ned said, and true to his word, took Kira around the back of the station, away from the strikers, and through the rusted gates. In another life, he would have been able to rust through any lock. As it was, he was grateful for some railwayman’s carelessness. With a crack, the fencing shifted to allow them through.

“Watch yourself,” he warned Kira, motioning to the thick layers of scrub and weeds where it would be easy to catch a foot. “I thought we might take a look alongside the track where the crash happened, while the strike’s on.”

“So no trains are going to come through,” Kira said, sounding rather disappointed, and Ned smiled to himself; he suspected that aged twelve, he too would have liked to see a train go past from a foot away. “What are you looking for?”

“I might know it when I see it.” Ned paused, tapping the rail with his cane, then leaning forwards to investigate it more closely. “Onwards.”

Kira nodded and they pushed on for a while, her boots kicking up dead grass and gravel. “Were you in France in the war?” she asked, suddenly looking straight at him. “If he’d come back, would my dad have come back like you?”

Given some experience of it, Ned had come to find Kira’s directness refreshing: rather like the cool, pleasant autumn air, after so long spent inside. “I can’t say as to your father, little one,” he said, “but yes, I was. Now, what do we have here?”

He paused as he spoke, and with some difficulty got down to his knees, laying the cane beside him. Reaching out to the track, it was sun-warmed and smooth under his hands, then metallic and chilled in the shadows.

“See, Kira,” he said. “What do you think this is?”

Kira investigated it, lip curling. “It’s like icing on a cake,” she said, after a minute, and Ned was pleased with the analogy; the metallic layer on top of the track surface had spread just like melted chocolate, weatherbeaten in places but mostly smooth. “It’s – yellow? Under the dirt I mean.”

“Yellow,” Ned said, pushing his thumbnail into the battered surface, unsurprised to find it left a mark. “Gold, in fact. A splash of gold on the railway track, just where the accident happened. Now isn’t that interesting?”

“Why is it there?” Kira asked.

“I don’t know.” Ned glanced up along the track, then down. “I think we’ll have to find out. Shall we?”

Kira held out a hand and helped him up, and kept pace with him back to the gap in the railings. She didn’t speak, but Ned thought that perhaps something of the tension had gone from her, and from him, too, here in the mid-afternoon sun, with the occasional chirp of birdsong. As they emerged from the trackside behind the station, Ned caught himself carefully looking up and down to avoid railway men or the local constabulary and any associated difficult questions. The ridiculous furtiveness lifted his mood, as though he were Kira’s age, on an adventure.

“Off you go, Kira,” he said, once steady on his feet again, rummaging in his pocket for tuppence. “Go down to the station and get yourself a chocolate bar or a comic or something else you’d like. Don’t cross the line,” he added, firmly. “Quickly now.”

Ned took the few minutes she was gone to catch his breath and collect himself. The walk had been enough for him to be in pain, though still appreciative of the sunlight and clear air. He expected Kira to come back with a comic – sweets were still rationed for the most part – but it was bright Cadbury’s purple in her hands when she returned. They walked down the Embankment in comfortable silence, Kira munching happily. To Ned’s surprise, she broke off a piece and gave it to him without comment, and he ate it in the spirit given.

“You know,” he said hesitantly. “Chocolate was in my rations, when I was in France. But they never sent it all in the right place and time, so you’d get it all at once or not at all. I used to give it all away to the men.”

Kira turned. “You used to give it all away?” she asked, aghast, and Ned chuckled.

“Yes,” he said, still laughing. “That was the great sacrifice I made in the war.”

But Kira was looking up at him as he spoke, her eyes serious. Ned knew even before she said it that this was the question she had been gathering the courage to ask.

“Do you think you might have met my dad?” she said. “In the war I mean.”

“I didn’t always ask men their names,” Ned said, very gently. “Sometimes there wasn’t time even for that.”

“So you might have? And not known it?”

“I might have,” Ned said, still gently, “yes.”

Kira seemed contented, unwrapping another piece of chocolate and handing it over. She’d learned the habit from Grace, perhaps, of keeping in step with him, and Ned walked along thinking over the puzzle on the railway, breathing in contentment in between the taps of his cane.

divider

That evening there was a knock at the door, just before nightfall; Grace was the one who set down her tea to answer it.

“You’re the chaps who did the work,” said the man on the other side, pulling off a London Underground hat to reveal a forehead slick with sweat. He turned around and charged across the cobbles as though expecting Grace to immediately follow.

“Excuse me?” she called, and he shook his head impatiently and gestured for her to hurry up.

“Come on, you’re needed.” He was looking over her shoulder at Ned, Grace realised. “Signal failures on the bridge and at St Paul’s. Everything’s at a standstill. Come on!”

“Kira!” Grace shouted over her shoulder. “Come on, we’re wanted! Thanet—”

“I’m not registered,” Thanet was saying, but Grace waved him quiet.

The man from the Underground – his name badge announced “WHITWORTH, A.” – led the way down Middle Temple Lane seemingly unsurprised by the extent of his entourage. As they scurried down the Embankment, Grace could see the strangeness on the bridge at Blackfriars – two trains held massively still, like dragons turned to stone – and then they were in the station itself, past the passengers being herded into the street. Whitworth called a lift and pushed the doors open with a shove, gesturing all of them inside, and it was only when the lift was descending silently to the lower levels that he spoke any further.

“At about six o’clock this evening a train was signalled clear through the southbound platform to go on to Waterloo,” he said, expressionless. Grace glanced at her watch; it was coming up on half past six. “There was already a train at the platform.”

Grace inhaled sharply. “Did…”

“No,” Whitworth said, severely. “The signalwoman on duty realised something was amiss and manually altered the signals. At 6:10pm, the precise same thing happened on the northbound side. The train driver jammed on the brakes in time.”

“That can’t happen,” Ned said, sounding disbelieving. “That absolutely – that can’t happen.”

Whitworth continued, inexorable. “At 6:15pm, every train on this part of the network was halted at the nearest station. I was asked by the control room here at Blackfriars to track down a Mr Devlin, who had originally set up the Salt system of magic that prevents collisions between trains on the Underground. I believe, sir, that that’s yourself.”

“Yes,” Ned said, “but you should know—”

His voice was lost in the screech of the doors pulling back: the lift had reached the platform levels, and dusty tiles proclaimed “To The Trains.” Whitworth strode forth and Grace brought up the rearguard, pausing for a moment to peer down the single flight of steps to the deserted platform below. Stray litter skittered across the edge, but otherwise the silence was absolute until they passed beyond a door gleaming with Salt magic at its edges, sealed against fire or flood, and entered the dim control room beyond.

“Got them,” Whitworth announced, as he stepped inside.

It took Grace’s eyes a second to adjust, to take in the two signalwomen sitting at the long benches, the large train operating charts spread out across the walls, and the rows and rows of silver bells, gleaming as though with some inner light. The hum of Salt magic underpinned everything, invisible but inescapable, like the Tube itself beneath London.

“This is Devlin,” said Whitworth, and then, confusedly: “And some others.”

“Grace May,” Grace said, “and this is Thanet, and that’s my apprentice. Ned—”

Ned wasn’t listening to her. With his cane, he had waved the two operators away from the panels. “You hit the killing bell,” he said.

One of the two signalwomen looked cowed at his tone; the other stood up straighter. “Yes,” she said, clearly. “I didn’t trust the system, I shut everything down.”

Ned nodded. “Run it all past me,” he said, and Grace startled at the imperious note in his voice. “Tell me exactly what happened, every detail.”

“We control most of the City from here,” said the signal operator to Ned. “When things started going wrong, the bells rang.” She reached out to a bell halfway along the second row, her finger stopping just sort of its surface. “This one, then” – another bell, just above it – “this one. That was the train northbound. And then…” – she pointed at the one below – “that’s the kill bell.” She gestured at it, as Ned had done: it was the largest bell on the assembly, held at a seemingly unsupported angle.

Ned nodded again, more to Thanet than the signal operator. “You remember the emergency signal,” he said. “A red smoke rises in the window of the train cab, and every driver knows they’re to stop at once. Miss – what’s your name?”

“Miss Lynley, sir.”

“Miss Lynley. What did you – what’s that noise?”

The noise had been bothering Grace for a moment or two, and judging from the way she drew closer, Kira, too: a rumbling sound, like something very heavy beginning to move. “Can’t be a train,” Ned said, unnecessarily, “not if they’re all stopped. I suppose they have all stopped.” He reached out and deliberately, thoughtfully, struck a bell. Miss Lynley and Whitworth flinched; Ned smiled a little dangerously and said, “We designed the system, Miss Lynley. Trust me.”

Thanet stepped through the door and Grace realised he had gone down to the platforms, to check. “They’ve stopped,” he said, authoritatively. “Ned – all right, what the hell is that?”

That was the noise, getting louder now, but losing none of its low resonances and layers, as though whatever it was was at the bottom of a well. Something deeper even than this, Grace thought, and shivered.

“Damn it,” Ned said, making an abortive motion with one hand, holding short of the bells. “Ring one bell, the matching train bell rings, instantaneous or close-as. The drivers aren’t colluding to play Greensleeves for the signal operators’ amusement, I suppose. This doesn’t make sense.”

“What happened to your hand?” Grace asked, suddenly distracted. Thanet had stepped out of the light so Miss Lynley’s left hand, cradled to her and roughly bandaged, was visible.

“That was my fault,” said a soft voice, and Grace looked at the other signal operator, peering shyly through her long brown hair. “I asked Alice to open my lemonade bottle for me.”

“Silly thing went right into my fingers,” Miss Lynley said, pointing to a discarded bottle opener, together with the remains of some sandwiches.

“Thanet will look after that for you,” Grace said, a little amused at herself despite everything. Kira was hiding behind her skirts; Grace seemed to have taken on the role of mother hen and principal to the entire world. Thanet grinned and nodded.

“Just give that here,” he said, cheerfully, already raising some healing magic into the air, when Ned spoke.

“Stop.”

“Ned?” Grace said, but he held up a hand.

“Stop. All of you, stop. Don’t touch anything.” Ned stepped forward. “I’ve been an idiot and a fool. Grace – when you were in the alley, with those dockers –”

Grace hesitated, thrown by the non sequitur. “What about it?”

“You had a bloodied handkerchief.”

“Yes,” Grace said, surprised. “Yes, I told you that – Ned, what is it?”

“And the inquest.” Ned was pacing up and down wildly, though everyone else was taking his advice to heart and stood quite still. “The woman on the train said that it stopped, then moved again. Is that right? It stopped, then moved.”

“Yes,” Kira said, with unexpected clarity. “She said it moved again so quietly she almost didn’t notice it.”

“That’s my girl,” Ned said, half-exultant.

“Ned, blood magic is superstitious nonsense,” Thanet said, comfortingly trenchant to Grace’s ears. “You know it.”

“Perhaps we’ve been wrong about that,” Ned said, running his hands through his hair. “Magic is Salt, or Birds,” he said. “Living things, or just things. But the world has changed so much.” He waved his hands, a little helplessly, as though trying to indicate the city above them. “’What passing-bells, for those who die as cattle?’ People becoming things, and things” – he gestured again, at the train operating panels, and the bells – “coming alive.”

“Ned,” Thanet said conversationally, “get to the point before I insert that cane in your ear.”

Ned spread his palms. “Salt, Birds, and iron. Not blood. Iron.”

“A new form of magic?” Grace said. “Ned, that’s…” She paused. “Are you sure?”

“Ferguson, on the bridge,” Ned said. “He brings the train to a stop at a signal. He remarks to Roberts, perhaps even laughing while he does it, that he wishes the train would move faster, with his pockets full of metal, and those passing bells in his recent memory, and all around him a locomotive made out of…”

“Iron,” said Grace, with reverence. “So the train moved, to take him home. Miss Lynley, what exactly were you saying to your friend, before the signal failure?”

Miss Lynley looked miserable. “There’s a dance tonight, down in Clerkenwell,” she murmured. “I was just saying to Cara – I wish everything would hurry up, the last hour of the shift always drags.”

“But what about the gift?” Thanet said. “Do you think Ferguson cut his hand on the controls?”

“Ferguson had the money for his sister’s wedding on him,” Ned said. “It wasn’t burnt away, it was given. Kira and I found the remains of it, the sovereigns, on the railway track.”

“Overpayment?” Thanet asked, and then nodded to himself. “He wouldn’t have been trained – he wouldn’t know how much –.”

“He wouldn’t have known he was doing magic at all,” Grace said, a little excited. “Ned, the Indian man who helped me in the alley. He said he wasn’t like me, but he wasn’t like the others. Not Salt, not Birds, but –” She turned her head.

Whitworth cleared his throat again; he was standing was at the door to the control room, the magical light from its seal soft on his face.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Miss May, Mr Devlin, if I could have your attention, just for a moment.” He pointed out into the tunnel. Grace and Ned exchanged glances, and followed him out, along the tiled passageway and the platform edge. Grace looked over her shoulder for a second; Thanet had gone back to bandaging up Miss Lynley’s hand, and was beckoning to Kira.

“Once,” Whitworth said, without turning, “long ago, they were going to terminate the line here, and not cross the river. Bit of a crush for the trains, though.” He waved casually down at the platforms as he spoke, and the rumble rose again, making Grace shiver again, involuntary and deep in her bones. “Bit of a palaver. So they built a turning loop, under the river. Quite a miracle of engineering, in its day. And of magic,” he added, with a sidelong glance at Ned. “Then of course Parliament came through for them. Straight line extension across the Thames. So they built that” – he pointed down into the tunnel, the Salt lights within flickering eerily – “and they sealed the old loop off.”

They were climbing a small staircase, now, dusty, and in places slick with oil; Ned’s cane slipped and Grace reached out to steady him.

“Can’t bury a thing time out of mind,” Whitworth said. “It’ll rust to nothing some day, but in the meantime we keep an eye. Here’s the door.”

Grace looked up sharply. The door was small, human-sized, and sealed with enough Salt magic to hold down an inferno. “Behind that door,” she ventured tentatively. “Underneath the river –”

Mr Whitworth took the keys from his pockets and opened the door, finishing it off with a muttered string of nonsense syllables: Grace felt the small piece of magic raised, as the door opened onto a wall of black earth.

“It’s not a tunnel,” Grace said, surprised. “It’s not there!”

“It was yesterday,” Whitworth said, calmly, “it was this morning.” And though those words were delivered with utmost calm, something seemed to enter beneath Grace’s skin and begin to crawl. “The tunnel should be there, miss. If it’s not” – and then the rumbling came again, almost too loud to bear, reverberating in Grace’s very being – “it’s shifted of its own accord.”

With slow careful movements, Ned tapped on the wall beside the door, so Grace could hear the hollow resonance.

“The seals,” Grace said, aware of her voice trembling. “The magic’s been disturbed – the sealing, against the river—”

Whitworth touched the bare earth beyond the door, then pulled back. His hand was wet.

“Oh, God,” Grace said, and spun around on the spot. In her mind she was somewhere else – somewhere else dark, perhaps the Salt Guildhall on the day the first bomb fell – but the moment passed and she was here again. Terror fizzed through her veins and a determination she did not feel rose into her voice. “All right, Mr Whitworth, I think it’s time we acknowledge the truth of the thing. The tunnels will need to be evacuated. Can you and your signal operators start dealing with that? And switch off the power?”

“Yes,” Whitworth said, “but there are two trains, stopped just outside the platforms…”

“I know,” Grace said. “Thanet will do any magic you need to help you get the passengers out and through the tunnels. We can’t predict what will happen now,” she added, glancing at Ned, who nodded. “There are iron rings in every tunnel, isn’t that right? We don’t know who might do magic without realising it, or what they might do. Ned, I need you to get Kira out of here, it’s not safe. Go as quickly as you can.”

“What?” Ned looked up, his eyes very bright in the darkness. “Don’t be ridiculous. I should stay. I can help –”

“Ned,” Grace said, breathing in, hating herself for a moment, “you’re a liability.”

Ned flinched. “Grace…”

“If you stay, you’ll be one more thing for me to worry about.” And then, softer, “You’ve done your bit. Let me do mine.”

Ned held her gaze for a minute, then dropped his head. “Understood.”

Grace reached out and entwined their fingers, not caring about Whitworth’s presence. Then she stuffed both her hands in her pockets and took a deep breath.

“Good luck,” Ned said, and went back down the passageway along to the steps.

“Miss May?” That was Whitworth, looking at her with confusion, and worry. “What will you do?”

Grace took another breath, and reached for whatever was left in her that was not fear. She waited another moment as the great rumbling started up again. This time it had a sinister punctuation; the rush and movement of water. As they stood, a first gush emerged from behind the door, filtering through cracks in the packed earth and pouring onto Grace’s boots.

She thought again of the darkness beneath the bombs, and took another breath , and then another, and then she was ready. “I’m going to seal this off.”

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“Come on, little one,” Ned said, his coat sweeping the floor as he turned. “Quickly! Thanet – good luck.”

Thanet saluted him ironically. Ned smiled and held out a hand to Kira, who scurried after him with alacrity.

“We’re going back up to Temple,” Ned said, in answer to Kira’s unspoken question, just as the lift doors screeched shut. With a jerk, they began to move upwards. “I think that our next step is to see if we can find the address for the man Grace met at the docks. I wonder if anyone at Temple speaks any Indian languages? Though I suppose there are quite a few – oh, my goodness.”

The lift had jerked to an ungainly stop, causing Ned to reach out with his cane for balance. Kira grabbed uselessly against the walls. They both teetered, balanced, and hung motionless for a moment, waiting for the lift to start moving again, but it did not.

“Mr Devlin,” Kira said, with a distinct quaver in her voice. “Do you think-”

The lights went out.

Ned swore, listening to the rapid pitch of Kira’s breathing in the darkness. He, made two step forwards, thinking to reach for the little girl’s hand – but the lift jerked again at his movement, and this time downwards.

“Oh, that’s torn it,” Ned said, and his voice was lost in another great screeching as metal grated on metal, and they dropped further.

It triggered something: some back-up mechanism powered by Salt, so the base of the lift was lit up in long threads of strange light. It cast a greenish tint on Kira’s face and made the advertisements on the walls, for patent medicines and magically-propelled invalid chairs, into horrible grotesques. Kira whimpered again. In the end, Ned thought, calmly, it seemed inevitable that it would come to this.

“Little one,” he said. “We have about five minutes before the lift falls to the bottom of the shaft. If what I suspect is true, it’s the lift shaft itself, deforming around us. So I need you to stay very calm, do you understand? Stay calm, and do exactly as I tell you. What I’m about to explain to you is the sort of thing you wouldn’t do for quite a few years yet, in your apprenticeship, and I don’t think I’ll have time to repeat myself, so listen very carefully. Are you with me so far?”

Kira nodded, her little eyes wide.

“First, you need to raise a light, in the way Miss May has taught you. Name, calling, asking. Use some of your own energy as the gift. That’s right.”

The light flared into life, with a little raggedness about the edges, but a comforting yellow.

Ned said, “Now hold it with only one of your hands, and with only one part of your mind. Don’t think about it too much. Just let it burn, that’s right. Now close your eyes. Think about Salt, what it feels like when you use the power you have, what it’s like when you can sense it in the world around you. There’s some in the light, it’s a Salt light. Ignore that. There’s some in the air, we’re below the river estuary here. Ignore that, too. What’s left should be very bright and intense, but dimmed in the centre. Can you see that? Eyes shut!”

Slowly, Kira nodded, and from somewhere beneath them they heard the great rumbling sound again, the roar taking on the crackle of metal buckling as well as the slosh of water.

“Right. That is my magic – or, what’s left of it, that I can’t use for myself. Now I need you to reach in – and take it. It’s magic in itself, the taking, so you need a gift. Use some of the light. I’m going to sit down so you don’t knock me over.”

It was Ned’s habit these days to get from sitting to standing and vice versa with some lack of grace, but he made it a gentle movement, ignoring the pain; his cane would be dangerously percussive on the base of the lift. The green light flickered, and vibration built in the metal beneath their feet, but Kira hadn’t moved, eyes squeezed shut.

“Take it, Kira!” Ned said, desperately. “You don’t need my permission. Take it.”

Kira didn’t move and Ned closed his own eyes, listening to the rumbling grow louder, than softer. He fancied he felt movement, although it could be a fevered imagination. “Kira,” he said, quietly, “now.”

