by Ada Hoffmann

 

I hadn’t had a minute, since getting off the airship, to put down my carpet bag and close my eyes. But Dr. Clarence Fullerton was intent on showing me the entire encampment before I rested. He never paused to allow me a word in edgewise, although at that point I was so exhausted I couldn’t have said much anyway.

“Past the mess tent,” he explained, “we have the path down into the canyon, and the fossil-rich ridges themselves–of course, you won’t be digging there, but I’m sure you can imagine the wealth of discovery available. Go ahead and feast your eyes.”

The sunset over the rugged river valley had turned everything pink, but of course I was more interested in the robots. The encampment crouched at the edge of the canyon, only four tents and assorted machinery. Robots outnumbered humans: four Whitman-651 walkers to carry the plastered-up fossils, one more to carry personal supplies, and a couple of convenience items such as a broken Hamilton-Smith, which was supposed to wash and press clothes with hardly any human assistance. And then this thing looming up in front of me, which I did not recognize. It was large enough for two people to stand in the cockpit, and it sported a considerable array of gun turrets.

I wondered why they needed a machine like that out here.

Dr. Fullerton followed my gaze. “Or, yes, you may feast your eyes on that, too. It’s a KD8102 special from Lovell & Grimm. One never knows what might come calling, you see. Grizzlies, bandits, rival researchers… But in any case, you won’t be touching the KD8102 just yet, nor its ammunition cases. It will be your job eventually, but only once you’ve proven yourself.

“The less, ahem, martially oriented machines are yours to examine as you will. Now, I’m given to understand you’ve worked at fossil expeditions before, but you haven’t worked at one of my expeditions, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I give you a short lesson in fossil handling before allowing you to work on the Whitman-651s. May I schedule that for the first thing tomorrow morning?”

“Yes,” I said weakly. The airship ride had been loud and shaky, and his voice scratched at my ears. He simply wouldn’t stop talking.

“Most excellent.” Dr. Fullerton ushered me into the comparative darkness of the mess tent. “Now I’ll introduce you to our fine colleagues. Miss Howe, may I introduce Dr. Harold Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. Harry and Mrs. Cunningham, may I introduce Lillian Howe…”

I stared at Mrs. Cunningham even longer than I’d stared at the KD8102.

Out west, the social rules were loose for lack of civilization, and I was not the only woman who ever worked at fossil hunts. I had even been on speaking terms with two of the women at Dr. Mandeville’s camp. But neither of these women approached the perfection of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. There was a brightness in her eyes and a surpassing neatness in the way she held herself, suggesting intelligence, warmth, efficiency. She wore practical outdoor clothes, like me, but they were all in black bombazine, with a widow’s cap–the veil shortened, presumably so as not to get in the way. Mr. Cunningham must have died a little over a year ago.

I felt sorry for Mr. Cunningham. Of course he was probably very happy in the spirit world, but if I were him and had a wife like his, I would have wanted very much to stay alive so I could hold her.

Dr. Kerr, a tall thin man, bowed and muttered a greeting. Dr. Fullerton kept talking and talking, and I think I was supposed to introduce myself to the others, but I couldn’t keep my mind on any of it. Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham looked at me in concern.

“Are you all right?” she said. “You’ve gone positively white.”

I fluttered my hands a little as I groped for an appropriate response. “Oh,” I managed eventually, “I’m feeling a little faint, that’s all. The journey here was tiring.”

“Faint” is the safest way to say it: delicate, ladylike, and proper. “Faint” is much better than the truth, which is that if I get too overwhelmed by too many people talking to me, I will begin shouting and perhaps even bite them, even if they are beautiful like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham.

They led me straightaway to a quiet tent, instructed me to keep my head between my knees, and left me to calm myself down.

It really was a nice camp. Not too big, and lots of interesting machines. For a minute, I felt sorry that I’d come all this way to sabotage them.

Fossil hunting is an enormous business. Like a gold rush. Below the 49th parallel, one can hardly set foot in a sedimentary wasteland without running into Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who regularly resort to blackmail, theft, and robot ambushes in order to one-up each other. Up here, in the North-West Territories, our own scientists carry on in much the same way.

I had learned the rules of fossil hunting as a mechanic fixing robots for one Dr. Mandeville–though I had had to hide that from Dr. Fullerton, who was Dr. Mandeville’s bitterest rival. Over time, Dr. Mandeville had grown to trust me enough to tell me his secrets, and to send me on special missions.

I hadn’t thought it was in me to carry out sabotage. But I was shocked when Dr. Mandeville told me about Dr. Fullerton’s camps. Why, when they finished, they dynamited whatever small fossils and fragments were left, so that Dr. Mandeville couldn’t have them. Destroying irreplaceable knowledge in the name of sheer rivalry–can you imagine? So Dr. Mandeville had not asked me to hurt anyone. Only to secretly dispose of the dynamite.

It was still deceptive, and I experienced occasional pangs of conscience, but Dr. Mandeville had offered me a great deal of money should I succeed. The alternative was to sit at home with my brother and his wife and their extremely noisy children, pretending to do needlepoint and having maybe one interesting robotics project per year, since customers in Ottawa preferred men. No, thank you: I preferred a life with autonomy, even if it meant lying to Dr. Fullerton while he talked my ear off.

When I’d calmed down, I set to work erecting my own tent. I was not nearly as good with fabric and poles as I was with machinery, and the whole thing threatened to fall down several times, but I eventually got it straightened out. That done, I sorted all the tools in my carpet bag in order of size until I fell asleep.

The next morning dawned in a very pink way. I woke in considerably better spirits and felt much better able to handle Dr. Fullerton as he walked me around.

“The excavation itself is very delicate work,” he explained. “Suited only for humans, not machines. It’s only later that the machines come in…”

I could see why he wanted me to understand his procedures, but they were exactly the same as Dr. Mandeville’s, so I stopped listening. Instead I looked out over the canyon, an intricate fold in the earth where Dr. Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham clambered about in the cool morning air, worrying at the rocks with picks and whisk brooms. Sunlight glinted off some of the biggest bones. The team seemed to have stumbled onto something very impressive.

All the more reason not to let them dynamite it.

“Ah,” said Dr. Fullerton. “But look at you. I suspect I’ve gone on entirely too long. Perhaps that will be all the lecturing for today! Do you have any questions?”

“No,” I said.

He clasped my shoulder heartily and I tried not to squirm away. I don’t always mind being touched, but the way he was doing it made the edge of my cotton shift scratch against my shoulders uncomfortably, under my jacket. “I am glad to hear it, Miss Howe! I like a woman with nothing to say. I must say I was concerned at first about adding another woman, but you’ve been meek, ladylike, and altogether pleasant thus far. Perhaps you’ll help us keep Mrs. Cunningham in her place!”

I had no idea what Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham’s place was supposed to be, but when he said it, I imagined holding her down to keep her in one spot. This lead to thoughts which frankly were not ladylike at all.

“Thank you, Dr. Fullerton,” I said.

He nodded. “Now, where did you say you learned robotics?”

I had a small moment of panic before I realized he was not interrogating me. He didn’t suspect that I was a plant sent by his bitterest rival. He was simply doing the thing people call Making Conversation.

“From my brother,” I said. “He has a degree in robotics. I borrowed his textbooks. And his equipment. And eventually his customers.”

“Hm. Where was that?”

“In Ottawa.”

“Ah! I have cousins in Ottawa. What church did you go to?”

I swallowed, knowing things never went well when I said the name. “The Ottawa Spiritualist Temple.”

Sure enough, his eyes sprang open. “So you go in for that sort of thing? Materialization of the dead? Girls walking around in little sheets?”

I shook my head. “I do séances with my family at home, Dr. Fullerton. I’ve never seen a materialization. Only the most powerful mediums can even…”

“Splendid! I know just what we’ll do to welcome you to the camp, Miss Howe. You can do a séance for us! I’ve always wanted to see one. We’ll all sit and chat with Mrs. Cunningham’s husband or Harry’s mother or whoever else you can drum up. How does that sound?”

“But…”

He clapped me on the shoulder again and I winced. “Splendid! Excellent! Oh, I’m glad we have you aboard.”

He kept talking after that, and I couldn’t get a word in.

I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t comfortable with this. Séances, however pleasant, were not a form of entertainment. They were for me and my family and our spiritual development. Besides, although I had cultivated enough mind passivity to channel voices, I certainly couldn’t produce the sort of spectacle Dr. Fullerton expected. In the presence of three spiritually disruptive strangers, I wasn’t certain I could produce anything at all.

Still, even if I explained all that to him, he probably would not have cared–and if I started declining his requests, I might look suspicious. So I looked on the bright side. I hadn’t done a proper séance since leaving home; all I had managed at Dr. Mandeville’s camp was a bit of automatic writing. And I was curious about Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham and her husband. I wondered what would happen if she could speak with him. Perhaps she would be impressed with me. And I dearly liked the idea of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham being impressed with me.

It was Dr. Kerr’s turn to make lunch. Dr. Fullerton had left me alone eventually, and I had worked up an appetite inspecting the robots. But when I got to the mess tent and found Dr. Kerr laboring over a badly maintained camp stove piled with stinking meat–none of which I could eat, due to my personal convictions–and carrying on a shouted conversation with Dr. Fullerton, I lost my nerve. I darted in, plucked a bit of cucumber and half-wilted watercress from the side table, and retreated outside to eat them.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham flounced out of the tent herself and sat at my side. I was happy to see her, but it did nothing to calm me.

“Dreadful, aren’t they?” she said. “Pompous, noisy men. I don’t know how I deal with them some days myself.”

“Er,” I said.

“I can see why you’d want to eat out here,” she said. “Such a view! I often take it for granted, clambering about on the rocks every day, but I shouldn’t. One needs to take time to appreciate beauty in this world.”

“Er,” I said. “Yes.”

I hated this part. The trouble with women like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham was that I became fascinated with them too early. I was naturally reticent to begin with, and the presence of beautiful women only made it harder to speak. I had had special women friends in the past, but they had been the ones to pursue me. I didn’t know how to do it the other way round.

I groped for something interesting today.

“What’s your favourite dinosaur?” I tried.

“Mine? I suppose I prefer the Troödons. We’re finding a lot of them at this dig site–little things, up to your waist, with astonishingly large claws at the toes. Deadly predators, if you want to be technical, but I find them endearing.” She looked at me sidelong. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh, I have weak nerves, that’s all. I appreciate you coming out here.”

She smiled at me for the first time: white teeth, charmingly crooked. I liked her smile.

“One gets used to Dr. Fullerton. I’ve been working with him for years. Since before James passed on. And you? Did you make your way here all alone, a quiet thing like you?”

“Yes,” I said. “By small airship from Fort Calgary, though I am from Ottawa, originally.” She had gotten the conversation back onto facts, which was much easier, so long as I remembered not to mention the incriminating ones.

“Then you were in Fort Calgary all by yourself?”

“Yes.” And not just once; I’d been there on the way to Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and again on the way here. But that was incriminating.

“With all the outlaws and cowboys? Were you frightened?” She didn’t sound frightened herself, and I got the sense she was hoping I hadn’t been.

“No,” I said, which was the truth. “Fort Calgary isn’t lawless. There were some men in strange clothes, but they didn’t give me any trouble.”

She smiled again. “You’re so trusting.”

“No.”

People often told me that sort of thing, but I knew it wasn’t true. If I were a trusting person, I wouldn’t have come here as a saboteur, now, would I? I didn’t trust Dr. Fullerton at all. Still, I couldn’t say any of that, so I just fluttered one of my hands.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham caught that hand in hers. Which was something I had thought I had wanted her to do. But the edge of her sleeve was the scratchiest lace I had ever encountered, and I could not bear it brushing my wrist. I flinched, and she immediately let go of my hand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean-”

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s not you, it’s the lace. My skin-”

“Of course.” Her cheeks were suddenly bright red. “I… I really ought to help them clean up in there. Men, you know.”

I couldn’t do anything in response but flutter, and she picked up her skirts and left me there feeling utterly ridiculous.

It’s a good thing that I work quickly. I had a basic inspection done on half the machines before supper, and I’d figured out the problem with the Hamilton-Smith–really just a worn-out drive block. In between doing those things I spent an unseemly amount of time breathing deep and sorting my tools in my tent, thinking of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I kept worrying that she did not like me. I tried not to do it. I told myself that, once I allowed her to speak with her husband, everything would be fine.

Of course, there were other dangers inherent in the séance. It might not work, and Dr. Fullerton might decide that I was a charlatan. Or it might work too well, and some friendly spirit might warn one of them that I was a saboteur. This latter possibility occurred to me a little too late. I’d already taken on the risk.

The mess tent was not exactly a proper sitting room, but they had done what they could with available materials, bringing in the most comfortable cushions and clearing the small table. After dark, the mess tent’s fabric adequately blocked out the moonlight. It was almost cozy.

We linked hands, and I recited a sonnet of which I was fond. Normally in my family we began with a prayer, but I didn’t know these people well, and an uplifting sonnet would do.

“Now,” I said, with our hands linked in the darkness, “the best thing to do is to focus on pleasant thoughts. You can sing or converse lightly. It may take a few minutes.” I didn’t know if I was explaining too much or not enough. I tried not to be frustrated, to remove my own emotions and be a pliant vessel for the spirits.

There was a lot of coughing and harrumphing for a while, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham saved me, raising her voice in the first verse of “Jerusalem, My Happy Home.” It wasn’t strictly a spiritualist song but it would do for now. Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr joined in, slightly off-key, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham carried the tune very well. Her high voice relaxed me more than my own efforts.

The room became indistinct and I felt my own thoughts and volitions slipping away. This was working. Even in this strange company, I was nearing a proper trance, and the room was full of indistinct balls of light.

I wondered why there were so many spirits in these deserted badlands.

“James Cunningham,” I whispered. “Mr. James Cunningham, do you hear me?”

I felt an emotion from Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham, but it wasn’t the one I had expected. Granted, I often misinterpret emotions even in a trance, but she seemed confused or alarmed.

One of the lights moved toward me. Simultaneously, there was a strong, sudden rapping at the table. The others startled a little, hearing the sound though not seeing the lights, and then the table turned in place by thirty degrees.

“Oh my goodness!” said Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I felt that alarm from her again. I wished I could tell her to stop it.

Then my whole mind fixed on the light before me, and I saw its proper shape.

It was not Mr. James Cunningham. It was not even human.

The spirit, if I can call it that, was a sort of flightless bird, perhaps three feet high and standing on the table. It wore clothing, but of a sort I had never seen before: a scaled, leathery robe, and a satchel of the same material. It had huge talons and, despite the birdlike appearance, sharp teeth.

I knew that evil spirits sometimes disrupted séances. But evil spirits still looked like humans: rowdy sailors, for instance, and surly criminals. I had never heard of a monster like this. It terrified me. Yet I could not look away.

The bird spoke. It was a horrid rasping sound–I am not even sure how I identified it so readily as language. My own mouth opened in concert, but nothing came out except a hiss.

I felt rather than saw the others drawing back. This was not what they had expected. They didn’t know what to do.

The bird cocked its head, looking at me through one eye as birds do.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

It paused, rummaged in that satchel, and drew out a small device. I had an impression of gears and circuits, like the robots I worked with, but even more intricate, its component parts mostly too small to see.

It stepped forward and pressed the device to my forehead. I could feel it there like a breath of wind. There was a clicking sound.

When it spoke again, it was still in rasps, but the words came out of my mouth in the Queen’s English.

“Our bones,” it–or I–said. “You walk above us and steal our bones. What are you? Where are your ancestors buried?” I hated the way the words felt. I was used to human spirits’ words pouring through me like water. But these words were not human. They climbed all over my mouth and bruised it. The bird seemed warily calm, curious even, but my own voice rose to an unbearable shriek. “If you are here, you must do as we ask! Our bones!”

At that point it became altogether too much and I screamed. I put my hands over my ears, doubled over, and screamed until I could not see birds, lights, or anything like them.

I could hear the others saying things. “What in the devil-” and “Good Lord, girl-” and “Give her air, we don’t know how-” But I wasn’t really listening, not until a good while later when I’d finished screaming. By then the others had fled the mess tent, leaving me crouched in darkness, until I calmed down enough to realize that I’d just ruined my prospects here entirely.

While I was still wondering what to do, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham crept back into the mess tent holding a lantern. The light startled me.

“I’m sorry,” I said immediately, wondering if she was here to send me away.

“Oh, no, don’t be. We’re all terribly worried, that’s all. You had some kind of fit. I came to check on you.”

“It wasn’t a fit. I just…” I fluttered my hands, unable to explain.

“You saw something,” she prompted, sitting down beside me. “Then you started raving about bones. Or it looked like you. Was that a spirit talking?”

“I think so.” I looked up at her, defensive. “It’s never happened like this before. Usually it’s wonderful and uplifting. But this wasn’t a human spirit, it was a great sort of bird. I couldn’t make head or tail of what it was saying. I suppose I got overwhelmed.”

I wondered suddenly if the evil spirit was a punishment. If some great power had decided that I wasn’t worthy of seeing anything good, or at least not in the very same room as the people I was lying to.

“Dr. Kerr said that you must be hysterical.”

“I’m not.” I had actually been diagnosed with hysteria in my youth and given a vibrator, but while I didn’t mind using it, it had no effect on the fits at all.

“I believe you. It’s just that I didn’t realize séances were so difficult for you.”

“They aren’t. This was an exceptional situation.”

She nodded. “Being possessed by enormous birds, yes. I should be more worried if it wasn’t exceptional. Still…”

“I should have told Dr. Fullerton I couldn’t do it out here. Real séances are supposed to happen in the home with a loving family, not… out here with…”

With my victims. I couldn’t quite say it.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham raised her eyebrows. “You mean to say this was Dr. Fullerton’s idea?”

“In a way. But I knew there might be problems, and I didn’t turn him down, so really it’s my fault.”

Her voice went sharp. “Of course you didn’t turn him down. He is your employer, and you are a woman! You must have been wondering what would happen if you displeased him. Really, Lillian, you’ve done nothing wrong except failing to understand how he used you. You’re too trusting, that’s all.”

I curled my legs up to my chest. “My brother told me I’d never last out here. I’m so ladylike and good most of the time and then I turn bestial at a moment’s notice, and I can’t control it. He told me Dr. Fullerton would throw me out in disgrace and he was right. I’m sorry.”

Actually he had said that about Dr. Mandeville. I figured it was close enough.

She laughed unexpectedly, a big laugh, throwing her head back. “Dr. Fullerton will do no such thing! The man gushed about you all through dinner. You managed half again as many inspections in one day as any other technician we’ve had. You found the problem with the Hamilton-Smith, even. This isn’t like Ottawa. Propriety comes in second to results. If you have fits every once in a while, well, we shall live with them.”

“Oh,” I said.

We sat in companionable silence, and then Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham said, “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“I thought I heard you say my husband’s name, before you started to scream. Did you see him? Was he… with the monsters?”

I sighed. “No. I was looking for him; I thought you’d like it if you could speak to him. But he wasn’t there.”

There was a pause. “It’s just as well,” she said at last. “I miss him, but we were never… You know.”

“Never what?”

“The spiritualist view of marriage is very liberal, isn’t it? You say a true marriage isn’t an economic or family arrangement, but a spiritual affinity between a man and woman. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said, though I would have quibbled substantially with the “man and woman” bit.

“Well, that was the problem. James and I were friends, of a sort, but nothing more than that except on paper. It was my own fault. I wanted an ordinary family, but I never got the hang of spiritual affinities with men.”

With men.

It was the sort of thing I would have missed when I was younger, but not now.

“Neither have I, really,” I said. “I much prefer the company of women.”

“Well, then, we have that in common.”

I didn’t want to be too forward. Just because she was interested in women didn’t mean she was interested in me. Still, this felt like an important milestone, and I ought to say something. I ended up just fluttering some more.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she said. “I’d like to embrace you, if that would help, but this lace…”

“Here,” I said, relieved that she’d mentioned it first.

The bombazine wasn’t nearly as bad as the lace. I arranged her arms around me so that the lace only touched my back, which was covered with a cotton jacket anyway. I leaned against her, resting my face against her shoulder.

“Does that help?” She sounded uncertain, though her arms were firm, warm, and wonderful around me.

“This is excellent,” I said.

She opened her mouth to say more, but just then Dr. Kerr came stomping past the outside of the mess tent and we quickly disentangled ourselves. “How is she, Mrs. Cunningham? Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine,” said Hattie. “Just a moment.” She pecked me on the lips while he still couldn’t see, then grinned widely, as though she had done something terribly brave, and hurried out.

Suddenly I wasn’t so worried about the birds anymore.

I didn’t venture out of the mess tent until night. The badlands were still and shadowy, and Dr. Fullerton’s snoring rang out in the quiet. I felt confident that everyone else had gone to sleep, but I was not at all sure they would stay that way.

I crept out to the KD8102 and picked the locks on the ammunition cases. Inside lay piles of dynamite: some in sticks, some in spheres. It was a good trick, hiding them here. I suspected that the KD8102 was for show, little more than an excuse for the explosives. That would explain why Dr. Fullerton had been reluctant to teach me about it.

Dr. Mandeville had instructed me in how to dispose of dynamite. It was really the percussive shock of the blasting caps that set it off, not the burning of the fuse, so–counterintuitive as this was–the best thing to do was to burn it. I built a little fire out of sight of the camp and got to work, turning the dynamite itself to ash and burying the blasting caps separately. The spheres were heavier than I had realized; I could only carry a few at once, and that made for terribly slow work. By the time I had emptied a quarter of the ammunition case, I was exhausted. So I closed and locked the ammunition case, crawled into my tent, and prayed that Dr. Fullerton would not notice.

Hattie was busy with fossils all the next day. There was a lot of cheering and hopping around; they’d found a really colossal group of those Troödon fossils, as well as something with hip bones the size of wheelbarrows. I tried to cheer back whenever they mentioned it, but my heart wasn’t in it. They didn’t have enough Whitman-651s to carry all these bones home, and that meant many would be dynamited. Yet they were cheering and grinning as though they saw no problems at all. I needed to hurry.

I finished fixing the Hamilton-Smith’s drive block and then wasn’t sure what to do until dark.

“Have a drink with us,” said Dr. Fullerton, winking at me in a way that suggested he was already drunk, “if your nerves will allow. This is a colossal find, you understand. Have you ever thought about devising ways for our Whitman-651s to hold more?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I wasn’t sure how many modifications I could make. There was not exactly a foundry pounding out custom machine parts to my specifications out here. And that was to say nothing of the structural integrity of the legs.

“Hah!” He seemed inexplicably pleased. “So there’s an end to your knowledge. Well, if you’re stumped, then tomorrow we’ll teach you to help with the excavations. Maybe you’ll be responsible for meals and laundry from now on, too. You’ve got to earn your pay somehow, after all.”

So apart from meals and laundry, I was banished to my tent the rest of the day. After a few rounds of sorting my tools in order of size, I grew pensive. I had too much to think about: the dynamite, Hattie, the birds. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the birds were a judgement on me somehow. That they knew I was doing this all wrong.

I decided to try automatic writing. I had often used this method to communicate with my mother in Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and unlike a full séance, it was a thing I could do alone. In case of problems, I could break the connection simply by putting down the pen, and after a short lie-down, everything would be fine.

I took out a pen and paper and spread them out atop the toolbox. It was rougher than a desk, but it would do. I emptied my mind and began to write.

Writing makes no use of lights or moving furniture; there is only a feeling of connection, a vague excitement, and a sense of self-abandonment. I started with gibberish, of course, but meaningful words emerged more and more frequently. Bones. Steal. Buried. Bones.

Our bones must be eaten.

That sentence shocked me out of the trance. Eaten? I hadn’t eaten animal meat for years and did not intend to start again. Besides, the only bones out here were fossils, which had turned to stone over the eras and could hardly be eaten even if we wanted to.

Our bones.

What did they mean, ours? They could not be the spirits of the dinosaurs who had died here. It had been tens of millions of years since the deaths of the last dinosaurs. By now they ought to be advanced beyond recognition and uninterested in our petty physical world. That’s if they had spirits at all. Dr. Mandeville had always told me they were dumb beasts, lizards really.

Far more likely, these bird-creatures were the souls of something still living here. Something which knew about the fossils and claimed them as its own.

But eaten? That made no sense at all.

I picked up the pen again.

We do not bury our dead in boxes. The spirit needs the body no longer, and a body in a box is no use to anyone. The best use for a body is nourishment. Even when nourishment is not possible, we pretend to it. To let the spirit know its body was valued.

My head filled with images: not visual, like the lights at the séance, but tactile. I felt my teeth scraping along an already-stripped thigh bone, not eating but going through the motions of it, baring my canines like an animal. The movement was fraught with importance, much more than the sum of its components, like my own ritual of sorting my tools.

You must pretend to it. In this way you will show respect. We will know you are our friends.

The pen rolled out of my fingers.

I understood nothing. I was not sure I wanted to be their friend. But the scrape of bone lingered against my teeth, like an echo. It was disgusting. I had always hated eating meat; I saw no reason why one animal should live by tearing apart another.

Was this some twisted metaphor for my work here? Was my sabotage a form of predation? But destroying bones for one’s own selfish profits–was this not also predation? How could I judge what was going on?

I tore the paper to bits and stormed off to cook lentil soup for supper.

The next day I woke up awash in pink light with some ideas for increasing the Whitman-651s’ carrying capacity. Even without extra scrap metal, there was a great deal I could do with extra sacks and satchels, hung across the edges like saddlebags, if only I could balance and secure them properly. The legs were designed to hold many times the allotted weight, as a basic safety feature, and if problems did crop up, well, we had me for repairs.

Dr. Fullerton waved his hands distractedly when I told him. “Yes, good work! That’s actually fairly clever. Only we don’t have any extra sacks and satchels at the moment, so why don’t you come down here and learn to help with the excavations?”

He was in such a hurry to get me down there that I realized he must have wanted this all along.

So I spent the day with the smallest fossils, learning to excavate them safely: exposing a surface with the pick and whisk broom, sealing the cracks with smelly liquid cement, undercutting them with a chisel, then adding the layer of rice paper, the layer of tissue, and the disgusting layer of plaster which stuck to my fingers, followed by even more chiseling to repeat the process on the other side. All this for every single bone lodged in the rock. It was exhausting work, and I had absolutely no time to talk to Hattie. At the end of the day I collapsed in my tent with no energy left for dynamite–only a vague presentiment that I was failing.

The sacks and satchels never arrived, but there was plenty of hard digging for the next few weeks, plus equipment inspections, repairs, laundry and meals. I occasionally had time for a word with Hattie, but never as privately as I would have liked.

“You’re working as hard as we are,” Hattie said on one of these occasions. “You’re not as efficient as us yet, but that’s lack of experience; you’re putting in the same effort. So why is he giving you all the laundry and meal duties on top of it?”

“Because my work in the ravine isn’t as valuable as yours, and the robots don’t take all my time. He has to add to my value somehow.”

Hattie’s eyes got very wide. “Did he say that to your face?”

“It’s only the truth, isn’t it?”

Hattie clicked her tongue. “Oh, Lillian. You’re so trusting.”

I don’t know what happened with her and Dr. Fullerton after that, but the next day, we started rotating those duties again.

Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr liked to stay up late, and I rarely had the energy to outlast them. The best I could do was drink a lot of water and wake up in the middle of the night, needing to use the privy. After that, I could usually drag myself to the ammunition box and cart off a few more armfuls of dynamite.

I thought on these nights, sometimes, of Hattie, and of what she would say if she knew I was doing this. Perhaps she would be angry. Perhaps there was a secret coldness in her heart, and she saw no problem with dynamiting fossils. Or perhaps she had never known.

But even more so than Hattie, my thoughts drifted to automatic writing. If these creatures cared so much about how their bones were treated, surely dynamiting the bones was a bad idea. Surely they should approve of what I was doing.

Sometimes on those nights, I saw lights at the edge of my vision or felt my teeth scraping bone, though I had not tried to go into a trance. That worried me. I hadn’t been given to visions like this since adolescence.

We will know you are our friends. Perhaps it would be good to befriend them. Perhaps they would share their secrets. Or perhaps they were monsters and meant us harm. But rich men had an interest in monsters, alive or dead, else we wouldn’t be out here.

Actually chewing on the fossils would be absurd. If I left any marks, that would be an act of sabotage worse than destroying the dynamite. But I was tempted.

Finally the night arrived when the last dynamite crumbled to ash in my little campfire. I felt very virtuous and suddenly full of energy. I wanted to run to someone and be congratulated, though of course that was silly.

Instead, I crept into the ravine and looked at the bones all lined up in the rock face.

I picked one at mouth level, only a quarter of the way exposed and not yet covered in rice paper. If I didn’t actually touch the bone, I reasoned, I could do no harm. I placed my hands securely on either side, leaned in, and closed my teeth a centimetre away from the surface, turning my head as I did, like an animal tearing flesh.

I was starting to understand what the bird-creatures felt. The closing of teeth meant acceptance of pain. The turning of the head meant a willingness to move on. This was how they mourned, and it made a great deal more sense than black bombazine.

I felt invisible flesh on the bone. I bit the air again and imagined muscle between my teeth. I swallowed. I had always hated the taste of meat, but this was somehow different. It was as though, instead of destroying a life, my actions preserved it.

But I could not complete this process with the bones stuck in the rock face. More and more I longed to turn them in my hands. Like an animal.

Like the birds in my vision.

I crept back to the Whitman-651s, each one piled high with fossils. It was easy to pluck a bone the size of my forearm and bite into the air millimeters from the foul-smelling plaster. I spoke in the birds’ rasping language, and this time it was not horrid. It was part of the ritual.

I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice the footsteps until Hattie’s voice startled me. “What on earth? Who goes there?”

I turned, the plaster-covered bone still in my grip. She was out in her nightgown, holding a lantern.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said, and fainted prettily.

I suppose I panicked. I dragged her back to her tent so as not to make a scene, and I meant to leave her there to recover, but I was seized with terror thinking of what she would do when she woke up. I was at my wit’s end, not only fluttering but rocking back and forth, which I hadn’t done for months.

Of course, Hattie took that moment to wake up and sit bolt upright. “What are you doing? What’s going on?”

I said, “It isn’t what it looks like,” but I was still rocking and fluttering, which may have made it unconvincing.

Hattie’s voice rose. “It isn’t? Well, let me tell you what it looks like! It looks like I got out of bed to use the privy, and there you were, making horrid sounds and chewing on our fossils like a ghoul. Furthermore it looks like I trusted you and protected you and even kissed you once and now you’ve repaid me by being irrecoverably mad. Am I wrong about that, Miss Lillian Howe?”

“It was what the birds wanted. They said… It’s respectful to them. They sort of…”

“Right,” said Hattie flatly. “That’s very nice. You stay here, and I’m going to get Dr. Fullerton.”

“But…”

Hattie pushed aside the tent flap, stood haughtily–then froze.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said again.

Outside a robot, even huger and more gun-heavy than the KD8102, was thudding towards us.

It lit a pair of searchlights and swept the area, illuminating the canyon, the tents, the other robots–and our frightened faces. For a second, they also lit up the insignia on the robot’s chassis.

Which said “MANDEVILLE”.

Everyone called me trusting. I never believed them. Dr. Mandeville had told me to remove all the dynamite from Dr. Fullerton’s camp. Why would it be there, if not to destroy the smaller fossils? And I had done it.

But there was another use for dynamite. A camp with the right kind of dynamite could use it in self-defence. The robot had explosives. Thanks to my diligent work, our camp did not.

The robot lobbed a shot at the mess tent, which burst into flames with an appalling boom.

There was one thing worse than dynamiting fossils so your rivals couldn’t have them. And that was dynamiting your rivals themselves.

“The KD8102,” I whispered.

Hattie whirled towards me. “Yes. You’re the roboticist. You know how to pilot it, don’t you?”

This was such an about-face that it shocked me. Besides, I didn’t know how. Dr. Fullerton had never got round to teaching me, and I had avoided reminding him so as to put off his discovery of my godforsaken sabotage. “I thought I was irrecoverably mad.”

“Prove me wrong.” She looked around frantically. “I’ll wake the doctors and get us out of here. Keep him away from the fossils. He’s going to destroy the fossils, do you understand?”

“Yes,” I squeaked.

“I’m not sure if it’s loaded, but there’s dynamite in the ammunition case. You should be able to-”

“No,” I said, squeakier still. “Not right now, there isn’t.”

Hattie went so white I thought she’d faint again. “What on earth do you-”

The robot advanced on us. I didn’t have time to explain. I pushed past her and ran out of the tent.

“Lillian!” Hattie shouted. “Come back here!” But she didn’t move to stop me, and that was something.

The KD8102’s cockpit took forever to reach. I think my sense of time was going a bit funny.

I hadn’t been trained for anything like this. The controls were unlabeled, just a bunch of switches, dials, and triggers. I flipped the largest switch, and the lights went on, with the familiar hiss of a steam engine.

As the KD8102 powered up, Dr. Mandeville’s robot swung to face it, pointing its guns.

I’d taken all the dynamite from the ammunition case. I didn’t know if there was a little left within the KD8102 itself, waiting to be lit and thrown. But if I wanted to try anything like that, I had to aim. There was something very much like a rifle sight to one side, with crosshairs and everything, but the levers beside it either lurched it around at random or did nothing. Frustrated, I tried the nearest joystick, and the cockpit lurched crazily as the KD8102 rose to its feet.

It began to run–just as the other robot fired, leaving a crater in the ground inches away.

I tugged the joystick to the left, to the right, hoping to dodge. More shots rang out, slowly–the other robot seemed to take a while to reload, which was perhaps a weakness–and one caught the KD8102 in the leg. I fell across the cockpit and slammed into the wall, and everything went haywire until I regained the controls. But I was catching on. It wasn’t so different from other mobile robots. I was starting to be able to guess how far left the KD8102 would turn when I tugged the joystick left. Forward, and things went faster. Back, and…

Another explosion knocked me off balance. I started to hyperventilate.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hattie running for the fossils.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned in that direction, too.

Hattie.

I pulled the joystick forward and the KD8102 thundered towards Dr. Mandeville’s robot. The ground lurched past. Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned towards me and fired.

I ducked. A second later there was an appallingly large sound, like the entire cockpit was coming apart. I got thrown into the wall again. Something crashed to the ground. But when I looked up, the cockpit was intact.

The thing that crashed to the ground, however, had been the KD8102’s left arm.

I was past hyperventilating and actually making squeaking noises. But I found my way back to the joystick and pushed it all the way forward.

The other robot tried to dodge. I adjusted course to meet it. It was close to the canyon’s lip now. It shot at me again and this time blew the top of the cockpit clean off. There was a horrible clatter, then a deranged cold whistling as the night air blew across the gap.

I was closing. Five metres, maybe. I braced myself.

The KD8102 crashed into the other robot.

It was a cacophony of crashing, grinding, booming, several jarring impacts, a series of lurches like the worst airship turbulence in the world, more crashing and grinding, more impacts, and then I’d like to say everything was silent but really there was only a reduction in the chaos. I peeked out from behind my hands and saw Dr. Mandeville’s robot looming above me, or perhaps beside me. With the way my head spun, I couldn’t tell.

We were on the floor of the canyon. The KD8102 was obviously totaled. Dr. Mandeville’s robot had been partly crushed by the fall and several of its guns looked broken past repair. But not all. It held out a shaky arm and dragged itself back half-upright. It aimed at something–the half-buried fossils further down the canyon, or the fossils in the Whitman-651s, or Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr.

I pulled wildly on the joystick in every direction. Nothing happened except smoke.

I’d failed. My very bravest charge in the KD8102 hadn’t made up for what I’d done before. And those people I’d been working with, who probably never really destroyed a fossil in their lives, wouldn’t make it out of here.

If they lived, they would never be hiring me again.

Then something moved at the edge of the canyon. Not the side where Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr had their camp, but the other side, where I’d never seen anything at all.

I could not understand why or how, but it was the bird-creatures from the séance, solid now. Rasping strange battle-cries. Swarming down into the canyon.

Climbing all over Dr. Mandeville’s crippled robot.

Crashing it back to the ground.

There was loud trilling all over the canyon, like the howling of a wolf pack. I understood the sound. Victory. I wished I had the strength to trill back.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot did not rise.

“Oh, good,” I said weakly. Then I slumped over and curled up into the smallest ball that has ever existed anywhere.

It’s not that I fainted. It’s more that I was overwhelmed into obliviousness. I remember Hattie pulling me out of the KD8102’s wreckage. Someone put bandages on the places that hurt worst, after being thrown all around the cockpit. There was also a lot of shouting that I couldn’t process, and bird-creatures every which way. I couldn’t do a thing, not even rock back and forth.

Hattie towed me back to my tent and left me alone. I meant to just breathe deep for a long time, but somewhere in there I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the tent fabric glowed with early afternoon light and there she was sitting beside me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Well,” said Hattie.

We looked at each other.

“Sorry about that,” I said, and then she picked me up and clung to me. “Ouch. Lace.” She adjusted her grip.

“You are mad,” Hattie said into my shoulder, “and you were right all along. You saved our entire camp in spite of whatever it is that happened to the dynamite, and I am utterly glad that you’re here.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”

I was still a bit worn out.

“They explained everything, you see. The creatures. They have these things that they put against your head to make you understand them. They said you proved yourself, so they came to help you.” Hattie drew back. “But why on earth did you call them birds? Surely you noticed the teeth and the sickle-toes?”

“The what?”

“They’re Troödons, Lillian, or close to it. Obviously they’ve evolved a bit, and we never imagined them with feathers in place of scales. But that’s why there was all that shouting about ‘our bones’. We’ve been literally excavating their ancestors. Can you imagine?”

I refrained from pointing out that I had seen it, and did not need to imagine.

“I imagine,” I said, “other paleontologists will be very excited.”

“Also biologists, anthropologists, the government and pretty much everyone. Dr. Fullerton says we’re expanding the camp, inviting journalists and who knows what else. But I told him no one else was to talk to you today, on account of you being injured and having weak nerves.”

I frowned. I didn’t like the idea talking endlessly to journalists. I also didn’t like the idea of Dr. Mandeville working out what had happened. And I didn’t like the idea of having to explain to Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr about the dynamite.

But I was unspeakably relieved to have Hattie here. And worse than journalists and Dr. Mandeville and Dr. Fullerton combined was the idea of running off without her.

“Besides,” said Hattie, “I wanted to ask you a few questions myself, before the journalists got to you. I think you know what happened to all the dynamite, don’t you?”

I buried my face in my hands and explained everything. How Dr. Mandeville had sent me as a saboteur. How he had lied. How I had believed I was protecting the fossils, when really I was only taking away Dr. Fullerton’s defenses so Dr. Mandeville could move in and destroy him.

“So you see,” I concluded, “I am mad. And stupid, and untrustworthy. And I would have got you all killed.”

Hattie smiled slightly. “Maybe, Lillian. Maybe you would have. But the instant you worked out what you’d done wrong, you leaped into a robot you’d never piloted and you risked your own life to put things right. Do you know how rarely I see that sort of thing, even in men?”

I looked up at her, startled, and she chuckled.

“Mind you, there are parts of this story we will have to finesse for the journalists, and even for Dr. Fullerton, but I can help you with that. If you would still like to have me around, I mean. I was rather unreasonable last night, calling you a ghoul.”

“Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief, “I would like to have you around for an extremely long time.”

“Oh good,” she said. And she kissed me.

It would be unladylike to tell you what happened next. But I did get all that horrid lace off of her at last, and not another word needed to be said.

___
Copyright  2016 Ada Hoffmann

Ada Hoffmann is a queer autistic computer science student from Canada. She occasionally wishes she had gone into paleontology instead. Ada’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Shimmer, AE, and in Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. You can find her online or on Twitter.

Editor’s Note:

Editors are capricious creatures, and since we’re not all operating out of the same playbook (or any playbook at all for that matter) by nature our job is a subjective one. My goal in choosing stories for Giganotosaurus is in line with our stated value of diversity in storytelling in its myriad forms. I search for stories that I hadn’t seen told, by narrators that provide a new or unique perspective.

Publishing one story a month is much harder work than I expected it would. The caliber of stories we receive is truly impressive. I often regret having to let go of a story that was well written, but just not what we needed at a particular moment, or was unable pass the all important “make the hair on my arms stand on end” editorial gut test.

2015 concluded my second year as editor (officially my first full year of choosing stories) and looking at the stories that did make the cut it’s easier to see themes emerge.

In “Serving Girl,” “The Business of Buying and Selling,” “Blow the Moon Out,” and “Quarter Days,” relationships play an important role in navigating the strange new worlds the protagonists find themselves in.

The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song” and “And the Ends of the Earth for Thy Possession,” tackle the complexity of faith in distant futures and alternate worlds.

We published two stories where the fey play a central role: in spite of my usual resistance to all thing faerie land. “Drinking with the Elfin Knight” and the “The Faerie-Maker” took two unconventional takes on faerie, by two protagonists that don’t often have voices in faerie tales.

Resistance and rebellion, no matter the cost, feature prominently in “Greys of War,” “The Body Corporate,” and “Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande.”

And what can I say about “Bears Punching Bears!” except it was one of few stories that made me laugh out loud, with the hijinx of humans on a broke space casino and the search for a new interstellar Elvis impersonator.

Several of these stories are from first time authors, others from established names in the speculative fiction crowd. All of them make me proud to be an editor.

Below is a brief summary of the stories we ran from January to December, with links to reviews or related materials. You can read them online, or download mobi or epub formats for free to read at your leisure.

