by M. Huw Evans

It’s easier when I pretend not to know him–when I think of him as a stranger and remind myself that he will still have a normal life. Maybe a better one, even.

I used to wear a mask or a fake beard to disguise myself, but he hasn’t recognized me for a long time.

I let myself into his second-floor apartment using a key hidden under the mat. I sit on his couch and hit play on the stereo remote. Radiohead’s Amnesiac, like always.

At thirty-two minutes past the hour, I kill the music and walk to the kitchen window. Rain splatters the street below. I can almost hear it.

I try not to see the chef knife on the counter. Nightmares are made of the time when things went bad. When I screwed up the dose and he woke up. There was a struggle and I panicked. I avoid knives, now.

He rides up to the building and locks his bicycle to a post. I retreat to the bathroom and wait behind the door. I remind myself how much I need this. It’s not hurting him. Not really. If you don’t know what you’ve lost, you can hardly miss it.

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I first met Annabelle one year, twenty-seven weeks, and two days prior to our wedding. That was nineteen weeks and six days before my dissertation defense; three years, fifteen weeks, and a day prior to the birth of our daughter, Maggie.

I met Annabelle at an Italian restaurant near Green Lake.

What I remember about the evening–the thing about that first meeting that I’m surprised I remember–is the bit of cork floating in my wine. Each time I return to that scene, to my seat at the bar, as close to the piano as possible, it’s the tiny cork raft that I see, floating on the black-red ocean. And it’s a nocturne for piano that I hear.

I was the token grad student at a faculty recruitment dinner. My adviser, John Hicks, was present, along with several other epidemiology professors. My job was to eat quietly, drink little, laugh at the candidate’s jokes, and answer occasional questions. Patrick, someone might say, tell us about the temporal trends in your VA cardiovascular cohort, and I would tell them.

Disjointed phrases of “Girl From Ipanema” filled the space between personal anecdotes and pithy discussions. I had noticed a piano over by the bar when we entered, but I couldn’t recall when the music had started. I strained to assemble the notes in my head–to follow the syncopated melody. Then it ended, to be replaced by Chopin’s “Murmures de la Seine.” I lost track of the table conversation completely–hadn’t a clue who or what was being discussed. By the time I recognized my distraction, there was no way to recover. I couldn’t go back and replay the conversation that I’d missed. The only way to avoid embarrassment was to head for the restroom before anyone asked my opinion.

The pianist sat with her back to the diners, facing the lounge. Pale braids circled her head and a halter top dress displayed a tall neck and smooth shoulders dotted with freckles. Her elbows floated away from her body with each swell of the melody. Long fingers dripped from her hands to the faux-ivory keys. Extended trills and rapid arpeggios seemed effortless. I allowed myself a backward glance as I passed. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted.

On my return to the table, she was playing “Time Is On My Side.” She looked up and smiled.

I have no memory of the rest of dinner. I must not have said anything too foolish, as the candidate ultimately took the position, but my mind was far from the conversation. I was consumed by fantasies–dreams of summoning the nerve to speak to her. No conscious ideas of sex or romance yet prevailed. I just wanted that smile again.

When dessert was finished, John offered me a ride.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I’ve got my bike and it’s barely sprinkling.”

“Come by my office tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got an opportunity with your name written all over it.”

Avoiding new projects is a critical skill for grad students actually interested in finishing their degrees. “Sure,” I said. It was a skill that I had not acquired.

I followed him out, and made a show of unlocking my bicycle, but when he’d gone, I locked it up again and returned to the bar. The pianist saw me, smiled again, and transitioned from Bizet’s “Habanera” to Pearl Jam’s “Wish List.” I ordered a glass of the house Chianti.

She played a mix of familiar classics, pop songs, show tunes, and jazz. When she finished a piece, sometimes there would be applause; usually she would go straight into the next. After an hour, when only a few diners remained, she joined me at the bar.

I had rehearsed what I might say: you play beautifully or you have such elegant fingers.

She took the stool beside me and said, “There’s a floater in your wine.”

“Um…” I began, but intelligent speech failed me.

“Could I have mine sans cork?” she said, then, extending a hand, “I’m Annabelle.”

She worked in a music shop during the days and played piano at the restaurant four nights a week. I told her about my work and she put on a convincing show of interest. We talked of music and local artists. We had attended many of the same shows.

“Would you like another glass?” I said, when she’d finished her wine.

She hesitated a moment before blurting out, “I don’t want a relationship.”

I was startled and didn’t reply, so she continued.

“I mean–shit. I’m sorry… I wanted to get it out there, so… you know, less confusion. I broke up with someone and I’m not ready.” Neither of us spoke. We looked at our empty glasses, mine with its bit of cork stuck to the wall.

Finally, she said, “I’ve just ruined–”

“No,” I said. “I understand. I don’t really want…” I couldn’t lie. I wanted.

She folded her napkin, unfolded it, set it down, picked it up again.

“Do you think we can pretend I didn’t say anything?” she said. “Go back to a minute ago, when you suggested another glass? If I’d accepted one, where might that have led us?”

“The counterfactual scenario?”

“Counterfactual?” she said.

“It’s the term for ‘what if things had been different?’ We use it in epidemiology. Say you want to figure out how many heart attacks are due to eating hamburgers. You have to know how many of the people who ate hamburgers and had heart attacks would have had heart attacks anyway if they hadn’t eaten hamburgers.”

“Can’t you just look at how many people who don’t eat hamburgers have heart attacks?” she asked.

“That’s pretty much what we do,” I said, “but it’s not perfect. See, you can never know for sure that the non-hamburger eaters don’t differ from the hamburger eaters in some other way. Some factor that we can’t detect. And maybe that other factor also influences the risk–”

She started laughing. “I don’t eat burgers.”

“Desserts, then,” I said. “The point is, we’d like to be able study the exact same group of people twice–once with them all eating dessert, and once with no dessert.”

“Have your cake and eat it too, huh?”

“That’s the counterfactual,” I said. “What would be different now–”

“I get it,” she said. “So let’s go back and try again. Let’s say you just asked me if I wanted more wine.”

“It’s not the same,” I said. “We’re different people than we were even five minutes ago.”

“Now I think you’re missing the point,” she said. Her hand found my knee and she winked. “Pretend?”

I raised my glass.

“Alright then.” She snapped her fingers, and said, “No, thank you, I’ve had plenty of wine for a first date, but I’d love some tiramisu.”

That was four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day prior to Annabelle’s death by motor vehicle accident, three blocks north of the Aurora bridge.

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A key turns in the lock and the apartment door creaks. I hear his voice talking into a phone.

“…a quiet evening in with the data. Why? …but John, I’ve come to three of these dinners already and… Can’t you parade one of the other… Okay, okay. I’ll just clean up and then bike over on my own.”

His cycling shoes clatter against the linoleum floor. He enters the bathroom and I strike. He sees me in the mirror too late. My left arm circles his neck, and I pull his head to my chest. I squeeze his throat in the crook of my elbow. He struggles, fights, but I know his every move before he makes it.

As consciousness deserts him, our eyes meet in the mirror. What he sees in my face–I don’t know what he sees. I’m not him.

What I see in him is surprise. Surprise, anger, confusion, denial, and maybe, for just one moment before he passes out, acceptance. I envy him that–the acceptance.

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“How’s the paper coming?” John Hicks leaned back, his head silhouetted against dual monitors cluttered with spreadsheets, code windows, and manuscripts for review. He looked tired, older even. Maybe he’d returned to the office after dinner and worked all night.

“I’m still waiting on GIS overlay figures,” I said, “but our part is done. Should go out to co-authors by Tuesday.”

I didn’t need that long. I was padding my time. A pleasant hint of premonition nagged and I hoped to enjoy the weekend.

“Good. What else is on your plate?”

“Well… we’ve got another dataset from the Group Health cohort and–”

“Anything that can’t wait a couple days?” he said.

“Why? What do you have in mind?” The next grant deadline was weeks away, so he shouldn’t be panicked about our renewal yet.

“There’s a sort of fellowship. A job.” A day could hardly pass without him pushing another funding opportunity on me.

“It’s by referral only,” he said. “A short-term appointment to test new protocols. Novel techniques for longitudinal cohort studies. I want you to apply. Get the training, at least.”

“Training?” I said. “What, like a new software package?”

“No… actually, I can’t tell you yet. There’s some proprietary technology and right now it’s all a bit hush-hush.” He chuckled. “I’m involved though, and I can tell you, this will revolutionize our field.” He leaned forward. “And the pay–if you were accepted, you’d make more than most full professors.”

“I’m intrigued,” I said. “Why me?”

“You get stuff done,” he said. “No procrastination, no whining, no bullshit.”

I didn’t reply, so he shifted in his seat and tried again.

“What’s the big problem with cohort data?” he asked. Was he quizzing me on study design?

“Well,” I began, “you’re limited to measuring a small set of exposures, which–”

“Skip that. You finish your data collection and  you’ve got perfect follow-up on all subjects. What do you still have to worry about?”

“Underlying differences between exposed and unexposed… that are unrelated to the exposure of interest.”

He clapped his hands. “Bingo. Comparability across exposure groups. And there’s nothing we can do about it unless…”

He seemed to want me to finish his sentence. I waited. After a long pause he said, “Patrick, are you seeing anyone?”

“What?” I said. He wasn’t the sort to pry.

“It’s none of my business. Forget I asked. This job though–they’re only considering single applicants.”

Was I seeing anyone? An evening’s conversation. Wine and dessert. The touch of her lips on my cheek before she ran to a bus. It meant nothing. Technically, I was as single as I’d been twenty-four hours before. No, I wasn’t seeing anyone.

“Actually, I kind of am,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “Kind of?” he said. “You’ve never mentioned.”

“It’s a new thing,” I said. Was it really even a thing? “We just met. Last night.”

He frowned. “After the dinner?” I could see him puzzling it out. “The girl at the piano, right?”

I nodded, shifted my feet.

“I can’t tell you what to do, Patrick, but this job–it’s not something to miss.”

“Neither is Annabelle.” Until I said it, I hadn’t realized that it was true.

“I guess you can’t regret this if you don’t know what you’re missing, but if you knew, I think you’d choose differently.”

“Another damned counterfactual,” I muttered.

He chuckled. “Right. Sure.”

Then, after a pause, he said, “I guess I’m happy for you, Patrick. She must really be something, this pianist.”

She was.

And for a time, we were–really something. Me and Annabelle, and later, me and Annabelle and Maggie.

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There are some things that cannot be.

A visit at work, in the middle of the day, from a police officer with beads of rain studding his jacket. Words that could not be, coming from his mouth.

A home appliance delivery truck, southbound on Aurora avenue. Its driver asleep or drunk. A blue hatchback rolled and crushed. A broken body on wet pavement. Words that made sense, sounded plausible, but would not fit with my world. Could not be true.

I asked one of Annabelle’s friends to assemble the music. I probably suggested Barber’s “Agnus Dei”–Annabelle’s favorite. I don’t remember whether it was played. What I do remember–what I remember hearing that day is Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” when someone hit the wrong playlist. There was a stifled laugh. I remember that.

I remember that the sun shone that day, and I remember Maggie. I remember how she wouldn’t be held. How she cried the whole time. Stumbled around on wobbly legs, calling for her mother. Fell down and cried more. My parents tried to distract her. Eventually, she fell asleep on a pew and later, I carried her to the car.

The people who should have been at the reception were there. Annabelle’s mother and sister. My parents. Annabelle’s friends, my friends, John Hicks.

What I remember about John that day is that he wore a hat, and when he came into the church, he took it off. His hair was thinner than I’d remembered. He probably said something to me. I don’t know.

Afterward, at the reception, I ate some carrot sticks and a piece of cheese. That’s all I remember of the day. A day that could not be.

Then anger, bargaining, depression. I was told acceptance would follow. I could not accept that.

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“How are things, Patrick?” John’s voice through my phone. “How’s Maggie?”

“John, I can’t come back yet. To work.”

“No worries, Patrick. Take next quarter off. I can teach your seminar.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.” I was sitting at my desk, looking at the wall. Looking at photographs on the wall. Photographs of me and Annabelle, and of me and Annabelle and Maggie.

Maggie was asleep beside me. I had moved the crib into my office to keep her close. She was irritable and if I wasn’t there the moment she woke, she might cry for hours.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Come explain to a seventeen-month-old why her mother’s gone. Get me something better than aspirin for this headache. Remind me how to focus…on anything.”

“What about the grandparents? I met your folks and Annabelle’s mom at the–” He couldn’t say it. The other F word.

“They help a lot,” I said. “But if I’m not with Maggie, she gets… It might be a while.”

“Can you work from home?” he asked. Drafts of three unread papers sat on my desk, awaiting comments.

“I don’t seem to be making any progress,” I said. I flipped through the first manuscript. It was covered with notes and edits, written in my own hand. I couldn’t even remember making them. “I’m just not functioning,” I said. “I’m falling apart. Forgetting stuff.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, Patrick, how are you set financially?”

“That’s another problem,” I said. “I guess I can move in with my folks if it comes to it.”

There was a long pause. John doing the math on how long he could get the department to keep paying me after I’d stopped teaching or writing grants. Finally, he spoke.

“You remember that job I mentioned a few years back?” He took my silence for acknowledgement. “I can still get you in, and it pays a lot.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I have to be with Maggie.” She stirred and started to fuss. I rubbed her back, stroked her head.

“You’d have to go in for a day of training and orientation, but after that, you’d work from home and Maggie could have you all the time.”

On cue, she started crying. I told John I’d think about it and I hung up. I lifted Maggie from the crib and held her. She kicked and wailed. I carried her to the kitchen and prepared a bottle.

“I need her,” I said, as Maggie sucked greedily at the rubber nipple. “I need your mother.”

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I met John in the cafeteria of the university hospital. The hospital where Maggie was born–where I’d attended prenatal classes with Annabelle. To John, it was just a convenient place to talk–and eat.

“You don’t look so good,” he said. “You eat today?” I hadn’t seen him in person since the memorial service. He looked like he’d aged a decade.

“You’re looking a bit run down yourself,” I said. “Everything alright?”

“Let’s get some breakfast,” he said.

When we’d sat down with our trays, he squeezed ketchup onto hash browns. I picked at a bagel.

“So, recall that old problem,” he said, “with ensuring comparability across exposure groups?”

I nodded.

“There’s a way,” he said. “A way to do it perfectly.”

“Don’t tell me,” I said, “you’ve got cohorts of human clones that you’re raising on desert islands?” I tore a chunk from my bagel.

He laughed. “Nope,” he said. “Better.” He shoveled eggs into his mouth and chewed. “I remember being in your shoes,” he said, “when they first told me. Your world’s about to turn upside-down.”

“Again?” I said. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

What John told me, sitting there in the hospital cafeteria over eggs and hash browns was that time travel, when it finally came along, was a big disappointment.

“Think about it,” he said. “Say you’re the secretary of defense. People are always pushing new technologies at you. Stuff with military potential, you know. When a team of physicists out on the West Coast claims to have transported a video camera into the past and back, it’s got to be a joke, right? But if it’s not… well, think of the applications!”

Early on, the few scientists and defense guys who knew about it were scared. “You don’t have to be a physicist or a sci-fi geek to understand the inherent dangers of traveling into the past. Paradoxes, accidentally erasing your own parents from history, et cetera.”

So they ran tests, out in remote locations–tried to alter insignificant events. In the Mojave Desert, a concrete plinth was transported five years into the past. In the present, there was no trace of it. A reconnaissance drone was sent to the same time and place. It returned, bearing three weeks of astronomical observations–enough data to definitively prove that it was transported to the past. “But the plinth–it wasn’t in any of the drone’s photos.”

Bacteria, fungi, and plants were sent back and then examined on their return. No adverse effects. Then mice, rats, dogs, a goat, and two pigs all made the round-trip without mishap.

“Safe for animals; safe for humans,” said John. “And at first it seemed that way. Travelers went and returned over and over. They could snap pictures, bring shit back with them, describe historical events, but any time they tried to change little bits of history, when they came back, our present was exactly as they remembered.

“There was a setback when a traveler went twenty-four hours into the past, planning to tail himself for a day, watch his own departure, and then just stick around and pick up where he left off. He’d have lived one day of his life twice. A loop.”

John stopped talking and took a long swig of coffee. He pushed wisps of hair back off his forehead.

“So, what happened?” I said.

“It didn’t work,” John replied. “That guy, he left and, he was just gone. He never returned. Ever. After that, human trials were suspended for a long time.”

“Okay, John,” I said, “you keep talking about the past. What about–”

“The future?” he said. “Yeah, theoretically, it was supposed to work as easily as going into the past. All the drones sent to the future disappeared though. Never came back as scheduled. And they are never sitting there, broken down and waiting for us, when their target date rolls around.”

Every destination in time, John told me, regardless of whether the traveler is drone, human, or a single atom, becomes a branch-point. A divergence. The birth of a new parallel universe.

“All those changes that people tried to make in the past… they were successful,” he said. “They changed the past, alright–just different pasts that can never influence our own.” John laughed. “The military–the politicians that knew about it–they were pissed when they found out they couldn’t use it to fix their mistakes.”

The reason none of the drones returned from the future, was because when they jumped back to the present, they were creating a branch point. They returned to a present that looked like their own, but it was really a different present with a different future.

“And that guy who jumped back a day, and disappeared,” said John, “he was successful too. He went back, watched himself for a day–watched himself disappear–then continued living the rest of his life, presumably working on the same project, performing more travel tests. He just did all that in a different universe and never even knew it.

“I guess that wasn’t any comfort to his wife and kids,” I said.”

John shook his head. “He was single,” he said, “but his parents don’t know what he was doing, and they’re still scouring the globe for him. Won’t give up.”

John wiped his hands on a napkin and said, “Now, say you’re a scientist, and you’re looking for an ideal study population.”

“John,” I said, “have you actually done this? Created other universes–gone back in time?”

“And say you’re sick to hell of dealing with institutional review boards and ethics panels and–”

“Shit, John,” I said. “Ethics panels? This is insane. You’re serious about this? You’re really…this is real?”

“Sure, you’ll have to prove your findings in your own timeline too,” John said. “Nobody will buy the answer to a question that hasn’t been properly asked.”

John pushed his chair back and stood. I followed him to the exit. He held the door for me and grinned.

“But when you already know all the answers,” he said, “you always ask the right question. The one for which the answer is yes.”

No more negative studies. No more investigational dead ends. What the world sees as intuitive genius–an uncanny knack for getting it right every time–it’s still trial and error. It’s just that all the errors are hidden. They’re dumped on another universe.

And if it nags at your conscience a little bit–what you might be doing to all the people in all those other universes you’re creating, well…it’s amazing, given enough time and incentive, what a person can justify to himself in the name of science. History is full of it.

John led me through a cold drizzle toward a two-story brick building by the lake. Lake Union. Where Annabelle and I would sit and talk. About the future. About us. Where Maggie would babble and point out the ducks, the boats.

With every trip to the past, John–or whoever–had created a whole other Lake Union. Other ducks. Another Maggie. Annabelle. Another me.

My stomach folded up and I got dizzy. I thought I might be sick.  I believed John’s words even while my mind rebelled against them. Words that could not be true; that threatened my understanding of the world.

John kept walking. I took a couple deep breaths and caught up.

“How did our department get a hold of the technology?” I asked.

“Everything trickles down eventually,” John replied without turning round. “Defense engineers slide into private industry jobs. Senators gobble up campaign contributions. Favors are repaid, and that which was secret is soon for sale.”

We passed the main entrance to the building and continued around two sides, to the back.

“The original scientists, though,” he said, “–the physicists who developed time travel in the first place–they were here–right here–and they were smart. They understood the subtleties of intellectual property law.”

The university held exclusive rights to non-governmental applications. When the Department of Defense cleared the technology for civilian use, the university bared its teeth. “Made the corporations beg,” said John. “Forced them to contract with us for all of their time travel needs. And we aren’t cheap.”

Small black lettering on the door of the building read Experimental Physics Library Annex. John punched a series of numbers into a keypad and the lock buzzed. We entered a low room, ten feet square, with bare walls. Cameras glared down from the ceiling. Another door with a keypad faced me. I heard the lock of the first door click behind me and John keyed us in through the second.

“What if you meet yourself?” I said.

“In another universe?” said John. “It can get complicated. Dangerous. I’ve done it a couple times. I had to get myself out of the way in another past to prevent some of my own research.”

“Out of the way?” I said.

“We’ll assign you to projects that are completely unrelated to your real-world work,” John said. “You’ll never have to meet yourself.”

I followed him through a series of windowless hallways. At an elevator door, John posed, wide-eyed before a camera that scanned his retinae. There were no buttons in the elevator. The door closed behind us and my insides jumped with the rapid descent.

“Was this building ever a library?” I asked.

“Some little corner of it still is, I suppose. We just call it EPLA.” Ee-pluh.

We exited the elevator into a concrete tunnel lit by fluorescent tubes. Heavy doors lined the walls. John picked one marked “Procedures” and grasped the handle. He turned to face me.

“This is right for you,” he said.

“What if I back out now?” I asked. “Just refuse to proceed?”

“You would get an injection–a cocktail of benzos and such–and then you’d wake up a few hours from now, with a headache, and no memory of the past couple days.”

“John,” I said, “I had a really bad headache last week.”

“Grieving takes time, Patrick. A few days can make a big difference.” He opened the door. “I think you’re ready now.”

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I watched the surgery in real-time on a monitor. I watched the surgeon’s hands as she anesthetized the back of my neck, and then cut a vertical incision. She held a tiny cigar-shaped capsule up to the camera.

“Doesn’t look like much,” she said.

It was an inch long and a quarter that in diameter. White metal, with a sandblasted surface. She inserted the capsule into the space she’d created and then sewed the layers of flesh closed over it.

When finished, she handed me her card. “I’ll see you again to remove the sutures. You can call me for anything, but only me. No hospitals.”

After that, John and I watched TV.

“John,” I said, “when you return–when you come back from an alternate timeline–how do you know you’re in the right one?”

“What, that you’re not like the guy who went back to watch himself and never came back?” said John. “I could cite experiments. They might reassure you. Ultimately, though, you never know. You always wonder. Is all this happening somewhere else–without me?”

Sharp pains pricked my neck–not just at the incision, but above and below too. I reached a hand to the place, but John stopped me.

“It’s the tendrils growing,” he said. “They pass through sensitive tissues on their way to the brain and spinal cord. If they weren’t so small, you’d be on the floor, right now, writhing in agony. Tell me when you start hallucinating.”

It wasn’t long. First, a simple square–just four straight lines–floated across my visual field. Then a circle and a triangle.

John sat with me in front of a monitor, while I learned to move the shapes around with tiny flicks of my eyes. He typed a series of commands into a terminal and a menu of options blinked into my vision.

“Try scrolling up and down,” he said. “Kick your gaze right to select and left to move up the directory tree. Nothing is active yet, so don’t worry about going anywhere by mistake.”

My visual overlay was mirrored on John’s monitor and when he was satisfied with my progress he said, “Now you learn to travel.”

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When I arrived at my parents’ place, Mom opened the door and Maggie ran to greet me. I picked her up and held her for a long time–until she started squirming and saying, “down, down. Down!” I had only been away from her eight hours. I hadn’t seen her for two weeks.

After a series of short training jumps to and from various desolate locations, I had traveled back two weeks and holed up in a guest suite inside the EPLA building of a parallel universe. I ate instant meals, ran on a treadmill, and studied.

“You need a haircut,” Mom said, after she’d hugged me. “I didn’t even notice it this morning–how shaggy you’re getting.”

I studied theory and applications of travel until the stitches came out. A traveler could keep jumping forward within a parallel timeline and still return to the point of origin in his own universe. Downstream effects of his actions could be observed, elsewhere, in other people, without consequence for his own world.

“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you, Patrick? You look exhausted.” I followed Mom into the house, through the toy-strewn living room, to the kitchen. She poured me a glass of water and I watched her cook.

For a price, EPLA would assign teams of consultants to design and execute studies. Marketing firms, insurance companies, and financial institutions all contracted regularly. My work would be for a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.

Maggie marched into the kitchen with a tattered paperback of Lost Horizon that she’d decorated with purple crayon. She presented it to me and I showed Mom. “This okay?” I said.

“Oh, dear,” she said, “I just can’t keep up with her anymore.” I followed Maggie to the living room, where she climbed up on the piano bench and banged out a song of her own invention. In a couple years, Annabelle would have started teaching Maggie to play.

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I go back thirty years. I spend a day in February of 1987–in another universe. I plant information about the latest hypertension med–a drug that isn’t even out of phase one trials in my own present. I pass the tip anonymously. It looks like a leak from a disgruntled employee of a competing firm.

I jump to 1992 of the same timeline to verify that they have acted on the information. Their front-line blood pressure cocktail is thirty years ahead of its time. I make five more stops in that timeline, at four-year intervals. I collect the results of major cardiovascular studies in the alternate past and in that past’s future.

My employer wants rapid turn-around, so I eat and sleep in alternate time. I spend an extra day at the final point, analyzing and compiling the results. Then I jump back to my exact moment of departure. Eight days in the blink of an eye.

And then I do it all again. Three more times.

First, I replicate the previous trip. Then I go back to two more alternate pasts to plant bogus data. Nothing that will set researchers back in their work. Just negative controls to account for unmeasurable impacts of my interference.

It’s never perfect. I don’t stop aging, changing. I’m a slightly different me each trip and, at least in theory, even the subtlest differences could have significant effects. John says that they can track my travels–check up on me. He also says that so long as I deliver the goods, they probably won’t bother.

At the end, I take my four parallel universe meta-analyses to a dedicated workspace in an alternate near past and compile a report. All told, I spend thirty-four days on the project. I deliver my report two minutes after receiving the request.

I linger a moment over Maggie, asleep in her crib beside my desk. Maggie. Above her hang the photographs. The three of us together. Annabelle.

I blink up my travel interface and take another trip.

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As his body relaxes, goes limp, I release his neck and ease him to the bathroom floor. I only have to delay him. Prevent him from going out tonight. And, of course, he has to forget that I was here.

I’m good with the needle. It helps that I’m going for the same vein in the same arm of the same person every time. A hefty slug of midazolam greased with just a whisper of propofol. He’ll wake up with a headache.

Sometimes I talk while I drag him down the hall to the living room and arrange him on the couch. I try to explain. I tell him why I’m there.

I tell him it’s for her, that it’s better if he never meets her. Maybe that way she won’t die. But of course, all of this is really for me. It’s my fix. Those early days with her, again. And again and again and again.

I can have it all. My daughter by day and a new Annabelle every night. It’s almost enough.

Sometimes he wakes up a little when I turn on the stereo. This time he even opens his eyes for a moment and I think maybe he understands.

And then he forgets.

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I wait for Annabelle at the bar. Wait for her to finish playing. I swirl the wine in my glass. The bit of cork is there, just as it should be.

She’s played Chopin, “Ipanema,” Pearl Jam, the Stones. And she smiled when I walked past.

When she finishes at the piano, she will join me and we will talk. I might be older than she would like, now, but I will understand her. I will say the right things. She will see past my age.

Maybe this time I won’t overplay my hand. She won’t be spooked by how I know her so well, so quickly. It will all feel natural and I will reclaim what I’ve lost. At least for a while. Weeks or maybe a month. There’s a limit to how much I should age. Too much and people will notice. Maggie will notice.

Perhaps, one of these times, I’ll forget all of that. I’ll forget my daughter and I’ll stay here forever. We will be us again. Me and Annabelle. And then maybe me and Annabelle and… someone. But not Maggie, not my Maggie.

Some things cannot be.

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“Everyone is impressed with your work, Patrick.”

John and I sat in a cedar-paneled restaurant by Lake Union, eating chowder and drinking ale. “You’ll be getting your five-thousand-hour bonus soon.”

“Not bad for two weeks,” I said.

“Be careful, Patrick. That’s five months you’ve lived in fifteen days. You look like shit.”

“I’m just doing it till I’ve built up some reserves.” I mopped up the rest of my chowder with a bread crust. “I want to put something away for Maggie–you know, for college, grad school if she wants.”

“You’ve got plenty of time.” He waited for me to meet his eye, then said, “Don’t you? You’ve aged a lot more than five months. Anything you want to tell me?”

“Ever since Annabelle…” I began. “Well, I just can’t seem to get over it. And Maggie… If something ever happened to me–”

“The best thing you can do for Maggie is stay young and healthy. Be a dad for as long as you can.” His hand, thin and freckled with liver spots, trembled as he lifted his glass for a sip.

When I didn’t speak, he continued. “I wouldn’t have given you this if I didn’t think you could handle it. I want to help. But I’m concerned about whatever else it is that you’re doing. Do I need to start tracking–”

“You’re concerned, John?” I set my glass down too hard. People at other tables turned, but I ignored them. “Look at you,” I said. “When we met, you were what, forty-five? Just how many trips have you taken? You could be ninety! How can you sit there and–”

“I don’t have anyone.” His words cut me. “I was alone when I started, and I’m alone now.” Neither of us spoke. We gazed across Lake Union at the houseboats. Rain dulled the water. Millions of grey rings forming on a flat cold surface, spreading, colliding, and then gone.

“So why do you do it, John?” I said. “You could have retired long–”

“Retired? I’ll never retire.” He paused. “I’m hooked.”

“So you travel for your own–”

“Of course I do, Patrick. Just historical curiosity at first, poking around here and there. Now I’ve lost track of the number of parallel timelines I’ve created. The pasts I’ve changed–tried to fix–for other universes. God, I’ve fucked up a lot of universes.” He laughed and gestured to the waiter for another round. “I tell myself it’s okay because I’m not hurting anyone who matters, but…”

The beers arrived and we both took long draughts.

“Fact is,” he said, “I don’t even know who I’m hurting–or which universe is real. Ours sure isn’t.”

I choked on my beer and coughed.

“Funny, right?” he continued, “A small team of scientists, at one single university, discovers this impossible technology. On their own. Do you really believe that? In a world still slurping fossil fuels? A world that cuts tumors out with knives and can’t even cure a cold?”

“You’re saying the technology was planted,” I said. “That we’re part of someone else’s–”

“It doesn’t matter,” said John. “What’s important is that this is the world you’ve got and it’s time for you to start living in it.”

“But if it’s contaminated by some other universe’s future–”

“Shit, Patrick, you know how it works. Nobody matters if they’re not in our timeline. That’s what we tell ourselves, right?” John’s voice was getting loud and sloppy. How many beers had he drunk before I arrived? He continued, “Hundreds–maybe millions of people we’ve affected and they’re each living their own lives, without a clue, and we don’t give a damn and…”

“What’s your point?” I said.

“Hell, I’m not sure anymore.” He got quiet. “But what you’re doing–what we’ve both been doing–this cherry-picking and re-living of favorite moments… it’s the behavior of an addict and it’ll destroy you and everyone you love.”

“It’s a job,” I said. “As soon as I get my finances straight, I’ll quit.”

“It’s not just a job, Patrick. Not for you or me or anyone. You have to let Annabelle go. Get out of this. Live.”

“I can’t.”

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When she finishes at the piano, Annabelle walks past me and sits at the far end of the bar. I have to remind myself that I don’t know her name. I ask the bartender to pour her a glass of wine. She turns to me and frowns, puzzled. I approach and sit, leaving an empty seat between us.

“I saw you earlier,” she says. “You’ve been here a long time.” She doesn’t look at me.

“You play beautifully,” I say. “When I finished dining, I thought I’d stay and listen.”

“My father used to do that,” she says. She hesitates. I can see her thoughts. See her asking whether I’m creepy or harmless. In either case, I’m old. “When he was alive,” she continues, “sometimes he would be in Seattle on business and not tell me he was coming. He’d just show up and listen to me play.” She says nothing for a while, then “This is going to sound strange, I know, and it’s not that you look anything alike, but when I saw you earlier, you reminded me of him. The way you seemed so deep in the music.”

Old and harmless. And fatherly. The role I crave is lost to me now. It was bound to happen.

I push my glass away. “You miss him a lot,” I say. Anabelle–my Anabelle–had rarely spoken of her father’s death. It was still a fresh wound when we met. Would be equally raw for this Annabelle now.

“I do,” she says. “Especially here. It gets lonely, playing like this. Before, I never knew when he might show up, so I always hoped and it was always possible. But now…” She swallowed and looked away.

“Thank you for the Chopin,” I say. “Someone I– My wife used to play that nocturne. Your interpretation is the same.”

She says nothing for a while. Then she turns to look at my face. What she sees in my eyes–I don’t know what she sees. What I see in hers is compassion. “Do you have children?” she says.

“No,” I say. It’s a habit. It’s what I always say when she asks. But this time I say, “I mean yes, I do have a child. A daughter.”

She waits for me to say more, but I don’t. She reaches out to place a hand on mine, but I stand and fumble for my wallet.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I need to go. I should be with her–my daughter. She’s…” I leave a twenty on the bar. “She’s waiting.”

Annabelle smiles and says, “Come back some time.”

Some things cannot be. I step out into the rain.

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Eleven people attended John’s memorial service. He’d made all of the arrangements in advance. A minimum of ceremony. By a normal calendar, John Hicks was only fifty-one; he died a very old man.

The end was on his own terms. He’d purchased the revolver a week before–the day after I’d last talked to him. A letter explained that he had a brain tumor and wasn’t going to let the cancer turn him into someone else. He’d lived a full life and didn’t want anyone to grieve.

The EPLA Surgeon was at the service, and afterwards, I followed her to the parking lot. We sheltered under her umbrella to talk while rain pelted the vehicle beside us.

“It’s the device, isn’t it,” I said. “It was killing him.”

“No,” she said. “That had nothing to do with it. If you live long enough, you have to die of something. John was old.”

“I want mine out,” I said. “Can you remove it.”

“It’s part of you now,” she said. “The tendrils are everywhere. In your brain, spinal column–even peripheral nerves. It can’t come out.”

She looked around. We were alone. “I can turn it off, though,” she said. “If that’s really what you want.”

“There’s something I have to do first.”

“One more trip?” she said. “Don’t. Stop now, if you’re going to.”

“This is different,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”

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One final trip. This time, with a knife.

I don’t go to his apartment. I don’t stop him from meeting Annabelle. I don’t try to replace him at the bar. I can’t be that me ever again.

I don’t even go to that day. I go to a later one. Four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day later.

I rent a car and drive to a warehouse north of Seattle. Boxed appliances are being loaded into a truck. Nobody notices as I edge up beside it. When the truck is full, a man climbs into the cab and starts the engine.

I strike. The tire is tough and I nearly break the knife. I try again. I slash, rather than stab, and I cut part way through the sidewall. The wound is deep, and with another stroke, the blade penetrates. The screech of air from the tire is covered by engine noise.

I escape undetected.

Twenty minutes later, I stand beside Aurora avenue, just north of the bridge. I watch cars speed through pockets of standing water. A blue hatchback, driven by a young blonde, passes. It continues across the bridge, out of sight.

Annabelle. Not my Annabelle, but still, an Annabelle, and she’s safe.

A single selfless act. A final gesture. Does it compensate for the thousands of universes that I have created, sabotaged, and exploited? Does ninety minutes of beneficence atone for some twenty-five years of selfishness?

But, of course, ultimately, this trip is selfish too. This universe–it’s for me. I won’t inhabit it, but I will know that it exists. My one perfect counterfactual.

The me that is here, in this timeline, will never travel. He will never sacrifice years of his life–the healthy years that should be spent with his daughter–in order to pursue a love that he will never have lost.

I could watch his future unfold, if I wanted. I could jump forward to see him grow old with his Annabelle, watch them with their Maggie. But that is their future, not mine.

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When Maggie asks why I look as old as her Granddaddy, I tell her I’ve just lived fast. She doesn’t understand, but she giggles anyway.

We sit by the lake, watching geese, until the rain drives us to the shelter of a pastry shop.

Sometimes Maggie asks about the scar on the back of my neck–the surgical site. I tell her that I got hurt when her mother died. She’s old enough, now, that she doesn’t reach up to touch it anymore. She knows there’s something about it that’s not right.

Remotely deactivated. That’s what the surgeon said, but sometimes I still wonder. If I called up the interface, would it be there for me?

“But Daddy,” she says, through a bite of cinnamon roll, “I thought you weren’t in the car when she died.”

“No,” I say, “but I still got hurt.” She seems to accept this. At least for now.

Some things cannot be. Others just are–even some impossible ones.

I can accept that now. This me can.

___

Copyright 2014 M. Huw Evans

After devoting the first decade and a half of his adult life to medicine, research, and public health, M. Huw Evans put away such noble callings to pursue his life-long dream of writing fiction. In 2012, he attended Clarion West, where he wrote the first version of this story–for none other than the master of time travel herself, Connie Willis. In addition to writing, Evans is a stay-at-home dad and the new workshop administrator at Clarion West.

by Laura E. Price

Corwyn’s hair smelled of death. Again.

She smelled it–rot, blood, sweat, and mud–as she trudged through the back streets of San Xavier, out of Cobbler’s Hill toward Pallasgreen. After three washes with lye soap, she sat awake as her hair dried and wondered, if she cut it all off, would she still smell death whenever she moved.

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Corwyn was awake, scrubbed, and drinking her third cup of coffee in their small kitchen when she heard Gwen getting up and moving about.

“Have you slept?” Gwen asked from behind her.

“A little.” Corwyn sipped her lukewarm drink and kept her eyes on the table.

“You’re brooding.”

“I’m trying to get tired enough so that I’ll sleep without dreaming.”

“Well, that ain’t going to help you, Wyn,” Gwen said, nodding at the cup and skirting around Corwyn toward the cupboards.

“We were out of milk to warm.”

Gwen pulled a glass jar full of beef jerky–sent over last month by a client as a thank you for a lesson in knifework–from the cabinet, unscrewed the top, and selected a piece as she asked, “Was it a bad one?”

Corwyn’s eyes felt grainy every time she blinked. “Not particularly. Not more so. Just … the same. Dead, probably only three or four days.” They’d had this conversation before, so she didn’t say maybe she’d be alive if they’d come to me sooner. The living folks she found–the runaways, the kidnapped, the lost–were fewer and fewer. The dead seemed to multiply.

“Time for a sign on the door that you’re not taking on any more cases,” Gwen said briskly, pushing herself away from the sideboard.

“We need the money!” Corwyn called after her.

“Ain’t like we’ve never been broke before, Corwyn!”

“Ain’t like I want to live on the damn street again, Gwendolyn!”

“Ain’t like I want you to run yourself to death–”

Someone knocked on their flimsy front door, and Gwen answered it. Corwyn shoved herself up from the table, arriving at the door in time to see a face from their not-so-distant past in the outside hallway and hear Gwen, voice studiously cheerful, greeting her with, “Why, Mattie Singh, you do clean up nice.”

“I’m here to see if Corwyn wants a job,” Mattie said.

Gwen leaned across the doorway, arms crossed, effectively trapping Corwyn inside the apartment. Corwyn, too tired to be irritated at her sister’s protective streak, stepped up behind Gwen and peered over her shoulder at Mattie Singh.

“You sure you ain’t here spying for the old lady?” she asked.

“I don’t–I ain’t living at Mrs. Simcote’s anymore.” Mattie looked from Corwyn to Gwen and quickly back again, uncertain. “I left not too much longer after you did. A bunch of us left, point of fact. All of us as liked Gwen, anyway. Wasn’t right, what she did to you.”

Nobody but Corwyn would have seen how Gwen’s jaw went tight even as Gwen’s body visibly relaxed. Corwyn looked away from Gwen and said, “All right, then, Mattie, what’s this job?”

Mattie glanced around herself and spread her arms a little, smiling just slightly. “You really want me to do this in the hall?”

Corwyn tapped Gwen on the shoulder; Gwen stepped back grudgingly to wave Mattie through the door.

Mattie perched on one of their two kitchen chairs. She did look nice in her dress and jacket, with combed hair and a clean face. Corwyn remembered her as a kid, running round Mrs. Simcote’s with her hair smoldering and her face sooty–Mattie Singh’s knack was such that she could mix salt with water and likely make it explode.

“So. I work at the museum now,” Mattie began.

San Xavier was home to a number of museums: it boasted a natural history museum, a respectable art museum, the not-so-respectable Rausch Gallery, and even a children’s museum full of dusty paintings of saucer-eyed kids and downright disturbing toy displays. But when the residents of San Xavier mentioned the museum, they referred to the Methyl R. Crookston Museum of Classical Rarities. Not that its collection was all that rare. Or classical. The name of the place was in the old lady’s will, and Corwyn always imagined she’d have been irritated that no one used it.

“The curator I’m ‘prenticed to, he’s lost something–”

“I can’t find things,” Corwyn interrupted. “Just the living. Or the used-to-be-living.”

Mattie’s eyes were lit up like she had a secret to spill. “I remember. I remember lots of things about you, Miss Corwyn. Like how excited you got whenever Mrs. Simcote gave you something new to do with your knack. And you know how to keep your mouth shut.” Corwyn shifted her weight back on one foot, uneasy, as Mattie went on. “This thing he’s missing, it ain’t quite a person, and it ain’t quite a thing, neither. You want to see if you can find a golem?”

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Corwyn couldn’t rightly say she had that much intellectual curiosity, but Gwen had let out an enthusiastic “Yes!” and shoved Corwyn out the door. Now they sat in the office of one Jarvis Eggleston, curator, waiting on Mattie to unearth the man from whatever dusty room of the museum he might be working in.

“I’m still not sure why we’re here, Gwen.”

“Well, Corwyn, headcracking jobs are scarce on the ground at the moment, which means I ain’t bringing much money in–so I’m bored and you’re worried about money, and I know how you’re fixing to get, with your coffee and your not sleeping. Even if this golem’s dead, you likely won’t find it lying in a pool of blood.  So why not?”

Corwyn couldn’t decide what to say to all that, so she ignored it to look around herself. The room was full of things, made mundane by wooden shelves and layers of dust until she peered more closely: paintings, what looked like musical instruments, and more books than Corwyn had ever seen in one place. There were tiny stoppered bottles; odds and ends of clockwork; skulls that might be from animals (though Corwyn had very little experience with animals, alive or dead, and so couldn’t be sure); stones covered in runes; jars filled with specimens that had too many eyes, or limbs.

You’ll see the world, she remembered Mrs. Simcote telling them, and maybe they would have, but now they’d burned that bridge, she supposed museums were the closest she’d get to seeing anywhere besides San Xavier.

Mattie’s return with the curator, a middling-tall man with round glasses, graying hair, and a slouch, pulled Corwyn out of her woolgathering. “Dr. Eggleston, these are the young ladies I spoke to you about–Corwyn and Gwen Teachout.” Mattie’s accent had gone all schoolteacherish; Corwyn resisted the urge to sit up straighter and pull her feet in under her chair.

Dr. Eggleston smiled at them. He needed a good night’s sleep:  his eyes were heavy-lidded, dark all around, and his skin sagged.

“Miss Singh says you have a knack for finding people, Miss Teachout,” he said, leaning back against the front of his desk. His accent was cultured but not fancy. Genteel poor.

She matched it as she answered. “Yes. But not for finding objects, I’m afraid.”

“My sister is selling herself a trifle short,” Gwen cut in, ignoring the what in nine hells are you up to smile Corwyn sent her way. “Her knack is only for finding people, but she’s quite the detective without it.”

“Are you her business manager?” Dr. Eggleston asked, tiredly amused.

Gwen dimpled and sat back in her chair, crossing her legs demurely–or as demurely as one could when wearing trousers. “I’m the muscle.”

The curator’s smile grew broader at that–he thought she was adorable, good grief–and turned back to Corwyn. “Miss Singh told you we’re looking for a golem, yes? So I’m not certain what category he falls into. He is, of course, made of usually inanimate material, but he is also clearly alive … ”

“How exactly did you lose it?” Corwyn asked. “I imagine a giant clay man would be difficult to misplace.”

“He’s not that big,” Dr. Eggleston said. “He’s really more an homunculus.  A miniature man. ”

“Not in the strictest sense,” Mattie said to him.

“He’s self-aware and self-willed,” said Dr. Eggleston crisply, “which is not much like a golem.”

This was clearly an old argument. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, and the two of them looked at Mattie, bored.  Which, to anyone who knew them, was almost as good as a threat.

“So it, what?  Ran off? Was stolen?” Corwyn asked.

“Kidnapped,” Dr. Eggleston corrected.

“Did you receive a ransom note?” Corwyn asked.

“No, no–someone saw it being snatched,” Mattie said.

“From the museum?” Gwen asked.

Dr. Eggleston shifted his weight back and forth, looking toward the shelves. “Orson came to us with the odds and ends of the estate of Virgil Fairchilde. His only son took everything of value, and anything he didn’t want or didn’t know what to do with, he gave to us. Orson was in a sealed box–I doubt the son even tried to open it–along with some of Fairchilde’s notes. Orson was de-animated, and I … well, eventually I managed to bring him back.” He stopped again and looked at them, seemingly expecting Corwyn and Gwen to make some sort of disapproving protest; when they didn’t, he shook his head slightly and started the story again. This time he managed to look directly at them as he spoke. “I thought he’d be a golem. Small, certainly, but mindless, mute. Orson was aware, though, and after a day he was able to speak.”

“Likely why Fairchilde locked it in the box to begin with,” Mattie said.

“Had he been merely a golem, we would have exhibited him, or put him to work, but he isn’t–he has a personality. He’s polite, well-spoken–”

“Sarcastic as anything,” Mattie put in.

“I imagine,” Dr. Eggleston said mildly, “that you might be inclined toward sarcasm, yourself, Miss Singh, had you spent most of your life having parts of you cut off.”

Corwyn sat up slowly, her wooden chair suddenly uncomfortable. “What do you mean by that, Doctor?” she asked.

Dr. Eggleston spoke carefully. “I thought Miss Singh had told you? Virgil Fairchilde did most of his work with clockwork limbs. Orson was his test subject–he’s more than half clockwork. One arm, both legs.”

“Its heart ticks,” Mattie added.

“That is, of course, part of the issue,” the curator went on. “He’s quite a valuable piece, a tiny, half-clockwork man. Collectors, alchemical engineers–some legitimate, some not–hells, even one or two of my own colleagues here … well. None of them would see Orson as anything but a commodity.”

“You took him home,” Corwyn said. “And he got snatched from under your nose.”

Dr. Eggleston took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “More or less. He was out walking with my husband, Gerard.” Gerard was, no doubt, as academically built as the curator, Corwyn thought, and likely not much of a threat. “Miss Teachout, Orson is very much like family to us, now.  I don’t know who might have him, but there is no outcome to this that I can imagine he would deserve. Bad enough that I’ll have to bring him back to the museum, since he’s clearly not safe outside … ”

“How much are you willing to pay?” Corwyn asked, impatient at how the obvious care the curator had for his charge made her chest twist like someone had a hand inside it. She didn’t have time to waste like that. “For us to find him, and to keep our mouths shut about your stealing and losing him in the first place?”

The curator straightened, put his glasses back on, and named a sum. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, who raised an eyebrow and her right shoulder, putting her left palm face up on the arm of her chair to signal her approval.

It was a solid chunk of change.

“All right,” Corwyn said. “I’ll take the case. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find Orson–”

“You’ll be required to pay us either way, but we’ll only charge half if we can’t track him down,” Gwen put in quickly.

“–but I’ll try my best,” Corwyn finished.

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Sometimes, too many times, merely hearing a name would set Corwyn running after her knack as it dragged her to whoever it was or whatever was left of them. On more occasions than she cared to remember, her knack didn’t need a name or a request, just up and yanked her wherever it felt she ought to go like she wore a leash. But there were times it stayed quiet, and those times she could, maybe, coax it along. Not by touch–what a fresh hell that would be–but with smell. Bring something he wore, she told the frantic relatives.  Bring what she slept in, she told the abandoned lovers. The kids at Mrs. Simcote’s used to make bloodhound jokes when a shirt or a blanket set Corwyn running.  Gwen cracked their ribs for it.

“How tall is he?” Corwyn asked as Dr. Eggleston rummaged in his bag for the pillow Mattie had told him to bring. Mattie did remember quite a lot about Corwyn’s knack, as it turned out.

“About a foot or so. Thirteen inches, I think?” Mattie replied.

“Here you are,” said Dr. Eggleston, straightening and passing the pillow over the top of the desk.

“Did Gerard get a good look at the person who took him?”  Corwyn turned the small pillow in her hands, wondering briefly if the bedclothes were borrowed from the children’s museum.

“Gerard said he was a tall man, maybe six feet, with blond hair,” Dr. Eggleston said.

“Well, that rules out part of the city, anyway,” said Gwen, more cheerfully than Corwyn felt was strictly warranted, as Corwyn lifted the pillow to her nose.

It smelled like clay, like dirt and clean river water. And mint? That was unexpected.

Corwyn’s knack didn’t so much as twitch. It felt odd to coax it and feel nothing. Even when it decided to lay low, there was usually a thrumming: a yes feeling, a confirmation. This was like, well, a pillow.

Mattie stood across the room, likely remembering some of Corwyn’s more dramatic exits from Mrs. Simcote’s office. Gwen, who had more arm strength and very little fear, as a rule, crouched next to Corwyn’s chair.

“Nothing?” she asked quietly. Corwyn shook her head. “You got ideas?” Gwen asked.

Corwyn didn’t respond, just thought. It didn’t seem like someone planned to snatch Orson, doing it out in the street like that–too many people might see, and in Pallasgreen someone might actually call the police; on the other hand, it wasn’t showy enough to be someone trying to make a point or send a message. This looked more like some magpie-brained lug saw something shiny and thought to make a quick buck with it.

That meant either selling him to a gang that knew how to fence a thing like Orson, or going direct to Chaffins Grove to offer him to the alchemical engineers, likely door-to-door. Corwyn knew which route she’d take.

“Arthur Goldberg’s the only one I remember as dealing in this kind of thing,” she finally said, trying to sound confident.  “Billy Hayden’s still one of the Goldberg crew, ain’t he? Maybe he’s heard something.”