The light in Kira’s left hand dimmed. Ned dropped his head onto his knees. He thought, vaguely, that he should have retained some of his own heart, to guide her: so she wouldn’t have to guess what to do next with her arms laden with flame and the lift filling with a smokeless inferno. At last there was movement, a great tearing noise and the cracking open of an internal sky, and everything grew dark and strange, and not a little violent, and it went on for a long, long time.

And then: it was still dark. But a long way off a child was crying, and there was something wet on Ned’s face and hands. He sat up, his head cracking against the wall, and said, wonderingly, “Rain.”

He was in the station, at the surface, and water was curling along the wrought iron awning. “Kira?” Ned called, and then jerked back as she bolted across the deserted space of the ticket hall and landed next to him. “I thought I’d killed you!” she wailed, and Ned leaned back against the wall and breathed.

“It’s all right, little one,” he said, very softly, “I’m very difficult to kill.”

As she cried, he put an arm around her and made wordless, soothing noises, for himself as well as her; there was a great deal of pain, somewhere, that he was ignoring in favour of concentrating on Kira’s bright presence, and the rain falling into his eyes.

“Help me up,” he said, reaching out for a cane that wasn’t there; he leaned on her, mostly, to cross the space of the station floor and come to rest in front of what had been, earlier that day, a London Underground lift. “Oh, my.”

“First we knew of it,” said a voice from behind him; Ned turned to meet Whitworth’s eyes, “the lift hit the top of the shaft like the coming of the end times. Then the doors opened, and your girl –” Whitworth shook his head. “Well, perhaps she’d better tell you herself.”

“I got us out,” Kira said, almost apologetically. There was a strange mixture of emotions on her little face, something between defiance, pride, and misery. “I did… do it right, didn’t I?”

Ned followed her gaze, and limped across to the lift shaft. The outer doors had been pushed back with enormous force and bore signs of having witnessed a very rapid exit. Beyond them was only a great writhing blackness, suggestive of further movement far below. Of the lift cab itself, there was no sign. Ned pictured a mangled mass far beneath the earth, and said, sincerely, “Kira, I think you may have saved both of our lives. Thank you.”

“Oh,” Kira said, more shocked than pleased.

“Mr Whitworth,” Ned said. “Grace, and Thanet— ”

“Mr Thanet is helping with the evacuation,” Whitworth said, with sympathy and concern, “but Miss May hasn’t – not yet.”

Ned nodded and sat down on the floor. Kira came to perch on her haunches beside him, still with that uncertainty in her face.

“Mr Devlin,” she said. “Back when you could still do magic, were you very good?”

Ned leaned back on his elbows and considered.

“I was about the best of my generation,” he said, after a minute. “But I think you’ll be better than I was.”

“Oh,” Kira said, again more shocked than pleased, and Ned sat back again and breathed.

Presently, they heard footsteps, coming closer and closer, rising from the stairwell. Whitworth was looking hopeful, stepping forwards, and then the first of the people emerged from the Underground. They were the usual mixture of travellers, dignified old ladies and paint-spattered workers, some holding their tickets and some not, but all with the same open-eyed, uplifted expressions. Above them, birds were fluttering, their feathers translucent and crystalline, hovering to guide the way. Ned smiled at them and said, to Kira, “Thanet.”

“They brought us out of there,” said a woman in a green coat, to no one in particular.

A boy with a splint on his leg was being helped by two other passengers up the stairs. A man in a pork pie hat held up his hands with reverence to the rain. Ned thought he and Kira must present an odd picture, huddled in the corner of the ticket hall on the floor, but no one gave them a second look, and then he was thinking about the signalbox in Boulogne, and waking with his mouth full of saltwater, and no thought of being alive.

“What now?” Kira asked, finally, when the great flood of people petered into nothingness, as both trains below emptied out.

“Now, we wait,” Ned said. Kira nodded, and settled in beside him.

divider

“That’s the last of them,” Thanet called, sending off another handful of guide birds into the stairwell, and then beginning his descent back into the station. “They should make it out in time – oh.” His feet had hit water. “Grace!” Thanet yelled, into the murk and gloom. “Grace! Where are you?”

“Here,” Grace said, gasping for breath, appearing at the end of the upper passageway that led to the control room. “It’s not –” she coughed and spluttered “—deep enough to cover.”

“Yet,” Thanet said, and took another risky step downwards. Grace looked up. A light appeared above her head, illuminating the black water, sloshing ominously from side to side. The electricity in the tunnels had been switched off, leaving only magical light.

“It’s not too late,” Grace said. ” I mean, Mr Whitworth and his signal operators have already gone up. You can—”

“Shut up,” Thanet snapped. “Until you go, I stay.”

He shivered and took another step. Water began to creep over the tops of his boots.

“No one here but us chickens,” he said, hoping it would not carry, but whispering made the echoes more sinister than ever. “Lead the way.”

“I think,” Grace said, stepping out along the passage, raising small wave. “It’s just that the floodgate seals have failed. It’s not – I mean, if I can just stop it responding to any more magic, I can fix that. By Salt, or otherwise.”

Thanet nodded before realising Grace couldn’t see him. “Wait,” he said, and caught up, so they were walking side by side. “It’s better this way,” he said; Grace looked sidelong at him and gave him a wan smile.

At the platform level, the water was now hip-deep, and the shock of the cold held them both in place for a moment.

“Do you think,” Grace said, through her chattering teeth, “it’s getting harder to breathe?”

It was, the air now foetid and thick around them, but Thanet only nodded. He reached out to grab Grace’s hand before they kept on going, steadying her on the steps beneath the obscuring blackness. Another light hung over the water in front of them, green and cream tiles running off into blackness.

“Careful,” Grace said. “The platform edge—“ Just before Thanet went over it.

For a second, he was only falling. The track rails came up to meet his feet, sending a bone-deep jolt of horror through him, whatever his rational mind was trying to tell him about the power being switched off, and then the water closed over his mouth and nose. His limbs were going slack when a pair of strong arms grabbed him and hauled mercilessly.

“Breathe, damn you!” Grace yelled, her voice shattering into echoes, and then Thanet was on his knees on the platform, the water up to his waist, coughing and coughing while Grace clapped him on the back.

“It’s getting deeper,” he said, and was surprised when Grace shrieked.

“Sorry,” she said, spitting water and pushing her braids away from her eyes. “Sorry, that was either algae going past my leg, or an eel” – and Thanet began to laugh.

“Sorry,” he said, breathlessly. “And thank you, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Grace said, smiling a little herself, and they set off again. “Thanet,” she said, after a while. “We’ll reach the floodgates soon. If Ned’s right, this isn’t even our sort of magic. What if I can’t fix it?”

Thanet shrugged. “We’ll have to improvise. Perhaps –” he mimed a fingernail across a palm “—it’s really not superstitious nonsense, after all.”

“Urgh,” said Grace, feelingly, and kept on. “Although,” she said, shivering in earnest now, “given the rate the water is rising, and how long we took to get down here – well. If, we don’t seal it—”

“I know,” Thanet said, without surprise. “Well, well. Ned will write us a beautiful eulogy, I’m sure.”

Grace chuckled. “In beautiful Latin.”

Thanet nodded. “Oh, yes. Elegant, loving rhyming couplets.”

“I’d have done that for him,” Grace said, still grinning, but sounding quite sincere. “Even if I had to learn my Latin to do it. I’m glad I didn’t have to.”

“Me too,” Thanet said, splashing forwards. “But we would have survived it, you know. Oh, dear.”

Grace looked up. “Oh, goodness.”

They had reached the floodgates. On one side, the water rushed merrily into the dark through the new tunnel. On the other, water was coming through the rusting gaps in the metal. The flow was moderate, but Thanet could see how the force of it would break through all at once, as with a dam in a river.

“Well,” he said uselessly. “Here goes.”

Grace was quite still, somehow no longer shivering, an expression of utmost concentration visible on her face even in the dimness and the murk. “Got your penknife?” she asked.

Following Grace’s gaze from the iron rings in the roof to the torrents breaking through from the river, Thanet understood the need for desperate measures. He passed the knife to Grace with a shudder, trying not to think about the filth in the water, and Grace closed her eyes and drew the blade across her palm.

“All right,” she said, a little shakily, and then lifted her hands. “Thanet, ask me who I am.”

Thanet caught on instantly. “Who are you?”

“My name is Grace.”

“What calls you?”

“Salt. Although,” Grace hesitated. “Perhaps, more than Salt. Perhaps whatever will be the end of this transformation.”

“What do you give?”

Thanet followed Grace’s gaze down to the black, rank water, then up to the tunnel above, thinking about London, the city that had survived so much: Zeppelins and bombs, strikes and silence.

Grace said, quietly, “Everything I have.”

“That’s what – you know.” Thanet said, understanding this for the first time. “That’s what Ned gave away.”

Grace nodded. “Yes. And even so.”

Thanet shivered. “And what do you ask?”

“Safety. And time.” Grace inhaled, audibly, above the rush of water. “I ask that the floodgates be closed, that the city be allowed the time for transformation, that those who do magic are only those who know what they do.”

Thanet reached out for her then pulled away, aware that this might be the last magic Grace ever raised; or the last thing she ever did. He watched as she placed her bloodied hands on the floodgates.

“Oh,” Thanet said, and then all he knew was the screech of metal and the rise of water, and then rankness and darkness and fear, and then, nothing at all.

divider

(v) Remembrance

At eleven o’clock in the morning on the eleventh of November, 1919, the government’s Birds-in-Flight practitioners raised an elegant and beautiful piece of magic, casting great spectral ravens about the city and the City, not as coercion, but as reminder: when silence fell, it was not a frightening thing but expected, even welcome. In the streets the motorbuses rattled to a halt and the street traders stopped hawking their wares; on the river the boats drifted; and in the courts all dockets were suspended, waiting. In the chambers and inside the Temple gardens, even the clocks were stilled. For two minutes they counted out their silence. They counted out all that had been lost.

Then Grace breathed out, settled back into her armchair, and said to Ned: “Well. We survived it.”

“It and everything after,” Ned said. He was sitting on the floor in front of her, hands raised. “Do you want to try it now?”

Grace considered. “All right. Without the recitation, though.”

Grace closed her eyes and concentrated. When she opened them again, there was light where there hadn’t been light. As she and Ned watched, it spluttered and failed, sending them back into darkness. But Ned reached over and pulled the curtains, letting in the wintry sunlight, and settled back on the floor. “Well done,” he said, and they returned to silence for a while after that, both deep in thought.

“A light,” Grace said finally, sneezed, and then let out a deep breath. “I thought – I thought I wouldn’t be able to do magic again. Tell me,” she added. “If I’m being horribly tactless.”

Ned shook his head. “It was quite a working you did, Grace. Thanet carried you up all those stairs and by the time he got up to ground level he was dry as a bone.”

“So was everything else,” said Thanet, from the doorway. “They’re talking about reopening the station in the new year.”

“I might walk down to the next one along, even if they do,” Grace said, a little embarrassed. “Where are you off to, anyway?”

“Back on my rounds.” Thanet grinned and rubbed her hands together. “And Kira wants to visit her mum, I said I’d take her. We’ll be back this afternoon.”

She bowed, grabbed her hat and went out. A kind of fresh determination had come into her movements, Grace thought, since her registration had been restored: a refusal to compromise in the work that she did.

“Grace,” said Ned, getting to his feet and colonising another armchair. “Are you quite sure you’re all right?”

“I’m – not all right,” Grace said, flexing her hands and considering. The cuts she had made, done with an unwashed penknife and then bathed with dirty river water, had become infected with a vengeance, but they were healing better now, with some sanitising magic and patience. “But I will be, I hope.”

“You will be,” Ned said, certain. “Perhaps we all will. Even Mistress Ferguson – she’s drawing her widow’s pension, I’m told. Her husband has been entirely exonerated of any voluntary role in the accident.”

“How did it go with the railway company?” Grace asked, anxiously.

Ned groaned, and put a hand to his head. “Let us say,” he said, carefully. “That I may not be the most welcome passenger on the Southwestern Railway for the next few – ah, decades. But suffice it to say, I am not being brought up on professional malpractice, and Thanet’s name has been restored to the roll. They did accept that the accident wasn’t our fault, in the end, though that might be something to do with Thanet talking at great length about our dear Miss May risking her life for the good of the railway…”

Grace laughed a little. “I want to ask you something.”

Ned inclined his head. “Mmm?”

Grace hesitated. “I don’t know if you want to tell me, or if you can. But if you can – what was done to you, in the war?”

“Ah,” Ned said, and didn’t speak for a minute, rummaging in pockets, and then lit a cigarette.

Mrs Throckley didn’t like it when they smoked inside, but Grace didn’t bring up the point.

“Dear Grace,” he said, with almost a laugh. “You’ve been so terribly kind. You’ve never asked me that.”

“I’m asking now.”

Ned nodded, and took a drag of the cigarette. “I think the last time I saw you, before the Armistice, was when the Germans bombed the Guildhall.”

“Yes,” Grace said. “I thought you might return to practice then. Be invalided out, or however they put it. You were quite beaten up by the whole affair.”

Ned smiled at her. “I thought so too. When they asked me to come up to the Horseguards I thought it was something in the way of light duty they had in mind. The Minister for War had dabbled in transport, before 1914. He was greatly taken with the silver-bell Salt signalling and recommended me to the War Office. That’s how I got sent to France.”

“To the front lines?”

“Not all the time,” Ned said, still thoughtfully blowing smoke. “It was quite a simple system. Each battalion had its men, its commanding officer, and its practitioner. Salt and Birds alike, though the men liked it to be Salt, Birds could give them courage but Salt could fix the holes in their boots. But every so often the brass behind the lines pulled me out and asked me to think about long-term magical strategies. To devise ways in which we could fight a better war.”

“A better war?”

Ned shrugged and overturned his palms.

“You shouldn’t be able to regret the magic you’ve done, not really,” he said. “You’ve given a gift of something of yourself: you’ve done a true thing, no matter what. But there’s magic you can do without the full recitation, you know. You don’t give a gift. You can drain the salt from a man’s bones – Salt and salt both – and force him to sacrifice himself.”

“And that –” Grace paused. “That changes people – into what you are now?”

Ned shook his head. “No. It kills them where they stand. The Birds did it humanely, if there is such a thing. Put up great fields of magic and if the soldiers wandered in, they just… well, they lost interest in fighting. I heard German soldiers telling their pals all about how they wanted to take up birdwatching, somewhere far away. But I… well.” He shook his head. “The men used to come to me, ask for magic. They knew I was turning men just like them into ash and dust, a half-mile away in no-man’s land, and they saw the bar in my ear and they still came to me.

“Then in the autumn of 1918 they started saying it would be over soon. I didn’t believe it. That war couldn’t end. I was at Boulogne, at any rate. It was a terrible place.” Ned dipped his head for a moment, then lifted it. “German soldiers died in the Salt fields without a mark on them. Men were buried three-deep in the frozen ground. It was a better war.”

It was said with a faint irony. Grace didn’t interrupt.

“Then the message came. The armistice was to be at eleven in the morning: hostilities would cease, and it would be passed down the lines on silver bells. And I –I couldn’t sleep.” Ned looked up. “The guns would stop. But all that magic – all that Salt in the earth along with the barbed wire. Nothing would grow. Children would have their mothers’ fields explode beneath their feet. That war couldn’t end, not like that.”

“Ned?” Grace said, when he didn’t say anything for a minute. “What did you do?”

Ned sighed. “I went to the signalbox, the morning of the armistice. The girl there was from Liverpool, like you. She called me a witch. And then I—I made it safe, I suppose.” He looked up and gave her a very small smile. “I raised all the magic on every battlefield. I pulled it into my hands, into my mouth. I put it in a bowl of water. I’d seen some things by then, I thought drowning would be an easy way to die.”

“And then?” Grace asked.

“I didn’t,” Ned said, bleakly. “When I woke up I didn’t believe it. But the girl from Liverpool rang the bells, and the war ended, and I poured the water into the harbour.”

“It took your own magic with it,” Grace said. “That’s right, isn’t it?”

He nodded, almost imperceptibly.

“But don’t misunderstand me,” he said, with some sharpness. “What I gave, I gave willingly, without regrets. I would have given my life, and yet –” He gestured to take in the room around them. “Here we are.” He shrugged again, and lit another cigarette from the first. “That’s all. Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please,” Grace said, and as Ned went across to the little gas ring to make it, she raised a light, high above them both, which shone brighter and longer than the first.

divider

That afternoon, Grace had two visitors. The first knock on the door of chambers was tentative, and Mrs Throckley’s voice uncertain when she came through to inform them of their guest. “A coloured gentleman here to see you, miss,” she said. “Says he knows you.”

“Send him in,” Grace said. When the man came in, looking around himself nervously, she grinned. “Amir! I’d been meaning to come and see you. Mr Ramanujan over in Pump Court speaks Hindi, we were waiting for him to have a free day – sit down, do. Ned, this is Amir. Amir, this is Ned Devlin, he’s my friend and colleague.”

She wasn’t sure how much of this spiel Amir had understood, but he sat down in an armchair and accepted a mug of tea, and when Ned tapped the sugar pot, offered a small smile in response. After taking a sip, Amir set down the cup and unfolded a newspaper from the inside of his jacket, smoothing out one of the inner pages and pointing at one headline in particular; Grace skimmed the story of the floodgates at Blackfriars and nodded when she got to the picture of herself and Thanet, taken as they left the station with the tunnels sealed beneath. “So that’s how you found me?”

Amir nodded. He lifted the cup again, then set it down. It took him a minute to speak. “Well done,” he said, finally, with clear enunciation. “And thank you. For – before.”

“I’m glad you got away,” Grace said soberly. “I was so worried. I’m so sorry that that awful thing happened. I think you’re very brave.”

Amir nodded, and smiled at her, then set the cup down once more and stood up.

“Surely you’re not going already,” Grace protested, and he must have understood her tone if not her words, because he smiled again and shook his head.

“Please wait,” Grace said. “Oh, I do wish Mr Ramanujan were here. You know about magic from iron. You could – stay.” She gestured around the room, at the books on the shelves, at her own and Ned’s practitioners’ bars. “Ned and some others are trying to recruit people, like the signal operator in the station, and you – people who can do your sort of magic. You could help them. You could help us, too, we could learn so much from you.”

Amir held her gaze for a moment, then shook his head.

“Not,” he said, again with clear, determined enunciation, “yet. Not yet.”

He bowed on the last word, took up his newspaper, and was gone, breezing past a surprised Mrs Throckley.

“Not yet,” Grace said, thinking of the riots, and the stones thrown, and all that abject fear. “If he doesn’t want to help – then we’ll leave him be. But I hope he does.”

“What an odd bloke,” Mrs Throckley complained from the doorway. “Wasn’t here five minutes and didn’t finish his tea. Grace, dear, do you know if Kira likes pound cake? I’ve a hankering myself, and all the eggs we’d need.”

“I’ve no idea,” Grace said, “but certainly Ned and I would be in favour.”

The cake was just coming out of the oven when there came another, much more stentorian knock.

Grace started towards the door, but was prevented from getting any further by the arrival of a stately galleon carrying a horsehair wig. “Ned, my darling, make yourself scarce, this is ladies only. That’s right, off with you.”

“Good afternoon, my lady,” Grace said, with considerable amusement, as Justice Devlin took Ned’s vacated chair and settled herself into it with a deep sigh. “Will you have anything to drink?”

“No, dear, this is a flying visit.” Justice Devlin reached into her handbag and began polishing her spectacles with a handkerchief. “I know you’ve been through the wars. I’m going to ask Ned to surrender the lease on this house, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” Grace repeated, horrified. “My lady, if it’s a matter of the rent, I know we’ve been behind – but if you’ll allow us just a little more time, I’m sure –”

“Hush, dear.” Justice Devlin put her spectacles back on her nose. “Nothing like that. I want Ned to surrender the lease and I want you to sign another, on new terms. Call it a new business proposition.”

Grace blinked. “What? My lady, I’m afraid I really don’t understand.”

Justice Devlin leaned back in her chair.

“Did you know,” she said, after a moment, “that Ned was born in the Temple gardens?”

“Yes,” Grace said, surprised. “I was the same – I was brought up around the High Court in Liverpool, my father practises there.”