 

All the Best,

Rashida J. Smith

editor, GigaNotoSaurus

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Greys of War by Sara Puls 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

War and dance in a complex society where color and sense memory is everything. Goodreads

 

Serving Girl by Phoebe Harris 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

A journey of identity and freedom begins after an escape. Goodreads Made the Lady Business Short Fiction Favorites reading list for early 2015

 

Bears Punching Bears! by Tracy Canfield 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

A comedy of errors about an interstellar casino and an unforgettable bear act. Among other things. Goodreads

 

Drinking with the Elfin Knight by Ginger Weil

 (Novelette, Fantasy)

A rural dark fantasy about bad decisions and Child ballads, featuring unfortunate kisses, minor explosions, awkward conversations, and unpleasant things in the woods. Goodreads

 

Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande by A.S. Diev 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

An out-of-work rock’n’roll reporter has a longshot last chance to save her career – if she can survive in a tough border town long enough to cover a surreal murder trial involving a powerful corporation, a flying yacht, an angry worker, a herd of bizarre genetically-modified farm animals, and some very, very bad luck.  Can she dig out the real story, score a job at a legitimate news site, and catch up with her Mastercard bill? Goodreads Reviews by JsunRed Headed Femme, S.Qiouyi Lu, and Real Tegan, including being named by K. Tempest Bradford at IO9 as one of the “Best Short Stories of the Year So Far.”  Included on Renay’s Hugo Spreadsheet 2016

 

The Business of Buying and Selling by Patricia Russo 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

The parents of a colicky baby, with the help of a nosy neighbor, get more than they bargain for in an effort to get some much needed sleep. Goodreads

 

And the Ends of the Earth for Thy Possession by Robert B. Finegold, MD 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

Red Headed Femme called this one, “This is a lovely, lyrical, bittersweet alt-history tale, with Jews on an interstellar transport and automatons and deimons. Quietly heartbreaking.” Goodreads. Review by BiblioGamma

 

Blow the Moon Out by E. Catherine Tobler 

(Novelette, Fantasy)

In the fall of 1957, four girls wander into the Philadelphia woods, in search of a traveling circus. But what they find is more startling than sirens or wolfmen. More amazing than a stray dog shot into space. What they find is themselves–and something besides. Goodreads. Reviews by Locus Magazine  and Cate Gardner.

 

The Body Corporate by Mark Pantoja 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

On a barely settled planet, Ro must negotiate predatory forests and more dangerous corporate contracts to get a corporate soldier to safety and protect all she holds dear. Goodreads Reviews Biblio GammaVideo Game Geek and Locus Magazine. Included on a list of recommended works for Tiptree award nomination.

 

The Faerie-Maker by Nin Harris 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

Faerie land versus Bollywood in this story of claiming your identity and owning your legacy.  Goodreads

 

The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song by Maggie Clark 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

When all but one monk is murdered on a recently added Network planet, a world-weary AI detective and novice partner have to negotiate local beliefs in order to solve the case. As it turns out, it’s not easy to interrogate the lone survivor of a massacre when his people believe he has to keep singing to maintain the universe–and harder still, for centuries-old Detective Bennett, to know how to administer justice when an entire social system stands at fault. Goodreads. Find Maggie’s excellent reflection on “Stars” and other recent stories on her blog.

 

Quarter Days by Iona Sharma 

(Novella, Fantasy)

It’s 1919, and the war is over. The magical practitioners of the City of London have returned from the battlefields to the only home they’ve ever known. But even here – even after seven hundred and thirty-one years of rhythm and ritual – the world is starting to change. Goodreads. Recommended novella at Too Many Books, Not Enough Time and reviews at Stompy Dragons and Locus.


 

It’s award season: For other work to review or nominate, check out the Hugo Nominees 2015 Wiki and Hugo Awards Spreadsheet, i09’s Nebula nominations opening post and the evolving list from AC Wise.

by Sandra M. Odell

Tully brought the skiff in from the south. The blue mountains of Maya’s feet rose against the sky, each toe adorned with a massive gold ring inlaid with cobras crowned with lotus blossoms. By the looks of the gold and white flags, the feet had already been claimed by the Vatican. It must have galled Pope Innocent XVI to accept the UN award for the feet of a Hindu god.

The god’s legs rested to one side, knees slightly bent, thick thighs leading to the fleshy invitation of her belly. Tully couldn’t see the upper arms, but her lower right arm lay across her midriff, while the lower left arm lay flung to the side, a cosmic afterthought. Immense gold bracelets at the wrists framed the wealth of rings on both hands. Beyond her breasts would be the treasures of her shoulders and head. This looked to be a good haul. Plenty of gold and industrial grade diamonds in the rings; uranium and other heavy metals could be extracted from the bones.

A rush of wind brought the mingled smells of iron, copper, patchouli, and a special scent that was distinctly…Maya. Tully couldn’t think of any other way to label it. The think-boy who figured out a way to bottle that scent would make millions.

Marco nodded in the direction of the UN flyers patrolling the boundaries of the fall zone. “The dogs are out in force.”

Tully allowed himself a moment to admire the view of the younger man against the fore rail. Dark skin, dark hair, nice ass. Too bad Marco had signed on as a helper. Tully made it a point to never mix business with pleasure.

“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.

Marco looked up. “How long did you say we have?”

Tully squinted at the flyers circling the distortion in the air high above Maya’s midriff. The tangle of colors, the improbable angles that echoed in his joints, made them want to bend in sympathetic symmetry. He returned his attention to the controls. Gates always made him a little queasy. “It’s still small yet. The UN says three days, maybe four.”

He eased the skiff around Maya’s toes to the tops of her feet dark with henna. Workers on the maze of scaffolding in the ankle creases watched them pass overhead. A message ping warned that the skiff had violated Canadian airspace and should depart immediately. With a slurp of coffee and an acknowledging ping, Tully turned the skiff over the ankles to Maya’s calves. The Canadians had ground-to-air missiles.

Maya had settled into the ground five, maybe ten feet. In the muggy heat, it wouldn’t take long for the god’s skin to pale to a meaty gray, then she would start to swell. And stink. It would be bad. With any luck and a returned call from Ali Bob, they’d be long gone by then.

A mob of maybe five-hundred strong milled around the Red Cross tent city set well back from Maya’s out-flung left hand. They screamed at the flyers, at Her Most Revered Corpse, at the scrapper teams plundering Maya’s remains, at the aid workers searching for survivors in the surrounding rubble of stone, steel, and shattered lives. Radio chatter claimed at least three-million dead, possibly as high as five-and-a-half million.

Marco settled on the front deck. “You think the mummers are already here?”

Tully took another sip of coffee. After the bumpy 18-hour non-stop to the sub-continent and the four hour flight inland, the inside of his eyelids felt like 40-grit sandpaper. “I’ve never been to a fall where the mummers didn’t get there first.”

Marco put his back to the railing, dada locks flapping around him. “I used to think about them all the time as a kid, you know? I still have every issue of the Mummers’ Parade.”

Great, a fall fanatic. Tully hadn’t scoped that out when he took Marco on. It was going to be a long scrap.

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Dagda fell first, his ornate leather armor filled with the sun and his hair a gold tide in the Irish Sea. Millions dead, two thirds of Dublin destroyed. Numb with grief and the scope of the devastation, the search for survivors continued until the sky split wide and the worms tumbled down for the feast.

Massive, eyeless, segmented horrors, they swarmed over the body, tied themselves in knots to gouge out massive chunks of flesh and bone. They devoured every bit of skin or drop of blood, no matter where it fell – concrete, wood, stone, metal, or human flesh.

Twelve hours later, the sated worms rose from the devastation and returned through the hole in the sky to the unknown, leaving a cold, sinking confusion in their wake.

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Tully set down at a clear point half way between Maya’s ankles and the backs of her knees. Ten minutes later, the UN approved his acreage request, and together he and Marco secured the skiff, pitched their tents, and set the claim lines. This close, the smell of patchouli was overwhelming. It coated the inside of Tully’s mouth, clung to his clothes and hair.

A dozen or so other independent scrappers had set up similar camps. A few had already set their hooks and started torching lines into the blue skin to mark for later harvest. So long as they stayed clear of the choice bits, most corps and countries didn’t have a problem with the smaller licensed operations picking at the scraps.

While Marco made fresh coffee and heated dinner pouches, Tully went around to other camps for introductions and scuttlebutt. One or two crew chiefs greeted him with suspicion, newer claimants judging by their high-strung nerves and clean skiffs, but seasoned scrappers welcomed him with cautious camaraderie.

Farther down the calves, he was pleased to find Lovie Tepaka leading her own team. They’d worked together at Maniisoq when Sedna fell, and he’d pulled her out of the wreckage in Athens back in ’21 when a stretch of scaffolding collapsed under the weight of Athena’s skin.

Lovie offered him a flask and a comfortable crate for a quick sit. “You hear about Richmond and his crew?”

Tully took a sip, passed the flask back. “Yeah. Did any make it out?”

“Not a one. The UN said they lost maybe a thousand men and a couple of million in hardware to the worms.”

Tully let out a low whistle. “Were their estimates off for the gate?”

She shrugged. “No idea. I’m just glad I got held up with repairs. You?”

“Just came off of Apollo and couldn’t close on the payout in time. I did okay, though.” He did even better if he didn’t count how Edgars and Victor had walked after hearing the news, or how he’d had to scramble to find a new hand willing to sit on call until the next godfall. Tully couldn’t blame them, though. There were old scrappers and bold scrappers, but. . .

Lovie nodded and took a drink. She offered the flask a second time, slipped it back in her shirt pocket when he refused. “It’s rough work, you know? Just because you make it in doesn’t mean you’ll. . .”

Her words gave way to uncertainty, a touch of darkness and fear not at all like the Lovie he knew.

Tully slid his foot to the side until his knee bumped hers. “Hey.”

Lovie blinked, shook her head. She gave him a lopsided smile. “Sorry. Scrapper brain. You know how it is.”

“All the time.”

The touch of fear returned, then settled out in her shrug. “It’s like it’s on the tip of my tongue.”

Tully understood that, too, fear and all.

Lovie looked past him and made a small, irritated sound. “Shit. Mummers.”

“Hmmm?” Tully turned around in time to see a troupe of masked figures in brightly colored robes, playing drums and bells, go by in two skiffs. “Yeah. Marco was asking about them.”

“One of your new boys?”

“The only one.”

Lovie looked at him sidelong. “He cute?”

“Of course. Knows his shit, too.” Tully watched the troupe skirt the outside of the claims barriers. “He’s hot on the mummers.”

Lovie spat in disgust. “You kidding me? When Ukko fell in ‘23 they came skulking around our camp in the middle of the night saying they only wanted to touch our torch sites so they could celebrate him. We got so tight for time driving them off that we almost didn’t make it out before the alarm sounded. Nearly lost our entire haul.”

The mummers stopped on the far side of Maya’s knees to make camp, well away from the Red Russians extensive claim to the thighs. The whisper of their bells was lost in the whine and sizzle of torches as nearby crews methodically butchered the dead god.

Tully hitched his shoulders. “It takes all kinds.”

She shook her head. “I never thought I’d see the day when you went soft.”

He stood, putting his hands to his lower back. “It’s nothing about soft. I just don’t see a reason to pull a gun when the other guy’s got nothing but a butter knife.”

Lovie laughed long and hard and got to her feet. She slapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the Tully I know. Hey, what about Maui? I thought you’d be busy fishing by now.”

Tully grinned. “I get a big enough payout this time and I will be.”

She slapped him on the shoulder. “Keep the dream alive, man.”

Best advice he’d gotten all year.

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The top two inches of Maya’s skin curled over itself and dropped slowly to the deck of the skiff secured halfway up her lower calf. Properly cured, the epidermis could be fashioned into fireproof leather, or body armor that could stop a .50 caliber round. The trick was getting it off the body without passing out from the stench of burning meat.  Tully extinguished the torch, set it on the plank, then climbed down the scaffolding to the skiff three meters below.

Marco stacked the folds of blue skin into large, non-reactive plastic bins. Buckets at the corners of the box spigots captured anything expressed under the weight of the folds. He wore a godskin jumpsuit and industrial grade nitrile gloves identical to Tully’s. “This shit gets worse all the time.”

The complaint sounded low and fuzzy through the comm in Tully’s breather.

Tully stripped off the breather, gagging with that first breath. Someone had filled his mouth with dead rats and cotton, and added lead weights to his eyelids.   He and Marco had set to work immediately after dinner the night before, and hadn’t slept more than a dozen winks apiece since then.

He pulled off his welder’s goggles. “Still pays well, that’s all we got to…where the hell are the spare filters?”

“Don’t ask me. They were there when I changed mine out a little while ago.”

“Well, they’re not there now. I can’t work up there without…here they are. You got to put things back where they belong. We don’t have time to go looking for every little thing.”

Marco stared at Tully for a tense moment then turned back to stacking. “Whatever, man.”

Fuck. Tully ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to make some coffee.”

Marco shrugged.

Tully went forward and set water to boil in the thermos. All around the skiff, scrapper crews worked double time stripping everything of value from the dead god, an efficiency of gore. Far above, a swarm of flyers surrounded the gate as it throbbed and thrummed, intent on mapping its every nuance.

He was getting to old for this shit. His father had been a scrapper before he‘d settled down to raise a family. Exercise, fresh air, good money, his father said. The good old days. He never mentioned the broken bones, the stench, having to leave a payout behind or risk not making it out in time.

Tully dropped two coffee bags into the now boiling water and waited. He would make it big with this haul and catch the first flight out to Maui. No more scrapping for him.

When the thermos timer flashed, he filled two mugs and carried them aft. He nudged Marco with an elbow. “Hey.”

The younger man looked over his shoulder, squinted through his blood-splattered goggles.

Tully held out a mug. “Take five.”

Marco pulled off his breather and accepted Tully’s apology.

They sat together in caffeinated silence until Marco spoke up: “What’s it like for them, you think?”

“For who?”

“The Indians. They had another god fall. This is, what, the third? Fourth?”

Tully rubbed his eyes. “India is a country, Hindu is a religion.”

Marco rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”

The coffee was defective. Tully didn’t feel any more awake. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you have to get it wrong. Does India care? Sure they do. They just lost millions of people and a major city. Do the Hindus care? Of course. Ganga, Shiva, and now Maya. Three gods in eight years line a lot of wallets, but can’t be easy on the faith.”

Marco grunted. “You think they still believe?”

“The Christians are still hanging on after Jehovah fell, so why not the Hindus? Seems to me they’d have the better claim. They still got hundreds of gods to go.”

The silence stretched another few sips. Marco crumpled his cup. “I saw the mummers last night while you were setting up the bucket feeds down below. They were singing and dancing up a storm, the skiffs all lit up like they were having a party or something.”

Tully stifled a yawn. “Mmmm.”

“You ever think about them? Why they do all that shit?”

“Not really.”

Marco sucked on the ends of his mustache. “Why not?”

Tully considered their progress since the first cut. They should be able to make it to the top of Maya‘s right calf by early afternoon. If they busted ass, they could make it a third of the way up her left calf before midnight. “No harm, no foul so long as they keep away from my operation.”

“Yeah, but what’s in it for them?” Marco persisted. “It’s not like the gods can hear them, so why the big party every time one of ‘em comes floating down from the sky? You never hear about them getting excited about the scavengers.”

Tully chuckled. “Dead gods don’t eat you if you get in the way.”

The younger man fiddled with the cuffs of his jumpsuit. “Yeah. Listen, if it’s okay with you I was thinking about heading that way tonight. Check them out, see what’s going on.”

Tully shook his head. “No can do. I need you here.”

“What’s to need? It’d only be for a couple of hours, and the radio says we’ve got two days at least.”

Tully yawned with his whole body. Maybe he needed a coffee IV. “A couple of hours is another five yards of skin. You signed on to work, not get a leg up with a tambourine band.”

Marco snorted. “Work shit. I can go when we bed down.”

“If we can spare the hours, you’re going to need to sleep so we can keep going.”

Marco laughed; the sound died when he noticed Tully didn’t join in. “That’s bullshit. You know that, right?”

Tully pointed to the gate writhing far overhead. The unraveling knot of reality had taken on a blue iridescence the color of Maya’s skin. “I know what I see, and that says you stay.”

Marco threw his cup into the garbage. “Fuck that, man. You can’t make me work all the time. I got rights.”

Not enough coffee, never enough sleep, and Marco mouthing off. Not what Tully needed. “Sure I can. You work or I slash your percentage.”

Marco got to his feet. “The hell you will. It’s a piss ass fifteen percent, but it’s mine. We got a contract.”

Marco glared down at him with such pure loathing Tully had to laugh. He stood, topping the younger man by a good three inches. “You got to live long enough to collect, kid. Get on up there with the torch and I’ll spell you here. I want at least another eight yards before we break for lunch.”

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By the time Pele fell on Kilauea, humanity had learned to identify the look of the gate that set the tocks ticking for the worms’ arrival.

The dead gods promised resources to a starving world: gold; uranium; calcium; iron; sulfur; phosphates; diamonds, and more. Soon every country had a plan to get scrapper teams to a godfall site and safely away before the worm gate opened.

The faithful revolted against this final insult. The bombing of Mecca when Jehovah fell on Jerusalem and nations divided the remains. The dirty nuclear strike that wiped out Rio de Janeiro after Ci’s harvest. How the Odinists gutted the Icelandic president and eight members of his cabinet when they approved the butchering of beautiful Baldur.

You will not take our gods from us, part them out like so many fish or bits of wood, they said. We shall remember. 

The world answered with grim practicality.  Look to the dead for your memories. We do what we must to survive.

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Ali Bob’s arrival an hour after lunch saved Tully from listening to more of Marco’s whining.

The broker peered into the skiff’s hold with his flashlight. “Not much to show for your work, eh?”

Tully snorted and leaned against the aft rail. Ali Bob claimed to have his father’s sex appeal and his mother’s love of fine clothes. Tully could have added bad breath, body odor, and a few less complimentary qualities to the list, but the man usually paid the best prices so he kept quiet. “Give me a break. We hit the clock last night and haven’t so much as stopped to take a piss.”

Ali Bob dropped the flashlight in his linen suit coat pocket. “Ah Tully. Always so poetic.”

Fifty meters overhead, Marco secured the last of the scaffolding to the topmost edge of the lower calf. “Good to go!”

Tully moved to the skiff controls. “Hang on a minute.”

He roused the engines, released the hooks, and guided the skiff up until it hovered below the top scaffolding planks. While Ali Bob wiped his hands clean, Tully helped Marco secure the mooring hooks. He passed Marco the torch. “Get on it.”

Near-by crews crawled their way up Maya’s fleshy calves, ants conquering a tree brought down in a storm. Three acres ankle way, Lovie’s team peeled away massive strips of epidermis and sectioned off the first layers of the dermis from the lower calves. Above the knees, the Red Russians stripped muscle and fat from both thighs. Only that morning they’d shot down two skiffs that had nosed too close to their claim.

The largest crews had teams on the ground to suction run-off blood and viscera into 55-gallon drums. Radio chatter had it the Japanese working the left shoulders had figured out a way to automate the entire ground clean up. Big surprise.

Ali Bob mopped his brow and gestured over the side of the skiff. “Those buckets are filled with blood?”

Tully nodded. “Yeah, most of it from box run off, but three from burn weepage. We should have twelve, maybe fourteen, by the time we pack it in. Get me a couple more men and another skiff and I can double that, maybe triple.”

The broker folded his handkerchief and returned it to his breast pocket. “My crews are already spoken for. You are aware – ”

The high whine of the torch split the conversation in two. Ali-Bob’s penciled eyebrows expressed his opinion of the interruption. He leaned in towards Tully and continued. “You have heard that the gate is growing faster than expected?”

“What? Really?” Bad news. Very bad. Tully looked at the sky. The gate still thrummed blue, but didn’t seem any larger. Not really? Maybe? He didn’t have the sensors and gadgets to tell for certain. “Nothing’s come over the radio. Are you sure?”

“Am I ever not sure when I share information?”

True. Ali Bob always gave good intelligence. “Any idea why?”

The broker spread his hands, palms up. “The humidity? The equinox? The phase of the moon? The average rainfall on the Serengeti? My sources did not say. Sometimes the gates open faster than others. You know that.”

“Well, did you bother to tell anyone else?”

Ali Bob arched a brow and sniffed. “Of course.”

That was a load off. How long until word came across the radio? “How long do we have?”

“Until midday tomorrow at the least. I would, however, make certain to stow your harvest in case of the unexpected.”

Easy for him to say. “Crap.”

“Have you seen the French water drill? Cuts through dermal and sub dermal like that – ” Ali Bob snapped his fingers. “ – and straight to the muscle. Such clean lines, too. Three months ago at Hongor I watched a team excise whole tendons from Ay Dede, three meters long at least. Now, you harvest muscle tissue and tendon and I can offer you double the going rate for your poundage. Doctors in Istanbul are screaming for all the muscle tissue they can get to study limb regeneration.”

Tully rubbed his face. He needed sleep, not borderline panic. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He pinged Marco’s comm. Marco grunted in acknowledgement. “Change of plans. Clear a space. I’ll be right up with a torch.”

A three note signal sounded over the radio. “Gate update on all channels. All channels, gate update in three, two, one. . .”

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Tiamat. Ameratsu. Dionysus. Osiris. Marduk. Hera. Monkey. Ah Muzencab. Xi He.

Godstuff expanded new horizons of scientific discovery, lifted third-world countries out of suffering, and challenged the underpinnings of philosophies and religions worldwide.

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Tully jerked his head up, blinking against the glare of a passing searchlight from a UN flyer overhead. An uncomfortable warmth spread over his left thigh and knee. He looked down, swore, and turned off his torch. How long had he been asleep? Couldn’t have been too long. “Marco?”

The younger man was nowhere to be seen. Not in the skiff, not on the ground as far as he could tell. Louder: “Marco?”

The comm line remained clear.

Searchlights from UN skiffs swept back and forth over the beleaguered corpse, catching the glistening stretches of bare muscle and fat. Spotlights from the ground made taffy of the workers’ shadows, stretching them to impossible lengths. Local crews pushed themselves to eke out the last few feet of harvest before they had to abandon Maya to the scavengers. From farther up the body came the muted pop of ribs pulled free. Or maybe vertebrae. He was too tired to tell.

Tully scrambled down to the skiff, hitting the deck two steps before he expected. He clutched the scaffolding until the world stopped shaking. “Marco?”

In the musty, sour space below deck, he found Marco’s bloodstained jumpsuit and breather in a heap on the younger man’s bunk. “Shit.”

The faint buzz of an echo came from Marco’s breather.

Tully ripped off his own breather, swallowing past the up swell of bile. Suit and breather left behind, same with the rifle in the rack. He hurried back to the deck and looked thighward. No sign of Marco, and the mummer camp was lost in the glare of the work lights. “I don’t need this right now. I. Don’t. Fucking. Need. This.”

What to do? What to do? Drag Marco back to the job? Had to find him first.

Tully focused on the bloody expanse of his harvest claim stretching to an equally bloody gate far overhead. Red? How did it get red? What happened to blue? Never mind.

Coffee. More coffee. Tully made himself a quick thermos, burned his tongue on the first swallow. “Fah.”

He’d left the torch perched on the corner of the scaffolding. Should he pack it up? Another swallow, and a third. He’d have to finish the packing, secure the barrels of blood and plasma down below. Load the skiff himself. It would go faster if Marco had hung around. Fucking Marco. Fucking mummers. Fucking fuck fuck!

The radio was filled with the usual prep chatter for clear out. Crews called in commands, supply requests. A few called in for load out clearance. No news about the gate. If he held off until dawn to load out, he could get at the subdermal layers, maybe even the fat or some of Ali Bob’s muscle. A bigger pay out meant fishing and no more scrapping. Ever.

Screw Marco. Let him live it up with the tambourine brigade. He’d drop the kid off at the nearest bus stop on the way out.

Tully carried the thermos, a spare breather, and the rifle back up the scaffolding. He was stupid tired, not tired stupid. You never worked a scrap alone without a gun in easy reach just in case.

He sparked the torch to life and set to work. 40 grueling minutes later, the strip of epidermis came away and dropped to the skiff. He set to work on the dermis, not particularly concerned with size or shape, only finished work. No payout if he didn’t get the scrap out. He eased the first chunk down the first two rungs and let it drop. One down, who knew how many to go. He exhaled and kept working.

Cut, twist, pull, drop. The cut lines blurred; his hands began to shake. Blood and bits of detritus splattered his goggles. Three pieces, four. Patchouli and burnt meat curled insidious and thick through the filter. Five, six. Had he finished the coffee already? Tully shook his head and kept working.

The world began to run like watercolors in the rain, spilling over his hands. Maya smiled down at him, wide blue lips opening to devour his name in the wild abandon of her hunger. The torch traced a path across the sky, a bright white star carving his name on the back of her tongue. Maya would swallow him whole and let him fish out the rest of his days. Yeah, Marco could rot in the belly of a scavenger. It would serve him right, running off like that. Dumb kid. Dumb. . .

The torch dropped from Tully’s hand. He jerked backwards and went down on his right knee. It popped, and a grinding fire exploded up his leg. His stomach clenched and he barely got the breather off before the coffee came rushing out and over the railing.

Bone ground against bone, screaming under the skin. Tully dropped to his side, praying someone would knock him out, cut his leg off, fucking kill him it hurt so bad. He lay there until the haze of pain receded, staring up at the dull black sky. No stars, nothing but the occasional UN flyer and the red gate twisting in on itself.

Tully began to cry. He couldn’t do it. No way he could pack it all in now. Make it down to the skiff and the radio? Hell, he couldn’t even reach the gun to fire a couple of shots to attract attention.

You got to live long enough to collect, kid.

Tully closed his eyes, only for a moment, and fell into Maya’s waiting mouth.

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Isis. Buffalo Woman. Inanna. Amadioha. Ngalyad. Pan.

The godfall treasures inspired a greed that shattered treaties, destroyed governments, left millions dead, and millions more homeless.  The have nots became the haves, the haves became the want mores. Riding on the coattails of that greed came the realization that the worms could open their massive mouths and someday take it all away.

One by one the gods fell, and humanity learned to adapt.

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Maya spit Tully out and he slammed into the railing. He put weight on his right leg to stand and fell back with a scream, a spike of fire rammed through his knee.

The scaffolding lurched again. Tully gripped the railing and pulled himself upright, biting through his lip with the focus of a pain he could control. Voices and the clamor of sirens filled the night. Metal screamed against metal. The scaffolding bucked under him. Maya jerked, rumbled, twitched on the Richter Scale. No, something inside her moved.

Above spun the gate, an angry throbbing red. White threads curled around the edges and dropped from the hole, swelling, stretching, black mouths gaping. They fell on Maya’s belly like calving glaciers, ripples causing the body to convulse. Worms. The gate was open and the scavengers had come for him. “No.”

He was going to die in the belly of a worm.

Fear trumped pain. Tully tumbled to the skiff and dragged himself to the controls. Over the staccato radio chatter and the howl of lifter engines came a strange hollow chanting from below, the tinny jangle of tambourines. He pulled himself along the rail until he reached the front of the skiff.

Far below, in the strobe and shadows of the U.N. search lights, figures moved at the base of his claim. He caught the flash of gold, the swirl of scarlet. How many? Five? Seven? More? The figures gathered around the blood buckets, and there came the pop of a seal breaking open. Tully clutched the rail. “Hey! The gate’s open! Get out of there!”

He swung the skiff spotlight around and down. A dozen mummers stood around the buckets, hands raised. One looked up at the light with a fixed, filigree smile, then turned its attention to a figure on its knees in front of one of the buckets.

“Are you crazy? I said the gate is open!”

Maya’s body jerked again, her flesh trembling under the assault of hunger. The skiff bounced against the god’s bloody flesh with a meaty, metallic squelch that trembled through the deck.

The mummers didn’t move. The kneeling figure turned its face to the light, and Tully’s reality slid sideways. Marco stared up at him with filmy, white eyes, lids swelling and stretching to seal them away from the light. His mouth stretched beyond the limits of flesh, a lipless black pit ringed with jagged teeth. “I am become. I am become,” the younger man sang above it all. “I am hunger, and I am become.”

Other voices joined his. Tully swung the light around and something twisted and maggot white bored through his mind. Worms as far as the eye could see. One scooped up a mouthful of people and debris. Another plunged headfirst into Maya’s bloody flesh, twisting itself to tear away chunks of muscle and fat.

Crowds of mummers raised their hands and sang as the scavengers rolled and thrashed back and forth, shattering matchstick scaffolding, sending men and women screaming to their deaths. Worms everywhere, sliding over one another to reach Maya’s body. Fires burned unchecked, equally hungry and destructive. Black smoke poured from punctured fuel tanks, blotting out the stars.

Reality jammed a railroad spike through Tully’s left eye, the god eye sacrificed for knowledge. He focused the light on his hired hand far below. No one left behind. No. One. “Marco! We have to get out of here! We – ”

Marco dipped both hands into the bucket and bent his head to drink. The mummer’s chant rose to a strange ululation that clashed with the strident voices coming over the skiff radio: “All remaining crews are to evacuate the site immediately. Repeat, all remaining – ” “Get your skiffs out of here! Leave the carts, dammit!” “Immediately. UN forces – ”

And Lovie’s voice: “Tully, are you still there? Jesus Christ, get your ass out!”

Marco lifted his bloody face to the light. His eyes bulged like blind fruits above the black maw, bone white hairs burrowing into his cheeks. In the pool of light, Marco stretched like old-fashioned newspaper putty, distorted along the X&Y to an infinity shown in his beatific, bloody smile.

Tully’s mind filled with a throbbing sonic scream, the gut wrenching sound to herald the end of all things. Death, rebirth, and death again. People, civilizations, gods. Changed, made new. Renewed. People made new. The death of faith, the birth of reason, someday to cycle round again.

Marco expanded, became a bloated, corpse white, writhing creature of endless hunger for sweet god flesh and all reality beyond. As the newborn worm plunged into Maya’s bloody flesh, the mummers raised their arms and sang its praises.

The spotlight popped and sprayed Tully with shards of hot glass. The world went dark for whole seconds before the gate aurora and the strobing lights of fleeing ships brought it back to life. Far below, the mummers, the thing Marco had become, were gone.

Tully stood at the rail, unable to move, until a yellow spotlight from above pinned him to the deck. A voice, harsh and commanding: “Get your ass up here now!”

He turned his face to the light, stepped away from the rail, and collapsed.

A cargo skiff. Rough hands. Lovie’s voice from somewhere near: “Get us clear!”

Up, up, up they went and headed north at full speed. Away from the god, away from the worms. And something else Tully couldn’t remember.

Two men carried him down below to Lovie’s bunk space, stripped him out of his jumpsuit, splinted his knee. Lovie clambered down the stairs soon after, shaking with anger and something more. Fear. She was afraid. “What the hell were you thinking, huh? Were you trying to get yourself killed? Jesus, Tully, I can’t believe you.”

One of the men shot him up with something. Tully’s bicep burned and then a languid warmth poured through him. “Sorry. I had to – ”

“Had to what? There’s nothing so important that you needed to hang around back there. You heard the claxons. You could have been killed.”

“I wanted to get to the buckets.” Tully blinked the world back into focus. “Yeah.”

Lovie dismissed the men, grabbed a towel, and began to clean his face and hair. “Next time leave ‘em. What about your new man?”

Something white and barbed slithered through Tully’s memories and out again. He looked at the bulkhead.

Lovie swore and kept working. She fed him sips of whiskey until the world took on a golden hue. “I should have left you, you know that, right?”

Tully nodded, drifting in the shallows of her words.

“I should have, too. Those things were, were. . .”

Her hands stilled on his cheeks. She looked over his head, her gaze distant, fixed on something he could almost see and was terrified he might. “There were things, weren’t there? I thought. . .”

Tully licked his lips. “Thought what?”

Lovie shook her head and chuckled under her breath, an uneasy, brittle sound. “Never mind. It’s not like I could never leave my man Tully behind.”

She stood. “Anyway, I’m heading topside. You rest here, and I’ll check on you later.”

He grabbed her hand. “Don’t leave me.”

She leaned down and kissed him on the lips. “I got to check on my boys. I’ll be right back.”

Tully couldn’t breathe. He smelled patchouli and blood, heard the distant ringing of tambourines. He held on tight to the only proof he had that he hadn’t been left behind while the scavengers devoured his world. “But you’re coming back, right?”

He couldn’t make sense of the words, but they felt important so he said them.

“I said I would, didn’t I?”

He nodded – “Yeah, yeah you did.” – and let her go, his hand cold without someone to hold onto.

Another kiss, and Lovie walked out, closing the door behind her.

Tully settled back on the pillow, thoughts circling themselves like sharks. He’d ask Lovie for another shot of whatever it was when she came back. She was coming back, right? She wouldn’t leave him alone with. . .something.

Tully shivered in spite of himself and burrowed under the thin blanket. He stared at the bulkhead until visions of scavengers gave way to fishing boats off the coast of Maui, and he closed his eyes.

___
Copyright 2016 Sandra M. Odell

Sandra lives in Washington state with her husband, two sons, and grumpy cat. She is an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE.

by Iona Sharma

(i) Candlemas

On the Monday, Grace put the advertisement for the new apprentice on the door of their chambers; on the Tuesday, she had a couple of interested, and uninteresting, respondents; and on Wednesday, it was the seven hundred and thirty-first Candlemas of the City of London, so Grace went out with all the other Salt practitioners and raised the year’s magic for the City’s lamps, lighting Ned’s as well as her own; and then on Thursday, a little after five o’clock in the morning, Ned knocked violently on her bedroom door and shouted, “Grace! Wake up!”

They’d been raising light magic in the gardens till dusk, and afterwards they had watched the tapers burn away the night into the small hours. If she only had an apprentice, Grace thought ignobly, she could send them to see what was wanted. And then Ned knocked again, and she was on her feet looking for her dressing gown and slippers.

“What is it?” she shouted through the door, thinking reflexively of Zeppelins, and then shaking her head to clear it of that sudden image of fire in the dark.

“A boy came from the station,” Ned was saying as Grace stepped out of her door, casting more light as she went, hanging a luminous globe off the roof. Ned was fully dressed with his battered Virgil closed on his thumb; he didn’t sleep at night, now. “They’re asking for every practitioner – there’s been an accident on the railway bridge.”

Grace breathed in sharply. “Thanet?”

Ned shook his head as they went downstairs. “Not here. Said something about a girl over the water. Grace, this may be our fault,” – and then they were through their chambers and on Middle Temple Lane, standing on cobbles gleaming with last night’s rain.

There was no light in the sky yet and no stars, but across the water, Grace could make out the orange glow on the bridge by St Paul’s. “Come on,” she called to Ned, who was rarely outside these days and catching his breath. They hurried through the deserted gardens, down towards the Embankment. There were not many carriages and motorcars on the roadway at this hour, and over them Grace could hear the distant shouting, the crackling of flames. Looking over her shoulder, she could see the lights coming on throughout the chambers surrounding the gardens, and other figures in flapping mishmashes of hastily-grabbed clothing.

At the entrance to the station, they came up short at a police cordon. The constable looked askance at Grace’s dressing gown – and at the darkness of her skin, no doubt – and then at Ned’s general unkempt air. Reflexively, she and Ned both dipped their heads so their practitioners’ bars were visible through their ears.

“We’re Salt,” Ned said, quickly. “I worked on the signalling systems for the railway.”

“Thank goodness,” the constable said, with unexpected fervour. “You’re to go through.”

On the other side, all was heat and light. Grace realised at once that the cordon had been a magical one made of both Salt and tape: because suddenly the smoke was choking and the heat a vivid presence, and the surface of the platform warm beneath her feet. A half-dozen practitioners had raised their lights and she could see the spilled railway carriages as great sinister bulks looming out of the darkness. Running the debris patterns backwards in her mind, she imagined the accident: a train run straight into the back of another, but the one in front made of stronger stuff so it had stayed upright, its engine and carriages still standing straight on the bridge, with the other train on the station’s landward side, now spilled behind it like confetti. Out of those strewn islands the flames were rising, and in the gloom beneath, there was the shadowy suggestion of moving limbs.

“Oh,” she said, stricken by it, and felt rather than heard Ned step forwards in the dark beside her. His presence was comforting and close, and Grace dismissed the protective instinct telling her to push him back behind the cordon.

“Are you the magical folk?” called another policeman, and without waiting for an answer. “This way, ma’am, please, please…”

Closer-to, Grace could make out people being helped from the shattered carriages by way of splintered doors and windows; others were banging inside, waiting for the rescuers to come. Grace saw Ned look unhappily up and down the track, towards the signalling wires.

“Can’t do anything about that now,” he said, and using his cane to balance, jumped heavily down onto the trackside.

As Grace watched, he leant down beside a woman just pulled from a carriage, and helped her drink some water from a canteen. Without even thinking about it, Grace had begun work herself: she cast spells for cooling and healing, of things as well as people, drawing water up from the river, dumping it on the flames, then beginning again. As the light appeared in the sky, and brightened, more and more Salt folk arrived from Temple: they worked in concert where they could, as to make better use of whatever power they had, and around them the flames burned blue-white with gas. By the time the sun was clipping the horizon Grace’s eyes had blurred with smoke and tiredness. Brought to herself by the aches in her muscles and the ash burning in her throat, she looked around her at the chilled dawn in the east along the river, and the bleak aspect it gave to the passengers and the practitioners, their bedroom slippers incongruous in the light. The fires were still burning low, bright beneath the wooden railway carriages.

“Grace.” Ned was leaning against the platform edge below her, looking up. “Use me, if you must,” he said, with his right hand on his heart.

Grace checked he was fully supported against the edge before she reached into him and did it. It wasn’t perhaps good practice to take the heart out of a layman, but Ned’s qualification as such was dubious, and her doubts were eclipsed by gratefulness as she felt the strength of it.

And, then, somehow, it was morning: the light had risen sufficiently for her to make out the opposite bank of the river, and the slow progress of the injured being taken across the bridge. It was only then, as Grace kept herself still, trying not to fall off the platform edge, that she noticed the flock of starlings fluttering above her, making a neat, low circle about the station. Their wings were soaked through and raining down water, damping the very last of the flames. Grace wheeled around, heedless of anyone who might be in the way, and called out, “Thanet? Is that you? Where are you? Thanet!”

“Grace!” Thanet called, hobbling across the platform, having ducked out from behind one of the shelters. He might have been there all the time, Grace realised gratefully; the three of them in their familiar formation without knowing. “Grace, I’m here!”

Below them, Ned turned, recognisable more by his gait than anything else, his face and hair smeared with ash. “Thanet? Oh, thank goodness.”

Ned leaned against the platform edge again, tipping his head back. Under the starling rain and the efforts of all of them, the fire had died down to smoke, billowing and dissipating across the water. Grace looked down at Ned and up at the remains of the wreckage, and said, “Shall we?”

Between them, Grace and Thanet got Ned back up to platform level, they paid their respects to the exhausted-looking police constables lining the bridge, and the three of them walked slowly and quietly along the Embankment, watching the first of the day’s trams rattle past.

“We were afraid,” Ned said to Thanet, as Grace rummaged for the keys to chambers, “that you might have been on the train.”

“I was late coming back,” Thanet said, his voice hoarse. “It was a girl in trouble, you understand? Didn’t want the neighbours to see. I was walking across the road bridge when I saw the crash. And then, you know, I thought –” He paused, looking pale in the rising light. “Ned, did we do this? I mean – if, say, the signals were faulty, and the train—”

“There will be an investigation,” Ned said, heavily. “We’ll find out.”

“I suppose Mrs Throckley’s not in,” Grace said, opening the door. “After you, Ned. We left in rather a hurry.”

Thanet chuckled grimly as they went inside their sitting-room and opened the curtains, which did little to address the dimness. To make light was properly Salt magic, but Thanet did it regardless. “You know,” he said, “we should think about electricity.”

“We don’t need electricity, we have magic,” Grace said, and then smiled a little. “I suppose they said the same thing about the wheel, once upon a time. Tea for all of us, I think.”

She used the gas rather than magic to heat the kettle, handed steaming sweet cups to both Thanet and Ned, and said nothing for a few minutes. Thanet was methodically picking ashes and burnt fragments out of his hair, and Ned was sitting on the ottoman by the fireplace, his hands shaking violently around the cup. Grace watched them both, and wondered. She had run the practice mostly alone from 1916; after that the nature of Ned’s war service had been mysterious, while Thanet’s had involved driving ambulances around unexploded shells. “If you want to get some sleep,” she said, after a moment, “I won’t open up yet.”

They both nodded, and Grace picked up the loop of heavy keys in time to hear the knock from the other side of the oak door. Normally their housekeeper, Mrs Throckley, would have answered it, but there was silence. Grace thought, knowing her, she had probably gone to the station to see how she could help.

Grace opened the door and looked down at the girl waiting beyond it, perhaps twelve or thirteen, with perfectly oiled braids over both shoulders and a neat dress and coat. “Hello? Can we help you?”

“My name’s Kira,” said the girl, peering back at Grace in her dressing-gown, all-over ash, blood and grit. “I saw your advertisement. I want to learn magic.”

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(ii) Lady Day

 

“Now, before the inquest there’s a libel listed,” Grace said, and was amused to note the slightly hectoring note in her voice. She thought of the old Salt practitioner, Mrs Macomber, who’d taught her in Liverpool when she was a girl of ten, and silently apologised through time. “I’m a practitioner ad litem on the case. You remember what that means?”

Kira, whose braids were done up in blue bows today, looked up at her seriously. “It means,” she said, “that you help the, er. The plaintiff-or-defendant. On a magical case. If they don’t know about it already, I mean. Magic.”

Grace waited, and they advanced a few steps through the Temple gardens, but there was nothing else forthcoming. “I suppose that’ll do,” she said. “And after that, there’s the coroner’s inquest into the rail crash. It may be rather upsetting,” she added, severely. “Talk of dead bodies and suchlike. Are you sure you’ll be able to sit through it?”

Kira nodded, and sotto voce, Thanet murmured: “Still trying to put her off, are you?”

Grace startled. “Kira, we’re early,” she said, looking out over at the gardens, at junior counsel bolting their breakfast in the sun. “Take sixpence and get some rolls from the baker’s, there’s a good girl.”

“For you as well, Miss Thanet?” Kira asked.

Thanet nodded. “Thank you, dear,” she said, and Kira ran off. When she’d gone Grace turned to Thanet with a sigh; once, long ago, they’d not had to fetch their own breakfast. Grace’s father – and Mrs Macomber too, for that matter – would no doubt credit the imminent triumph of the revolutionary proletariat with that particular change in the weather.

“Not putting her off,” Grace said, “at least, not for the reasons you’re thinking. I said I’d let her follow me about and see how she goes, but I’d half-decided to take the notice down before she turned up. Perhaps we don’t need an apprentice, not now.”

