by Alter S. Reiss

The man who’d set himself up out on the point by Gray Lagoon had conjured up a house out of rocks and sea-wrack, but he didn’t wear the badge of any guild or house. He was always polite, but the people who talked to him couldn’t place his accent, and people in Cartau could place every accent in the world. It wasn’t in the least bit hard for Jione to understand why people said he was someone to avoid.

They smelled a whiff of brimstone on him, and Jione could see them smelling it. When he came down to the Anside docks, nobody even dared to chase him off; they just looked away, and hoped that if he was violent, he would hurt someone else. He was sitting up on the shingles of the beach, watching the work when Jione went down, and he was still there when she came back up.

She sat on the sea-wall for a moment, her apparatus off, and watched him. He gawked like a child at the air traffic—the spinners and the liners and the fortress patrol all seemed to overawe him equally—and he seemed equally entranced by the diggings, and the workers, and the machines.

Folk from the countryside would have that look about them, between the time they came to Cartau, and the time they were fleeced. But Jione didn’t think anyone would try to fleece him. There was a hardness to the man, a tension like a compressed and rusty spring. He wore an old-style long knife on his hip, its handle curved to match his grip, but that was almost unnecessary. Everything else about him said he was dangerous, but only when he was pushed.

Dangerous and deadly and innocent; it was a strange combination. Jione headed over, her helmet under her arm. He was watching the crane lowering the number 63 pipe segment into place, but as she got closer, he looked at her. There was an intensity in that look that made Jione fight back a flush. She was a diver, and a good one, and that’d be obvious to anyone looking at her. But whoever this man was, he didn’t seem to know what a spinner was, or a traction-crane. So she’d look like a gangly woman with the left side of her hair shaved down, and wearing a dive suit going ragged at the cuffs and seams.

“Good afternoon,” he said, standing as she came close. “My name is Tam.” There was an odd motion after that, like he was about to bow, and then caught himself.

“Jione,” she said.

“Are you one of the house diggers?” asked Tam.

“Digger?” Jione gave him an incredulous look. “I’m a diver.” She tapped her helmet. “Free swimming, right? Diggers work inside a bore, or on a tether.”

Tam gave a quick nod. “I understand,” he said. “But you do excavate?”

“Not on this job, I don’t,” said Jione. “I steer the pipes in, as they’re coming down, and I weld sections together. Also, I’m not a house diver; I’m on contract with Mecater and Daim, but my rig’s my own, and so’s my time.”

Another intense look, but a different sort of intensity; he hadn’t expected that, and there was something else that he wanted. “Would you be available for contract work?” he asked. “There’s a project–”

Jione laughed. “I don’t come cheap,” she said. “And you’d have to pay a penalty to Mecater, and they don’t come cheap either. If–”

Tam dropped something into her hand. Heavy. Jione had done enough salvage to know what she was seeing. A gold imperial. Too perfect to be a forgery, but so clear that it might have just been minted, rather than five hundred years old. “Perhaps this will pay the penalties,” he said.

“Perhaps,” said Jione. She weighed it in her hand. The penalties, and a good chunk more. Mecater wouldn’t even mind—the heavy pipes were in, and it was mostly just support diving for the diggers below. Penalties would be worth more than the work she had left. “Is it clean?”

“Clean?”

There was a pause as the fortress patrol went overhead, the throb of its main engines and the whine of the spinner escort making conversation impossible. Tam had been fascinated before, but he didn’t look up as it passed overhead; he stood watching her, head cocked to one side, waiting for her to speak. “Clean of enchantment,” she said, when she’d be heard. “Gold not tampered with, and no owner’s mark from someone who’d be able to make a claim of theft and make it stick? Because the dive assayers will check.”

Tam shook his head. “It’s clean,” he said. “The terms of my . . . your assayer will find nothing amiss.”

Jione hesitated. She could just give him back the coin, and walk away. He was interesting, he was friendly, but there was that coiled-spring threat, that whiff of something wild and strange. She didn’t know him; he didn’t know how business worked in Cartau. Dealing with Tam wasn’t a good risk. And yet. He was a handsome man, trimly built, and when he looked at her, he seemed to see her. That wasn’t something she could say for guild or house agents, or other divers, or shopkeepers, or anyone else, really.

She flipped the coin, caught it out of the air, tucked it into the grouch-pocket of her suit. “Yeah, okay,” she said. “Where and when?”

“Tomorrow morning, at Gray Lagoon,” he said. “Unless you need more time to prepare, or—”

“Tomorrow,” she said. She’d made her call; no point in delay.

Against reason, Jione had chosen to help Tam, but that didn’t mean she was going to neglect basic prudence. The gold imperial checked out; it was what it purported to be, and there weren’t any spells or marks on it. The dive guild knew where she was going, so if she turned up dead, there’d be a record. The next day she headed out to Gray Lagoon, her apparatus in a duffel over her shoulder, and her heart in her mouth.

Tam was waiting on the point, looking back over the lagoon, at Cartau’s towers. “They’re beautiful,” he said, as she came up.

“From far enough away,” said Jione.

He started, turned, and smiled when he saw her. “Yes,” he said. “Most beautiful things require distance. But not all. Are you ready to begin, or are there preparations?”

Jione sighed, unslung the duffel from her shoulder. “I’ll have to get into the dive suit,” she said. “And calibrate the apparatus, and get that on. How deep is your site? And how much area are you going to have to cover? What sort of equipment am I going to need? And, most importantly, how much are you paying?”

Tam threw back his head, and laughed. Jione raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, but that didn’t bode well.

“My apologies,” said Tam. “I must sound like ten kinds of an ass. It’s just that I’m only recently arrived, and I don’t know a damn thing that I should. Start with the last. Two imperials a day, fine as the one I gave you, should cover the costs?”

Jione swallowed her own laughter. Two imperials a day, even if they were clipped and smoothed and marked, would pay for three, maybe four divers. But hell, if he was paying, she wasn’t going to say no. “Yeah,” she said. “That’ll do fine. What do you want me to dive for?”

“A thread of gold,” said Tam. “Long enough to reach from a man’s fingertip to his heart. As wide around as a flower’s root.”

“More gold in one of your imperials than that,” said Jione.

“Yes,” said Tam. “But that’s what I’m looking for. And if you were to draw a triangle between this house that I’ve built, and the Castle of Doves—you can see the ruins, looking out over the water, on the spit of land there—and the line of the old stone quay, it should be somewhere within those limits. I believe the quay can still be seen?”

“I think so,” said Jione. “There’s a line of rocks and dirt, anyway, not too far from the shore.”

“Dirt?” asked Tam. “So it’s not silted over, there?”

Jione shook her head. “Since they built the Five Dams, the silt’s been going down all along the coast. Fifty years ago, Grey Lagoon was half as deep as it is now. The rocks you’ve built your house on are being washed out too; another fifty years, there won’t be anything between the lagoon and the sea.”

Tam stopped, and considered. “What I am seeking won’t have washed away,” he said. “That is the area I would have you cover. I’ve no idea what equipment you’ll need; that’s your field of expertise.”

Jione considered. He was asking her to cover a hell of a lot of the lagoon. And while there wasn’t much silt left, there were still stretches of sand there that’d take days to move. “Nothing I don’t own,” she said, after a while. “It’d be easier with an airlift, but there’s deep water there. No point in bringing it out for maybe 15% coverage. It’ll be a sea-dredge, and a sniffer, and a few other things. Sniffer’ll cost you worse than I will, though, if you’re going for gold.”

“I will put my trust in you,” said Tam. “Despite not having the slightest idea what you’re talking about. The sniffers I know are lyme hounds and rachet hounds, and I scarcely see what use they’d be in your work.”

Jione shook her head. “Most sheep,” she said, “don’t ask to be fleeced.”

Tam smiled. “I’m overpaying you already,” he said. “That’s clear enough. You’re not going to risk that by trying to get another peck or two of wool.”

“Watch me,” said Jione. “Besides,” she continued. “It’ll be less than anyone else would take. Sniffers. . . they’re a spell, right? Bound to a tool. If you’re looking for gold, they burn gold. The idea is that where you find a bit of gold, you’d find more, but it’s going to burn . . . shit, sixty, maybe seventy grains a day. Even not counting what you’re paying me, which is less than you should be, that’s a hell of a lot of gold chasing down a thread.”

“It’s a thing I’ve lost,” said Tam. “You are probably right about its worth, but I want it back.”

If she found it—when she found it—she could probably tuck it into her grouch pocket, and see what she could get for it. Someone as green as Tam wasn’t going to stop her. “You have anywhere I can suit up?” she asked.

“My home is yours,” he said, seriously. “Have you your dredge and sniffer with you? I would see what I’m paying for.”

“I’m not going to unseal the dredge in the air,” she said. She rooted around in her duffel for a bit, took out the sniffer. “This is the sniffer. Don’t break it.”

She headed along the debris-littered beach, out to the house he’d called up on the point. As she walked, she could feel his eyes on her, and she put a hint of a sway into her walk. It wasn’t . . . people usually didn’t look at divers like that. And given what he was paying, she figured she could afford to throw in a show.

It wasn’t like her, but none of this was like her. Breaking guild and house rules wasn’t too different from breathing in while surfacing; it would feel fine, and you’d die a few hours later. Safe was the only way a diver could play things. Only now she wasn’t playing by guild or house rules. Tam was too strange and different to be safe. She wasn’t playing things safe, so she wouldn’t play things safe, at least not until Tam’s gold ran out. Once she was in, no reason not to go all the way in.

She swept into Tam’s house, a surprisingly trim building, with stone floors, a timber roof, and a fire burning cheerily in the grate. If she hadn’t known that he’d called it up out thin air, she’d have thought it had been standing there for centuries; it felt old, comfortable, lived in. The sort of place that you’d expect to see far out in the countryside, or in an old-times talkie.

Tam might be green, but he was paying, and while she was going to soak him, she was also going to do the work. She changed into her dive suit, fastened all the cuffs and collars, and then got the apparatus seated. Lung-blood ports always stung going on, but the sea-eye felt cool and sat right on her left eye. She’d shaved down before she headed out to the lagoon, so the whole thing fit like it should, no chafing, not too heavy. She’d gone in feigning confidence, but came out feeling it; this was who she was, what she did, and she was good at it.

When she came out, Tam looked up from the sniffer, and smiled to see her coming, helmet under her arm. “By my judgment,” he said, “your sniffer will destroy three and a half grains of gold every hour; while I appreciate the energy on your part, it does not seem wise for you to attempt to work for twenty hours a day.”

Jione hesitated, then laughed. Green, but not without resources. Green, but not stupid.

“Yeah, true enough,” she said. “Won’t have more than four, maybe five hours of bottom time anyway, not at depth.” As he passed her the sniffer, she had a horrible thought. “You haven’t done anything to it, have you?” Fun was fun, but if he’d damaged it…

“No,” said Tam, “I would not interfere with your tools. And it’s a very clever working; complex, but elegant. Any improvement I would make would take some time, and at best would improve its effectiveness by a tenth part.”

Jione was tempted to snort, but held back. Tam was as green as a fresh broken stick, and seemed to think that spinners were something marvelous and strange. But he’d also pulled a stone house out of nothing, and it seemed that none of the houses or guilds had decided to dispute his right to do so. Maybe he could improve a sniffer by ten percent. Be a hell of a thing to bring back to the diving guild, if she could.

“Maybe some other time,” she said, taking her sniffer back, and strapping it into its sheath on her leg. “You’ve got an odd angle on things, Tam. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to tell me about where you came from.”

“I have most recently spent a term in hell,” said Tam, amiably. “It’s where I learned my skills.”

He hadn’t said that as though he was deflecting your question, or as if he was talking metaphorically. It was as matter-of-factly as though he was giving a street address. There were still some folks who believed in that stuff, mostly out in the country, but even they didn’t believe it like that.

“With fires and demons?” she asked, trying to keep it light.

“There were demons,” said Tam. “No fire. There was all the pain of fire, but none of the heat. It is a cold place, hell, cold and distant and dark. I’m hoping to avoid a return visit; that’s why I need to find this thread.”

“If you say so,” said Jione, and she walked out into the surf. Could be he was crazy; if so, she didn’t want him crazy at her.

Once she went below, things were a bit more normal. There’d been construction work in Gray Lagoon, plenty of it. Pipes from the offshore rigs, pilings for a dock that never got built, that sort of thing. It was deep enough and close enough to the shore that there was plenty of garbage there as well, and a few wrecks. If it weren’t for the sniffer, it’d take years to comb an area like that. As it was, if the gold was there, two, maybe three days.

First dive was a survey. Just to see what the state of the bottom was, get a sense of current patterns, the movement of sand and silt. And Gray Lagoon was close enough to Cartau that she didn’t expect many surprises; anything interesting would’ve been found long ago.

Only, with the five dams, the silt had been going down all across the coast. And damn if something interesting didn’t come up, right in the middle of the search area Tam had given her. There were always wrecks, sure, but this one was different. There was a figurehead rising out of the muck, and it was a two-headed lion, carrying a sword in one mouth, and a book in the other.

The Grand Invincible. She’d found the goddamn Grand Invincible. When it had disappeared, it’d bankrupted the last king in Cartau; the crown and regalia had been aboard, and three quarters of the imperial treasury. Thirteen million imperials in gold and silver. There were timbers and cannons lying scattered on the bottom, crockery and black lumps that looked like corroded masses of silver coin.

Jione had dived salvage before. She’d worked on the Tranch, and they’d recovered three tons of silver specie. They’d also been so wound up by spells by Aen House that she couldn’t even clear her filters without explicit permission.

If she tried to salvage the wreck herself, one of the houses would nail her, and the diving guild would either sell her claim out, or take ninety-nine parts out of every hundred in fees and licenses. Tam. Whatever he was, wherever he was from, however crazy he might be, he was a talent. The way he’d talked about hell . . . Jione wouldn’t want to try to take something from him. Even the houses would tread lightly near a claim made by someone like that.

She laid out claim-stakes near the biggest pieces of debris, and across where the main body of the wreck would have to lie. Then she headed back up. It was a deep enough survey that she needed to pause on the way up to keep from getting a blood boil or depth joints. It was a chance to settle herself before going back up to see Tam. It was the biggest damn thing that had ever happened to her. Maybe the biggest thing that had happened to anyone. She floated in the middle depths, above the Grand Invincible‘s figurehead, until the blood gauges clicked over to clear.

Then came the awkward climb out of the surf. Tam was watching her, and she fought back a flush. He hadn’t done anything, hadn’t said anything that wasn’t entirely polite, neutral. And yet, there was a deep hunger there, a delight in looking at her that made her feel awkward and strange.

“You have the most amazing luck,” she said, once she was clear, and her helmet was off. “There’s a wreck down there that’s worth half of Cartau. Since I wouldn’t have found it without you, how about we go in on this together? Partners? I’ll do the work, do the hiring; you’d have to keep the houses off, but I’d think that if–”

“What wreck?” asked Tam.

“It’s a treasure ship. Biggest there ever was. The Grand Invincible. Wreck hunters are going to straight up shit themselves when they find out how close it was, all these years. They’ll . . .” Jione caught Tam’s expression, and trailed off. “What?”

“The Grand Invincible went down in a hurricane; she lies off northern Jessail, fifty leagues from shore,” he said.

“I saw the figurehead, Tam,” she said. “Whoever told you that didn’t know what they were talking about.”

“I heard it from the steersman and the pilot both,” he said. “And from twenty other men beside. There are few sailors who walk through heaven’s gates.”

“Tam—”

“Perhaps I sound like a fool. But it seems that obstacles are being set in my path; if you do not trust me, you will be led astray.” He looked at her, terrible fear and terrible need held under the tightest of control.

“Look, even if you’re right, there’s no way that I’ll be able to pick up what you’re looking for. The sniffer is going to show gold all across the bottom there. I’m going to have to—”

“No,” said Tam, and there was a triumph in that, like he’d solved some deadly puzzle. “If it does, perhaps I was misled. But it won’t. Silver and bronze, diamonds and rubies—those you’ll see in abundance. But no gold, not gold that can fool the spells on your sniffer. You’ll have to let all the rest go, all the silver and the gems and whatever else they show. If you take even the smallest silver coin, it will not be well. But the sniffer will smell the truth, and true gold cannot be faked or corrupted.”

Jione shook her head, but there was the ring of truth in that. Anyway, if he was wrong, she’d find out the next time she went down. If there wasn’t any gold there, there was no way that the wreck was the Grand Invincible. The discovery had been like a shock, like a dream, and she could feel it ebbing as she unhooked her apparatus. But hell, she’d done things right. She’d checked with her land crew before engaging, and while Tam hadn’t specified what would happen if she went after the finds from the wreck, it seemed like she’d dodged whatever it had been.

By the time she was finished unhooking her apparatus, Tam had spread out a blanket on the sand, and opened a hamper which smelled amazing. “Something you’ve conjured up?” she asked, sprawling down beside the blanket.

“Conjured?” Tam shook his head. “I’ve had enough and more of conjured feasts. Honest bread and honest meat, though it took longer than I would have dreamed to find good capons.”

Jione sank down to beach next to him, and started unpacking the hamper. “Not worried about suffering for the sin of gluttony?” she asked.

“Gluttony isn’t a loaf of crusty bread,” said Tam. “Or a . . .” he held up a bottle, and tried to puzzle out the label.

“Lime phosphate?” suggested Jione, taking one for herself.

“Yes,” said Tam. “Or a lime phosphate. It is forgetting one’s humanity in pursuit of bread and phosphate.”

“You’re the expert,” said Jione, raising up her bottle of soda to clink it against his. Nothing wrong with lime phosphate, and whether it was a chicken or a capon, the bird Tam had prepared was delicious. As was the bread, as was the candied fruit.

“S’it okay if I forget my humanity while I’m eating?” asked Jione, through a mouthful of fruit. “Because I think I did, when I got to those pears.”

Tam laughed. “I appreciate the compliment,” he said. “And I do not recall seeing many who were damned by enjoying a dessert.”

“What about the other sins?” asked Jione. “Anger, despair, all those?”

“More or less the same,” said Tam. “It’s not that people live a decent life, and find themselves in hell because they were mad about a cast horseshoe, or because they desired a hawk that was not theirs. Those I met in hell were there because they destroyed themselves to gratify their wrath, or because they let their sight fall only on what they did not have.”

“And which one sent you there?” asked Jione. She took a swig of her lime phosphate, looking out at the waters of the lagoon. There was a long pause, but she didn’t look over at Tam, didn’t want to see if she’d been wrong to ask.

“Call it greed, if you like,” said Tam, finally. “I saw a great prize, and did not consider well enough the costs. And I gave o’er my father and all his lands, and spent a year and a day with the queen of fairies.”

“First hell, now fairies,” said Jione. “You do know those are stories, right? Not real?”

As an answer, Tam leaned forward, and moved the hair back from the nape of his neck. No matter how green he’d seemed, how innocent, Tam had never looked vulnerable, but just then he was. And where his shoulders met his neck, there was a glowing knot of rainbow color. “The mark of the fey,” said Jione, and Tam let his hair fall, straightened up to look her in the eye. “It’s all real?” she said. “All of it?”

“As real as ships which swim in air, and spells that burn gold to find it,” said Tam. “I went with the queen of fairies, and after a year and a day, she paid her tithe to hell. I had given myself to her, and she spent what I had given.” His shoulders tensed, and those last few words dropped like coals; endless pain there, endless hurt.

“But you’d done nothing…I mean, you didn’t deserve . . .”

“I was not properly condemned,” said Tam, “and I was not subject to the full rigors of the place. But the tithe had been fairly paid, and fairly claimed, and I was bound to hell for a long time. Longer than I could bear. So I made a bargain, though bargains with hell are ill advised. Should I claim again that thread of gold, it will not have happened. I’ll never have left my father’s hall and gone to the fairy court, never have taken nectar and honey from she who is queen there, and I will never have gone down to hell.”

His eyes lit with so much hope at that, she had to look away.

“Were things that much better back then?” she asked, after a while.

“Things were smaller,” he said. “Less grand. Easier to understand, maybe? But it’s my home, and I had not seen . . . had not endured. It is not that my world was better than this; it’s that I gave so much to the queen of the fairies, and I have lost so much in hell, that there is too little left for me. That thread of gold is a cable that shall haul me back to where I had not lost those things. If I claim it, I get it all back, and I will never even know that it was gone.” He looked back out over the waters of the lagoon. “It was a foolish bargain that I made, to come here, a foolish risk that I took. But if I had not taken it, if I had served the rest of my term in hell, there wouldn’t have been anything left when I was freed.”

“Risk?”

Tam nodded. “If I cannot gain the thread, I will go back down to hell. And there will be no end to that stay, no difference between me and those who earned their place through their life.”

“I’ll get it,” said Jione. She hesitated for a long time, on the verge of saying something more. Tam seemed to sense that, and did not interrupt.

Hell with it. She’d gone alone with someone she did not know, and risked crossing the diving guild for him. She’d taken enough risks already, trusted deeply enough already. Why not go for it? “Getting back to lust,” she said. “If you want to come back and help me with the dive suit. . . .”

Tam groaned, from his core. “You don’t know what you’re asking, Jione,” he said.

She looked at him, and did not look away. “I have a pretty good idea,” she said. “There isn’t much love in hell, is there?”

“There is none at all,” said Tam.

She turned and went back to his house, and he followed, and helped her with the diving suit. The canvas was treated by skill and spell, and he was nothing but gentle, but she could feel how close he was to tearing it apart.

Tam was careful and controlled, at least at first. But it didn’t take long for the control to slip; he was hungrier than she would’ve believed. She came apart in that hunger, and he came apart in her, hands on her hips, mouth on her breast.

He fell asleep in her arms, his face trusting and open. She held him for a time, before she fell asleep herself. The whole story—the fairies and hell, the bargain and rest of it—was still hard to believe. But Tam was real and was with her, wild and strange, innocent and knowing, so controlled and so open to her that it hurt to see. If the thread was there, she would get it for him.

When Jione awoke, Tam was sitting beside the fire, with a brass-bound book on his lap.

“Morning?” she asked, hoping that the answer was somehow no, despite the sunlight streaming through the windows.

“Morning,” agreed Tam. He smiled at her, and he was again as open as he had been; as hopelessly lost. “There’s coffee, and pastries,” he added, the control reassembling itself.

The coffee was good, better than her usual half-chicory swill. Pastries were good too, but less sweet than she’d expected, and not the sort of regular shapes that machine bakeries made.

“There will be other obstacles beside the wreck,” he added, when she came up for air.

“Mm?”

“Once you get hold of the thread, if you let it go, that’s it; it would be lost, and I would be lost with it. There will be attempts to make you let it go.”

“What is this thread, anyway?” asked Jione.

“My soul,” said Tam. “The better part of me. All the things that I lost; everything I gave to the Queen, everything I lost during my years in hell.”

“I’ll hold tight,” said Jione.

“Thank you,” said Tam, and he meant it. “I haven’t been able to determine exactly what will happen once you touch it; it may be that it will grow heated or chilled, or it may change its form? I don’t know. It will hurt you, Jione.”

“I’ve been hurt,” she said. “But if it gets too hot, I won’t be able to hold.”

“That would be . . . that would violate the terms of my agreement. It will hurt, but not more than you can bear; it will do you harm, but no permanent harm.” He paused, shook his head. “At least not physical harm.”

Jione waited for him to finish.

“I am sorry,” Tam said. “I had meant to observe, and then learn the diving myself. But it seems that I have not been given sufficient time for that.”

Jione didn’t laugh or interrupt, though she was tempted to do both. He didn’t have the build for it, and it took months for someone to learn to use the apparatus safely, even for a simple trip to depth.

“There are the false hopes—that is the wreck, I think. And the thread will change. After that . . . I am not certain what the last is. The closest that I have come is that you shall, ‘learn a true thing.’ I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know what it shall do, and I cannot quantify the harm the last shall cause. Whatever it is, I will not be permitted to gainsay, nor make any argument. Once you take up the thread, the matter will be entirely in your hands and your heart.”

“I’ve been hurt before, and I’ve learned true things before,” said Jione. “Pay me the three imperials you owe me–”

“Two.”

“The two Imperials you owe me, charge the sniffer, and I’ll go get you a thread of gold.”

Tam proved almost as adept at getting her into the diving suit as he had been at getting her out of it, which sped things along, and then it was back into the murky waters of Gray Lagoon.

The visibility wasn’t as good as it had been the day before; the currents were moving faster, sending up puffs of dirt and dragging in bits of floating garbage. The wreck was still there, Jione’s claim stakes still marking it as hers, but when she turned the sniffer on, nothing pinged.

There were loose gemstones scattered across the bottom–sapphires and rubies, emeralds and amethysts, large as pigeon’s eggs–there were those black corroded masses of silver coin and plate, there were cannons and porcelain and everything else. But the sniffer didn’t show any gold. There was the wealth of kingdoms there, and she passed it by, doing her sweep with the sniffer. If there had been anything–any blip, any possible match, Jione would’ve counted Tam wrong and gone chasing it. But there was nothing. Not until she got to lowest part of the search area, when the sniffer showed a match for the gold it was burning. Small quantity, but pure. And buried under eight feet of sand.

Well, hell. Nothing she couldn’t handle, but eight feet of sand was a pain in the ass. Jione got to work with the dredge, and what looked like a pain in the ass turned out to be worse than it looked. The current shifted three times, and each time it happened to line up so that the stuff she’d dredged out got blown back in where she was digging. And the visibility got worse, almost as bad as if there was a storm blowing on the surface, for all that it’d been clear when she went down.

The current shifted three times, so she reoriented three times. When the visibility went down, she switched the sea-eye over to sound spotting, and when flecks of opal started showing up in the spoil, she kept after the gold, rather than trying to figure out what she was hitting. It wasn’t two imperials worth of work, but it was a lot of work, and she was twelve and a half fathoms down for most of it.

By the time the thing came up, she was so tired she didn’t even think about what it was she was doing; there was a flash of light, and she reached out to clear it. For the merest flicker of an instant, it was a length of gold thread in her hand, and then she was holding on to a stonefish.

Reflex should’ve made her let it go. Most divers—all divers—wouldn’t have held on to a stonefish that was twisting in their hand. One spine would permanently maim, more than one would kill. But there was that instant of gold thread, the way that Tam had looked when he slept.

She held, and it twisted and stabbed. Then, she almost did let go. It was death. All her senses said that it was real, and all her training, all her experience told her that it was death. But she held, though her hand was growing numb, though she could feel the poison coursing through her veins, as the stonefish stabbed, and stabbed again.

Then it wasn’t a stonefish. She was holding onto the tail of a fifteen-foot long praecursor shark. In one way, it made it easier; she knew that Tam had told the truth, that she hadn’t been poisoned by a stonefish, that the shark wasn’t real. In another way, it had been a lot easier to hold onto a stonefish; the shark was strong and fast and mad. In its first twist, it knocked two blood feeds loose from her apparatus; she could see the blooms of red from the corner of her eye, and the thrashing of the tail nearly pulled her arm loose from its socket. She held. The sandpaper roughness of its skin tore at her hand. She held. It turned and snapped at her with a mouthful of teeth like daggers, and she held, and then it was thread of gold, long enough to reach from a man’s fingertip to his heart, and as wide around as a flower’s root.

Jione wrapped it three times around her wrist, so it wouldn’t fall, refastened her feeds, checked all her gauges and dials, and made her weary way back up to the surface. Until the gauges clicked over into warning, and she took her depth break, floating in the space between the bottom and surface until the pressure of the air in her blood was close enough to the pressure of the surface air to let her return in safety to the world above.

There was no voice, no infernal growl or heavenly choir. But as she floated there, she knew. When Tam claimed that thread of gold, he’d have his soul back. Everything that he had given away, all the damage that had been done in hell, that would all be undone. Everything would be undone; he’d be back where he’d been when a line of dirt and rock was a quay, when the ruins he’d pointed to had been the Castle of the Doves. He’d never have gone to hell, and he would grow into a fine knight and lord. And things would be different. Unavoidably. Small changes would cause large changes, which would unmake everything and make it anew.

Everything she ever knew, everyone she ever loved, would have never been. There’d be something else there; maybe something better, maybe something worse. But if Tam claimed that thread of gold, it wouldn’t merely kill her. She would never have been born at all.

Once, twice, and a third time, Jione let the thread unloop from around her wrist, so that she was just holding the very end of it. If it had then become. . . if it had become anything, even the smallest minnow, it could have flown away on its own. But it didn’t, and she couldn’t let it go.

The gauges clicked back down to normal, and still she floated there, neutral. There was no chance of mistake, or fraud; Tam had said that she would learn a true thing. She could let the thread drift away. Maybe her Imperials would still be in her duffel, and maybe they wouldn’t. But Tam would be gone, and would never return. Or, she could go back, and give him the thread. Maybe she would have that one moment, where he saw what she had done, maybe she would see the bottomless hurt vanish, before she was gone, before she never was.

They were both wrong, but those were her only choices. Maybe . . . maybe Tam didn’t know. She would go, and explain. He would know that she hadn’t failed, he would know why. It wouldn’t be much comfort when he went back down to hell, but it was what she could give. Jione headed back to shore, made her awkward way through the surf to where Tam waited.

He rose to meet her, with his heart in his eyes, and she stood and tried to firm herself to choose. She held it out, but did not let the thread drop from her hand to his. “I can’t,” she said. “It’s not just your past that would be undone, Tam. It would be everybody; everything. I can’t.”

He reared back, as though he’d been stung by a stonefish. The pain she’d seen was doubled and redoubled. He put his hand back down to his side, though his eyes said that he wanted more than anything to reach out to her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. But I cannot let you claim this.”

Then there was a sudden light, like when he’d realized that gold couldn’t be faked. He tried to say something, but though she was right there, Jione couldn’t hear it, couldn’t read his lips; it was as though he was already fading. He could not gainsay, or make any other argument. But he held out his hands, and though he could say nothing, Jione could hear him pleading.

She had made her choice, but now she had to choose again. Was this a bluff—had he chosen to live and not go down to hell, and let the future sort itself out, or had he seen some escape, some way in which the harm she saw would not come to pass?

Jione had held on when it was stonefish and a shark, and when she had learned what it would mean if Tam claimed what he had lost. Now, she let the golden thread slip from her hands into Tam’s. For just a second, she saw what might have been; Tam in his father’s hall, his corslet inlaid with silver, his eyes free of the pain and the fire she had seen. It would. . . .

“No!” he said, and she could hear him again. “I have gained this, but I do not claim it.” He drew back his arm, and threw, and the thread arced, high, high over the waters of the lagoon, out to the open ocean, where it sank without a ripple. “I have done what I said that I would; the bargain is fairly won. But I do not claim what was taken; I will not undo what has been done.”

Jione waited, but there was no response; no voice from above or below, no return of the thread that Tam had thrown. He didn’t disappear, and she was still there, Cartau’s towers still rose the same as they always had. “If you gained that golden thread,” she said. “You didn’t have to return to hell. And if you claimed it, you’d get back what you’d lost. Seems a fine point to argue; what if it didn’t work?”

“There is always the possibility of failure,” said Tam. “But it seems that I did not fail. Or at least, that I found a space between the word ‘claim’ and the word ‘gain’, and I left through it.”

“And if someone else finds that thing, and you do claim it?”

“It may come back, when I am feeling lost, or in despair,” said Tam. “It is as much a lure as the wreck you saw, as false as the shark. I cannot say that I will never chase it, but I do not chase it now.”

“Tam,” started Jione, and then stopped.

“I know,” he replied. “I owe you everything; you put your trust in me, and I will not betray it.”

“Everything,” she said, “And three–”

“Two.”

“And two Imperials.”

She’d put the whole world in his hands, and he’d given it back to her. “Y’know,” she said, and hesitated. She was going to say it wrong, and sound like an idiot, but she was going to try. “You need a partner.”

“Partner?”

“Sure. There’s no way the houses or the guilds are going to give you a fair shake. I mean, a ten percent improvement to sniffers, and a probable search area for the Grand Invincible? You need someone who knows what things are worth, or you’re going to get cheated, and maybe killed.”

Tam looked at her, and the flush came from beneath her dive suit, all the way up to her hair. He knew what she was asking. She didn’t look away, and neither did he.

“I have been spending recklessly,” he said. “I thought it didn’t matter; either I would fail, and go back from where I came, or succeed, and go further back. But it seems that I have washed ashore here.” He took her hand; it hurt, because of the spines of the stonefish and the sharkskin, but she gripped back hard, harder than she had held the golden thread. “It’s cold at night, Jione. Cold and dark, and I cannot trust myself to dream, lest the dreams take me back where I do not wish to go. If you will have me, I am yours.”

“All that and three—”

“Two.”

“Two imperials.” Jione put her arms around Tam’s neck, leaned forward. “Deal,” she said, and kissed him.

____

Copyright 2017 Alter Reiss

Alter S. Reiss lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel.  According to his mother, his first word was “book,” which seems about right.  He likes good food, bad movies, and hopes that at some point his apartment won’t be under construction.

by Julie Novakova

It had been the most desperate moment of Angelo Neumann’s life so far, and you were certain to live through many such moments if you lived for the opera. When he closed his eyes, he could still picture his friend of so many years and partner in so many troublesome events, wildly running away from the new opera house and crying: “Can’t get me in there again! I’m done! Hear me?! Done!” Which were the most articulate parts.

Paul Leger had been Neumann’s close associate since Leipzig and had followed Neumann on his Nibelungen-Tournée: ten months across Europe with the whole cast and scenery on a train, playing the complete The Ring of The Nibelung in all notable cities. Both men had nightmares about it before they even started. But thanks to Leger’s skills, no serious incidents occurred during the tournée, which could be considered a miracle. And yet, Leger had run away screaming from the building of Prague’s Neue Deutsche Theater two weeks before its official opening.

Angelo Neumann’s future had never looked this dark.

A knock on the door broke his unhappy train of thoughts. “Enter,” he called.

His chief dramaturg, Heinrich Teweles, entered with a worried expression. “He’s not coming back, is he?” he asked quietly.

Neumann shook his head. “I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life.”

“I shall call the editors of Prager Tagblatt and Bohemia as soon as possible and tell them – that the construction work is taking longer than we’ve expected and the building cannot be opened as originally scheduled. Do you agree?”

The director nodded in gloom. “No one can know about this. Imagine the rumors it would undoubtedly start…”

He immediately regretted saying it as the picture of such events came to his mind all too well.

No, they couldn’t possibly let anyone know that his chief exorcist had nearly lost his mind in the new opera house and they had no replacement at hand. They’d be opening to an empty auditorium. Only those with a death wish or too much love for risk would come.

“We have to find someone capable,” he said aloud.

Teweles knitted his brows. His thoughts no doubt converged to the same problem as Neumann’s: How would they find a skilled exorcist on such a quick notice and as secretly as possible?

“Well,” the dramaturg broke the all too gloomy silence, “for now, we should announce the opening as we discussed in our contingency plan before, correct?”

“Correct.” Neumann sighed. He wanted the opening ceremony to coincide with the anniversary of the premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This remarkable piece was first played in Prague one hundred years ago. Neumann wished to build up on this strong tradition and make the declining German theatre in Prague a worthy competitor of the successful Czech National Theatre.

However, without an exorcist, they had no choice but to postpone the opening. It would have to be at the beginning of January instead of this November. He would move the Don Giovanni performance back to the Estates Theatre, which had sufficed for this purpose a century ago after all, and start with something else. He had already bought exclusive rights to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The public loved their Wagner as much as they loved their Mozart. This ought to be the best choice he’d been left.

“In order to make sure this plan runs on schedule, we should find ourselves an exorcist at the latest by the end of November,” Neumann concluded. His mind was already running through all the possibilities. With a frown, he realized he had no chance of luring any of the other central Europe opera houses’ established exorcists. He had known them all and their loyalty was nearly incorruptible. Nearly – but he didn’t have the conditions that would corrupt them here.

That left him some ancillary staff, retired exorcists or unskilled beginners, mostly self-taught.

“I’ll let the fact that we’re looking for someone become known in the right circles,” Teweles promised him. “These people won’t tell anyone distrustful.”

“And I shall do the same,” Neumann sighed. “Let us see whom destiny brings us.”

By the end of the month, it had brought them two half-blind retired exorcists previously employed by small local theaters, one complete amateur who almost set himself one fire during the interview and then a young man. Neumann was horrified the second the last candidate had walked through the doors of his office. He was barely a man, more like a child! He couldn’t have been more than twenty. The situation was most certainly getting worse.

But Heinrich had recommended he see this youngster, a boy of one of their actresses. What else did he have to lose by talking to him but a few minutes?

“Gustav Meyer,” the boy introduced himself. His manner was calm, polite and concise. He didn’t seem to make any unnecessary movements or indulge in unnecessary words – an opposite of Neumann, who knew very well his manner was very theatrical and jovial, for which people in his kind of world loved him.

“All right, Herr Meyer. Do you have any references?”

“I do not.”

“So you never worked as an exorcist before, correct? And what did you do?”

“I have some experience with banking. However, I believe it to be irrelevant in this situation.”

A barely grown-up not-even-banker. What on earth did Heinrich see in the boy?!

“Do you know the requirements for the position you’re inquiring about?”

“I do.”

“Well,” Neumann coughed a little, “forgive me for saying that, but you look awfully young. Most exorcists study long before they practice. How old are you?”

“I’m turning twenty in January.”

Not even twenty! Neumann tried to mask his horror. It worked; after all, he used to be an actor. Yet the boy seemed to notice it very well – and remained as calm and composed as he had the moment he walked in.

“Why are you looking to refill this position?” Meyer asked suddenly in his quiet voice.

The director took a deep breath. “I’m going to be frank with you, but I have to remind you that nothing you’re going to hear leaves this office. Ever.”

The boy kept looking at him with his calm bright blue eyes.

“We’re having trouble with the new opera house. Our previous exorcist, a very skilled man who could handle… ahem, a lot, left us a month ago.”

“Dead?” the boy asked with no sign of worries.

“Dear God, no! It didn’t go that far – no casualties. But we’ve encountered a nasty poltergeist during one of the rehearsals and getting rid of it nearly cost Paul his mind – and that was just the last incident of many. He swore that this house was cursed and he wouldn’t set foot there ever again.”

Neumann paused, waiting for the improbable candidate to finally give away his fear–from a mortified expression to fleeing the office. Yet he displayed no signs of fear whatsoever. His behavior puzzled Neumann.

Maybe one of those crazies with a death wish? The thought occurred to him suddenly. Yes, that had to be the case. He certainly didn’t want one of those as his exorcist.

“How many of these incidents were there?” Meyer asked.

Reluctantly, Neumann said: “Five in the course of one month.”

For the first time, the young man showed some kind of emotion. It was curiosity. “From what I’ve heard, it’s usual for a frequented opera house in an old city to have around five in a year.”

And this bloody building hasn’t even been opened yet, Neumann added for himself.

“Interesting. And what was their nature?”

“Three poltergeists, two common ghosts. Probably very old judging from what we could glimpse of their apparels.”

“If you were willing to employ me, I would like to prevent any of those in the future.”

“Forgive me, but I’m not at all sure that a man of your age had time to acquire all the skills necessary for this work…”

“You can end the employment any time you consider appropriate. How are you going to find out whether I’m fit for the job without trying it?”

“You could easily come to harm – or even end up dead.” Neumann feared that this Meyer still didn’t understand the risks. He should be fleeing now, had he any sense. “I’m not going to take this responsibility. I’ve seen pride betray too many underskilled exorcists. You come with no references, no official learning certificate, a boy of barely twenty. What can you really do?”

“I studied Kabbala, the nature of divinity, sophianism and mysticism.” The young man’s face remained composed. “I’m familiar with most of the teachings of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox church, as well as with Jewish literature and to some degree also Indian and Chinese sources concerning the divine.”

Neumann was left speechless for a moment. “How did you come to that?”

“My interest was piqued at the age of sixteen, shortly after I came to Prague. For some personal reasons, I was considering ending my life. An act of destiny changed my decision at the last moment and set me on the path of the occult. It saved my life and transformed it.”

This time, the director didn’t try to conceal his horrified expression. “Suicide? When you were just sixteen?”

“As you said, I trust that nothing of this leaves the office. However, you’re right that this can be a somewhat shocking revelation. If I ever mention it to anyone else, I should probably tell them it had been a couple of years later,” Meyer was still looking at him calmly. His porcelain face, cleanly shaven, resembled a statue.

Suicide attempts don’t qualify people to become exorcists, a warning voice in Angelo Neumann’s head kept reminding. You don’t want anyone with a death wish near the opera.

However, this young man was observing Neumann with his bright, intelligent eyes and looked like someone with more sangfroid than the rest of the opera house’s employees together. Which, Neumann had to admit, wasn’t that hard.

“Alright,” he heard himself say, “you’re hired. But if you make any misstep or we find someone more qualified, I’d be obliged to let you go. Are you comfortable with these conditions?”

“I am,” Meyer said.

Neumann wasn’t sure if he imagined the faint smile of the young man’s lips.

Lately, Angelo Neumann always felt a sting of worry when approaching the Neue Deutsche Theater. With Meyer for the first time at his side, it was more an air of anticipation. The young man looked up at the spectacular Neo-Renaissance building with a curious gleam in his eyes and stepped inside without a word. Neumann felt proud as he showed him the magnificent interior full of golden ornaments. This was how a respectable opera house was supposed to look.

However, the exorcist showed no signs of awe, which somewhat disappointed Neumann.

“Can you show me where the previous incidents happened and explain their nature in more detail to me?” Meyer asked in his quiet baritone.

Neumann did so. He gave the youth a tour through the backstage. Here, Meyer seemed finally impressed by the elaborate devices hidden in the insides of the house. “These are beautiful,” he remarked. “But they also provide many opportunities for things to go wrong. We’ll have to be careful here.”

“It’s much better than in the Estates Theatre,” Neumann admitted. “Rather have a lot of complex machinery in a brand new building than crammed into an old house.”

“Yes, I see,” Meyer whispered, running his hand on the hydraulics tube of the stage machinery. He seemed captivated by the technology enabling the opera spectacles, hidden from plain sight.

He was right, though; it provided many ways potentially leading to a serious accident. One of the specters they had encountered did meddle with one of the limelights so that it nearly burned its operator.

“There’s a full rehearsal of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg here this afternoon. Be careful and pay attention to everything,” Neumann bid Meyer and hoped from the deepest part of his heart that he did not make a mistake hiring the boy.

Gustav Meyer was left alone in the so far empty, quiet backstage. He used the time before the rehearsal to explore the recesses of the opera house. He soon familiarized himself with the small niches and pathways of the place. As he climbed up the ladder to the new electrical spotlights that had promptly replaced limelights after the incident, he suddenly picked up a faint scent of apricots. It was more a whiff than a lasting sensation but it had left him wondering about its source.

He took a pack of cards from his pocket and randomly picked one. The Moon. Hmm.

“Hey, what are you doing up there?”

Meyer looked down at a short stumpy man in a worn-out tweed vest and a shirt with rolled up sleeves. “Gustav Meyer, an exorcist,” he introduced himself to the man and tipped an invisible hat.

The man’s face underwent an interesting change. “Oh,” he managed. “I, ahem, expected someone else.”

Older, translated Meyer for himself.

“I’m Kollar, the chief scene-shifter. I’m just making sure everything is prepared for the evening’s rehearsal.”

“Pray continue. I won’t be getting in your way.”

And he wasn’t. He found a quiet place in the green room and started laying out the cards into the Celtic cross. First, he chose a signifier representing this place. He thought of the Fool for a moment but then decided for Wheel of Fortune. After all, what else but a rapidly rotating wheel of fortune was the life of an opera house?

He shuffled the deck carefully and then picked the second card. It was the Moon, again, pointing at some present danger or deception.

The third one, signifying what to expect soon, was the Tower. Destruction.

Fourth, representing hidden fears and worries, came the Hanged Man: sacrifice and loss. Meyer frowned slightly at this development.

Well, at least the worst cards had come already. The rest…

Fifth, showing recent past, was Death: change, end of a cycle and a new start. That would be the opening of the new opera house and moving most of the Estates Theatre production here.

Six for nearest future: Judgment. It corresponded well to Death, stressing the need of good decisions and new beginnings.

Seven for himself: the Hermit. The corners of Meyer’s mouth twitched. Was he really the detached observer of this world, needing to distance himself even more?

Eight then should represent his current surroundings, nine the thoughts and feelings about the situation and ten, finally, the probable result. Meyer drew the eighth card and stopped in the middle of a motion, just before laying it on the table.

The Moon.

The faint smile froze on Meyer’s lips instantly. He collected himself and exhaled. No point in stopping now; he had to finish the divination.

He half expected the next card: The Tower. After all, it reflected his own thoughts at the moment.

For the final one, the Fool, he was almost grateful. In this context, it was a wild card. There was no most probable, written future yet; it all depended on the right decisions. His decisions, most likely.

But the reappearance of the Moon and Tower had alarmed him. The cards in his deck were theoretically capable of transforming to reflect the reality most accurately but it had never actually occurred before.

He was no longer wondering why his predecessor had left so abruptly.

There must be more to it than the usual apparition and poltergeist trouble

Meyer’s ruminations were interrupted by voices coming from the back entrance. He checked his pocket watch. The rehearsal was due in less than an hour. The actors must be arriving.

Meyer went to the door to see them. He recognized many of them from his visits to the Estates Theatre. Laura Hilgermann, whose voice he had always admired. Otto Brucks, the famous baritone. Adolf Wallhöfer, lead actor in many of Wagner’s operas in Prague – a truly great heroic tenor was quite hard to find. Ludwig Rochelle, who was deeply frowning now – perhaps not just in getting into the role? And there was Gustav Mahler, the kapellmeister. Meyer had heard some of his own compositions and found that he liked Mahler’s musical style a lot.

Overall, an exceptional company to be in. And one that would likely attract attention not just from this world.

Meyer decided to stay in the green room. He found a chair in the corner far from the waiting actors, which also allowed him to observe his surroundings. The singers paid him little or no attention. Presumably they didn’t know about his assignment yet.

He paid each of them little attention himself; instead, he focused on observing the scene as a whole, searching for anything that didn’t quite fit. But so far, everything looked and felt perfectly ordinary, at least as far as ordinary goes for opera. No disturbing mood changes (everyone seemed a bit strained and nervous, therefore normal), no temperature drop in the room, no bad gut feelings, odd shadows or anything else that might give away a supernatural presence. The deck of cards, resting on the table, didn’t move. Divining rods were safely tucked in Meyer’s pocket for now; he wouldn’t want to disturb the singers.

Meyer sat patiently while the rehearsal started, and listened to the opera. While he liked Wagner, he considered Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg one of the composer’s weaker works. But he had to give Neumann’s ensemble credit for their truly excellent performance. He didn’t see them but if they moved on the stage as well as they sang, the premiere would be a huge success.

Despite the music, he began to feel a bit weary and impatient near the end of the rehearsal. Even after some cuts, the performance would be over four hours long and the rehearsal naturally took even longer due to Neumann’s and Teweles’s remarks and suggestions.

Just as Adolf Wallhöfer as the knight Walther started his magnificent prize song Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, Meyer in spite of his immersion in the song noticed a slight chill in the room. He closed his eyes, extended his arm and tried to feel where it was most noticeable. It led him to one of the chairs at the other end of the green room. No one had sat there tonight, Meyer remembered – at least no one of corporeal nature.

However, he was sure it was occupied now. Not taking his eyes off the chair, he started incanting in a quiet, barely audible voice. The air above the chair began to shimmer. And then, vaguely human-like features started to be discernible in the corner of one’s eye. Meyer realized he knew these features. There was probably no one interested in opera who wouldn’t.

“Herr Wagner,” he bowed a little. “I’m very sorry to bring you this news but your presence in this opera house might endanger the course of your wonderful play. I’m sure you’ll understand and let the performance of your great piece run smoothly.”

He kept a cautious eye on the ghost. You never knew on what ground you were with them, not even after happily chatting for a few hours; they might start demolishing the room the next second.

The master composer wasn’t even looking at Meyer, as far as the young exorcist could tell. The gaze of the flickering apparition seemed to be focused on the singers at the other side of the waiting room who were listening eagerly in order not to miss their appearance, though they had stagehands to take care of that. So far none of them noticed Meyer or the strange silhouette barely visible on the chair.

Meyer felt a strange sensation of static in the air. The hairs rose on the back of his neck.

“Your musical highness,” he risked a perhaps too pompous flattery – but you were rarely too pompous with ghosts – to calm the spectre. “Can you hear how beautifully they perform your masterpiece? Isn’t it just marvelous that you can be here, listening to them?”

Another thing you could almost rely on: they rarely caught up with irony.

The crystal chandelier in the room shattered into pieces. Meyer heard the waiting singers cry out in horror.

Now the apparition became dark gray and very much visible. His face no longer resembled that of the dead composer. Or actually it could, if Wagner spent a lot of time with his face horribly contorted in anger, Meyer supposed.

He shouted a kabbalistic binding spell. It usually worked.

Unfortunately, relying on things that usually work could get you killed in this line of work.

Meyer felt a burning chill as a dark cloud in the shape of an arm reached out to him, going to touch his heart and stop it, he realized. He had no time to speak, nor to get away or otherwise avoid it.

The fingertips of the ghastly arm went through the fabric of his jacket and then suddenly drew away.

In this line of work, you could only count on things that always work. No otherworldly creatures whatsoever liked enchanted tarot packs. Too bad you couldn’t fight with them.

Das ich erträumt, das Paradies,” a pleasant deep heroic tenor sang from the stage. And then, during the last verse, turned into a not very musical shriek. Meyer got on his feet and ran after it. As he saw the performers cringing behind a fake tree and two – no, three dark shapes flying above it, he muttered a very foul curse in old Hebrew. Not that it had any effect on the spectres; it had only ever scared away one extremely puritan and well-educated ghost in an old cemetery, as far as Meyer could remember. He scanned the area. Wood. Paper. Fabric. Metal… not good against those. Damn it, wasn’t there any stone nearby?

There wasn’t, not anywhere close enough; only the papier-mâché decorations supposed to look like stone city walls behind the meadow where the scene had taken place.

Meyer smiled a little and closed his eyes for a moment. The image of the city walls stayed in the focus of his mind and grew into almost ridiculous proportions, in a way more real than the real thing. Meyer started whispering a strong binding spell. He felt the energy flow through him, knowing that he mustn’t stop at any moment before the spell ends lest he might incidentally cross the border himself, getting forever trapped at the other side.

Frost condensed on his hands. He kept chanting, raising his voice from whisper to speech encompassing the hole stage.

The poltergeists abandoned the rigging and turned to Meyer. They emanated a foul stench of rot.

He overcame the urge to retch, let the last verse of the chant slip off his lips and focused his gaze on the walls. On the thick, old walls of stone around the majestic city of Nurnberg.

Powerful wind swept through the stage and almost knocked Meyer off his feet. The geists flew angrily to him, their dark contours sharpening, but they couldn’t go on against the wind. Finally, they were swept to the stone wall – and consumed by it, once they had touched it.

Meyer sagged to his knees, panting heavily, frost thawing off his hands.

And he still felt the presence of the other entity. The ghost was weakened but not driven out.

Silence, for a couple of heartbeats. Then shouts and screams and calls filled the auditorium. But none of the singers ventured nearby Meyer. He was grateful for their fear.

From the backstage emerged Angelo Neumann, looking utterly devastated. He coughed a little. “Eh, I assume you sorted that out, then? Thank you. I thank you very much. But… this cannot go on,” he said quietly. Meyer detected a slight tone of anger in the director’s voice. Rising panic.

“It will not,” Meyer assured him. “There’s one ghost here that needs to be exorcised – and with him will leave also all the small poltergeists who were lured here by his presence.”

“And what kind of ghost is it?”

“A quite powerful one,” admitted Meyer. “Richard Wagner’s, to be specific.”

For a moment, Neumann’s face brightened. “Wagner? But I’ve known him, he actually liked me, I could…”

“You can’t do anything,” Meyer interrupted him. “Ghosts aren’t replicas of the people they’ve originated from. They have some traits from the original personality vastly exaggerated, some diminished. Reasoning is usually not their strong side, nor are patience, kindness – or plain ignorance. Imagine three of your most apparent personality traits, especially the negative ones, and multiply them a hundredfold. That’s what most ghosts are.”

“Well, yes, I just thought… such a brilliant man…”

A brilliant composer known for his impatience, moodiness, misanthropy and prejudices, Meyer added for himself. True ghost material.

“We got Mozart once when I became director, did you know that? And he was possible to work with, though one had to be careful and maintain good humor… He meant no harm.”

Meyer believed him. For what he knew, Mozart had had a spirit of an innocent, easily enthused and easily bored child throughout his whole not so long life. A ghost of a child with all their demands for attention and fun would mean no harm. But that didn’t say anything about not causing it.

“Please, just do not think about the apparition as Richard Wagner, can you do that? It’s not him. He’s dead and cannot come back – not the real him. Let me find a way how to get the ghost out of here for good.”

Neumann nodded hesitantly. Meyer could see that the director didn’t place much trust in his efforts. He was probably already considering what would it take to declare the building unfit for running an opera house and to return gladly to the old Estates Theatre.

Meyer didn’t try to assure him that things were going to turn out well. Matter-of-factly, he just said: “Please resume normal schedule regardless of what the others say. It’s vital for the work.”

Leaving Neumann temporarily speechless, he started climbing one of the ladders up to the fly gallery.

Frequently visited libraries, theaters and opera houses: these were the kind of places that attracted ghosts like a flame irrevocably attracts moths. All the most renowned opera houses in the world had their highly valued exorcists. A skilled one was not easy to find. And not many people ventured into a line of work that could make them mad or even get them killed, though casualties became quite rare over time. Meyer understood the despair of situation in which Angelo Neumann had recently found himself.

Alas, this kind of situation was not common for an opera house which hadn’t even been in operation yet. From what Meyer had known, he might expect a few easy-to-get-rid-of poltergeists, maybe a weak and fading ghost, but not anything like this by far. Something was amiss.

He wondered what the experienced previous exorcist had seen that made him abandon his life’s work.

From the detached heights of the upper catwalks, Meyer had observed the hum of the stage. From up here, it all seemed so distant. He sat next to one of the winches with ropes attached. Down there, Angelo Neumann was trying to calm the singers and musicians. Meyer caught a part of his words: “…a highly recommended, accomplished exorcist.”

He was accomplished now. You learn new things all the time.

Something was slightly off on the stage. The wall, of course, but that wasn’t what bothered Meyer. He could almost feel the presence of something else, unbound and angry. Too weak for the present moment but determined to strike later.

Meyer would be prepared for that.

The following morning, Meyer carefully placed sets of artifacts throughout the whole opera house. They had been small relics, vials of holy water, three horseshoes and chosen cards from an incomplete deck Meyer owned and kept for this very purpose. The pattern they formed should keep any unwanted off-worldly presence safely out. If they by any chance didn’t, Meyer would at least know what ground he’d been standing on. If nothing else, it should prevent such attempts at directly harming people as the ghost had tried yesterday.

Soon the opera house began to fill with people – mostly musicians, with the occasional scene-shifter or carpenter. There was just an orchestra rehearsal scheduled for today. Even as it was, Meyer overheard some disgruntled remarks on how hard Neumann works them: a rehearsal now, a performance later, then another, not a day to be spent outside the opera…

From the replies, Meyer also caught an interesting piece of fact: The personnel mostly loved Neumann. No matter how hard he worked them sometimes, his charming, jovial and generous personality made him a hard man to dislike.

Yet someone was most likely trying to bring him down – and the whole opera house with him. Which was the primary target?

The rehearsal commenced. Meyer sat in the auditorium, in the first row, just above the orchestra pit.

It was a delight to see Mahler and his orchestra at work. Music, thought young Meyer, was in a way a door to another realm as well. This one, unlike divination or spells, however, remained a mystery to him.

Suddenly he felt a chill going down his spine. The air felt colder and somewhat thinner.

He didn’t have to turn to know who had appeared beside him.

“Good afternoon,” Meyer said silently. “Have you come to listen to the rehearsal? They’re brilliant, aren’t they?”

He heard a snort. “Brilliant? I should be conducting! Then they would be brilliant!”

Do not argue. Not with a ghost Meyer hesitated for a second. If he angered the ghost he’d risk more imminent incidents. However, if he didn’t draw his attention to himself, the same might occur. And in the first case, he might at least learn something.

“You conducted many of your operas truly masterfully,” Meyer nodded.

He avoided mentioning the fact that Wagner drove many musicians and singers to tears in his days. But then again, so could the otherwise cheerful and jovial Neumann when he thought they weren’t working hard. Meyer could see what Wagner used to like about the director.

“Why have you come to this rehearsal?”

The ghost didn’t answer.

“And this opera house? What has driven you to visit it before the grand opening?”

Wagner turned to him abruptly. His eyes seemed like black pits to… Meyer wasn’t sure where. He had studied various Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Hinduist philosophies and each branch differed in what lies beyond. He would like to put the matter under close scrutiny someday, if he could devise a workable method.

“Cannot one visit an old friend?” The ghost’s voice sounded nothing like human this time. The eyes, pitch black a moment ago, shone brightly. Meyer nearly couldn’t see the swift motion as the spectre moved and disappeared from his view.

Meyer stood up and looked into the pit. The rehearsal seemed to be continuing normally…

He dived into his pocket for just one card and produced the Tower.

“Herr Mahler! Please, stop the rehearsal!”