Gwen, either actually fooled by her tone or also putting on a good show for the client, bounced up and clapped her hands. “We’re going to Cobbler’s Hill!” she sang.

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It was early in the day by Cobbler’s Hill standards, so the brothels were closed and whatever thieves and morphine addicts were awake were blinded enough by the sun to be discreet. The air still smelled of home: piss, vomit, and the occasional tinge of blood. There were new potholes in the streets; the buildings were falling down even more. Decay was the constant in the Hill.

Gwen moved, watchful and gleefully so, past the other people on the sidewalk–this was much more her element than Pallasgreen and their apartment there. Truth be told, while there was no way in nine hells she’d ever live here again, Cobbler’s Hill was the only place Corwyn ever felt right.

She and Gwen turned as one to glare at a skinny man with the wrong sort of expression on his face. He smiled, gap-toothed, and put his hands up as he backed away from them. “Sorry girls.  Sorry sorry.  Didn’t recognize you in your nice new clothes.”

Corwyn turned around, as they’d come to 43rd Street and the tiny gentlemen’s club that the Goldberg gang used as their home base.  Gwen stared a while longer; she had a reputation to tend.

Corwyn thought it had been long enough since Gwen’s unfortunate incident with Art Goldberg’s nephew that the bouncer might be new and not know their faces; she was right. He went and got Billy, who came out the door wearing the same wide confidence man’s grin he’d had when they were kids. Back then he’d also been a skinny Haitian kid with close-cropped hair. Now his hair and his frame were both filled out, and the smile dropped from his face as soon as he saw them.

“Goddammit, get round the corner before someone sees you,” he said, grabbing Corwyn by the elbow and dragging. Gwen followed, fast and tense. “What do you want?” he asked once they were out of sight of the club’s door.

Corwyn, tired, got right to it. “You heard anything about someone wanting to sell a little clockwork man?  Only it ain’t all clockwork, and it can talk on its own?”

“You are downright terrible at this, Corwyn,” Gwen said.

“It ain’t like I’ve got practice at it, Gwen.”

Billy looked simultaneously disdainful, wary, and confused. “Why would I tell you?  That sounds right valuable.  And in our scope of interest.”

Corwyn narrowed her eyes and poked at his chest with a finger. “You owe me, Billy Hayden–a couple times over.  And at least one of those debts ain’t the sort you can repay.”

“Only you, Corwyn Teachout, can make me regret getting pulled out of a damn fire.”  He blew his breath out his mouth and rubbed a hand over his hair before saying, “I ain’t heard about nothing like that. Mr. Goldberg would have us all over it if we did–and he will, soon as I go in and tell him about it.”

Corwyn groaned, silently. Of course he’d tell–why wouldn’t he? “You wouldn’t be willing to give us a day before you say anything?” she asked without much hope.

Billy laughed. “Maybe an hour. But, hey, you find it first, bring it to me–we can work out a good price.”

Corwyn watched him head back around the corner; she could tell Gwen was watching her but didn’t want to return the look. “I really am downright terrible at this,” she said, aiming to sound like she thought it all a lark.

Corwyn could hear the shrug in Gwen’s voice. “Ain’t like it wasn’t bound to happen, what with Orson being paraded round Pallasgreen. It’s inconvenient, but it ain’t worth brooding over.”

Corwyn wasn’t comforted; there wasn’t much Gwen found to be worth brooding over. “How many men you think Art Goldberg has round the Hill?” she finally asked Gwen.

“Not enough to stop us.”

Corwyn took a breath, hoping Gwen’s desire to head off her brooding would outweigh that time Corwyn came home covered in fine green fur, because she surely did not have time to argue her into this. “I have one more idea,” she said.

“And what is it?”

“We go see Miss Vadoma.”

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Vadoma Hildago’s house was never defaced; the people who’d tried sported visible scars. Its paint was relatively fresh, its windows were whole, and its small porch was covered with live plants. Corwyn led the way up the stoop and into the shade.

The witch of Cobbler’s Hill opened her door and, after a long look at each of them, slipped out onto the porch along with a smell of roses and … was that fish? Miss Vadoma was darker than both Corwyn and Gwen; taller, too, as she stared down her crooked nose at them.

“And what are you two doing here?”

“Ain’t a person in the Hill that’s happy to see us anymore,” Gwen observed.

Corwyn ignored her. “I need to ask you something.” She wasn’t entirely happy about it–for years she and Miss Vadoma had worked a push and pull of debts and evens; Corwyn was loathe to upset the balance back into the witch’s favor.

Still, it was a good amount of money.

Miss Vadoma’s long, knobby fingers pulled her door shut with a solid thud.  The story went that nobody ever went in the witch’s house, but Corwyn and Gwen had been inside as kids.  It looked like an everyday house inside, breathlessly exotic and entirely fearsome because of it.

“Ask, then,” Miss Vadoma said, drawing herself up even taller.

“We’re looking for a golem,” Corwyn said.  “Little thing, maybe a foot tall.”

Miss Vadoma shook her head.  “You know I don’t mess with alchemy.”

“I ain’t saying you have it–but you hear about everything,” Corwyn said, trying to smile winningly. Judging by Miss Vadoma’s expression, she did not entirely succeed.

“Why are you girls looking for it?”

“Because someone’s paying us to,” Gwen drawled from where she leaned on the porch rail, out of reach.

“So, a foot tall man?  Any distinguishing features?”

“From the hundreds of other foot-tall men running round San Xavier?” Gwen asked.

“Exactly that, yes.”

Corwyn crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s made of quite a lot of clockwork,” she said.

“Lars Hallstrom,” Miss Vadoma replied with hardly a pause. “Last little girl he shacked up with got him good and drunk and took off when he passed out.  Saw him … day before yesterday? Prowling about. Today I hear he’s got a kid with clockwork legs. Or maybe it’s not a kid.”

Corwyn exchanged a long look with Gwen. Every kid in Cobbler’s Hill had identical grudges against Lars Hallstrom, and though neither of his encounters with the Teachouts had ended particularly well for him, neither Corwyn nor Gwen had come out of them entirely unbruised, either.

Corwyn turned toward the porch steps, not saying anything because you didn’t thank the Cobbler’s Hill witch if you valued your skin. She already felt her knack waking up, stretching toward the front of her head, ready to start pulling her to go find Lars Hallstrom, whether or not she was happy to go.

“I’ve seen you, Corwyn Teachout,” said Miss Vadoma, and Corwyn turned despite the protest of her knack, because the voice was the witchy one Miss Vadoma saved for intimidating kids and actual magic. She’d slid partway into her house but held the door open with one hand. “You follow your knack in and out of the Hill, looking darker and bloodier every time.”

Gwen went still before drawing herself up off the rail slowly. Corwyn, trying to make it sound offhanded, asked, “You talking about my soul, Miss Vadoma?”

The witch snorted, apparently not one to bother with souls. “All round you, girl. And I remember you, little and willing to eat or drink whatever I handed you without asking what it was. Not like that one–” She tilted her chin at Gwen, who didn’t move, still ready to spring.  “–she was always smarter than that. I like you. Find this thing you’re looking for. Maybe it helps you, clears some of that blood away.”

And then she shut the door in their faces, so they went down the front steps to the sidewalk. It was a relief, giving into the pulling; it left no room to wonder about some bloody, dark cloud hovering round her head. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Gwen’s arm.

“Here we go,” Gwen said with a slanted grin. “Good thing these boots are comfortable.”

Corwyn’s muscles wanted her to run, follow her knack along as fast as she could, and her thinking self didn’t want to dawdle, either. The docks were a long ways away, though, and Corwyn knew she couldn’t keep up a run that long, so she settled into a fast walk.

“Why did you always eat all the stuff Miss Vadoma gave you?” Gwen asked.

“I was hungry,” Corwyn said. “And I remember thinking if she owed me enough, she’d have to do what I said.”

Gwen chuckled. “And she calls me the smart one.”

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By the time they got to the docks, it was mid-afternoon slanting toward evening. Salt and fish and tar mingled with the regular smell of the Hill. “This place ain’t changed much,” Gwen said as they paused on Selwin Avenue to get their bearings. She sounded disgusted and pleased in equal measure. “Orson got a lot more than a walk around Pallasgreen,” she continued, musingly.

“Think he’ll ever get to venture outdoors again?” Corwyn asked, nudging Gwen toward Portcullis Boulevard, headed south.

“He can’t stay inside forever,” Gwen said. “Unless they lock him up.”

The uneven skyline of Cobbler’s Hill was streaking black as the sun sank lower; Corwyn could feel the buildings looming all round the two of them. “There’s all sorts of cages in the world, ain’t there?”

“And they all have keys,” Gwen replied equably, jabbing an elbow into Corwyn’s arm. “Quit brooding so damn much. If Orson wants to see the world, the curator can hire me as his bodyguard and I’ll tour him all over.”

Corwyn snorted. “You’ll end up fighting off the whole Goldberg gang every time you venture out.”

Gwen grinned, pleased. “A girl can but dream, Wyn.”

It took longer than Corwyn would have liked to get down among the docks to Lars Hallstrom’s boat, but running made people chase you, and they didn’t have time nor patience for that. He’d hauled in his gangplank and let the run-down trawler drift a bit from the dock, but Gwen jumped the gap easily and caught Corwyn’s arms when she landed short. The knack eased off as soon as she stood up on the deck and brushed off her knees.

They found Hallstrom drunk and in his bunk, which was no surprise, alone save for the company of a half-full bottle of something brown and a mighty assortment of bruises. He eyed them blearily from swollen slits in a resplendently purple face.

“That you, Corwyn Teachout? The hell you want?”

“Aw, Wyn, between the bruises and the drink, he’s not going to notice if I bang his head off a wall.”

“That Simcote bitch send you?” he asked, hauling himself to sit up, the bottle spilling behind him and filling the room with the smell of alcohol. “I ain’t got it now, they took it.”

“Who took what, Lars?” Corwyn asked evenly.

“I ain’t telling you nothing.”  He stood up, swaying, for a moment looking huge and broad and dangerous like he had when they were kids and he’d had Corwyn cornered, seven years old and casting about for a weapon.  She’d found one, and used it, but her stomach still dropped a little as she shifted her weight to fight.

Gwen had never been scared of Lars Hallstrom, even when they were kids, and he gave her no pause. She took a step to meet him, planted four fingers in the worse of his two black eyes, then shoved him backwards onto his bunk again. He hissed as he went, his eye watering, the bunk squelching.  “I will dump all your booze overboard before I start breaking your bones. Just for funsies, and because you got no more room for bruises,” she told him, her voice careless.

“The Goldberg crew,” he said. “They took it. Waste of a beating, anyway, I didn’t want it no more. It’s tiny, but it’s a grown man.”

Billy hadn’t even given them a damn hour, and the Goldbergs knew how to move merchandise quick. Corwyn thought fast, rummaged through facts she hadn’t thought of in years–

“They still keep their junk in the factory on Button Street?” Corwyn asked.

Lars nodded. Gwen punched him in the side of the head. He howled, wincing as he brought a hand up to it. They’d jumped back to the dock before Gwen asked, “Why don’t we just kill him again?”

“Because–” Corwyn stopped. “Because we had other concerns to tend to. And then because Mrs. Simcote always said not to kill a source.” Lars Hallstrom was a source of many things to the old lady: Information. Kids. But they didn’t live with Mrs. Simcote anymore. Nine hells, look at that. There were advantages to all this poverty and isolation.

Gwen’s eyes were wide, almost shining in the twilight. Every kid in the Hill had grudges against Lars Hallstrom, but Gwen held them tighter than most.

Corwyn pointed at her. “Now, hang on, we have a job right now, and it’s got a deadline.”

Gwen nodded. “Yes, we do. Once we get paid for this,” she said, turning to look back at the boat, “I am finally going to burn that trawler down to the water line.”

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“We should have gotten coffee with the falafel,” Corwyn said, trying not to yawn as she and Gwen peered down at the factory floor of the Goldbergs’ warehouse. Cobbler’s Hill was the only part of San Xavier where a body could get falafel, and even detectives needed to eat, but they’d done it on the move.

The gang looked to be planning something: a main group gathered around a table, the rest scattered through the shadows on the floor and occupying themselves with cutting their nails or glowering at each other.

“Nobody ever looks up,” Gwen observed.

“Judging by the climb up the building, ain’t none of them can get up here, anyway.” Corwyn scanned the room; looking for a foot-tall golem by the light of hanging oil lamps was a chore.

Gwen had the better eyes. “There,” she said, nodding toward a spot just below and to the left of the observation platform where they crouched. Corwyn could make out a form inside a cage, suspended underneath the balcony, but couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was doing.

Corwyn was pulled out of her spying by the platform shuddering as Gwen threw a leg over the railing.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going down there to cause a ruckus so you can climb down and get Orson.”

“I do believe we could both climb down there and get him without getting caught.”

Gwen gave her a wicked grin. “But I’m bored. Come on, I distract them, you grab him, we meet up at home. Easy.” She threw her other leg over the rail and dropped, quiet, to the floor.

Corwyn waited until the fight started before following Gwen down.

The drawback to staying in the shadows was that a lot of folk knew it was a good idea. On the other hand, a good portion of Goldberg’s boys were bored, too, and rushed to join the fight. The one left in the shadows — smarter, scared, or shorter than the others, anyway — had his back to her, so she looked around, came up with a broken-off piece of wood, and slammed it into the side of his head.

The thud of his body hitting the floor was covered by Gwen catcalling. It didn’t do her any good in a fight, but even though Corwyn’s knack always knew where Gwen was, hearing her let Corwyn know she was still up and moving without having to pay strict attention.

The cage hung from a hook screwed into one of the pillars supporting the observation platform; it swayed and shook over a pile of stacked boxes and leaning sacks full of whatever the hell the Goldbergs were selling now. Opium. Whiskey. Hard to find elements for alchemical engineers. Maybe weapons.

It wasn’t the sturdiest of foundations for a rescue. The pile wobbled underneath her as she climbed, and once or twice she lost her footing and held her breath, expecting the deafening crash of contraband goods smashing all over the warehouse floor.

Corwyn reached the top. The stack gave another ominous shudder. She grabbed the cage to try and steady herself. The golem started, then slid until his feet slammed into the cage bars, his eyes wide and alarmed. She recoiled, just a touch; his eyes were all black, no iris, like a bird’s; he had no hair; and even though she had expected it, he was tiny–no man should be that small and look so real.

“Who are you?” he asked. His voice was tiny, too, and pitched higher than a full-grown man; still, he didn’t sound like a kid.

“I’m a friend,” she said. “Dr. Eggleston sent me.”

“Oh thank god,” he said, all in a rush.

Corwyn turned her attention to the lock on the cage door. She’d learned to pick on locks like these. No magic, just tumblers. “All right,” she said. “I can do this fast, or I can do it without jostling you around. So hold on.” Orson grabbed the bars to either side of him and braced his feet as Corwyn pulled a pin from her hair. “Look out at the fight; tell me how it’s going?”

“Depends on what side you’re on,” Orson said. “I assume we’re rooting for the girl?”

“Yup.” Corwyn never thought she’d be grateful that Mrs. Simcote made her practice picking locks blindfolded, but the shadows were deep.

“She is carving a swath of bloody destruction through the thugs,” Orson said, adjusting his grip as Corwyn tilted the cage to one side for a better angle. “And some of the drunker ones are fighting each other, I presume for the fun of it. Still, there are far more of them than there are of her.”

“Well, that is how she prefers it,” Corwyn said absently. The lock opened with a click she felt more than heard. “All right,” she said, “Should I … it’d be easier if I carried you?”

Orson scrambled out of the cage, over her shoulder, and down the back of her shirt. His brass legs and arm were cold; their charms pricked against her skin as he dug his feet into the waistband of her trousers. He was heavy, but she’d expected that–clay and metal, of course he’d be heavier than he looked–and adjusted for it as she cautiously slid one foot down the pile, looking for a hold to start their descent.

In retrospect, it wasn’t so surprising that the stack collapsed under them–there was the deafening crash of contraband on the floor, and a rank cloud of alcohol–what was surprising was that Corwyn managed to land on her side and not on Orson, who clung stubbornly to her back the whole way down.

She lost her breath with the pain of the impact, felt Orson scrambling out of her shirt, and heard Gwen’s voice in her head telling her, Get up, Corwyn, so much for easy.

She hauled herself to her feet in time to see one of Goldberg’s boys headed her way.  “Mr. Orson, I advise you to run,” she said, though she didn’t have time to see if he was anywhere around to hear her.

There wasn’t much help to be found in the debris: broken bottles of whiskey; wet, fleshy things she had no desire to look at more closely; an astounding number of cigars; no weapons. Fate was not on her side today. Corwyn reached down and grabbed a broken bottle, then straightened to face the skinny young lug coming at her.

She dropped to the wet floor as he reached out to grab her, glass crunching under her boots and whiskey dampening her knees as she swiped his shin with the bottle and jammed it into his stomach as she came back up. There was another guy coming behind him; she turned this one roughly and shoved him, howling like a baby and the bottle still stuck in him, at his buddy before turning and bolting for the back wall. Gwen had taught her a lot over the years, but Corwyn didn’t have a knack that would help her thrash an entire gang at once.

Her side hurt, her hip clawed at her, and the window directly in front of her was boarded over. Wait, there was one, farther down on the right and broken; lantern light glinted off the shards, and it wasn’t that far away. If she could get out and catch her breath she could try and figure out where Orson might–

A hand twisted into her hair and yanked her backwards off her feet. It felt like she slammed back-first into the walls of St. Philomena’s cathedral; the voice in her ear was about as rough as one of those walls, too. “You think she’ll slow down, she sees I got you?”

Corwyn squirmed as he wrapped an arm around her and tightened his grip to keep her arms pinned. She heard Gwen laughing over someone cursing at her.

“I think if you want to see her stop playing and kill you all like it’s a job, you take me out there,” Corwyn said with a grunt, then brought her boot down, hard, into his foot. She dropped to her knees when his grip loosened, scrambling away on her hands and knees toward the inside of the warehouse. Maybe she could get lost in the bigger fight–some more of Goldberg’s boys were fighting with each other now, and she caught a glimpse of Gwen, grinning, arms held behind her back by one lug, shifting up fast and smashing both feet into the face of another one.

Corwyn got a hard kick in the ribs as she started to get up onto her feet, but her new friend skipped back and away, grunting and favoring the foot she’d stomped. She got up to her own feet, slowly, both sides hurting like seven kinds of hell, and turned her head to look at him, then past him.

Time to do something blindingly stupid, she thought. She grinned at Broken Foot, hoping it looked cocky, and took off toward him at as much of a sprint as she could muster.

He looked surprised, which Corwyn felt was highly flattering; she veered around him and managed to skim past his grasping hand. He couldn’t run after her very well–frankly, Corwyn couldn’t run away from him very well, either–but she could hear him thumping along as she reached the boarded window and put a foot on its sill. She heaved herself up, off-balance, to grab the bottom of the hanging lantern, burning her fingers as she yanked it off the hook. Then she hit the ground, turned, and threw it at Broken Foot.

It went wide. His surprise was turning into a sly grin, but then the lamp shattered in the pool of whiskey on the floor, and the surprise came back again. It turned to downright panicked when the cuff of his pants caught fire.

That was all Corwyn paused to see, though she could hear him fumbling to put it out and yelling like hell for his friends. She ran–awkwardly, but at a good clip–to the broken window, knocked out the last of the glass, and climbed through.

Corwyn hung off the outside window ledge and gave a quick whistle to let Gwen know she was leaving. The drop wasn’t far, but it was enough to send a jolt all up her sides and make her hiss when she landed.

“Miss?” she heard, from near to the ground.

“Orson?”

He shifted so that the firelight reflected off his brass bits. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to get back to Pallasgreen from here. Would you be kind enough to escort me?”

Corwyn hadn’t even begun to think about where to look for him once she got out of the warehouse, but relief that she wouldn’t have to washed through her like water through a pump. She matched his highbrow accent when she replied, “Certainly, Mr. Orson.” She kneeled carefully next to him. “Climb aboard, but mind my ribs, please.”

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Gwen arrived at their apartment later smelling like smoke, with a bloody lip, skinned knuckles, scorched trousers, and shining eyes starting to blacken from her broken nose. It was downright miraculous Gwen had any nose left, as many times as it’d been broken.

“I will undoubtedly be an entire gang of enormous lugs tomorrow,” she told Corwyn as she strapped Corwyn’s ribs. “But someday, Wyn, someday, those men will proudly tell their grandchildren of the time Gwen Teachout knocked their teeth loose.”

“And a glorious day that will be, indeed,” Corwyn replied easily. Gwen enjoyed knocking heads and tossing drunks too much to make it steady work; those that hired her got nervous after a while. Corwyn, however, had lived with Gwen her whole life, and knew to treat it like a bender.

Gwen tied off the strapping, leaned back on their sagging couch, and shut her eyes, fingers lightly exploring her re-set nose. “So how is our treasure?” she finally asked.

“Asleep.” Corwyn shifted in their only armchair, stiff and trying to find a comfortable position in which to rest her abused bones.

“I’m not, actually.” Orson stood in the doorway to their bedroom. “Your bed is too big, Miss Corwyn.”

“You want me to make you one in a dresser drawer?” Gwen asked, sounding still mildly drunk on violence.

He was very cunningly made, Corwyn thought; the look of disgust was as clear as if he’d been made of skin and muscle rather than clay. She guessed he had a right to be tetchy, considering.

He climbed up onto the couch next to Gwen, though he sat a good distance away from her. Corwyn got comfortable–turned and leaning more on the kicked side, strangely enough–and let out a long breath. The tips of her right-hand fingers were sensitive, but no longer hurt whenever she touched something. Her ribs felt better. Her scalp had stopped stinging. She could hear, between her breaths, the faintest tick and tock of Orson’s heart. It was approaching cozy, sitting in the lamplight with her battered sister and the clockwork homunculus. “I’m sorry about the bed, Mr. Orson.”

“I appreciate the bed,” he said, his voice delicate and barely disturbing the stillness of the room.  He blinked his black eyes, and Corwyn felt a ghost of that first startled sight of him, tiny and bird-eyed, not quite human.  “I prefer feeling slightly more … contained.  And really, I’m not quite ready to let go of the day.”

Gwen turned her head on the back of the couch and grinned at him. “It was quite the adventure, wasn’t it?”

“It was terrifying,” he said, meeting her grin with a smile. “And yes.”

“How’d you get out of the warehouse?” Corwyn asked.

“There are some quite enormous rats in there, to judge by the holes. I barely had to crouch.” He fell silent for a while, the smile playing on his face before gradually fading.  “I suppose Jarvis will have to move me to the museum.  I suppose I belong there.”  He looked down at his clockwork hand and flexed his fist open and shut, the lamplight flowing over and catching against the tiny fittings. “Had Mr. Fairchilde not died, I’d likely be all clockwork by now.”

“There’s worse places for you than the museum,” Corwyn offered.

“They’ll never let me out again.  Nor should they.” It came out on a breath, the merest wisp of a sigh. Well, nobody liked a cage, especially when they’d thought they’d found a way out of it. Corwyn knew that more than most.

She glanced at Gwen, whose eyes were shut. “You’re very solid,” she said to Orson.

“How solid?” Gwen opened one eye to peer at her.

“My back says pretty damn solid–he’s made of brass and clay.”

Gwen opened her other eye and, without lifting her head from the back of the sofa, appraised Orson like he was a new and interesting weapon.  Or something she could use as one. “So if you knew what to do, you get grabbed, you could maybe fight off one or two guys.”

“Do you think so?” Orson asked. “I’m so small.”

“You ain’t going to roundhouse punch a grown man, but there’s things you can do, nonetheless.  And they’d underestimate you,” Gwen said.

Corwyn snorted. “‘Til word got round, anyway.” The two of them hadn’t had the element of surprise on their side in years.

“And then they might leave you alone,” Gwen said, unperturbed.

“Could you … teach me that? What to do?” Orson asked.

“For a nominal fee,” Gwen replied. She was fading fast, but as she hauled herself off the couch she said, “You tell Dr. Eggleston. You’re a valuable commodity, you know. You ought to be able to defend yourself.”

Gwen shut the bedroom door behind her, and Corwyn sat with the golem without speaking. She could feel the long day on not enough sleep seeping into her bones as she listened to Orson’s ticking heart and the sounds of Pallasgreen settling down for the night. She dozed and only half-remembered Orson prodding her to her own bed, whispering, “Thank you for finding me,” before she fell completely asleep.

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The next day they went to the museum, Gwen still cheerful despite the bruises and the nose. She didn’t heal any faster than other people, and she felt pain, she just didn’t much care about it.  Orson rode on her back today to spare Corwyn’s ribs, with his head above her shoulder, while Corwyn did her grim best to keep up.

“At least they won’t cut me into pieces here,” Orson said as the black stone turrets of the museum appeared at the end of the street.  Corwyn’s lips quirked at that; every cage had silver gilding. Or some such.

Mattie, at the front desk, ran to get the curator as soon as they walked through the museum’s enormous front doors. Dr. Eggleston’s sagging face lit up when he saw them; he seemed thrilled and relieved to see his treasure once more and willing to engage Gwen to teach Orson ways to fight. “You should get out in the world, and if you can defend yourself, then I can try and make a case for it,” he told the golem as he kneeled before him. “Though perhaps not another trip down to the docks.”

“Surely some sea captain would hire a thirteen-inch half-clockwork sailor,” said Orson; they both laughed, but it echoed oddly in the hallway, flattened out and thin.

“Thank you, ladies,” Dr. Eggleston said, standing to pull his billfold from his jacket pocket and count out their fee. “I will be sure to recommend you to my colleagues when we have things that need finding.”

They watched the curator and Orson walk away down the hall.  “He means it,” said Mattie.  “They’re always losing junk. Or hearing about weird things they simply must have.”

Corwyn nodded, unwilling to think too much about a future possibility when she had so much present to stare in the face. At least her present currently included a large sum of cash, which she and Gwen divided between them for the walk home before following Mattie to the front doors.

Gwen grinned to split her face as she bounced down the front steps of the museum.  “We retrieved a lost treasure. And I got a job!” she said, smug or gleeful. Likely both. “And nobody died‑‑just some maiming!  But I’m still putting a sign on the door. No missing people cases for a while.”

“All right,” Corwyn allowed. “I guess I could do with more sleep.”

“And baths for us both,” Gwen said, nose wrinkled as she sniffed at herself.

Corwyn smelled sweat. A bit of whiskey. Some clay, probably from Orson. Food from a restaurant. She took a deep breath and let it out, forgetting Gwen next to her, the museum behind her, and the only slightly rundown buildings of Pallasgreen surrounding her in the sudden awareness of the clean scent of her hair.

___

Copyright 2014 Laura E. Price

Laura E. Price lives in Florida with her husband and son.  Her stories have appeared in Cicada, On Spec, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  You can find her blog at seldnei.wordpress.com

by Vanessa Fogg

The world is filled with spirits who would take a child. The gundarram, who hide in banana trees and send out their foul breath to sicken sleeping infants. The gargar demons with red fur and black wings, who fly through the rainforest looking for naughty children to snatch. Momimo, who appears as a little lost boy crying in the mangrove swamps, begging children and adults alike for help. There are even spirits who steal the lives of babies still in their mothers’ wombs.

My aunties warned, scolded and threatened me with such tales. My cousins and I retold the stories we heard, alternately terrified and delighted. But my mother never warned me of the spirits of the jungle.  The only ones she ever warned me against were the Nai-O, the beautiful swimmers, the shape-shifters of the sea.

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Sometimes I can see dolphins out in the bay. A flash so quick I can hardly be sure: a silver arc, a moment of flight, the curve of a leap which drags my heart along with it. Sometimes I see a pod: two and three and more leaping and spinning together, breaking again and again out of the water into the empty air. I stare at them from the shallow water near the shore, a scoop-net in my hands. I can swim, but I will never get close to them; I can’t swim that far, and I will never be allowed in the painted boats that venture out in the deeper waters beyond the reef.

All I can do is stare.

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“Dolphin blood,” some families are said to possess. It is known that the Nai-O, who delight in taking dolphin form during the day, sometimes take human form on land at dusk. There are tales of young women seduced and left carrying half-human offspring. Men are no less lucky—they are often driven hopelessly mad by an encounter.

“But why? Why would they even leave their home?” I asked once. I could not fathom it. There is no death in their undersea kingdom, no suffering. Beautiful music plays; the water is cool and refreshing; the Nai-O, ultimately neither dolphin nor human, laugh and dance under the waves. Some say they live in castles of coral and moon-pearls. Some say they eat fruit off plates of shining gold.

“They’re drawn to humans,” Auntie Tippi said simply. It was the resting hour after the mid-day meal, and we lay under the thatched palm shade of Auntie’s small courtyard, too drained by the heat to move. Even my little brother was too hot to run about, and he lay draped on the ground at my feet like a beached jelly. “They’re drawn to human songs, human music.” Auntie slapped at a gnat on her arm.

“They’re drawn to the human world because it’s different,” an older cousin guessed. “Maybe even spirits want to see new things.”

One of the littler cousins pinched another, and wails split the air. My mother spoke quietly, so quietly that perhaps only I heard. “They’re drawn to sorrow,” she said.

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There is no shortage of sorrow in our world. Every few years a great storm batters the coast, tearing the roofs off our homes, flooding our fields, breaking our boats. There are unlucky men and boys caught and dragged under by the sea. There are people bitten by snakes and poison spiders, lost to the jungle; there are the rains that bring the coughing sickness and the sun which brings the prickly fever; there are shallow wounds that blacken and rot. The gundarram steal the breath of babies; and there are other spirits who take the breath of laboring women and babies together with a single hand.

There is sorrow in my household. I have always felt it. My mother goes silent and her gaze slips past me, staring at what no one else can see. She was pounding herbs and salt into a paste for dinner, but her hands have grown still. I in turn grow nervous, for Father will yell if dinner is not done to his liking.

“Mother,” I say tentatively. I cannot predict her moods. There are days that she smiles and laughs and she is with me and my brother. But other times she snaps at us; her voice goes shrill, and she bursts into tears. She sings to herself songs from her old village, but she won’t teach them to me and gets angry when she hears me singing them in my turn.

“Mother,” I say, and she might come back or she might not.

Father can’t stand to see her this way. I gently take the mortar and pestle from her hands and try to finish dinner myself. I’m not as quick or skilled as she can be, and Father will grumble when he gets home. But he would grumble anyway.

Many women have sorrows. Many women have lost children. My mother is not the only one. But she’s the only one I know who loses herself like this, who grows clumsy and forgetful even as she’s cracking open a coconut or spreading fish out on racks to dry in the sun. She is weak, I think to myself. Accursed. Why else would she lose two children still in the womb even though she wore a garland of shells and fresh sippi flowers every night?  Why else would she be unlucky enough to lose my other brother to the rain-sickness when he was barely a year old? Why can’t she be like my aunties and the other women—often short-tempered and scolding yes, but also strong and stoic and always capable?

To escape her sorrow, I run to the sea. I laugh and dive and splash with the other children. We wade in the shallows with our scoop-nets, catching crabs and small fish; at low tide we dig up clams. I’m only a girl, but I can swim faster and farther and hold my breath longer than anyone, even than Rakao, the son of the chief fisherman. He and I dare each other to swim out farther and farther, until we’re nearly at the reef and it’s just the two of us, floating on our backs in the warm still water. The blue sky tilts above like a second ocean and we’re weightless, suspended between expanses. I think that my body might go transparent with water and light. I think that I might stay like this forever. I think that I might never leave.

Then I hear Rakao’s voice, crying out that there are dolphins.

I turn upright to look. We see them flashing beyond the reef, past the fleet of fishing boats. A man in one of the boats is angrily waving his arm at us—Rakao’s father–gesturing at us to head back.

So we do.

“My father is taking me out tomorrow,” Rakao boasts when we are back on shore. “He says I am old enough now to be of some real help.”

I am silent. It’s true; he is old enough. Rakao’s father first took him out to the reef when he was six, but such trips have not been regular occurrences. I see now that they will soon be; he will learn to use the lines and elaborate nets and traps that only the men can use, and he will spend every day on the reef or open ocean while I stay confined to the inner lagoon with the women and children.

He doesn’t notice my silence. He’s chattering as we walk back to our homes. He heads to the chief fisherman’s house of multiple rooms, while I walk to a small house that needs new thatching for its roof. I find my little brother crying inside, hungry, and my mother just sitting on the floor, staring blankly out through the open doorway at the sea.

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They say that festival times are the riskiest for a Nai-O encounter. All the voices of a village lifted in song—the swirl of melodies, the sounds of flutes and drums—it’s like a great fire in the dark. The Nai-O hear and come. The priest always draws a protective circle around the main celebration space. The elders jealously chaperone the young maidens and youths.

Still, there are tales. There is the story of the girl who foolishly ran home in the dark by herself to fetch a belt of shells to wear. She met a Nai-O and nine months later gave birth to a child with silver hair and fingerless hands like fins. The baby gave a single high, nearly soundless cry, and then died, unable to breathe this world’s air.

And there is a story that took place in our own village, within living memory. Old Uncle Turo was once the handsomest youth of his time. The great-aunties sigh and shake their heads, remembering. He was brave and gifted, and reckless as only a young man can be. No one remembers how or why he slipped from the New Year’s festival. But when they found him the next morning it was already too late; the once-laughing boy was sitting empty-eyed in the sand with seaweed in his hair. He never spoke sense again. He drifted aimlessly about the village and sang at the sea; he grew old, rocking and mumbling to himself. He lives still: a silent bent man forgotten in corners, until someone chances to remember and tell the old story.

Don’t walk by yourself at dusk, they tell the youths and maidens. Don’t sing alone near the sea.

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The aunties of the village look after my brother and me. They pull him out of the mangrove swamp and then scold me for not keeping an eye on him. They watch us alongside their own children as we play. We call all the older women of the village “Aunt,” but Auntie Tippi is our real aunt, our father’s younger sister. She reminds Mother that our small garden needs weeding, that it’s time to pull the aro roots. She tells Mother that Little Brother has outgrown all his clothes. We harvest shellfish and gather palm fronds with her family, and she and Mother weave baskets together in the late afternoon, as my brother and I play with our cousins.

Auntie Tippi’s fingers are gentle as she threads flowers through my hair for the Harvest Festival.

“Your mother wore flowers like these when we first met,” she says, smiling. “You’re already nearly as pretty.”

I feel myself go still. My mother–my tired, drab mother—was once pretty?

I’ve never heard Auntie Tippi say anything like this before. I’ve never heard anyone in the village talk of what my mother was like when she was younger, before I was born.

“Was that at the Harvest Feast?” I ask. “When she and Father first met?”

But my aunt looks as though she regrets her words. Sadness like a shadow flickers over her face, and she doesn’t say anything more.

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I was playing alone on the beach. I was perhaps four years old. It was the cool time of evening when families gather to enjoy the reprieve from the heat; children splash and run in the sea as their mothers sit weaving baskets and the men mend nets or clean out traps for the next day’s fishing. The fishing boats have been dragged ashore, and their painted eyes and charms glint in the day’s last light.

I had wandered far from my friends and from any adult. Orange streaks from the falling sun lit the sky, but my feet seemed to be moving in a separate world of darkness. I watched my own feet splashing through the dimming water; I followed them, fascinated, as though I were following the appendages of some mysterious creature. And I was singing a lullaby as I went, something my mother would sometimes sing to me, a song from her own inland village.

Kirri, kirri sing the little birds.

They call for you in the dawn.

Mik, mik calls the mouse in the field.

He misses your shadow passing by.

I was singing, and was there an echo I heard, a second voice tracing those words? I sang louder and it seemed that the waves were growing stronger. That second voice sang with me, a half-beat behind, and I could hear the curiosity in its uncertain refrain. The current sucked at my legs . . .

And my mother was screaming my name, running at me; she grabbed me and swung me away from the water, up into her arms. “Don’t,” she cried. “Don’t ever sing that song, don’t sing here at night, don’t you know–”

She shook me, she was so angry, and I saw the tears glinting on her cheeks. I burst into sobs.

The Nai-O, she explained as she carried me crying back up the beach. The Nai-O, the singing dolphins, didn’t I know that they took small children?

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My friends didn’t believe me.

“The Nai-O don’t take children,” Rakao said, frowning. “Or not little ones. They take the older ones, the ones who are almost grown.”

“Everyone knows that,” an older boy, Kaavo, scoffed.

“My mother said so,” I insisted.

Kaavo tapped the side of his head with two fingers, the same gesture people made when they spoke of Old Uncle Turo. “My mother says your mother is crazy,” Kaavo said.

My mother was not crazy. Not then.

Back then she still sang to me, and stroked my hair, and held me in her arms. She spoke and listened and looked at the world, even if her eyes were sometimes scared and sad.

I kicked that boy in the shins for disrespecting one of his elders.

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The seasons blur–planting and harvest and sun and rains and sometimes a cool breeze off the sea, stirring the air. The Four Great Festivals slowly wheel around in their turn. There are harvest seasons for fish as well as aro and rice—there are times when the large spotted specka run, and a full moon when huge schools of berbekki throw themselves into the fishermen’s nets. Rakao tells me of all this when we meet. He tells me of the great green turtle nearly as large as a man, whom they call “Grandfather,” and who greets them every day on the reef. He talks of bright fishes with colors and patterns I’ve never seen—too clever and quick to be caught. He speaks of undersea forests of coral. He tells me of rowing past the reef into choppy water, of feeling the boat rise and fall; the lurch in the stomach, the great rolling hills and valleys of water.

Father takes Little Brother out to sea as well, although not often. He’s not a patient man, and Little Brother gets bored and restless in the confines of the boat.

Rakao meets me at the beach as the sun is setting. He tells me of the pod of dolphins he saw, closer than he’s ever seen. He gives me a piece of pink coral.

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How do you tell a Nai-O from an ordinary dolphin?

The differences are subtle. Some say the Nai-O are slightly larger. Others claim that they are smaller. All agree that their skin is brighter, more silvery. They leap just a little higher in the air, cut through the water just a little more swiftly. They are curious and fearless, and often swim alongside boats. At sea, the Nai-O are almost considered good luck; they often bring good weather and fish.

Still, it’s best to keep your distance. It’s best not to draw their attention.

Rakao says he’s never seen one, but promises to tell me if he does.

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When the rains fall, it’s time to light candles for the dead. On the family altar Mother places coconut shells of fresh water and jasmine flowers. We peel and cut guava fruit as an offering. We kneel and recite prayers for our relatives’ well-being and blessings: ancestors I’ve never known, my father’s parents, and their parents in turn. My father’s siblings who died in childhood, and his older brother who died before I was born. We and Auntie Tippi are all that’s left of his family.

In my mother’s village they pray for her ancestors and family, but here she makes offerings for her husband’s. She and Father’s lost children are the last names to be spoken. Her tears start before she gets to her first son’s name; she’s crying as she lights the candle for Father’s older brother, for an uncle I never knew.

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The stories always leave something out. What happened to the girl with the belt of shells, after she gave birth to her Nai-O baby? What happened to the half-Nai-O children who survived, whose descendants are said to live in certain villages on the coast? Were they happy? Did their mothers love them? Did they ever long to leave their human families and go to live in the sea?

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Rakao and I meet when we can. It’s hard, for we’re both busy with new duties. It’s been years since we swam in the lagoon together. Long ago, I was told to put on a maiden’s proper clothes, to leave the sea to unshirted little girls.

But we can still meet on land, for a short space each day. We can still talk and be together.

We’re almost always surrounded by others—family and friends gathered around us on the beach or working with us during chores. But there are still moments when we catch each other alone during the daily routine—moments when he still seeks me out, meeting me by my home. He spends most of his time with the other boys, of course; working with them, trading cheerful insults with them, kicking around a woven rattan-ball. But I know he speaks truly only to me. We stare at the sea and wonder aloud about the islands across the water. He tells me the stories he hears from visiting sea-traders. He talks of running away to join them. He tells me of a quarrel in his family, of something his father said. He speaks of the expectations of his father and of the expectations of all his uncles. It’s like a dozen eyes always watching you, he complains; it’s like the heat of the sun always on your back. And then suddenly we’re laughing at his imitation of a stern old uncle; we’re laughing at an auntie’s manner, and at some silly happenstance; we’re laughing at nothing at all.

I ask him to tell me of the sea.

He smiles. “You’re the one who should be on the boat each day,” he says.

Later, I watch as he swims freely in the lagoon with his friends. I think of a game that the two of us used to play. When we were children, we built a great boat out of palm fronds and branches: the greatest boat that has ever been, a deep-sea voyaging canoe with sails like white wings. We stocked that boat with coconuts, and Rakao caught a shark to tow us, and we sailed across the ocean itself to the lands beyond the sunset.

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I heard two new Nai-O stories last year. It was at the Clear Moon Festival, and I heard them from a girl from M’kai village. She was visiting with her family, honored guests of one of our chief families. She told us the stories as she and her mother helped with the feast preparations: pounding roots, shelling nuts, and folding countless banana leaves around fillings of sweet rice and fruit. A story! we demanded while we worked, for it was the fee asked of all visitors. The girl smiled demurely and glanced at her mother. The woman nodded, and the girl, clearly proud to tell a story she had learned well, told her tale.

Long ago in M’kai village there lived a gentle young man. He was kind and well-liked, a good fisherman and hard worker. But he was also an odd, dreamy youth, prone to spells of silence and unexplained sadness.

One day this youth was out at sea with his brother when a large dolphin, bright silver in the sunlight, surfaced next to them. The dolphin followed as they rowed out to their fishing grounds, and fish flooded into their nets. They could scarcely drag them all into the boat.

From that day on, the dolphin visited with them. Nearly every day she appeared, leaping and swimming beside them. She swam so close that the men in the boat could reach out to touch her. But it was only the younger brother, the sad-eyed dreamer, who did so.

The dolphin brought fish, and the brothers brought home nets nearly bursting with their catch. Their mother and sisters were nearly worn to exhaustion drying, salting, and preparing for trade all that could not be eaten in the village. Their father strutted and grew fat with pride.

But even as they grew rich, the family and others worried. For the younger brother cared nothing for dried fish and money; nor for fresh fish, either. If he had been somewhat dreamy before, he was now three times worse. His eyes turned ever seaward, and they looked only to the silver dolphin that greeted him each day.

The unease grew. The boy’s older brother had married, and now the father tried to marry off the younger son as well. But the boy would not look at any of the girls that the match-makers found for him. He cared only for going to sea and singing to the dolphin from his boat, regardless of the warnings of others.

And then one day it happened. One day the boy simply swung his legs over the edge of his boat and slipped into the sea, after the dolphin who waited for him. The elder brother saw the sleek silver shape in the water; he saw the younger boy reaching for a fin; he watched the boy slide smoothly onto the dolphin’s back. The elder brother shouted and jumped into the sea after them. But the dolphin and boy skimmed through the water quicker than bird-flight. Men on other boats saw as they flashed past, and they watched as the dolphin dived deep, the boy holding onto her fin. No one ever saw them again.

There was a silence as the girl finished her story.

“No one?” said a young girl-cousin, a child of four. And she began to cry.

There was a rush of soothing words and comfort for the child, and then praise and questions for the tale-teller. The girl from M’kai flushed under the attention. “No,” she said in response to one question. “It’s the only tale like it that I know.” She paused. “Or maybe not. There’s also a story of a girl who went into the sea after the Nai-O. Some say that she had met one on the beach the night before, and afterward refused to be left behind. Some say that she was part Nai-O herself. For one dusk she took off her clothes on the beach–in front of everyone—and walked naked into the sea. There were shouts, and someone tried to go in after her. But something of the Nai-O’s speed touched her then, for she swam faster than was human, and she disappeared into the waves.”

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“Do you think she’s pretty?” I later asked Rakao about that girl from M’kai. Everyone knew that she and her family were visiting because our head chief was looking for a match for his son. All through the festival people had gossiped of it. The girl was generally held to be beautiful, with her large round eyes and shining black hair.

Rakao shrugged. “She’s pretty enough.” He grinned and flicked away a wisp of my hair that had fallen into my eyes. “I hear her younger sister is even prettier.”

I’m nearly of age, and my parents should be looking for a husband for me. But my mother looks through me, lost in her own world. My father has never looked at me at all.

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Sometimes I can’t sleep at night. I slip outside, then, and I sit just outside our doorway, watching the sea. The black waves glitter and heave. Beneath the roar of the surf, beneath the rhythmic pounding as familiar as the beat of my heart, I think I hear another sound. Another song. Voices. It’s not the voice that once sang my words back to me when I was a child. It’s not anything repeating human words, or trying to understand and imitate human song.

It’s something pure. Something of water and starlight and sunshine and cold. Something of deepness and vastness and height. Something I can’t grasp. I try, I concentrate, I reach out—and it fades and melts, like foam on the sea.

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The Harvest Festival nears, and Auntie Tippi says she’ll help me with my festival clothes. It’s been a good season for rice; each family’s granary is full. It’s been a good season for fish: the migrating berbekki passed by the coast in schools so thick they were said to resemble black clouds beneath the water. I’m fifteen, and I will be joining the women’s chorus in the singing this year.

Rakao is nearly sixteen. I hear that his family has been consulting the match-makers for his bride. I hear that a girl from an inland village has been invited to the festival to meet him.

“Why would I wish to marry an inland girl?” Rakao says to me in disgust. For once, we’re alone together on the beach. “She won’t even know how to properly clean a fish!” he says. Has he forgotten that my mother is from an inland village? Or is he remembering it all too well? I hate this other, unknown inland girl, yet I also feel a brief, intense desire to kick Rakao in the shins.

“Her father is wealthy, and they say the kanat should be renewed.” Rakao’s voice falters. The kanat is a bond between families and clans; it’s a bond between villages, too. Each family and village is bound to others in a complicated web that only the priests and match-makers, those wise women with their marked tablets of bamboo wood, fully understand. I think of my own family’s ties, of the kanat that brought my mother and father together.

“I’m too young to marry,” Rakao says. I look into his eyes, and the panic in them is like something I would see in my little brother just a year ago—before he grew too old to run to me for comfort and a hug.

Rakao is right. He’s younger than most boys when their families start looking for a bride. What have the matchmakers said to them? Are they only trying to seal an engagement? The girl from M’kai never came to our village; they say our head chief waited too long, and her family accepted a different marriage.

“Nari,” Rakao says quietly, calling me by my name. His back is turned to me; he’s looking out at the sea. “Do you remember that game we used to play when we were kids? The one about building a great boat and sailing across the sea to the other side of the world?”

Could I ever forget? I think. I feel my heart clench.

“I still wish sometimes that I could run away like that,” he says now. We’re both quiet, and when he finally turns back to me his eyes are calm. “I wish I could sail away in that great deep-sea boat.” He smiles a little sadly, fondly. “Or that I could meet another girl like you.”

I can’t tell him what’s in my heart. What my heart wants is impossible. I blink quickly and look away.

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I can’t marry him; I know that. There’s the kanat, there are blood ties, there’s tradition. Marriage within a village is discouraged. There are exceptions—Auntie Tippi was allowed to stay and marry her village sweetheart. But the match-makers pored through their charts of bloodlines and ties; the priest cast shells and prayed. A dispensation of the type given to her and her sweetheart– kind Uncle Kanoa—a dispensation granted by gods and ancestors and elders and family alike—is granted once a generation, if that.

And why would Rakao’s family seek such a dispensation for us? He is the eldest son of the chief fisherman of our village and nephew to the head chief. What am I but the daughter of a dwindled, accursed family? We may as well ask the gods for a dispensation allowing me to go to sea, to sail beyond the reef in the deep-sea boat of mine and Rakao’s imagination.

Rakao and I have never spoken of any of this. He flicks my hair and teases me. And he calls me, “Cousin,” the greeting that we all give one another in our village. The proper greeting.

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My mother is always worse near the time of the Harvest Festival. This year she couldn’t even be relied on to participate in the village’s shared rice harvest; I took her place in the village fields, trying to work doubly hard under the accusing eyes. She stayed in bed, sleeping or staring blank-eyed at the wall.

But something seems to rouse her this year as the festival preparations get underway. She watches me as I sew bright beads on the shirt I mean to wear. She comes to listen when I and the other women and girls gather to practice our songs.

“Don’t go,” she tells me one day. We’re alone in the house, just her and me. With both the rice and fish harvests in, the men have been indulging in impromptu pre-festival activities; Father is drinking rice wine with the other men, and Little Brother is off with his friends. He takes every chance he can to flee our home.

I look at her in surprise, for I had thought her asleep. In the lantern light her face is a patchwork of shadow and golden-lit skin. She’s sitting up straight, and her hair is a flow of shadow, catching the light dully here and there.

“Don’t go, Nari,” she says urgently, and something in her voice reminds me of that day when I was four, when she rescued me from a suddenly threatening sea.

“Don’t listen to him,” she says, and I realize she’s weeping. “He can’t take you, he can’t keep you; it’s all a lie. You don’t belong there. I didn’t belong there. But I don’t belong here, either. Nari, you won’t leave me, don’t leave me.” Her thin arms stretch out to me. I am terrified. I promise her that I won’t leave her; I promise not to sing by the sea, I promise her anything she asks. But I don’t leave my seat to cross the room to her and comfort her. I don’t touch her at all.

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I have always loved the music of our festivals. The drum-beats that pound in your blood and move your feet; the high, clear notes of the flutes, sweeter than birdsong. But the human voices are sweetest of all: the choruses interweaving their separate lines of melody, the voices rising and falling and rising again in a sound that melts away time. We rehearse in groups: the youngest children in their own choir; girls and boys separate from the women and men. But on the nights of festival we all come together, and together we sing songs of thanks and praise; together we sing old stories and legends into being. No one sings alone.

When we sing like this, I can feel myself disappearing into the music; I can lose myself completely. And I can believe that spirits from the sea would want to hear this. I can believe that they would leave their undersea paradise to listen to us, to try to share in our songs.