“Grace, my dear, you misunderstand me,” Justice Devlin said. “I meant it quite literally. Ned was born right here, not too far from where we’re standing.” Off Grace’s look, she smiled. “I had a nasty prosecution I didn’t like to leave, and it seems a fourth child may arrive more quickly than the others.”

“My goodness.” Grace said, faintly, finding her imagination not up to the task of envisaging it.

“Things are different, here in the Temple gardens,” Justice Devlin said. “But women must work for what they want: that’s the same everywhere. Last Candlemas, did you light Ned’s lamps for him?”

That was one of her judicial trademarks, the lightning-fast change in subject. “Yes, my lady.”

“Don’t do that again,” Justice Devlin said, sharply. “I propose a simple arrangement: rent as a percentage of your receipts. Thanet’s back on the roll and you’ll be sending the little one out to earn pin money soon enough. I trust I’ll get perfectly reasonable returns, and handsome ones, in time.”

“What about Ned?” Grace asked.

“Ned,” Justice Devlin said, matching her gentleness, “is both my beloved youngest child and about the bravest person I have ever known, save one or two.” Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, my boy hasn’t outlived his usefulness. Quite the reverse, in fact. I fear there will be others like him, in time, and they’ll have need of him then. But that’s not for you to worry about, Grace. I’ll bring the new lease along in time for the quarter day. Look after yourself, darling girl.”

She kissed Grace’s forehead and swept out in a flurry of perfume and skirts.

“Is she gone?” Ned peeped around the door, and came in when he saw the coast was clear. “Grace, what is it?”

“Your mother thinks I should take over this practice from you,” Grace said, spreading her hands.”

Ned took a moment to react, but when he did it was only to take some of the pound cake, sitting out on the table, and reach for the teapot.

“You don’t need my permission,” he said, very calmly, and poured out.

divider

(vi) Christmas Day

 

“The quarter days,” Grace explained to Kira, while decorating the tree, “are the days on which people enter into contracts, raise auspicious magic, that sort of thing.

“Begin apprenticeships, even,” she added. “It’s been six months and change, little one. Shall you be keeping on with us?”

“Yes,” Kira said, with determination, and Grace grinned.

The new lease had been signed that morning, sealed in Salt, and taken away merrily by her ladyship, whose real errand, she said, had been to deliver a goose. Mrs Throckley was roasting it in the kitchen, filling the house with delicious smells, and Thanet was halfway up a stepladder with two armfuls of holly.

“Why do we always leave our decorating until the last possible moment?” she asked, irritated. “Kira, will you be having your Christmas dinner with us or at your mother’s?”

Kira looked slightly disappointed, and Thanet giggled. “Two Christmas dinners is one of the perquisites of apprenticeship, Kira, don’t worry.”

Kira brightened up. Thanet clambered down from the stepladder, and surveyed her handiwork.

“Now,” she said, “come with me for the last touch.”

On the windowsill, she carefully sprinkled a layer of table salt, and put down a handful of feathers. “For good luck in the year to come,” she explained, to a doubtful Kira. “It’s just a tradition, no magic in it.”

“Then shouldn’t we have iron?” Kira asked, and Thanet nodded.

“Quite right, I should have thought. Ned’s got a horseshoe above his desk – run and ask him for it, would you?”

Kira did, and brought it out to hang off the corner of the ledge.

“Very nice,” Thanet said, and when they went back inside Grace had almost finished with the tree, raising Salt lights on the end of each fringed branch.

“It’s very pretty,” Kira said, sounding a little shy, and Grace grinned.

“Glad you approve, little one. Ned, are you quite sure?”

“Quite sure,” Ned said, looking up from the journal he was reading. “It shan’t be called after iron, after all. Ferrous or Ferric magic, so say the great and the good. There’ll be a Ferrous Worshipful Company before too long.”

“Ferrous magic,” Thanet said, trying it out for size. “I think I’ll stick with Birds-in-Flight, myself.”

“About that,” Grace said, now fetching Kira a footstool, so she could place the star on the top of the tree. “Are you glad to be registered again, Thanet?”

Thanet tossed her hair impatiently over her shoulders.

“Yes, and no,” she said. “They hadn’t any right to take it from me to start with, of course. And the next time I help a girl with loose morals or some such ridiculous thing, they’ll be after me again. But I’ll fight the fight when it comes to me. Kamala is doing well, by the way,” she added.

Grace smiled at her and helped Kira get back down.

“Right, all. Dinner time for witches,” she said, grinning, “and Ned.”

Ned threw a popcorn string at her, following which the party arose and descended to the kitchen, where more Salt lights gleamed on every surface in honour of the occasion, and Mrs Throckley beamed beside a plump and crisply gleaming goose.

Everything was delicious, of course. Kira and Ned pulled the wishbone, and Kira got the wish. When the Christmas pudding emerged from the pot, Kira set it alight.

“Name, calling, gift, asking,” Grace coached, and the flames rose a lovely blue.

“When I was in the lift,” Kira said, a little hesitantly, as they ate it with brandy cream. “With Mr Devlin, and I took the heart out of him – could I, sometime, try again?”

No,” said Thanet and Grace together, and Ned only laughed.

“You will again, little one,” he promised. “But you’ve so much to learn, yet” – and opened his palm to reveal the silver sixpence.

They sent her home with it, in the end, alongside with gifts of books and sweets from all three of them, and a Christmas cake in a tin for her mother. Thanet offered to take the walk down the Embankment with Kira to her mother’s house, and after they’d gone, Ned and Grace helped Mrs Throckley clean up, presented her with a wrapped gift and a handsome bottle from the Temple cellars, and donned their hats and went out.

“It’s good brandy, that,” Ned commented, in the crisp and frosty air on the Embankment. “There’s another one on the side for us, we should crack it open when Thanet gets back.”

“That’s a plan,” Grace said, putting her hands on the railing, looking out across the river. “Speaking of plans, Ned – what are you going to do with yourself, now?”

Ned considered. “I’ve been asked to help with the new Worshipful Company. After that – well. My mother thinks I could be called to the bar, if you can imagine that.”

Grace chuckled. “I think I can.”

Ned shook his head, a little disbelieving. “I almost forgot,” he said. “Christmas Day, the last quarter day.”

He reached up to the piercing in the top of his ear, and with a hiss of pain, pushed roughly. The metal bar landed neatly in his hand.

“That’s that, then,” he said, quietly.

Grace nodded. “Thanet will be able to clean that up for you,” she said, motioning at the old wound. “Though it’ll leave a scar.”

Ned smiled. “Thank goodness for that. Twenty years of my life ought to.”

“Whatever you do next, you should come home often,” Grace said, earnestly. “Quite apart from anything else, you’ll have to take care of Kira’s Latin. I can read it, I can’t teach it. Forsan et haec meminisse, quite beyond me, et cetera.”

“Grace…”

“The world is changing,” Grace said, archly cutting him off. “All around us the world is changing. It may be that a young practitioner trained for modern times doesn’t need…”

“All right!” Ned held up his hands. “I will teach Kira her Latin.” He overturned his palms in supplication. “There is only so much I can bear. Latin will be taught. Greek also. If she has a yen to learn Sanskrit or hieroglyphs I will arrange for a tutor. Après moi, there will be no deluge.”

Grace laughed at his outrage, and settled alongside him on the bench by the water. “I missed you a great deal, when you were gone,” she said, presently. “Which surprised me, as you were quite unbearable when you were here.”

“Slander. I am a respectable Salt practitioner and an officer and a gentleman.”

“One out of three isn’t bad,” Grace said, wickedly, and wondered for a second if she’d misjudged it: but Ned laughed easily enough, and was still smiling a few moments later, as they watched the boats go past on the river.

“I missed you too,” he said, breaking the silence. “And this.” He motioned to the water, to the garden steps behind them, to London in general. “What have you decided to do about the lamp-lighting, in the new year?”

“I thought it would be nice if Kira lit your lamps,” Grace said..

“They’re not mine any more,” Ned said, “at least, they won’t be. That’s as well, though. She can start young.”

Whosoever they belonged to, and at whose hands they were raised, Grace was thinking, there would nevertheless come the seven hundred and thirty-second Candlemas of the City of London, that neither war nor peace could dismay: and they would all, as they had always done, raise and make light.

“It’s getting cold,” she said, rubbing her fingers together for warmth. “Do you want to go in?”

“Let’s stay out a little longer,” Ned said, gesturing along the Embankment towpath, and they kept on through the frosty evening, under a clear sky full of stars.

___
Copyright  2015 Iona Sharma

Iona is a writer, lawyer and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Other than speculative fiction, she’s interested in politics and land rights. Her other stories may be found at generalist.org.uk/iona and she tweets as @singlecrow.

By Maggie Clark

Transfer orders reached me in active storage—awake but shelved, and attentive only to the smaller sounds of silence: the hum of ventilation shafts, the occasional click of distant footprints, the minute grind of locks on other doors.

Call them my meditative years—four and a half, give or take, since the last serious incident on Loris Prime. Just don’t ask why I logged into storage after putting that sorry case to bed. Fatigue doesn’t hit an AI the same way it might a Natural Intelligence, and for all the cynicism in my personal profile, the notion of growing too jaded or spooked for detective work, as an NI often does, won’t pass muster either. The best I can offer is that time passes differently for AIs: every sluggish human second its own eternity, and yet, what are four-plus years to someone with whole centuries in their wake?

Unfolding and unplugging myself to answer the official call, I made note of all the points along and under my ’steel frame operating at suboptimal efficiency: plastics thick with particulate; liquid wiring that had just begun to crystallize; phase-shifting nanoprocessors in need of realignment. Minor fixes, all, but important reminders of my own mortality—gradual though it would be, unless I hastened things along.

My associate had been sent straight from Network HQ—meaning, straight from basic training—to join me on the journey out. He was young as recruits went, but then, they all seemed childlike to me, from the freshest to the most seasoned NI in the outfit. This wasn’t just my age talking, either: Everyone I’d been programmed to care about had died generations past, and I suspected that, for whatever reason, self-actuation had lessened my ability to build a similar rapport with others since.

Hearing tell of this suspicion, a previous associate once suggested that maybe we weren’t so different after all—humans, that is, and AIs. At the time, 58 and widowed, he maintained that his heart had been permanently wearied by its losses, and though he saw youthful optimism all about him, he knew he’d never again join in. I accepted this as his view for as long as he held it, and then, when he was 62, likewise accepted word that he’d found a man who taught him to laugh and cry anew. Granted, though, this was forty-odd years ago, and they’re both making their way back to stardust now, so he wasn’t entirely wrong: I’d be joining him and all other NIs, eventually, on that protracted road.

In the meantime, the kid before me was of the nervous, jumpy sort, and as ill-fitting in his Network jumpsuit as he seemed in the hush of the storage lockers. When he spoke he cleared his throat first, as if in competition with the silence for my attention.

“If you need a moment to get—ah—dressed?”

If I’d still had a synth-skin I might have smiled. I’d worn one such outfit or another for centuries: the first the body of a Companion with ample female attributes, the next a broad-shouldered male number, and the rest all variations therein. But the naked chassis had its benefits, too; it “breathed,” as an NI might say of their birthday suit.

Instead I declined his offer by making directly for the shuttle, as the Network surely knew I would. My associate jogged to keep up while rattling off details of our case: Twenty-three dead monks in a mountain-dwelling community on a hunk of rock so old, so remote, and so apparently bereft of commercial value that at first I thought it no wonder the Network didn’t want to waste “real” agents on the case.

“Witnesses?”

“Just one—the only surviving monk.”

“And what does he say happened?”

“He doesn’t.”

“Scared into silence, huh?”

“No, just—too busy to talk.”

The kid almost bumped into me when I stopped short at the loading dock for a passing luggage car. The ticker for our own transport flashed its final boarding call.

“Too busy for a murder investigation?”

His cheeks and ears reddened as we took our respective seats. “Well—ah—that’s the tricky part, Detective Bennett—sir. See, the monk won’t stop singing long enough for anyone to get a word in edgewise. And the locals say he can’t. Their people—they believe the universe was sung into being, and the monks’ job is to keep it going. For as long as anyone remembers, the monks have been holding the universe together in song—in shifts, of course, but without pause. So now the locals are terrified because if he stops… well, he won’t stop, sir. Not with that much on the line.”

“Well, that’s a damned nuisance. What’s your name, kid?”

“Yes, sir. Hersh, sir.”

Out the nearest viewscreen, Hersh and I watched Loris Prime fall away.

divider

I skimmed all pertinent files from Hersh’s sig-card during the last minute of the flight. The hunk of rock we’d landed on had three official names: its Network designation, its everyday name, and its sacred name. Only three would be unusual, if not for the planet’s culturally homogenous population: just under a quarter million calling Cog “home.”

Cog was a planet of relentless mountain ranges, many containing caverns large enough to port three shuttles through, side by side, with room to spare on either end. But if Cog had ever held lucrative mineral and metal reserves (and some signs pointed to interplanetary mining operations thousands of years back), they stood depleted now. What remained was a multifaceted people, their skins a patchwork of colors, shapes, and sizes, with agrarian traditions haphazardly merged from what might have been as many as twelve original sources, and a persisting caste system not unusual for colonies their age and size.

The way Hersh had told it, though, today’s Cograns were nobodies in the Network, and from the report that wasn’t quite true: their use simply lay elsewhere, in communication relays and intelligence-gathering, two services which—at the shit end of a particularly cold and inhospitable solar system—these people could perform with greater ease and discretion than most. So maybe there was more to my reassignment than first appeared.

Either way, the Cogran who met our transport was taller than the average native, and from the accessories on his outerwear, more affluent, too. Sev Franz, he called himself—Sev being a designation not unlike “Father” or “Reverend” in other parts of the galaxy, but with the added implication of “mediator” or “peace-maker.” There was no official police force on Cog, where most communities numbered in the low thousands, but each had an upper-caste council that met to discuss various infractions therein. Sev Franz introduced himself as one of seven such councilors from the community of Pagora, which encompassed the mountain cavern where the world’s monks—a population already in sharp decline in recent years—lived and worked and held the universe together in song.

“Striking place,” I said, as he directed us to the primary crime scene. “Cog’s what, now—thirteen, fourteen billion years old?”

Sev Franz shot me a puzzled look, but if he’d hoped to read anything off my naked ’steel frame, its impassive ocular sockets and rigid, empty jaw, he could only be disappointed. “No, of course not. Closer to—well, five billion, I suppose. But surely you know that.”

“And your people? Do they know that, too? My files suggest strong literacy rates, no major panic about modern medicine and the like. And yet, the universe is billions of years older than your world, and your people are terrified that it will end if the singing stops?”

Sev Franz’s mouth parted. “Ah,” he said, winking. “Yes, I see now. I suppose it all sounds incomprehensible to someone like you—a robot, yes?”

“AI will do. Just ‘robot’ would be the equivalent of calling you a mammal, or invertebrate, understand?”

“Absolutely. But the point remains, no?”

“No, I don’t find it incomprehensible.”

“Because you already find humans irrational in everything we do?” Sev Franz glanced in amusement at Hersh, but the kid was trying his best to appear professional, so only the flushed tips of his ears conveyed his own uncertainty.

“Well, you are, but no.” I affected a sigh to set the NIs at ease. “No, I was originally programmed to worship, myself. One person, mind you, but to me she was a god.”

“I’m not so sure that’s the same…” Sev Franz started, before a look of discomfort passed over his face. “Then again, who am I to say it isn’t?” His next smile was all business—big and toothy as he clapped his hands and gestured to a narrow cavern entrance, no more than an unadorned crack along the mountainside. Only from the wear along its edges (the rock worn smooth by many palms over many generations) could one begin to guess the meaning of this place. We entered the recesses of the mountain one by one.

divider

Our narrow walking path opened into an antechamber many meters in, after which various markings of civilization—mosaics, friezes, metalworks, and free-standing sculptures, all given the impression of movement by torchlight—flooded our field of view.

“Shouldn’t this place be cordoned off?” said Hersh. “For genetic testing?”

Sev Franz looked ready to tousle the kid’s hair. “Already done, son. Took you two a while just to get here, remember?”

Our timing was relative, of course. Network logs showed that three days had passed on Cog since the incident, with the lone surviving monk hooked to a saline drip as he sang the song of the world alone in the temple’s inner sanctum. For me and Hersh, though, it had been just under a day from Hersh’s briefing to our joint arrival. Plenty still refused to travel in the Spiders—giant mechanical structures, vaguely arachnoid in form, at the outskirts of every known solar system, opening their arms to approaching vessels and transporting each to its desired coordinates—but even those who shuddered at such machines still benefited from their use. Hell, the Network itself, as a web of resources spanning the known galaxy, had only become possible after decoding and adapting to such alien technologies.

“And beyond this passage?” I nodded to a corridor wreathed in images of monks—some reading, others buried with saintly glosses, still others in transcendent acts of prayer. “The temple?”

“After you.” Sev Franz gestured and I obliged. Hersh alone stumbled as we reached a balcony from which the whole mountain seemed to give way—its interior rising hundreds of meters to a ceiling entirely painted over, but also descending hundreds of meters more into pitch-black void. Once I’d adjusted my visual settings, I could make out five other balconies around the circular perimeter, while at the chamber’s center, along a pillar that ran the whole height and depth of the cavern, lay a second sphere—a room from which the brightest lights emanated through intricate gaps in the stone. The whole temple was filled with song: deep, raw, and simple—at times no more than a guttural ahhh that proceeded from this second sphere and reverberated throughout.

Though I assumed our lone monk lay within that room at the center of the pillar, I could not so easily surmise how he’d entered the inner sanctum in the first place. I turned to Hersh to speculate, but his gaze was fixed on the trick of the shadows that made the temple floor seem infinite. His forehead beaded with sweat.

“Afraid of heights?”

“A little.”

Sev Franz came between us, peering over the ledge. “Our oldest stories speak of monks climbing down the sides of these walls, crossing the base of the cave, and scaling the pillar for their turn at song. See? You can even make out the footholds on either side—a bit run down now, but passable with the right equipment.”

“Needlessly elaborate, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh no, Detective. It all accords quite well with our beliefs—man crawling out from the depths and into the light.” And he went on, with a lilt in his voice:

Little children, least of the universe,

Turning their voices heavenward—

The planets, the stars, their faces

Uplifted in song—

Who will keep this symphony in motion

When all the little children are gone?

I allowed Sev Franz a generous silence before asking, “How do we cross now?”

“Oh, it’s simple enough. Here—” And he wrapped both hands around a heavy, rounded stone by the passageway, dragging the knob from one side of the balcony ledge to the other. In so doing, the underside of our platform unfolded into a springy mesh bridge spanning half the cavern. “We’ve just had all these retracted to give our dear brother peace in this difficult hour. He has a hard enough task without being troubled by Pagora’s townsfolk, however well-intentioned their journeys out.”

Or their interest in finishing the job. I tested the tensile strength of our narrow walkway and its railings before leading the party on.

“But what if he wanted to leave the center chamber?” said Hersh. “Could he even operate the bridges from inside?”

Sev Franz’s baffled look was all the answer either of us required.

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On the way to Cog, I’d wondered why Pagora’s sitting council hadn’t conducted even the simplest yes/no interrogation with the lone surviving monk, irrespective of his need for constant song. To see Brother Yuco in the heart of the temple, though—sinewy with age, slumped in grief and exhaustion, a blanket wrapped about him, IVs in his arms, and his head shaking a relentless no no no while eleven crime scene markers held vigil all about—I understood at once the futility of such an exchange. The monk, however, was not alone; by his side knelt a woman, also old by human standards, to whom had clearly fallen the task of keeping Brother Yuco awake and full of universal voice.

“Marin Bris,” said Sev Franz, touching her shoulder when she turned and scowled at the sight of me. “This is Detective Bennett and his junior associate, from the Network. They’re here to help.”

“What in blazes we need a robot for,” she said. “And one with more skull than face—Stars preserve us, people’re going to think Death’s come to mark the End of Things.”

“It’d be fitting, though, wouldn’t it, given the circumstances?” I said. “However competent your ministrations, we both know Brother Yuco can’t keep this up forever.”

“You shut yourself with that talk this instant.” Marin Bris glared at me, then Sev Franz. “You’ve told him we’re training the next lot even now, haven’t you? They’ll be here in time—he’s only got to hold out a little longer, don’t you, old man? Oh, come now, don’t start that again—”

Hersh twitched and made to speak when the old woman ran her palms over Brother Yuco’s tear-stained cheeks, but I caught the kid’s wrist, and with a confused glance my way, he held his tongue instead. Together we watched Marin Bris kiss the salt from the monk’s eyes as he shook his head and intoned another verse from the Cograns’ ancient song.