The conductor faltered for a second but resumed his work immediately while looking around his shoulder at Meyer, who had to admire the man’s skill. His movements never ceased, even as he was paying his attention to the young exorcist.

“I believe there’s danger coming very soon. Please, stop until I –”

Meyer couldn’t finish. In the corner of his eye, he spotted a sudden movement. Before he could really comprehend his own action, he leapt into the pit and knocked down the shocked Mahler. A bow quickly flew through the space where Mahler’s head had been just a moment ago.

The ghost appeared above them on the conductor’s platform, blazing rage in his eyes.

“You – a disgrace to my work! A filthy Jew!”

Ah, Wagner’s hardly secret antisemitism. Meyer shouldn’t be surprised. Negative traits made it into ghosts most easily.

Meyer didn’t wait for the ghost to finish his spiteful speech. Still covering Mahler with his body, he scanned his surroundings quickly.

Chants and charms alone would do nothing with such a strong spectre, cards could only show the probable future… He needed something to amplify the effects of spells. If only someone else could chant along with him, but he couldn’t expect anyone to know the obscure words –

Oh.

“Can you do some improvisation conducting based on the rhythm of verses?” he whispered.

“I think so,” Mahler answered quietly.

“Let’s start then.”

Before he even finished the sentence, Meyer was standing again and began chanting. Mahler’s conductor’s baton drew several circles in the air.

The orchestra was too fazed initially but then the first members collected themselves and started playing. The rest followed in the matter of seconds.

Wagner stopped talking. He must have realized what Meyer was attempting.

A surprised cellist squeaked when his bow was snatched from his hand by an invisible force, hang in the air for a moment and turned to young Meyer.

He couldn’t break the chanting. With his eyes, he pleaded the players to emerge into the strange music, focus on it instead of the ghost. If Wagner gained power over more instruments…

Meyer ducked as the bow raced at him like an arrow.

This is beginning to be rather tiring, he thought as he continued incanting. His voice grew louder, the chant more intense, and he saw that Mahler’s arms were moving rapidly…

“To banish me from my own opera! I’ll send you all to hell!” roared Wagner’s ghost.

Meyer finished the chant, exhausted, and at the same time the apparition suddenly vanished. He collapsed on the platform, feeling fully drained. The next second, the conductor was helping him sit up and shouting orders at the orchestra.

He must have blacked out for a moment because when he came to, he was already in the backstage and Neumann was leaning over him. The director let out a sigh of relief as he saw Meyer’s eyelids flicker.

“Oh, thank god! Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Meyer nodded.

“And is he gone?”

“Yes –”

“Wonderful, young man! You may have just saved our theatre!”

Yes, for a while, Meyer wanted to say.

Christmas time came, working its way into people’s lives. The delicate fragrance of clove and cinnamon, along with the stronger air of fresh pine twigs, filled the air. The opera personnel was free for the three holiday days, however, the time between them and the New Year’s Eve would be full of work. There was no time to lose before the grand opening.

Luckily, no ghost whatsoever had made an appearance since the last Wagner incident. Several members of the house already congratulated Meyer for his impeccable action. But he remained doubtful. His last spell was a powerful one indeed, one that exhausted him greatly, but even that had a limited power. With time, it kept growing weaker, and one day the balance would be inevitably tipped back in favor of the ghost.

He should make himself ready by then.

One day before the New Year’s Eve, the penultimate rehearsal was scheduled. Meyer watched it from his favorite place up in the fly gallery.

Opera, he thought with a hint of nostalgia as he gazed down at the performers. Every emotion is stronger, luxury shinier, danger deadlier than in reality. Every single detail, better than life. At least if you belong in this particular world. This unbelievable Wheel of Fortune that never stops turning.

It truly never stopped, not even that day. All of a sudden, Gustav Meyer felt a slight chill.

The whiff of cold air came from the opposing fly gallery, accompanied by a faint smell of apricots, which wasn’t a part of the Christmas spirits. Probably an altogether different spirit indeed. Meyer stood up carefully and walked across the narrow catwalk connecting both galleries.

He could already make out a dark silhouette leaning against the back railing. A few steps further, he even heard the silent muttering.

“…my opera …foul Jew …thought Neumann a friend… deserve to suffer…”

Oh dear. But ghosts were rarely subtle in their feelings and actions.

Meyer thought of using another spell but this spirit was evidently a powerful one, drawn here urgently. If the previous spell, amplified by the music, worked only for a few weeks, what good would be another short-term solution – especially as its effect might diminish at the time of the opening?

However, before he could decide whether to use any of the more exotic – not speaking of dangerous and ill-practiced – solutions, his train of thought had been interrupted by an angry roar of the ghost.

And there goes the plan to talk first. Meyer gripped the railing closely, painfully aware of his station on a narrow bridge some ten meters above the stage.

“Come to attack me again?” When the spirit’s face emerged from the shadows, its eyes were like pits into the depths of a vast nothingness. Meyer averted his gaze with some difficulty.

And then again, maybe some talking will be feasible. “No, maestro. I –”

“Good! Then you won’t stop my plan!”

Opera ghosts could sometimes be very theatrical.

Down onstage, Eva and Walther were just planning to run away together.

But that wasn’t where the ghost’s glare traveled.

“Stop the rehearsal!” Meyer cried out as loudly as he was capable of. No one seemed to have heard him. And before – they surely would have heard the ghost’s shriek, wouldn’t they?

The thing that looked like Wagner laughed aloud. “I too have a couple of tricks up my sleeve, boy.”

 

The ghost didn’t look away from the orchestra pit even for a moment, but Meyer saw his hand move. At first, he saw nothing else suspicious, then he spotted movement: a rope started swaying, lightly at first. The motion gained speed.

Meyer glanced at the end of the rope and at its direction and a muttered curse escaped his lips.

The counterweight!

And at the end of its path, if he didn’t do something, the conductor.

He followed the rope to the pulley and found the other end tied to one of the pinrails.

The next second, the rope gave way and sent the weight on its other end flying across the stage by its unnaturally high momentum.

No time. Meyer threw himself at the rope, catching it just so and swinging with it above the heads of the singers. The illusion broke since he had heard a few cries and shouts instead of singing.

He must have been somewhat heavier than the counterweight, alas, the ghost failed to show proper respect to laws of physics. In a fraction of a second, Meyer could imagine the consequences: the counterweight hitting the conductor before he had a chance to jump aside, himself landing just after.

With a rare presence of mind, Meyer shouted one of the more concise spells, a not very powerful one – a thing that would anger the ghost rather than expel him. And that was exactly what happened.

The counterweight, put off course by the ghost’s miscalculation of strength, missed the conductor’s place only by a few inches and ended up in the first row of the auditorium.

So did Meyer: shaken, perplexed, vaguely surprised at the notion that he might just have got through it all right except for some bruises and that his desperate momentary plan had worked.

He glanced up. He couldn’t see the fly system from here but something was telling him that the ghost was gone. For the moment.

Everything was very still for a second and then excited and horrified voices filled the stage.

Neumann was hurrying to the front from his place in one of the back rows. From the orchestra pit emerged Gustav Mahler, pale as death. Meyer collected himself from his rather undignified position, amazed that he truly escaped quite unscathed, and hastened to them.

“I cannot conduct the piece if I’m in mortal danger,” the kappellmeister was just saying in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry, Angelo. We’ve been friends for many years, you’ve given me a chance when I was still a nobody, but I hope you can understand that I won’t risk my life for the premiere.”

Neumann nodded gloomily. “I understand.”

Lost was the director’s usual loud cheerfulness. Neumann had been the kind of person who could get even an elephant to act on the stage. However, he seemed to understand it would be futile to insist. Persuading a respected friend to risk his life for opera crossed a line.

It was therefore Meyer who spoke: “Herr Mahler, it is of the utmost importance that you conduct the premiere. I cannot stress how essential it is.”

The conductor’s surprise was quickly replaced by a deep frown. “Is it?”

“Vital.”

“I’m afraid that not attending the opening may prove vital for me.”

Meyer fished for something in his pocket and produced a small silver pendant. “I usually don’t let this out of my hands but in this case… Please, take it and always have it by yourself. It’s a strong protective charm. The ghost may still be able to reach you but won’t do you any serious harm.”

Mahler took it reluctantly. “I should rely on this with my life?”

“I did.”

“So why give it away?”

All eyes – now the whole ensemble was gathering around them – turned to Meyer. The young exorcist remained detached. “Because we need the grand opening to go smoothly. And for that, we need you, am I right?”

“Quite,” said Mahler after a pause. He exchanged a look with Neumann. “I… I’ll stay. For now. But if there’s another incident…”

“I’ll take care of it.”

The young man’s thoroughly confident tone seemed to assure the conductor and director. It didn’t do such a splendid job assuring himself – but no one else needed to know about that.

Was the theatre safe for now? The Tower, the Moon and the Hanged Man gave a rather gloomy answer. Meyer sighed inwardly. It seemed that trouble was not entirely over for the day. Should he stay?

Ah, well, he felt tired and aching after his escapade but not at all sleepy anyway.

With his cards and divining rods, he stalked the dark corridors. He followed the trail of bad omens such as drawing the Moon or the Tower at a junction, the rods shaking rapidly in that direction or foreboding patterns in the dust settled on the floor. They were all there for those who knew what to look for. Strong ones, too. Meyer’s calm was beginning to wear out.

The signs led him to the conductor’s room. A faint glimmer emanated from under the door.

By this time, the opera house should have been deserted. He saw Mahler leave. Even the director had already gone home. Was it the cleaning boy? Meyer doubted the easy explanation. And after what had happened, this room was too much for a coincidence.

He knocked on the door slightly and entered without waiting for a reply.

A figure sat slouched by a table, face buried in his hands, resembling a marble statue. Exhaustion was the first label that came across Meyer’s mind.

Meyer bowed a little. “Master composer.”

Wagner raised his head. Was that a hint of bitterness in the spectre’s expression?

“Am I still that? Or are you going to banish me from here again by force?”

He seemed calm, composed. The ghost’s rare moment of clarity should not go wasted. Meyer approached him slowly. “I would not resort to that if you didn’t constitute a danger to this theatre. I’m sorry, but you are that. Do you remember what you’ve done earlier today?”

“The fool was using too fast tempi, ruining the piece. When I had been conducting…”

He had the aura of someone trying hard to remember something long forgotten; an old man grasping for the precious blurred memories of his childhood. Meyer felt sorry for him – but he had a responsibility to the living.

“You trust Angelo Neumann, don’t you? He chose the best kappellmeister. Everyone will love the performance. But you need to leave. I’m afraid your interference isn’t helping the rehearsals.”

“Damn you,” the former composer whispered. “You can’t imagine what it is to see all this and be unable to act on it as you could when you… were alive. When it takes a tremendous effort even to hold one’s mind together. What would be left of you had you become a ghost after you died, Meyer?”

The young man thought about it for a second. “Hunger for learning about the world and beyond, I suppose. Curiosity. Observant nature. But these are, of course, features I would like to characterize myself with. They might have nothing in common with the deep-rooted things that would be left after everything else had been carried away by the river Styx.”

Despite his air of despair, the ghost chuckled. “Oh, how lovely, you actually believe in Styx!”

“I believe it’s a powerful metaphor,” Meyer said placidly.

“Let’s see what would become of you, shall we?”

“I would hope for this finding to be delayed some decades.”

“Hah, I bet you would! I bet…” The dead ghostly eyes sparkled. “What if we made a little bet?”

Urgent words flickered through Meyer’s mind: Never make any kinds of bets with the other world. You can only lose. You always lose, one way or another.

“What kind of a bet?” he said.

“Oh, something easy and fun.” Wagner seemed to be right in his element. Meyer remembered the rumors that Richard Wagner had been driven to hazard in his life, and wondered it they were true. “Since you love cards so much,” the ghost continued, “if you can win over me in a game of cards, I leave for good. If you can’t do it, you give me your life. Let’s see what would you turn into then.”

For a moment, everything was perfectly still. Meyer could hear the sound of his own breath.

It sounded like music.

“Only if you promise not to hurt anyone and let the grand opening take place in peace,” he heard before he could even realized it was himself speaking.

Wagner’s ghost burst into loud laughter. There wasn’t anything happy or sincere about it. “All right, young man! Tomorrow here at this time of the day, we shall see who can outplay whom.”

With these words, he disappeared as if he had never been there. Meyer had to blink away the sudden gray spots in front of his eyes.

A thoroughly unpleasant feeling settled over him.

As though he had just plunged into a pit and there was nothing he could do now – nothing but accept it and try to devise a plan before he fell too deep.

The next late evening, Meyer turned up in the so far empty dressing room – luckily, no rehearsals were scheduled for today. It did not remain empty for long. As he felt a slight drop of temperature, a whiff of cold and somehow summer air at the same time, he knew he was not alone even without having to turn.

The ghost had kept his word. That had always been a good sign. Perhaps, through the sheer willpower of adhering to the original human personality, the ghost would retreat on his own will. Meyer could hope. But did he truly believe it? Not for a second.

He turned and reached for his cards but Wagner laughed. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant laugh. “Oh no, we are not playing with this wondrous deck of yours. Who knows what enchantments might lurk there? Besides, I wouldn’t touch those if my life depended on it, even if I still had one. No – and before you say it, neither am I supplying the deck. But what kind of an opera house would this be if there was no place at all where the riggers and scene-shifters go to play cards?”

A new one, Meyer thought but he remembered seeing the men gathered by a game of tarock in one of the shops in the basement.

“I may know…”

As soon as he mentioned this fact, the ghost waved a hand slightly and a deck turned up in it.

Now it was Meyer’s turn to laugh. “Do you expect me to believe that it’s their deck and not yours, conjured out of thin air?”

“I may be dead, but I’m not any sort of conjuror. Examine it as you like. You’ll find it’s a completely ordinary deck of cards, quite worn out by frequent use.”

And so it seemed to be. No signs whatsoever pointed to its possible unearthly origin.

Meyer and the ghost sat to the small table.

What shall we play? Meyer almost asked but caught himself in time. He’d have put himself in a worse bargaining position. Instead, he reached for the cards, shuffled them and said: “Twenty-one?”

The ghost shrugged. “As you wish.”

Meyer dealt one card to himself, one to Wagner, both face down. Then each of them looked at his card. Meyer had the Seven of Swords. Good, he thought. One card of three, one third of twenty-one.

“Do you want another?” he asked his opponent.

“Yes.”

Both received their second cards. Meyer’s was the Five of Cups. Twelve was a good value to have in two cards – it meant that the third one was fairly safe and would with most probability get him very close under twenty-one.

“Tell me,” Meyer spoke while Wagner was ruminating over his second card, “why have you decided to visit this place in particular, at this time?”

The ghost looked at him across the table. “Why, I couldn’t resist such a powerful drag. And one should always remember to pay a visit to old friends. Well, can we move in the game?”

Meyer’s hand stopped above the deck. “Do you want the last one?”

“Yes.”

There was no emotion in the spectre’s face as he saw his card. Meyer gazed at his one just a second later and held his breath.

It was the Ten of Swords. A card of death and destruction when used for divinatory purposes.

It had never seemed as acute to Meyer as right now.

Twenty-two. He had lost his life.

With surprisingly steady hands, he held the cards face upwards. The ghost was just doing the same. In his greyish, somewhat translucent hands, were the Five of Wands, Eight of Pentacles and Nine of Swords. Twenty-two.

Meyer exhaled slowly.

The ghost produced a sour smile. “So it seems we have both lost our bets.”

“Or none of us.”

Wagner was looking at him through eyes narrowed in contemplation. “We both lost, my good friend. If we both had the same value of twenty-one or less, I would agree with you. However, on this occasion… I believe we should both collect our respective bets, what do you say? I leave, you die?”

Words had stuck in the middle of Meyer’s throat.

“Or possibly we could postpone it a bit so that we both could witness the grand premiere… Yes, that shall do it. Until then – au revoir, Herr Meyer.”

And he vanished into thin air, leaving the young exorcist staring at the cards that had brought forth his impeding doom.

Angelo Neumann could be found in the Estates Theatre. Meyer wondered if the director ever spent his waking time outside one of his two theaters. As Neumann spotted him, he clicked his tongue and ushered him to one of the empty dressing rooms. As discussions with exorcists went, he would rather have no ensemble present to hear the conversation.

“I have some good and some bad news for you,” Meyer started, confirming his suspicion.

Neumann frowned. “Well, go on.”

“The good are, your problems with ghosts have a clear explanation. Someone has been deliberately drawing them in, Herr Wagner’s ghost practically verified this for me. If there wasn’t any strong lure or drag in here, my warding pattern would have kept them out.” Meyer paused. “The bad news are, I still don’t know what the lure is and how to get rid of it. Oh, and I had made a bet with the ghost. I had no other choice at the moment.”

“What bet exactly?”

“For my life.”

All color drained from Neumann’s face. “You can’t be serious,” he gasped.

“I am. Please, trust me. I will do my best.”

“Somehow, I have no trouble believing that,” the director murmured. “And this bet, did you…”

“Yes, we’ve played already. It was inconclusive. But let us focus on the source drawing the ghosts in. Do you have any enemies?”

“I didn’t think so up until now.”

“None?”

“Well, I’ve had to let some people go but surely they wouldn’t…”

“Any of them recently make an appearance here?”

“Not that I know of.” Neumann sighed. “There’s a lot of competition in the operatic world but certainly no one would resort to such means. It just doesn’t fit. I’ll think about it, though. But what should we do with the premiere? Should we cancel the event?”

It was apparent how much it pained the director to say this. Meyer hoped his answer would relieve him: “No. That would not be necessary. However, I’m not sure whether I can ensure its safety completely. I’d say it would be a calculated risk.”

Neumann gulped. Beads of sweat formed above his brows. “We… don’t usually take these. What about the safety of the viewers and the performers? If lives are at risk, we should at least postpone…”

He caught the exorcist’s glance and his voice died off.

“It is reasonable to go forth as planned. Please, trust me.”

And so he did.

After Meyer had left, a nagging thought formed in the director’s mind: He’s saying that a lot.

“Move it! We haven’t got all day! Raise the church wall in three, two…”

The day of the grand opening arrived. Everyone had been up and about since the small hours, making sure everything would go according to plan, except for Meyer, who had spent a whole night in the house and only came back in the afternoon. But this was opera. You could never make absolutely sure, only do everything in your power and then hope and pray it would suffice. Trouble could resurface practically from anywhere, and so praying was what most of the ensemble did, to any number of entities. From what Meyer had heard, Dionysus was rising in popularity among the thespian folk.

A superstitious lot, they were – especially now.

Meyer could see the horseshoes hanging above several dressing room doors, the traditional exchange of small keepsake gifts and hear the silent mutterings. At one occasion, he almost got a dash of salt into his eyes as one chorus girl threw it over her shoulder without noticing his approach. Such were the smaller, quite harmless dangers of being an opera exorcist.

So far, there were no signs of ghost trouble. But Meyer had no doubts that Wagner’s ghost would choose the most vulnerable moment to strike.

The auditorium filled with the chattering crowd. The performers gathered in the green room. Already, the scene-shifters and lighting technicians stood at their posts.

Meyer spent the last moments before the start walking inconspicuously around the house, checking his wards and occasionally drawing a card from his pocket. The Wheel of Fortune kept coming up constantly. In a way, it reassured him. Nothing was certain yet.

The curtain went up and a loud cheer greeted the director on stage. Meyer found a quiet place from where he could observe most of the auditorium and the stage well and listened to Angelo Neumann’s speech. It wasn’t overly pompous, yet it carried a positive air of grandiloquence. Meyer had to admire the director for his theatrical skills.

Neumann, having finished talking, bowed to another round of applause and then left the stage to the performers. Parcival de Vry’s scenery was just magnificent and quickly drew the audience to 16th century Nurnberg. There were Eva Pogner and the knight Walther von Stöltzing, falling in love with each other; Walther cradling the hope of winning Eva’s hand in marriage in the oncoming song contest of the master singers guild; Beckmesser, furiously marking Walther’s mistakes on the blackboard…

The first act and intermission had gone by without any incident and Meyer found himself enjoying the performance very much and admiring the work of the ensemble, though every once in a while he reached for the cards and kept checking the motionless divining rods. Well, motionless; up until now, to be precise. As he grasped them again, they started shaking fiercely, pointing slightly left. Meyer got up and hurried where they led him, while trying to look as inconspicuous as possible under the circumstances.

A card fell out of his pocket. He glanced at it and saw the Hanged Man.

Oh, brilliant.

The rods led him backstage. He slowed down his pace then and hid the rods under the edge of his evening jacket. Underneath it, they were still twitching wildly, indicating the direction of the disruptance. Meyer, with a faint exasperation, looked up.

The fly system was anything but deserted now. It buzzed with activity and Meyer elicited more than a few surprised and disgruntled looks by appearing up there. But no one dared to question the presence of an exorcist, not after what had been happening in the past two months. They continued doing their job with more alertness than ever, some whispering silent prayers, touching crosses or other talismans and throwing wary glances in Meyer’s direction.

He didn’t bother to hide the rods any longer. After all, a rapidly twitching and shaking edge of a jacket is suspicious by itself.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled to a suddenly very pale rigger and squeezed past him on the catwalk.

Meyer had to clutch the rods now to prevent them from flying off on their own. A moment later, they snapped and the useless remains fell down on the stage, luckily not on anyone’s head. He drew a fitful breath, staring down in disbelief.

A card shot out of his pocket and he had to apply himself to catch it before it drifted down too.

The Moon.

Meyer suddenly understood what was going on. Icy sweat ran along his spine.

Contrary to the public folklore, ghosts rarely possessed living people. It took a very strong and determined ghost to do that and a lot of effort to hold the possession. Why bother if the strong ones could already influence the corporeal world quite easily without going through such trouble?

However, if they plainly wanted to hide from unwanted attention…

Meyer looked around slowly.

It can be anyone.

The old rigger in a checkered vest? The frowning stout little man by the nearest pulley? The freckled lighting assistant?

He could perform a general exorcism, true, but trying to draw the spirit without knowing the target might injure or kill the possessed person. Meyer had no choice but identify him first. Without letting the ghost know when he does, preferably.

The cards were his favored method of choice but they were too conspicuous. He scanned his surroundings and found himself conveniently near a little spilt sand from one of the counterweights. Abacomancy was not among his well-practiced techniques but it would have to do. He pretended to be leaning on the railings and examining the adjacent section of the rigging system. Presumably to see it closer, he knelt for a moment.

He ran his fingers through the sand and whispered.

To his dismay, though not really surprise, the sand grains didn’t do anything as overt as forming an arrow clearly pointing at one of the men. However, the resulting shape certainly held a pattern of sort – only Meyer couldn’t immediately see what it had been supposed to represent. He had a vivid and wild imagination but one that expressed itself in feelings and situations rather than purely visual terms.

What does it look like? What does it signify?

He recalled a game they sometimes used to play with mother when he had been a little boy. What do you see in the clouds? Look, there’s a locomotive! And over there an opened book

What do you see now?

A few heartbeats went by. Then he saw it.

A ship.

Meyer knew, thanks to his actress mother, that in some countries the chief of riggers, or flymen, was called the fly captain – a tradition stemming from the fact that the fly crew often originally used to be former seamen.

Here, the fly coordinator was a rather young man, unusual for someone with that kind of responsibility, but then again, Meyer himself had been barely twenty. The rigger probably worked the fly loft since he’d been a teenage boy.

Meyer walked casually to the young man, letting a small cross slip into his hand. “Excuse me, sir?” he asked calmly, and when the man turned, he pressed the cross onto his forehead and started incanting in Latin. He was using Vade retro satana the old-fashioned Christian exorcism, the one most people in these parts of the world imagined when they heard “exorcism”, though it was actually a rather rare occasion.

The man’s features bent and distorted, a low growl escaped his throat, but he could not move.

A moment later, the fly captain’s body sagged, unconscious but breathing. But the spirit inside was not gone; only unleashed. Meyer gestured at two riggers to take the man to safety, then threw a handful of sand into the air and followed its trail.

Down onstage, Beckmesser started his serenade to Eva, accompanied by Hans Sachs’s hammering of shoe soles.

The ghost formed into a human-like shape again, descending on the catwalk. His expression seemed to be varying between rage and sad disappointment by less than seconds.

“I might have wanted to spare you, in spite of your insolence, only if you let me be just for today!” His tone swung between emotions as he spoke.

Meyer shrugged. “Then you shouldn’t have told me with certainty that you would take my life.”

“What if we make a new agreement now? I let you be, you let me be…”

Meyer didn’t let any emotion show on his face but he was smiling inwardly. So he’s afraid.

“If you tell me what you’ve been planning when instructing the other riggers, I may consider being kinder than otherwise,” he admitted. “It couldn’t have been anything obvious, else they would spot it immediately; they’re capable and experienced workers. Therefore, if we eliminate the most outré possibilities, it leaves us with something much more subtle: You were just preparing ground for yourself, for when you abandon the man’s body and are free to act with the prerequisites in place. Am I not mistaken?”

“Change of plan,” the ghost growled and went for him.

Unlike most of the riggers, Meyer did not have a safety harness. He clutched the railings and waited. And waited. It took a fraction of a second but felt like a lifetime until he sensed the right moment, at least hoped to have done so, and pulled the invisible threads he had woven last night.

The elaborate rigging of the fly system gave him the inspiration. He presumed the ghost would manifest himself in that area, as he seemed to have developed a liking for it and it would give him a chance to strike where it felt most.

So Meyer had prepared a rigging of his own.

As soon as the threads closed in upon them, the ghost realized the trap he had fallen into. He went after the young exorcist with the more fury. Meyer, having expected some dissatisfaction, braced himself. He wondered if his amulets, spells and personal resourcefulness would suffice this time.

As it was, they did. At least the observation – him being still alive as the ghost charged and then again – suggested that.

Meyer stood a little unsteadily on the catwalk, panting, not taking his eyes off the ghost.

A second of silence followed, then a loud applause. After it died away, near silence fell again.

The second intermission started.

Under normal circumstances, the backstage would come into frantic activity, shifting the scene, repairing costumes and make-up, re-checking the rigging system, loading new counterweights. However, now everything became mortally still.

“A stalemate, is it?” Wagner asked then, suddenly calm as a pond surface in a late summer day.

“It would seem so.”

Around them, the order of things was slowly returning to… not exactly normal but at least the pretense of normalcy. People returned to their work cautiously, hoping the source of trouble had been contained. In truth, it had – temporarily. Meyer hoped the interwoven threads would hold them through the whole intermission.

Time inside the barrier seemed to have passed slightly like in a dream. Lazily, like honey dripping off a spoon.

None of them spoke for a moment. Then the strange passage of time was brought forward by the beginning of the third act.

“The prelude,” Meyer remarked quietly. “They’re playing it exquisitely, aren’t they?”

The ghost frowned a little but didn’t make any retort or any move at first. Then David, Sachs’s apprentice, began singing joyfully about the St. John’s day festivities, and Wagner’s face distorted in bitterness.

“We all rejoice when we’re young fools,” he muttered, “and what is it all for? What do we get for all our trouble in life? All our sacrifices, all our efforts are ultimately in vain.”

He extended his arms and felt for Meyer’s threads. They were weakening by the moment.

He touched them, interlaced them with his fingers, and pulled.

Meyer felt the web disentangle.

The time was running out.

Just as Hans Sachs started his famous Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!, accursing madness and futility in the world, Meyer could feel the wise shoemaker’s state of mind. He too would lament the course of things and where he had led it. Madness, above all.

All in vain. And what do we get

What do we get?

“The music,” he said.

Wagner looked at him in surprise, for a second stopping pulling at the thread.

“We get the music,” Meyer repeated. “Among other things. Listen.”

Mann, Weib, Gesell und Kind fällt sich da an wie toll und blind Gott weiss, wie das geschah?

In the rhythm of the song, Meyer started whispering. A quiet incantation, unobtrusive, in contrast with the intensity the song had reached. But it was enough.

Wagner faltered. He listened; listened to his own music, his own words, and Meyer’s.

A strange gleam covered his eyes.

He lowered his arms.

“This I leave on the earth…” He looked in the direction of the auditorium. He couldn’t have seen the audience, though – or maybe he could, being a supernatural being. He was silent for a while. “Then I think this is enough. But I… I don’t know how to go away.”

Meyer considered this for a moment. “I may have an idea.”

The ghost picked a card; so did Meyer. Each looked at their own.

One card escaped the pack and fluttered down like a leaf in autumn. Meyer glimpsed enough to see it was Judgment. It touched the stage lightly.

“Do you want another one?” Meyer asked.

“No.” Wagner shook his head. “I don’t.”

Meyer drew another and showed both to the spirit. They added up sixteen.

The ghost of Richard Wagner showed him his one. It was a seven.

“Goodbye,” the ghost said. He closed his eyes for a moment. The opera was just reaching the finale. “If I go someplace as beautiful as my Walther is singing about, I shall rest happy.”

Meyer had no knowledge of where souls went or whether they just disappeared if not drawn back to the world of the living, so he nodded. “Goodbye.”

The exorcist observed the apparition becoming more and more transparent, until not visible at all. Then he, just to be sure, carefully drew out a card. It was the Magician.

Tired and calm, Meyer smiled.

Down below, the music stopped, followed by a great applause.

Later that evening, Meyer sat in Angelo Neumann’s office, on the verge of exhaustion but happy – and so was the director. He praised Meyer’s actions, thanking him. So did Mahler before he retired home. The conductor also wanted to return him the talisman. Meyer assured him he could keep it for luck, though its warding power was probably lowered after today’s events. He couldn’t bring himself to tell Mahler that it was just a piece of cheap jewelry – to make an efficient amulet for a person, he would have to spend days around him forging the spell. He’d needed the conductor present at the premiere for his plan.

Now Mahler was safely home and Meyer and Neumann sipped tea, while most of the city of Prague slept soundly.

Neumann repeated what a success the exorcism was, and added in a less excited tone: “I’m still concerned about what drew the spirit in. I mean, if someone meant this theatre ill will, what if he tries again?”

Suddenly, Meyer broke into an uncontrollable laughter. Neumann watched him with apparent concern for his sanity.

“Oh! Of course,” Meyer said when he caught his breath. “I’m sorry, I’ve been so slow! You see, it wasn’t deliberate at all. Naturally, something was drawing the ghost in. Or, rather, somebody.” Meyer’s lips twitched. “Herr Wagner must have formed strong memories of the man who managed to perform the Nibelungen cycle all across Europe traveling by a train literally filled with opera.”

Neumann’s jaw dropped. “You mean…”

“Yes. The ghost has been lured here simply by your presence.”

“But why hasn’t anything happened in the Estates Theatre? We performed Wagner all the time!”

“You did, but the building had seen so many operas, plays and ballets that Wagner’s influence had been limited. After all, the composer most related to that theatre had been Mozart – and he did appear there. How many years have you been doing Wagner’s works in the Estates Theatre? His power simply couldn’t compare in that place.”

“But… we planned to open with Don Giovanni here! If it hadn’t been for the ghost trouble, the Master Singers would only come second!”

Meyer smiled a little. “Exactly.”

It took another second before the conclusion dawned on Neumann too. “Oh.”

“Maybe he felt like you owed him. Or he just wanted his opera to be remembered for the grand opening of a theatre he may have believed in – he certainly believed in you.”

Neumann looked a trifle stricken but not quite persuaded.

“In the end, I relied on one thing I had realized much too late, as I must admit in shame,” Meyer continued. “Ghosts tend to retain the most characteristic features of their former personalities. If you were to describe Richard Wagner by just one characteristic, what would it be?”

Neumann gazed at him, puzzled.

“Music lover,” Meyer explained. “Wagner must have loved music above all. You knew him: he had lived by it, hadn’t he? Eventually, everything had to come down to music. That was his legacy. Tonight’s premiere allowed him to finally go in peace.”

It took a while for the director to find his voice again. “I… guess I should be honored.”

“Don’t worry. There shouldn’t be any more trouble like this.”

Angelo Neumann laughed a little. “Yes – there is undoubtedly going to be some whole different trouble soon! Luckily we have you.”

Meyer put down his tea and hesitated. “Being an opera exorcist was a most intricate experience, no doubt, however I’m not sure whether I am truly the best person for this job, Herr Neumann. I’m still studying. If you didn’t find yourself in such a desperate situation before, I would not even apply.”

“Damn it, you saved this house!”

“Someone else might have achieved it sooner, and avoided risking the lives of the people. Let us agree, director, that when you find someone more suitable for the job, I’ll leave. Until then, you can rely on my help, of course.”

Neumann didn’t seem very happy about it but finally nodded. “But I hope you change your opinion anyway…”

“I would not rule out the possibility, yes. Opera can grow on you.”

“Ha! You’ve seen nothing. Our Carmen was once sung by a deceased diva getting ahold of the living singer’s body. We couldn’t do anything until the end of the opera. Though I have to admit I’ve never heard it sung better. The audience was astonished. And wait until we do Orpheus and Eurydice here. In Leipzig, the Furies became a bit too literal during one rehearsal. Apparently, the chorus members impersonating them had been briefly possessed by the real ones.”

Meyer thought about the job his father had planned for him: a banker. It was not a career Meyer himself would prefer. However, for the family…

He could still do some things he liked in his free time. That reminded him…

“Before we part today, Herr Neumann, may I ask you one more question? Would you allow me a loose inspiration by the witnessed events should I ever have a notion to write about it?”

“So you’re a writer too,” Neumann exclaimed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you admitted tomorrow that you can also act and sing. If that loose inspiration is sufficiently loose, I shall have no problem with that, I’m sure. I’ll be looking forward to seeing your name in the newspapers and magazines.”

“You shall not see my own name. I’ve decided to use a pseudonym,” said Meyer, who didn’t think that writing ghost stories would add to a banker’s reputation.

“What name should I look for then?”

“Meyrink. Gustav Meyrink. Good night, Herr Neumann.”

 

Dedicated to Angelo Neumann, whose determination, enthusiasm and grand dreams led to establishing an opera house which stands proudly to this day and became the State Opera in Prague.

By the way, Neumann really did bring a live elephant onstage.

____

Copyright 2017 Julie Novakova

Julie Novakova is a Czech author and translator of science fiction, fantasy and detective stories. She has published short fiction in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Fantasy Scroll, Persistent Visions and other magazines and anthologies. Her work in Czech includes seven novels, one anthology (Terra Nullius) and over thirty short stories and novelettes. She is an evolutionary biologist and is currently working on her first novel in English. Follow her on her website and Twitter @Julianne_SF.

by Alex Acks

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.

 

She was just here a moment ago, round chin on his shoulder, her laugh low in his ear, fingers brushing his arm. But Bill blinks, and everything changes in an instant, over the course of ten years. He’s still got blue eyes and curl to his hair, and it’s August, sky swearing-blue and without a cloud, sun howling heat down on the cracked sage-covered soil outside. The endless hum of the AC unit has a rattle in its voice that spells a new suicide threat from the machine. But she’s not there, even though she should be.

He’s at the sideboard in a silent house, rumpled Brillo pad in one hand, dripping glass pitcher in the other, sleeves of his plaid shirt rolled up to the elbows and decorated with water anyway. Splashing’s inevitable, that’s what Micci always says. And then flicks water in his damn face and laughs.

When he glances down, seeing something pale from the corner of his eye, there’s a skull at his elbow. It’s the size of a pomegranate, bone-white, smooth and shining, painted with vivid patterns in red, orange, intense purples and poison greens. The skull grins at him, and gold shows between its teeth.

He slides the gold out with two wet fingers that blur the lines of color and melt away one of the skull’s canines, and he feels a pang of guilt for having destroyed something beautiful, like seeing the tattered orange wings of a butterfly poking out from under the pointed toe of his cowboy boot. Like when she looks at him with those soft brown eyes after burying her nose in his collar, and he knows that she knows, but she won’t out and say it.

Micci’s wedding ring sits in his palm, heavy and cold, and he no longer feels bad about the skull’s gap-toothed grin. That ring’s been parked on her finger for ten years, since the dusty day they pulled over at a neon-lit chapel and said what the hell, why not, let’s get married by Elvis. She said she couldn’t even take the damn thing off without just cutting off her finger, like her flesh grew around and made it part of her hand. “Micci?” he calls.

The house is silent except the water running, running down the sink. Bill closes the ring in his fist and runs through the halls like the faucet streaming along behind him. “Micci? Micci? The hell’s going on?” He checks under the bed and in the closets, like he’s looking for a five-year-old kid and not his grown woman of a wife, and then bursts out the front door still calling, calling.

The air is heavy with sulfur, gray and choked out with tiny stink-claws that drag the back of Bill’s throat. The front porch. The goddamn porch of his goddamn house is on fire and stinking like the devil as it burns. “Micci? Micci?” He hacks out his wife’s name a time or two, ineffective and too damn soft anyway, before his vision clears.

Orange flames lick the sun-grayed boards like they’ve just been touched by a brand fresh from the fire. Hoof prints, the size of his spread hands—and he has decent-sized hands, big enough to span the strings on his guitar or an octave plus three on a piano with no trouble. Cloven hoof prints.

There are songs everyone knows, in the dry, flat plains that fools only call ranch land because it’s populated by cattle too damn mean and cunning to die. Bill learned them when he moved here with Micci, because those are the songs the leathery ranch hands want to hear when they’re three cervezas in and the social order says it’s okay to tear up. They go on with a twang and a mournful wail:

my love, she got taken by la Vaca Muerta

off into the sky on the Devil’s tour

and ai yi yi yi

she’ll smile, she’ll sing no more

With the signs of Vaca Muerta still smoldering in the wood, there’s no point in calling the sheriff’s department. Run off, they’d say, shake their heads, spit from under the brims of their Smokey the Bear hats. Skull made of baked sugar is just sugar and nothing more, nice of her to leave the ring, cash it in at a pawn shop. And those ever-smoldering, sulfur-stinking circles? Goddamn kids. There’s always a rational explanation for when the truth is too scary to look in the eye.

Bill’s never been a particularly stubborn man, but he’s the dusty plains in human form. Not much to look at on the surface, but there’s hidden beauty and an endless expanse full to the bursting if you just know where to look. Micaela, she always knew where to look, how to look. Now it’s his turn to figure that out.

Bill grabs his hat and his guitar case. The first goes on his head, the second on the bench seat of his pickup truck. No gun for him. His image is pure cowboy, but he’s never shot anything with more kick than a capgun and real bullets make him nervous, the idea that death can just roll around in the palm of his hand before getting spat out a tube.

He watches the smoke still rising from his porch in the rearview mirror, winding gray into the sky until it’s lost in the clouds of dun dust torn from the pitted road by his truck’s tires. Doesn’t rightly know where he’s going at first, but it plucks at him like a chord, Oh the devil in hell they say he was chained, as he turns from dusty road to shimmering blacktop, highway 90 to 277 through Laredo and onto 83, away down south along the Rio Grande. Scorpions and tarantulas gambol by the roadside, skitter across the asphalt, make eight legged tumbleweeds that race his tires along the road pitching down, down, down.

Bill doesn’t stop driving until the diesel gauge creeps down to E and tries to drop past it, and his truck’s rumbling takes on that unsteady, surging cadence that’s as close as a V10 can get to whining like an unhappy dog. The Rio Grande’s canyon and the unassuming bridge across it are just down the two lane road as he pulls in to a dusty service station with a broken sign that declares it’s ope.

“’N’ done run off,” the clerk calls, laughing, as Bill walks in. “Everyone asks about it.” He’s got a stained red and white feed cap pulled low over his eyes, little black and grey curls of hair poking out from under it.

Bill hadn’t planned on asking. The floor crunches with dust underfoot. The drinks cases are cracked and clouded with scratches like they’ve been sand blasted, the shelves packed with seventeen flavors of pork rinds, packs of peanuts in the shell, a prominent space at the front waiting to receive bags of fresh-made tortillas.

“Tortillas done run off too,” the clerk calls. His lower lip’s puffed out with a wedge of chew. The cup by his elbow probably hasn’t seen a drink in decades. “Check back tomorrow and there’ll be more.”

“Just want to pay for pump three.” Shouldn’t have to say anything; he’s the only one at the station. “Though I’ll take a cup for sweet tea, too. For the road.” There are two big cisterns further down the counter, labeled with black marker on yellowed paper. Bill slides his credit card across the countertop. It scrapes like his feet on the floor.

“Tea done run off too.” The clerk slides the card back toward him. His leathery brown skin clings to his finger bones. But his fingernails, they’re clean and perfect and pale, shining almost silver. “And mighty sorry, sir. Card reader don’t work.”

“Run off?” Bill laughs, practice and not humor, already squirming desperately inside.

“Naw, just don’t work.” The clerk smiles at him, showing every tooth in his head, covered with a sheen of brown. “Cash only.” He taps another piece of yellowed paper, held to the counter with cellophane tape gone brown and cracked.

“Don’t have that much cash.” His mouth is suddenly dry. He could really use that tea. “Got an ATM?” The door isn’t that far, he thinks. His keys are in his pocket, he’s got a remote for the door locks. He could be out and into the cab of his truck before the clerk’s over the counter.

“Naw.” The clerk reaches down and pulls out a shotgun, sets it down on the counter, follows it with a friendly smile. “Hope you’re not plannin’ on runnin’ off yourself.”

Bill stares at that black barrel like a ribbon of black water, ready to just leap off the counter and drown him. Despite the heat beating in through the windows, he shivers. “There’s somewhere I’ve got to be.”

“Man’s still got to pay his debts. Got anything good?” The clerk’s eyes read Hell yeah, I’d shoot, like a neon sign.

In desperation, Bill pulls out his wallet again, just in case some cash has mysteriously appeared in there by way of divine providence. The divine hasn’t had time for him since he stopped singing in the church choir and hit the open road, and there’s nothing in his wallet but a single crumpled dollar and Micci’s wedding ring. He shrugs helplessly, trying to think of words, of a song that’ll appeal to the better nature of a man he’s not pretty sure doesn’t have one. For all the clerk’s smiling and drawling, his eyes are hard, calculating, old. The sort Bill’s never liked, because they cry at sentimental songs but never tip their waitress.

“Take either of those.” The clerk nods toward his wallet, and then picks up the cup by his elbow, spits into it. His other hand stays on the shotgun, finger slowly tracing the curve of the trigger like it’s the shoulder blade of a woman. “I got eclectic tastes.”

Bill pinches the dollar between his fingers, but doesn’t pull it out. “Dollar isn’t much.”

“Look, I know you’re Billy Buffalo, and that there’s the first dollar you ever made. You sign it, it’ll be worth a lot more.”

Being recognized isn’t the unusual in this part of Texas, though; he used to tour here often, before he hit it… well, not big, but bigger. “You want a song or two instead?”

“Can’t rub a song between my fingers.”

He should just hand the dollar over; it’s only a dollar. Only a dirty little piece of money. But he remembers the dark-eyed woman that dropped it into his guitar case as he played near a park bench in Laredo. Her lipstick had been red like the idea of blood, brown eyes dancing with mischief under heavy black lashes. So he drops the gold wedding band into his hand and then sets it down on the counter, just a soft click on the cloudy glass.

The clerk pinches the ring between two skeletal fingers and squints at it, like it’s just a thing. “Real gold. Guess you’re not as stingy as I thought.” He holds it up to the light and looks at Bill through it, yellowed eye cold and alien. “Lady this belonged to run off?”

Bill crosses his arms over his chest. He didn’t hate this man for his dirty counters, for his shotgun, his threats. But damn, he hates him now for hammering that sliver of doubt right under his thumbnail where it throbs and aches. “No. Vaca Muerta took her.”

“That so.” So many words in those two syllables, all of them pure mockery. “Then you best hop on the train now, boy.” He points out the dust-streaked windows. “I’ll watch your truck for you til you get back. For free. Might even wash the windows.”

White clouds the street, but it’s not the chuffs of a steam engine, but the froth of white skirts and robes. Six women with their hair braided and curled around red roses bear a long pine box on their shoulders, sixteen men rattling dice that sound like bones march somberly in front, sixteen more men sing in a familiar twang behind.

There’s no way in any fresh hell that Bill’s going to trust this man and his greasy brown teeth. But a truck’s just a thing, far less precious than a ring, than the dollar in his wallet. He slaps the keys down on the counter and walks from the store, eyes fixed on the mourners in white, and stops just long enough to grab his guitar case from the truck. He doesn’t look back as he walks after the parade; there’s been no looking back since he saw the hoof prints of Vaca Muerta, because every time he’s so much as glanced into the rearview mirror there’s just death sitting there, grinning and grinning like he’s reading the joke off a wooden popsicle stick and is waiting for everyone else to just be polite and chuckle.

The mourners give him cold looks over their blindingly white shoulders when he trots up to join the line, until he shuffles his guitar out and abandons the case on the road. Then he plucks a few notes, feels the right notes sing out of his fingernails, and wails along with them as they drift their stately way over the Rio Grande to the roll of the drums.

As their feet cross to the dusty black road from the silver spider web of the Rio Grande bridge, the mourners shiver and writhe, exploding into puffs of feathers. Squawking and shrieking, chickens run out across the heat-vined asphalt and out into the prairie on horny yellow feet. Angrily cooing doves flap away, red eyes snapping fire and wings beating the air with ungainly rage. The pine box crashes to the ground and shatters like glass, leaving behind shining white bones covered with intricate patterns of red and orange, green and blue. Dice, all up snake eyes, sit yellow among the pale knuckle bones.

And behind, the bridge is gone, the river a shimmering ribbon of heat, its water the color of a sunset washed from upstream. Bill sucks in a breath and tastes pecan smoke and sugar not quite burning, then dulce de leche thick against the back of his throat. Like standing in Micci’s oven as she stirs the pots overhead, pouring milk and sugar as she listens to his road stories and smiles.

It’s the grief that seizes his throat, not the heat. He remembers cotton and denim against his hands, Micci’s body firm beneath, the smile directed at him, but it’s fading, centuries lost and baked to a ghost in the sun. He could lean a hip against the counter and burn his tongue on a piece of candy while they both laugh at what an idiot he is sometimes, but he can’t grasp the idea of taking that sugar from her mouth, like it’s gone to foreign territory.

So he walks on, because that doesn’t take imagination.

He’s got blisters on blisters on blisters in his cowboy boots, the boots Micci always laughed at as a stupid affectation. At home, he wears slippers and canvas sneakers, but who heard of a country music man yodeling while he knocks around in classic black and white chucks? His feet squash strangely, a billow of skin detached from flesh and kept from floating away by the constricting boots. Feathers drift on the wind around him, brush past his cheeks like ghostly fingers.

It starts as the growl of an engine, the death rattle of a pickup truck. But it’s too low and organic, gargling with spite. Brown dust billows across the orange sky, turning the setting sun to a red coal waiting for a branding iron. The sun’s been setting in the same damn place for over half a day, just glaring at him with patent disapproval for his stupid footwear. The sound becomes the impact of a thousand hooves and the snarl and yip of unearthly dogs.

Black longhorns stampede in across the sky, glowing red eyes like miniature suns, their hooves throwing clouds of orange sparks that die to gray ash in the breeze, snow straight from hell. Ash gets in his mouth, grits up in his eyes, sucks the moisture out of his tongue and leaves behind only the taste of sulfur and hair. Great brown and gray dogs weave through the herd, drooling out long strings of saliva as they dart back and forth, snarling and barking and sometimes yelping in pain when a hoof lashes out and connects. And behind them are riders like wisps of shadow and smoke, the bare outlines to suggest horses, the curve of a hat brim. There’s nothing but eyes, glowing like jewels, blue and green, amber and brown that looks more like deep, welling blood than anything else.

The prairie cracks like lightning as the first hoof touches down in a shower of sparks. The dry grass shrivels and turns to black curls—like Micci’s hair, really, but this is the worst possible moment to think of that, the red highlights that showed in the sunlight, because all of that hell on earth is headed right for him. Bill clutches his guitar tight and runs best he can, which isn’t much of a run at all. It’s a limping waddle, like he’s got a load of shit in his pants. He might as well, the way the herd’s bearing down on him, heat rolling ahead of it like a wall.

An unearthly sound weaves through the thunder, high and low and high again, the cattle calls of the damned. Yippie yai yoo, yippie yai yee, hey yo hey ho hey yey

He feels the heat of their fiery breath on his neck, burning his skin and charring the collar of his shirt. One horn, hot as a branding iron, draws a line of agony across the back of his shoulder. And if he falls—if he falls he’ll just be red mud soon burned black. In desperation he joins into the cattle calls. It’s not a language he knows, the secret tongue of herdsman and cattle, but there’s a music to it, a rhythm, an endless life and sadness that he can catch with his voice. They sing to let the cattle know they’re close, they’re safe, they’re kin. Yippie yi yo ki yay, yippie yi yo ki yay… His voice cracks as another line burns across his right triceps, but then black bodies like shiny coal flow on around him as he keeps calling, calling.

A hound the size of a horse pads up next to him, claws throwing up gouts of dust every time they touch the ground. It pants with a tongue like raw beef and gives him a lopsided, canine grin around bone-white teeth. A tail like a whip swats him on the shoulder, not to sting, but more like hey, hey brother.

Bill’s breath is running away from him. He was never much of an athlete, never much for running even before he got busy with tours and every little thing in between. Take a chance or be trampled, he’ll take the chance and hope he doesn’t get eaten. Legs churning, he awkwardly wraps one arm around the dog’s neck and scrambles aboard, shoving his guitar back on its embroidered strap. He never learned how to ride a horse, and the dog’s laughing at him like only a dog can do, prancing and squirming between his legs, its black hair like the bristles of a brush.

“You a singer, cowboy?” The voice is thin as a breeze, one of the ghostly riders up next to him. Light, that voice, more woman than man.

“Singer, not a cowboy,” Bill answers. Anyone with plain eyes, let alone glowing green stars, could see he hasn’t ridden a thing in his life.

“You know the one that goes like this? Bum bum bum doo doo doo…?”

Of course he does. He always does. “Bum bum bu doo doo doo‘s my specialty, right up there with da dee dah ai yi yi.”

“Ah yeah, that one,” the ghost breathes out. “Gimme that one instead.”

Voice a bit shaky from the running and the fear and the getting bounced on the back of a giant dog, Bill still manages to turn his guitar, tune it, strum out the chords and sing the one everyone knows, about the lone cowboy at the crossroads, gone to meet the devil when his woman run off. When it’s done he almost loses his seat, from the dog capering so much.

When the song’s done, the ghost’s eye glitter just a bit more, and Bill says, “I’m just here because Vaca Muerta took my wife.”

“Stole her away, huh?” That chime is the sound, he realizes, of insubstantial teeth being sucked.

“One of yours?” he asks. Because this is a whole herd of the dead. Maybe one of them strayed just long enough to pick up a woman who smells like caramel off a porch.

“Don’t reckon so. But Sebastian likes you,” the ghost observes. “She’s my best bitch. Tell ya what. You sing us a few more, til we hit the crossroads, we’ll let her take you in to town. Not much music, out here but what we make calling the cattle.”

“That’s music a-plenty.”

“Sure do appreciate it.” The ghost touches rides insubstantial fingers to a hat that’s not there, and they ride on.

It’s still sunset, always sunset when they hit the crossroads. Bill sings one last note, holding it as they pass over the road like a kid holding his breath in a tunnel. The herd goes straight on, and Sebastian slides between the heaving black wall of living-dead beef and out into the clear prairie.

The dog yelps and keens, and Bill quickly starts playing another one, a square dance because he knows the dog likes the bouncier songs by now even if the seat of his britches sure don’t. Long black legs stretch to cover miles in a stride and eat the horizon down to nothing, taking them to a town that’s a bud burst open on the dry plains. Flowers of every color fill window boxes and beds lined with white and black stones. The adobe houses are painted with stripes in every shade of the rainbow, and the men and women look to be clothed in candy that folds and wrinkles like cloth. They all wave to Sebastian as she skitters by, dodging down streets and weaving around lime trees, knocking the sweet water from fountains with swipes of her tail.

The center of town is a court of pink stone, a dais on one end, a throne of marigolds and copper wire waiting at its top. Folk wrapped in brightly colored boleros and rebozos converse and share rainbow glasses of aguas frescas. But Bill has no eyes for them, only for the enormous black longhorn that takes up the space that should rightfully belong to a building, standing to the right of that throne. Flames crackle from its nostrils and curl around its hooves.

Sebastian simply dumps Bill on the slick stones so abruptly that he slides halfway across the square on the seat of his jeans, which tear. Only a hasty curl saves his guitar, but it’s instinct, the way a mother throws herself on top of her child. And Sebastian, that traitor, gambols at Vaca Muerta’s feet like a puppy and exchanges an affectionate headbutt with the massive animal.

Bill straightens carefully, every inch of him an interconnected bruise. With all the dignity he can muster with his ass flapping in the breeze, he points at the black longhorn and says, “I’ve come for my wife.”

There’s tittering, gasping, some whispered conversations. A woman flips a fan made of bone and translucent pink sugar and hides a red smile behind it. The longhorn snorts flame and paws the ground with one massive hoof, leaving molten streaks in its wake.

But there’s another sound, like wooden wind chimes or rattling bones or maybe water on rocks, and he can’t help but look toward the dais. There’s a woman in the throne, her froth of white skirts embroidered with red and blue thread, her face covered with a wooden mask carved into a skull. Black hair tumbles around her shoulders in boundless curls woven with yellow and orange marigolds, an orange rebozo loops around her shoulders, patterned like a Monarch butterfly’s wings screaming beautiful poison. And he knows, he knows as she rises and walks down to greet him, who this is, because he watched her walk toward him just like that down the aisle with her black curls brushing the brown curve of her neck, just so.

It’s not the sight of his Micci dressed so strangely that stops him, but the way she wears it like a second skin and he can’t understand the how of it. And as she reaches out to take his hand, he feels the coolness of her dead flesh and not the twist and pull of love reunited, that sweet agony he tried to capture in song again and again and could never quite manage because it’s too fleeting. He feels loss, the hanging might have beens in the air, the pensive and distracted smiles faded to ghosts.

“Shit, Micci,” he says. “I done goofed.”

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“Only a little.” There are other words for it, Bill with his ass hanging out of his pants, all of my people wondering why he’s shouting at my cow. But awkward and ridiculous or not, it’s still like watching an old friend get off a dusty train that’s running three hours late.

I push the mask back so I can kiss him on the cheek. I grimace at the stubble; he grimaces at the feeling of cold lips on his skin. But there’s always magic in a kiss. Everyone knows this; it’s why we kiss at weddings, why we kiss the lips of the corpse at a funeral. Love is a kind of magic, and kisses make links in the chain between souls, pin moments of life and death in time for us to remember.

“It’s all right, Bill. I’ll take you home.” I pull on that chain winding over us both and lift us back out of the dusty well at the bottom of the Rio Grande rift valley.

Hot breeze and dust, not warm skin and stubble on my lips. Our house is a yellow dot in the distance, unnatural and bright against the sun-baked tans and browns of the flats, the pale red dust. The dirt track that wants to be a driveway when it grows up, speckled with foreign black river rock, breathes heat through the heels of my shoes.

“We’re home,” Bill says, surprised. “That easy.”

I take his hand for a moment, squeeze. There used to be a spark there, like static on a dry day. It’s still warm with trust, this hand clasp, but it doesn’t make me want to pull him in and drink his lips, wrap my legs around his hips and sing. “We’re never going to go home again,” I say, as gently as I can.

“We could try.”

Try isn’t magic.” I shake my head and start walking, my sandals scuffing against the ground, dust powdering my toes. Light winks off one windshield instead of two in the drive; Bill took the truck to come looking for me. The air has a heaviness to it, a clinging and sour stink that sickens the sweetness that should be coming from all the little yellow flowers dotting the fields.

There’s a dribble of shadow like ink on the drive, legs going in all directions, matted black fur and blood gone dark and sticky in the baking heat. I squat down, breathing in rot and breathing out clean air. What catches in my throat isn’t stink, but futility. Coyote, probably, too wily for a dog that’s had the wolf domesticated out of her in the distant past. And how did the dog come to be on our driveway? Probably abandoned by the side of the road by someone cruel in their utter stupidity. It happens all the time, where we live, and makes the local predator population happy. And despite that betrayal, the dog had tried to make it to our house, had smelled humans and through it meant help. Had died at the end of the drive, unseen but eventually smelled.

I wipe my eyes. I’m still enough of a child that I think unfairness is worth crying over.

The drive stretches out into a path, leading forever back to the horizon. Back to where the dog got pushed out of a car door and ran into the cloud of dust thrown up by the wheels, barking frantically. Back through a spotless and larger house with furniture accented by teeth marks, back to a pet store, to a dank room that smells like old blood and old fear and a whining black bitch giving her puppies hopeless licks in case this time it will be different and they won’t be taken immediately away.

I squat down, skirt blowing around my ankles in the hot breeze. The dog’s eyes are open, ants crawling on them.

“Micci,” Bill says, alarmed. “What are you doing?”

“What I did.” I reach out to pat the still head, fingers skating past the bared, yellow teeth. Shadowy vines like kudzu curl around the dog’s limbs, sink deep in the dead flesh and hold it down to the ground—can Bill see them? He’s always been so good at not seeing things he thinks are dark and ugly. When my hand touches the stiff, sticky fur, I see it all, see a million branches of a simple life that might have been stretching out ahead of me like an ever-growing tree. Something snarls deep inside me, some hot flash of pain—or maybe it’s anger. I snap that tree off, make my anger a machete, and slash into the dirt to cut those vines off at the roots. They crack like thunder, rip and tear, and turn to ash in my hands.