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People from other villages trickle in, as happens every Harvest Festival. Visiting chiefs and elders, relatives and marriage prospects. I know when the inland girl and her parents arrive. Rumor travels fast, and the day after their arrival Rakao himself comes to my home to tell me.

“She’s stiff as a dried fish, Nari,” he tells me miserably. “We had to share sippi-leaf tea with everyone watching. Then they left us alone to talk. It was horrible.”

I try to say something sympathetic, but my heart is beating fierce and glad.

I wonder if he sees it; he looks at me sharply. And then he gives me the message he was sent with. “They want to visit with you this afternoon. The mother and the girl.”

I gape, and he laughs a little as he says, “They’re your blood relations, you know that, don’t you? The mother is your mother’s true-cousin. They grew up together.”

I’m still gaping at him. His smile fades. He knows what I’m thinking; he knows me so well. “It will be alright, Nari,” he says softly. “Your mother’s been doing well; she’ll be alright.”

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But she’s not.

Silently I serve juice and sweet rice cakes as the woman, this Auntie Ona who I’ve only just met, struggles in conversation with my mother.

Auntie Ona seems kind. Her face is round and pleasant; she sits and talks of how glad she is to see Mother again. She says it’s a comfort to think that her daughter might marry into a village where there is at least one kinswoman, one good friend, to help guide her. She praises me, says that I am beautiful and well-mannered, and mustn’t Mother be proud?

I’m not supposed to speak unless spoken to. So I sit at the low table and sneak glances at the girl across from me: Rakao’s intended. She’s tall and skinny where her mother is soft and round; her face is long and plain. Her expression floats between vacancy and unhappiness.

“Oh?” my mother says absently in response to the other woman’s words. I can see her drifting. She seemed to behave well enough when our guests first arrived; she smiled and embraced them both. But I saw the flash of shock on Auntie Ona’s face just before she reached out to hug my mother. What did she see?

I try to look at Mother as through a stranger’s eyes. She’s dressed neatly and her hair is combed. But she’s so thin, so fragile looking. Her hair is brittle and tipped with white; she looks far older than Auntie Ona, who is the same age. And she’s shown no real warmth or interest in her cousin, whom she last saw fifteen years ago. She’s barely asked any questions of the daughter. She nods and drops polite syllables here and there, but she’s distracted; it’s as though she’s listening to a different conversation in the room, one that only she hears.

I think even the skinny girl across from me is beginning to realize that something is wrong; she seems to come out of her own distracted thoughts to look with puzzlement at my mother. I feel a kind of queasy shame in the pit of my stomach.

“Nari,” Auntie Ona says, turning to me with desperate enthusiasm. She praises my cooking and plies me with questions. I answer, feeling my face hot with embarrassment. I don’t want either of these guests here; why do I care what they think? Mother is leaning against a wall, her eyes unfocused, somewhere else entirely.

And then, suddenly, she is paying attention again. “Marriage?” she repeats, looking at Auntie Ona. Auntie had just been mentioning again her daughter’s possible betrothal to Rakao. Mother looks at the girl and tenderness fills her eyes. “Oh,” she breathes. “Do you love him?”

It’s a breach of etiquette so great that we’re all speechless.

My mother shakes her head. “I loved him,” she says. She sways a little in her seat. She says it like a song: “I loved him. I did. I did.”

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I go to bed early that night.

I lie on my mat and think fiercely that I don’t mind how Mother behaves; I don’t care what those inland relations think. Perhaps Mother has even scared them away from marrying into this village. Look what happens when inland girls come here. Good, I think; Rakao will thank me. That girl should thank me, too. It’s obvious that she doesn’t want to marry Rakao and live here; it’s as plain as her face is.

But part of me wants to cry, and then to run to the house where Auntie Ona is staying and knock on the door and beg her to talk to me. Tell me, I want to say. Tell me what she was like when you knew her. Tell me about the girl you remember. Tell me who my mother used to be.

I don’t ask anyone about the last words my mother said to the girl. I know that she wasn’t talking about Father. I know that she’s never felt that way about him.

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“I won’t marry her,” Rakao tells me, waiting for me outside my house in the early morning light. He knows that I’ll be the first one up during these slack days of holiday. “They can’t make me; I refuse.”

“Good,” I say, my voice low but as strong as his.

Something of the fierceness in him seems to leak out. We stand staring at each other. The sky is whitening around us. But in the early blue shadows it’s still hard to make out his eyes. I don’t know what I see there.

“Well,” he says. He sounds confused. “I just wanted to let you know. They’ll be looking for me back home. . . “

“I know,” I say. And I feel as though I’m answering a question he’s never asked.

We stand still a moment more. The moment stretches and echoes; I feel as though the world is tilting.  “I—“he stops. “I’ll see you tonight,” he says finally. “At the Festival.” And then he turns and is sprinting away from me, past the row of stilt houses slowly emerging from the dawn.

Tonight. The first night of Festival. It feels a year away.

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I’ve never told anyone of how I sometimes hear the ocean singing. I’ve never even told Rakao.

It’s not just at night that I hear the music. Now I sometimes catch it during the day, in whispers beneath the wind and surf. I hear it calling while I hang clothes up to dry, while I sweep the floor or prepare supper. It pulls and teases at the edge of my hearing. It’s something that can’t be held, can’t be grasped—like water itself.

But I hold still and try. I let the music into my mind, as much of it as I can. I feel it moving and spreading through me. Then human voices interrupt the song.  My mother calls my name. The music’s gone, and even in the hottest sun I feel myself shivering.

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I sew the last bead on my new shirt. I help carry armloads of floral offerings to the temple grounds, where the festival will be held. I help Auntie Tippi and the other women cook for the Harvest Feast, and then Auntie Tippi braids my hair.

I walk to the festival grounds with my family, holding onto Mother’s hand. Little Brother runs ahead of us, looking surprisingly grownup in his new clothes.

I take my place in the women’s choir for the first time. I catch Rakao’s eyes in the men’s choir across from me. He nods.

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I’ll tell him, I’ve decided.

I’ll tell him and he’ll agree with me; he’ll think and feel exactly the same. Together we’ll find a way to win over the elders and families and everyone. It’s right, he’ll know it’s right; what we have goes beyond kanat; Rakao and I will make our own kanat. He feels it just like I do. Doesn’t he?

But there’s no time to say anything now.

Now there’s singing, melodies tossed back and forth between the separate choirs; melodies entwining, voices running over and under and around one another. There’s music rising in me and from me. Now there’s the great bonfire, and children running about giggling in the shadows. Later there will be the patterned, formal dances of the different age-groups, and later still the dancing for all ages.

I try to find Rakao after the singing, but there are so many people. New faces from outside the village, new youths as well as new young women. I find myself caught in introductions, even as the daughter of a poor low-status fisherman. I see Rakao on the other side of the fire, still playing host to the long-faced inland girl.

Two of my other friends, Auntie Tippi’s older daughters, grab my hands and pull me into a dance.

Later I see that inland girl talking to one of the visiting boys from outside our village. Rakao is standing off to the side, looking relieved.

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There’s no time to talk to him alone during these days of Festival, but there’s time for my mother to cling close to me, to worry at me. “Where are you going?” she says. “Where are you?” Her thin hands clutch at me. She hasn’t gone to a Harvest Festival in years, but now she goes each night, stuck to my side. She lets go reluctantly when a boy takes my hand to dance. She pleads, “Come back soon,” as I step away to fetch a drink or fill her banana-leaf with rice.

“Stay close,” she whispers, her nails digging into my wrist. I grit my teeth. From the side of my eye, I see our priest walking a circle around the celebration space. He’s sprinkling blessed water on the ground, keeping us safe from jealous spirits of the sea.

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Rakao and I glance off each other in the bright chaos, stumbling into each other and then spinning away again. He seizes my hand during one of the dances; he spins me till I’m laughing with dizziness. I see his smile before the dance line moves and turns and I’m handed to the next partner.

My friends are gossiping under the trees. Rakao’s inland girl and her family left this morning, off to prepare for their own village’s Harvest Festival. A few last visitors are expected tomorrow. That family from M’kai, the one that came to the Clear Moon Festival last year—have I heard? They’re coming back, this time with their younger daughter. And a son, too.

This last is said with a sly smile by a girl-cousin. There’s laughter.

But I’m not paying attention, because Rakao has joined our group. He settles in with ease, joining the conversation in mid-flow. Does he look at me as I look at him? Our eyes keep catching. Even as he laughs at his cousin’s joke or debates a fine point of fishing technique with a friend, his eyes keep returning to mine.  It’s as though we’re holding a separate, secret conversation. I feel my heart blooming with each look.

Tomorrow night, I think. Or the day after. We’ll find the time to talk. We will.

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That night I hear the music of the sea in my dreams. Larger and louder than I’ve ever heard. Even in my dreams I can’t grasp it, but dimly I sense its themes. Something about wind and waves and tempests. Something about depths and freedom and the flight of the gull. Starlight in a black night, and a far distant shore.

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It’s the last night of the Harvest Festival. I’m standing with the women’s choir, waiting for the singing to begin. My cousins are chattering behind me, still gossiping of the family from M’kai. Cousin Palani saw them today; she’s nearly swooning over how handsome their young son is.

Then I see them myself. They’re taking their seats among the honored guests. I recognize the tall, broad-shouldered father with his greying hair. I recognize the graceful mother. I see the son they’ve brought with them, and the young daughter, sister to the one who told the Nai-O stories last year.

Rakao is with them, guiding them politely to their seats. I realize that the rumors he told me last year were right. The younger daughter is even prettier than her sister.

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It took me so long to understand.

A name spoken, and a name misspoken. The things my mother said, and her tears over an uncle I never met. The silence in our household. The story I finally coaxed from Auntie Tippi about my mother’s first betrothal. The way my mother warned only me against the Nai-O, and never my brother.

The night that Father came home late, drunk on rice wine. I was sitting in the doorway, looking out at the sea. He almost stumbled over me. I said something, I don’t remember what—perhaps it was just his name, “Father.” And he was silent. I could feel him looking at me in the darkness–a rare thing, for he never looks at me. “You’re not mine,” he said finally, flatly, and he pushed past me to his bed.

These are the memories that finally fell together in my mind. These, and the music of the sea.

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It’s surprisingly easy to run away from a Harvest Festival.

The aunties and uncles think they’re keeping watch, but they’re distracted with food and drink and dancing and talk. The circle the priest has drawn has no power over humans; it’s easy enough to step over.

It’s easy enough to run into the darkness, to flee.

I watched for as long as I could bear it. I watched Rakao talking with that M’kai girl after the singing; I saw the way the two of them made a private circle in the golden lantern-lights. I saw the way he looked at her. And the way she looked at him.

Did he ever look at me that way? Did I imagine it all?

Even if I didn’t imagine it, it’s not me that he’ll marry. I heard the gossip swirling before and after the singing. A marriage was not made last year between the older M’kai girl and the head chief’s son, but the priests are insistent that a kanat be arranged between the two villages. It’s overdue, they say.

And Rakao is the head chief’s nephew. If he marries the younger M’kai girl, the clans will still align.

From what I saw, I don’t think he’ll object.

It was easy enough for me to slip away from my mother, to wait for a moment of distraction. I fled the Harvest Festival; I ran to the sea.

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My throat is burning, and pain cramps my side. I’ve run so fast, so far. I’m at the very end of our village’s strip of beach. When I turn to look back, I see the lights of the festival tiny and golden against the great night.

I pant, catching my breath.

It’s not the Nai-O’s fault, I know. It’s not their fault that some people can’t choose. It’s not their fault if some are left stranded behind, unable to make the leap, to let go fully of their human ties. The Nai-O don’t mean us harm. They’re only curious. They only want to hear our music. And to offer us their own.

I know the Nai-O never meant my mother harm.

The sun went down long ago, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be dusk. A nearly full moon lights the sky and burns a cold path across the waves. I face the sea and begin to sing.

I don’t sing the songs of the Harvest Festival, or any of the songs of my village. I sing my mother’s songs. The sad, lonely songs of her inland home.

And I know that years ago she stood on this shore and sang these same songs at the sea. She was lonely and sad. She had fallen in love with a boy at a Harvest Festival and had been pledged as his bride. But illness took him before the marriage could take place, and to preserve the kanat she was wed to his younger brother, the last of the family line. A younger brother who Auntie Tippi claims was not always so grim and rough, but who was forced to grow up and old before his time. A brother who could never take the place of the one who was lost.

The inland girl was alone among strangers, with a man she didn’t love. No one warned her of the Nai-O. She didn’t know.

But I know, and I sing her songs now, flinging my voice out over the waves. Her songs are filled with human sadness, but I realize that I myself am no longer sad. What’s burning through me is exultation. My voice rings stronger and truer than it ever has.

I sing to my father who came from the sea. I sing to my home, and all my undersea kin.

They sing back, and I begin to undress.

I take off the beaded shirt of which I was so proud. I take off the matching skirt that Auntie Tippi made for me. I take off the necklace I always wear, the necklace made from a piece of pink coral that Rakao gave me when we were ten.

I let these items fall onto the sand and I step into the sea. I think briefly of my little brother, but he’s almost grown–he doesn’t need me anymore. I wade in, and the cool water closes over my thighs. I hear a voice calling my name. My mother’s voice, crying frantically for me. But I spread my arms and kick forward, gliding into the waves.

The music of the Nai-O rises for me, and I understand it at last; it fills my head and my body and bones, catching and lifting me to the stars, to the deeps.

___

Copyright 2014 Vanessa Fogg.

Vanessa Fogg writes of dragons, cyborgs, and other oddities from her home in the American Midwest. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical and science writer. Her fiction has appeared in LabLit, NewMyths, and Literary Mama. 

by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

 

Zhongquijie when the stranger arrives, and so they ply her with mooncakes of every size and filling: no yolk, double-yolk, or the extravagance of triple. Every family wants a foreign woman in the house, and no excess is too much.

For her part the stranger is receptive. She eats all she’s given, taking honey straight from the jar, licking her fingers and smiling at the village apiarist Zhang Xiaoli. At this some raise eyebrows. Xiaoli has a family but not a household, living apart as she does to keep her bees. To attract a foreigner all for herself seems like sheer avarice.

“Have you ever used a phone?” Xiaoli asks once she has cornered Jinhuang’s attention. “Fax machines? Ridden a train? Driven a car?”

The stranger stops laughing. “Well, yes.”

“Can you tell me how they work?”

“After a fashion.”

“Oh, please come stay with me. I’ll cook for you. You won’t owe me anything.”

So it is that Jinhuang follows Zhang Xiaoli home, much to the disapproval of everyone save Xiaoli’s family, who holds out the hope that not only will she move back into the Zhang compound but also secure an outsider bride. A coup, and already Xiaoli’s Fourth Aunt is wiping her eyes with pride. To bring the clan such a prize! Far better than being top of the class or being very good indeed with bees.

Xiaoli takes Jinhuang to look at her apiary, cautioning the stranger to put on mask and suit. Jinhuang does not; the bees give her wide berth. They rub their wings and their dusted legs and watch her from the roofs of their boxes, yellow-black buzz limned in garden lights.

“I’ve never seen them act like that,” Xiaoli says later as she takes off her veil.

Jinhuang smiles faintly, but offers no explanation. Xiaoli serves her jasmine tea and honey sorbet. They talk against the noise of distant cicadas and Jinhuang draws diagrams for her, speaking of communication that happens instantly, with pictures and sounds–“Better than telephones.”

Better than telephones. Xiaoli can’t imagine such a thing. “What is that like? How does it work? Tell me everything. Do you have photographs?”

“How can you have cameras but not phones?”

“Oh, we make things haphazardly. It happens like that. We’ve got televisions too, but not much to watch except tapes brought back from Earth we rewatch a few hundred times.”

They are sitting knee to knee, and Jinhuang leans forward as though expecting something other than this enthusiasm for screens and circuitry. When what she anticipates does not occur, she widens her eyes at Xiaoli. “Am I so plain?”

“You’re absolutely exciting. It’s just that I’ve never met an outsider. Let me show you my house.”

“I was hoping you would show me more than that.”

“You’ve already seen the bees. I could show you where I make honey? How about the guava trees? They’re nice.”

Jinhuang shakes her head. “Please, show me your house.”

She introduces Jinhuang to the family shrine, where one portrait presently rests. “My birth-mother, Zhang Yuexiang. My other mother Lai Jielin has gone back to the Lunar Village.”

Xiaoli is excellent with her courtesies; she’s been raised well, steeped in manners as tea leaves in hot water. She gives Jinhuang the spare bedroom.

Morning leaves windows in a scrim of frost, which crackles to pieces when Xiaoli lifts the slats. The same ice clings to the veranda where she brings a breakfast of steaming congee thick with pork balls and little plates of sliced lachang, rousong, diced ginger and scallion.

“Winter must be murderous,” Jinhuang says as she adds lachang to her bowl.

“We’ve got heaters and electric blankets.”

Jinhuang looks at her through lowered lashes. “And other things to do to keep warm. Do you manufacture appliances by yourselves?”

Xiaoli reels off an excited applause to wind power and a factory run by the Ding and Jiang families. “We can’t make everything–and some things we just don’t need many of–so when people visit Earth they bring back what we don’t have. I haven’t made a journey yet, though I mean to someday. Soon. My elders thought I wasn’t ready, but that’s two years ago.”

“You aren’t afraid of men? They throng the central realm in uncountable millions.”

“I’ve seen pictures of them. They’re odd–a handful of girls get fluttery about them. It’s so outlandish; why would they like creatures so strange? Not liking anything or anyone at all that way, well that’s understandable, but to want men.” Xiaoli wrinkles her nose. “Some fad.”

“What do you like, then?”

“The normal thing, of course?” Then she realizes what the outsider means. This happens rarely, for Xiaoli is not what her family would call the most astute when it comes to reading people. “You mean do I like anyone specifically? Not really. My clan will help me pick, probably from Lunar Village, when the time comes. Someone who doesn’t mind bees.”

Jinhuang tilts her head. “I don’t mind bees in the least.”

“I saw! You’d make a wonderful apiarist.”

The outsider sighs heavily. “I will do the dishes. Then you can show me around.”

Xiaoli thinks it a fine thing indeed to have someone do household chores for her, a comfort she hasn’t enjoyed since she started living on her own. If all outsiders are like Jinhuang, she decides, Earth must be a splendid place.

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In the middle of Solar Village, as all villages in Nuguo, there is a water clock.

The flow of it fluctuates: oozing slow as Xiaoli’s honey, gushing like an unseasonable monsoon, and sometimes slowing down so each drop hangs still for days, glittering in the sun. Children would cup hands around them, careful not to disturb the perfect little spheres, and adults would take pictures. It does not often happen, and no one owned much jewelry. The land provides, but not for frivolities.

Jinhuang kneels by the clock. “This is how you determine when to travel?”

“It’s primitive. Widow Ding and some of her grandmothers are working hard on improving it. One clock to tell Earth-time, one clock to tell ours. Much more accurate, don’t you think? I’ve seen some of the prototypes, they’re an amazing family–really I should’ve introduced you to them! I’m just an amateur, and you wasting all your diagrams on me.”

Jinhuang gazes up at her, her frown deepening.

“Did I–say anything wrong?”

“Nothing. You’re simply too young.”

“I’m sixteen,” Xiaoli says. “Almost old enough to drink from the River of Mothers.” Though she’s never been courted in that way girls practice on each other, a point of embarrassment that can’t help being decidedly public. She chooses not to admit that.

“Nevertheless. I think we should meet again after you’ve seen Earth.”

They have a picture taken together. Jinhuang makes her farewells to those who’ve given her hospitality. The Zhang family retreats into mortification, alleviated only by the outsider’s lack of interest in any other house’s girls. Cousins and aunts interrogate Xiaoli afterward; she recounts some of their exchanges, at which her relatives and sisters put their faces in their hands. One, taking pity on her, points out that Jinhuang was putting no little effort into wooing her.

“And you let her get away!” cries Ping. “Did you let the bees have your brain, cousin? Has your brain become beeswax?”

“But,” Xiaoli tries, “she didn’t say anything like that. She didn’t even ask to see any elder. That’s what a suitor is supposed to do, isn’t it? I’ve read treatises. There’s a process.”

Ping throws up her hands. In the end the Zhang household reaches an agreement that their beekeeper is a lost cause. Next time a traveler happens by they will do better. They pin their hopes on Ping.

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The following season Xiaoli’s thoughts of Jinhuang knot into an obsession, but the outsider does not return.

At year’s end she is allowed to visit the central realm for the first time, guided by a Ding veteran. When Ding Yurong left Nuguo, Xiaoli’s Second-Grandmother Jiaxin was a girl of thirteen; on the date of Yurong’s return Jiaxin was celebrating a seventy-third birthday. A large differential, but time disparities between the two realms have never been logical or simple to predict.

Ding Yurong looks over Xiaoli and Ping; what she sees evidently does not please. She tells them briefly of their destination, Hong Kong. “They speak a different dialect, though ours will be understood. No one on Earth reads Nushu.”

“Why not?” Ping pouts. “It’s beautiful. I’ve seen their scripts, and there isn’t anything to recommend them.”

“Because it was only ever used by a fraction of our ancestresses, who were forbidden to learn any other. Because it died out with them and their poetry.” Auntie Yurong’s expression, already a perpetual scowl, tightens to knots. “Earth is a funeral house and an abattoir. I do not know just why we’ve made it our rite of passage.”

Ping and Xiaoli look at one another. Everyone always says Auntie Yurong is a little strange. All that time away from Nuguo.

The next temporal overlap will last nine days, but for caution’s sake they will stay for only seven. It seems too few to Xiaoli; surely there is no way to understand a whole country in just a week? But there’ll be other trips. They have much to prepare, Xiaoli needs to select a surrogate for her bees, and finally there’s a whole new territory to cover: the matter of dress.

“Not that,” Yurong snaps. “That skirt is too short. That neckline plunges too deep. This is not the attention you want to attract.”

“But Auntie–”

Ping, more directly: “I want to catch the eye of a central girl.”

“It’s not going to be the only thing you catch, fool child. On Earth you’ll be thought of as displaying yourself for men. There’s nothing you can do about this, so wear the clothes you would wear gardening: sensible things to get filthy in. How you conduct yourself in the central realm when you’re older–that will be your business. For now, mind me.”

Xiaoli’s first glimpse of Hong Kong is the sea. It will imprint onto her thoughts, and for decades after haunt her dreams with the blare of ferry horns and colors she cannot find in Nuguo.

The buildings, too–so tall and many they strain the gaze, so splendid they must house the immortals themselves– she thinks this even though she knows from textbooks and magazines they are only offices and hotels and malls, utterly mundane by Earth standards. Even the footpaths seem extraordinary, and were Yurong not there to restrain her Xiaoli might’ve taken off her shoes so she can feel them under bare toes.

Both she and Ping keep an eye out for men, those alien creatures said to choke and wither under Nuguo’s air.

Some men are tall, others short. There are outward, immediate differences like a propensity for facial hair and their manner of dress. On the whole they don’t interest Xiaoli, and once more she fails to understand why those few girls so much want to meet them. The automobiles and MTR arrest her far more, and she could have been happy stopping at every station to marvel at the bakeries, billboards, the sheer noise–and the maps. That an entire island can be compressed into so simple a layout captivates her.

By the time they reach the flat owned by Nuguo chaperons, Xiaoli is dizzy, and has to sit down to keep from fainting of sheer wonder. Her cousin, who has kept a firmer hold on her senses, asks Yurong, “Do they have so many more things than we do because there are men in this country?”

Auntie Yurong’s amusement is contemptuous. “Not so. It’s only that theirs is a much larger world than Nuguo–one day you may even comprehend the sheer scale–and there’s far more to supply, far more to exploit, far more to break. It looks wondrous, but underneath it is a bed of rotten meat. You’ll find they all have foreign names in Hong Kong, and there’s a reason for that. The bank account we hold is under Emily Tse. But don’t let me upset you. What you need to know is the now. The immediate, so you can survive first and think later.”

Ping and Xiaoli agree on few things, but on this they hold a consensus: that Ding Yurong is a very angry woman, and that Emily is a wonderfully outlandish name.

The flat has a television set and a stack of tapes and CDs. Xiaoli takes the opportunity to rummage through them, exclaiming delight when she feeds a disc to the player and the opening theme of Justice Bao rings out percussively. Every television in Nuguo is small and clunky; this has half the thickness but a screen so large Xiaoli needs to stretch her arms to span it.

The next day Yurong hands each of them a cellphone. Xiaoli nearly dances for glee; to her it is as if New Year has come twice, and her red envelope has been stuffed with diamonds. She takes to it as children take to her honey sorbet, and browses through the stored numbers. A few are for emergency–police, ambulance–but most are the numbers of other Nuguo women who sojourn in the central realm. A few live in Malaixiya and Taiguo, names that have hitherto been just untidy shapes on an age-bitten atlas.

“With luck this won’t be necessary,” Yurong says, “because I’d just as soon leash you both like difficult toddlers, but bad luck happens. Never talk about Nuguo. Say you’re from Gansu on the mainland when you must say anything. Avoid saying where you went to university, what you do for a living. Avoid conversation at all.”

Ping sulks, but neither of them objects aloud. Auntie Yurong does know best. She further instructs them to bolt the door. “There’s food in the fridge–Xiaoli, you know how to use the microwave, so you be in charge of that. If you so much as set foot in the hallway I’ll tell your mothers so they can cane you like the little children that you are.”

This is no trial to Xiaoli, who finds TV news absolutely riveting and each piece of furniture an exhilarating alien artifact. Ping paces the flat in endless circles, until Xiaoli sighs and suggests that she could maybe look through the rest of the building. “As long as you don’t tell Auntie Yurong.”

“I’m not stupid, older-sister.” Ping grins. “I won’t go far. I’ll be back soon.”

And she is back in time that day, and all the days after, until the week ends and it is time to return to Nuguo. She does not appear in the evening or late in the night, nor answer the phone Yurong gave her.

They wait for as long as they can, but Ping never comes. This is Xiaoli’s first grief, and her first glimpse that the country of Earth is not stitched all of delight.

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Xiaoli is betrothed at twenty-eight: a comfortable average, neither too old nor too young, with the wedding slated for next year when she would have a nine in her age. It astonishes her that Huang Yingzhi of Lunar Village has been chosen for her; that Yingzhi and her mothers have in turn accepted. Yingzhi looks gorgeous in red, with the widest shoulders and the sweetest laugh, chiming high and young.

“Will you want children?” Xiaoli asks, at their engagement where they exchange matched slippers they hand-sewed, cinnabar boxes they carved, and jade phoenixes inherited from elders.

“I want so many,” her bride says and looks out at the River of Mothers, on which their barge drifts.

“Oh.” She tries to reconcile the concept of keeping both bees and a bevy of daughters happy. It will probably require a complicated division of labor. In the recesses of her memory, the Victoria Harbor blazes. “Have you ever been to the central realm?”

Second-Grandmother Jiaxin never forgave her, even on her deathbed. Xiaoli accepted that dully, emptily, because what else was there to do but to pay her respect every day in the Zhang shrine, and burn her plenty of comforts and money every Qingming? It still does not make up for Ping’s absence. It makes up for very little. There are aunts who now refuse to speak to Xiaoli, not least of them Ping’s mother.

“Several times. I had a fling in Kuala Lumpur–that is, Jilongpo.” Yingzhi believes in frankness between wives. “It was fun, but I could never tell her about Nuguo. You can’t live together like that. Anyway she doesn’t compare to you.”

Xiaoli smiles. “That’s very kind of you.”

“You say that, but you look so sad.” Yingzhi touches Xiaoli’s hair, careful not to upset the ivory comb. “Are you having second thoughts? I know I’ve been forward.”

Xiaoli thinks, briefly, of an outsider who was very forward indeed twelve years ago. “Not at all. If you’d left it up to me we’ll be going so slow we reach nowhere at all.”

They sleep together well before they are properly wed, and Xiaoli discovers her soon-to-be wife is sweetly shy about undressing for the first time. This makes her giggle–Yingzhi blushing as bright as the bridal drapes they’ll soon have–but when she begins kissing Yingzhi’s waist the shyness flutters away like the ribbons in Yingzhi’s hair. It fascinates Xiaoli that the woman who’ll soon be her bride is so taut everywhere, calves and thighs muscle-thick, so much power locked in long sun-coppered limbs.

On their wedding night Yingzhi proves this by carrying her to the canopied platform bed and laying her on linens freshly washed, in a room full of red anthurium. Xiaoli wastes no time in pulling Yingzhi down, and for a while it is possible to forget both Ping’s absence and a strange woman who tried so hard to woo sixteen-year-old Xiaoli.

She watches the bees mate and die, and smokes them out to collect honeycombs. Yingzhi proves unafraid of stings or buzzing wings. When she isn’t helping at the apiary, she goes to work at the power plant.

In the second year Yingzhi takes a sip from the river–a precisely measured sip; they have discussed and decided they are ready for just one girl, not twins or more. The birth is easy, baby as strong as mother, and watching them Xiaoli finds her heart unlocked and upended.

Little Anhua grows up in a house that smells of honey, and sometimes in a wind-power plant built of recycled and appropriated iron. Her first day at boarding school in Cloud Village she is solemn, and fearlessly advances into a playground full of slides and swing-sets suspended from ancient oaks. Newly assembled air-conditioners hum in the background as Teacher Xie comes to receive her newest charge. She carries a bamboo switch, but not even this can faze Anhua, who will let nothing take away from the newness of her indigo-and-white uniform.

It is Xiaoli who can’t bear to part, and who spends a while sobbing into Yingzhi’s back on their cart-ride home, for no good reason at all.

“Teacher Xie is good,” Yingzhi tells her gently. “She taught me from seven to fourteen. I turned out well, didn’t I?”

“I know I’m being a child.”

“You’re being a mother,” Yingzhi says and kisses Xiaoli on the nose.

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By forty-two Xiaoli has made the crossing to Earth four times and given birth to twins, Huifang and Huiliang. Memory of Jinhuang has been relegated to a patina of dust, locked away in a cinnabar box: a single photo of them and the water clock, which though outmoded by Ding inventions remains in respect for its age and the service it has rendered Nuguo.

Anhua is beginning to show a glimmer of interest in other girls, a relief to her mothers and elders, for a teenager sighing over glossy pictures of men is a terrible tragedy waiting to happen. Nuguo has many dangers: drowning, electrocution, being eaten by mountain tigers. But they are preventable, whereas running away to Earth is not.

Xiaoli’s fifth crossing takes her to Bangkok, where she amuses herself in street markets and chooses gifts for her daughters and wife. She picks up a secondhand laptop in MBK. In Nuguo there’s now a local network in each village hall, and it is the fashion to participate in message boards and share pictures.

She stops at a Siam Square cinema to catch a wuxia title. In the queue, equipped with her own phone now, she dials the number of a Jiang who runs a girls’ dormitory near Praharuthai Convent. There are always rooms reserved for Nuguo use. Once she thought women who lived on Earth and did this duty were simply unable to find fulfillment at home, but having known the central realm she has come to understand it is courage that drives them, not bitterness.

To abandon all they know; to leave behind their families. The thought alone makes her ill.

“Zhang Xiaoli?”

Xiaoli jerks and twitches, nearly losing her hold on the bags. The cellphone drops.

Jinhuang picks it up and puts it back in her hand, one single fluid movement. Bend, unbend. “It is you.”

Xiaoli leaves the box office behind in a daze, and remains in a daze when Jinhuang presses iced tea and donuts into her hand. They stand under a tree that offers scarce shade, in heat this side of blistering. The sweetness of the tea jolts Xiaoli into lucidity.

“How long,” she says softly even though she doubts passersby speak Putonghua, “has it been? For you. Here.”

“Not long.” Jinhuang’s gaze darts quick and sharp, and Xiaoli’s skin prickles with the hurt of knowing how old she must look.

“You’ve grown up.”

Xiaoli nearly splutters. “I’m old. I could be your mother. You should be calling me auntie.”

“You couldn’t, and I shouldn’t.” Jinhuang’s fingertips are cool on her cheek.

She finds herself breathing oddly. She finds herself wanting to cant her face into Jinhuang’s palm, and clasp that soft unlined hand with her own. “I’m forty-two.” And though that has never been anything but natural, though thirteen of those years have been with Yingzhi and Anhua and the twins, her voice breaks. Jinhuang looks precisely as young as the day they first met. Twenty-six years ago. Twenty-six.

“That doesn’t matter. Let’s get out of the sun.”

They turn in to a boutique whose proprietor is so used to college students coming in with drinks and crepes that she only sighs at Xiaoli’s tea. They head up the second floor, where yukata and cheongsam mingle on a single rack and window mannequins stand draped in sari and heavy brass.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Jinhuang says between a corkboard lined with earrings and a wall of artist’s graffiti. “Entry to your country can be difficult, and its time just speeds by.”

“Why would you look for me?”

“To say what I did not say. I’m usually much more direct than I was, but love makes us all strangers to ourselves.” Jinhuang straightens. “I wanted to ask you to marry me. I wanted to ask you to let me stay with you and your bees, if you would have such a thing from someone as strange as I.”

Xiaoli’s throat clinches. “I’m married.” Something seems to slip away as she remembers the evenings she replayed Jinhuang’s visit over and over, between sixteen and twenty-eight. Between a girl who knew nothing and a woman who became a wife. “I’ve had three daughters.”

For a long moment Jinhuang looks at her. Then she steps away and puts her hand to her mouth. “Why,” she says between her fingers, “does my kind give our hearts to humans, whom we know will trample them to gristle and pulp? Why did I, when I’ve seen others’ mistakes?”

“You couldn’t expect me to wait.” Xiaoli’s mind snags. “What are you?”

“A demon, what else? I’m five hundred sixty-seven and counting. Forty-two, why would that mean anything?” Jinhuang rubs at her eyes. “I’m sorry. You are right. For a mortal twenty-six years make a life. May I visit you, even so?”

Afterward Xiaoli will never know what drives her to say, “I’d like that.”

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Yingzhi piles Xiaoli’s arms high with red anthurium on the day Anhua leaves for her final year at school, her little sisters in tow. She is already a disciplinarian, taking after Teacher Xie, and when she wants the twins’ attention she would clap her hands just as her favorite teacher does.

Xiaoli holds the flowers in her arms, her chin brushing leaves that gleam like lacquered paper. “What are these for? I didn’t forget any dates, did I?”

“You didn’t, but it’s a close one.” Yingzhi flicks her head, coquettish as a girl. “I’ve a holiday, and the children are gone. So much free time.”

It is true. Yingzhi always comes home exhausted. When the bees leave her free, Xiaoli occasionally goes to help at the Ding-Jiang lab. She can’t quite remember the last time they did anything in bed together but small chaste touches, falling asleep holding hands. Xiaoli leans over the anthurium, careful not to bruise them, and kisses Yingzhi’s earlobe. Feeling a little young she murmurs against it, “What do you want to do?”

“Everything. There’s a spot in the woods I want to show you.”

Xiaoli arranges for a niece she’s been training to come bee-sit. They put red-bean buns, blankets and a radio transceiver in a rattan basket. Nuguo changes slowly and gently, but it doesn’t take long for them to leave the rice paddies and water buffaloes behind, to find the wilderness beyond that’s said to once hide shadows gold as candlelight, shadows striped like flogging bruises.

Yingzhi brings a rifle passed down two generations of Huang. It is for show, a charm. Xiaoli has seen her wife at target practice, but never killing anything. Chickens are Xiaoli’s to open throat to belly, Anhua’s to defeather, Huiliang’s and Huifang’s to clean. Only when all the blood is washed away will Yingzhi enter the kitchen to dice garlic.

Leaning into Yingzhi’s shoulder she murmurs nonsense into her wife’s neck, and when they’ve found the place Yingzhi wanted her to see they spread out a blanket. They unbutton each other eager as newlyweds, and Xiaoli forgets what it is to feel forty-four, what it is to wake up to aching joints and a stiff back. She looks up at Yingzhi framed by grass and catkins, the hard strength of her delineated by greened sunlight, and knows herself to be the most fortunate woman born in the worlds that are and the worlds yet not.

Between sweat beading and rasped breathing she thinks she sees, beyond the lines of Yingzhi’s hips, a yellow that is not orchids, a movement that is not aerial roots swaying in the wind. It is fleeting. Yingzhi’s salt and heat become the totality of her awareness.

They drowse in a tangle of twined legs and crumpled clothes, musk and sweat. Xiaoli jolts awake when cold gunmetal touches her flank; she sits up to find Yingzhi gripping the rifle, white-knuckled.

“I saw a tiger,” Yingzhi says, less than a whisper.

“Nobody’s seen one since forever.” But she saw it too.

They dress, gather their things, and head home.

At their door Xiaoli’s niece is wringing her hands, pointing at a visitor saying, “She says she knows you, Auntie.”

Jinhuang sits at the veranda, legs folded and hands prim in her lap. At her side is a bag of mandarins and a pile of electronics: power supplies, phones, an external hard drive and two slim laptops so new they are still wrapped in plastic.

“I thought you might find a use for those,” Jinhuang says, demure. “There’s data in the drive. How to make this and that.”

She looks at the phones and hasn’t the heart to say that Ding ambitions far outpace reality. They are years away from cell towers. But the rest–“This is an incredible gift,” she says before remembering to introduce wife and stranger to one another. Jinhuang gives a formal, courtly bow and appraises Yingzhi in that abrupt, undisguised way.

“Jinhuang visited our village years ago.” Xiaoli meant to say more but does not.

Yingzhi smiles. “And she managed to get away?”

“I’m very fleet, Mistress Huang, and won’t be caught unless I choose to.” Jinhuang begins to peel the mandarins, separating the segments on a plate she must have commandeered from Xiaoli’s niece. “I almost did, too.”

“How did you find your way?” Xiaoli says quickly.

“It’s not impossible for me, only tricky. But this time specifically I came with your cousin, Zhang Ping.”

All the wind leaves Xiaoli. Vertigo seizes her and her knees fold. Yingzhi catches and holds her until she can breathe again, until she can find the strength to ask, “Where is she?”

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Ping sits by the water clock. It seems the entire Zhang household has turned out for the occasion, and half the village as well. This does happen: a girl vanished only to return years later. But the other fate is by far more common–young women who are never heard from again, for the central realm devours, gluttonous.

Xiaoli half-expects to see Ping fifteen, untouched by time just like Jinhuang, but she looks thirty and it shames Xiaoli to feel relief at this. In Ping’s lap there is a girl, three or four, and by her side crouches a strange woman with skin the hue of teak. She is dressed crisply, pencil skirt, jacket and black hose. None of it suits the weather or the village, a costume everyone expects to see only on Earth and in magazines brought back from the same–and therefore a subject of instant fascination, for what Nuguo woman ever has the occasion to put on such imported polish?

Her name is Sulekha, a linguist who worked at the University of Hong Kong. When the interrogations come to a lull, for even nosy aunties need to eat, Sulekha sees the wall-scrolls written in Nushu and hugs Ping so hard Xiaoli’s cousin has to yell for oxygen. There is a tense moment when one of the remaining Zhang women says, “So whose child is that?”

“Mine, I’m afraid.” Sulekha makes Putonghua thrum. “I fear I’m not a very good girl.” This is said politely, but it rings challenge.

Frowns pass from one Zhang to the next, but as long it is not their own flesh and blood who comes back with a child begotten the central-realm way…

Little four-year-old Indira considers them all with the grim concentration of the very young until one aunt scoops her up and declares she needs a name appropriate to her new home.

Her mother stands and smiles and smooths down her skirt. “Indira, please, auntie. It has an auspicious meaning, and isn’t hard to say.”

Again, this moves eyebrows. A foreign daughter-in-law, and already so much trouble; several Zhang reconsider the prestige such a bride will bring, Sulekha and Indira both being so dark. Very dark.

“What will you wear for the wedding?” asks Ping’s mother, pointedly, already thinking of powders for Sulekha’s face.

“A sari, Mother. Let me unpack and show you. I hope you’ll approve.”

A reluctant dispersal: Sulekha to the Zhang household, Ping to Xiaoli’s for dinner.

“There was going to be a child on me,” Ping says. “The Earth way. I got rid of it. Don’t tell anyone that, will you?”

“An elephant couldn’t wrench it out of me.” Xiaoli looks at her cousin, and looks again. “Did everyone tell you… everything?”

“I heard about–” Ping swallows and blinks rapidly, making a little gasp to ward off grief. “Second-grandmother. And I think I caused you a lot of trouble.”

Xiaoli does not say that it is nothing, that all is right and forgiven. There are two decades of regret and sleepless nights; the fault falls on them both.

She finds Yingzhi and Jinhuang setting the table side by side, laying out lobsters in black bean sauce, steamed scallops daubed in chilli paste, and braised abalone on a bed of bok choy. The table wafts thick and rich with fragrances rare to Nuguo. It could have been a Hong Kong restaurant, a proper high-rise one with a glittering harbor view.

“I took the liberty,” Jinhuang says, almost shyly. “It struck me you don’t get to eat seafood much over here.”

“She brought an ice bucket.” Yingzhi wipes her hands on a dishrag. “It was all packaged and clean. Very nice. If the Ding would just start looking into a refrigerated communal storehouse. Instead it’s silicon this fiber optic that. As if we needed those.”

Xiaoli pinches her wife’s arm. “You aren’t old enough to be a technophobic grandmother.”

The abalone has been steamed expertly, chewy without being tough, and the scallops are the right softness, not overcooked to flaking. Xiaoli breathes in the spicy-sweetness of the chili paste and knows that this must be Jinhuang’s work. Yingzhi’s would have been heavier on the bean paste, lighter on the garlic.

“For a while I wasn’t sure which was the wife.” Ping puts her chin in her hand, peering at demon and woman washing dishes in the garden under the house’s only tap. “Why didn’t you choose Jinhuang? Your first love.”

Xiaoli thins her mouth. She wonders what they are discussing among the buzzing honeyed air. “What makes you say that? She courted me, not the other way around.”

“It’s a little obvious.” Her cousin laughs. “Why not marry them both? Some do that in the central realm. There are countries where men can have many wives.”

“Earth has had you too long. Not a principled bone left in you.”

“It’s true, Earth is licentious. But it’s big and wild, and–I don’t regret it. I didn’t mean to be gone so long, but I don’t regret it.”

“You broke second-grandmother’s heart.”

“I know that. I… I’ll apologize at her grave.” Ping purses her lips. “You didn’t even look glad to see me. Can’t you be a little happy for me?”

At sixteen, Xiaoli recalls, she did not truly like Ping. With the hindsight of subsequent decades she recognizes that Ping was selfish, difficult, unbearable. “I think Sulekha is lovely and I hope everyone won’t tear her apart. My twins are a little too old to be Indira’s playmates, but maybe they’ll be good friends in a few years. You’ll settle in the village?”

“After the wedding.” Ping gives Xiaoli a considering look, unsatisfied with the lack of congratulations. “Sulekha assured me she can deal with any Zhang, since she’s already tamed the most difficult of us all.”

“Goodness,” Xiaoli murmurs. “Does this mean she’s trained you to be a kind person?

A low chuckle. “Motherhood and marriage finally hardened your head and straightened up your backbone. Well done, cousin.”

That evening she goes out to see her bees. Jinhuang is waiting for her, crouching between hives. Just as unmasked and unprotected as before, and equally unafraid.

“Do you go out of your way to keep in company so I won’t catch you alone?”

“It’s been a busy day.” Xiaoli is glad of the veil that makes a black grid of her face. She bends to check one of the hive-boxes. This season she’ll have to give them more sugared water. “A portentous one, as well. We saw a tiger in the woods, and Ping was born in a tiger year, so after a fashion it makes sense.”

“There are tigers here?” The blade of grass Jinhuang has been playing with snaps.

“Rarely seen.” A demon, Xiaoli remembers. “Is that what you… are? A tiger?”

“A litter-runt, though I outgrew that. You must’ve heard the saying that a single cave is too small for two tigers. In truth, not even a whole forest is large enough.” Jinhuang shakes herself. “Are you happy?”

“I’ve got three excellent daughters. I love Yingzhi more than I can say.”

“I could’ve donned age for you and it’d have been silk to me, been pearls. For you I’d lie down and never hunt again. If you’d asked I would have borne you girl cubs, and they would have been beautiful.”

“Some things aren’t meant to work out.” Xiaoli knows it would have–they would have wrangled it into working out–if Jinhuang had found her sooner; if she had said no to a broad-shouldered Lunar woman who did not, back then, drive her pulse to racing. But years have passed and she can no longer imagine Yingzhi’s touch or glance failing to warm her, Yingzhi’s smile failing to delight.

“Can I have just one small thing?”

“That depends.”

Jinhuang takes her hands, pressing her lips into Xiaoli’s life-lines. She does this for each palm; her tears are hot, near-scalding, and when she looks up her eyes have become green-gold.

When Xiaoli blinks again the tiger is gone.

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Zhongquijie auspices. A marriage begins.

Xiaoli can hardly recognize her own daughter stepping out of the palanquin, painted face behind red tassels. All Zhang jewelry is Anhua’s to wear this morning: the peacock buyao and diamond earrings, the jades clinking against the mirror around her neck. She treads carefully in her slippers, shining fabrics in crimson and gold to match the bridal incandescence of her gown.

An applause of firecrackers and laughter from younger sisters, younger cousins. It will be a wedding of rooster to ox: by luck their birth-signs are complementary, a relief to all involved. Sitting in heavy robes Yingzhi and Xiaoli watch Zhang women giggle, their hands outstretched for bride-gifts from Fan Shuling’s family.

“Cloud Village seems so far away,” Xiaoli says, her words made private by the din of cymbals.

Yingzhi pulls Xiaoli’s hand into her lap. “Just two hours’ ride.”

“I know. But I’ve gotten used to seeing her all the time. I thought she’d take over the apiary.”

“Huiliang’s better at that, and you know it.”

“I wish I could keep them all with me.” The Zhang host parts for the Fan entourage. Bride and bride kneel before Xiaoli and her wife, one in greeting, one in farewell. They speak all the formal words, the formal blessings, and Xiaoli bites the inside of her cheek so she won’t embarrass everyone by weeping.

They light incenses that waft honey from Xiaoli’s bees, and bow before the gods of heaven, the spirits of the village, the departed grandmothers of Zhang. They have a banquet of nine exquisite courses, and then it is time to see them off to Cloud Village, where Shuling’s mothers will receive a new daughter.

Xiaoli knows that Anhua has scarcely let go of Shuling’s hand, but to a mother this almost seems a theft. Ritual songs have already been sung to lament the parting of daughter from parents, but it doesn’t feel enough. For a time she remains in the Zhang hall, where clumps of ash and scraps of food litter the tiles, and wishes Mother Jielin was here to see all this, to be proud. She hasn’t sent word whether she’ll attend her granddaughter’s wedding at the Fan house. They haven’t spoken for a long time. Most insist the falling-out was due to a ceremony conducted on a bad date or because they didn’t pay sufficient respect to the gods, but Xiaoli knows very well it was her birth-mother’s temper that drove her Lai mother back to Cloud Village. It was also the whole Zhang family, who always scrutinized and criticized too far because the Lai won the coveted right to run the school.

The twins come to fetch her when her absence is noticed.

Huifang hugs her. “Mother Yingzhi said to tell you we aren’t marrying any time soon.”

“And,” Huiliang says, “I will never marry at all.”

Xiaoli smooths down Huifang’s braids. One’s come loose; out of habit she starts replaiting it. “Well and good that you’re both devoted to your mother, but don’t decide your lives like that just because I’m a foolish old woman. Though it’d be wonderful if you can bring your future brides here.”

“But Mother, I really don’t want to marry.” Huiliang glances at her twin, furtive, then gathers herself in one long deep inhalation. “I mean, I’m nineteen going on twenty. If I’ve never been interested in another girl I don’t think I ever will be. I’ve heard everyone talk about… about such things since I was eleven. I just really don’t want much to do with it. Or with boys for that matter. So I won’t give you grandchildren but I think with Older-Sister Anhua and Huifang taking care of those there should be enough, unless I could drink from the river without being married? Maybe?”

Huiliang has stopped, panting, and swallows as she looks down and up and away, anywhere but at her mother’s face.

There’s no help for it. Xiaoli starts to laugh. “I thought you were going to say something shocking like ‘Mother, please let me go to Earth so I can fall in love with a young man and there bring up his sons.’”

“Well.” Huiliang bites her lip. “I thought you’d be a bit disappointed.”

“As you said, Anhua and Huifang will have grandchildren. You Yingzhi and I will get to keep. When you are old you’ll have to live in the Zhang compound though, so you’ll have nieces to attend you.”

“Oh, Mother. Old is far away.”

“Old,” Xiaoli says gently and takes Huiliang into her arms too, “is always closer than you think.”

Less than a decade later she will wonder just why she ever said such a thing.

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Xiaoli is sixty-four and there is death in the count of her years, death in the spots that blotch her hands and arms. There is death where Huifang should be.

Twenty-eight, the age of Xiaoli’s betrothal. Twenty-eight, the age Huifang was going to be. She has never considered the prospect of outliving her daughters. They are so young. There’s so much they haven’t done, there’s so much Huifang did not get to try and taste.

She cannot comprehend it. A tiger. There are so few of those beasts, they are seldom so desperate as to attack humans. The body has been brought back and she looks at it–looks at Huifang in a sleeping bag–and she cannot understand. The claw-marks that have cut to bones gleaming perfectly white as new ivory. The puncture wounds made by incisors larger than her fingers, by maw lined with knives.

Then Yingzhi is screaming at everyone for letting Xiaoli see this and pulling her into the house, into the garden where the honey drowns out the gore. She is sat onto the stone bench, under the swing they’ve put up because long ago the twins made such noises over the lack, for at school they had their choice of swings.