“Why is that?” Thanet asked with interest, turning on the spot, and Grace understood what she was trying to say: it was busy and beautiful here now, after the quiet of the last few years. Stallholders sold trinkets for the holding of Bird charms, and tinderboxes full of magical heart’s energy; Salt practitioners unrolled great blueprints out on the grass, to get their colleagues’ advice; up in the barristers’ chambers and the practitioners’, the curtains were pulled back and the plaques and signboards were dusted off, ready for custom. And there were children here: practitioners’ children, who’d never known anything but the Temple gardens and the riverbank, laughing and playing, throwing sparks and bright firecrackers up at the sky (despite the sign: “No Recreational Magic In The Gardens, By Order”). Grace had grown up around the Court of the Tithebarn, the High Court for magical matters up in Liverpool; Ned had grown up here at Temple; and though Grace didn’t like to pry into Thanet’s past too much, there was recognition in her eyes, here, surrounded by all the artefacts of their practice.

“Because.” Grace spread her hands. “Because she’s a sweet girl, and maybe she really does want to learn magic with us, or thinks she does. But with the future of the practice uncertain—” She trailed off. “You know, Thanet. With Ned – how he is, now, and the world so changed. Training an apprentice is a serious business and I don’t know how prepared we are for it.”

“She wants what she wants.” Thanet shrugged. “And in the meantime –” a pause, as they both watched Kira make her way back across the gardens, sedately now and carrying a basket of bread rolls, “—if you want to warn her off, don’t think the dead bodies will do it.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Grace said, with some amusement. “Are you ready for the inquest?”

Thanet looked uncomfortable for a moment; she and Ned had both been summonsed to appear after the Board of Trade investigation. “First I’m going with Ned to see the Registrar. We need to – well, to sort things out, before Ned can address the court. It’s Lady Day, you know.”

Grace nodded, pushing her braids away from her eyes. Registration day for practitioners was the first of the quarter days, the old Roman new year. For her own part, she’d have to make a decision about Kira today. “I’ll see you afterwards, then.”

Thanet shook her head. “I’ve another girl to go and see. I can’t be late, she said if I came this afternoon her mother would be out.”

Grace nodded again. “Good luck.”

Thanet smiled and made her own determined way across the gardens, while Grace accepted a bread roll from Kira. “Now remember,” she said, “you’re not my apprentice.”

“Yet.” Kira looked up and didn’t smile, eating her own bread roll; she was entirely serious.

“That’s as well as may be,” Grace said, one of Mrs Macomber’s set phrases to the letter. “But in the meantime you’ll sit in the public gallery and you’ll behave.”

“Yes, Miss May,” Kira said, still calm. Grace shook her head and led the way through out of Temple, up the terraces and stone steps set amidst the greenery, and back into the noisy space of the world outside.

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Among the ceremonial morass of the City, the Worshipful Companies of Salt and Birds-in-Flight were, as they put it, outside the precedence: for them, no tussling over orders of procession and entitlements in the manner of the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors and suchlike, but a dignified existence elsewhere. Which might explain the clerk, Thanet thought: he’d wanted a better position, with more gilt-edging and less dust.

On the other hand, perhaps nothing explained the clerk.

“What kind of a name is ‘Thanet’, anyway?” he asked after a minute, lifting his pen in some irritation, so it spattered a long trail of ink over his page. He glared at it, and then up at Thanet, as if it were entirely her fault.

“Perfectly respectable name,” Thanet told him. “I believe there’s an entire region of Kent that goes by it. In fact I know there is, I spent some time there as a young man.”

“As a…” The clerk trailed off, and seemed to give up. Carefully screwing the lid back onto his fountain pen, he went through to the internal door, knocked and put his head around it. “Registrar, there are some –” He turned back, glared again for good measure, “—people here to see you. A Miss Thanet, and…”

He trailed off again. It had been quite some time since Thanet had heard Ned laugh, but he did so now, and there seemed real mirth in it despite a twist of irony to his smile. “As you forgot to ask,” he said, “here’s my card. You might remind the Registrar of the apples and cheese I gave him in the schoolroom, his mother having neglected to provide him with same.”

“Edward Devlin,” the clerk said, reading off the card; he must be new, Thanet thought. If so he was the only such person or thing around here: looking up, the bomb damage to the building and the piecemeal repair work seemed more apparent than ever. The Salt Guildhall had been the first place in London to be bombed.

After a moment the Registrar came out, holding a fountain pen of his own. “I suppose you’d better come inside,” he said, querulously, and then, raising his eyes to the heavens: “Apples and cheese, Ned, really? Are you able to –”

Ned nodded – there were only a few steps – and they followed the Registrar. Thanet kept careful pace with Ned.

“Well,” the Registrar said, sitting in ungentlemanly fashion on the edge of his carved mahogany desk. “I can’t say as I don’t know what this is about. Miss Thanet, are you here for some particular reason?”

“I wouldn’t let him come without me, sir,” Thanet said, smartly bringing her heels together, also in ungentlemanly – unladylike – fashion. Ned looked embarrassed. From above them, the spring sunlight filtered through the room, making the dust on the books and papers even more obvious than usual.

“Right enough,” the Registrar said. “State your case, Ned. Think of it as advocacy in camera.

Thanet might have been a little thrown by that, but Ned did not seem to be; she remembered from before that it had always been his habit to pace up and down when addressing a judge in chambers, and his discomfort seemed centred on the fact this was no longer possible. He put the cane down with a nearly voiceless sound of frustration and leaned heavily on the back of a chair. “Sir,” he said, “as you are aware, I am a Salt practitioner.”

“One of two in a class of six children,” the Registrar said, with some wryness. “Do skip ahead.”

“I am a Salt practitioner,” Ned said, stubbornly, still leaning forwards with his hands on the chair back. “I was apprenticed and educated at Temple and Wadham College, Oxford, following which I was a practitioner ad litem, in service of the District Court of Farringdon Without. In the spring of 1916, I was asked to fulfil a certain office for the Crown, the details of which I am not able to divulge.”

“Skip ahead, Ned,” the Registrar said.

“Although I remain a trained practitioner-” Ned’s hand went up to the metal bar driven through the flesh of his ear; Thanet, too, found herself with her hand on her own – “I can no longer, ah. Sir, you will be aware I can no longer do magic.” Ned’s hand came down in a gesture of defeat. In that gleam of overhead sunlight, Thanet could see that was there was no rust on his practitioner’s bar – Salt, like salt, had a tendency to rust. “And I do not ask to remain registered as though I could. However, I humbly request that my registration ad litem be allowed to remain. I can still advise defendants and plaintiffs on Salt magic, its history and practice. I merely, cannot – ah.”

He stopped, and this time made no effort to continue. Thanet held a breath for a moment. The Registrar straightened up, his hands clasped. “Ned,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not—” Thanet took a step forwards, her heels tapping sharply. “You can’t possibly—”

“Thanet, hush.” Ned held up one hand. “Sir?”

“I knew you’d come,” the Registrar said.

“Did you?” Thanet asked; she had wondered, herself, if Ned would ever return to practice.

The Registrar gave her a sharp look. “I heard about the inquest.”

“I’ve been asked to appear before it,” Ned said. “We both have. I will have to stand and give my name, and my – calling. My nature.”

“I can’t take what you are from you, Ned,” the Registrar said, softly, “and neither can the District Court. But the rules require that you raise a light, at Candlemas. I can’t renew your registration.”

“Oh, no.” Thanet said, involuntarily, and Ned said nothing at all. “Registrar, in the circumstances, surely you understand –”

“Miss Thanet,” the Registrar said, and then changed his mind, addressing Ned instead. “Remember those apples and cheese,” he said, quietly. “Remember your lady mother and her kindnesses. Think about the kind of accusation that you and I would be open to, if I were – less rigorous.”

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Ned said, after a long moment.

“Ned, I’m sorry. I –” The Registrar waved a vague hand, swinging to his feet.”I wish things were different.”

“So do I.” Ned bowed his head, and reached for his cane. “Thank you, Registrar. Thanet and I will be late for our appointment, if we don’t hurry.”

At the threshold, the Registrar called them back. “Ned,” he said quickly, a little embarrassed. “Go on as you are for the remaining quarter days. I’ll smooth things over if there’s trouble.”

Ned stopped and turned around. “As a kindness?” he asked, standing quite still and straight, his cane gripped loosely in one hand.

“Yes,” said the Registrar, sounding defeated. “Yes.”

“Thank you.” Ned bowed his head again, and Thanet kept step with him, the tap-tap-tap of the cane echoing as they went.

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The libel case went as well as expected. Grace’s learned friend for the defence called her forth and the jury listened with all semblance of focused attention, though as she turned away from the lectern she heard a juror murmur “negress.” Grace thought, with some spite, a country jury, then brought herself short for unfairness; city folk could be just as bad. The judge quelled the murmurs with a look. It was Justice Devlin presiding and Grace was grateful for it, but it rankled regardless. And then the matter was adjourned to the Chancery and the court’s usual business finished for the morning.

“Next,” called the usher, “the coroner’s preliminary inquest in the St Paul’s and Blackfriars railway crash of the third day of February in this year of our Lord 1919. With gratitude to the District Court of Farringdon Without for postponing its docket, we reconvene at noon.”

As Grace made her way into the public gallery, there was a hand on her arm. “Excuse me, dear – a quick word?”

“Of course,” Grace said, with a gesture behind her back to encourage Kira to stand up. Justice Devlin was taking off her horsehair wig and bundling it away, but she had quite enough force of personality without it, in Grace’s experience. “What can I do for you, your ladyship?” She paused, then added,, “Kira, this is the Honourable Mrs Justice Devlin.”

Kira looked slightly alarmed at the title, and Justice Devlin smiled, clearly amused. “A pleasure to meet you, little one,” she said. “It’s good to see you taking on an apprentice, Grace.” She waved away Grace’s attempt to correct her with something about a trial period. “Speaking of, I must visit and have a conversation with you about your practice soon.”

Grace nodded, though with her heart privately sinking; she had an idea what such a conversation might involve. “Of course, my lady.”

“Good, good. And how are your parents? I hear there’s been unsettled news from Liverpool.”

“The riots were bad,” Grace said, thinking of her father’s understated letters on the subject. “But they’ve been all right, so far.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Oh, also” – she paused, on the point of turning – “how’s my boy?”

Grace hesitated, and Justice Devlin shook her head. “Still refusing to emerge for anything short of major railway disasters, I see. A bientôt, dear.”

Grace smiled faintly to herself, feeling rather like a hurricane had passed through, and sat down next to Kira in the gallery pews.

“Justice Devlin is Ned’s mother,” she explained. “She used to practise from the same chambers as we do.”

Kira nodded, and then shuffled forwards, trying to see through the gaps in the railings. “What’s a libel?” she asked, when it became clear nothing was yet happening in the court below.

“It’s when you write something about someone else that’s not true,” Grace told her, “but everyone believes it anyway.”

“And you were telling them if they’re true or not?”

“No.” Grace smiled. “I told them the pamphlets were made by magic. That makes it a magical crime, you see? And that’s a different thing.”

Kira was apparently turning that over in her mind. “And what’s a knocking shop?” she demanded, loudly enough for the couple of railway men just filing in to turn sharply. “And what’s a Bolshevik one?”

Grace surprised herself by laughing. “Hush, little one,” she said, “it’s a libel case, the knocking-shops are only allegedly Bolshevik – and I will explain it all to you a little later. Sit down now and be quiet.”

Despite the understandably grave faces of the people coming into the public gallery for the inquest, she was still smiling as the usher closed the doors. When silence had quite fallen, the coroner stepped out and said, “Ladies and gentlemen and Birds-in-Flight, thank you for coming to this preliminary inquest into the recent tragic events at Blackfriars Bridge.

“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that of the seventy people known to have been aboard the rear train, the 5.01 service from Moorgate, thirty-five of them were killed as a result of the accident,” he continued. “Happily, if such a word may be used in this circumstance, the forward train bore only freight, and its driver was uninjured. However, the driver of the overturned train, a Mr Ferguson, was killed at the site of the crash, and his apprentice, a man named Roberts, has been taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and is quite unable to give testimony.

“I don’t propose to undertake a detailed hearing of the evidence this morning. From what I understand from the Company,” he nodded at two dour-looking gentlemen on the front bench. “The railway’s magic practitioners are holding the bodies charmed against corruption. However, in the interests of releasing them for burial as soon as possible, let’s begin. ”

The jury were sworn, and then the coroner called his first witness, a woman with dark skin and heavy curls. Her voice was low but not faltering: she spoke of how the journey had been unremarkable; that she took the early train every day. “I was near-sleeping,” she said, apologetically, “we’re all always half-dead on that train. The witches at the riverside had lit the lamps afresh, I remember. Before that night they’d been dimming to nothing. And then we stopped.”

“At the signal?” the coroner asked, then paused. “I apologise, I understand you would have no way of knowing. What happened next?”

“We went on.” The woman unfolded her hands. “Silent, like. I mean the train made no noise but I saw the lights get further away, if you follow me? And then we were going a decent clip at the bridge, and then –” She gestured, a little helplessly, and the coroner’s sympathy was evident in his face.

“That will do fine. Next, please, I call the two practitioners who were originally responsible for the signalling system, Edward Devlin and –” the coroner consulted his notes, “—Thanet. Thank you.”

Ned and Thanet took the stand together. To Grace’s eyes, they both looked insubstantial, washed-out by the slice of daylight falling through the window. “Before I speak any further,” Ned said, abruptly. “Sir, I am no longer permitted to address the court ad litem. I come as a private citizen.”

“Thank you for informing me,” the coroner said, and Grace thought, as her heart was sinking again, that he had probably understood all that was meant by that, and needed to ask no more questions. Once they had confirmed their names for the record, Ned took on the burden of the explanation.

“The connection between the signal box and the train cab is automatic,” he said. “A silver bell is mounted above each driver’s head, in his cab. Should a signalman wish to raise an alert to every train within a fixed number of chains, all he need do is ring his own bell. Every other bell should ring at the same or almost the same moment, and each driver is well-trained to bring his train to an immediate standstill at the sound of the bell, which is itself designed to carry clearly through the sound of the train in motion.”

“I see,” the coroner said, after a moment. “So what went wrong?”

“In my view, nothing,” Ned said. “The system has been extensively checked by my colleague and by the railway’s magical practitioners, and they believe it was working perfectly on the night of the accident.”

“Did you not undertake a review of it yourself?”

Ned was calm. “I’m not able to assist in that kind of work any longer.”

“I see,” the coroner said again. “Is it possible that your current – ah, state – may have influenced your previous work?”

“No, sir.” Ned was still perfectly calm, though Grace could see his hands gripping tightly on the edge of the stand. “Magic once done is done.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Thanet interrupted. “It’s by no means clear that there was any fault in the signalling system at all. It might have been a mechanical fault in the train. It might have been an error on the part of the driver.”

“The Board of Trade is investigating those possibilities,” the coroner said, repressively. “Mr Devlin, where were you on the night of the accident?”

“At home, above my chambers at Temple,” Ned said. “And then at the station, assisting with the rescue effort.”

“Thank you. Miss Thanet, and you?

“On a professional call south of the river,” Thanet said, blandly, and the coroner paused.

“An odd time of day for a call,” he said, real curiosity animating his voice; after all, Grace thought, it was not the place of the coroner to cross-examine. “Could you care to elaborate?”

“No,” Thanet said, still blandly. “My client’s case is confidential and unrelated to the matter at hand.”

“I see,” the coroner said. “Before we conclude this preliminary inquiry, I’d like to hear from Mr Williams, solicitor to the Company.”

One of the dour-faced men took the stand, removing his hat as he did so. “Yes, sir.”

“Perhaps you’ll give us some information about the driver of the train, Mr Ferguson. Was he a man of good character?”

“Yes, sir,” said Mr Williams, and polished his spectacles before going on; Grace, who had a lifetime’s experience of old, solemn lawyers, hid her smile. “He was a hardworking man, not taken to drink. Certainly he was of good character.”

“Was he recently demobilised?” asked the coroner.

“Yes, sir,” said Mr Williams, this time with some confusion as though referring to some alien state. He’d been too old to be conscripted, of course, and it was true that these days the average age of the male lawyers and practitioners at Temple had taken a great leap upwards. “He returned to his employment with the Southwestern Railway in January of this year.”

“Was he of a magical family?”

“No, sir.” The solicitor was quite definite on the point. “It is a matter of policy at the Southwestern that no driver may be of the Salt or Birds-in-Flight. The risk of interaction with the magical control and signalling systems is too high.”

The coroner nodded. “Was Mr Ferguson’s war service a hard one? Was he injured?”

“I am afraid I am not cognisant—” the solicitor said, and the coroner waved a hand.

“We will leave the matter for the full inquest,” said, conciliatory. “In the meantime, however, I will issue interim recommendations to the Birds-in-Flight and Salt Worshipful Companies. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that is as long as I propose to keep you. We adjourn until further notice.”

There was a small murmur from the public gallery at that, and then the sound of people getting to their feet and beginning to file out. Below, Grace noticed Thanet being waylaid by someone she didn’t recognise, a Bird practitioner judging from the bar through their ear, and from Thanet’s aura of deference, perhaps a senior one. After a moment, the coroner and his clerk joined them. The conversation seemed heated, and Grace looked on with interest, before Kira plucked her sleeve and they followed the crowds down out of court, back to Temple. Ned was nowhere to be seen.

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Earlier, Mrs Throckley had been talking about collecting together their ration books for scones; now, as Grace and Kira let themselves back into chambers, the scent of baking drifted comfortingly through the house. Kira scuttled down to the kitchen, and in the study, Grace was thinking about what the room had been like during the war years, about the quality of the silence, and how much had changed since Ned and Thanet had come home. When Grace looked up, Kira was standing in the doorway, as though afraid to come further. “Come in,” she said, and Kira seemed to steel herself to it, and took a step inside.

“Are the others not here?” she asked, looking around nervously.

“Not yet,” Grace said absently. “Thanet has a client, I believe. Kira, come here. Come and sit down in front of me.”

Still looking a little apprehensive, Kira did so, so they were facing each other over the bench, like client and retainer.

Grace leaned back. “I said I’d give you a fair trial before I make any decision about taking you on, and that’s what we’re going to do. Let’s start with this: who are you?”

“My name’s Kira, I told you when I first came,” Kira said, with a flash of irritation; Grace hid another smile.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said. “Names are a funny thing, in magic – they tend to stick. Take me, for example.” She indicated herself with a gesture. “I’m Margaret Grace, actually. When I was your age my mother called me Margaret. But for magic I was Grace, because that was the name I called myself, in my head.”

Kira appeared to consider that. “So I can’t change my name, ever?”

“Not never,” Grace said, thinking of Thanet, “but not easily, and perhaps, not soon. You don’t want to make life difficult for yourself when you’re just starting out.

“Next – what calls you?”

From the look on her face, Kira understood the question. “I don’t know,” she said, tentative, and Grace remembered the same lacuna on the subject when Kira had introduced herself on the step. Too much explanation, perhaps, with which to begin their acquaintance.

“Your mum’s something, your dad’s something else?” she guessed; Kira looked unhappy, but nodded. “So what do you think you are?”

“Salt,” Kira said. “Like – well, like Mum.”

“And me,” Grace said, gently, “and Ned, too.”

“But I don’t know,” Kira said,. “Dad was like the Birds, you know? And sometimes I can do the things he used to do.”

“You’re young, you haven’t settled,” Grace said, with more authority than she felt – she was sure the girl knew that a mixed magical parentage was rare – “If it turns out you’re with the Birds, well. Then if I take you on – if –” she added, sternly. “If I do, then Thanet will have the majority of your magical teaching, and Ned and I will look after you in other ways.”

“All right,” Kira said, looking up with her eyes fierce and determined again. “What comes next?”

“What do you give?” Grace said, giving the words the resonance of a quotation, though in truth, she did not know – and perhaps, no one did – where the recitation had come from. Perhaps with the Salt itself, from the sea.

“Is this like,” Kira said, leaning forwards to listen so her braids bounced, “when Mum makes the cakes?”

“Cakes?”

“When she’s baking she keeps one aside, sometimes, and then it’s not there any more after but the others taste better.”

Grace laughed a little, but not too much. It wasn’t her place, after all, to comment on another woman’s practice, but the neatness of the trick amused her.

“Something like that. Magic always has a price. Not money,” she added, at the confused look on Kira’s face. “Though it could be, I suppose. No reason why not.” Working quickly in her mind, she raised a light, a tiny globe suspended off the tips of her fingers.

“I did that just with the gift of my own energy,” she said, as Kira looked at the light with wide-eyed, unalloyed joy. It had not been difficult at any point to establish why the girl wanted to learn. “Just my energy,” Grace said again. “So I’m a little more tired than I was. But what if I wanted to light a whole building for a month? Or the whole City for a year?”

“Something bigger?” Kira guessed.

Grace nodded. “That’s right. So what might we do?”

“I’ve seen,” Kira said, again hesitantly, “out in the parks sometimes, they burn rubbish.”

“That’s certainly one way,” Grace said. “You can sacrifice the flames to magic, if you’re careful. There are other things, too.” She hesitated, trying to put it in terms that Kira would understand. “I might give up something I’d made, like your mother and her cakes. Long ago in the Middle Ages people used to give up their arms and legs.”

“Really?” Kira said, fascinated. Grace hurried on.

“And finally. What do you ask for?”

“Light,” Kira said, grinning, and pointed at the one still hanging off Grace’s fingers. Grace grinned in return at her joy.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, exactly.”

“Will I have to do that whole thing every time?” Kira asked, suddenly dubious. “You didn’t have to, when you made your light.”

“Eventually,” Grace explained, “it’ll come to you quick as thinking. Quicker than that, it’ll come to you like breathing. But it’ll be the same in your head, even so: your name, your calling, your gift, and your asking. That’s how magic works.”

“Right.” Kira put her little hands together. “Well, my name is Kira.”

“Good,” Grace said, reserved. “That’s good.”

And Kira looked at her, her eyes still wide with hope, and Grace was saved from facing them by the ring of the outer bell and footsteps in the outer passage.

“Ned?” she called, thinking suddenly that Ned and Thanet would be Mr Devlin and Miss Thanet to any apprentice of hers, and wondering at where the years had gone for the three of them. “Thanet? What is it?”

Thanet was shaking off her coat with far more violence than necessary. “Damn their eyes and damn them all to hell,” she said, caught sight of Kira and gave Grace a quick, miserable look of apology.

“What happened?” Suddenly, Grace thought the worst, imagining an abortifacient gone wrong, and blood tainted with failed magic; she’d seen that before. “The girl – your client…”

“I never got to see her.” Thanet threw herself down into a chair and put her face in her hands. “I’ve just been barred.”

Grace looked at her in confusion. “You mean, Ned…”

“Not me,” Ned said, putting his hat on a hook as he came in and landing heavily in his own chair. “It seems the coroner’s interim recommendation was to bar Thanet from practice until, and I quote, it becomes clear, or otherwise, that her work has not been grossly defective, negligent, or otherwise reprehensible. The Birds-in-Flight Registrar rolled over and agreed.”

“That bloody coroner.” Thanet lifted her head and looked straight at Grace. “Where were you on the night of the accident? Bit of an odd time of day, wasn’t it? Oh, wasn’t it? And now if I don’t get my act together, if I can’t be trusted to work a simple signalling magic—”

“It wasn’t remotely simple,” Grace said, astonished.

It had been the last major project Ned and Thanet had worked on before the war, and had involved months of effort and planning, but most of all Grace remembered the joy they had both taken in it, filling their study with tinkling silver bells, ringing out a different complex melody with each combination of signals.

“Thanet, what exactly did they say?”

“They said, as my work is under suspicion of having caused a railway accident…”

“It isn’t.”

“I’m suspended until further notice. I can’t practise until the situation is resolved.” Thanet pulled a letter from her coat pocket and threw it down on the table. “Bastards.”

Kira was looking on with wide eyes, but Grace found she wasn’t currently concerned about the effect of profanity on the girl’s morals. “Thanet,” she said, firmly. “We’ll talk to them.”

“I tried it,” Ned said, spreading his hands. “I tried telling them the signals were working perfectly on the night of the accident – and by the way, the Board of Trade report has come back. They didn’t find a scrap of evidence that anything had gone wrong.”

“Damn it,” Thanet said, again. “It’s nothing to do with the signals and you know it, Ned. It’s the girls in trouble. It’s always girls in trouble.” With a noise of frustration, she stood up. “I’m going downstairs. I need a drink.”

The door slammed behind her, and Ned looked up at Grace. “I even tried telling them that only I designed the signals.” His eyes flashed with something, not humour. “That Thanet wasn’t involved. After all, they can’t take my registration from me again.”

“I’m sorry, Ned,” Grace said, softly. Ned shrugged, put his head in his hands, then looked up again.

“And now what?” he said, with more bitterness than Grace had ever heard from him. “Jesus Christ, Grace, it’s not – it’s not a job, or a livelihood! It’s my life. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Ned—”

“And now what, for those already half-destroyed?”

“Ned,” Grace said, sharply. “You’re scaring Kira.”

She wasn’t sure, in fact, if that were true: Kira was still staring wide-eyed at them, though whether it was from fear or interest, Grace couldn’t be sure. Ned hesitated, brought short, and then buried his head in his hands again. “Little one,” he said, and Grace took a second to realise he was addressing Kira. “I apologise, and may you be spared the sins of your fathers.”

From her expression, Kira was unsure what to make of that. A minute passed and Thanet did not return, although Grace could hear her voice rise and fall in the distance, and guessed she was relating a version of the morning’s events to Mrs Throckley.

Surprisingly, it was Kira who broke the long silence, getting to her feet and stepping out into the space of the room. “What happened to you?” she asked Ned with interest. Ned seemed taken aback, lifting his head. To Grace’s amazement, he laughed hoarsely, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.

“No one’s ever told you,” he said after a moment, “that there are some questions you don’t ask, have they?”

“You don’t have to answer,” Kira said, composedly. “You can say you don’t want to. Do you not want to?”

Ned paused, then again to Grace’s surprise, patted the edge of his own workbench. “Why don’t you sit down, so I don’t have to look up at you?”

For the first time, Kira looked a little abashed, but she sat on the edge of the bench; Ned leaned back in his desk chair. “It’s a long story,” he said, after a moment. “But the short version is that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Salt Guildhall – perhaps you’ve seen it, or what’s left of it? I happened to be on the premises when the first bomb fell. I’m very lucky,” he added, turning to look at her properly. “I didn’t die and I was pulled out after not too long. But I was hurt quite badly and that’s why I walk with a cane. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes,” Kira said. “Thank you. It’s just you tap your cane like my granny does, and she’s blind.”

“The reason behind that,” Ned said, “is an even longer story, and one I don’t always enjoy telling. So I think I’m going to have to take advantage of your get-out clause, if that’s acceptable?”

“Yeah,” Kira said, and then.”I mean, yes.”

“Kira,” Grace said. “Run along down to the kitchen. If you’re lucky the scones will be done.”

Kira stood not upon the order of her going. Grace walked around the open space of chambers for a moment, taking in the old-fashioned beauty of this space she had always shared with Ned, with its high ancient roof and weathered beams. She walked two circuits, and then tapped her fingernail on the side of their kettle, using a little magic to make it steam. “Tea, Ned?”

“Thank you,” he said, sounding almost normal. Grace felt a rush of gratitude for him: for the years of their friendship, for his continued quiet presence, though the world had changed around them both.

When the tea was poured out, she asked, “Why do you tap your cane?” She held up her hands before he could respond. “If you really don’t want to talk about it…”

Ned shook his head and took a sip of tea. “It’s a little beyond the grasp of a twelve-year-old, that’s all. It’s because of” – he gestured – “the other thing. Without any awareness of the salt in my own bones, I’m less aware of – where I am, relative to everything else. Proprioception, I’m told it’s called. The cane is grounding.”

“I had no idea,” Grace said.

“It’s little-studied,” Ned said. “Due to a lack of experimental subjects.”

“Quite,” Grace said, with affection. “No, Ned, I hadn’t noticed that you were tapping the cane on purpose, not in all this time. And I didn’t notice, but she did.”

“Quite,” Ned echoed. “You’ve time to write to the girl’s mother, before the last post goes.”

Grace smiled at him, tentative. “It’ll be lively,” she said, “to have an apprentice about the place. Like the old days.”

Ned nodded. “Grace,” he said, after a minute. “What can I do, now?”

“Help Thanet,” said Grace, with mute, inarticulable sympathy. “Help her clear her name.”

Ned nodded again. “Yes. And apart from that?”

“Scones,” Grace said, holding out a hand to him. He took it, pulled himself up to standing, and they walked down to the dark-timbered space of the kitchen, lit only with pavement lights and gas. Mrs Throckley didn’t hold with magic around food. Grace helped Ned get along, down the steps, and he carried the tea.

divider

(iii) Midsummer

 

Their first visitor of the day was a messenger bird made of light and rainwater, already soft-edged as it landed on Thanet’s hand and said its few words before becoming a puddle at her feet. “That’s a beautiful piece of magic,” Grace said, admiringly, as Thanet reached down to mop up the water.

“Not good news, though,” Thanet said. “I’ve a client up by the docks. I was going to see her, but –” She shrugged, looking frustrated. “I shouldn’t – I mean, I must go by the Guildhall today and talk about my suspension, maybe I shouldn’t—”

Grace nodded. “I can drop in, if you’d like?” she said tentatively. “I can’t do your kind of magic, but I’m going up there anyway – ”

“Would you really?” Thanet’s face lit up.

“It’s no trouble,” Grace said, and led the way down the steps. “Kira,” she called down to the kitchen, “ready to go in five minutes.”

“Thanks so much,” Thanet said, and gave Grace an impulsive kiss on the cheek. “Just let her know I’ve not forgotten.”

Grace smiled and went through to the study, which was colder than it had been a few minutes earlier. Ned looked up at the sight of her and turned away listlessly.

“Oh, Ned, look what a mess you’ve made of the fire.” Grace got down on her knees on the hearthrug, trying to find a speck of red in the embers; it was hard to make out in the sunlight. It was strange, to want a fire on a day as brilliant and bright as this one, but there was an unseasonal chill in the air. “If you’re going to sit here, make yourself of use. Don’t just poke the fire because you can’t think of anything better to do.”

Ned was wearing fingerless gloves, poker in hand. He laid it down, perhaps as some sort of apology. “What would you have me do instead?” he asked.

Grace straightened up, brushing the dust from her skirts, and looked at him with some irritation. “You could look over the accounts,” she said. “You could work out how we’re going to pay the rent next month. You could drum up some business for us.”

He looked like he might say something sharp, but then the idea seemed to catch on his fancy. “I could wear a crinoline and feathers and parade along the Temple gardens, advertising our services?”

Grace chuckled. “Of course.”

“Love potions and murders a speciality, of course.”

Grace held up a hand. “You’d be drummed out of respectable practice but I’m sure you’d look very fetching. Now get up so I can measure you for a sandwich board.”

Ned laughed a little but stood up. “I’ll do the accounts,” he said, “will that do?”

“That’s my boy,” Grace said. “I have to be out this morning, I’m calling on Kira’s mother, so it’s just you holding the fort.”

Ave atque vale, then.”

Grace gave him the look she reserved for idiots and the classically educated, gathered up her apprentice and the address Thanet had left, and went out.

divider

The accounts were not immensely thrilling, but, as Ned remarked to the kettle when making the tea, the problem of the rent did tend to focus the mind. He lifted his head from Grace’s immaculate figures at the sound of the bell, and was surprised to find no heat in the teacup next to his hand. Mrs Throckley must be out, he decided as the ringing echoed into silence, picked up his cane and went to answer the door. “May I help you?”

The woman on the threshold seemed nervous about coming any further inside. She was tall, with hair pulled back from her face. “Are you a witch?” she asked.

Ned smiled, and said, “You’d best come in. It’s this way, Mrs-”

“Ferguson.”

“Well, Mrs Ferguson,” Ned said, busying himself with the kettle again. “I have a colleague here, a Miss May, who will be able to help you with whatever you require. She’s out at present but I can get you some tea if you’re willing to wait.”

Mrs Ferguson sat on the chair he indicated, but unwillingly. “You’re a witch, aren’t you?” she said, stubbornly, pointing to the bar through his ear. “And you’re here already.”

“Miss May is very good,” Ned assured her, picking up the sugar tongs. “I’m sure you’ll find her helpful. Or Thanet, she’s – wait.” He tipped his head back and called out. “Thanet, are you in? She or he?”

Thanet peered around the door, the trim of her hat providing the answer. “She,” she said, crossly. “I’ve got to go out, Ned, more registration nonsense. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

She disappeared as swiftly as she’d appeared. “Well,” Ned said, bringing his hands together. “Milk and sugar, Mrs Ferguson?”

Once the essentials had been furnished, Ned went through the next couple of lines of Grace’s meticulous record-keeping. He checked the figures, wrote a note, and then looked up at the unmistakable sensation of eyes boring into him. “You are a witch,” Mrs Ferguson said, a little belligerently. “I’ve seen you before.”

“You know,” Ned said, mildly, “the first time I met a northerner, I quite enjoyed being called a witch. It sounded much more exotic than being a common-and-garden practitioner. You’re from Cumbria, then?”

“The Lakes,” Mrs Ferguson said. “I came to London when I was a girl. So you’ll help me?”

Ned laid down his pen and sighed. “Mrs Ferguson, my colleague will be here shortly and in the meantime I have work to do. So if you don’t mind…”

She stared at him over the rim of her cup, but said nothing. Ned wrote another couple of numbers in a column and somehow wasn’t surprised when she said, “Let me tell you about my trouble. My husband…”

“Mrs Ferguson,” Ned said, controlling his temper. “Yes, I am a witch. A Salt practitioner. I am also not far away from losing my registration permanently and I haven’t done any magic for around six months. If you, or your husband, are in trouble, I’m very sorry to hear it, and if you would just wait…”

“What did you do?”

“Excuse me?” Ned stared at her, thrown by the interruption.

“What did you do, for them to take away your registration?”

Ned put the pen down again. “You don’t give up, do you?”

Mrs Ferguson shook her head, moving slightly into the light, and Ned realised she was younger than he had originally thought; her face was drawn, dimmed by the black she wore, but not lined. “No. Mum used to say I was worse than a donkey at the seaside for going where I pleased.”

Ned chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “Well, Mrs Ferguson, it isn’t what I did, so much as what was done to me.” He paused on that thought. “But I’m sure you understand why I think you should go with Miss May – she’s a northerner like yourself, she’s a skilled Salt practitioner, and she’s not under the sword of Damocles.”

“No,” Mrs Ferguson said, thoughtfully clasping her hands. “I’ll take you.”

Ned shook his head. “Mrs Ferguson, I’m not sure you understand-”

“I understand just fine.” She gestured at the room, at the books and papers and spread of mess. “You’ll do.”

Ned gave in. Getting to his feet, he closed the door firmly, and settled back in his chair. “Let’s begin at the beginning,” he said. “You and your husband…”

divider

Thanet’s client turned out to be a woman of Indian descent. She spoke little English but smiled at Grace, put her hand on her heart, and said, “Kamala.” Above her head, flocks of messenger birds glowed, iridescent and luminous, forming out of dispersed water and then filtering off to nothingness. Grace remembered the birds were being used by the union men on the docks, during the general strikes, and smiled at the thought of them taking flight from here, keeping the movement alive from these unassuming rooms above a whelk shop. Kamala’s husband seemed to understand a little more, when Grace explained her errand.

“We’ll send someone else about your trouble,” she promised. “Even if Thanet can’t come.”

He looked at Kamala, and smiled. Kira was busy, feeding the messenger birds with ice chips from her hands – but Grace gestured and she came reluctantly.

Kira’s mother lived by the old West India quays, on the industrial edge of the City. Grace had assumed Kira’s father must work on the docks, but when asked, Kira said, “He died when I was little,” and subsequent questioning revealed that that meant the summer of 1916. Ned had sighed quite heavily at that, Grace remembered, and smiled to herself.

“Don’t wander off,” she said, as Kira darted away, distracted by the trams rattling noisily past towards Victoria. Services had been restored after the crash, but the railwaymen were striking and the streets were crowded with the overspill. When they left the towpath, Kira seemed reluctant again. “It’s a bit cramped,” she said, in tones of apology, and Grace followed her through the little door, opening on a set of steps that led up to rooms behind an ironmonger’s.

“You’ll be Miss May, I suppose,” said the severe-looking woman who met them at the top, wearing a spotless apron and with hair kept in braids very like her daughter’s. “Come in and have some tea.”

Grace sat in the indicated chair and accepted the teacup, feeling herself appraised. “Sugar?” the woman asked, and turned to get it without waiting for an answer.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Grace said, formally, and set down to business. “Mrs James,” she said. “I’m here, on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Salt practitioners, to propose your daughter enter Salt apprenticeship. She’s spent some time with me over the last few months, and I would be honoured to take her on.”

“Salt, then,” Mrs James murmured, and Grace read something in her expression – something like irritation or distrust.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I was under the impression Kira had said – well, if I’ve overstepped, I apologise.”

“Miss May,” Mrs James said, interrupting firmly, “what’s done is done. Kira, honey, get your old mum some biscuits. And your -” She paused, her expression becoming still, “principal.”

At that word, Grace relaxed a little. “Mrs James,” she said. “Are you quite happy for Kira to train with me?”

Mrs James looked at her seriously, but without hostility. “Kira’s father was a white man,” she said. “If he’d been living, things would be different.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Grace said, automatic, and Mrs James acknowledged her with a nod.

“Her father wanted her trained, and I’m going along with his wishes,” she said after a moment. “If he was around still – but then she went to you and you’ve been kind enough and things are how they are. You from Jamaica?”

Grace smiled briefly. “My grandparents were,” she said. “I was born and brought up in Liverpool, myself.”

“That’s no matter.” Mrs James regarded her. “Better with you than anyone else. And a woman is right and proper. You don’t know where the men have been.”

Grace smiled again at that. “In which case I should mention my two colleagues, Ned and Thanet.”

“Thanet a man, is he?”

“Sometimes,” Grace said, and Mrs James raised an eyebrow. “Birds-in-Flight,” Grace added, “not Salt.”

“Thought they weren’t like that any more?” Mrs James said, and then seemed to recollect herself. “No offence meant to your friend. Just you don’t see them too much now.”

“Thanet persists,” Grace said, with a grin. “In any case, she – or he, depending – would be teaching your daughter as well as Ned and myself. Would that be a concern for you?”

“Not if you’ll vouch for them,” Mrs James said, and Grace sighed again and sat back in her chair: it was time to be truthful.

“Mrs James,” she said. “I’m a practitioner in good standing. But Thanet – Thanet’s registration has been withdrawn for conduct reasons by the Company of Birds-in-Flight. And Ned was a practitioner like myself, raised at Temple. But he’s unwell, presently, and it’s unclear what his future in Salt practice will be.”

Mrs James nodded. “Conduct reasons,” she said, suddenly. “Does that mean, helping people they’re not supposed to help?”

“Something like that.” Grace kept her expression even.

“And the other.” Mrs James paused. “Shell-shock?”

“Not exactly,” Grace said. “But it’s very similar.”

“He was an officer, then,” said Mrs James with a grim humour. Grace understood that – officers came home with neurasthenia, not shell-shock, and she didn’t bother to correct the misconception.

“But I have the utmost trust in them,” Grace went on, “and we will all do our best for Kira. She can stay here or she can lodge in chambers – it’s for her to decide, if you’re willing.”

“I’ll come with you,” Kira said, her little voice clear and bright. She was standing on the threshold with the plate of biscuits held in both hands. “I mean – if I can.”

She was looking at her mother, then at Grace. Grace read fear and excitement and amazement in her face, and regret too. On glancing around, Grace noted the room was sparse but clean and tidy, with books and brightly-coloured ornaments, and photographs on the mantel, and suspected this had been as happy as a home as it could be, for those who were left.

“Miss May,” Mrs James said. “I know the way of things. You people look after your own.”

“Of course we do,” Grace said, startled by her tone. “Ned and Thanet and I look after each other, and we’ll look after her.”

Mrs James nodded. “And in the end, you’ll be her family, more than her flesh and blood.”

“We already are her flesh and blood,” Grace said, suddenly snapping to anger. “She’s already one of us. She’s Salt, and so am I, so is Ned. She’s a sister and a daughter.”

“A white man, raised at Temple? You call him your brother?” Mrs James said, then put her hands up, as though holding Grace’s words away from her. “You’ll show her,” she said, quieter now. “A world more than this.” She pointed out of the window at the street outside, at the dusty road traffic, the stallholders, the dock-workers eating sandwiches one-handed from greaseproof paper, at men with trays around their necks hawking trinkets. “She’ll become – not like you, but almost, and she won’t ever come back here and see it the way she sees it now.”

Grace nodded. “That’s true,” she said, honestly. “Temple is my home. It will be Kira’s.”

“Is it the best thing?”

“We will look after her,” Grace said, knowing she wasn’t answering the question, knowing it wasn’t for her to answer. She held still for a moment, letting the moment take its time in passing. “Shall she come with me?”

“Yes,” Mrs James said, finally. “Yes.”

Kira made a small wordless noise of joy, and Grace said, quietly, “Kira, you should say your goodbyes to your mother properly. We’ll come back for your things this evening, if that’s suitable?”

“Yes, Miss May,” Kira said with an obedience that Grace suspected wouldn’t last. She nodded respectfully to Kira’s mother.

“Good luck,” Mrs James said, perhaps deliberately making it unclear which of them she was talking to, and Grace grinned. As they walked down back towards Embankment, Kira seemed a girl enchanted, quiet and with luminous eyes. Of the two of them, only Grace turned to look back – and that was when the rock hit her in the side of the head.

divider

“My husband is dead,” Mrs Ferguson said, flatly. “Nothing to be done for him now.”

“I don’t –” Ned began, and then sat back. “Your husband was driving the train at St Paul’s.”

“They’re going to make out it was suicide,” Mrs Ferguson said, fiercely. “They’ve been round asking. Was he shell-shocked? Was he drinking! They don’t want it to be their fault is all. And my widow’s pension –” Her expression darkened. “I need you to show them it wasn’t. All that signalling and that, that’s magic.”