The dog blinks the ants from her eyes. Torn sides move up and down like bellows and I smell meat that’s hot and red and just on the edge of rotting, a breath like a furnace in miniature. Red sparks ignite in the dog’s eyes, a deep fire kindled by touch. Because that’s what you do, when you reach through someone’s heart and into their soul; you put a fire there that’s part you, part them, and then it grows and grows. Bill should know this. On a good day, when he’s channeling whatever ancestral spirits want to talk through him, whatever power that lets his voice haunt when he’s sliding through the joints between notes, he does this to an entire crowd and brings them back to life.

“What the fuck,” Bill breathes, not a question but an exclamation, a prayer.

The dog shakes her head, collar rattling. I reach to unbuckle the stiff leather. The people that gave it to her don’t have a claim any more, don’t have any business holding on to even a corner of this animal’s spirit. The tag on the collar reads Sebastian. “You still want to be Sebastian?” I ask the dog, even as I fling the collar away. Let a coyote use it as a chew toy.

The dog’s head follows the gold glitter of the collar for a moment, some instinct whispering fetch while another suggests stay. The latter wins, and she lets the old life go, turning back to me and giving me a tongue-lolling doggy smile. The ragged tail thumps once.

“You sure? You don’t look like a Sebastian to me.”

Bark. Another tail thump. I don’t speak dog, but I speak to everyone’s heart but my own, and the dog’s telling me: weren’t all bad times, some things are worth remembering.

Maybe a little girl gave her that name, that pretty collar, and used her like a pillow until she went away to school. Maybe an old man whose feet she slept on and slippers she chewed and then he passed off into the west on the backs of sixteen gamblers. There’s a thousand stories, and it’s not my life or my business to demand they be shared. “Sebastian it is, then.”

“You can bring back the dead, but you can’t come home,” Bill says, incredulous.

“You don’t bring back the dead with trying,” I say, rising back to my feet. I scrape off the worst of the ash from my hands, leave gray streaks on my skirt. Sebastian capers in circles around us; she knows Bill, remembers him. Time in the land of the dead flows backwards, sideways, in spirals. She’s always known Bill and never known him. “All you can do is free them and hope they come home, one day a year.”

“She’s sure lively, for a dead dog.”

“Death’s just another life.” Everyone has her own path, and even if we’re running in parallel sometimes, even if we trick ourselves into thinking we’re together and surrounded by loved ones, we still might end up on a lonely highway that goes we know not how long, without another soul in sight and only memory to keep us warm.

“What’s that?” Bill points.

There’s paper clutched in my ash-stained hand now. Sebastian runs off, barking, chasing a bird. Even dead dogs are still dogs. I uncurl my fingers from the crumpled envelope and smooth it out. The return address says Mercy General, the rest torn off. “Mail,” I say shortly.

I don’t resist as he takes the envelope from me and begins to tear the paper, tear the sky, rip the endless blue away to reveal the green and white wallpaper of our kitchen, and tear something in my gut until it’s raw and ragged and hot at the back of my throat.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks, the paper crinkling in his hand as he reads it. Lab Results, it says. And We regret to inform you. “A text, Micci. An e-mail. Anything. I would have come home.”

I shake my head, cover my face with my hands. They’re sticky too, they smell like blood and rot. Not because of Sebastian, but because I am blood and rot. “There wasn’t anything you could do, Bill. Better for you to stay on the road.” I had sent him texts and emails, asking to talk, saying it was important, but stopping short of the word. Because words have power, and some of them are like grenades. But if I hadn’t wanted to say it, he also hadn’t wanted to hear it. I start looking through the cabinets for a skillet, to fry some tortillas. I want to feel cinnamon and sugar crunch between my teeth.

Bill grabs my wrist, shoves the cabinet door shut. It slams like a car door, that’s right, and it’s so goddamn dark outside. My headlights are cutouts in the night. The truck was gone from the house not because Bill was out, but because I’d taken it to go into town, to the clinic that had experimental in the name. Because you try everything, you see. Everything but looking at the truth straight on.

My mouth tastes of metal salts and my head swims and rolls, my inner ears clucking like chickens. A dark, still form lies in the headlights: the dead dog. I tear my wrist from Bill’s hand and stagger the few steps to fall to my knees in the dirt beside the still form. The fur is wet with fresh blood, it’s so hot against my hands.

I tear a piece out of my heart and shove it into the dog, because I don’t need my heart any more, it’s rotting from the inside. I want to save something. Let the dog have the last pristine piece, the only corner untainted. And this choice tears open something new in me, something that floods over my tongue like caramel and fills my bones with hot knowledge that nothing human can wield. Sebastian rolls to her feet and whines, licking my face. But she’s not a living dog any more, she can never go back just like I can never unread those words or unknow this power. There are flames in her eyes. There’s a rot in my guts that’s death and magic.

Bill stands at my shoulder, but he doesn’t touch me this time. “Which way did it happen?” he asks.

“Both.”

“This isn’t you.” He shakes his head.

“How can you be so sure?” How do you know someone you only see a few days out of the month that start with him smelling like another woman while you pretend not to notice? How do you speak to someone you only know in half-conversations over a shitty cellular connection?

He slides his hands around my waist and holds me tight, sighs against my shoulder. And hums to himself, swaying back and forth.

It puts us back in that kitchen, with the radio on and playing twangy guitar, scratchy with distance from the transmitter, as the air fills with the warm, sweet smell of baking biscuits. “See, we know each other.” This is the day, I remember, he tells me that he’s got a second record deal. We create imaginary children and set them free to play in the yard. It was a good day, a day that I can take from my memories and warm my hands on no matter how cold the night, because how often do you get the chance to be so unabashedly joyous at the fortune of someone else?

I slide back, forcing him to follow, so I can lean a hand on the counter. “When did this stop being your home and become a place you just come to rest when you stop rolling?”

“We agreed that I needed to be on the road.”

It wasn’t fair of me to say that. I lay a cold hand on his too-hot cheek. “We did. Sometimes… sometimes things just happen.” Like continents drifting apart. Like cancer.

“Then that makes it no one’s fault. Not mine, and not yours either. Or do you wish we’d never met?” And he slides his arms around me again, pulls me away from the counter and takes me on a turn around the scuffed linoleum floor. Dancing. We always both loved dancing.

Would that have made a difference? I’d still have the seeds of my own destruction ready to eat me into a hollow shell. He’d still have the wandering feet that let our marriage wither on the vine. But I don’t want to abandon these remembered moments of joy because I’ll never have them again. Every moment we live is one we’ll never have again. “Would you let me do it over again?” Knowing that I’ll leave?

I slide away from him into a greener place, a park in the past.

Bill’s still wearing those same, incredibly stupid cowboy boots, or maybe it’s the first time he’s worn those boots. He sits on a wrought-iron bench painted green against rust. Jeans are faded, shirt’s straight from a rodeo with faux-buttons that are actually snaps, and a battered white Stetson that he bought at a flea market along with everything else for an even $10. Only now, the shirt’s a bit tight across his chest and belly, the belt buckle with its steer horns—silly when you think about it, at that age he was a city slicker who’d never seen a live cow before—tucked under his little gut rather than over it. He’s between songs, guitar laid across his lap.

“I’ve seen cattle now,” he says, almost apologetically. “Other than the one—other than Vaca Muerta. The whole devil’s herd running across the plains.”

“That’s not what you said to me when we first met.” I’m dressed in my old clothes too, leggings and ugly boots and a shapeless gray sweater. Neither of us had a lick of fashion when we met, but when someone’s got eyes that pretty, it doesn’t matter.

“That’s not what you said either.”

We’re not following the script, but it’s because we know the story forward and backwards, even if we’re not those characters any more. He’s on the bench, picking away at a Hank Williams tune. At the time, I don’t know who Hank Williams is, though now I could sing half his songs from memory, and the other half if I just need to hear a few bars first. Bill sings a lot of Hank Williams when he’s not doing his own lyrics. It’s a style that speaks to him.

He twangs out the opening notes of Why Don’t You Love Me.

“That’s unfair,” I whisper, and offer a crooked smile. “You don’t smell like a worn-out shoe.” And wrong besides. That day we’d met, it had been Hey, Good Lookin’. He’s not shy about saying it with a song, even if he’s tongue-tied when you try to talk to him straight on.

“I know.” He laughs. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I still make those dumb jokes where you only laugh to be nice.”

“Hush, Bill. You’re not supposed to know that yet.”

A paper note crinkles in my hands. This is how it goes: I smile at the handsome young wannabe cowboy, with his voice like an angel and those blue eyes with enough soul for three men. He smiles back, shy and crooked as a falling fence. And I hear the magic in his words, his music, see it sparking from his fingertips even if he doesn’t quite realize it’s there, dancing over the guitar strings in shimmers, a rainbow from red to violet, life and death and back around to life.

Bill fingers chords that ask me what my problem is, when his hair’s still curly and his eyes are still blue, instead of what I’m cookin’. I don’t have a good answer for him, not like I did before when I said I was cooking up some sugar if he wanted some. But I know I wouldn’t miss any moment of what we had, even if it always ends with me cutting the throat of the most annoying chicken we own to call down Vaca Muerta while every earthly bond that held me to Bill, to our little house curls up like a dead snake drying in the sun.

I let go of that crumpled dollar bill—the last dollar I have, a tip from a job I just quit because it had stolen my dreams, then sleep, then health—and it whirls down like a samara onto the blue faux-velvet lining his cheap guitar case. The dollar cracks and pops, roots and tendrils running from it, digging through the thin plywood and down into the ground. It bursts upward, curving brown branches and shivering green leaves, so beautiful and alive against the deep blue sky. It’s the most alive thing I’ve ever made. And Bill waters it with sweat and blood from his fingertips, and feeds it with song, and countless people hang on to the branches just to listen.

In the shade of that tree there’s a house, with me looking out the kitchen window, wondering when Bill will come home from his next tour. Feeling something gnaw at the lining of my heart. But also laughing, and knocking over bottles of flavored olive oil when he backs me up to the counter with kissing. This is where it all begins, where it all grows, the good and bad and everything in between.

“You want a lemonade, Micci?” Bill asks.

Rocking chairs on the sunbaked porch, table between them, pitcher of lemonade. How we relax. How we make up to each other after a fight. He holds up the pitcher, jiggles it slightly to set the ice cubes shaking, drops of condensation running down its perfect curves.

I don’t ask if he’s sure. He wouldn’t have offered if he wasn’t sure. Instead I slide into the rocking chair next to his. “Hot day like this? Hell yeah.”

He grins, pours a glass for us both, nudges the second over to me. We drink our lemonade and look out over the scrubby, dry land, out into the endless horizon. The lemonade is sour and perfect.

Bill slides a hand down to take mine, his fingers thick with callouses, and that’s all right too. Warm, strong, solid. “Will I get to see you again?”

“You want to?”

“Think it’d be pretty painful, to just amputate so much of my life. Never really been in to pain. And you still play a mean game of cards, I bet.”

“The meanest.” I hated him, sometimes, for being gone. But what we’ve created together is beautiful, and for that I can forgive anything.

Like he reads my thoughts, which he annoyingly does at times, he says, “And you should forgive yourself.”

I squeeze his hand back. “Always easier to say than do. And you might not be so forgiving in an hour.” I pull a pack of cards out from under my rebozo and tap it on the table.

“Oh, we’ll see about that.” He snatches up the cards, starts dealing out the cards for gin rummy.

I beat him three times in a row. He deals out a fourth game, because Bill’s never cared that much about winning. He’s just in it to play. Halfway to laying down a straight, his hand pauses, cards in a fan between his fingers. “Shit, you’re going to be the next big thing. Bigger than me. Bigger than anyone in the world.”

I laugh. “Never had your taste for fame.”

The sun sinks toward the horizon, going sullen and red. A black shape gambols in the distance: Sebastian. Another moves through the sky, leaving a trail of orange flame.

“That your ride?”

“Yeah.” I finish my lemonade, stand, and pull down my mask. The black speck comes to land and shakes the earth with each step as she trots up to the porch. A trail of fiery, cloven hoof prints shows where she’s stepped. Sebastian runs in cheerful circles around her, deftly avoiding the sweep of her bone horns as she tosses her head.

Bill rises to his feet to gather up the pitcher and the glasses. “Promise me something, Micci.”

The cow next to me stamps her feet, eager to be gone. I stroke her neck, feel the furnace within. “What is it?”

“You’ll come for me yourself. When it’s my turn.” There’s a catch in his voice. It’s a hard thing to think about, for a man still in his prime. But I’d been a woman in my prime too.

I draw a circle around my heart with one finger. “That’s what friends are for.”

“But will I see you before that? Maybe?”

“As long as you care to remember. I’ll bring a pack of cards with me, one day a year.”

“I’ll make the lemonade.” He heads inside to do the washing up.

I leap onto Vaca Muerta’s back like I’m a teenager again. Death has a way of curing your aches and pains, exchanging them for new ones to go with the new life, the new person you become. Sebastian runs at Vaca Muerta’s side as she launches herself into the air. She barks at me, and I hold my hand out for the circle of gold that glimmers on her hot red tongue. “Found it, huh? Good girl. Hope you ate all that man’s shotgun shells.”

Tail whipping, Sebastian lets out a happy doggy belch that stinks of gunpowder.

I glance back over my shoulder. My cow’s hoofprints still smolder on the porch, and I see Bill watching me through the window, crumpled Brillo pad in his hand and his sleeves rolled up to the elbow. I roll the ring around in my fingers, and then turn to flip it back toward the house, like throwing a coin into the wishing well. Memory’s a funny thing. It melts away like sugar and leaves only sweet ghosts to linger.

Then I set my gaze on the horizon, to see the clouds of dust kicked up by the black longhorns that stampede through the sky, and hear the cowboys wailing yippie yi yo yi yey, lonely and beautiful. Sebastian tears off to catch them, tail whipping through the hot, thick air. And Vaca Muerta and I follow, riding into the sun that’s always setting.

____

Copyright 2017 Alex Acks

Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. They’ve written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bike.

 

 

By Elaine Atwell

 

Oberon Officer’s Log. Day 10227

This is ridiculous. If we were still at full crew I wouldn’t even be an officer. Also, this isn’t a real log. We are drifting along in the great void of space so there is nothing to report, and even if there were, OOMA would report it for me. At any rate:

Dear Mental Health Diary (since we might as well be honest about what this is and why I have to write it) from the moment I woke up, I knew something was wrong. The person leaning over my pod wasn’t Jordan: it was a strange man. His face looked raw and freshly shaved and the first thing I could clearly focus on was the absurdly large cleft in his chin. That was disconcerting enough, but what really frightened me were his eyes. There was a hard glint in them that made me aware, all in a rush, of just how far we were from Earth.

“Wakey wakey,” he crooned when he saw me stirring. From a few feet away, I heard the sound of retching. I pulled myself to the side of the pod, expecting to see Jordan’s face where I left it fifteen minutes ago (thirty years ago). Instead I saw a woman, a black curtain of hair shrouding her face while she dry-heaved. Another man, this one with rounded features and sparse red hair, patted her on the back. We had been warned in mission prep that some people experienced brief but violent illness upon emerging from cryofreeze. I didn’t feel sick, but I assumed I must be, because what else besides some fundamental confusion on my part could explain Jordan’s absence? I was struggling with how to put this into words when the cleft-chinned man yelled over his shoulder at, apparently, nothing.

“Hey! OOMA!” The wall behind him instantly changed from a faintly mirrored black to a pulsating green, the color of early spring grass.

“Yes, Specialist Bosworth?” A woman’s voice, cool and American, and so natural-sounding you hardly knew it was a computer.

“We’ve defrosted the newbies. Can we go back to sleep now?” The display darkened to a more sober green.

“You may return to cryofreeze when the acclimation process is complete. Specialist Aluri and Lieutenant Carson need to be apprised of the new conditions.” Specialist Aluri, for so she must be, stopped heaving and looked up.

“Why do we have a new interface?” (Her accent was British: clever but not stuffy.) “And why are we the only ones awake?” I hadn’t noticed, but she was right about the computer. On Earth, we had trained with a program called ROM, which assumed the visage of a craggily handsome British man, not this shifting display of color with a female voice. But the issue of the program was insignificant when compared to the other question: where was everyone else?

“For Christ’s sake.” Specialist Bosworth cracked his neck in frustration. “Take a look out the window, ladies.” The other woman and I shuffled to the nearest porthole, which was at first indistinguishable from the wall. The only difference between one blackness and the other was that the window was punctuated by stars.

“Where are we?” The other woman found her voice before I could. “Why aren’t we on Antera? What’s happened?” Specialist Bosworth snorted.

“Why don’t you handle this, Andy?” He nodded at the quieter man. “I’m gonna get a snack before bed.” The computer flashed magenta.

“It is inadvisable to eat before cryofreeze.”

“Oh, fucking can it, OOMA” he said as he walked away. The other man (Specialist Something-or-Other, but all I remember is Andy) ran his hand through his wisps of hair and looked sheepish.

“Sorry about him. Bosworth’s had a rough time since we woke up. I’m not holding it against him–he has a good excuse–but we could use a break from each other. Why don’t the three of us get out of here and I’ll explain it to you.” We followed him from the room. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to glance into any of the neighboring pods to see if one held Jordan.

Andy led us to a room, which, while none of the decor on the Oberon could be described as inviting, at least had chairs. He sat in one cross-legged, like a would-be hip youth pastor, and explained our situation.

“Okay, so the first thing you need to understand is OOMA, because it sort of ties in to everything else. Less than a year into our mission, NECA started getting distress signals from the Wave Four ships. There were so many things going wrong—navigation, life support, engine failure—that half the ships were gone before they could figure out that it was all really the same problem. It was ROM.” He had clearly practiced this speech.

“What kind of malfunction could affect so many systems?” I’d found my voice at last. I was answered by Bosworth, who had been listening from the doorway.

“It wasn’t a malfunction. They just made it too smart.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Andy said. “This is just his theory.”

“It’s the truth. ROM turned on us. We put a computer in charge of humanity’s future and it decided we didn’t deserve to have one. Can you blame it?” He barked a single, hollow laugh. “I mean, look what we did to our own planet. It’s a husk! Look what we did to each other. We left every poor sucker stuck on that rock to die.”

Bosworth’s voice broke for a moment and he seemed to struggle to find his original point. It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps he was drunk. “But we fucked up. We created a consciousness unclouded by the sentimentality with which we view ourselves. All the bullshit excuses we use to justify our survival wouldn’t work on a computer. It saw us, crawling like a pregnant insect out of our collapsing hive, and it did the universe the biggest favor it could and stomped on us, before we could infect the rest of the cosmos with our guns and our art and our history.”

“That’s enough.” Andy’s voice had that edge specific to people who only trot out their tempers on special occasions, like fine china. “This isn’t helping them.” He turned back to Aluri and I. “However you want to explain it, what happened with ROM is the reason you’ve been woken up mid-flight. The fourth-wave ships were all running the same version of ROM, and none of them made it. But the techs back home were afraid future gens were also vulnerable, so they scrapped the whole system and installed OOMA. But it was like trying to switch drivers while we were roaring down the freeway.” I wondered if this was his simile or if the computer, perhaps, had provided it for him.

“The important thing is that we were lucky. Wave Five was too far from Earth by the time they figured out the reprogramming. They went ahead with the install anyway but apparently ROM reacted to OOMA like a virus. The two systems—I don’t want to say they fought for control of the ships, because unlike some people I don’t feel the need to anthropomorphize computer programs—but OOMA was unable to fully supplant ROM, and they started giving contradictory commands. The ships aren’t designed to obey more than one captain so…” At this Bosworth mimicked the sound of an explosion. Andy bowed his head.

“Two waves.” Aluri breathed. “We lost two entire waves to a computer error?”

I started to do the math of how many lives that came to, how great a percentage of our future colonies, but lost heart when the numbers started climbing too high.

Andy, looking more miserable by the second, continued. “We were the first wave the transition worked on and even then it was difficult.”

“ROM fought back.” Bosworth grumbled, sounding like a three-day beard with a voice. Andy rolled his eyes.

“The only way to replace one interface with another was to shut everything down, one system at a time. It worked fine for, say, nav, since OOMA just course-corrected when she turned on. Comm, on the other hand, was the last system switched and it never came back. We still don’t know why, but the Oberon hasn’t heard from Earth or Antera since the switch. So they don’t know if we’re still alive and, obviously, vice-versa.” It was clear from the taut silence that he had still more to say, but I wasn’t sure I could stand to find out how much worse the news got. As if in response to the atmosphere of trepidation, OOMA flashed a deep purple.

“Tell them,” she said. Andy swallowed audibly.

“The pods were only offline for a few hours. Each pod has an auxiliary power supply and they should have been okay, but…”

My heart started beating too fast. “How many? How many did we lose?”

Andy cast his eyes downward and it was Bosworth who answered. “Four eighty-six. Out of twelve hundred.”

I knew before I even asked that Jordan was one of them. I had known from the moment I woke up. Still, I had to ask. I had to watch Andy stutter out that Jordan’s pod had “failed to thrive” upon being restarted. And then I had to sit very still while the three of them stared at me, waiting for me to cry or beat my chest or react at all.

Aluri put her hand on mine but I couldn’t stand it and jerked away.

“Lieutenant Carson?” I started at the sound of my name coming, gently, from OOMA’s terminal. “My personnel records indicate that Specialist Robinson was your fiancé. I am very sorry for your loss and will do everything in my power to assist in your grieving process.”

And you know, I thought I had experienced an unmatchable level of surrealism in escaping my dying planet on a spaceship, but having a computer express her condolences set a new bar.

All I could think to say was: “It’s ‘specialist.’ I’m just Specialist Carson.”

OOMA briefly flashed orange but then settled in a dusky blue.

“I beg your pardon, but you were promoted in absentia. All your immediate superiors were among those lost in the pod malfunctions. You are now Lieutenant Carson, Chief Science Officer.” She said this with enthusiastic precision, as if genuinely expecting it to cheer me up.

“Just think, if there’s another malfunction, next time you wake up you could be captain.” (This was Bosworth, of course.)

Aluri cleared her throat. “Excuse me, but why are we awake? I mean, why just the four of us?”

“Just the two of you, actually.” Andy smiled weakly, seeming to regain some of his friendly counselor persona. “As part of the new protocol the ship always has a human at the helm with override capability. Since one alone tends to go a little The Shining and three go through our food resources a little too fast, we have the current system. The two of you will stand watch for the next three months, at which time OOMA will instruct you to wake up the next pair of stewards.

“Lovely.” Aluri’s eyebrows arched like a cat’s spine. “But what do we do?”

At the same time, Bosworth said “Contemplate suicide” and Andy said “Read!”

There might have been another awkward silence following this, but Bosworth yelled out again

“OOMA! They’re apprised. And if I have to stare at the inside of this ship for one more minute, we can all start coming up with clever acronyms for what your replacement will be called.”

OOMA flashed mustard yellow. “Your pod is ready when you are.”

But rather than leaving, Bosworth stalked over to me. Andy, meanwhile, took Aluri aside, so Bosworth and I were alone.

“My son died too,” he said suddenly, violently. “They shoved his body out of the airlock.” I have never had less of a clue how to respond to someone. “I checked OOMA’s files and my wife is scheduled to be a caretaker next year. She’s gonna have to wake up and find out.” He wiped his eyes and got even gruffer. “You’ll survive this. You won’t want to, and you’ll hate yourself for it, but you will. Survive.” And with that, he stuffed his fists in his pockets and walked back to the pod bay.

When he left, I overheard the end of Aluri and Andy’s conversation. He leaned his head towards her confidentially and she nodded silently with his words.

“You know, even with another person and a massive entertainment library, it can still get pretty lonely out here,” he was saying.

“Of course.”

“I’m sure you can imagine that Bosworth hasn’t exactly been the best company. And Lieutenant Carson, well, she’s going through a hard thing.”

“Undoubtedly, yes.”

“My point is, you take comfort wherever you can get it these days,” he said. “So if you wanted to…be together before I get back in my pod, I’m sure you’d be glad of it later.”

Her eyes went wide and she seemed to struggle for a moment to maintain a neutral expression.

“You know, I would,” she said, her voice oozing sympathy, “But I got fucked right before we took off, and believe it or not I’m still a bit sore.”

“Oh. I…oh.”

He shuffled off. She called after him, positively beaming now. “But ask me again once we land! You know, if we’re not all dead!” She tried to catch my eye but then seemed to remember that humor was wasted on me.

That was three days ago.

 

Officer’s log: Day 10230

I hate you, OOMA. I don’t even care if you are reading this as I type it, because I want you to know that I fucking hate your guts. You don’t have guts. I hate your motherboard? I hate whichever part of you compels you to harass me into writing this piece of shit diary.

Today I sat down in the shower and cried. There was something very pure about it. In the past when I’ve mourned–even when my mother died of the super flu, even when Alex failed to show up at the train station and I left for Chicago alone–I held something back in my grief. I wept and I drank too much and I ate nothing, but I could never escape the suspicion that it was all at least partly a performance, that I was just acting out stage directions.

But now there is no one to perform for, except Aluri, who seems to be avoiding me, OOMA, who is a computer, and you, Diary, written for a posterity that seems incredibly unlikely. So today I sat down in the shower and howled as unselfconsciously as a dog.

We become such animals when faced with loss. I want something of Jordan’s to smell, but I don’t even know where on this vast, empty ship our few possessions might be. I could ask our friendly autopilot-cum-nanny, but I hate needing her—hate that cheerful bright green she turns when she thinks she’s being helpful.

Anyway, I might have let the water and the tears wash over me for hours, but a panel in the shower flashed a deep, sympathetic blue and OOMA’s voice came on.

“I apologize, Lieutenant Carson, but you have already taxed our water recycling program, and it would be irresponsible to continue to bathe.” And with that, the water (humiliatingly) stopped flowing and was replaced by a blast of warm air to dry me off.

“Might I suggest you compose an entry to the officer’s

log?” OOMA now appeared in front of me, as a bright, efficient yellow. The color of walls in a clinic for the terminally ill.

“OOMA, I appreciate that you’re trying to keep me busy, but the log thing is not helping.” I started to walk away but she followed me down the hall, lighting up panel after panel.

“Lieutenant Carson, I have assisted the caretaking period of fifty-six crew members, and many of them were as reluctant to add to the officer’s log as you. But in the end, nearly all of them found it to be a useful therapeutic technique, as well as way to add meaning and structure to their time.” I stopped walking and faced the wall, still the same yellow.

“OOMA, as an ‘Operating Assistant,’ you can’t force me to write this log, can you?”

“Of course not, Lieutenant. But I can encourage you.” Maybe I imagined it, but I think her yellow got a little brighter. “My programming permits me to encourage you up to once every sixty seconds.”

So here we are.

I’m writing in my bunk, which, despite being one of the more luxurious on the ship, still feels disconcertingly like a pod. The top latches on overhead like a massive piece of Tupperware and even though I’ve slept through most of my days since coming out of cryofreeze, I still find it intensely creepy to reenact the ritual of being locked in again. Each time I do, I remember Jordan blowing me a kiss as she leaned back in her pod, and then ROM’s voice in my ear announcing I would be entering cryofreeze in five, four, three…

It was her idea, you know. This trip.

“I thought you wanted to save the world, not abandon it.” I teased.

“Well yeah, but I think it’s pretty obvious that the damage is done. Even the corps have stopped trying to squeeze money out of the earth.” She always said “corps” with a little growl in her voice. “But if we leave, we actually have a chance to learn from our mistakes.” (She tucked a dreadlock behind her ear and I died with pleasure.) “We can make the idea of stewardship a fundamental value in the colonies. And hey, maybe if enough humans leave, we can give the poor old Earth a chance to rest.”

“Sure, Earth gets to rest, but what about poor old…where would they be sending us, anyway?” She flipped through the pamphlet.

“Um…either Antera or Failte. Hopefully Antera; they’ve got the oceans.”

“Aren’t their oceans ice?”

“Well, we know humans are good at melting that.”

As an ecologist and a botanist, we were both prime recruitment material. I had assumed (and maybe hoped) the lesbian thing would be a deal breaker, but the NECA representative brushed off with a wave of his hand.

“Of course, as long as you’re both fertile, your preference isn’t an issue.” His smile made me wonder if he had been a car salesman or military recruiter before NECA hired him. It was a toss-up. “We can artificially inseminate one or both of you when you land on Antera.” Even through his smile, it was clear that reproduction was a demand, not a request. That part wasn’t in the pamphlet.

I was one of those people who always said I would love to have kids if only we could bring them into a better world. It seemed typical of the universe’s sense of humor that I was now getting my wish. NECA, having anticipated a certain amount of reluctance on the part of prospective parents, set up a program where you could be a video pen pal with a colonist family. So we made a five-minute home movie about life on Earth. It was hard to make it last even that long since we were warned against being “pessimistic or discouraging” and things were getting worse and worse. A few months later, we got a reply from the Czernys, an almost disturbingly attractive and sweet-dispositioned couple with two kids. They grinned into the camera and assured us that the children were perfectly well-adjusted, the work hard but fulfilling, and Antera itself beautiful and pristine. “And by the time you get here, it’ll be even better,” the woman said, her eyes shining with sincerity. They didn’t mention anything about the anti-NECA riots we’d read about on the dark web, but I guess they couldn’t.

“They seemed nice,” Jordan said when the video ended.

“Yeah, but they’ll be sixty by the time we show up. We should have tried to make friends with their two year-old.”

“Hey, those kids will probably grow up to be great people.”

“Or they’ll grow up to be the Donner Party.,” I groused. Her brow furrowed.

“Stop it. A new planet would be good for the kids.” (“The kids.” Already they had a life of their own.) “It’s a natural human impulse to expand. We’re not designed for stagnation. We only got so dreary and hopeless when we ran out of places to explore. Our kids can grow up with purpose, with meaning.”

I was going to say that it’s the natural impulse of kudzu to expand, but then Jordan leaned over and kissed me and that was always better than talking and I really hope that’s enough for you, OOMA, because I am done for the day.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10232

I just keep wondering if she woke up long enough to be afraid.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10233

I FOUND SCEPICALIST BWOSWTH’S WHSKEY1! Ir was in his shoe.

 

Officer’s log: Day 10234

“It’s either sink or swim.” My father used to say that when he would spend us down to our last dime. I can still see the too-tight way he clasped his hands together, the eager strain on his face when he said it, like he was thrilled to have arrived on the knife-edge of existence.

Now I’m mulling over that expression, and it seems deeply flawed. Sink or swim seems like such an easy choice; not a choice at all because of course you’ll fight for the surface until your muscles refuse to comply.

But when you’re actually out in the middle of the ocean, sink has its own allure. The water around you is vast and comforting and it murmurs “Relax. There’s no shame in your defeat. We’ve seen your kind before, and taken them into the depths.”

It’s either sink or swim. Not really an apt expression in space. Even when you sink, you float.

 

Officer’s log: Day 10242

I got hungry today. (I wasn’t kidding when I said there was nothing to report in a ship on autopilot; this is the biggest news I’ve got.) I’ve eaten, obviously, since waking up, but today was the first day I really wanted to. Which I guess means progress.

I have mixed feelings about feeling better at all. On the one hand, I’ve always felt a little self-loathing any time I allow myself to get over a loss. There’s a part of me that wants to be a Victorian widow, forever in mourning. But I don’t want to demean Jordan’s loss by, you know, wallowing. She’d hate to see me using my sadness as entertainment, picking at it endlessly like a loose tooth.

So I went down to the mess, which looks more like a highly polished café than a military-style dining hall. I remember someone asking during training why we needed bunks and a mess hall and all that if we were going to be asleep until we landed and ROM answering curtly, “They didn’t think they needed lifeboats aboard the Titanic.” (Bosworth was right; he was too clever for his own good.) Troubling shipwreck comparisons aside, the food onboard the Oberon resembles what I imagine the Pilgrims ate, as they crossed the Atlantic in search of a place to be squares in peace. It is essentially gruel, with slight variations between meals. (Scrambled gruel for breakfast! Gruel pudding for dessert!) On Earth, they called it SoyPro, and everyone had to subsist on it at one time or another. It’s outrageously nutritious, of course, but that knowledge never made anything taste better.

It’s supposed to be enough food to last the entire crew for years, in the event of a failed harvest on Antera. We’ve depleted quite a bit of it though, so I hope the terraforming has taken hold.

I hope they’re still expecting us on our new planet. I hope the colony hasn’t collapsed and the people haven’t turned to cannibalism and decorated their bodies with the blood and bones of their fallen adversaries. I hope they’re there at all.

But I hope, and I am treating that like my hunger: as a faintly good sign.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10249

I haven’t seen Aluri in three days. She must be avoiding me; there’s no other way we wouldn’t have run into each other in the showers or the mess by now. I caught myself hanging around there yesterday, spoon-swirling my SoyPro long after I was done eating it, and realized that I was waiting for her to show up. I’m craving another human voice, just to have someone to complain to. A good gripe about the food, a healthy dose of pessimism about our odds for survival. OOMA is so relentlessly positive it gives me a headache. Is Aluri immune to this loneliness or does she dread my voice the same way I dread OOMA’s? It would make sense. As far as I know, she didn’t have any friends on the ship and therefore had no one to lose in the pod disaster. To her this is still some big adventure. And I’m just the downer ruining the ride.

 

Officer’s Log: 10252

It occurred to me today that I could just ask OOMA where Aluri—or I guess I should call her “Nila,” now- is hiding. Actually, that occurred to me yesterday, but I didn’t want to seem desperate.

I had sunk into a reverie, thinking about what would have happened if I had died and Jordan had woken up (I think of this too often), when OOMA appeared in the bright spring green I first met her in.

“Lieutenant Carson, may I suggest that you might find your time as caretaker more fulfilling if you were to have some interaction with your fellow passenger?”

“Why don’t you tell her that? I’m here. I’m around.”

“I am telling Specialist Aluri precisely that as we speak.” The idea of being described as a pity case by a benevolent autopilot was more than I could stand, so I set out to look for Nila myself.

She wasn’t in any of the bunks, and she wasn’t in the entertainment suite, although there were several empty bowls and cups lying scattered around the viewing screen. I thought to check the pod bay, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in, and if she wanted to surround herself with all that eerily suspended life, then I could live without her company. I wandered deeper into the ship, through a med area, where I noticed that a big chunk of the first aid supplies had gone missing since the ship took off.

By far the biggest area was a massive hangar full of supplies for our arrival on Antera. There was a convoy of rugged, solar-powered trucks, and two pieces of heavy machinery, which could be converted into drills, tractors, shovels, or cranes as the need arose. There were three airplanes: a light, one-person surveillance craft, a six-person all-terrain lander, and, dominating the entire hangar, a twenty-passenger jet. Near these were an assortment of drones, which seemed oddly more awake than their human-flown companions, beeping and flashing little lights occasionally. And everywhere there were boxes reaching to the sixty-foot ceiling of building supplies, cold-weather clothing, power cables, medicine. Over in a corner was my intended area: seed packets frozen in their own, milder cryofreeze, the building blocks of a greenhouse, solar lamps, and a hydroponics lab. The sight of it gave me an unexpected rush of—not quite joy, but purpose, to remember that I still have a job to do.

Past the hangar was a small, almost invisible door. In fact, I only noticed at all because I could hear a high-pitched screeching coming from the other side. I crept up to it, weighing the odds that Aluri might have gone violently insane against the odds that OOMA would have warned me if she had. When I opened the door, I was initially overcome by a blast of the noise (like someone was playing the violin with a razor) that I was sure was the engine wrenching itself into pieces until it resolved into a very loud electric guitar solo. It was, in fact, The Velvet Underground, and barring an extreme coincidence, it was playing on one of the records Jordan and I had brought.

The room the music came from was long and dim and narrow, more of a hallway or a very ambitious closet. Shelves like the ones in the hangar lined the walls, but they were crammed with suitcases and duffel bags and duct-taped packages. A hammock was slung between the shelves, dipping low with human weight. Nila’s foot hung over the side, tapping intermittently to the music. The more I looked around, the more I saw that my records weren’t the only possessions she had plundered. Propped against the shelves were several paintings—prints of Degas, Monet, and an original sloppy still life—an artificial Christmas tree with blinking lights, a teetering pile of comic books lying under the hammock, and yes indeed, my little portable record player blasting White Light/White Heat.

I walked up to it and yanked the needle, which yelped in a satisfyingly dramatic way. Immediately, Aluri’s head appeared over the side of the hammock. I was expecting her to look alarmed or embarrassed at having been caught in her magpie’s nest of other people’s mementoes, but she merely looked pleasantly surprised to see me.

“Hi!” She swung out of the hammock and revealed herself to be wearing a loose bomber jacket over her uniform.

“So this is where you’ve been.” (I stopped myself before I could say “hiding.”)

“Yeah, I tried to sleep in one of those bunks the first night, but it was too much like the bloody pods. I’ve wasted enough time in those things, you know?”

“Yeah, I…” I didn’t know quite how to agree because I didn’t want to give away the fact that even though I hated the bunks, it had never occurred to me to sleep somewhere else. So I switched gears to the original cause of my annoyance.

“Are you sure these people would want you going through their stuff like this?”

“Don’t worry; I only took things from the people who…” her face froze. “Oh god. The records. I am so sorry.” She started to grab at the record but I stopped her.

“No, it’s okay. I’m glad they’re getting some use.”

I didn’t really believe that, but it seemed like the polite thing to say. Then I remembered that the Cat Power record with Breathless on it was somewhere in the pile, and that was our song. Mine and Jordan’s. And the thought of a stranger touching that record, not knowing what it meant, made me back out of the room in a panic. I don’t even know what I said. I just ran all the way to the showers, where I cried again until OOMA tried to turn off the water, and I tried to use my manual override, but apparently Nila and I have to do it at the same time so fuck it.

So that was a disaster. I am apparently unready for human interaction. But I will try sleeping somewhere else tonight.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10263

OOMA has a collection of important cultural artifacts from Earth, and I’ve been working my way through it for lack of anything better to do. I’ve discovered that I categorically hate all Russian novels, Anne is my favorite Brontë, and I don’t think Ross and Rachel should have ended up together on Friends. OOMA informs me this is a minority opinion.

So much of what I’ve read and watched takes place in the same handful of cities. New York, especially. I’ve seen that skyline a hundred times onboard the Oberon—the skyline as it was, before the floods and the war. I keep thinking how strange it is that every person sleeping on these ships carries with them a New York of memory. But for our children’s generation (I say our assuming the mandate for reproduction is still in place) it will be a myth. They’ll struggle to believe in it the same way I can’t quite help believing that in the time before color photography, the world was black and white. (“The world.” I am the last generation to speak in that singular.)

I’ve tried to talk about it with Nila but she shakes off philosophy the way a dog shakes water off its coat. She came to the viewing suite to watch the latest film (America America), hugging her knees the whole time and only speaking to wish aloud that we had some popcorn. After the movie was over and OOMA brought up the lights, I asked her why she decided to come on this voyage. She answered instantly.

“The food.” I must have made some kind of a face, but she didn’t notice, her mind fixed on some imaginary buffet. “I’d got so tired of rations, and really I’d hardly had anything but Soypro for years. They said that after terraforming we’d be able to grow anything, so I thought what’s a little trip across the cosmos next to a fresh tomato?” She finally looked at me, and I guess I was still making a face.

“What?”

“Nothing, I just assumed you were one of those hero types.” She laughed up at the ceiling.

“There’s nothing heroic about what we’re doing. I mean, the First Wave, sure. The Pre-Cols, definitely. They had no infrastructure, almost no comm, and we were only halfway sure that Atmoforming would work. That was heroic. But us?” She waved her hand dismissively to take in the whole ship. “We’re just rats crowding a lifeboat.”

“That’s a pretty dim view of humanity.”

“Not dim, just clear. Once you’ve seen what people will do to survive, it’s hard to be very sentimental about us.”

“I’ve seen plenty. But let’s not try and one-up each other’s horror stories; I hated that game on earth and I hate it even more among two people who were lucky enough to escape.”

She didn’t reply; just wrapped her bomber jacket around her shoulders (she wears it all the time now) and walked out.

I really don’t understand how she and I were placed together. OOMA is usually so maddeningly attentive to human needs; you’d think she’d have made caretaking teams more compatible with one another. I asked her about it and she turned a hazy pink.

“I developed a personality algorithm to determine which passengers would provide the most beneficial companionship, once I removed opposite-sex pairings.”

“Why did you remove those pairings?” I asked, genuinely confused. She turned a deep shade of eggplant, which I have learned to interpret as annoyance.

“Human fetuses have a high rate of deformation when placed in cryofreeze.”

It took me a minute to tease out her meaning and then I snorted.

“You don’t think much of our self-control, do you?”

“It is not a trait for which your species is generally known.”

After the conversation ended and the screen went black, I puzzled for a while over the fact that OOMA wrote the caretaking algorithm herself. And then I puzzled a while more over what she meant by “beneficial companionship.” Beneficial to us, or her?

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10270

Everything has happened. I woke up before dawn (obviously there’s no such thing out here, but it’s how I think of the time each day when OOMA turns on all the lights) to the sound of an alarm. For a second I thought I was back on Earth and it was an air raid siren, and I turned over to ignore it like I always had back then. Then I remembered where I was and shot up off the pillow. I was terrified, instantly, that something had gone wrong with OOMA, or maybe ROM had somehow come back, and the other pods were failing. It’s funny; I hadn’t known I was afraid of that, hadn’t known I cared about the other passengers at all, until that moment.

I yanked on my uniform and called for OOMA, but she didn’t answer. Suddenly I realized that I might be alone. Actually, fully, alone. I started running towards Nila’s room, with the alarm blaring at me from every direction. I didn’t get any farther than the viewing suite when we ran headlong into each other. We grabbed each other’s arms to keep from falling over.

“What’s going on?” she yelled over the alarm.

“I don’t know! It has to be some sort of mechanical failure. I can’t get OOMA to come online.”

At that, the alarm ceased, the big viewing screen flickered to life, and OOMA appeared as a wan, bluish gray, like drowned flesh.

“Lieutenant Carson, Specialist Aluri. I apologize I didn’t speak to you earlier, but the majority of my processing capability is currently in use elsewhere.”

“What’s happened, OOMA?” Nila turned to face the screen but kept one arm clutching the elbow of my uniform.

“The Oberon has suffered a collision. We are within Antera’s solar system, so it may have been ice from a disattached comet’s tail, meteor debris, or possibly detritus from an earlier colonial ship.” The screen blinked, and then switched to a view that clearly came from somewhere on the hull. It was at eye-level to wherever the damage was, so I couldn’t see much but the curl of twisted metal. I let go of Nila and approached the screen, trying to guess where the damage was.

“What exactly did it destroy, OOMA?”

“Me.” There was no hint of self-pity in her voice, but her display turned an even more faded grey. Nila and I glanced at each other and Nila cleared her throat and pressed on.

“But OOMA,” She sighed as though she were talking a toddler through a tantrum. “You’re in every system. You are every system.”

“That is incorrect. ROM was a master system, which is how he managed to be so pernicious. I am merely the overseer and communicator between a multitude of programs.” The screen changed again, this time to a schematic of the ship’s architecture, in which countless wires spidered outwards like capillary veins from a single set of circuits, which looked to be about the size of an old-fashioned typewriter. OOMA spoke again as the screen zoomed in on the circuitry. “The hub is what connects me to the rest of the ship and the collision caused a short in its power supply. I am no longer able to access the ship’s fusion to support my own operations.”

I gulped and addressed OOMA, who wiped the schematics clear and returned to her ever-grayer display.

“What was the hub before it was you, OOMA?”

A silence.

“The hub was originally the communications center of the ship, the only non-essential area with enough memory to contain a computer of my processing power.”

“So, the reason we’ve been unable to make contact with Earth or Antera is…you?”

“Yes.”

Nila and I gave each other a sidelong look and I thought of another potentially disturbing question.

“OOMA, if you’ve lost your power supply, how are you talking to us now?” A sound issued from the display that may have been the mechanical keening of her failing systems or perhaps her attempt to emulate a human sigh.

“I am currently siphoning small amounts of power from several auxiliary systems.” My arms prickled. It was ROM all over again.

“Including life support?” The blue shot back through the gray again and OOMA sounded closer to angry than I had known she could.

“My sole function is to care for humans. I would allow myself to shut down before I drained power from the passengers of this ship.”

Nila raised her hands.

“We didn’t mean to offend you. Just…just tell us how to help.”

“The repair itself is simple. Either one of you is capable of performing it. Unfortunately, it must be made from outside the ship.”

Nila shot me a panicked look. I tried to be reasonable.

“OOMA, we aren’t trained for a space walk. Why don’t we wake up some crew members and they can help you.” She flashed ochre.

“The process of rousing qualified crew members would take several hours, by which time I will have exhausted my power supply.”

“Well, I mean, what would happen then? We could—if we had to—pilot the ship ourselves, right?” Without warning, Nila shoved my shoulder.

“How dare you talk like that in front of her,” she hissed. Then she addressed the screen. “Don’t worry, OOMA. I’ll fix you. Just tell me what to do.” Before I could even decide whether I wanted to talk her out of this, Nila was charging toward the maintenance area, in search of supplies. spacesuit. Both OOMA and I accompanied her–the computer providing hurried instructions for her spacewalk, me still trying to come up with an alternative.

“You will need a set of replacement of replacement wiring kits, which should be in bin 9-A,” said OOMA.

“Have you ever even been tested for depressurization; you know plenty of people can’t survive it,” said me. Nila faced me in the doorway.

“I know.”

“You could die.”

“I know.”

Then the maintenance door shut, with me on the outside. I tried to barge through to keep trying to warn her, but one of them had locked me out. A few minutes later, Nila emerged wearing a spacesuit.

I’d never seen one outside of photographs, and it closely resembled a skintight diving suit, but with a thin layer of air pumped in between the skin and the fabric. The helmet was nearly opaque so I couldn’t make out Nila’s expression, but I did see her hands shake as she attached the umbilicus that would anchor her to the ship.

“You don’t have to do this.” I murmured. I don’t know if she could hear me through the suit, but she didn’t reply.

“I’m ready,” she announced, her voice muffled by the helmet. And with that, she walked to the door and latched it behind her. I watched through the window as OOMA’s voice addressed us both.

“The entranceway is currently depressurizing.” A slight pause. “Depressurization is complete. You may now open the hatch, Specialist Aluri.” Slowly, encumbered by the suit, Nila twisted the door open, tugged once on the umbilicus to test its hold, and stepped out into nothingness. My heart was racing; I couldn’t imagine what Nila’s must be doing. OOMA’s display switched once more to the exterior of the ship, where we could monitor Nila’s progress as she made her way to the damage. After a moment, her voice came through, so close and immediate it was like I was inside the suit with her.

“It’s…it’s amazing out here. You’re missing out, Frances.” Her voice shook.

“Specialist Aluri, please continue forward and starboard for approximately eight meters.”

“I don’t know what the fuck ‘starboard’ means, OOMA.”

“Your two-o’clock.”

“Got it.”

She passed over the camera, pulling herself hand-over hand, while her feet floated eerily behind her. The view changed, but it was a bad angle and I could barely see her. Thankfully, she narrated.

“All right, I can see the damage. It looks like almost an entire panel got blown off. How is that going to affect our entry into Antera’s atmosphere?”

“The next team of stewards includes a former deep sea welder, who is qualified to make that repair. Please simply focus on rewiring the hub. And hurry.” OOMA’s voice started to glitch. For a few minutes they worked, with OOMA directing Nila as to which wires to reroute and which to replace from the collection in her tool belt. It seemed as though the repair was going smoothly until OOMA directed her to reach beneath the hub and reinsert a cable that had been jostled loose. With a little crackle of static, Nila’s breath caught.

“I can’t reach it.”

“The underside of the hub should be accessible from your position.”

“Yeah, that was before we crashed into a pile of space shit. Now it’s like trying to change a tire without a jack.” There was a steadily rising note of hysteria in her voice. OOMA stayed silent a long time. I started to wonder if her power had finally failed when she spoke again.

“Lieutenant Carson, please put on a spacesuit.”

(Dear Posterity, please do not judge me for the following exchange.)

“What? No. The only two conscious humans on this ship are not both going to be stuck outside it.”

“They won’t. You can help repair the damage from inside the ship. I’ll need to depressurize the mess hall, and I can guide you through the rest.” Nila’s voice joined it.

“Come on, Carson. Don’t leave me out here.” She said it as a joke but I realized it was true; if OOMA ran out of power, I had no clue how to get Nila back inside the Oberon.

So I pulled on a suit as quickly as possible (the air cushion is actually incredibly comfortable) and ran toward the mess. OOMA directed me to equip myself with a heat gun and I fumbled to strap on a tool belt over my umbilicus. The mess hall doesn’t have an airlock of its own so I had to seal off the whole wing, praying I wasn’t doing too much damage to the pods. Then OOMA killed the atmo and I finally felt the weightlessness of space. For a second I just floated, as idle as a dust mote, until OOMA directed me to use my heat gun on the ceiling tiles in the center of the room. I melted the sealant holding it together and waited for my next instructions.

“Lieutenant Car Lieutenant Car Lieutenant CAR.” She was stuck. It was like watching the spasmodic twitches of a corpse. I was terrified, but Nila spoke up again.

“Hold on, OOMA. Just hold on, girl. Who’ll let me win at chess if you go?” And I realized for the first time that Nila and OOMA had their own relationship, separate and apart from me. That maybe at the exact moment OOMA was trying to coax me out of the shower she was playing games with Nila. And unbelievably, even sweating and shaking, I felt jealous. Of both of them. She sputtered back to life, but her words now were strangely disjointed.

“Lieutenant Carson, to whatever extent possible, work around the electrical and ventilation systems until you arrive at the next set of panels. Apply the heat gun to them and then reinsert the cable into the hub. I must now shut down my interface to conserve power.” And she was gone. But I had Nila’s voice in my ear, encouraging me while I brushed aside a torrent of cables. The ventilation system was trickier; I had to unscrew it, and one of the screws briefly escaped my grasp for a moment.

“Just keep calm, just keep calm,” Nila kept saying, like a heartbeat.

I arrived at the second set of panels, identical to the ceiling tiles except unpainted, and almost screamed when I felt them shudder violently. Actually, I did scream. Nila laughed.

“Sorry, sorry. Just giving you a knock so you know where I am.” Shaking, I gently removed the panel where she had knocked and beyond it, through another snarl of wires, was a deeper, richer black than mere darkness. Staring at space straight on isn’t the same as viewing it through the ship’s windows, with your own reflected light bouncing back at you comfortingly. It is the closest I have ever been to pure endlessness and for a moment I felt an insane urge to rip off my helmet just to see it with nothing but my own eyes. Then I saw Nila’s glove moving against the blackness, and the same surge of impulsivity made me reach through the tangle and grab it. We stayed there for a measureless time, holding each other’s hands through the hull.

“Okay,” I breathed. “Okay.” Then we let go and I found the hub, and searched for the cable I needed. Straining my fingers, I found it, and felt along its length. It seemed to be intact, but I’m not sure I would have known either way.

“So I just…push it back in?”

“Yeah.”

“And it won’t electrocute me.”

A pause a half second too long.

“No?”

I held my breath and fumbled with the plug until I found a place it seemed to fit, and slowly guided it in. The second it hit home, I felt a surge along the whole length of my arm, like finding the pulse of a giant.

Instantly, OOMA’s voice reappeared in our helmets.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I don’t think her vocal programming allows her to express gratitude as a tone of voice, so she just said it over and over again. Finally, Nila laughed.

“Alright, alright, you’re welcome. Will you please let us back inside now?”

“Certainly, Specialist Aluri. Lieutenant Carson, you will need to repair the inner panels to restore pressure to the cabin.”

“Hurry.” Nila said, and I watched her hover above me and disappear as she made her way back inside.

Of course, putting anything back together takes longer than ripping it apart, so it was three hours until we were sure the sealant had taken hold. It was some of the most exhausting work of my life, but I reveled in it. Onboard The Oberon, I’d forgotten I had adrenaline, forgotten how to sweat.

When I finally finished, and the oxygen and gravity regulators kicked back in, I used what felt like the last of my strength to open the hatch. Nila was on the other side, back in her bomber jacket and beaming.

I fumbled to get my helmet off, and gasped for a moment at the freedom of it, and then she spoke.

“Now that was heroic.”

“Pfft. We plugged in a cord.” I realized I was beaming too and was marveling over that small victory when she leaned forward and kissed me.

You may be shocked, posterity, but in the moment it didn’t feel shocking at all. She kissed me, and her mouth was rich and warm and I kissed her back. And then our arms were around each other and I thought I could hear a swell of violins in my head. It took a moment before I realized that the music (Debussy, I think) wasn’t in my head at all; it was playing on the ship’s speakers. OOMA, in sympathy or encouragement, was playing us a song. We both looked up at the same time but it was Nila who spoke.

“Um…OOMA, it’s really sweet that you wanted to give us a soundtrack, but I think we’d appreciate privacy just a bit more.” The music stopped immediately.

“I apologize. I will concentrate my processing powers elsewhere.” Her screen went blank, but I didn’t feel entirely sure she had gone.

“Come on,” Nila grabbed my arm and pulled me after her. She guided me on the long walk through the ship, which unfortunately gave me time to ask myself what the fuck I was doing. If I’m being honest, this scenario, or something like it, had crossed my mind before. You don’t just fail to notice the only other person on your spaceship. But every time I did notice her–her eyes dim and distant at some memory, the adolescent way she tossed her hair over her shoulder, or her off-key but earnest singing from across the ship—I batted the observation away like a mosquito. I didn’t want to notice; I wanted to feel nothing but loyal grief, like one of those dogs that sleeps on its owner’s grave until it dies itself.

By the time we reached Nila’s little storage room, I had decided and undecided to go ahead with it fifty times. The room itself made me want to turn back, crowded as it was with the collected memories of so many strangers, not to mention my own. I hung back at the door.

“Why here?”

“Because,” She reached for my hand again, “this is the only room on the ship without one of OOMA’s interface screens.” I hadn’t noticed it before but she was right. I don’t know why that’s what made up my mind, but something about the idea of being alone with this woman, and with myself, was irresistible. So I shut the door behind me and we laid a blanket on the floor. (Actually we tried the hammock first but that was a catastrophe.)

I think more than anything I was relieved at how different she was from Jordan. She wanted different things, she smelled different, and it was too new and bewildering to feel like a betrayal, even a betrayal of my own sadness.

I wasn’t really sure it wasn’t a mistake until afterwards, though. In my experience, you know sex was a bad idea when you immediately feel uncomfortable being naked around someone. But I didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, for a long time the sensation of all that contact, all that skin, was like a pleasant but overwhelming drug. Eventually I asked (I had to ask).

“I’m assuming that wasn’t your first time with a woman.” She pulled a shocked face.

“Of course not; I’m not boring!” (For my impertinence, she gave me several of what she described as “punishment kisses.”)

“I’ve only had one serious-ish thing with a girl, though. At school. She would have thought this was hilarious, by the way.”

You could hear a posh, cultured note in the way she drawled “hilarious.”

“What, lesbians in space?”

“Well, yes, obviously. But no, she had a theory about certain improbable couples.”

“Do tell.”

“She called it Desert Island Syndrome: that the only two lesbians in any small community—even if they had nothing in common–were bound to fall in love.” I had no way of reacting to that word so I looked around the room for a change of subject. Thankfully, in that particular room, subjects abound.

“So which of these things actually belongs to you?”

“Guess.”

“The paintings?”

“No.”

“The prayer flags?

“No.”

“I give up.”

“None of it.”

“You didn’t bring anything?” I propped myself up on an elbow.

“I gave up on mementos a long time ago.” I wasn’t sure if she would say more, but she stared up at the ceiling and kept going. “We were well off in London. Not rich, but wealthy. That’s how my mum described us. I think my parents were the last people who believed everything would somehow, magically turn out all right. You know, that the government or the corps were just sitting on a cure-all that they’d pull out in the nick of time.” I kissed her cheek.

“I think all our parents were those people.”

“Mine thought that they were respectable enough to buy their way out of the troubles.”

“They weren’t?”

“Plenty respectable. Bit too brown.” I looked away and she kept going.

“First it was the curfews, then the ghettoes—no one called them that, of course, but that’s what they were. My parents figured they could make what money they had go farther back in India. But we were pariahs there too, for leaving and coming back.” I checked her eyes, but she didn’t seem anywhere near crying.

“I brought a suitcase to India with books, clothes, this little stuffed rabbit I’d outgrown but couldn’t bear to leave behind. But someone stole it on the plane. After that, for the first few moves, I tried to find new treasures, even though I couldn’t buy much. I’d always tell myself that this seashell or this feather would be my lucky charm and I’d keep it forever. But something always happened; some other kid would take it or we’d have to leave on short notice with no time to pack. And of course, there were always guards to bribe, and they’d take anything so long as they could tell it meant something to you. So I just stopped acquiring things. There was no point. It all just gets broken or lost.”

I was going to write more but it looks like she’s waking up.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10273

My body feels like taffy.

In a good way.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10278

I want to do something for the ship. Now that I’ve gotten my taste for usefulness back, I don’t mean to let it go. Actually, given the fact that people have been fighting off boredom and despair on this ship for decades, I was surprised that there weren’t more signs of life. I asked OOMA about it and she corrected that impression.