When Yingzhi begins to cry–in harsh shaking sobs, then long shattered howls–Xiaoli is startled, because she is usually the first to splinter, Yingzhi the first to comfort. Those are the grooves they have worn into the stone of their marriage. She touches her wife and presses herself against Yingzhi’s back, against the rocking of grief, but that only makes it worse.

It is wrong. All of this. But she does not know how to make it right.

They gather for the funeral, the Zhang and Huang households. Mother Jielin, at last, comes: the first time they’ve met in fifty years. She is dry-eyed, white-haired, and snaps at the Lai women attending her when they try to push her wheelchair.

Xiaoli regards her own mother, her living mother, and does not know how to react to that either. In the face of this sorrow joy is inappropriate, so it is duty rather than love that puts her at Lai Jielin’s feet, her knees creaking their age as she does. Mother Jielin puts her hand on Xiaoli’s forehead and says, very quietly, “I’m going to stay with you for a week.”

One does not deny one’s mother. It may even be meant as comfort, but Xiaoli can only answer with flat detachment. That too is how she holds Yingzhi while the priests–who have come down the mountain for this occasion–chant. Prayers for sending, prayers for a brief and painless afterlife, though all know of course that will not be: Huifang is guilty of dying before her parents, and that is not done. In hell there’s a court just for such ungrateful offspring.

It is for this reason that Xiaoli and Yingzhi must stay away while the priests, white-robed and shaven, perform the rites they brought with them down from the mountain, with voices long kept in silent seclusion. Being elder, neither mother may shed public tears.

Propriety permits them to see Huifang one last time. She has been cleaned and her face shrouded in yellow muslin, the wounds concealed by the finest silks she ever owned, though that is not much; her last good dress was donned at age twelve, and after that Huifang acquired a taste for canvas and baggy shirts. The gown on her now is new, bought for other people’s weddings and festivals. She never had the chance to wear it.

Younger cousins burn gold paper for her–a pipa, electronics, jewelry, and a house of many floors. That too is an activity Xiaoli and Yingzhi may not join, and out of them four Huiliang alone is free to openly weep before the coffin. Anhua is the elder, and stays at their mothers’ side trying to cry as silently as possible. It is such a terror, and so graceless, to die young.

Halfway through the mourning period Xiaoli puts aside the chives pancakes Yingzhi is not eating and tells her, “I am going to show you the sea.”

Her wife smiles, wan and thin. “I’ve seen the sea before, my love. We’re a little old to make the crossing.”

“Even so.”

They wait for the clocks to align–these days every house owns a pair–and choose a safe period, one week. Not too long, not too short. They agree that this trip will be their last. From now on they want to be in Nuguo for every moment of their daughters’ lives.

On a walk along the sunlit coast of Victoria Harbor, Xiaoli says that she is sorry they did not have as many children as Yingzhi planned. To that Yingzhi only shakes her head. “Having raised three I wouldn’t have wished five or eight on any one. They are girls, not bees.”

“But it could’ve have helped.”

“I don’t know.” Yingzhi gazes out at the sea a little longer, absorbing its sounds and inhaling its smells. When her breast is full of them she starts eating again, and exclaims the excellence of scallops they have at a street eatery.

Xiaoli doesn’t cry for Huifang until a year and three months later, when they go to her grave and watch Huiliang sweep until it is clear of dead leaves and twigs, and pull the weeds until not a single growing thing is left by the plague that bears the name Zhang Huifang.

During the third anniversary of Huifang’s passing a tiger appears by the water clock, which no one looks at anymore. This one is striking in its stillness. This one is dead, with wounds in stomach and chest precisely inflicted, like the copying of a poem by hand.

The corpse brings Huiliang feral satisfaction, but Xiaoli knows who has done this and cannot say this is what she wanted, then reprimands herself for being ungrateful. Tigers kill tigers; is that not natural? Such things happen.

Xiaoli waits, but Jinhuang never appears to claim either credit or accountability. She makes sorbet desultorily, and feels as if a guest she has invited has the indecency of never turning up.

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Five years after Zhang Xiaoli has buried Huang Yingzhi, she comes to live in the compound of her family. It is not that her daughters do not take care of her; more loving and dutiful children the Solar Village has not been able to produce. But Anhua, the eldest, has her own children and soon a grandchild.

Zhang Huiliang, it is said, has become far too taken with the woods and the mountains to fit polite company. Little wonder she has never married, for she would sooner stalk shadows gold as candlelight, chase shadows striped as flogging bruises. Even so some younger women have been known to gaze after her with longing sighs. Huilliang is just over forty, but what of that? Her wife can be the one to drink from the River of Mothers. Girls dare each other to seduce and recivilize her.

Zhang Xiaoli is seventy-nine. It is the year when Ding labors and ambitions have at last culminated in timepieces which tell, exact to the minute, how long each overlap between the central realm and Nuguo will last. Portable versions are made.

Overnight the Ding inventor who finalized this becomes a local goddess, venerated almost as much as the mountain priests. No longer will women leave in the blush of youth and return to find their sisters creased and white of hair, their mothers in ash jars and shrine portraits.

Against probability and a leg broken a year back Xiaoli can still walk on her own strength, a feat in which she takes no small pride. She often seeks a garden pavilion, where she shares solitude with seven bamboo-caged birds: white mynahs fed by delicate Zhang daughters who rim their eyes with blue paint in the manner of their charges.

On an afternoon a woman comes to see Zhang Xiaoli. Immediately speculations ignite: is she an illegitimate granddaughter? The right age for that. If Xiaoli wasn’t publicly wild in her youth, why, she spent time on Earth and all know anything can happen there. Nevertheless this young woman is admitted and led to the pavilion by a dutiful grandniece.

At the sight of the stranger Xiaoli murmurs, “You are late.”

“I know.”

The grandniece is dismissed. She goes: there are many girls in the house who would have eavesdropped, but this grandniece is blessed with an abiding incuriosity. She’s a favorite of aunties with clandestine inclinations and much maligned by clan gossipmongers.

Stranger and old woman look at one another for a time. “Which name did you give my grandniece?” Xiaoli says during a pause between myna songs.

“Hu Jinhuang. She seemed insistent on a surname.”

Xiaoli laughs. “It took only sixty years to wring one out of you.”

The tiger looks away. She has aged herself so she no longer looks sixteen. Thirty, perhaps. “Hu is only what I am, a categorization, a breed. It gives me no family. I would be proud to be a Zhang.”

“Did you wait for me to become a widow?”

“I’m not so vile. I’ve been traversing many worlds looking for an elixir of youth. An unguent that will restore vitality and reverse years. Some concoction that will grant you immortality. I have obtained this.” She has put in Xiaoli’s hand a twist of rice paper, which reveals a slice of peach browned and shriveled, as age-wracked as Xiaoli’s own skin. It retains little juice, and doubtless little sweetness. The tiger says, “This isn’t much. It will turn the clock of your heart and ligaments back by twenty or thirty years, nothing more. Please take it. Your mind will be clear, your eyes will be bright.”

Xiaoli looks up and smiles, showing gaps between yellowed enamel. “Is it so you will think me beautiful again?”

“You are beautiful to me, always. The flesh is only paper through which the lamplight of your spirit blazes.”

The old woman holds the fruit in her hand, nestled between age-spots and the life-line Jinhuang wept into long ago.

“Take the peach.” Jinhuang touches her arm, but gently, as if afraid a grip too fervent will tear and bruise. “I will find you a gift more whole, more purified, and we’ll travel all the realms together unfettered by any bonds or obligation.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because sixty years ago I should have said: Zhang Xiaoli, I would like to be your wife, if you will have me, for I find your honesty startling, your simple wants like new gold. Forty years ago I should have said: Zhang Xiaoli, consider me for a second wife, for I find your steadfastness heartwrenching, your simple delights like fresh ivory.” Jinhuang takes a deep breath. “I would say now: Zhang Xiaoli, consider me for a wife, for my heart has not changed, and I hold out the hope that neither has yours.”

The peach has not lost all the sugar of its flesh. The mortal woman inhales its fragrance. “Sixty years are nothing to you, Jinhuang, but they are everything to me. I waited for you when you killed the tiger which took my daughter. I didn’t understand why you did not come.”

The mynahs resume music. They’ve been taught certain words, scraps of poetry to lull and soothe, on the matter of calm lakes and the sudden death of turtles.

“I didn’t,” says the woman who is a tiger, “want you to see me draped in blood, smelling of it. That isn’t human. That isn’t for you.”

“Wives share much, Jinhuang. All the successes, all the failures. The suffering. Suffering, sometimes I think, is all we are. I’m sorry, but I cannot take this.”

“Have I never meant anything to you?”

“You have. You have, so much. But I’ve lived a life and I’d like to think I lived it well. To ask for more is sheer avarice, and in hell I’ll find Yingzhi and Huifang. I will tell my daughter that she’s forgiven for her death and plead with the magistrates to punish her no more.” The old woman’s head droops to rest upon the stone table. “There’s always the next life, though I don’t expect you to wait.”

It takes a long time before Jinhuang empties her tears. She does so in perfect silence, for Xiaoli has fallen asleep, as very old women do.

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On the day of Zhang Xiaoli’s funeral a woman ascends the mountain that has no name and has never required one, for there is but one of it: it exists, stern, tipped always in snow and paved over with orchids that bloom in winter. Beyond the flowers stands the Monastery of White Grass.

As Zhang Xiaoli’s daughters, granddaughters and nieces wail by her coffin, the woman sits in a certain chamber in the monastery. Her hair falls away in lustrous handfuls, shorn then shaved until her skull gleams like moonstone.

As Zhang Xiaoli’s body is lowered into the earth, the woman dons white for the first time. Her boldness falls away in shining tufts and stripes, plucked and pulled until only quiet poise remains.

It is said that this woman remains in the monastery throughout the ages of Nuguo, unchanging and unaging. It is said that ever after no tiger is seen again in woods or mountain.

For no country is large enough for two tigers.

____
Copyright 2014 Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to cities and space opera when she can get away with it. A finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld,  Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Phantasm Japan, Dangerous Games, Solaris Rising 3, various Mammoth Books and best of the year collections. Her contemporary fantasy novella Scale-Bright is forthcoming from Immersion Press.

by Maggie Clark

You have to forgive my brother; he’s not like any of the boys at the home. Miss Slake says Jem’s a typical, and once typicals reach a certain age they can go most anywhere they want, which means they can get into most any kind of trouble. It’s not like the trouble with Martin, you know, who talks through snack and music time, but still doesn’t owe anybody any money. When Jem came to visit he said he owed a whole bunch of money, and wouldn’t I help him get right with everyone again? Of course I will, I said. We’re family. Besides, Jem can’t really help it, Ruby. I think he was just born this way.

When Jem said he’d already received the home’s permission for me to travel, it’s not that I didn’t believe him, either. I just wanted to be sure so that Miss Slake wouldn’t worry, like she always said she would if we ever just walked out. And of course, I wanted to say goodbye to everyone before we left, with hugs if they’d let me. (Yes, you, too.) But Jem said there was no time, on account of the last shuttle leaving so soon, so he took me hard by the arm through a side door clearly marked STAFF ONLY, though I was telling him the whole time–Jem! Jem! That door’s for staff only… Jem!–until I remembered all the other things I knew he had trouble seeing that I could. Then I thought maybe he was just ashamed to admit that he couldn’t read the sign, and that he might even get mad if I kept going on about it. Francesca is like that sometimes, isn’t she? I remember one Tuesday after fish and cakes when she got confused about where to put the glasses and where to put the plates, and when Davis tried to show her she just dropped her glass and smashed her plate and had a long cry at the table until they got her fingers loose from all the edges.

Well, I didn’t want to upset Jem like that, so after we got outside and I got one of my walking sticks back so I could walk on the soft grasses (I think he thought he was helping by carrying them and just pulling me along, but on account of all that thinking about the door, I forgot to tell him that he wasn’t helping, not at all), and after I had my sunglasses on to protect my eyes from all the horrible rays, and after I had my headphones in to protect my ears from how awful the streets always sounded, I promised myself: I said, Alvin, you’ve got to be nicer to your little brother. He’s the only family you’ve got left.

Jem was always a handful, though, and sometimes it was like there was no teaching him how to behave around other people. On the way to Thetis, when the shuttle started to rock, and lights and sounds cascaded all around us, Jem even wrapped his arms tight around me, even though he didn’t need to–really, he didn’t–and he didn’t need to clamp a hand over my mouth, either. I was just singing back trajectory data to keep calm while the pilots made their descent. Didn’t everyone need to keep calm when the ship started shaking?

There was even an old woman talking on the other side of the aisle about how scared she was and nobody told her to shut up, like my brother did to me, but then the pilots were yelling at him instead of singing back their own data, and that was too much noise, just too much—so I bit him. I had to. You know what it’s like, Ruby, when everything hurts inside and everything just feels like it’s closing in?

I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I pulled off my buckles, tore out to the floor, and just screamed and screamed at how coarse and how cold and how metallic it all was. The rest of the landing is kind of a blur (I think I probably went to sleep), but it didn’t have to be–really, it didn’t–if Jem had just listened for once.

The way I saw it later, though, was that he must still have been so worried about the money that he couldn’t think clearly about anything else. You know those days when all you can do is say the same word over and over and over again for hours?

Sometimes I really like those days, Ruby. Sometimes I really like all those words and the way they sound when you say them. But other times I just want to make them stop, and I think about it–really, I do. I think about just taking your pillow and pressing and pressing until the words go away.

Anyway, after I woke up I met some of Jem’s friends: Critchley Spokes, Hefron Ab’Adams, Prewitt Malawi, Jin Mototo, The-Robot-But-Everyone-Calls-Him-Crank (Crank for short), Critchley’s-Dog-Forenz (Forenz for short), Quantz Lafferty, and Hex. They did not all look friendly, but even the unfriendly ones said they were all friends of my brother, and then they all looked at Jem, and Jem said nothing, so he must not have disagreed. Forenz looked all right, but otherwise I thought that Jem’s friends were not nearly as good as my friends (yes, you, too), although I know Miss Slake would say that you really shouldn’t judge another person by how they look, or sound, or smell, or whether they can get all their words out on the first or second or even fifth try.

Not that any of Jem’s friends had any trouble getting their words out on the first try when they wanted to.

I wish you could’ve been there with me, Ruby, just holding my hand, but also I’m really glad that you weren’t, because this wasn’t a very clean place, and I know how much you need your things to be clean.

“I thought I told you not to show your face until you could pay up,” said Hex to my brother, right after Jem had introduced his friends to me.

Hex was a big man with pictures all over his forearms and a shiny bald head. “And I don’t see any money on you. How ‘bout from where you’re sitting, Jin?”

Jin Mototo was on the other side of the stockroom, which had a low ceiling and bad lighting, and was packed with all kinds of crates heaped with bundles of thick mesh. He glanced at Jem and grinned, shaking his head.

“I know that,” said Jem. I watched him look from friend to friend. He kept both hands palm-up in front of him when he wasn’t rubbing them against the sides of his pants. “Honest to god, Hex–I know how much I owe you, and I am here to pay it.”

“That why you brought collateral?” Hex jerked a thumb at me. “His fingers instead of yours?”

I was sitting just then with Forenz, having a talk through my hands and my cheeks with the top of his musky, soft, brown head. Do you remember the kittens they brought last year after they took all our visitors away? It was just like that but bigger and older, and I don’t think I had to be anywhere near as gentle as Miss Slake kept telling me to be.

Jem jolted then as if someone had put his hands to an electrical outlet, which I could easily have told him he should not do. “No!” he said. “No, you don’t understand. Alvin–he’s got this trick, see. He’ll handle the Game no problem, I just know he will. And then… if you just give me a few days…”

“How ‘bout I give you one day.” Hex stared at me and I stared back. I was in the habit of smiling even at strangers, ever since my mother told me I had to practice being nice, and calm, and good, but I was much happier keeping my smiles right then for Forenz, since Forenz didn’t make my insides feel strange.

“Come to think of it,” said Hex, “if he’s the money-maker in this equation, why do we even need you?”

Then Quantz Lafferty drew a firearm, the make and model and related specs of which I could rattle off in full–so I did. Jem did not look very impressed with me, but then, there was that whine of the laser gun as it charged next to his head, so I understood that my brother was busy being scared, because I was scared now, too.

“No, wait–” said Jem, holding out his hands again. “Please–he needs me. I’m the only one who understands him, the only one who can–”

“Shit,” said Hefron Ab’Adams. He stood with the crook of his arm over his face and moved as far from me as the stockroom allowed. “Hex, the kid’s gone and messed himself.”

Hex looked from me to my brother and wrinkled his nose. “Well, hell if I’m wiping his ass.” He glanced at Critchley Spokes, who just scowled. “Okay, fine–you’ve got one day, Squint. But don’t you dare disappoint me again. And… oh, hell. Critch, Prewitt–air.”

My brother’s friends left the stockroom then—some coughing, some gagging, some just muttering words I made a point not to understand–while Jem put one hand and then another to his eyes, and came over.

“I’m sorry,” I said, when I couldn’t stop shivering from the stink and the sudden cold and how wet it all was. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m–”

But Jem didn’t hit me, like he used to hit me when we were very small, and our mother said it was Jem’s turn to change the diaper. Jem just put his arms around me–gently, this time, so gently that it felt kind of nice–and when I finished being surprised by the heat, and the touch, and the smell of him, I realized my brother was shivering, too.

Sometimes my brother can be really thoughtful, Ruby. Once I was all freshly washed and changed he brought over the headphones and the walking sticks without me even having to ask, so all I needed to worry about when we made our way through the marketplace on Thetis were the smells, and the sights, and the press of bodies all around us. Even then that was more than enough, though.

There was charred meat on one spit after another, the smoke moving this way and that, and people waving their arms and flapping their lips about other things on the tables for sale. There was sweat, too, from all the armpits of passing merchants, like the one with a barrel set on each bulging shoulder, which I was afraid for a moment would fall. Perfume, too–real sharp-smelling–coming off a man with red cloth wound into all the thick knots in his hair. Cinnamon, then citrus, from somewhere, then the hard bump of a bag of pots against my left elbow–—hard enough that I cried. Dried urine off a concrete pillar, too, and a man with no legs bobbing and weaving his head at its base. Plus mining fumes after all that, just one big shiny taste of metal up from the tunnels, and a blue-gray moon through one of sixteen portholes on this side of the building alone—and the ice cliffs, and the landing bay, and the storage fields with frosted shuttlecraft all in a row. But most of all Jem’s tugging on my right arm when he thought I was moving too slow. How fast through all this did he expect me to go?

Eventually, though, we came to the sector perimeter, which was just this sudden squeeze in the long compound walls where the floor grilles turned to solid, studded-metal partitions painted in red-and-yellow chevrons, half the colors long run-down. There were fewer people around us when we came close–which was nice, because it meant I could breathe through my nose without panicking–while on the other side of the passageway hung a line of half-rusted, block-text signs like: EXITING HUMAN ZONE. ENTERING NEUTRAL ZONE. MOGRIAN COMBAT LAWS MAY STILL APPLY. PROTECT THE PEACE AT ALL TIMES. I’d never seen words in such strange orders on any of the common items at the home, Ruby, so I just rolled their lovely yellow letters over my tongue and scrunched my brow trying to make sense of them all, but the hand on my arm kept tugging and tugging, so before long we went on.

There were humans in this new sector, too. I watched them duck into and out of these richly colored tents–reds and purples and yellows and browns–that sat all in a row in the first district on the other side of the divide. When one of the men lifted a tent flap high enough for me to see clear through to the Games tables inside, I cried out and made to follow him in, but Jem’s hand came down vice-tight on my shoulder, so hard that I screamed and dropped to the floor instead. There were people all around us, and some of them looked at me and my brother the way people do, but no one said anything, and not one interfered.

“Sorry,” said Jem. He crouched to help me up. “Sorry–I had to. You can’t go in there. You have to promise you won’t ever go into any of those tents.”

“But–the Game–”

“We’re here to play it, I promise. But you can’t play it with other humans. Promise me you’ll never play it with them.”

Jem had a firm grip on both arms now, and it hurt, so I whimpered a bit before I nodded, because I could feel my cheeks go all hot and slick with tears and you know, Ruby–you know–how much I hate the way they prickle on my skin. “But why–”

“Because humans don’t play the Game the same way, see? These’re men who spend their nights in the mines and they’re just trying to make it rich enough to go home. So they see you playing, and they see you taking all their hard-earned coin, and they’re going to start to hate you real quick. They’re gonna think they’re being ripped off, and that it isn’t fair, you having the advantage you do and still being allowed to play. And then… hell, Alvin, I don’t know just what they’ll do to you then, but I just know it won’t be any good. So stick to the mogrians, okay? The mogrians are bored with us humans–that’s why they almost never play out here anymore. But sometimes a human joins one of their kids’ tables, so that’s what we’re going to do. Okay? Just trust me, Alvin. Can you do that?”

“I trust you,” I said, but it came out as little more than a whisper because my arms still hurt, and he should’ve known better–really, he should’ve, scared about the money or not.

I waited for an apology but all he said was, “Okay. Good. Come on, then, Alvin–hurry up. We’re running out of time.” And that’s why I’ve got to remind you, Ruby, you know, that sometimes Jem can be really thoughtful. I just wish it was more of the time.

When he did get me into a tent, though, I spent the first two rounds just watching–not the Game board, exactly, or my console, but all the others around the table. There were eleven mogrian children, watched over by what I guess was their version of Miss Slake at the master console–only Miss Slake doesn’t have skin that looks so tough or dark green, and she sure as heck doesn’t have yellow eyes or a tongue with two points at the end.

I’d never seen a mogrian before, you know, but I know mother would’ve said it wasn’t polite to ask another little boy about his scales, or the trumpeting noises that came from the frills of skin along his neck, or the suckers at the ends of his long, wobbly, see-through fingers, even if they made such fun sloosh sounds as they whipped from one key to the next. But surely there was no harm in just looking?

Since Jem wasn’t playing the Game he wasn’t allowed in the tent, but eventually I heard him whispering through the fabric–Is it your turn yet? Have you wagered? How’s it going?–and I remembered–really I did–that I had a job to do. While getting me out of those sticky, awful-smelling trousers and washing all the hard-to-reach spots, Jem had even said to me: “It’s fine, buddy. It’s no problem at all. See, I do this for you, and you play a few rounds and turn fifty bits into two thousand credits for me. Yeah? Okay? It’s how we live, you ‘n’ me: in trade.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, really, at the time. I suppose what I wanted to say was that we’re family, and helping family is just what you do, but then I remembered that Jem really didn’t seem to have much that he was good at all on his own, so I figured that maybe he just needed to say this for himself–to feel useful, like he had something to give back in turn.

So I said, “Sure, Jem, okay, Jem.” And once I remembered all that inside the tent, I blinked my eyes clear of tears and paid more attention to the Game.

The Game board in the front was still spinning, always spinning. The whole thing was this huge vidscreen with little black points popping up in spirals, or fractals, or just these ragged, weaving lines like valleys and hills. In vids taken from human sessions, which Jem first showed me back on the farm, back when our mother wasn’t killed yet and our father wasn’t in jail for it, the Game board had been marked with a really obvious grid, each space filled with a number, and each number either set against red or white, depending on the transformation for each round. “The Mother,” Jem had called it–which sounded just about right to me because everyone had to have a mother, didn’t they? (Do I still have a mother now, Ruby, now that my mother’s dead?) But after thirty seconds in those vids the whole Game board began to blink, then disappear entirely, and a set of eight numbers would appear in their stead. In one round, the eight numbers read: 126 – 344 – 1332 – 2198 – 4914 – 6860 – 12 168 – 24 390.

“Okay, so,” Jem had said, “See, you’ve already got the Mother, and these numbers, so you’ve got to work backwards and figure out the Children—the primes you put into the Mother to get the first and the last. Now, the trick is–”

“5 and 29,” I had happily agreed. And Jem stopped talking for a while, his bright green eyes looking confused and… something else, something that just made me sad, so I didn’t think on it long. He looked up at me and then quickly down.

“How did you–no, never mind. Yeah, that’s it, Alvin. You got it, buddy. You think you can do it again?”

But the Game board for the mogrian children was so different, Ruby. There was no grid, and no Mother listed overhead, and no numbers spelled in words I understood, let alone set apart from the bigger pattern and slowed down so I could think about each one a long while. It was all just a series of endlessly shifting dots with spaces between them, along invisible number lines I traced from the shapes they made on the screen. See, if I counted from the center of the spirals out, or from the ratios in the fractals, or from the start of the hills and valleys that rolled sometimes for long, beautiful minutes from right to left on the screen, it all made sense just the same. Just don’t ask me to explain it, okay?

I tried to show Jem once, but he just couldn’t see what I saw, no matter how much I stabbed and I stabbed at the screen in the learning room with my fingers and thumbs, until I just got so frustrated that Jem had to take me back to my bed and say goodbye and then I didn’t talk to anyone again for four whole days (yes, I know, Ruby, even you).

But that was in the past, and now when I looked all around me I saw mogrians who saw the same numbers I did, even without all the words there, and I grinned so hard I could feel it up to my ears. I had to catch my breath at first, I was so excited, because when parts in each sequence turned red for a few seconds, the mogrian children slicked and slooshed their fingers over player consoles—just like I was doing now, too.

“It’s fine, buddy,” I said after a few rounds to the mogrian beside me, who blinked back with a funny white membrane all over its eyes. “It’s no problem at all.”

When Jem and I returned to where his friends seemed to work (but not sleep; I don’t know where they did that), there was a man I didn’t know curled up on the floor of Hex’s stockroom. Jem had been so happy and relaxed on the way back–as jumpy in the marketplace as the numbers had been on that mogrian screen, though nowhere near as beautifully patterned–but at the doorway he just set a hand over my chest and wouldn’t let me go in. Through the passageway I could just make out Quantz Lafferty wiping the barrel of his firearm, and Hefron Ab’Adams and Jin Mototo taking two limbs apiece and hefting the body onto a bit of mesh pulled down from one of the crates. Then they wrapped and wrapped the man until I could only see his boots through one end, and then–

“You smell that?” said Critchley Spokes. He looked to the door and grinned. “Thought I heard something crawling up from the gutter.”

“He clean?” Hefron Ab’Adams shouted. “Don’t you dare let him in if he ain’t.”

“Yeah,” said Jem. “He’s fine.” But when he stepped inside he still wouldn’t let me follow, twisting around to block the doorway instead. “Stay with Crank.”

“But why–”

Jem crouched and caught my hand so hard that I whimpered again. “Just do it, okay? This is business–that’s all. I just need a minute.”

I cradled my hand as the door closed behind me, and after I felt the pain start to go down, I looked all around the front of the store, which I could tell was supposed to look like it sold general goods to this really quiet corner of the marketplace. Crank was polishing gunware over a glass counter filled with restricted classes, and though I knew them all by heart I only hummed their names and specs, because I got the feeling that nice old Forenz, his sandy-brown snout resting over folded paws by a stack of gas masks, would not understand. And Crank, of course, probably already knew.

I knew it was wrong to stare, but I couldn’t help looking at that robot’s face, either, which had all the same features as a child’s. Behind his ears, though, there was just this mess of fiber optics and liquid crystals inside a metal cage, which I could see whenever Crank turned or looked up, and all of it sat on this rust-yellow body suit, like the rest of him just hadn’t been finished. Crank was doing his cleaning with hands that were no more than metal pincers, and he had these telescopes for eyes that watched the entrance closely when station patrol trooped past in gray uniforms with red shoulder patches–looking, Jem had told me, for anyone who might be at risk of breaking the treaty, though he never said just how that could be done.

Prewitt Malawi ducked in soon after the patrol had passed, though, with a dark metal case in either hand. He looked first at Crank, then at me.

“So how’d it go, kid? You saved your dumbshit brother yet? He in there now?”

I nodded, but I could hear myself stutter when I added: “You shouldn’t say that.”

Prewitt Malawi’s expression hardened as he set his cases on the counter and switched up the latches. “Say what?”

“That,” I said. I might’ve been clearer, but I knew Miss Slake wouldn’t like me repeating bad words.

“What,” said Prewitt Malawi. And he came over and stood really close to me, close enough that I could see all the better just how tall he was, and how big. “You got some kinda problem all ‘a sudden? ‘sides the obvious?”

“Malawi,” said Crank–and I was surprised–really, I was–by this harsh grinding sound that came out from behind that smooth baby face. “He means the ‘dumbshit’ business.”

Prewitt Malawi laughed. “Oh, that.” His expression relaxed and he went back to unpacking the cases. “You’d know, wouldn’t you. Two of you so alike and all.”

Crank’s face turned, unchanging, to me. “Hardly.”

“Aw, don’t mind him, kid,” said Prewitt Malawi. “Crank’s just jealous. Even if he says he doesn’t have the stuff for it. Used to do your line of work when the mogs first set up shop in this compound. Dumbshi–I mean, those guys didn’t know what humans really were back then, ‘sides the guys drilling their planet for stuff they had no use for anyway. So slap a face and suit on any old unit and you were good to go, you know? But then they figured it for a scheme, and cogs like Crank here were done. Mogs were pretty pissed off at first–on principle, you know?–and after they just wouldn’t play with us no more.”

His knuckles came down hard on the counter, but I heard them even louder in my head. “The Game started changing then, too–—for the better, ‘you ask me. I mean, go in for the numbers if you want–keep the primes from 1 to 1000, and your odds aren’t too shabby if you’re smart about your guesses–but where it really counts? Where the fun comes in? That’s betting on the guy beside you. He gonna be close, or is he gonna blow it? And more likely, you know, they’re gonna blow it. Hefron used to be pretty good with that kind of betting. Made himself real tidy a few years back, before they took out his knee.”

“His knee? Who–”

But the door to the stockroom opened enough then for Jem to slip through. He didn’t look so good anymore, his face pale and trembling and his mouth not moving at all. He grabbed me again–but gently, very gently, like when we’d been inside the room before, so that I started thinking maybe that room wasn’t such a great place to go into after all. I would’ve said so, too, except that Jem didn’t look like he was listening. He looked like Wyatt right after they’d put tubes all inside, Ruby–really, he did–so I just set my free hand over his and waited until I thought I saw a bit of a smile at the corner of his mouth. It was hard to tell, though, with all the blood from his forehead still dripping down.

“Come on,” he said. “I got us a room.”

Prewitt Malawi watched him as we left, but Jem did not look up, so I tried not to, too, once I had my headphones in again to help with all the other noise. We were in the middle of the marketplace when I realized I’d forgotten to say goodbye to Forenz, and I just hoped he wouldn’t be too mad the next time we both came around.

After two days on Thetis I asked Jem as gently as I could how soon his debt would be paid off in full so that we could go home. He’d told me at first that he needed 2,000 credits, but I’d won 2,356 the first day alone, so I figured that maybe he’d told lies at the beginning because the real number kind of scared him. I’ve seen all kinds of numbers scare people, Ruby, and I know you have, too.

Remember when Krissy first came to the home, and told us about all the numbers on her file that made her parents cry and bring her to us? I like some numbers more than others, you know—really, I do–because of how they sound, and how they sit in my head, and all the beautiful patterns some of them make, like a lake with millions of ripples on top, and even more down below. I don’t know if I’ve ever been scared of a number, though, and just from how Jem looked I hoped I never was.

But that couldn’t be right, either–Jem lying about his debt at first, I mean–because didn’t Hex say he had only one day? (I guess Hex had his own bills to pay, too.) Unless Hex was just one of the tough people Jem had to pay off? I hadn’t met anyone outside this group, though, so a lot of things just didn’t make any sense, and Jem’s answers didn’t help.

“There’s been a change of plans,” said Jem. “I tried to stop it, but… well, maybe we should’ve made it look harder than it was for you, or… I dunno. I dunno if anything would’ve worked. But I am sorry about all this, Alvin. I never meant to get you involved.”

Jem said strange things like that from time to time, and each time I tried to correct him without hurting his feelings.

“Of course you did,” I said. “You took me out of the home because we’re family. And family helps family.”

“Yes, but–that’s not what I mean, Alvin. What I’m saying is–” But then Jem just sighed and went quiet, squeezing my hand. “Come on, buddy. We’ve got work to do.”

He called it ‘work’, you know, which was funny, because the more I played the Game with the mogrian children, and “Miss Slake” watching over us with those yellow eyes and pointy tongue of hers, the more I got to realizing that none of the other children ever got credits if they came in first with the right answer. Only me. Sometimes I tried to share the credits, too, with the mogrian children on my left and my right, but they all just stared at me when I did, and blinked those funny white layers on their eyes.

Jem didn’t think much of it, though, when I told him–as long as the money keeps coming was all he ever said–but then again, all his friends seemed more and more distracted as the days went on, always watching for station patrol and spending a lot of their time wrapping up dead people in mesh in the back. Most of them didn’t pay any attention to me if they could help it (and Crank didn’t seem to like that he couldn’t help it as often as the rest, though his child’s face never changed when he was told to watch me for a while), but Prewitt Malawi paid attention.

Prewitt Malawi caught me talking in the front of the store one day while Jem was with his other friends in the stockroom, and with a loud sigh and a lot of swearing, Prewitt Malawi drove his knife into the countertop and asked me, “Who the hell you keep talking to anyway?”

By then I knew better than to tell him he shouldn’t use words like that, and besides, I had just been telling you something that made me laugh, so I was feeling pretty okay.

“Ruby,” I said. “Ruby DiShawn.”

He just stared at me, though, and then stared at the shelf of preserves beside me. When he did I rolled my eyes and my head like my mother used to do, and put my hands on my hips.

“I know she’s not really here,” I said. “I’m not stupid, you know.”

But I did feel something else right after I’d said that–just this squeeze in my belly, like I’d be better off curling up in a ball. “It just helps sometimes,” I said. “Just to talk to her” (yes, you, silly!) “…about everything. About being on Thetis at all.”

Prewitt Malawi stared at me some more, then burst into laughter.

“Shit,” he said, tugging his knife free. “Al’s got a girlfriend. Why didn’t you say so?”

“She’s not my girlfriend!” I said. “She’s my friend. My very best friend.”

“But she’s a girl, ain’t she?”

I paused only because I guessed where this was going.

“It’s not the same thing,” I said instead.

“But if you could,” he said, pointing the tip of his knife at me. “You would, right?”

“If I could what?” I said. But Prewitt Malawi only grinned until my cheeks went hot.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” I said, while my ears still burned. He smirked.

“Plenty,” he said–and that’s when I decided I didn’t like the way he said ‘girlfriend’ at all. It wasn’t like with Martin at the home, you know, who went around saying that all the girls were his girlfriends, and put a flower on each of their stations just after breakfast, and then went around trying to kiss everyone who’d let him until one of the girls didn’t let him and he did it anyway, even when she said no, don’t, Martin, stop, don’t touch me, and then he’d have to go into a safe space until he promised to behave.

Or maybe that was exactly the same, except there was nobody on Thetis who could put Prewitt Malawi in a safe space until he promised to behave. Either way, Ruby, I wish I hadn’t told him your name. I thought that if I could just take it back he couldn’t ever say it the way he says so many other words, and then you’d be safe again. Out here on Thetis, I felt like I couldn’t keep you safe–from Martin or anything–and that didn’t make me feel very good at all.

I think Jem felt the same way, too, sometimes, from the way he talked one night when the whole station was on lockdown, with station patrol guarding all the entrances and exits–even to the sector where I played the Game. The big voice on the speakers said that there was reason to believe someone was smuggling human beings into fights to the death with the mogrians, and although it was only human beings who kept dying so far, Jem said that if ever a mogrian died in those fights that might be enough for war to break out. I asked him why humans would keep fighting if they knew that humans always died, and Jem just shook his head and said that some humans had nothing left but debts they just couldn’t pay.

“Like you?” I said, although probably I should’ve said nothing at all.

Jem just gave me this look with watery eyes and set a hand on my shoulder. “No, Alvin, not like me. I have you, after all.”

And I was sorry right away that I’d said it, but Jem maybe forgot all about that just a little while after, when we were eating dinner along a crowded bench in the marketplace, and he kept looking at all the booths and the vendors selling everything from belts to boots to booze to babes. (I had fun–really I did–sounding out all the words on those signs.)

“You know,” he said while I was eating my noodles. “We’re making quite a bit of money now, and I’ve been putting a little bit aside every day, although that’s just between you and me, okay? No one else can know. So then, one day, when we’re through here–when we finally get to leave–how ‘bout I take you to one of those genetic spas? Y’ever heard of those? They’re great–they’ve got all kinds of stuff there. Maybe something to fix your legs. Maybe something to switch out some of your organs with better ones. And stuff for your brain, too–so you won’t have to wear those headphones again. Or use those crutches. Or a diaper. Wouldn’t that be something, Alvin?”

I looked at my little brother then, still glancing nervously about him as he spoke, with his shoulders all hunched and tensed as he ate, and these deep lines all along his face like he was so much older than I knew that he was, and I slid my hand across my table until I had one of his own under my palm, and I squeezed. Jem looked at me–really looked–so I smiled.

“If we did that, Jem,” I said, as gently as I could, “there’d be nothing left for you to trade, though, right? I mean, we’re family, you and me, so I’d earn all the money it took to make you happy for the rest of your life if I could, Jem. But I know you’ve got your own way of thinking about all this. I know you don’t want to feel like you owe me anything, the way you owe all these others people so much. So, really–it’s better this way, Jem, with me as I am, and the diaper, and… and everything. This way you get to do something for me whenever I do something for you.” I grinned. “In trade, right? That’s how we live?”

I guess I don’t understand typicals, Ruby–even my own brother sometimes–because he didn’t look happy at all when I said that. He just pulled his hand away, real hard, like I’d burned him, and then he stood up and left the table, half his noodles uneaten, and me with my walking sticks and headphones all alone in the middle of the crowded bench. It’s not that I couldn’t get back on my own, in my own time, moving one careful step after another over the grilles. I just didn’t think I’d ever have to.

What I would’ve done in all that noise and that messiness if you hadn’t been there with me (yes, you, Ruby!), I don’t even think I can say.

Jem and I never did talk about that night, but that wasn’t unusual, Jem having so much trouble sometimes with his feelings. So I thought most everything had gone back to normal (all the fresh new patrols and station-wide searches aside) until later that week, when I finished a day in the mogrian children’s Game tent and poked my head outside, only to find that Jem wasn’t anywhere to be found.

I returned to my console then and just stared at it, although none of the consoles were lit anymore, and the mogrian children only gave me their usual blank looks and were gone. “Miss Slake” didn’t go anywhere, though, and even though she didn’t speak in the common tongue, when she came over and put her long, wobbly fingers on my shoulders I knew it was okay to cry.

“Miss Slake” waited a bit, looking this way and that herself, before she pointed to the back of the tent, then gestured for me to follow. I knew I probably should’ve just wait for Jem, or else return to our room, but I didn’t really like being all alone on this old, smelly mining station so far from the home, and “Miss Slake” had been so nice and so patient in the last few weeks that I just felt it would be all right to go.

She took me through parts of the sector I’d never seen before, since Jem and I never really went anywhere on this side except to the tent for the Games. The mogrian adults kept tidier stalls, I thought, though their food was just as smelly as ours, and there was plenty of stuff piled under labels in a language I just couldn’t read.

Mostly, though, there were big open spaces where mogrian children and adults sat studying tablets, or chasing one another, or making statues together in huge blocks of ice. The air grew colder here, too, although when I shivered “Miss Slake” just took us to a vendor and picked out a cloak. I never saw her put any credits down, so I thanked both her and the mogrian behind the counter, and they hissed in a real nice way in turn.

At last we came to a proper building, with doors and thick walls and windows and mogrians in uniform and all. “Miss Slake” gestured for me to enter, so I did, and when I got deep enough inside I grinned up to my ears and clapped my hands and cried out.

“Look!” I said to her. “Oh, just look at them all!”

In this room there were three mogrians at consoles far bigger than any we used in the children’s tent, and all around us–just hanging in the air, Ruby! really, they were!–were the most beautiful constellations, and land maps, and wave forms of all types and sizes. The mogrian adults were talking to one another, and also to their screens, and as they slicked and slooshed I saw different pictures start to come together, to match up one by one, and make even more beautiful patterns appear.

(I almost fell, too, Ruby, when I forgot about my walking sticks and tried to reach for one of the most beautiful galaxies mixing with a bunch of wave forms, but “Miss Slake” caught me before I could, and soon found me a seat where I could turn and watch them all.)

I watched and I watched for what felt like hours, Ruby, and if there were prickly, no-good tears down my cheeks every now and then it was only from all my gasping and pointing and laughing as the patterns began to make sense. Like music, Ruby! Oh, like the prettiest music I’d ever seen with my eyes.

Maybe it didn’t come to me all at once, you know, because sometimes it takes me a little while to focus, but eventually I got to thinking as I watched all these transformations that maybe this room was why “Miss Slake” never gave money to the mogrian children when they got a question right in the Game–because one day the mogrian children would grow up and get to play with these really beautiful number sequences if they had practised just long enough with all the rest.

Meanwhile, I thought about how all the humans came into those Game tents expecting money, and how the mogrians just gave them exactly what they wanted if they could sit and play awhile. I wondered if that was maybe why the mogrians got into death fights with the humans, too, and if maybe all the mogrian laws were about giving others just what they asked for, or what it seemed they most needed, even if that kind of trade didn’t always work out well for us humans after all.

But that couldn’t be right, Ruby, because if that was the case, why would station patrol need to worry about war? So long as humans didn’t want it, the mogrians wouldn’t either, right? But someone must have, because ever since that lockdown the station patrols had been out day and night, and there were red lights running in wall strips along all the human sectors, just to let everyone know they still hadn’t found just what they were looking for. So maybe I was just making guesses about all these typicals, Ruby–human and mogrian alike–but they were nice guesses, at least, because it was nice of “Miss Slake” to show me all this, and I said just as much when she eventually brought me back to the children’s Game tent.

“Can I give you a hug?” I said then, and held out my arms. I knew she couldn’t understand the words but she seemed to understand all the rest, and even though her scales were rough and smelled funny when she hugged me, I was glad I’d asked her all the same.

Jem was waiting outside this time. He looked angry and scared and there was blood all down one side of his face.

“Where the hell were you?” he said, tugging my arm. “We have to go.”

“You weren’t here,” I said. “And ‘Miss Slake’, she–”

“I’ve been busy,” he said. “You should’ve just stayed put, Alvin. Now everything’s a mess and I don’t know if there’s even time anymore, but we have to go. Now.”

“Go? Go where?” He was hurrying me along, holding one of my walking sticks in his hand so that I had to hop extra fast on the other while he had an arm looped under my shoulder. Whenever we passed someone from station patrol Jem just set his jaw and looked straight ahead, and that’s when I realized that he meant it was time to leave Thetis.

We didn’t go, then, to the store, or our room, or even the main docking bay. Instead, we went to an airlock in one of the smaller cargo holds, where Hex and all the rest were already in suits. They even had one for poor old Forenz.

“You’re late.” Jin Mototo tossed a suit Jem’s way and another at my feet.

“Please,” said Jem. “I’ve done everything you asked. I’ve paid my debt thirty times over. If you let us leave now there’ll never be trouble. You’ll never see me again, I swear.”

But Hex only nodded at me, grinning in a way that didn’t make me feel good. “Not a chance, Squint,” he said. “You two make too good a team. There’ll be even better opportunities for this kid on the far side, and I’m sure as hell not missing out on them. So suit up or we’ll just take him and shoot you. And don’t think I don’t still have eyes on this station if you even think about trying to run.”

My brother’s hands were shaking as he put on the suit and helped me into mine. I wanted to calm him, Ruby–really, I did–but when it hit me that I was probably never going to see the home again, that I was going to be out wandering these strange worlds with these horrible typicals forever and ever, I had no calm left in me, Ruby. I just started to cry.

“Shut him the fuck up,” said Critchley Spokes, even as Prewitt Malawi punched him in the arm.

“Aw, leave ‘im alone,” he said. “Kid’s just scared.”

“I swear,” said Hefron Ab’Adams, “if he shits himself again–”

“I’ll shoot,” said Quantz Lafferty, grinning and tipping his gun at me. “No, wait–then he’ll just shit himself again.”

“Time,” said Crank to Hex, and Hex nodded and opened the airlock, keeping an eye on the passageway behind us. Jem returned my walking sticks and we went out, all of us, into a coldness even worse than the one in the far end of the mogrian sector. I could see in the distant tundra, set against the dark, starry sky, a rugged old freight shuttle–the specs of which I knew by heart, so I sang them through chattering teeth.

“The hell’s he doing now?” I heard Hefron Ab’Adams through my helmet.

“It’s just something he does,” came Jem’s voice. “Keeps him calm.”

“He’s reciting the shuttle stats,” came Quantz Lafferty’s voice. “Shit, Hex, what if the kid’s got all our numbers? The things he’s seen–”

“He just won’t get captured, is all,” came Hex’s voice. “And if they try–”

But even as he said it, there came a rumble behind us, and an oh shit! from more than one voice on the headsets. Run! somebody said, and Hex and the rest tore out for the shuttle while bullets started sailing over our heads. When I looked back, there was station patrol racing across the ice, and then even if I could’ve kept up before (don’t laugh, now, Ruby) there was no way anymore. I sunk to the ground instead, and even with Jem screaming in my helmet for me to get up! get up! and Forenz bounding back as fast as he could in his own suit to help I couldn’t do it. Nothing would make me move with so many people shooting around me–no, Ruby, not even you.

When I looked one way, too, I saw Quantz Lafferty pause behind the shelter of a shuttle wing to take aim–not at station patrol, but at Jem and me. When I looked the other way I saw station patrol take aim at Forenz, even though Forenz never did anything wrong.

I don’t know which one got hit first, either, because when Jem went down and Forenz went down I was watching Quantz fire another shot that just missed my arm, before station patrol advanced so far that he had no choice but to retreat. The shuttle took off before station patrol could break their way onboard, so I watched the ship shoot up and disappear behind the distant ice mountains before I remembered to breathe. I never got to see my brother’s body, or Forenz’s. The last thing I saw was me–me, Ruby! in a space suit!–reflected in three helmets looking down–and then I guess I just went to sleep.

In one of their waiting rooms I told station patrol all that I could about Jem and the men who had once said they were his friends–which was probably more than station patrol wanted to know, because one of the officers kept sighing and saying “Can you just stick to the facts, please?”

But I was, Ruby–really, I was–only how could they know what facts were the useful ones and what facts were not until I’d told them all that I could?

After a while, though, they said they had enough, and they got me a nice bowl of soup and some water and then set up a console with Miss Slake on the other line.

“I was so worried!” she said, and I cried when I saw her beautiful old face.

“I knew you were,” I said. “I just knew you were.”

She told me not to be too sad if I could, and that there’d be a shuttle for me soon. “Hang in there, Alvin,” she said. “You’ve been so brave, but hang in there just a little while longer. Station patrol will take care of you in the meantime, so you won’t be alone.”

There were many things I could’ve said then, Ruby. I could’ve said I was never alone, since I had you to talk to all along. Or I could’ve just said, Okay, Miss Slake; see you soon.

It wasn’t even true, really, what I said instead, since there were men just in the other room, and the whole station on Thetis was a very crowded place filled with all kinds of people–humans and mogrians and all kinds of smaller animals, too. But it didn’t feel so much like a lie, either, so I said what I was really thinking at the time and just hoped no one would get mad.

“Miss Slake,” I said, as gently as I could. “I think I’ve been alone here all along.”

___

Copyright 2014 Maggie Clark.

Maggie Clark is a doctoral student at Wilfrid Laurier University on Ontario, Canada, where she studies science and literature in the nineteenth century. To date, her science fiction has been published in Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Daily SF.

by John M. Shade

1

The show starts when the woman in rags sets the box down.

Worn edges and flecks of dried blood stain the sides. The wooden box has a depression in the top where the old woman has stood for years. She sets it onto the ground at the back of the tent without a word, and the crowd is already holding their breath, waiting for the miracle to come again.

The old tent sways around them to the wind coming off of the flatland. It lay in the back, small and stained and away from the rest. Prayer flags snap in the distance. Cheap lights have been strung up over the center and across the entrance flaps, and out front, a driftwood sign sticking from the ground states: THE BULLETPROOF GAL, SHE DIES TONIGHT.

The crowd waits patient, eager, sterling timepieces ticking away, the shadow of a pistol here or there beneath a suit coat. Those that come armed are fewer and fewer each year, the woman in rags knows.

But everyone waits to see if it’s true. Already, sounds are coming from the other tents, of the other shows starting up: a wolf’s howl, a laughing crowd, an announcer’s call.

But inside this tent, it remains quiet.

Soon the noise from the other shows begins to fade (something like magic, a newspaper man would write), and after a time there is nothing left to hear at all but the old woman’s voice.

“Shoot,” she says.

The crowd fidgets, nervous glances all around.

“Shoot,” she says again. Her hand moves slowly up toward her holster, scanning the crowd. She can pick them out on instinct, the ones that have the nerve. As if they had some marker upon them.

Three young men jump up from their seats, drawing pistols of their own, hammers ticking back. They fire, one after another and shoot the woman in rags in the chest, the arm, the neck, the gunshots splitting the air, blood flying against the tent. Screams echo. The instinct to run is too powerful. The crowd climbs over one another for the entrance flaps.

Every night, she dies alone next to the old box. There is always someone willing to kill for a memory, no matter where the tents are set. Fewer and fewer each year, she thinks, dying there. Some day there won’t be any left.

The show travels the towns in the meadow basin, and then farther out again where the hills grow taller and the shadow of the Drowning Mountains looms close, and the towns grow farther and farther apart. The wagons are old. The wheels creek and groan and the quick-shot men whistle to the beat as they march on.

When they pass towns or villages not on their route, they wave to the people. They say, as if from a script, “Come follow us, just a little farther until we set up for the show!” even though it isn’t true most times.

Ellie, the Bulletproof Gal, rides beside the wagons during the day. The master of the show is a broad man with eight sons. Behind her, there’s the Plains Brothers and further back rides the wagon crew.