“I know,” Ned said, sharply. “I was the one who designed it.”

“Then go and find out what went wrong.” She glared at him, and Ned thought that he might be the first focus for her anger she had had, since the accident. “If you designed it, then who’s right to do it but you?”

Ned brought his hands together, fingers lacing and interlacing. “My colleague,” he said, “may lose her own registration over this.”

“All the more reason for you to get to the bottom of it, then.”

Ned nodded. “With all due respect, Mrs Ferguson,” he said. “Why are you so sure it wasn’t – what they say it was? Sometimes,” he hesitated, “a man won’t speak of what’s on his mind, until speaking does no good.”

“Because of this,” she said, still fierce.

She pulled a card from her bag and handed it to Ned, who took it without thinking. Ostensibly handwritten, it had been reproduced by a form of Salt magic with which he was very familiar, and the letters spelled out an invitation to a wedding in Penrith three weeks hence. “The bride is your sister-in-law?” he guessed from the name.

Mrs Ferguson nodded. “It’s a good family. Alfie was right proud. He was going to make them a proper present – maybe proper silverware, he said, like we never had when we were first married. And we were going to go up for it on the railwaymen’s specials.”

Ned put a hand to his head. “Mrs Ferguson, I’m afraid I still don’t quite understand—”

“He had the money for the present on him,” she said. “He was going straight after his shift. Why would he have – if he was going to—”

“Ah,” Ned said, understanding. “I see.” He paused. “Was your husband shell-shocked, Mrs Ferguson?”

She half-stood up, and Ned thought for a mad moment that she would take a swing at him. As he held his ground, his own hands damnably shaking, the moment filtered away into silence. Mrs Ferguson sank bank into her chair and took a moment before she rose again, this time with dignity. “He didn’t return the same as he went,” she said, voice clear. “But did anyone?”

“Not in my experience,” Ned said, with a calm he did not quite feel. “I’ll write to you in respect of my retention.”

“Thank you,” she said, nodding, and gave Ned no look of pity as he took the usual length of time to get to the door and open it for her. “You’ll do,” she said, again, on the threshold, and departed.

Ned turned to go inside but paused, aware of the sounds of the city, rattling trains and distant crowds, and of the soft comforting heat of the summer air. The morning chill had quite dissipated. He sat down on the front step, pulled a battered paperback from his pocket, and began to read.

divider

When Grace opened her eyes she was lying in the dirt, the sky darkening into azure in a narrow slice between the rooftops. “Kira,” she said, blearily. “Kira, where –”

“I’m here!” Kira sounded terrified, her voice high-pitched. “I’m here, the man helped me.”

Grace forced herself into a sitting position, her head spinning sickly. Her hair rained down street dirt onto her shoulders; she’d been dragged here.

“The man?” Grace turned around, the sudden movement prompting another bout of nausea. Grace put a hand to her head and felt her fingers come away sticky.

“Here,” said a male voice, and someone handed her a handkerchief.

Grace pressed it to her head gratefully while she tried to make him out, through the blur: a man in the rough trousers and jacket of a dock worker, his sleeves dark with dirt and oil. “Kamala’s husband?” she said, stupidly.

“Amir,” he said, nodding, beckoning her to follow.

Grace breathed, willing the dizziness to pass, and got gingerly to her feet. From their shadowy, hiding-place in this alley, the street seemed an unknowable mass of people howling forwards. It had been so quiet, before, and the sky so many shades brighter. “How long was I…”

“I don’t know,” Kira said, her little hand creeping into Grace’s; Grace squeezed tight. “These men were throwing stones. They got you, they didn’t get me but they tried, then so many people, shouting – ” She looked up. “Bad words. Then the nice man came running down, he helped –”

“Thank you,” Grace said. “Out on the street she could hear those ‘bad words,’ perhaps worse than Kira knew; she could make out the scrape of metal on metal, and the howl of the mob.

Amir nodded. “Come,” he said, and Grace and Kira both followed.

Further into the shadows the alley grew narrower until they reached a timbered door hanging wildly off its hinges. As Amir led the way in, Grace’s vision adjusted to the half-darkness, and she realised there were others inside: men dressed like sailors and labourers and dockers, with bright eyes in dark faces, and in their murmurs at the sight of her, she heard India again. They were frightened, holding back; she heard the word “coloured”, and then: “namak“.

“Salt,” she said, lifting her hand to the bar in her ear. “Can I help you?”

“Can you help us escape from here?” asked one of the men, stepping forwards. Grace could make out blood on his hands, scraped and raw, and the recent tears in his clothes. “They think-” and there was bitterness as well as fear in his accented, assured English. ” – that they come from war, and we have taken their jobs, their women. They come wanting blood for it. The Musulmans also, and the ones like you.”

“Damn,” Grace said, aware of Kira’s presence by her side. She wondered how long they’d been hiding and if, in coming to find her, Amir had put himself at risk. “Is Kamala all right?”

He nodded, and Grace was grateful. “If we wait,” she said. “If we hide…”

“It is still dangerous,” said the other man. “But if you can – if you can help us fight, then –”

“They’ll destroy me,” Grace said, flatly. She put a hand to the bar in her ear. “Are any of you like me?”

A murmur, in the darkness, and Amir stepped forwards, bringing another man with him. Grace couldn’t make out how many had taken refuge here, and could barely make out what sort of a space it was other than that it must be a small warehouse of some sort and perhaps abandoned.

“This is Raj,” Amir said, and he gestured to his friend’s ear, where it was a clear a metal bar had been dragged forcibly out of the flesh. Grace shivered. “He is like you. Not you. The others.”

“The Birds-in-Flight,” Grace said, but to her surprise Amir shook his head.

“No,” he said, frustrated. “the others.”

He said something in his own language to his companion. “The others,” he said, again but Grace didn’t understand.

“All right,” she said, after a minute. “You two, me, and my apprentice. We’ll have to work together. Kira, you’ll listen to me and do exactly what I say, do you understand? All our lives will depend on it.”

“What,” Amir said. “What you need?”

Grace turned. “Sir,” she said to Amir, “may I borrow your handkerchief again? Thank you.”

She showed it to Kira with some disgust, the brightness of her own blood dimming to dark brown. “Old-fashioned magic,” she said, wearily, “and not done any more for a reason. Come now.”

“The gift,” Kira said, “The blood –”

Grace nodded. The girl learned quickly.

“Come on,” Grace said again, to all of them.

Still holding the handkerchief in one hand and wishing the world wouldn’t spin so insistently, she led the way to the bottleneck of the alley where the mob milled and shouted in the street. Close-to, she felt the heat of all those bodies massed together, the animal anger.

“I need you both to be ready,” she said, with more determination than she felt. “I’m going to take your heart – your power,” she amended, not knowing how common the idiom might be. “Your magical power, you understand? You have to let me take it, I can’t if you don’t.”

Amir and Kira nodded, both looking scared but determined. After a moment, Raj stepped forward, took the handkerchief out of Grace’s hands, and said something under his breath Grace didn’t catch, but she felt the change in the air: the charge of magic rising, fizzing in her teeth. He caught her eye and Grace decided she had no choice but to trust in whatever he’d done. Out on the street, the crowds seemed to be moving with greater focus, and Grace pictured a black or brown body under that mob, and shivered.

“Ready?” she said, and they all nodded.

Grace held herself still, setting her mind on the clear, quiet image of the last time she’d done this kind of magic: Ned on the station platform at St Paul’s, saying, use me, if you must. At once she became more than herself, hearing scraps of what must be Hindustani in her mind, and seeing the flash of Kira’s memories, brightened at the edges by the intensity of childhood. Then Grace stepped into the street, into the mob, thinking of who she was and what called her, of what it was to be Salt, of her own and Kira’s and these strangers’ gifts, and threw a great wave of energy into the air around them.

In another second the mob’s thrown missiles glanced off that invisible surface, as though deflected by a shield; rocks and stones tumbled away, weapons turned on the surface, and even the noise of the screaming, howling mob dimmed and blurred. The mob had been moving haphazardly, dispensing directionless violence, but they had a target now and the noise grew louder. Within the shield, Amir and Raj called the others out from within the alleyway and the men came out from hiding and fanned out, spliting off in every direction.. Kira whimpered and Grace thought mad thoughts about covering her eyes, so she wouldn’t have to see the mob of white men in pulled-down caps brandishing domestic, devastating weapons: boat hooks and tools and cleavers, and whatever they’d brought home from their wars. The barrier was dissipating, burning off their magic: through it she could hear chanting, mostly indistinct, although with the occasional word that rose with clarity above the general roar. Those words, Grace thought, with a return of the nausea, ought not to be spoken, not so close to home. And then she took a steadying breath, poured the last of her own energy into the shield, and grabbed Kira with both arms.

“Run!” she shouted, into the blackening sky above, and didn’t look back.

divider

“Ned,” Grace said, because when she finally stopped running Ned was on the doorstep, as though waiting for her. “Ned – Kira…”

“Thanet’s got her,” Ned said. He took Grace in on his arm as though escorting her to a ball – which he had done often, in those ridiculous pre-war days – and sat her in the consulting room with her feet on an ottoman. Thanet took over after that, knitting the wound in Grace’s scalp with magic light as gossamer, and as strong. Ned was talking to Kira, asking her short, simple questions, and Grace was grateful that she would not have to tell the story, not tonight.

“Kira,” Ned said, finally, standing up. “Would you like anything? Mrs Throckley can get you a cup of hot milk, if you’d like.”

Dumbly, Kira shook her head. She looked so scared, Grace thought, dimly: this girl who had lived through a war, just as much as any of them.

“Then to bed with you.” Ned’s tone was still gentle, and Grace remembered.

“I forgot,” she said, dismayed, “– I thought…”

She gestured, too tired to articulate the thought. She had planned to take Kira back to her mother’s this evening, for one last night at home before apprenticeship – and, in the way of the Temple folk, adulthood – and to make arrangements for her here tomorrow.

But Mrs Throckley was at the door holding the tin cup of hot milk, apparently set upon on someone drinking it, even if not Kira; the look on her face rested halfway between kindness and defiance. “I hope you’ll forgive me,” she said, “but it’s been so quiet since you all came home. I did hope as the little one was staying… come with me, both of you.”

She pointed up the stairs, so Grace had no choice but to follow, with Kira trailing behind. Mrs Throckley went round several turns of the staircase, holding up a kerosene lamp and opened the door on the attic room beneath the eaves, with the porthole light. It had been shut up since the war, accumulating dust. Grace looked around at the room, aired and cleaned, now with a little truckle bed and a lamp beside it, with a pretty bedspread and neat frilled curtains. Despite everything, Kira looked enchanted.

“Mrs Throckley,” Grace said. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”

Strangely, it was that act of kindness that did her in. She waited to make sure Kira got to bed safely, and thanked Mrs Throckley again, and meant to pour a cup of water in the kitchen before retreating to her own bed, but somehow she burst into tears between there and the staircase, and took the arm Ned offered her again, standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting.

“Come,” he said, moving towards the door, “let’s take a moment.”

Out on their front step, the air was heated and still, carrying the distant sounds of shouting across the river toward them and then away again. Ned lit a cigarette and offered it to Grace, blowing smoke visible in the dimness, and once she’d taken a drag she passed it back. They sat in silence for some time, the glowing tip of the lit cigarette from hand to hand the only light other than the City’s lamps and the waxing moon. Neither she nor Ned had smoked before the war.

Finally, Ned threw the cigarette end onto the cobbles and watched it smoulder. “Tell me,” he said.

“We’re falling apart,” she said.

Ned glanced at her, then away. “Grace…”

“What are we here for?” she said, suddenly fierce. “We’re Salt, Ned. We’re here to serve. When people ask for our help, we give it.”

“With contributions to our minor expenses,” Ned murmured. “Such as the holding together of body and soul.”

Grace didn’t smile. “Those men in the alley came for me because of the bar in my ear. They thought I could save them.”

“And you did,” Ned said, mildly. “Didn’t you?”

“I went out into that alleyway yelling and throwing shields and fireballs about,” Grace said, “and then I didn’t even look back. I picked up Kira and ran. They could have been knocked over where they stood right behind me and I wouldn’t know.”

“Getting yourself killed wouldn’t have helped anyone,” Ned said, with an edge to his voice. “Least of all Kira, and she’s your first responsibility. You did exactly the right thing.”

“Did I?” Grace asked, bleakly. “I told Kira’s mother – today, even, it was only this morning – that we could give her the training she needs and deserves. That we could, you and me and Thanet. But Thanet’s being drummed out of practice and you’re – oh, God, Ned, I don’t know what they did to you, but you know what I mean by it – and now Kira and I are being chased down the streets by a howling mob.”

“Yes.” Ned sighed heavily. “Grace – she’s a sweet enough girl and she deserves training. But does it have to be by us?” He paused. “By you?”

Looking at his familiar face, his grey eyes reflecting the light of the cigarette tip still smouldering on the cobbles, Grace was reminded of what she had said to Kira’s mother about Kira, and about Ned and herself: a sister, a brother, a daughter.

“Yes,” she said helplessly. “Yes, it had to be – it had to be us. I’m not sure I can make you understand.”

“All right.” Ned shrugged, taking it philosophically. “I’ll accept that. But you’re not to blame for fools and animals,” he added, suddenly fierce. “And we’ll clear Thanet’s name.”

“What if we can’t?” Grace asked. “What if Thanet’s right, and it’s really about the people she helps? What if it’s really about what she is?”

“Thanet is part of an honourable tradition among Birds-in-Flight practitioners,” Ned said. “It’s a magical practice built on organic fluidity, for heaven’s sake! They’ll come to their senses.”

“What if they don’t?” Grace asked.

Ned shook his head. “This is Temple, Grace. That’s not how things are here.”

“Even if that’s so,” Grace said, sadly, “we have to leave it sometimes. It can’t be the only place in the world for people like us.” She paused and shook her head. “Listen to me, talking as though we’re the ones who need protecting. When did we become such sorry shadows of ourselves, Ned? When were we so bowed and so – broken?”

Ned shook his head again, and she knew there was no answer.

Arma virumque cano,” he said lightly, and Grace was glad that he still found such comfort in his books. “We came away from Troy, and into greater exile.”

“Speaking of exile,” Grace said. “Your mother is planning to pay us a visit.”

“She’ll have heard,” Ned said. “She won’t come, not now.”

“Not yet,” Grace corrected. “But once all this blows over, there’s the spectre of the rent. Ned, how much longer can we go on? I don’t intend to be melodramatic. I really mean it.”

“It would be,” Ned said, with some difficulty, “grievous, for us to have fought so hard for what is ours. And then, after everything—”

Grace nodded, allowing him the time to finish that sentence, or choose not to. Ned lit another cigarette, and she waited, thinking of how she had kept the practice running even when the windows were blacked-up with crepe and Salt magic was as strictly regulated as sugar and petrol. She had written letters to Ned about it, and had them returned with “Not known” written on the envelopes, by order of the War Office, but in Ned’s own familiar hand. They had laughed about it, afterwards.

“We go on,” Ned said, breathing out smoke. “Like we did before. We just go on.”

“Go on,” Grace echoed, and then fell silent, watching Ned’s hands move to his mouth, and the cigarette tip glowing in the darkness.

divider

(iv) Michaelmas

 

The Temple gardens were turning over into autumn by the time the coroner set the date for the full inquest, and perhaps by then, Ned thought, the revolutionary fervour would have dimmed a little in the streets.

“November,” Grace said, looking up from her letters.

“We’ll know by then, one way or the other,” Thanet remarked. He had taken up needlework, to fill the time, and when that palled, carried tea to the workers on strike.

“Oh, Ned,” Grace added. “Mrs Ferguson was by, earlier. She said that the fireman on the train – not the fireman, the other man in the cab, anyway – he’s come around. He’s still at Bart’s, but he’s well enough to speak to someone. I can take Kira this afternoon and –”

“No,” Ned said, quietly. “If you can spare Kira, I’ll take her myself.”

Grace looked at him for a long moment, and then smiled. “It’s good,” she said, “to see you out and about again.”

Ned returned a tentative smile. “Don’t count your chickens. Wait and see if I make it back alive.”

She didn’t castigate him for being overly dramatic, which Ned was pleased about. In the months since the Armistice, he had begun to wonder if his mental condition were infirmity or melodrama, but he was shamefully grateful for Kira’s presence through the noisy, crowded streets, and then for the clean antiseptic quiet of the hospital corridors.

The railwayman’s name was Jack Roberts, he explained, although the nurses called him John, which put Jack in mind of schooldays and visits from elderly relatives, when he’d been a child. “But who’re you?” he asked after a moment, belatedly surprised at the close presence of a stranger.

“My name is Ned Devlin,” said Ned, putting a hand to his ear and dipping his head. The man’s eyes widened with recognition. Salt practitioners were usually called to layings-out, and Ned couldn’t blame him for being apprehensive. “I’ve been retained by the wife of your driver – your friend, Mr Ferguson.”

That the men had been friends was a shot in the dark, but it paid off; Roberts smiled a little, and something eased in his face. “You’re in the pay of Mistress Ferguson?” he said, rubbing at his eyes; Ned suspected that in ordinary life he wore spectacles. “Better you than me, mate.”

Ned laughed a little and sat down in the hard wooden chair closest to the bed, waving to Kira to keep close to him. The man in the bed blinked at the movement, trying to follow it with his head. “That your kid?”

“My apprentice.”

“Tell her to have a grape, everyone’s been that kind, but I’ve no hope of eating them all. So she’s got you to find out the truth of what happened, has she?”

Ned nodded. “Something of that order. I’m wondering, Mr Roberts, if you can tell me exactly what happened in the cab, before the accident. If we can get to the bottom of this, your friend’s wife may take her widow’s pension from the Southwestern, after all.”

Roberts spoke eagerly. “If I can help I will. Alf was a good mate. They told me he went straight off – didn’t feel any pain?”

Ned leaned back; it wasn’t the first time, after all, that a young man had asked him that question. “I’m told that’s so. You had known each other some time, then?”

“Oh, yeah. I’d been a lampman on the railway before the war, and since I got back I’d taken a fancy to driving. Alf said he’d take me along, show me how it was done, so I went down to Moorgate in a ‘bus bright and early. Alf was telling me something about his sister up north somewhere. Getting married in a month and it was going to be quite a do. His wife was sending him out for a present, straight after his shift.”

“When was that?” Ned asked. “Towards the beginning of the journey, or closer to the bridge?”

Roberts paused. “Later – oh, towards the bridge, I recall seeing the lights up across the river. We were at the signal. I said to him, it’ll be a fine morning, no doubt, and he said, if we only could get this train into depot a little quicker! And I said something about how fast they’d let you go, what with the freight trains ploughing out at night, and he said I’d have to sit down and study it all in a book before they’d let me train to be a driver. And then…” Roberts paused again. “The train moved. I said to him, Alf, should we be – and that’s when the other train came out of the dark. I thought the end of the world had come.”

Ned nodded. “I see. Thank you, Mr Roberts, you’ve been very helpful.”

“Don’t see how,” Roberts said. “But I suppose you folk are a rule to yourselves.” He paused. “You’ll do your best for Mrs Ferguson, won’t you?”

“I will,” Ned promised. “Kira, come along. Thank you for your time, Mr Roberts.”

“Wasn’t any bother. Take some more grapes.”

Kira did, and was eating them industriously as she followed Ned out of the ward and through the long hallways, into the brilliant sunshine outside. “Well,” he said. “What did we learn from that?”

Kira inclined her head. “I don’t know.”

“Me neither, little one. Do you feel up to another errand before we return?”

Kira looked at him with all the perspicacity of twelve years old, and all the kindness: she did not turn the question back around on him.

“Come, then,” he said. “Let’s go and take a look at the railway line. Besides, I could do with someone to help me up if I fall flat on my face in the undergrowth.”

It wasn’t quite a joke, but Kira smiled, and they went on past Temple towards Blackfriars.

“Can’t take you across the picket lines,” Ned remarked. “Your principal would have my head.”

“Really?” Kira asked, seemingly more intrigued than anything else by the prospect of Ned’s possible decapitation.

“Really,” Ned said, and true to his word, took Kira around the back of the station, away from the strikers, and through the rusted gates. In another life, he would have been able to rust through any lock. As it was, he was grateful for some railwayman’s carelessness. With a crack, the fencing shifted to allow them through.

“Watch yourself,” he warned Kira, motioning to the thick layers of scrub and weeds where it would be easy to catch a foot. “I thought we might take a look alongside the track where the crash happened, while the strike’s on.”

“So no trains are going to come through,” Kira said, sounding rather disappointed, and Ned smiled to himself; he suspected that aged twelve, he too would have liked to see a train go past from a foot away. “What are you looking for?”

“I might know it when I see it.” Ned paused, tapping the rail with his cane, then leaning forwards to investigate it more closely. “Onwards.”

Kira nodded and they pushed on for a while, her boots kicking up dead grass and gravel. “Were you in France in the war?” she asked, suddenly looking straight at him. “If he’d come back, would my dad have come back like you?”

Given some experience of it, Ned had come to find Kira’s directness refreshing: rather like the cool, pleasant autumn air, after so long spent inside. “I can’t say as to your father, little one,” he said, “but yes, I was. Now, what do we have here?”

He paused as he spoke, and with some difficulty got down to his knees, laying the cane beside him. Reaching out to the track, it was sun-warmed and smooth under his hands, then metallic and chilled in the shadows.

“See, Kira,” he said. “What do you think this is?”

Kira investigated it, lip curling. “It’s like icing on a cake,” she said, after a minute, and Ned was pleased with the analogy; the metallic layer on top of the track surface had spread just like melted chocolate, weatherbeaten in places but mostly smooth. “It’s – yellow? Under the dirt I mean.”

“Yellow,” Ned said, pushing his thumbnail into the battered surface, unsurprised to find it left a mark. “Gold, in fact. A splash of gold on the railway track, just where the accident happened. Now isn’t that interesting?”

“Why is it there?” Kira asked.

“I don’t know.” Ned glanced up along the track, then down. “I think we’ll have to find out. Shall we?”

Kira held out a hand and helped him up, and kept pace with him back to the gap in the railings. She didn’t speak, but Ned thought that perhaps something of the tension had gone from her, and from him, too, here in the mid-afternoon sun, with the occasional chirp of birdsong. As they emerged from the trackside behind the station, Ned caught himself carefully looking up and down to avoid railway men or the local constabulary and any associated difficult questions. The ridiculous furtiveness lifted his mood, as though he were Kira’s age, on an adventure.

“Off you go, Kira,” he said, once steady on his feet again, rummaging in his pocket for tuppence. “Go down to the station and get yourself a chocolate bar or a comic or something else you’d like. Don’t cross the line,” he added, firmly. “Quickly now.”

Ned took the few minutes she was gone to catch his breath and collect himself. The walk had been enough for him to be in pain, though still appreciative of the sunlight and clear air. He expected Kira to come back with a comic – sweets were still rationed for the most part – but it was bright Cadbury’s purple in her hands when she returned. They walked down the Embankment in comfortable silence, Kira munching happily. To Ned’s surprise, she broke off a piece and gave it to him without comment, and he ate it in the spirit given.

“You know,” he said hesitantly. “Chocolate was in my rations, when I was in France. But they never sent it all in the right place and time, so you’d get it all at once or not at all. I used to give it all away to the men.”

Kira turned. “You used to give it all away?” she asked, aghast, and Ned chuckled.

“Yes,” he said, still laughing. “That was the great sacrifice I made in the war.”

But Kira was looking up at him as he spoke, her eyes serious. Ned knew even before she said it that this was the question she had been gathering the courage to ask.

“Do you think you might have met my dad?” she said. “In the war I mean.”

“I didn’t always ask men their names,” Ned said, very gently. “Sometimes there wasn’t time even for that.”

“So you might have? And not known it?”

“I might have,” Ned said, still gently, “yes.”

Kira seemed contented, unwrapping another piece of chocolate and handing it over. She’d learned the habit from Grace, perhaps, of keeping in step with him, and Ned walked along thinking over the puzzle on the railway, breathing in contentment in between the taps of his cane.

divider

That evening there was a knock at the door, just before nightfall; Grace was the one who set down her tea to answer it.

“You’re the chaps who did the work,” said the man on the other side, pulling off a London Underground hat to reveal a forehead slick with sweat. He turned around and charged across the cobbles as though expecting Grace to immediately follow.

“Excuse me?” she called, and he shook his head impatiently and gestured for her to hurry up.

“Come on, you’re needed.” He was looking over her shoulder at Ned, Grace realised. “Signal failures on the bridge and at St Paul’s. Everything’s at a standstill. Come on!”

“Kira!” Grace shouted over her shoulder. “Come on, we’re wanted! Thanet—”

“I’m not registered,” Thanet was saying, but Grace waved him quiet.

The man from the Underground – his name badge announced “WHITWORTH, A.” – led the way down Middle Temple Lane seemingly unsurprised by the extent of his entourage. As they scurried down the Embankment, Grace could see the strangeness on the bridge at Blackfriars – two trains held massively still, like dragons turned to stone – and then they were in the station itself, past the passengers being herded into the street. Whitworth called a lift and pushed the doors open with a shove, gesturing all of them inside, and it was only when the lift was descending silently to the lower levels that he spoke any further.

“At about six o’clock this evening a train was signalled clear through the southbound platform to go on to Waterloo,” he said, expressionless. Grace glanced at her watch; it was coming up on half past six. “There was already a train at the platform.”

Grace inhaled sharply. “Did…”

“No,” Whitworth said, severely. “The signalwoman on duty realised something was amiss and manually altered the signals. At 6:10pm, the precise same thing happened on the northbound side. The train driver jammed on the brakes in time.”

“That can’t happen,” Ned said, sounding disbelieving. “That absolutely – that can’t happen.”

Whitworth continued, inexorable. “At 6:15pm, every train on this part of the network was halted at the nearest station. I was asked by the control room here at Blackfriars to track down a Mr Devlin, who had originally set up the Salt system of magic that prevents collisions between trains on the Underground. I believe, sir, that that’s yourself.”

“Yes,” Ned said, “but you should know—”

His voice was lost in the screech of the doors pulling back: the lift had reached the platform levels, and dusty tiles proclaimed “To The Trains.” Whitworth strode forth and Grace brought up the rearguard, pausing for a moment to peer down the single flight of steps to the deserted platform below. Stray litter skittered across the edge, but otherwise the silence was absolute until they passed beyond a door gleaming with Salt magic at its edges, sealed against fire or flood, and entered the dim control room beyond.

“Got them,” Whitworth announced, as he stepped inside.

It took Grace’s eyes a second to adjust, to take in the two signalwomen sitting at the long benches, the large train operating charts spread out across the walls, and the rows and rows of silver bells, gleaming as though with some inner light. The hum of Salt magic underpinned everything, invisible but inescapable, like the Tube itself beneath London.

“This is Devlin,” said Whitworth, and then, confusedly: “And some others.”

“Grace May,” Grace said, “and this is Thanet, and that’s my apprentice. Ned—”

Ned wasn’t listening to her. With his cane, he had waved the two operators away from the panels. “You hit the killing bell,” he said.

One of the two signalwomen looked cowed at his tone; the other stood up straighter. “Yes,” she said, clearly. “I didn’t trust the system, I shut everything down.”

Ned nodded. “Run it all past me,” he said, and Grace startled at the imperious note in his voice. “Tell me exactly what happened, every detail.”

“We control most of the City from here,” said the signal operator to Ned. “When things started going wrong, the bells rang.” She reached out to a bell halfway along the second row, her finger stopping just sort of its surface. “This one, then” – another bell, just above it – “this one. That was the train northbound. And then…” – she pointed at the one below – “that’s the kill bell.” She gestured at it, as Ned had done: it was the largest bell on the assembly, held at a seemingly unsupported angle.

Ned nodded again, more to Thanet than the signal operator. “You remember the emergency signal,” he said. “A red smoke rises in the window of the train cab, and every driver knows they’re to stop at once. Miss – what’s your name?”

“Miss Lynley, sir.”

“Miss Lynley. What did you – what’s that noise?”

The noise had been bothering Grace for a moment or two, and judging from the way she drew closer, Kira, too: a rumbling sound, like something very heavy beginning to move. “Can’t be a train,” Ned said, unnecessarily, “not if they’re all stopped. I suppose they have all stopped.” He reached out and deliberately, thoughtfully, struck a bell. Miss Lynley and Whitworth flinched; Ned smiled a little dangerously and said, “We designed the system, Miss Lynley. Trust me.”

Thanet stepped through the door and Grace realised he had gone down to the platforms, to check. “They’ve stopped,” he said, authoritatively. “Ned – all right, what the hell is that?”

That was the noise, getting louder now, but losing none of its low resonances and layers, as though whatever it was was at the bottom of a well. Something deeper even than this, Grace thought, and shivered.

“Damn it,” Ned said, making an abortive motion with one hand, holding short of the bells. “Ring one bell, the matching train bell rings, instantaneous or close-as. The drivers aren’t colluding to play Greensleeves for the signal operators’ amusement, I suppose. This doesn’t make sense.”

“What happened to your hand?” Grace asked, suddenly distracted. Thanet had stepped out of the light so Miss Lynley’s left hand, cradled to her and roughly bandaged, was visible.

“That was my fault,” said a soft voice, and Grace looked at the other signal operator, peering shyly through her long brown hair. “I asked Alice to open my lemonade bottle for me.”

“Silly thing went right into my fingers,” Miss Lynley said, pointing to a discarded bottle opener, together with the remains of some sandwiches.

“Thanet will look after that for you,” Grace said, a little amused at herself despite everything. Kira was hiding behind her skirts; Grace seemed to have taken on the role of mother hen and principal to the entire world. Thanet grinned and nodded.

“Just give that here,” he said, cheerfully, already raising some healing magic into the air, when Ned spoke.

“Stop.”

“Ned?” Grace said, but he held up a hand.

“Stop. All of you, stop. Don’t touch anything.” Ned stepped forward. “I’ve been an idiot and a fool. Grace – when you were in the alley, with those dockers –”

Grace hesitated, thrown by the non sequitur. “What about it?”

“You had a bloodied handkerchief.”

“Yes,” Grace said, surprised. “Yes, I told you that – Ned, what is it?”

“And the inquest.” Ned was pacing up and down wildly, though everyone else was taking his advice to heart and stood quite still. “The woman on the train said that it stopped, then moved again. Is that right? It stopped, then moved.”

“Yes,” Kira said, with unexpected clarity. “She said it moved again so quietly she almost didn’t notice it.”

“That’s my girl,” Ned said, half-exultant.

“Ned, blood magic is superstitious nonsense,” Thanet said, comfortingly trenchant to Grace’s ears. “You know it.”

“Perhaps we’ve been wrong about that,” Ned said, running his hands through his hair. “Magic is Salt, or Birds,” he said. “Living things, or just things. But the world has changed so much.” He waved his hands, a little helplessly, as though trying to indicate the city above them. “’What passing-bells, for those who die as cattle?’ People becoming things, and things” – he gestured again, at the train operating panels, and the bells – “coming alive.”

“Ned,” Thanet said conversationally, “get to the point before I insert that cane in your ear.”

Ned spread his palms. “Salt, Birds, and iron. Not blood. Iron.”

“A new form of magic?” Grace said. “Ned, that’s…” She paused. “Are you sure?”

“Ferguson, on the bridge,” Ned said. “He brings the train to a stop at a signal. He remarks to Roberts, perhaps even laughing while he does it, that he wishes the train would move faster, with his pockets full of metal, and those passing bells in his recent memory, and all around him a locomotive made out of…”

“Iron,” said Grace, with reverence. “So the train moved, to take him home. Miss Lynley, what exactly were you saying to your friend, before the signal failure?”

Miss Lynley looked miserable. “There’s a dance tonight, down in Clerkenwell,” she murmured. “I was just saying to Cara – I wish everything would hurry up, the last hour of the shift always drags.”

“But what about the gift?” Thanet said. “Do you think Ferguson cut his hand on the controls?”

“Ferguson had the money for his sister’s wedding on him,” Ned said. “It wasn’t burnt away, it was given. Kira and I found the remains of it, the sovereigns, on the railway track.”

“Overpayment?” Thanet asked, and then nodded to himself. “He wouldn’t have been trained – he wouldn’t know how much –.”

“He wouldn’t have known he was doing magic at all,” Grace said, a little excited. “Ned, the Indian man who helped me in the alley. He said he wasn’t like me, but he wasn’t like the others. Not Salt, not Birds, but –” She turned her head.

Whitworth cleared his throat again; he was standing was at the door to the control room, the magical light from its seal soft on his face.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Miss May, Mr Devlin, if I could have your attention, just for a moment.” He pointed out into the tunnel. Grace and Ned exchanged glances, and followed him out, along the tiled passageway and the platform edge. Grace looked over her shoulder for a second; Thanet had gone back to bandaging up Miss Lynley’s hand, and was beckoning to Kira.

“Once,” Whitworth said, without turning, “long ago, they were going to terminate the line here, and not cross the river. Bit of a crush for the trains, though.” He waved casually down at the platforms as he spoke, and the rumble rose again, making Grace shiver again, involuntary and deep in her bones. “Bit of a palaver. So they built a turning loop, under the river. Quite a miracle of engineering, in its day. And of magic,” he added, with a sidelong glance at Ned. “Then of course Parliament came through for them. Straight line extension across the Thames. So they built that” – he pointed down into the tunnel, the Salt lights within flickering eerily – “and they sealed the old loop off.”

They were climbing a small staircase, now, dusty, and in places slick with oil; Ned’s cane slipped and Grace reached out to steady him.

“Can’t bury a thing time out of mind,” Whitworth said. “It’ll rust to nothing some day, but in the meantime we keep an eye. Here’s the door.”

Grace looked up sharply. The door was small, human-sized, and sealed with enough Salt magic to hold down an inferno. “Behind that door,” she ventured tentatively. “Underneath the river –”

Mr Whitworth took the keys from his pockets and opened the door, finishing it off with a muttered string of nonsense syllables: Grace felt the small piece of magic raised, as the door opened onto a wall of black earth.

“It’s not a tunnel,” Grace said, surprised. “It’s not there!”

“It was yesterday,” Whitworth said, calmly, “it was this morning.” And though those words were delivered with utmost calm, something seemed to enter beneath Grace’s skin and begin to crawl. “The tunnel should be there, miss. If it’s not” – and then the rumbling came again, almost too loud to bear, reverberating in Grace’s very being – “it’s shifted of its own accord.”

With slow careful movements, Ned tapped on the wall beside the door, so Grace could hear the hollow resonance.

“The seals,” Grace said, aware of her voice trembling. “The magic’s been disturbed – the sealing, against the river—”

Whitworth touched the bare earth beyond the door, then pulled back. His hand was wet.

“Oh, God,” Grace said, and spun around on the spot. In her mind she was somewhere else – somewhere else dark, perhaps the Salt Guildhall on the day the first bomb fell – but the moment passed and she was here again. Terror fizzed through her veins and a determination she did not feel rose into her voice. “All right, Mr Whitworth, I think it’s time we acknowledge the truth of the thing. The tunnels will need to be evacuated. Can you and your signal operators start dealing with that? And switch off the power?”

“Yes,” Whitworth said, “but there are two trains, stopped just outside the platforms…”

“I know,” Grace said. “Thanet will do any magic you need to help you get the passengers out and through the tunnels. We can’t predict what will happen now,” she added, glancing at Ned, who nodded. “There are iron rings in every tunnel, isn’t that right? We don’t know who might do magic without realising it, or what they might do. Ned, I need you to get Kira out of here, it’s not safe. Go as quickly as you can.”

“What?” Ned looked up, his eyes very bright in the darkness. “Don’t be ridiculous. I should stay. I can help –”

“Ned,” Grace said, breathing in, hating herself for a moment, “you’re a liability.”

Ned flinched. “Grace…”

“If you stay, you’ll be one more thing for me to worry about.” And then, softer, “You’ve done your bit. Let me do mine.”

Ned held her gaze for a minute, then dropped his head. “Understood.”

Grace reached out and entwined their fingers, not caring about Whitworth’s presence. Then she stuffed both her hands in her pockets and took a deep breath.

“Good luck,” Ned said, and went back down the passageway along to the steps.

“Miss May?” That was Whitworth, looking at her with confusion, and worry. “What will you do?”

Grace took another breath, and reached for whatever was left in her that was not fear. She waited another moment as the great rumbling started up again. This time it had a sinister punctuation; the rush and movement of water. As they stood, a first gush emerged from behind the door, filtering through cracks in the packed earth and pouring onto Grace’s boots.

She thought again of the darkness beneath the bombs, and took another breath , and then another, and then she was ready. “I’m going to seal this off.”

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“Come on, little one,” Ned said, his coat sweeping the floor as he turned. “Quickly! Thanet – good luck.”

Thanet saluted him ironically. Ned smiled and held out a hand to Kira, who scurried after him with alacrity.

“We’re going back up to Temple,” Ned said, in answer to Kira’s unspoken question, just as the lift doors screeched shut. With a jerk, they began to move upwards. “I think that our next step is to see if we can find the address for the man Grace met at the docks. I wonder if anyone at Temple speaks any Indian languages? Though I suppose there are quite a few – oh, my goodness.”

The lift had jerked to an ungainly stop, causing Ned to reach out with his cane for balance. Kira grabbed uselessly against the walls. They both teetered, balanced, and hung motionless for a moment, waiting for the lift to start moving again, but it did not.

“Mr Devlin,” Kira said, with a distinct quaver in her voice. “Do you think-”

The lights went out.

Ned swore, listening to the rapid pitch of Kira’s breathing in the darkness. He, made two step forwards, thinking to reach for the little girl’s hand – but the lift jerked again at his movement, and this time downwards.

“Oh, that’s torn it,” Ned said, and his voice was lost in another great screeching as metal grated on metal, and they dropped further.

It triggered something: some back-up mechanism powered by Salt, so the base of the lift was lit up in long threads of strange light. It cast a greenish tint on Kira’s face and made the advertisements on the walls, for patent medicines and magically-propelled invalid chairs, into horrible grotesques. Kira whimpered again. In the end, Ned thought, calmly, it seemed inevitable that it would come to this.

“Little one,” he said. “We have about five minutes before the lift falls to the bottom of the shaft. If what I suspect is true, it’s the lift shaft itself, deforming around us. So I need you to stay very calm, do you understand? Stay calm, and do exactly as I tell you. What I’m about to explain to you is the sort of thing you wouldn’t do for quite a few years yet, in your apprenticeship, and I don’t think I’ll have time to repeat myself, so listen very carefully. Are you with me so far?”

Kira nodded, her little eyes wide.

“First, you need to raise a light, in the way Miss May has taught you. Name, calling, asking. Use some of your own energy as the gift. That’s right.”

The light flared into life, with a little raggedness about the edges, but a comforting yellow.

Ned said, “Now hold it with only one of your hands, and with only one part of your mind. Don’t think about it too much. Just let it burn, that’s right. Now close your eyes. Think about Salt, what it feels like when you use the power you have, what it’s like when you can sense it in the world around you. There’s some in the light, it’s a Salt light. Ignore that. There’s some in the air, we’re below the river estuary here. Ignore that, too. What’s left should be very bright and intense, but dimmed in the centre. Can you see that? Eyes shut!”

Slowly, Kira nodded, and from somewhere beneath them they heard the great rumbling sound again, the roar taking on the crackle of metal buckling as well as the slosh of water.

“Right. That is my magic – or, what’s left of it, that I can’t use for myself. Now I need you to reach in – and take it. It’s magic in itself, the taking, so you need a gift. Use some of the light. I’m going to sit down so you don’t knock me over.”

It was Ned’s habit these days to get from sitting to standing and vice versa with some lack of grace, but he made it a gentle movement, ignoring the pain; his cane would be dangerously percussive on the base of the lift. The green light flickered, and vibration built in the metal beneath their feet, but Kira hadn’t moved, eyes squeezed shut.

“Take it, Kira!” Ned said, desperately. “You don’t need my permission. Take it.”

Kira didn’t move and Ned closed his own eyes, listening to the rumbling grow louder, than softer. He fancied he felt movement, although it could be a fevered imagination. “Kira,” he said, quietly, “now.”

The light in Kira’s left hand dimmed. Ned dropped his head onto his knees. He thought, vaguely, that he should have retained some of his own heart, to guide her: so she wouldn’t have to guess what to do next with her arms laden with flame and the lift filling with a smokeless inferno. At last there was movement, a great tearing noise and the cracking open of an internal sky, and everything grew dark and strange, and not a little violent, and it went on for a long, long time.

And then: it was still dark. But a long way off a child was crying, and there was something wet on Ned’s face and hands. He sat up, his head cracking against the wall, and said, wonderingly, “Rain.”

He was in the station, at the surface, and water was curling along the wrought iron awning. “Kira?” Ned called, and then jerked back as she bolted across the deserted space of the ticket hall and landed next to him. “I thought I’d killed you!” she wailed, and Ned leaned back against the wall and breathed.

“It’s all right, little one,” he said, very softly, “I’m very difficult to kill.”

As she cried, he put an arm around her and made wordless, soothing noises, for himself as well as her; there was a great deal of pain, somewhere, that he was ignoring in favour of concentrating on Kira’s bright presence, and the rain falling into his eyes.

“Help me up,” he said, reaching out for a cane that wasn’t there; he leaned on her, mostly, to cross the space of the station floor and come to rest in front of what had been, earlier that day, a London Underground lift. “Oh, my.”

“First we knew of it,” said a voice from behind him; Ned turned to meet Whitworth’s eyes, “the lift hit the top of the shaft like the coming of the end times. Then the doors opened, and your girl –” Whitworth shook his head. “Well, perhaps she’d better tell you herself.”

“I got us out,” Kira said, almost apologetically. There was a strange mixture of emotions on her little face, something between defiance, pride, and misery. “I did… do it right, didn’t I?”

Ned followed her gaze, and limped across to the lift shaft. The outer doors had been pushed back with enormous force and bore signs of having witnessed a very rapid exit. Beyond them was only a great writhing blackness, suggestive of further movement far below. Of the lift cab itself, there was no sign. Ned pictured a mangled mass far beneath the earth, and said, sincerely, “Kira, I think you may have saved both of our lives. Thank you.”