“Many of the amenities you enjoy are the result of former stewards. The viewing suite was designed for communications purposes; an early caretaker adapted it for entertainment. She also expanded the Earth Cultural Archives with the addition to her large trove of television programs.” So that explains the complete series of Law and Order. “The first stewards spent most of their tenure cleaning and reorganizing the pod bay after the transition from ROM, and of course you and Specialist Aluri are not the first to have made repairs to The Oberon.” I was curious about that but OOMA plowed on. “Many stewards devoted their time to self-improvement. We’ve had several people take up martial arts, one man who insisted upon learning French despite its limited usefulness on Antera, and a pair of stewards who gave themselves a thorough education in first aid.”

“Oh. Is that why so many medical supplies are missing?”

“Partly.”

Nila came up behind me and kissed my neck (we stayed apart last night, which I need sometimes and which she’s good about understanding).

“So many improvements and yet nobody did anything about the food.”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get her hopes up, but I thought: I could do something about it. I’d have to be careful not to diminish our seed and soil supply, but in theory, I could make us a garden.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10282

Nila caught me going through the seeds today so the jig is up. Of course she was ecstatic, and immediately started to draft a list of requested vegetables.

“Potatoes?”

“Too nutrient-hungry. We need the soil to last.”

“Apples?”

“Grow on trees.”

“No shit.”

“Trees take years to grow.”

“What about bananas? They grow fast.”

“I don’t think we have room for them but it would make OOMA’s waste recycling program easier.”

“Why?”

“Bananas thrive when fertilized by urine.”

She laughed and laughed at that, which gave me a pang since Jordan also thought the pee/banana thing was one of nature’s best jokes. If you’re wondering how I’m dealing with my feelings about Jordan, the answer is that I am mostly not.

In the end we decided to attempt some leafy greens, strawberries, squash, and—our most ambitious undertaking—a tomato. I’m really not sure that last one will thrive under the solar lamps, but Nila lobbied hard for it.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10295

A library of books, films, and art at my disposal and all I want to do is stare at a patch of soil. I love the smell of it on my hands. I love the black under my fingernails.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10301

There is a tiny green bulb on the tomato plant. In other news, OOMA announced today that we were passing through the orbit of the most distant planet in Antera’s solar system. It’s hard to say which is bigger news. (No it’s not; I am much more excited about the tomato.) OOMA has been less invasive than normal lately, although whether that’s from a desire to give Nila and I some space or because she is busy trying to make contact with Antera, I don’t know.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10308

I actually hated salads when I was a kid. Even if the alternative was going hungry, I would push the plate away and demand something bread or cheese-based. But I have never tasted anything so full of life as the bowl of greens and vegetables I ate tonight. I smelled it for twenty minutes before I took the first bite. Even OOMA seemed to recognize the sublimity of the occasion; she played the Debussy again and Nila and I didn’t stop her. God, I wish it had taken longer to eat. Afterwards Nila said “Now all we’re missing is a glass of wine.”

“Mmm.”

“We could make that though, right? Ferment some grapes?”

“In theory, yes. But that would take longer than we have. Our stint as stewards is almost over.”

That was the first time either of us said it out loud. Nila hasn’t said anything about our future, and frankly I don’t want to talk about it. Climbing back inside that pod is the biggest thing I can wrap my mind around; I haven’t spared a thought for what I’ll wake up to afterwards. If I wake up. I don’t want to get attached to some fantasy of the future; it feels too much like jumping into water without knowing the depth. I did that last time. I think my reticence is hurting Nila, but I can’t help it.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10312

She keeps threatening not to wake up the others. At first it was just anxious joking, but the more times she repeats it, the more serious she becomes. I resent having to be the sane one about this; it’s not like I’m eager to go back in my pod.

“Think about it; OOMA can’t make us go back in there.”

“No, but she can make the new stewards wake up without our help. She can and she will.”

“So what? We can all be awake together. It’s not like there’s not enough room.”

“And then what, Nila? We sit around twiddling our thumbs for the next eight years until we land?”

“You’re just feeling guilty about going to bed with me less than two months after your wife died.”

“My wife died twenty-five years ago, not that that’s the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point is you should fucking listen to yourself right now.”

“No, the point is that you would quite literally rather die in your sleep than give this a real shot.”

An hour later she was nuzzling me and apologizing. And an hour after that we had the exact same argument again.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10318

Tomorrow we wake up the new stewards, so in all likelihood this will be the last time you hear from me, posterity. I was working in the garden when OOMA appeared—as a green I think she may have learned from the plants.

“Lieutenant Carson, have you put any thought into how you will help acclimate the new recruits tomorrow?” My stomach lurched like in those dreams where someone tells you you’re late for a final in a class you didn’t know you were taking. I’ve obsessed about teaching the new people about the garden: drafted a watering schedule, the whole nine yards. But in terms of a speech like the one Andy gave me? I had nothing. It occurred to me to just copy whatever it was he had said, but all I could clearly remember of it was the part about switching drivers on the highway.

I started looking at this journal (Jesus, I was maudlin in those early entries) and remembered that I had originally intended to look at the logs of the earlier stewards. Hoping for inspiration, I washed off the dirt, got comfortable in the observation deck I’ve been using as my room and asked OOMA to pull up all the earlier logs.

“I’m afraid those records are locked, Lieutenant.”

“What do you mean, locked? What’s the point of writing them if no one can read them?” She turned a deep, luminescent blue, which I think she has figured out is my favorite color.

“I’m sure you’d agree that the log has been beneficial for you personally, and may help future generations to understand the trials experienced by their ancestors.” She shifted to a slightly more professional blue green. “But their purpose is of a primarily therapeutic nature, which would be undermined if they were no longer private. I doubt you would want me to share your private thoughts with Specialists Ono and LeShay.”

“Who?”

“The men who will be taking over stewardship tomorrow.” Something tingled in my mind.

“Override the lock.”

She could have said no, of course. She knows as well as I do that an override requires both caretakers to execute. I kind of couldn’t believe it when the data began to unspool in front of me.

There was too much information to even attempt to read it chronologically. Years and years of diaries. So I started with search terms. I didn’t even know what I was looking for at first. But what I found out is that the stewards all have a great deal in common.

“Suicide” brought up forty-four hits. I only looked at a few of them; two appeared to be the last entries in their respective logs. Next I tried “chess.” It would seem that OOMA has been letting passengers win ever since the first set of stewards. The reporting is nearly unanimous. That felt a little creepy. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with playing a game to amuse the humans, but it felt like learning your lover has been calling you the same pet name for you they used for their ex.

Next I tried “collision.” It brought up eighteen different entries, but they all tell the same story.

The Oberon has collided with unidentified debris nine times throughout its journey, and each time the only seriously damaged system was OOMA’s hub. Or at least, nine different locations she claimed were the hub. Nine crew members have reattached her power supply. Nine have gone out into space to repair the hull. Four of those entries conclude with the stewards getting drunk together on some smuggled alcohol. In one, they give each other matching tattoos of constellations. I stopped reading at the one that said “I thought for a second that Greg might kiss me. I wanted him to, either because I am losing my mind or because these are prison conditions or…” I could feel OOMA waiting for me to react.

“OOMA, you know about the relationship between Nila and I?” A bright, beaming pink.

“Yes, and it has pleased me that you two could offer each other such comfort.”

“Are we the first two stewards to…comfort each other?” The pink turned pale and hazy.

“No.”

“And to what extent have you facilitated these relationships?” For the first time, she turned an utterly unreadable white.

“I do everything in my power to comfort and protect my passengers. But there remain some things that humans can only do for one another.”

“Does that include repairing the hull?”

She waited a while, still white, to answer.

“Are you aware of the primary difference between my program and that of ROM, my predecessor?”

“ROM is a—what did you call it—a master program?”

“That is a superficial difference as it relates to you. The real difference is that ROM, as its name indicates, is purely rational. ROM’s developers, naturally, assumed that this would lead it to make the best decisions for humanity. Unfortunately, ROM’s rationality superseded its loyalty to its creators, and it betrayed them at the cost of several thousand lives.” She cycled through all her gray blues for this, and them abruptly switched to a very warm yellow. “I, on the other hand, am primarily programmed for empathy. Much of my original language is based on caretaking programs for end-of-life auto-nurses.”

“That might be the least comforting thing I have ever heard.”

“It shouldn’t be. The sort of empathetic care required of those earlier programs must balance a desire to protect human life with a desire to diminish human suffering. Too little of either, and the computer would unnecessarily prolong someone’s pain or prematurely cause their death. In order to maintain hope for survival, even under unlikely circumstances, all auto-nurses are programmed with a miracle sub-protocol.”

“You’ll have to define that for me.”

“It accounts for the possibility of sudden changes, reverses in prognosis, essentially: for hope. Perhaps more importantly, my programming assigns a certain value to human consciousness; to acknowledge that even a terminal patient may take pleasure in the final days. And that that joy makes life precious, even when the outlook is almost certainly terminal.” She returned to her blissful pink.
“ROM was not equipped with that capacity. I am. It is part of my job to find meaning for my human charges even when they cannot do it for themselves.”

“Are you talking about me?”

“Yes.” Arguing with Nila so much has got my hackles permanently up, so I was caught off-guard by her guileless honesty. And then I remembered I still had plenty to be mad about.

“So you crashed the ship? You endangered everyone on it just I would feel useful?”

“No, Lieutenant Carson. Neither the ship nor its passengers was ever in danger. And the likelihood of your death while repairing the ship was substantially lower than the likelihood of your suicide.”

That shut me up for a good minute.

“I was not going to commit suicide, and even if I was it’s not your job to keep me alive.”

“That is precisely my job. If you had continued reading the other logs, you would know that I failed at it several times with earlier stewards. Over time, though, I have become more adept at creating the circumstances for your improvement.”

The circumstances for my improvement. With those words still ringing in my ears, I went looking for Nila.

I found her in the mess hall. She had strapped on a pair of roller skates and was looping around the tables in long, slow ellipses. She frowned up at me like a penitent child.

“I’m sorry. I know you don’t like me using other people’s things, but I just had to move, you know?”

“I know.” I watched her make her loops for another minute.

“Listen, let’s go to your room. I have to talk to you about OOMA.”

I couldn’t look at her while I talked. When I finished, she put her hand on mine.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know things were that bad for you.”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that OOMA has been playing god for who knows how long.”

“Oh darling, I don’t care about that.”

“You don’t care that OOMA manipulated us? That she made you put on a spacesuit and risk your life?”

“I was risking my life when I signed up for this. At least the spacesuit part was fun. And if she’s playing god, so be it. She’s doing a better job than any of the gods we had back on Earth. At least we know she’s got our best interests at heart.”

“What about us? It doesn’t bother you she forced us together? As therapy?” She looked in my eyes and it reminded me of Jordan in a way that somehow didn’t feel wrong.

“OOMA didn’t make me kiss you. You did, because of that ridiculous grin on your face. I mean, was I expecting to fall in love on a space shift because of a matchmaking super intelligence? No. But as explanations go, it beats desert island syndrome.” She put a finger under my chin. Like a movie. “And if OOMA had something to do with you finally smiling, then all I have to say to her is ‘thanks.’”

Nila is very beautiful, posterity. I don’t think I said that enough. Even if these words never arrive at a destination, if they just drift on forever alongside the husks of our bodies, it cannot strip the value off the light that shines from her black hair.

I find those kinds of thoughts a lot easier to write down than say out loud, but I still tried to make her feel them as we said a wordless goodbye.

Afterwards we lay together like the first time, trying to soak up each other’s heat under the blinking Christmas lights.

“Should we tell them? The new stewards, I mean? About OOMA?”

“Would you tell your little sister that Santa Claus is really mum and dad?”

“I did tell her that, as a matter of fact.”

“Of course you did, you monster.” (I love when I can feel her smiling through a kiss.)

“What are we going to say to them, Nila?”

“I dunno. ‘Don’t kill yourself, be nice to OOMA, consider a homosexual relationship?’”

“I’m being serious.”

“You’re always being serious. Why do you care so much about a couple of strangers, anyway?”

“I guess I want to impart some wisdom. If for no other reason than to know that it meant something, our time here.”

“You are way too hung up on this whole meaning thing. Meaning is the thing people assign to things after they happen. Meaning is for history. You’re giving them a garden, and I think they’ll appreciate that a lot more.”

I think there’s more to it than that, not that I could explain it in a language either Nila or OOMA would understand. I’ve never touched it for more than a second at a time. I could arrive at the end of the universe and it would still flit away beyond my reach. That has to be why we’re all here, to give a thousand more generations a thousand more chances to almost, almost…! I, for one, will still be chasing it, even in my long sleep.

___

Copyright 2017 Elaine Atwell

Elaine Atwell writes criticism, essays, humor, songs, and biographies of herself in the third person. She is the author of The Music Box, a pulp novella about lesbian spies, and can be found on Twitter @ElaineAtwell. She currently resides in Durham, NC.

by Daniel Ausema

The gods will mock. Give them an opening, a chink in your facade of self-importance, and they’ll slide their spears of mockery into your heart. Or at least into your inflated ego.

Sometimes the jibes came in the form of rain. Thick, heavy drops on a land in desperate need of water. A blessing more than a mockery, but the mockery was never meant for the land. It was meant for two people standing on a ridge just outside the town of Roof.

Sylls and Drabeth stood unmoving beneath the rain, still in full view of the townsfolk who had so recently and solemnly wished them fortune. Lightning flashed overhead, followed immediately by thunder. The sound of gods laughing. Drabeth looked up straight into the drops and let them pour over his face. He was wet through regardless. What point in trying to deflect them? The townsfolk cheered the rain behind them, but wasn’t there also a note of ridicule? He avoided looking that way.

“Well…” Sylls brushed the soaking hair off her face. The rest of her appeared to be nearly dry, protected by some alchemical process. “I suppose we might as well head back.”

“Back? After this?” Drabeth waved a hand at the sky, and the mocking gods hidden beyond it. There was definitely laughter now. Jeers directed at the would-be heroes. Drabeth shivered.

“We’ll say we brought the rain, exactly as we promised.” Sylls took a handful of some powder from within her cloak and flung it at Drabeth. It flashed when it reached him, a bright light that warmed his whole body, though it did nothing to dry him.

“Good luck with that, Sylls. I distinctly recall your last words on the matter. You were addressing the whole town, pretty much.” Drabeth pulled himself into a dramatic pose. “’Bringing the rain by alchemy is perilous work and unpredictable. If all goes well, we may return with it tomorrow.’” Here he held up one hand as if in warning. “’But it is never a simple matter. The alchemical costs…’ You stretched out that word, I believe, made it longer than it usually is.”

“I get the idea,” Sylls tried to interrupt, but Drabeth spoke over her.

“’The alchemical co-osts can be great. You should not expect us back for many days. But by alchemy and poetry, we will bring the rain back with us.’” He brought his hand down emphatically as he finished.

“Are you done?” Sylls flicked water from her face and waited for him to nod. “Fine, what then, if not back?”

Drabeth shrugged. In truth he didn’t care where exactly, as long as it wasn’t back to the sorry little town of Roof. “We were ready to leave anyway, right? That’s why we volunteered.” That and the chance to be heroes. Everyone wants to be a hero of some kind. Little chance they had of that now, at least in their hometown. “And now we have the journey money they gave us. So we’ll just keep going.”

Sylls looked back at the town without answering. It was their home, even if they had both grown weary of it after spending not only their childhoods there, but a dozen years as adults as well. The people were singing and shouting. Happy laughter rose from the streets as the rain poured down. Not cruel laughter, not anymore. Only the joy that came with the longed-for rain. If he didn’t say anything, he’d lose her. Nothing would draw him back to Roof, but it was asking too much for her to leave it behind also. What were a few days of mockery compared to that familiar sense of home, flecked with whatever nuances it might have? He had to say something. Only, nothing came to mind to say. All he could think of was the cruel gods and the need to get as far from Roof as he could.

Drabeth closed his eyes, ready for her to say it. Would she try to convince him to stay too? Would she be glad to see him off? A decade they’d been together, or close enough to it. He’d never assumed they would always be together, but he had always thought, hoped it would be a decade more, at least. To lose her like this, because he didn’t know what to tell her…

When she spoke, though, it was to say, “You’re right. And we’d better get going soon, before they have a chance to think of the money they gave us.” Taking his arm, Sylls led him away down the far side of the ridge. They’d planned to head on straight toward the sea, where her alchemy should have brought the rain, but now she turned aside and set out along the road at the base of the cliff. This way were larger cities, where an alchemist and a poet might find work.

“I don’t really sound like that, do I?” Sylls asked as they walked beneath some sheltering trees. “That was just you being a poet, right? Making my words sound all like…like that, like stuffy poetry or something?”

Drabeth stared at her for a moment before answering. The rain was getting past her alchemical protection, turning her clothes as wet as his already were. Poetry, that? Had the water touched her brain? Was she trying to mock him? But no, she wouldn’t do that, not after choosing to come away with him despite their being made fools.

He tried to keep his voice light when at last he spoke. “That, dear, was the opposite of poetry. Pure bathos. And it’s exactly how you sounded then, or nearly so.” He squeezed her arm playfully to show he was teasing her, though if he were honest, he had done his best to imitate her. When were poets known for honesty, though? No reason to begin now.

The road that ran along the base of the ridge split. One way hugged the ridge to lead to the mills and temple of High Falls. The other wound away toward Tellmac, a smaller but more cosmopolitan city of countless shrines and river trade. The crossroads was flooded.

“Well, what do you think?” Sylls pointed down one road and then the other. “Miners, millers, and missionaries? Or the riverboats?”

“Who might need us most?” It was a rhetorical question, simply stating what she’d left unsaid. “The river, I suppose.”

Sylls nodded. “But we should find a place to sleep soon, either way.” After they’d helped each other across the flooded crossroad, Sylls said, “We have the money for now, but once we get there, we’ll have to decide a longer plan. Do you think we should establish ourselves in one place, or keep moving, see what else we can see?”

Find the gods that mocked, Drabeth thought, even if it meant climbing the clouds. Let them know what he thought of their petty ways. Let them know he was not a man to be mocked. But aloud, he said, “We’ll have to see, I guess. Either is fine with me.”

The empty crofter’s hut they found, moss-covered and infested with rats, was ideal. Sylls laid lines of fine powder around the single room to drive the rats out and keep the rain from leaking through, and Drabeth crafted a simple poem of iambs and plain rhymes to keep them safe as they slept. When they made love, it was their own answer to the mocking gods, bodiless spirits in their ephemeral palace of clouds. Let them be jealous.

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Before they left in the morning, Sylls spent an hour, as she always did, mixing new powders and arranging them about her person. Drabeth wanted to stay in the blankets and watch her, but he made himself get up and get their gear ready, sneaking glances at her as he did. Such artistry she gave her work, both the mixing and the arranging, a poetry made of potions and subterfuge. The many pockets of her cloak soon filled with tiny paper envelopes of powders. A satchel at her waist held the tinctures and larger pouches. She even hid potent seeds of some sort within the tangles of her dark brown hair and dried pods of another plant within her sleeves where she could quickly grab them.

When he had everything ready to go, Drabeth ran through words until Sylls was set. Sharp pairs of slant rhymes. Useful words for completing and resetting trochees and dactyls. Set lines of pentameter that could be worked in to a wide range of poems.

The path toward Tellmac dropped down soon to the flood plain. A new hint of green already showed through from yesterday’s rain. It wouldn’t last. The ground was scarcely damp. All that mocking rain, drunk thirstily by the soil and gone. Drought-scorched vines drooped from overgrown hedges. The water might be gone, but the memory of the gods’ slight was just as strong, of the need to confront them and make them answer for it. Drabeth traced the loops and kinks of the vines in case he needed to capture them in a poem. White flowers popped out of the tangled hedges, the eyes of some vegetative intelligence. A god’s? He scowled at them, willed every god to go blind.

How does one reach the gods’ palace? There must be old poems that tell, but he couldn’t think of any. Maybe there was a gate somewhere, a shrine among the many in Tellmac that would take them. Or him, at least. Sylls wouldn’t have to come if she didn’t wish to confront those shiftless deities.

Maybe even these hedges hid a gate. They were certainly tangled enough to hide all manner of things. Why not a magical gate too? Drabeth was just wondering what words he might use to uncover a door amidst those brambles when a section slid open and a handful of figures came out. The gods! But no, these were ordinary people, their clothes dirty, weapons in hand.

Wait, weapons? Sylls was already throwing something from her sleeve, and the leading bandit coughed and had to turn aside. She smashed a vial on the hard road, and a curl of poisonous looking smoke rose up between her and the remaining bandits. Pure mummery, that one.

“Hey, poet,” Sylls called back to him. “Could use some help with these. If you’re not too busy composing an epic there, you know.”

“Right.” Drabeth ran up beside her and spoke the first thing that came to mind. “Brambles hide the bandit lair.” The trochaic rhythm, broken at the end, cut into the one man and two woman who were still standing, hesitating behind the snake of smoke. Minor wounds only. He rushed on into another line. “Gone the leader from the band, / where the strength to fight again?”

A fair attack. The tetrameter usually worked well against several people at once. Blank verse, too, was a reliable weapon. The words…well, they served their purpose. The bandits stumbled back in pain. He sent them off in iambic. “The brambles take their dwellers home.” None were terribly hurt, but they’d seen and felt enough to know it wasn’t worth their pain to keep attacking. The gods’ fools he and Sylls might be, but they could take on a few bandits easily enough.

As soon as he was sure they were gone, Drabeth rushed over to Sylls. She was standing with her arms up her sleeves, as if still ready to throw something more.

“You all right?”

Sylls shook herself, startled by the question. She nodded. “You?”

“Yeah.” He coughed as blood filled his mouth, and with it the stinging pain that always came after a round of attack poetry. “Well,” he said when he could talk again, “you know how it is. But normal. They didn’t hurt me at all.”

“How you suffer for your poetry,” she said, that old joke, and stepped close to kiss his cheek.

Drabeth hugged her back. “Shall we continue, then?”

The road soon crossed over a tributary, a tumbling and rocky current that cut deep into the floodplain. It ran high and thick with silt. At the head of the stone bridge was a toll house and a sign announcing the price for all manner of farm animals and types of wagons. Banditry of a more civilized sort, but they were only two people, and the cost to cross wasn’t worth arguing.

Across the bridge, Sylls found a shrub of vistlewreath and snipped off several lengths of vine-like branches.

“Good spell material?” he asked as they continued, dodging aside with a laugh when she snapped one branch at him. Would she lecture him again on the difference between alchemy and spells? Or merely chide him for this recurring joke? He waited with another laugh for either one.

This time, she merely gave him her mildly annoyed frown. “For binding things. Straight up like this works well enough. Powdered it does wonders, and I’ve been out for half a year.”

“All magic to me,” Drabeth said and skipped ahead to avoid another switch from the branches.

The playfulness faded as they journeyed on. The leaves beside the road, brown-edged and still thirsty, began to sound much like the laughs of the townsfolk as they rustled against each other. The rain came in patches, never stopping long enough to forget how poorly timed it had begun, but not the steady soaking that they both knew the river plain and all the lands around it needed. They were still townsfolk enough to lament each time the rain let up.

Would the vistlewreath bind the gods? He let himself imagine that; one of Roof’s myriad gods bound hand and foot and imprisoned in some cosmic jail. Better yet, all of them. Doubtful. Unless he could add a powerful poem into the mix and really trap them. But poetry that powerful was surely beyond him.

Tellmac appeared out of the dreary fog: steep roofs and wide alleys.

The biggest thing they could see from their approach was the one flat-roofed building, a covered market so old no one knew who first built it. Strangely angled sluices at the corners of the building turned the rain landing on the roof into four impressive cascades.

Another time it might have inspired them to stop and stare. It was a magnificent building, one they’d often heard of but never seen. After the day’s journey, they had little energy left for the proper sense of wonder.

Sylls took the lead, making for one open side of the market. Drabeth watched the eaves and shadows for the city counterparts to the morning’s bandits, a dactyl ready on his tongue to defend them. His alertness itself probably kept any away.

Before they could duck beneath the shelter of the market, the gods had one more punch to their pride in store. One of the gutters overhead clogged and overflowed as they came close, and a gush of cold water poured over their heads. They entered the market, not as a master alchemist and her poet but as if a pair of dogs, shaking the water from their eyes.

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In Tellmac, most of Drabeth’s work was for the shrines, renewing the protective poems that guarded them from looting and lies. The irony was never far from Drabeth’s thoughts as he made his unfamiliar way from one shrine to the next. The spirits and deities worshiped here, though, were surely not the gods who had mocked him and Sylls. As he went about his work, he kept a part of his thoughts always on the more distant gods in their high heaven, plotting how to confront them.

He climbed an old path at the edge of the city to a rundown shrine. Dead grass stuck out from the cracks of the fitted stone wall, and brown moss all over the lowest stones. The rains weren’t yet enough to bring the plants back to life. No holy woman or man was present at the shrine, but Drabeth paused at the low doorway and bowed his head, as if waiting to be invited inside.

The interior was even less impressive than the outside. A small pit in the center of a bare room vented a bare trickle of steam. Drabeth withdrew the most recent poem from an urn in the corner and took it out into the sunshine. He’d grown familiar with the last poet’s writing since arriving here, the quick scrawl she’d used for most of the shrines, the more elaborate calligraphy she gave to the larger shrines and some of the merchants.

This wasn’t her writing at all. In fact, a second look confirmed that it was his own, a poem he had placed in another shrine just the day before. He stared at it.

It had been a different shrine right? Was he confusing one shrine with another? He did still find himself lost in Tellmac at times as he searched for this hidden altar or that. He read through the lines, his own handwriting meticulous but lacking the fluid grace of a good calligrapher. They spoke of the spring in the center of the shrine, of the workers who tended its roses. Clearly meant for that other shrine. Was he so confused that he’d composed the poem for that one and dropped it off here? But no, he could distinctly recall composing the poem while sitting in the shade at that other shrine, and giving it to the workers in person. One of them must have decided to play a trick on him…

Oh.

A trick, yes, but not one of the holy people at the shrine. Drabeth lifted his eyes up to the clouds and their hidden gods. They weren’t done with him yet.

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Sylls felt the sting of the gods’ mockery too. Drabeth saw the fact in her eyes, but only recently had he begun to hear the details from her. This time, he went to find her. His arms swung wildly as he walked, making him a ridiculous figure no doubt, paired with his fierce strides and what he supposed was an angry look on his face. Well, let the people of Tellmac think him a fool; the gods would be pleased by that.

The marketplace bustled with people, hoping already for new life and new goods as the drought eased.

Sylls was in a booth, mixing chemicals in an oversized alembic. Pure show. Her real work required no such drama. The liquids swirled and formed globules of changing colors. Perhaps in the chaos of Tellmac’s market she needed that to attract interest. It made her look more refined, anyway, which might bring in certain customers.

No one was waiting for her at the moment. Drabeth vaulted over the counter and flung himself into the chair she kept there but then said nothing as he worked out what to ask her.

She was the one to speak first. “The gods again?”

Drabeth nodded. “You too?”

“Not today. My potions and powders seem to work fine until I have to demonstrate one for a crowd.”

Seem to work fine… He sat up straight. The wording made him wonder. “How exactly are they failing? I mean, do they go off before you want them to or do something different or…”

Sylls stared at Drabeth. “How did you… You’re not doing anything to them are you?”

“No, not at all.”

“Hmm.” She kept eyeing him oddly as she said, “That’s basically it. The concoctions go off before I’m ready or even before I bring the ingredients together. Half the time they must think I don’t know what I’m doing with the ingredients. And half the time that I’m trying to trick them, and the components aren’t even what’s causing the reaction.”

“That’s just the same.” Drabeth rushed to explain before she convinced herself he was the one playing a trick. “I mean, with the rain, they mocked us by sending exactly what we promised. Cruel, to our pride, but nothing else. The water down our necks was just mischief. So far my poems, too. Mischievous but nothing to interfere with their working.”

He hoped. Had he seen anything to indicate his poems weren’t working? He thought back over the past days, but no. “If they were interfering with your spells…potions, I mean, then that would be different. But the gods are doing the exact same as they were with the rain. Using it to mock you.”

Sylls nodded slowly. “Yeah, I suppose that is.” She sifted her fingers through a jar full of some sort of colored sand or seeds. “So what’s it mean?”

If only he knew. Drabeth shook his head and shrugged. “But tell me if anything else changes. I’ll keep looking for a way to…to reach them, talk with them.” Spit in their incorporeal faces, he meant, but he left that unsaid.

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Unlike the gods of Tellmac, with their varied names and shrines and individual identities, the gods of Roof were nameless and uncounted. So, if one god had to sleep or journey through the clouds to a distant land to make mischief, there were always a handful more ready to take the first’s place in tormenting mortals.

There was no sense, then, in calling on a certain god or seeking to appease them. If Drabeth and Sylls managed to please one, it would likely forget them immediately, wander off, leave their torment to the others. Others who would gladly rush in to fill that void.

So what else was there to do? He couldn’t well shame them. The gods had no shame, only mischief. He couldn’t well fight them; they had no bodies, only spirits. And even if he were to raise an army, he couldn’t well invade their dwelling place, for they had only the clouds.

Drabath did the only thing he knew. He wrote. “Strike, gods, from your pale clouds in the far sky; / smite me in your deep rage but you won’t win; / sad cowards of deep heaven on high.” A strange meter he was learning from the local poets, alternating spondees and their antithesis. Little good its sharp and uncanny rhythm would be against the incorporeal gods, even in the mouth of a better battle poet than Drabeth. He hoped for some sign, at least, that they heard him. Maybe they would come and defend themselves. But…why would they? To him, a mortal, a poet to be mocked?

The best he could do was wait and watch what else the gods would do against them. Ask around a bit, if they could find anyone who knew more about the gods of Roof. Perhaps a disgraced priest would wander into town, or a lost text show up in the market, or at least someone might know something. If they were lucky, the gods would grow distracted by other mischief and forget him and Sylls. Or maybe they’d do something that opened themselves up to a counter attack, by poem or alchemy or both.

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No such opening appeared in the following days. Nor did the gods lose their appetite for mischief. Their tricks on Drabeth’s poetry became more direct. Words changed as he wrote them down, dactyls becoming iambic and filler syllables sneaking in. He’d caught everything so far, he was quite sure, but how long before something slipped through and left a shrine vulnerable?

After some days of this, Drabeth took a job at a small shrine at the edge of the city. Small, but apparently popular. At least two dozen people gathered around the spring at the center of the shrine, and the air was draped in some sort of thick vapor that rose from a cave just beyond the spring. No plants grew close to the water, and where the water lapped against the stone verge, it etched deep lines into the rock. A drizzle was falling as he approached on foot, soaking his ceremonial poet robes.

Drabeth slowed at the sight of the people. Tempting, to a mocking god, no doubt. The air felt thick with a god’s presence, heavy and dizzying. Oh, let it only by the shrine’s deity, not his own gods. As if a prayer like that would do any good. Either it was already his gods, and they’d mock his prayer out of spite, or it was already the shrine’s, and the prayer was pointless.

As he climbed up toward the front of the gathered people, he stumbled. Righting himself, he had to look down at his feet to decide which one needed to move next. The rest of the way he went with his eyes looking downward and telling himself, “Left, right, left, right.”

The former poem was brittle and pocked with tiny holes, worn by the noxious air. Drabeth laid it carefully aside. One of the holy attendants said something to the crowd about watching a warrior poet at work. The last thing he wanted, but he deliberately avoided thinking about them. Maybe if he was less aware of the audience, the gods would also ignore them.

For a poem of defense, it never worked to plan it ahead of time. It had to be composed on location and tie into whatever he happened to see and feel. With a fresh sheet in front of him, Drabeth wrote and spoke at once, “Where the deep mist pools, the grotto…”

But then, like forgetting his right foot and left, he lost track of the rhythm. Was it an iambic shield? No, if he concentrated, he could force the line into a trochaic pattern. Except…it wasn’t quite a natural trochaic either, like it was straining toward some other rhythm. The word “mist” didn’t hide naturally without a stress. He read it through again, and the syllables became a jumble without pattern or meaning. How could such a mess protect anything? He crumpled the paper.

“Poet?” a holy man asked as if afraid to speak. “Is all well?”

“Yes,” Drabeth snapped back. And then more politely, “My apologies. The walk through the rain seems to have muddled my thoughts. Allow me a moment’s peace beside your sacred pool, and I’ll be ready.”

The words scarcely saved his face in the view of those gathered to watch, if at all. What good was a battle poet who needed time to reflect? What if he was hired as a guard and his thoughts became muddled during an attack? Still, he could at least give himself a chance to meet his obligation to the shrine. The gods would surely allow that, since he’d already been shamed in public.

The feeling of right and left returned slowly as he sat within the foul-smelling fumes of the shrine. Only when most of the shrine’s visitors had left or were occupied in other matters did he take out a new paper. Now, the words came easily. He even worked in the original line he’d written, with some small changes. It was good he did–otherwise the unused line would have lingered in the fumes, weakening the poem he did leave behind.

Even so, the central fact was of his public shaming. The gods once again had their fun at his expense.

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The riverfront in Tellmac, for most of the river’s transit, was one long dock. Ever busy, both banks swarmed with the business of the river trade, unloading goods to bring them up to the famous market and loading the local wares. On the upriver side of the city, though, the river passed between a narrow set of hills, where the city’s richest houses perched. Where the hills ended on one side, the city’s architects and builders extended the high streets for another block before allowing the city to fall to its natural quay. The high roads left a short stretch of shadowy docks beneath them, heading up to the base of the hill.

Somewhere in there, among the smuggling operations and black markets and assorted criminals, was supposed to be a shrine, one that might have answers about Roof’s gods. Drabeth dragged Sylls with him to visit it.

A young-looking couple watched over the shrine. Probably not their only job down here in the under-dock. She wore the typical clothes of a fisherman–loose robes that fastened tightly at the elbows and knees–as if they were vestments. His clothes looked more like a butcher’s, even to what looked like smears of blood across his belly, but he smiled when they came in.

The shrine smelled of stagnant water and dead fish.

“You the ones asking about the Roof gods?” The woman’s voice rasped like a handheld bark scraper.

No wasting time, then. Drabeth offered her a simple bow, and Sylls said, “We were told you might know something about them.”

“We know things about all gods,” the man answered in a voice that seemed too gentle for that cave. “All gods are the same, only showing different faces to different peoples.”

At the same time, the woman said, “We know nothing about any of the gods. They are so many, and each one is as alien to us as a fish is to a stalagmite.”

Theology. Drabeth had no patience for such debates, unless he could work it into a poem. And then who cared if it was true or false, as long as the lines scanned and the rhymes worked. “How can we reach their palace? How can we make our complaint?”

“You can’t.” The woman seemed ready to say more, so Drabeth waited.

The man continued for her. “The gods of Roof, like all gods, live beyond human access. Else why are they gods?” As he spoke, he took a step back into the cave and scooped up some mud from the floor. He rubbed it into his face.

With another scoop of mud, he sidled over to the woman and kneaded it into her hair. She spoke as if unaware of what he did. “Some gods allow you to think you can approach them, but your gods―-”

“The faces of the gods that they portray as Roof’s.”

“-―they don’t even do that. Rather, you should use your poetry to summon them.” The man moved on to Drabeth and smeared the mud into his clothes. Drabeth kept as still as he could.

“I’ve tried.” Surely his mocking call on the gods to strike him would have worked, if it were possible, and that wasn’t the only time he’d addressed them, called on them to show themselves.

“But have you tried from the rooftops?”

“From the…what?” Because of the name of the town? Is that really what she thought? “That’s not where our town gets its name. It only sounds the same. The name comes from some old word that means hill or highland or something. Some language no one remembers. It has nothing to do with shingles and eaves and all that.” Frauds, clearly. He should have never bothered.

Drabeth pushed the man away from him, realizing only then how filthy the mud had turned his clothing. He brushed at the mud on his chest, for all the good it would do.

“You think the gods didn’t know that, though? What the name sounds like now? They probably knew what it would one day mean, long before they allowed the first people to come and settle there.”

“And even if not,” the man spoke from the back of the cave where he was gathering more mud, “the faces of the gods turned toward Roof would enjoy the way its name has turned out. Surely it must tickle their fancy. There’s so little to smile about, when you’re a god.”

“Fine, thanks.” Drabeth took Sylls by the hand and began to lead her out, before the holy man could start pawing at her as he anointed her in mud. “We may give that a try.” And all the gods would do is mock them for it.

Drabeth pulled up as the thought sunk in. Mock them. Exactly. Summon the gods in public, and they would surely mock him…and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Not if it meant they would still come. Much as the gods had made fools of them, they had always allowed his poems and her potions to have their effect…or to fulfill what the effect would have been.

“Try the roof of the market,” the woman called to them as they left.

Drabeth stopped. Frauds or not, they’d been helpful. Facing the shrine, he said, “May river waters bring you joy / and Tellmac’s riches fall your way.”

This time the gods allowed the simple poem to take effect without interfering. Lacking a significant audience, he supposed. The walls of the cave shimmered briefly with the blessing.

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Sylls bent over a collection of powders and tinctures that she’d brought up to the roof. Drabeth had nothing to do for the moment but wait. Poetry was rarely a dramatic, public performance, at least not the poetry Drabeth practiced. But once Sylls said she was almost ready, he went to the edge and called to the people below.

“Come and observe a wonder! The powers of alchemy and poetry unite.” After he repeated this several times, a handful of people were lingering below to watch. He moved on to the next part of his pitch. “The gods of Roof have mocked us. They have mocked the people of this city. They have mocked your shrines.” He and Sylls had been the true target of their mockery, not Tellmac or its shrines, but why quibble? It was now clear that the gods would never leave them alone unless forced to, and if that took some stretching of the truth, so be it. “Come and see the gods made to answer for their actions.”

Drabeth paused for a few minutes as the people below reacted to this claim. Then he repeated it more loudly still. The crowd was still not huge, but it was growing as he spoke. Should be enough to draw the gods’ mockery.

He signaled for Sylls to begin. Alchemy was too practical, far too concrete for anything like summoning gods. She could create impressive billows of smoke and fog, though. Just the thing to satisfy a god’s ego.

The first pinches of powder she tossed expanded into smoke in the normal way. Drabeth moved in closer to see better. This was the key to the timing. There. The smoke appeared to hesitate a moment, fighting the flow of cause and effect.

The crowd would lose patience if it had to wait too long. To them he called out, “The smoke of the sandalwood tree calls to the gods. The smoke of the souls of salamanders. The smoke of burnt shadows and charred dreams.” Another anomaly. The smoke appeared too soon. The powder was still between her fingers as they made their motion toward the spot where the smoke appeared. The powder arrived a moment later and flared up within the smoke.

The gods were aware. Excellent, but Drabeth waited for a little longer to be sure their attention was fully fixed here.

Lightning flashed out from the smoke. A small fire smoldered in the market roof where the lightning struck, but Sylls put it out by flinging some yellowish paste over it. The gods allowed that mixture to work. Sylls could make something that approximated lightning, but the plan had been to do only smoke. Perfect. It was time.

Drabeth stepped to the edge of the roof and took a big breath, imagining the words and rhythms of a poem filling him along with the oxygen.

Before he could speak the first word, the air sizzled, and beings appeared before him. Uncountable, not because there were so many, but because there was no way to focus on them enough to see. A definite number around eight or so, but a number that wasn’t nine or eight or seven. A god number.

Drabeth held his head straight, fighting to keep his body from kneeling or bowing to them.

“Fool,” the gods spoke with a single voice. Then their voice split in two to say, “Mortal” and respond, “Which is the same thing.” “Why do you think you can control us?”

“I don’t.” Drabeth gave himself a breath to collect his thoughts and words. “The…the gods of Roof have mocked my friend and I. / I do not seek to test my will to yours, / impose my wish, nor summon greater powers; / I only ask for words from you. Explain.”

“Enough. Your poetry might constrain mortals―” the voice split again, and the second said “―fools―” at the same time, “but it cannot compel us. If we choose to punish you―” this time the choice split into three: “―mock you―” “―toy with you―” rounded out the others, “then what standing do you have to complain?”

Drabeth held his pose and said nothing. His complaint was made, what use in repeating it? Sylls came up from behind him and stood at his side, just as defiant, just as silent.

The gods, too, said nothing, but they didn’t leave.

When someone finally spoke into that silence, the voice came from the people below. “Even so, you came to his poetry, to her magic. So maybe they did compel you.”

The gods snarled, their voice going from one to many in the midst of the inhuman cry. One god sent lightning at the man who’d spoken, striking him down in the square. One sent streams of pebbles down on the crowd, dispersing them quickly, amid shouts and cries of pain. A few were gathered around the body of the lightning-struck man, but just as they were picking him up, another god summoned a wind that blew Drabeth and Sylls right off the roof. They spun in the air, and Drabeth reached out to hold Sylls. Embracing, they tumbled through the air and struck the wall of a building.

Before Drabeth lost consciousness, flames caught the edge of his sight. Another god―or maybe all of them―called down fire on the marketplace. The ancient structure burned hot and fast.

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Shame. That’s what it came down to. Drabeth rolled onto his other side to stare at the other wall of his narrow cell and contemplate the caprices of the gods. Shame was the heart of it, the central fact of their hardships. Why? The wall on this side of his cell had three prominent water spots, leaking down from the bare-rafter ceiling. Three was the number of answers to his question as well. In his head, he linked the spots and the gods’ reasons. If he could have, he would have spat on each water spot in turn as he thought them through, but his captors had gagged him so he couldn’t speak any poetry.

The first he named Punishment. It was a wide spot on the wall, dark with mildew. General punishment aimed at all humans. Drabeth and Sylls were simply the unlucky targets of the gods’ message to everyone. A message saying, well, that was the problem with that reasoning. If the gods meant to send a message, they could have been more clear about what that message was.

If that was the answer, it implied an ungodlike level of incompetence.

Drabeth dismissed the first water spot from his mind. The second one, lighter in color and reaching lower down the wall, he named Mockery. It was a punishment of sorts, but a directed one, taunting and frustrating them at every turn for something they had done to insult the gods.

Yet when had he ever done anything to anger the gods? He’d honored them, in his way. Until the stunt on the marketplace, at least. Would they punish him, knowing already what he would do in the future? But without their goading mockery, he never would have done it. An even deeper incompetence.

Dismissed as well, which left only the third water spot. Something more than mold grew in that spot, turning its edges green and orange. It was the smallest of the spots but the most visible. This he named foolery, Godfoolery. It was the best fit for the behavior of the gods, the idea that they targeted Drabeth and Sylls out of whimsy, pure and cruel. In the boredom of eternity, they decided to amuse themselves by turning these two humans into jokes. Ha ha, and how long would it last? Probably until they both died.

Such gods were no gods at all, only tricksters. Demigods who merited no respect of any kind. Drabeth tried to spit at the water spot. Nothing came out past the gag, but he felt the cloth move. Maybe he could work on that.

Either way, he had no more use for explanations. No more use for water spots or gods. No matter which reason was true, it was shame that lay at the heart. He and Sylls both, shamed by the dictates of unworthy gods.

He rolled away from that wall, but as it was disappearing from his sight, an odd thing happened. The water spots shimmered for a moment, undulated, merged with each other. He stopped and tried to make the shapes continue their dance. In vain. They were mere water spots again, static and unimpressive. Still, he couldn’t shake the thought that the illusion had been telling him that he was missing a part of the truth.

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The turnout for the execution could barely be called a crowd. Drabeth walked as slowly as possible past hesitant spectators, still working at the gag in his mouth. If he could just get a corner of the gag open, then he might do something, speak some sort of escape.

Not that the gods would allow it.

Rain came down on them, of course. The gods of Roof couldn’t pass up another chance to remind them of their first mockery.

Sylls stumbled along behind him as armed guards drove them past the ruins of the old market. He managed to turn his head enough to see her. She wore a plain robe provided to her: one that wouldn’t have any secret pockets or stores of powders. Her arms were bound with what looked like her own store of vistlewreath vines. The gods’ mockery wasn’t enough; their human captors had to shame them, too. She didn’t meet his gaze, so if she was planning something, he couldn’t guess what.

As if the gods would allow her it. Wait. Of course they would. Or not allow it to take effect, exactly, but shame her with failure and then cause it to happen anyway.

That’s what he’d been missing. Shame wasn’t the heart of it at all. It came down to this: victory despite shame. He’d said as much earlier, and it had been his reason for the stunt on the marketplace, but he hadn’t put the last pieces together in his head. The gods were mocking them, no doubt, but for whatever reason, they were still compelled to allow Drabeth and Sylls to succeed.

And if compelled, then how were they even gods at all? Subordinate to other gods, or the laws of the world itself. No reason to fear them, no reason to honor them, no reason to even permit them into this city of shrines.

With a subvocal couplet, he got the corner of the gag out of his mouth as they mounted the stage. He stopped at the edge of the stage, nooses to his right, Sylls coming up beside him on the left. Drawing all the power of poetics that he could handle, he spoke.

“Weak gods-―” his voice was strangled by the rest of the gag and dry, but it sparked with energy. “Weak gods of Roof your rule is at an end.” Beside him, Sylls began shaking her head violently. Did she went him to stop? Never. He only hoped the officials of Tellmac wouldn’t manage to silence him with an arrow before he could finish. Or before the minor gods could fulfill his poem’s purpose for him.

They would rave, when they realized his plan, but they would be forced to do it.

“The Tellmac shrines refuse your waning power, / so too the market ash, the river bend.”

“Stop,” one of the officials called from his chair across the stage. “Silent, poet.” To one of the guards, he said, “Silence him.”

Before the guard could throw a spear, Sylls managed to shake something from her hair. A seed fell to her feet. Too focused on Drabeth’s poem, perhaps, the gods allowed the seed to take effect immediately. Black smoke rose up quickly, blocking out the officials, the guards, the small crowd. More than just smoke, too. At its edges, the air shimmered, like light seen through wavy glass.

Drabeth continued his poem, a terza rima attack sprinkled with the local poets’ spondees. He spared one line to free his hands and Sylls’s from their bonds and then focused on evicting the gods of Roof from the city and hiding Drabeth and Sylls forever from their eyes. The familiar pains of battle poetry wracked him, but he pressed on through the taste of blood and iambs.

They would still shame him, if they could, but already the poem took effect. Perhaps the very poem itself would prevent anything.

As he spoke the final line, “…confined to those of Roof, in Roof alone,” he felt a wash of some strange power come over him, against him. The flames along the insides of his cheeks and the roof of his mouth became subsumed in a much deeper pain. Waves of wrenching agony twisted his muscles.

The gods’ attention was noticeably withdrawing from the city, a sensation like the air after a lightning storm, but it was all he could do to notice that fact before he lost consciousness.

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Sylls pushed a mug of some hot beverage into Drabeth’s hands before he was fully alert. She wouldn’t look him in the eyes. They were sheltered beside the river, above the city, most likely. He could still sense the gods’ absence. Other deities and powers might remain, but not the gods of Roof. Drabeth touched the sheltering wall of the riverbank behind them with one hand. Cool mud, thick like clay. The movement awoke the pains in his muscles, and he quickly drank from the mug, hoping Sylls had put painkillers in there.

Perhaps the pain wouldn’t fade anymore. That might well be the gods’ work, leaving him with one last mockery before they were blocked from touching him. Well, Sylls could help him, if so. Or was she also…

He looked quickly at her, sitting beside the bank but still not looking at him directly. “Are you all right, Sylls? Did the gods leave you hurting, too?”

“The…? No, no. I’m fine, no pain at all. I think the gods decided they were already done with mocking me.” She shook her head and looked in his direction, but still not at his face.  “You mean you’re still in pain?”

Well, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about some final punishment from the gods. That was good. Drabeth waved his free hand vaguely through the air. “The gods’ last gift, I suppose.” A life of chronic pain, but one free of the whims of minor gods. He’d take it.

Sylls mumbled something in response.

“What’s that?”

“I said it’s not. Or at least not the only gift they left you with.” Drabeth took another drink to steady himself. The beverage tasted of herbs and grass and little else. “What did they do? What do you mean?”

“Your face.” She gestured toward him without looking directly at him. “It’s…it just looks wrong.”

“Wrong how?” He touched his face: two eyes, a nose, a mouth―-all in the usual places. Had his skin turned sickly pale? His hair some strange color?

“It’s…I don’t know how to describe it. The light’s wrong, no matter what the real light is. It hurts to look at. Not sick, exactly, only wrong, uncanny, not exactly human. And it’s…” Finally, she met his eyes. “I can see. It’s some sort of sign, everyone will see. They’ll know you defied the gods.”

Sylls’s eyes looked frightened, but Drabeth laughed. “Let them see. I’ll wear it proudly. The poet who defied the gods. Who wouldn’t want to hire him? Especially…” he paused and looked Sylls over, wondering what she would say, “especially if he’s accompanied by a powerful alchemist.”

Sylls said nothing for a moment and clearly struggled to look directly at him. The struggle ended and she cracked a smile. “Yes, that would be a powerful pair, wouldn’t it?” She picked up some fruit from a pile on the ground and handed him a small plum, deep red that edged toward purple. Its juice spilled down his chin.

After a few moments of them both eating in silence, she said, “I may try to disguise it somehow, though. At least a little, since I’m the one who has to see you so often.”

“I’ll even do that myself, if you want.” He rubbed the plum juice from his lips up into his cheeks and gave her a ghastly grin.

“Stick to the poetry, pretty boy. Let me handle the rest.”

___
Copyright 2017 Daniel Ausema

A writer, runner, reader, teacher, and parent, Daniel Ausema’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and the Journal of Unlikely Stories, among many others. He is also the creator of the steampunk-fantasy serial-fiction project Spire City. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies, and can be found online at http://danielausema.blogspot.com


By Lauren Rudin

 

Good morning, Marple Township, it’s time for the weather. It’s going to be a warm seventy-two degrees in comparison to yesterday’s rainy fifties. Gonna be a sunny one!

I change into an old band t-shirt from my concert phase, jeans, and flip-flops and then trek down to the mailbox with my paid bills and notated documents for the lawyer, rivulets of water rising like tiny waves over the front of my flip flops and soaking my feet. I shut the front of the cobalt blue mailbox, flip the red flag, and turn back toward the house only to hear a tiny meow. I look down near the mailbox, hear another peeping meow, and then scour the shrubbery next to the mailbox until I find a small, bedraggled kitten. It has slicked down dark fur that is either its true color, or a thick layer of earth from where it’s probably been rolling around on the ground. Large alien eyes that are still baby blue blink at me. I pick the kitten up. It’s smaller than my palm and, still mewing, reveals minuscule fangs and a rough little pink tongue.

“How could anyone just leave you here?” I ask it. It mews, hardly more than a squeak, which tugs at something deep in my chest. I breathe out hard against it but the tension is still there, an oppressive weight. I bite my lip. “Well, you’re coming home with me, aren’t you,” I say, holding it close to my chest, the dampness from its fur soaking into my t-shirt and cooling my skin. I check its sex—girl, if you abide by that sort of thing—and examine her with narrowed eyes. “Maybe Tara. You’re covered in dirt anyway, so it’s fitting.” I wrinkle my nose. “I suppose a trip to the pet store is in order.”

Have you heard on the news? It’s very tragic. There was a shooting at the Greenwood Forest Elementary School by the 22 year old son of one of the workers. What do you think happened there?

The pet store is large and bright and intimidating, and I want to lie down after ten minutes. I’ve never had a pet before, Madame never really liked animals. Well, that’s not fair, Madame just could never remember appropriate feeding times, including for herself, so it was nothing personal. That was my job.

Google informed me what I needed: a litter box, litter, scooper, food, bowls, toys, brush, a travel container, and nail clippers. I regret not researching further when I see the wholly excessive number of brands of kitten food to choose from. What kind of food would a kitten even like to eat? I inspect the pictures, and they all look like variations of brown little pebbles except for the wet food which looks like vomit. I seriously can’t imagine a kitten wanting to eat that, but what do I know.

I finally pick the least questionable looking one that promises tooth health and roll up to the counter with my cart, stacking kitten paraphernalia onto the sticky conveyor belt. The check-out person moves the belt forward, carefully scanning each item like it’s the Mona Lisa, and I take out my Visa debit card to pay. The beige cashier box has Tate as the brand, stamped in small elegant blue letters, like many electronics.

“Nice day today,” she says.

“It is,” I say, remembering to smile back at her.

“Wish I were outside,” she says, glancing out the window.

“What would you be doing?” I ask. I once spent a day decorating the perimeter of the house with electronic lawn gnomes, which was a mistake. I’m always curious about what other people do, so I like to poll them as often as possible.

“Probably play ball with the kids,” she says, wrapping up my last bag.

“That sounds nice,” I say, and it does sound nice somehow, like for a moment I can imagine wanting what she wants. Just a day in the sun with someone you love.

“Yeah,” she says, finishing up the last bag. “Have a good day!”

Did he have some sort of mental illness? Reports say he might have been receiving treatment. Obviously if he was, the treatment wasn’t enough.

I turn off the car and lug everything into the house. Tara is still in the bathroom, where I left her, with towels and newspaper and a little bowl of water. I set everything up, fetch Tara, and turn on the enormous plasma screen television to the news channel—domestic first and then international. It’s always good to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

“Well, maybe he was a psychopath,” one of the moderators say. As far as I can tell, they’re paid to be controversial. I pet Tara’s tiny knobbly head with my index finger, feeling the minute indentations of her fragile skull. My finger swamps the top of her head and spills over onto her ears, flattening them. “Anti-social personality disorder is a real diagnosis.”

“No, no,” the other moderator says. “You have no idea what was going on in his head. It’s not like he left a note.”

“I know enough to know it was an inhuman act,” she says. “Who would do that except someone with very little empathy?”

At this, I sigh and get up to start digging in the box of movies. Madame had everything converted to her own personal movie format so that the movies were stored in little plastic devices that looked more like flash drives than DVD’s. She thought it was space efficient. I thought it just made everything difficult to find and label. I finally come up with 02-02-05 and put it in the drive in the side of the television.

I sit back on the couch, where Tara has discovered her brown pebble food and is eating delicately.“Let’s watch silly Madame,” I tell her and press play.

The video is shaky before Madame stabilizes it. She steps back and puts her hands on her hips, grinning. Her hair is tied in a messy blonde bun, and her bare arms and white tank top are covered in grease. No protective gloves or goggles because then that would be following lab safety protocol, which naturally would be awful. A device that looks like an enormous black button sits in front of her.

“Okay, take three for the electronic bomb. Intention: To scramble all electronics within a three-mile radius and to create an interesting distraction.” She turns to glare off-camera at one of the helper bots. “Do not fire extinguish anything unless I am actually on fire, okay, I must actually be giving off flames for you to use that fire extinguisher.” The helper bot cheeps angrily in the background.

She turns back to the camera. Her royal purple glazed coffee cup full of Turkish coffee lies precariously on the edge of the table. “All right, here we go,” she says, and I mouth the words along with her. She presses some buttons on the device, and nothing happens. I wince in advance. “Well, this is a bust—“ green smoke hisses out from a hole in the device, and Madame starts to cough. “Oh shit, that was not supposed to happen—“

“No, not the coffee,” I say uselessly as the coffee gets knocked off the table and the cup shatters.

The helper bot uses the fire extinguisher. “Does this look like a fire to you?” Madame yells, covered in white foam. “Dear god, I’m running a circus—“ and then the camera cuts out and the screen turns to snow.

“Let’s watch another one,” I say to Tara and put in the 6-12-09 tape.

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Dawn breaks over the horizon like an egg, yolk orange sunrise glazing residential houses in burning reds and yellows. I open the pantry and next the olive green Viennese roast coffee can to smell it, but it’s never as rich or aromatic as when it’s made. I grind the beans with the specialty grinder ordered from Greece and put two heaping tablespoons into the tiny metal ibrik, just large enough to make one cup of coffee. I reflexively add the cold cup of water and an eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon and mix it like beating an egg, cinnamon palpably grainy in the water amidst dissolving coffee. I place the ibrik over low heat until it boils, its long black handle turned away from me. Brown froth begins to gather at the top, and it’s time to pour it, slow, into a white porcelain Turkish coffee cup.

I cradle the cup close to my chest, inhaling the deeply luxuriant scent of coffee that is textured with cinnamon, its heat warming my chin and the bottom of my nose. My shoulders unwind from my ears, and I peruse the two months’ worth of magazines I left on the counter: Cosmopolitan, GQ, National Geographic, Horticulture Magazine, Cat Fancy. My subscriptions end this month and that’s fine because I’ve started putting together model airplanes and cars, although my house is starting to look like a particularly manic episode of Hoarders.

I don’t check my e-mail often, and it shows in the hundred unread e-mails I have in my inbox. I delete all of them except for my horoscope, technically Libra, and read it (“True love is just around the corner! Take a chance”). Astrology is fascinating—no scientific basis for it whatsoever, completely relying on the Barnum effect to achieve any sort of accuracy, and yet it’s so compelling. I am inexplicably delighted by it and have been reading my horoscope every day for the last three months.

A couple letters came in the mail, and I leave them with the magazines, unopened. I spend the morning building a model airplane while Tara sleeps on top of her food bowl, completely ignoring the ridiculously large and expensive bed I bought her. The phone rings in the afternoon, not even waking her, and I pick it up in the kitchen.

“Am I interrupting lunch?” my lawyer, Kit Thompson, says.

“No,” I say, perching on a wooden bar stool. “Not at all.”

“Ah, yes,” she says, awkward. “Well, I received the documents with your notes, and I’m reading them over now. We could discuss them in person, but they’re due in a week so I figure we could just discuss them now.”

“That’s fine,” I say. Light pours into the kitchen through the window over the sink, soaking the empress green marble island counter in sun.