“Come along, then,” said Sev Franz. “I assume you’ll want to see where the other twelve were murdered? We know they died first, in their beds, done away with by the same incineration tool we found at the bottom of the temple, and which the murderer ultimately overheated to the point of destroying all genetic evidence. Granted, the real puzzle is how the other eleven were killed here, in plain view of one another, and from so many angles, but we have all those stills on file already. I imagine you’ve already reviewed the lot.”

I nodded at this last, but lingered just the same at the edge of the inner sanctum. “Although I’m not so certain that’s the puzzle here.”

“Oh?” Sev Franz halted halfway across the mesh bridge, blocking my associate’s passage. Hersh clung desperately to one railing and shut his eyes against the depths below.

“Just think of it.” I surveyed the intricate carvings along the pillar and throughout the walls of the outer cavern, its acoustics perfectly suited to the monks’ millennia-old task. “You believe your song upholds the universe. You train for years and gather in shifts to meditate, to pray, and to sing. You shut your eyes, clear your mind, and hear only the force of that collective music—until it starts to go out, one precious thread after another. What do you do at first except sing louder, assuming—as is only reasonable at the time—a much milder explanation for all the other voices dropping off?

“So by the time you realize just how much silence has crept in, even if you do open your eyes and see the killer, and all your brothers’ corpses around them, how do you orchestrate response without giving up the song? Let’s say there are half a dozen monks remaining—maybe, at best—when the severity of the situation finally reaches them. That’s still half a dozen men trained only in slow, communal action, and now suddenly required, with frantic glances alone, to decide who’ll make the first move—and how, against such a silent but deadly weapon—while the rest try to keep the universe alive. Those just aren’t good odds for survival, Sev Franz. Not among your kind.”

Our Cogran mediator did not reply at once, and when he did there was something distinctly angry about his soft-spoken “I see,” as if to say—You must think us all fools. But Marin Bris did not hesitate, or equivocate, in her own howl from the heart of the temple.

“OUT!” came her personal song of the universe, as she clutched a now profusely weeping Brother Yuco. “OUT OUT OUT OUT!”

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Hersh had his own disapproving look by the time we reached the living quarters, and gone was the eager “Yes, sir” when I asked him to inspect each monk’s cell. I asked Sev Franz if he’d give us a moment alone, to which the mediator readily agreed, claiming that other Pagoran business called him anyway. I turned to my associate.

“They teach passive-aggression in basic training now?”

Hersh’s cheeks grew a livid pink. “You always that horrible around people in mourning?”

“Marin Bris, you mean, or Brother Yuco?”

“Both. Either. The hell does it matter.” Hersh cast about the room in that nervous, twitchy way of his. “You read the files, didn’t you? You know they’re both Ang—lowest of the low on this colony. So twist the knife in the wound, why don’t you? Picking on two scared old people who could never’ve advanced in the first place except through the Order, and even then don’t get much say about all that’s gone on.”

“Not quite. Only the men ever advance.” Hersh’s nostrils flared with what I took to be exasperation as I went on. “Fascinating, isn’t it? Cograns believe the song of the universe must begin with the lowest of the low, swelling until it reaches the stars themselves. In practice, that gives a few Ang men social mobility in exchange for sterility, and so ironically creates a new lowest class of Cogran: the Ang woman, for whom no such deal is on offer. Some follow Ang men into the mountains, sacrificing their own fertility in turn, but their lives here are not easy. Heaven’s whores would be my translation of the Cogran term.”

“There are women like Marin Bris on my world, too,” said Hersh, his arms now minutely trembling. “Shunned as class traitors for leaving oppressive homes, then exploited for the rest of their lives by the people they gave up everything to serve.”

“And you’re Ang yourself, I take it—or the equivalent on your world.” I waited for his reply, but Hersh only studied his hands. “It shows, you know. You’ve got the look of someone who doesn’t think he fits in, who’s just waiting to be found out. Who thinks he needs to defend his right to the very air he’s breathing, the room he’s taking up.”

Another pause on my part; another silence on Hersh’s.

“No wonder they paired you with me. Kid as jumpy as you, on assignment with a regular NI? That’d just be asking for trouble—for both of you. No way the Network risks your sorry ass and some human vet’s just to see if you’ll cut it in the field.”

At last Hersh’s head snapped up, his face and neck fully flush with anger. “I passed my entrance exams like anybody else. Top third of my class, too. Nerves of steel in a shuttle cockpit, or behind the controls of any other vehicle you can name. I joined the Network to serve the galaxy and improve the reputation of my people, and so help me, Detective Bennett—sir—I’m going to do that, whether you like it or not.”

I laughed: a rare, spontaneous gesture that made me wonder if I’d overlooked other repairs. If I still had synth-skin I would have affected wiping the corners of my eyes, too.

“Settle down, Hersh. Who the hell cares what I like or don’t like? I’m just the asshole AI running your first assignment. I mean, good for you, having dreams and shit. But see how easy you make it? Getting pissed because some unresolved angst hits an angle of the case the wrong way? That’s the kind of emotional baggage that leads NIs to violence, so get used to me pushing it: I’m running a homicide investigation here. I can’t always back down or play nice if I want to learn about the people involved.”

“Yeah? So what’d you learn from upsetting the old lady like that?”

I affected surprise as best I could without a human face. “Plenty. Why, didn’t you?”

Hersh clearly couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, so with a severe frown he returned to his inspection of the monks’ cells, silent at first but eventually getting into the rhythm of his labors, and at times even calling out the amused likes of: “Got some letters in here!” “Man, Brother Timu was a slob!” and “Brothers Wye and Kildew were sleeping together!”

I kept my replies short and mostly neutral, with the occasional bit of encouragement whenever warranted, and by the time we left the mountain, Hersh seemed almost a different field agent—not completely over the worst of his restless mannerisms, granted, but more comfortable, at least, in his persisting annoyance with me.

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Only twilight greeted us when we left the mountain, with even wildlife on this fragile, gutted world apparently in short supply. We soon learned that Sev Franz had indeed been called away by important business—the arrival of temple novitiates from far-off villages—but we hadn’t been forgotten; once we passed into town, we were escorted to a large enough hut that Hersh could sleep well apart from me. While I charged from my portable energy drive, he picked at a local delicacy of rice and beans.

“Thoughts on the good Sev Franz?”

Hersh paused in that way most socially-aware NIs do before responding, trying to convey serious consideration where most AIs, when left to their own devices, would simply churn out every relevant response.

“For someone who believes the world might end at any moment,” said the kid at last, “he’s pretty calm. But uptight in other ways. Especially about anything theoretical.”

“Not surprising, given his job description. He’s their front-of-house: the man who tends to their day-to-day spiritual needs and their political ones. And now he serves as Cogran’s representative to the stars, too, which would be quite a tall order for anyone.”

Hersh opened his sig-card, a projection screen hovering over his dinner. “It’s all pretty new for them, isn’t it—Network ties, trade benefits, the chance of leaving this rock? I mean, ‘Cog’—it even sounds worthless in the galactic tongue. Someone should tell them how it translates on other worlds. Maybe get them to put in for a name-change.”

“You might be surprised how many would take pride in the name’s translation, if they knew it. We’re talking about a culture that boasts of low beginnings, remember.”

“Not all of them, though. Not people like Sev Franz.” Hersh’s facial features were so expressive I could almost hear the gears in his head turning. He pointed at me with a spoon. “Sev Franz talks a good talk about his faith relying on the lowest of the low, but he seems pretty happy to be in another caste himself. One with plenty of mobility, and wealth, and best of all, the assumption that the universe just wanted things this way. That he’d earned all his luxuries and the confidence that comes with them just by being born.”

“Not bad,” I said—and meant it; the kid had potential—“but what’s it to us?”

Hersh shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t think he cares if we solve the case or not. He’s already fixing the parts that matter to him, turning the whole temple back into a well-oiled machine, so if we can’t figure this shit out, it’s no skin off his back. Hell, he might even come out of this looking more useful to his people if we leave empty-handed.”

“No reason for him to knock off twenty-three monks, then, that you can see?”

“Nope.” Hersh wiped his mouth and sat up. “And you—sir?”

I didn’t reply, and Hersh went back to his meal, speaking again only after pushing his plate aside. By then, in the time it took Hersh to say, “What I don’t understand—”, I had over a dozen rejoinders queued, like …could fill the whole mountain temple. …would stretch between one Spider and the next. …thankfully won’t bring about the ruination of any important civilizations.

We weren’t ready for that kind of banter, though, so I played it straight and let him finish: “—is why we’re here at all. I mean, yeah, it’s sad that almost all the monks on this world got wiped out, and upsetting that these people think the universe might end because of it, but what’s the Network’s angle? Because we both know they have one.”

I affected an unnecessary pause of my own. The kid was perceptive, but not yet able to extrapolate beyond his own experiences. “Of course they do,” I said. “But it’s obvious, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if the world actually ends or not—the trouble is that someone might have killed those monks thinking the world would end if their song did. That’s the kind of terrorist mentality that alerted the Network to this case. That’s why they sent us: on the off-chance we’re dealing with someone who might have access to the whole Network through the Spiders, and a death wish for the universe to boot.”

“But if Brother Yuco stops singing and the world doesn’t end—”

“Then our perp will either be humbled by how wrong they were, and maybe even give him- or herself up, or else they’ll retaliate in even more extreme ways—ways that might actually bring the universe to its knees. It’s just too big a risk to be ignored.”

“If our perp wanted to end the song, though, why leave Brother Yuco alive? Man, I wish they had surveillance cameras on this dump. I get that the temple’s a sacred place, but still—we could’ve wrapped this all up remotely with just a camera or two.”

I nodded and stood to retire. “Different cultures, different practices. It’s a good question, though. We’ll know more when we talk to the family.”

But Hersh only frowned at me. “You don’t already know who did it, do you?”

Without a synth-skin, I didn’t even bother feigning a smile.

“Night, kid. See you at dawn.”

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We made it to moonfall before being roused by a disturbance in the scrub-bushes just beyond our hut. Hersh had his hand on his holster when I opened the door and sighted three figures hunched and quarreling in the dark.

“That’s enough,” I said. “Present yourselves.” I was ready to give chase if they ran, but instead the one in the middle stood up sharply, then shoved the smallest into the light spilling from our hut.

“Take her when you go,” he said. “Please. She’s ruined if she stays here.”

The third figure, a woman perhaps in her late twenties, was crying and shaking her head. The child before us looked half her age at best, and when Hersh saw the bruises all along the child’s arms, he swore in a language I didn’t recognize.

“Who’s done this to your daughter?”

The man seemed startled by the obvious connection, then impatient. “It’s nothing compared to what will happen if she stays. She’s in love with one of the boys they’ve taken—she’s a fool. She’ll follow them all to the temple just like that old crone did, and bring shame upon my family. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

“You did this to her, then?” Hersh’s hand was back on the holster. I was half-inclined to stay silent and see what he’d do, but the Ang man’s last words intrigued me.

“Tell us,” I said, “how was it supposed to be?”

He hesitated, and seemed poised to speak until the child’s mother pulled at his arm.

“We can’t,” she said to him. “Too many have died already for this foolishness. There will never be an end to things.”

“There’ll be an end to your beating your daughter, that’s for certain,” said Hersh. He advanced with weapon half-upraised, gesturing at the child to get behind him. I admit to almost crushing his wrist until he let the service piece drop, the child still frozen between her parents and us. Hersh shot a furious glance my way as he cried out and nursed the injury.

“Is that it, then?” I said. “Do you really think bringing about the end is the answer? Better to destroy everything than live another day as you do?”

The woman spat in the dirt between us. “You want to talk destruction? You ask that old hag, Marin Bris, what right she had smuggling tools and the like into the temple. There’s nothing sacred to her kind once they go up. You don’t understand what those whores are capable of—the wrath that comes of a lifetime’s selfish indulgence. She was old, see? Too old. They were fixing to be rid of her, so why not repay ‘em with murder?”

“Village gossip,” Hersh spat back. “That woman won’t leave Brother Yuco’s side.”

“Then we’re on borrowed time,” said the man, his expression ashen. He took hold of the child by an elbow and tugged her into the shadows. “It’s no use now, trying to run—Come, Isla. We must pray.”

Hersh started after them, but I held his shoulder too firmly. “The hell’s the matter with you,” he said, and kicked a ’steel leg instead. “We can’t just let them get away.”

“I’m not,” I said. “But you still need your sleep.”

Hersh gave no sign of comprehension at first, but when I began to walk away his brows shot up. NIs might take a little longer, but they more or less get there in the end.

“Hey,” he said, crouching in the dirt. “Here.” He tossed his firearm my way. I crossed the barrel over an ocular socket in salute, then gestured again for him to go bed. This time, to even my surprise, he obeyed.

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I didn’t pursue the wretched family, though explaining this neglect to such a young and emotional NI would not be possible. In the morning I’d tell Hersh I’d spoken with the father and put the fear of the Network into his superstitious head, and Hersh would accept this both because he’d never known me to lie and because he wanted to believe that things would turn out better for the child. Never mind that a culture is rarely changed overnight, this girl’s problems ran wider than her immediate, frantic family, and the Network has a strict policy against removing natives from their worlds. Some hopes, I knew, were clung to not because they made sense, but out of sheer despair at the alternatives.

What did strike me, though, was the woman’s backtracking—how she’d launched into a tirade against Marin Bris as if to deflect from initial words she hadn’t meant to say. The idea of a death cult was not out of the question on a world as stark as this one, with the Sev Franzes of society contentedly running lower castes into the ground, but if there were natives willing to destroy the universe in order to make their suffering end, surely they already had their next target lined up: the young boys training to take Brother Yuco’s place.

I took the main Pagoran road—now ill-lit in the dead of night—to the compound where the children had been gathered. Sure enough, sentries were stationed at all corners. I raised a hand to one by the entrance and he glanced nervously at me. I highly doubted the glint of my ’steel frame in near-darkness was for him a reassuring sight.

“Any disturbances tonight?”

“Just you,” he said, jutting his chin. “We’ve strict orders to turn everyone away.”

“I’m here on behalf the Network, running a—”

“Yeah, we know,” said the man, his voice growing heated. He swept his rifle through the air between us. “Just—leave this place alone. Sev Franz’s orders.”

I nodded to the light coming from the compound windows: no song; only changes in the shadows. “Sev Franz is here now? Working with the little boys?”

The man’s expression hardened at the inflected word. It was almost tediously easy to rile an NI this way.

“Sev Franz is a great man,” said the sentry. “And he’s only ever had this planet’s best interests at heart. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to protect our people—even from themselves, if it ever came to it.”

“Do you think it might have, three days ago?”

It took the sentry a few seconds to grasp my meaning, after which he looked at me in disgust. “If Sev Franz needed to kill twenty-three monks, putting our entire universe in peril in the process, you can bet there was a damned good reason for it. If. Now get away, will you? Before I call the others.”

I bowed and clicked my ’steel heels together, the farce of the gesture entirely lost on this little NI. For the next few hours I observed the compound at a distance, monitoring its perimeter more acutely than the sentries ever could, but no covert Ang force—or any force—appeared. The only real movement was in the predawn hush, when a slight chill settled in the air and a figure slipped from the front doors into the street. From his gait and the way the sentry greeted him, there was no mistaking Sev Franz, in all his eminent apparel.

When he’d passed fully out of sight, I stole back to the guest hut and woke Hersh with a good shake to the arm. He groaned, passing a hand over his eyes. “Time already?”

“If it’s not already too late.”

That got his attention, groggy as the poor NI remained.

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Dawn met us halfway along Pagora’s main road, somewhere between the upper-caste residences and the downriver slums where the city-Ang resided. From then on we were greeted by dozens of hardened bodies and startled faces—more so than even the strangeness of my chassis could explain.

“They look terrified,” said Hersh, whose yawning had just abated. “You think that shit of a father passed the message on, that we’re not to be messed with?”

I didn’t reply, but sure enough, the Ang hid their gazes even from my young associate, and only by inference, from darting eye movements when we asked, could we extract any information about where Brother Yuco’s sister lived.

Yuco Mera was an old woman herself, but already deep into the day’s labors of washing and folding while tiny Ang children settled about her, peering at her work or playing in the dirt. She had the calmest expression of any of the adults we’d seen all morning, her long-whiskered brows perhaps too wearied instead by grief.

“Sister Yuco,” I said—and that caused her to crook her mouth and grunt ha.

“Mera,” she said, scrubbing hard in the basin before her. Out the corner of my eye I saw that the children had taken a shine to Hersh, and he to them. I let them be.

“Mera.” I crouched to eye level. “We’re from the Network, come to investigate the murders up in the mountain. Your brother—”

“Good as dead.” Mera flung a sopping wet blanket onto another pile. “And everything with him.”

“You mean the universe? It’s been around a lot longer than your planet, Mera, let alone your Cogran monks.”

Mera cast a tired look my way. “Ever think maybe it’s all in reverse, spaceman?”

“You mean, the universe created retroactively? Its entire past arising the moment the first monk on Cog broke into song?” She nodded so gravely then that, for the first time since my arrival, I truly longed for synth-skin, and the gentleness of the smile I could have managed in reply. “Cograns are tremendous storytellers, Mera. I’ll give you that.”

Mera grunted, flinging another garment on the stack for drying. As she did, Hersh and I both caught sight of a faded tattoo on her inner arm—a blue circle with a line spanning its radius and extending beyond the circumference.

“What’s that?” he said, and from the heat in his voice I could tell his past was getting in the way again. “They don’t mark you here, do they?”

Mera covered her arm and looked away. “No child,” she said. “Some in the city think it’s all a great line, the universe—from the lowest to the highest—but we Ang know otherwise. The universe is a circle of unity, and needs all of us to survive.”

“Your brother believes that, too?” I said. Mera nodded. “And Marin Bris?”

Mera snorted and returned to her scrubbing. “Only circle she knows is the one she’s been making for decades between temple beds.”

Hersh visibly blanched—young NIs and their horror over the thought of old and rutting flesh. I had all I needed, though, so I bowed to Mera and stood.

“But that’s not what I meant,” she added softly, and when she looked up this time she seemed as nervous as all the other Ang we’d seen. “About everything ending with him.”

“I know,” I said. “And for that I’m truly sorry.”

Maybe it was surprise that allowed her to accept my hand then. Maybe not. Either way, Companion though I’d once, long ago been, with just the ’steel chassis a little squeeze was the only comfort this old AI unit could provide. It was high time we were moving on.

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Hersh had to sprint to keep up as I made for the temple. Though he quizzed me with glances all the while, I would say nothing until we’d entered the mountain, crossed the mesh bridge, and found ourselves observing the Order’s newest monks as they prepared to take over from Brother Yuco, who was more groaning than singing from his place on the floor. Marin Bris still knelt beside him, stroking what threads of hair remained and tucking his blanket in, while two medics stood ready to carry him out at Sev Franz’s word.

“Marvelous timing,” he said, gesturing at the nervous young boys in their robes, fresh from crash courses in—at the very least—the Cograns’ ancient song and ceremonies. “You bear witness to history in the making. Cog has sadly declined in its practice of taking tribute, which is why our monastic numbers were so perilously low to start—but no more. These boys have all been volunteered by their families, who’ve been amply rewarded in turn. With these faces we will begin anew, building a better, stronger Order—and oh, you will see our results the galaxy over! How the very stars will burn brighter in the coming years!”

As if to signal their agreement, the boys at that very moment picked up Brother Yuco’s fading refrain, and the whole cavern reverberated with a song far deeper and richer than any (I must admit) I’d ever heard before. Hersh himself looked ready to give way before the majesty of the performance, and there were tears in all the other NIs’ eyes. I allowed them their moment of rapture before tapping Sev Franz on the shoulder.

“I would speak to you, Sev Franz, in the antechamber. With Brother Yuco.”

“Of course,” he said, and gestured to the medics, who took his cue and hefted the old monk out, Marin Bris clinging to one flagging hand.