The sun goes down on other towns, other seasons. She teaches the old quickness games to children before their parents can shoo her away. When the children ask if she will die tonight she says yes. And if it hurts, she says yes. And if she would teach them the trick to never die, she says maybe tomorrow. It is always tomorrow.

Sometimes they camp for the night in derelict mansions or old farms or other, older ruins. Stone towers reclaimed by vines and underground labyrinths and dead towns at the edges of an encroaching desert, set to swallow everything. Sometimes people follow close and sometimes they stay far back, and Ellie can see their outlines in the morning haze along ridge-line, waiting for the show to start again. Waiting for lost days come alive, if only for a moment.

She understands. It was what attracted her in the first place.

The young man comes on the last night of shows, trudging up the shallow hill to the lights and the noise in his stuffy, pressed uniform, clipboard in hand. He watches the shows, the lion tamers and the men shooting bottles off nervous, shaking heads while the lights on the Bulletproof Gal’s tent have yet to come on. He watches her show when it is ready, watches them cart her body off to the surgeon, and then waits at the edge of the tents for her to come out of her wagon again.

“Ellie Dimeaux,” he says when she finally appears.

“Yes,” she says.

“My name is Paul,” he says.

“I’ve known a few Pauls.”

“No,” he says, “Forgive me, we’ve never met. I’m writing a book.”

“All right. Good for you.”

“Yes,” he says.

She walks over to the well and dips a spoon in and drinks. He waits until she’s finished and says, “I’m writing a book on the old ways. How it used to be.”

She says, “That’s a tricky subject. People don’t do such a good job of remembering times.” She wipes her mouth.

“It was something I’d hope you’d let me in on.”

“Better off leavin’ it be.”

“Something you might know of,” he says.

She stops from dipping another spoon-full. “You’re wantin’ to know about Elsin.”

“I am.”

“I don’t know where he is. Dead, likely.”

“That doesn’t seem to stop you,” Paul says.

She looks at him. “He’s not here now, so get to goin’.”

“Had some questions for you, too.”

She takes another sip of water, then heads for the gunsmith’s tent, the boy falling in step behind her.

“Like you want to know what really happened. They tell about the burning windmill and the duels at sun’s rise in the school rooms, don’t they? Ask the teachers.”

“They do, but I wanted to hear it from someone that was there.”

“Sorry,” she says. “More shows and more towns to go. Don’t have time to be jawin’ with you.”

The gunsmith’s tent lay ahead. She can hear the music of the tools whirring inside, the oven starting up. She expects he’ll stop short once he hears the sounds too, but he doesn’t.

“I bought a memory of you,” he says. “One of Elsin’s.”

“It’s a fake,” she says over her shoulder.

“I don’t think so.”

“Trust me kid, everyone wants to be him. Don’t think you’re the only one that got hold of a bad memory that’d been passed off as his. The surgeons wouldn’t make any money otherwise.”

He stops at the entrance of the gunsmith’s tent like she wanted, but then pulls it aside and comes in behind her. The three gun-hands standing at the table eye the boy as he comes in.

Ellie says, “You’ll be taking a hint now, and getting on home.”

“I’ll stay for as long as it takes.”

One of the gun-hands says, “Got an admirer Ellie?”

The other two smile.

Ellie holds up a hand. “It’s all right. I’ve got a handle on this.”

The other gun-hands fidget. Their hands play with coins or string or twigs to keep their fingers quick and busy. Only a matter of time until that’s not enough, she thinks.

She looks at Paul, something in it telling him the danger he’s in. How the next few seconds could be his last. “You come in the morning and I’ll show you where he’s buried.”

“You won’t run?” he says.

“I’m old,” she says. “Take it or leave it.”

She looks back at the gun-hands.

“All right,” says the boy.

“All right,” says the old woman.

2

She was born in a town nestled against a river, in the shadows of distant, alien mountains. Mountains she cannot remember the names of anymore. She  had had a name for each peak in her youth, and there were many; some tall and jagged and others soft and sloping, and that she had even given imaginary names to the people coming down off of them too: explorers, travelers, gun-hands, storytellers, and other, mysterious folk that would tip their hats to her from the other side of the river.

There was no power in a name, she knew. They flowed one into the other, the memories dripping away, changing, stretching, contorting, diving, tethered, spinning round and round about the Low Country like the people themselves, town to town to town. They were a currency, one of many. You could end up with a memory you had as a child on your death bed, and that would be all right, she thought, to remember yourself at the very end.

She grew tall and menaced the boys under the long afternoon suns. She played the quickness games with the others, and learned the old songs (Of the Reaping Grain, Of the Businessman, Of the Traveler) like they used to. The schoolmaster taught her other songs, too. Of the Ready Gun, Of the Forest’s Path, Of the Noon. He had a scar and a glass eye. She can only see his eye now. She’d traded the rest of him away for a piece of bread and water for her horse so long ago.

Ellie remembered the gunfighters on the river, though. Would never have traded them away. She always watched them from the opposite bank as they let their horses drink, before they moved on again, out into the sage fields and whatever lurked beyond. She’d wondered what it would take to cross the river and become a part of their world, traveling town to town and building a legend people would tell as the candles went down.

She worked the kilns of the town’s bakeries but her family couldn’t afford proper gloves, so she learned the value of speed without a gun. Sometimes the gunfighters would come into town for food and ammunition. She traded them bread for memories, and learned of another kind of quickness. She learned the old ways–when to talk and when to shoot, how to take a town and when to bring someone back–and practiced with twigs or spare kindle shaped like a pistol when no one was looking. When the days were done, she went home to a house full of brothers and sisters, and dreamed of the long, endless roads stretching out before her.

Elsin had come to the town in the spring.

The clouds were gray above, and it was raining when he rode in. She remembers the hiss of the motors pumping water away from the village, and that the whole town had come out despite the rain. Merchants had set up their market stalls at the entrances and the people lined the porchways of the roads, whispering to one another rumors of why he’d come. Vengeance, some said, or the Nine Families had sent him, or he carried a message for the mayor alone. But none of them were true. She could see it in his face, worn, but still so young. Like he was tired of running. Like he didn’t know where home was anymore.

There were others that rode in with Elsin. Men and women. A long train of gunfighters, hopefuls, followers, and slaves.

Ellie stood beneath the porch of the bakery, ribbons of sun-drenched rain cutting down in front of her view as the mayor met them in the open road.

“Who’s in charge here?” Elsin said, his voice carrying just above the rain patter.

“I am,” said the mayor.

“We’ve come to lay claim here,” said Elsin. “You’ll supply us with clean beds and food and roofs over our heads until another comes to contest our claim. Do you understand?”

“We know the way of things,” said the mayor. “The children have been taught.”

“Good,” said Elsin.

He dismounted and led his horse to a boy nearest him and said, “Take this to the stables and see that he’s fed,” and he handed the boy slips of soggy currency.

She remembered him striding past, and the look he gave. Nothing more than a passing glance.

But even then she could feel something on its way, hair on end like a distant storm. Even before her and Elsin looked out on an army marching across the Low Country. Before the deserts came to swallow everything, and the smell of gunpowder, and the taste of blood, were as commonplace as the fires dancing within the kiln.

The days were long and the food short as spring came to be summer. More than one young man had gotten the idea to take them on and challenged Brist or Daniels or the Fairweather Brothers, or even Elsin himself.

Ellie watched their duels from the kiln, paying half a mind to the heat, and collected more scars than she had all year in only a few days. She watched them before, and after, and in the moment between. The subtle change in their draw if they expected to win or die. Most of them were only wounded, but might as well have been dead.

You lost your right to choose when you lost the duel. If anything, that’s what it was about. Conscription, not murder.

They took the young men into the surgeon’s hut who worked on them throughout the night, stuffing memories down into their heads, and taking out the rest to be sold at auction. Ellie could hear the screams from her bed, even over the hissing of the river motors and machines of the gunsmith’s shop. When it was finished the gunfighters paraded their newest recruits around the town. The young men recognized no one, not even their mothers crying at their waists, the men pulling their wives back to the sidewalks as the parades cut down the roadways, coiling around buildings and choking the porchways like the great, writhing serpents of old.

After a few days the duels died down and the people, if not content, were at least submissive. The town settled into the old rhythms again. And everything was peaceful for a time.

It was afternoon when Elsin sent one his men to talk to her.

“Hello there.” The man had strolled up through the porchways (boards hardly creaking to his weight) and on to the kiln where Ellie was busy keeping the fires going. It was afternoon, and he was young. Like Elsin. But this man had a wide, vicious smile. He loomed over her, the sun behind his head, his face in shadow.

“Hello,” Ellie said.

She didn’t remember this one from the town. He had been taken earlier. Somewhere far away. She tried to imagine where he’d come from. The coastal towns? Villages perched against deserts vast as seas. Or a city, buildings as far as her imagination could stretch, sweeping down across the valleys and plains of the world.

“You aren’t going to offer me bread?” said the man.

“You’ve got hands,” she said. She looked up a moment.

He smiled again, and it shone bright even against the shadow.

He leaned down. “I could push your head right in that fire, you know.”

“You’d be comin’ with me, then.”

He said, “I thought all the young fools were dead or with us now.”

“Not all,” she said. “Most, though.”

She watched him. His eyes flicked from her to a bird perched on an iron gate nearby each time it fidgeted.

“Aw fuck it,” he said. He drew his gun and shot twice at the bird before it fluttered away.

He shrugged, and held his hand down.

“Well you’ll have to come to dinner then,” he said.

“If I don’t want to?”

“I guess maybe both our heads’ll be in that fire, then.”

“I know the old laws. I don’t have to come if I don’t want to.”

“That’s true, you don’t. You can sit here making bread for the rest of your life, and have children that look just like their father, and coo over every moment. But you don’t want it.”

A breeze traveling down off the mountains brushed past her face and went on.

“They say Elsin can’t be killed.”

He said, “You’ll have to come find it out for yourself, girl.”

“What do you think?” she asked.

“About what?” he said.

“About him.”

He said, “He hasn’t led us wrong this far.”

Something in the way he said it gave her a doubt that hadn’t been there before. As if it were only a matter of time.

“That wasn’t my question,” she said.

He only shrugged. She would not get this chance again, he was saying.

“All right,” she said. She stood up from the kiln and brushed the crumbs from her steel apron. The fire crackled behind her.

They would get another to replace her, she thought. There was always someone else behind you in a town like this, ready to take your place.

She couldn’t realize that it was the last time she would ever feel safe again.

There was only one hotel in the town, a leftover from some other time, some other people. It had stained glass doors with etchings of strange animals and faces. You could tell the places where the bullet-holes were patched, the craftmanship never the same. The hotel was three stories up–the tallest in the town–and the manager was from a town by a sea far to the south.

Ellie was led in by the smiling man, who called himself Coates. The manager flicked his eyes between Coates and Ellie as they walked through.

“Welcome,” the manager said, his arms thrown wide like a performer. He flicked his eyes toward Ellie. “May I help you?”

The lobby was clear, the marble floor beneath them was stained with dust and sand. But no signs of blood anywhere. She was always told to stay away from hotel. She always imagined the gun-hands with the smell of blood on them, a metallic tang like stanching fresh cuts. Like after the battle was won. But there was only the smell of food in the kitchens (using her bread? she wondered), and the smoke clotting the doorway to the saloon.

“Elsin,” said Coates.

“The tables I believe,” said the manager.

“All right,” said Coates. He looked to Ellie, took out a canteen. “Go on, then. I’ve got business.”

Whenever someone stopped her, she said “Elsin,” and was let through. On past the first rooms where the women danced, and then out into the main room, with a small stage shoved into the back corner and a few haphazard lights glowing down on it. A woman stood singing a low traveling song, and patrons sat at tables paying little attention, playing cards or whispering stories or laughing, already a little drunk.

“Elsin,” she said one last time to a man in a broad coat. He motioned to the bar and the young man sitting at a far stool. She could barely see him in the haze.

“So you came,” Elsin said.

“Yes,” said Ellie.

“You know the old laws,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

“Good,” he said. “Most people don’t realize what it is they’ve come for. But you do. You know I have the right to replace you if you don’t measure up.”

“I know,” she said.

He led her out the back of the hotel, and then down the alleys, the others following close. There were clouds in the sky. A slow drip of water somewhere. They came to the edge of town where the graveyards stood (the rough mounds wrapped it all the way over, like any good town), and Ellie and Elsin and the others jumped the iron fence where the dirt stopped and the long, endless prairie started.

Elsin said, “We’ll go with Coates.”

Coates emerged from the crowd. He checked his pistol.

“Do you have a pistol?” said one of the men.

“No,” said Ellie.

“Do you want mine?”

Ellie pointed. “I want his.”

Coates raised an eyebrow. “Mine?”

“You don’t want his,” another said. “It never quite hits anything.”

They laughed.

“It’s cursed,” said another.

“All right,” said Elsin. “He can have mine.”

The pistol was heavier than she thought. It made her arm slump down. She stuck it in her belt and the others chuckled. Dust mixed with the dirt of the nearby graves, hanging in the wind. The sun had just touched the horizon when the others backed away and everything was set.

“You can forfeit, you know,” said Coates. He stepped cautiously, watching his footing.

“So can you,” said Ellie.

“Say it, then. I’m well and ready, girl.”

They circled.

“You say it,” she said.

She felt a slowness in her veins. Sluggish. Congealing. Not lightning. Not the quickness songs like she was taught, like she thought would come thundering through her veins and into her muscles when the time was right. When she needed it most. Just the slow, crawling truth that she was going to lose with every heartbeat. She wasn’t fast enough, and she would die, or be replaced by someone else’s memories. She thought perhaps a lost lover of one of the others. Of Elsin himself, maybe?

“What are you after here?” she asked, trying to stall for time.

But Coates could already see her fear. She saw that much. He reached for a gun.

Too fast.

She could nearly see the Silent Gods in their grottos behind her eyes, beckoning toward her, all the lost duelists waiting around for another chance at fame.

A crack of gunfire, and a bullet whistled past her ear. She lifted the pistol, a half-hearted luck flowing through her arms. She pulled the trigger and the kick sent her to the ground. But while she was there, looking up from the dirt, she saw that Coates had gone to the ground as well. He lay with a hole poked through his chest, back arched in pain.

“I can still…I can still…” he said. His trigger finger twitched, neck muscles straining.

He looked at her straight, eyes tired, trying to swim into the back of his head, and he said, “Please.”

Please. As if she could take it all back. Or maybe it was to have her deliver some final message to a family or lover or friend he could recall. She had been taught the stories, of gun-hands that had ridden for months to deliver messages from those that had fallen. She’d dreamed of the journeys she would go on, the people she would meet. But now she knew they were lies.

There was nothing different after a death.

Just the feel of the shovel piercing dirt, and the indifference on the faces around her. She remembered the graveyard sounds best of all, the crunch-sweep of dirt, the rhythm of muscle and breath, like some great monster dragging itself on to the world’s end.

3

Ellie and Paul ride from the tents in the night and do not stop until their horses are ridden down and a few days worth of sores have begun to crawl across their thighs. They camp amongst tall stone ruins under the stars. Ellie checks her ammunition by the firelight while Paul brings water for his horse.

“We’ll be there in a day or so,” Ellie says.

Paul eyes her, then the gun. “Are the dead to be feared now?”

“Rather not be reckless if I can help it. There’s always a chance things can go wrong.”

“Is that what it was like in the old days? You had to look over your shoulder every moment?”

She shrugs. “It’s never as bad as you might suppose.”

“Never that good, either,” says a voice from one of the stones. A man is leaning against them part ways in the dark with a sharp grin on his faces. He says, “Wouldn’t try it, ma’am.”

Others come out of hiding all around them, guns drawn. Their faces come into the light, and all the scars and dirt and scraggly hair with them.

“Guns,” the man says. “Please.”

Ellie looks to Paul. “I wouldn’t,” she says.

Paul says, “We aren’t all brave like the old days, you know.” He throws his gun to the man’s feet.

“Never as good as you think,” Ellie says. After she throws hers away, they bring the ropes and gags.

An hour later they sit, hands bound, beside the dwindling campfire. A few of the highwaymen are rummaging through Ellie’s bags, and soon they turn to Paul’s. They toss pages to the ground, and the breeze tumbles them away, down the dark slope of the hill, lost forever.

“My notes,” Paul grumbles through the gag.

It costs him a crack over the head.

“Quiet,” one of them says.

“If I’m not mistaken you’ve somewhere to be,” says the leader. “A bit longer and you’d have to put down these horses. Must be somewhere special.” He motions to one of the men close to Ellie. “Their gags.”

“We’re not going anywhere special,” says Paul.

The hammers tick back on guns nearby. “That’s a pity.” The others stop searching and there is a slow, bleeding silence.

“We’re headed to Elsin’s burial place,” Ellie says. “If you would like to come along, that’d be fine.”

“Do we look like grave-robbers?”

“No, but then again Elsin didn’t live an ordinary life. Stands to reason what’s in his crypt wouldn’t be ordinary either. Might say expensive, seein’ as how long he lived.”

She could see it change on their faces, just like watching the crowds at the shows, just like waiting for the twitch of movement in a duel. It was the same skill, over and over. The years piled up like clouds on the sky.

“We’ll leave in the morning,” the man says. He walks to the edge of the stones, hands on his belt. “Remember, we only need one of you. Don’t let me down.”

4

Ellie rode away with Elsin and the others when they had had their fill and their ranks had swelled enough. Her mother and father didn’t come out to watch her go. Her brothers and sisters either. They had been taught the old ways. Even if they had met her on the road, or at the markets, or by the hotel, they wouldn’t have noticed her. She was a ghost now, as good as dead.

They passed by the bakery as they left in the early morning, and another girl was there, already stoking the flames.

The townsfolk didn’t pay her any mind, and they rode out from the town further south, following the arc of the sun.

Ellie rode with them when they fought off the Salt brothers and their tribe, and when they took the Twin Rails and cracked the safe at the back.

They had already lost three from her town by then: two to disease and one to a conductor’s rifle. Sometimes she wondered how long it would be before she was the last from their little town.

(You didn’t predict your own death. It was the first step to madness, and the first thing she learned on the road.)

They were always on the move, in and out of towns. Folk talked of an army building in the north, and a desert growing to the east. Whole towns swallowed by the sands, and a man drawing every soul with a gun toward him.

The gun tribe grew, and folk started calling them quick-shots. Performers would hunt after them, and be waiting when they arrived at a town. And the townsfolk would clap when one of the others showed a feat of quickness. Elsin never participated. He stayed in the hotel on the first night, while the dark parades and the tumblers and the strange instruments came trotting by. Fireworks lit the sky, and could be seen from miles around. They were half an invitation, half a warning. Ellie sat on on the balcony with the others, chin on crossed arms, looking up at the colors.

“Do you know what’s great about this night?” said Reb the gunsmith.

“The women?” yelled someone from the back, laughing.

“The food!” said another.

“The music!” said another.

“The dancing!” said another.

They went on like that, and when they got tired of it they told stories of old wounds and dead, loyal horses and distant towns filled with strange, exotic women.

It wasn’t until Elsin had come down, standing in the doorway, that the men had quieted.

“Ellie,” he said to her, nodded his head to the stairs, “Follow me.”

The others looked at her.

She followed Elsin up the stairs and then up another flight to the roof latch. It whined, grinding with ancient gears as Elsin pushed it up, breathing hard, and she could smell the alcohol on his breath.

“Be careful,” Ellie said as Elsin walked around the edge.

He gave her a look. “Do you think this will kill me?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tell me.”

“I don’t think it will,” she said.

He looked down over. Green and blue and orange washed over them. The explosions above felt so close, like she could reach up and rake her fingers across the fire just once. She was fast enough, she thought.

“And you want to know how,” Elsin said.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s worth it, I think.”

“Is it?” he said.

He stumbled at the edge, knocking bits of wood off the side. “When you joined I thought you would come to grow out of it. You grow up fast on the road, you know. But you’re not going to grow out of this, are you?”

She shook her head.

“You know what you’re doing then,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

He drew his pistol slow so Ellie could see, and then took it in his hand and pointed the muzzle at her.

“Shoot,” he said.

She drew her pistol. The fireworks burned above.

“You aren’t giving me a chance?” she said.

“I’m giving you one right now. You wanted to find out how to live forever. Some things, complicated things, aren’t so easy to give away, no matter how much you want to. Some things you’re stuck with.”

She thought at that.

“You aren’t going to get anywhere like that,” said Elsin. He cocked the hammer back. “Hesitating’s for the dead, girl.”

She felt her finger drawing the trigger back. She wanted it, she knew. Some things were worth risking over. She fired and the crack of gunshot fell in with the fireworks, and Elsin’s smile didn’t fade, even as he sailed back, off the roof, sliding into the shadows below.

There were four dead the morning after the fireworks, and Elsin was among them, pale and rigid, like all the rest. She had made sure he was dead after the fall, and in the morning again. He did not wake like she imagined. Like in the stories.

Elsin’s boys dragged his body down the roadways, past the dissolving crowds and curious strangers, and laid him down at the surgeon’s hut on a wooden sheet like the rest.

Strangest of all, no one paid Ellie any mind. It seemed almost commonplace.

They held the auction in the afternoon for Elsin’s memories, and a young man from a town bordering the Long Desert bought them for an easy sum.

“I’m going to be the quickest of all!” he yelled to his friends, who were cheering him on, clapping him on the back and shoulders, as he entered the surgeon’s hut.

Ellie didn’t know the pain they went through then. She could hear the screams coming from the surgeon’s hut that night, but never fathomed how deep things could hurt, down to the very essence. And that even a little trick of magic in the world could be ruinous, and those around it that were already caught in its orbit, whether they knew it or not, would never be able to leave, no matter how hard they tugged.

Ellie caught sight of him in the saloon that night, through the haze of smoke and candlelight and the dancers’ shadows. Elsin was in the corner, drinking alone.

“Not what you expected?” he said.

“No,” Ellie said. She slid into the wood booth across from him. “Where did you find it?”

He poured another drink. “It still hurts, you know, the bullets, the knives. You’d expected something grand, something with a bit showmanship. Sorry to disappoint.”

She didn’t know what to say.

“There it is. It’s always going to be uglier than you imagine.” He motioned toward the tables. “The others carry around memories of dead lovers, friends, family, did you know that?”

“I didn’t.”

He flicked his glass toward Little Thom. “Thom’s got the rest of a woman in a jar he’s carried for five years. Long dried away, but he still carries it. That jar with the black swill and bits of gray in it? That’s her. Houser has a woman that tried to kill him–the only one he says–and Paul has his twin brothers, ready for new…hosts. For some of them, they’ll find a body to cram them into and go on a few years more, but some others have jumped too many times. When they die they can’t be brought around again. Everything wears down, eventually.

“But not me. You wanted to know the secret when you came here. Well, I don’t have it. A last bit of trickery in the world. Even a little of my memories, for quickness or health or stamina, and I take over, rip the other apart and I come back appearance and all, like I never aged a day. Like nothing had even happened.

“I’m a plague, and I can’t ever die.”

There was a woman that had come on stage and begun to sing. A song of change; a death in the Low Country. Ellie could barely see her through the smoke. Her voice carried thick across the heavy air, and Ellie knew it to be a funeral song. The saloon quieted. The funeral songs were rare. Remembrance, even a false one, was precious. Sometimes Ellie lay up at night wondering which was the worse to inhabit: the memories of someone else or the stories of so many.

Elsin took breakfast on the hotel’s patio in the early morning, and Ellie stood by the railing. A few others were there, guns holstered, waiting for trouble. He didn’t need the protection, and she had wondered about that when she had first joined, but now she figured it was just for people to be near.

This morning they looked down on a procession of horses trailing back down the roadways out of town. Riders sat slumped, tired, in their saddles. So many she couldn’t count. Another tribe had come to lay claim.

“An army,” whispered Ellie.

“Almost,” said Elsin. “Tiller’s horde.”

She could feel their hard stares on her, and everyone else on the patio. Her little tribe in the midst of all those guns.

“You don’t have to be nervous,” said Elsin.

Ellie realized she had her hand on the grip of her pistol.

“They won’t start anything yet, it’s too early.”

Elsin finished his breakfast and left her there on the patio to watch the procession, with no signs of abating. They had set camp at the far edge of town, and when night came, the campfires lit up and spread across the valley, and she knew something that perhaps those that lived long ago in their castles felt, looking down at a besieging army, and searching for the reasons not to run.

The exodus began at noon. Mothers led their children away on horse-drawn carts or on foot (horses were tough to come by so late; the smart ones had already gone, and only the stubborn remained), and there were men in the streets turning newcomers away and shouting out last requests for work.

The markets thrived then. They always did, but this was something else. Something special. Men and women coming for one last memory, one last piece of exotic fruit, one last trip behind the red door of the brothel. They always knew it wouldn’t last, but being at the edge of something was different than sighting it from afar. Now it was upon them, and they wanted to hold on for as long as they could.

Ellie walked the side streets alone, weaving between the crowds, not sure of what she was looking for. She was glad to be out in it, though. She knew soon the dark parades would come, filled with performers and dancers, and they would snake across the town, consecrating it for the fight to come. And after that, the town would be silent. One last day before the gunfire came, and the air became suffused with the smoke again.

She walked the streets tired. She had begun to dream in the night, and they woke her more often than not. Not dreams of past victories, or the stories told about her like she would have thought by now, but of home. The faraway rhythm of the mill’s gears, the sounds of a passerby on the busted cobble outside her window. Her and her mother working away while her brothers and sisters dashed through the tight hallways after each other. Her mother had taught her to clean and wash and rinse; she had learned the quickness games on her own. Her mother only read to her the stories as every child knew, the gunfighters of the old days, and the new ones too.

“You always want to make yourself presentable for them, Ellie,” her mother had told her. “Who knows, you may have storied gunmen fighting over you someday. The girls are always beautiful in the stories. You’ll live a long time like that. Yes, a long time like that.” There was a sadness in it, she remembered. She remembered never wanting to look that way.

She turned a corner away from the crowds, and found herself hungry. She found a baker on the next street, and trotted up the stairs and pushed the door open, the bells chiming above her. At the back were some of the men that had rode in. Members of the other tribe. They were a mix of hard and soft faces. Some only barely men, others were lifetimes of experience. There were others, too. A young couple taking a last breakfast at the bakery, an older man and his two daughters.

“Hello,” said the baker. “My name is Roland. Be seated anywhere you wish.”

“Or I could just leave,” Ellie said.

“No,” said one of the younger men. “Stay.” The others looked to him. He motioned to the table next to theirs.

Too many guns, thought Ellie.

“As you wish.”

She sat.

The baker came with milk and a plate of fresh rolls, and she cleared the plate in only a few minutes.

“The days are quite lovely here,” said the young man. He had leaned back in his chair, a sideways grin about him. Black hair, brown eyes, no different from a thousand others. But somehow, he was.

“The dead wouldn’t agree,” Ellie said.

The baker glanced her way, nervous. She felt a bit of pity for him.

“No?” he said. “What would you know about the dead?” He rose and came around the table, dragging his fingers along the lip.

She couldn’t stop herself. The damage was done. “A thing or two.”

The young man looked up at the couple and the old man and his daughter and the baker, too. He motioned for the door. His smile was venom. “Please.”

The second they were gone, the two older men burst from their seats, half-tackling Ellie, but she’d felt it coming. She twisted down and wriggled free enough for her gun and shot one across the knee cap. She lost it in the scramble then. The weight of them crushing down on her. Fingers scrabbling against the floorboards, the wood collecting under her nails. Survival, that’s what it was about now. She thought she saw Elsin beyond the window, walking past, pretending not to see.

“I always see it,” the young man said over the noise. “The notion light in them that they could pull away, reach their gun, kill everyone.” He crouched next to her with a raised eyebrow. The two men had her firmly against the floor now. “In my experience,” he said, “They never do.”

She kicked at the wounded man’s knee holding her arms. The leeway was enough. Ellie’s hand flashed up and caught hold of his holster, tipping it for his knee, and pulled the trigger. The shot buried into his hip and bit through muscle and sinew. She tore the gun free as the man fell back. She shot the other in the eye when he came at her (only disbelief on his face, the only expression she could ever see in her dreams again), and soon it was just the young man and Ellie.

“You’ve nerve pointing it at me, girl,” he said.

“I’m leaving,” Ellie said, blood warm on her lip.

She stood slowly, backing to the door.

“You’re not,” he said.

Fast.

Faster than a blink and he stood in front of her. Fast as God, she couldn’t help thinking. She popped her elbow back for a shot and drew in a quick breath, but his cold fingers were already around her wrist, and the shot went wide into glass.

Strong.

His fingers locked down, squeezing her wrist. She wouldn’t let go of the pistol, so he flung her around, throwing her against the counter. Hard boots stomped down on her clinched gun hand. He dragged her to the back of the bakery, the heat from the kiln nearly unbearable even with the brass ventilation pipes chugging hard across the ceiling.

“Nobody’s gonna remember you,” he said.

“Tiller!” Ellie thought she heard Elsin. Thought she saw him in the doorway with the others, rushing toward her. It was marked in his face, the danger she was in. The fire meant nothing left to salvage. Nothing to bring back.

Too Slow.

She felt herself tossed sideways into the kiln’s maw, and then land in the very heart of the fire.

5

Ellie wakes in the cold sunlight, the muscles in her gun hand clamped into a fist. It takes her a minute to work them loose.

The camp is still and quiet around her. It is early morning. Paul and the others are still asleep, the stink of several days’ travel lingering on them. She rises slowly, everything aching. She thinks of running. Thinks how easy it would be. She moves around a bit to see how her muscles would take it.

She already knows the answer. They would catch her, but not before killing the boy.

Ellie spots the leader on a rocky hillock next to the sun, and gets up quietly and walks. She takes a spot next to him on the nearest rock. He hands her his canteen.

“You’re going to kill that boy there aren’t you,” she says.

“Planned to,” says the leader.

“And me too.”

“Only need one to lead us to the crypt.” He turns to her, a strange look on his face. “You don’t recognize me do you?”

She shakes her head.

“I was there when you first killed a man,” he says.

“Reb? Stoler?”

He shakes his head.

She pinches her lips together. “Coates.”

“Yeah. That was me all right.” She passes the canteen back and he drinks. “I Don’t got no hard feelings though. My papa used to tell me the world’s got a big memory; don’t go doing nothing you can’t reconcile when the years have gone by.”

“Not the smartest man,” she says.

“How do you figure?”

“If he was he’d still be walking around.”

She passed the canteen back and he took a swig. “What makes you think he ain’t? Out there somewhere, starting fresh, a whole new life. That’s the good ending, ain’t it?”

“Maybe,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think it is.”

He looks back at the rest, still sleeping.

“We’ll have to go soon,” he says. He points to the horizon, an edge of sunlight creeping into view.

“You came back,” she says.

He nods. “I reckon it was one of them like your boy Paul there, wantin’ to dig up as many relics as possible. Sometimes you just get shot for your trouble, though.”

“You didn’t answer me fully,” she says. “From before. Are you going to kill him?”

“Maybe,” he says. “Might need him. Don’t know what’s in this burial place of yours. Don’t want to be wasting my men on surprises like traps. Violence is hard to find these days in people. We’re days gone by, you and me. A dying breed.”

“Yes,” Ellie says.

“You can’t say it’s any better, the world like this, no moving, hardly any shooting,” he says. He looks her way, the early sun on his shoulder.

“Not better,” she says. “Different maybe.”

“Worse,” he says.

He pauses.

He says, “I remember the gunfire outside my window like a lullaby. Back when things made sense I reckon, when you could solve things easy, quick.”

“Painful,” Ellie says.

“You’ve got a funny way of honor for the old ways.”

“New ways, old ways. There ain’t much difference but which side you fall on.”

“Maybe,” he says.

She doesn’t tell him this is what happens when the world’s hero dies a coward, like any other. When he wanted to die that way.

They sit on the rock for a few moments more, passing the canteen between them.

Ellie remembers the duel beneath the burning windmills. The flecks of ember sweeping down across their faces in the night, as if the clouds had just learned how to rain fire. The debris crashing down, and the noise. Such noise. Screams echoed out across the dark fields, calling for those that were no longer there. Those that had been burned away, leaving nothing left to salvage. The groan of burning wood. Crackles of distant gunfire. This was what made up that night.

In the center of it all she stood with Elsin, ready to follow him anywhere but into the burning doorway of the mill in front of them.

She watched as the flames licked higher and higher above them, Elsin padding his feet forward. And she thought she saw a smile cross his face, the only time.

What are you but what you can’t protect?

Ellie woke in the surgeon’s light. Her eyes watered. Awareness crept down her body, and with it, pain. She remembered the fire.

“Awake,” said a man’s voice nearby. “Early.”

She was reaching for her gun.

“It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right,” said another man’s voice.

Elsin’s voice.

Rough hands pressed against her skin, and the pain shot up all across her. Every movement of her skin. Every breath.

“No, Ellie, you listen to me closely,” Elsin’s face swam in and out of view. “There are no burns on your body. There’s nothing hurting you right now. Only what’s in your head.”

She could see the burns ribbed across her flesh. Saw them clear as anything. She lifted a charred arm, starting to breath heavy at the sight.

One of the others said, “No, it’s not real, girl. You come back from this, you here? There ain’t many braver than you, girl. You come back from this.”

“I see them!” she gasped.

Something had a hold of her heart, her lungs. Her chest tightened.

“You look!” Elsin shouted. Her head was yanked to the side. A window, tables and chairs in front with a pale light coming in. She was still at the bakery, but there was something different bundled on one of the tables, wrapped in cloth, with a dark red patch at the top. It was shaped like a body. Elsin had brought the surgeon to her, to the bakery; it happened only when there was nothing much left to recover, and time meant losing more.

Elsin drew his gun and said, “I shot you in the head last night with this. Your burns are there, not here. If you’re going to leave ‘em behind it’s got to be now, Ellie.” She heard the click. “Can’t let you suffer like that.”

She couldn’t move. She wanted to.

The muzzle pressed cold to her forehead. “I’ll kill Tiller. I’ll kill him. Now you reach up and take this gun away from me, Ellie.”

Her hand tried to find the handle, the muzzle, anything in all that dark, but it crept in around her, and she couldn’t take any more. She fell away into a deeper sleep than she ever had before.

6

Ellie rides in the middle of their little caravan, the bandits on either side, in front and behind, and it reminds her of the traveling shows. The line between performer and killer was always just for appearances. So the crowd felt safe enough to let their guard down for the surprises to come.

Paul rides beside her. Their hands are left unbound. The only thing marking them as prisoners are the pistols absent from their holsters. They travel the broken lands, cracked by the heat, so near the desert.

“You’d better not be leading us on,” Coates says at times. But other than that he keeps quiet, content to listen to the others as they whistle the old traveling songs. Every day they get closer to Elsin’s tomb, and Ellie can feel something tugging at her.

“I lied to you once,” Paul says one afternoon. The air grows cold as the sun dies, and he’s wrapped himself in a riding shawl.

“Probably more than that,” Ellie says.

“Just the once,” says Paul. He tries to keep his voice low enough to escape from earshot, but loud enough not to arouse suspicion. “I lied when I said I bought a memory of you.”

“It’s all right.”

“I’ve bought many of his memories.”

Ellie shrugs, “People do.”

“You don’t understand,” Paul says. There is a glint to his glasses she doesn’t like. “I have all of them. His childhood, his training, the days he spent before he met you. The only one I don’t have is that one day. The day of the windmills. Of the fires. Of Tiller and the whole mess that changed things.”

“Must’ve taken a long time for that.”

“Too long.”

“You think it’s buried with him,” Ellie says. Not a condemnation, or a revelation. Simply fact.

“I should be him by now,” Paul says. “I’ve gotten them all. But that one day must be the key.”

Ellie motions to the men of the column. “You think they’ll just let you take it for yourself?”

“I think they’ll rejoice when they realize Elsin has come back to lead them out of this miserable existence.”

She can see why she nearly liked him. Why she didn’t let him die so many times when she could have. His movements, his smile. All but a step away from Elsin’s. A shadow, a flawed copy; nothing more.

They camp that night on a bluff overlooking the desert, and Ellie tells them tomorrow they will be there. Coates tells them tomorrow will be the day they won’t have to scratch a living anymore, robbing petty merchants and huntsman. She figures it a lie. Take the money, kill the rest. Sometimes habits are harder to break, even through lifetimes. Even for the world.

Ellie lay awake under the stars. They flicker endlessly, and she thinks it may be the last time she sees them. For a little while at least.

Most of a person’s days were traded away for food or for horses or alcohol or a little extra money. The mundane, the commonplace, or the painful were cut away for the essentials. Survival, that’s what it was about. So it was that, looking back, most of a person’s life was a patchwork affair. Those days that remained whole were kept for a reason.

Ellie had traded most of her old life away. It happened in increments, too slow to notice. A war of attrition, one life overlapping another. Now she could barely remember the sounds of the mill at the river back home, or the smell of the baker’s chimney. One man had bought her memories of the kiln to help not burn his hands as much, to speed up the learning process and impress his boss. A woman bought childhood days from her to replace her own of a mother that was never there.

When she came to again, Ellie lay on a table in the surgeon’s hut, unmoving. The ceiling was just boards stacked over one another, nailed together, and painted to look as if care had been taken. The rain still dribbled in, though. Drops hit beside her head sometimes, and a puddle had begun to form, catching some of her hair in it as it grew.

But it wasn’t her hair. She didn’t have to remind herself of it. The color was wrong. The feel of it. She took a long time to sit up, and then to walk. But she did. Survival, that’s what it was about.

The day of the burning windmills Ellie stepped from the surgeon’s hut, covering up in her new clothes against the rain, making her way back to the hotel.

“Why.”

Ellie stood in the doorway to Elsin’s room. He was seated on his bed, watching strangers pass below.

“Why didn’t you kill me,” she said.

“I didn’t have to–” he said.

“Bullshit.”

Elsin looked at her over his shoulder.

Ellie said, “You took one look at me and knew I couldn’t take it. Some people can, being put somewhere else like that. If it would’a been anybody else–”

“I would’ve pulled the trigger. That’s right.”

“Why not?”

“I needed someone I could trust for this.”

“Bullshit!”

Elsin said, “I need someone for when I’m gone.”

“You should have put me out of my misery. My story was good enough to die there, killed by Tiller.”

Elsin said, “Maybe.”

“You selfish prick,” she said. “You put us in front of Tiller’s army for yourself. So you could die? You don’t know what you’ve signed me up for.”

“I’ll be gone soon,” he said. “You’re going to have to take over. The boys are gonna–”

“You’re here forever,” she said. It was the most hurtful thing she could think of. The look on his face told her that it had worked. A flash of pain. She turned and walked for the door.

“Not forever,” she heard Elsin say.

It started at sundown.

The signal was raised on the tallest building: a collection of spare wood tacked together and burned, visible for miles around.

There were no parades, no strange instruments, and no help coming. No one came close to Tiller’s horde without being made a part of it. It was as close an army as you could come to in the Low Country.

Ellie watched from the hotel’s roof. Tiller’s men filled the streets, pouring over abandoned merchant carts and stands and into shops and stores that had not been fully cleaned out. Some shot their pistols into the air, hollering in her direction. She rested her elbows on the overhang and watched on.

Reb came up the steps behind her.

“He’s gone,” he said.

“Elsin,” Ellie said.

“That’s right.”

“He’s going to fight Tiller by himself,” Ellie said.

“That’s right,” said Reb.

“Do you know where?” she asked him, and he pointed to the outline of the mills beyond the town. The only part of them still visible were the dark blades rotating against the horizon.

7

The desert had done its work well. They have to dig at the sand for hours before it is pushed back enough to enter the cave. Ellie and Paul are made to dig, and by the time they are finished their muscles are drained and their mouths parched.

Coates points to three of his men and says, “Stay here.” He gives them his canteen and goes into the entrance, followed by the others.

They walk for a long time. Stalactites hang above them. The ground is uneven. Ellie tries not to fall.

“It’s longer than I remember,” Ellie says. She half-smiles to Paul, but he is consumed in thought.

Coates says, “We can start up again if you’d like, after this of course. You know, the way it was before, traveling around town to town.”

“Those days are over,” Ellie says.

“New can resemble old,” Coates says.

“Not when the world’s died,” Ellie says.

“That’s a shame.”

“You weren’t about to have me around anyway. For what? Some old lady hangin’ around, slowin’ everything down? No, that’s not it at all.”

“You’ve got a point,” Coates says.

Paul says, ”We’re getting close. I can feel it.”

“I reckon,” says Coates.

Up ahead they find a door hewn into the stone with a small window slit cut into it near the top.

Coates says, “The boy goes first.”

Paul steps forward. He hesitates a moment, looking back at them, but it is only a formality. He wants it as much as they do, she knows. He places a palm on the handle and waits, glancing around. The door comes open, cracking like the sound of bones.

8

She brought seven others from the hotel and slipped down the roadways out of town. They found Elsin on the hill by the windmills. Tiller was in front, a retinue of half a dozen behind him, and a half dozen more around the base of the mill, lighting it with torches. The flames had only begun to catch. Ellie and the others took their place behind Elsin.

“Look there, the burned girl,” Tiller said with a smile. “You all can be our witnesses then. We’re going to settle this in the oldest of ways.”

“Not a way I know of,” Ellie said.

“There’s always something older than what you know,” said Elsin.

Tiller said, “He challenged and I accepted.”

“But,” Ellie said, “You’re going to duel in there.”

“Yes,” Elsin said.

“The loser burns and is forgotten forever,” Tiller said. “Nothing will remain.”

Ellie drew her gun before she knew what she was doing. It wasn’t like the duels in the streets, or hunkered down behind a couch or table. She felt bare, alone.

Elsin said, “Don’t.”

“It’s not done yet,” said Ellie. She raised her gun at Tiller.

“It is.”

“You aren’t beholden to it. You can still come away.”

There was a pause.

Elsin said, “I won’t.”

“You’ve made up my mind at this,” Ellie said.

He nodded.

She turned the gun on him. “I could shoot you here. Haul you away.”

“You could,” Elsin said.

The moment hung there, the flames out of their infancy, climbing higher.

Ellie turned the gun back to Tiller. She pulled the trigger back, and let the bullet fly. One of Tiller’s men jumped in the way, and it struck the man’s side, taking the breath out of him so only a grunt remained. Other shots rang out, zipping past her. There was a scream behind her as someone went down.

She was running toward them in the midst of the bullets. She shot a man in the shoulder and another in the leg. The fire climbed higher on the windmills and she could almost see clearly between the flickers of light and the muzzle flashes. A man with a scar across his lip came at her with a knife and she shot his kneecap, and then the shin. He grabbed her and his weight pushed her to the ground.

Tiller still had his smile on as he strolled away toward the windmill’s door.

“You’re fucking dead, you hear,” spat the man on top of her.

She knew the rest of them would be coming soon to kill her off. Easy prey was always the first to go. She remembered the bakery. Survival. She grabbed his wrist and bit into it, feeling bone, the joint against her teeth. There was an opening for only a moment, and she pressed the gun up under his chin and pulled the trigger.

When she got up she ran toward the door, where Elsin was standing, ready to go in.

Through the haze of smoke and ember, he looked back at her.

She said, looking at the flames, “Not going in there. Not again.”

“I know,” he said.

“You want to leave that bad?”

“It’s not about want. You’ll understand some day.”

She didn’t say anything back.

Elsin turned. He produced something from his pocket, a scrap of paper, and said, “I want you to have something. I figured I’d let it burn with me. Had this planned for a long time now, but I think you can have it.”

He had to get close to hand it to her, and when he did, she kissed him once, and then again.

He didn’t say anything more. There was nothing to say. He turned and walked through the flames to die one more time.

9

Coates knows it first, and Ellie can tell.

Around the small stone room behind the stone door, there is nothing but empty shelves, empty coffers, empty everything. No vault, no treasure, no Elsin.

It takes them a second, but still too late. Ellie snatches a pistol from a holster (a last bit of quickness) and fires a shot into Coates’ chest, then one for the next man nearest him.

A shot goes off behind her, hits her in the back. The room swims. She keeps her arms up like the schoolhouses used to teach. Arms up, still fighting. Arms down, dead standing. She compensates. She fires on the run, pulls down one of the shelves and uses it as cover to reload. She scrounges for ammo in a dead man’s pockets and comes up firing again. Another goes down. The noise is deafening across the ancient walls. Paul is on top of a bloody-faced man, pounding his fists into him.

Ellie gets hit in the leg, and she fires again at Coates, who is on the ground, bleeding but still alive. One more takes him down. He lay back, slack jawed at last.

Another shot to the head and the last of them dies. The room settles into a quiet except for Paul’s labored breathing, still beating away at the man.

“Paul,” Ellie wheezes.

He stops for a moment. Sees her wounds. He calculates while looking at her, some unknown formula.

Ellie props herself up on a wall, barely able to stand. “They’ll be more coming. Take the gun, wait by the door. You know how to do it.”

Paul says, “I was always scared to hold a gun before I got all of his memories.”

“The ones you have’ll do.”

He waits by the door and when the other three come, the shots are precise, deadly. She watches him work, and almost believes Elsin is there again. It is so very close.

When it’s done and the rest are lying dead in the hall, he drops the gun and strides across the room toward her.

“It was a lie then,” he says. “There’s nothing here.”

“No, I never opened it. The piece of paper that Elsin gave me was a location, here. This is where he found the trick.”

“But you found it, the show, you can’t die,” Paul says.

“No, padded vest. Only a little puncture, a little blood.”

He looks as if he understands. Quicker than she thought.

“That’s a lie, too,” Paul says. “You’re stalling. You’re going to tell me.” He picks up the gun. Puts it to her head. Draws in close.

“You want this, to always come back?”

He brings the hammer back. “I’ve come a long way. This is my last chance. No more transfers for me. Everyone can feel it, too. People are scared. There’s something leaving this place that let us cheat death for so long.”

“Yes,” she says.

He doesn’t see the knife she has until it’s too late. She is fast for a moment more, and the blade slides past his skin, into his heart.

Blood trickles from his mouth.

A shot goes off. The bullet hits her shoulder.

“It’s a terrible burden,” she whispers. “You don’t know what it did to him, to me, even if you can see what happened and have the knowledge, you still can’t feel it.

“The reason is you don’t have the memory of the burning windmills. Of the kiss we shared. We fell in love right there, and things like that change you. That’s why you’re not him.

“You’re more like Tiller than you are Elsin, you know.”

The knife comes loose and Paul staggers back, drops to his knees. He tries to raise the gun but can’t.

Ellie pushes off from the wall and hobbles for the door.

“Aren’t you…going to bring me back?” Paul says. “I can be him again.”

“No,” she says. “The time for that sort of thing has passed. We’re rare breeds now.”

Paul’s shoulders slump. His chin touches his neck. He says, “I can be him…I can be him for you.”

Ellie closes the stone door behind her and walks on toward the desert light, using the wall to guide her.

10

The shop is set out of the way for a reason. A squat building tucked in the back of an alley, with a borrowed driftwood sign out front, swinging in the low breeze. In past the door, the shelves are filled with jars of all sizes. Some large or small, with black swill, or dark gray, or brown, or even white. There is a counter with an old register on top (it hasn’t worked for years), and behind it there are more jars filled with deeper, older liquids, clumpy and sodden.

Sometimes young men enter–the bells chiming sweetly–with a notion of what they’re looking for. Sometimes they wander in on accident, and sometimes they know what they’ve come for. But they’ve all heard the stories. The duels at noon. The guns. The memories.

The names.

But all they find is a museum from another time, jars of strange liquids with pieces of gray or brown floating inside, and an impossibly old woman standing behind the counter.

She says to them like a performer, “I may never die. Take all the time you need.”(The traveling shows have long dried up. Too few now.)

But they never buy. They come only to look on for awhile, to wonder what may lie in each jar, and then trudge back out into their world, safe again.

At night the old woman plays the quickness games in the courtyards by the fire alone. She thinks this is the town she was born in, but she can’t be sure anymore. She recognizes buildings at times. A hint of a face, a familiar gesture here or there. But only guesses.

The young men prowl the roadways and the courtyards around her looking for girls. They pay her no mind. They holler at the windows with the women on display, and when the doors are opened, the music from the pianos comes rolling out onto the street, soft and tired. New songs that she doesn’t know.

She sleeps above the shop, and the days add to one another, over and again. She sweeps the floors in the morning. In the evening, she goes to the market and then on to the well. It is slow at first. But she starts to learn the new songs, the new ways. She goes to the bonfire celebrations and watches the fireworks light the sky. She dances by the fire with the rest. She starts again.

She goes on.

____
Copyright 2014 John M. Shade.

John M. Shade lives in Houston, Texas and has had work appear in Daily Science Fiction and Everyday Weirdness. He attends the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing, and is at work on his first novel, and a graphic novel.

 

by Bogi Takács

Chani sat on the women’s balcony, racing through her prayers at the usual breakneck speed of the Orthodox. She was bored. She knew there was a Chasidic position that prayer should be as fast as possible, to prevent the yetzer hara, the evil inclination from getting a few thoughts in edgewise between the words. But she could recite at full speed and still have her mind wander.

The men below finally got to the Torah reading. Chani stood. The mechitza was ill-fitting and she could peek out from between two sheets of curtain. The reading was set to be chaotic as usual.

The rabbi yelled, looking for a kohen to say the blessings. Chani rolled her eyes. Yossi was out of town. Uri was traipsing around in space as usual. And who knew what Dovber was up to…

There was a commotion below. Finally they decided there was no kohen to be found, so they had to go with a levi, the next best option. Someone pushed through the crowd. Chani yawned.

Downstairs, the levi said the blessings and Shai began the Torah reading. Chani closed her eyes and leaned against one of the mechitza posts. She liked to listen to him read — he chanted precisely, but with feeling, an otherworldly resonance suffusing his words. He was very young — much too young to serve as a Torah reader, Chani had assumed, but still the community had picked him for this task.