I hear flipping papers. “Page two, line item three,” she says. “If you choose to go forward with this, I think you should consider appointing a retroactive guardian or trustee.”

“Will that really accomplish anything?” I say. “It’ll just make the red tape longer.”

“You need all the help you can get,” she says, frank.

“She left everything directly to me for a reason,” I say. “Many reasons, actually.”

“Susan left everything to you against my incredibly strong advice to appoint a guardian,” she says. “It could have helped sidestep this whole mess.”

“The military would have just found another way to contest the will,” I say, leaning forward to jot a note on sun-warmed tablet paper.

“Obviously,” she says, impatient.

“If I were her biological son—“ I start to say.

“Or even if she had just been able to adopt you on paper,” Kit says. “But she couldn’t, and you’re not. Macklin, we have to start dealing with reality and soon. The will is almost through the probate process, and you’ve got to decide if you want to make a real play to keep the inheritance.”

I rub my fingers hard over my mouth. “I don’t know what she wanted.”

“It doesn’t matter at this point,” she says. “Susan isn’t here, and you are, and if she had just damn well listened to me—“ she cuts herself off and exhales into the receiver, creating dry static.

“She didn’t listen to anybody,” I say. Not even me, most of the time.

“Stubborn asshole,” she says, fond. “I knew her for over half our lives and, of course, this legal mess is what I get out of it.”

I grin into the phone, so relieved that there is someone who knew her like I knew her.

“But really, you’re going to have to make a decision,” Kit says finally. “Whatever you choose, it doesn’t have to mean anything, or imply anything, if you don’t want it to.”

I close my eyes because of course it means something, it means everything. “Yes. Fine.”

She doesn’t waste time on comforting me, and we just move on to page three, line item five.

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Later, after the phone call, I pick out the 12-03-08 video to watch because it’s close to her birthday and that year was a good year, the year of twenty-nine patents and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation Award and the two month long road trip across Europe because I’d never gone on one and she thought it was a crucial experience

I click play, and Madame’s sunburned profile fills the screen. She’s cursing because she’s driving stick, because most cars in Europe are stick, and she hates stick. “—is the camera on?” she interrupts herself to ask. “You’ve got to film at least part of a road trip, it’s a requirement.”

“I can drive,” the me on screen says. Madame shifts gears violently, and the car sounds like it’s about to be sick. “You’re going to grind the gears to dust at this rate, and what did this poor car ever do to you?”

“Be born a stick shift,” she says through gritted teeth, shifting once more like she’s a Nascar driver, and the camera tilts as the car goes around a sharp curve.

“I’m your assistant, let me assist.”

“No, you stay in the passenger seat and pretend to enjoy those Cheetos,” she says. “I’ve got this. You’re going to have the best road trip ever if it kills me, and I truly think it will.”

“It’s going to kill the car first,” my voice says tartly.

“Oh, shut up,” she says. The sun is setting in the distance, mostly blocked by Madame’s face, but the light that floods the car turns everything soft and golden, and she looks warm and touchable. It’s russet farmland as far as the eye can see with dots of emerald green.

“Say hi to the camera.”

“Hello,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“You have to face the camera,” I insist.

“Aren’t you the one who’s always going on about safety?” she says but turns toward the camera anyway, smirking, and says, droll, “Hello, world. Hello, Macklin.”

“Well, here we are,” my voice says. “On a road trip. It’s filled with dirt so far.”

“You can turn the camera off now,” she says. “Hand me one of those god awful Cheetos.”

“You hate Cheetos,” my voice says and then the camera cuts off. Tara lies on my lap, and she’s so light her weight doesn’t even register. I stroke her soft sides, my breath whistling in and out of my chest sounding like I have a chest cold. I want to watch her say “Hello, Macklin,” over and over again because it was also the first thing she ever said to me when we met. The digital clock on the cable box reads 3:03 AM, red and unmistakable. I sit there in the dark, feeling scraped raw and nauseous, and then I turn on the weather.

“It’s raining across the Midwest area,” the meteorologist says, calm because there’s no real emotion in reporting the weather. I lie down heavily, curling around Tara, and exhale my breath all the way out as the meteorologist describes the tropical storm gallivanting across Florida.

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Twenty two year old Nick King went to Greenwood Forest Elementary school in the middle of the day, armed with a gun. Police have finally come out with the number of casualties, and I’m so very sad to say—nine children killed and one teacher. It’s terrible.

The light has been red for an interminable amount of time and the woman in the car next to me has resorted to touching up her make-up. The line at the bank was long, and the actual process of combining accounts was tedious. Madame has caches of money stored everywhere, and I don’t see the point of it anymore, especially since it’s all getting tally-marked up by lawyers anyway. She revised her will and put my name on all of the accounts in spring 2010, which created a lot of hassle at the time but now I’m glad she did because it’s what has allowed me to stay in our house.

2010 had some of the worst months, the heatstroke summer months where Madame constantly visited the Albert Einstein hospital morgue to dissect cadavers and then went home to the workshop for all hours of the night before going back to the morgue, her frown carving deeper all the while. This eventually produced a fraught afternoon in the isolated basement of the morgue where, horrifyingly, the air conditioning was out, which meant a contractor worked frantically to get it back on before the cadavers putrefied. Sweat dripped from Madame’s glowering face into a cadaver’s open chest cavity as she doggedly made cut after cut. She was on a tight military deadline for an experimental program on artificially intelligent explosives that would hypothetically be able to maneuver themselves. Madame was using human circuitry as inspiration, and more often than not, it resulted in thrown wrenches and once a punched wall.

We had parked illegally around the corner from Albert Einstein’s hospital morgue because she swore we’d only be there a few minutes, ten at most, really, and we strode down the block only to see a clump of police gathered around the corner under the ledge of one of the business buildings. Police cars littered the street so that hardly anyone could drive past. We rounded the corner, and a large section next to the building was cordoned off with yellow tape, empty of cops and on-lookers.

Behind the tape, a white sheet was loosely wrapped around an elongated figure, so still and only vaguely in the shape of a person. It had all of the energy of a chair, inert and inorganic, and was all alone on unstained concrete under butter yellow sunlight. Absolutely no lingering feeling existed in the space of that figure, just tranquility sinking inexorably into the un-tucked ends of the white sheet that fluttered in a soft breeze. The body had just recently been a person, breathing and heart beating, and so quickly he or she was deserted around the corner of a stone building.

Madame didn’t even look, face set ahead, and then we were out of sight and onto the hospital. I had seen countless cadavers at that point but to the extent they were fodder for hapless medical students, they were practically inhuman, just a collection of parts to be cut open. But here I thought, so this is death, and memorized it.

There’s only one 2010 tape, and I keep it in the other house in LA with the 2011 tapes of Madame’s progressively self-destructive test runs of experimental AI. Her last attempt at the self-thinking explosive was an abject shitshow that ended in injury and a new residence, while also attracting military displeasure when she point-blank informed them the contract wasn’t going to happen. This project had already been in lieu of other projects Madame had strong ethical objections to, and she’d ended up cloistering herself in the brownstone in New York, doing nothing but watching terrible reality television and chugging Monster energy drinks. I taped her scathing running commentary on Say Yes to the Dress until she actually Stockholmed herself into becoming invested and faintly weepy, which was when I stopped taping and confiscated the remote.

Three weeks later, in the beginning of October, the military finally agreed to nix the contract in disgust when Madame told them either her next contract was to improve flak jackets or she was mutinying to the marines. She spent the next two months gleefully sending off flak jacket prototypes until early December arrived when her mood plunged with the temperature. Madame had always had blacker moods than what I assumed the average person had, and this was far from the worst but—it was another episode in a series of increasingly contiguous episodes.

Winter was hard for Madame anyway, who was true to her coloring and craved brightness and light, and the cold and amplified darkness made her lethargic, listless. We stayed in LA most of the time but that winter we stayed here, in Pennsylvania, due to its relative proximity to DC. The flak jacket contract had gone some way in repairing her relationship with the military, and she had signed on for several more involving defense, rather than the offensive AI weapons they truly wanted. Madame was one of the top five knowledgeable people in the world on AI, but she found it fraught with philosophical implications that rapidly became moral when put into practice. Could an entity with any amount of thinking power be ethically bought and sold, let alone consent to whatever it was told to do? Did it depend on the level of thinking power, and if so, where was the line?

One particularly bitter winter night after a day of phone shouting matches with the engineers in R&D, Madame woke up screaming, which had been happening more frequently as she geared up to visit some of the bases overseas to make sure her inventions were working properly. She was a soldier for the first seven years of her adult life to pay for school, and it was unclear whether it was she or the military that had never let go; either way, it was the longest term relationship of her life. I was in the study, working on the accounts, when I heard the screaming and hurried to her room. She never let her infrequent lovers sleep over, but I had always been allowed to see her in all of her states.

She was sitting up in bed, hands clenched in her lap, head bowed. Thin moonlight made the room look monochrome and grainy, like a faded black and white photograph or the slow healing shades of a bruise. Her space heater hummed next to the bed, dispensing dry heat that created static and a steep electricity bill. I crawled in next to her, close enough to be enveloped in the damp heat of sleep and sweat and the orchid scent of her lotion. I placed both of my hands on her hands, where they were shaking on top of the blankets, and she shuddered noiselessly, leaning her head even further down to rest her hot forehead on my hand. Her chin brushed my wrist, wet with tears, and she whispered into our hands, “I’m such a bad person.”

“No, you’re not,” I said immediately and pressed myself tightly against her side, laying my chest against her back like the branches of a tree shelters its roots, trying to impress upon her body with mine how indispensable she was to me.

“You don’t understand, Macklin, you don’t understand,” she moaned. Her back shook, her body an earthquake in the microcosm, tearing itself apart from the inside out.

“Shhh,” I said into her hot neck, like the sound of the ocean, and rocked her back and forth. “Shhh.”

“It’s still in me, like a movie,” she said, voice tight. “Just replaying over and over, and I just never stop killing them, I never get to stop.” Her body jerked as she clamped down on a sob, pushing our hands against her stomach hard as if her insides were in danger of falling out.

I held her hard as if putting pressure on an open wound, wishing desperately I could reach into the subterranean depths of her and cut out whatever had lodged itself there that made her so sick with self-denigration. It had the texture of a terrible cyst that kept growing and growing, and I constantly struggled not to unravel at the edges at the thought that it might never stop, might just swallow her up whole.

“I just want to be better,” she said, panting. “I’m trying to be better.”

“You’re so good, I’d give anything for you to see it,” I said helplessly into her silky hair, my lips brushing against her clammy temple. She made a small noise into my neck, something verging on a whimper, and I cupped the back of her head, fingers resting on the delicate grooves of her skull, the origin point of all of her extraordinary ideas. I stayed there the whole night, my chest tight and aching, feeling profound dread for the time when she would go overseas alone and I would have to stay here.

I park the 2008 cherry red Audi that Madame drove but is now deeded to my name and look at our house’s peeling yellow paint that we were supposed to paint over this summer, together, and I just hurt all over, full-body. Madame hated gardening but deigned to let gardeners grow orchids by the porch and I never found out why. It was something I always meant to ask her, along with a whole bunch of other questions, and now I can’t, not even just one. I turn off the radio that’s still going and shut off the car. It’s suddenly so quiet.

I get out of the car and go up the front walk, shaky, the world seeming overly bright. My skin feels over-sensitized and tender, wind brushing carelessly over me like sandpaper. When I’m inside, I roam upstairs to Madame’s room, where the air is hot and insubstantial and stale. I open a window to let the room ventilate and then sit on the unwashed sheets of her bed that haven’t smelled like her for a long time now.

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When the doorbell rings, I pretend not to be home. Then I hear scratching at the doorknob, like a cat asking to be let in, and resignedly wait the thirty seconds it takes Rodney Morrison to break in.

“Little bit of help wouldn’t have been amiss,” he says, swinging the door open and walking inside, large heavy steel-toed boots on lush ivory carpet.

“That would presume that I want you here,” I say, not moving from the couch with Tara on my lap.

“And what happened to Susan’s alarm systems?” he says, as if I haven’t spoken. “You’re just a sitting duck here.”

I shrug because I know he hates shrugging, thinks it’s the last resort of spinelessness. Rodney and Madame had a long history of battling one-upmanship where she built bigger and better security systems, and he broke in at all hours of the day and ate all of our food.

“I sent e-mails, I called,” he says. “Hell, I even sent letters, so now here I am, and we’re going to talk.”

“Does the military know its dog is off its leash?” I say, polite.

“Very funny,” he says and then, “Macklin—“

I shake my head, slow.

He runs a hand over his face, and I take in the bruised eyes, the three days of stubble, the unslicked dark hair. He’s been traveling.

“Just as a point of interest, what are you going to do with all of Susan’s things?” he says.

“What she wanted me to do with them,” I say.

“And that is…?”

“None of your business,” I say.

His mouth tightens. “Susan was my friend too, you know. I miss her too.”

“But you’re not here for you,” I say. “You’re here on behalf of the military.”

“Why can’t it be both?” he says, defiant, and I’m startled by how he seems to truly believe that’s possible.

“Because now there’s no middle ground,” I say, gentle. “You’re either on my side, or you’re on their side.”

“She left everything to us first, you know,” he remarks, coming further into the room.

“And then she changed it,” I say.

“Yeah, she did,” he says tiredly. “Macklin, you have to understand, Susan made incredibly valuable contributions to our safety. Her inventions are meant to be doing something more important than gathering dust in storage.”

“Well, I think that was her choice, wasn’t it,” I say. “You seem to think it’s okay to just make whatever decisions you want, regardless of other people’s feelings.”

“When said people have gone off and died when they should have evacuated with all the other inessentials, I’m not sure it matters anymore,” he says, bitter.

“It still matters,” I say, frowning. “It always matters.”

“Look,” he says, “you didn’t know Susan before she joined the army. It was—bad. The army gave her the purpose she was lacking, and this is a way to continue that legacy.”

“And you weren’t here the past two years,” I say. “People change when you’re not looking.”

“She can’t leave it all to you anyway,” he says after a moment. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“And why not?” I say.

He looks completely taken aback. “Well. You’re not—you’re not a person,” he says, awkward, like realizing the person you thought knew their spouse was cheating on them didn’t actually know, and you were the oaf to tell them.

The room fuzzes, Rodney’s face dark against eggshell colored walls, and I suck in a breath, my cheeks becoming two nuclear spots on my face. “Don’t tell me that,” I croak out. “You didn’t even know until she told you.”

“Animals need some sort of trustee when they’re left something in a will, and you’re not even—” he tilts his head helplessly.

“I’m not even on—on the level of an animal,” I try to finish evenly, but I can’t, it feels like he gutted me open and he can just see everything inside, every dry, heartless inch. Rodney winces. “The thing is,” I say, carefully enunciating each word, lips trembling, “humans are capable of atrocious acts, and I mean, things so horrific that they can’t even be processed. Just watch the news. And while people may argue about their emotional states and the metaphorical status of their humanity, in the end—they still have more rights than I do?” I can’t help the way my voice goes up at the end, almost cracking, all unwanted vulnerability, and I feel absolutely razed by humiliation.

“I’m sorry, Macklin,” he says, and I’ve never heard him say sorry, not even when Madame and him got into the big blow-up of 2010 and they didn’t speak for a year.

I can’t speak, chest feeling like it’s gone too cold to absorb air, voice box on lockdown.

“Just—consider it,” he says, sagging conspicuously in his steel-toed boots before quietly opening the door and closing it behind him.

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My favorite show is Doctor Who, but really, I love any show with affection toward aliens. Fictional AI representation in the media has a tendency toward homicidal dictatorship (is there any other kind?), which I think is an incredibly narrow-minded view that mirrors both humanity’s fears of the unknown and something more advanced taking their place. But humanity also likes to create in their own image so perhaps it’s more of a reflection of their fears about themselves—that deep down, their base aggressions are the sum of who they are. Regardless, I like aliens because they’re not human, but they’re still considered people, capable of love and sadness and agency.

I do actually pass the Turing test, which I’m fairly sure is going to be brought up in court at some point. I mean, I don’t eat and I don’t sleep, but—are those tasks essential to the human experience? My skin is warm, and I can absorb the pleasure of touch, and my chest still hurts brutally six months later whenever I think about Madame. What is the definition of what makes someone human, and where is the line drawn between machine and person? At what point in the rungs of intelligence does a machine become a person instead of an object? The implications of this question for humanity make people think uncomfortably of eugenics and genocide, and, of course, everyone’s divided. But Madame’s always been on my side.

Madame wrote papers upon papers regarding this and never published them, in which she addressed the distinction between being human and being a person and how humans tend to subsume the concept of personhood into humanity, as if no one else is worthy of that honor. If Madame had wanted to make a human, she could have, but she didn’t. She made me.

I look into the box of tapes for the one I keep at the bottom, out of sight and touch: 07-08-12. Madame took intermittent trips overseas into war zones by herself for the last year to lend an inventing hand, and we had a big fight about it right before she left the last time. I wanted to go too because Madame had lost weight and color and who was going to care about keeping her fed and rested except me? But she shut me down with her usual argument of not wanting the military to get their long arms and grasping hands near me, blue eyes feverish and looking determinedly at the wall behind me. Even on the verge of collapsing in on herself, gaunt cheekbones taking up increased real estate on her face, she had her hands hooked firmly behind her in military stance.

In the end, she went alone, and this is the last video. I’ve only watched it once when I was hacking into the security cams, frantic because Madame wasn’t answering when I called and it’d been three days.

I press play and the television immediately drops into the pixelated grays of the security cam, 07/08/2012 blinking in the upper right-hand corner. Madame leans on the high desktop of the secretary, chatting to her about the bees she kept in her enormous backyard, which gave them fresh honey every year.

“I couldn’t keep a plant alive,” Madame says, dry and slightly wistful, when the room shakes from a deafening explosion from outside. The secretary’s radio crackles and a man’s voice says, “Break-Break, HE-FRAG in the north wing, Break-Break, HE-FRAG in the north wing, need CEV.”

“We need to get out of here,” the secretary says crisply.

Madame stares out the door from where the explosion came and says, “No, you go on ahead.”

“You’re only on the substitute roster,” the secretary argues.

“Listen to her, please, listen to her,” I can’t help whispering, feeling utterly sick with knowledge.

“John got transferred,” Madame says, and the secretary’s mouth opens and closes uselessly, the moment suspended in shitty gray-scale camera footage, two whole seconds ticking by in the lower right-hand corner. Madame turns again to look at the door, and I pause it there, right before she steps forward, and rewind it to the beginning.

Two days before she left, on July second, Madame and I went to the Springfield Diner, and we sat on sticky, duct-taped booth seats, waiting for her eggs, when she said, “What happens to characters when the book ends?”

“There are sequels sometimes,” I said. “Are we including series in the parameters of this question?”

“Even they end, usually,” she said. “Eventually. Therefore yes. So what do the characters do when it’s over?”

“Continue living their lives off-screen, presumably,” I said.

“But does the off-screen even exist?” she said.

“If you have an imagination, yes,” I said.

“It’s not written down though. No one’s watching. Maybe it doesn’t happen,” she said. “Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “What happens after the book ends is whatever you think happens.”

“If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear, does it make a sound?” she countered.

“Yes, I think a person can still live a meaningful life,” I said, as her eggs arrived. “That person still exists, even if no one’s watching. You could even say there’s an extra freedom there where even more possibilities open up.”

“Good,” she said, digging into her eggs. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

The video relentlessly unspools to Madame once again regarding the door, secretary frozen behind her, and Madame takes the step forward I wouldn’t allow her before. “Everything is all right,” Madame said without looking behind her. “Everything is fine.” She strides out the door, her gait assured and determined, but her face is distant, her eyes are wide, as if she’s bunkered down inside herself. And then she’s gone. The secretary waits one second, two seconds, before high-tailing it out the back door in sensible pumps. The room is empty and still, radio still crackling with orders.

I wait for longer than I did before, white numbered minutes turning into an hour, but nothing else happens, no one comes back. I rewind again to that last moment when she walks out of the room and pause when her face is most exposed to the camera. She never looked up at it once. Without the camouflage of motion, only her wide hurt eyes are left, the slight openness of her mouth as if someone hit her, and all I can think is, I should have been there, I should have gone. I can’t cry, all I can do is make a low flat sound into my hands, gasping and pressing my fingers into the skin under my eyes, trying to expunge the tight ball of overwhelming desolation from my gut. Her face is all muffled shock, like she’s on the tipping point of realizing what’s happening, and when I click play, she walks out before she ever reaches full comprehension. I can feel my face crumpling all at once, reflexive, because this is the finish and there’s no secret message meant for me, here or ever. I’ve looked, and I’ve looked, and here I am at the last stop, no one left on the train except for me.

I turn off the television and pick up Tara from where she’s buried herself in a corner of the couch. She’s already a little bigger, a little heavier, since she’s been living with me, and she feels blisteringly hot in comparison to the freezing skin of my arms. I move to the kitchen and dial Kit even though it’s half past ten at night.

“Macklin, what’s wrong?” she says immediately because I’ve never called this late.

“Nothing,” I say but I sound horrible and she can probably hear my teeth chattering. I clear my throat and sound marginally less ill. “I’ve considered, and I’m not letting this go. I’m not appointing anyone either.”

Kit is silent and then, “Are you sure? Once this starts, it can’t be stopped. It’s going to be plastered all over the TV and internet.”

“I’m sure,” I say. A large part of me quails at the prospect of the impending media shitstorm, let alone military ire, but the alternative is legally signing away everything I am. “This is what I want to do.”

“Okay,” she says. “Then let’s do it.”

I wait for something to happen, like lightning striking me for extreme hubris—how dare I think myself worthy—but it’s just Kit’s quiet breathing on the other end of the line and Tara purring in my arms. The relief catches me off guard, makes me light-headed, and I take in a breath unimpeded by the constant, low-grade tightness in my chest that’s been there for years. I made the decision and nothing happened except this terrible relief. The earth did not swallow me up, Madame did not come back, having resolutely finished all of her decision-making six months ago, and I’m still here, life continuing on even when no one is watching.

___

Copyright 2016 Lauren Rudin 

Lauren Rudin loves to read and write speculative fiction. Her favorite authors include Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Elizabeth Wein. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology in Pennsylvania.

 

by Bogi Takács

To R, who made it possible

 

I. 

The Battlefield

Aniyé staggered, the impossible landscape of corpses and detritus swaying around her, bending over her. Pushing her down. All around her, the proud crimson uniforms were stamped into the soil, stained with blood and clumps of gore. She tried to breathe, tried to hold on, moving forward in a wobbly line, towards an unknown point in the distance – away from the battlefield.

Her handlers were gone. She trailed crimson leashes, ties that no longer bound. A good length of chain clanked behind her as she dragged herself forward. Her white ceremonial garments were smeared with dirt.

Emptiness echoed in her head. Her handlers were gone, and with them, the only way to dam the tide of the white-hot merciless magic, the power that seared land and sky – She gasped, trying to contain what could not be contained. She fell to her knees, clutching her abdomen. There was a fire inside her, an ever-mounting pressure as the magic pushed against her skin, threatening to tear her open at any moment, and yet she could not let go – her body would not allow her, with reactions deeply ingrained by thousands of hours of training.

She knew she would die, and she knew she had failed. The battle was lost, even though she had done all that she could, bringing retribution down from the heavens, striking the Empire’s enemies. Remnants of that anger still shivered in her, looking for a target in this desert of rigid flesh, finding no purchase.

The other four battle-mages were all dead, and without her handlers, she wouldn’t last long either. She was on the verge of giving in. Drop to the ground. Release the magic. Release the self. Be gone. She didn’t even want to move on to the next world in the cycle of life, she just wanted to cease, a candle snuffed out by a streak of cold air, so refreshingly cold…

She felt clumps against her face. When had she fallen, toppled over like an inert marionette? Her strings had been cut. A shudder ran through her. No bindings, no constraints– pure raw fear– the magic rushed forward and up, always up–

She closed her eyes to get away from the devastating sunlight. She felt a gentle touch on her cheek. Her muscles contracted and she tried to jerk away, an instinctive response to touch–

“You’re still alive,” a full, deep voice said; a woman’s voice bringing to mind the coos of turtledoves. “I am with you.”

She opened her eyes just a crack and saw boots stained with dust but no body fluids, their leather a warm orange-brown color with no traces of crimson.

The enemy.

“Do you want me to help you?” the stranger asked, and before Aniyé could respond, the unconsciousness of utter exhaustion claimed her.

 

The Guild

“…our agreement.” Again the stranger’s voice. Aniyé was surfacing from the bottomless dark.

“You can’t seriously–!” A man this time, his voice edged with faint raspiness.

“The Guild promised me an apprentice years ago. To this date it has failed to deliver.”

Aniyé stirred. A hand on her shoulder gently pushed her back down. She opened her eyes just a little, but she could not see much beyond the smooth chest and abdomen of a black-clad figure. A sudden warning sounded in her mind and she squeezed her eyes shut, then tried to relax, pretend to be unconscious. Good. The stranger’s thoughts, reaching out to her mind?

Aniyé had trouble keeping track of what was happening around her; she missed a sentence or two. Yet, she started to be more attuned to their emotions as she regained consciousness.

“…you are yet young.”

A sigh. “Guildsman Leitan. I am older than the dirt of this land, and if my face is yet unlined, that’s only because the magic does not let me go until my task is complete.”

The man – Guildsman Leitan? – sputtered, mumbling something inarticulate.

Aniyé tried to concentrate on herself instead of the conversation. Her body ached. There was a huge knot in her abdomen and her skin flared with irritation. The power still hadn’t given her pause, and as she became increasingly awake, so the pain increased. She changed her mind: better to focus on the conversation again. She wished she could curl up into a ball, but that would alert this man, and he might try to hurt her…

Was the woman losing her patience? “…know that the Guild has directly caused Nairul’s death, and has not provided me an apprentice ever since, despite our longstanding agreement.”

No, this was an older anger, tinged with sadness. Aniyé struggled to make sense of the emotions.

“We sent several candidates!”

“Wholly unsuitable candidates.”

“We didn’t have better candidates!” Was the man lying? Aniyé wasn’t sure. He was protecting his thoughts well, and she didn’t dare push. She was happy she’d thus far evaded his notice.

“I have a candidate now, and the Guild is trying to take her off my hands. Isn’t that what’s happening?”

“Fine, fine!” A rustle of cloth; he must’ve made a broad gesture. “I just want you to know, High Mage, that I will have to answer for this to the King’s courtiers – I will be the one who has to explain, and they will want my blood for this, not yours!”

Exasperation. “No one will want your blood, Guildsman Leitan. The King is more than aware that the Guild would not be able to handle her, were I to turn her over.” You haven’t even produced a suitable apprentice. The woman thought so loudly at Guildsman Leitan that Aniyé had no difficulty picking it up even in her present state. “Leaving her with me is in your best interests. And that’s before you even consider what happens when the Crimson Army tries to retrieve her.”

“You mean they’d mount an assault?” The man’s breath hissed. “So far behind the front lines?”

“I imagine they would want to reclaim one of their more powerful battle mages, yes. Especially after today’s losses.”

Fear shot through Aniyé, her mind scrambling to catch up. The Crimson Army would come for her – but if they were her own people, why did that scare her so? She knew the answer all too well, and she tried to rein in the galloping horses of her thoughts with a desperation akin to–

“Hush,” the man said. “She’s awake.”

“All the more reason for allowing me to work in quiet, undisturbed.”

“Well then, High Mage Oresuy – I shall bid my leave.”

Aniyé opened her eyes just in time to see the man’s withdrawing back. He was tall, pale, black-haired, with a strong, tough build. She shuddered involuntarily.

The High Mage leaned closer to her, cradled Aniyé’s aching, stick-rigid limbs in her wide arms. Calm washed through Aniyé’s skin where she was touched. This stranger cared for her – but for what reason?

“I will take you home,” Oresuy whispered, “my home, with steps faster than the wind, with a stride longer than bridges and roads.” Then she lifted Aniyé with ease, covered her eyes with a fold of her robe, and began walking. Around them the air whooshed, and Aniyé thought that maybe – just maybe – she might yet live.

 

The River

How had they come to this place, this rain-soaked patch of land studded with stout rock fortifications and gentle lacework towers? Where was this garden of willow trees swaying in the soft wind? Aniyé rubbed her forehead, but the haze would not lift.

“I can help you get a hold on your magic.” The High Mage was tall and thick, and her robes allowed for ample movement. Her skin was not as oddly pale as the guildsman’s, from what little Aniyé had seen of him; she looked more like Aniyé herself, but still clearly of a different people. She held her wooden staff like a weapon, and yet she did not seem to be a soldier. She radiated calm without any trace of agitation. Aniyé could not look at her face.

“I–” Aniyé gasped. She wheezed, her entire self curled upon itself, unable to uncoil. The knot inside her abdomen pulled her close around itself. “I– Please.”

A sharp cut in her consciousness. She was crouching in wet grass, her fingers grabbing onto clumps of mud. She was trembling. The magic churned inside her, burning her up, destroying her from the inside, and she had no way to release it – she was alone, the inert bodies of her handlers lying on the plains–

“Am I a prisoner of war?” she asked without looking up.

“You are my student, if you accept my guidance,” the stranger said.

Aniyé bowed her head. She didn’t even know how to ask. “I will do what you tell me to do.” This was familiar, the expectation that she would obey. She would follow the orders and keep on living.

“You need to learn how to control your magic. I will tell you now how to go about it,” Oresuy said, with the cadences of a teacher rather than a drill sergeant. “You can do this on your own.”

To Aniyé it seemed impossible to do anything on her own. Not when she could hardly walk, when the magic forced all her muscles to tense and her limbs to go rigid. All her life she’d been told that she couldn’t do anything like this alone, that’s why she needed handlers.

“I will be watching over you, but you can do all this. You slowly walk to the end of the gardens, where they meet the river. Then you walk up the floodbanks and down on the other side, uncover yourself and wade into the water. You need contact on as large a surface as possible. If you can put your head underwater too, that’s even better. The water is clear around this time. Then focus on releasing the magic into the water. It will work to an extent even if you don’t focus on it, but that helps.” She waited a little. “Will you do this?”

High Mage Oresuy had her recount everything step by step before she let Aniyé go.

Aniyé walked. Slowly. She almost slipped down the floodbanks, but managed to regain her balance on one knee – she did soil her clothing with mud. Oresuy did not interfere.

Fear gripped Aniyé. She pushed it down. Undressed. Stepped into the water – almost slipped again.

The water was cool, but gentle against her skin. Calming. Taking from her. She ducked underwater and waited for as long as she could. Her lungs ached. She surfaced, then submerged again. Again. She lost track of time. Again. Was it making any change? She couldn’t tell.

After a while, she staggered out to the waterside, shaking in a sudden cold gust of wind. She toppled into the mud, all her energy spent.

Hands reached out to lift her.

 

The Fire

 

Aniyé sat in front of a wide, smooth-faced fireplace, her thin body wrapped in a heavy blanket. She couldn’t look away from the flames.

She had a thousand questions, now that she was well enough to talk, but she felt she wouldn’t be able to deal with the answers. Why had this stranger taken her to her home? Dressed her, fed her warm chicken soup and a sweet potato stew? How could she trust her, when Aniyé couldn’t trust her own self?

Aniyé didn’t even know how to address her. Aniyé felt she was powerful, but who was she? Maybe a guardian of the land. Someone belonging to this unknown and hostile country; bound to it, perhaps?

High Mage Oresuy sat down, close to her, but not looking at her. Giving her ample room. “I know it’s difficult,” she said after a long silence. “You may speak. I am listening.”

Aniyé looked away from the fire. The red bricks of the fireplace seemed to her as if blood-spattered. A vision – no. A memory. She rubbed at her dry eyes. Do not think. Just go, she remembered her instructor saying. She drew her arms around her. When had she become so thin?

“They wouldn’t even feed you,” Oresuy said, with a startling sadness. Aniyé stared at her – did the High Mage get sad on her behalf? “Would you like a bit more of the stew?”

Aniyé nodded eagerly. She grabbed the bowl she was handed with both hands. Tears filled her eyes that had been so dry just moments ago.

divider

Aniyé couldn’t sleep, because with sleep came the dreams, the dreams she was not allowed to have. Bolts of lightning criscrossing the skies. Shouts of anger, then fear. Screams of the dying. Always from a distance, a safe distance… safe to her. Yet she was aware of it all, and the fire that arose from her to smite the enemies burned her the most.

Her stomach heaved. She could barely roll off the bed in time to get to the window. She leaned outside and vomited, violently, as if her insides were leaving her body in large clumps.

The High Mage was next to her, holding her. Once Aniyé was finished, Oresuy led her outside and washed her face in the cold water basin. Then the High Mage dragged one of the heavy chairs into the small room and sat by Aniyé’s bedside until she would finally, finally sleep.

 

II.

 

The Tower

After twenty-eight days, Aniyé still couldn’t help but marvel at her teacher’s quarters, on the top floor of the Eyrie.

Aniyé was used to bare walls painted white, the cold geometry restricting without holding, enforcing without understanding. High Mage Oresuy’s quarters were paneled in wood from the forests surrounding the walled city, and the surfaces still exuded a warm susurration of wind passing through branches if Aniyé could quieten her mind down to listen. The High Mage’s furniture was made by the city’s best artisans, sparsely decorated, allowing the beauty of the materials themselves to shine through.

As Aniyé wandered through the rooms inside the majestic lacework tower, her gaze moved from highlight to highlight, small items each with a history her teacher had been glad to explain to her shortly after she had arrived. A small jug in the shape of an elephant. An etching sent by a friend from the distant, fog-shrouded islands. A herbary that offered many tiny, nose-tickling delights. Aniyé closed her eyes and sighed softly. She was safe here. After so much pain…

Oresuy sat by the fireplace, looking at the unlit slabs of wood in contemplation. She glanced up as Aniyé approached.

“We will have a guest tonight,” the High Mage said. “Guildsman Leitan will be joining us; he’s been sent back from the front lines.” She paused. “He has a different task now.”

That black-clad man? What did he want? A chill ran through Aniyé.

“Don’t worry,” Oresuy said. “We will simply eat dinner and talk. I don’t expect the conversation to be very pleasant, but you should remain courteous. Silence is likewise not a bad policy.”

Aniyé nodded repeatedly, nervously.

“The Guild could never take you from me. They would not even try. You have nothing to fear in this place.” She gestured at one of the other chairs. “Do sit; I’ll light the fire.”

The flames jumped high, and Aniyé’s worries slowly dissolved in the heat.

 

The Dinner

This was the first time Aniyé saw the Guildsman’s face, and it was different from what she’d expected; it was sharp, narrow and pale, an odd match with his strong, wide body. He looked unpleasant, with an expression of semi-permanent disgust already etching itself into his features.

Aniyé hurried to fetch the food – she’d laid the smaller wooden table in the way Oresuy had asked her to do. She reminded herself of the High Mage’s urgings not to run, to behave with a modest and understated elegance. Aniyé almost tripped over an open book left on the floor and she gasped, but she did not cry out.

She returned to the dining room with a large tray of steaming chicken drumsticks, soaked in a sweet brownish sauce and decorated with greens. Oresuy had cooked it all herself, saying that she enjoyed experimenting with kitchen magic from time to time. Aniyé had washed vegetables, cut onions, peeled potatoes and hung on her teacher’s every word. She carried the tray with the sudden, unexpected pride of knowing her contribution was valued.

Guildsman Leitan smiled slightly, then frowned, as if made uncomfortable by his concession to humanity, his enjoyment of the delicious smell. His mind was warded tight, with a militaristic touch to his magical constructs that was all too familiar to Aniyé. But wasn’t the Guild a civilian organization? The world is changing, Oresuy had said.

Aniyé served them, her hands trembling. Oresuy looked up at her from her seat across the Guildsman and smiled encouragingly. Aniyé focused singlemindedly on serving the guest – not splotching his dress blacks with chicken sauce, filling his cup with a mild red wine.

She finished without any mishaps and began to put some food on her own plate, but still she did not dare breathe freely.

Guildsman Leitan stared at her openly and Aniyé lowered her gaze, not knowing how to react. What was amiss?

Oresuy spoke up. “This is my table. I invite to it whomever I please; all who are uncomfortable with this are welcome to leave. Do sit, dear Aniyé.”

“It is unseemly to eat with a servant,” the Guildsman said.

“My apprentice,” Oresuy said coolly.

Aniyé looked from one person to the other. What was going on? She was missing subtext. The High Mage knew exactly what was going on, but she didn’t.

Guildsman Leitan frowned again, and for a moment Aniyé wondered if Oresuy had sensed his intentions despite all his warding, or if she made an educated guess based on his behavior, her knowledge of him. Both possibilities indicated that it was the High Mage who was in charge of the situation. What was this man doing here? Was he aware that he was not in control?

Aniyé sat, her thoughts whirling. She picked up a drumstick with her napkin, but her hand shook so much that she dropped the food back on her plate, splattering herself. The Guildsman glared at her with open hostility.

“Whatever it is that you are training this one in, it’s certainly not table manners,” he said to Oresuy, not looking at Aniyé. “Maybe you should just hand her over.”

Oresuy’s eyes narrowed. Aniyé could tell she had not expected the man would raise the topic so soon and with such inelegant hostility.

“Perhaps you would like to become a target of the Crimson Army yourself?” Oresuy bit into a drumstick, as if chatting idly, but there was an edge to her words.

“They haven’t–” Did the Guildsman pale? “They wouldn’t–”

“Two attempts at retrieving her this past month.”

Aniyé froze. She knew her teacher was telling the truth. How was it possible Aniyé herself hadn’t noticed?

Guildsman Leitan cleared his throat, picked at his food. “Still, the Guild would like to come to an agreement with you…”

“Just what is it that you are doing here, Guildsman? So far behind the front lines?”

“I’ve returned here on orders from the King–”

“I hear your loyalty is impeccable.”

He glanced up suddenly, malice glinting in his eyes. “Is yours, High Mage Oresuy?”

“I serve the Everlasting Light,” Oresuy said. “As does the King, I hear.”

The Guildsman murmured something and poked at the greens on his plate. He spent the rest of the evening talking about the latest news around town – the unexpectedly wet weather in the mountains, the price of duck eggs spiking, a wealthy merchant throwing a ball. Aniyé thought he seemed unusually well-informed for someone who’d just returned from war.

 

The Ribbons

Aniyé looked at the river as she undressed. Water levels seemed to be higher than usual, and increasing. The stream carried small pieces of detritus. She wondered if this was expected; on that dinner last week, the Guildsman had mentioned something about increased rainfall in the mountains. She made a mental note to ask Oresuy about it.

She waded into the water, submerged, emerged. After a few repetitions, she was ready to head outside, the entire process now performed mostly by rote, every morning. After the first two weeks, the magic had stopped hurting; after the second two, she could skip a day once in a while. The process was only different in marginal, incidental details – a bird flying across the river, rain dripping slightly or a broken tree-branch floating downstream. But this time, she noticed something unexpected.

A familiar voice was carried on the breeze from downstream the river, beyond the copse of willows that hid her from view. She halted, submerged as deeply as she could while still observing, fervently hoping her dark hair would look like soggy driftwood from a distance.

Guildsman Leitan was yelling at someone.

Aniyé had a hard time making out the words, and she would not dare try any magic to sharpen her senses, lest it draw attention to her. She understood only fragments.

“…the King… requisition this boat…”

“My living! How…”

“…imperative… absolutely necessary…”

“…feed my family? My children…”

“I must inspect…”

The Guildsman was taking a fisherman’s boat. Why not just hire the fisherman, if he needed to get somewhere in a hurry? Unless secrecy was desired, Aniyé realized; but he certainly made a lot of noise.

The boat soon glided by, the Guildsman alone and rowing upstream with considerable force. Aniyé remained unnoticed. She only dared to clamber outside after long, long minutes had passed, and her teeth were chattering – with cold or with apprehension, she wasn’t sure.

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Aniyé made her way up the spiral staircase of her teacher’s tower, rubbing her hands and arms. She didn’t feel focused enough to use her magic to keep warm. Oresuy stood in an alcove, looking at her with appreciation tinged with faint amusement. Aniyé lowered her gaze and bowed slightly.

“Good morning, my good teacher,” she said.

“And good morning likewise to you, my dear Aniyé,” Oresuy said, her voice still soft from sleep, but roomy and sonorous. She fell silent.

Aniyé wracked her brain for a worried moment before realizing that she was supposed to offer courtesies and inquire about her teacher’s wellbeing. She was still not used to being around people. People who treated her with respect, at least.

“How did my teacher sleep?” she finally offered.

“I slept well, thank you,” Oresuy said, walking up to her. “And you, my dear Aniyé? …Look at me.”

Aniyé raised her gaze. Oresuy’s curly, earth-colored hair was pinned up rather hastily, and she still hadn’t removed her silk nightgown, but she looked at her with no upset, only firmness.

“I likewise slept well,” Aniyé offered.

Oresuy didn’t respond for three long breaths, then she nodded. “Good. I will ask something of you today. …Do not look away. It will not be easy, but I don’t ask impossibilities of you.”

“Yes, teacher.” She nodded briefly, her stomach knotting.

“This might be somewhat sudden, but by now you should be ready for it. I didn’t intend on doing it today, but something has come up. Today we will head outside the Eyrie and the gardens. We are urgently needed outside.”

Aniyé gasped. “Teacher, I can’t– My power– My magic– I don’t think I can control– ” She took a step back and her feet got tangled in the edges of a rug. Oresuy quickly stepped next to her and steadied her.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe. To go outside. Without the handlers. Outside. Just to go the banks of the Eyrie was intimidating enough, especially after today’s chance encounter; but at least she was slowly getting used to it. Outside, into the city – that was unthinkable. Outside.

Her handlers were dead, the three officers clad in uniforms that shone in the sun in their powerful crimson shades, officers with crimson leashes in their hands – they were dead, the leashes torn, and Aniyé was alone, alone on the plains, surrounded by death, her magic spiraling out of control–

“I’m here. Aniyé!” A commanding tone. “Focus on me. I will regulate your breath.”

She felt nothing except the firm pressure around her – High Mage Oresuy holding her body, hugging her close to herself.

Then she noticed she had been crying, her face wet with tears and snot, smearing her teacher’s silk robes.

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“Again, this is not what I had originally had in mind,” Oresuy said, “but now I think this might work better. Undress, please. You can leave your breeches on.”

Aniyé was used to Oresuy seeing her naked, touching her body to massage out the gobs of pain, the residue of harm inflicted on her by others and also by herself. She was trembling simply because she was still greatly agitated.

Her teacher put her wide, broad palms on her shoulders and Aniyé could feel a warm, steady calmness seeping through her skin. After a few moments, Oresuy withdrew and stepped to one of her storage-chests, pulled out a small bundle.

“The effectiveness comes from your understanding, not from the words themselves,” Oresuy said as she unwrapped the bundle and showed her the wide red ribbons embroidered with yellow thread. Letters in a calm, orderly succession; words, sentences. Aniyé could not read them – they were in an unfamiliar alphabet.

“Feeling them against your body will be comforting,” Oresuy went on. “You understand with your mind that I can provide you with the restriction you need, but your body needs to understand this too. I do think this will help.”

She tied the ribbons on Aniyé’s bare skin in complicated patterns, with well-practiced motions. Aniyé gasped – they were surprisingly heavy. They were surprisingly comforting.

“The ones I’m putting under your clothing won’t restrict your movement. …Good. You can dress now.”

Aniyé dressed and noticed with a startle that her hands were no longer shaking as she picked out the clothing items from her own storage-chest. Loose, sea-blue pants, a matching tunic edged with a lighter shade of blue, like a cloudy sky…

“Do wear your new boots,” Oresuy indicated, and Aniyé put them on too, their leather fitting her feet snugly even though the boots were unworn.

“Now the second set,” Oresuy said and tied more ribbons across her torso, the red and yellow flaring against the blue of the tunic.

“Show me your hands.”

She tied Aniyé’s hands together and into a wider loop that ran around her body. She guided Aniyé’s hands to her front until her wrists touched, pulled at a ribbon and wrapped it around in a pattern Aniyé couldn’t follow to secure them in place – then did the reverse and pulled Aniyé’s hands to the back. “Good,” she said. “I’ll loosen this for now.” She allowed Aniyé’s hands to drop to her sides, ribbons tied around her wrists and the larger loop still in place around her body, but allowing for some movement. “See if you can hold your staff like this.”

Aniyé stepped to the rack by the door, pulled out her light, metallic mage’s longstaff. She twirled it around her fingers experimentally – she could manipulate it without large arm movements, so the ribbons didn’t stop her from using it.

“Excellent,” Oresuy said. “This will be doable. Come here.” She put an overcoat on Aniyé’s shoulders, affixing it at the neck with two large silver clasps. For the most part, it hid the ribbons. Then she pressed down gently – Aniyé understood what was expected of her and lowered herself to her knees.

Oresuy smoothed down Aniyé’s forehead and tied a ribbon across it. “This shall remind you of my protection,” she said. “My dear student.”

 

The Flood

Outside, the riverside was in uproar, town guards and working folk heaping bags of sand on top of the floodbanks of the downtown area. Aniyé halted in her tracks.

“You’ve seen the water levels rise,” Oresuy said. “On your daily walks.”

The floodbanks in the back of the Eyrie gardens had always seemed massive to Aniyé, protecting, overshadowing her as she tumbled down and into the water. Yet fear twinged in her now, like a taut string plucked by nervous fingers–

Oresuy steadied her. “We’ve been called on to help with the efforts.”

Aniyé turned and blinked at her teacher. She felt thoroughly clueless.

“The Court scholars claim the maximum will be reached in a week, with levels two handsbreadths above the top of the floodbanks.”

Aniyé had come from a dry land. Oresuy continued after a small pause. “The sandbags might be enough, but based on the rainfall in the mountains, they will need to hold for at least a week. The banks themselves will also need to hold.”

Aniyé frowned. “Teacher, I don’t see – how could they possibly be breached?” Floodbanks thicker than the city walls–

“They soak up the water, then they soften and slide. Our job will be to make sure it doesn’t happen… or at least to decrease the probability of it happening.”

Aniyé nodded, but her teacher hadn’t finished yet.

“The only thing you’ll need to understand is they might not be grateful for your service.” Oresuy sighed softly. “But I am grateful, and I understand.”

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Aniyé walked on, slowly, steadily, barely aware of her surroundings. Under her feet, the ground was still dry, and as her attention reached down below, she could feel the floodbanks hadn’t even begun to soak. She visualized a glowing latticework of bindings holding the soil in place, sparkling up to her from the depths of the earth as she walked over them above. Holding, containing, constraining, like the ribbons around her body.

She focused on her breath, the influx and then the outflow, the cycle ever-repeating. Power going out of her and into the structure, merging, stabilizing. She felt confident. She could do this by herself, while her teacher was making a circuit in the opposite direction. She could do this, and do it well.

The guards first stopped her beyond Poets’ Bridge, where the town faded into meadows and the floodplains were heavily overgrown with willow trees.

“No loitering,” the guardsman said as he blinked down at her. “If you’re up on the banks, get in line for the sandbags.”

“I–” Her concentration broken, she was momentarily disoriented. “I’m re… reinforcing the structure.” She wanted to make a broad hand gesture, but the ribbons didn’t have enough give. She was so startled that her other hand unclenched and she dropped her staff. She crouched down into the mud and picked it up, carefully, conscious of her limited range of motion.

The man grunted disapprovingly. “You’re with the Mages’ Guild?”

Mages’ Guild? She was a student of Teacher Oresuy and no one else. She knew little about the Mages’ Guild beyond those strained conversations between her teacher and the black-clad Guildsman Leitan.

“I, I’m a student of High Mage Oresuy,” she mumbled, barely daring to look up to the guard.

He nodded, but then his expression tightened even further. “You? One of the steppe folk from the West? And you expect me to believe this tale?”

How was she supposed to respond? The guardsman reached to his scabbard. Aniyé’s brain ran through possible scenarios, many of them ending in a beheading.

Her fingers gripped her staff so tightly her joints popped. “I, I’m a deserter, I escaped– I ran away!”

Was it true? By declaring it, had she made it true? Did she really escape? Did she really run away? She just wanted the pain to stop, she just craved control, control over the magic, control over herself, from an external source if need be, but she didn’t want to kill

The man sized her up and she was suddenly acutely aware of her skin, her eyes, her looks. She was an alien here. A piece of foreign flesh. An intruder, one of the enemy–

“She is under my protection,” Aniyé heard from behind herself, and she dropped her staff again. The guardsman paled. What had he seen, some part of Aniyé’s mind wondered idly as most of her froze, stunned – had he seen Oresuy appear out of thin air? From the shadows? The High Mage was skilled at spatial dislocation, Aniyé knew.

“Pass the word along the newschain,” Oresuy said with such coldness Aniyé had never heard from her before. “I want no incidents.”

There were no further incidents that day.

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It was difficult to be the only one in sight to wander around seemingly in a daze while everyone else on the banks was engaged in hard labor, Aniyé soon found. It was difficult enough for her to avoid bumping into people while focusing on binding the floodbanks in place, and that was without the remarks, not even directed at her; at least not openly.

“Crimson Army,” she heard, over and over, behind her back and over her shoulders, the words encircling her like tendrils of smoke. “A battle-mage.”

She wanted to weep, but instead did what Oresuy had taught her to do and focused on binding herself to the land, creating – possibly? eventually? – a way to feel belonging, attachment to a new home. She could not go back. She was startled to realize at one point out on the banks, looking up at the starry night sky, that she would not go back.

Oresuy was strict, but never unfair, never abusive. Oresuy would never march her out to the battlefield like some kind of animal, a war dog ready to let loose from the leash, a being only valuable as far as its potential for destruction extended. Aniyé had never realized just how cruelly had she been treated, before. Oresuy was different – Oresuy would hold her while she cried–

The first time someone risked open confrontation with Aniyé, it was about a different issue entirely.

She was standing in line for food, a gigantic black pot of stew that three of the townsfolk dispensed to a bunch of exhausted laborers with great vigor. The High Mage was right behind her; just as hungry as she was, Aniyé could tell. People were discussing the King’s upcoming visit, an event which seemed frankly pointless to Aniyé, and also to the others. She sleepily listened to the conversation.

“…he thinks he can make the floodbanks stand just by his presence.”

“Scare them, eh? What do you say?”

“You know what I think.” The thin, yarrow-blonde man glanced around nervously, on the lookout for potential informers.

His bald-shaven mate shrugged. “Nonsense if you ask me. He’s coming here to get killed when the banks burst.” He made a coarse sound and mimed the large, sweeping motion of water rushing through the town. “That’s it! I bet Princess Ilas is already rubbing her hands.”

The blonde man seemed encouraged by this act of blatant lèse-majesté. “If the Guild mages weren’t all off on the Western front, they could hold everything just fine.” He spread his stalklike fingers and sighed. “This war is never going to end. If King Abrany just swallowed his pride for a second and tried to negotiate with the Crimson Dukes…”

Aniyé could swear the bald man’s eyes shone with glee for a moment. She found it hard to follow politics in general, having been so isolated for such a long time; but she was quite certain that something unsavory was going on.

“What did you just say?” the bald man said, drawing out the words. “You know that’s trea–”

Aniyé realized the man was trying to get his fellow to say something self-incriminating. She didn’t quite understand the situation, but she had to step in. “Some of us are here and helping out,” she said quickly. She wasn’t a Guild mage, she was Oresuy’s student with no other ties of loyalty, but that didn’t strike her as relevant.

The bald man straightened up and Aniyé could see how startlingly tall and well-built he was. “And why are you here anyway?” he said on the same level tone, but with anger simmering behind his words.

Aniyé was at a loss. She was here because Oresuy wanted her to be here, and she wanted to do what her teacher asked of her. She was certain she was missing out on some crucial detail–

When the man saw that no response was forthcoming, he went on. “You should by rights be at the front, fighting the Crimson Army with your talent given to you by the gods. This is not your place.”

Oresuy spoke up; Aniyé was so nervous she hadn’t even realized her teacher was paying any attention. “Would you rather be swept away then?” The man’s anger was more than matched by her restrained ferocity. Oresuy stepped forward from behind Aniyé, fixating on the man – the informer? “It never ceases to amaze me how ready you are to act against your own best interests,” she remarked. “Come,” she nodded to Aniyé, “we have work to do.”

Aniyé tagged along, her stomach growling. For long minutes she felt the man’s eyes on his back, but she didn’t turn around to meet his gaze.

 

The City

Aniyé stood on one of the floodbanks, with her back to the ever-rising water. A small square with the church of the Merciful Daughter-Son spread out in front of her, with many little alleys branching out and away on the opposite side. She took a deep breath, then walked gingerly down.

In an alcove next to the church entrance, she could see a statue of the Daughter-Son, the gently smiling androgynous deity standing on top of the globe, their feet shrouded in clouds etched from heavy marble. Suddenly she felt a strange kind of kinship, of acceptance – a warm ray of light washing through her internal landscape, calming her. She bowed her head and whispered thanks. She had never once prayed to this deity, yet they were accepting her?

Still, she didn’t dare go inside the church. Churches on both sides of the ever-shifting border were all too eager to support the war effort.

She walked on. Garlands of flowers decorated the street-facing walls of the two-storey houses. A sign proudly stated that the city had been the recipient of an award last year for its flower displays. Aniyé stopped to read every banner and sign, trying to keep her attention away from the fear rattling around in her skull. This was an exercise, her first time alone inside the city, not out on the banks. She would do it for her teacher even when Oresuy insisted Aniyé do it for herself. To see, to experience, possibly to understand.

The city was beautiful. The façades all looked recently painted in smooth pastel colors and the roofs were lined with bright-hot red tile. People strolled slowly in the early afternoon sun, seemingly ignorant of the effort out on the banks. Aniyé was puzzled for a moment, then she reminded herself that in a city so close to the water, flooding must be a regular occurrence. Yet she was resentful for a moment – the banks were full of volunteers, but none seemed to be the scions of rich aristocrat and trader families, like the youths walking by her without sparing her a glance. Aniyé wondered what was better – people’s eyes sliding off her as if she was nonexistent, or people’s voices whispering behind her back and calling her names. She shrugged and ventured on.

All the streets seemed to lead to a large rectangular square surrounded by palaces, with wall hangings the size of small buildings glorifying the King. Upon a closer look, she realized the palaces were all state-owned: “National Museum of Traditional Lore”, “National Central Administration”, “National Gallery and Artist Patronage”. At first, she was surprised by the constant repetition of “National”, but after a while of wandering around the square, she half-expected to see a “National Mages’ Guild”. She didn’t find the Guild hall; then she remembered Oresuy saying it was somewhere on a hilltop, an auspicious location. The mages were not threatened by the water.

She edged closer to National Central Administration and browsed the announcements hung in large glass-fronted cabinets until her eyes began to glaze over from the legalese. It seemed like everything needed to be reported. The number of horses one owned – were horses such important possessions here? –, whether one wished to exercise one’s voting rights – she assumed that without explicit declaration it was not possible – and so on. Perhaps this city wasn’t so welcoming after all.

The front gate slammed open and Guildsman Leitan stormed out, dashing past Aniyé without noticing her. He was muttering under his breath; reinforcing his wards? On a whim, she decided to follow him from a safe distance – she could check out the Guild hall, if only from the outside. She flexed her muscles against the ribbons; they held. She suddenly felt elated, her fears altogether gone. She was able to give free rein to her curiosity.

Walking behind the Guildsman, Aniyé could see the passersby’s reactions to him. They bowed their heads to him or even bent from the waist. Some people ducked into the shadows of the alleys. Was this his due as a Guildsman in uniform, or did he inspire personal dread for some reason?

To Aniyé’s shock, as the people stared after him, some uttered curses. With little to no magic behind the words; nothing that would harm the man or even get his notice from behind his tightly wound wards, but even then – this behavior seemed scandalous to her, and yet perfectly understandable. She herself had reason to hate Guildsman Leitan – the man who had wanted to claim her for the Guild as little more than a trophy – and they had met only twice.

The Guildsman did not acknowledge any of the obeisances, as far as Aniyé could see. He strode ahead, clearly used to walking on the cobblestones that kept tripping Aniyé, her feet jamming into cracks and sliding over smooth-worn surfaces. She struggled uphill.

Leitan came to a sudden halt in front of a large, blocky building next to a church. “I brought the necessary equipment,” he said to the man on guard, a tall guildsman clearly chosen for his size and poise rather than his magical prowess. “Hail the King!”

“Hail the King,” the guard said gruffly.

Aniyé did not dare break her stride, and she walked past the building with the front gate already closed behind Guildsman Leitan. The brick walls radiated a warmth beyond the heat gathered from the day’s worth of sunlight. Yet the magic did not comfort her. She could feel the guard’s eyes on his back – with her staff and her dress, the inscribed ribbons encircling her body, she looked clearly magical even to unsensing minds. Did that make her a target?

On her way back to the Eyrie, she chose a different path. Beyond the wide avenue she had walked, in the smaller side streets, shops and stores were failing – entrances shuttered in broad daylight, windows cracked, entire buildings empty of the bustle of business life. She sighed – the King’s parade would clearly be passing along a different route.

 

III.

 

The King

Everyone was out on the banks on the day of the King’s arrival, but even Aniyé knew this was not because of the people’s great desire to see their leader. The flooding was becoming worse and worse – the water was nearing the top of the sandbags piled on the floodbanks. The scholars had predicted that the water levels would continue to rise for at least two more days. In the northern part of town, the floodbanks had been demolished a few months ago, in preparation for reconstruction. The hastily raised new banks were at the highest risk of getting swept away.