“Oh,” Kira said, more shocked than pleased.

“Mr Whitworth,” Ned said. “Grace, and Thanet— ”

“Mr Thanet is helping with the evacuation,” Whitworth said, with sympathy and concern, “but Miss May hasn’t – not yet.”

Ned nodded and sat down on the floor. Kira came to perch on her haunches beside him, still with that uncertainty in her face.

“Mr Devlin,” she said. “Back when you could still do magic, were you very good?”

Ned leaned back on his elbows and considered.

“I was about the best of my generation,” he said, after a minute. “But I think you’ll be better than I was.”

“Oh,” Kira said, again more shocked than pleased, and Ned sat back again and breathed.

Presently, they heard footsteps, coming closer and closer, rising from the stairwell. Whitworth was looking hopeful, stepping forwards, and then the first of the people emerged from the Underground. They were the usual mixture of travellers, dignified old ladies and paint-spattered workers, some holding their tickets and some not, but all with the same open-eyed, uplifted expressions. Above them, birds were fluttering, their feathers translucent and crystalline, hovering to guide the way. Ned smiled at them and said, to Kira, “Thanet.”

“They brought us out of there,” said a woman in a green coat, to no one in particular.

A boy with a splint on his leg was being helped by two other passengers up the stairs. A man in a pork pie hat held up his hands with reverence to the rain. Ned thought he and Kira must present an odd picture, huddled in the corner of the ticket hall on the floor, but no one gave them a second look, and then he was thinking about the signalbox in Boulogne, and waking with his mouth full of saltwater, and no thought of being alive.

“What now?” Kira asked, finally, when the great flood of people petered into nothingness, as both trains below emptied out.

“Now, we wait,” Ned said. Kira nodded, and settled in beside him.

divider

“That’s the last of them,” Thanet called, sending off another handful of guide birds into the stairwell, and then beginning his descent back into the station. “They should make it out in time – oh.” His feet had hit water. “Grace!” Thanet yelled, into the murk and gloom. “Grace! Where are you?”

“Here,” Grace said, gasping for breath, appearing at the end of the upper passageway that led to the control room. “It’s not –” she coughed and spluttered “—deep enough to cover.”

“Yet,” Thanet said, and took another risky step downwards. Grace looked up. A light appeared above her head, illuminating the black water, sloshing ominously from side to side. The electricity in the tunnels had been switched off, leaving only magical light.

“It’s not too late,” Grace said. ” I mean, Mr Whitworth and his signal operators have already gone up. You can—”

“Shut up,” Thanet snapped. “Until you go, I stay.”

He shivered and took another step. Water began to creep over the tops of his boots.

“No one here but us chickens,” he said, hoping it would not carry, but whispering made the echoes more sinister than ever. “Lead the way.”

“I think,” Grace said, stepping out along the passage, raising small wave. “It’s just that the floodgate seals have failed. It’s not – I mean, if I can just stop it responding to any more magic, I can fix that. By Salt, or otherwise.”

Thanet nodded before realising Grace couldn’t see him. “Wait,” he said, and caught up, so they were walking side by side. “It’s better this way,” he said; Grace looked sidelong at him and gave him a wan smile.

At the platform level, the water was now hip-deep, and the shock of the cold held them both in place for a moment.

“Do you think,” Grace said, through her chattering teeth, “it’s getting harder to breathe?”

It was, the air now foetid and thick around them, but Thanet only nodded. He reached out to grab Grace’s hand before they kept on going, steadying her on the steps beneath the obscuring blackness. Another light hung over the water in front of them, green and cream tiles running off into blackness.

“Careful,” Grace said. “The platform edge—“ Just before Thanet went over it.

For a second, he was only falling. The track rails came up to meet his feet, sending a bone-deep jolt of horror through him, whatever his rational mind was trying to tell him about the power being switched off, and then the water closed over his mouth and nose. His limbs were going slack when a pair of strong arms grabbed him and hauled mercilessly.

“Breathe, damn you!” Grace yelled, her voice shattering into echoes, and then Thanet was on his knees on the platform, the water up to his waist, coughing and coughing while Grace clapped him on the back.

“It’s getting deeper,” he said, and was surprised when Grace shrieked.

“Sorry,” she said, spitting water and pushing her braids away from her eyes. “Sorry, that was either algae going past my leg, or an eel” – and Thanet began to laugh.

“Sorry,” he said, breathlessly. “And thank you, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Grace said, smiling a little herself, and they set off again. “Thanet,” she said, after a while. “We’ll reach the floodgates soon. If Ned’s right, this isn’t even our sort of magic. What if I can’t fix it?”

Thanet shrugged. “We’ll have to improvise. Perhaps –” he mimed a fingernail across a palm “—it’s really not superstitious nonsense, after all.”

“Urgh,” said Grace, feelingly, and kept on. “Although,” she said, shivering in earnest now, “given the rate the water is rising, and how long we took to get down here – well. If, we don’t seal it—”

“I know,” Thanet said, without surprise. “Well, well. Ned will write us a beautiful eulogy, I’m sure.”

Grace chuckled. “In beautiful Latin.”

Thanet nodded. “Oh, yes. Elegant, loving rhyming couplets.”

“I’d have done that for him,” Grace said, still grinning, but sounding quite sincere. “Even if I had to learn my Latin to do it. I’m glad I didn’t have to.”

“Me too,” Thanet said, splashing forwards. “But we would have survived it, you know. Oh, dear.”

Grace looked up. “Oh, goodness.”

They had reached the floodgates. On one side, the water rushed merrily into the dark through the new tunnel. On the other, water was coming through the rusting gaps in the metal. The flow was moderate, but Thanet could see how the force of it would break through all at once, as with a dam in a river.

“Well,” he said uselessly. “Here goes.”

Grace was quite still, somehow no longer shivering, an expression of utmost concentration visible on her face even in the dimness and the murk. “Got your penknife?” she asked.

Following Grace’s gaze from the iron rings in the roof to the torrents breaking through from the river, Thanet understood the need for desperate measures. He passed the knife to Grace with a shudder, trying not to think about the filth in the water, and Grace closed her eyes and drew the blade across her palm.

“All right,” she said, a little shakily, and then lifted her hands. “Thanet, ask me who I am.”

Thanet caught on instantly. “Who are you?”

“My name is Grace.”

“What calls you?”

“Salt. Although,” Grace hesitated. “Perhaps, more than Salt. Perhaps whatever will be the end of this transformation.”

“What do you give?”

Thanet followed Grace’s gaze down to the black, rank water, then up to the tunnel above, thinking about London, the city that had survived so much: Zeppelins and bombs, strikes and silence.

Grace said, quietly, “Everything I have.”

“That’s what – you know.” Thanet said, understanding this for the first time. “That’s what Ned gave away.”

Grace nodded. “Yes. And even so.”

Thanet shivered. “And what do you ask?”

“Safety. And time.” Grace inhaled, audibly, above the rush of water. “I ask that the floodgates be closed, that the city be allowed the time for transformation, that those who do magic are only those who know what they do.”

Thanet reached out for her then pulled away, aware that this might be the last magic Grace ever raised; or the last thing she ever did. He watched as she placed her bloodied hands on the floodgates.

“Oh,” Thanet said, and then all he knew was the screech of metal and the rise of water, and then rankness and darkness and fear, and then, nothing at all.

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(v) Remembrance

At eleven o’clock in the morning on the eleventh of November, 1919, the government’s Birds-in-Flight practitioners raised an elegant and beautiful piece of magic, casting great spectral ravens about the city and the City, not as coercion, but as reminder: when silence fell, it was not a frightening thing but expected, even welcome. In the streets the motorbuses rattled to a halt and the street traders stopped hawking their wares; on the river the boats drifted; and in the courts all dockets were suspended, waiting. In the chambers and inside the Temple gardens, even the clocks were stilled. For two minutes they counted out their silence. They counted out all that had been lost.

Then Grace breathed out, settled back into her armchair, and said to Ned: “Well. We survived it.”

“It and everything after,” Ned said. He was sitting on the floor in front of her, hands raised. “Do you want to try it now?”

Grace considered. “All right. Without the recitation, though.”

Grace closed her eyes and concentrated. When she opened them again, there was light where there hadn’t been light. As she and Ned watched, it spluttered and failed, sending them back into darkness. But Ned reached over and pulled the curtains, letting in the wintry sunlight, and settled back on the floor. “Well done,” he said, and they returned to silence for a while after that, both deep in thought.

“A light,” Grace said finally, sneezed, and then let out a deep breath. “I thought – I thought I wouldn’t be able to do magic again. Tell me,” she added. “If I’m being horribly tactless.”

Ned shook his head. “It was quite a working you did, Grace. Thanet carried you up all those stairs and by the time he got up to ground level he was dry as a bone.”

“So was everything else,” said Thanet, from the doorway. “They’re talking about reopening the station in the new year.”

“I might walk down to the next one along, even if they do,” Grace said, a little embarrassed. “Where are you off to, anyway?”

“Back on my rounds.” Thanet grinned and rubbed her hands together. “And Kira wants to visit her mum, I said I’d take her. We’ll be back this afternoon.”

She bowed, grabbed her hat and went out. A kind of fresh determination had come into her movements, Grace thought, since her registration had been restored: a refusal to compromise in the work that she did.

“Grace,” said Ned, getting to his feet and colonising another armchair. “Are you quite sure you’re all right?”

“I’m – not all right,” Grace said, flexing her hands and considering. The cuts she had made, done with an unwashed penknife and then bathed with dirty river water, had become infected with a vengeance, but they were healing better now, with some sanitising magic and patience. “But I will be, I hope.”

“You will be,” Ned said, certain. “Perhaps we all will. Even Mistress Ferguson – she’s drawing her widow’s pension, I’m told. Her husband has been entirely exonerated of any voluntary role in the accident.”

“How did it go with the railway company?” Grace asked, anxiously.

Ned groaned, and put a hand to his head. “Let us say,” he said, carefully. “That I may not be the most welcome passenger on the Southwestern Railway for the next few – ah, decades. But suffice it to say, I am not being brought up on professional malpractice, and Thanet’s name has been restored to the roll. They did accept that the accident wasn’t our fault, in the end, though that might be something to do with Thanet talking at great length about our dear Miss May risking her life for the good of the railway…”

Grace laughed a little. “I want to ask you something.”

Ned inclined his head. “Mmm?”

Grace hesitated. “I don’t know if you want to tell me, or if you can. But if you can – what was done to you, in the war?”

“Ah,” Ned said, and didn’t speak for a minute, rummaging in pockets, and then lit a cigarette.

Mrs Throckley didn’t like it when they smoked inside, but Grace didn’t bring up the point.

“Dear Grace,” he said, with almost a laugh. “You’ve been so terribly kind. You’ve never asked me that.”

“I’m asking now.”

Ned nodded, and took a drag of the cigarette. “I think the last time I saw you, before the Armistice, was when the Germans bombed the Guildhall.”

“Yes,” Grace said. “I thought you might return to practice then. Be invalided out, or however they put it. You were quite beaten up by the whole affair.”

Ned smiled at her. “I thought so too. When they asked me to come up to the Horseguards I thought it was something in the way of light duty they had in mind. The Minister for War had dabbled in transport, before 1914. He was greatly taken with the silver-bell Salt signalling and recommended me to the War Office. That’s how I got sent to France.”

“To the front lines?”

“Not all the time,” Ned said, still thoughtfully blowing smoke. “It was quite a simple system. Each battalion had its men, its commanding officer, and its practitioner. Salt and Birds alike, though the men liked it to be Salt, Birds could give them courage but Salt could fix the holes in their boots. But every so often the brass behind the lines pulled me out and asked me to think about long-term magical strategies. To devise ways in which we could fight a better war.”

“A better war?”

Ned shrugged and overturned his palms.

“You shouldn’t be able to regret the magic you’ve done, not really,” he said. “You’ve given a gift of something of yourself: you’ve done a true thing, no matter what. But there’s magic you can do without the full recitation, you know. You don’t give a gift. You can drain the salt from a man’s bones – Salt and salt both – and force him to sacrifice himself.”

“And that –” Grace paused. “That changes people – into what you are now?”

Ned shook his head. “No. It kills them where they stand. The Birds did it humanely, if there is such a thing. Put up great fields of magic and if the soldiers wandered in, they just… well, they lost interest in fighting. I heard German soldiers telling their pals all about how they wanted to take up birdwatching, somewhere far away. But I… well.” He shook his head. “The men used to come to me, ask for magic. They knew I was turning men just like them into ash and dust, a half-mile away in no-man’s land, and they saw the bar in my ear and they still came to me.

“Then in the autumn of 1918 they started saying it would be over soon. I didn’t believe it. That war couldn’t end. I was at Boulogne, at any rate. It was a terrible place.” Ned dipped his head for a moment, then lifted it. “German soldiers died in the Salt fields without a mark on them. Men were buried three-deep in the frozen ground. It was a better war.”

It was said with a faint irony. Grace didn’t interrupt.

“Then the message came. The armistice was to be at eleven in the morning: hostilities would cease, and it would be passed down the lines on silver bells. And I –I couldn’t sleep.” Ned looked up. “The guns would stop. But all that magic – all that Salt in the earth along with the barbed wire. Nothing would grow. Children would have their mothers’ fields explode beneath their feet. That war couldn’t end, not like that.”

“Ned?” Grace said, when he didn’t say anything for a minute. “What did you do?”

Ned sighed. “I went to the signalbox, the morning of the armistice. The girl there was from Liverpool, like you. She called me a witch. And then I—I made it safe, I suppose.” He looked up and gave her a very small smile. “I raised all the magic on every battlefield. I pulled it into my hands, into my mouth. I put it in a bowl of water. I’d seen some things by then, I thought drowning would be an easy way to die.”

“And then?” Grace asked.

“I didn’t,” Ned said, bleakly. “When I woke up I didn’t believe it. But the girl from Liverpool rang the bells, and the war ended, and I poured the water into the harbour.”

“It took your own magic with it,” Grace said. “That’s right, isn’t it?”

He nodded, almost imperceptibly.

“But don’t misunderstand me,” he said, with some sharpness. “What I gave, I gave willingly, without regrets. I would have given my life, and yet –” He gestured to take in the room around them. “Here we are.” He shrugged again, and lit another cigarette from the first. “That’s all. Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please,” Grace said, and as Ned went across to the little gas ring to make it, she raised a light, high above them both, which shone brighter and longer than the first.

divider

That afternoon, Grace had two visitors. The first knock on the door of chambers was tentative, and Mrs Throckley’s voice uncertain when she came through to inform them of their guest. “A coloured gentleman here to see you, miss,” she said. “Says he knows you.”

“Send him in,” Grace said. When the man came in, looking around himself nervously, she grinned. “Amir! I’d been meaning to come and see you. Mr Ramanujan over in Pump Court speaks Hindi, we were waiting for him to have a free day – sit down, do. Ned, this is Amir. Amir, this is Ned Devlin, he’s my friend and colleague.”

She wasn’t sure how much of this spiel Amir had understood, but he sat down in an armchair and accepted a mug of tea, and when Ned tapped the sugar pot, offered a small smile in response. After taking a sip, Amir set down the cup and unfolded a newspaper from the inside of his jacket, smoothing out one of the inner pages and pointing at one headline in particular; Grace skimmed the story of the floodgates at Blackfriars and nodded when she got to the picture of herself and Thanet, taken as they left the station with the tunnels sealed beneath. “So that’s how you found me?”

Amir nodded. He lifted the cup again, then set it down. It took him a minute to speak. “Well done,” he said, finally, with clear enunciation. “And thank you. For – before.”

“I’m glad you got away,” Grace said soberly. “I was so worried. I’m so sorry that that awful thing happened. I think you’re very brave.”

Amir nodded, and smiled at her, then set the cup down once more and stood up.

“Surely you’re not going already,” Grace protested, and he must have understood her tone if not her words, because he smiled again and shook his head.

“Please wait,” Grace said. “Oh, I do wish Mr Ramanujan were here. You know about magic from iron. You could – stay.” She gestured around the room, at the books on the shelves, at her own and Ned’s practitioners’ bars. “Ned and some others are trying to recruit people, like the signal operator in the station, and you – people who can do your sort of magic. You could help them. You could help us, too, we could learn so much from you.”

Amir held her gaze for a moment, then shook his head.

“Not,” he said, again with clear, determined enunciation, “yet. Not yet.”

He bowed on the last word, took up his newspaper, and was gone, breezing past a surprised Mrs Throckley.

“Not yet,” Grace said, thinking of the riots, and the stones thrown, and all that abject fear. “If he doesn’t want to help – then we’ll leave him be. But I hope he does.”

“What an odd bloke,” Mrs Throckley complained from the doorway. “Wasn’t here five minutes and didn’t finish his tea. Grace, dear, do you know if Kira likes pound cake? I’ve a hankering myself, and all the eggs we’d need.”

“I’ve no idea,” Grace said, “but certainly Ned and I would be in favour.”

The cake was just coming out of the oven when there came another, much more stentorian knock.

Grace started towards the door, but was prevented from getting any further by the arrival of a stately galleon carrying a horsehair wig. “Ned, my darling, make yourself scarce, this is ladies only. That’s right, off with you.”

“Good afternoon, my lady,” Grace said, with considerable amusement, as Justice Devlin took Ned’s vacated chair and settled herself into it with a deep sigh. “Will you have anything to drink?”

“No, dear, this is a flying visit.” Justice Devlin reached into her handbag and began polishing her spectacles with a handkerchief. “I know you’ve been through the wars. I’m going to ask Ned to surrender the lease on this house, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” Grace repeated, horrified. “My lady, if it’s a matter of the rent, I know we’ve been behind – but if you’ll allow us just a little more time, I’m sure –”

“Hush, dear.” Justice Devlin put her spectacles back on her nose. “Nothing like that. I want Ned to surrender the lease and I want you to sign another, on new terms. Call it a new business proposition.”

Grace blinked. “What? My lady, I’m afraid I really don’t understand.”

Justice Devlin leaned back in her chair.

“Did you know,” she said, after a moment, “that Ned was born in the Temple gardens?”

“Yes,” Grace said, surprised. “I was the same – I was brought up around the High Court in Liverpool, my father practises there.”

“Grace, my dear, you misunderstand me,” Justice Devlin said. “I meant it quite literally. Ned was born right here, not too far from where we’re standing.” Off Grace’s look, she smiled. “I had a nasty prosecution I didn’t like to leave, and it seems a fourth child may arrive more quickly than the others.”

“My goodness.” Grace said, faintly, finding her imagination not up to the task of envisaging it.

“Things are different, here in the Temple gardens,” Justice Devlin said. “But women must work for what they want: that’s the same everywhere. Last Candlemas, did you light Ned’s lamps for him?”

That was one of her judicial trademarks, the lightning-fast change in subject. “Yes, my lady.”

“Don’t do that again,” Justice Devlin said, sharply. “I propose a simple arrangement: rent as a percentage of your receipts. Thanet’s back on the roll and you’ll be sending the little one out to earn pin money soon enough. I trust I’ll get perfectly reasonable returns, and handsome ones, in time.”

“What about Ned?” Grace asked.

“Ned,” Justice Devlin said, matching her gentleness, “is both my beloved youngest child and about the bravest person I have ever known, save one or two.” Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, my boy hasn’t outlived his usefulness. Quite the reverse, in fact. I fear there will be others like him, in time, and they’ll have need of him then. But that’s not for you to worry about, Grace. I’ll bring the new lease along in time for the quarter day. Look after yourself, darling girl.”

She kissed Grace’s forehead and swept out in a flurry of perfume and skirts.

“Is she gone?” Ned peeped around the door, and came in when he saw the coast was clear. “Grace, what is it?”

“Your mother thinks I should take over this practice from you,” Grace said, spreading her hands.”

Ned took a moment to react, but when he did it was only to take some of the pound cake, sitting out on the table, and reach for the teapot.

“You don’t need my permission,” he said, very calmly, and poured out.

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(vi) Christmas Day

 

“The quarter days,” Grace explained to Kira, while decorating the tree, “are the days on which people enter into contracts, raise auspicious magic, that sort of thing.

“Begin apprenticeships, even,” she added. “It’s been six months and change, little one. Shall you be keeping on with us?”

“Yes,” Kira said, with determination, and Grace grinned.

The new lease had been signed that morning, sealed in Salt, and taken away merrily by her ladyship, whose real errand, she said, had been to deliver a goose. Mrs Throckley was roasting it in the kitchen, filling the house with delicious smells, and Thanet was halfway up a stepladder with two armfuls of holly.

“Why do we always leave our decorating until the last possible moment?” she asked, irritated. “Kira, will you be having your Christmas dinner with us or at your mother’s?”

Kira looked slightly disappointed, and Thanet giggled. “Two Christmas dinners is one of the perquisites of apprenticeship, Kira, don’t worry.”

Kira brightened up. Thanet clambered down from the stepladder, and surveyed her handiwork.

“Now,” she said, “come with me for the last touch.”

On the windowsill, she carefully sprinkled a layer of table salt, and put down a handful of feathers. “For good luck in the year to come,” she explained, to a doubtful Kira. “It’s just a tradition, no magic in it.”

“Then shouldn’t we have iron?” Kira asked, and Thanet nodded.

“Quite right, I should have thought. Ned’s got a horseshoe above his desk – run and ask him for it, would you?”

Kira did, and brought it out to hang off the corner of the ledge.

“Very nice,” Thanet said, and when they went back inside Grace had almost finished with the tree, raising Salt lights on the end of each fringed branch.

“It’s very pretty,” Kira said, sounding a little shy, and Grace grinned.

“Glad you approve, little one. Ned, are you quite sure?”

“Quite sure,” Ned said, looking up from the journal he was reading. “It shan’t be called after iron, after all. Ferrous or Ferric magic, so say the great and the good. There’ll be a Ferrous Worshipful Company before too long.”

“Ferrous magic,” Thanet said, trying it out for size. “I think I’ll stick with Birds-in-Flight, myself.”

“About that,” Grace said, now fetching Kira a footstool, so she could place the star on the top of the tree. “Are you glad to be registered again, Thanet?”

Thanet tossed her hair impatiently over her shoulders.

“Yes, and no,” she said. “They hadn’t any right to take it from me to start with, of course. And the next time I help a girl with loose morals or some such ridiculous thing, they’ll be after me again. But I’ll fight the fight when it comes to me. Kamala is doing well, by the way,” she added.

Grace smiled at her and helped Kira get back down.

“Right, all. Dinner time for witches,” she said, grinning, “and Ned.”

Ned threw a popcorn string at her, following which the party arose and descended to the kitchen, where more Salt lights gleamed on every surface in honour of the occasion, and Mrs Throckley beamed beside a plump and crisply gleaming goose.

Everything was delicious, of course. Kira and Ned pulled the wishbone, and Kira got the wish. When the Christmas pudding emerged from the pot, Kira set it alight.

“Name, calling, gift, asking,” Grace coached, and the flames rose a lovely blue.

“When I was in the lift,” Kira said, a little hesitantly, as they ate it with brandy cream. “With Mr Devlin, and I took the heart out of him – could I, sometime, try again?”

No,” said Thanet and Grace together, and Ned only laughed.

“You will again, little one,” he promised. “But you’ve so much to learn, yet” – and opened his palm to reveal the silver sixpence.

They sent her home with it, in the end, alongside with gifts of books and sweets from all three of them, and a Christmas cake in a tin for her mother. Thanet offered to take the walk down the Embankment with Kira to her mother’s house, and after they’d gone, Ned and Grace helped Mrs Throckley clean up, presented her with a wrapped gift and a handsome bottle from the Temple cellars, and donned their hats and went out.

“It’s good brandy, that,” Ned commented, in the crisp and frosty air on the Embankment. “There’s another one on the side for us, we should crack it open when Thanet gets back.”

“That’s a plan,” Grace said, putting her hands on the railing, looking out across the river. “Speaking of plans, Ned – what are you going to do with yourself, now?”

Ned considered. “I’ve been asked to help with the new Worshipful Company. After that – well. My mother thinks I could be called to the bar, if you can imagine that.”

Grace chuckled. “I think I can.”

Ned shook his head, a little disbelieving. “I almost forgot,” he said. “Christmas Day, the last quarter day.”

He reached up to the piercing in the top of his ear, and with a hiss of pain, pushed roughly. The metal bar landed neatly in his hand.

“That’s that, then,” he said, quietly.

Grace nodded. “Thanet will be able to clean that up for you,” she said, motioning at the old wound. “Though it’ll leave a scar.”

Ned smiled. “Thank goodness for that. Twenty years of my life ought to.”

“Whatever you do next, you should come home often,” Grace said, earnestly. “Quite apart from anything else, you’ll have to take care of Kira’s Latin. I can read it, I can’t teach it. Forsan et haec meminisse, quite beyond me, et cetera.”

“Grace…”

“The world is changing,” Grace said, archly cutting him off. “All around us the world is changing. It may be that a young practitioner trained for modern times doesn’t need…”

“All right!” Ned held up his hands. “I will teach Kira her Latin.” He overturned his palms in supplication. “There is only so much I can bear. Latin will be taught. Greek also. If she has a yen to learn Sanskrit or hieroglyphs I will arrange for a tutor. Après moi, there will be no deluge.”

Grace laughed at his outrage, and settled alongside him on the bench by the water. “I missed you a great deal, when you were gone,” she said, presently. “Which surprised me, as you were quite unbearable when you were here.”

“Slander. I am a respectable Salt practitioner and an officer and a gentleman.”

“One out of three isn’t bad,” Grace said, wickedly, and wondered for a second if she’d misjudged it: but Ned laughed easily enough, and was still smiling a few moments later, as they watched the boats go past on the river.

“I missed you too,” he said, breaking the silence. “And this.” He motioned to the water, to the garden steps behind them, to London in general. “What have you decided to do about the lamp-lighting, in the new year?”

“I thought it would be nice if Kira lit your lamps,” Grace said..

“They’re not mine any more,” Ned said, “at least, they won’t be. That’s as well, though. She can start young.”

Whosoever they belonged to, and at whose hands they were raised, Grace was thinking, there would nevertheless come the seven hundred and thirty-second Candlemas of the City of London, that neither war nor peace could dismay: and they would all, as they had always done, raise and make light.

“It’s getting cold,” she said, rubbing her fingers together for warmth. “Do you want to go in?”

“Let’s stay out a little longer,” Ned said, gesturing along the Embankment towpath, and they kept on through the frosty evening, under a clear sky full of stars.

___
Copyright  2015 Iona Sharma

Iona is a writer, lawyer and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Other than speculative fiction, she’s interested in politics and land rights. Her other stories may be found at generalist.org.uk/iona and she tweets as @singlecrow.

By Maggie Clark

Transfer orders reached me in active storage—awake but shelved, and attentive only to the smaller sounds of silence: the hum of ventilation shafts, the occasional click of distant footprints, the minute grind of locks on other doors.

Call them my meditative years—four and a half, give or take, since the last serious incident on Loris Prime. Just don’t ask why I logged into storage after putting that sorry case to bed. Fatigue doesn’t hit an AI the same way it might a Natural Intelligence, and for all the cynicism in my personal profile, the notion of growing too jaded or spooked for detective work, as an NI often does, won’t pass muster either. The best I can offer is that time passes differently for AIs: every sluggish human second its own eternity, and yet, what are four-plus years to someone with whole centuries in their wake?

Unfolding and unplugging myself to answer the official call, I made note of all the points along and under my ’steel frame operating at suboptimal efficiency: plastics thick with particulate; liquid wiring that had just begun to crystallize; phase-shifting nanoprocessors in need of realignment. Minor fixes, all, but important reminders of my own mortality—gradual though it would be, unless I hastened things along.

My associate had been sent straight from Network HQ—meaning, straight from basic training—to join me on the journey out. He was young as recruits went, but then, they all seemed childlike to me, from the freshest to the most seasoned NI in the outfit. This wasn’t just my age talking, either: Everyone I’d been programmed to care about had died generations past, and I suspected that, for whatever reason, self-actuation had lessened my ability to build a similar rapport with others since.

Hearing tell of this suspicion, a previous associate once suggested that maybe we weren’t so different after all—humans, that is, and AIs. At the time, 58 and widowed, he maintained that his heart had been permanently wearied by its losses, and though he saw youthful optimism all about him, he knew he’d never again join in. I accepted this as his view for as long as he held it, and then, when he was 62, likewise accepted word that he’d found a man who taught him to laugh and cry anew. Granted, though, this was forty-odd years ago, and they’re both making their way back to stardust now, so he wasn’t entirely wrong: I’d be joining him and all other NIs, eventually, on that protracted road.

In the meantime, the kid before me was of the nervous, jumpy sort, and as ill-fitting in his Network jumpsuit as he seemed in the hush of the storage lockers. When he spoke he cleared his throat first, as if in competition with the silence for my attention.

“If you need a moment to get—ah—dressed?”

If I’d still had a synth-skin I might have smiled. I’d worn one such outfit or another for centuries: the first the body of a Companion with ample female attributes, the next a broad-shouldered male number, and the rest all variations therein. But the naked chassis had its benefits, too; it “breathed,” as an NI might say of their birthday suit.

Instead I declined his offer by making directly for the shuttle, as the Network surely knew I would. My associate jogged to keep up while rattling off details of our case: Twenty-three dead monks in a mountain-dwelling community on a hunk of rock so old, so remote, and so apparently bereft of commercial value that at first I thought it no wonder the Network didn’t want to waste “real” agents on the case.

“Witnesses?”

“Just one—the only surviving monk.”

“And what does he say happened?”

“He doesn’t.”

“Scared into silence, huh?”

“No, just—too busy to talk.”

The kid almost bumped into me when I stopped short at the loading dock for a passing luggage car. The ticker for our own transport flashed its final boarding call.

“Too busy for a murder investigation?”

His cheeks and ears reddened as we took our respective seats. “Well—ah—that’s the tricky part, Detective Bennett—sir. See, the monk won’t stop singing long enough for anyone to get a word in edgewise. And the locals say he can’t. Their people—they believe the universe was sung into being, and the monks’ job is to keep it going. For as long as anyone remembers, the monks have been holding the universe together in song—in shifts, of course, but without pause. So now the locals are terrified because if he stops… well, he won’t stop, sir. Not with that much on the line.”

“Well, that’s a damned nuisance. What’s your name, kid?”

“Yes, sir. Hersh, sir.”

Out the nearest viewscreen, Hersh and I watched Loris Prime fall away.

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I skimmed all pertinent files from Hersh’s sig-card during the last minute of the flight. The hunk of rock we’d landed on had three official names: its Network designation, its everyday name, and its sacred name. Only three would be unusual, if not for the planet’s culturally homogenous population: just under a quarter million calling Cog “home.”

Cog was a planet of relentless mountain ranges, many containing caverns large enough to port three shuttles through, side by side, with room to spare on either end. But if Cog had ever held lucrative mineral and metal reserves (and some signs pointed to interplanetary mining operations thousands of years back), they stood depleted now. What remained was a multifaceted people, their skins a patchwork of colors, shapes, and sizes, with agrarian traditions haphazardly merged from what might have been as many as twelve original sources, and a persisting caste system not unusual for colonies their age and size.

The way Hersh had told it, though, today’s Cograns were nobodies in the Network, and from the report that wasn’t quite true: their use simply lay elsewhere, in communication relays and intelligence-gathering, two services which—at the shit end of a particularly cold and inhospitable solar system—these people could perform with greater ease and discretion than most. So maybe there was more to my reassignment than first appeared.

Either way, the Cogran who met our transport was taller than the average native, and from the accessories on his outerwear, more affluent, too. Sev Franz, he called himself—Sev being a designation not unlike “Father” or “Reverend” in other parts of the galaxy, but with the added implication of “mediator” or “peace-maker.” There was no official police force on Cog, where most communities numbered in the low thousands, but each had an upper-caste council that met to discuss various infractions therein. Sev Franz introduced himself as one of seven such councilors from the community of Pagora, which encompassed the mountain cavern where the world’s monks—a population already in sharp decline in recent years—lived and worked and held the universe together in song.

“Striking place,” I said, as he directed us to the primary crime scene. “Cog’s what, now—thirteen, fourteen billion years old?”

Sev Franz shot me a puzzled look, but if he’d hoped to read anything off my naked ’steel frame, its impassive ocular sockets and rigid, empty jaw, he could only be disappointed. “No, of course not. Closer to—well, five billion, I suppose. But surely you know that.”

“And your people? Do they know that, too? My files suggest strong literacy rates, no major panic about modern medicine and the like. And yet, the universe is billions of years older than your world, and your people are terrified that it will end if the singing stops?”

Sev Franz’s mouth parted. “Ah,” he said, winking. “Yes, I see now. I suppose it all sounds incomprehensible to someone like you—a robot, yes?”

“AI will do. Just ‘robot’ would be the equivalent of calling you a mammal, or invertebrate, understand?”

“Absolutely. But the point remains, no?”

“No, I don’t find it incomprehensible.”

“Because you already find humans irrational in everything we do?” Sev Franz glanced in amusement at Hersh, but the kid was trying his best to appear professional, so only the flushed tips of his ears conveyed his own uncertainty.

“Well, you are, but no.” I affected a sigh to set the NIs at ease. “No, I was originally programmed to worship, myself. One person, mind you, but to me she was a god.”

“I’m not so sure that’s the same…” Sev Franz started, before a look of discomfort passed over his face. “Then again, who am I to say it isn’t?” His next smile was all business—big and toothy as he clapped his hands and gestured to a narrow cavern entrance, no more than an unadorned crack along the mountainside. Only from the wear along its edges (the rock worn smooth by many palms over many generations) could one begin to guess the meaning of this place. We entered the recesses of the mountain one by one.

divider

Our narrow walking path opened into an antechamber many meters in, after which various markings of civilization—mosaics, friezes, metalworks, and free-standing sculptures, all given the impression of movement by torchlight—flooded our field of view.

“Shouldn’t this place be cordoned off?” said Hersh. “For genetic testing?”

Sev Franz looked ready to tousle the kid’s hair. “Already done, son. Took you two a while just to get here, remember?”

Our timing was relative, of course. Network logs showed that three days had passed on Cog since the incident, with the lone surviving monk hooked to a saline drip as he sang the song of the world alone in the temple’s inner sanctum. For me and Hersh, though, it had been just under a day from Hersh’s briefing to our joint arrival. Plenty still refused to travel in the Spiders—giant mechanical structures, vaguely arachnoid in form, at the outskirts of every known solar system, opening their arms to approaching vessels and transporting each to its desired coordinates—but even those who shuddered at such machines still benefited from their use. Hell, the Network itself, as a web of resources spanning the known galaxy, had only become possible after decoding and adapting to such alien technologies.

“And beyond this passage?” I nodded to a corridor wreathed in images of monks—some reading, others buried with saintly glosses, still others in transcendent acts of prayer. “The temple?”

“After you.” Sev Franz gestured and I obliged. Hersh alone stumbled as we reached a balcony from which the whole mountain seemed to give way—its interior rising hundreds of meters to a ceiling entirely painted over, but also descending hundreds of meters more into pitch-black void. Once I’d adjusted my visual settings, I could make out five other balconies around the circular perimeter, while at the chamber’s center, along a pillar that ran the whole height and depth of the cavern, lay a second sphere—a room from which the brightest lights emanated through intricate gaps in the stone. The whole temple was filled with song: deep, raw, and simple—at times no more than a guttural ahhh that proceeded from this second sphere and reverberated throughout.

Though I assumed our lone monk lay within that room at the center of the pillar, I could not so easily surmise how he’d entered the inner sanctum in the first place. I turned to Hersh to speculate, but his gaze was fixed on the trick of the shadows that made the temple floor seem infinite. His forehead beaded with sweat.

“Afraid of heights?”

“A little.”

Sev Franz came between us, peering over the ledge. “Our oldest stories speak of monks climbing down the sides of these walls, crossing the base of the cave, and scaling the pillar for their turn at song. See? You can even make out the footholds on either side—a bit run down now, but passable with the right equipment.”

“Needlessly elaborate, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh no, Detective. It all accords quite well with our beliefs—man crawling out from the depths and into the light.” And he went on, with a lilt in his voice:

Little children, least of the universe,

Turning their voices heavenward—

The planets, the stars, their faces

Uplifted in song—

Who will keep this symphony in motion

When all the little children are gone?

I allowed Sev Franz a generous silence before asking, “How do we cross now?”

“Oh, it’s simple enough. Here—” And he wrapped both hands around a heavy, rounded stone by the passageway, dragging the knob from one side of the balcony ledge to the other. In so doing, the underside of our platform unfolded into a springy mesh bridge spanning half the cavern. “We’ve just had all these retracted to give our dear brother peace in this difficult hour. He has a hard enough task without being troubled by Pagora’s townsfolk, however well-intentioned their journeys out.”

Or their interest in finishing the job. I tested the tensile strength of our narrow walkway and its railings before leading the party on.

“But what if he wanted to leave the center chamber?” said Hersh. “Could he even operate the bridges from inside?”

Sev Franz’s baffled look was all the answer either of us required.

divider

On the way to Cog, I’d wondered why Pagora’s sitting council hadn’t conducted even the simplest yes/no interrogation with the lone surviving monk, irrespective of his need for constant song. To see Brother Yuco in the heart of the temple, though—sinewy with age, slumped in grief and exhaustion, a blanket wrapped about him, IVs in his arms, and his head shaking a relentless no no no while eleven crime scene markers held vigil all about—I understood at once the futility of such an exchange. The monk, however, was not alone; by his side knelt a woman, also old by human standards, to whom had clearly fallen the task of keeping Brother Yuco awake and full of universal voice.

“Marin Bris,” said Sev Franz, touching her shoulder when she turned and scowled at the sight of me. “This is Detective Bennett and his junior associate, from the Network. They’re here to help.”

“What in blazes we need a robot for,” she said. “And one with more skull than face—Stars preserve us, people’re going to think Death’s come to mark the End of Things.”

“It’d be fitting, though, wouldn’t it, given the circumstances?” I said. “However competent your ministrations, we both know Brother Yuco can’t keep this up forever.”

“You shut yourself with that talk this instant.” Marin Bris glared at me, then Sev Franz. “You’ve told him we’re training the next lot even now, haven’t you? They’ll be here in time—he’s only got to hold out a little longer, don’t you, old man? Oh, come now, don’t start that again—”

Hersh twitched and made to speak when the old woman ran her palms over Brother Yuco’s tear-stained cheeks, but I caught the kid’s wrist, and with a confused glance my way, he held his tongue instead. Together we watched Marin Bris kiss the salt from the monk’s eyes as he shook his head and intoned another verse from the Cograns’ ancient song.

“Come along, then,” said Sev Franz. “I assume you’ll want to see where the other twelve were murdered? We know they died first, in their beds, done away with by the same incineration tool we found at the bottom of the temple, and which the murderer ultimately overheated to the point of destroying all genetic evidence. Granted, the real puzzle is how the other eleven were killed here, in plain view of one another, and from so many angles, but we have all those stills on file already. I imagine you’ve already reviewed the lot.”

I nodded at this last, but lingered just the same at the edge of the inner sanctum. “Although I’m not so certain that’s the puzzle here.”

“Oh?” Sev Franz halted halfway across the mesh bridge, blocking my associate’s passage. Hersh clung desperately to one railing and shut his eyes against the depths below.

“Just think of it.” I surveyed the intricate carvings along the pillar and throughout the walls of the outer cavern, its acoustics perfectly suited to the monks’ millennia-old task. “You believe your song upholds the universe. You train for years and gather in shifts to meditate, to pray, and to sing. You shut your eyes, clear your mind, and hear only the force of that collective music—until it starts to go out, one precious thread after another. What do you do at first except sing louder, assuming—as is only reasonable at the time—a much milder explanation for all the other voices dropping off?

“So by the time you realize just how much silence has crept in, even if you do open your eyes and see the killer, and all your brothers’ corpses around them, how do you orchestrate response without giving up the song? Let’s say there are half a dozen monks remaining—maybe, at best—when the severity of the situation finally reaches them. That’s still half a dozen men trained only in slow, communal action, and now suddenly required, with frantic glances alone, to decide who’ll make the first move—and how, against such a silent but deadly weapon—while the rest try to keep the universe alive. Those just aren’t good odds for survival, Sev Franz. Not among your kind.”

Our Cogran mediator did not reply at once, and when he did there was something distinctly angry about his soft-spoken “I see,” as if to say—You must think us all fools. But Marin Bris did not hesitate, or equivocate, in her own howl from the heart of the temple.

“OUT!” came her personal song of the universe, as she clutched a now profusely weeping Brother Yuco. “OUT OUT OUT OUT!”

divider

Hersh had his own disapproving look by the time we reached the living quarters, and gone was the eager “Yes, sir” when I asked him to inspect each monk’s cell. I asked Sev Franz if he’d give us a moment alone, to which the mediator readily agreed, claiming that other Pagoran business called him anyway. I turned to my associate.

“They teach passive-aggression in basic training now?”

Hersh’s cheeks grew a livid pink. “You always that horrible around people in mourning?”

“Marin Bris, you mean, or Brother Yuco?”

“Both. Either. The hell does it matter.” Hersh cast about the room in that nervous, twitchy way of his. “You read the files, didn’t you? You know they’re both Ang—lowest of the low on this colony. So twist the knife in the wound, why don’t you? Picking on two scared old people who could never’ve advanced in the first place except through the Order, and even then don’t get much say about all that’s gone on.”

“Not quite. Only the men ever advance.” Hersh’s nostrils flared with what I took to be exasperation as I went on. “Fascinating, isn’t it? Cograns believe the song of the universe must begin with the lowest of the low, swelling until it reaches the stars themselves. In practice, that gives a few Ang men social mobility in exchange for sterility, and so ironically creates a new lowest class of Cogran: the Ang woman, for whom no such deal is on offer. Some follow Ang men into the mountains, sacrificing their own fertility in turn, but their lives here are not easy. Heaven’s whores would be my translation of the Cogran term.”

“There are women like Marin Bris on my world, too,” said Hersh, his arms now minutely trembling. “Shunned as class traitors for leaving oppressive homes, then exploited for the rest of their lives by the people they gave up everything to serve.”