Her attention drifted and instead of focusing on the reading, she wondered about Shai. With his sensitivities, he should be working with the planetmind in some capacity, she thought. But he can chant beautifully, and also…

She got a really bad feeling, like a lightning bolt streaking along her spine, leaving a burning sensation in its wake.

She winced and quickly looked around. The mechitza on her right trembled slightly, as if a breeze was blowing the heavy curtains. She swallowed — her mouth suddenly dry — and tried hard not to think of what was hidden there.

The mechitza on Chani’s right separated a further partition from the balcony. Men below, women above, and… those who were neither in the right corner of the balcony.

They had set it up just for one person. Could it still be called a person?

Best keep the distance — Chani took a cautious little sidestep to the left and slid her siddur, her regular prayer book along the slanted reading surface of the pew. It got stuck in a place where two pews joined. She yanked her hand nervously and the siddur dropped to the floor. She snatched it up, kissed her fingers and touched the cover with them — there was so much dust around that she felt bad about directly kissing the cover, even though she knew her immune mods could probably take care of everything. Best not to risk it, she thought. This is a frontier settlement.

There was a low thudding sound coming from behind the mechitza. She looked — the curtain between the men’s and women’s portions was practically translucent, but for the third partition someone had found an old and heavy brocade curtain. She could not see anything.

She could only feel the distress.

Her muscles tensed with such a force that the breath was pushed out of her lungs. She froze in fear. Why, why did she get up early on Shabbat — why did she decide to attend the morning prayers — why was she aware of other people’s minds –

A groan from beyond the curtain, then a high keening noise. Not very loud — the men below did not even notice it. The two women fussing in the kiddush room behind her back did not drop their pots to see what was happening, either, and she was alone on the balcony.

She swore, then instantly felt bad about it. She jumped to the curtain and yanked it away with one sweeping, theatrical gesture.

Behind the mechitza, Adira was sitting on the pew seat, clutching her stomach. She looked surprisingly human — just like before. Her hair was short and it stuck to her head in tight, dark curls. Her skin was an unusually pale white and her limbs were thin and gangly. She wore a striped shirt and a long flowing skirt in matching dark purples and blues. Everything was just like before.

She was throwing up insects.

Adira doubled up. The insects moved around on the pew rather dazedly — they were all shiny quicksilver and surprisingly large.

Chani had absolutely no idea what to do. Fear tied her tongue. “W-w-w- how can I help?”

Adira tried to speak, but another spasm shook her. The new insects looked even more dazed, and — Chani could not look away from them — slightly malformed. They toppled, their legs of different lengths; they fell on their backs; they dropped to the ground.

Adira gasped. “It’s the- the geomagnetic storm. Take me outside.”

Chani was overcome by the force of the command. She grabbed Adira’s small, slight body — her long limbs exactly like the legs of, no, no, she banished the thought, she would not go there — and dragged her to the kiddush room.

The tables were laid for kiddush. The yeshiva boys would also eat their lunch here, and a pot of cholent already steamed on one table. The room was otherwise empty. Where were Sarah and Liora? Maybe downstairs chasing the kids, Chani thought, and for a moment she was grateful.

Chani grabbed a plastic chair and pushed Adira down in it. Adira threw up again, not insects, only small lumps that wiggled slightly. “Outside,” she said, wheezing. “Beyond the limits.”

We can’t, it’s Shabbat, Chani wanted to say, but thought better of it and managed to keep her mouth shut.

Adira reacted regardless. “Pikuach nefesh,” she said, her voice hoarse. Life-saving, the one imperative that overrode almost all commandments, including all the Shabbat prohibitions.

Chani helped her to the door, supporting her weight, then the two of them stumbled down the stairs.

They had to rest in the grass outside the synagogue courtyard. Chani gasped for air. She knew she should’ve gone for those other mods — her body felt frail and she was sure she’d pulled her back on the way down the stairs, trying with all her might to keep Adira from toppling forward.

Adira attempted to get back on her feet, but she could not maintain her balance. Chani got up, tried to help her. Both of them ended up facefirst in the grass. Chani swore in Arabic.

“At least you’ve stopped throwing up,” she said, turning back toward Adira.

Her skin was coming off. Chani watched in horror. It looked like her flesh itself was peeling away, large slices of plastic-looking meat, entirely unreal. Underneath, the shiny silver substance of planetlife itself was glowing in the sunlight.

“What’s going on?!” She was close to screaming.

“Get me beyond the city limits,” Adira said, her longest sentence so far.

Chani jumped up. Some things were simply beyond comprehension. She tried to summon a floater pallet — she could sense there was one in the shed just behind the building.

The pallet responded. Its status message helpfully pointed out that it was locked down for Shabbat.

Chani swore again, something graphically obscene. Then she hit upon a better choice of words. Pikuach nefesh, she sent.

Override accepted.

The pallet whipped around the corner, landed in front of them with a smoothness belying its speed. Chani rolled Adira on it, jumped up — almost tripping in her skirt –, issued the right set of commands, then held on for dear life.

There was no forcefield at front and Chani lacked the skill to make one herself. The wind tore at her face, her eyes. She grimaced, looked down. The pallet obediently evaded obstacles. Still, they almost hit a young boy, and Chani could feel his gaze on her back for a long time.

Adira was shaking. The skin and flesh stopped falling off; instead, her body changed — she was turning into something noticeably less human, and Chani forced herself to squeeze her eyes shut.

“What’s going on,” she asked again, more of a demand than a question.

“If I cannot — maintain my shape, the body gets broken down into — less complex lifeforms,” Adira said. She spoke with eerie calm, but her voice was changing, acquiring odd overtones.

Chani gripped the edge of the pallet with all the strength in her hands.

You are now leaving the settlement limits, the pallet said.

Chani ignored the warning. They flew on. Adira was entirely silent and Chani forced her mind away from her — there was something about her that was profoundly nonhuman, and the other, local mind was more and more apparent in her, beyond her, through her.

You are now leaving the protected zone, the pallet said.

The world acquired a subtle saturation, all colors suddenly more vivid. Chani took a deep breath. She would be exposed to the planetmind here, with no mediation, no metaphorical curtains and veils protecting the awareness of those in the settlement. And she was habitually aware of other people’s minds. She would be –

She lost her balance. Her grip on the pallet did not loosen — her fingers felt completely stiff — and her elbow and knuckle joints protested the sudden tearing motion. She did not fall off. She did not fall off. She tried to breathe.

She was overwhelmed.

The planetmind drew back from her in an instant that still felt much too long. There was no attempt to communicate. Would we even be able to communicate, without Adira? Chani looked down. Was Adira conscious? Chani struggled to sort out her impressions. What would happen with her gone?

“I’m not — dead yet,” Adira said, with considerable difficulty.

“Where to now?” Chani was clumsily trying to hide her embarrassment.

“Find a lake.”

The lake was filled with the oily quicksilver fluid of planetlife. Chani parked the floater, then noticed with a fright that Adira had lost consciousness. She looked up to the sky, desperate for instruction.

The planetmind was all around her, keeping distance for the time being. Getting ready to swarm in for the kill? She was an intruder here.

Long, long seconds passed. The planetmind was anticipating something, she realized with a startle. Maybe the two of them could not speak in words without Adira, as she’d assumed.

The planetmind indicated the lake.

She tried to undress Adira. Her hands were shaking. She wanted to find an override for that–

The planetmind communicated urgency.

She took a deep breath and pushed Adira into the lake.

A heartbreaking crunching sound from the depths. Was Adira being digested? The surface of the lake was artificially calm.

Minutes ticked by.

Adira resurfaced, floating like an inflatable toy. She looked human. She opened her eyes, but made no attempt to look around.

“We can now speak,” the planetmind said through her.

“What’s going on?” she demanded.

“A solar flare causes a magnetic storm planetside.”

“What?”

“There are instabilities in the māwal.” The planetmind used the standard Alliance term, not the Hebrew. “It is hard for her to maintain her shape even during more peaceful times. Now it is even harder. Automatic processes have been set in motion. We have been concerned.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Expectations shape reality,” the planetmind said. She could feel the disappointment. The alien sentience was disappointed by her ignorance.

“I know, I know,” she grimaced and looked away. It was no use — the planetmind was everywhere. Lush green and red vegetation rustled, but this was only the surface — Chani knew if she were to cut any plant, its insides would show her that beautiful, lustrous shade of silver.

“If you understand this relationship, then why do you act the way you do?” the planetmind asked.

“What do you m–” she said, then froze, understanding what was coming.

“None of you have been helping her maintain her shape,” the planetmind said. “We were promised the community would help her maintain her shape.”

“The–” She could not bring herself to say what she wanted to say. She lashed out instead. “The community, the community is afraid! We don’t know how to deal with this! Cut us some slack!”

“These processes are automatic on our behalf. If your community no longer belongs to us, it is consumed.”

“How can you just–” She sputtered. “You are a sentient being!”

“We told you about this in advance. She is a part of us. She is a part of your community. If she is no longer a part of your community, we are no longer part of your community, and you are no longer part of us. Then you are consumed. You have always been aware of this.”

“But what do you want?” She turned around to yell at the forest, even though she knew the mind was probably even more present in the lake. “What do you want?!”

“We want you to help her maintain her shape, with your expectations.” The planetmind sounded tired. “You are all avoiding her. None of you would even touch her. You put her behind a separate curtain in your hall of worship.”

“But we can’t– Halachically–” Did the mind even know these words, know about Jewish law? If Adira was a part of the mind, then probably yes. Still Chani felt compelled to clarify. “She is a shapeshifter, she can be both male or female, and there is a ruling that in cases of indeterminacy we have to go by the stricter– She can’t just sit on the men’s side, but she can’t sit on the women’s side either, so–”

“This is a problem for you to solve,” the planetmind responded.

Chani sat on a stool in Rebbetzen Mushka’s kitchen and gobbled up one brownie after another. Adira was lying on the large leather sofa in the living room, tucked into a children’s blanket decorated with little cartoon spaceships, and comfortably asleep. The door of the kitchen was closed.

The rebbetzen sighed. “I can tell you — I’ve been there. Maybe you can even… how do you say that… sense my thoughts? Read my mind?” She gestured with short little fingers.

Chani shrugged, her mouth full of brownie mash.

I can bind you together even closer, the planetmind said. Chani choked on the brownies.

“There, there.” The rebbetzen handed her a glass of water. “A few stray crumbs?”

Chani swallowed. “Not really…”

Her thoughts were rushing ahead furiously. Have you followed me here?

I am aware of everything in the settlement. Now you are aware of me. The planetmind made an impression of calm reason. No anger. No practical jokes.

But I

You were exposed. No choice. No alternative.

Was the rebbetzen saying something? Chani tuned her out. I didn’t want to–

You are sensitive. You are that which you are. A pause. Is this such a problem?

Chani shook her head, tried not to grit her teeth. I guess not. “Sorry?” she asked the rebbetzen. “You were saying–?”

The memories were unexpectedly clear — Chani wondered how much was interpolation by the rebbetzen’s mind, by hers, or by the planetmind.

Not much, the planetmind said. We can compensate.

Thanks, just what I needed to hear.

Adira wore a simple white cotton robe.

“…white like a kittel and a shroud? That’s not necessarily the best choice of color for the occasion,” the rebbetzen said.

“The experience is in many ways similar to death,” the Ereni responded on a calm, even voice. She was short and stocky, yet there was something fragile in the way she moved, in the way her eyes flicked around the cavern, restless. Who was she? Probably the Rebbe’s advisor, the one who helped organize the move from Mars.

Yes, this is Esawāyun ta Udufayiwe. The Rebbe’s liaison who negotiated with us.

…Thank you. Such a strong mental link, that an unfamiliar person’s lengthy name made it across… Chani was surprised.

The planetmind did not say You’re welcome. Chani refocused on the memory.

“Look, I’m ready, can we just begin? All this talk is making me nervous,” Adira said. Chani could feel she was trying hard to suppress an involuntary shaking of the muscles.

Hey, how come I can feel her emotions? The rebbetzen is not māwal-sensitive.

We are overlaying our experience. Did the planetmind hesitate, just for an instant? Some of it.

She mentally shrugged.

The Ereni pulled out a knife from her elaborate robes. “The custom is for the person to make an entry wound themselves, so as to indicate consent and commitment.”

The rebbetzen’s mouth opened in protest, but the Ereni raised a hand. “I know deliberate self-injury is not allowed in Jewish law. Self-injury by proxy is also explicitly disallowed. But surgery in general is allowed. We had a long discussion with the Rebbe and we finally decided it would be permissible for me to do it. Adira–”

Adira stepped closer to the Ereni.

Rebbetzen Mushka looked away.

Do I have to watch this? Chani felt that somewhere, outside, her body was shaking.

You don’t have to watch anything you don’t want to.

But–

The moment had passed. Adira kneeled down and simply toppled into the silver pool, seemingly slower than what the local gravity would allow for, more floating than falling.

The viscous fluid began to move. The pool was relatively shallow and Adira struggled to stand, the fluid pulling her back. There was a series of cracks — the sound of bones snapping? — and Chani expected to hear screams, an inhuman howl, but there was nothing of the sort, just eerie silence. She could hear the rebbetzen’s breathing. The fluid still moved, and at one point Chani could see something like an arm sticking up, with one joint too many — a bone broken in half? She gagged.

Then everything was calm once more. She looked, straining her mind.

Where is she? She’s– she’s not there anymore– She knew the rebbetzen could not sense this, so why was the planetmind showing her now, all of a sudden, showing this and nothing else– You haven’t shown me how you felt, how she felt beyond the slightest surface awareness, why are you–

That would have been too much, and hardly relevant to the issue at hand.

But now you’re showing me she’s not there anymore–

She has been incorporated.

The Ereni bowed her head and said, “It is done. She has been incorporated. Now we can only hope for the best.”

“I thought I’d feel something,” Rebbetzen Mushka said, looking flustered. She pulled at her pink headscarf. “Since she’d merged with us, first… I’m not sure what the word is… she’d bound us together, and to herself…”

The Ereni raised her left eyebrow. “And you hadn’t felt anything?”

“I’m not sure…”

“She must’ve kept it from you.”

“Can that be done?” The rebbetzen was confused.

“Yes, that can be done.” The Ereni turned away. “Now we need to wait some time, for the reconstitution. There shouldn’t be any complications.”

“Reconstitution,” Chani whispered. The kitchen was suddenly small and cramped around them. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know she was…” She bowed her head. “She was gone. I saw it. She was gone…”

“I’m sorry?” The rebbetzen pushed back her own kitchen stool with a loud creak.

Chani looked up, her eyes filling with tears. “This is even worse, don’t you get it? If this gets out–” She waved her hands around. She normally looked up to the rebbetzen, but now all her decorum was gone, forgotten, digested in that lake. “The entire settlement, everything will be all gone! If the others realize–”

The rebbetzen did not see the point. Chani felt a sudden urge to grab her annoying pink pullover and shout at her — she had been there, how could she have been so ignorant, how–

“I’m sorry? What do you mean?”

“Don’t you understand, halachically, I’m not sure she can even be counted as human anymore! Male, female, whatever, I’m not sure she counts as human!”

The rebbetzen paled. “But why?”

“I saw it, she was gone, she was completely absorbed!”

“I didn’t see that and I was there!” She stood, her short frame trembling with a mixture of anger, indignation, and… fear?

“The planetmind showed me! And the Ereni talked about reconstitution!” Chani was shouting, beside herself. “Reconstitution! Didn’t you realize the implications?!”

Rebbetzen Mushka covered her mouth with a hand, gasping. Chani went on. “She’s gone and what there is– I’m not even sure she is a Jew any longer, her entire body was gone, the planetmind ate her– it’s not just a transformation, she was gone, and what’s there now is just a reconstruction! If word gets out–” She ran out of breath.

“Sit down. Let us think.” The rebbetzen made a pacifying gesture with both arms. “You know the Rebbe says every sentient being can convert to Judaism, that means they can in principle be Jewish. So why would Adira lose her Jewish status if she became… another kind of sentient being?”

“Because it’s not her any longer,” Chani whispered, then sat, her eyes fixed on the rebbetzen. “Because it’s not her any longer.”

“And how can you say that?”

“Because I saw it and she was gone. And if the other people realize this, she will only become more isolated, and the planetmind will no longer sense us as part of itself, and we will all be killed!” Her voice rose and rose.

“Ssh. We’ll wake her up.”

Chani looked away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“We’ll solve this situation. I’m sure the Rebbe knows, I’m sure the Ereni had told him and he’d considered every detail. We can just contact him.”

Chani pointed up. “The storm.”

The rebbetzen sighed. Messages going in and out of the jump point had indeed been disrupted for days. “Still, I’m sure he’d considered everything and found everything permissible and workable. He wouldn’t have asked her to do this if it were asur. I’m sure she still counts as Jewish, still counts as a member of the community…”

“Yes, but if the others catch wind of this– look how much trouble it caused when they realized she could shapeshift! In shul, they put up an extra curtain just for her because they didn’t want her on the men’s side and they didn’t want her on the women’s side either!”

“I’m okay with the mechitza,” Adira said from behind her. “I never liked it when people tried to chat me up while I was busy davening, anyway.”

Chani spun around. How much did she hear?

All of it, said the planetmind.

“All of it,” said Adira. “I’m potentially aware of everything that happens in the settlement. I just need to decide what to focus on.”

“You’re making it worse,” Chani yelled at her.

“Now, now,” the rebbetzen stepped next to them. “It’s all right.”

“It’s not all right, she will fail to maintain her what, her consistency, and we will all die!”

Adira frowned. “I thought you’d made a promise shortly before I woke up, out beyond the perimeter.”

She had. She had promised the planetmind she would intervene, try to convince the others not to push Adira aside. “Sure, but– none of this is helping, you have to realize it’s not me, the guys in the kollel spend their time debating technicalities all day, if they learn of this–”

Adira smiled. “If they learn of this, they’ll soon realize that if not for me, there would be no kollel, and they’d have to go back to Mars and full-time drudgery.”

Chani was speechless. Then she finally blurted out, “That sounds… utilitarian.”

The rebbetzen smiled. “That sounds workable…”

Rebbetzen Mushka and her husband, Rabbi Tzvi sat on kitchen stools while Chani paced, describing the situation. The rabbi nodded along, murmuring assent every now and then; Chani thought distractedly that he’d always been the malleable type. This might just work…

“You understand the danger, but most of the other men don’t,” she said. “A simple explanation wouldn’t sway them, but there is a way to demonstrate the danger without permanent harm…”

The rabbi picked a brownie crumb out of his beard. “Mmm. The Rebbe said as much.”

Chani jumped. “What did the Rebbe say?” The Rebbe said something? And you’re telling us just now?

Rabbi Tzvi was fortunately unaware of her roiling throughts. “That you would probably rise to the occasion,” he said mildly.

“What?! I would rise to the occasion?!”

“Yes, he said you would… not stand by the blood of your fellow,” he quoted the Torah.

“And the others?” Chani was again close to screaming. “Shai is also sensitive to, to the māwal– and Miri– Dovber–”

The rabbi looked away and picked up another brownie, put it in his mouth. He shrugged. “The Rebbe didn’t say anything about the others,” he said with his mouth full.

Chani felt like she could explode at any moment. “So this was expected of me? Couldn’t he in all his precognitive greatness have told me about it? I’m sure that would’ve helped!” She huffed, then turned and marched away, all her thoughts about explaining her plan evaporating in a haze of rage. Even still, she could feel the rebbetzen’s thoughts of concern, but Mushka remained silent.

Chani plodded along the main street of the settlement. Who could she talk to? The settlement was small and there were only a handful of māwal-users on the planet. There was Miri, about her age, but the two of them had never got along well. There was Nechama, who was probably surveying the detritus of their huge family lunch at the very moment; she’d best not bother her. Besides, Nechama constantly told her she was all too reckless and her plans were little more than harebrained schemes. Nechama even disapproved of the move away from Mars, she was so conservative.

How about the men? Could she even manage to find an opportunity to talk to them one-on-one? Jewish law did not allow two unmarried people of opposite genders to spend time together in the same room with no chance of someone else walking in. Who could she accidentally run into? She could’ve talked to Dovber, but as far as she knew, he was off-planet, busy with harebrained schemes of his own. He definitely did not show up to shul earlier that day, because then he would’ve said the blessing on the first reading.

Then there was Shai… Maybe getting Shai involved with the plan would be a good idea. Word was that he had been the Rebbe’s first choice for what ended up being Adira’s position. Chani could not fathom why Adira had no backup — if something happened to her, the entire settlement would be in danger. But the Rebbe was famous for his unusual decisions — his insistence on an Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew even when most of his followers were European Ashkenazic Jews, his ban on wigs that almost split the community, his decree that extraterrestrials could convert to Judaism… and, of course, his decision that his followers were to settle planets all across the galaxy.

Shai should’ve been the one picked to mediate between the planetmind and the community. Instead, he was studying and serving as the community Torah reader. Certainly, being a baal koreh was not an easy task — one had to memorize all the vowels and the cantillation marks which were absent from the scroll one used to read. On Shabbat Shai wouldn’t even be able to use his network interface, since it fell under the prohibition of electricity. Yet Chani couldn’t recall him making a mistake, while their shul on Mars had had a baal koreh who was constantly corrected by the people following along in the marked text. Shai was good at it, very good, but still it felt like such a waste. To Chani it felt like the māwal organized itself around Shai, and to waste all that potentiality, all that natural skill… Why couldn’t he serve at least as backup?

Chani could not understand the Rebbe, and she was beginning to become furious with him, safe with his retinue back on Mars, safe and ignorant of the situation here. She’d best get back to Adira and continue working on her plan… she was starting to disapprove of her own thoughts.

“This is the plan,” Chani said and leaned forward. They were sitting in the deserted kiddush room in the synagogue, on opposite sides of a table. “We’re going to give the people a fright. We just need you out of the picture for a bit. Just for the connection to weaken. When things start to go wrong, they will realize how much they need you. I could…” she hesitated, “injure you, then make sure you recover.”

“I don’t feel comfortable playing such a trick on them,” Adira said but didn’t flinch. “They are good people.”

Chani was awash with the heat of righteous anger. “They put you in a corner behind a brocade curtain! No one would even touch you!”

Adira blinked. “I don’t like to be touched.”

“You know it’s not about that! How will you marry?”

“We’d discussed this with the Rebbe back then and he said I’d probably find it impossible to marry. I said I was all right wi–”

“The Rebbe discussed this with you?!” Chani took a deep breath, then another, tried to calm down, without success.

“Yes, of course,” Adira said innocently, “I don’t understand your surprise… We’d talked about everything, with him, his wife Rebbetzen Michaela, the Ereni advisor… mostly the four of us. What did you expect?”

No one discussed anything with me! “I don’t like being left out of the loop.”

“If this helps any, I didn’t know anything about you either. The Rebbe only said I should not worry, Hashem would provide protection. I should just keep in mind that Hashem is Elokim, there is none besides him…”

Quotes, quotes, more quotes. Chani liked Torah quotes, but this was a time for action, not for words… She gnashed her teeth. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life alone? With no husband, no–”

“What would I do with a husband? Watch him die?”

“Eh?” That was not the response Chani had expected.

“If I can preserve my consistency, I can potentially live as long as the planet lives.” It sounded like a rehearsed phrase.

“I’d– I’d never thought of that.” Chani paused, just for a moment before marshalling the force of her argument again. “Still. You should not be alone. You should not allow the others to leave you alone. How will you preserve your consistency then?”

Adira looked away, out the window. “…Fair enough.” Then she turned back. “Your plan still sounds too risky. If you’re with me, you can’t be with the others and who knows what might happen to them. Can you just involve someone else too? How about Shai? I’m sure he could help.”

“Shai just wants to sit in a corner and study!”

Adira stood. “And why is that a problem? Isn’t that what men do?”

This is not your personal vendetta, the planetmind said.

Yeah? Wait until you see this, Chani responded.

Adira hesitated before the door. “I don’t see why this is necessary…”

“You want to participate in a women’s shiur, right?” And I want to talk to Shai, Chani thought at her.

Adira nodded, flustered. “Mhm. I’m just not sure it’s appropriate…”

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Chani grimaced.

“I suppose…” Adira bit her lower lip. “They could throw me out.”

“Do you think such pious women would throw you out?” Chani snorted with derision. “They’re much too cowardly and meek for that.”

“Don’t say such things–” Adira blushed.

Chani stepped next to her and pushed open the door. “Come on!”

Adira entered with trepidation. Inside, the women were sitting in a loosely organized circle, some on a large sofa, some on pillows on the ground, some on simple plastic chairs and stools brought into the living room from the kitchen. There was still no consensus about whether shapeforming chairs were permitted on Shabbat, so most people sat quite uncomfortably.

When Chani and Adira entered, people stiffened, and Chani could tell Adira noticed too.

They said their greetings. Chani looked around for spare chairs. “Is there something we could sit on?”

“We’re all out,” a woman said frostily. Chani recognized her — her name was Malka something and she was the mother of four children, all boys.

“All right,” Chani responded with as much iciness as she could muster, then sat down with her back to a wall. Adira also sat after some hesitation.

Shai’s mother hosted the shiur in their house, but it was held by a different person; a young brown-skinned woman with Ethiopian Jewish features. Adira remembered that her first name was Rachel, and she was from Earth, not Mars. Rachel cleared her throat and began. “Today we’re going to study the midah of rachamim…”

See, I told you they wouldn’t throw you out, Chani thought.

I didn’t exactly get a warm welcome either.

It will come with time… Chani smiled. Time, and something else.

I can’t believe you want to do that. Adira’s body went rigid. I’m not going to stand for deception.

Who said anything about deception? Chani had to lift a hand in front of her mouth to cover her broad grin. It’s going to be as real as possible.

The grin eventually wore off, and as the shiur went on, Chani realized that Shai was not even in the house, so that they could talk afterwards. Where was he? Time was running out; it was already late afternoon, and on weekdays, it would be much harder to get a large crowd in one place. She had to make her move soon…

Shabbat was coming to a close with the havdalah ceremony. Blessings were said on candlelight, cloves and wine in the usual disorganized manner. Very few women turned up for the occasion; most were at home, tending to the kids. Chani and Adira stood in one corner, away from the rest of the people.

Plastic cups of wine made their rounds; a young man stepped to them and offered Chani some. She politely declined and picked up a bottle of grape juice from one of the tables; the man stepped back into the crowd, visibly uneasy. No one asked Adira. Chani filled two cups with grape juice and handed a cup to her. They drank, and Adira wiped her mouth with the back of her hand — such a human gesture it made Chani’s heart ache. How could she have doubted…?

“It’s a good thing they’re doing kiddush levana today,” she whispered to Adira. “That’s a great opportunity.” The men would set out to bless the moon; it was usually not visible from the shul’s courtyard, and they customarily hiked up a small hill every month.

“You want to kill me,” Adira whispered back.

“If you don’t want to fake it, we can only do it for real,” she said. “Besides, I don’t want to kill you outright.”

We would advise against this course of action, the planetmind told them. We cannot predict events with the instability caused by the storm. But we sense danger.

Chani looked out the window and grimaced, as if staring directly into an invisible camera.

The crowd was thinning out as people were beginning to move outside; the stairs that led downstairs from the kiddush room proved to be a bottleneck. Chani shifted her weight from one leg to another; she was nervous, even though she did not appreciate the planetmind knowing that. Likewise, Adira was rolling some dried cloves in her fingers, smelling them again and again.

Finally, they could make their way downstairs unobstructed. Below, the men were talking with animated gestures. People were running to and fro with stacks of prayer books. Chani grabbed one and handed it to Adira.

“I know the prayers,” Adira said.

“Even for kiddush levana?”

“I had a network interface even… before.” She nodded in the direction of the forest. “I can just access the local net. Not on Shabbat, but Shabbat is already over.”

“You mean you still have your implants and stuff? In some way?”

“My body template was recorded with everything inside.” Adira began to walk as some of the men set out on the short hike to do the blessing; many were still shmoozing in the courtyard.

Chani fell in step. “I guess I never really thought about that. That’s kind of cool.”

It helps us integrate into the community even closer, the planetmind added.

“So you can read our email?” Chani chuckled.

We don’t need to read your email when we are already aware of your minds.

“Yeah… right. Hold on,” she said and ran forward, looking for Shai. Adira did not change her pace.

He was there, walking almost at front. Eager to pray?

“Shai,” she gasped, slightly out of breath. “We need to talk.”

Shai fixed his clear blue eyes upon her, just for a second — his cool, calm gaze penetrated all the way into her soul. He had a thick red beard — unexpectedly thick for his age — and long curly sidelocks, and he played with his tzitzit fringes as he walked. “Yes? Do explain.”

She was afraid Shai would become aware of her plan prematurely, with his exemplary command of the māwal. But apparently even he could not sense her plan through the chaos of the geomagnetic storm. He was clearly beginning to grow suspicious, though.

Chani began. “Something unexpected is going to happen. You’ll need to stay calm and–”

“How do you know something is going to happen?” Shai smiled. “Maybe because…” …you are the instigator yourself?

“Yes,” she wheezed. “Look, there’s no time. I can’t explain. You will understand everything soon. I just need you to know one thing. When I give you a signal, you will start shepherding everyone back toward the settlement. Do anything you can to keep them moving.” She looked around nervously, but no one seemed to be listening in on them.

Shai raised a hand, his smile unwavering. “I’m keeping the others from hearing this.”

Chani nodded. All right. “There will be… a measure of chaos. Some of the planetlife might mount an assault. It’s only going to be temporary.”

“Is this about Adira?”

Chani nodded again, her head bobbing up and down, and then a flash of understanding passed between them.

“I see,” Shai said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “I should’ve realized. Count me in.”

Chani could’ve hugged him if not for the rules of modesty that kept her from engaging in any physical contact with an unrelated male. She ran back to Adira, grinning to herself all the while.

Just a few steps until the ravine that opened on the right side of the path up the hill.

Warn me before you push me, Adira thought. I want to cushion my fall somewhat, with the māwal… I don’t want to die outright. In this weakened state… just an injury, okay? A little loss of consciousness, a bit longer than back at the lake. Just to give them a fright. And then you can hurry back and down the slope to me and help me gather myself together.

Sure, Chani replied. But we need to take some risk. On a count of three, right?

All right.

One, two… three.

Chani pushed Adira — then her own feet slipped on the wet grass, she toppled against her and both of them fell tumbling into the ravine. No–

Thoughts ran through her mind, faster than prayer — this wasn’t planned, she wasn’t supposed to fall alongside Adira, she’d die–

Adira grabbed her, wrapped herself around her. I won’t let you.

They landed at the bottom with a sickening crunch.

Chani was stunned for a moment, then she instinctively rolled off Adira, who was lying underneath her.

Chani was alive, in one piece, but as she moved, pain shot through her body. She quickly examined herself in the sparse illumination afforded by the lamps lighting the path up the hill, well above. Her left leg was broken, an ugly open fracture. She could feel her mods already knotting up the bone and the flesh, toning the pain down to manageable levels, but she knew from experience that her leg would be useless for at least a day, and the blood loss would make her dizzy.

She did not dare look at Adira.

She forced herself to.

Her body looked — it was hard to tell in the dark — mangled, already disassembling itself. Her neck was bent at an impossible angle and her face was expressionless.

“Adira– I’m sorry–”

Don’t look at me, talk to me, keep on talking to me, Adira thought.

Chani could not look away.

You need to preserve my individuality. I am here as long as you talk to me. Turn away.

“Why?”

What you see works against your expectations, the planetmind answered.

She obediently turned her head; she could not move her leg.

I need to — there’s not enough māwal for me to– She could tell Adira was panicking; her thoughts had acquired a feverish quality all of a sudden. I cannot maintain contact with the rest and at the same time repair my–

“Take mine, take mine!” She turned back toward Adira, grabbed her hand. “I have a lot of māwal, take as much as you need!”

It was hard enough to keep you alive. A gurgling chuckle coming from the broken throat.

“Then I’ll call Shai, he can get down here fast, he can–”

You will need Shai to protect the men above, the planetmind said. It is starting. We are sorry.

“What are you talking about?!”

We cannot preserve her and keep up her contact with the community at the same time. Talk to her. Shai will protect the group on the hill. She will be restored sufficiently soon; the settlement will not be destroyed. Only the group on the hill is in danger.

Chani craned her neck but she could not make out anything in the glow of the lamps. She felt nauseous from the sudden head motion. Then she heard the screaming.

She could reconstruct the events from the participants’ memories fairly well. Immediately after Adira was cut off from the community, planetlife swarmed the men walking uphill. Shai screamed at them to run. They yelled and cried, but obeyed. Shai held off the assault and ran with the men, protecting them all the while. The planetlife sensed that he was holding it off and targeted its attacks on him.

We can assure you this is purely instinctive behavior, the planetmind said. This is our immune system. This is not a conscious decision on our behalf. We are sorry.

Chani talked to Adira, talked and talked. Recounted her life story, offered divrei Torah, ranted about the unfairness of life. She wanted to rail against Hashem, but she needed to focus on Adira. She went on, her throat sore, her eyes dry from the tears.

The men made it back to the settlement.

Shai did not.

He was lying on the ground, the settlement limits just a stone’s throw away. He was coughing up blood. He waited for the angel of death.

Shema… Yisrael,” he said with his last effort, not covering his eyes.

We can attempt to incorporate you, the planetmind said. We are sorry for the damage caused. We would prefer to incorporate you.

Shai stopped saying the ages-old prayer. He closed his eyes and was completely still. He felt at peace.

You have already turned us down once before. Please do not turn us down again.

Chani had no idea what the planetmind was talking about, but she supposed this was between the two of them.

“Take me,” Shai said with his last breath.

Adira, Shai and Chani sat on the steps in the synagogue courtyard, enjoying the late afternoon sun and a bit of Shabbat rest.

“At least this Shabbat is less hectic than the previous one,” Chani said.

Shai laughed, the sound like pearls falling from the sky. Then he rubbed his nose and looked up at the clouds. “Are you coming to the Gemara shiur? It should start soon, at Dovber’s place.” That’s a long walk.

“I thought the Gemara shiur was for men only,” Chani said.

“No, anyone can come,” Adira said. “Tzvi specifically told me, a few weeks ago.”

Chani blinked. “Then why didn’t you attend? Before, I mean.”

I was not sure I was welcome anywhere. Adira sighed.

“There’s only going to be more of us,” Shai said. “People would better get used to it. The Rebbe himself said so, he’d expected something like this.” He coughed nervously. “He wanted it to happen… if not with me, then with someone else. He wanted to force the issue.” That’s why Adira didn’t have backup.

Well, that solves the marriage problem, Chani thought.

“I’d elbow you hard, but I’m still not sure I’m allowed to touch you,” Adira said, grinning.

“You’re not allowed to hurt her, either way,” Shai pointed out.

“True enough!” Chani got up, brushing the dust off her skirt. “Let’s go, we’ll be late if we don’t get going…”

She still could not look Shai in the eye.

_____
Copyright 2014 Bogi Takács

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author, a psycholinguist and a popular–science journalist. E writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and eir works have been published or are forthcoming in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Apex and Jabberwocky, among others.

by Patricia Russo

We fucked up. We all know it, despite the fact that the others don’t want to admit it. The whole night was a series of fuck-ups, starting with Kerby and his stupid bottle of Latvian tequila – it didn’t occur to him to wonder why the stuff was in the discount bin, did it? (Dumber than a sack of hammers, as grandpa used to say.) And then we had Demetria and her chemistry experiments, and the rest of us fool enough to swallow whatever she handed us. (Demetria always acted like she was smarter than everybody else, which was annoying enough, but the kick of it was, with this bunch, she was probably right.) Plus there was that kid in the ratty jacket, Zack or Zacky or something, who’d started hanging around with us for no reason I could figure, who hardly said anything, and always looked like he either wanted to cry or fall asleep. He didn’t touch Kerby’s counterfeit tequila, or any of Demetria’s assortment of shit, but he was fucked up plenty without outside help. Something about his eyes. He looked at things too closely. Idiotic things, like an ashtray or a tube of lip balm. Like he expected them to do something, change colors, sprout fangs and leap at his throat. (Clearly a mental case.) Then Hannah showed up, pissed off at her brother, and after that there was nothing between us and total upfuckery except our own good sense, and we didn’t have any.

Except maybe that Zacky kid, when we found the old man. But that was later. He went along with the rest of it the same as all of us, even after the cats showed up.

“The cats were real,” he said to me the next time I saw him, a week, maybe ten days after that night. “If nothing else, the cats were real.” He didn’t ask me what happened once he’d left. I didn’t tell him. I’ve seen him on the street since, in passing, but I only talked to him that once.

I’m not excusing myself from any of it. I was the one who said to Hannah, about her brother, “You ought to do something to get him back,” and I didn’t raise any objections when she got all quiet for a minute, and then all excited, and then started jabbering in her mile-a-minute manner: Yeah, yeah, yeah, she knew exactly what she was going to do, listen, guys, listen, this is great, we’re going to go to his place, listen to this, it’s perfect, you guys gotta come with me, we’re going to get him good.

I can’t even remember for sure exactly why she was pissed off at her brother that time. Hannah was always getting into it with him, screaming at him on the phone, complaining to us about shit he’d done, or she thought he’d done. Once we were in the park and her brother came walking up on the bike path and Hannah picked up a rock and chucked it at him. Missed. Which I guess was a good thing. He just laughed at her and kept walking. Her brother was pretty much a douche bag as far as I could tell, but it wasn’t like Hannah was getting any prizes for interpersonal communication. That night, I think it was something about a box of their mother’s stuff that he was supposed to give her, but which wound up with their cousin or some shit, because the cousin had a house and could store it, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Anyway, it was the same flavor of crap he always pulled on her, promising this or that and then denying he’d ever said any such thing, breaking commitments, brushing her off.

“Okay, okay,” Kerby said. He was sprawled out on the sofa, taking up the whole damn thing, like he usually did, so that Demetria and I got the crappy chairs. The kid with the ratty jacket was sitting on the floor, in the corner, arms around his knees, as still as a gargoyle. (This wasn’t unusual for him.) “Your brother’s a dick.”

“You want anything?” Demetria asked. She was laughing at Hannah without letting it show big, just quirking her lip a bit. Demetria did that a lot. Used to do that a lot. To all of us.

“Listen!” Hannah’s eyes blazed. She was pacing, and had her hands up like she was about to catch a basketball. “We’re going to go to his place, right?”

“I’m not beating him up for you,” Kerby said.

“Like you could take him,” I said.

“Nobody’s beating up anybody,” Demetria said. “Come on, we’re not in fucking high school.”

“Listen!”

“We’re listening,” I said, because Hannah was starting to get pissed at us, now. “You want to go to his place.”

“Yeah. I know how to get in.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I got that part. Trust me. He’s not going to be home, anyway. It’s Saturday night.”

It was. It was, indeed. I’d only had a little of Demetria’s new stuff, but my head was buzzing, and even before Hannah showed up, I was telling myself that I was going to be sorry tomorrow. And that was a factor in what happened. We all knew we were going to be sorry tomorrow anyway, and being sorry for two things didn’t seem that much heavier than being sorry for one. Real smart thinking, that. “So this is breaking and entering?” I asked. Not protesting, merely wanting to be clear on the particulars.

“No breaking,” Hannah said. She grinned. “Just taking. We’re going to take his shoes.”

Kerby laughed.

“Not all of them. This is the best part, listen. We’re going to take all his left shoes.”

I looked at Demetria. She quirked her lip again and said, “I guess I was wrong.”

That zoomed right past Hannah, who had gone straight on to picturing the scene when her brother returned and discovered this. “He’ll freak. He’ll absolutely freak. He won’t know what the fuck happened. He’ll be running around going, ‘What the fuck? What the fuck?’ He’ll be looking for his left shoes everywhere. Nobody’s touching anything else, okay? We’re going to leave the place exactly the way it is. He’ll go mental.”

“Hah,” Kerby said. He was grinning. Hannah was grinning. Demetria rolled her eyes a little, but she nodded and showed her teeth, too. I thought, why not, it’ll be a funny story to tell someday. The kid in the corner didn’t smile, but then I don’t think I ever saw him smile once the whole time he was hanging out with us.

“And even if he figures out it was me,” Hannah rattled on, “what’s he going to do? Call the cops, say all his left shoes got stolen? They’ll think he’s a nutjob. It’s perfect. And if he doesn’t figure out it was me, I’m going to fucking tell him. Right to his face. Like, ‘Yeah, how do you feel now? How do you like getting fucked over, you fuck?’ Right?”

“Calm down,” Demetria said.

“You guys are going to come with me, right? You’re going to help me out, right? Come on, come on you guys, you’re going to do this with me, right?”

“Yeah, okay,” Kerby said. He tried to sit up, and had a bit of difficulty until he remembered that it would be easier if he got his feet off the armrest of the sofa and on the floor first. “Man. Right, Hannah, right. It’ll be great. We’re with you.”

Demetria said, “Sure,” and so did I.

And the kid in the corner nodded.

That’s when we fucked up the first time.

And this is just how fucked up we were when we fucked up the first time, when we all agreed that Hannah’s junior high school, forget high school, junior high school prank was, okay, not a swell idea, maybe, but something the rest of us could get behind, without voicing a single doubt, without investing even thirty seconds into talking her out of it – nobody thought to bring a bag. Any kind of bag. Not even the one from the liquor store, with the big yellow smiley face on it, that was lying there on the floor in plain sight. We were going to go steal a bunch of shoes. We didn’t think about where we were going to put them, how we were going to carry them. We all just got to our feet, more or less – Kerby had the most trouble – and followed Hannah out the door, and down the stairs, and out of the building.

The darkness surprised Demetria, who shook her head, then got her phone out to check the time. She muttered something I didn’t catch. The kid with the ratty jacket said, “Time’s funny, sometimes,” and she gave him this narrow-eyed look, like she thought he was making fun of her. He didn’t say anything else.

“I’ll drive,” Hannah said, and Kerby had his head straight enough to not even try to argue; he just handed her the keys. Five people in his little shitbox was a squeeze, but we were only going about a mile. I was in the middle of the back seat, and Demetria managed to stick her elbow in my ribs, but the Zack kid got the worst of it, just about flattened against the left-side door. In the front, Hannah kept burbling, and she ran a couple of stop signs, but no red lights, thank fuck. Kerby just laughed.

Hannah’s brother lived in one of two identical buildings, the sort of old heaps you didn’t see a lot of any more, six-floor walkups, eight apartments on each floor. The two buildings were separated by a narrow courtyard, where the super kept the garbage and recycling bins, and in which the smaller kids whose parents had washed up in one or the other crumbing structure rode tricycles or kicked a ball around. Hannah parked two blocks away. I’d forgotten until we got to Consolation Boulevard that her brother’s building was across the street from the police station.

“There’s never any parking by his building,” Hannah said. “We’re walking, okay?”

“Which one’s his? 2221 or 2223?” I asked.

“2221.”

Demetria poked me. “You’ve been here before?”

“Once.”

The kid in the ratty jacket glanced up and down the street. Saturday night, there were only a couple of cop cars parked outside the shop, the rest of them being on patrol, or down by the river where the condos and the taxpayers lived. But this street was quiet. There were a lot of older folks, if I remembered right from the previous occasion Hannah had dragged me there. Something to do with her brother, naturally. She wanted to give him something, that time. I had no idea why, or what, even. She was clutching this manila envelope with a lump in it, and all she would say was, “It’s his, so he should have it. It’s only fair.” We rang the bell, and rang the bell, and then we waited on the steps outside for over an hour, until I got fed up and said I had other things to do, and left her there. A couple of old people went in or came out of the building while we were waiting, and they smiled and nodded at us, real pleasant and friendly. In front of the twin building a few steps down, a mother with three kids, one of them in a stroller, chatted to a friend of hers, something about their trabajo.

You know. The sort of people who didn’t mind living across the street from a police station. Who didn’t mind the occasional siren, or the cop cars sometimes parking on the sidewalk, because they figured if any street in town would be avoided by burglars and old-lady-bashers and kiddie-snatchers, it had to be that one. I wondered how Hannah’s shithead brother had fiddled his way into the building in the first place.

The kid Zack kept looking around. Demetria must have thought that he was nervous about the cop shop, because she gave him a shove and said, “Be cool.” But he hadn’t been staring across the street. He’d been looking up and down this one.

“You said you knew a way to get in,” I reminded Hannah.

“Yeah.” She was buzzing, almost vibrating. She started to giggle. “Numbnuts hides his keys behind the library when he goes out drinking. I saw him.”

“The library?”

“Up the street.”

It was news to all of us that there was a library up the street, but we trailed along after her, and sure enough, there was the public library, and a pretty damn massive one, too, built in the old show-off style, with brass do-dads and do-dahs on the doors and stairs going up forever, and plaques all over the façade to immortalize the names of the politicians in office when the freaking thing was built, and dedicated, and rededicated, and all that crap.

Hannah disappeared into an unlit space between the library and the next building. Not an alley, exactly. More of a gap sort of thing. The rest of us looked at each other and stayed put, though that Zacky kid frowned. We heard her rooting around behind a big metal container that it took me a moment to figure out was the box you were supposed to put books in when you wanted to return them and the library was closed.

“You know,” Demetria said, quietly, “it’d be better for her if she could just let it go. Walk away. Forget about her brother, forget she even has a brother. Decide he doesn’t exist, and just get on with her life.”

“People can’t do that,” Kerby said.

“I did.”

I remember that she said that. It stuck with me, because Demetria never talked about her family. If somebody, I mean someone who didn’t know her very well, tried to push her on the subject, she’d go all stony. The rest of us had learned a long time ago not to go near the topic.

Forget them. Walk away.

“Ha!” Hannah shouted, from behind the book return box. “Got them!” She ran out, jingling the keys over her head, and grinning all over her face.

“It might be a good idea not to draw attention to ourselves,” Demetria muttered.

It was too late for that, though we didn’t know it yet.

“Right,” Hannah said. “Okay, you guys, just follow me.”

“We’re going to make this quick, yeah?” I said.

“In and out,” Kerby said.

“Hannah?” I prodded. She was grinning too much.

“Right, right. In and out. Quick.”

The kid didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, we were all walking back toward 2221. I was already thinking that when we were done with this little caper, Hannah was going to talk our ears off for hours, rehashing every single second a thousand times. Hours? This was going to become one of her favorite stories. She was going to be bringing it up every time we got together. But you had to put up with crap like that from your friends, even if it made you crazy sometimes. Why the hell else were we all there with her in the first place, doing this dumbass thing? Because we were her friends.

The cats were already pacing us. I didn’t notice the first one. Or the second one. Who pays attention to a couple of stray cats? The kid in the ratty jacket, though, he saw them.

We were between the buildings, between 2223 and 2221, just about where the street entrance to the courtyard was, when Zack stopped. Of course we didn’t pay attention to him, either. He was just this strange kid who always wore the same clothes and stared at commonplace things with a lunatic intensity. When he wasn’t giving the impression of either being just about to fall asleep, or burst into tears, that is. I never did figure him out. Once, I asked Kerby how come that kid had started hanging around us, anyway, and he said he’d tagged along after Demetria one day, but Demetria said it was Kerby who met him first, in Adams Park.

“Wait,” Zack said. “Wait.” And he said it louder than any of us had ever heard him speak before, and so we did stop, and swiveled our heads to glare at him, because who the fuck was he to tell us to wait?

And then we saw the cats. Dozens of them. Behind us, in front of us, on all side of us. And above us as well, on ledges, on fire escapes. And they were all eyeballing us, every single one of them.

“What the fuck,” Demetria said, softly.

One cat slinked forward, into the little pool of grainy light from the street lamp a couple of yards away. The kid eased forward, too, sliding between Hannah and Demetria, so that he and the cat were facing each other, so to speak. The cat didn’t look at all special. Black and white, skinny, a bit on the small side. Hannah made to move on, to the steps leading up to the front door of 2221, but I put a hand on her arm.

“Take care,” the cat said.

Swear to crap.

The kid said, “Should we leave?”

The cat blinked, and repeated, “Take care.”

And then in an instant all the cats were gone, vanished, into the shadows, under cars, into alleys, who knows where. They moved so fast all I caught was a couple of blurs.

“What the fuck was that?” Kerby yelped.

“Come on,” Hannah said. “Come on, you guys, let’s do this.”

And that was the second time we fucked up. Talking cats? Anyone with sense would have run like hell to the car, gone back to Kerby’s place, and finished off his crap tequila. Plus everything else Demetria still had on her. But sense was something none of us possessed that night. Zack said, “That wasn’t about Hannah’s brother. That was about something else,” so clearly he had some kind of a clue, but he came with us up the steps, and waited silently while Hannah worked out which key unlocked the front door, and the which key fit the inner door, while Kerby and Demetria kept cursing under their breaths and telling her to get a move on.

Once we were inside, Hannah put her finger to her lips. The stairs were at the far end of the corridor. “Fifth floor,” she whispered. Kerby groaned. Demetria pinched him, which only made him go, “Ow!” loudly.

Of course it was a walkup building. All those old piles of shit were. And of course we stumbled and swore and bumped into each other, and all of us except the damn kid were out of breath by the third floor, and once Hannah dropped the keys. They clattered down almost an entire flight before Zack, who was bringing up the rear, caught up with them.

I was surprised nobody poked their head out of any of the apartments to ask what the blazes was going on, or even yelled out from behind a closed (and barred, and deadbolted, I bet) door to keep it down. Maybe they were all quietly speed-dialing the nice cops across the street. Or maybe they just figured we were Hannah’s dickhead brother and some of his friends, staggering home somewhat earlier than usual for a Saturday night.