Even in the antechamber, though, surrounded by various artifacts of the ancient Cogran peoples, the tremendous song of the young monks presided. To be heard at all, I spoke slower than usual, and ensured each word was especially firm. Sev Franz insisted that the medics be sent out before I went on, but I in turn insisted that Marin Bris stay. After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded, and I surveyed my little audience.

“It’s all over, Brother Yuco,” I said. “But you know that already.”

The dying monk blinked at me, silent at last, but still profusely weeping.

“You can’t mean to accuse him of all this,” said Marin Bris, leaping between us with clenched fists despite her years. I sympathized, but continued speaking directly to the monk.

“You couldn’t kill yourself, too, because you weren’t trying to end the universe—only the caste system here on Cog. You had to make things just fragile enough in the Order to force your fellow Cograns to take stock of their fragilty, and hopefully compel them to distribute the load more equally. To make singing the universe everyone’s job, and so lift the Ang from an oppression the whole practice right now reinforces.”

Marin Bris and Hersh both cast startled glances at Brother Yuco, then me, then him again. “You couldn’t have,” said Marin Bris. “All your friends. Your brothers.”

“He didn’t,” I said. “That’s clear enough from the stills—the inconsistent trajectories of each incinerating shot. They were probably all in on it: the whole Order taking their lives in hope of a better tomorrow, and leaving behind only the oldest, the frailest—”

“—the lowest—” Hersh muttered. I nodded.

“—to shoulder the load until the rest of Cog came to its senses.” I turned again to Brother Yuco, who made what I could only assume was the first grief-sound he’d been able to utter on his own behalf since the whole ordeal began.

“Dear Brother Yuco,” I went on. “In all my years, in all my travels, I wish I could say that such transcendent acts are always enough to change the world, but the efficiency of the upper castes here is its own, fearsome thing. You won’t triumph in this moment—but you and your fallen comrades join a long line of people across the galaxy who at least have tried.”

Now it was Marin Bris’s turn to moan, and fall to her knees, and bury her face over Brother Yuco’s chest while the worn-out old monk—who had all on his own, without pause or reprieve, sung the universe for days now—took his last, ragged breaths.

“This doesn’t surprise you in the slightest, does it?” I turned to see Hersh confronting Sev Franz, who in turn blandly smiled at me.

“It’s as you said, Hersh,” I said. “Different expectations for different castes.” I nodded to our Cogran mediator. “We’ll be filing our report within the day, of course.”

Sev Franz shrugged. “Write whatever you want, but just remember that the Network’s word doesn’t count for much among my people. If your report is made public, though—if this is the view of Cog you release to the system at large, when we’re on the verge of so many new alliances—I will personally ensure that every Cogran knows Brother Yuco went mad and killed his fellow monks. In one fell swoop he’ll go from savior of the universe to deranged nihilist, and his family will live in infamy for the rest of their days.”

Marin Bris threw a cutting word the mediator’s way, but Sev Franz seemed unfazed, even bored. “Do what you need to in private, though, and Cog will forget the unsolved murders in a moon or two, but I guarantee that the legend of Saint Yuco will live on. My people will give thanks and sing praise-songs to his family tree for centuries.”

“Or at least until Cog gives up this nonsense of singing the universe altogether.” I knew this, at least, would annoy him.

Even then, he was quick to obscure his irritation by humming. “You know, Detective Bennett, you keeping mocking my people’s beliefs, but I wonder if you ever reflect on your own. The universe we’ve always known is one we’ve always been told needs song to exist—and lo and behold, there has always been song. Meanwhile, the Spider that brought you here—do you need to know how it works to accept that it does? Or whatever turned you from advanced program to sentient being—do you know precisely where the distinction lies? Are we really so different, you and I?”

His smile told me what he wanted then: the NI mediocrity of I learned something from you, now learn something from me. In this game, I’d parrot his earlier words—say, “I’m not so sure that’s the same…” and affect some AI equivalent of discomfort before adding, “Then again, who am I to say it isn’t?” After, we’d grimly shake hands, equals at the end of a bitter case, and I’d take Hersh with me to the nearest Spider, Marin Bris would wither away, and Sev Franz would go about his business with a renewed lightness in his step.

But I didn’t ape a word of it. Maybe couldn’t. Instead I put Hersh on the next transport, off to his second assignment with what every rookie loves best: an outlandish tale of working for a hard-ass to grease the wheels with new associates. All the better for him, too, that this hard-ass was made of both piss and ’steel: the vast narrative terrain he’d have at his disposal! I almost smiled a naked-chassis smile to see the young shit go.

Strangely, though, it would be whole minutes after my own transport out before I realized what I should have said to Brother Yuco, Marin Bris, and Sev Franz in the temple’s antechamber: that time spent within the Network brought its own, uncontrollable revolutions. That travelers from distant worlds, brimful with distant ideas, would one day topple the caste system where even the most valiant acts of Cogran resistance had failed. That my report, though classified for now, would eventually be released, and Brother Yuco’s true heroism reclaimed then by his people. That one day I would return to bear witness to all of this, and more, and tread upon Sev Franz’s long-obscured or infamous dust.

Or so I hoped—though the very delay in this realization gave me pause, and inclined me towards a service station before putting in for my next assignment. But I suppose even an AI must take great care with repairs if it wants to live long enough to hear the universe sung in just the right moral key. Too much time in stasis, and everything decays.

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Copyright  2015 Maggie Clark

Maggie Clark is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada). To date, her science fiction has appeared in Analog, Bastion, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Lightspeed.

By Nin Harris

Bathsheba took me possessively by the hand once we reached the Roma Street Parklands.

My captress had not needed words or physical restraints to bring me here, even if our journey had been somewhat delayed due to mutual satisfaction. She had unfurled her wings after a night of slow-dancing to an improbable Bollywood-rockabilly mash-up band, and that had been enough.

Afterwards, Bathsheba told me that the Faerie Queen wanted to see me. I followed her like a lamb. If you know anything about me, you’d know how unnatural it was for me to be this docile, even without the supernatural element, or the rope-burns around my wrists and ankles. By then, I was too curious, and perhaps more than a little too smitten to think straight.

We moved past the Lake Precinct where moonlight danced on the surface of the water and onto the sleeping ducks, past the extravagant lilies into the heart of the gardens. Bathsheba’s fingers were smooth and clammy on mine, evoking comparisons with aquatic creatures if they possessed fingers, and were stripped of their scales. During the day, sunlight rippled into elaborately-laced leaves. Myriad petals of exotic hues blended together in clusters of colour and shapes. In moonlight, the plants acquired a different colour palette altogether: blue, silver and sometimes even green.

We entered a narrow, dark passageway that opened out into a clearing where figures congregated, some with glittering wings and neo-Victorian garb, others looking like they had just stepped off the streets of Brisbane. Some of them sat on giant arachnids encased in armour glowing with livid light. The brightest figure was ensconced on a moving throne made of diamonds that irradiated a hard brilliance that assailed the eyes. This throne was pulled by three arachnids.

The brightest one on the throne had a presence that hurt the mind. I could not see her face but I could hear her voice inside my skull. That did not horrify me as much as my business partner’s presence beside her, dressed in a silver kurta and with a band of silver around his high forehead.

“Arjun! You were supposed to be doing the books tonight!”

My words sounded weak, even to me. He looked away, electing not to answer me.

The shimmering woman spoke, “Tuatha De Danaan earrings. Sanskrit Faerie Charms. Unseelie chokers. Rings for Kelpies. Apsara pendants. Egyptian masks for invoking our presence. You dare call yourself the jeweller for the Faeries? You dare claim to be a Faerie-Maker?”

“It…it was just a name, a–”

“Human marketing ploy?” It was impossible to read the expression on the Faerie Queen’s face. Her incandescence was such that she seemed shrouded in the shadows created in my vision by the afterimages of that light. Nor did her mood register in her voice, which remained even and almost reasonable in tone.

I could feel the concentration of her attention upon me. It was an almost constant static at the periphery of all of my senses. It hurt. Arjun’s apparent betrayal should have hurt as much, but our business partnership always had an uneasy quality about it.

We had come together out of a shared grief, but I had never been able to let my guard down. I had ducked every debonair smile, every overture of warmth and togetherness like they were incoming missiles.

The many-faceted eyes of the giant arachnids seemed to be focused on me. They did not scare me as much. The Faerie Queen was a tangible presence in my mind. I somehow managed to force out words, in-between gulps of air.

“No, Your Majesty. It was not merely a ploy. In my heart I always wished I was good enough, wanted to be good enough to create.”

“To make us? Your insolence here is criminal. Dare you suggest that faeries can actually be made?”

Something nagged at me. I have enough street smarts to know when a major defensive was being launched as an offensive. Also, Arjun’s presence by the Faerie Queen’s side was pretty suspicious, considering the fact that he instigated the name for our shared business. His studied indifference to my presence was a little too studied.

Angered, my voice was harsh as I addressed the Faerie Queen, “Do you mean they’re not made, Your Majesty?”

Almost instantly I was surrounded by armoured faeries. One yanked my hair back. Hard, armoured arms grabbed at mine. My ears rang as a backhanded slap threw me off-balance into the grip of other, more careful hands.

“Careful. Your delicious bluntness might result in death. Gilda delights in annihilation. I’d hate that,” Bathsheba murmured.

Her arm locked around my midriff, her breath warming the nape of my neck. I took in a deep breath, ignoring the pain and spoke again, hoping my voice was as level as Gilda’s.

“I could only aspire, as mortals can, to be good enough for mortals who wish to be–”

Here, I paused. I feared what would happen if I were to say the wrong words.

“Like us?” The Faerie Queen’s eyes fixed on mine with an unsettling regard.

“Never like you. Merely to have the hope you exist. Merely to help others believe in you again.”

Her silence had the flavour of scepticism. I didn’t blame her. I found it hard to buy my own words. It was the panic talking, really.

“And did it work, do you think?”

“I don’t know.”

She laughed. The sound was melodious, and not at all threatening. Still, I shivered, because a Faerie Queen was laughing and she was displeased with me.

“Well, that’s honest enough. And it appears to have worked enough to bring us to our new Court.”

I looked around the Roma Street Parklands.

“Here? You’re settling here?”

“Here indeed. So, tell me. Should you go unpunished for your insolence?”

I knew that my advertisement was insolence. There were a lot of faerie businesses around on the internet, and in the flea market circuit, but no one had ever claimed to turn people into faeries.

“Do you wish me to do penance, Your Majesty?”

“Penance? Do I look like a priest to you? I suppose you have fantasies of dying in the act of trying to make the perfect earrings for me. What if I chose to strip from you instead, one of your senses? What if I chose to strip from you, your creativity? Would you like that as much, I wonder.”

I was silent. I could not even begin to process my emotions at her words. I could not think beyond her cruel beauty that threatened to overshadow them. I hated how disempowered I felt. I resented that I was being induced to grovel.

“Your talent is not too bad in the world of humans, but you could hardly imagine you were good enough to engage our interests that way. There are a million little businesses like yours all around the world. There are a million others with similar longings. Did you think you were unique?”

“Well then,” A stubborn part of me made me answer. “If I am so ordinary, why did you call me here?”

“Perhaps it was pity.”

“Pity? Nowhere in the stories–”

The Faerie Queen’s eyes kindled with an indecipherable light. I could not be sure if it was anger or amusement that fueled her words as she spoke​, “Of course, how could we have been so wayward as to disregard the stories? How could we have diverted from the script? We are merciless. We have no comprehension of human feelings like compassion, or love. Or, we are all sweetness and light, the embodiment of good. Naturally, there can never be an in-between.”

A new voice broke in, sounding warm and harsh at the same time. “There’s more than one kind of in-between, Gilda, and not all of them good. Release our kin now!”

The court rustled. Bathsheba released me immediately. We turned towards the sound of approaching feet. The men and women were slick and gorgeous, dressed in a mixture of Romani garb, street fashion and the most gorgeously embroidered kurtas and sarees. Some of them had wings that were rich and gemlike in hue. They looked like they could star in a Tony Gatlif movie, if he ever made a flick about both Romani and desi faeries who looked like they had come from either the set of Dhoom 2 or Om Shanti Om.

They looked badass enough to waste the faeries of Gilda’s court. If I wasn’t so pissed off at her royal sparkly-face, I would have been in heaven right about then. ​How many nights in my teen-hood had I read stories about the faeries and wept bitterly because I was not like them, and could never be like them, because I was too brown, and too queer, and too me? ​I had always felt like a pretender because of my chosen craft​, and Gilda’s faeries had only exacerbated that emotion, a pain far deeper than what had been inflicted by her knights.

I was raised partly Ceylonese Tamil, and wholly Australian, but my Romani grandmother made sure I never forgot my other heritage, long after the rest of my family had. Despite their various disguises, these desi and Romani faeries could have walked straight out of the stories my Nana used to tell me about the Romani equivalent of faerie land. Their presence here made me feel like for the first time in my life, I was alright.

“I did not expect to see you here, Guaril,” the Queen said.

“You’re on my turf, Gilda.”

“Who died and made you Faerie King?”

Guaril laughed and said, “I was already a Roma King, so it wasn’t that big of a leap, Gilda. You’ve landed on my turf. Sorry, not allowed. Brisbane is mine. And this woman is family. Come over here now, Ranjini.”

I turned to look at the man, noting the strong features of his face, and his slicked-back shoulder-length hair, dark, the colour indistinct in the strange half-glow of the Gardens at night. There was something familiar about him. He gave me an indecipherable look.

“Come with us. You shouldn’t be here. It’s late.”

And then I realised where I had seen him before: the follow-up news articles ​concerning the brawl that led to my sister’s death.

I recognized him from the background shots of the crowded gig scenes and the eyewitness​ accounts. He had not been named as a suspect, but something about his face and his glib explanation at the time had stuck in my memory.

I felt Gilda gloating at my rising anger. Her pleasure gave me pause.

“You instigated that fight that killed my sister, didn’t you?” I shot at him.

He shrugged, his eyes fixed on me with a different kind of intensity than earlier displayed by the Queen, “That is a remarkably clever deduction. However, it is rather more involved than that.”

The Faerie Queen’s voice broke into our silent assessment of each other. I felt drawn to Guaril, the kind of pull you feel when something familiar looks at you in a strange place. I could feel anger rising in me as I stared at his face, but his face was so like my Nana’s. The resemblance tugged at me and perplexed me. I stared at him as the Queen spoke to him.

“It almost always is more involved than that, Guaril. But you’re a little too late. I’ve claimed the girl first, and your turf is just Brunswick Street and the Valley. You’re in the Parklands now and we’ve already claimed and consecrated this circle.”

Her voice was finally filled with an emotion I could clearly decipher. She was gloating. I could not help but bristle.

“So, it is war now, is it, Gilda?” Guaril asked in clipped tones.

“War as always, Guaril. Ironically, it was your act of involving her sister that has brought us here. You drew her to us.”

I thought of the earring designs I had made, the ones that had attracted their attention. It was as though something precious, something I had thought was random, whimsical, and even bittersweet had been tainted. For the first time in a decade, my bereavement was replaced by the deep envy and competitiveness which had marked our relationship. My sister always attracted people’s attention first. I would always play second-fiddle, always.

Some of Gilda’s men were moving towards the Romani faeries, switchblades in their hands.​ Bathsheba pulled me away from the battle, pushing me towards the bushes.

“Stay here,” she said before moving to join the battle. I was too dazed to argue.

The faeries fought with a hypnoti​z​ing grace. Soon​,​ I realized that it really was a full-hearted dance and half-hearted fight. They didn’t seem willing to draw blood.

Sometime around f​ive​ o clock, when the sun began to lighten the sky, the fighting shapes became indistinguishable. I don’t remember when I lost consciousness, but I do remember arms reaching out to keep me from falling to the ground.

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I grew up with all the silent resentments stifled by middle children everywhere. Kavitri was the first in every way in our household. She had been the first artist, the first poet, the first one to get wasted, the first one to go all the way with someone. She was the first to make earrings and also the first to die.

Making earrings helped me feel as if I was going somewhere. I didn’t know exactly where or how. But I was doing something. I was giving hope, both to myself and to the people who bought my designs. Perhaps I wanted to create a connection, the same way the earrings that Kavitri had made me that night had bonded us, for one tenuous moment. Amber light seemed to be trapped within the semi-precious stones of those earrings. They were strung together with tiny silver links, and a drooping chain adorned with little silver stars which looped around the ear. The delicate strength of Kavitri’s making filled me with a strange, quivery impulse. At first sight, the imagined light evoked to me how lights would glisten in some fey, otherworldly forest.

“It’s like making earrings for the faeries,” I remembered whispering to myself.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I was born a middle child in a brood of five, I had spent a lot of time on my own. By high school, Kavitri and I had already gone our separate ways, more out of my desire than hers. I never understood those who seem destined to attain celebrity no matter where they were. I suppose they are all Faerie Kings and Queens in their own right. She was always surrounded by people: friends, admirers, fans. Right up until the last week I had with her. I pestered Kavitri to teach me, she promised me she would, the next day. She went out to Fortitude Valley with her entourage.

There was a fight, random, short and violent. Kavitri had never been the sort to stay in the sidelines and watch; she was too much of a hero for that. I don’t really recall much of the details or the cause for the fight; merely that everyone involved was drunk. She wasn’t supposed to die. Internal bleeding. Days spent in the hospital, waiting, praying.

I had her gear: her jewelry making books, her spools of wire, and plenty of cheap stones that she had gathered from flea markets and thrift stores or backpacking vacations to Bali, Bangkok, Samoa, Kuala Lumpur. My first attempts were laughable, but it didn’t take long before the kind of mood, or feeling I wanted to evoke in the earrings caught people’s attention. I began taking requests and commissions.

Arjun, who had been my sister’s boyfriend, persuaded me to open a store at one of the flea markets.​ I ended up doing a circuit on a weekly basis — Eagle Street Pier on one day, Southbank on another, New Farm every two weeks and The Valley most Saturdays. It didn’t leave me for much time for university, so I dropped out. What I really wanted was to be apprenticed to a master jeweler, but at the same time I didn’t want to lose the freedom and autonomy I now had. I put it off.

“The Faerie-Maker” became the tagline for my business, with poster sized stories about how my jewelry transformed us beyond flesh. I have to admit, it was all rather pretentious but it did the job. My customers were of various subcultures, as well as wispy and dreamy bookish types, bohemian grad students and more well-heeled eccentrics who bought my more ornate and expensive pieces. As is usual in faeries stories, my fame got me into trouble.

I can’t deny it was a calculated trouble, even if I could not deal with the actuality of that trouble. Well, would you be able to deal with it? If you’re going to be so bold as to boast that your earrings were made for the otherworld, the otherworld is definitely going to pay attention and interest in you. They never tell you things like this, that maybe that some of the Goth folk frequenting your stalls or eBay auctions are actually the fair folk in disguise. Perhaps I was not as clever as I thought I was, or I would have realized that I was allowing myself to be a pawn.

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Yesterday, the faerie I would later know as Bathsheba had appeared at my booth as late afternoon approached. She was a steam-punk goddess in a striped corset, wearing stylish clockwork inspired jewellery and with her hair done up in elaborate falls. I had briefly admired the fabric of her top hat. Her bare arms and neck had glistened with both good health and some expensive body shimmer. She had picked up some of my newer wire-sculpture earrings, perusing them with a critical eye, before turning her gaze on me. I had my shop-face on, even though I had been ready to close up.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” I asked.

She shook her head and turned to leave, and then said, “Not for tonight, not yet,” with a flirtatious glint in her eyes.

I found myself feeling both threatened and rather invigorated by the brief exchange. I watched her swaying hips as she left. I willed myself to look away.

Moments later, Arjun turned up, bringing with him a masala dosa for both of us. My eyes panned over his face, not really wanting to linger on features, as usual.​

“You doing okay?” He grabbed a paper plate before placing the large dosa filled with spiced potatoes and fresh coriander on the plate.

“I’m fine, just tired,” I had replied, before passing him the knife.

Our conversations have never been really exemplary. I keep my emotions guarded around him. It’s a habit that has never left me, not since the time he went from being my sister’s best friend to being her boyfriend. Arjun’s off-limits; he always was, and he always will be. We split the dosa and the tall cappuccino before discussing the takings for the day. I chose not to tell him about my last customer; the way something about her made the skin between my shoulder-blades crawl. You could say I have trust issues, but he dated my sister a long time, and in all that time, I never felt comfortable with him.