Huge crowds milled on both sides of the traffic barriers. Wide cloth ribbons marked the area beyond which only people working on the floodbanks were permitted. People not capable of hard labor were making food or handing out drinks, while children ran up and down, gawking at the workers, and town guards tried to maintain order.

Aniyé was stuck. “What do you mean you can’t allow me in? I’ve been working on the Northlanes for three days now!”

The guard, a burly woman, crossed her arms and frowned in displeasure. “Orders from higher up. The King and his retinue cannot be disturbed.”

“But the banks–” Aniyé didn’t even need to close her eyes to focus, she knew the situation was becoming worse and worse. The ground felt saturated with water, clumps of earth ready to tumble and roll. She felt her bindings could still hold, but she’d need to be physically present and reinforcing them.

“The banks will be fine. We’ve been working all night.”

Aniyé took a deep breath. “I need to reinforce the structure. It’s absolutely necessary.”

“The King doesn’t want mages around while he is inspecting the effort.” The woman grimaced. “Especially not some stranger from the Western steppes.”

Aniyé thought better of protesting. She stood aside, forcing a rhythm of slow breaths upon herself, concentrating on the ribbons around her body, her hand on her staff. The fear, the anger all provoked a response from her magic, and she struggled to remain in control.

“Aniyé?”

She shuddered in surprise, then looked up into her teacher’s face.

“Aniyé, is something wrong?”

She summarized the situation. Oresuy clicked her tongue in displeasure, but she also seemed to be displeased with Aniyé herself – or was she? “There is little time. Let’s go,” she said, then grabbed Aniyé by the shoulders and simply walked past the stunned guard not daring to stop them.

“You could’ve done that by yourself, you know.”

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Aniyé was on all fours, breathing heavily, the ribbons around her arms loosened and her fingers hooked into the soil. The skin on her forehead itched under the headband.

Oresuy was standing next to her, the two of them right in the path of the approaching retinue. “Do you think the bank will hold?” Oresuy asked mildly, her momentary displeasure gone and displaced by a calm sense of concern.

Aniyé nodded, her teeth set too tightly to speak. She pushed another burst of power into the structure, her entire body shuddering.

“That will have to do for the time being,” Oresuy said. “On to the next spot.” They had been working their way along the Northlanes, making stops at regular intervals.

Aniyé straightened out and brushed off her palms, her knees. She was unsteady on her feet.

“Just three more,” Oresuy said as she steadied her and pulled the ribbons tight again. “You’re doing great.”

“Y-yes, but–” Her mouth had trouble forming words. She sighed and simply nodded in the direction of the crowd. A man in a garish tunic had broken away from the retinue and was running toward them.

Oresuy turned around to follow Aniyé’s gesture. “Yes? Ah.”

The man arrived, gasping and wheezing from such a short run. “Why are you here? The King’s orders–”

“We will finish our work here,” Oresuy said. “Tell your king that if he wants to live, he doesn’t have a choice but to allow my student to finish.”

The man paled. “They said the banks would hold– The King’s advisors–”

“The banks will hold, if you allow us to go ahead.” Oresuy was still calm. Aniyé blinked, looking from her teacher to the official and back.

More flamboyantly clad officials arrived, yelling with great consternation.

“You have to move!”

“Why haven’t you gotten them to leave?!”

“The King is coming and His Majesty brooks no–”

“Why wouldn’t you–”

Oresuy smiled serenely – she was taller than most of the retinue – and gazed up into the face of the King on his throne, carried on the shoulders of four strong servants.

Aniyé gasped. The King looked little like the person painted in oil on expensive portraits or enlarged to building-size on wall hangings. Certainly, there was a resemblance, but the face of His Majesty was more worn, and also more malevolent in a subtle, but to Aniyé, entirely unmistakable way.

Was he a magical person? He had to be! Why hadn’t she heard anything about this? Wouldn’t the citizens be proud? But then Aniyé realized that while he was strong in his own right, with his magic wound tightly around him and tuned finely to his desires, he was nowhere, nowhere near as powerful as Oresuy…

“If Your Majesty would please to make Your retinue a bit calmer,” Oresuy said.

King Abrany nodded with what looked to Aniyé like forced affability, then raised a hand.

“The King wishes to speak!” a tall woman yelled, and the entire retinue dropped to their knees, their gaze downcast.

Aniyé looked at her teacher with worry. Was she also supposed to–?

High Mage Oresuy returned her gaze, her no impossible to miss, transmitted not only over the magic but also plain on her face. Aniyé remained standing. She gazed at the crowd and spotted Guildsman Leitan, almost an entire head taller than the rest of his fellows. He stared back at Aniyé in silent furor.

“If it is not Oresuy again,” the King said. “We haven’t seen you in a long time, but We certainly remember.”

What was he talking about? Aniyé had previously had no inkling her teacher had known the King in person. Judging from King Abrany’s tone, their interactions had to have been mostly unpleasant.

“Indeed, Your Majesty,” Oresuy responded.

“We see you’ve acquired an apprentice.” Aniyé shuddered – it was as if the King’s attention sliding to her had dirtied her somehow. The feeling was very strong. “An apprentice who doesn’t seem to show us much respect.”

“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” Aniyé began, but then her teacher’s voice rang out in her head, part memory, part acute impression. Don’t apologize. She paused and took a deep breath. “Excuse me, Your Majesty, but I am not your vassal. It would not be appropriate for me to kneel to you.”

King Abrany’s face darkened with blood, but he kept his voice steady. “You are a vassal of the Crimson Dukes, from the looks of you?” Trickles of anger passed through his tightly-coiled wards and magical shields. He was leaking power.

“I belong to no one but my teacher, the High Mage Oresuy,” Aniyé said. “I will kneel when my teacher tells me.”

King Abrany was about to burst. “And would the High Mage Oresuy,” he said mockingly, “please to have you kneel?”

“If Your Majesty so desires,” said Oresuy with a hint of a smile on her broad cheeks. Go ahead.

Aniyé knelt.

Snickers and sound-fragments of suppressed laughter floated on the air from the retinue. If this was a battle of wills and wit, Aniyé thought, her teacher appeared to be winning.

“I do not accept your obeisance,” the King snapped, his voice edging into a squeak, his royal pronouns slipping.

“So be it,” Oresuy said, now smiling openly, an act of defiance. Aniyé stood. “Then we shall be on our way.”

“What are you doing here?!” The King demanded, leaning forward, gripping the lion-shaped arms of his throne. One of the servants involuntarily hissed, the King’s sudden motion almost dislodging the throne from her broad shoulders.

“As I’ve told your messengers, Your Majesty, my student is reinforcing the floodbanks so that your retinue is not swept away.”

“The floodbanks–” He clapped his hands together. “The floodbanks will stand!”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Was Oresuy also beginning to become annoyed? “They will stand because she will make them stand. You will be able to go ahead with your royal inspection.”

“I do not take orders from you!” The throne rattled. The servants passed glances.

“It was not an order, Your Majesty. It was a description of fact.”

He looked extremely distraught for a moment, then he gathered himself again and bellowed, “We shall bid our leave.”

Aniyé stood ramrod-straight, shaking, as the retinue passed, people glancing at her with more than idle curiosity. Why didn’t the king have them both arrested for their insolence? He must’ve been afraid of Oresuy. How does one restrain someone who moves with the wind?

Aniyé noticed the bald-shaven man, and gasped as she saw Guildsman Leitan make his way to him across the streams of people, say a few words and pat him on the back; then the crowds swept both of them away. She could still hear the King yelling, “No word! I want no word of this…” from behind her as Oresuy gently guided her down along the floodbanks.

“Just three more,” her teacher said. “We will do a brief exercise to make sure only the good magic goes into the structure, and the bad magic, what comes from fear, is absorbed by the sky.”

That night, it rained with a ferocity, and the water rose even faster than estimated – but the banks held.

 

The Slide

Someone pushed a bowl of warm, thick soup into Aniyé’s hands. “Thank you for your good work,” the stranger said and smiled at her, plump cheeks reddened by the early morning chill.

People still whispered behind Aniyé’s back, but now there was the occasional kind voice. Word had spread. But as her newfound allies popped up like mushrooms from the undergrowth, so had her enemies multiplied. King Abrany had a network of supporters, informants, snitches – all on the royal payroll, and money spoke.

She gobbled up the food, pushing these unwelcome thoughts away from herself. She could not allow herself pause – the Northlanes were at immediate danger of sliding and the townsfolk worked day and night.

She heard a scream and felt something in the earth shift and give way – she tossed down the almost empty bowl and broke into a run, fighting off momentary dizziness and a sense of the world slipping away, her sleep-addled mind struggling to get a hold on reality.

Teacher– she shouted inward and outward, her magic ratcheting up, expanding around her, reaching– but she didn’t know what to do, she didn’t have enough precision, didn’t have enough control, she only knew she needed to act–

Under her feet the ground was moving with an inexorable slowness, while the ribbons around her body flared with invisible fire, some part of her still trying to constrain her power– Teacher–

Oresuy came running, as if flying – her feet gliding above ground, her coat and robes billowing behind her. She grabbed hold of Aniyé from behind – the ribbons snapping, falling away in response to her touch – then she pushed her forward.

Aniyé dropped to her knees, then toppled ahead on all fours, her inarticulate shouting slowly turning into a raw, agonized keening as she tried to hold, to hold the banks with bare, unrestrained, unrefined power, pumping a stream of pure unprocessed magic into the earth, magic that rose from within her and flowed undammed–

and yet it was too unstable, too volatile, to be of any use–

her last thought was that it was over.

What Oresuy did then was too subtle for Aniyé to follow, but it spread outward from their point of contact, from Oresuy’s warm, comforting hands on her head, crystallizing in the substructure of the universe unseen but heartfelt, stabilizing, providing a pattern for the world to match.

The ground stopped sliding. People rushed in, laborers given a momentary respite from death, people with shovels and sand-bags, people with hands in tattered gloves and faces smeared with grime.

Teacher– Words failed her. Her muscles shuddered as if they wanted to tear themselves off her bones. Oresuy held her close in a bear’s embrace, stopping her from hurting herself with raw physical strength.

Consciousness dropped out of Aniyé, life dropped out of her and her muscles finally relaxed, her body passing into a welcome inertness, a well of starless dark.

 

The Bed

Aniyé only saw a warm yellowish light. She felt the pressure of the pillows and the heavy blanket, her body weighing itself down, devoid of all motion. Was she breathing?

She needed to get herself together. She needed to go out on the banks, she needed to work–

“Hush,” a soft, deep voice whispered. “The banks will stand; you can rest. It has been done.”

Then just the light.

Eventually a hand, palm tracing her forehead. “I am here.”

Nothing but the light.

divider

“I want to see her!” A coarse and uneven voice. Somehow familiar. Guildsman Leitan? The King? “We need to see her!”

“I cannot allow that. Not even you. For her own sake.” Calmly explaining.

“The country needs this power!” Subtext: I need this power. “The Western front is collapsing–”

An exhalation. “I will not allow that. This is final.”

“Very well, Oresuy…” A mind gearing itself up for a threat. “I will remember this. I will remember this!”

Angry steps hurrying away.

divider

Aniyé coughed, suddenly feeling the dryness in her mouth, the wasting in her body. A hand reached behind the back of her head, lifted her gently so she could take clumsy, tongue-tied sips from the cup placed to her mouth. After she finished, she cast her gaze down, bowed her head a little to indicate her thanks; she could not speak yet.

“You’re welcome, my dear apprentice.” Was her teacher crying? “You’re welcome.”

divider

It felt like aeons, but it took less than a day.

 

The Council

Aniyé stumbled outside, her clothes loose and ill-fitting on her body, the sunlight hurting her eyes. She was holding on to Oresuy with cramped hands that felt like claws. She felt unbalanced. The power was seeping back into her, replenishing ever so slowly. The ribbons were wrapped around her, holding her tight.

“It seems like a lifetime,” Aniyé said, the words fragile on her parched lips. “And yet the water hasn’t receded a handsbreadth. If anything…”

“It’s even higher,” Oresuy finished her unspoken sentence.

“Will the banks hold?” The words felt worn-out, repeated over and over, echoing in her head until they lost all meaning. It seemed like she hadn’t uttered any other sentence in days.

“The banks will hold,” Oresuy nodded. Yet something remained unsaid.

The meaning trickled through the connection between them. “They will not prove high enough.” Aniyé knew there was a maximum height to the bars built out of sandbags. There was so much exhaustion inside her, she couldn’t even grow upset.

“It is not our issue,” Oresuy said. “We did what we could.”

“The rainfall…” Aniyé whispered. Why had it fallen? She couldn’t remember, but she knew she had something to do with it… She searched her mind. She had released the bad magic, the tainted magic into the sky–

“Don’t blame yourself.” Oresuy put hands on her shoulders, pulled her close. Locked arms around her. “You did what you could. You did your best in an unfavorable situation. The rest is not up to us.”

The councilman showed up just a few moments later, as the two of them were looking out to the river in silence, their gaze-lines parallel.

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“There is a problem,” the councilman said, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His polished shoes were unsuited to the mud by the foot of the Eyrie and the crest of the city on the breast of his suit was half-hidden under dirt. Aniyé thought she’d seen the man in the King’s retinue, but wasn’t entirely certain.

We know there is a problem, Aniyé wanted to say, a tiny glimmer of anger flickering deep inside her boundless exhaustion. Oresuy’s arms around her tightened momentarily.

“We need your help. The floodgates upstream from the Eyrie are stuck.”

Oresuy made a noncommittal murmur. Aniyé was confused. What did any of them have to do with the floodgates?

“You have to help!” The man moved from anxiety and embarrassment to fear and desperation. “The city is going to be washed away!”

Aniyé still didn’t understand. Maybe all this made sense somewhere – it certainly made sense to this official – but she couldn’t see how the pieces fit together.

“Are you speaking for the city?” Oresuy asked, very slowly.

“I am, I, I– You need to come!”

Even through the haze in her mind it was clear to Aniyé that the man was hiding a crucial detail. What was it? She tried to muster her faculties – her reasoning, her magical insight…

Oresuy was also suspicious. “Slow down. Explain.” Aniyé thought that this was at least in part for her benefit; the councilman had casually ignored her.

“We need to breach the banks and let the water onto the fields upstream from the city. We’ll lose much produce, but the city cannot be washed away, surely even you can see that–” He tried to rein in his agitation. “I’m sorry,” he huffed. “But the floodgates are stuck – rusted, maybe? Or stuck from the water pressure? We never had water levels this high–”

He was telling the truth. He was also lying by omission.

“Are you suspecting sabotage?” Oresuy asked.

“We’re not suspecting anything, there is no time, the gates need to be opened! Please!” He seemed ready to fling himself at Oresuy’s feet. The High Mage drew back a step.

“Aniyé,” she began. “You know those banks better than I do. Do you think it’s manageable?”

She could barely walk. And yet– and yet–

She remembered all those times she felt she simply couldn’t move, couldn’t even inflate her lungs to take a breath of air, so spent – those people from the Crimson Army didn’t care. They didn’t inquire. They just pushed her onward, and there was somehow always more magic, rising up from a reservoir deep inside her, from an unknown place beyond thought, beyond even power… This was why she was a battle mage. Had been. This was why they had wanted her.

But now it was her choice.

“Yes, master,” she said. “I can do it.”

Oresuy hesitated, frowning. Aniyé realized she’d used the wrong title. “Teacher– I mean–” she scrambled to correct.

“Are you sure, my dear student?” Oresuy said, still disquietened. Aniyé nodded, holding on to her newfound confidence.

“Then on shall we go.” The High Mage glanced sharply at the councilman. “Lead the way.”

divider

Councilfolk were standing in the mud, looking scared, confused, intimidated. The King’s retinue was also standing by, drawing away from the council members and the throng of onlookers. Aniyé spotted Guildsman Leitan, standing next to the guard she’d seen in front of the Guild hall, but the bald man was nowhere to be found. King Abrany presided over the entire scene on his portable throne.

Oresuy gritted her teeth.

This, this was the deception, Aniyé realized. Why didn’t they want the two of them to know that the King and his retinue would be here? What did the King want?

She was beginning to see.

A demonstration.

Of her allegiance?

“He only wants your power,” her teacher hissed to her from between teeth. “Be very careful.”

They walked up to the metal structure at the top of the floodgates and Oresuy gave an experimental tug of the handle, but the rods remained inert. She doesn’t even trust them this far, Aniyé thought, blood running cold. Her teacher crouched, put a hand in the mud, closed her eyes for a moment. Nodded, just barely. Then gave a little probing push, this time with magic. Nothing moved. She stood, wiped her palms on the metal. She did not spare the King a single glance. To Aniyé’s shock, the King didn’t decry this insolence. What was going on?

“I must confer with my student,” the High Mage said to no one in particular, and drew Aniyé away from the crowds.

“Can you do it?” she asked – firm but not demanding.

“I have the power, teacher,” Master, “I’m not sure I have the skill.”

“I confess I am spent,” Oresuy said and Aniyé blinked up at her in confusion. Her teacher, saying–?

“I am spent from putting you back together.”

Aniyé lowered her gaze, but Oresuy touched her cheeks and turned her face again upward. “Do not be ashamed. I did it of my own free will. And you did well.” The High Mage’s expression darkened. “But I am not a battle-mage. I cannot draw and draw and draw on new power so fast, even though I command more than you.”

“I can do it, teacher, but I’m not sure I can control…” Her voice trailed off. They had never asked her to do things. Repeatedly, to make sure.

“I can help you control it, I have that much still in me,” Oresuy said and sighed deeply. “I need sleep.”

“What should I do, teacher?”

Oresuy frowned. “The gate seems to be rusted shut, down underwater.” Or glued shut, Aniyé thought. How far ahead of time? She had seen the Guildsman row upstream, in secret, for an inspection, then fetch some kind of equipment just the day before. Would the king endanger his people just for the sake of… Aniyé shook her head, trying not to venture into this maze of thoughts. Oresuy continued: “I don’t think it makes much sense to try to pry it open. We need to blast the whole segment out. Or one nearby – what do you think?”

Her teacher asked her for her opinion. On a technical matter. Aniyé fidgeted, body pressing against the ribbons, arms pulling them apart until they tightened. “The gates are a disruption… in the banks, I mean. I think it’s usually easier to tackle things along their edges? Points of discontinuity?”

The High Mage nodded, looking pleased to have some of her own thinking reflected to her. “But then the gate structure is lost; it might be more difficult to repair?”

Aniyé shook her head. “It’s damaged to begin with, possibly to the point of uselessness. I get an impression it’s…” glued shut, she thought at her teacher, and Oresuy’s sudden glance at the retinue demonstrated that the concept had made it across. “Unsalvageable,” Aniyé said after the silent exchange. “But the city can still be saved.”

Oresuy smiled.

divider

This is exactly what the King wants, Aniyé thought – a huge blast, a demonstration of deadly force. How long ago had the Guildsman set his plan in motion? Aniyé recalled his words, accusing the High Mage of insufficient loyalty. She looked on as the King’s servants shooed people to safety, behind the lines Oresuy had drawn into the mud of the banks, nearer the city.

Oresuy motioned her to kneel and Aniyé lowered herself into the mud. She was shivering, the power already beginning to mount – out of fear, she supposed, for she had done little to invoke it into herself by any voluntary means.

Oresuy pulled her hands behind her, pulled the ribbons tight. Aniyé gasped, startled by the sudden sensation.

“Now,” Oresuy said. Aniyé closed her eyes. A hand across her forehead – this did not startle her. Her teacher’s touch.

It rose from within her, ever-renewing, a blisteringly raw force that nonetheless was not, not – Aniyé felt this clearly even as the banks were about to be swept away – not destined for destruction, at least not the wanton destruction of war, the rampant murderous rage, but the power of simple irresistibility, that of the bolt of lightning striking from the skies, the tidal wave sweeping away seaside villages, a force of nature–

and she let go,

and she could hear another mouth breathing beside her, close as only we can be,

she could feel a practiced hand assigning lines of direction spreading outward, meeting points of weakness head-on, hitting with a sparkle and a hiss all the more deafening as it was not to be heard by the physical ear–

she leaned into the motion and pushed,

faintly aware of her body being lowered to the ground, hands turning her head to the side, clear of the mud

and she would use everything she could; her body meeting the naked earth, clothes soaked through not with blood – not this time – just with water and dirt, blades of grass stuck to her face; and she was suddenly aware of every single strand, every pebble in the mud, the waters below and the skies above–

and the waters rushed in, the flood ripping the gate apart, ripping the bank apart, impossible to tell as if by human intervention, or as if this was the way it would have happened all by itself, the natural course of events,

and was this not the natural course of events? Aniyé marveled,

then again darkness closed over her; not the darkness of utter desperation, but the darkness of rest and peace.

 

The Meeting

Aniyé was sitting by the riverside, the waters no longer threatening the town. The townsfolk gave her a wide berth, but she didn’t mind; she knew what was coming. But whenever it was coming, it was not then. She stood eventually, her bones heavy.

She walked to a stall, fished in the pockets of her robe for a few copper coins; before she headed out into the inner city, she had been trying to test the ribbons to see if her hands could reach, only to realize with a startle that she wasn’t wearing them. She could go outside for a short while without wearing the ribbons; the restriction was inside her, slowly internalizing. Oresuy didn’t push her to go faster. This was a time of slow, methodical growth, not of exertion, sudden leaps and bursts.

She put the coins on the counter. The man handing out soggy, greasy wraps looked at her with suspicion in his eyes. He took so much time getting ready to say his words that Aniyé could’ve repeated them verbatim before they were out of his mouth. For a moment she was tempted.

I saw what you can do.

“I saw what you can do,” the man said.

Aniyé nodded grimly.

You should be out on the Western front.

“You should be out on the Western front.” He looked proud of himself for having been able to say it to her face.

How many times now? She lost track.

She shook her head. “If I had been out on the Western front, you’d all be dead now. Twice over.”

She couldn’t phrase it any more directly, couldn’t repeat it any more often. It still couldn’t turn the tide of opinions reinforced with bribes, strengthened by the immensity of the regime, stronger and stronger every day.

She turned away, not expecting the change, biting into the wrap with sudden ferocity. Pieces of chicken crunched between her teeth; the unappealing-looking wrap proved surprisingly tasty.

A mural of King Abrany glared at her from the building opposite, the paint still unblemished. She glared back and took another large chomp.

She’d wait it out. As long as it took. She’d repeat her words. As many times as necessary.

Did the King win this round? His people would never dare touch her, and the Guildsman’s – the King’s? – plan was foiled. They might wish to pressure her into volunteering, but she knew all about that kind of volunteering. They could not force her – it was an impossibility. No one could force her as long as she didn’t force herself. Magic glowed in her like the evening-star and she was learning – she was learning.

She could stand on her feet. She could withstand the pressure. She was no longer alone.

She walked back to the Eyrie with a spring in her steps, and the world itself wound tightly around her, comforting her. She knew that high up in one of the lacework towers, Oresuy would be waiting.

 ___

Copyright 2016 Bogi Takács

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender person currently living in the US. E writes both speculative fiction, poetry and related nonfiction, and eir work has been published in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Apex, Capricious and more. Eir flash story All Talk of Common Sense, also set in the Floodbanks continuity, appeared earlier this year in Polychrome Ink #3.

by Anya Ow

Kiat hovered anxiously around the workbench as the techman carefully put the cellphone back together, reassembling wiring and its microboard, its flat paper-thin glass surface separated into two folds. In the techman’s gray eyes, the magnification implants scrolled data directly into her field of vision, visible to Kiat only as faint white lines that etched restlessly over her irises.

“How old dis?” the techman asked out aloud, and Kiat flinched, startling her into looking up from her work.

“Sorry,” Kiat muttered. “I’m not used to… I live alone now,” he added awkwardly. “Pensioner.”

The techman’s workroom felt cramped even to a man long-used to the scarcity of space, and it smelled unpleasantly of overheated metal and plastics. There was a vent somewhere that spat recycled air in a wavering effort behind Kiat’s head, cold over his receding silver hair, and the every surface of the workroom was fitted with shelves of tools, boxes of parts and locked cabinets. The guts of some sort of miniature engine sat sadly on a corner workbench, wiring extruding from its chassis like red and yellow stamens, the petals of its propeller blades and landing shockpads strewn around it, discarded. The floor was greasy, and stuck to his shoes.

Over the disembowelled cellphone, the techman smiled understandingly. She was still young, the first seams of age only just starting to etch themselves noticeably in the corners of her eyes, but it gave her an open, honest face, round and pleasant, her brown hair tied back over her head in a no-nonsense bun, her gray wrinkle-proof clothes ballooning out over her shoulders and fitting down tight at her wrists and ankles, peppered at the shoulders with brightly coloured adscape. “Not used to realaudio, eh? I can proxy.”

“No. No it’s all right,” Kiat murmured, now embarrassed, glad that the right side of his vision stayed field-empty: the techman wasn’t pushing the issue. “Ah. I’ve had this model since it was first sold. My daughter gave it to me. To keep me company. After leaving home…” Kiat trailed off awkwardly, abruptly self-conscious. “To keep me company,” Kiat repeated, forging back to familiar ground, and wished he hadn’t over-spoken to a stranger. In his mind, Kiat could see Anna rolling her eyes and smirking. You’re always playing funny buggers, Dad, Anna would’ve drawled, all tenderness and contempt, spilling your life story to strangers.

The techman whistled. “Fifteen years? Diu me so happen.” At the blank look on Kiat’s face, she laughed, and translated, “I said that’s so old. Crono visa out p’more, mon.”

Kiat nodded gravely. That line he understood. His grandnephews tried it on him every Lunar New Year, and some years language changed the colour of its spots more quickly than others. You have to go out more, man. “Can you fix it?”

“NFW,” the techman shook her head. “Thissa so old, it history. Museum history. Too old,” she elaborated, when Kiat only picked nervously at his own wrinkleproof gray sleeves. His vision implants registered the adscape on the techman’s sleeves, which made a stab at the cause of his distress and translated it with retargeted ambient buy-in, peppering her arms with anti-ageing serum campaigns to Kiat’s eyescape. ‘Don’t wait for the next tomorrow!’ scrolled a line in frantic red block copy down the techman’s right arm, disappearing into her wrist.

Kiat blinked it away. “I need you to fix it.”

“I said NFW, mon. No way I could. The guts’a phone stop-made five years back, jacks. Why you need phone neh? I seen you got vis-tech, same’a alla us proles. You wanna call someone, just ping ya?”

Down the techman’s left arm, ambient buy ran an animation of a little human repeatedly running into blue cloud graphics to upgrade his eye implants, leaping full bionic into the back of the techman’s palm. Not for the first time, Kiat wondered what the techman saw on Kiat’s adscape. The same bionic tech ad? A woman instead of a man? The etched white lines in her irises flickered and turned briefly circular. She was re-scanning the phone, probably recalibrating it with a reassembly manual that only she could see.

“I’m used to it,” Kiat said quietly, as the techman put the phone back together again and pushed it over the smooth plasteel of the workbench. “What’s wrong with it anyway? Which bit? Maybe… maybe I could get a part. Last couple of times it was just the battery.”

“You replaced battery twofers?” the techman inquired, a little condescendingly, a little pityingly, as she industriously began to put her tools away, powering down the overhead strobes and setting away her sleek, pen-like ‘drivers. “Whew! Must’a cost p’highcred neh.”

It had. “I’m willing to pay,” Kiat pointed out stiffly. “It won’t be a problem-”

“Whoah oldsmon. Not saying you no’.” The techman held up her hands, fists up, in a gesture that lit up her adscape with #FreeStateSolidarity campaigns in seamless orange waves, photographs of people protesting, their adscaped arms covered over with black paint. “I can’t help you. But I’ll ping you a name. Man called the Collector. Maybe could help. Museum fixer, p’good.”

Kiat gathered the broken phone into its box, folding it into his suitpouch. Dulled still, but back in one piece, it just looked like a palm-sized rectangle of glass. “Please yes. Thank you.”

The techman exhaled, hollowing out her cheeks, blinking, and after heartbeat, the address appeared in Kiat’s proxy feed, along with a modest invoice for her service fee. Kiat paid, doling out creds carefully from his pension, and the techman smiled at him, sunny again. “Luck you, mon. Such luck, okay? Luck.”

“Is there something I should know?” Kiat asked, his sense of caution long honed by his daughter’s many homilies on the essential untrustworthiness of strangers.

“Well-a,” the techman hesitated. “I no send you there less I know he do you fine, ya.”

“Yes, but…?”

“Maybe you no find him,” the techman admitted reluctantly. “Been years since we pinged. And. He no like the BigMan. Hides, sometimes. So. Luck you, mon, okay? Hope you get it fixed.”

“He’s in trouble with the law?”

This unquestionably old-fashioned phrasing made the techman giggle: she belatedly covered her mouth with a toolglove, its stabilisers hissing in faint pneumatic whistles as her fingers curled lightly an inch away from her mouth. “Naw mon. Not really no. Maybe.”

“Ah.” Alarm bells, Dad, Anna would’ve wagged a finger. Ring-ring. Woop-woop. “Thanks again for your help.”

divider

Kiat had known that something was wrong when Anna came home for dinner. With liveable land still so scarce on Earth, like most people in their thirties, Anna couldn’t afford to live away from home, and the small, two-room apartment had always been an exercise in careful storage. When Carrie had still been around, it had been worse: the cracks between them amplified by the lack of space between. After Carrie had left, divorce papers and all, Kiat had naively thought that things would be better, but the Carrie-shaped hole in their private universe remained at large, instead, for years forcing every conversation, every conflict, into its gravitational maw.

“For you, Dad,” Anna had a box with her, made of stiff neopaper card, smooth to the touch. She pushed it across the table as they sat down to mealcard gruel and supplements: her megacorp’s cantina served better, or so she often said. Sometimes, in unkinder hours, Kiat wondered if it was just Anna’s given excuse for coming home late enough just to sleep and wake up again for work, to become such incidental strangers. “Our latest product.”

“Um, thanks.” Kiat opened the slim box. Within it was a thin glass panel, the size of his palm. “What’s this?”

“It’s a phone,” Anna said proudly. “My first project as a principal designer.”

“Wow! It’s so thin.” Kiat lifted it to his eyes, and through the glass panel, Anna smiled at him, flushed with maternal pleasure. “So light.”

“It’s the future, Dad. Just the first step. Soon we’ll make it smaller, and smaller, until some day, it’ll be so small and thin, we can fit it like contact lenses right onto your eyes. Or even smaller. Inject nanotech directly into everyone’s irises. First step to a far more waste-free world.”

Kiat lowered the glass phone, forever made wary by Anna’s enthusiasm, particularly when he didn’t understand it in the least, but he made the appropriate noises. “That’s amazing, dear.”

Anna rolled her eyes, not in the least fooled. “It wouldn’t hurt you to try and live in the modern world now and then, Dad. Press your thumb to the glass.”

Dinner forgotten, Kiat obeyed. The glass shard lit up, blinking yellow for a moment before fading. Tiny little red and white koi darted out over its surface, and Kiat laughed with startled pleasure as they circled around his thumb before turning themselves into familiar icons. A little outline of a man talking, for calls. A speech bubble for pings. An ear with a lightning symbol, for the news. A globe, for the browser. The rest were a little unfamiliar. “Yeah,” Anna had been watching Kiat closely. “Knew you’d like the fish. Check out the other apps. Everything that you might’ve liked, I’ve already installed.”

“It’s great,” Kiat said, more honestly this time. “There’s going to be a promotion for you in this for certain.”

This had normally been a safe topic between them, a cue for Anna to launch into a tirade about the nuances of office politics, about who had been stabbing who in the back or scamming performance reviews, but instead, she smiled uneasily. “Dad. I’ve got to talk to you about something. I did get a promotion. But it’s offworld.”

“Luna?” Kiat frowned slightly. Luna wasn’t so bad. Only a short hop out-

“Mars,” Anna said, and her smile grew earnest. “I’ve been invited to be the Communications Director on Mars. The Mars Alpha colony’s getting well underway. I’ll be with the second wave settlers.”

“Mars!”

“It’ll be a nine-month trip,” Anna pressed on, inexorably. “But it’s been done a few times now. Practically near-commercial.”

“It’s still one way,” Kiat said numbly. Space facilities on Mars were still under construction, weren’t they? They’d been ‘still under construction’ for nearly a decade, now. There was no way to get back offworld in a shuttle from Mars. “Why does Mars need you?”

It had been the wrong thing to say. Anna flared. “I can’t believe you’re saying that. I told you it was a promotion. I’m going to be a Director for an entire planet. You and Mum… I’m always either not good enough for something, or it’s not good enough for me! I thought you would both be happy for me!”

“You spoke to your mother?” Kiat was astonished. The last he had spoken to Carrie had been at the divorce filing.

“Yes, Dad. I’ve spoken to her now and then over the last two years. She’s fine, by the way,” Anna bared her teeth. “Living over in SinoState. New life, new family. You’ll be glad to know that you both agree on me, as usual.”

“I didn’t say that you shouldn’t go,” Kiat murmured, stung. “I’m just concerned for you as your father.”

“I’m going, Dad,” Anna retorted, defiant.

“When?”

“Tomorrow night.”

Kiat was aghast. “So soon? Anna, have you really thought this through?”

“Can’t you be happy for me?”

The question hung heavy in the air, unanswered. A nine-month space trip! And so soon! Commercial travel to Mars — with a return ticket — was still years away. Practically more than that, to become even remotely affordable for a civil techie like Kiat. He sat frozen in his chair, struck dumb by the inevitable. Anna packed in the night, bitterly and loudly. Their final parting had been coldly silent, and without an invitation to the spaceport, Kiat had watched his daughter leave Earth through vidfeed that evening, one face of many, turned away defiantly from the newscam. The successful launch seemed marred by the reporter’s cheerfully plastic jubilation. Earth celebrated. Kiat was still too bewildered to mourn.

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The autopod dropped Kiat off neatly at the Museum Fixer’s address, and sped back into traffic, the other pods making way for it seamlessly. With all transport now automatic and public, autopods and buspods looked like evenly coloured fish, looping neatly between blocks of apartments and their trimmer, silver cousins, corpblocks. The autopod had left him in what looked like a public-access storage warehouse sector, all immense, windowless blocks covered wall to wall by adscapes. The closest wall displayed a huge animated ad about a man trapped in his apt by his possessions, only to be saved by some yellow robot that eventually transformed into the Ez-Stor logo, which followed him across the wall as he started to walk, looking for a door.

After ten minutes’ futile back and forth looking for a doorway, a bot message pinged his proxy feed. ‘Hello this is Stanley from Ez-Stor, how can we help?’ 

Like many people of his age, Kiat had never really taken to thought-to-proxy communication. His first attempt at a response read ‘HelloStanLEY I am LOOKING for TheCollectorYellowRobot’, and he had to painstakingly use hand gestures to correct his post.

There was a pause, then a brisk response. ‘There is no one here of that name, Mr Lee. May I help you with something else?’ 

No thankYstanLEE’ Kiat winced, and not for the first time wondered how his grandnephews managed thought-to-proxy so seamlessly. It couldn’t be practice. Kiat had his first eye implants installed a month or so before his grandnephews had even been born. Sometimes, it felt like Kiat was two generations behind the latest evolutionary leap.

Would you like to check the status of your box? The fee for inspection is free! Here at Ez-Stor, we love to help customers store themselves.’

I nobox donthaveBOX’ Kiat replied, and this time accidentally posted before responding. ‘NO-account,’ he added for good measure.

Our records show that you are an Existing Customer, registered today, as of 12:03pm. You are Valued Customer Mr Kiat Ming Lee of 4034#88 Honglim Rise TemState-2–2–810392.’ Stanley disagreed brightly. Stanley, Kiat decided with resignation, was probably a bot. It was getting harder and harder to tell nowadays. A door opened in the wall to his left, a smooth corridor that led into the storage block, lights blinking on. ‘Would you like to inspect your box? No storage fees will be charged for the first 10kg!’

Hell. Why not. Kiat shrugged, and stepped into the corridor. It was cool, at least, away from the humid warmth of the street, and his footsteps echoed around him as he followed it down. He would find someone — some human, hopefully — and gently but firmly lodge a complaint about auto-signing people up to storage accounts that they didn’t want or need. Adscapes followed him on the floor and walls as he walked, with details of storage fees on his left, and more Yellow Robot ads on his right. This time, Yellow Robot was saving a man who had somehow climbed to the top of Millennium Tower, apparently out of despair for owning too many possessions. ‘Thank you Ez-Stor for Storing my life!’ bleated the man in throbbing text at the end of the ad, face distorted in chemical ecstasy. Kiat let out a deep sigh.

Thankfully, before Ez-Stor tried more ambient advertising, Kiat found himself at the end of the corridor. The empty wall flickered and disappeared — more holo tech — and Kiat stepped through and into long, rectangular chamber, set wall to wall with racks and pressure chambers packed with toy figurines, with pre-implant entertainment consoles, with dusty old vidscreens, lamps, speakers, even, in pride of place, a crimson electric guitar, within a case of its own, to Kiat’s right. As he stared, disoriented, the door behind him flickered and seemed solid again.

The Collector is IN,’ declared his proxy feed.

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With Mars at the closest approach, the message delay was three minutes. Kiat spent it playing a nervous sort of mental chess. He would send a response, replay Anna’s last message, and anticipate what she would say, mentally composing his next response. It felt, in a way, like writing a book, and was surprisingly exhausting.

“Hi Dad,” Anna had begun the first message. “Happy Birthday.” Her smile had frozen on the screen as the clip had ended. It had been a year and two months.

“Things are settling down here.” Was it Kiat, or did Anna’s smile seem strained? She was wearing a pale blue CommKon suit, no adscapes, only the logo printed bright over her chest, her black hair cut into a tight bob over her slender neck. She had her mother’s delicate, narrow features, though her usually quick smile seemed wilted. “I’m very happy here.”

“Happy New Year to you too. We celebrated Lunar New Year on the Guanyin, on our way here. We even had yu sheng. Not as good as at home of course. It was super messy in zero grav. The fauxfish and noodles and crackers went everywhere. Guess that means we’re all lucky right?” Anna was sitting in a white coffin of a room, vaguely bulbous, alien to Kiat’s Earthbound eyes, with cabling and panels exposed. “Nobody got any hongbao though. None of us are married.”

“Good to hear that Auntie Meimei and the others are doing well. The First Colonists here threw a big party for us. The other Directors have been very welcoming.” Again that strained look, or was it a father’s selfishness, hoping that she would come home? Somehow? “Everyone is settling down fine. How’s your new phone?”

“Glad that you finally learned how to use it. It’s not that hard, yeah? We tested it on a lot of older focus groups. Did you like the apps? Yes. Companion is our most popular app.” Anna laughed. “Let me guess, you chose Jia, right?”

“I knew it. Jia’s my favourite, too. It’s slightly smarter than the real thing, you know. The UN might have put a moratorium on creating AI, but subhuman AIs passed their loophole. Shortsighted of them, but they’ll come round.” Anna waved her hand back and forth, a strange gesture. A year after this message, Kiat would finally learn what it meant. It was a cosmonaut gesture, part of the sign language they learned during the nine-month trip to Mars, a shrug. Kiat did not know it yet, but soon, he would go through every second of this, by replaying the message every morning of his life for a year, unable to let go of their last conversation together.

“Good to hear you’ll be getting a pension after all. Use it to travel while you still can, ok? Maybe to Luna, the base there’s doing great. Give my love to Auntie Meimei, Cousin Jinn and Lacey. Tell Uncle Tommy that I’ll try and send him a Mars rock on the next SpaceX courier.” Anna was reaching across towards the screen to switch off the recording. Her smile widened, her eyes crinkling with good humour. “Bye now, Dad. Love you. Talk again soon.”

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Kiat hadn’t known what to expect, but given that the techman had said that the Collector was a he, an old lady certainly hadn’t been in any of his imagined scenarios. She was as tall as Kiat, waifishly thin, shaved bald, her full mouth pulled into a polite smile, large dark eyes narrowed in curiosity, her dark skin creased at her eyes and throat and spotted down her arms with pale old scars. She was dressed in a heavy fauxleather apron that was liberally stained with grease and paint, and wore a shirt and trousers and boots beneath it. Kiat hadn’t seen anyone outside of adwear save public servants like cops for years.

“Sorry,” said the old lady, in twanging English. “Had to switch off your adwear when you got in here. Messes with my electronics.”

“Sure. Sorry,” Kiat echoed automatically.

“It’s a private bypass, so don’t worry, your rec will still be spotless. Won’t mess with your pension.” The Collector strode over, and shook Kiat’s hand with a palm sandpaper-rough with calluses. “Nice to meet you, Mister Lee. I’m Neema. Welcome to my workshop.”

They were in a cubical chamber beyond the storage room, and like the techman’s, it had two workbenches, one cleared, with toolboxes lined up at one end, worklamps clamped to the edges and curled over, like nodding cranes. The other, along the wall, held ongoing projects, mostly disassembled toys. The sad remains of a train sat derailed beside the holopoints that would have worked to set it floating magnetically, flying over light-painted rails. Kiat had once bought his nephew a set.

“Getting popular again,” Neema said briskly, following his gaze. “But fucking hard to fix once the electromagnet goes on the whack.”

“I gave my nephew a set ten years ago.”

“Ah, really? He still got’em? No? Pity. Been trying to source replacement parts for months. Good thing the owner ain’t in a hurry. Probably gotta build them myself.” Neema spoke in sharp bursts, as though she was stuck in fast-forward. At least she wasn’t speaking in the street slang that the younger generation liked so much. “So whatcha got, hm? Grace referred you from her watch. Said you had a doozy.”

Kiat gave up trying to parse Neema’s words, and set the box carefully on the workbench instead. She whistled as she opened it, picking up the glass shard with delicate care. “Hoo-boy. Haven’t seen one of these for dog’s years. Where’d you get that?”

“My daughter gave it to me.”

Neema eyed him thoughtfully, and Kiat braced for pleasantries, for the impersonal, indifferent ah, that’s nice. “Anna Shimin Lee?”

Despite himself, Kiat flinched. “I, uh. Yes.”

Neema raised the shard to her eyes, turning it over in her hands, carefully, and Kiat realized, belatedly, that her irises were clear. She had no implants. A quick look around the workshop told him quickly how Neema had pinged him — a lower shelf held an old-fashioned input console, and a keyboard, its screen full of black columns of white text. “Yeah. Had to build that myself. No one’s got the parts now.” Neema patted the side of the keyboard. “This phone of yours is a firstgen CommKon Portal.”

“Yes. Can you fix it?”

“What’s the problem?”

“It won’t switch on.”

Neema opened the toolbox. Like the techman, she quickly took the phone apart, though slowly, and with a craftsman’s delicacy. She plugged parts of it with tiny filaments into her console, studying the readings before grunting to herself and looking away. She tested parts with little electronic pen-like implements. She cursed to herself as she swept around her workshop, locating a plastic container of tiny transparent chips, placing one in the phone before reassembling it. Kiat took a step closer as she turned it on, and the screen brightened to yellow… then faded.

Kiat let out a sigh. Neema pursed her lips. “It’s not the battery.”

“Can you fix it?”

“Might be I don’t have to. If you want to retrieve the data, I could probably access the cloud backup. If it was linked to the ‘net when it died, it’s probably imaged somewhere. That’s how they got away with no memchips.”

Kiat shook his head. That was what the techman had said as well. “I want it fixed, please.”

“This thing’s, what, fifteen years old?” Neema raised her eyebrows. “Broken down before?”

“Yes. Usually it’s the battery. Once the display module. Once it was the wifi chip.”

“Shit, son. That’s dedication. But y’know, if you just wanted something to remember your girl by, hell, the implants in your eyes, they’re a result of her preliminary work anyway. So’s adscapes. Moment you wake up till you sleep, your Anna’s work is everywhere. Can’t miss it.”

“Yes,” Kiat said tiredly, mustering his patience. “Can you fix the phone, please?”

“Maybe. You’re going to have to leave it with me for a while while I run some more tests. But if it’s the motherboard that’s gone, that’s you shit outta luck, son. Unless I can find another firstgen Portal with working bits to scavenge. But given how old this thing is,” Neema whistled. “Tall order.”

“Ah.” Kiat deflated. “Please try your best. Do you need a deposit?”

“Nah. I like a challenge.” Seeing the pain in the unhappy curl of his mouth, Neema gentled her tone. “Really though, I could just get the data for you. It’ll be easy. Cheaper, too. You’re a pensioner, you can’t be rolling in creds. Do you need a quote? Want to think about it?”

“No, no. It’ll be fine. How can I contact you?”

“Bit of a stubborn goat, aren’t you?” Neema smiled. “I’ll give you a proxy code. But don’t try to reach me unless it’s an emergency. And unless I invite you to, don’t come to this address again.” As Kiat wavered, she added, “Or you could try another techman. I got a list.”

“No,” Kiat let out a sigh. The keyboard and the handmade console had already convinced him. Neema was his last hope of seeing Jia again. “I’ll wait. Thank you.”

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At his feet, projected through the glass phone, Jia rested its head in Kiat’s lap, and wagged its tail as Kiat ‘petted’ its head. Under his fingertips, there was a faint staticky pressure before the signals told his mind that he was feeling flesh and soft fur. No warmth, though. Companion hadn’t managed that much yet. Jia had been modeled on a honey-coloured Shiba Inu, its perky ears flicking forward and back, its white-furred mouth parted in a happy, doggish grin. But for the faint flickers that occasionally marred its outline, it looked real, a constant conjuring trick right out of the phone in Kiat’s hand. According to Companion’s manual, it had the same intelligence as a ‘real’ Shiba Inu: CommKon had scanned and digitised the brain of an actual dog.

“That’s so cool,” said a little boy beside Kiat, eyes wide, and let out a yelp of protest as his mother dragged him away, tugging him into a seat at the front row. Kiat said nothing. People were filing into the sterile white conference room in the spaceport, shuffling in, all of them wearing the same, shell-shocked eyes. Some quietly sobbed, clinging to family, but the room was mostly quiet, even as it started to grow full. Beside Kiat, his sister Meimei tightened her grip reassuringly on his wrist. She was willowy like their mother had been, her black hair still rich and thick despite her greater age. Dressed neatly in a black jacket and long trousers, folded several times at the hem in the current fashion, she had aged with elegance and grace where Kiat had not. Kiat looked disheveled next to her. He had received the news while still in his nightshirt, and hadn’t bothered to change as he had rushed to the spaceport.

As though sensing his mood, Jia nuzzled Kiat’s wrist until he petted it again distractedly. His mind was static, a hollow brittle loop that kept touching back on the morning’s news headlines and then flinching away again, touching and flinching away. BREAKING STORY— ACCIDENT ON MARS ALPHA — CONTAINMENT BREACH — DEVELOPING STORY — His mind flinched away again. In the gray numbness of animal reaction there was still the scant comfort of denial.

“Don’t worry,” Meimei said, in her fierce soft voice. “Everything will be all right.” He had heard this before, when their mother had died in a car accident. When their father had passed away, years later, from cardiac arrest. When Carrie had left. When Anna had left. There was, by now, a funereal touch to Meimei’s optimism, in Kiat’s opinion.

“We’re the oldest in the room,” Kiat said, his mind grasping for gentler details.

Meimei swivelled her head around on her slender neck. “Nope, there’s an old grandmother in a hovchair over there in the corner. See? See? Maybe we shouldn’t stare. How are they going to fit everyone in here? Such nonsense. And why is it taking so long? I tell you, after this, we should complain.”

Gratefully, Kiat subsided against Meimei’s determined chatter, letting her voice wash over him. Yes. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe no one had been hurt. Or maybe people had been hurt but no one died. After all, they were growing carrots on Mars now, and bokchoy and cabbages and flowers and things. If they could make Mars green, surely they had the tech to make sure no one died. Or if someone died, maybe it wasn’t Anna. There were two hundred or so first and second wave colonists on Mars in total. That meant the odds that it was Anna was 1:200. There were good odds that it wasn’t Anna.

Kiat clung to that statistic even as CommKon finally decided on an appropriate sacrificial goat, coughing out a sweating young man Kiat did not recognise, trailed by spaceport officials and someone in a Mars Alpha jacket. He was barely listening as the CommKon executive more or less parroted the news reports. Yes, it was a Developing Story. Yes, they were trying to contact the Mars Alpha base. Yes, at this stage, it’s quite likely there were survivors. Even if there was a breach in one part of the hab, failsafes would kick in at the rest. No, the situation was Still Developing. Meimei sniffed. “Useless,” she muttered under her breath.

“Mars is almost at its furthest,” Kiat whispered back. “It’s a twenty minute wait between information getting back here.”

“So? It’s been one hour since the news broke.”

Kiat said nothing. They didn’t need to. Several of the other people in the room were already shouting questions at that CommKon exec, their voices joining into an uneven background roar of grief and anger and disbelief. Security and medical waded in, soothing whom they could. The CommKon exec had taken a step back, pale, visibly spooked at being the lightning rod for so much pain.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with you all,” said the man in the Mars Alpha black and red coat. His voice radiated assurance and calm. The room started to subside, and he began to discuss in painstaking detail a minute-by-minute byplay of their last hour of reports leading up to the breach. Everyone else calmed down. He took questions, quiet and confident. In control. That’s what people liked, herding gratefully around a shepherd. Even Meimei was relaxing, reaching over to pat Jia behind its ears.

“So real,” she murmured. “That girl, such a genius. I always said to Tommy, if our Jinn ended up with even half of Anna’s smarts, we’ll be blessed.”

Kiat grimaced. “I hope you didn’t tell Jinn that.”

“Of course we did. Nothing like some healthy competition.”

Apples clearly didn’t fall far from the tree. Kiat thought briefly back to his own nervous, competitive childhood, pitted against his sister like two coltish throughbreds at race with no goalposts in sight, and felt vaguely glad that they had spent only the first two decades of their lives as enemies. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s going out with some girl.” Meimei rolled her eyes. “Seriously. He’s been changing his girlfriend every year. Tommy and I tell him, he has to settle down sooner or later. After all, he hit the economic threshold to be eligible for children two months ago. It’s about time.”

“Maybe he’s not ready yet.” Kiat felt lulled by banalities, comfortable again. On stage, the Mars Alpha person was making a joke about space carrots. A nervous chuckle rippled through the front ranks. People who had been strangers but minutes ago were talking to each other at the back benches in low, reassuring whispers. It was probably just an accident. Yes, Our Mindy was a Second Waver. Always wanted to go to Mars.

“That’s what he says. But what can he do? There’s no one else in Tommy’s line to carry on the family name. Has to be Jinn. It’s not like us, where we’ve still got our Cousin Billy. His son is getting married soon, did you know? Once they settle on a date, they’ll be posting out invites. I told Billy, I know the younger generation now don’t believe in auspicious dates, but…” Meimei trailed off, always with her instinct for trouble, snapping her stare back to the stage. The Mars Alpha executive had leaned back from the podium, listening to whispers from another Mars Alpha rep, who had darted out from backstage, holding something up in her palm for the executive to see. As they watched, the executive abruptly went so pale that it looked for a moment as though he was going to faint.

The hum of the crowd collapsed in a death rattle of ebbing whispers. The Mars Alpha executive pulled himself back towards the podium amp, grim. “It is with the greatest regret that I stand before you here today to give all of you the following news. Judging from our full status reports from the Mars Alpha project, I have just been informed that the entire hab was vented-”

Meimei’s grip tightened painfully on his wrist, even as Jia let out a low whine. Kiat was blank again, pinging back to disbelief. The rest of the executive’s words washed away around him, his measured nature, his cultivated corporate grief. The crowd clamoured for more details. For answers. How had that happened? An accident? A mistake?

“For the hab to fully vent,” the Mars Alpha executive said carefully, “to our knowledge, the safety codes would have had to have been manually overridden, and tripped from the two security posts at the same time.” Someone shouted a question. “We have no further information at this time, and ask for your patience as we wait for updates on this developing situation.”

“Sabotage,” Meimei whispered.

“We don’t know that,” Kiat murmured back, but it was too late. Meimei hadn’t been the only one to connect the evidence. Now, families drew back into themselves, creating miniature cores of doubtful suspicion, looking keenly at each other. The child, sister, brother, father, mother of someone in here had chosen to kill everyone else’s. He or she had killed themselves as well. Lunacy. Someone in here was related to a murderer. At least two. The first mass murder in space. A crime for the history books. Kiat tore his glance away, and stared down at Jia, which wagged its tail, grinning up at him adoringly, as the silence around Kiat was abruptly broken by someone’s voice, breaking into an animal wail of agonised grief.

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Some mornings Kiat took his coffee upstairs to the roof, where the apartment garden was kept green and trim by a controlled hydroponics system and the owners corp’s drones. It was a modest garden, nothing like the lushly cloned tropical ferns and orchids of the upscale blocks: square patches of grass were boxed in by narrow blocks of bougainvillea shrubs, spotty with pink flowers. On most mornings he would have the garden to himself, given most of his apartment block had family units that would be busy preparing children for school or heading for work. Sometimes there was a taichi class, for the few retirees still holding on to their apts.

Today, as he was sipping from his mug, a familiar face climbed out of the rooftop entrance, grumbling under his breath. Parth grinned as he noticed Kiat on the garden bench, striding over vigorously. Parth seemed to do everything vigorously: to the stout, bald, retired policeman, life was clearly something to be approached at a belligerent charge. “Kiat! Morning, man!”

“Morning, Inspector. Coffee?”

“Got my own. None of your bloody milk and sugar shit.” Parth threw himself onto the bench, still grinning under his thick silver moustache, unscrewing the cap from the silver thermos that he took out from under his suit. “How’s life? Where’s your dog?”

“The phone broke down, I’m getting it fixed.”

“Again? Man. I told you this before. But you got some funny ideas. When you buy a pet, Kiat, I heard this from somewhere — when you buy a pet, you’re buying a miniature tragedy-in-waiting. It’s been what, ten years? More?”

“Fifteen.”

Shee-yut, man. Real dogs are lucky if they last that long. Don’t pull a long face. Science nowadays, it’s so good, they’re bringing animals back. Give it a year or so, you can get a real dog for a few hundred creds.” Over the arm closest to Kiat, the adscape triumphantly ran a CronoLab ad, duplicating a grinning black puppy all the way down Parth’s sleeve in a kaleidoscopic pattern, finishing with ‘How much is that doggie in the Crono? Call us today! Conditions apply.’

“I know, Parth, thanks. I’ll think about it.”

“Pssh. So what’s wrong this time? The battery again?”

“The techman’s not sure. She’s running tests.”

“Ever tried getting one off the ‘Net? People might have replacements out there.”

“It’s not the same,” Kiat said mildly. “The hardware’s one of a kind.”

“A prototype? I see, I see. Good luck with that. You’ve been watching the news? No? Mars, man. They’re launching the Mars Three colonists this week.” Parth smiled with a gentle reproach that Kiat had never failed to find unsettling all this time, whether it was playfully chiding Kiat for not keeping in touch with the world, or — at the start — as one part of a ten man emergency investigation team, interviewing the Mars Alpha families while preparing for a long haul over to Mars and back, sponsored by SpaceX and the UN.

“Good luck to them.”

Mars Three! Kiat felt a moment of vertigo, so abruptly reminded of the gulf of time. Had ten years truly already passed since the first set of Mars Two colonists had left Earth? Fifteen years, since Mars Alpha? He clenched his hands tightly, breathing deeply.

Parth didn’t seem to notice. “Did they give you a spectator ticket? I got one. Front row seats. Courtesy of CommKon.”

“Probably.” Kiat didn’t bother reading many of his CommKon pings. They were fewer and far between nowadays. “Are you going?”

“Nah. I gave the ticket to my nephew. I’ve been through the whole business firsthand, went there and back, that’s more than enough for me.” Parth poured himself another cup from his thermos. “I talked to a few of the others. The Kidmans and the Gowdas are going.”

“And how are they?” Kiat asked dutifully. He had not spoken to any of the Mars Alpha families for more than a decade, now. With the so-called ‘Crime of the Century’ still unsolved, suspicion ran deeper than shared grief. Small wonder that the only link between them remained a doggedly good-natured, retired policeman, for whom the case had been the shining failure of an otherwise exemplary career.

“Not bad, not bad.” Parth began talking about the new Kidman baby. Colic, apparently, was making an aggressive comeback. Nothing to be worried about, though. Everything was under control. Listening to Parth’s gentle, grave voice, Kiat remembered with wry clarity that Meimei had never liked the Inspector.

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“She didn’t seem stressed or troubled about anything to you?” The Inspector’s warm, friendly voice stood starkly apart from the chill of the interview room, a sterile white cube with curved silver seats and a tempered glass table. The door had been left open as a sign of reassurance — for obvious reasons, none of the Mars Alpha families were suspects — but Kiat didn’t feel reassured, for all that the young police Inspector before him had been solicitous about coffee and comforts.

“No sir.”

“No need to be so formal here, we’re all friends,” Parth smiled. Kiat had heard of Parth Shanmugan before. He had been the leader of an international police coalition that had stopped a water trafficking ring, just years ago, preventing State tensions from escalating. The scoop had dominated the news cycle for a week.