We made it to the fifth floor without Kerby having a heart attack, or me passing out, or the neighborhood watch (probably two old ladies and a guy with a cane and a yappy dog) swarming us. Hannah was panting, but still grinning. She waved us on. “This is it, this is the one.” The doors on this floor were all painted an ugly shade of green that reminded me of the color of plastic limes. They all looked the same, except for the numbers. No decorations, nothing personal on any of them. We had a couple of moments when we thought Hannah had mixed up the apartments, because the first key she tried didn’t work, and the second one didn’t, either. But then she got the bottom lock to turn, and eventually, by an extensive process of elimination (trying every damn key on the ring, including the ones for the outside doors, including ones she’d already tried three or four times) that made Demetria not only roll her eyes again, but start tapping her foot, Hannah hit on the key that opened the top lock.

And we were in. Mission accomplished, or almost. One thing left to do – grab the shoes and get out of there.

Hannah switched on the lights, and we all hustled inside. Zack shut the door quietly behind us.

Her brother’s place was a lot nicer than Kerby’s. Bigger, art on the wall, an entertainment center, furniture that hadn’t been salvaged from curbsides. He wasn’t the neatest guy in the world, though. Dirty plates on the table, mail tossed on the floor, stains on the walls and dust in the corners. Filthy windows. I went over to look out. Since the lights were on in the room, I had to put my nose against the glass and shade my eyes in order to see anything. His windows faced the courtyard. The first time I looked out, I didn’t see anything but garbage cans and shadows.

“So, the shoes,” Demetria said. All business. All, let’s get this over with.

“Don’t touch anything,” Hannah said. “Right? Don’t mess any of this shit up. We got to make it look like nobody’s been here. He’s going to go nuts trying to find the shoes. He’s going to be thinking it’s impossible anybody took them, right, when the place is just like he left it. It’ll be like a mystery.”

“I thought you were going to tell him to his face it was you,” I said.

“Right, yeah. Later.”

“The shoes,” Demetria repeated. “Where does he keep them? Closet? Under the bed? Shoe rack? What?”

“And how many pairs does he have, anyway?” I asked.

“I don’t know how many pairs he has. Lots, okay? He likes shoes. He’s got tons. Every time I see the fucker, he’s wearing a new pair.”

Just about that time, it finally occurred to me that we hadn’t brought anything along to haul the shoes away in. “We’re going to need a bag,” I said. “I’ll check the kitchen.”

“Don’t touch anything!” Hannah insisted. “None of you, okay? Just stay where you are.”

Kerby said, “Why did you want us to come along, if you’re not going to let us help?”

“You’re the only one with a car,” Demetria muttered.

“You’re going to help. You’re going to help, okay? Just let me think a minute.”

“You ever been inside your brother’s place before?” Demetria asked.

“Sure I have. Plenty of times.”

Which probably meant once. Twice, tops. When we entered, we’d stepped directly into the living room. From where I was standing by the windows, I could see the kitchen, which was separated from the room with the couch and the flatscreen and the natural-wood table and the matching straight-backed chairs with matching blue cushions on them by a counter that ran three-quarters of the length of the room, topped with tile that was meant to look like marble. I couldn’t see any doors, but there had to be at least two – the bathroom and the bedroom. “Okay, Hannah,” I said. “Why don’t you check the bedroom. I’ll just go over there to the kitchen area, and look for a bag. He’s got to have some. I won’t disturb anything, I promise.”

“The bedroom,” Hannah mumbled. “Right. The bedroom.” She wasn’t grinning anymore. She wasn’t pacing around, acting out basketball moves. She gazed at the entertainment center, with its stereo and iPod cradle and TV and X-box and stacks of DVDs and games and even CDs, all jumbled up together, and an expression came over her face, very much like the one dogs get the second before they spring at you. “I bet he loves this stuff more than he loves his shoes.”

“You’re the one who said no smashing,” Demetria said. “You wanted to make a mystery, not a mess, remember?”

“Right,” Hannah said, barely above a whisper. She was still staring at the entertainment center.

“Do you know where the bedroom is?” I asked.

“The bedroom. Right. The bedroom. Sure, of course I know where it is.”

“All right, then,” Kerby said. “Let’s get moving. I’ll help.”

“You stay here,” Hannah said. Louder. Almost in her normal voice. “I got this.” She turned away from the entertainment center, glanced at the kitchen, then moved left, around the counter. Past the cabinets, there was a narrow hallway I hadn’t noticed. No, I’d noticed it, but I’d thought it was an alcove, a breakfast nook type of thing. Hannah disappeared down the hall, and after a moment another light came on.

“It wasn’t the car,” the kid said.

“What?” Kerby said. Demetria pretended Zack hadn’t spoken.

“It was the dark.”

“What?”

“We all want companionship in the dark.” He stared at a spot on the floor. Looked like a cigarette burn to me. “Mostly.” He kept guard on the cigarette burn while we listened to Hannah thump around in what I hoped was the bedroom. I hoped Hannah hadn’t gotten detoured and decided to dump out all her brother’s shampoo and aftershave and whatnot into the bathroom sink.

“A garbage bag or something would be a good idea,” Demetria said. She glanced at the kitchen area, but didn’t move toward it.

“Hannah’s getting a little over-agitated. Even for her. Once she gets the shoes, we’re hauling ass out of here,” I said. “Everybody agree?”

Nods all around. Kerby had his grin back on his face. Demetria looked bored, but then Demetria enjoyed looking bored. Used to enjoy looking bored. Even the kid bobbed his head. For a minute there, I thought everything was going to work out, we were going to get the shoes and boogie, and Hannah was going to call her brother and laugh at him (probably before he even got home; she had the patience of a grasshopper on meth), and that would be that.

Then Hannah came stomping out from the back, with three shoes under one arm and two under the other. She marched straight up to me and said, “Open the window.”

“What?”

“Open the goddamn window!”

Kerby said, “Come on, Hannah, that wasn’t what –”

She slammed her forehead against the glass. Really hard. I jumped. I think we all jumped. “Shit, Hannah!”

“Open it up!”

“All right, take it easy!” She had the same look in her eye she had the time this perv in a car, a station wagon, really, waved her over, acting like he needed directions, and then asked her if she’d like to come over to his place to make a video. Hannah punched the guy’s windshield, then reached in through the driver’s side window to try to grab him by the throat. The perv tore out of there like there was an army of zombies after him, and Demetria and me had to take Hannah to the ER to get her hand X-rayed. Kerby missed that little bit of drama. When we told him about it later, Hannah with her hand wrapped up in an ace bandage and shit, me and Demetria still shaking slightly from the adrenaline OD, he laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d heard in his life, little Hannah hulking out on some asshole in a station wagon.

“Hannah,” Demetria said. She was trying to keep her cool, at least. And at least act like some serious shit was going down. “Let’s just stick to the plan, okay?”

“Open. The. Window.”

I opened the window. Twisted the latches, shoved the window up. I knew if I didn’t, Hannah would hurl herself against the glass again. And again. Until she broke it. Saturday night in the ER, I was thinking. Not the most appealing place to wind up. So yeah, I was thinking more about me then, not her, not her brother, not the stupid shoes. I wanted another hit of Demetria’s new recipe. I wanted to be home in bed. I wanted to zip back in time and take back what I’d said to Hannah about getting even with her brother. The only one of those things I had any chance of getting was more of Demetria’s stuff, but that was going to have to wait.

Hannah threw the shoes out the window. Even from the fifth floor, I could hear them thud and thunk as they hit the concrete of the courtyard below. Then she strode back through the kitchen and into the narrow hall.

“Somebody’s going to call the cops,” Demetria said.

Hannah came back with another armload of shoes. I couldn’t tell if they were all left ones. She dumped them out the window, too.

“Are you done?” I asked.

“No.”

Off she marched again, through the kitchen and into the hallway.

“How many shoes does this shithead have, anyway?” Demetria said.

“Take care,” the kid whispered. Kerby and Demetria ignored him.

“What?” I looked at him. “I thought you said that wasn’t about us.”

“I said it wasn’t about Hannah’s brother.”

“Then what is it about? Come on, man, it’s not every day a cat tells you to be careful.”

“No,” he whispered. “It isn’t.”

Demetria and Kerby seemed determined to pretend that the encounter with the cats hadn’t happened. Later, Kerby claimed that he didn’t remember anything after we all got into his car. That might even have been true, since when we got back to his place, he immediately killed the rest of the bottle of knockoff tequila in three long gulps.
He and Demetria both stared at a picture on the wall, some swirly-doodle thing that looked more and more like dancing penises the longer you gazed at it, and said nothing.

Hannah came back with more shoes, and hurled them out.

“Are you done now?” I asked.

“I’m going to throw his underwear out, too.”

“No,” I said. “No, you’re not. That’s it. Fun’s over. Come on, you guys. Let’s go.”

Me, the voice of reason. It wasn’t exactly a first, but it was rare enough. The kid nodded, and Demetria stepped toward her, lifting her hand, like she was going to try to take Hannah by the arm.

That was when the cry came from the courtyard.

It was human. I never had any doubt about that. It was a human voice, a man’s voice, high and wobbly. It wasn’t a cry of pain. Not physical pain. It was a cry of despair. It went on for a full minute, or at least it felt like it did.

The kid got to the window before me, then backed away fast. “We’ve got to go now,” he said.

“What’s down there?” Demetria asked.

Zack shook his head, and kept backing away. Hannah pushed past him, grabbed the window sill, and leaned out. “Hey,” she shouted. “What’s your problem?”

“Don’t,” I said. I don’t know why. Maybe the look on the kid’s face.

“Fucker!” Hannah yelled. “You better not touch anything!” Then she pulled her head back in, and ran toward the door.

“Shit,” Demetria said.

We followed her. We had to. She had the damn car keys.

Hannah had a good lead on us, though, and what with Kerby more than a little wobbly and Demetria and me not tremendously eager for a confrontation with some tenant who was probably going to call the law down on us, we didn’t exactly hurry. The kid came with us, bringing up the rear. I turned to look at him once. Even when we were all hanging out, just fucking around and bullshitting, half the time he looked like he was on the verge of crying. When he didn’t look like he was about to fall asleep. But that time on the stairs, he had for-real tears in his eyes.

We knew Hannah was heading for the courtyard. Where else was she going to go? And it didn’t really matter that she got so far in front of us that we lost sight of her; we could hear her footsteps clattering on the steps as she ran down. The concept of stealth had taken a leave of absence from her brain. And still nobody cracked a door to see what the ruckus was about, and nobody, except for the man who’d cried out in the courtyard, seemed to care that a bunch of idiots were in the building at all. Even at the time, that struck me as strange. Hannah had made a hell of a lot of noise chucking those shoes, and she was making even more noise now on the stairs. Where were the insomniac old ladies, where were the busybodies with the yappy little dogs?

Kerby paused on the second floor landing to catch his breath. Or to stop his head from spinning. Or both. “Don’t you dare puke,” I said.

“I’m not gonna puke.”

He didn’t sound all that convinced. Or convincing.

“I’ll tell you what you are going to do,” Demetria said. And she sounded real sure. In charge. The way she liked to act. The way she used to like to act. “You’re going to get hold of Hannah, and we’re going to get the keys. Your car keys, and her fuckhead brother’s keys. And you’ll carry her to the car if you have to. And if she kicks and screams, you’re just going to take it, got that?” She glanced at me. “You okay to drive?”

“Yeah.” I probably wasn’t, but we sure as hell weren’t going to let Hannah get behind the wheel.

“Why me?” Kerby whined.

“Because you’re the biggest.” Demetria’s tone could have sliced glass.

So that was the plan, and it wasn’t a bad plan. It was a pretty good plan, really, for a bunch of fuckups who hadn’t any real clue how to live like grownups to come up with while trying not to trip over their own feet, or vomit, or pass out from hyperventilating. That last one would be me. We were all in such crappy shape it wasn’t funny. I didn’t look at the kid again, but I knew he was behind us. Didn’t hear him panting. Didn’t hear him crying, either. I figured that when we got to the courtyard, it was going to be him, not Kerby, who would actually be able to grab hold of Hannah and keep her pinned long enough for us to get the keys.

Didn’t work out that way.

We made it out of the building, and we got to the narrow entryway to the courtyard, with the stupid little arch over it. We couldn’t hear Hannah anymore. Or anything else. Nobody yelling. No cats yowling. Or giving advice. Not even the wind. It was like the world had stopped.

Demetria went in first, like the leader she thought she was, then me and Kerby. Zack was behind us. He was with us up until we spotted the old man.

It was hard to see anything at first. There were no lights in the courtyard, and all the windows that faced out on it were dark. Except for the windows of Hannah’s brother’s place. Nobody had remembered to turn the lights off when we went after her. But a couple of illuminated windows up on the fifth floor didn’t help for shit.

We saw Hannah at last, because she moved. Jumped, really. Backwards, a good eight inches at least. The way you spring back when you realize you’re about to stick your foot into something with teeth. Kerby giggled.

I didn’t see what she’d leaped away from. Couldn’t see any of the shoes she’d thrown out the window, either, though she must have chucked more than a dozen. The light was really bad. Worse than it should have been. The two buildings blocked the street lights, but there should have been some light coming in from above. Lights from taller buildings. Or even some fucking starlight.

“Hannah,” Demetria called. Not loudly, but loud enough that Hannah had to have heard her. “You okay?” Hannah didn’t answer. She had her back to us. She was shaking her head. Naturally we assumed she was shaking her head at us.

Demetria tapped Kerby on the elbow. “Okay, we’re going to do this now.” She gave him a shove to get him moving, and we all advanced into the courtyard.

Kerby wasn’t super-enthusiastic about the role assigned to him. He kept trying to hang back, and Demetria kept pushing him forward. Again, I figured we were going to need the kid to step up when Kerby flubbed it, so I jerked my head around to check his position.

He’d stopped walking.

“Hey,” I said. “Come on. Help us out here.”

“I can’t help him.”

I thought he meant Kerby. Who else? But Zacky had seen the old man. Thinking back, it’s possible he might have seen him from the window of Hannah’s brother’s apartment. That kid had weird eyes. And weirder shit going on behind those eyes. From five floors up, had he really seen the old man crouching on what was not concrete anymore, but dirt? It took me a damn long time to realize the courtyard had changed. I don’t think Kerby and Hannah ever did notice. Had he seen that the old guy was holding something in his hands, hunched over it like a little kid trying to protect his most favoritest toy from being snatched away?

Maybe he had.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Kid,” I said. “Zack, Zacky, whatever your name is, get your ass over here.”

Hannah was sort of jumping up and down, like she was trying to shake ants off her legs. Demetria shoved Kerby again, and he took a step, but then stopped. Demetria stopped, too. They’d caught sight of the old man. I hadn’t, yet. I was too busy being pissed off at the kid.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. He sounded utterly miserable. Not that I gave a shit at that point. I just wanted to grab Hannah and the car keys and get the hell out of there. “I can’t…I can’t do it. It hurts too much.”

And then he was gone, out of the courtyard and away, and I only ever spoke to him one time after that, when he said that the cats had been real. By then, I didn’t blame him for running.

But I think, now, it was all real. Maybe not all of it was real in the same way, but it was all real in some way. That’s how I manage to get my head around it, to deal with what happened. Kerby says he doesn’t remember anything, and Hannah just goes evasive if I bring up the subject.

“Shit,” I said, when the kid ran off.

“Who are you?” Demetria said, and of course I didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about. When I turned back to them, she’d moved a few steps in front of Kerby. Hannah was still doing her twitchy dance. Kerby was just standing there like a lump.

“Hannah,” I said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Kerby, she’s got the keys, remember?”

Neither one reacted to me. They were looking at what Demetria was looking at, what she was moving toward.

“What are you doing?” Demetria said, softly.

I heard the old man before I saw him. Later, naturally, I realized it must have been him who’d let out that long shaky cry that we’d heard on the fifth floor. But the first words I heard him speak were, “Can you forgive me?”

I moved closer, circling around the others. For some reason, I didn’t want to get too near any of them. I think it was then that I noticed the dirt. I knew the floor of the courtyard hadn’t been dirt before. The first time I’d come along with Hannah, a little kid had been riding his tricycle in there, on concrete. Tonight, when I’d glanced in through the entryway, before we’d even trailed Hannah up the block to the library, I’d seen the garbage and recycling bins lined up against the interior wall. I didn’t see them now. I didn’t see any of the shoes Hannah had thrown, either. This was something different than it just being dark in the courtyard. Something had changed, or something had…stopped hiding. Stopped concealing itself.

Of course we were all fucked up, still fucked up. You couldn’t have trusted any of us to operate heavy machinery, or add up a column of numbers with a piece of paper and a pencil. Hannah was blind with rage, and the rest of us were just blind stupid. Except the kid, and he was gone.

And except, maybe, Demetria.

“What have you done?” she asked, quietly. Gently, almost. Which was not her usual mode at all. “Why do you need forgiveness?”

I could see who she was talking to now. The old man, kneeling on the dirt, holding something in his hands, hunched over it protectively. It was so dark in the courtyard I could barely make out Demetria’s face, but I saw him clearly. White hair, white hands, shabby brown clothes. I shouldn’t have been able to see brown. I shouldn’t have been able to see the cracks in the leather of his boots, or the creases like old scars on his skin. But I did.

“I wasted my life,” the old man said.

And if it had been me talking to him and not Demetria, I probably would have said something empty and meaningless, like, I’m sure you haven’t. Because that’s what you do, right? People tell you some desperately awful thing, and you go, There, there, it’s not that bad, you’re making too much of it, it’s probably nothing. Even when, like with that old guy, it was most definitely something. I wished I couldn’t see him so clearly. Naked despair makes you want to turn away. Makes you want to close your eyes. Or say something stupid to pretend it isn’t there.

Demetria said, “A lot of people could say the same thing.” She wasn’t being sarcastic, or flip, or superior. She spoke to him gently. Compassionately. And Demetria never did that.

“I used to have a friend,” the old man said. “She would come to visit me from time to time, to make sure I was all right. Sometimes she brought me food. Little cakes from that bakery on Hinson Street. I liked those cakes. She doesn’t come anymore.”

Hannah had quit hopping about so much, but she was still wired. Confusion just generated more fury in her. “You weren’t here before. What are you doing here? Where are the shoes?”

“I’m always here.” The old guy looked down at whatever the hell it was he was holding in his hands. I could see him, I could see every wrinkle in his skin and every stain on his tattered brown clothes, but I couldn’t see what he held. “I’ve been here since I was young. I used to have a friend.”

Hannah made a lunge toward him, and finally Kerby remembered what he was supposed to do, and grabbed her. She flailed, and kicked him, but he got his arms around her and squeezed her tight enough that she stopped struggling.

Which was when we all should have gotten the fuck out of that courtyard, and found the car, and just fucking left.

Take care, the cat had said.

Take care means be careful. Take care also means look after. Tend. Nurture. Or it could. But that was take care of, though, wasn’t it? The cat had said Take care. As in watch out.

Watch out for the old man. Be careful, tonight is a night when he can be seen.

Did the cat mean, Don’t bother him? Stay clear?

I think so. Or else, Be careful if you see him. Don’t get too close.

Would the cats have stalked us, stopped us, talked to us, if Demetria had not been in our group? We all saw the old man, but Demetria saw something more. I wish that kid Zack would quit avoiding me. He might not have all the answers, but I figure he’s got some of them. The way he kept staring at things, like he expected them to change. And he said the cats were real. I want to ask him why the cats gave a crap. I want to ask him if it was us who brought the old man and the dirt floor of the courtyard and the strange darkness into our reality that night by messing around with the stupid shoes, if the cats were warning us that our nonsense was going to have consequences. Or if they just knew that Demetria was vulnerable.

I keep thinking that the next time I see the kid, I’m going to follow him. See where he goes, see where he’s hanging out now. Make him talk to me.

That night, the third time we fucked up was when we didn’t leave as soon as Kerby had bear-hugged Hannah. He just stood there, holding her. I was just as bad. Just as stupid. I should have moved. Should have gone to Demetria, pulled her away. I didn’t. None of us moved, or did anything, or said anything.

Except Demetria.

“Your friend probably died,” she said. But not in a mean way, or a nasty way. Not the way she used to talk to us.

“I know.”

“Why do you stay here?”

“What else can I do?” The old man glanced down at his hands again. I never saw what he was holding, but I think Demetria did. “I promised. It’s all been a waste, but I promised.”

“And if you put that down and walk away, what’ll happen?”

“Probably nothing. My whole life, for nothing.”

“A lot of people can’t keep a promise for a day. Almost nobody can keep one for a lifetime.”

“I threw away my life. I’ve done nothing, nothing but this. And this is worthless.”

“Is it?”

“Probably.” The old man dipped his head. “Can you forgive me?”

“Why me?” Demetria asked, gently.

“Anybody. Anybody.” He jerked his head up then, and looked at each of us, and we said nothing. I took a step back. His head sank again. “I used to have a friend,” he mumbled.

“You have another one now,” Demetria said.

Why? What the fuck made her say that? What the fuck made her do what she did?

I don’t know. I’d met Demetria when we were both doing time at the community college, but I had no real idea of who she was, under the sarcasm and the attitude.

She moved forward.

Did we still have a chance, then? One second, one instant, when we could have grabbed her and hauled her out of the courtyard?

I think about that a lot. I think that it had been too late for a long, long time, but we still should have tried.

The old man shook his head slightly.

“What’s your name?” Demetria asked.

“Will you bring me cakes from the bakery on Hinson Street?”

She eased toward him, the way you might approach a scared child, though he wasn’t moving; he hadn’t moved once all the time we had been in the courtyard. Only his head, nothing else.

She knelt, facing him.

She put her hands around his hands. “There is no bakery on Hinson Street,” she said.

“There used to be.”

“I believe you.”

“Demetria,” I said. My voice sounded strange. The air smelled strange. I was still standing on dirt, but just to the right of me, the courtyard floor was turning back to concrete.

She didn’t look at us. She didn’t say goodbye. She and the old man went into the darkness together, and when the starlight returned, there were shoes scattered all over the courtyard, and garbage bins along one wall, and a cheap-jack soccer ball some kid must have left behind, and nothing else.

I’ve been back since. Hannah’s brother spotted me once, and started yelling about breaking into his place, but that was the only trouble I’ve had. The stray cats don’t give me a second glance. The courtyard is always an ordinary, narrow courtyard between two old buildings. Kids play in there.

There is no bakery on Hinson Street. There isn’t even a Hinson Street anymore; the city council changed the name years ago.

Nobody’s come to talk to any of us about Demetria. Not officially. Not cops. Not family. (That was no surprise.) Some folks, yeah, they ask, what happened to that chemist chick, she skip town or something? Kerby just says he doesn’t know, and Hannah goes, yeah, she moved, too bad, right? She used to cook up some amazing shit.

I can just about believe that Kerby really has no clear memories of that night. Hannah’s such a flake she’s convinced she put a good one over on her brother, and that’s the major thing she remembers. She got her brother good. It was a famous victory. Like that. If I try to get her to recall the cats, the old man, the fact that Demetria never left the courtyard, Hannah gets all vague. Yeah, there were cats, but so what? There are always cats. Old man? Yeah, there was an old guy that yelled at us for throwing the shoes out the window. Demetria? Yeah, she…she went somewhere. She didn’t come back with us. And that’s as far as Hannah will go. That Demetria went somewhere.

I go to the courtyard. In the daytime, I just glance in as I walk by. Or if there doesn’t seem to be anybody on the street, or looking out the windows, I step in quickly, but I don’t linger. Cop shop across the street, after all. Any tenant could call me in as a trespasser. It’s easier to sneak in at night. I pace the length and breadth of the area. I run my hands over the interior walls, over the littered concrete floor. Sometimes I call Demetria’s name.

We fucked up. We fucked up so many goddamn times. And each time led to the last time, when we left her there.

So the old man wasted his life holding something, protecting it. Something that he believed was probably pointless to safeguard, but he had promised to do it. What the thing is, who made him promise, why he said yes…I want to know this stuff. That Zacky kid might not be able to tell me, but I figure he can point me to someone who can.

Demetria never liked sweets. Cakes, cookies, not her sort of thing. Pretzels, nuts, that was the kind of shit she liked. Salty crap.

Forgive me, the old man had pleaded.

Demetria hadn’t.

She’d fucking joined him.

I wasted my life, the old man had said, and Demetria had answered, A lot of people could say the same thing.

Meaning us. Meaning her.

Can’t say she was wrong about that. About us.

She saw what the old man was holding. Did it matter? Did she think, right, sure, guarding this is not a waste of time, a waste of a life, or was it more: well, waste my life one way, waste my life another, what’s the difference? Did she flip a coin in her head?

I don’t forgive her.

She left us. Yeah, it was our fault, going there to do such a stupid thing in the first place, not listening to the cats, not getting the hell out when the kid bailed, not stopping her when she went to the old man. We left her there, but she left us first. For a stranger.

I used to have a friend, he had said.

We were Demetria’s friends. She was our friend.

I don’t forgive her, but I want to find her.

Waste your life one way…or waste your life another.

The old man isn’t going to last forever. Maybe Demetria didn’t think she needed a friend. Maybe she thought she’d be better off on her own, free of losers like us. I think she’s wrong. I think she’s going to want a friend soon, someone to visit her once in a while, to bring her pretzels and nuts, to have a bit of conversation with.

I’ve got them, in my bag. Pretzels. A can of mixed nuts. And cupcakes, for the old man. Though he probably won’t like them. Store bought garbage, just lumps of artificial flavors and preservatives. I carry them around with me anyway. So the old guy won’t feel left out, when I find them. Because it feels like shit, being left out.

I haven’t told Kerby and Hannah what I’m doing. They wouldn’t understand. Or they wouldn’t care. No, I’m wrong. And they wouldn’t care. I still hang out with them. We still waste our time getting fucked up and talking bullshit. Though Hannah says I’m quieter than I used to be. And that I sit and stare at nothing. She laughs at me sometimes, though she says no, it was only that she thought of something funny. Which could be true, but not all of the time.

Cats, the courtyard, and the kid.

I do my best to make eye contact with every cat, stray or otherwise, that I encounter. I visit the courtyard. I keep an eye out for Zack. The next time I see him, I will follow him and make him talk. One way or another, I am going to find Demetria again, and get her to understand that however much of a fuckup I may be, I am her friend. I don’t want her to be kneeling in that courtyard some day, all alone, not even muttering that she used to have a friend.

It’s as good a way to waste my life as any other. I can think of worse ways. I just have to look at Kerby and Hannah, and dozen or two other people I know, for examples.

Can’t help but wonder if the old man’s friend had the same thought.

“Hey. Hey. Did you hear what I said? Man, you’re always in dreamland these days.” Hannah’s playing solitaire on her phone. She’s so out of it she’s dropped the thing twice already. Kerby’s sprawled on the sofa, like always. I thought he’d been talking, not Hannah. Must’ve lost a minute or two. I look at her and shrug. I guess she’s bored with her game, because she shrugs back, exaggeratedly. Mimicking me. Mocking me.

“I was only thinking about something,” I said. I’m not going to get mad. There wouldn’t be any point.

“What?”

“Cats,” I say, and Hannah laughs.

_____
Copyright 2014 Patricia Russo

Patricia Russo’s first collection, Shiny Thing, is available from Papaveria Press.

by S. Hutson Blount

The priest finished his elegy with the usual pronouncements, then added a turn of phrase Elo hadn’t ever heard a priest use.

“Gods and the Destroyer be merciful,” the old man had said. Just like any man of the troop might have, with Destroyer and Gods in the same sentence.

Elo looked around the bowed heads. No one else seemed to have noticed. Maybe the priest was an ex-soldier; maybe he’d just been among the profane company of soldiers long enough for their habits to have rubbed off on him.

“First Troop!” barked the lieutenant. The troopers came to attention. Elo’s indiscipline in ranks at a funeral seemed to have gone unnoticed as he snapped to with everyone else. “Now muster our honored dead.”

That was flag sergeant Elo’s job. Gods curse them both for idiots. “Trooper Frothdeg Miyo. Trooper Palam Beg. Fall in for final muster.” He kept the bitterness out of his voice, there being no point putting any more unpleasantness into this business.

The boys took both bodies, salted and swaddled up for travel, onto their shoulders and marched slowstep. Ordinarily, this would have been the part where they’d have been buried. But their family tombs were a long way down from here, and the nearest consecrated territory wasn’t much closer. The troop would stow the bodies until they reached their new destination.

“Mount! Up!” Sergeant Elo said in the command cadence long since become his natural dialect. There was a brief hesitation as the corpse-laden funeral detachment fought their automatic urge to obey the usual meaning of “mount up,” swarming up the leg spurs of a massive dust mite to reach the battlements built onto the insect’s carapace. Instead, they lifted their fallen comrades into slings, to be winched up and stowed with the rest of the troop’s baggage.

Elo had official reason to watch the sad bundles swaying up and out of sight, bumping a little as the line handlers raised them too quickly. Angry shouts from somewhere above the curve of Old Union’s back marked efforts to restore some funeral decorum. Elo noticed the priest watching too, a disapproving set to his expression. Maybe the old guy knew something about rigging, too. Elo felt a nagging lack of sadness. He should have felt sad, properly.

The lieutenant called Elo over. “Sergeant, it’s getting late in the day. We’re going to be losing light soon.” He gazed up at the formless sky. It showed no visible sign of dimming yet, but Elo didn’t doubt that it was probably drawing near the time that it would dim, leaving them to bumble around in only Roomlight if the angles were bad. “Get the troop mounted up as soon as possible. The Captain will be back shortly, and I’ve a feeling we’ll be diverted to an outpost to deliver those two for proper burial.”

“We’re leaving the caravan, sir?” asked Elo.

“Can’t be helped. Those nitwits got themselves killed too far out to be hauled all the way to the fort without rotting, and the Old Man doesn’t want to send us all the way back to Atlas Crossing. There’s an outpost towards the spine end of this Book, there should be some consecrated ground there. We’ll get orders to divert there, then put the spurs to Old Union and catch back up with the caravan.”

“That’s a lot of detail, sir, for someone who isn’t there overhearing the Old Man and the captain.”

“Bet me on it, sergeant?”

Elo adjusted his pickelhaub and scowled. The lieutenant had won some of Elo’s meager salary before. “Why don’t I just get everything stowed presently, sir?”

“Good man.” They exchanged abbreviated field salutes.

The lieutenant didn’t know as much as he thought he did, but Elo grudgingly admitted he was often right on target about what was going on in the minds of their betters. There was little else for Elo to do in the way of getting all the men and their gear back in their places on Old Union’s back. After the accident, no one was anxious to stay, even if it meant a detour further out to the sticks.

Elo knew it was unfair to pillory the dead in their absence, but he found he shared the lieutenant’s opinion of the two lost men. They’d deliberately stayed out during the giltfall, watching the huge shining gold fragment coming into view, confident it would pass them by. They’d gawked like simpletons, right up until the illusion of floating disappeared, and the awful speed it had was no longer cloaked by distance, and they were running and screaming, and then there was only the terrible noise of the impact. The vast bulk of it lay gleaming, utterly inert. The troop had emerged from their shelter beneath Old Union and pieced together what was left.

As a final insult from the Gods, no one else had been hurt; it hadn’t even been a disaster. Just two unlucky sods finding out how the old Books worked. In fact, some enterprising miners from down in the Reftlands would likely receive a claim to come and harvest the valuable gold and polymer. None of that was Elo’s affair. Not yet, anyway.

There was movement around the spiny trunk of Old Union’s leg. An oblong shape, about half as long as Elo was tall, was scooting around in blind circles. A wild bacillus, of the kind common enough near any caravan route, snuffled in search of mite droppings. Elo stilled his intense need to vent his frustrations of the day by kicking the scavenger away. It reminded him a bit of the pet he’d grown up with as a boy. He left the creature in peace and climbed up the rope ladder to his home away from home.

The little structures built onto Old Union’s vast domed back resembled little castles, yet their wickerwork walls were really more to keep out the elements than enemy fire. Four little towers provided fields of fire for the swivel guns, one housed the mite-mahout who goaded Old Union in the proper direction, and the largest, in the center, housed the troop and served as a mounting for their one real piece of artillery. Elo walked up the curve of the mite’s shell directly to the main castle, from where distinctly non-funereal noises were coming.

The men were all sobriety as soon as he ducked in, stooping low enough to get the spike on his helmet through the low doorway. Elo set his jaw and avoided glaring, letting them have their opportunity to shape themselves up.

“I trust this means we can get moving immediately,” Elo said. “Now that we’re busy dividing up all the issue gear.”

“Stowed and strapped, Sarge,” said Corporal Ferg. “We were just waiting on His Nibs to get done jawing with the Captain.” Ferg was as dishonest as Books were tall, but Elo did not doubt that they could leave straight away. They’d hardly decamped to speak of, before the giltfall, and he’d seen most of the restowing himself.

Elo finished the conversation with a stern look, but a minor grade of disapproving look by the standards of his vast arsenal. The boys had need of something to divert them.

“Sergeant, any of those to spare for a thirsty old man?” the priest asked.

Elo picked up his sack of wine. “I had no idea you imbibed, Father.”

“Hardly anything else to do on the climbs, is there?” Father Brix levered himself onto the forward wall of the central fort, which was horizontal now. “Old Union isn’t the fastest mite I’ve ridden in my time, we’ll be inconvenienced for a good while yet.”

Elo poured out several dozen molecules into the priest’s proffered cup. “So you have been on a few interShelf caravans. I was wondering.”

“That obvious, is it?”

“I don’t know that anyone else sees it.”

Brix laughed. “I don’t know that anyone else cares to.”

“You’ve been an Army chaplain for a long time? Or were in the service and then got religion?” Elo picked over his own wine the same way the priest did.

“Both,” Brix said. “Never cared for the easy life. What gave me away?”

Elo contemplated his diminished wine bag uncomfortably. “You mentioned the Destroyer so casually in the sermon. That’s not something I hear in cathedrals down in the Reftlands.”

The priest looked out over what was normally the top of the fort. “No,” he said. “I suppose they don’t. Up the Shelves, one tends to dwell on the dangers.”

“Hear, hear,” Elo said, hoisting the bag. “Do you remember the last time it came?”

“Gods distant, I must look older than I am,” Brix said, light in tone but not expression. “No, son. No, I don’t go that far back. But I read about it quite a bit in cloister.”

“Scary stuff.”

“I’m glad some of those sermons got through to you. Too many young folk think we made it all up.”

“It’s why we fight, isn’t it? The Gods-denying Aerosols, and all that.” Elo regretted the slip-up, not wanting to encourage discussions in this vein.

“Is it?” the priest asked. “Do you, personally, feel the need to stab some belief into the enemies of the priesthood?”

Elo watched the craggy vertical face of cellulose moving past. Some of it had a slightly chewed look where caravans past had harvested a few replacement logs. For a moment, he lost his thoughts in wondering who those past paperjacks had been.

“I fight because it’s my job, Father,” Elo said finally. “No other reason matters.”

Old Union snorted and clanked to a halt finally, horizontal again. The troop lost no time dismounting and forming ranks before the mite’s massive clawed forelegs.

“Sergeant Elo, set the men to,” said the Lieutenant. “Standard field precautions, less a labor detail to take the bodies down to the outpost.”

Elo saluted. “Sir!”

The Lieutenant walked off, swagger-stick tucked in, heading down the twisting trail that descended towards the just-visible bulk of Book Two Five Seven.

“Fall out by watches!” Elo barked. “Red watch, re-mount. You’ve got the duty first. Green watch, I need four volunteers. Ferg. Bax. Trig. Zem. You just volunteered. Unship the bodies and follow the trail down to the outpost. Father Brix will take charge of them once you’re there.”

“What in the Destroyer’s dander is this place, Sarge?” Ferg knew better than to argue, but considered complaining his own divine calling. “Book Two Five Seven? What kind of a name is that?”

“That’s what it says on the map. We’re too far up for any of the Books to have individual names.”

“Maybe the Moteriders call it something,” Ferg opined.

“Why don’t you ask them, Private? After you get back from burial detail. Get moving.”

They’d had their official ceremony, but there was a new sad finality in the departure of Miyo and Beg from Old Union. The two bodies and their four uniformed bearers disappeared over the curve of the rough ground, a melancholy caravan in miniature.

The company waited, slept, ate, gambled, and cursed their recruiters. After a time, the Roomlight blazed to life, illuminating the heavens above the page forest with the dazzling colors of a new day.

The wonders of the vista did not please Elo.

“Where the fuck is the burial detail?” he muttered. The Old Man, the Lieutenant, and Father Brix were overdue as well, but they couldn’t be called to accounts by someone with Elo’s number of chevrons. Ferg and the other men were a different story.

Up in the mite-mahout’s tower, Elo found the only other rank still mounted up.

“Colb, wake up.”

“Eh? We leavin’ at last?” The old mahout looked around his little room, blinking sleep from his eyes.

“No. We are not. I’m dismounting to go see what the delay is. You’re in charge until we get back.”

“Me?” Colb looked at Elo with rheumy astonishment. “I’m not officially-”

“I know. You’re the only other rank we’ve got left. I’ll be back quickly.”

The mite-mahouts were warrant officers, not in the chain of command of the infantry company that rode with them. Colb technically outranked him, but that was mostly honorary. Elo had nothing else to do. They were short officers, and somebody had to fix things.

The trail down from the Shelf was little improved, despite the outpost. It wound back and forth toward the spine of the unnamed Book in the manner of frontier settlements. The view was distracting in the early light, even to a veteran like Elo.

A long way down, Elo thought. If you were lucky, maybe you’d float on an air current far enough that no one you knew back home would have to see your body hit. At this height, you’d be falling for a couple of days, not counting any updrafts. Maybe even dead of dehydration before you hit.

No one who’d been up the Shelves any ways had failed to imagine what would happen if you weren’t careful. Elo stopped himself from jogging on the steep trail.

Soon enough, the trail flattened to the Book headlands, a small plateau atop the vast cellulose bulk extending off out of sight. At the edge of the headlands, perched fearlessly over the drop, stood a small blockhouse with a domed roof. Beside the outpost were a few storage sheds, and the freshly-covered graves of Miyo and Beg. It must have been murderous work, hacking them into the hard oxide scrabble here. Elo grimly shouldered his carbine and strode towards the single door.

Voices were audible well before he reached it. They weren’t intelligible yet, but Elo picked out the Old Man’s timbre, as well as that of Father Brix. There were others in the mix as well, strangers’ voices. Ferg and the rest of the burial detail were slouched about, drinking something hot out of mugs. They all gestured upward, glum. The argument sounded no signs of abating as Elo tromped up the spiral stairs.

The upper floor of the blockhouse was much more open than the base. Elo guessed it was all one large room. The dome held a turntable gun mounting similar to the one that rode in the battlement atop an army mite, though the carriage held something much larger and more complex than the breechloading cannon for which it had been built. Around the device were angry people.

“This is getting us nowhere,” the Old Man said, needlessly straightening his uniform. “Nothing I’ve seen here is more important than the reason this observatory was built in the first place, and-”

“You aren’t even looking!” said a woman about the Old Man’s age. “This telescope has us on the verge of discoveries much more important than looking for more things you can use your guns on.”

“You’re on the verge of blasphemy, is what you’re on!” said Brix, flushed a shade Elo had never seen anyone not in terminal cardiac distress.

“Who’s to call it blasphemy?” Countered the woman. “Did the Gods ever forbid us to capture their images?”

“Professor, this facility isn’t your toy,” the Old Man began, in the tone of going back to something he’d already said. The Lieutenant nodded on cue.

“They’ve been at this since before dawn,” said a new voice close to Elo. “I think they could keep it up for a day or more.”

Elo looked around for the source of the voice. There was another woman behind him on the stairs, whom he’d somehow managed to not notice either on the ground floor of the observatory blockhouse, or when she’d approached. She was younger than the Professor, and dressed a similar lab coat. Elo found himself distracted.

“If you’re thinking of trying to cut into that,” she continued, “you’d better be prepared to use that gun of yours. Come downstairs and wait, if you’d like.”

The three and a half arguments upstairs (Elo never heard the Lieutenant say anything other than “Quite right, sir.”) continued as they took seats downstairs.

“Quelle Jex,” the woman said. “I assist Professor Gosh with her work here at the observatory on Two Fifty Seven.”

“Nice to meet you, Miss. Vintner Elo, Flag Sergeant with the 22nd Dragoons. I see you’re already acquainted with the men.”

Bax, Trig, and Zem nodded, bored. Trooper Ferg grinned, lifting a cup of tea.

Elo scowled at him before continuing. “What’s the short version of the point under contention, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Jex stirred the tea she’d poured herself, which was still hot enough to be visibly shaking. “Your Captain is upset that Professor Gosh is using the observatory’s equipment to do something besides spot enemy moteships, is the short of it.”

“And there’s a priest involved,” Elo supplied.

“Yes, he was quite concerned about the nature of the work, as well.”

The argument progressed apace upstairs, with stomping on the floorboards that rather ruined the pregnant silence downstairs.

Jex stopped stirring her tea. “This is the part where you ask what it is we’re doing here that’s causing such a fuss.”

“No, Miss. This is where you might, I grant, but I assure you my interest has been thoroughly extinguished. I can recognize when something’s beyond my paygrade.”

Jex took a sip of tea, made a face, then resumed stirring. “Do you see that picture on the wall there?”

Elo took in a whole series of pictures, mostly spiky profiles of moteships used by Aerosol raiders: the sorts of threats that inspired the arsenal clanking about on the back of Old Union, waiting far above them on the Shelf.

“You mean that one, I suppose?” One was indistinct, and looked nothing like a moteship at all. “What is it?”

“Ah, you’ve become curious again,” Jex said. “Professor Gosh thinks it’s the first definite image we’ve recorded of the Destroyer.”

Elo looked more carefully at the picture. He’d stood up to do so, an action he didn’t remember performing. There was an irregular dark blotch, surrounded by a slightly lighter blotch. “What does it look like?”

“We’re still not entirely sure,” Jex said, smiling with a tiny concealed triumph. “Lots of issues. Parallax. Foreshortening. It’s a complex shape, though. Much like a mite or a person, it’s got a lot of appendages. And we know it’s big.”

“How big?” Elo asked, more quickly than he meant to.

“Best estimates? Five or six hundred thousand microns, end to end.”

“That’s pretty b- Wait, what?”

“Equal to the distance from Websterburg to Britannicport. Roughly. Or, put another way, about the altitude between here and the deepest mines.”

“That’s… That’s a very large thing.”

“You have a gift for understatement, Sergeant.”

“I always assumed the Destroyer would be like a mite, only bigger. Like a few times bigger. Something that could wreck a building, not…” Elo understood the pale looks on the troopers’ faces better now.

“‘Discovery of the age,’ is the way the professor put it,” Jex said. “You see why she’s adamant about not giving up use of the telescope.”

Elo’s insides churned with all the thoughts, which he tried to ignore. “So why’s she having such trouble?”

It was Jex’s turn to look glum. “All those other pictures.”

“The moteships?”

“Those. They aren’t the usual course of distant sightings for the month. Those pictures were all taken within the last few days. The ships are close, and headed this way.”

Some quick mental math based on what Elo knew of the Aerosols’ capabilities yielded some unpleasant results. “I’ll be right back down,” he said. “You men get ready to move.”

“-and if anything is going to give way, Professor, I say it is your intransigence!”

“Sir, a moment of your time, please?” Elo stood at the top of the stairs at attention.

“A moment, Sergeant,” said the Lieutenant, before the Old Man could. “Wait, if you’re here, who’s minding the company?”

“Begging your pardon sir, I left mahout Colb in charge after you were delayed.”

“Not now! We’ve only… Dear Gods, it’s light out.”

All four parties in the dispute suddenly seemed to notice daylight outside the dome.

“Yes, sir, it’s been some time. Miss Jex apprised me of the situation. Best we all get moving.”

“Quite so!” Said the old man. Elo could see him working out the times and distances. “Quite so,” he said again, haunted.

Elo felt queasy. He’d hoped the Captain would have worked out that it was going to be okay after all.

“Why don’t I locate the moteships’ current position?” Professor Gosh asked no one, already moving to the controls of the great telescope.

“There’s no time,” the Old Man snapped. “They’ll be upon us. If we can get mounted up, we have a chance.”

“I’m not leaving! Not now!” the Professor stopped fiddling with the telescope as quickly as she’d started.

“Best we abandon all this, anyway,” said the priest, just loud enough to be heard.

The Lieutenant looked on, helplessly.

Elo was already downstairs. “Miss Jex, I have a question. Where did you get that tea you brewed? It doesn’t strike me as the usual outpost supply fodder.”

“An odd question, Sergeant. We trade with some frontiersmen to supplement our usual supplies. Why do you ask?”

“Frontiersmen?”

“Paperjacks, I assume.” Jex gestured vaguely upwards to the unseen bulk of the Shelf above. “We see them every dozen days, or so.”

“Excuse me again, please,” Elo said, and tromped back upstairs. “Sirs and Madam, begging your pardons again,” Elo interrupted, “it’s come to my attention that the Aerosols may know something of what the Professor is up to here.”

The Old Man and the Professor didn’t take so much as a breath of pause at Elo’s interjection before they were at each other’s arguments again, but the Lieutenant and Father Brix were not.

“What do you mean?” they said in unison.

Elo told them.

“They have agents all through the Upper Reaches,” the Lieutenant muttered. “Of course.”

“Evacuate, sir?” Elo asked.

“Get it started,” the Lieutenant said. “I’ll…” he gestured at the still-raging debate.

“Right, sir.” Moments later, Elo was downstairs again. “What would it take to move all the work you’d done?” he asked Jex.

“Surely you’re joking, Sergeant. The photographic plates alone would be more than all of us could carry.”

Elo didn’t pause to consider long. “Trig,” he said, pointing at the startled trooper, “get back up to Old Union and tell Colb to bring him and the company down here.”

“Sarge, that’ll take-”

“I know. Get moving.”

Jex crossed her arms and stood as tall as she could make herself. “You don’t seem inclined to defend the observatory, Sergeant.”

“Without support, Miss, I am not. I’m sure the Old Man isn’t either,” he added, hooking a thumb upward to where the debate raged afresh. “But that’s what we’re left with. We’re going to be hip-deep in air-worshippers before Old Union can pick his way down here with the artillery we need to fight them off.”

“I see. Sergeant Elo, I hope you understand how important it is that the Professor’s work survives.”

“I do, Miss.”

“This used to be a fort, shouldn’t it be defensible?”

Elo looked around the blockhouse. The thick logs of tough white fiber looked solid enough; he imagined them hewn from pages in the forest below and packed up onto the headlands of Book 257. “What happened to the gun that used to be up there?”

Jex shrugged. “Everything like that had been taken down by work crews before I got here,” she said. “The covers for the main embrasure had to be removed, too—they were interfering with the telescope—and they went into one of the outbuildings. Perhaps there’s something there.”

“Show us, please,” Elo said. “You three, come help.”

Ferg, Bax, and Zem were bored enough that they forgot to look sour at the prospect of labor.

The outbuildings were little more than sheds, constructed of the same material as the blockhouse, only planks that had been shaved much thinner. Still, it took all of them to force the door on the largest and most recent of them.

A flight of nesting viral phages floated out from their roost, disturbed. The group squinted into the darkness unrelieved by daylight streaming in.

“There are the doors they removed,” Jex said, holding a warding arm over her head in case the phages should return.

“I see. And there in the back is the gun.” Elo pointed out the long, low mass of it.

“Can we move it?” Jex asked.

“With a crane, perhaps. There’s a few casks of powder still, though I’d not trust it after all this time.”

“Can’t we wait until Old Union gets here, and use fresh powder from our stores?” asked trooper Zem.

“The whole point of this exercise is to hold out until they get here,” Elo said, more sharply than was necessary. “If we had Old Union here, we wouldn’t need any of this. Start tearing through all this, see what else we can find. We don’t have much time.”

“Professor, for the last time can you not see that it would be better if you would simply flee to the safety of the mite? We can hold your findings for safekeeping with the men we have on hand until such time as they can be safely loaded aboard with us.”

Professor Gosh maintained her look of arch contempt still. Elo wondered how she made her face do that for so long without spraining something.

“No, Captain,” she sniffed. “I do not intend to commend my life’s work into unfriendly hands.” She looked pointedly at the priest. “I will stay.”

No one about the observatory looked surprised.

“Here they come!” came a shout from above.

“Numbers, Zem!” Elo shouted back.

Trooper Zem’s head appeared at the top of the opening in the dome. He pointed off in the distance. “Two motes just cleared the Shelf. Too far away for me to make a count of how many aboard.”

“Guess.”

“Smallish, Sarge. Maybe ten-man jobs.”

“Okay, get down here.” He moved to where the officers were peering into the distance.

“There they are,” the Old Man said. “Your trooper is right on about the estimate. We’d better hope those ships are too small to carry a swivel gun, we’ll have trouble enough with twenty air-worshiper troops.”

Elo couldn’t resist taking a peek himself. Even without a spyglass, he could see the approaching moteships plainly: hulls of ragged, irregular outline, probably ash or dander. Fragile things, but light enough to waft on the air and carry a small crew besides.

“Here’s your igniters, Sarge!” Trooper Ferg came bounding up the stairs into the dome, holding two bottles.

“Two?” the Old Man asked.

“I thought it prudent to have a spare ready, sir.” Elo said. “Ferg’s idea, sir.”

The Old Man went back to his spyglass. “Good thinking, Trooper.”

Ferg beamed, then took his place with the others.

“Damn shame we couldn’t have remounted that gun,” the Captain continued. “This bit of chicanery with wires and matches will have to do.”

Elo tested the tension on the wire they’d rigged from the observatory to the armory shed. “Indeed, sir. As our total assets remain four rifles, my carbine, and your and the Lieutenants pistols. Neglecting edged weapons, sir.”

“Ahem,” came an indignant reminder.

“And Miss Jex’s hunting rifle,” Elo said. He looked back to where the young academic stood in file with the men.

“Yes, it’s a damn cocked-up situation all around,” the Old Man said. “Can’t be helped. Still, all we’ve to do is hold out. Get down!”

The Old Man hadn’t changed tone, and so it wasn’t until he saw the captain throw himself away from the embrasure that Elo understood what he meant.