Arjun was strange enough in his own, spaced-out way, but he’d given me enough ideas to help me start my business, even helping with some designs. He’d given me hints along the way, hints that I’d expanded into designs I was proud of. Some days I wondered why he cared, or took too much interest in my affairs, but I thought it was perhaps the fact that we were both grieving and it helped us both get over the death of Kavitri.

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I woke up on my own bed, above the covers, shoes still on. The day after the fight was a blur until mid-afternoon.

I returned to my craft. My jewelry making tools were set out on two long and narrow work tables, along with the wire and wood racks I had made to hang the earrings, pendants and bracelets I created on a daily basis. I had a brief urge to smash everything. Instead, I started picking out tear-shaped moonstones, and tinier bits of lapis. I took out a sheet of paper. I drew patterns on them, patterns that I had seen in books of Egyptian and Romani jewellery.

I took the Egyptian symbol of the lotus, and decided to make a bronze wirework version of it, studded with lapis lazuli. Reverently, I crafted miniatures of the Romani wheel out of copper wire. These were earrings for — not quite myself, nor for faeries, but for something bigger than all of us. Faeries, humans, and the in-betweens like me who could never figure out where they fit in. Lapis in sesen, my own homage to that country that lies beyond death; I wanted so badly to believe in its existence.

You would think that the existence of faeries as I had experienced them last night would have helped me deal with it. But how could the rational mind deal with it? The irrational part of us always hopes for something more but then reason comes, and finds excuses for things. I closed my eyes, grappling with my own ambiguous convictions. It was easier to focus on crafting. This is how artisans cope. We’re always in-between reason and fancy, we need both elements to be good. In the act of creation we find ourselves poised in a perfect borderland.

I worked quickly. I constructed a set out of silver, and then another out of copper wire. I fixed chalcedony beads in the middle of each copper flower, linking them to create a bracelet and choker set. With the silver, I strung little lapis beads, alternating them with flowers I had made out of moonstone. These I turned into earrings and a long necklace. I made copper and bronze rings, measured to fit my own fingers. Finally, satisfied, I stopped working, stretching a little. I was filled with a deep sense of contentment as I hung the new designs up on a rack.

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Dusk was approaching. The light of the dying afternoon silvered the reflections on the Brisbane River. I placed some of the trinkets into the pockets of the windbreaker I wore over a skull-and-bones tank top and black skinny jeans. I slipped the rings I had made onto my fingers, before sliding open the glass doors that led to the balcony. Taking a deep breath, I swung myself over the railings, slowly climbing down the side of the building, landing on the jacaranda tree that just brushed the side of the apartment block.

My feet, encased in running shoes made a soft, crunching sound on the grass around the tree as I landed. I ran the length of Orleigh Street before reaching the tiny West End ferry terminal. There was nothing behind me, not underneath the trees, nor the street lamps apart from random passers-by. Just shadows, I whispered to myself.

Tasting the approach of the shadows, I advanced upon the gangplank as the City Cat glided towards the terminal. It was well-lit inside. Revellers streamed in and out from the Regatta, then North Quay, and then South Bank, the diverse assortment of humans, the mingling of various diasporas almost a lesson in socio-economics. I suppose I blended in. I had ambiguous features.

My facial piercings and tattooed arms made it easier for people to focus on my obvious subculture and orientation rather than on my ethnicity. I’d been mistaken for various identities because of my tanned mocha skin, but I spoke in a distinctive Queensland accent. I was pensive as I fingered the wheel charms, thinking of the Romani culture we’d left behind.

Finally, I got out at the New Farm Parklands. I was heading into the territory of the Brunswick Street Gang and their King. I wanted answers. I craved them, even if they came at the cost of annihilation. But it was more than that. It was a call, a pull, a memory of my grandmother. I had nothing of her, nothing to keep me warm, and nothing tangible of my Romani heritage that I could hold on to except for the crafted Romani wheel charms which dangled from the sesen bracelets around my wrists making me wince every time they nudged against the rope burns that were Bathsheba’s gift to me.

The autumn wind shivered my skin, making little patterns. I cut across the park and reached the open road.

A sleek limousine was parked there, reflecting the dull orange of the streetlights. Guaril, and his band of faeries were leaning against it, their conversation intense. They were dressed in black, obviously outfitted for battle. A broad grin broke across Guaril’s lean features as I approached.

“No need to gloat,” I dripped the sour tones of the resigned, and my words were pre-emptive. “I came here to meet you before Gilda’s people got me.”

“And that is not a reason for gloating? Clearly, you’ve chosen us! Come on then, your ignoble chariot awaits you,” he said with an ironic flourish.

“Hah! It looks like a hearse. Let’s get this clear — I’m only coming with you because I want answers.”

Guaril’s teeth flashed in the partially-illuminated gloom of the Parklands.

“Good enough, brave one. Come along, then.”

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Guaril was sucking on a clove cigarette while Tom Waits rasped his way to oblivion on the limousine’s built-in sound system. The Roma King’s hair was slicked back and he wore golden rings on his fingers. He looked vaguely like a cross between a younger Nick Cave before he lost his mane, and Shah Rukh Khan. I eyed the various galbi hanging around his neck with covetous greed — I cannot stop being a jewelery-maker, apparently. My fingers clutched the sesen earring I had been crafting a few hours earlier, sculpted out of copper wire that wrapped glittering lapis lazuli.

“Go ahead, ask it, you know you want to,” Guaril said.

“If you already know what I want to ask, why don’t you just say it?”

“Heh. That’s what I like about you. You’ve got the fight in you.”

“Every middle child has that somewhere inside her,” I replied before I asked. “Why did you kill my sister?”

His eyes were sombre as he trained them on me.

“I didn’t.”

“You instigated that fight.”

“That’s just something I do. Kavitri knew what was happening. She knew it was the only way.”

“The only way for what?” I asked. My eyes were hard upon him. He mumbled something, and looked slightly less bad-ass. Guilt was on his face, and the realisation hit me. Of course. Arjun. A stupid love-triangle. Hah!

I was on the other seat before my brain finished processing that information. My angry brown fists pummelled him as I screamed in his face, “When you like a girl you don’t get her killed so you can be together forever! The fuck is this? You listen to way too many Nick Cave songs? She was my sister!”

I cut his lip, probably with one of my rings. That made me feel good a split-second before I started feeling bad.

“That honestly was not what happened, Ranjini. Do you think I’m some kind of sicko creep? Also, you swear too much.”

“Do you blame me?”

“Not at all, but there’s a time and a place for cussing. But I’m not going to go all big brother on you. Too late for that, anyway. You’re all grown up.”

I threw him a look. His lip was still bleeding. I didn’t have the heart to sass him.

“You didn’t kill her, then.”

“No, but I was responsible all the same, there’s no excusing that,” he said finally, with a sigh.

I could think of nothing else to say to that, the pain in his eyes was almost embarrassing in its intensity. Fortunately, he changed the subject. With his eyes intent on me, he asked,

“What made you choose the title of Faerie-Maker?”

“I inversed ‘Making Earrings for Faeries’ to ‘Making Faeries for Earrings’. It was just meant to be cheeky wordplay. How was I to know faeries could actually be made?”

Guaril pursed his lips. “Did Arjun have anything to do with it?” He asked while grabbing ice from the mini-bar. I watched him drop cubes into his handkerchief.

My eyes fixed on his hand that clutched the makeshift ice-pack. It was easier than looking at his face. “Well, he was the one who suggested we take one step from the inversion to ‘The Faerie-Maker’. He made the posters too.”

He started applying the ice to his swollen lip. His words, as he nursed himself were somewhat distorted but still legible. “I want your help. But you also need protection, and you’re family. Gilda’s the one you should worry about. We’re used to you.”

After my fury wore off, I realised I had hit a man who had not resisted my attacks at all. I covered up belated remorse with a customary glare.

“I don’t think I can trust either one of you. What do you both want with me anyway? It’s not like I knew. And what does Arjun have to do with this? Next you’ll be telling me he’s faerie too.”

“Arjun is another strange thing, altogether. But he is not a faerie yet, to his dismay. As for you, you’re not just any mortal with fancy wordplay. You’re Kavitri’s sister.”

“Fuck that. I haven’t been a fucking middle child in a very long time. I’m Ranjini. I’m me. And I’m a damn good artisan. Better than she ever was.”

Guaril applied the ice to his lips. I don’t understand this whole Faerie deal yet. How is it that a Faerie can be bruised, anyway?

“I wasn’t trying to put you down. It’s a fact. Kavitri’s one of those humans ripe to lead their own court. You see them everywhere. And there‘s no shame in being a sister or someone who comes after the fact. There‘s no shame in being the middle child.”

“Save me the platitudes. You‘re talking about bloody socialites. High school goddesses. Fucking poseurs the lot of them.”

“Correct, but your sister had all that and something else. You know she’s no poseur. You know what it is, don’t you?”

I stared at him as the street lights outside pick up the inhuman luminescence of his skin and the look in his eyes. I considered my next words with some care, “The inner core of goodness inside her?”

His hands smoothed the creases of his jacket in a nervous movement. His face turned away from me, the shadows exposing only the swoop of his left cheek and the movement of his throat as he gulped down air.

“She and you both belong with us, Ranjini. You should be with our band.”

I shook my head, not wanting to hear more. “I just want to see my sister!”

“We’re almost there,” His voice was reassuring.

It was as though we were never antagonists. Outside, the street lights illuminate the quieter part of Toowong. The hearse drove past colonial-age Queenslanders and fig trees that cast shadows on the road. When we got out of the car I discovered that we were at her burial plot at the Toowong Cemetery near Mount Coot-tha.

It was the day we buried her all over again. I had started to hope that somehow she was still alive, that we could talk. That I could tell her all the things I had not told her because I resented being the middle sister. But I guess dead’s dead. What right did I have to hope, anyway?

“You can try now, Ranjini.”

“Try what? She’s dead.”

“She was to be a Faerie Queen. And you’re the Faerie-Maker.”

“Advertising jargon you stupid piece of …,”

“Language please, Ranjini. And it’s not about the advertising, it’s about hope.”

His eyes were so incredibly kind that I ceased my half-hearted diatribe. “That’s what you’re after? Hope?”

He twitched, his head hanging in a position I’d identified as bad-ass but now looked like a kind of defensive guilt. I had to ask, even though I already knew.

“What really happened that night?”

“Arjun found out about us. It was an accident, really. Kavitri was trying to stop stuff from getting bad. She knew we weren’t exactly human. Then, she died. I’m sorry.”

I shrugged at his apology, asking, “How’d you get turned into a Faerie?”

“I don’t really know. It’s a mystery to me — to all of us. We become corporeal after the sun sets, so I know we’re not ghosts. The process of becoming Faerie however, I don’t know too much about that.”

“You guys think have the answer? Because I’m Kavitri’s sister? She’s dead. Doesn’t that answer your question?”

“No, she’s not supposed to be dead. Gilda and the rest believe that Kavitri has something to do with why I’m the Faerie King here.”

“They think she’s this supposed Faerie-Maker?”

“A Faerie-Maker. Descended from other Faerie-Makers. It is an otherworldly gift, but every family has its tradition, even those who have forgotten theirs.” He threw me a thoughtful look. I looked away, blinking rapidly as I asked,

“How can humans be Faerie-Makers?”

“You tell me. You sell stories, and dreams, but you still can’t see? Arjun’s job was to watch over Kavitri. My job was to protect her. We’re very distant cousins. You’re Romani, but your mother didn’t want to have anything more to do with us. She raised you all as Australians. She wanted you assimilated into the dominant culture and successful.”

I shook my head. My feelings for my mother’s choices were not something I felt like discussing.

“Did Kavitri know what Arjun was doing?”

“Only towards the later part. Arjun’s working for Gilda. Kavitri was supposed to be the one to pull Gilda here. But she died. So he got you instead.”

“This does not stop the fact that she’s dead. Nothing we do is going to bring my sister back, Guaril.”

“We can try, Ranjini. Is there nothing that you can think of that will work?”

I frowned, but took out the remaining wheel-and-lotus jewellery from my pocket. His eyes were appreciative but sceptical as he fingered the Romani wheels, and the delicate lotuses.

“That’s beautiful, Ranjini. But I’m not sure that is what we’re looking for.”

divider

The air and atmosphere around us seemed to condense. It was the same quality of reality shifting, the same sudden fear that filled me back at West End. I know well enough now to know that the feeling should be associated with Gilda’s court. Bathsheba was present, a top hat on her ringlets, and a monocle that intensified the effect of her gaze upon me.

Gilda shone in that kind of way that will always hurt the eyes and the fibre of your being. I looked away from her and at Bathsheba, who winked. I tried not to be too interested in the look she was throwing me.

“Come over here now, Ranjini. You belong to my court.”

“I do not.”

“Do as she says, Ranjini.” Arjun’s voice startled and hurt me. His eyes assessed me with calculation. His presence felt like a wound inside me.

“No. If I have to cast my luck with either of you goons, I would rather cast my luck with the home team,” I moved closer towards Guaril as I spoke.

“Too late. You already pledged yourself last night,” rasped Gilda’s voice inside my head. I did not give in. I can be mulish.

“Did not, that was coercion, intimidation.” I stare all of them down.

“Deal was forged.” She sounded annoyed. Each word was a baby migraine in my skull.

“Was not, I said no words.” I shot back.

“Your thoughts did.”

This sounded almost petulant. I could not help myself, I laughed. “You know, that’s all very nice but I know you’re bluffing. I didn’t just build a business around creating faerie jewelry without doing extensive research. Compacts between faeries and humans cannot exist without some form of binding oral or written manifestation.”

I could tell even before I finished speaking that Gilda had given up trying to persuade me. And so, when she finally said, “Fine that. Arjun, grab her,” I was already behind Guaril’s people, who lunged forward with switchblades.

Guaril was in the thick of the battle, duking it out with Arjun. Urgency hit me, along with sadness, and a strange, preternatural awareness.

This was probably a recreation of how it was before Kavitri flung herself in-between them to protect Guaril. This awareness crystallized into a certainty. This was how it had happened.

Perhaps I had known it all along, had known from Arjun’s silences and his evasions when asked about that night. Perhaps it was evident from Guaril’s embarrassed reticence on the matter.

“Was he really worth it, Kavitri?” I asked the tense air. Seriously Kavitri, is any man worth dying for?

The awareness of what was required of me was ridiculous. I entered the fray, dodging fists and switchblades, getting wounded in the process. I pushed myself in-between Arjun and Guaril. Arjun’s switchblade raised itself in an arc above me. I was not going to die, just like Kavitri had died. I was just going to push one motherfucker to the right, like so. And trip the other motherfucker to the left, like so.

Later, I would marvel at how fast I moved and how mean I was able to be. My feeling of triumph was almost holy. So holy, that it felt like the air was thickening. Sounds seemed to magnify. Everything seemed clearer, and more beautiful.

I clutched my jewelery, the everyday magic I had crafted with wishes and callused hands. I closed my eyes. Unbidden, the song pulled its way out of the deep soil of memory in my head. I didn’t sing it, but I could hear every note in my head despite the mannered violence around me. Bless the propensity for earworms. Sometimes they can be a blessing instead of a curse.

No, I can’t recreate it for you, it’s in Romani and I’ve known it all my life. About the only Romani thing I have that my Nana taught me. It makes me feel a bit like a fraud, trying to stake a claim on a culture on the strength of a song — given that most of my inherited culture has everything to do with Bollywood and nothing to do with Romani lore. But I have something else too. I have desperate hope. And I have my craft. Every artist believes that a piece of magic, of something bigger than themselves is imbued in their work. I am stillness. I am the song inside my head that is a memory of a woman who loved me best.

Reality slowed down. A very different scene, one from the past, opened in the middle of the fight. From the threshold between our worlds, I saw vardos from several generations back, along with some campervans. The music that reached us from within was the same music in my head. The music led me back not just to the Romani drom, but to that great intersection between my inherited cultures.

I walked closer towards the threshold towards my Nana. Her face was unchanged since the last time I saw her healthy, way back in the 1990s. Kavitri stood beside her. Both of them peered at me with some surprise. If I could reach through, I could pull her back — if I could pull her back, she would be an in-between too. Faeries are in-betweens. Like artisans. We knew about the in-between. We created them.

As I reached into the doorway, Kavitri looked straight at me, smiling, and shaking her head. It was a familiar gesture, it sufficed for comprehension.

She didn’t want to be an in-between. She was happier there. Everyone seemed so happy. Longing drew me closer to the threshold, but before I could do a thing, reality stopped being thick and gooey, and I was bereft again.

divider

Day breaks and a cock crows, somewhere out there in a Toowong garden. Right on cue, the faeries are gone. Sunlight slowly creeps its way out as the kookaburras compete with the crickets.

All that is left is me and Arjun.

“You killed my sister, you motherfucker.” My voice is weary, my epithet half-hearted. Arjun’s face is scratched and bloody. I feel smug that he no longer looks precisely like Hrithik Roshan. Perhaps Kavitri is laughing somewhere. He shrugs at me.

“It was an accident,” he says, evasive as he has always been.

My words are clipped, but soft, as though I have been screaming for hours. Rage is exhausting. “Doesn’t change the fact that it was your knife and you didn’t even bother to tell me. You used me and her.”

“Would telling you bring her back, or would it have caused even more pain?” He tried to come closer to me. I look at his face. My eyes don’t avert when I look at him anymore. My gaze on him is fixed, and hard.

“The fuck you care. You used me.”

“Gilda said she could teach you how to bring her back,” he says.

“She doesn’t want to come back, Arjun. She doesn’t want to be an in-between.”

He looks at me now, and says softly. “I know, Ranjini. I know.” He gives me a look, the look of someone who wants to be understood. I do not think he deserves that luxury.

I do not answer him. I turn my back on him and walk out of the cemetery. The battle is not over. The gangs will fight again when night falls.

And I think my business partnership has just dissolved. I do not know if I want to be anywhere around here when the fighting resumes but I also know that Guaril will be looking for me again. I am the Faerie-Maker after all. But perhaps, more importantly, I am family.

 

___
Copyright 2015 Nin Harris

Nin Harris is a Malaysian poet, writer and Gothic scholar.  Nin writes Gothic fiction,  cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances and various other hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include: The Harrow, Jabberwocky 3, Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons,  Lackington’s Magazine, and Alphabet of Embers. Nin is also the founding editor of Delinquent’s Spice & Truancy.

By Mark Pantoja

People most in need, need the most help, my father used to say. That’s what I thought when I saw the Corporate bleeding on my porch that night. I gave it a soft kick. It didn’t move, just lay broken in the firelight coming through my front door. But something moved inside the wound in its something. Way down inside. A tree root. It shied away from the light and dug itself deeper into the Corporate’s meat. Marija and Cadia stood on either side of the body they’d dragged up onto my porch from the forest.

“Alive?” I said though I knew it probably was. I’d grown up listening to the oldtimers’ stories about fighting the Corporates. Father used to tell me and Milio stories about the Corporates running into oncoming fire as they jumped off their dropships. Said they wouldn’t go down so easy and had to shoot off their arms and legs. And still they’d try to bite you if you got too close.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “It breathes.” She knelt down next to the offworlder. Watery blood seeped out from cracks in the armor. It smelled like moist, like meat. Marija pulled the Corp’s face-plate up. She put her crystal-faced watch near the soldier’s nose. It huffed up, ever so little, but it huffed up.

“See?” Marija said.

“Ayo,” I said. I got down close and looked at the root. It had twisted itself into an overhand knot. Which was no good. They’re covered in a thick mucus and once they worked themselves into an overhand knot it was just about impossible to get a grip on them. “Why bring this to me?”

Marija and Cadia looked at each other and then Cadia said, “It told us if we helped it–”

“You spoke to it?” I said.

“Ayo,” Cadia said.

I shook my head. “What about? A reward? How you going to spend it after the hill boys string you up once they hear you’re rich? You think they won’t notice?”

“We can take it back,” Marija said. “Leave it in the forest. The trees will eat it.”

“Use your head, Marija,” I said. “You say you talked to it? It knows what you look like? What happens if the boys find it and it starts talking about you? Or worse, it survives. Then, what, it’ll come after you for breach of contract, take everything you own.”

“They already have everything I own,” Marija said.

“Then it’ll bury your whole family in debt.” I chewed my bottom lip.