“And you’re Ang yourself, I take it—or the equivalent on your world.” I waited for his reply, but Hersh only studied his hands. “It shows, you know. You’ve got the look of someone who doesn’t think he fits in, who’s just waiting to be found out. Who thinks he needs to defend his right to the very air he’s breathing, the room he’s taking up.”

Another pause on my part; another silence on Hersh’s.

“No wonder they paired you with me. Kid as jumpy as you, on assignment with a regular NI? That’d just be asking for trouble—for both of you. No way the Network risks your sorry ass and some human vet’s just to see if you’ll cut it in the field.”

At last Hersh’s head snapped up, his face and neck fully flush with anger. “I passed my entrance exams like anybody else. Top third of my class, too. Nerves of steel in a shuttle cockpit, or behind the controls of any other vehicle you can name. I joined the Network to serve the galaxy and improve the reputation of my people, and so help me, Detective Bennett—sir—I’m going to do that, whether you like it or not.”

I laughed: a rare, spontaneous gesture that made me wonder if I’d overlooked other repairs. If I still had synth-skin I would have affected wiping the corners of my eyes, too.

“Settle down, Hersh. Who the hell cares what I like or don’t like? I’m just the asshole AI running your first assignment. I mean, good for you, having dreams and shit. But see how easy you make it? Getting pissed because some unresolved angst hits an angle of the case the wrong way? That’s the kind of emotional baggage that leads NIs to violence, so get used to me pushing it: I’m running a homicide investigation here. I can’t always back down or play nice if I want to learn about the people involved.”

“Yeah? So what’d you learn from upsetting the old lady like that?”

I affected surprise as best I could without a human face. “Plenty. Why, didn’t you?”

Hersh clearly couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, so with a severe frown he returned to his inspection of the monks’ cells, silent at first but eventually getting into the rhythm of his labors, and at times even calling out the amused likes of: “Got some letters in here!” “Man, Brother Timu was a slob!” and “Brothers Wye and Kildew were sleeping together!”

I kept my replies short and mostly neutral, with the occasional bit of encouragement whenever warranted, and by the time we left the mountain, Hersh seemed almost a different field agent—not completely over the worst of his restless mannerisms, granted, but more comfortable, at least, in his persisting annoyance with me.

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Only twilight greeted us when we left the mountain, with even wildlife on this fragile, gutted world apparently in short supply. We soon learned that Sev Franz had indeed been called away by important business—the arrival of temple novitiates from far-off villages—but we hadn’t been forgotten; once we passed into town, we were escorted to a large enough hut that Hersh could sleep well apart from me. While I charged from my portable energy drive, he picked at a local delicacy of rice and beans.

“Thoughts on the good Sev Franz?”

Hersh paused in that way most socially-aware NIs do before responding, trying to convey serious consideration where most AIs, when left to their own devices, would simply churn out every relevant response.

“For someone who believes the world might end at any moment,” said the kid at last, “he’s pretty calm. But uptight in other ways. Especially about anything theoretical.”

“Not surprising, given his job description. He’s their front-of-house: the man who tends to their day-to-day spiritual needs and their political ones. And now he serves as Cogran’s representative to the stars, too, which would be quite a tall order for anyone.”

Hersh opened his sig-card, a projection screen hovering over his dinner. “It’s all pretty new for them, isn’t it—Network ties, trade benefits, the chance of leaving this rock? I mean, ‘Cog’—it even sounds worthless in the galactic tongue. Someone should tell them how it translates on other worlds. Maybe get them to put in for a name-change.”

“You might be surprised how many would take pride in the name’s translation, if they knew it. We’re talking about a culture that boasts of low beginnings, remember.”

“Not all of them, though. Not people like Sev Franz.” Hersh’s facial features were so expressive I could almost hear the gears in his head turning. He pointed at me with a spoon. “Sev Franz talks a good talk about his faith relying on the lowest of the low, but he seems pretty happy to be in another caste himself. One with plenty of mobility, and wealth, and best of all, the assumption that the universe just wanted things this way. That he’d earned all his luxuries and the confidence that comes with them just by being born.”

“Not bad,” I said—and meant it; the kid had potential—“but what’s it to us?”

Hersh shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t think he cares if we solve the case or not. He’s already fixing the parts that matter to him, turning the whole temple back into a well-oiled machine, so if we can’t figure this shit out, it’s no skin off his back. Hell, he might even come out of this looking more useful to his people if we leave empty-handed.”

“No reason for him to knock off twenty-three monks, then, that you can see?”

“Nope.” Hersh wiped his mouth and sat up. “And you—sir?”

I didn’t reply, and Hersh went back to his meal, speaking again only after pushing his plate aside. By then, in the time it took Hersh to say, “What I don’t understand—”, I had over a dozen rejoinders queued, like …could fill the whole mountain temple. …would stretch between one Spider and the next. …thankfully won’t bring about the ruination of any important civilizations.

We weren’t ready for that kind of banter, though, so I played it straight and let him finish: “—is why we’re here at all. I mean, yeah, it’s sad that almost all the monks on this world got wiped out, and upsetting that these people think the universe might end because of it, but what’s the Network’s angle? Because we both know they have one.”

I affected an unnecessary pause of my own. The kid was perceptive, but not yet able to extrapolate beyond his own experiences. “Of course they do,” I said. “But it’s obvious, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if the world actually ends or not—the trouble is that someone might have killed those monks thinking the world would end if their song did. That’s the kind of terrorist mentality that alerted the Network to this case. That’s why they sent us: on the off-chance we’re dealing with someone who might have access to the whole Network through the Spiders, and a death wish for the universe to boot.”

“But if Brother Yuco stops singing and the world doesn’t end—”

“Then our perp will either be humbled by how wrong they were, and maybe even give him- or herself up, or else they’ll retaliate in even more extreme ways—ways that might actually bring the universe to its knees. It’s just too big a risk to be ignored.”

“If our perp wanted to end the song, though, why leave Brother Yuco alive? Man, I wish they had surveillance cameras on this dump. I get that the temple’s a sacred place, but still—we could’ve wrapped this all up remotely with just a camera or two.”

I nodded and stood to retire. “Different cultures, different practices. It’s a good question, though. We’ll know more when we talk to the family.”

But Hersh only frowned at me. “You don’t already know who did it, do you?”

Without a synth-skin, I didn’t even bother feigning a smile.

“Night, kid. See you at dawn.”

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We made it to moonfall before being roused by a disturbance in the scrub-bushes just beyond our hut. Hersh had his hand on his holster when I opened the door and sighted three figures hunched and quarreling in the dark.

“That’s enough,” I said. “Present yourselves.” I was ready to give chase if they ran, but instead the one in the middle stood up sharply, then shoved the smallest into the light spilling from our hut.

“Take her when you go,” he said. “Please. She’s ruined if she stays here.”

The third figure, a woman perhaps in her late twenties, was crying and shaking her head. The child before us looked half her age at best, and when Hersh saw the bruises all along the child’s arms, he swore in a language I didn’t recognize.

“Who’s done this to your daughter?”

The man seemed startled by the obvious connection, then impatient. “It’s nothing compared to what will happen if she stays. She’s in love with one of the boys they’ve taken—she’s a fool. She’ll follow them all to the temple just like that old crone did, and bring shame upon my family. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

“You did this to her, then?” Hersh’s hand was back on the holster. I was half-inclined to stay silent and see what he’d do, but the Ang man’s last words intrigued me.

“Tell us,” I said, “how was it supposed to be?”

He hesitated, and seemed poised to speak until the child’s mother pulled at his arm.

“We can’t,” she said to him. “Too many have died already for this foolishness. There will never be an end to things.”

“There’ll be an end to your beating your daughter, that’s for certain,” said Hersh. He advanced with weapon half-upraised, gesturing at the child to get behind him. I admit to almost crushing his wrist until he let the service piece drop, the child still frozen between her parents and us. Hersh shot a furious glance my way as he cried out and nursed the injury.

“Is that it, then?” I said. “Do you really think bringing about the end is the answer? Better to destroy everything than live another day as you do?”

The woman spat in the dirt between us. “You want to talk destruction? You ask that old hag, Marin Bris, what right she had smuggling tools and the like into the temple. There’s nothing sacred to her kind once they go up. You don’t understand what those whores are capable of—the wrath that comes of a lifetime’s selfish indulgence. She was old, see? Too old. They were fixing to be rid of her, so why not repay ‘em with murder?”

“Village gossip,” Hersh spat back. “That woman won’t leave Brother Yuco’s side.”

“Then we’re on borrowed time,” said the man, his expression ashen. He took hold of the child by an elbow and tugged her into the shadows. “It’s no use now, trying to run—Come, Isla. We must pray.”

Hersh started after them, but I held his shoulder too firmly. “The hell’s the matter with you,” he said, and kicked a ’steel leg instead. “We can’t just let them get away.”

“I’m not,” I said. “But you still need your sleep.”

Hersh gave no sign of comprehension at first, but when I began to walk away his brows shot up. NIs might take a little longer, but they more or less get there in the end.

“Hey,” he said, crouching in the dirt. “Here.” He tossed his firearm my way. I crossed the barrel over an ocular socket in salute, then gestured again for him to go bed. This time, to even my surprise, he obeyed.

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I didn’t pursue the wretched family, though explaining this neglect to such a young and emotional NI would not be possible. In the morning I’d tell Hersh I’d spoken with the father and put the fear of the Network into his superstitious head, and Hersh would accept this both because he’d never known me to lie and because he wanted to believe that things would turn out better for the child. Never mind that a culture is rarely changed overnight, this girl’s problems ran wider than her immediate, frantic family, and the Network has a strict policy against removing natives from their worlds. Some hopes, I knew, were clung to not because they made sense, but out of sheer despair at the alternatives.

What did strike me, though, was the woman’s backtracking—how she’d launched into a tirade against Marin Bris as if to deflect from initial words she hadn’t meant to say. The idea of a death cult was not out of the question on a world as stark as this one, with the Sev Franzes of society contentedly running lower castes into the ground, but if there were natives willing to destroy the universe in order to make their suffering end, surely they already had their next target lined up: the young boys training to take Brother Yuco’s place.

I took the main Pagoran road—now ill-lit in the dead of night—to the compound where the children had been gathered. Sure enough, sentries were stationed at all corners. I raised a hand to one by the entrance and he glanced nervously at me. I highly doubted the glint of my ’steel frame in near-darkness was for him a reassuring sight.

“Any disturbances tonight?”

“Just you,” he said, jutting his chin. “We’ve strict orders to turn everyone away.”

“I’m here on behalf the Network, running a—”

“Yeah, we know,” said the man, his voice growing heated. He swept his rifle through the air between us. “Just—leave this place alone. Sev Franz’s orders.”

I nodded to the light coming from the compound windows: no song; only changes in the shadows. “Sev Franz is here now? Working with the little boys?”

The man’s expression hardened at the inflected word. It was almost tediously easy to rile an NI this way.

“Sev Franz is a great man,” said the sentry. “And he’s only ever had this planet’s best interests at heart. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to protect our people—even from themselves, if it ever came to it.”

“Do you think it might have, three days ago?”

It took the sentry a few seconds to grasp my meaning, after which he looked at me in disgust. “If Sev Franz needed to kill twenty-three monks, putting our entire universe in peril in the process, you can bet there was a damned good reason for it. If. Now get away, will you? Before I call the others.”

I bowed and clicked my ’steel heels together, the farce of the gesture entirely lost on this little NI. For the next few hours I observed the compound at a distance, monitoring its perimeter more acutely than the sentries ever could, but no covert Ang force—or any force—appeared. The only real movement was in the predawn hush, when a slight chill settled in the air and a figure slipped from the front doors into the street. From his gait and the way the sentry greeted him, there was no mistaking Sev Franz, in all his eminent apparel.

When he’d passed fully out of sight, I stole back to the guest hut and woke Hersh with a good shake to the arm. He groaned, passing a hand over his eyes. “Time already?”

“If it’s not already too late.”

That got his attention, groggy as the poor NI remained.

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Dawn met us halfway along Pagora’s main road, somewhere between the upper-caste residences and the downriver slums where the city-Ang resided. From then on we were greeted by dozens of hardened bodies and startled faces—more so than even the strangeness of my chassis could explain.

“They look terrified,” said Hersh, whose yawning had just abated. “You think that shit of a father passed the message on, that we’re not to be messed with?”

I didn’t reply, but sure enough, the Ang hid their gazes even from my young associate, and only by inference, from darting eye movements when we asked, could we extract any information about where Brother Yuco’s sister lived.

Yuco Mera was an old woman herself, but already deep into the day’s labors of washing and folding while tiny Ang children settled about her, peering at her work or playing in the dirt. She had the calmest expression of any of the adults we’d seen all morning, her long-whiskered brows perhaps too wearied instead by grief.

“Sister Yuco,” I said—and that caused her to crook her mouth and grunt ha.

“Mera,” she said, scrubbing hard in the basin before her. Out the corner of my eye I saw that the children had taken a shine to Hersh, and he to them. I let them be.

“Mera.” I crouched to eye level. “We’re from the Network, come to investigate the murders up in the mountain. Your brother—”

“Good as dead.” Mera flung a sopping wet blanket onto another pile. “And everything with him.”

“You mean the universe? It’s been around a lot longer than your planet, Mera, let alone your Cogran monks.”

Mera cast a tired look my way. “Ever think maybe it’s all in reverse, spaceman?”

“You mean, the universe created retroactively? Its entire past arising the moment the first monk on Cog broke into song?” She nodded so gravely then that, for the first time since my arrival, I truly longed for synth-skin, and the gentleness of the smile I could have managed in reply. “Cograns are tremendous storytellers, Mera. I’ll give you that.”

Mera grunted, flinging another garment on the stack for drying. As she did, Hersh and I both caught sight of a faded tattoo on her inner arm—a blue circle with a line spanning its radius and extending beyond the circumference.

“What’s that?” he said, and from the heat in his voice I could tell his past was getting in the way again. “They don’t mark you here, do they?”

Mera covered her arm and looked away. “No child,” she said. “Some in the city think it’s all a great line, the universe—from the lowest to the highest—but we Ang know otherwise. The universe is a circle of unity, and needs all of us to survive.”

“Your brother believes that, too?” I said. Mera nodded. “And Marin Bris?”

Mera snorted and returned to her scrubbing. “Only circle she knows is the one she’s been making for decades between temple beds.”

Hersh visibly blanched—young NIs and their horror over the thought of old and rutting flesh. I had all I needed, though, so I bowed to Mera and stood.

“But that’s not what I meant,” she added softly, and when she looked up this time she seemed as nervous as all the other Ang we’d seen. “About everything ending with him.”

“I know,” I said. “And for that I’m truly sorry.”

Maybe it was surprise that allowed her to accept my hand then. Maybe not. Either way, Companion though I’d once, long ago been, with just the ’steel chassis a little squeeze was the only comfort this old AI unit could provide. It was high time we were moving on.

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Hersh had to sprint to keep up as I made for the temple. Though he quizzed me with glances all the while, I would say nothing until we’d entered the mountain, crossed the mesh bridge, and found ourselves observing the Order’s newest monks as they prepared to take over from Brother Yuco, who was more groaning than singing from his place on the floor. Marin Bris still knelt beside him, stroking what threads of hair remained and tucking his blanket in, while two medics stood ready to carry him out at Sev Franz’s word.

“Marvelous timing,” he said, gesturing at the nervous young boys in their robes, fresh from crash courses in—at the very least—the Cograns’ ancient song and ceremonies. “You bear witness to history in the making. Cog has sadly declined in its practice of taking tribute, which is why our monastic numbers were so perilously low to start—but no more. These boys have all been volunteered by their families, who’ve been amply rewarded in turn. With these faces we will begin anew, building a better, stronger Order—and oh, you will see our results the galaxy over! How the very stars will burn brighter in the coming years!”

As if to signal their agreement, the boys at that very moment picked up Brother Yuco’s fading refrain, and the whole cavern reverberated with a song far deeper and richer than any (I must admit) I’d ever heard before. Hersh himself looked ready to give way before the majesty of the performance, and there were tears in all the other NIs’ eyes. I allowed them their moment of rapture before tapping Sev Franz on the shoulder.

“I would speak to you, Sev Franz, in the antechamber. With Brother Yuco.”

“Of course,” he said, and gestured to the medics, who took his cue and hefted the old monk out, Marin Bris clinging to one flagging hand.

Even in the antechamber, though, surrounded by various artifacts of the ancient Cogran peoples, the tremendous song of the young monks presided. To be heard at all, I spoke slower than usual, and ensured each word was especially firm. Sev Franz insisted that the medics be sent out before I went on, but I in turn insisted that Marin Bris stay. After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded, and I surveyed my little audience.

“It’s all over, Brother Yuco,” I said. “But you know that already.”

The dying monk blinked at me, silent at last, but still profusely weeping.

“You can’t mean to accuse him of all this,” said Marin Bris, leaping between us with clenched fists despite her years. I sympathized, but continued speaking directly to the monk.

“You couldn’t kill yourself, too, because you weren’t trying to end the universe—only the caste system here on Cog. You had to make things just fragile enough in the Order to force your fellow Cograns to take stock of their fragilty, and hopefully compel them to distribute the load more equally. To make singing the universe everyone’s job, and so lift the Ang from an oppression the whole practice right now reinforces.”

Marin Bris and Hersh both cast startled glances at Brother Yuco, then me, then him again. “You couldn’t have,” said Marin Bris. “All your friends. Your brothers.”

“He didn’t,” I said. “That’s clear enough from the stills—the inconsistent trajectories of each incinerating shot. They were probably all in on it: the whole Order taking their lives in hope of a better tomorrow, and leaving behind only the oldest, the frailest—”

“—the lowest—” Hersh muttered. I nodded.

“—to shoulder the load until the rest of Cog came to its senses.” I turned again to Brother Yuco, who made what I could only assume was the first grief-sound he’d been able to utter on his own behalf since the whole ordeal began.

“Dear Brother Yuco,” I went on. “In all my years, in all my travels, I wish I could say that such transcendent acts are always enough to change the world, but the efficiency of the upper castes here is its own, fearsome thing. You won’t triumph in this moment—but you and your fallen comrades join a long line of people across the galaxy who at least have tried.”

Now it was Marin Bris’s turn to moan, and fall to her knees, and bury her face over Brother Yuco’s chest while the worn-out old monk—who had all on his own, without pause or reprieve, sung the universe for days now—took his last, ragged breaths.

“This doesn’t surprise you in the slightest, does it?” I turned to see Hersh confronting Sev Franz, who in turn blandly smiled at me.

“It’s as you said, Hersh,” I said. “Different expectations for different castes.” I nodded to our Cogran mediator. “We’ll be filing our report within the day, of course.”

Sev Franz shrugged. “Write whatever you want, but just remember that the Network’s word doesn’t count for much among my people. If your report is made public, though—if this is the view of Cog you release to the system at large, when we’re on the verge of so many new alliances—I will personally ensure that every Cogran knows Brother Yuco went mad and killed his fellow monks. In one fell swoop he’ll go from savior of the universe to deranged nihilist, and his family will live in infamy for the rest of their days.”

Marin Bris threw a cutting word the mediator’s way, but Sev Franz seemed unfazed, even bored. “Do what you need to in private, though, and Cog will forget the unsolved murders in a moon or two, but I guarantee that the legend of Saint Yuco will live on. My people will give thanks and sing praise-songs to his family tree for centuries.”

“Or at least until Cog gives up this nonsense of singing the universe altogether.” I knew this, at least, would annoy him.

Even then, he was quick to obscure his irritation by humming. “You know, Detective Bennett, you keeping mocking my people’s beliefs, but I wonder if you ever reflect on your own. The universe we’ve always known is one we’ve always been told needs song to exist—and lo and behold, there has always been song. Meanwhile, the Spider that brought you here—do you need to know how it works to accept that it does? Or whatever turned you from advanced program to sentient being—do you know precisely where the distinction lies? Are we really so different, you and I?”

His smile told me what he wanted then: the NI mediocrity of I learned something from you, now learn something from me. In this game, I’d parrot his earlier words—say, “I’m not so sure that’s the same…” and affect some AI equivalent of discomfort before adding, “Then again, who am I to say it isn’t?” After, we’d grimly shake hands, equals at the end of a bitter case, and I’d take Hersh with me to the nearest Spider, Marin Bris would wither away, and Sev Franz would go about his business with a renewed lightness in his step.

But I didn’t ape a word of it. Maybe couldn’t. Instead I put Hersh on the next transport, off to his second assignment with what every rookie loves best: an outlandish tale of working for a hard-ass to grease the wheels with new associates. All the better for him, too, that this hard-ass was made of both piss and ’steel: the vast narrative terrain he’d have at his disposal! I almost smiled a naked-chassis smile to see the young shit go.

Strangely, though, it would be whole minutes after my own transport out before I realized what I should have said to Brother Yuco, Marin Bris, and Sev Franz in the temple’s antechamber: that time spent within the Network brought its own, uncontrollable revolutions. That travelers from distant worlds, brimful with distant ideas, would one day topple the caste system where even the most valiant acts of Cogran resistance had failed. That my report, though classified for now, would eventually be released, and Brother Yuco’s true heroism reclaimed then by his people. That one day I would return to bear witness to all of this, and more, and tread upon Sev Franz’s long-obscured or infamous dust.

Or so I hoped—though the very delay in this realization gave me pause, and inclined me towards a service station before putting in for my next assignment. But I suppose even an AI must take great care with repairs if it wants to live long enough to hear the universe sung in just the right moral key. Too much time in stasis, and everything decays.

___
Copyright  2015 Maggie Clark

Maggie Clark is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada). To date, her science fiction has appeared in Analog, Bastion, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Lightspeed.

By Nin Harris

Bathsheba took me possessively by the hand once we reached the Roma Street Parklands.

My captress had not needed words or physical restraints to bring me here, even if our journey had been somewhat delayed due to mutual satisfaction. She had unfurled her wings after a night of slow-dancing to an improbable Bollywood-rockabilly mash-up band, and that had been enough.

Afterwards, Bathsheba told me that the Faerie Queen wanted to see me. I followed her like a lamb. If you know anything about me, you’d know how unnatural it was for me to be this docile, even without the supernatural element, or the rope-burns around my wrists and ankles. By then, I was too curious, and perhaps more than a little too smitten to think straight.

We moved past the Lake Precinct where moonlight danced on the surface of the water and onto the sleeping ducks, past the extravagant lilies into the heart of the gardens. Bathsheba’s fingers were smooth and clammy on mine, evoking comparisons with aquatic creatures if they possessed fingers, and were stripped of their scales. During the day, sunlight rippled into elaborately-laced leaves. Myriad petals of exotic hues blended together in clusters of colour and shapes. In moonlight, the plants acquired a different colour palette altogether: blue, silver and sometimes even green.

We entered a narrow, dark passageway that opened out into a clearing where figures congregated, some with glittering wings and neo-Victorian garb, others looking like they had just stepped off the streets of Brisbane. Some of them sat on giant arachnids encased in armour glowing with livid light. The brightest figure was ensconced on a moving throne made of diamonds that irradiated a hard brilliance that assailed the eyes. This throne was pulled by three arachnids.

The brightest one on the throne had a presence that hurt the mind. I could not see her face but I could hear her voice inside my skull. That did not horrify me as much as my business partner’s presence beside her, dressed in a silver kurta and with a band of silver around his high forehead.

“Arjun! You were supposed to be doing the books tonight!”

My words sounded weak, even to me. He looked away, electing not to answer me.

The shimmering woman spoke, “Tuatha De Danaan earrings. Sanskrit Faerie Charms. Unseelie chokers. Rings for Kelpies. Apsara pendants. Egyptian masks for invoking our presence. You dare call yourself the jeweller for the Faeries? You dare claim to be a Faerie-Maker?”

“It…it was just a name, a–”

“Human marketing ploy?” It was impossible to read the expression on the Faerie Queen’s face. Her incandescence was such that she seemed shrouded in the shadows created in my vision by the afterimages of that light. Nor did her mood register in her voice, which remained even and almost reasonable in tone.

I could feel the concentration of her attention upon me. It was an almost constant static at the periphery of all of my senses. It hurt. Arjun’s apparent betrayal should have hurt as much, but our business partnership always had an uneasy quality about it.

We had come together out of a shared grief, but I had never been able to let my guard down. I had ducked every debonair smile, every overture of warmth and togetherness like they were incoming missiles.

The many-faceted eyes of the giant arachnids seemed to be focused on me. They did not scare me as much. The Faerie Queen was a tangible presence in my mind. I somehow managed to force out words, in-between gulps of air.

“No, Your Majesty. It was not merely a ploy. In my heart I always wished I was good enough, wanted to be good enough to create.”

“To make us? Your insolence here is criminal. Dare you suggest that faeries can actually be made?”

Something nagged at me. I have enough street smarts to know when a major defensive was being launched as an offensive. Also, Arjun’s presence by the Faerie Queen’s side was pretty suspicious, considering the fact that he instigated the name for our shared business. His studied indifference to my presence was a little too studied.

Angered, my voice was harsh as I addressed the Faerie Queen, “Do you mean they’re not made, Your Majesty?”

Almost instantly I was surrounded by armoured faeries. One yanked my hair back. Hard, armoured arms grabbed at mine. My ears rang as a backhanded slap threw me off-balance into the grip of other, more careful hands.

“Careful. Your delicious bluntness might result in death. Gilda delights in annihilation. I’d hate that,” Bathsheba murmured.

Her arm locked around my midriff, her breath warming the nape of my neck. I took in a deep breath, ignoring the pain and spoke again, hoping my voice was as level as Gilda’s.

“I could only aspire, as mortals can, to be good enough for mortals who wish to be–”

Here, I paused. I feared what would happen if I were to say the wrong words.

“Like us?” The Faerie Queen’s eyes fixed on mine with an unsettling regard.

“Never like you. Merely to have the hope you exist. Merely to help others believe in you again.”

Her silence had the flavour of scepticism. I didn’t blame her. I found it hard to buy my own words. It was the panic talking, really.

“And did it work, do you think?”

“I don’t know.”

She laughed. The sound was melodious, and not at all threatening. Still, I shivered, because a Faerie Queen was laughing and she was displeased with me.

“Well, that’s honest enough. And it appears to have worked enough to bring us to our new Court.”

I looked around the Roma Street Parklands.

“Here? You’re settling here?”

“Here indeed. So, tell me. Should you go unpunished for your insolence?”

I knew that my advertisement was insolence. There were a lot of faerie businesses around on the internet, and in the flea market circuit, but no one had ever claimed to turn people into faeries.

“Do you wish me to do penance, Your Majesty?”

“Penance? Do I look like a priest to you? I suppose you have fantasies of dying in the act of trying to make the perfect earrings for me. What if I chose to strip from you instead, one of your senses? What if I chose to strip from you, your creativity? Would you like that as much, I wonder.”

I was silent. I could not even begin to process my emotions at her words. I could not think beyond her cruel beauty that threatened to overshadow them. I hated how disempowered I felt. I resented that I was being induced to grovel.

“Your talent is not too bad in the world of humans, but you could hardly imagine you were good enough to engage our interests that way. There are a million little businesses like yours all around the world. There are a million others with similar longings. Did you think you were unique?”

“Well then,” A stubborn part of me made me answer. “If I am so ordinary, why did you call me here?”

“Perhaps it was pity.”

“Pity? Nowhere in the stories–”

The Faerie Queen’s eyes kindled with an indecipherable light. I could not be sure if it was anger or amusement that fueled her words as she spoke​, “Of course, how could we have been so wayward as to disregard the stories? How could we have diverted from the script? We are merciless. We have no comprehension of human feelings like compassion, or love. Or, we are all sweetness and light, the embodiment of good. Naturally, there can never be an in-between.”

A new voice broke in, sounding warm and harsh at the same time. “There’s more than one kind of in-between, Gilda, and not all of them good. Release our kin now!”

The court rustled. Bathsheba released me immediately. We turned towards the sound of approaching feet. The men and women were slick and gorgeous, dressed in a mixture of Romani garb, street fashion and the most gorgeously embroidered kurtas and sarees. Some of them had wings that were rich and gemlike in hue. They looked like they could star in a Tony Gatlif movie, if he ever made a flick about both Romani and desi faeries who looked like they had come from either the set of Dhoom 2 or Om Shanti Om.

They looked badass enough to waste the faeries of Gilda’s court. If I wasn’t so pissed off at her royal sparkly-face, I would have been in heaven right about then. ​How many nights in my teen-hood had I read stories about the faeries and wept bitterly because I was not like them, and could never be like them, because I was too brown, and too queer, and too me? ​I had always felt like a pretender because of my chosen craft​, and Gilda’s faeries had only exacerbated that emotion, a pain far deeper than what had been inflicted by her knights.

I was raised partly Ceylonese Tamil, and wholly Australian, but my Romani grandmother made sure I never forgot my other heritage, long after the rest of my family had. Despite their various disguises, these desi and Romani faeries could have walked straight out of the stories my Nana used to tell me about the Romani equivalent of faerie land. Their presence here made me feel like for the first time in my life, I was alright.

“I did not expect to see you here, Guaril,” the Queen said.

“You’re on my turf, Gilda.”

“Who died and made you Faerie King?”

Guaril laughed and said, “I was already a Roma King, so it wasn’t that big of a leap, Gilda. You’ve landed on my turf. Sorry, not allowed. Brisbane is mine. And this woman is family. Come over here now, Ranjini.”

I turned to look at the man, noting the strong features of his face, and his slicked-back shoulder-length hair, dark, the colour indistinct in the strange half-glow of the Gardens at night. There was something familiar about him. He gave me an indecipherable look.

“Come with us. You shouldn’t be here. It’s late.”

And then I realised where I had seen him before: the follow-up news articles ​concerning the brawl that led to my sister’s death.

I recognized him from the background shots of the crowded gig scenes and the eyewitness​ accounts. He had not been named as a suspect, but something about his face and his glib explanation at the time had stuck in my memory.

I felt Gilda gloating at my rising anger. Her pleasure gave me pause.

“You instigated that fight that killed my sister, didn’t you?” I shot at him.

He shrugged, his eyes fixed on me with a different kind of intensity than earlier displayed by the Queen, “That is a remarkably clever deduction. However, it is rather more involved than that.”

The Faerie Queen’s voice broke into our silent assessment of each other. I felt drawn to Guaril, the kind of pull you feel when something familiar looks at you in a strange place. I could feel anger rising in me as I stared at his face, but his face was so like my Nana’s. The resemblance tugged at me and perplexed me. I stared at him as the Queen spoke to him.

“It almost always is more involved than that, Guaril. But you’re a little too late. I’ve claimed the girl first, and your turf is just Brunswick Street and the Valley. You’re in the Parklands now and we’ve already claimed and consecrated this circle.”

Her voice was finally filled with an emotion I could clearly decipher. She was gloating. I could not help but bristle.

“So, it is war now, is it, Gilda?” Guaril asked in clipped tones.

“War as always, Guaril. Ironically, it was your act of involving her sister that has brought us here. You drew her to us.”

I thought of the earring designs I had made, the ones that had attracted their attention. It was as though something precious, something I had thought was random, whimsical, and even bittersweet had been tainted. For the first time in a decade, my bereavement was replaced by the deep envy and competitiveness which had marked our relationship. My sister always attracted people’s attention first. I would always play second-fiddle, always.

Some of Gilda’s men were moving towards the Romani faeries, switchblades in their hands.​ Bathsheba pulled me away from the battle, pushing me towards the bushes.

“Stay here,” she said before moving to join the battle. I was too dazed to argue.

The faeries fought with a hypnoti​z​ing grace. Soon​,​ I realized that it really was a full-hearted dance and half-hearted fight. They didn’t seem willing to draw blood.

Sometime around f​ive​ o clock, when the sun began to lighten the sky, the fighting shapes became indistinguishable. I don’t remember when I lost consciousness, but I do remember arms reaching out to keep me from falling to the ground.

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I grew up with all the silent resentments stifled by middle children everywhere. Kavitri was the first in every way in our household. She had been the first artist, the first poet, the first one to get wasted, the first one to go all the way with someone. She was the first to make earrings and also the first to die.

Making earrings helped me feel as if I was going somewhere. I didn’t know exactly where or how. But I was doing something. I was giving hope, both to myself and to the people who bought my designs. Perhaps I wanted to create a connection, the same way the earrings that Kavitri had made me that night had bonded us, for one tenuous moment. Amber light seemed to be trapped within the semi-precious stones of those earrings. They were strung together with tiny silver links, and a drooping chain adorned with little silver stars which looped around the ear. The delicate strength of Kavitri’s making filled me with a strange, quivery impulse. At first sight, the imagined light evoked to me how lights would glisten in some fey, otherworldly forest.

“It’s like making earrings for the faeries,” I remembered whispering to myself.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I was born a middle child in a brood of five, I had spent a lot of time on my own. By high school, Kavitri and I had already gone our separate ways, more out of my desire than hers. I never understood those who seem destined to attain celebrity no matter where they were. I suppose they are all Faerie Kings and Queens in their own right. She was always surrounded by people: friends, admirers, fans. Right up until the last week I had with her. I pestered Kavitri to teach me, she promised me she would, the next day. She went out to Fortitude Valley with her entourage.

There was a fight, random, short and violent. Kavitri had never been the sort to stay in the sidelines and watch; she was too much of a hero for that. I don’t really recall much of the details or the cause for the fight; merely that everyone involved was drunk. She wasn’t supposed to die. Internal bleeding. Days spent in the hospital, waiting, praying.

I had her gear: her jewelry making books, her spools of wire, and plenty of cheap stones that she had gathered from flea markets and thrift stores or backpacking vacations to Bali, Bangkok, Samoa, Kuala Lumpur. My first attempts were laughable, but it didn’t take long before the kind of mood, or feeling I wanted to evoke in the earrings caught people’s attention. I began taking requests and commissions.

Arjun, who had been my sister’s boyfriend, persuaded me to open a store at one of the flea markets.​ I ended up doing a circuit on a weekly basis — Eagle Street Pier on one day, Southbank on another, New Farm every two weeks and The Valley most Saturdays. It didn’t leave me for much time for university, so I dropped out. What I really wanted was to be apprenticed to a master jeweler, but at the same time I didn’t want to lose the freedom and autonomy I now had. I put it off.

“The Faerie-Maker” became the tagline for my business, with poster sized stories about how my jewelry transformed us beyond flesh. I have to admit, it was all rather pretentious but it did the job. My customers were of various subcultures, as well as wispy and dreamy bookish types, bohemian grad students and more well-heeled eccentrics who bought my more ornate and expensive pieces. As is usual in faeries stories, my fame got me into trouble.

I can’t deny it was a calculated trouble, even if I could not deal with the actuality of that trouble. Well, would you be able to deal with it? If you’re going to be so bold as to boast that your earrings were made for the otherworld, the otherworld is definitely going to pay attention and interest in you. They never tell you things like this, that maybe that some of the Goth folk frequenting your stalls or eBay auctions are actually the fair folk in disguise. Perhaps I was not as clever as I thought I was, or I would have realized that I was allowing myself to be a pawn.

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Yesterday, the faerie I would later know as Bathsheba had appeared at my booth as late afternoon approached. She was a steam-punk goddess in a striped corset, wearing stylish clockwork inspired jewellery and with her hair done up in elaborate falls. I had briefly admired the fabric of her top hat. Her bare arms and neck had glistened with both good health and some expensive body shimmer. She had picked up some of my newer wire-sculpture earrings, perusing them with a critical eye, before turning her gaze on me. I had my shop-face on, even though I had been ready to close up.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” I asked.

She shook her head and turned to leave, and then said, “Not for tonight, not yet,” with a flirtatious glint in her eyes.

I found myself feeling both threatened and rather invigorated by the brief exchange. I watched her swaying hips as she left. I willed myself to look away.

Moments later, Arjun turned up, bringing with him a masala dosa for both of us. My eyes panned over his face, not really wanting to linger on features, as usual.​

“You doing okay?” He grabbed a paper plate before placing the large dosa filled with spiced potatoes and fresh coriander on the plate.

“I’m fine, just tired,” I had replied, before passing him the knife.

Our conversations have never been really exemplary. I keep my emotions guarded around him. It’s a habit that has never left me, not since the time he went from being my sister’s best friend to being her boyfriend. Arjun’s off-limits; he always was, and he always will be. We split the dosa and the tall cappuccino before discussing the takings for the day. I chose not to tell him about my last customer; the way something about her made the skin between my shoulder-blades crawl. You could say I have trust issues, but he dated my sister a long time, and in all that time, I never felt comfortable with him.

Arjun was strange enough in his own, spaced-out way, but he’d given me enough ideas to help me start my business, even helping with some designs. He’d given me hints along the way, hints that I’d expanded into designs I was proud of. Some days I wondered why he cared, or took too much interest in my affairs, but I thought it was perhaps the fact that we were both grieving and it helped us both get over the death of Kavitri.

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I woke up on my own bed, above the covers, shoes still on. The day after the fight was a blur until mid-afternoon.

I returned to my craft. My jewelry making tools were set out on two long and narrow work tables, along with the wire and wood racks I had made to hang the earrings, pendants and bracelets I created on a daily basis. I had a brief urge to smash everything. Instead, I started picking out tear-shaped moonstones, and tinier bits of lapis. I took out a sheet of paper. I drew patterns on them, patterns that I had seen in books of Egyptian and Romani jewellery.

I took the Egyptian symbol of the lotus, and decided to make a bronze wirework version of it, studded with lapis lazuli. Reverently, I crafted miniatures of the Romani wheel out of copper wire. These were earrings for — not quite myself, nor for faeries, but for something bigger than all of us. Faeries, humans, and the in-betweens like me who could never figure out where they fit in. Lapis in sesen, my own homage to that country that lies beyond death; I wanted so badly to believe in its existence.

You would think that the existence of faeries as I had experienced them last night would have helped me deal with it. But how could the rational mind deal with it? The irrational part of us always hopes for something more but then reason comes, and finds excuses for things. I closed my eyes, grappling with my own ambiguous convictions. It was easier to focus on crafting. This is how artisans cope. We’re always in-between reason and fancy, we need both elements to be good. In the act of creation we find ourselves poised in a perfect borderland.

I worked quickly. I constructed a set out of silver, and then another out of copper wire. I fixed chalcedony beads in the middle of each copper flower, linking them to create a bracelet and choker set. With the silver, I strung little lapis beads, alternating them with flowers I had made out of moonstone. These I turned into earrings and a long necklace. I made copper and bronze rings, measured to fit my own fingers. Finally, satisfied, I stopped working, stretching a little. I was filled with a deep sense of contentment as I hung the new designs up on a rack.

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Dusk was approaching. The light of the dying afternoon silvered the reflections on the Brisbane River. I placed some of the trinkets into the pockets of the windbreaker I wore over a skull-and-bones tank top and black skinny jeans. I slipped the rings I had made onto my fingers, before sliding open the glass doors that led to the balcony. Taking a deep breath, I swung myself over the railings, slowly climbing down the side of the building, landing on the jacaranda tree that just brushed the side of the apartment block.

My feet, encased in running shoes made a soft, crunching sound on the grass around the tree as I landed. I ran the length of Orleigh Street before reaching the tiny West End ferry terminal. There was nothing behind me, not underneath the trees, nor the street lamps apart from random passers-by. Just shadows, I whispered to myself.

Tasting the approach of the shadows, I advanced upon the gangplank as the City Cat glided towards the terminal. It was well-lit inside. Revellers streamed in and out from the Regatta, then North Quay, and then South Bank, the diverse assortment of humans, the mingling of various diasporas almost a lesson in socio-economics. I suppose I blended in. I had ambiguous features.

My facial piercings and tattooed arms made it easier for people to focus on my obvious subculture and orientation rather than on my ethnicity. I’d been mistaken for various identities because of my tanned mocha skin, but I spoke in a distinctive Queensland accent. I was pensive as I fingered the wheel charms, thinking of the Romani culture we’d left behind.

Finally, I got out at the New Farm Parklands. I was heading into the territory of the Brunswick Street Gang and their King. I wanted answers. I craved them, even if they came at the cost of annihilation. But it was more than that. It was a call, a pull, a memory of my grandmother. I had nothing of her, nothing to keep me warm, and nothing tangible of my Romani heritage that I could hold on to except for the crafted Romani wheel charms which dangled from the sesen bracelets around my wrists making me wince every time they nudged against the rope burns that were Bathsheba’s gift to me.

The autumn wind shivered my skin, making little patterns. I cut across the park and reached the open road.

A sleek limousine was parked there, reflecting the dull orange of the streetlights. Guaril, and his band of faeries were leaning against it, their conversation intense. They were dressed in black, obviously outfitted for battle. A broad grin broke across Guaril’s lean features as I approached.

“No need to gloat,” I dripped the sour tones of the resigned, and my words were pre-emptive. “I came here to meet you before Gilda’s people got me.”

“And that is not a reason for gloating? Clearly, you’ve chosen us! Come on then, your ignoble chariot awaits you,” he said with an ironic flourish.

“Hah! It looks like a hearse. Let’s get this clear — I’m only coming with you because I want answers.”

Guaril’s teeth flashed in the partially-illuminated gloom of the Parklands.

“Good enough, brave one. Come along, then.”

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Guaril was sucking on a clove cigarette while Tom Waits rasped his way to oblivion on the limousine’s built-in sound system. The Roma King’s hair was slicked back and he wore golden rings on his fingers. He looked vaguely like a cross between a younger Nick Cave before he lost his mane, and Shah Rukh Khan. I eyed the various galbi hanging around his neck with covetous greed — I cannot stop being a jewelery-maker, apparently. My fingers clutched the sesen earring I had been crafting a few hours earlier, sculpted out of copper wire that wrapped glittering lapis lazuli.

“Go ahead, ask it, you know you want to,” Guaril said.

“If you already know what I want to ask, why don’t you just say it?”

“Heh. That’s what I like about you. You’ve got the fight in you.”

“Every middle child has that somewhere inside her,” I replied before I asked. “Why did you kill my sister?”

His eyes were sombre as he trained them on me.

“I didn’t.”