The first shots from the Aerosols came whistling past the opening in the dome; a few spanged off the thick walls of the blockhouse. Elo found himself prone. He didn’t remember reacting.

“You may return their fire, Sargeant.” The Old Man didn’t sound any different than he usually did.

“On the brace!” Elo yelled from the floor, struggling to right himself and ready his carbine all at once.

His four troopers dashed up the former gun embrasure, kneeling behind the lip, rifles ready. After a moment, Jex followed suit.

Elo joined them straightaway, crouching behind them and aiming over their heads. “Pick targets!”

Bullets continued to peck at the thick outer wall. The Aerosol marines shot light loads, needle-pointed tin bullets moving at man-killing velocity.

“Four rounds rapid!”

Four rifles thundered in rapid unison, each punching out fat, greasy gold slugs. Elo’s own carbine snapped out lighter, faster shots, more for assurance than actual effect at this range. Jex had been taken by surprise again, and fired a single desultory round at the end of the volley.

“Recover!” Elo snapped. The troops dropped prone and started to reload. “Are you all right, Miss jex?”

The woman’s hands shook as she reloaded her big single-shot weapon. “Yes,” she said unevenly. “What’s stopping them from shooting us while we’re sitting there shooting?”

A bullet glanced off the edge of the opening, burying itself in the back wall.

“Fortune, Miss Jex.”

She nodded. “Marvelous. Go again?”

Elo peeked around the edge of the opening. The two moteships were settling on the headlands, easy shots away. He saw no sign of the first volley having had any effect. “On the brace!” he yelled again.

They smashed out three more volleys, and then Trooper Bax pitched backwards, gasped blood, and lay still. Before returning to cover, Elo counted unmoving figures on the ground beside the motes outside. Too many of them were moving still—moving outside their field of fire.

“They’re at the base of the blockhouse,” Elo said. “Watch for hooks. Fix bayonets. Captain! They’re here!”

There was an ominous thud from downstairs, then another.

“I agree with your assessment, Sergeant,” said the Old Man. “They’re trying the door. If you’re going to try your pyrotechnic stunt, now’s the time.”

Elo slung his carbine, and reached down to where he’d stowed his two makeshift detonators. “Squad! On the brace! Fire as you bear!”

“That means just shoot anything you see, Miss,” supplied Trooper Ferg when Jex hadn’t moved. She was still staring at Bax’s slumped body. She forced herself to look away, and crawl to the embrasure, and not notice that her boot was touching the dead man.

They began to pick targets, slow measured aimed fire, as the battering ram thumped out the Aerosol’s displeasure on the blockhouse door. Whether due to the suppression provided by the squad, or by the fact that they were concentrating on breaking in, the fire slackened. Elo hooked one bottle to the wire, and let it go. He could hear the skittering noise as it slid down towards the storehouse shed.

“Cover!” he yelled a moment before a tremendous low rumble shook the blockhouse, sounding more like another giltfall than an explosion. The great telescope wobbled in its cradle above Elo’s head.

“All okay?” came the Lieutenant’s voice from downstairs.

Elo looked around at the people picking themselves off the floor. “Excepting Trooper Bax, sir, yes.” Elo motioned to the opening. Zem and Ferg dashed up to the rim.

“They’re moving off, Sarge!” said Trooper Zem. A moment later, a ragged hole had opened in his chest. Zem mouthed something soundless and slumped over the embrasure’s lip.

Ferg returned fire without being ordered, leaving Elo and a horrified Jex to clutch at Zem’s legs to keep his body from falling out.

“Did it work, Sergeant?” The Lieutenant had come up partway up the stairs.

“Run, you Gods-denying bastards!” Ferg yelled out the port, emptying his rifle again.

“Lost another man, sir,” Elo said, “but it seems the Aerosols are retreating.” Elo lay there, panting, with Zem’s life slowly draining onto him.

“Hard luck,” the Lieutenant began, before his eyes went wide.

A grenade bounced off the deck, and began to roll, sputtering, down the stairs.

The Lieutenant took a moment to register the small object for what it was, sputtering and clattering down each step as if walking.

In that moment, Trooper Ferg had dropped his rifle and turned to follow the grenade’s path. Goldbrick Ferg, slacker Ferg, laughing insolent short-timer Ferg dove down the stairs after it.

Ferg and the Lieutenant had the same idea. They fouled each other, and the grenade bounced away from them as they tumbled.

Elo lay flat. There was a scream, and then the floor jumped.

By the time Elo had disentangled himself from Zem’s body. There were only groans from below. “Stay down, the both of you,” he said.

Jex didn’t respond, but looked unlikely to do anything but remain shocked.

Elo picked his way down the stairs. The grenade had splintered the bottom steps. He looked around. The blast had also converted the compressed cellulose into a hailstorm of lethal fragments. Gore painted every wrecked surface.

“Call out, sirs!” Elo said, looking for any footing. The cluttered abbatoir of the blockhouse was a danger in itself, now.

Another groan. Elo moved over the entangled remains of the Old Man and Professor Gosh, pushing a rack of documents out of his way. “Hello?”

Father Brix groaned again, a gurgling sort of groan that Elo tried not to think about. He finally pulled the last of the debris off the old preacher—and saw the arm-length fragment of wire protruding from his gut.

Brix’s eyes acknowledged the look on Elo’s face. Elo shook his head. Neither had to say anything more.

Elo came back up the stairs, and wiped his bayonet, and sat down.

Jex had recovered somewhat. “Did every-”

“Yes. All of them.”

“What are we going to do?” Jex asked.

“What’s going on outside?” Elo asked, toneless.

“They took off, both ships. I don’t think they had as many men as when they landed.”

Elo absorbed this intelligence for a moment, silent. “Miss Jex, you understand that you’re the most important human being on the Tree now, don’t you?” he said finally.

“Professor Gosh-”

“No. Don’t look.”

“All her work! Everything she’d discovered!”

“You’re what’s left, Miss. The explanation for what you’ve discovered is you, and anything that can be salvaged downstairs.”

“What if they come back?” she asked, looking around the dome. “We can’t hold off another attack like that.”

Elo felt oddly detached. “No, but they don’t know that. That’s why they won’t fiddle around with trying to rush us next time. They’ll bring up bigger ships and wreck this place with gunfire, or burn us out. We have to hope Old Union gets here first.”

“You think they can get him down here that quickly?”

Elo closed his eyes and did some math. “Sure,” he said. “Colb’s a weird one, all the mahouts I’ve ever known are, but he isn’t one to dawdle around if he thinks there’s trouble. We should see them before the end of the day.”

“That’s a relief. I’d hate to try this at night.” Jex was looking down the stairway, unmoving.

Elo sighed. “I may have to ask you to stay down there, Miss Jex.”

“Quelle,” Jex said. “Call me Quelle. And no, I’m not staying down there.”

“Nothing we do here matters if you’re hit by a stray round. Your life is more important than the extra rifle, at this point.”

“Being downstairs didn’t save them, did it?”

“Point taken. But I still think that…”

“What?”

Elo looked up to the ceiling of the dome. “What’s that noise?”

“Sounds like steam escaping,” Jex said.

“I’ve heard that before,” Elo said. “Somewhere.”

“It’s getting louder,” Jex said. “Outside? Is it the Aerosols?”

Elo picked himself up, horror and fatigue shut away again, and ran to the opening in the observatory dome. He looked skyward.

“Oh Gods,” he said without the energy for emphasis. “It’s Old Union.”

Jex rushed to join him.

Far above, in the panorama of the Shelf-dominated sky, the world arced into imperceptibility. Beside it, coming out of the indeterminate grayness of distance, fell an object too far away to have perceptible speed.

The mite fell, hissing and squealing in panic. Tiny lights on its carapace marked where the fort and supporting towers burned.

Elo knew there would be a whole cloud of smaller objects falling around it. Things as small as cannon or soldiers couldn’t be made out—small things like the hundred-odd troops of the company.

Old Union began to show his speed as the creature neared the headlands plateau.

“Get down on the floor,” Elo said. “Away from the telescope.”

They didn’t hear the impact, but they felt it. Again, the blockhouse twitched and wobbled. And again, it was over.

The two of them lay motionless much longer than was necessary.

“Perhaps the priest was right,” Jex said. “Perhaps this is for the best.”

Elo sat up. “Miss Je-”

“Quelle.”

“Quelle. What do you need to recreate what Professor Gosh has discovered here?”

“You can’t be serious,” she said, sitting up to face him.

“There are ships up there,” Elo said. “Big ones. Moteships the size of Old Union. We have to get away from here with you, and anything you can think you might need.”

“I’d need a telescope, and all our notes and film plates, and Professor Gosh.”

Elo slammed the butt of his carbine down, levering himself to his feet again. “You’ll get another telescope. You won’t get another Professor. Of the things you can carry, what do you need to convince other people?”

Jex’s mouth worked, but nothing came out at first. “The Professor’s summary notes. At least one plate.”

“Now you’re talking, Quelle. Are those boots of yours any good?”

Jex looked down. “They’ll do.”

Elo didn’t quite grin. “Sore feet are still better then murder, that’s right!”

“Sergeant, I have to admit I’m puzzled. What’s gotten into you?”

It was Elo’s turn to struggle for words. “All I’ve ever had is duty. I never had another reason to go on. I never wanted or trusted any other reason. I passed on orders and did my job and made sure everyone did theirs and I felt nothing. I never wanted to feel anything. That picture you took changed that. It’s important to make sure everyone sees it. I guess I have a new duty now.”

Jex didn’t smile, not exactly. “It suits you,” she said.

Jex squared her shoulders and followed the Elo downstairs. She blanched when she saw the Professor’s body, but dug out the implements she needed.

“Let’s go,” she said, facing the door and not looking back.

“One last thing,” Elo said. He started the blockhouse stove, and placed the remaining liquid detonator on it.

The door swung freely once they’d thrown the bar, and they emerged onto the blasted headlands. The Aerosols had retreated in haste after the storehouse explosion, leaving their fallen.

The enemy soldiers had been scattered by the blast, flinging them away from the beam they’d been using to batter the door. They were slightly-built men, pale-skinned and ethereal-looking.

“Mysteries of the Gods and Destroyer,” Elo said. “I always heard they had points to their ears. I guess that was just a rumor.”

The trail up wound up into the fading roomlight; the day was ending. Darkness, speed, and rough terrain were their only shields now, though they both carried rifles. Behind them, the observatory had begun to burn, ceding all trace of the Reftlander claim to Book 257.

“What if we don’t make it?” asked Jex. “I mean, beyond the obvious.”

Elo squinted up into the fading light. “I aim not to find out.”

_____
Copyright 2013 S. Hutson Blount

S. Hutson Blount has worked with nuclear propulsion systems, robotic laser welders, and mutant cats, but as yet has no experience with mythological figures. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with a wife who tolerates his foolishness to an alarming degree.

by Rachel Sobel

Nurzanah found him in the dust-eaten ruins of the library, seated before a broken writing desk. He was thinner than she’d ever seen him, the bones in his wrist showing clearly under the long sleeves of his kurta, and as she hesitated in the doorway he set his head against his hands, fingers pressed into his hair.

“Seda,” she said, and he startled, hand going to the place in his sash where she knew he kept a pistol and then stilling as he saw her. He closed his eyes for a moment.

“Captain,” he said. His voice was very quiet and nearly gentle, and had she been less angry, she might have felt for him, kneeling in the ruins of his boyhood home, his face smudged with ash and his soul showing at the edges of his eyes.

The wall behind him was blackened with tracks of fire in coarse fernlike patterns that reminded her unnervingly of the light that followed Asamerid’s ghost, and she swallowed back memory and despair and lifted her head to meet his gaze. He looked back at her without much emotion in his face, but there was a bruised quality to his expression that told her he didn’t believe in their easy friendship anymore either.

“You stupid son of a bitch,” she said softly, and shoved her rifle back. Seda rose as she came toward him, stumbling a little but not taking his wary gaze from her face; if he had not risen on his own, she thought she would have dragged him to his feet. She could not look away from him; she wanted to be able to hate him for what he’d done, she thought, for what he had taken her from, but the horror of her knowledge was too raw in her even for that. The color rose in his cheeks as he looked back at her, his eyes steady even though his mouth was drawn tight with lines of strain.

“There’s nothing here,” he said at last, very low, and Nurzanah’s hand closed into a fist at her side. It felt as if her mouth were choked with broken glass and soot, as if whatever words she spoke should come out in blood and the shrieks of wild birds rather than any human sounds. She could not forget the last retreat, falling back and back before the Hedi artillery as men and horses screamed around her, the weight of despair settling onto her shoulders like a mantle of dusty and implacable iron. If this was what their fallen star had shielded them from, she’d thought, no wonder they’d lost when she died.

“There’s nothing anywhere,” she said, and at his look of bleak incredulity, she said again, “Seda.” He did not look away, this time. “When I left them,” she said, “they were being forced into the Karossim in retreat.”

It was the end of autumn, and even here in the lowlands, the leaves were shredded and dull with age. In the mountains, there would be no hope of food to support an army, even supposing that the mountain lords would hold faith with the oaths they had sworn. She saw that knowledge slide across Seda’s gaze in the moment before he turned his face away. She gave him his silence, counting it out in the slow beats of her heart and the deeper silence of the mountain, and watched the crows over his shoulder, squabbling in the burnt ruins of trees in what had once been a garden courtyard.

“We should go,” he said at last, and Nurzanah nodded, and helped him gather together his few possessions without a word.

It was not far to Iskerim, but the road was old and had been left untended in the war since the great villa had burnt, nearly seven years ago. It was unlikely that they would make it into town before dusk fell, and Nurzanah did not let herself think of what he might see then. She knew too well the cost of hope.

The slope pulled at her bad knee, and she fell back a little with that pressure, letting him take the lead. It had been most of two months since she’d seen him, and though her anger nestled with dull familiarity in the corners of her heart, she found herself studying him as if he were a stranger to her. It would have been easier, she thought, if she could blame his failures on some new fatigue, some weakness she had never seen before; but she had always known him for what he was.

She had been sixteen when they’d met, already more the young soldier than the stocky silent girl she’d been, already carrying the fury of a childhood steeped in poverty and humiliation; not yet Yuta’s right hand, but very close to it for a city-born peasant girl of no particular clan. Stationed to guard the door of her lord’s illegal meeting, she had listened to the quick chatter of the city insurgents punctuated by Yuta’s quiet answers, finding with surprise that in her two years of service she had grown accustomed to the slower speech of the mountains.

After a while, Seda had come out to stand in the doorway behind her, a striking young man with the hawk features and dark skin of a hill lord. She glanced at him, assessing whether he meant her harm and then discarding the possibility, but even so she was surprised by the light in his face.

“I had thought we could not do it,” he said, and smiled with an unselfconscious sweetness. She wondered what Yuta had wanted him for. He was unarmed, and barely older than she herself, too threadbare to possibly hold any money or estate of his own, but tonight Yuta had invited only those he thought could be most useful to his cause.

“And he likes my satires,” Seda said, and Nurzanah realized with a little shock who he was. She stared at him. Even before she had gone to the mountains, people had not come to her to speak, and she had learned to expect their silence. He turned that sweet smile on her, this time putting a fraction more intent behind it. She wondered how many girls had fallen for it, and was surprised, too, at the cool certainty in herself that she would not be one of them.

“He likes the spirit in them,” she said, and watched him beam helplessly up at the heavens, by now beginning to mist over with high cold clouds. The pole-star had been just visible then, nested between her two guardians, and Nurzanah had looked at the too-familiar symbol and felt her mouth twist. The Hedi had for many years adopted the three stars to fill the banners of their southern provinces, settled easily into their winter positions beneath the great egret crest of the empire, and there was no one in the country who did not understand this symbolism.

Eventually, the rest of the meeting had spilled out of the building in twos and threes, and they’d gone off talking and laughing together into the brisk spring night while she’d waited. When she’d felt Yuta’s presence at her side, she’d turned in time to catch his fleeting, weary smile.

“We did well tonight,” he’d told her, and she had felt herself warm with his approval.

She had never until now fled danger and left him to it, she thought, and the bitterness stung at her like thorns. Yuta had sent her, now as ever, but it was Seda’s failure that had driven her here, and she did not think she could forgive him for it.

And she could not, even now, make herself stop remembering. He had been the only man behind the traitor, the only one in the whole suddenly frozen hall who could’ve done something. It should have been an easy shot from his place behind the doorway, but he had hesitated too long, his hands clumsy on the unfamiliar weapon.

It had all happened so quickly; fast enough that she had thought, at first, that the traitor had missed his mark after all. It wasn’t until she’d seen the blood flowering against Asamerid’s breast that she’d realized that Asamerid must have thrown herself between Yuta and the gun, faster than anyone human could have.

A good thing, then, that Asamerid had never been human, no matter what pretense they’d all clung to.

Seda was walking a little ahead of her in the gathering twilight, his back very straight, and Nurzanah wondered how he had borne the silence that must have filled his days since he’d fled Yuta’s camp so many weeks ago. She had never felt the same need he had, to fill all the world around her with words and grandiloquent speeches, and even so, even despite Asamerid’s quiet night-time company, she had felt the drowning pull of loneliness upon her soul. She was a little surprised to have found him alive, having so carefully tracked him by the rumors of his presence; she had not thought, precisely, that he would kill himself, but like the many academics who had ever been his companions, he had often been injudicious with his health. He had so much more reason to be so now.

The sun was nearly down; they would not reach the town before it set. Nurzanah wondered if she should have warned him. It seemed unlikely that he would see anything at all, and it was easier to hold her silence now and apologize later, if she must. Even so, she found herself holding her breath for long enough spans of time that she called a halt beside the road, handing Seda her canteen without a word. He smiled thanks at her, brief and strained, and while he drank she turned away to look out across the sharp valley to their left.

As the sun sank beneath the long distant ridge of the mountains, it seemed as if the whole world shivered in the vanishing twilight and then was still; and then, very slowly, the light of the dead star opened out around them like some strange night flower putting forth its petals, sliding brassy and dappled across the uneven surface of the road. Nurzanah waited for the sound of Seda’s sharp breath, for him to say her name with a trembling uncertainty or catch her arm and draw her back, but there was nothing. After a moment she turned around.

“So,” said Asamerid, her face lit by her own strange and shifting light. “You found him.” She was looking at Nurzanah with cool dark eyes that showed nothing of her emotion, while beside her Seda capped the canteen and held it out to Nurzanah. If it had been the first time Nurzanah had watched Asamerid beside people who did not see her, she might have made some error in her deceit, but instead she simply took the water from Seda and drank.

Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she slung the bottle back into its place. She did not want to admit to herself how much she’d hoped that Seda would see truth standing beside him; tried not to watch the dead star pacing slowly around him, like nothing so much as some giant hunting animal around its prey. She didn’t want to remember the way they had looked in the first years of the war, radiant just to be around each other. She didn’t want to remember, either, the way Seda had looked when he kissed Asamerid, as if all the terror that held him rigid in the ordinary course of things had slipped away from him.

“We should go on,” she said stiffly, and Seda dropped his eyes to the ground and nodded. They went on, Asamerid’s light casting changing shadows onto the ground before them, and in the growing darkness Nurzanah watched Seda stumbling over the potholes and overturned rocks, and did not let herself wish for anything at all.

It was not long before they reached Iskerim, where a few thousand people clustered together under the great looming shadow of the cliffs. In the days before the war it had been a thriving merchant stop, one of the major breaks in the road from Puriyat. The mosque beside the river with its bright mosaics had been a destination for highland pilgrims for three hundred years and more.

Of course, the bridge across the gorge had been blown out five years ago, and now Iskerim was a stranded and pitiful thing, all half-burnt buildings and crippled deserters. Nurzanah did not look too closely into the corners of the sole surviving inn as she bargained with the innkeeper their night’s lodging, not wanting to see which of the other patrons sported the missing limbs and scarred faces of veterans, much less to know if any of them were broken enough to see Asamerid before them.

To her relief, Asamerid chose to leave the room, heading for the stairs to what the innkeeper had told them was their room for the night, leaving her free to guide Seda to a table. Even here, so close to the mountains, she knew there could be Hedi agents. They had all lately suffered very badly from assuming otherwise; but then, she thought, Seda had never before been forced to recognize such a personal price of war, never forced to see treason in those he loved. She did not think he’d make that mistake again.

The lamb was overcooked, when it came to the table at last, nestled in plain rice with a parsimonious spoonful of yogurt, but she was so hungry she scarcely cared, and Seda for his part tore into it as if he’d been starving for a month – which was, perhaps, not entirely improbable. They were nearly finished when the door banged open against the wall.

Nurzanah blinked into the light that filled the doorway, and found herself on her feet with her pistol in her hand, wondering through the inner thunder of her heartbeat if she were going to have to fight her way out of this on her own and half dead with fatigue. She took a careful step away from the table, pistol raised warily, and relaxed minutely only when it became clear that the torch did not belong to the beginning of a mob, but rather to a very young man with the scarf of a courier around his neck. The interior of the inn was silent with expectation.

“The news,” said the courier, and he swallowed, and put one hand up to touch the crest on his scarf, as if for reassurance. Nurzanah felt as if she were stretched between the words, nothing but a great arc of frozen dread, and she closed her hand hard around the grip of the pistol as the young courier looked around the room. Then he said, quietly, “Prince Yuta has surrendered at Hesirat.”

A woman swore, loudly and with great feeling, and Nurzanah was aware of a feeling like falling, as if she had stepped from the edge of a cliff without thought. She thought that Seda might have gotten up, but in the sudden hollowness inside her chest she lost him, and when she thought to look for him again, he was gone.

She would have gone after him, then, if the courier had not caught sight of her and blinked in obvious astonishment. “Sir,” he said loudly, shaking free of the people asking hurried muddled questions he could not possibly know the answer to. “Aren’t you Nurzanah Hazi Dahar?”

“Yes,” she said, against her better judgement, and found herself trapped in a maelstrom of questions, all the petty little people of the ruined city surrounding her at once. How had she come here, so far from her lord? Had he sent her away? Was she the center of some plan of restoration?

She answered the questions as brusquely as she could, resorting to direct lies only when she had to. She was afraid, now, that they might think to ask after the identity of her companion, and though they might not know yet the details of Asamerid’s death, she was sure they must have heard something of it.

The thought of Seda pricked her numbness with irrational worry, and she struggled to extricate herself from their questions. It was a long time before she managed to escape, and when she reached the room she had hired she wanted nothing so much as to sleep without dreams, but as she opened the door she came to a stop and stared, appalled.

There was blood sliding down Seda’s hand to pool onto the table among the shards of broken glass, and in the burnished and uncertain light from Asamerid’s ghost it shone with a dull honey-colored liquidity strange enough that Nurzanah did not at first recognize what he had done. He was not crying, and she stood in the doorway and looked at him; at the uncorked bottle of wine on the table and the ruins of the wine-glass, and at the injury he had done himself with it.

“Do you think that you’ll amend your sins so easily?” she said eventually, and her voice was level, without inflection. She felt a distant anger uncoiling in her stomach, and did not try to rein it in. She knew what he was doing, and when she glanced at Asamerid through the peculiar light rippling around her, she thought that she saw that recognition in the dead star’s face as well.

“It’s not that,” Seda said, very low, and his eyes flicked up to her face, hesitant and dazed enough that she wondered how long he had been sitting there. The uneven table was limned with bloody handprints where he had smudged at it.

“I didn’t think it was,” she said, and didn’t bother to point out that it hardly mattered whether he had crippled himself in an attempt to break the skill that had spared him from the brunt of the war, or merely to satisfy his self-loathing; in either case he could not be any use to her. She wasn’t sure he’d realized yet that they were running from something other than his own despair. “But I’m not sure you’ll be able to shoot any straighter if you can’t use your hands.”

She saw from his flinch that she had hurt him, and was fiercely glad of it, but she could not stand there and look at him. She turned and left the room, letting the door swing heavily closed behind her, and it was not until she was halfway down the stairs that she saw that Asamerid had followed her.

Standing in the yellow light of the candles on the landing, she was harder to see than she had been in the little dark room above. Here, she looked nearly human again, a slender brown woman leaning against the corner of the stairwell, her hair loose about her shoulders, and so Nurzanah found it much easier to look at her without judgement.

“Yuta’s dead, isn’t he,” said Asamerid. There was something wrong with her voice, a distance that had not been there before, and even under the raw yellow light, Nurzanah found it hard to believe that she had ever forgotten the star’s inhumanity during the war.

“He will be,” she said, and she could hear the flat callousness in her own voice even as she had to force herself to stand still and not turn and run. She knew that once she had looked at Asamerid as everyone else did, seeing in her the radiant love Seda had written into every word of his poem; had seen her as the literal embodiment of their country, a miracle in human form and their only savior.

Now she seemed little more than any of the other soldiers: stained and filthy with the grinding misery of the war, with what she had done and seen and failed to stop, and worse than all of them for her dreadful courage in the end. Nurzanah could scarcely bear to look at her.

She wanted to ask Asamerid why she’d done it, but forced herself instead to go find the innkeeper and a roll of bandages. Asamerid made no move to stop her as she went back into the room.

Picking glass out of Seda’s palms under the uneven candlelight, she wondered if she should have stopped him, if she should’ve known. Asamerid had gone out into the hall to pace or stand or whatever it was that the ghost of a dead star did when she was alone, and from time to time the shivering light of her passage would slide under the door. There were people shouting in the streets, their voices indistinct.

“She shouldn’t have done it,” Nurzanah said, looking at the glass dust shimmering on the table. His left hand was long and fine-boned, bloodstained but otherwise undamaged, but the right hand lay torn and swollen on the table, sliced open wherever the glass had pushed into him. She could see him shaking with the effort it took to keep from flinching away as she tied off the bandages.

“I shouldn’t have missed,” he said, and she knew that if only for the sake of practicality she should tell him that it wasn’t his fault, that anyone could have missed, but she would not lie. He had hesitated when he could not afford to, and she wanted to ask him how he could have faltered when he did; if it’d been only stupid clumsiness, or if he really could have had such trouble choosing between Yuta and some half-mad playwright he’d gone to school with a dozen years ago. Asamerid’s blood had been red as she lay dying in his arms, shockingly so, running against his coat and seeping onto his fingertips, and he’d left bright stains streaked across his cheekbones as he wept into his hands afterward.

Nurzanah shook her head to clear it. “The boy who brought the news recognized me,” she said. She felt tired enough that she didn’t want to think of how. “I’ve no idea how you expect to be well enough to walk with your hand like that, but if we stay here it won’t be long before someone makes a lot of reward money off of us.”

There was a faint tremor in his shoulders, but he tried to smile at her, even with his face lined with weariness and shadows. “I don’t think they’re after you, particularly,” he said, and Nurzanah wanted to strike him for the suggestion that he was too much of a coward to really make, or maybe for the temptation of it.

“That’s right,” she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “I could even sell you myself, and make a profit out of it.”

“You could,” said Seda, looking about as tired as she felt, and Nurzanah shrugged and pushed back from the table to stand up.

“Make my life any more difficult and I’ll shoot you myself,” she said, and left him there, sitting at the table with his own blood streaked over everything. She knew that it would’ve been wiser to sleep, considering how early they would have to leave in the morning, but just then she couldn’t face the idea of staying in the room with him any longer.

“He’s an idiot,” said Asamerid behind her, as she let the door swing closed. Nurzanah turned with exaggerated patience.

“You’re one to talk,” she said, her temper fraying. “If you hadn’t–”

“Yes,” Asamerid agreed. “If I hadn’t. But I did.” She did not give any sign of understanding that she should feel anything so small and human as guilt, and if Nurzanah had not known her so well, she might have believed it

“Why?” Nurzanah said, and she could hear the bitterness in her own voice. It was the question that had haunted her since she’d left Yuta; since she had first known that they were lost, watching Seda clutch Asamerid’s corpse to him. She’d wanted to ask since the night she’d awakened to find Asamerid curled up beside her, shining with a shattered light like fire seen through green glass, shaking so hard she couldn’t speak.

Asamerid looked at her for a long time without speaking, her eyes black as river stones. “Because he didn’t understand that we had already lost,” she said, and drew a careful shivering breath, the corner of her mouth curling up with more irony than humor. “It was better to end it,” she said, but her face was bleak.

They set out into the foothills the next day, keeping to goat-paths and rocky divulges to avoid running into anyone who could report their presence later. She pushed them both a little harder than was wise, considering Seda’s condition; he had kept his hand bandaged overnight, but he was weakening already, and she didn’t think he’d slept. Knowing what awaited them if they were caught, she could not let them falter or even rest.

She had been here once before, as a girl first in Yuta’s company. It had been winter, then, bitterly cold and snowing hard enough that they’d lost their way through the mountains despite all the accumulated knowledge of Yuta’s companions, and they’d only stumbled upon the village by chance. She did not think that it would be easy for anyone else to find.

It was warmer now, though breathy with the chill end of autumn, and as they came up the shallow road into the village, she saw the children shepherds watching them from the hilltops, curious and afraid at once. The village headman reached them as they made it to the edge of the dirt-paved central square, and out of sheer stupid habit Nurzanah moved as if to draw back and let Seda make the careful ritual greeting for her before she realized the strength and foolishness of her assumptions. Seda was stumbling with exhaustion, and though he was the son and brother of lords, she did not think he was liable to be very good at the business of courtesy. She had spent too many years as Yuta’s shadow to be comfortable in this, but she was no one’s soldier, now, and so in the end she did it herself, bowing her head when she gave her name to hide her shakiness.

The entire scene was so familiar that she did not trust herself to speak beyond what was required of her, and in the end she was grateful to be led to the headman’s three-room guest quarters and given food – only naan and rice cooked with onions, for the people here were very poor – and then a place in warmth to sleep. And for the first night in a very long time, she did not dream.

The next day, the headman apologetically left them in the care of his oldest daughter; he had other business to attend to, but his sense of propriety was offended by his neglect of his guests, and before he would leave them Nurzanah had to assure him several times over that she did not mind at all. Despite the scarcity of his followers, the solicitous care of her opinions reminded her very strongly of mountain lords that she had known.

She swallowed back the sorrow that threatened to choke her, and went to see about breakfast.

The headman’s daughter was named Mehri, and she would not let Nurzanah help her, but rather gave her a guest’s seat beside the iron stove and talked, in a light and inconsequential way, of the troubles of the village and of her herds, occasionally catching Nurzanah’s gaze in a quick bright smile. In other times, she might have found the conversation dull, but Mehri had a gentle good humor that made her a very pleasant companion, and by the time the tea was ready, she found herself smiling a little despite everything. There were pieces of almond and dried apricot chopped up in the rice this time, and the first time she found one it was as if a little window of sunlight had opened up inside of her.

As they were finishing, a little girl wandered into the room sleepily and came to a sudden halt as she saw Nurzanah. The child stared unabashedly for a moment before accepting the bowl of rice Mehri handed her.

Her kinky hair was coiled about her face in great disarray, the odd pale wheat color more suited to a Hedi foot-soldier than to a little girl.

“My daughter, Badria,” said Mehri, her tone suddenly very cool, and Nurzanah turned to meet her immovable gaze, accepting the wariness in it as deserved. She struggled to find something to say, but there was nothing in her, all words stolen as breath by the wind; she found it painful even to look at the child, with her heritage marked so clearly on her face. At last, Mehri gave her a wry look and let her go.

Finding Seda still asleep, Nurzanah walked out alone into the village, very conscious of the curious eyes of the villagers. Despite the season, the sun was out, bright and clear in the sky, and the wind had died to a low whisper in the corners of the divulge. She spent the day as if in a dream, walking the brown-green hills of their pasture and talking at quiet intervals with the people of the village. Very late in the morning, Seda rose from his bed and went out, but he did not speak to her, and she made no effort to force him to.

At dinner that night, talking with Mehri and a young house guard, she learned that early in the war, many of the youngest villagers had been sent to Korae up the mountain, larger and more heavily guarded and therefore, they had thought, somehow safer. It had been overrun twice before they had come home.

“Those of us left the second time were too stubborn for them, I suppose,” said Mehri, and smiled, more painfully than she might have, and it was the unwilling honesty in that expression that spurred Nurzanah to speak haltingly of the end of the war in the lowlands. She would not lie, but the news brought her no pleasure, and it seemed from their reactions that it came as a terrible surprise to them. Her eyes caught at Seda’s as she spoke, but she did not tell them of what had passed in the end, only listened to their incredulity and answered what they asked her.

Mehri alone seemed unsurprised. “He fought hard for us,” she said, and nothing more.

The days passed without any great separation marking off the time between them, as if they were no more than ripples on the surface of her life. Nurzanah had thought, at first, to go on as soon as Seda seemed capable of it, but he was so distant from her that she could not think how to judge his health. She knew that she ought to confront him, so that they could say their farewells and move on, but there was something strangely reassuring about the measured poverty of the village.

They lived very hard lives, she knew, from the peasant soldiers she had commanded and the villages she had encamped in; yet even so, there was a horrible, crawling relief in it. She would not have to watch them killed, she thought, watching Badria go tearing across the hills after one of her cousins.

At dinner she more than once caught Mehri’s gaze lingering on whatever corner Asamerid occupied, a faint frown on her face. Nurzanah did not know of it if they spoke, but she was certain of Mehri’s vision.

She often found her own gaze following Asamerid, even when in conversation; it was so hard to look away, and harder still to remember the black-eyed woman who had stood so silent and so still at first, until she learned to laugh and then to cry; harder, if anything, to recall the girl with such steady hands whom she had slowly become. And it was for this that Seda confronted her, in the end, catching her shoulder to drag her into a deserted corner. The heat and shadow of the bonfire danced against their backs.

“I know you talk to her,” he said, and the level fury in his gaze caught and held her. He was as charismatic as he’d ever been, even as angry as this. “I know she’s here.”

“She’s dead,” Nurzanah pointed out, but she was shaking, and she didn’t think the lie was going to convince him.

“Her ghost, then,” he said. He was ashen beneath the dark of his skin.

“You might as well tell him,” said Asamerid calmly. “It won’t change anything.” She shifted, sending light rippling around her. “Knowledge so rarely does.”

“You saw her die,” said Nurzanah instead. “Surely even you remember that.” She looked at him flatly, the dumb brute soldier look she sometimes used to intimidate Yuta’s scholars into doing what she told them, but he knew her better than that and would not bend.

“Nurzanah,” he insisted, his eyes not leaving her face. He looked hungry and exhausted, dark shadows lingering under his bones and the hint of stubble ragged along his jaw, and Nurzanah wanted him to stop pushing at her, to let it sit and let it be and not make things any worse than they were already. She didn’t know what to do.

“Tell him,” said Asamerid. Her voice was implacable, and Nurzanah glanced at her before she remembered. Seda’s face shifted into grief as she looked back at him, and she saw then that she had given herself away.

“She doesn’t want to see me,” he said, and Nurzanah didn’t know what to say to that. She wasn’t sure that was the whole truth of it, but it wasn’t wrong. She’d seen the way Asamerid looked at him, her face drawn with exhaustion and her shoulders tense. She didn’t think it would help him to hear it.

“It isn’t like that,” she said, and she could hear the lie in her voice as she spoke. She watched his weariness write itself across his face, and felt so sorry for him.

“It’s all right,” he said, and even though they both knew it wasn’t, there was nothing to be done. “It’s all right.”

He spent a long time the next day walking the hills alone despite the chill grey clouds that gathered overhead, and when he returned there was a queer look in his eyes, and he would not speak to her. She sat in the kitchen with Mehri beside the warm stove and looked into the fire, as if she could find some kind of answer there; but nothing came.

The headman returned with his soldiers that evening, and almost as soon as he had settled his horse and greeted his children, he came to pull her aside. It was scarcely a surprise, and she listened to his description of the chaos in Korae without much emotion. They wanted the poet who had raised the countryside to defiance, he said, so carefully not mentioning any names that she thought he must know already; they wanted the man who had written the star Asamerid down from the sky, who had not been with Yuta when he was captured, and –

“Yes,” said Nurzanah, quite calmly. “He wrote it.”

She knew perfectly well what the Hedi would do to the villagers, if they found him here. It had been a pretty lie, to imagine that they could stay here.

“We’ll have to leave,” she told Seda, meeting him back in their room, and he smiled a bit as if he’d known.

“Of course,” he said, and she felt herself shiver at the look on his face. “We wouldn’t have much luck raising an army here.”

They reached Aseti just before dusk the next day, and as they made the long greeting at the fortress gates, Nurzanah caught the first glimmer of Asamerid blossoming into existence out of the corner of her eye. She did not turn to look, but simply stood, watching Seda ask after the health of their host, who assured them that he was well, his house blessed by gods and saints alike, his daughters brave and his sons virtuous.

Seda, for his part, made the required replies, courteous and funny by turn; and for all that, he looked like a man terribly ill, the bones of his face too prominent and his free hand shaking when he let it rest. Their host’s sharp gaze rested for a moment on the hand bound up in his protective sling before sliding back up.

“Be welcome to my house,” he said, taking Nurzanah’s hand to bow over it, and he led them into the guest room, Asamerid following behind and casting strange shadows across the room. Nurzanah was certain that the lord of the house could not see her following behind, but she caught several of the younger men glancing across the room with troubled expressions. They were close enough to her age that she thought they must have fought in the war themselves, and their wariness betrayed their understanding of its cost.

After dinner, Seda took the senior position in the guest room, looking as uncomfortable in it as if he were wearing borrowed clothes; he might have done better to defer to his host, in this, Nurana thought, but she seated herself at the far end of the room next to a stocky young woman with the muscles of a house guard and refrained from question.

“I am very grateful for your hospitality,” said Seda, quietly, and his gaze caught hers for a moment; his eyes were brilliant with some internal fire. He listened without particular expression to the lord’s easy and casual dismissal of his thanks, the impatience of a man whose guests should know the laws he is bound by, and when their host had finished, he held up one hand, the gesture curiously arresting. The lord blinked at him, and Nurzanah bit down hard on her lip as she realized what he was doing.

“You know me, I think, more by reputation than face,” said Seda, “but even so, I salute you for the risk you’ve taken for me.”

“And what risk is that?” said the lord of the house, not very loudly. In the years of the war, Nurzanah knew, he must have grown used to having dangerous men and women in his house, protected by his law, but he could not like it any more than anyone else, and she saw in his face the worry for his children for a moment before he shuttered it away behind impassive calm.

Seda looked at him without speaking for a long, quiet moment, and then, with the curious resonance of a man reciting familiar poetry, he said:

We are the children of the land of lions,
The heirs to wind and rock and ragged cliff,
The tall descendants of the mountain kings;
The rough-cut rock that breaks their wings.

The room was silent as he spoke, a wary, listening silence that spread and drew in the rolling stanzas of the poem, drowning out the brightness of the words with their fear. She could see in the set of Seda’s mouth that he knew what he was facing, and yet when he had finished telling them who and what he was, he went on, speaking as lightly as if he were asking them only a trivial favor, of Yuta’s capture and the brutal indignities of their Hedi overlords, of the need to fight on for whatever vengeance they could force from the end of hope. He spoke of Yuta walking barefoot in the snow with his soldiers, of their first fierce struggle for justice and freedom; of Asamerid’s birth first in fire and glory in the heavens and second in the blotted grey ink of a starving satirist in his garret, writing the only true poem he had ever written as if one cold and distant star could hold all the hopes of their people, all the strength and courage that had nearly been crushed out of them by the dreadful weight of the occupation, painted as the bright living heart of the mountains.

But he was helpless against the long years of the war that they had already suffered, and it was as if she could see them slipping slowly further and further into disillusionment and despair. Like any house, they had lost their children to the war; and like any house, they would not forgive the perpetrators. Nurzanah did not think that she would like to strain the guest-laws any further than a single day of their company, and resigned herself to leaving the next day.

“We will not go,” said the lord, and the rest of the men went quiet, though the women talked a bit longer–to establish that they would not either, Nurzanah supposed, and wished they hadn’t bothered.

To her surprise, Seda treated them very politely, with the sort of delicate feudal courtesy that she had come to expect from Yuta and not from him, and it was only when they returned to their room that he vented his anger at her, pacing back and forth until he was stumbling. Asamerid stood to the side and watched him with the look of a woman going to her execution, and for the first time, Nurzanah was glad that he couldn’t see her.

At last he fell asleep, and she could leave him curled on the low camp-bed their hosts had put up for him, their only real concession to his injury. Under other circumstances, Nurzanah might have been offended on his behalf; as it was, she shrugged, and took their canteen down to the makeshift kitchen across the courtyard to bring up some tea. On the way back, she was accosted by a slender young man she vaguely recognized; some minor relative of the lord of the house, she thought.

“Who is she?” the young man demanded. He had caught her arm and held it, and she looked down at it and then up at him, raising an eyebrow. He flushed and stepped back, but did not turn away. “The woman with you. She looks like–” And he hesitated.

“She’s not a god,” said Nurzanah, before she’d thought. Perhaps she should have lied, tried to claim themselves the emissaries of gods, but she was not sure at the back of her mind that it would have been a lie, so far as Asamerid was concerned, and she didn’t want to think about that.

“Then what is she?” he whispered. He was very young, but even so there was a scar down one cheek and across his lip. She wondered if he’d gotten it in the war, or only in some ordinary way as peasants did. He didn’t need to know.

“She’ll be gone in the morning,” she said. “It isn’t anything to do with you.”

She saw in the shape his mouth formed all the truth that she had been pretending not to understand, and she wished she had said nothing.

When she returned, Seda was still asleep, his coat bundled up under his head. Asamerid was sitting on the bed beside him, one knee pulled up to her chest, and the quiet grief in her face stopped Nurzanah in the doorway. As she stood stricken, Asamerid bent to brush his hair back from his face, her hand lingering at his brow, and the intimacy in the gesture was painful. It would have been less private if she’d kissed him.

As quietly as she could, Nurzanah retreated from the room, canteen swinging from her hands, and at the end of the crumbling hallway she turned and walked back, letting herself make the noises that ordinary people in a hurry do, scraping the ground with her boots and banging the canteen against the wall. By the time she reached the door and turned to look at them, Asamerid was standing at the window, her back so straight she might have been there forever.

“How is he?” said Nurzanah, and Asamerid turned to look at her. The light of her presence rippled, leaving dappled shadows streaked across the walls.

“Tired, I should think,” said Asamerid, and the corner of her mouth quirked up in that odd gesture she had picked up from Yuta. It hurt, seeing it on her face and having to know that he was dying somewhere far away, and Nurzanah swallowed and looked away.

“I should imagine so,” she said, and she did not press any further, but as she hesitated in the doorway, something changed in the quality of the dim golden light, washing across the walls of the room like waves. She looked back at Asamerid, waiting.

“I have spent all the years of my waking life watching men walk into pits,” said the fallen star precisely, her gaze resting light and unseeing on Nurzanah’s face, and Nurzanah took a sharp breath, feeling the pain like a knife under her breastbone.

“I know,” she said, very low. If she had been someone else, cleverer with words or less rough-edged, she might have been able to say something more, but she had never had any talent for kindness.

Asamerid’s straight dark brows drew together as she looked at Seda, until she could not do it any longer and had to look away. She put one hand on the wall beside her as if for support, and the filthy mottled stone shone beneath her touch. “I used to sit with Yuta in the night,” she said, “when it seemed like all the world was asleep, watching him go over the supply lines until I thought he would go mad.” She looked at Nurzanah, her eyes clear and dark and endless. “He never told me what he was so afraid of,” she said.

Nurzanah thought of training the iron habits of survival into her soldiers, of watching them go forward into the dark without her, the war opening like a chasm around them until they emerged utterly changed or not at all, and she swallowed.

“Why are you following me?” she said. “I’m not the one who called you out of the sky. I’m not in love with you.”

“You know me,” said Asamerid. She was silent for a moment, and if Nurzanah had been more certain of her, she would have guessed she was struggling with the answer. At last, Asamerid said, “He thinks I’m still what he wanted, the one he saw, when he began writing to me. He doesn’t know she’s dead.”

“You’re dead,” Nurzanah pointed out, clinging to logic as if it would save her from understanding. “I’m fairly certain he caught that one.”

“The girl he wants has been dead for five years,” said Asamerid. Her voice was brutally calm as she spoke, as if there were nothing in all the past years of misery that could hurt her anymore. “She began to falter watching soldiers blown to pieces, and she felt herself failing when she sent children into battle armed with knives when their opponents were carrying machine guns. It was not so long before she died of it.” Her unreadable eyes did not leave Nurzanah’s face.

“What you must think of us,” said Nurzanah, feeling unbearably tired, and Asamerid said nothing.

The day they got the news of Yuta’s death, they were in Osirae, high in the mountains. He’d been injured in the skirmish before the surrender, an unnecessary piece of nastiness caused mostly by a misunderstanding, and they’d had to tie him to a chair before the firing squad: an ugly death, without any honor. He had faced it as bravely as anyone, the northern courier told her; he had not fought back or wept, in the end, only sat with his back straight and flinched convulsively as one man’s rifle went off before the rest, hitting the wall beside him and not him at all. He had been dead for a month and a half now.

She could feel herself beginning to tremble, but she didn’t think there was anything on her face. She wanted to run away, hide in a corner and never look at anyone again. She managed to thank the messenger for his news before turning and walking into the shadowed hall behind her.

There were no candles, here; they were too poor to afford them for the daytime, and so the building stood filled with shadows in the afternoon. It had been a great caravanserai, once, its rooms full of jade and precious stones carved out of the mountains, but now it was an empty shell, housing half a hundred peasants and their goats, and she made it into an unused and crumbling room to wait for Asamerid. She could not bear the idea of telling Seda herself.

He found her, of course, having managed to track down the northerner on his own, and from the look on his face, she wished she had told him after all. It could scarcely have been worse than this.

She stood to greet him, not sure she was capable of words, and it was only then that she saw the pistol in his hand, glinting with the little light from the doorway. He lifted it slowly, hands trembling, to point at her breast.

She felt numb, as if the news had blasted her clean and empty inside, and she knew that there was nothing that would fill her again. It hardly seemed to matter if he shot her, and she would have let him but she was afraid for Asamerid, and for him; she could not see them surviving her death very well, if survival was the right word for this ruin. She was not sure it mattered very much anymore.

“Seda,” she said, and then she had nothing else.

He stood there shaking, the pistol pointed at her. His shattered right hand was wrapped around it over his left, though it still could not close all the way, and his face was filled to brimming with despair.

“We can’t,” he said, and his voice was low and frankly terrified. “Nurzanah. He wouldn’t have wanted us to. He would have had us fight, he would have–”

She took a step forward and caught at his right wrist roughly enough that he cried out and let go of the gun. It was a heavy, stupid thing, worn down by time and pitted by powder, and she took it by the business end and struck him hard across the face with the grip of it. He staggered back.

“We would die,” she said, not much louder, and she realized that she was shaking too. “We can’t win it. The best we can hope for is to get ourselves killed.”

“It would be better,” he whispered. “This–”

“It would be stupid,” said Nurzanah. She didn’t want to think about it, because it couldn’t help; she wanted nothing so much as to turn north, to hunt down Yuta’s murderers and kill them. But there was no chance of anything but failure, and she could not think that that would be better.

“I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t be,” said Seda. There was a brightness in his eyes that should not have been there.

Yuta had told her to bring Seda back, in that little room he kept for himself behind the wide command quarters, but they’d both known it wasn’t what he’d meant. There was nothing for any of them to return to, there, and he had always wanted very badly for them to live, even after Asamerid’s death. Even knowing it could have been averted.

She had wanted him to live as well, and standing there they had both known that he would die. She could see it in the set of his face, the fine tremor in his hands as he moved his papers and maps around casually, but he would not speak of it to her. He had never been a man to put his own emotions to voice.

“He killed her,” she said. “Or as good as.”

Yuta smiled, a little, that same wry and tired look that made her love him first, and shrugged one shoulder, rubbing at the scars across his knuckles. “I was careless,” he said. And that was all he would say of it when he sent her away, and now she was standing in a dingy little caravanserai room watching Seda come to pieces at last and wondering how Yuta had looked as he died.

At last she reached out to touch Seda’s shoulder, letting her hand rest very lightly on the sharp edge of his collarbone. He was so still beneath her hand that she could feel the little hitch of his breath in his throat, and she looked at the expression in his face and took in a quiet, careful breath of her own before she pulled away.

“We’ll go in the morning,” she said, and strode out past him.

She lay awake all that night, face buried in her blankets, wishing she could cry and finding herself unable to. Asamerid did not return until just before dawn, casting tawny golden light before her, and until then Nurzanah kept her rifle close to hand, her pistol even closer. She had very little ammunition for either.

They ate naan for breakfast, steaming hot and very good even without anything else, and then, having bid farewell to their hosts with as much courtesy as either of them could manage, they went on higher into the mountains as the wind snapped and tore at their clothing.

It was cold, and hard going, walking up the long slope with the wind before them. There was a village beyond, the lord’s nephew at Osirae had told them, less than a day’s walk out, and so they kept on, striding into the young winter. Seda was tired, his hand hurting him, and kept stumbling on the clumps of dead and wilted grasses along the path, his pace slowing each time. It was getting on toward dark and they still had not come within sight of the next village.

She was so tired she wanted to fall down and die rather than endure anything further, but she kept walking and kept her grief penned in. She felt that it could not matter very much if they died now, alone up in the hills; she did not see that anything did, very much.

At last she called a halt. She could not see the village in the dimming light, and she didn’t think they’d find it now; they would have to make their camp here against the cliff wall. She was still considering the available outcroppings when the sun sank behind the mountains.

The clearing filled with the familiar brassy light, and Nurzanah turned around tiredly, to find Seda standing as one transfixed, his eyes wide with shock and his face strange in the dead star’s light. The bruise on his cheek stood out like blood.

“O God,” he whispered, and she saw that he was looking at Asamerid. He had gone very still, and Nurzanah wanted to cry at the expression on his face. Instead she looked away, blinking into the bitter wind.

It was very cold.
_____
Copyright 2014 Rachel Sobel

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