Right then, I had to assume everybody knew. About Marija and Cadia and the Corporate and them bringing it to my shack. Killing it wouldn’t stop the hill boys from stringing us up. Not bringing it to the boys first was a death sentence, especially for me. No way my brother Milio could let a traitorous sister live.

And if the Corporation knew we had it, killing it now would damn us all to generations of debt and servitude for destruction of stolen property. The only move we had was to cut a deal that would protect us. And for that, we needed it to keep breathing.

“We have to save it,” I said. “So let’s drown out that root.”

I pulled the big tub out into the center of my shack.

My place was pretty small, but it was mine. That and the ten acres of land that I managed to hold on to. The Corporation took most of the rest after the banks collapsed, along with the tractors and robots. Just a humble little shack. Fireplace, kerosene stove, and loft bed. The fireplace is for burning trash and fuel-logs the Land Trust doles out during winter.

Marija hefted the Corporate up and inside the tub.

It was small. Looked like a child in her arms, but for its tactical armor.

Marija was strong from years in the middens and quarries with nothing but pick-ax and shovel to mine pot-coal. And she’d taken on the look of her work. Thick neck, round shoulders, swollen arms. She could bust open as many seams of pot-coal as a man. And on days when she wasn’t hung over, she could bust more. But those days were rare.

There was not time to heat the water, so it was a cold bath for the Corporate. Figured that was the least of its worries. Plus, fuck it. Save it we might, but no reason to make it comfortable. We rinsed it of blood and mud and grime and then filled the tub with salted-water, you know, to clean the wound some.

Cadia cradled the Soldier’s head from the water. It was murky, but I could see little stalks start to rise out of the wound, reaching for the surface and fresh air. I snipped them with a pair of garden shears.

A dark lazy cloud of blood billowed out of the wound. I couldn’t really see anything so I just chopped up the water with the shears. Then the root unfurled itself and extended its main body out of the water. It was still anchored in the Corporate. I grabbed it with a pair of tongs but it thrashed and pulled the tongs into the water.

“Shit!” I said. “It’s gonna go back inside!”

Then Marija just grabbed it.

She got a good grip, and she squeezed it tight in her hand, thick slime squirting out from between her fingers. It shot out all of its needley stalks at once, turning Marija’s hand into a pin cushion.

She held still.

“Cut it,” she said in a flat voice, like it was no big deal.

I cut the root in half with the shears and blood-sap sprayed into the water.

Marija calmly got up and walked to the fire with the root embedded in her hand.

I turned back what was left inside and saw a few more stalks poke out of the water and snipped them. After a few seconds the other half of the root floated up to the surface. I splashed it out of the tub and Cadia stomped it.

I heard hissing and saw Marija at the fire place holding a bloody knife. Her hand was crimson, but empty and the root lay sizzling in the fire.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Ayo,” Marija said.

Cadia drained the tub, letting the water pour through the slatted floor, while I cleaned and dressed Marija’s hand.

After I was done she kept her hand raised up in the air.

“Nobody saw us,” she said. “We brought her the long way.”

“I think it’s a he,” Cadia said.

“Oh, yeah?” I said. “That what you think?” I went over to the Corporate and yanked open the front of its cod-piece. We all looked inside.

Marija swore and said: “I told you it was a girl.”

“That look like a girl to you?” I said. Where there’s usually genitalia there was nothing. Just a smooth mound with a tiny little pee-hole. No rod, no slit, nothing. “They ain’t like us. They ain’t man or woman. They ain’t human. They’re their own thing.”

“They really don’t have sex,” Marija said, as if this was the first she’d heard of this.

“Some do,” I said. “but not these. These birth in crèche-batches.” Each Corporation had their own propriety reproductive strategy, you know, to retain market share. DynaStar, Instlr, was one giant species spread out across the stars.

“Craziest thing I ever seen,” Cadia said. She was young. It’s crazy, don’t get me wrong, but not the craziest.

After all that, I needed a smoke. I retrieved my father’s pipe box from the shelf and sat down at my kitchen table (my only table) and opened it. Father had intended for Milio to have the pipe, but he wasn’t around when father died. He’d run off with a bunch of the other boys to act hero and get himself killed fighting the Corporates. So it was mine. I earned it. Just like the farm. I took care of it. It was mine.

I rubbed the pipe in the firelight. It was made of wood and ivory and polished warm from years of use. Course it wasn’t real ivory. Nor was it real wood. That’d be crazy expensive. All the real earth wood was grown in greenhouse forests run by Arbory, for terraforming. Rich folks got to use the “bad” wood that’s culled annually for houses and art and the like. Everyone else got to use local stone, mud, or cheap plastic.

That pipe was all native. The “wood” was bark-flesh, culled from the native forests while they slept, a desiccated keratinized flesh you could carve. The ivory was bone dug out of the forest middens, where the local trees deposited their refuse, bones and fur and teeth of small prey that wandered into their hungry branches. All the trees in an area deposited in the same midden for centuries.

“There’s no reward,” I said. “What you made with that thing was a contract. That’s how they do things. If you don’t follow through, you’ll be in breach. So, what did you agree to?”

“Well,” Marija said. “We didn’t get that far. Just said we would help, for a reward.”

I packed the pipe and lit it. I puffed it until it got going.

“Well,” I said. “Hopefully, that means the terms are negotiable. You sure no one saw you?”

Marija shook her head. “No one saw us.”

“Might could track you.”

“Track us?” Marija said with a laugh. It was true, she had good forest-feet. Her and Cadia both. Not like me and Milio, though. Father raised us as forest-kin. We could walk through a grimly.

“Exactly how was it you came across it?”

Cadia looked down. “I was out mushroom hunting.”

“Mushroom hunting?” I said. “Now? With the fighting and the forest agitated, you decide that now was a good time to go hunting for mushies?”

She didn’t respond. She was a kid. She’d snuck out to see the fighting. The hill boys had shot down a Corporate transport last night and were hunting down survivors.

I puffed my pipe and said: “They’re coming, mind you. It’s people. Have to deal with the boy’s rocket nests, but they’re coming. Probably carpet bomb the hills, then swarm in. But that ain’t happening for a few days. Maybe a week.” Took a puff. “You gotta trade with their kind. That’s the only way. They are their word, though they have forked tongues. There ain’t no reward, there ain’t no shares for this. Just survival. Ours. Get it to its people and out of our hair. That’s it. You better pray it survives and will trade.”

“We’ll trade,” said a thin voice from the tub. The Corporate had opened its glassy eyes and stared at us with its head lolled off to the side.

Marija stepped forward, knife at the ready.

“What, now you’re going to kill it?” I said. Marija looked at the knife, like she didn’t even know she held it. “Let’s hear it’s offer.”

“We can offer up to an equivalent of our own value.”

“And what is your value?” I said.

“Well, that remains negotiable,” it said with a bloody smile.

divider

You know the one about the farmer?

There’s this farmer, see, old coot, been working the land his whole life. One day this Corporate walks up and says, “Hey there! We want to buy all your goods!” Soy, corn, extract gluten, they want it all. The farmer, he’s old school, Trusty, doesn’t deal with Corporates. He says to it: “The only thing I’ll sell to you is my shit.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Agreed. But you can only sell to us and we want all your shit from here on out.” They offer the farmer one Point per shit. Farmer takes two to three shits a day, so he agrees. Easy money. He laughs every time he’s on the pot. All he has to do is put his droppings into little boxes the Corporation sends him. At first, it all works out great. Farmer puts each shit in a box and then he starts to think, you know, it doesn’t matter how big each dump is, a dump is a dump, so he puts one shit in two boxes and so on. You know, as one would. Then one day, in the middle of the hotmonths, the Corporation stops coming by to pick up the shits. Now, it’s like record heat those months and those little boxes they’re made of paper, so the farmer’s dumps start to stink up real bad. He calls the Corporation, no answer. So he tosses his dumps. Very next day, the Corporation shows up and starts going through the farmer’s shit. Audits his shit and find there’s shit missing. “Where’s the shit?” they ask. Farmer explains, “Hey, you didn’t pick up my shit, it started stinking, what am I supposed to do?” Corporate explains, as per the contract, that shit is their shit as soon as it leaves the farmer’s ass. There’s an accounting and farmer comes out owning a few Points. Sure enough the next week, nobody shows up to pick up his shit. He calls, he writes, he complains, but he knows better to throw his shit out cause it’s not his shit anymore, it’s their shit. Finally, the original Corporate shows up, the one the farmer dealt with the first time, and the farmer says to it: “Finally, you’re here. This place stinks! Take your shit outta here.” Corporate says to the farmer: “Well, now, that was never our contract. We said we’d buy your shit, but we never promised to pick it up.” The farmer screams. “What? Are you crazy? You gotta get this shit outta here.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Sure. We’ll haul your shit. For three Points per shit.”

That’s what I was thinking about when we were negotiating with the Corporate. It’s name was Gee En Three Dash Seven Dot El Kay Oh, Mid Level, Acquisitions Field Team. I called it Gen.

“Well, there’s real and actual value,” it said. It was trying to downplay what it was worth, of course. “Really, we have an opportunity to structure an earn-out, because your perceived valued is probably higher than the buyer’s budget.” It paused and caught its breath. Ironically, our oxygen rich air was harder for offworlders to breath. The extra oxygen and pressure actually made it harder for air to get into the blood and caused fluid to build in the lungs. Long ago, our ancestors tweaked themselves to breath the air. “Specifically,” the Corporate continued, “DynaStar Interstellar has an exact accounting of our worth–”

“What are you offering us to not kill you?” I said and puffed my pipe.

It smiled.

“See, now, that’s just not true,” it said. “You can’t kill us. Our people already know we’re here, that you’re helping us. Through our uplink.” It tapped the side of its head.

“Now, that’s just not true,” I said. “I know the boys can track you by your uplink. You wouldn’t be stupid enough to have it on right now.”

“Very smart,” it said. “Yes, and by boys we take it you mean the terrorists?”

“Trusties,” I said.

“Separatists,” Gen said, with a diplomatic tone. “It’s true, they can track us via the uplink, so we run black when we’re down here.”

“So then no one knows you’re here,” Marija said.

“Not exactly. See, when we die, we send out an emergency beacon, automatically. Since we haven’t released our final transmission our people know we’re still alive. And in the area. But kill us and they’ll know exactly where we’re at.”

No one said anything, just took this in.

“So, let’s not pretend anyone is killing anybody. You’ve already saved us, you’ve invested in us, why not see a return?”

“The only return you can offer us is privacy,” I said. “We can’t ever spend any money you give us.” I glanced over at Cadia. “The only thing you can do is keep our names, descriptions, locations, all personal information out of your Corporate databases. Forget about us.”

“Our mind is an extension of all–”

“Yeah, I know, I’ve heard that before. But you all have secrecy clauses. I know that.”

It thought for a moment. Data mining was a lucrative market for DynaStar. Hell, it could sell our names to the Land Trust or blackmail us. But if I could get it to promise us we would remain anonymous, we might be safe. “Agreed,” it said. “So, then you’ll hide us until our people–”

“No can do,” I said. “The hill boys are going to want every body that was on that transport. Living or dead. It’s only a matter of time before they start searching houses.”

“If we can contact our people safely, we can protect you,” the Corporate said.

“And what happens after you leave?”

“We can offer to move you to StarCity, get you employment in the Corporation–”

“Gen, friend, listen close. You ever suggest me or any of us joining up with your Corporation again, I’ll have Marija over there open up your stomach and I fill it with roots myself, emergency beacon or no.”

“It was only a suggest–”

“I’m an independent settler. My father was a member of the Land Trust. My mother, she was third generation settler. Her grandmother was in the original Landing Party and came here aboard the Esperanxa. I’ve fought your kind for years holding on to this miserable piece of dirt. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Understood,” Gen said.

It didn’t go unnoticed by me that Cadia perked up a bit at the suggestion of working for DynaStar, Instlr. Her family had lost everything. The only bright future that remained for some was working for the Corporations. They had all the nice things. They traveled the stars, which was glamorous to some. I didn’t get it though. Working for them was enslavement. Debt and wage enslavement. The only bright future I could see was kicking DynaStar off our miserable little mud-ball and back into the cold dark where they came.

“So, where does that leave us?” the Corporate asked.

I puffed my pipe and then said, “We kill you, we die. We stay here, we die. We only got one option. Get you to your people.”

“Where’s that?” Cadia said.

“There’s a Franchise office in Bug River Creek, three valleys east,” Marija said. “Get there in five days.”

“Then that’s where we’ll head,” I said. I looked at the Corporate. It nodded.

“Agreed,” it said. “Now, do you think one of you could help sew us up?”

People say all sorts of stuff about Corporates. Most of it superstitious lies, like they eat excrement or they’re telepathic or they bathe by licking each other. Anything to make them seem like boogeymen. They don’t seem to help it much cause they don’t ever deny anything.

Truth is they are different. Like how even deeply wounded Gen could walk around like nothing was wrong. Or its total lack of modesty. When we helped out of the tub and its broken armor, it didn’t even ask for anything to cover up, despite the chill.

It had an elfin little body. That’s the word for it. Elfin. It was thin and graceful and totally without gender. Flat chest and long neck and squarish hips. It moved delicately, but with precision.

It lay down and allowed Cadia to sew it up. It didn’t complain or even wince.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I said as Cadia finished up.

“Of course,” it said.

“Doesn’t seem to slow you down any.”

“We’re just like you,” it said. “Only we compartmentalize better. The pain and the bleeding. Box it up, put it in the back of my mind. You wouldn’t have anything to eat, would you?”

And by anything, it meant anything. Fruit, nuts, rinds, yesterday’s chicken bones. It even asked for uncooked rice and raw flour. I gave it what I could. Wanted to see if it would really eat the flour. It did, licking its fingers clean.

“We leave first thing,” I said after giving it some farming clothes and a blanket for the corner near the fire.

“Understood,” it said, taking a pause between monster chugs of water.

“You’ll be ready?”

“We’ll have to be.”

I left it alone in the corner but gave Marija a little nod. She was on first watch. Last we thing we needed was for Gen to stumble out or run off and get caught and blab about our deal.

I sat at the table next to Cadia. “You round up all its stuff. Everything. Armor, clothes, anything you might have kept. You get all that stuff together and you take it and dump it in the forest on the other side of the hamlet. Take the long way, through the trees, past the Ruas’ farm. But be careful. Forest is agitated. I can hear it.”

She nodded.

“Now go. And get back here quick. Don’t let anyone see you.”

She started to gather up the bits of armor and plating.

“And, Cadia. No souvenirs.” She nodded and walked into the night.

divider

He smoked the same pipe-weed as father. And me. And I caught him on the wind as I was out back dumping breakfast scraps in the composter behind my shack.

When I got back round to the front my brother and three other hill boys were walking up to the porch. Milio stopped at the first step and the boys flanked out.

They were grubby, dirty, dressed in rags and tree leather. One of the boys rested the butt of his rifle on his hip.

The hill boys were a group of self-appointed militia. A gang, really, of young and old, men and women, the desperate and angry left in the wake of economic collapse of the takeover. They had nothing, no land, no money, nothing to lose.

Milio pulled his pipe out of his mouth and said, “Morning, Ro.” He smiled, but there was nothing behind it, nothing warm about him. He was wild, always was, eager to pull out his knife and stick someone.

I looked up and around, at the gray overcast sky, sun blocked by a heavy algae cloud. I made sure to drop the compost bucket with a bang and say a bit loudly: “What’s so good about it?”

“Didn’t say there was anything good about it,” Milio said. “Just said ‘morning.'”

“What do you want, Milio?” I asked.

“What? I can’t come and say ‘hi’ to my sister?”

“You were never the sentimental type.”

“Ha,” he said and looked down. Ground his boot into the grit on the step. “That’s true. Never was. I came to see what you heard.”

“About?”

“Bout the fighting down in the valley night before last.”

“Heard you shot down a transport.”

“Ayo, we did. We did at that. That all you heard?”

“Ayo,” I said.

“Didn’t hear anything else, like about someone helping out a survivor, a Corporate?”

“Nope,” I said.

“Just running the farm,” Milio said. “Just like pop, huh. Mind your own business, stay out of the fight.”

“Is there something you want?” I said.

“Idiots were flying so low, we had to shoot them down. Killed most onboard. Few got away, ran into the trees.” He chuckled. “Fools. Found most of them, or what was left of them. But one of them managed to make it out. We tracked it for a while and then boom, gone.”

“Guess they’re getting tricky.”

“It wasn’t a trick. Someone helped it. At least two of them, we think. They covered their tracks. Did a good job. Just not good enough.”

I was quiet, but inside I cursed Marija. Fucking Marija. She’s never as cautious as she thinks. Big galoot.

“You came here to tell me you lost the trail?”

“No, big sister. We didn’t lose the shiteater. It’s in this valley somewhere.”

“And you think I helped it? After everything they’ve done?”

“No. At least, I hope not. It’s just, people around here they look up to you. Come to you for advice. Maybe you heard something.”

“Nope,” I said. “Haven’t heard a thing. Been here all night. Marija and Cadia, too.”

“Marija and Cadia–” Milio cut himself off.

“We ain’t seen a thing. Ask them.” I opened the door and looked in. Marija and Cadia were both at the table, like they were in the middle of a conversation. I looked, but the Corporate out of sight. Those two had squirreled it away under the plastic floor slats. They came out onto the porch.

“You all’ve been here all night?” Milio said.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “We come to help Ro with her run.” That was the story we rehearsed.

Milio chewed his pipe and then spat. “What run?”

“Monthly run,” I said. “Seed, grain, fertilizer starter kit. Gotta get the soil ready. You forget how to farm?”

“So, then, you won’t mind if we take a look around?” Milio said. One of his boys, the scrawny one dressed leaf-skin gave an “ayo,” of impatience.

“I do mind,” I said, trying to sound merely annoyed. “I don’t have the time.”

“We’ll just be a second, sis.”

“I don’t think so. You got no right coming here after all this time. I stayed and I looked after the place, I get to say who comes in to my house.”

“I think I might have to insist.” He put his palm on the butt of his pistol and took a step up. One step away from me.

That’s why he was really there. To bully. That’s why he joined up with the hill boys in the first place. He was the same angry little boy with a hot temper and no control. So I had to treat him just like I did when we were little.

I head butted him. Right on the bridge of his nose.

He shrieked and his hands flew to his face. I took a step back and push-kicked him square in the gut. He sailed back and landed on his ass hard, in the mud. He crabwalked backwards and then got to his feet.

The boys guffawed.

He held the bridge of his nose. “Damn you, Ro,” he said. He was all clogged up and his voice muffled and thick. Father taught me a word for that: stomatolalia. Don’t get to use that much.

“I came to warn, you,” Milio said. “The trees are waking. The Corps woke a grimly.”

“Please. You come to play big man in front of your boys.”

He stared at me while the boys chuckled.

Then I saw his eyes. I saw his hand itching for his gun. He was about to reach for it.

And then Cadia said, “I seen something.”

“Quiet,” I hissed.

“What?” Milio said. “What’d you say?”

“The last night,” Cadia said. “On my way over. There was something in the forest, moving around.”

“A Corporate?” one of the boys said.

“No, I don’t know. I didn’t see much, but I think I saw some blue, plastic looking, like they wear.”

“Where?” Milio said.

“Past the Ruas. I can show you.”

“Yeah, you can. And you,” he said. “This ain’t over. I’ll be coming back.”

“I ain’t waiting around for you, Milio. Got a farm to run.”

“We’ll be talking,” he said. “Real soon.” He pointed at Cadia. “Let’s go.”

They moved off, the boys and Cadia.

Marija told me that she and Cadia had discussed her leading the boys off to where she stashed Gen’s armor while Milio and I talked.

It was smart. A good plan.

Still, watching Cadia go off with those boys left me worried. They had that look in their eye, the same that all boys had, man or woman. Angry hunger.

divider

We made good time on the trail to Bug River Creek. It was overcast and cold, as usual, but no storm sign.

We stayed as close to the creeks and rocky paths as we could to minimize our tracks and off the main road, but still out of the predatory forest. Marija brought up the rear, brushing the ground behind us of our tracks and sign, while I showed Gen how to walk in my steps.

It wasn’t enough.

Milio’d soon figure he was going down a cold trail. After Cadia led him to the armor the trail would grow cold and Milio come back looking this way, if he wasn’t already.

All we could do now was get this over with quick.