“You instigated that fight.”

“That’s just something I do. Kavitri knew what was happening. She knew it was the only way.”

“The only way for what?” I asked. My eyes were hard upon him. He mumbled something, and looked slightly less bad-ass. Guilt was on his face, and the realisation hit me. Of course. Arjun. A stupid love-triangle. Hah!

I was on the other seat before my brain finished processing that information. My angry brown fists pummelled him as I screamed in his face, “When you like a girl you don’t get her killed so you can be together forever! The fuck is this? You listen to way too many Nick Cave songs? She was my sister!”

I cut his lip, probably with one of my rings. That made me feel good a split-second before I started feeling bad.

“That honestly was not what happened, Ranjini. Do you think I’m some kind of sicko creep? Also, you swear too much.”

“Do you blame me?”

“Not at all, but there’s a time and a place for cussing. But I’m not going to go all big brother on you. Too late for that, anyway. You’re all grown up.”

I threw him a look. His lip was still bleeding. I didn’t have the heart to sass him.

“You didn’t kill her, then.”

“No, but I was responsible all the same, there’s no excusing that,” he said finally, with a sigh.

I could think of nothing else to say to that, the pain in his eyes was almost embarrassing in its intensity. Fortunately, he changed the subject. With his eyes intent on me, he asked,

“What made you choose the title of Faerie-Maker?”

“I inversed ‘Making Earrings for Faeries’ to ‘Making Faeries for Earrings’. It was just meant to be cheeky wordplay. How was I to know faeries could actually be made?”

Guaril pursed his lips. “Did Arjun have anything to do with it?” He asked while grabbing ice from the mini-bar. I watched him drop cubes into his handkerchief.

My eyes fixed on his hand that clutched the makeshift ice-pack. It was easier than looking at his face. “Well, he was the one who suggested we take one step from the inversion to ‘The Faerie-Maker’. He made the posters too.”

He started applying the ice to his swollen lip. His words, as he nursed himself were somewhat distorted but still legible. “I want your help. But you also need protection, and you’re family. Gilda’s the one you should worry about. We’re used to you.”

After my fury wore off, I realised I had hit a man who had not resisted my attacks at all. I covered up belated remorse with a customary glare.

“I don’t think I can trust either one of you. What do you both want with me anyway? It’s not like I knew. And what does Arjun have to do with this? Next you’ll be telling me he’s faerie too.”

“Arjun is another strange thing, altogether. But he is not a faerie yet, to his dismay. As for you, you’re not just any mortal with fancy wordplay. You’re Kavitri’s sister.”

“Fuck that. I haven’t been a fucking middle child in a very long time. I’m Ranjini. I’m me. And I’m a damn good artisan. Better than she ever was.”

Guaril applied the ice to his lips. I don’t understand this whole Faerie deal yet. How is it that a Faerie can be bruised, anyway?

“I wasn’t trying to put you down. It’s a fact. Kavitri’s one of those humans ripe to lead their own court. You see them everywhere. And there‘s no shame in being a sister or someone who comes after the fact. There‘s no shame in being the middle child.”

“Save me the platitudes. You‘re talking about bloody socialites. High school goddesses. Fucking poseurs the lot of them.”

“Correct, but your sister had all that and something else. You know she’s no poseur. You know what it is, don’t you?”

I stared at him as the street lights outside pick up the inhuman luminescence of his skin and the look in his eyes. I considered my next words with some care, “The inner core of goodness inside her?”

His hands smoothed the creases of his jacket in a nervous movement. His face turned away from me, the shadows exposing only the swoop of his left cheek and the movement of his throat as he gulped down air.

“She and you both belong with us, Ranjini. You should be with our band.”

I shook my head, not wanting to hear more. “I just want to see my sister!”

“We’re almost there,” His voice was reassuring.

It was as though we were never antagonists. Outside, the street lights illuminate the quieter part of Toowong. The hearse drove past colonial-age Queenslanders and fig trees that cast shadows on the road. When we got out of the car I discovered that we were at her burial plot at the Toowong Cemetery near Mount Coot-tha.

It was the day we buried her all over again. I had started to hope that somehow she was still alive, that we could talk. That I could tell her all the things I had not told her because I resented being the middle sister. But I guess dead’s dead. What right did I have to hope, anyway?

“You can try now, Ranjini.”

“Try what? She’s dead.”

“She was to be a Faerie Queen. And you’re the Faerie-Maker.”

“Advertising jargon you stupid piece of …,”

“Language please, Ranjini. And it’s not about the advertising, it’s about hope.”

His eyes were so incredibly kind that I ceased my half-hearted diatribe. “That’s what you’re after? Hope?”

He twitched, his head hanging in a position I’d identified as bad-ass but now looked like a kind of defensive guilt. I had to ask, even though I already knew.

“What really happened that night?”

“Arjun found out about us. It was an accident, really. Kavitri was trying to stop stuff from getting bad. She knew we weren’t exactly human. Then, she died. I’m sorry.”

I shrugged at his apology, asking, “How’d you get turned into a Faerie?”

“I don’t really know. It’s a mystery to me — to all of us. We become corporeal after the sun sets, so I know we’re not ghosts. The process of becoming Faerie however, I don’t know too much about that.”

“You guys think have the answer? Because I’m Kavitri’s sister? She’s dead. Doesn’t that answer your question?”

“No, she’s not supposed to be dead. Gilda and the rest believe that Kavitri has something to do with why I’m the Faerie King here.”

“They think she’s this supposed Faerie-Maker?”

“A Faerie-Maker. Descended from other Faerie-Makers. It is an otherworldly gift, but every family has its tradition, even those who have forgotten theirs.” He threw me a thoughtful look. I looked away, blinking rapidly as I asked,

“How can humans be Faerie-Makers?”

“You tell me. You sell stories, and dreams, but you still can’t see? Arjun’s job was to watch over Kavitri. My job was to protect her. We’re very distant cousins. You’re Romani, but your mother didn’t want to have anything more to do with us. She raised you all as Australians. She wanted you assimilated into the dominant culture and successful.”

I shook my head. My feelings for my mother’s choices were not something I felt like discussing.

“Did Kavitri know what Arjun was doing?”

“Only towards the later part. Arjun’s working for Gilda. Kavitri was supposed to be the one to pull Gilda here. But she died. So he got you instead.”

“This does not stop the fact that she’s dead. Nothing we do is going to bring my sister back, Guaril.”

“We can try, Ranjini. Is there nothing that you can think of that will work?”

I frowned, but took out the remaining wheel-and-lotus jewellery from my pocket. His eyes were appreciative but sceptical as he fingered the Romani wheels, and the delicate lotuses.

“That’s beautiful, Ranjini. But I’m not sure that is what we’re looking for.”

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The air and atmosphere around us seemed to condense. It was the same quality of reality shifting, the same sudden fear that filled me back at West End. I know well enough now to know that the feeling should be associated with Gilda’s court. Bathsheba was present, a top hat on her ringlets, and a monocle that intensified the effect of her gaze upon me.

Gilda shone in that kind of way that will always hurt the eyes and the fibre of your being. I looked away from her and at Bathsheba, who winked. I tried not to be too interested in the look she was throwing me.

“Come over here now, Ranjini. You belong to my court.”

“I do not.”

“Do as she says, Ranjini.” Arjun’s voice startled and hurt me. His eyes assessed me with calculation. His presence felt like a wound inside me.

“No. If I have to cast my luck with either of you goons, I would rather cast my luck with the home team,” I moved closer towards Guaril as I spoke.

“Too late. You already pledged yourself last night,” rasped Gilda’s voice inside my head. I did not give in. I can be mulish.

“Did not, that was coercion, intimidation.” I stare all of them down.

“Deal was forged.” She sounded annoyed. Each word was a baby migraine in my skull.

“Was not, I said no words.” I shot back.

“Your thoughts did.”

This sounded almost petulant. I could not help myself, I laughed. “You know, that’s all very nice but I know you’re bluffing. I didn’t just build a business around creating faerie jewelry without doing extensive research. Compacts between faeries and humans cannot exist without some form of binding oral or written manifestation.”

I could tell even before I finished speaking that Gilda had given up trying to persuade me. And so, when she finally said, “Fine that. Arjun, grab her,” I was already behind Guaril’s people, who lunged forward with switchblades.

Guaril was in the thick of the battle, duking it out with Arjun. Urgency hit me, along with sadness, and a strange, preternatural awareness.

This was probably a recreation of how it was before Kavitri flung herself in-between them to protect Guaril. This awareness crystallized into a certainty. This was how it had happened.

Perhaps I had known it all along, had known from Arjun’s silences and his evasions when asked about that night. Perhaps it was evident from Guaril’s embarrassed reticence on the matter.

“Was he really worth it, Kavitri?” I asked the tense air. Seriously Kavitri, is any man worth dying for?

The awareness of what was required of me was ridiculous. I entered the fray, dodging fists and switchblades, getting wounded in the process. I pushed myself in-between Arjun and Guaril. Arjun’s switchblade raised itself in an arc above me. I was not going to die, just like Kavitri had died. I was just going to push one motherfucker to the right, like so. And trip the other motherfucker to the left, like so.

Later, I would marvel at how fast I moved and how mean I was able to be. My feeling of triumph was almost holy. So holy, that it felt like the air was thickening. Sounds seemed to magnify. Everything seemed clearer, and more beautiful.

I clutched my jewelery, the everyday magic I had crafted with wishes and callused hands. I closed my eyes. Unbidden, the song pulled its way out of the deep soil of memory in my head. I didn’t sing it, but I could hear every note in my head despite the mannered violence around me. Bless the propensity for earworms. Sometimes they can be a blessing instead of a curse.

No, I can’t recreate it for you, it’s in Romani and I’ve known it all my life. About the only Romani thing I have that my Nana taught me. It makes me feel a bit like a fraud, trying to stake a claim on a culture on the strength of a song — given that most of my inherited culture has everything to do with Bollywood and nothing to do with Romani lore. But I have something else too. I have desperate hope. And I have my craft. Every artist believes that a piece of magic, of something bigger than themselves is imbued in their work. I am stillness. I am the song inside my head that is a memory of a woman who loved me best.

Reality slowed down. A very different scene, one from the past, opened in the middle of the fight. From the threshold between our worlds, I saw vardos from several generations back, along with some campervans. The music that reached us from within was the same music in my head. The music led me back not just to the Romani drom, but to that great intersection between my inherited cultures.

I walked closer towards the threshold towards my Nana. Her face was unchanged since the last time I saw her healthy, way back in the 1990s. Kavitri stood beside her. Both of them peered at me with some surprise. If I could reach through, I could pull her back — if I could pull her back, she would be an in-between too. Faeries are in-betweens. Like artisans. We knew about the in-between. We created them.

As I reached into the doorway, Kavitri looked straight at me, smiling, and shaking her head. It was a familiar gesture, it sufficed for comprehension.

She didn’t want to be an in-between. She was happier there. Everyone seemed so happy. Longing drew me closer to the threshold, but before I could do a thing, reality stopped being thick and gooey, and I was bereft again.

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Day breaks and a cock crows, somewhere out there in a Toowong garden. Right on cue, the faeries are gone. Sunlight slowly creeps its way out as the kookaburras compete with the crickets.

All that is left is me and Arjun.

“You killed my sister, you motherfucker.” My voice is weary, my epithet half-hearted. Arjun’s face is scratched and bloody. I feel smug that he no longer looks precisely like Hrithik Roshan. Perhaps Kavitri is laughing somewhere. He shrugs at me.

“It was an accident,” he says, evasive as he has always been.

My words are clipped, but soft, as though I have been screaming for hours. Rage is exhausting. “Doesn’t change the fact that it was your knife and you didn’t even bother to tell me. You used me and her.”

“Would telling you bring her back, or would it have caused even more pain?” He tried to come closer to me. I look at his face. My eyes don’t avert when I look at him anymore. My gaze on him is fixed, and hard.

“The fuck you care. You used me.”

“Gilda said she could teach you how to bring her back,” he says.

“She doesn’t want to come back, Arjun. She doesn’t want to be an in-between.”

He looks at me now, and says softly. “I know, Ranjini. I know.” He gives me a look, the look of someone who wants to be understood. I do not think he deserves that luxury.

I do not answer him. I turn my back on him and walk out of the cemetery. The battle is not over. The gangs will fight again when night falls.

And I think my business partnership has just dissolved. I do not know if I want to be anywhere around here when the fighting resumes but I also know that Guaril will be looking for me again. I am the Faerie-Maker after all. But perhaps, more importantly, I am family.

 

___
Copyright 2015 Nin Harris

Nin Harris is a Malaysian poet, writer and Gothic scholar.  Nin writes Gothic fiction,  cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances and various other hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include: The Harrow, Jabberwocky 3, Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons,  Lackington’s Magazine, and Alphabet of Embers. Nin is also the founding editor of Delinquent’s Spice & Truancy.

By Mark Pantoja

People most in need, need the most help, my father used to say. That’s what I thought when I saw the Corporate bleeding on my porch that night. I gave it a soft kick. It didn’t move, just lay broken in the firelight coming through my front door. But something moved inside the wound in its something. Way down inside. A tree root. It shied away from the light and dug itself deeper into the Corporate’s meat. Marija and Cadia stood on either side of the body they’d dragged up onto my porch from the forest.

“Alive?” I said though I knew it probably was. I’d grown up listening to the oldtimers’ stories about fighting the Corporates. Father used to tell me and Milio stories about the Corporates running into oncoming fire as they jumped off their dropships. Said they wouldn’t go down so easy and had to shoot off their arms and legs. And still they’d try to bite you if you got too close.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “It breathes.” She knelt down next to the offworlder. Watery blood seeped out from cracks in the armor. It smelled like moist, like meat. Marija pulled the Corp’s face-plate up. She put her crystal-faced watch near the soldier’s nose. It huffed up, ever so little, but it huffed up.

“See?” Marija said.

“Ayo,” I said. I got down close and looked at the root. It had twisted itself into an overhand knot. Which was no good. They’re covered in a thick mucus and once they worked themselves into an overhand knot it was just about impossible to get a grip on them. “Why bring this to me?”

Marija and Cadia looked at each other and then Cadia said, “It told us if we helped it–”

“You spoke to it?” I said.

“Ayo,” Cadia said.

I shook my head. “What about? A reward? How you going to spend it after the hill boys string you up once they hear you’re rich? You think they won’t notice?”

“We can take it back,” Marija said. “Leave it in the forest. The trees will eat it.”

“Use your head, Marija,” I said. “You say you talked to it? It knows what you look like? What happens if the boys find it and it starts talking about you? Or worse, it survives. Then, what, it’ll come after you for breach of contract, take everything you own.”

“They already have everything I own,” Marija said.

“Then it’ll bury your whole family in debt.” I chewed my bottom lip.

Right then, I had to assume everybody knew. About Marija and Cadia and the Corporate and them bringing it to my shack. Killing it wouldn’t stop the hill boys from stringing us up. Not bringing it to the boys first was a death sentence, especially for me. No way my brother Milio could let a traitorous sister live.

And if the Corporation knew we had it, killing it now would damn us all to generations of debt and servitude for destruction of stolen property. The only move we had was to cut a deal that would protect us. And for that, we needed it to keep breathing.

“We have to save it,” I said. “So let’s drown out that root.”

I pulled the big tub out into the center of my shack.

My place was pretty small, but it was mine. That and the ten acres of land that I managed to hold on to. The Corporation took most of the rest after the banks collapsed, along with the tractors and robots. Just a humble little shack. Fireplace, kerosene stove, and loft bed. The fireplace is for burning trash and fuel-logs the Land Trust doles out during winter.

Marija hefted the Corporate up and inside the tub.

It was small. Looked like a child in her arms, but for its tactical armor.

Marija was strong from years in the middens and quarries with nothing but pick-ax and shovel to mine pot-coal. And she’d taken on the look of her work. Thick neck, round shoulders, swollen arms. She could bust open as many seams of pot-coal as a man. And on days when she wasn’t hung over, she could bust more. But those days were rare.

There was not time to heat the water, so it was a cold bath for the Corporate. Figured that was the least of its worries. Plus, fuck it. Save it we might, but no reason to make it comfortable. We rinsed it of blood and mud and grime and then filled the tub with salted-water, you know, to clean the wound some.

Cadia cradled the Soldier’s head from the water. It was murky, but I could see little stalks start to rise out of the wound, reaching for the surface and fresh air. I snipped them with a pair of garden shears.

A dark lazy cloud of blood billowed out of the wound. I couldn’t really see anything so I just chopped up the water with the shears. Then the root unfurled itself and extended its main body out of the water. It was still anchored in the Corporate. I grabbed it with a pair of tongs but it thrashed and pulled the tongs into the water.

“Shit!” I said. “It’s gonna go back inside!”

Then Marija just grabbed it.

She got a good grip, and she squeezed it tight in her hand, thick slime squirting out from between her fingers. It shot out all of its needley stalks at once, turning Marija’s hand into a pin cushion.

She held still.

“Cut it,” she said in a flat voice, like it was no big deal.

I cut the root in half with the shears and blood-sap sprayed into the water.

Marija calmly got up and walked to the fire with the root embedded in her hand.

I turned back what was left inside and saw a few more stalks poke out of the water and snipped them. After a few seconds the other half of the root floated up to the surface. I splashed it out of the tub and Cadia stomped it.

I heard hissing and saw Marija at the fire place holding a bloody knife. Her hand was crimson, but empty and the root lay sizzling in the fire.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Ayo,” Marija said.

Cadia drained the tub, letting the water pour through the slatted floor, while I cleaned and dressed Marija’s hand.

After I was done she kept her hand raised up in the air.

“Nobody saw us,” she said. “We brought her the long way.”

“I think it’s a he,” Cadia said.

“Oh, yeah?” I said. “That what you think?” I went over to the Corporate and yanked open the front of its cod-piece. We all looked inside.

Marija swore and said: “I told you it was a girl.”

“That look like a girl to you?” I said. Where there’s usually genitalia there was nothing. Just a smooth mound with a tiny little pee-hole. No rod, no slit, nothing. “They ain’t like us. They ain’t man or woman. They ain’t human. They’re their own thing.”

“They really don’t have sex,” Marija said, as if this was the first she’d heard of this.

“Some do,” I said. “but not these. These birth in crèche-batches.” Each Corporation had their own propriety reproductive strategy, you know, to retain market share. DynaStar, Instlr, was one giant species spread out across the stars.

“Craziest thing I ever seen,” Cadia said. She was young. It’s crazy, don’t get me wrong, but not the craziest.

After all that, I needed a smoke. I retrieved my father’s pipe box from the shelf and sat down at my kitchen table (my only table) and opened it. Father had intended for Milio to have the pipe, but he wasn’t around when father died. He’d run off with a bunch of the other boys to act hero and get himself killed fighting the Corporates. So it was mine. I earned it. Just like the farm. I took care of it. It was mine.

I rubbed the pipe in the firelight. It was made of wood and ivory and polished warm from years of use. Course it wasn’t real ivory. Nor was it real wood. That’d be crazy expensive. All the real earth wood was grown in greenhouse forests run by Arbory, for terraforming. Rich folks got to use the “bad” wood that’s culled annually for houses and art and the like. Everyone else got to use local stone, mud, or cheap plastic.

That pipe was all native. The “wood” was bark-flesh, culled from the native forests while they slept, a desiccated keratinized flesh you could carve. The ivory was bone dug out of the forest middens, where the local trees deposited their refuse, bones and fur and teeth of small prey that wandered into their hungry branches. All the trees in an area deposited in the same midden for centuries.

“There’s no reward,” I said. “What you made with that thing was a contract. That’s how they do things. If you don’t follow through, you’ll be in breach. So, what did you agree to?”

“Well,” Marija said. “We didn’t get that far. Just said we would help, for a reward.”

I packed the pipe and lit it. I puffed it until it got going.

“Well,” I said. “Hopefully, that means the terms are negotiable. You sure no one saw you?”

Marija shook her head. “No one saw us.”

“Might could track you.”

“Track us?” Marija said with a laugh. It was true, she had good forest-feet. Her and Cadia both. Not like me and Milio, though. Father raised us as forest-kin. We could walk through a grimly.

“Exactly how was it you came across it?”

Cadia looked down. “I was out mushroom hunting.”

“Mushroom hunting?” I said. “Now? With the fighting and the forest agitated, you decide that now was a good time to go hunting for mushies?”

She didn’t respond. She was a kid. She’d snuck out to see the fighting. The hill boys had shot down a Corporate transport last night and were hunting down survivors.

I puffed my pipe and said: “They’re coming, mind you. It’s people. Have to deal with the boy’s rocket nests, but they’re coming. Probably carpet bomb the hills, then swarm in. But that ain’t happening for a few days. Maybe a week.” Took a puff. “You gotta trade with their kind. That’s the only way. They are their word, though they have forked tongues. There ain’t no reward, there ain’t no shares for this. Just survival. Ours. Get it to its people and out of our hair. That’s it. You better pray it survives and will trade.”

“We’ll trade,” said a thin voice from the tub. The Corporate had opened its glassy eyes and stared at us with its head lolled off to the side.

Marija stepped forward, knife at the ready.

“What, now you’re going to kill it?” I said. Marija looked at the knife, like she didn’t even know she held it. “Let’s hear it’s offer.”

“We can offer up to an equivalent of our own value.”

“And what is your value?” I said.

“Well, that remains negotiable,” it said with a bloody smile.

divider

You know the one about the farmer?

There’s this farmer, see, old coot, been working the land his whole life. One day this Corporate walks up and says, “Hey there! We want to buy all your goods!” Soy, corn, extract gluten, they want it all. The farmer, he’s old school, Trusty, doesn’t deal with Corporates. He says to it: “The only thing I’ll sell to you is my shit.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Agreed. But you can only sell to us and we want all your shit from here on out.” They offer the farmer one Point per shit. Farmer takes two to three shits a day, so he agrees. Easy money. He laughs every time he’s on the pot. All he has to do is put his droppings into little boxes the Corporation sends him. At first, it all works out great. Farmer puts each shit in a box and then he starts to think, you know, it doesn’t matter how big each dump is, a dump is a dump, so he puts one shit in two boxes and so on. You know, as one would. Then one day, in the middle of the hotmonths, the Corporation stops coming by to pick up the shits. Now, it’s like record heat those months and those little boxes they’re made of paper, so the farmer’s dumps start to stink up real bad. He calls the Corporation, no answer. So he tosses his dumps. Very next day, the Corporation shows up and starts going through the farmer’s shit. Audits his shit and find there’s shit missing. “Where’s the shit?” they ask. Farmer explains, “Hey, you didn’t pick up my shit, it started stinking, what am I supposed to do?” Corporate explains, as per the contract, that shit is their shit as soon as it leaves the farmer’s ass. There’s an accounting and farmer comes out owning a few Points. Sure enough the next week, nobody shows up to pick up his shit. He calls, he writes, he complains, but he knows better to throw his shit out cause it’s not his shit anymore, it’s their shit. Finally, the original Corporate shows up, the one the farmer dealt with the first time, and the farmer says to it: “Finally, you’re here. This place stinks! Take your shit outta here.” Corporate says to the farmer: “Well, now, that was never our contract. We said we’d buy your shit, but we never promised to pick it up.” The farmer screams. “What? Are you crazy? You gotta get this shit outta here.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Sure. We’ll haul your shit. For three Points per shit.”

That’s what I was thinking about when we were negotiating with the Corporate. It’s name was Gee En Three Dash Seven Dot El Kay Oh, Mid Level, Acquisitions Field Team. I called it Gen.

“Well, there’s real and actual value,” it said. It was trying to downplay what it was worth, of course. “Really, we have an opportunity to structure an earn-out, because your perceived valued is probably higher than the buyer’s budget.” It paused and caught its breath. Ironically, our oxygen rich air was harder for offworlders to breath. The extra oxygen and pressure actually made it harder for air to get into the blood and caused fluid to build in the lungs. Long ago, our ancestors tweaked themselves to breath the air. “Specifically,” the Corporate continued, “DynaStar Interstellar has an exact accounting of our worth–”

“What are you offering us to not kill you?” I said and puffed my pipe.

It smiled.

“See, now, that’s just not true,” it said. “You can’t kill us. Our people already know we’re here, that you’re helping us. Through our uplink.” It tapped the side of its head.

“Now, that’s just not true,” I said. “I know the boys can track you by your uplink. You wouldn’t be stupid enough to have it on right now.”

“Very smart,” it said. “Yes, and by boys we take it you mean the terrorists?”

“Trusties,” I said.

“Separatists,” Gen said, with a diplomatic tone. “It’s true, they can track us via the uplink, so we run black when we’re down here.”

“So then no one knows you’re here,” Marija said.

“Not exactly. See, when we die, we send out an emergency beacon, automatically. Since we haven’t released our final transmission our people know we’re still alive. And in the area. But kill us and they’ll know exactly where we’re at.”

No one said anything, just took this in.

“So, let’s not pretend anyone is killing anybody. You’ve already saved us, you’ve invested in us, why not see a return?”

“The only return you can offer us is privacy,” I said. “We can’t ever spend any money you give us.” I glanced over at Cadia. “The only thing you can do is keep our names, descriptions, locations, all personal information out of your Corporate databases. Forget about us.”

“Our mind is an extension of all–”

“Yeah, I know, I’ve heard that before. But you all have secrecy clauses. I know that.”

It thought for a moment. Data mining was a lucrative market for DynaStar. Hell, it could sell our names to the Land Trust or blackmail us. But if I could get it to promise us we would remain anonymous, we might be safe. “Agreed,” it said. “So, then you’ll hide us until our people–”

“No can do,” I said. “The hill boys are going to want every body that was on that transport. Living or dead. It’s only a matter of time before they start searching houses.”

“If we can contact our people safely, we can protect you,” the Corporate said.

“And what happens after you leave?”

“We can offer to move you to StarCity, get you employment in the Corporation–”

“Gen, friend, listen close. You ever suggest me or any of us joining up with your Corporation again, I’ll have Marija over there open up your stomach and I fill it with roots myself, emergency beacon or no.”

“It was only a suggest–”

“I’m an independent settler. My father was a member of the Land Trust. My mother, she was third generation settler. Her grandmother was in the original Landing Party and came here aboard the Esperanxa. I’ve fought your kind for years holding on to this miserable piece of dirt. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Understood,” Gen said.

It didn’t go unnoticed by me that Cadia perked up a bit at the suggestion of working for DynaStar, Instlr. Her family had lost everything. The only bright future that remained for some was working for the Corporations. They had all the nice things. They traveled the stars, which was glamorous to some. I didn’t get it though. Working for them was enslavement. Debt and wage enslavement. The only bright future I could see was kicking DynaStar off our miserable little mud-ball and back into the cold dark where they came.

“So, where does that leave us?” the Corporate asked.

I puffed my pipe and then said, “We kill you, we die. We stay here, we die. We only got one option. Get you to your people.”

“Where’s that?” Cadia said.

“There’s a Franchise office in Bug River Creek, three valleys east,” Marija said. “Get there in five days.”

“Then that’s where we’ll head,” I said. I looked at the Corporate. It nodded.

“Agreed,” it said. “Now, do you think one of you could help sew us up?”

People say all sorts of stuff about Corporates. Most of it superstitious lies, like they eat excrement or they’re telepathic or they bathe by licking each other. Anything to make them seem like boogeymen. They don’t seem to help it much cause they don’t ever deny anything.

Truth is they are different. Like how even deeply wounded Gen could walk around like nothing was wrong. Or its total lack of modesty. When we helped out of the tub and its broken armor, it didn’t even ask for anything to cover up, despite the chill.

It had an elfin little body. That’s the word for it. Elfin. It was thin and graceful and totally without gender. Flat chest and long neck and squarish hips. It moved delicately, but with precision.

It lay down and allowed Cadia to sew it up. It didn’t complain or even wince.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I said as Cadia finished up.

“Of course,” it said.

“Doesn’t seem to slow you down any.”

“We’re just like you,” it said. “Only we compartmentalize better. The pain and the bleeding. Box it up, put it in the back of my mind. You wouldn’t have anything to eat, would you?”

And by anything, it meant anything. Fruit, nuts, rinds, yesterday’s chicken bones. It even asked for uncooked rice and raw flour. I gave it what I could. Wanted to see if it would really eat the flour. It did, licking its fingers clean.

“We leave first thing,” I said after giving it some farming clothes and a blanket for the corner near the fire.

“Understood,” it said, taking a pause between monster chugs of water.

“You’ll be ready?”

“We’ll have to be.”

I left it alone in the corner but gave Marija a little nod. She was on first watch. Last we thing we needed was for Gen to stumble out or run off and get caught and blab about our deal.

I sat at the table next to Cadia. “You round up all its stuff. Everything. Armor, clothes, anything you might have kept. You get all that stuff together and you take it and dump it in the forest on the other side of the hamlet. Take the long way, through the trees, past the Ruas’ farm. But be careful. Forest is agitated. I can hear it.”

She nodded.

“Now go. And get back here quick. Don’t let anyone see you.”

She started to gather up the bits of armor and plating.

“And, Cadia. No souvenirs.” She nodded and walked into the night.

divider

He smoked the same pipe-weed as father. And me. And I caught him on the wind as I was out back dumping breakfast scraps in the composter behind my shack.

When I got back round to the front my brother and three other hill boys were walking up to the porch. Milio stopped at the first step and the boys flanked out.

They were grubby, dirty, dressed in rags and tree leather. One of the boys rested the butt of his rifle on his hip.

The hill boys were a group of self-appointed militia. A gang, really, of young and old, men and women, the desperate and angry left in the wake of economic collapse of the takeover. They had nothing, no land, no money, nothing to lose.

Milio pulled his pipe out of his mouth and said, “Morning, Ro.” He smiled, but there was nothing behind it, nothing warm about him. He was wild, always was, eager to pull out his knife and stick someone.

I looked up and around, at the gray overcast sky, sun blocked by a heavy algae cloud. I made sure to drop the compost bucket with a bang and say a bit loudly: “What’s so good about it?”

“Didn’t say there was anything good about it,” Milio said. “Just said ‘morning.'”

“What do you want, Milio?” I asked.

“What? I can’t come and say ‘hi’ to my sister?”

“You were never the sentimental type.”

“Ha,” he said and looked down. Ground his boot into the grit on the step. “That’s true. Never was. I came to see what you heard.”

“About?”

“Bout the fighting down in the valley night before last.”

“Heard you shot down a transport.”

“Ayo, we did. We did at that. That all you heard?”

“Ayo,” I said.

“Didn’t hear anything else, like about someone helping out a survivor, a Corporate?”

“Nope,” I said.

“Just running the farm,” Milio said. “Just like pop, huh. Mind your own business, stay out of the fight.”

“Is there something you want?” I said.

“Idiots were flying so low, we had to shoot them down. Killed most onboard. Few got away, ran into the trees.” He chuckled. “Fools. Found most of them, or what was left of them. But one of them managed to make it out. We tracked it for a while and then boom, gone.”

“Guess they’re getting tricky.”

“It wasn’t a trick. Someone helped it. At least two of them, we think. They covered their tracks. Did a good job. Just not good enough.”

I was quiet, but inside I cursed Marija. Fucking Marija. She’s never as cautious as she thinks. Big galoot.

“You came here to tell me you lost the trail?”

“No, big sister. We didn’t lose the shiteater. It’s in this valley somewhere.”

“And you think I helped it? After everything they’ve done?”

“No. At least, I hope not. It’s just, people around here they look up to you. Come to you for advice. Maybe you heard something.”

“Nope,” I said. “Haven’t heard a thing. Been here all night. Marija and Cadia, too.”

“Marija and Cadia–” Milio cut himself off.

“We ain’t seen a thing. Ask them.” I opened the door and looked in. Marija and Cadia were both at the table, like they were in the middle of a conversation. I looked, but the Corporate out of sight. Those two had squirreled it away under the plastic floor slats. They came out onto the porch.

“You all’ve been here all night?” Milio said.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “We come to help Ro with her run.” That was the story we rehearsed.

Milio chewed his pipe and then spat. “What run?”

“Monthly run,” I said. “Seed, grain, fertilizer starter kit. Gotta get the soil ready. You forget how to farm?”

“So, then, you won’t mind if we take a look around?” Milio said. One of his boys, the scrawny one dressed leaf-skin gave an “ayo,” of impatience.

“I do mind,” I said, trying to sound merely annoyed. “I don’t have the time.”

“We’ll just be a second, sis.”

“I don’t think so. You got no right coming here after all this time. I stayed and I looked after the place, I get to say who comes in to my house.”

“I think I might have to insist.” He put his palm on the butt of his pistol and took a step up. One step away from me.

That’s why he was really there. To bully. That’s why he joined up with the hill boys in the first place. He was the same angry little boy with a hot temper and no control. So I had to treat him just like I did when we were little.

I head butted him. Right on the bridge of his nose.

He shrieked and his hands flew to his face. I took a step back and push-kicked him square in the gut. He sailed back and landed on his ass hard, in the mud. He crabwalked backwards and then got to his feet.

The boys guffawed.

He held the bridge of his nose. “Damn you, Ro,” he said. He was all clogged up and his voice muffled and thick. Father taught me a word for that: stomatolalia. Don’t get to use that much.

“I came to warn, you,” Milio said. “The trees are waking. The Corps woke a grimly.”

“Please. You come to play big man in front of your boys.”

He stared at me while the boys chuckled.

Then I saw his eyes. I saw his hand itching for his gun. He was about to reach for it.

And then Cadia said, “I seen something.”

“Quiet,” I hissed.

“What?” Milio said. “What’d you say?”

“The last night,” Cadia said. “On my way over. There was something in the forest, moving around.”

“A Corporate?” one of the boys said.

“No, I don’t know. I didn’t see much, but I think I saw some blue, plastic looking, like they wear.”

“Where?” Milio said.

“Past the Ruas. I can show you.”

“Yeah, you can. And you,” he said. “This ain’t over. I’ll be coming back.”

“I ain’t waiting around for you, Milio. Got a farm to run.”

“We’ll be talking,” he said. “Real soon.” He pointed at Cadia. “Let’s go.”

They moved off, the boys and Cadia.

Marija told me that she and Cadia had discussed her leading the boys off to where she stashed Gen’s armor while Milio and I talked.

It was smart. A good plan.

Still, watching Cadia go off with those boys left me worried. They had that look in their eye, the same that all boys had, man or woman. Angry hunger.

divider

We made good time on the trail to Bug River Creek. It was overcast and cold, as usual, but no storm sign.

We stayed as close to the creeks and rocky paths as we could to minimize our tracks and off the main road, but still out of the predatory forest. Marija brought up the rear, brushing the ground behind us of our tracks and sign, while I showed Gen how to walk in my steps.

It wasn’t enough.

Milio’d soon figure he was going down a cold trail. After Cadia led him to the armor the trail would grow cold and Milio come back looking this way, if he wasn’t already.

All we could do now was get this over with quick.

I was worried about how fast we could go, what with the corporate having such new tree feet and fresh lungs. But Gen kept up.

Corporates adapt quicklike. I could see it happening immediately. By the end of the first day, it was already faster, took bigger strides, adapted its breathing. Its back seemed straighter and shoulders a bit more pronounced.

Our meals were light, but it didn’t seem to bother Gen any. Nothing did.

It watched and learned. Everything here is poisonous to offworlders. That’s something the Corporates never respected. How much we changed ourselves to live here.

We earned this. We settlers. We adapted, injected ourselves with heritable modifications, learned to drink the toxic water and breath the rich air. Learned to refine tree-meat to make it edible. We were the ones who learned to cull the floating plankton and algae from the skies. We earned this planet.

The Corporates just showed up with the deed and brought everything they needed with them. All they did was take.

But now, the Corporate had to learn some respect.

Surface water being scarce as it is, we stopped at the first little tired puddle we found. Marija kept watched while I scooped up a cup of dark water and filtered it. Gen watched as I treated the water and seemed to appreciate my efforts when I handed it a clean cup of water.

We camped that night in a gully. Marija dug up a little berm around us. A little wall to protect us from slithering roots, the hungry young of the sleeping trees. The blind little critters turn around as soon as they encounter any obstruction.

We woke with the morning sun and I saw a thin column of smoke behind us.

Might could be farmer. But I knew it was Milio. They weren’t far behind.

By late morning we made it halfway up a little hill that led to a bigger hill that lead to a small ridge. We had a good look of the valley off to our left. It was thick with trees. You could hear their agitated whispers.

I kept glancing back behind us, so concerned about our pursuers that I came around a bend and stumbled right into view of a group of hill boys atop the ridge we were to ascend.

Gen was the one who stopped me, hand on my shoulder. “Who’s that?”

At top the ridge sat a little party of hill boys, their morning fire a lazy pillar in the overcast sky. I pulled Gen down behind a scratchweed bush.

Marija belly crawled up next to me with her binoculars out.

“Three of them,” she said and handed me the binoculars.

I brushed aside part of the scratchweed bush. I was too big for it to eat, so it was trying to sting me away. I ignored it, but its urdicating hairs caused me some welts later.

Through the binocs I saw three people, two men, one woman armed with rifles, milling about on top of the ridge in front of us, right smack between us and Bug River Creek. They were hill boys all right. Had that twitchy, hungry look.

“Coincidence?” Marija said.

“First thing Milio did was block the roads,” I said. “They’re out in the open. They want to be seen. They’re here to slow us down.”

“Can we go around?” Gen asked.

“Only way around is back the way we came,” I said. “Course, we turn around now and we’ll fall right into the arms of those following us. We’re pickled in.”

“Not necessarily,” Marija said. “You could cut straight down the hill.”

She was right. The hill was small and its face was broken sandstone. It was slippery and steep, but we could slide down quick and jump into the forest, the hungry forest. It was dangerous in there. Not so much for me, but for Gen. And we couldn’t do it unseen. I told Marija as much.

She squinted at the hill boys.

“Well,” she said. “I might could distract them. Walk right up to them and then break right. You guys go down the hill when they come after me. Meet up with you later.”

“And if they catch you?”

“What can they do?” Marija said. “I’m just on my way to Bug River Creek, picking up supplies like any old farmer. A Corporate you say? No, haven’t seen one.” She gave a toothy smile. “I’ll lead them off. Maybe even take those behind us.”

I didn’t like the idea of losing yet another friend. Or of jumping into the trees. But I couldn’t see any other way. And every moment we sat there, those chasing us were closing in.

I took one more look and then said. “Ayo. You might could. Okay.”

Her smile got bigger. “Let me get ready.”

She gave us her water and extra rations. More tea and oats. Got her pack light for running.

She squeezed my shoulder and wished me luck.

Gen and I watched from the bushes as Marija grew smaller until she went up the hill. She was bug-sized by the time she waved hello at the boys.

“Get ready,” I said to Gen. It checked its pack straps and got ready to bolt. “When she breaks right, we go.”

“Roger,” the Corporate said.

I took a deep breath and relaxed my muscles, getting ready to run.

Marija started to veer away from the group, as if to walk around them. I saw them stand up and point at her. Heard some distant shouting. She broke off into a run.

“Let’s go–” I said and Gen bolted, right when I heard a shot ring out.

When I looked, there was already a cloud of smoke, a few seconds older than the sound it made. But I didn’t see Marija. Anywhere.

Gen came back and grabbed. “We have to go. Come on.”

It yanked me hard, towards steepness.

We slid down the hillface, sandstone pebbles raining down around us. Anyone close enough would’ve seen the dust we kicked up. Nothing we could do about it then.

Once we hit flatness we ran into the forests, but stopped just inside the tree cover. I whispered for Gen to catch its breath. Have to be quiet when walking through the trees, they pick up everything they hear.

We weren’t in the thick of the forest yet, but still had to watch our step. Walking through trees really isn’t that hard as long as you’re careful and avoid stepping on trigger roots and keep an eye for danglers budding on their parent branch.

Marija! I thought.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Gen whispered.

I didn’t respond, just kept my eyes where I stepped. Made Gen stay close.

“Was probably a warning shot,” it said. “Besides, there’s nothing we could have done–”

“Spare me your corporate morality,” I said. “You’re protecting your neck. Which is fine, I get it. But Marija I’ve known my whole life–You wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh?” Gen said. “And why is that?”

“Everyone is either a consumer or a product to you. Right now, you’re probably thinking about what product to market to me or how to box up my pain and sell it to someone else. You don’t know how to relate to others, just to profit.”

“Hunh,” it said. “We misjudged you. You really think we don’t feel? We’ve been bred to feel, to love. That’s how we maintain our society in the dark years between stars. You think we’re not human, and you’re right. We’re more than human. We’re the next step. It’s we who travel the stars and visit worlds and write the next chapter of history, while you people sit on this rock and bury your heads and pretend all this is so important and the center of the universe, when it’s really just another in a billion balls of mud spinning around a fire.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be part of a crèche-batch. We watched nearly all of them die in a hillbilly attack by a bunch of cowards afraid of change. And now we’re hunted by the very people that we’ve invited to join us in the future. You think because we don’t cry we don’t feel? There’s no time for tears. We’re not going to die on some forgotten mud world lost in the armpit of the galaxy.”

“You talk too much,” I said. “The forest is listening.”

The trees mimic what they hear, creating the susurrus of the forest. People used to say it was the old Gale spirits whispering, but it’s just the trees trying to trick you. The constant echoes and birdsong and snippets of words can distract and lure prey, and confuse birds and bugs that echolocate. Even confuses people at times. You know, like old tales of people going treeways and getting lost or getting forestsick and cutting up their whole family. Tales of settlers going mad on their cursed planet.

I told Gen not to use names. Oldtimers, hermits, tree-kin who live on the edge of the forest, they listen to the rustle and report the new they hear. Rumors, mostly, and garbled sentences. But some information comes out, now and again. And I didn’t need anyone knowing I was helping Gen out. It laughed at me and refused to believe me.

To be honest I find the whispers comforting. It’s a constant layer that’s always there. Lets you know exactly where you are. And if you’re careful and real quiet, so is the forest. Lot’s of people don’t get that. Tree-foot is an art. One which Gen wasn’t very good at at first. It nearly stepped on a snake-vine and almost walked into a hungry branch. I had to show it how to spot stalk-trops, you know, the thin barbed spikey roots that point up like nails.