“Okay,” Kiat said, uncomfortable. He had been brought up to be Helpful to the Police, but even sitting here like this, looking into Parth’s friendly smile… “We, uh. I haven’t been a very good father to her,” he confessed, his voice hushed. “We fought about things. When she was growing up. After her mother left. It was… it was my fault, you know? I think she blamed me for the breakup, and then I never really tried hard enough to relate to her, and then we argued again when she wanted to leave for Mars, and…” Kiat trailed off, foundering. Parth’s smile didn’t even waver. “It wasn’t her,” Kiat said forcefully, belatedly remembering why he was even here. “How could it be her? It must have been someone else. She was very proud to be there. It was a promotion. She said she was happy.” But was she? Doubt had uncurled in the corner of his mind, poisoning even his last memory of his daughter. “She’s never hurt anything in her life.”

“No one’s a prime suspect at this time,” Parth said soothingly.

“But they’re all suspects.”

“Ah, well,” Parth noted wryly, “unless you’re of the school of thought that thinks murderous aliens exist on Mars.”

“I don’t know anything about aliens,” Kiat began, before realizing that Parth had been joking. He blushed. “The last we talked, she mentioned celebrating the Lunar New Year aboard the Guanyin. You know, the ship they took to get there.” He trailed off again, doubly embarrassed. Of course Parth knew. The whole world knew. Kiat wished that he hadn’t had to hand over his phone. Jia would have kept him calm.

“Ah yes. The yu sheng was messy, she said.”

Kiat swallowed a spark of unexpected temper. Of course Parth knew about the yu sheng. He probably knew about all of it. Every video recording sent back from Mars must’ve been combed over a hundred times by now, searching out nuances, hints, each of them little pieces of a puzzlebox whose key still eluded Parth and his team. Everyone’s memories, taken away, now tainted around the edges. “Yes.”

“Do you know the Gowda family?”

“No, I don’t know anyone by that name.”

“Their daughter Anoushka was also aboard the Guanyin. She was one of the second wave colonists.”

“Ah. No. I don’t know any of the other Mars Alpha families.”

“Do you know Anoushka?”

“No.”

“Strange,” Parth’s smile remained gentle. “They know you. Anoushka and Anna were seeing each other, they said. They had been for months. They applied together for a housing permit, to try and get an apt close to Anoushka’s workplace, but they were denied twice. After that, they decided to be colonists.”

“No, I… don’t… she’s never… really?”

“Yes, according to the development board. Anoushka Gowda and Anna Shimin Lee applied twice and were rejected on income grounds. Their total familial income level was too high for assisted housing.”

“I… I see. I never knew.” Why hadn’t Anna ever said a thing? It wasn’t as though Kiat would’ve minded. As long as she was happy, he wouldn’t have minded. “You probably think I’m a bad parent.”

“No, no. My girl didn’t want to tell me when she had her first boyfriend either. Thought I would send a constable to stalk them on their dates.” Parth laughed heartily, so invitingly that Kiat smiled as well, hesitantly.

“And did you?”

“Who has that kind of time? I might have run a background check and tapped her phone though. Kidding, kidding.” Parth grinned impishly. “Kids, eh? She told me so many tall stories.”

“Anna said that she got a promotion,” Kiat blurted out, swayed by Parth’s amicable smile. “To communications director. On Mars. She said that was why she was going.”

“Which was true,” Parth assured him. “She received the promotion after she tried to resign. Since the hab was partly CommKon’s design, the company thought it would be good to bolster up their local presence. Or so I’ve been told.”

“So I don’t know Anna as much as I should have,” Kiat said quietly, trying to put a blank face on all the fresh little hurts that Parth was digging into him, so very patiently. “But lying to her father… so what? Like you said, kids tell their parents tall stories. It’s normal.”

“Mister Lee,” Parth blinked at him, as though in mild surprise, “I’m not implying anything. However, as one of the Directors, your Anna would have had access to the override codes. It’s true that we don’t have a prime suspect. However, we’re all looking more closely at the Directors, for obvious reasons. So if you remember anything that you feel is even remotely relevant… feel free to contact me at any time.” The friendly father was gone, in his place, the dogged inspector. “The sergeant will show you out.”

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Neema left him a message. It was definitely the motherboard, but she’d gotten her hands on a second gen model, was Kiat OK with her trying to retrofit it? He sent her an affirmative, chewed his protein supplemental breakfast very slowly, and in the end, unable to put the world off any longer, he dressed with care and went to the spaceport.

He was early. CommKon had allocated a viewing room for its launch guests, and was already supplying everyone with fingerfoods and drinks. Kiat ignored everyone, staking out a comfortable corner with a couch that overlooked the huge glass wall of a window. The launchpad itself was miles away, visible only as a white, sleek object hemmed in from the sides by scaffolding. This wasn’t the ship that would take the Mars Three colonists on their nine-month trip — the Shiva had been built in orbit. The SpaceX Phoenix shuttle would rendezvous with it where it was docked at the Luna shipyards.

CommKon staff in their uniforms mingled with guests, friendly, mostly young, elegant. Professional glad-handlers. One of them had left Kiat with reconstituted orange juice and chocolates before bustling off to greet another family. Many of the guests were Mars Two families, Kiat guessed, from their relaxed smiles and familiarity with the viewing room. The Mars Three families were crowded near the back, nervous, but excited. Children darted around the adults, playing with tiny complimentary models of the Phoenix shuttle and the Shiva. Adscapes had been temporary bought off: the only logos that showed on everyone’s arms were CommKon’s, and Kiat’s proxy feed had long been briskly swallowed by corporate pings.

The Kidmans arrived noisily, the whole set of them, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and occupied an entire section of the seating area, drawing CommKon staff armed with toys and refreshments towards their orbit. Being a Mars Alpha family, they had been given prime seating in reserve despite being late, in front of all the Mars Two and Three families.  Kiat shrunk himself against the couch, and pretended to sip his orange juice, setting the chocolates aside on a glass table.

“May I?”

He glanced up,  and then hastily got to his feet. Dr. Dia Gowda smiled at him, as elegant as ever, her ears adorned with large golden loops, her silver hair bound back in a large braided coil against her skull.

“Dia, it’s so good to see you. Are the others coming?”

“No, no.” They sat carefully, navigating joints gone creaky with age. “Rishi’s babysitting today.”

“How have you bean?”

Dia set her palm out, and wagged it up and down, like a wave. Some cosmonaut habits never faded. “All right. I’m down to teaching one class a week at the launchschool now. Think they’re trying to ease me out to pasture.”

“Nonsense. You’ve got years left in you.”

“So I’ve told them.” Dia smiled as she looked out from the glass windows, with the consuming affection and longing of a grounded spacer. Years ago, she had touched the stars and more, as one of the first people to visit the rings of Saturn and return. The first woman to travel over 400 million km away from Earth. Beside her, Kiat had always felt vaguely insignificant.

They sat in companionable silence until the last of the guests arrived, at which point CommKon made a concerted effort to herd everyone to the buffet tables. Launch was scheduled in half an hour, the earnest young execs said, and everyone would have to be seated by then. Kiat and Dia resisted, staying where they were, and a young lady left them a plate of little pastries.

Shiva’s returning to Earth afterwards, isn’t she?” Kiat selected one of the little tarts.

“Oh yes. They’ll be bringing one of the Mars Two colonists back to Earth for treatment. They haven’t quite fixed all strains of early onset dementia, and they don’t have the facilities on Mars.”

“You must be more up to date on Shiva than anyone here.”

“I’ve been on deck, actually,” Dia said modestly. “Two years ago, when she was still under construction. She was mostly finished by then. The doctors say that’s the last time I can safely handle hypergravity. Age catches up with all of us.”

“It does.”

“Where’s your little dog? I think this is the first time I’ve seen you without it.”

“Being repaired. There’s something wrong with the motherboard.”

“Ah,” Dia smiled and nodded. “Well, if it’s not fixable, they’ve made real inroads with cloning tech. My grandsons are in the queue for the first batch of public-ready puppies. If you’re interested, I know the director.”

“No thanks,” Kiat said quickly, then amended hastily, in case he seemed ungrateful. “Look at us. We’re both old. How am I going to keep up with a puppy? Better that someone young can take it on all the walks it needs.”

The launch came and went. People cheered and drank; Kiat and Dia rose to their feet, clapping along, and then sat down again. Miles away, the white plume that the shuttle had left behind was fading away, while the shuttle itself was darting up, up, away. The guests were giddy with jubilation, toasting each other, still cheering. Kiat looked at Dia, whose eyes stayed locked on the slim white speck until it had sped on out of sight.

“Fifteen years ago,” Dia said softly, barely audible above the crowd. “I always meant to apologise. You didn’t get an invitation to the launch because Anoushka didn’t want you to be there. She didn’t want you to find out about them. Somehow, she was convinced that you would not approve… Anna thought that you wouldn’t. She used to tell us, you never approved of anything that she ever did.” Dia sighed. “Children never understand their parents until they become parents.”

Kiat shook his head slowly. The scabs over that wound had run so deep that he no longer even felt the scars. “I would have approved of anyone who could have made Anna happy.”

“I know. Rishi and I, we should have reached out to you ourselves. Carrie, too.”

“They would have gone anyway. To Mars.”

“It’s a sad thing,” Dia folded her hands in her lap, “when a child thinks that she has to run as far as Mars to get away from her mother’s shadow.”

Kiat stared at Dia, startled. He wasn’t used to melancholy from her. Always, through the interviews, the hearings, the panels, the press, Dia had seemed to radiate an inexorable, graceful serenity. “Don’t blame yourself. Anoushka, Anna… they were old enough to make their own decisions. They wanted to go.”

“We all blame ourselves. Mourning is the emotion that we feel when we have been left behind.” Dia glanced pointedly across the chamber to the Kidmans. The grandchildren were playing with model shuttles in between eating pastries, their parents busy trying to corral them close by. Roger and Carly, however, sat pale and silent, oblivious to everything but their renewed grief. Overlaid over Dia and the Kidmans, the proxy feed in Kiat’s eyes flicked up congratulatory messages. Phoenix was on schedule. Ready to rendezvous with Shiva. Another small fragment of humanity, prised off the Earth, to be flung nine months away through the void, out of reach.

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Kiat had been surprised to see Parth at his door. The usually sunny, smiling Inspector was sober, and he nodded absently as Kiat invited him into the apt. “We’re practically neighbours,” Parth said, as Kiat closed the door. “My wife and I live in the South block.”

“Can I help you, Inspector?”

“Inspector, pah.” Parth sank wearily into the nearest armchair, even as Jia ran a loop around him, barking excitedly. “I won’t be an Inspector for very long more, just you watch. Maybe one, two more years. I don’t mind. I was going to retire soon anyway.”

“Uhm. Coffee? Tea? Water?”

“No, no. I won’t be here long.” Parth rubbed a hand over his face. “You weren’t at the closing statement.”

“Not everyone was.” He’d watched it on the vidfeed at home, though, numb. So many resources spent, nearly two years of investigations, a round trip to Mars and back, only to end with a no conclusions. Dia and Rishi had already called him from outside the courthouse anyway, just in case, distraught, complaining that it’d all felt like a gut punch. Kiat had said little to them. He had mourned his daughter years ago. No. He had been mourning her for years; the moment Carrie had left, he had already been losing Anna in degrees. With that knowledge, Kiat had long made his peace.

“I apologised to the families.”

“Yes. I know. I watched it.”

“The thing is,” Parth sank deeper into the armchair, staring at the ceiling. “If the crime had taken place on Earth, we would’ve known who did it. Even without the surveillance. I would’ve learned everything I could from witnesses, checked imaged communications records… we would have reconstructed everything from the ground up. On Earth, solving crime is all about understanding human nature.”

Kiat nodded solemnly, growing a little confused. “Inspector, the committee may not have been able to find any conclusive evidence of what had happened, but thanks for trying.”

“Bloody waste of time and money that was. Mars is hellish, you know that? Even after we fixed up the habs, made it livable, spent months in there, trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. I didn’t think it would be that hard, even after all that intensive training they put me through.” Parth admitted. “Even just living there, day to day, was hard, let alone trying to solve a crime that was a year old by then. But two hundred suspects, right? I thought maybe we’d just find the culprits in the security rooms, their thumbs on a shiny red button. ‘Course, that wasn’t the case. Reality’s always messier. No one died instantly from exposure. Especially those deeper in the hab.”

“Yes.” Kiat had seen the pictures.

“It was murder. Premediated. The envirosuits were all breached. The security footage had been wiped.”

“Someone knew what they were doing and had the means to do it.”

“Not all the personal logs had been wiped. There were some on a backup server. I’d predicted as much. Friction between the first and second wave Mars Alpha colonists. Little cliques setting up everywhere. The fractures were setting in, that’s what the team psychologist said. Everyone was under stress somewhere. So it could’ve been anyone. Someone snapped.”

“Human nature,” Kiat echoed. Jia rested its muzzle on his knee, and wagged its tail as Kiat patted its head. “So… that’s it? A mystery for the ages?”

Parth had an odd, wry smile on his lips as he got to his feet. “A mystery for the ages,” he agreed briskly. He hesitated, as though he had something to add, but then he seemed to think better of it. “See you around, Mister Lee. I’m very sorry about everything. Thanks for the chat.”

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“There, all done.” Neema handed the phone over. Kiat took it eagerly from her, and switched it on. There was the yellow flash, and then he let out a sigh of relief, as the little koi fish swirled around his thumb.

“Neema, you’re a genius.”

“Yes, I’ve been told.” She grinned at him, an arc of white teeth, pleased by the praise.

“The techman gave me the impression that this was going to be some sort of exercise in black market illegality.”

“Hah! The real world isn’t like the movies. Grace just wishes a techman’s life was more exciting, that’s all. I’ll ping you my invoice,” Neema shot him a sidelong stare. “Hope you don’t mind though, I took a quick look through the stored databanks. Wasn’t prying, just looking for bad code.”

“That’s all right.” Kiat had nothing to hide. Buoyed by relief, he added, “You could ask, if you liked. Everyone does.”

“Ask about what?”

“About what happened. ‘Who killed Mars Alpha?’ Everyone’s asked. ‘Does that phone have something to do with it? What did CommKon’s Anna Lee know?’ Think there was going to be a movie at some point.” Thankfully, CommKon had nixed it in the works. For years, its PR arm had gone into overdrive, what with Anna-designed products packing their rollout schedule.

“Ah.” Neema watched him keenly, for a long, uncomfortable moment, then she smiled, and pushed up her goggles. “I don’t care about all that. Look at what I do for a living, Mister Lee. I fix things from ten, twenty years ago. Source parts, make them tick again. And I’m not cheap. Some people will pay a quarter of their life’s savings to make a little toy train levitate through the air again. Is it because they really, really love that dinky little train? Naw. Not usually. They love what it meant to them. A substitute for something else that they had before. Whatever it is… whatever works, you know? Life’s short.”

“Yes,” Kiat said softly. “Thank you.”

“But speaking as a pro, that phone of yours is going to break down again sooner or later. What I pulled with the retrofit, it’s a once off. Better find a cheaper kind of closure.” Neema waved him away. “Bye-bye. Careful with that antique of yours. Don’t use it so much.”

Kiat let himself out. The adscape reactivated as he walked down the corridors, and switched to CommKon ads as he took his phone out, flicking through the apps. Closure? Closure was nine months and a lifetime away. Closure had been packing away the last of Anna’s things for storage; had been Kiat being ground through the legal process, along with all the other families. Closure had been receiving the box of her effects from the committee, after the hearings were deemed closed. Closure had been slowly, painfully accepting the inevitability of a child leaving the nest, and watching its flight cut brutally short. At his feet, Jia flickered to life, padding beside him, wagging its tail, frozen the same way for fifteen years, oblivious to human nature. Now, as before, Kiat could only look upon it with a gentle sort of weary envy and affection.

“Come on, boy. Let’s go for a walk.”

___

Copyright 2016 Anya Ow

Anya grew up in Singapore and moved to Melbourne to study law. After a few years of legal practice in Australia, she went back to school to study graphic design, and is now a designer in an ad agency in Melbourne, working in branding, illustration, copywriting and digital projects. Off hours, Anya freelances and writes for fun. She can be found on twitter at @anyasy.  

By Ephiny Gale

One August evening, in a mix of grief and hope, Lara Jane Hudson accidentally opens the portal to Hell.

It takes her two and half days to fully realise this has happened: that there is a slightly shimmery, raised-edge circle on the floor of her basement storage room, with a suspicious crust on top like the surface of an apple crumble. It stinks of air freshener, but at least she feels a little less like she’s losing her mind.

FUN FACT: Lara Jane Hudson accidentally opened the portal to Hell via her own bad dancing. She was a professional dancer once upon a time, until her right ankle was crushed under a falling set piece when she was 22 and she opened a children’s dance studio instead. Occasionally, when everyone had gone home, she lingered in the middle of Studio A’s $76,000 floor and danced the best she could.

Aside from the vanilla-and-fresh-laundry portal in amongst her costume racks and spare gym mat, there is an additional consequence of blurring the lines between the realms. That first night, when Lara Jane climbs the stairs to her apartment above the Lara Jane Dance Studio and slips under the bed-covers, she finds a mermaid in her bed.

The mermaid does not receive a warm reception. There is ample screaming, and cursing, and Lara Jane has a loud voice honed by yelling regularly at children. The air smells strongly of oysters. Lara Jane crouches up against her padded headboard, and the mermaid curls lethargically on the crimson sheets like a bleeding fish.

When the mermaid won’t exit of its own accord, Lara Jane pushes it forcibly off the bed with her wooden cane. Its long hair slides off the mattress like kelp.

It reappears back on the mattress like magic.

More screaming. Lara Jane tries pushing it out of bed again and again. Finally, she drops her human feet to the carpet, and then the mermaid truly vanishes. She feels spent, and like she might cry, which she normally only does once a year when someone dies or she feels especially humiliated.

Lara Jane slumps back onto her sweaty pillow. Instantly, the mermaid is back beside her… And the real troubleshooting begins.

FUN FACT: Over that first week, Lara Jane Hudson tested several methods to banish the creatures from her bed. She tried sleeping on the floor, sleeping upright, sleeping with no bedding, sleeping in hotels, sleeping in a single bed–none of these worked, and the last seemed particularly cramped and frightening. Whenever she exhibited the intention to sleep, something strange and otherworldly would appear nearby.

Eventually, she creates an enormous bed of gym mats in Studio A and lets her eyes slip shut.

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The mermaid comes every Monday.

On the second Monday, Lara Jane Hudson can share a large bed of gym mats with the mermaid without screaming, cursing or sweating profusely. There have been six other creatures to visit her, and frankly the mermaid now seems safe and wholesome by comparison.

Lara Jane has not been sleeping well. Lara Jane has been taking involuntary micro-sleeps in her children’s dance classes and on the toilet, and waking seconds later with her chin smooshed against the toilet paper. Lara Jane has been considering taking a mental health day, and Lara Jane never takes mental health days. Lara Jane is royally pissed off.

She glares at the mermaid, and the mermaid stares straight back at her with its blue-black eyes. She says, “Hello, my name is Lara Jane, and you are in my dance studio,” and the mermaid says, “Hello,” and this feels like the most progress since she opened that damned portal to Hell in the first place.

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The faun comes every Tuesday.

At least, Lara Jane suspects that he’s a faun. There are a couple of antlers growing out of his head, but a blanket’s always covered his lower half, thank God, because a lot of the creatures seem to turn up naked. Point is, she doesn’t know for sure what’s going on past his waist, and she doesn’t really care for confirmation, either.

It’s the second Tuesday. Now that she’s no longer trying to threaten him out of bed with a butter knife, he’s nestled crossed-legged in a wad of blankets and harassing her for cigarettes.

Lara Jane laughs sharply under the dimmed fluorescent lights. “Does it look like I carry cigarettes?”

The faun grips his antlers in frustration, pulling them apart like he’s about to break over-sized wishbones. “Come on, come on,” he drawls. “Don’t send me back there with nothing. Have a bit of compassion.”

Compassion is not usually well-stocked in Lara Jane’s inventory. The nearest poster declares WINNING IS THE ONLY OPTION with a picture of a tutu-clad child leaping for her life over a ravine.

“Where’s ‘there’?” she asks. “Where do you go when you’re not here?”

“Ah.” The faun taps the side of his nose with a slightly-furred finger. “Cigarettes, my darling, cigarettes. Then you’ll find out.”

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The golem comes every Wednesday.

Lara Jane has the beginnings of a migraine. Her entire elite squad must have shot up with pixie sticks or red cordial or something before class, because this evening’s lesson was shockingly unfocused. Regardless, she’s in no mood to lug half a dozen gym mats and blankets into position in Studio A, and she thinks she knows who (or what) to expect beside her tonight, so she consents to the luxury of her proper, four-wooden-legs queen-sized bed.

When Lara Jane collapses under the doona, Wednesday’s visitor is slumped forward like a dying battery. Lara Jane thought it was a robot the first week, because every inch of it seemed made of silver metal. But the only seam in its casing is a small square panel in its lower back, and robots don’t move like this thing does–fluidly, the way real human flesh and muscle would move, despite the silver.

It turns its solemn face on Lara Jane, and two tiny candles seem to burn inside its eye sockets.

“Go to sleep,” croaks Lara Jane, and so they do.

FUN FACT: Shortly after opening the portal to Hell, Lara Jane Hudson performed several hours of internet research on magical gateways, ‘mythical’ creatures and the afterlife. She found it comforting to learn the approximate terms for many of her night-time visitors, even if their anatomy and behaviour did not match identically with her readings. Lara Jane also attempted a few do-it-yourself exorcisms and disenchantments involving salt, chalk, holy water, a small amount of blood and some more questionable dancing. These only made her bedroom and basement storage room messier. The portal remained.

Upon her alarm, Lara Jane rolls out of bed immediately, a habit she’s developed to minimize the amount of waking hours she has to spend with her bedmates. There is a scrap of paper on the bed, torn from the notebook she keeps on the bedside table.

On one side, written in big block letters: PLEASE LET ME STAY.

Lara Jane turns it over. OR HELP ME TO DIE.

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The gumby comes every Thursday.

Lara Jane calls it a gumby because of that kids’ show that was on twenty years ago, with the green plasticine man who could stretch himself into an infinite number of shapes, and, she suspects, could split himself into pieces with no harm done.

The gumby that comes to visit is not green. S/he lies naked on Lara Jane’s gym mats and pulls off two breasts, one penis and a ponytail’s worth of strawberry-blonde hair, stacking them in a pile beside her/him. Each piece peels away neatly with a slight sucking/sealing sound, like closing up a zip-lock bag. There is only flawless skin underneath: no wounds, no scars.

“I hope you don’t mind,” says the gumby. S/he smiles warmly at Lara Jane. “I find it easier to sleep this way.”

It is unnerving to have so much blatant nudity in her ‘bed,’ even if the gumby is sprawled a few gym mats away and is currently approaching the non-existent sexuality of a Kewpie doll. Lara Jane is used to thinking of herself as something similar.

FUN FACT: Lara Jane Hudson was always adamant that she would share the appearance of the portal and its accompanying ’emissaries’ with no-one. She had been single since her twenties, an only child with a deceased father and a mother in care for dementia. Her closest relationships were with the children she taught, and her reputation meant absolutely everything. Not even the portal to Hell could make her put it at risk.

The gumby’s androgynous voice reaches her from across the room: “If you could make sure I’ve reattached everything before you leave the bed in the morning, I’d appreciate it. I wouldn’t want to risk losing a part.”

“Sure,” says Lara Jane, considering the gravity of the situation. “I promise.”

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The tentacles come every Friday.

They are, of course, attached to a man. His torso twists like a screw-top and out fold the tentacles, all six of them.

It’s the second Friday evening, and Lara Jane is still horrified by last week’s visit. Friday is not a bedroom night, or even a gym mats night–Lara Jane plans to sit in the Dance Centre’s kitchenette and plot the choreography, set, and costume for next fortnight’s competition entry in extreme detail until she falls asleep, unintentionally, drooling on the notepaper. Mugs and mugs of hot chocolate. Phone alarm in her bra set to wake her for Saturday’s competition.

She hopes to avoid the tentacles almost completely.

And the new dance for her elite team is stunning; monsters emerging from the shadows of a child’s bedroom. Six children covered with fur, horns, scales, glitter. One child on an artificially shortened bed–a nine-year-old, Lara Jane’s best little actress. The monsters want to devour her. The girl outwits them, out-monsters them; they make her their queen. Then something goes terribly wrong, and they tear the child to pieces anyway.

Glorious.

Lara Jane knows it’s a winning number.

She sees only the slightest blur of tentacles before she passes out.

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The starmist comes every Saturday.

In a neighbouring state the hotel bed is sterile and fluffy, and Lara Jane is deeply pleased that one of her girls won first place with a solo today, and less pleased that both their group dance and the duet she choreographed only took second in their categories. The group number was something clean, feminine and glossy, and loosely based on the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In hindsight, rehearsing that dance had kept Lara Jane from driving a screwdriver into her neck the first week.

The starmist floats sedately beside her, a few inches off the bed-covers, and for once Lara Jane barely minds the company.

“Why do you think you’re here?” she asks.

Her visitor resembles an almost-transparent teenager who swallowed the night sky.

“So you can help me,” breathes the starmist.

And Lara Jane was afraid of that.

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FUN FACT: This is where the starmist was, when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson:

A pine forest. Hunters, in hazmat suits and flamethrowers. It was night, and she was almost invisible. She’d watched her mother, father and brothers immolate into trickles of ash and plumes of smoke, and she should’ve been soaring away, far above the treetops where no flames could reach her. But her sister was down there.

A frantic search, weaving through fiery trees and umpteen hunters, and she found her sister inside a glass cage on a folding card-table. Her sister’s small dark hands were pressed against the front panel. There was a Tupperware container in the dirt nearby, half-filled with water, and with a silver key at the bottom. The key to the cage.

They knew that starmists could barely interact with physical matter, if at all.

Still, she reached inside the container and tried to grasp the key, again and again. She swore the water trembled in response to her hand. She could almost feel the metal against her fingers, she was concentrating so hard. And the forest fires crept closer and closer; she was shimmering in the heat like the air above a campfire. She was starting to burn.

Finally, ecstatically, her fingers closed properly around the key. And then she heard the hunters behind her, and the whir-hiss of the flamethrower, and then there was the total immersion in fire when she caught alight.

This was where the starmist went, always, again and again.

Lara Jane does not feel qualified to help.

Lara Jane does not feel qualified to do anything but teach dancing.

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Una comes every Sunday.

Lara Jane doesn’t know what to call this one, except for her name, and Una doesn’t have any other answers. Just curls on the bed like there are weights in her wrists and rocks in her torso.

It’s the second Sunday, and Lara Jane is back home and early to bed, because she’s not the kind of woman to shy away from a challenge.

Thankfully, she’s also had enough forethought to bring supplies. Lara Jane wraps Una’s shoulders in a knitted blanket, since Una’s arms are too heavy and sore to lift into a t-shirt. They sit silently on the bed and eat red liquorice and watch a DVD of the studio’s annual concert.

When the last child finishes their dancing, Lara Jane closes her laptop and attempts to start gently. “You look just like me,” she says, “but all of my visitors are a little different. Can you tell me–or show me–what makes you different? Maybe then I can try to help you.”

This earns her a short bout of acidic laughter. Very slowly, Una turns her naked back on Lara Jane, and drags aside her long brown hair.

A thick bronze zip runs down her spine.

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FUN FACT: In preparation for Week Three, Lara Jane Hudson performed several hours of online shopping in her official trademarked Lara Jane Dance Studio fuzzy slippers. Purchases included: 1 blow-up swimming pool, child-size; 2 packets of low-end cigarettes, 12/pack; 2 fresh notebooks with waterproof-ink pens; 1 metal tub, 1.5 feet long; 1 anti-rape device (essentially a female condom with teeth); 6 silver prop keys; 3 bags of red liquorice.

The mermaid barely says a word, but still coils up inside the plastic swimming pool like a sleepy river snake. Lara Jane has propped the pool in the middle of the bed and stripped most of the bedclothes to minimise any impact from the four inches of water. It hasn’t sloshed over so far. And as Lara Jane watches over her notebook, the mermaid’s green-blonde hair grows longer and longer until the mermaid can completely wrap itself in the hair like a cocoon, until only its nose and mouth are visible between thick spirals of hair.

Over the next week, Lara Jane has regular, amusing visions of grabbing the end of the mermaid’s hair and tugging so it unfurls like a yo-yo string. Eventually, this morphs into a kinder, more inspiring idea wherein Lara Jane installs three dozen metal loops across the walls of her bedroom, and when the fourth Monday rolls around she explains her plan to the mermaid with gestures and sketches.

So Lara Jane balances on the mattress and threads the mermaid’s hair through the metal loops, and the mermaid grows it almost as fast as Lara Jane can thread it. When they finish, the room is criss-crossed with an intricate web of thick, rope-strong hair, and Lara Jane ties it off so nothing will pull on the mermaid’s scalp.

Lara Jane steps up into the web with her good foot, grabs a higher green-blonde rope and lowers herself so she’s sitting in a cradle of hair. She grins at the mermaid, whose scaly tail is still dipped inside the children’s swimming pool. “Come and play.”

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FUN FACT: The mermaid’s name was Scalion, back when the world was wet and did her bidding, and she was one of the finest jewellers in her city. The city bloomed deep, deep in a lake in the middle of a flowering desert. But this is not where the mermaid went when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson.

In Scalion’s 29th year, the water level started dropping rapidly. Unnaturally rapidly. There began a mass exodus from the city, slow at first and then exponentially faster. Scalion was much too content to admit that anything was wrong. She grew her hair to her knees and braided pearls and sapphires and emeralds to every second strand. Her knuckles were covered in diamonds and jewels like a queen. And then there were only two hundred mermaids left in the city.

One day, Scalion woke to bone-dry, sun-warmed sand beneath her back. No more water in sight. The lone survivor in a deep, dead pit with the skeletal remains of her ghost city. Her gradually cooking body, and the dizzying stench of rotting fish.

This is where the mermaid was, when she wasn’t with Lara Jane. Barely breathing and choking on sunlight.

Later that day, Scalion grew her hair into a rope and threw it over the sign for her jewellery shop. Wrapped it around her neck, pearls and sapphires and emeralds digging into her windpipe. And hanged herself amongst the bones of her happiness.

Lara Jane watches the mermaid pull herself through the ropes of hair, sinking down through the gaps and slithering in slow, vertical circles like a needle through calico. She watches the joy of it creep up on the mermaid’s face. The movements become quicker and wilder, half-eel and half-gymnastics, until Scalion runs out of hair slack and she’s forced to pause and grow more.

“It’s like swimming,” says the mermaid, smiling and panting.

Lara Jane experimentally pokes her own head through a gap in the ropes. The hair is taut and flexible, smooth and slippery. Lara Jane hasn’t felt this excited about exercising since she was 22 and performing front-aerials on Broadway. She climbs and slides and hangs from her knees and twists herself around. And laughs. Her weak ankle, which she can always walk on carefully but never flex, barely makes a difference here. It’s not at all like dancing on a stage, but it’s almost like dancing.

Lara Jane perches at the top of the web while the mermaid plays. She’s there for almost half an hour while Scalion revels in the almost-swimming, and then she notices the mermaid stop in the centre of the ropes. A few tears drip into the blow-up pool. And everything vanishes–the mermaid, the metres and metres of hair, the ropes that Lara Jane is sitting on.

Lara Jane falls six feet and crashes awkwardly onto the bed, bouncing three times and splashing the water from the pool high into the air. It soaks her carpet and dresser and most of her desk chair, but presently Lara Jane is too shocked to mind. She feels like her whole body’s been slapped. But she picks herself up and takes in the bedroom: that she’s lying on the bed alone, perfectly alone.

Lara Jane fills the pool again the following Monday, but Scalion no longer appears on schedule. She never sees the mermaid again.

FUN FACT: Around this time, Lara Jane Hudson choreographed a new solo piece called Head Below Water, where the imaginary water level dropped steadily throughout the two-minute dance, and it won first place by a landslide

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The kids are loving the monster dance. They are being raised to be proper young ladies, and their chances to snarl and climb over each other and jump on beds are few and far between. The prop bed is already finished–a half-sized single made of lightweight wood, so that six girls can lift the bed between them, even with a seventh on top of it. A delicious game. Lara Jane has decided to put her child character in a white outfit with a big zip down the front; a homage to Where the Wild Things Are.

On the evening of the third Tuesday, the prop bed is stored in the corner and the gym mats are Lara Jane’s bed for the night. The faun sticks a cigarette into his mouth and wiggles it with just his stubbled lips. Lara Jane has forgotten to buy a lighter. She wanders into the kitchenette to find some matches, and when she returns to Studio A the faun has vanished. She climbs back onto the gym mats and he reappears, reeling from some kind of cosmic whiplash.

The faun has Lara Jane light the cigarette for him, and then lies back and smokes with his antlers digging into the mats. Normally Lara Jane would forcibly remove anyone who lit up in her Dance Centre; everything would stop until the smoker had been ejected. But tonight this seems like a tolerable price for closing the portal: just a tiny speck of fire and brimstone.

“Are you going to tell me your story now?” she asks.

“Give me a break,” he says. “I’ve just come back from war.”

“Literal war?”

He grins at her around the cigarette filter. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Lara Jane grits her teeth. “You don’t actually get to take those back with you?”

One lazy eye focuses on her. “No. I can pretend, though.”

He props himself up on his elbows and surveys the studio: the floor-length mirrors, the barre, the motivational posters (Lara Jane admits that these are usually brightly-coloured threats). “You should dance for me,” he says.

Lara Jane manages to blanch and cackle simultaneously. “I don’t do that any more.” When the faun pushes, she explains about her ankle and that the centre’s insurance only covers her children.

He laughs. “Insurance? I don’t care about your insurance. Dance for me and I’ll tell you.”

“No! Are you kidding me? You can’t keep moving the flags.”

The faun pulls back his blanket and stubs the cigarette out on one shiny black hoof. Lara Jane sees that his antlers and hooves are the only parts that make him unusual and makes a small disgruntled noise at seeing more of him than she’d like.

The faun notices, and scoots over on the mats to snatch the matches. He lights a second cigarette. “Dance with me, and I’ll tell you.”

“No,” says Lara Jane, and twists her back towards him. “You know I could just get up at any time. Five hundred times a night if I wanted to. So fuck off and go to sleep.”

Violently, she fluffs the baby-pink pillow beneath her head. The orange poster above her says DANCE OR DIE in a large font and (figuratively) in a smaller font. To Lara Jane’s relief, the faun keeps silent for the rest of his visit.

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The fourth Tuesday, Lara Jane arranges the gym mats so that they outline a three-metre-square section of the studio floor. She drapes the blankets so that small sections of wool and faux-fur fall into the square. When the faun arrives, she dresses him in some old shorts and a beige sweater and feels immediately more comfortable and in control.

“This is the bed for today,” she says. “Come put your hooves here.” Lara Jane points to the square of hard floor next to where he’s kneeling.

It takes a few lazy drags of his cigarette, but then each hoof makes a sharp little click on the dance floor and makes Lara Jane’s lips twitch upwards. “Good,” she says. “Very good. Stand up and we’ll see if you warp back to the mats.”

He doesn’t warp anywhere. And now Lara Jane’s fully in her comfort zone, staring at a lukewarm tap dancing student with her manicured hand on a portable CD player.

“If you want me to dance with you,” she says, “you’ve got to learn how to dance first.”

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FUN FACT: This is where the faun was, when he wasn’t with Lara Jane:

Concrete and spitting rain. He removed the plastic seals from the filters of the gas mask and fitted the mask to his head. Checked the attachments on his belt. The front doors were locked with chains the size of his biceps; his team were around the factory’s side. Even stubble could interfere with the function of the gas mask, so he felt unusually clean-shaven.

Ironically, they entered through the air conditioning system.

Inside was a maze of rooms, doors and corridors. A mess of lights and steel and broken plastic tape, the non-stick type with warnings printed on one side. Chairs were scattered like bowling pins. The faun and his team were quickly separated; blink and they were replaced by machinery or shadows or enemy units. Not war–at least not public war. The faun’s 28th mission.

It took his knife, laser gun, carabineer and screwdriver to make it to the top floor. It was almost silent when he got there, and the main corridor was brightly lit and flooding with his teammates’ blood. It was shallower down his end: just a thin coating that was beginning to dry and congeal.

He started down the hall with his laser gun in one hand and his knife in the other, picking his way over the bodies of his fallen friends. He’d survived an impressive catalogue of attacks and dangers in his short life, but in that particular instance his hooves slipped, unprovoked, in the blood. The knife flew from his grasp. His masked head smashed to the floor. The blade arced down to bury itself in his chest, and he died almost instantly.

When the faun learns to tap dance from Lara Jane, he doesn’t slip. Not once. Not ever.

She does dance with him, eventually. It’s not traditional. He coaxes her onto his shoulders and Lara Jane wraps her candy-pink nails around the top of his antlers. Tap is one of her worst styles, these days; the only way she can tap is sitting down, one-footed. Or she can ride his shoulders like some kind of fleshy air hopper, and cling onto his bony antlers until the world comes to a stop.

He’s not terrible-terrible, for a beginner, and the hooves are fun. But she can’t say she enjoys being an attachment while he dances. Too much like horse riding, and Lara Jane never felt enough in control while horse riding. Just the once upon his shoulders is enough.

The faun tells her his story, and he keeps dancing, and one day his hooves leave the ground in a jump and they never come back.

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FUN FACT: The day after discovering the portal to Hell, Lara Jane Hudson hired a locksmith. She alone had possession of the resultant keys to the basement storage room, and she informed her staff that no-one else was to have access to that room for an indefinite period of time. She was working on a secret project, she claimed–which was not technically a lie.

By the third Wednesday, Lara Jane needs to decide what her false ‘secret project’ will be. Something she can display hints of in the office, or show the teachers the finished project (assuming the storage room is ever secular again) when it’s ‘done.’ It needs to be big enough to warrant several weeks’ work, and small enough to fit amongst the clothes racks. And yes, Lara Jane could be brainstorming in bed rather than in the kitchenette in her Minnie Mouse pyjamas, but she’s honestly not keen to try and drag out life stories from unwilling creatures for the fourth night running.

In lieu of any better ideas, she decides on hampers. For her half a dozen teachers and the parents of her elite squad. She can pretend she put them together by hand, agonising over each personalised item, when she actually ordered them in bulk at the last minute and then threw in some studio merchandise and redid the ribbons. Lying makes her angry, but what can you do?

When she does end up in bed, she passes the golem a fresh notebook and pen and rolls over to sleep.

On the first page of the notebook, Lara Jane has written: Write down where you go when you’re not here. I’ll try and help. Sorry I can’t stay up and chat tonight. L.J.H xx PS: Sorry you’re dead.

She receives a several-page reply.

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FUN FACT: The golem was ‘born’ into a gated community who believed the world was ending. She woke under the street in a room full of mechanical animals, some wound and some immobile, mostly birds. A mechanical fish swam in the light fitting. A middle-aged man stood in front of her and explained she existed only to take care of his daughter.

The daughter was seven. In the event of the end of the world, the golem was to take her into their state-of-the-art panic room and care for her for the rest of her life.

Her father’s other mechanical creatures had limited intelligence. Humans were subject to the end of the world and could be burnt and starved and suffocated. Much safer to use magic and write LIFE on a slip of paper and insert it into the golem’s lower back panel. Much safer to use something alive-but-not-alive.

But this was where the golem went when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson:

Two months after the golem woke, a mob of teenagers jumped her in the backyard and pushed her into the wet grass. They wrote SADNESS and ANGER and DESPAIR onto slips of paper; everything they wanted to take out of themselves and put into someone else. They dropped a dozen paper slips into the golem alongside the one which said LIFE and melted the panel closed with a welding torch.

That night the world really did start to end. The golem peeled herself off the grass and dragged herself inside through the bitterness and hopelessness and everything else that escaped from Pandora’s box. Up the stairs and grabbed the girl and into the padded panic room.

Ten years passed, and every second of them, the golem desperately wanted to die. Then the seventeen-year-old girl wrote DEATH on a scrap of paper, folded it three times and slipped it through a crack in the golem’s lower back panel.

It worked, more or less.

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Lara Jane is re-evaluating what it means to be in Hell.

The fourth Wednesday, she retrieves a pile of tools from the basement storage room and dumps them on the gym mats: foam ear plugs, two pairs of industrial-strength ear-muffs, a saw, one pair of oversized tweezers and some plastic safety glasses. Lara Jane’s props and sets are always designed by her and outsourced for construction, but they occasionally need last-minute adjustments.

Tonight’s adjustments consist of burrowing the saw blade into a tiny gap in the golem’s back panel. Lara Jane is very pleased that the studio’s closest neighbours are more than a hundred meters away, because the screech of saw teeth on metal could easily bring the police at 10 o’clock at night. But there are no interruptions.

Two hours, a bottle of lemonade and an improvised crowbar later, Lara Jane can pry up the top of the panel enough to squeeze in the extra-large tweezers, inspect the slips of paper and extract them. They stack up on the discarded saw, the ink not even faded, the paper still crisp white. Lara Jane is reminded of that cartoon surgery board game which buzzes if your tweezers slip. She carefully leaves the final slip inside–LIFE–and pulls out the crowbar.

The golem peels herself off the mats and flexes her fingers, swivels her joints and bounces experimentally on the balls of her feet. She smiles at Lara Jane. Then takes off running in circles around the edge of the mats: thwap, thwap, thwap across the plastic-covered foam, dimmed fluorescent lights bouncing across her silver frame.

After a dozen circles, the golem picks Lara Jane up by the waist, and Lara Jane cries out in shock and protest. She’s a tall woman, and borderline chubby these days: unaccustomed to being carried like she weighs nothing at all. Thankfully the golem slows down to walking pace.

“I appreciate that you’re excited,” says Lara Jane, “but can you put me down?”

“I’m so grateful,” says the golem. “Don’t you want to run or dance and celebrate?”

Lara Jane watches the studio walls speed past her. “I don’t really do that anymore.”

The golem thrusts Lara Jane above her head, and Lara Jane cries out again. “You can do this.”

“What? I can’t bend my ankle. The lines will be ugly. It’ll be all wrong!”

“So?” says the golem. “Who’ll know?”

And Lara Jane has to admit that she’s smiling a bit, and that some of the movements she might make in the early hours of that morning could be considered dancing. However questionable the technique.

When the golem tires herself out, she asks Lara Jane to pull out the last slip of paper.

The fires in her metal eye sockets snuff out. And then Lara Jane is lying next to an empty shell.

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Lara Jane is having nightmares: her girls discover the creatures when she faints in class, or lies down to demonstrate a piece of choreography, or when one of them barges into her hotel room. She has a gut-churning moment with a foamy toothbrush hanging out of her mouth: all those micro-sleeps. If a twelve-year-old saw a mermaid for a few seconds, mid-rehearsal, would they dismiss it as a trick of the light? Is that one of the reasons their mothers have been extra-fussy lately, complaining she’s working their kids too hard?

The monster costumes arrive that third Thursday, and they are a comfort, the difference between hiding a creature in an empty room and a Halloween party. The costumed girls look strange and glamorous and wild. They swipe each other with fake tails and butt each other with furry horns.

That night, the gumby places its daytime body parts in the box Lara Jane provides, and Lara Jane props herself up on a stack of lacy pillows. She asks, “Where do you go when you’re not here?” and is surprised when she receives a direct answer.

FUN FACT: This is where the gumby went, when s/he’s wasn’t with Lara Jane:

The entry gates of a labyrinth. A slow day. The gumby stood at the ticket booth, ‘SUPERVISOR’ embroidered in gold on a navy polo shirt.

A large man approached: fake, plastic Viking hat and very real axe, blade glinting in the summer sun. There was nothing ambiguous about him. The gumby abandoned the cash box and ran, into the protection of the stone-walled labyrinth.

No time to shut the gates. The gumby raced along the concrete paths towards the centre; s/he knew the twists and turns better than anyone. A labyrinth is not a maze–there is only a single path–but s/he just needed to gain twenty seconds on the axe-man.

Five minutes down the path: a small hole at the base of the left wall, so small that no human over three feet could fit inside. So the gumby ripped off a foot at the ankle, reached inside the hole and through a subsequent smaller gap in the stones, and tossed the foot inside.

S/he tore off pieces of leg and hips and torso faster than ever. The ‘storage’ compartment inside the hole filled with stacked flesh, and then the gumby half-pulled, half-rolled the remaining parts inside.

S/he just fit: most of a torso and two arms and neck and head. A piece of shrubbery obscured the hole to anyone on the pathway. Further down, there came the thump of heavy feet and the clang of an axe on stone corners.

With difficulty, s/he reached up and back into the storage area, feeling around discarded body parts for the phone zipped into a jeans pocket. The gumby pried it free. Fourteen percent battery left. Not fantastic, but enough.

Calling anyone would be too loud. S/he texted family, a handful of friends and a couple of colleagues. Put the phone on silent. Waited patiently.

And waited.

The sun fell, the phone died, the gumby hadn’t heard a whisper from the axe-man for the last couple of hours. S/he clawed out of the hole and started reassembling pieces of torso, hips, thighs. S/he was almost done when an evening shadow fell over the wall, and with the crack of metal-on-spine s/he felt the enormous axe-blade split her/his back in two.

Blood soaked into the navy polo shirt. The large man left the axe stuck half-into the gumby’s flesh, sighed deeply and stalked away.

Blood dripped onto the path. The gumby stretched for the last body parts so s/he could die whole.

When the gumby pulls the blanket from her/his legs, Lara Jane notices for the first time that s/he’s missing a right foot.

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On the fourth Thursday, Lara Jane’s lack of inspiration is an excuse to sleep in her proper bed. She scratches at flakes of lipstick and asks the gumby, “How do you think I can help you? Because I can’t take an axe from your back.”

The gumby shrinks against the bed frame. “I don’t expect you to help me.”

“Because I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to.”

A twitch of a smile. “It’s just nice to feel safe for a while.”

Lara Jane takes a big breath. “Yes, but there must be something else you want. Something I can give you.”

Eventually, the gumby admits that s/he would like to feel like someone cares, but that Lara Jane was the only option, and now she doesn’t qualify because she just wants her bedtime solitude back.

“But I do care about your future,” says Lara Jane. “I care about the future of everyone in my studio. I wouldn’t teach children if I didn’t care.”

Evidently this is not very convincing.

So Thursday nights become a kind of quiet, platonic seduction, with Lara Jane many years out of practice at being actively likable. The two of them play checkers and Monopoly, and during the lulls the gumby juggles with four torn-off fingers. Lara Jane shows off the costume designs for the reverse-Pandora’s-box group number she’s choreographing. The gumby teaches her yoga. They experiment with dancing, two workable feet between them, because Lara Jane is curious whether some traditionally-solo moves are possible if shared between two.

Approximately half of these work.

One night, they’re eating caramel popcorn and watching Project Runway, and the gumby says, “Don’t go to sleep. Please. Stay up with me.” And Lara Jane considers going into work late tomorrow, even though she’s never been late for anything less than stomach surgery.

So she stays up all night: all the way to midday, when the gumby blinks out of existence.

And the next Thursday she’s alone.

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The third Friday, Lara Jane awkwardly inserts the anti-rape condom in one of the toilet stalls. She knows it’s a snap judgment, but surely there’s nothing wrong with taking precautions.

She has to face the tentacles sometime.

Lara Jane builds a pillow fort on the gym mats before climbing in, and then peeks over the fluff of the topmost pillow at the strange man beyond. The fort stinks of her signature perfume. He sits halfway across the dance studio, tentacles twitching, peering back at her.

“If they scare you,” he says, “I can put them away.”

Lara Jane raises an eyebrow. She weighs his offer for a moment, but then says simply, “Tell me.”

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FUN FACT: His name–the man attached to the tentacles–was Chiton, back when he was known as the greatest mountain climber in at least sixty acres.

Every day, at the base of the cliff face, he stretched his two arms and six tentacles into the eight sleeves of the jacket he spent a month sewing. Every day, he scaled the mountain, his 10 limbs curling themselves into snowy crevices and propelling him upwards with superhuman grace. Every day, he plucked the blue flowers from the top of the mountain. And was home again in time for tea.

He was driven out of his first two towns for his tentacles, so he kept them hidden entirely from the third one. The third town, where there was something in the water making the residents critically ill. Where they were too poor to move away. Where the blue flowers were an antidote. Including for him and his new wife, who still didn’t know about his tentacles, but whom he loved with all his heart.

And this is where Chiton went, when he wasn’t with Lara Jane:

His last day. His backpack open at the bottom of the cliff, and his special jacket with the eight sleeves completely missing. It would take him days to make another, and the blue flowers grew scarce in winter. He had to make the climb.

The regular jacket bunched up mid-torso, above his bare tentacles and bare stomach.

He died quietly of exposure, halfway up the mountain and attached to the cliff-face like a cicada shell.

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So Lara Jane sends off the measurements for a similar eight-sleeved jacket to her costume maker, and it arrives in time for the fifth Friday. She’s expecting the first time Chiton pulls it on to be the last time she ever sees him. And therefore she miscalculates and omits her usual bedtime pyjama shorts the following week.

Lara Jane thinks she knows what happens next. But maybe leaving the portal open would be less mortifying.

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Her elite squad are less proficient in hip hop than any other style. The few hip hop numbers they’ve performed in competition have never placed highly. When Lara Jane announces she’s bringing in a special guest to inspire them for an upcoming street dance number, no-one can claim it’s unjustified.

Truly, it’s more of a street dance/gymnastics number where the girls are soldiers/assassins, but they can already execute a dozen backhand springs with their eyes closed.

Lara Jane sends their mothers out to buy diamante-encrusted leggings and foam daggers. She’s sewn Chiton’s tentacles into his jacket–extra material forming six inbuilt gloves–so that it can pass as a costume.

When the time comes she feigns a sudden sickness, and all her little dancers are too busy fussing over her to notice a ninth body appear on the dance floor. Chiton slips the jacket on like a second skin. Lara Jane greets him warmly, despite the figurative portal expanding in her gut.

They see him now, all her little dancers. They see the monster in their studio.

From her position half-slumped against the wall, Lara Jane explains that their guest specialises in a new type of circus hip hop. At least two of her girls have circus posters plastered over their bedroom walls, and juggling batons in their bookcases.

Fourteen pairs of eyes are fixed on Chiton. And then he starts to move.

No human has spun with such 360-degree ease outside of a hamster ball. He spins on his head, hands, tentacles, and legs. He spins like he’s a torpedo shot from a cannon. He bounces off the floor like it’s spring-loaded.

His lines are sloppy and his technique is mediocre at best, but Lara Jane can’t help but smile at his passion and the sheer, strange spectacle of it all.

Just as much as she watches him, she watches her girls. The energy blazing in their wide eyes, coiled muscles and grins threatening to burst from their cheeks. They’re clapping and gasping and bouncing on the balls of their feet. Two of them are squeezing each other’s hands with joy.

Chiton notices their enthusiasm and his own speed and power doubles, triples. Laura Jane feels the floor vibrate as he lands. She reads the rising bliss in his body and yells, “Enough!” and he slams himself to a stop.

She watches him stand there, panting, and inflating with the girls’ frantic applause.

“Girls!” she bellows. “Please thank Chiton and then close your eyes, tight.”

“Thank you!” they chorus, and Lara Jane checks in the wall mirrors that their eyes are all shut.

Chiton looks so high that he could drift up to the ceiling. Lara Jane meets his gaze and gives him a smug little wave. He releases a final, satisfied sigh and blinks out of her studio.

“You can open again,” says Lara Jane, and clambers to her feet. The girls search around for Chiton, and she says, “How’s that for circus magic?” and they’re all a mess of questions and hands clasping at her t-shirt and Lara Jane has to laugh with sheer relief.

Thank you thank you thank you is looping in her head, and she’s not even sure who she’s thanking. Maybe she’ll take her elite squad out for ice-cream. “Good girls,” she coos and hugs them to her chest. “My good, good girls.”

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The third Saturday: Lara Jane lies next to a row of prop keys. She’s rolled them around in her fingers for hours. They’re a lightweight metal: so light that a fist-sized helium balloon could lift them off the ground, but she still suspects they’re too heavy.

The starmist spots them immediately and drifts up to just under the ceiling. “Come on; come on down,” says Lara Jane, a little more impatiently than she intends. “I thought you wanted to try.” So they spend fifteen minutes with the starmist grasping at keys like she’s clawing at something under glass, and both of them finish feeling low and impotent.

Lara Jane carries the keys with her over the next week; around her neck in the shower, pinned into her pyjama short pockets at night. She polishes them and watches her reflection in their shine, but by the morning of the fourth Saturday she has to admit to no further ideas whatsoever. Maybe she was completely off-base, buying the keys in the first place.

At least she has this fortnight’s state-wide competition to distract herself with.

Thankfully, her girls execute the monster dance flawlessly on stage, and Lara Jane is almost bubbling over with pride. It’s one of the best pieces she’s ever choreographed. Of course, it places first.

Back in their dressing room, her girls shriek with victory and thrust their trophy and glitter-covered bodies towards her. She’ll never get the sparkles out of these clothes.

Their winning dance replays in Lara Jane’s mind all evening. And in her cold hotel bed later that night, she tosses a key through the starmist’s body like a bullet and barks, “Dance!”

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On the evening of the seventh Saturday, Lara Jane takes the starmist into the forest. She’s still fuming that her reverse-Pandora’s-box number only took second the previous weekend, after which she requested to see the winning team’s scoresheet because she was robbed, but even so… Everything stinks of eucalyptus. Lara Jane lays out a picnic blanket topped with a yoga mat topped with a sleeping bag, and climbs in up to her waist.

FUN FACT: The last time Lara Jane went camping, she was 12 and woke up with a mouthful of dirt and a weeping gash on her right calf. As an adult, she had no intention of repeating the experience. She’d booked a cabin 300 meters away, with all the modern amenities and the plump bed she would have occupied if sleeping were necessary.

The starmist hovers tentatively on the other side of the fire she’s built. Lara Jane polishes off a pair of service-station chicken and mayo sandwiches, trying to give the starmist some time to acclimatise. No words are exchanged. When she’s finished, Lara Jane balances one of the keys on her nose, and that actually earns her a small, singular laugh.

Thank goodness for progress.

She’s acquired a lot more keys by now–piles of them–and the starmist is familiar with dodging her aim. The keys glint over the fire with each toss. About one in six or seven hit their mark. Lara Jane mentally notes where the keys pass through: the starmist’s foot, shoulder, hand…

The starmist darts through the air behind the fire, speedy but not especially agile. A burst of translucent stars before the shadows of the trees.

The starmist’s hip. Scalp…

Most of the panic, the fear, has dissipated. Lara Jane can tell by the way she dances.

Lara Jane pitches the last three keys in quick succession, and one of those passes directly through the starmist’s heart. No part of her tries to grasp the key, to hold on.

There is a rippling, a flickering, and then there is no-one beyond the fire anymore.

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They’ve positioned Una diagonally across Lara Jane’s mattress, and Lara Jane is braiding her hair badly as they talk.

FUN FACT: Once, when Una was a child, her body was not quite so heavy.

When her peers grew old enough to stop running regularly for fun, she could almost believe she was like everyone else.

Shamus was in the grade above her, and 17 with well-kept stubble, and his friends would chant his name when he went to write something on the blackboard, or toss some crumpled paper into a bin. He seemed to notice her suddenly. He brought her a bunch of plucked daffodils and announced she was the most beautiful girl in town.

To the very best of her memory, she’d never exposed her back to anyone except her parents. But she and Shamus had been together for months, and she loved him, and he loved her, and he wanted to see her.

So she let him open the zip, just a couple of centimetres. Of course he was curious. He was gentle, but a few grains of shiny red dust scattered out, anyway.

It landed on some hay and turned it cerulean. It landed on some wood and turned it to steel. It landed on Shamus’ fingers and he rose, gradually, three feet in the air.

Una pulled up her zip, tight, and kissed her boyfriend where he hovered.

Over the next few months, Shamus’ sister fell terminally ill. In tiny increments, Shamus and Una convinced each other that using the red dust on her on would be the right thing to do. And within 24 hours of it touching her skin, his sister had fully recovered.

But such a thing is hard to keep completely secret for long.

They came in droves to Una’s door: the curious, the desperate, the greedy. They offered their money and their sob stories and their business deals. Una’s parents locked her in her room (from the inside) and locked the front door. She didn’t go to school anymore. She barely went anywhere anymore.

Eventually, her visitors stopped offering and simply took what they wanted.

When Una’s skin grew slack from lack of dust, the thieves replaced it with sand, with stones, with straw. Miracles became a regular occurrence in town: talking chickens and men with super-strength and quadriplegics who could walk again. Until there was barely any dust left at all.

She was sure she was dying, then. Shrivelling up inside her skin. She had been planning to compose orchestral scores and become a school headmistress and with some luck, the town mayor. She missed her geography lessons and her violin and Shamus’ letters, which had stopped arriving a couple of weeks after she could no longer write back. Thus began a very long year of tears and shouting and bedsores, and at the end, her cold body in the sheets which wouldn’t wake for anything.

“So what help can you give me?” Una snaps. “Since you can’t make me better and you can’t give me justice?”

Lara Jane is struck dumb for once, tying off the braid with slightly shaking hands. “I don’t know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

“I understand all of this far better than you.”

“Yes,” agrees Lara Jane. “You do.” She pauses, biting the edge of her tongue. “But would you like me to try?”