I was worried about how fast we could go, what with the corporate having such new tree feet and fresh lungs. But Gen kept up.

Corporates adapt quicklike. I could see it happening immediately. By the end of the first day, it was already faster, took bigger strides, adapted its breathing. Its back seemed straighter and shoulders a bit more pronounced.

Our meals were light, but it didn’t seem to bother Gen any. Nothing did.

It watched and learned. Everything here is poisonous to offworlders. That’s something the Corporates never respected. How much we changed ourselves to live here.

We earned this. We settlers. We adapted, injected ourselves with heritable modifications, learned to drink the toxic water and breath the rich air. Learned to refine tree-meat to make it edible. We were the ones who learned to cull the floating plankton and algae from the skies. We earned this planet.

The Corporates just showed up with the deed and brought everything they needed with them. All they did was take.

But now, the Corporate had to learn some respect.

Surface water being scarce as it is, we stopped at the first little tired puddle we found. Marija kept watched while I scooped up a cup of dark water and filtered it. Gen watched as I treated the water and seemed to appreciate my efforts when I handed it a clean cup of water.

We camped that night in a gully. Marija dug up a little berm around us. A little wall to protect us from slithering roots, the hungry young of the sleeping trees. The blind little critters turn around as soon as they encounter any obstruction.

We woke with the morning sun and I saw a thin column of smoke behind us.

Might could be farmer. But I knew it was Milio. They weren’t far behind.

By late morning we made it halfway up a little hill that led to a bigger hill that lead to a small ridge. We had a good look of the valley off to our left. It was thick with trees. You could hear their agitated whispers.

I kept glancing back behind us, so concerned about our pursuers that I came around a bend and stumbled right into view of a group of hill boys atop the ridge we were to ascend.

Gen was the one who stopped me, hand on my shoulder. “Who’s that?”

At top the ridge sat a little party of hill boys, their morning fire a lazy pillar in the overcast sky. I pulled Gen down behind a scratchweed bush.

Marija belly crawled up next to me with her binoculars out.

“Three of them,” she said and handed me the binoculars.

I brushed aside part of the scratchweed bush. I was too big for it to eat, so it was trying to sting me away. I ignored it, but its urdicating hairs caused me some welts later.

Through the binocs I saw three people, two men, one woman armed with rifles, milling about on top of the ridge in front of us, right smack between us and Bug River Creek. They were hill boys all right. Had that twitchy, hungry look.

“Coincidence?” Marija said.

“First thing Milio did was block the roads,” I said. “They’re out in the open. They want to be seen. They’re here to slow us down.”

“Can we go around?” Gen asked.

“Only way around is back the way we came,” I said. “Course, we turn around now and we’ll fall right into the arms of those following us. We’re pickled in.”

“Not necessarily,” Marija said. “You could cut straight down the hill.”

She was right. The hill was small and its face was broken sandstone. It was slippery and steep, but we could slide down quick and jump into the forest, the hungry forest. It was dangerous in there. Not so much for me, but for Gen. And we couldn’t do it unseen. I told Marija as much.

She squinted at the hill boys.

“Well,” she said. “I might could distract them. Walk right up to them and then break right. You guys go down the hill when they come after me. Meet up with you later.”

“And if they catch you?”

“What can they do?” Marija said. “I’m just on my way to Bug River Creek, picking up supplies like any old farmer. A Corporate you say? No, haven’t seen one.” She gave a toothy smile. “I’ll lead them off. Maybe even take those behind us.”

I didn’t like the idea of losing yet another friend. Or of jumping into the trees. But I couldn’t see any other way. And every moment we sat there, those chasing us were closing in.

I took one more look and then said. “Ayo. You might could. Okay.”

Her smile got bigger. “Let me get ready.”

She gave us her water and extra rations. More tea and oats. Got her pack light for running.

She squeezed my shoulder and wished me luck.

Gen and I watched from the bushes as Marija grew smaller until she went up the hill. She was bug-sized by the time she waved hello at the boys.

“Get ready,” I said to Gen. It checked its pack straps and got ready to bolt. “When she breaks right, we go.”

“Roger,” the Corporate said.

I took a deep breath and relaxed my muscles, getting ready to run.

Marija started to veer away from the group, as if to walk around them. I saw them stand up and point at her. Heard some distant shouting. She broke off into a run.

“Let’s go–” I said and Gen bolted, right when I heard a shot ring out.

When I looked, there was already a cloud of smoke, a few seconds older than the sound it made. But I didn’t see Marija. Anywhere.

Gen came back and grabbed. “We have to go. Come on.”

It yanked me hard, towards steepness.

We slid down the hillface, sandstone pebbles raining down around us. Anyone close enough would’ve seen the dust we kicked up. Nothing we could do about it then.

Once we hit flatness we ran into the forests, but stopped just inside the tree cover. I whispered for Gen to catch its breath. Have to be quiet when walking through the trees, they pick up everything they hear.

We weren’t in the thick of the forest yet, but still had to watch our step. Walking through trees really isn’t that hard as long as you’re careful and avoid stepping on trigger roots and keep an eye for danglers budding on their parent branch.

Marija! I thought.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Gen whispered.

I didn’t respond, just kept my eyes where I stepped. Made Gen stay close.

“Was probably a warning shot,” it said. “Besides, there’s nothing we could have done–”

“Spare me your corporate morality,” I said. “You’re protecting your neck. Which is fine, I get it. But Marija I’ve known my whole life–You wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh?” Gen said. “And why is that?”

“Everyone is either a consumer or a product to you. Right now, you’re probably thinking about what product to market to me or how to box up my pain and sell it to someone else. You don’t know how to relate to others, just to profit.”

“Hunh,” it said. “We misjudged you. You really think we don’t feel? We’ve been bred to feel, to love. That’s how we maintain our society in the dark years between stars. You think we’re not human, and you’re right. We’re more than human. We’re the next step. It’s we who travel the stars and visit worlds and write the next chapter of history, while you people sit on this rock and bury your heads and pretend all this is so important and the center of the universe, when it’s really just another in a billion balls of mud spinning around a fire.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be part of a crèche-batch. We watched nearly all of them die in a hillbilly attack by a bunch of cowards afraid of change. And now we’re hunted by the very people that we’ve invited to join us in the future. You think because we don’t cry we don’t feel? There’s no time for tears. We’re not going to die on some forgotten mud world lost in the armpit of the galaxy.”

“You talk too much,” I said. “The forest is listening.”

The trees mimic what they hear, creating the susurrus of the forest. People used to say it was the old Gale spirits whispering, but it’s just the trees trying to trick you. The constant echoes and birdsong and snippets of words can distract and lure prey, and confuse birds and bugs that echolocate. Even confuses people at times. You know, like old tales of people going treeways and getting lost or getting forestsick and cutting up their whole family. Tales of settlers going mad on their cursed planet.

I told Gen not to use names. Oldtimers, hermits, tree-kin who live on the edge of the forest, they listen to the rustle and report the new they hear. Rumors, mostly, and garbled sentences. But some information comes out, now and again. And I didn’t need anyone knowing I was helping Gen out. It laughed at me and refused to believe me.

To be honest I find the whispers comforting. It’s a constant layer that’s always there. Lets you know exactly where you are. And if you’re careful and real quiet, so is the forest. Lot’s of people don’t get that. Tree-foot is an art. One which Gen wasn’t very good at at first. It nearly stepped on a snake-vine and almost walked into a hungry branch. I had to show it how to spot stalk-trops, you know, the thin barbed spikey roots that point up like nails.

I had to take it by the hand when we got to denser parts of the forest. I’d have rather it walked in front of me so I could keep an eye, but it’d have stepped on something eventually. Its grip was strong and hard, but smooth and warm at the same time. It felt capable.

But like everything else, Gen adapted quickly.

“Whoa,” Gen said as it pulled me low, saving me from an aerial root that was fishing for ground prey.

“Shhh,” I said and the forest repeated after me. “I would have seen it,” I said. I didn’t like being saved by a Corporate. And it surprised me with its strength.

“Sorry,” it said, as an offering. I could have handled an aerial root, but still, it saved my neck and knew it.

I took a moment and then said, “No. You keep doing what you’re doing. I’m just not used to such a quick learn. Another day and it’ll be like you grew up in the forest. How is it you people ever had any trouble walking through the forests?”

“Never had anyone to teach us before,” it said. “Can’t be a quick learn if no one teaches you. Plus, we’ve been working on an adap,” it said.

“Eh?”

“An adaptation. Sorta like a rules of thumb we can teach our minds. It filters out the low-level tree buzz. We put a gate on the lower sound frequency, cuts out most of the din.”

“So, you don’t hear the tree whispers?”

“Basically. The adap brings attention to sounds that seem out of place. Which is how we heard that aerial root. Once you filter out all the noise, you can hear the trees moving pretty clearly.”

“The whispers are my favorite part,” I said. “I love how it covers me, like a heavy blanket.”

It stared at me for a second and then said: “I have no response to that.”

Later, we found a little gully away from the trees. Gen made a dirt berm without me even asking.

I pulled my jacket tight and held myself to keep warm. It got down pretty cold that night and it wasn’t too long before I huddled up to the Corporate. They run hot. Or at least that one did. People call them snakes and bugs and whatnot, but the truth is, Gen was a good companion. It worked hard, stayed alert, and listened close.

Somewhere in the night, it dropped an arm around me. When I woke, I lifted its arm off and pushed away to shiver in the early morning murk.

Gray and overcast as usual.

It got up and stretched while I boiled some water.

It took off the ragged shirt I gave it and wetted it, gave itself what my father used to call a hooker bath: splash some water on your face, neck, chest, and armpits. It’s the minimum amount of freshening up that one can call a bath.

It looked stronger, its shoulders a bit more broad. It looked like it’d put on weight. It caught me staring and I looked away.

“We got oats and tea,” I said while I pulled out the packets of each.

“Well, then, we’ll have some tea and oats,” it said. I didn’t even have to look, I knew it was smiling.

It put its shirt back on and sat across from me while I folded up the cups.

“Can I help?” It reached out and took one of the paper-flat pieces of plastic that origamied into a drinking mug from my hand. It left it there too long. Its hand was warm. It was rough, but familiar and I felt something that pulled me. It was like in those stories, when one person touches the other and they know right then how they feel.

“You’re a man,” I said. It was a pure thought and I knew it was true as soon as I said it.

His smile broke.

“Yes,” he said. He didn’t make eye contact. He pulled his hand away and concentrated on folding the plastic into a cup.

“I thought you were an instar.”

He finished the cup and set it on the ground next to the stove.

“I was,” he said.

“But?”

He was quiet for a second. “We are instars when we are amongst our own people. Our scent, it keeps us all the same. Equal. Zero sexual competition. Corporate tranquility. Until we are promoted or… are separated.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“We adapt, Ro. We’re designed to insure our continued survival by becoming sexually opportunistic. If I’d been around males I would have–”

“You’re trying to start a franchise.”

“It’s not like that–”

“You’re a sexual infection. You infect people with the next generation of little Corporate workers.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“So, you thought that with most of the men dead or off fighting your kind you could come into deep territory and knock up all us ignorant hick women?”

“We would never try — It’s our body, Ro. That’s all. It’s an automatic response.” Gen looked at me and tried to take my hand but I pulled away.

“You people are monsters.”

divider

I kept my distance the rest of the day and into the night. There was no more huddling. And yet, even in my revulsion I kept stealing glances at him, finding myself near him. I was drawn to him. And that made me angrier.

What most girls felt about men, I just… didn’t. I don’t really feel that way about anybody. Never have. A boy kissed me in grade six and it just felt slimy. I knew I was supposed to like it. Or be excited about it. Or at least talk about, but I just wanted to forget it and never do it again. But I lied and told my friend Fiorina that I thought the boy was cute. He wasn’t. He smelled and threw rocks at frogs.

Later on, when most of the men went off to fight and didn’t come back, there were a lot of cold nights and lonely women. One night I was invited to stay over on a farm a couple of valleys over. I don’t really feel comfortable saying who it was, so I won’t, but it was not the worst experience. I stayed the night because, well, because I was curious. Figured I might like the company of women in that way. But I don’t. It was better than kissing boys, but not by much. Everything tickled and felt funny.

See, thing is, when you get right down to it, people are just kinda gross. I know that’s not how everyone sees it, but I think frankly most people are just blinded by their loneliness. We deep down feel lonely and small and we distract ourselves by “connecting” with others. It’s a trick.

But on that trip, being alone with Gen, I felt drawn to him. Physically. I didn’t feel it in my heart, just my body. He looked and smelled good.

“You’re doing something to me,” I said when we stopped to sit on rocks sip cups of soup in the afternoon murk.

He didn’t respond. Just looked up at a sleeping buck-toothed pine.

“It’s funny that you call them trees,” he said.

“What else would we call them?”

“Back home, trees are plantlife that don’t move, don’t get up and walk around and hunt. We get why you call them trees, what with the sedentary torpor period and the roots and the growing out of the ground, but these aren’t trees. Discussing non-terrestrial life-forms using terrestrial categories of life– flora, fauna, fungi–is ineffective. But, still, trust us, these are no trees.”

I thought about this for a second. “You mean like the Arbory trees. Earth trees. Only rich folk have seen them. And none of them are around here. To us, these are trees.”

He nodded his head. “That’s a fair point. Most of your plantlife is floating around in your atmosphere.”

“Oxygen buoyancy,” I said.

“Ayo,” he said, and I looked at him, but he didn’t seem to notice. That was our word, not a Corporate word. “This is why your world is so important to us.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“Because,” he said. “Everywhere else, the terraformed worlds, they’re mostly the same. This world and the handful of other non-terraformed planets offer up a host of new and unique bio-product lines. Why when we got here we moved quick to snatch up the intellectual property of this planet.”

I was quiet for a second. This is was the DynaStar, Instlr story, the story of Big Corporology. They arrived with talk of buy-ins and shares of the future coming out their mouths, but in their hand they had the original charter bought and paid for. Bought it up from the Esperanxa Settlement Expedition investors back on Earth. They owned it all. They forced buyouts and then charged people to live on their own land.

But it was still our home, our land. The Corporates hardly ever set foot on the surface. We lived here, we earned it.

“Just cause you own it,” I said. “Don’t make it yours.”

divider

Gen could have taken the lead at that point. He slipped between the trees and over traps like a quiet wind. But I stayed in front. Can’t have a Corporate leading me through the forest.

We wove through the sleeping forest into the night, my low-glow lamp lighting up the dark canopy. The thick forest wasn’t a great place to sleep, so we had to keep going that night until we found a clearing.

But we were stopped short, when I walked into the butt of a rifle.

I caught a blur of movement in my lamp-light and then I was on my back. My right eye was filled with something wet. Blood.

I looked up and saw over me stood a hill boy. I recognized her. I don’t remember her name, but I knew she was from Rough And Ready, a hamlet in a valley just west.

She’d been hiding behind the trunk of the large claw-oak that reached up over us when I battered-up for her. She held her rifle by the barrel in triumph.

I tried to say something, don’t even know what, just something. I was rattled.

She said something to Gen, but I couldn’t make out what.

I tried to get up and felt a trigger vine squirm underneath me. The branches of the claw-oak started to stretch awake.

“Wait,” I finally managed. The world came back in agitated whispers. The trees were listening. “The tree, it–”

The boy stepped hard on my stomach. “That one I’m supposed to take back alive,” she said with a nod towards Gen. “But you,” she turned the rifle around, maw of the barrel in my face, “I can deal with you right now, Pig.”

Gen moved so fast. He was streak of movement as he tackled the boy.

They hit the ground in a tangle of limbs. I got up to my feet, swayed around, knees wobbly, except my knees weren’t wobbly– the ground was shaking.

The claw-oak ripped out a buried leg-root.

The woman rolled Gen off of her and they both jumped to their feet. As soon as they did the boy swung her rifle like a club.

The Corporate caught it like it was nothing, didn’t even flinch, just a loud smack as the rifle butt hit into the palm of his hand. Then he stepped forward and threw a kick deep into the boy’s stomach, tossing her back.

“No,” I screamed but it was too late. She fell back and was scooped up into a waiting tree branch. She grunted as the heavy branches came down on her arms and legs. The tree lifted her off the ground. She didn’t say nothing, or scream, even as the claw-oak drove a feeding branch through her back. She just gasped and looked surprised.

She’d stay like that for a few days, somewhere between life and death. It would keep her breathing, keep her fresh as it digested her from the inside out. She’d have killed me a moment before, it’s true, but that’s a hard way for anyone to go. Besides, she was one of us. No matter what else.

The whispers started to rise up around us. The trees could smell a fresh kill. The trees, see, they share things. Kinda like a group or society, I don’t really know. But when one feeds, others around it get a taste. Through the roots I’ve been told. They’re all networked up, until they start moving, but when they do, when they swarm, when they go grimly, they move as a huge mass. Not a stampede quite, but like one giant tree.

And that’s what started happening around us. The crash, the fighting, the Corporates who ran into the woods, that hill boy from Rough And Ready, the blood from my eye spilling onto dry soil. It all came together, boiled up the forest’s hunger. The trees went grimly.

I got to my feet and yelled for Gen to run. We ran and ran, blind for while. I lost my torch, but I could see shapes moving in the dark.

I spotted a bare little cliff off the ridge up a head, silhouetted by the stars. I tried to keep that in front of us, hoping to reach it and climb out of the frenzied trees.

I found a gap that opened up to the foot of the cliff. It was a small cliff, an eroding face of sandstone. But there was enough for us to climb up. And up we went.

Halfway up, I heard a hiss from below. A small tree, a sapling of one of the quicker species. A razor-fur or a thorn-willow, I don’t know, but it was hiss-targeting us.

I told Gen to hurry, but I needn’t have. He was soon level with me and then above.

I tried to keep up, but the sandstone was crumbly, and the rock I grabbed fell apart into pebbles. Lost my grip and reeled. I could hear the young tree below us, waiting, tasting me on the wind.

But Gen caught my other arm. He pulled and I managed to grab the edge of the outcrop he was reaching down from. I scrambled over the lip and caught my breath on my back, my skin hot and sweaty in the cool night air.

The outcrop big enough that we could sleep there that night and wait for the grimly to move on for prey or fall back asleep.

I got up and peeked over the edge. The clouds had broke some, thinning as they do at night.

Tree branches glistened and leaves shook in the dim light of the silver moon. We could see most of the valley. Gen watched the forest. It moved, like in those old terran movies of the ocean. It rippled. And in the middle of it all, striding through other trees and towering over them was a grimly. A tree of trees. A huge wave in the ocean.

“We read the reports,” Gen said. “But, we just didn’t understand until now.”

“It’s a big one,” I said.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Migratory Cascade Event. We’ve never seen anything like it on over forty different worlds in thirty different systems.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it,” I said.

“What do you mean?” the Corporate said without taking its eyes off the grimly.

But I didn’t say anything.

The grimly isn’t a thing, really. It’s all these different parts working together to exploit any bounty that comes its way. Each branch is like a franchise. Each skewered animal another planet. Cut a branch off and it’ll plant itself and make roots and grow big and strong. Cut off a Corporate from its people and it became a sexual disease, infecting the planet with its brood. Gen admired it.

And now Gen knew about the trees and how to walk through them. He would teach his kind, spread all our secrets.

Gen never took his eyes off the creature. Didn’t notice as I came up behind him. I didn’t hate him personally, but I did hate him. And his kind. I might could have lost him in the forest, or Marija and I could have pounced on him, but they are strong, those Corporates. Survivors. Might have fought us off as easily as he did that boy. Right then, on that outcrop, that was the opportunity I’d been waiting for.

He was calm. Happy even. And I was glad for that.

Unaware, as I braced myself and then and kicked him square in the back.

Gen sailed off the cliff with only a grunt. The Corporate didn’t scream or cry, made no sound as he fell into hungry branches below. Gen got to find out about the grimly first hand.

Maybe our home was just a backwater mud-ball spinning through space. And maybe Gen was just one naïve Corporate in a species that spanned the stars. But we don’t have much more than our mud-ball here. The Corporates left us with little more than nothing. If we were going to keep our planet, then it was settlers that needed the most help from each other. Nobody was going to give it to us.

___

Copyright 2015 Mark Pantoja 

Mark Pantoja is a writer and musician living in San Francisco. His stories have appeared in Tales from the Zombie War and Lightspeed. His short story collection Other Possibilities came out in 2013.

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