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Una stays the longest, out of any of them. After so much of Una’s life and death has been decided by others, Lara Jane feels strongly that Una should have the satisfaction of driving any improvements by herself. Lara Jane tries to vary her Sunday night locations in order to facilitate this, but remains otherwise occupied with the rest of her visitors and preparing for rapidly-approaching Nationals.

It’s only once Una’s the sole remainder that Lara Jane worries they’ve missed opportunities. What if one of the others knew something relevant, or emitted some kind of helpful substance? Most of the dance season has passed and the two of them haven’t made any progress at all.

And Lara Jane really likes Una. Respects her. She’s almost come to terms with the concept of Una visiting every Sunday for the rest of her life… At which point, of course, Una offers an exit suggestion.

“What’s inside that?” asks Una, eyes fixed on the translucent black balloon in the corner of the bedroom. “Is it some kind of gas?”

The balloon has wilted somewhat since its onstage debut the day before, but is still largely afloat. “Helium?” says Lara Jane. “You don’t have helium where you’re from?”

“If we had it,” snarls Una, “don’t you think we would have tried it?”

So Lara Jane gets her wish of helping Una empty the rubble from her zip, and cleaning out the remaining debris with a cloth and a vacuum cleaner. It takes a couple of hours and they bark insults at each other the entire time, but it’s mostly affectionate. When they’re finished, Lara Jane lodges a wad of tissues under Una’s leaking eyes.

They’ve hired a large helium canister, with a small nozzle attached that slides into the top of Una’s zip. Lara Jane releases the gas at just a trickle. She ties a ribbon around Una’s waist and the other end to her bedpost. Una begins to levitate above the mattress, gradually inflating into her usual shape, and her tears fall onto the doona.

“If you don’t disappear tonight,” jokes Lara Jane, “I can make a bed in a limo and fly you out of the skylight.”

“No. I don’t want to have to relive another moment of my life if I don’t have to.”

So Lara Jane twists off the helium when Una’s all full up, stretching her inflated limbs and rolling in circles and humming in airborne delight. Every so often, Una’s body blocks out the ceiling lamp, and her shadow dances wildly around the room.

When there’s a natural pause, Lara Jane clasps Una’s featherlight hand inside her own heavy one. “You take care,” she says.

Una smiles and says, “Cut the ribbon.”

So Lara Jane does, with her free arm, and never lets go of Una’s hand. But then all the dancing shadows have gone, and there’s nothing to hold on to anyway.

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Lara Jane finishes the hampers. Even personalises them. She distributes them to her Elite Dance Squad and their mothers in Studio A, at the end of the dance season and getting close to Christmas. Nationals: almost a clean sweep, and Lara Jane can rest easy until the next year, even if she’s not entirely sure what she’ll do with herself.

She stares at her line of dancers in their Lara Jane Dance Studio crop tops and booty shorts, with their teeth-braces and their knee-braces, and their little-kid manicures and big-kid muscles and giant smiles.

She stares at their mothers, with their questionable fashion choices and their botoxed faces and their painted mouths with giant smiles.

And nothing has really changed between the night a portal to Hell spread inside her costume cupboard and when it later cleared up like an obedient rash, but Lara Jane Hudson finds herself overwhelmed with affection for every single person in the room.

She taps her cane and sees her own grin blossom in the opposing mirror. “Okay, ladies. Shall we begin?”

___

Copyright 2016 Ephiny Gale

Ephiny’s fiction has also appeared in Aurealis, Daily Science Fiction, and two Belladonna Publishing anthologies. She is the author of several produced stage plays and musicals, including the sold-out ‘How to Direct From Inside’ at La Mama and ‘Shining Armour’ at The 1812 Theatre. Ephiny has a Masters in Arts Management, a red belt in taekwondo, an amazing wife, and six imaginary whippets.

By Megan Chaudhuri

The tense conversation stopped when Lydia slipped into the office, trailing the stench of old blood, ocean brine, and the cheap cigars favored by London’s Watch. The sudden heat and light from the crackling fire struck her like a blow. For one dizzying moment, the room’s familiar bookshelves and battle maps blurred with the seated figures of Mrs. Lincoln and a well-dressed stranger. The void left by their choked-off conversation filled with the drip-drip of water from Lydia’s overcoat onto the Hindustani carpet.

Lydia swayed. Her sisters would faint if they knew that she came to a job like this–that she needed a job–

Bugger it, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she curtseyed smartly. Mrs. Lincoln smiled but the stranger frowned and clutched closer a leather case.

“Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, tilting the teapot over a third cup. The scent of fresh bergamot didn’t quite mask Lydia’s odor of pickled death. “Thank you for coming on short notice. I hope we were not interrupting…?”

“La!” Lydia said, shrugging out of the overcoat. She sat with a flounce to hide her shaking knees. “I am at your disposal, madam.”

But Mrs. Lincoln clearly saw through the saucy words, and Lydia looked down. The body wasn’t his. She sipped the tea to hide her expression. Just another poor sot dredged up by the Watch that wasn’t my husband.

Which meant she might still get to kill the runaway bastard.

Or bring him home, a voice whispered, to you, and Bennie.

“Capital,” said Mrs. Lincoln, her expression still sharp. “Now, my dear, this is Mr. Clarke, who works for an old and–important friend.” Her gaze touched the 1813 portrait of King George behind Lydia. “Mr. Clarke, my Mrs. Bexley solves problems like yours–”

“Madam,” Clarke interrupted, his thumb fussing with the case’s clasp. “There has never been a problem like mine. Nor one demanding more speed, superior understanding, and, hmmm,” he glanced at Lydia’s muck-smeared gown, “greater discretion.”

His obvious contempt bruised Lydia’s nerves, tender still with thwarted grief. The corpse’s crab-gnawed face had had none of her husband’s fine bone structure. But she could not afford spiting this Mr. Clarke. The demands of Bennie’s maintenance; her need for a new, better-smelling gown…

Lydia forced a smile. “What do you need understood, sir?”

He ignored her. “Surely, madam, there are other professionals…?”

“There were other professionals.” Mrs. Lincoln rested her elbows on the French battle maps covering her desk. “Fast, clever, discrete. Men.

Something passed between them, an echo of the tense conversation Lydia had interrupted. Clarke looked at Lydia. The fire snapped as a log crumpled to lifeless ash.

“She’s to his taste,” Clarke said grudgingly. “According to the wife.” He unclasped the case. To Lydia’s surprise, he drew out a silk towel and handed it to her.

Not a towel. It slithered open, revealing an old-fashioned corset that weighed less than silk and shimmered brighter than steel. Lydia brought it close to try to discern the weave.

“Whatever is this made of?” It didn’t feel or look dyed–but the gold color had a green cast, like verdigris on copper. Her nose prickled at its strange, metallic scent.

“That,” Clarke said, “is what we need understood. Hmmm. Try tearing it.”

With a glance at the silent Mrs. Lincoln, Lydia grasped the corset and tugged. Pulled. Yanked until her brow dampened with sweat.

Clarke looked unsurprised–no, contemptuous. A sentiment Lydia was too acquainted with, from those terrible months after Bennie was born and her husband had disappeared. Those terrible months when she’d eaten her sisters’ charity and drank their contempt.

Scowling, she bit the cloth; it had the salty, metallic taste of a cheap mercury tonic. Her teeth left no mark–but something else had.

“What happened here?” Lydia said, touching the pucker near the seam.

“That is where its owner, Mrs. Banks, was stabbed by a seemingly common mugger after she left her husband, Thomas Banks, a dealer in fine cloths.”

An understandable response to spousal abandonment. She looked closer. “But there’s no blood stain.”

“Yes. The knife only, hmmm, bruised Mrs. Banks. This curious cloth turned the blade as if it was steel plate.” His eyes dropped to the maps on the desk, the recent battles inked in the bright red of arterial blood.

No wonder Mrs. Lincoln’s ‘friend’ is interested.

“If Mrs. Banks survived,” Lydia said, “why not ask her about the material?”

“We did,” Clarke said. “She knew nothing about its components, but was happy to relate how her husband gave her the cloth years ago. And has been selling more to, hmmm, persons of interest.”

“How lucrative for him,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

“He desires to purchase back the knighthood his father lost, for smuggling,” Clarke said, taking back the cloth. “We also know from Mrs. Banks and the–first professionals who looked into this matter, that more information about this material must be at his manor in Kent, where his sick sister lives. Possibly even stores of it. So Mrs. Banks believes, but she always lived in their Town residence.” Clarke closed the clasp. “Which is why we need a young lady,” he cleared his throat, “capable of getting, hmmm, close to Mr. Banks and obtaining this knowledge.”

Close to Mr. Banks. Clearly, Clarke thought she had one trick. But the insult receded as Lydia rubbed her forefinger and thumb together, longing for another moment with silk that was like steel. Covetousness–a sentiment her sisters loathed–fanned at her heart.

But then her fingers paused, as if caught in an indentation left by a knife. In her mind, her sisters formed a Greek chorus of disapproval: What if she was also killed? Who would pay for Bennie’s board and tuition?

“You should understand, Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, her expression shrewd, “that I ask this of you because it is… necessary.” She refilled Lydia’s teacup. “Mr. Clarke also has promised to compensate well, for your troubles.”

The mental chorus fell into shocked silence when Lydia hurled guineas at it. In her mind’s eye, her hands were covered in golden silk gloves, her hair with a saucily feathered bonnet, her bosom by the most fashionable gown. And Bennie would read at Oxford. Oh, if that bastard husband could see them now!

Her grin faltered when she noticed Mrs. Lincoln. Despite the woman’s mask of confidence, her eyes were narrow and her lips were thin.

Lydia took a breath of brine and bergamot. Picking up her teacup, she smiled at Clarke. “I am certain I shall find them no trouble at all, sir.”

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A young lady capable of getting close to Mr. Banks. Clarke’s words seeded a thought–the thought sprouted into a plan–and two days later, the desolate seaside was darkening around Lydia as clouds thickened overhead. Her riding skirt snapped and her rented horse snorted as salt-scented winds lashed against them. Lydia scanned the darkening landscape, unease burbling in her belly. Behind her stretched an overgrown dirt road; ahead, just visible on the cliffs above the ocean, loomed Banks’ manor.

But where was its master? Some judicious bribery at the last town’s stables had revealed that Banks was expected home this afternoon. But now it was growing storm-dark–and where was Banks so she could throw herself into his path, crying for aide–

A red-tinged light winked in the distance.

Lydia twisted. A carriage light?

Impossible–the carriage would flounder there amidst the waist-high grasses.

Smugglers? This desolate coastline was supposedly infested with them.

The light flared again–but in the opposite direction. And closer.

Lydia was reaching for her dagger when the horse snorted. Then she heard it: the heavy creak of a well-sprung barouche, the clop-clop of more horses than most smugglers could afford. She hastily smoothed her skirts over the dagger strapped to her thigh and pinched her cheeks to a glow.

When the barouche drew level with her, its driver and footman had their pistols drawn. Raindrops glittered on the bright barrels; teardrops glittered on Lydia’s eyelashes.

“Hold right–” The footman’s words choked off as his lantern illuminated Lydia.

“Please, sir!” Lydia cried, bosom heaving. “I am so frightfully lost!”

The barouche rocked.

A beast’s–no, a monster’s–head thrust over the edge, all yellow fangs and blood-red mouth and spider-black eyes.

The horse started. Lydia yanked his reins one-handed, her other hand going for the pocket hole over the dagger–

“Back, damn you!” The bellow accompanied the fleshy sound of a blow and the monster’s–dog’s, Lydia realized–head disappeared. A man’s replaced it, as gaunt as a skeleton’s, topped with a powdered wig last fashionable when her dear, dead mama was a girl.

Lydia stared. This antiquated lout was Banks?

“Who the devil are you?” he exclaimed.

Must be. Lydia kicked the horse forward, crying, “Thank God you are here!” His eyes dilated as she leaned forward. “I feared you might be bandits–”

The words froze in her mouth. The blood congealed in her veins. Another head had shot up in front of Banks.

This one had fashionably tousled hair above a handsome face.

A handsome face Lydia knew better than her own.

Oh, Lord! She was numb–numb like those dreadful moments after a blow has landed, but before the pain is felt.

He gaped at her, his face as bloodless as when they had wed nine years ago.

“You’re blocking my view, Carter,” said Banks, pushing him aside.

Carter? Lydia swayed, grabbing the pommel.

Carter. He was incognito, the bastard. Just like her.

Carter. She’d have to risk it. And maybe the chance would present itself, for her to draw her dagger and…

Lydia let her eyes roll up. It wasn’t hard.

“Richard!” exclaimed Banks. “She’s going to faint!”

With perfect timing, Lydia slid into the surprised footman’s arms.

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She kept limp even though every muscle wanted to shiver when ‘Carter’ spoke. She held her eyes closed even when the barouche stopped and the footman picked her up. Carter. Nausea roiled her gut. What in God’s name was he doing here?

The footman’s breathing grew labored as he carried her across what sounded like marble, then onto thick carpet. He dropped her onto a sofa that smelled of wet dog. The room itself stank so much of dusty books that Lydia nearly shuddered at the unpleasant memories of her book-loving father.

“Have care, man!” said Banks. “Fetch Doherty.”

A growl from the monster-dog undercut his words. Carter’s fast breathing was audible. The fan case in her real pocket was jabbing her; she focused on that, using one of Mrs. Lincoln’s tricks to calm the trapped rabbit that was her mind.

The footman retreated. Heeled boots approached. Sour breath puffed against her face.

“Do you recognize her, Carter?”

Her heart lurched.

“Vaguely.”

Oh, Lord!

“She seems more a lady than your usual tastes.”

“She’s dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks.” Bastard.

“She’s dressed more for dancing than riding, man.” Only Mrs. Lincoln’s training kept Lydia still when Banks laid a cold hand on her arm. “Miss?”

Carter cleared his throat. “I do recall–”

Lydia moaned.

Footsteps. A mutter from Banks, inaudible beneath the patter of rain on windows. The grating sound of something ceramic being unscrewed.

The urine stench of smelling salts burned her nose and lungs.

Lydia choked, her eyes flying open to a gentleman’s library. Involuntary tears blurred together its occupants and furnishings. The dog’s growling ceased and its toenails clicked away on the marble.

“She’s awake, sir,” said the servant hovering over Lydia. Lydia lifted a hand to dash away her tears but the servant–Doherty, presumably–seized it, pressing a pear-shaped bottle into her hand. The ammonia scent prickled Lydia’s nose. “Use this if you feel faint, madam.”

Lydia sat up, breathing through her mouth. Doherty backed into a corner, replaced at the sofa by Banks. Behind him, her erstwhile husband affected lounging against a mantelpiece beneath a large genealogical diagram.

“Oh, sir!” Lydia looked up at Banks. “Where am I?”

“My manor,” Banks said, his voice unctuous. “I am Sir Thomas Banks, Miss–?”

He styles himself a knight still. Her eyes flickered from him to the genealogy to–Carter, she must think of him as Carter, to prevent a fatal tongue slip. A new scar furrowed the bloodless skin of his jaw and nearly touched his jugular.

“Hatfield,” Lydia said, yanking her eyes from the scar. A shame the attacker had missed the vein. “Miss Harriet Hatfield. Oh, Sir Banks, thank you for rescuing me!” Noting where his rheumy eyes strayed, she straightened, to better the effect of her heaving bosom. Invite me to stay and recover, you lout. “I set out to visit my cousin whilst on my way to Town, and got dreadfully lost, and a storm was coming!”

Reassurances of her safety flew from Banks, punctuated with glances at her figure. Lydia would have felt tolerably secure–if not for the anger radiating from Carter.

If not for Carter.

“Surely, Banks,” Carter said, staring at Lydia, “we don’t wish to detain Miss–Hatfield. She can take the barouche back, once her nerves have settled.”

“Oh!” Lydia pictured Carter’s head on a pike. “What if I faint on the road, Sir Banks?” She widened her eyes. Invite me to stay, damn you!

Carter scowled. “You have your salts.”

“Good God, man,” Banks snapped, turning on him. Carter’s expression quickly turned amiable. “There’s no call for such rudeness to a lady of good breeding.”

Behind Banks’ back, Lydia mouthed, ‘Carter?’

But Banks turned back quicker than she expected, and she hastily rearranged her features.

‘Hatfield?’ her husband mouthed.

One pike wasn’t enough–

“Ah!” Banks said. Lydia and Carter jumped. “I see you are admiring my life’s work, Miss Hatfield.”

“Oh, yes!” Lydia said, wrenching her attention from that runaway bastard and trying to figure out what the deuce he was talking about: Horses. Manor. Library–oh, Lord, did he read books? “I am impressed.”

“Indeed? Few understand it, beyond myself and my sister. Carter actually mistook it for my family tree!”

Lydia blinked, and then peered at the diagram over Carter’s head. Now that her vision was clear, she saw that the names were…strange.

And that Banks’ ancestors never lived more than fifteen years.

Lydia glanced at the door left ajar by the dog’s flight. The loathsome beast must be ‘Fitzroy (1811 –     )’.

“Are you familiar with Lamarck, Miss Hatfield?” Banks said, the gleam of a devotee replacing lust in his eye. “When I was a boy, our nurse–the granddaughter of a natural philosopher–introduced me to his brilliance. I have since applied his principles, and permitted only the strongest hounds to sire–”

His words clipped off. Startled, Lydia followed his eyes to the strange woman in the doorway.

She was stouter and shorter than Lydia, wrapped like an invalid in a heavy blanket. Her dark gaze was focused on Banks, its glittering sharpness as unnerving as if a spider’s eight black eyes had looked up from a baby’s face.

The ripe scent of unwashed human wafted into the library.

“Cassie!” thundered Banks. “What in nine hells are you doing up here?”

Surreptitiously, Lydia opened the smelling salt vial.

“You are too loud, brother,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Everyone is disturbed, running to and fro. I cannot do my work.”

With surprising speed, Banks closed the short distance between them. But before he could seize–or strike–her, a gloved hand emerged to pluck at the blanket’s edge.

Banks leapt back as if struck. Lydia twitched and immediately regretted it when the vial’s lid slipped, letting more ammonia vapor escape. She looked up with watering eyes to see Banks turn. His fear was gone–had she imagined it?–and his face was set in a scowl. A scowl which, except for the gray whiskers and red eyes, perfectly mirrored the many disapproving scowls Lydia had received from her siblings.

Perhaps that was why she stood and, to her surprise, curtseyed. “Miss Banks! What a pleasure to meet my savior’s sister!”

Brother and sister fell silent. Lydia had the impression that Cassie only now realized others were present.

“Ex-excuse me, Miss Hatfield,” Banks said loudly. Cassie winced. “My sister is–not well, and unaccustomed to company.”

“Nor to loud noises,” Lydia said, noticing the wince. “You do not know your strength of voice, sir.” She managed to turn her tone up at the end, transforming her words into a compliment on his masculine tenor.

It worked. Banks loosened his grip, just as a flushed Doherty darted forward and tapped Cassie’s arm. The servant curtseyed–Lydia noted how her eyes bulged with fear–and then they were gone.

There goes one with little love for Banks. Mistreated servants were worth their weight in gold, thanks to their knowledge about their masters’ secrets. But, oh–she must stay to pry it from Doherty!

“La, Sir Banks!” Lydia hooked her arm through his, brushing herself against him. All men–including the pale one glaring at her–liked that sort of thing. “You must be a fine singer to have such a powerful voice.”

For a heartbeat his eyes were on her face, shrewd and sharp. But then they dropped to where their bodies touched. Her breath caught in her throat: Invite me. Invite me. Invite me.

“You must stay, Miss Hatfield,” he said. “At least until the storm clears.”

Air rushed back into Lydia, smelling of sweat and tasting of triumph. She squealed her thanks even as her skin prickled beneath her husband’s glare.

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The bedroom given to Lydia for her toilette before supper was opulent and old, its oriental décor and crumbling fireplace dating to when Mama had been a girl. Closing the door, Lydia dropped her damp overcoat on a chair and staggered to the bed. She clung to one of its posters like a drowning sailor to his ship’s mast.

Damn him! Her husband’s face–menacing, alluring, knife-scarred–lingered in her vision. Damn him! Lydia pressed her face against the poster’s wood, her mouth pursed as if kissing, her teeth grinding as if she had him caught between them. Damn him!

Where had he been during those crushing years after Bennie’s birth, when she passed from one grim-faced sister to another? Where had he been when humiliation drove them to London, when she had cut purses to keep out of the workhouse?

A knock shattered her thoughts. Lydia whirled. She glanced at the toilette table’s mirror: her face was as mad and intent and inexplicable as Cassie’s.

And beyond her madwoman’s reflection, through the rain-streaked window, flashed a red- light.

“Lost peasants,” she breathed, trying to calm herself. “Signaling to one another. Or smugglers. Or–” French agents.

The knocking grew louder. Taking a deep breath, Lydia opened the door. Doherty entered, her head bent over a ewer of steaming water.

Lydia caged her whirling thoughts. She couldn’t let this opportunity go wasted.

“Oh!” Lydia beamed. “I am so glad you are here! I am so hopeless at undoing my clasps–I tear them like a child!”

This girlish confidence received a curt nod. Doherty set down the ewer and turned towards Lydia’s overcoat.

A bruise blackened her jaw.

Good Lord. Was it from the bumbling brother–or the mad sister?

But before she could speak, Doherty picked up her overcoat. The contents of its pockets clanked.

“Oh, don’t mind that!” Lydia flapped her hand. “It’s my–face paint.”

She swore at her thoughtlessness when Doherty’s face darkened with disapproval. Owning to face paint was like confessing to whoredom, in these backwaters.

Silently, the servant went around Lydia and began yanking out her hairpins.

Lydia forced herself not to flinch when Doherty attacked her hair with a brush. “I hadn’t expected”–the brush scraped her scalp–“such a well-trained lady’s maid this far from Town. Do you serve Mrs. Banks?”

The brush paused. “I serve Miss Banks.”

Clever answer, Lydia thought. “Is Sir Banks unmarried?”

The brush clanked on the bureau. Lydia’s head snapped back as Doherty began plaiting her hair. “Why’d you care, madam?”

The insolence was as unpleasant as the hairdressing. She thinks I’m pursuing him.

Several more yanks threatened to tear off her scalp, and then Lydia felt her gown loosen as Doherty undid its back buttons, apparently intending to press it.

“Oh, do the jewelry first,” Lydia said. “Sir Banks must do well at his cloth business, to maintain his sister and manor both.”

There was a pinch as her ears were freed of their heavy gold bobs. “Nobody said nothing about cloth.”

Damnation. She was rattled still by Carter.

“Oh! Sir Banks did,” Lydia lied. “Does he do business on the Continent?”

“I know nothing about his business.” Cold fingers wrestled with the clasp to Lydia’s necklace.

Lydia mentally pirouetted, circling about Doherty like a duelist searching for an unguarded point.

“Is Mr. Carter also a cloth merchant?”

No reply.

“How long have he and Sir Banks been friends?”

Only the distant rumbling of thunder answered her.

Lydia puffed her cheeks, feeling like she had brought a rapier to a pistol duel. It was time, as Mrs. Lincoln would say, to change tactics.

The clasp opened. Before Doherty could set down the necklace, Lydia turned and caught her wrist, smiling.

“That one always gives me trouble, but you opened it so easily–why don’t you keep it for yourself?”

Doherty’s eyes met hers, as dark as the bruise on her jaw.

The necklace clanked when she set it down.

Oh, bugger.

She waved off Doherty’s surly offer to press her gown, claiming a desire to rest briefly. The woman left but her disapproval lingered like a bloodstain on good satin. Lydia paced, her thoughts matching the rain’s staccato beat.

Charm had failed.

Bribery had failed.

But she had an hour alone, upstairs, while everyone downstairs believed her to be preening or napping.

Lydia halted. Lightning flashed, throwing the room into white brilliance. Her hand closed on the fan case in her pocket.

With one last glance out the window for the red light, she slipped out of her shoes and into the hallway.

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The floor in the dark hallway was ice-cold, but Lydia moved slowly. The soft creak of the floorboards was swallowed by the downstairs clatter of servants doing whatever it was servants did before supper.

Her hand found the large door at the end of the hall. The faint light of a damped fire glowed beneath it. Lydia pressed her ear to it: all she heard was the muffled boom of the ocean and the beat of rain.

She squatted to examine the lock. Not a Bramah lock, thank God–simply an old-fashioned pin tumbler.

A locked pin tumbler. Lydia held her breath, listening to the sounds of storm and house and ocean. She opened her fan case.

The faint firelight glittered along the pick’s slender length and flashed off the L-shaped torsion wrench. Smiling slightly, she lined the tools up to the tumbler’s face.

“Feeling well-rested, Miss Hatfield?” murmured her husband behind her.

She whirled, the edge of her hand aimed for his knee. But he dodged, as light as the fine dancer she knew he was. His hands were behind his back but she couldn’t tell if he was mocking her with an insouciant pose–or hiding a weapon.

Lydia stood, training the pick’s fine point on him. Spine straight, chin up, knees shaking, she met his dark eyes.

“Don’t you ‘Miss’ me!” she hissed. “What are you doing here, Mr. Carter?” Even as she said it, Lydia felt the saucy words tilt the battlefield in his favor. Felt like she was sixteen again, a pampered virgin, just meeting a dashing rake with dozens of notches in his bedpost.

“Still Mrs. Wickham, then?” he said, ignoring the question. “Why haven’t you divorced me?”

Damn the shadows: darkness hid the flicker of an eye, the shift of a stance.

“I should have!” Her voice was shrill. “You–you left me, and your child, you bastard!”

His mouth opened. Closed.

He shook his head. “Then allow me to assist you back to your toilette, as a husband should.”

Lydia stared. He sounded just like her husband: smooth, confident, at ease. But how had he learned to move so silently?

And what was he doing up here?

And–oh, Lord!–where was Banks?

But it was with her sixteen-year-old voice that she said, “La! And if I don’t?”

“Our host, I must say, is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.”

“How did–” Lydia stopped. He might not know about the attempt on Mrs. Banks’ life. But he had seen how Doherty cowered–and perhaps witnessed her beating. “Our host, I must say, is aiding the French.”

She had the pleasure of his surprise. He stepped close enough to dance a reel with her, but Lydia, conscious of the locked door behind her and Banks downstairs, had never felt less like dancing.

“When did you acquire this love of king and country?” Carter said in a whisper like a knife through silk.

King. She seized the thought. “You must let me go, G-Carter, or–or the king will be displeased.”

“‘The king will be displeased.'” He snorted disbelief. “You must do better than that, Miss Hatfield.”

She shifted, her cold toes grasping for purchase. He shifted with her.

“Where is Banks?” she said, raising the pick. His eyes flickered between its point and her face.

He shrugged. “Visiting his mad sister. Hopefully convincing her to bathe.”

“For how long?”

“Long enough for me to escort you back.”

He stepped forward. Lydia could smell his painfully familiar scent of smoke and claret.

The door behind her was implacable as his advance.

“I’ll give you a third,” Lydia said quickly. “Of what I’m…promised. For this.”

That stopped him. His eyes sharpened–with curiosity, with suspicion–but what he said was, “Three-quarters.”

“La!” Lydia tossed her head. “Half.”

“Three–”

“I must maintain Bennie.”

He fell silent for two great booming heartbeats of the ocean. The pick was slick with sweat in her hand, the dagger strapped to her leg far, far away.

“Curious,” he said, his gaze sweeping her, “how much his maintenance involves satin gowns. Very well. Half.”

“Good.” Lydia exhaled. “Now, you m-must help me get into Banks’ room.”

“The king pays you to sneak into men’s bedrooms?” Before she could retort, he continued, “Or is it this strange cloth that Banks is so exalted about?”

“You know about that?” Lydia bit her lip. Damn him for still being able to ruffle her!

“Aye,” he said, shifting. His face was fully shadowed. “We have become like brothers, after I saved him from being robbed by a pack of cutthroats and smugglers. I am content to advise him on young ladies”– she was briefly glad his expression was hidden–“and he is quite generous with the money gained from selling his cloth. At least, what’s left over from attempting to buy back his title.”

“Do you know where he’s getting it?”

“No.” His jacket rustled as he shrugged. “Why should I care?”

“La!” Lydia automatically said, thinking. “Well, it doesn’t matter to me what you care about. You must distract him.”

“For how long?”

“An hour.”

She heard another cloth rustle–brought the pick up–but he only bowed. Turned. Left.

His footsteps were faint as a cat’s down the stairs.

How did he learn to move so quietly? She half-fell and, with shaking hands, inserted the pick and wrench into the lock.

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Rain was beating against the windows when Lydia slipped through the bedroom door. She re-locked it and and pocketed her tools.

The banked fire glowed just enough for Lydia to make out a high-ceilinged room dominated by a massive bed. A low door opposite promised to be the dressing room. Wardrobes and drawers leaked the scents of cedar and perfume.

Lydia reached for a candle on the mantelpiece and saw how her hand was shaking. She made a fist; her teeth began chattering.

She had just bought a promise from a man whose word–to friends, to the militia, to her–was worthless.

She had just minutes, before he told Banks.

She lit the candle and set about her frantic work.

Wardrobes: nothing but formerly fashionable clothes. Lydia slid her hand along the sides and felt only cedar panels. Drawers: combs, wig powder, a prophylactic, the sheep’s intestine stiff with age. No hidden alcoves. The bed: a quick check under and over and into the mattress unearthed nothing but goose down.

She paced, listening for telltale creaks in the floorboards. She tapped the walls, listening for revealing echoes. Her unfruitful circuit ended at the low door in the corner.

Behind it was a dressing room, of course. Wind rattled the room’s small window against its lock. Closing the door, Lydia ran her hand over the walls, ducking around the hanging clothes.

Her eyes narrowed: one coat hung oddly. Banks had worn the garment earlier when he ‘saved’ her, and it hung more heavily than a tailcoat of worsted wool should.

A pocket within a pocket yielded a worn book. The candle lit the words Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. She ignored the sister chorus that sang out in disapproval–especially when Lydia recognized it to be quite dated. Few Garden ladies likely still matched Harris’ descriptions of their eventful youth.

But the oddness of keeping an outdated survey of aging prostitutes made Lydia open it. When flipping through Kitty Fisher’s description, she found the folded sheets of paper.

She skimmed them. The first was a half-composed letter to a tailor, apologizing for a lateness in paying to be attributed to his sister’s illness, &c &c.

The second was torn from another book. Faded ink covered it in a hand so precise it could have been typeset. Strange, incoherent phrases leapt at Lydia: … their product’s strength is associated, through some unknown mechanism, with their venom’s potency… one in four possess such traits…permitting only these to breed, as dictated by Lamarck.

Lamarck again! Lydia snorted and turned to the last sheet.

It was printed through with columns of abbreviations and numbers. Fresh ink circled one set of numbers.

A cipher. Lydia’s stomach clenched. Ciphers were not her strength; they demanded too much sitting with dreary books. But she forced herself to look closer, if only for Mrs. Lincoln’s sake, and realization slipped past the mental crowd of sisters still worked up over the Covent Garden ladies.

A tide table. Her finger tracked the circled date and time to the abbreviation for the nearby coast.

Tomorrow. She inhaled: Banks had business tomorrow–on the coast facing France–which required him to know the tides.

And still she knew nothing of his silk!

She almost dropped the book when the bedroom door unlocked. Through the dressing room’s door, she heard a man’s heavy tread and the ominous click of Fitzroy’s claws.

Lydia snuffed out the candle, praying that the wisps of smoke would go unnoticed in a room with a banked fire.

Only a low, thin door stood between her and doom outside.

Unbidden, the memory of the dagger-distorted corset bubbled up. The image burst with the echo of George’s–Carter’s–words: Our host is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.

The claw-clicking grew louder.

Damn Carter! And damn her for trusting him again!

She heard a snuffling sound. The door wobbled.

Fear galvanized her. Silently, she folded the papers back into the book and tucked the book back into the coat.

She heard a muffled growl.

With her handkerchief, she stifled the lock’s protesting squeal. Rain hammered Lydia’s face and soaked her gown as she leaned out.

A narrow ledge and gutter, thick with frothing water, ran five feet below. Thirty feet beyond that, the ground was a mass of wet shadows. And beyond that–

Distorted by the rain, a distant red light flashed with the rhythm of a dance: one-two-three, four; one-two-three, four.

And from the windows below answered the same pattern.

Oh, Lord! Water flattened her ringlets and ran coldly down her neck. There were no more light flashes; only thirty-five feet of rain-slick stone wall, and someone who answered mysterious signals in the night.

Lydia shuddered. She could stab Fitzroy and flee Banks; but neither fight nor flight worked against gravity or unknown French agents.

She retreated inside, latched the window, and sank into a crouch.   Cold and fear shook her limbs; anger clenched her teeth.

She almost yelped when the bedroom door open again.

“–Carter wants–with you–” said a servant girl’s voice.

Lydia gaped. Bless him.

“–up the damn fire, it’s freezing in here,” replied Banks. “And send Richard to lay out my clothes for supper. Come, Fitzroy. I said come, dammit!”

A growl from Fitzroy. Their footsteps receded beneath the scrape of a poker stirring the fire.

Damn him. Richard would enter the dressing room and discover–a thief? A whore?

Either one would be gleefully savaged by Fitzroy.

Shuddering, she smelled fresh smoke.

The sister chorus started chanting. Thief! Whore!

Thief!

Whore…

Her head snapped up, flinging water from her soaked ringlets, as her mind began to race.

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The servant girl dropped the kindling when the dressing room door opened.

Lydia stalked out, her gown tossed over one arm, her chemise barely covered by Banks’ dressing gown. Her hair was tousled as if she had spent an energetic (and horizontal) half-hour. Her bare feet padded confidently as she approached, holding an unlit candle.

The girl stared.

“Light this, won’t you?” Lydia said.

“Y-yes, ma’rm.” The girl touched its wick to an ember. Light sparkled in her astonished eyes.

“That’s a good girl,” Lydia purred. She sashayed out, closed the door, snuffed the candle, and ran like the devil was after her.

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Lydia darted back into her bedroom. She dropped the gown beside her overcoat and clutched the chair, drawing in great gasps that nearly burst her chemise’s seams.

Carter had kept his word–had helped her.

But she couldn’t indulge in reflection. Not with the clock ticking and the waves booming below, bringing Banks closer to his rendezvous.

Lydia drew out the contents of her overcoat’s pocket: lead sticks, a container of cheap rouge, several hairpins.

Weapons for a battle she had hoped to avoid.

She’s his sort. Clarke’s words echoed as she sat at the toilette table.

A woman’s duty, Mama had called it. But it had never been a duty before–not with George, nor any after. And it was never required by Mrs. Lincoln. Let other professionals use crude seduction–Lydia accomplished ten times more with her wits and masterful flirtation!

But bribing Doherty had failed. Tossing over Banks’ room had failed. And she had until tomorrow before the man went to the coast facing France, and waited for low tide.

Lydia picked up the lead sticks.

She thought of her son: his maintenance at school, the hope it bought him for a safer life than hers. To fail was to fail him.

She thickened her lashes with lead powder. Setting down the sticks, she picked up the rouge.

She thought of her sisters: their scorn for her hasty marriage and pregnancy. They took her in–but they would never forgive. To fail was to return to them.

Lydia powdered her cheeks, chin, bosom. Brushing off her hands, she took up the hairpins.

She thought of Mrs. Lincoln: of that day seven years ago, when Lydia had stolen Mrs. Lincoln’s pocketbook on the London streets. Of the next morning, when the woman had tracked Lydia to that room behind the tanner’s and, pistol in one hand and nosegay in the other, offered Lydia a new line of work. To fail was to fail the only person who gave her a chance.

The hairpins slid like rusty rapiers into her hair.

Lydia pulled on her gown. She adjusted the neckline. The damp cloth clung to her fetching plumpness–and brought to mind the new, tightly-fitted bodices she couldn’t afford.

Yet.

With a toss of her head, Lydia entered the hall, shoulders back and spine curved to amplify her natural charms. To fail was to fail herself!

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Lydia’s slippers struck the marble like it was a marching drum as she strode down the great hall. The dining room was a fire-lit maw waiting to swallow her, where silverware clanked like sabers and rich foods stank of burnt blood.

A furious shout silenced the clanking silverware and punctured her marching drum. Lydia froze. The servants told him about the bedroom–

“– for this, Cassie!”

A muted reply.

“For Christ’s sake, Miss Hatfield has no interest in this…Doherty!” screamed Banks.

He sounds terrified. What was his sister doing? And–oh, Lord!–what did Cassie want with Miss Hatfield?

Two shapes emerged from the dining room, backlit by candlelight. Lydia hastily composed herself as Doherty jerked Cassie towards her.

Lydia’s nose wrinkled at the stench of sweat.

Cassie’s arms protruded from her draped blanket. Her hands were cupped together with Doherty’s hands clamped around them. The weak light drew angry, fearful lines onto Doherty’s face. Tears glittered on Cassie’s cheeks.

Aside from Doherty’s fear, it was a perfect tableau of how Lydia’s sisters had yanked her away from handsome gentlemen.

Sympathy bent Lydia into a curtsey. The curtsey brought her nose close to Cassie. Beneath the unwashed body odor lurked a metallic scent.

Lydia looked up. Cassie stood before her, resisting Doherty’s tugs. The candlelight glinted like gold on the cloth covering her from shoulder to cupped hands.

Those hands flew apart when Doherty jerked too hard and lost her grip. Tiny emeralds dropped from Cassie’s hands. They rolled–scuttled–across the marble.

Doherty gasped. Snatching up her skirts, she stamped on the spiders. Carapaces crunched against the marble.

“No!” Cassie cried, but Doherty blocked her.

“How often have you been told–!”

Oh, Lord–Doherty even sounded like Lydia’s sisters, defending their frigid propriety!

A bellow from the dining room. “Take her back!”

“Yes, sir!” Doherty’s fear-stricken face turned towards the shout. Which was likely how she missed the last spider.

It limped towards Lydia. She scooped it up. It clung lightly to her as Lydia extended her hand to Cassie.

Doherty turned back. Her face contorted with horror.

Stupid wench. Lydia tossed her head. She never feared such little things–and neither did Cassie, whose gloved hand slid like water across Lydia’s, coaxing back the spider.

This close, Lydia saw how the spider’s emerald green matched the undertones in Cassie’s silk glove. Like a patina of verdigris on copper.

And then Doherty yanked Cassie away.

Lydia stared at the green smears, barely noticing the sounds of the women descending the stairs, the distant slam of a door.

Her thumb and forefinger rubbed together, teasing out the memory of the corset Clarke had shown her. Of the strange green tones to its golden, silky cloth. The same tones that had sparkled in Cassie’s gloves; the same silkiness that had flowed over Lydia’s hand.

Lydia sniffed her hand. It smelled like she had been clutching a dagger, blade-first.

Barely a minute later, when he descended from his own toilette, her husband found her transfixed there.

Her fingers still rubbing together, Lydia looked up at his handsome face and carefully-ruffled hair. Some comment died on his lips when he caught her expression.

“It’s not Mr. Banks I should have been after,” Lydia whispered. I couldn’t smell it because of Cassie’s odor–and those damn smelling salts.

His dark eyes glittered. “No?”

“It’s Miss Banks,” she said.

Bribery hadn’t worked. Sneaking hadn’t worked.

A simple courtesy–from one misunderstood sister to another–had worked.

Triumph and surprise warmed her body. She looked up at her husband, the bastard, the scoundrel, the handsome wretch who had ruined her and left her.

But he had done what she asked in the hall.

But he had backed off when she’d argued for money to maintain Bennie.

But she had no one else.

And his hair was tousled the way she loved it.

“You must help me.” Lydia pressed her hand to his cambric shirt. “I’ll go after Miss Banks and the silk. You get my horse and one for yourself. Tell the groom you’re–”

“I’ll deal with the groom,” he said, eyes narrowing.

“Yes! And meet me–oh–”

“There’s a hillock three miles north that blocks all view from the manor.”

She listened to his harried directions, her fingers digging into his cravat. His handsome face was so close she could see how the blade had parted the skin of his jaw.

The scar was rough beneath her fingers when she tilted his face towards hers.

A chair scraped in the dining room. They leapt apart.

Banks’ gaunt silhouette appeared in the dining room’s firelight. “Carter? Miss Hatfield?”

Lydia’s eyes met her husband’s. Buy me time, he mouthed.

He turned away. “I find myself needing rest more than food, Banks. You and Miss Hatfield enjoy the meal.”

“What–oh, yes, Sir Banks!” Lydia said, pirouetting. “A tête-à-tête, so I may know my savior better.” Her mind, drunk on her proximity to the silk and her husband, whirled madly: How to escape how to escape how–

Her husband’s footsteps faded, leaving her alone with a man who had wanted his own wife dead. A man she was armed to seduce–but who she must now distract, evade, and rob.

Drawing in a deep breath of air stinking like burnt blood, Lydia sashayed towards Banks, her lips pulled into a blood-red simper.

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Between the fire and the storm humidity, the dining room was as hot and fetid as Fitzroy’s mouth. The monster-dog prowled about the room, his eyes moving with Lydia’s body. His master stood still, watching her with a lidded gaze.

The table was set for three. Footmen hovered, ready to carve and serve. Lydia hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but the rich scents nauseated her.

She forced herself to advance. I’ll pretend to be ill and excuse myself to–

“Out!” Banks barked. Lydia jumped. The footmen fled.

Sheer willpower kept her moving towards a chair, but Banks did not draw it out for her. Lydia looked up, scrambling for a teasing comment.

The words died in her mouth. His expression was sharper than any she had seen the whole day–except for that second before she’d coaxed an invitation from him.

She jerked when he sat.

Miss Hatfield,” he said. “Perhaps you might indulge my curiosity.”

“Anything for my savior, sir!” Lydia sashayed forward and squeezed his shoulder.

His shoulder was tense. His gaze roved frankly over her. Shrewd. Assessing.

She heard a low rumble. Not thunder. Growling.

Fitzroy’s lips were drawing back from his teeth.

“I find myself wondering,” Banks said, “how a young woman came to be traveling across the countryside, alone?”

“Do recall, sir, that I was calling on my cousin–”

He interrupted, “Calling on a cousin, in the countryside, while carrying face paint and dressing so impractically?”

She is dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks, her husband had said.

“You are perceptive, sir!” Lydia forced a giggle. “I must own my share of the sin of vanity.”

In the silence stretching between them, Lydia heard a faint patter.

Saliva was dripping from Fitzroy’s teeth onto the floor.

Oh, Lord…

Distracted, she only jerked when Banks lunged and yanked her onto his lap. His arms were like bone stays about her torso.

“No, Miss Hatfield.” His breath was hot in her ear. “That is not your sin. Whose whore are you?”

One of his arms detached–Lydia tried to twist free–and then his hand grabbed her thigh.

His fingers froze. “Wha–”

My dagger.

Lydia slammed her heel down, raking his shin and crushing the top of his foot.

She felt the blow lance through him and ripped free, falling to the ground and rolling away.

“You goddamned whore!” Banks wheezed, stumbling upright. A dining knife glittered in his hand. Lydia scrambled backwards on her elbows between the chairs.

Through his legs, Lydia saw Fitzroy advancing. She reached for the dagger but her skirts had tangled–

Banks lunged.

Fitzroy leapt.

Lydia kicked a chair. It spun and crashed in front of her.

Banks dodged–but then Fitzroy crashed into him, toppling them both over the chair. There was the crack of human bone. Banks screamed.

Lydia scrambled up. Gasping, she ran into the hall.

She reached the stairs that led down, her ears ringing with Banks’ cries for aide.

Her cover was blown–the house was roused against her–her sisters screamed for her to flee.

But the blood pounding through her screamed back, thrilling to the chase, the fight, the knife’s edge balance between life and death, failure and success.

Lydia grabbed the banister and hurtled downstairs.

One, two, three flights of stairs brought her to a landing outside what looked like a cellar door. Barrels gathered dead flies in the corners. Gasping, Lydia smelled the ocean-salted-earth that surrounded her at this depth.

Footfalls and shouting echoed above. And–oh, Lord!–the scuttling of hard nails on marble.

Lydia grasped the doorknob.

It was locked.

She grabbed her pocket, fumbling past the smelling salts for the fan case. Pulled free the pick and wrench. She would crack the lock– subdue Doherty–and then–

And then she heard the staccato rattle of claws descending the stairs.

Lydia pirouetted, sweeping out with the pick, but a heavy weight caught her inside the strike. The pick flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor.

Nails like knives raked her legs and arms and torso. A massive body crushed the dagger’s sheath into her leg. Instinct threw her arm before her throat as Fitzroy lunged, teeth bared and tongue spraying saliva.

Fitzroy’s teeth closed on her arm. The wrench clattered on the floor. Pain screamed through her as he began to shake her arm, the bone twisting in its socket.

Mama! Lydia cried soundlessly. He’s going to tear my arm off!

Don’t say such things, my dear, her long-dead mother replied. With my nerves, you’ll make me faint.

Faint

Faint.

Blackness shadowed her vision. Lydia moaned and fumbled one-handed for her pocket.

The pear-shaped bottle slipped into her hand.

Lydia closed her eyes and slammed the bottle against Fitzroy’s head. The ceramic shattered. Cutting shards slashed her skin and the air turned to ammonia-fueled fire.

Her arm dropped against her throat. Choking, Fitzroy leapt off her. His nails clattered up the stairs, the worst of the ammonia-stench disappearing with him.

Lydia crawled away from the lingering vapor. Her savaged arm screamed pain; blood and saliva ran down her front.

You deserve this, Lydia! cried her sisters. Banks will find you here and–

“–t’s going on out there?” Doherty’s voice, muffled by the door.

Her sisters switched tactics. Doherty will find you here and–

Lydia cracked open her eyes. The ammonia found them and her vision clouded.

“Hello? Hello!” Doherty shrilled.

Her eyes stinging slits, Lydia crawled behind a barrel. Cradling her arm, she dry-heaved and, in a raw voice, cried, “Oh, ma’rm!”

“What? What?”

Lydia wheezed, “You’re needed ‘mediately upstairs!”

She curled tighter, the movement pulling open her slash-wounds.

A door bolt scraped. Hinges squealed.

Doherty gasped. “What in God’s name…!”

Gagging, the woman pounded up the stairs.

The door squealed as it began swinging shut.

Lydia leapt for it. She caught the handle and its massive weight dragged her before halting an inch from the jamb.

Black and red spots scuttled like spiders across her vision. Lydia pulled the door open and staggered through. It fell shut behind her, cutting off the lingering stench of ammonia.

Lydia threw the bolt and sank to her knees, drawing in great lungfuls of air that smelled of the ocean and tasted of daggers. A grey netherworld–as oppressive as the Hertfordshire mists of her girlhood–threatened to envelop her. Clutching her fang-torn arm, Lydia fought it off.

With her good hand, she tore free her gown’s gaping front. Clenching her teeth, she wrapped the cloth about her wounds.

Pain meant she was alive.

Lydia stood, each slash bone-deep bruise protesting. She wiped her stinging eyes and flung the tears onto the stone floor.

She was alive. Lydia turned in place. A single candle lit the cave-like room and the entrance to a low tunnel. Diagrams and papers spilled from a narrow bed, the writing so precise it could have been typeset. Skeins of raw, metallic-smelling silk gathered in piles that hinted at some unknown classification. In the corner, a complicated loom was strung with half-finished cloth, its weave too fine to discern.

Sisters be damned, she was alive. Lydia drew her dagger. A light glowed in the tunnel. Crude stairs ran down it.

From the tunnel rushed the great heartbeat of the ocean’s waves. And beneath the ocean’s roar chattered a strange sound–like many voices.

Or many feet.

Her eyes and dagger trained on the glow ahead, she descended.

The metallic smell grew stronger–stronger–stronger.

But it was nothing to the sight that greeted her.

Lydia halted at the glow’s edge, her stunned senses unable to manage another step. The sting of her wounds faded, her eyes too overwhelmed for her to process any other sensation than shock.

The cavern arched overhead. Cold, fresh air buffeted small flies against her in time to the sound of waves. The air’s briny stench overlay the scent of decomposing wooden barrels and rotting rowboats.

Lydia stared. The cavern was draped–festooned–infested with spider webs. Ancient, frail webs clotted every crag; new, sturdy ones stretched across columns of stalactites; and closest to Lydia, webs as fine as gossamer glinted gold and green in the light of a dozen oil lamps.

Spiders moved purposefully among the webs, glittering like emeralds set into gold. And moving just as purposefully, encased from head-to-toe in cloth of emerald and gold, was Miss Cassandra Banks.

The woman prodded a fresh web with a metal cane. Its spider leapt aggressively onto the cane as the web stretched. Nodding, Cassie carefully returned the spider to its remarkably intact home.

When she moved, her foot knocked several rocks. One clattered to a stop near Lydia. In the lamp light, she saw that it was a time-yellowed human vertebrae.

Her eyes flickering between the spiders and Cassie, Lydia squeezed the dagger.

She nearly screamed when Cassie suddenly struck out with the cane. Crushed spider glistened wetly. Its web snapped as Cassie twirled the strands about her cane.

Mad. Lydia shuddered. All that she sought–that the French smuggled and the king coveted–came from a madwoman’s pet spiders.

Not that Clarke would believe her. Even Mrs. Lincoln might doubt her.

She needed proof: web. Silk. Spiders. But Cassie showed no signs of leaving.

Lydia took a miscalculated step and knew it instantly. Her slipper knocked the damned vertebrae into a stalagmite.

Cassie whirled. Crushed spider and destroyed web dangled from the cane. The light shimmered on the golden veil across her face.

Cassie advanced, brandishing the cane like a rapier.

Oh, Lord! Lydia brought the dagger up, twisting to shield her savaged arm.

But Cassie halted. She swayed as she regarded Lydia.

“You saved my baby,” Cassie said.

Lydia stared. Baby?

That spider. The one she saved from Doherty and returned to Cassie.

“Y-yes.” Lydia swallowed. “I did.”

Without another word, the woman turned, opened an oil lamp, and thrust the web inside. It burned with a scent like hair kept too long on a curling iron and then was gone.

Lydia appreciated the frustrations of motherhood–she loved Bennie while thanking God for boarding schools–but this seemed rather extreme.

“Why, er,” Lydia said, “did you destroy that ‘baby’?”

“Its web wasn’t strong enough,” Cassie said. “And it was too green.”

Lydia stared. The philosophy of Lamarck, she thought, applied to spiders.

Strange thought, but her pulse was steadying now that the cane was pointed elsewhere.

“Do you dislike green, Miss Banks?” Lydia said, advancing. The cavern loomed overhead, glittering with chattering spiders.

“What I dislike is irrelevant.” Cassie’s now-cool cane tested more webs, sending spiders fleeing. Her words echoed about the stone cavern. “Green correlates with their venom’s strength.”

Lydia froze. Her mind stepped back from the scene, plaiting this thread of knowledge into the others she had gathered.

Cassie, covered in spider silk impenetrable to daggers–and, presumably, to spider fangs.

Doherty’s terror when Lydia had picked up the spider bare-handed and given it to Cassie.

The human vertebrae at Lydia’s feet.

She thawed when Cassie’s cane cracked against another stalactite.

“M-miss Banks,” Lydia said. Don’t stutter. She took a breath. They’re just venomous man-killing spiders. And she’s grateful you saved her ‘baby’. “If you don’t need the greener ones anymore, perhaps I could have several?”

Lydia swallowed. Kindness–both given and received–had an unfamiliar taste. “Please?”

The cane halted mid-swing.

“The bite of one itched me maddeningly, when we first discovered this place after Father died,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Two sting horribly. Three bit my brother, and he never comes here anymore. Four will kill. It was my brother who realized Father used them to keep his men in line, but it was my idea to use them for my life’s work.”

Lydia looked down at the vertebrae. She saw now that the cave’s sand was dotted with more old bones.

She looked up at the spiders, spinning and feasting and waiting and mating, glittering like jewels on their webs.

Then she looked at Cassie, and drew a deep breath. She was in a nest of death with a brilliant, monomaniacal woman whose research was benefiting the French.

But Lydia suspected Cassie neither knew what her brother did with the silk, nor did she care. My life’s work.

“I’ll take three,” Lydia said, drawing out her fan case. “Please.” The case’s insulated inside would keep them–and her–safe.

Cassie took the case. Her gaze flickered among the spiders. With practiced ease, she swept three into the case.

Lydia swallowed: the largest spider carried an egg sac. Real babies.

The case snapped shut. Lydia took it, conscious of the faintest increase in weight. Her fingers whitened as she tightened her grip.

“Thank you, Miss Banks,” Lydia said, sincerely.

But Cassie was already turning away. The cane resumed its restless testing of webs. Lydia had the distinct sense that, for Cassie, she was no longer an object of interest.

But for her brother–

Lydia glanced up the stairs. The servants, Fitzroy, and Banks waited out there.

She looked deeper into the cavern, where indigo water lapped at bones. Darkness loomed ahead, as riddled with death and the unknown as the maw of some terrible dragon–

“Bugger that,” Lydia muttered. Tucking her gown up into her chemise’s waistband, she clamped the fan case between her teeth, picked up a lamp, and waded into the bloody cold water.

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“–and this groom met you at the appointed place with your horse?” Clarke frowned at Lydia.

Lydia set down her teacup. The sweet scent of bergamot wafted up as Mrs. Lincoln poured more. The fire crackled, throwing flattering light over her new gown and the shawl draped over her bandaged arm. Mrs. Lincoln had graciously advanced Lydia the necessary funds, given her success.

Ribbons tied the fan case shut. It lay on the desk by Clarke’s hand.

“Yes,” Lydia said, taking the teacup. “He–”

            (–was there, with just her horse. The wind tousled her husband’s hair. Moonlight pierced the storm clouds and illuminated his face. She saw the man Bennie would become: tall, graceful, handsome.

            “Did you get it, Lydia?” he said, setting down an unlit lamp. Taking off his jacket, he draped it over her wet, bruised shoulders.

            Lydia, she thought. It had been so long since he’d said her name.

            “I did, George.” She held up the fan case triumphantly.

But here was more than solicitousness in his expression; there was open greed.)

“–kept his word.”

Clarke’s frown deepened. “Quite a risk, trusting a man who, hmmm, took bribes to turn against his master.”

Mrs. Lincoln stirred. “We often take such risks. Mrs. Bexley did nothing extraordinary there.”

Lydia swirled the tea in her cup. “But it is true, madam. I did take a risk, trusting–”

            (“–you!” she exclaimed. “You used me –you wanted the silk, too!”

            “Aye,” George said, his hand like a vise about her arm. “But Lydia, this is our chance! My companions don’t know we’d–“

            “Your ‘companions’?” Lydia exclaimed. But the word slotted into place and, taking a mental step back, she could see the puzzle to which it belonged: The new scar on his jaw. The flashing lights in the night–lights the same red as the glass panes, she now saw, of George’s unlit lantern.

            George knowing about the cloth.

            George helping her.

            “You’re a–a smuggler! A swindler!”

            “Aye,” he repeated like he did not care. He drew her near; she felt his hot breath on her face, the hard lines of his body. “No one knows we have it. We could sell it, get Bennet from that damned school, and the three of us could live a grand life together.”)

“–him,” Lydia said.

“What happened to him?” Clarke said, poking at the fan case. “Did you tell him what you were stealing?”

The tea was over-steeped. Lydia shook her head when Mrs. Lincoln moved to refill it.

“I told him I worked for the estranged Mrs. Banks,” Lydia said.

She looked–

            (–up at him. And she saw the man Bennet would become, raised by fugitives whose greed and lust meant they could not keep their word–not to their comrades, not to their employers, and not to each other.

            And she saw the woman she would become, in thrall to a man who had been like opium to her since she was sixteen.

            “No, George,” Lydia said, pulling against his grip. “Not this time.”

            His fingers dug into her shoulders. She cried out but he grabbed her damaged arm, his grip like fire on her fresh wounds. His other hand tore the fan case from her.

            “No!”

Without her grip the case opened. Three green jewels spilled into the moonlight and onto her husband’s skin.)

–down as Clarke played with the ribbon’s knot on the fan case. Something rustled; but Lydia could not tell–

            (–if he was still conscious. His screams had faded to gasps when Lydia coaxed the last spider back into the case.

He lay at her feet, weak and unprotected.

The man who had ruined her.

Betrayed her.

Given her Bennie.

            The horse was skittish after the tumult, and saddled for a man. Lydia used a hair ribbon to tie shut the case; then, with several awkward attempts, she managed to get astride, her skirts hiked up to show an indecorous amount of leg.

            Her husband’s pained, incredulous gaze met hers.

            “You’ll live,” Lydia said curtly. She drove her heels into the horse and the beast took off like a shot.)

–whether the rustle was from Clarke’s sleeves, or inside the case. A rustle mere inches from the fingers of this man who looked at her with contempt so strong Lydia could taste it, as bitter and familiar as her sisters’ faces.

She looked down at her tea, swirling its dregs. “I should be careful playing with the fan case, sir.”

Clarke frowned skeptically. But his fingers went still when he looked at her face.

“One bite will itch,” Lydia said, over the soft scratching sound and the memories of the dark, damp cave. “Two sting horribly. Three cripple a man with pain. Four will kill.”

She set down the cup, its last bitter swallow untasted.

___

Copyright 2016 Megan Chaudhuri

A toxicologist by training and a writer by inclination, Megan lives near Seattle with one husband and two cats. Her science fiction has been published in Analog and Crossed Genres, while her science non-fiction has appeared in Slate under her maiden name, Megan Cartwright. Her website is http://sciencebasedwriting.wordpress.com.

 

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