I had to take it by the hand when we got to denser parts of the forest. I’d have rather it walked in front of me so I could keep an eye, but it’d have stepped on something eventually. Its grip was strong and hard, but smooth and warm at the same time. It felt capable.

But like everything else, Gen adapted quickly.

“Whoa,” Gen said as it pulled me low, saving me from an aerial root that was fishing for ground prey.

“Shhh,” I said and the forest repeated after me. “I would have seen it,” I said. I didn’t like being saved by a Corporate. And it surprised me with its strength.

“Sorry,” it said, as an offering. I could have handled an aerial root, but still, it saved my neck and knew it.

I took a moment and then said, “No. You keep doing what you’re doing. I’m just not used to such a quick learn. Another day and it’ll be like you grew up in the forest. How is it you people ever had any trouble walking through the forests?”

“Never had anyone to teach us before,” it said. “Can’t be a quick learn if no one teaches you. Plus, we’ve been working on an adap,” it said.

“Eh?”

“An adaptation. Sorta like a rules of thumb we can teach our minds. It filters out the low-level tree buzz. We put a gate on the lower sound frequency, cuts out most of the din.”

“So, you don’t hear the tree whispers?”

“Basically. The adap brings attention to sounds that seem out of place. Which is how we heard that aerial root. Once you filter out all the noise, you can hear the trees moving pretty clearly.”

“The whispers are my favorite part,” I said. “I love how it covers me, like a heavy blanket.”

It stared at me for a second and then said: “I have no response to that.”

Later, we found a little gully away from the trees. Gen made a dirt berm without me even asking.

I pulled my jacket tight and held myself to keep warm. It got down pretty cold that night and it wasn’t too long before I huddled up to the Corporate. They run hot. Or at least that one did. People call them snakes and bugs and whatnot, but the truth is, Gen was a good companion. It worked hard, stayed alert, and listened close.

Somewhere in the night, it dropped an arm around me. When I woke, I lifted its arm off and pushed away to shiver in the early morning murk.

Gray and overcast as usual.

It got up and stretched while I boiled some water.

It took off the ragged shirt I gave it and wetted it, gave itself what my father used to call a hooker bath: splash some water on your face, neck, chest, and armpits. It’s the minimum amount of freshening up that one can call a bath.

It looked stronger, its shoulders a bit more broad. It looked like it’d put on weight. It caught me staring and I looked away.

“We got oats and tea,” I said while I pulled out the packets of each.

“Well, then, we’ll have some tea and oats,” it said. I didn’t even have to look, I knew it was smiling.

It put its shirt back on and sat across from me while I folded up the cups.

“Can I help?” It reached out and took one of the paper-flat pieces of plastic that origamied into a drinking mug from my hand. It left it there too long. Its hand was warm. It was rough, but familiar and I felt something that pulled me. It was like in those stories, when one person touches the other and they know right then how they feel.

“You’re a man,” I said. It was a pure thought and I knew it was true as soon as I said it.

His smile broke.

“Yes,” he said. He didn’t make eye contact. He pulled his hand away and concentrated on folding the plastic into a cup.

“I thought you were an instar.”

He finished the cup and set it on the ground next to the stove.

“I was,” he said.

“But?”

He was quiet for a second. “We are instars when we are amongst our own people. Our scent, it keeps us all the same. Equal. Zero sexual competition. Corporate tranquility. Until we are promoted or… are separated.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“We adapt, Ro. We’re designed to insure our continued survival by becoming sexually opportunistic. If I’d been around males I would have–”

“You’re trying to start a franchise.”

“It’s not like that–”

“You’re a sexual infection. You infect people with the next generation of little Corporate workers.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“So, you thought that with most of the men dead or off fighting your kind you could come into deep territory and knock up all us ignorant hick women?”

“We would never try — It’s our body, Ro. That’s all. It’s an automatic response.” Gen looked at me and tried to take my hand but I pulled away.

“You people are monsters.”

divider

I kept my distance the rest of the day and into the night. There was no more huddling. And yet, even in my revulsion I kept stealing glances at him, finding myself near him. I was drawn to him. And that made me angrier.

What most girls felt about men, I just… didn’t. I don’t really feel that way about anybody. Never have. A boy kissed me in grade six and it just felt slimy. I knew I was supposed to like it. Or be excited about it. Or at least talk about, but I just wanted to forget it and never do it again. But I lied and told my friend Fiorina that I thought the boy was cute. He wasn’t. He smelled and threw rocks at frogs.

Later on, when most of the men went off to fight and didn’t come back, there were a lot of cold nights and lonely women. One night I was invited to stay over on a farm a couple of valleys over. I don’t really feel comfortable saying who it was, so I won’t, but it was not the worst experience. I stayed the night because, well, because I was curious. Figured I might like the company of women in that way. But I don’t. It was better than kissing boys, but not by much. Everything tickled and felt funny.

See, thing is, when you get right down to it, people are just kinda gross. I know that’s not how everyone sees it, but I think frankly most people are just blinded by their loneliness. We deep down feel lonely and small and we distract ourselves by “connecting” with others. It’s a trick.

But on that trip, being alone with Gen, I felt drawn to him. Physically. I didn’t feel it in my heart, just my body. He looked and smelled good.

“You’re doing something to me,” I said when we stopped to sit on rocks sip cups of soup in the afternoon murk.

He didn’t respond. Just looked up at a sleeping buck-toothed pine.

“It’s funny that you call them trees,” he said.

“What else would we call them?”

“Back home, trees are plantlife that don’t move, don’t get up and walk around and hunt. We get why you call them trees, what with the sedentary torpor period and the roots and the growing out of the ground, but these aren’t trees. Discussing non-terrestrial life-forms using terrestrial categories of life– flora, fauna, fungi–is ineffective. But, still, trust us, these are no trees.”

I thought about this for a second. “You mean like the Arbory trees. Earth trees. Only rich folk have seen them. And none of them are around here. To us, these are trees.”

He nodded his head. “That’s a fair point. Most of your plantlife is floating around in your atmosphere.”

“Oxygen buoyancy,” I said.

“Ayo,” he said, and I looked at him, but he didn’t seem to notice. That was our word, not a Corporate word. “This is why your world is so important to us.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“Because,” he said. “Everywhere else, the terraformed worlds, they’re mostly the same. This world and the handful of other non-terraformed planets offer up a host of new and unique bio-product lines. Why when we got here we moved quick to snatch up the intellectual property of this planet.”

I was quiet for a second. This is was the DynaStar, Instlr story, the story of Big Corporology. They arrived with talk of buy-ins and shares of the future coming out their mouths, but in their hand they had the original charter bought and paid for. Bought it up from the Esperanxa Settlement Expedition investors back on Earth. They owned it all. They forced buyouts and then charged people to live on their own land.

But it was still our home, our land. The Corporates hardly ever set foot on the surface. We lived here, we earned it.

“Just cause you own it,” I said. “Don’t make it yours.”

divider

Gen could have taken the lead at that point. He slipped between the trees and over traps like a quiet wind. But I stayed in front. Can’t have a Corporate leading me through the forest.

We wove through the sleeping forest into the night, my low-glow lamp lighting up the dark canopy. The thick forest wasn’t a great place to sleep, so we had to keep going that night until we found a clearing.

But we were stopped short, when I walked into the butt of a rifle.

I caught a blur of movement in my lamp-light and then I was on my back. My right eye was filled with something wet. Blood.

I looked up and saw over me stood a hill boy. I recognized her. I don’t remember her name, but I knew she was from Rough And Ready, a hamlet in a valley just west.

She’d been hiding behind the trunk of the large claw-oak that reached up over us when I battered-up for her. She held her rifle by the barrel in triumph.

I tried to say something, don’t even know what, just something. I was rattled.

She said something to Gen, but I couldn’t make out what.

I tried to get up and felt a trigger vine squirm underneath me. The branches of the claw-oak started to stretch awake.

“Wait,” I finally managed. The world came back in agitated whispers. The trees were listening. “The tree, it–”

The boy stepped hard on my stomach. “That one I’m supposed to take back alive,” she said with a nod towards Gen. “But you,” she turned the rifle around, maw of the barrel in my face, “I can deal with you right now, Pig.”

Gen moved so fast. He was streak of movement as he tackled the boy.

They hit the ground in a tangle of limbs. I got up to my feet, swayed around, knees wobbly, except my knees weren’t wobbly– the ground was shaking.

The claw-oak ripped out a buried leg-root.

The woman rolled Gen off of her and they both jumped to their feet. As soon as they did the boy swung her rifle like a club.

The Corporate caught it like it was nothing, didn’t even flinch, just a loud smack as the rifle butt hit into the palm of his hand. Then he stepped forward and threw a kick deep into the boy’s stomach, tossing her back.

“No,” I screamed but it was too late. She fell back and was scooped up into a waiting tree branch. She grunted as the heavy branches came down on her arms and legs. The tree lifted her off the ground. She didn’t say nothing, or scream, even as the claw-oak drove a feeding branch through her back. She just gasped and looked surprised.

She’d stay like that for a few days, somewhere between life and death. It would keep her breathing, keep her fresh as it digested her from the inside out. She’d have killed me a moment before, it’s true, but that’s a hard way for anyone to go. Besides, she was one of us. No matter what else.

The whispers started to rise up around us. The trees could smell a fresh kill. The trees, see, they share things. Kinda like a group or society, I don’t really know. But when one feeds, others around it get a taste. Through the roots I’ve been told. They’re all networked up, until they start moving, but when they do, when they swarm, when they go grimly, they move as a huge mass. Not a stampede quite, but like one giant tree.

And that’s what started happening around us. The crash, the fighting, the Corporates who ran into the woods, that hill boy from Rough And Ready, the blood from my eye spilling onto dry soil. It all came together, boiled up the forest’s hunger. The trees went grimly.

I got to my feet and yelled for Gen to run. We ran and ran, blind for while. I lost my torch, but I could see shapes moving in the dark.

I spotted a bare little cliff off the ridge up a head, silhouetted by the stars. I tried to keep that in front of us, hoping to reach it and climb out of the frenzied trees.

I found a gap that opened up to the foot of the cliff. It was a small cliff, an eroding face of sandstone. But there was enough for us to climb up. And up we went.

Halfway up, I heard a hiss from below. A small tree, a sapling of one of the quicker species. A razor-fur or a thorn-willow, I don’t know, but it was hiss-targeting us.

I told Gen to hurry, but I needn’t have. He was soon level with me and then above.

I tried to keep up, but the sandstone was crumbly, and the rock I grabbed fell apart into pebbles. Lost my grip and reeled. I could hear the young tree below us, waiting, tasting me on the wind.

But Gen caught my other arm. He pulled and I managed to grab the edge of the outcrop he was reaching down from. I scrambled over the lip and caught my breath on my back, my skin hot and sweaty in the cool night air.

The outcrop big enough that we could sleep there that night and wait for the grimly to move on for prey or fall back asleep.

I got up and peeked over the edge. The clouds had broke some, thinning as they do at night.

Tree branches glistened and leaves shook in the dim light of the silver moon. We could see most of the valley. Gen watched the forest. It moved, like in those old terran movies of the ocean. It rippled. And in the middle of it all, striding through other trees and towering over them was a grimly. A tree of trees. A huge wave in the ocean.

“We read the reports,” Gen said. “But, we just didn’t understand until now.”

“It’s a big one,” I said.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Migratory Cascade Event. We’ve never seen anything like it on over forty different worlds in thirty different systems.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it,” I said.

“What do you mean?” the Corporate said without taking its eyes off the grimly.

But I didn’t say anything.

The grimly isn’t a thing, really. It’s all these different parts working together to exploit any bounty that comes its way. Each branch is like a franchise. Each skewered animal another planet. Cut a branch off and it’ll plant itself and make roots and grow big and strong. Cut off a Corporate from its people and it became a sexual disease, infecting the planet with its brood. Gen admired it.

And now Gen knew about the trees and how to walk through them. He would teach his kind, spread all our secrets.

Gen never took his eyes off the creature. Didn’t notice as I came up behind him. I didn’t hate him personally, but I did hate him. And his kind. I might could have lost him in the forest, or Marija and I could have pounced on him, but they are strong, those Corporates. Survivors. Might have fought us off as easily as he did that boy. Right then, on that outcrop, that was the opportunity I’d been waiting for.

He was calm. Happy even. And I was glad for that.

Unaware, as I braced myself and then and kicked him square in the back.

Gen sailed off the cliff with only a grunt. The Corporate didn’t scream or cry, made no sound as he fell into hungry branches below. Gen got to find out about the grimly first hand.

Maybe our home was just a backwater mud-ball spinning through space. And maybe Gen was just one naïve Corporate in a species that spanned the stars. But we don’t have much more than our mud-ball here. The Corporates left us with little more than nothing. If we were going to keep our planet, then it was settlers that needed the most help from each other. Nobody was going to give it to us.

___

Copyright 2015 Mark Pantoja 

Mark Pantoja is a writer and musician living in San Francisco. His stories have appeared in Tales from the Zombie War and Lightspeed. His short story collection Other Possibilities came out in 2013.

by E. Catherine Tobler

In those moments before, in the dark of the woods, we were near perfect likenesses of each other: faces round and curious, not having lost the plumpness of youth; eyes brightened by the possibility that lay at the end of our journey; coats buttoned up proper and bags carrying all we thought we needed still neatly zippered closed.

One might look at we four and say sisters, but we were not. Beneath our exteriors, we were as different as sun and moon, as Earth and Mars. Each might hang in the same sky, but one burned with its own light while the other could only reflect what was thrown its direction; one exploded with water and life while the other hung as a dry husk, millennia dead.

Moon was what my mother called me, bundling me like a crescent within her arms as she rocked me to sleep on the back porch night after night. Her weathered hands smoothed over my cheeks as she told me there was no man in the moon, but a girl, round and plump, gleaming pale as moonlight itself. Moon was what I was, then—in those moments before.

I didn’t possess my own light, but readily reflected and studied that of others.

divider

  1. Strays

The woods were not lovely, though I would grant them both dark and deep as we wound our way closer to Philadelphia to see Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. It was the best of all possible worlds: Halloween had come and gone, but the weekend stretched ahead and with it, a chunk of treasured, unsupervised adventuring.

My sister Audrey, seventeen, slim, and perfect, had kicked us out of the faded tomato-red Rambler still on the Jersey side of the river. She was supposed to take us straight to the circus, but left us before we’d even hit the old rail bridge. It wasn’t right, but after seeing the empty look in her eyes, none of us said a word. We slid out and she was gone almost before the door latched shut. We would end up like the boy in the box, Norma whispered, but Trudy slapped her arm and for a long while we stood in silence, daylight running out around us.

Two nights ago Audrey and I sat at the very intersection we shuffled out of now; the Rambler rumbled as it always had and Audrey stared down the road, like she could see all manner of things I couldn’t. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse, held one unlit between her lips, and just stared. Joel wasn’t supposed to…he was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy. The cigarette had bobbed, drawing a long shadow over her chin, her neck. In the half light of the streetlight, she was just shadows. She never did light that cigarette.

Four shadows stretched across the road now as we nodded at each other, resolved, and left the pavement for the woods trailing along the Delaware River. Five miles to the bridge? More? I didn’t know, had never been there on foot before, and wasn’t sure why Audrey had been.

The Delaware River growled a distant rumble to our left. The day was not yet over, but sunlight struggled to reach the ground here, leaving the mulch in dappled in vague shadows. I placed my foot in every slight mark Rum left ahead of me, as she followed Trudy. I glanced over my shoulder to make certain of Norma. She was still there, though lagging behind, the tall grass plucking at the frilled hem of her skirt.

“They are not putting a dog in space.”

Norma, who tended to cringe every time she heard a male voice, cringed now, even though there were no boys or men close. Her head came up sharply at Rum’s words. Her eyes were as dark as the woods, but I could see the confusion in them. I looked forward again, to the set of Rum’s slight shoulders, to the bounce of Trudy’s copper pompadour turned umber in the forest gloom.

“Lu, you tell her—dogs don’t go in space. People don’t go in space, tell her.”

I kept pace with Rum and Trudy, but also held my silence for a minute. The Russians had a bomb stored up for every man, woman, and child in America. Why wouldn’t they shoot a dog into space for kicks?

“They’re doing no such thing,” Rum said again around the gob of chewing gum in her mouth. “No one would put a dog in outer space, for crying out loud. What good’s a dog gonna be up there? Not like they can do experiments—”

“You aren’t listening to me, Rum. They can be experiments,” Trudy said. Her own gum sounded like a sharp gunshot as she chewed the air out of a bubble. “They’re going to see what happens to the dog, right? Next step, probably people. In space.” She lifted her hands into the gloomy air and wriggled her fingers, the silent explosion of a billion rockets. While provoking the others seemed like a thing that gave Trudy glee, there was more to it than that. I had seen the way she blushed when Norma looked at her. It was the same way Audrey blushed when Joel looked her way.

“God wouldn’t like a dog in space,” Norma muttered as she came up alongside me, like there was comfort in being closer. She jabbed her hands into her coat pockets like they were faces and she was punching them in. “If dogs were meant to go to space, they would already be there. God put them on the ground for a reason. Just like we’re on the ground. A reason.”

Rum’s shoulders bowed a little. Then, she turned around and walked backwards, eyes on me all the while like I was the only known spot on a map. Her face was round and trusting, a cherub, dark hair hanging in glossy ringlets against her cheeks. “Lu, you tell me, they wouldn’t put a dog in space…would they?”

Rum was a year younger than us, thirteen. She claimed she was a runaway from the Amish in Lancaster and while we weren’t sure how possible it was—we had never seen any black Amish—we couldn’t disprove it, and Norma had tried three times. I alone knew her name wasn’t Rum—it was Hannah Fisher, a thing she’d sworn me to silence about.

Rum didn’t have family anywhere local, that was for sure. She had lived at the children’s home with the nuns for a good bit now, but the world remained exceedingly strange for her; everything was horribly possible all at once because she didn’t know any better. Maybe shooting dogs into space was a thing.

I was the one she asked; even above the sisters at the school, she trusted my word, even though I was a writer, and skilled at making things up. Especially stories where people, dogs, and insects went into space on ships named Presley and Haley, and loved it there.

“They’re Russians, Rum,” I said. “No telling what they’d do.” I pictured my sister sitting with her unlit cigarette, remembered the flutter of her pulse in her throat as she sat and stared into the night. Joel wasn’t supposed to…

Rum’s gaze swung back to Trudy. Waiting. Trudy nodded and stopped walking, to shift her pack into her hands where she could unzip it. Inside were crammed magazines, their paper and ink scent sharply filling the evening air. We each stopped in our tracks to wonder at what was in there. I felt some things would be certain: magazine covers of Elvis, newspaper clippings about Paul Anka, her transistor radio that she likely smuggled out.

“Sunday morning, going to shoot her straight into the stars,” Trudy said. “See here.” She might have been a librarian with the ease her fingers found across the magazine spines and edges, to pluck a rumpled newspaper free. Mars Bars wrappers crinkled in its wake.

Rum’s hand shot out to take the newspaper. Such things were still small miracles to her, she who claimed to have run away from her folks because she refused to be married. I supposed if people could catapult a dog into space, other people could try to marry off their child of a daughter. Amish were much like Russians in my head; as alien as the creatures I spent hours writing about.

The story about the dog was made suddenly worse with the unfurling of the newspaper. The dog had a name, an image, a set of bright eyes that one could get lost in. I refused to look overly long at the grainy image, but Rum couldn’t look away.

“Laika,” Rum read. “She was a stray!” Her eyes shot up to Trudy who only nodded again, justifiably smug now that she had produced newsprint evidence. Rum scoured the article, assuring us she would read only the germane bits, which seemed to be every word on the page. They were launching the dog into space on Sunday, to study the effects of space on a living creature.

Rum’s shoulders sank and she started to walk, eyes still riveted to the paper. I elbowed Trudy as she zipped her bag shut, but it was Norma’s voice that filled the long silence with reprimands as Rum walked away.

“Just a stray—still a creature of God, like Rum if you think about it long enough. Runaway, stray, not much different. What do they think’s going to happen to it? The dog, not Rum.”

“Nobody knows,” Trudy said, and they both fell back into step behind Rum. “That’s the point.”

I followed, but slower, because my mind was coming up with all sorts of things that could happen to that poor dog. Asphyxiation. Alien abduction. Rocket could fall into the moon or back into the ocean, gravity depending. Rocket could fall apart before it even left the launch pad and what of the dog then? Mostly, I wondered if we Americans would try to shoot the rocket down, thinking it was a bomb, thinking that we were going to blow them up before they could blow us up.

We walked in silence until Norma started singing “Sandman.”

“Bum, bum, bum…”

One by one, we chimed in. It was a song we practiced for no good reason—”because we could” didn’t seem to please our parents enough. They found us silly as we tried to harmonize the way the Chordettes did, but mostly we didn’t care. Singing to the mythical Sandman brought its own rewards, even if the lyrics were ridiculous. Trudy refused to sing beyond providing the “yeees?” when the Sandman finally appeared; said it was degrading to dream only of a man, which made Rum kick it up even higher.

“And lots of wavy hair like Lib-er-ace!” Rum fairly hollered as we walked ever toward the still-distant bridge in the growing dark.

The dog came out of nowhere. It was like the darkness peeled a part of itself away and lunged for Rum. Later, Trudy would say the dog didn’t want her singing, either, but mostly I think it was on account of her being loud and small, seemingly easy prey, but for we who closed in (after a good stretch of mindless shrieking, make no mistake).

Rum was on the ground before I knew what had happened, Trudy and Norma leaping back, stumbling into trees and each other. I stopped altogether, staring at the twist of dark forms in the growing dark of the woods. I couldn’t tell Rum from the animal at first, didn’t even know it was a dog until I swung my bag and caught it in the nose. It reeled back with a whine and I grabbed Rum by the arm, pulling her out of biting distance.

She was so still and quiet, especially in the wake of Trudy and Norma screaming at the dog. They chased it into the trees and I hauled Rum into my lap, trying to ignore the way my thighs shook, the way my hands were covered in blood from where Rum had been bitten.

“Ohjesusohjesusohjeeeesuss.”

Rum was not given to prayer, despite being roped into a covenant school, nor was I. Oh, we all went to church every Sunday, and sat proper and listened to words that were supposed to encourage thought and reflection, but mostly we wanted to be tromping through the woods, setting up forts, brushing out each other’s hair, making firm denials that any of us were growing up ever. We were not curving in new places, we were not asking our mothers to buy us bras or feminine hygiene products and the world was a still one long, continual summer afternoon where anything but these strange things was possible.

“Get your coat off,” I said and my voice was strangely thick, like I had been crying and yelling and I wouldn’t admit to either.

I helped peel Rum’s coat off to see the blood well up from her forearm. “Jesus Christ,” I bit out.

The screams in the woods grew more distant, the crash of undergrowth and fallen branches and who knew what else. I reached for my bag, the zipper hard to work with bloodied fingers, but eventually got it open. I grabbed the first thing I came to, rolled knee socks, white, splattered with purple polka dots. They were my favorite, a birthday gift from Audrey. I unbundled them and tied each one tight around Rum’s arm, paying no mind to the way she hollered.

“We are going back,” I said, and made to move away, to get her coat and my bag and Rum caught me before I could do anything.

“We are not.”

I could picture a hundred things going wrong with Rum’s arm. It could get infected. It could bleed itself dry and wither right off at her elbow and when it dropped off, the dog that bit her would be there to pick it up in its awful maw and carry it away for dinner, for a toy, for a trophy.

“Makes no sense going back,” Rum said, “just like it makes no sense to shoot a dog into the moon. Into space. Wherever she’s going.” Her voice dropped low and her fingers uncurled from my arm. “We’re not going back. Wrap my nightgown around my arm. Put my coat back on. They don’t need to know. I need to go.”

They would know, I thought, but I opened Rum’s bag, found her nightgown (butter yellow with a tiny pink ribbon rose at the neckline), and wrapped it around my socks which already bound her arm. We stuffed her into her coat with grunts and groans and by the time Trudy and Norma came back, breathless and sweaty, we had washed ourselves clean with the water from Rum’s canteen.

“Don’t know where it went,” Norma said. She bent over, hands on knees as she tried to breathe.

“Away is good enough,” Trudy said. She glanced at the sky, then back down to Rum. She laughed. “Maybe Laika’s spirit crawled into that dog, came to tell you she wants to go, huh?”

“Spirits don’t work that way—dogs don’t even have souls. Spirits certainly don’t crawl, what do they tell you in that church of yours,” Norma began, but Rum cut her off with a “bum, bum, bum, Mr. Sandman!”

Norma threw her hands up and stalked into the woods, back on the path we’d been keeping to as if there had never been a dog, a chase. Trudy hefted her own pack and gave me a wide smile before following her. I gave the still-singing Rum a hand up from the ground and we followed.

“German shepherd?” Norma asked once the singing had settled down, and the dark rose more firmly above us. We would have to stop soon. “Bloodhound? It was big. Smelled bad. Like it had been out here a long time. Saint Bernard?”

I hadn’t noticed any smell, but I hoped the dog hadn’t been sick. It was too easy to picture Rum getting sick, turning green or purple or some other hideous color as her body began to rot. Maybe she would turn into a dog and then there’d be no hiding it.

Behind us, I heard a sound like a dog walking through leaves. Crunch, crunch, pause, crunch, snuffle. I looked back, but it was too dark to see anything. I rooted in my bag until I came up with my flashlight, then shone it on the path behind us.

“What’s there?” Rum asked.

I had turned to walk backwards, still shining my light behind us. “Nothing,” I said, just as my light skimmed past a pair of eyes that lit up like small, exploding suns.

We screamed.

This only set the dog off, digging paws into the earth to charge us. God, it was huge. I wanted to brain it with my flashlight, but kept hold of it against all instincts shrieking otherwise. The light bounced through the trees as I ran; falling stars, ricocheting headlights, the sunlight in a wavering mirror.

“Into the trees!” I screamed. “Into the trees!”

The trees weren’t made for climbing, but we did our best with what we’d been given. The bark bit into my hands and knees, and by the time I’d gone as high as I could go, I’d wedged the flashlight in my shirt, in the slim strap of my bra where it crossed between my breasts. First thing it had been good for.

I pulled the light out and aimed it to the ground, searching for the beast. It was there, making circles around the trees. It was huge, didn’t look like a proper dog at all. Drool gleamed down its jaw, ceaseless as it stalked us. It didn’t bark, only cast its gaze upward, watching. Waiting.

I shone the light into the other trees, looking for the girls. I found them one by one, clinging as I did to a branch that seemed only just wide enough to not break right off. Rum’s eyes were wide with terror, Norma’s too, but Trudy, she was laughing as she wrapped herself more tightly around the tree.

“Now there’s a dog that needs to be in space,” she said.

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  1. Gently Down the Stream

It was probably a Saint Bernard, but hard to say.

Come morning—a Saturday that was trying to rain, when we should have been in our own homes, having syrupy pancakes—Rum and I were still in the tree tops, the dog sleeping beneath us. It was possibly white at one time, but had been so long in the woods, it was now the color of the woods themselves, blotchy brown and gold and black. It had no collar, so no tag.

Rum was in the tree closest to me and she was the color of old, dried mud. She was shaking as she tried to hold on to the tree and maybe this wasn’t going to end well, but surely it had to end soon. I looked for Trudy and Norma, but saw no sign of them. Had they already climbed down? I looked back at the dog. Had it eaten them? A thing like that, you’d think we might hear it.

“Rum, we need to climb down,” I said.

“There’s a… There’s a dog down there, Lu.” She yawned and I could see how paper-dry her lips were.

“There is not a dog down there,” I said. I adjusted my bag, checked the flashlight in my bra, and began to climb down the tree. “There is a fairy trapped in the body of a dog—a fairy who doesn’t know any better than to plow into four girls who’re walking to the city to see the circus. What does she know about anything in that body?” I paused on the next too-thin branch, listening to it crackle. Rum hadn’t moved. “Let’s find out, Rum. Come on, climb down with me. Bet you can’t beat me.”

That was enough to get her moving. I exhaled and said nothing more as we moved down from the trees. No branches broke; I found if I moved fast enough, they just didn’t have time. When my feet touched the ground, the dog lifted its massive head to look at me, but didn’t move. Its eyes were chocolate brown, curious but not hostile like last night.

I moved toward Rum’s tree, to clasp her by a foot and help her down to the ground. Like my mother would have, I pressed a hand to her head, thinking I would be assaulted with a veritable book of information about what ailed her. No such book came, but I was certain she felt warmer than she should have, especially with the misting rain.

“Here.” I uncapped my canteen and handed it to her. She drank like she’d never had a sip of anything in her life. I wanted to unwrap her arm and take a look at it, but also didn’t, because that meant admitting we had a problem bigger than a dog possessed by a fairy.

“S’fairy?” she asked, wiping her hand over her mouth.

I nodded and looked at the dog. “Only explanation.” Of course there were a hundred others, though the dog didn’t look sick. I crouched down to study it and its ears perked forward, tail worming through the damp leaves. “Maybe she’s forgotten how to talk—given that drooling mouth, you can’t actually blame her…”

There was an empty wrapper near one paw and the dog’s tongue lolled out, to curl around a tattered chunk of Mars Bar. Leaves came with it, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, swallowing everything in one gulp. The tail scrabbled in the leaves again, happy, eager, dog-like. I couldn’t quite convince myself it was a dog, all things considered.

Rum had crouched down beside me and tipped forward to her knees, to bend almost entirely to the ground as she studied the dog.

“Laika?” she whispered.

The dog’s entire body wriggled, but it made no move toward Rum. This was not Laika; it bore no resemblance to the dog in the paper. As Norma said, souls didn’t work that way and Laika was in Russia, getting ready to head to the stars. Whatever this was, it wasn’t that. This close, the dog did smell weird; syrup, shave cream, and chocolate.

Rum whispered, “Free, free, a trip to Mars, for nine-hundred empty jars. Burma-Shave,” and reached a trembling hand out.

“Rum, I don’t think you should—”

The dog’s tongue spooled out again, this time around Rum’s hand in a slobbery lick. Every part of me was poised to jump at her and haul her back, but the tongue withdrew without taking her hand off. The dog leaned forward and Rum scratched it between its eyes.

I stepped backward, into Trudy and Norma who had returned. Their arms were full of sticks and rocks, and I helped them clear a space to make a small fire. Norma ringed the rocks, I tented the sticks, and Trudy pulled a magazine and a lighter from her bag. She tore pages from the back of the magazine, carefully along the spine edge. Only the advertisements, though even this left the first couple of pages loose. She tucked them carefully away before setting fire to the pages balled under the sticks.

“Here.”

Norma offered up a bag of marshmallows. This kind of thing was tradition; when our parents let us go on a weekend, we were on our own for all things. While we had pocket money for food and circus admissions, we had packed a good many things we weren’t normally allowed to eat. Root beer and melted marshmallows for breakfast, for example. Trudy passed out bottles of Hires, but not even that was enough to get Rum to join us.

“Dog didn’t do anything when we climbed down,” Trudy said as she leaned a bottle of Hires against the log for Rum if she wanted. She then skewered a marshmallow on the end of a stick and held it into the flames. “Gave him a Mars Bar though, just in case.”

“Dogs shouldn’t eat candy,” Norma said.

“Well, he did eat it.” I glanced away from Rum and the dog, back to Norma with her strict set of rules and Trudy with her distinct lack of them. In the humid morning, Norma’s curls had turned into a brown cotton ball while Trudy’s pompadour curved almost flat against her skull.

“Found a cardboard box out there,” Norma said. “Flat, wet.”

No one said anything to that, but we were all thinking the same thing. That poor little dead boy the police had found, that no one stepped up to claim. Wrapped in a plaid blanket and just left there. Left in a box. Dead, dead, dead. I burned my tongue with my marshmallow and took a long swallow of root beer.

“How far are we?”

The question came from Rum. She pulled herself up from the leaves and came to sit by my side. The dog padded along side her, flanking me. It looked at our staked marshmallows and then back to Rum.

Trudy palmed her hair out of her eyes. “Not too far, few more miles up the river to the bridge—”

“The rail bridge?” Norma asked. “We can’t cross there—that’s for trains.”

“Might as well cross there—no sense in walking five more miles.” Trudy twirled her marshmallow in the flames until it was a dripping black mess, then brought it to her mouth.

Norma hunched her shoulders in her coat and let her marshmallow catch fire; it dripped into the sticks, long strands of white instantly blackened.

“And what about this stupid dog?” Rum tried her best to sound angry about it, but somehow didn’t. She also didn’t sound scared. I think I would have been scared, having no good idea about the dog or the wound it had inflicted.

“It doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave.” Trudy lobbed a stone toward the dog’s paws; it landed short and the dog didn’t even spook.

Even as we smothered the fire and packed our bags, the dog stayed with us, and once back on the trail, it lopped slightly ahead, as if leading the way. I tried not to think too hard on that, worried about Rum. She didn’t look any worse, and was walking as normal as anyone, but I couldn’t forget the blood on her arm last night or the muddy color to her cheeks this morning.

“Well, did he put his arm around you?”

Ahead of me and Rum, Trudy and Norma walked with shoulders nearly together, but at this question, Norma took a step away.

“He did not,” Norma said. “Once you let a boy put his arm around you, he knows exactly how far he may go. He wanted to, but…no. He did not.”

Trudy pressed. “Did you want him to?”

Trudy was forever wanting to know about boys, about dancing and holding hands and arms scooped around shoulders. She dreamed of kissing, no matter that everyone told her if she turned her gorgeous fall of copper curls into a pompadour, she would never be kissed by a boy ever. She didn’t seem too upset, only wanted to know about kissing. The news that Norma had been within touching distance of a boy who wanted to put his arm around her was special indeed. I hadn’t been kissed. Trudy hadn’t been kissed. Rum said she never wanted a thing to do with boys, which led Trudy to believe she had been kissed and often. That our rule-following Catholic Norma had been so close to a boy was revolutionary.

Norma didn’t answer Trudy and Trudy laughed. Laughed so loud she startled birds from the wet trees. Norma shoved her and walked a little faster down the trail, arms clasped around herself.

“That wasn’t very nice, Tru,” I murmured, but Trudy only laughed more.

“No, it wasn’t,” she agreed.

“Bum, bum, bum,” Rum sang, but no one joined in just then.

We walked in silence and eventually Rum’s hand slipped into mine. She was tiring and cold from the rain that never quite fell. The sky was a sheet of gray beyond the trees that were half-empty of leaves. It seemed we should have been to the bridge hours ago, the woods stretching out impossibly far. I questioned how far we had actually gone and glanced back only to see endless woods on that side of us too. The birds had gone strangely quiet and so had the river, as if we were farther from it and the bridge than we ever had been. Where had Audrey left us? A shiver slid down my spine and when the dog barked, I nearly jumped out of my skin. My hand tightened around Rum’s.

Above us, high above the canopy of trees, a dark shadow circled. This had caught the dog’s attention, setting him to barking and capering further down the sodden trail. I couldn’t tell if it was excitement or annoyance, but he didn’t stop barking as he tore off the path and into the trees. I stopped walking and Rum, still clinging to my hand (or did I cling to her?), stopped too. We looked up and watched this strange shape trace paths in the sky.

It was too big to be a bird—unless it was a vulture, but even at that, I had never seen vultures here and it was bigger beyond that. But it moved like a bird, wings dipping down to propel itself higher against the gray sky.

“What is that, Lu?” Rum whispered. “Another fairy?”

I squeezed her hand and started walking again. “Absolutely. You saw how the dog reacted.” I looked ahead for the dog, but saw no sign of him. Still, I heard him barking. “Clearly they’re related, maybe she’s come to pull the fairy out and put things proper.” Maybe she could look at your arm, I wanted to add, but didn’t, because again, that meant allowing we had problems and there were no problems here, nope.

Proving me right about our utter lack of problems was the revelation of the river and the shadow of the looming rail bridge ahead. I felt more than a little relieved at the sight of both; even Norma and Trudy looked comforted by the bridge’s old, black bulk.

Beyond the tangle of half-bare trees and gray-sticked shrubs that clung to the riverbank, the bridge stood stark against the gloomy sky, latticed iron bracing the longer girders. It looked drawn onto the sky with watercolors that were beginning to run to the color of rust, of time. The iron was supported by columns reaching into the water where they were encased in old stones; even from this distance, I could see they were colored with moss, lined with grit where the water had constantly licked past. Down the bridge’s center, the railroad tracks which would guide us to the Philadelphia side.

“There’s something…” Trudy bravely picked her way closer to the river. She lost her footing part way through, and grabbed a low tree branch to keep herself up right and out of the cold mud. “People? There are people down there. Wait.”

We didn’t exactly wait. We came to Trudy’s side, stepping through leaves and mud to look ahead at what she had found. Trudy shushed us, but we had already fallen silent.

Down the riverbank, where the stones and pylon anchored the bridge into the ground, there huddled a group of people. At first glance, they looked like an extension of the wood’s underbrush, half-dressed in leaves and half-bare to the uncaring sky. But as my eyes grew accustomed to their shapes, individuals made themselves known. A twig was an arm; a trunk was a torso. I counted a dozen different forms, or maybe there were fewer; it remained strangely hard to tell, but the important thing remained true: they were gathered around another form that floated in the river.

It was too big. Big and small in the same instant, deflated and drained of everything. A discarded Halloween costume, I thought, that’s all it was, but none of us could resist in getting a closer look, not even Norma who proved true to her Catholic roots when it came to her fascination with the dead and all that accompanied them. Eyes on a plate, thorns around a disembodied heart, carry on.

I was certain it hadn’t ever been human, but the way it spread in the water, it recalled a thing that had been human and no longer was. Its fingers were too long, trailing out nearly like tentacles, some curled around the dried weeds of the riverbank. If it ever wore clothes, they were long gone; the body pooled pale and utterly flat on the river’s surface. It shouldn’t have been flat; it should have bloated up, with water, with disease, with something, but it was like a sheet of plastic that a person could peel off and shake dry.

The worst thing was the face. Being that flat, you think of nothing like a face, until you start to look at it the way maybe Picasso would, with disgorged eyes and malformed mouths. It still had its teeth in its mouth (mouths, oh god there was more than one), but these were also somehow flat, screams pressed into a book for safe-keeping. The memory of a nose, colorless eyes. Male or female, I couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter; whatever shape might have given it form was just gone. Deflated.

Among the mourners that ringed the body sat the dog that had accompanied us. He tipped his head back, howled, and then bolted out of the water, scattering mud and water up the bank.

Rum swayed and I wrapped an arm around her to keep her upright. Norma clutched Trudy’s sleeve, and we all four hovered there, not daring to breathe or do anything that might bring that dog back to us. We didn’t want them to see us, no matter the cold water that seeped its way into my loafers, creeping ever up my socks.

They lifted the body from the water and it came up like plastic wrap from the molded gelatin salads our gran liked to bring over. The body made a sucking sound and resisted, like it didn’t want to peel away. Suction from the edges—where it clung most desperately to the water—made ripples course through the skin, if it was skin. These ripples smoothed out the more the people pulled, the body going so thin I could see the water through it. Norma’s shoulders pulled tight, inching toward her ears until I thought she might swallow herself.

“Enough.”

At this single word from a man in the group, the others let the body go. It slipped back to the river with a sigh. Norma nearly deflated, too; the breath she let go sounded like a sob. She buckled to her knees and we all reached for her.

“Norma—”

“She shouldn’t have gotten up,” Norma sobbed. Blindly, she clutched at us, tears streaming down her red cheeks as she kneeled in the cold river mud. “She s-shouldn’t have… She should have stayed d-down, let it hap— happen and pass the w-way the r-river…”

We all knew—people talked, but not us. We never questioned, never wondered aloud, it was a known fact. It wasn’t our place, but it could be. Norma was like any of us, raised in a household with siblings, with a mother, with a father. There were rules; every person had their place and lines were not to be crossed. Dogs didn’t go into space—women didn’t overstep their boundaries. The hard part was knowing where those lines were; understanding the boundary of water and earth was easy, other things less so when they changed at a man’s whim.

I wanted to touch Norma’s shoulder, to let her know it was all right, that though her mother had been torn and flattened by her husband’s hands, it didn’t have to be that way. But touching Norma was crossing the boundary erected around her by father, by brothers.

The shadow in the sky returned, but this time skimmed low to the water. It was a bird, I saw, but also a woman, and I felt something inside me stir at the sight of her. She flew across the river, filling her mouth with water until at last she alone could scoop the body from its wet mooring. The body came away effortlessly, cradled in the water of the bird’s mouth as she lifted into the sky. She dipped under the shadow of the bridge, then up and up into the clouded sky with a hundred smaller birds in her wake. It was then the clouds broke, rain streaming coldly down.

The figures left the river and we withdrew, too, to the meager shelter of a thin tree where we settled Norma and let her cry herself empty. We wiped her knees clean of mud and pressed a root beer into her hands and without a word resumed our walk to the bridge. The circus wasn’t far now.

The dog waited for us at the mouth of the bridge, paws wet and muddy. He shook himself once, then vanished into the bridge, as if trusting us to follow. Maybe it was a fairy trapped inside, I thought, because what else could explain such a strange creature? Maybe, maybe, maybe it was Laika after all, eager to see what the circus had to offer before she took to the stars.

“What’s today?” Rum asked as we set foot on the railroad ties where the rain beaded.

“Saturday,” Trudy said. She rummaged through her bag to pull out her radio. “Saturday and the whole of a circus before us.”

Saturday, and Laika goes tomorrow. Tomorrow.

“I hope they have c-cotton candy.” This from Norma, Norma who had never voiced a hope before, only the cold facts she’d been raised with.

She had never tasted cotton candy, I was certain, and made equally certain to be sure that if she wanted, Norma could eat her weight in spun sugar before we left the circus grounds.

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  1. Idle

The bridge was old, built so long before any of us had been born it seemed to me a relic that should have been at the bottom of a sea somewhere, gathering moss and turning into a coral reef. It was sturdy as anything, but that didn’t keep the wood from creaking under our feet as we made our way through. Latticed iron arced above us and provided just enough of a roof to make the Everly Brothers that crackled from Trudy’s radio echo all around us.

Trudy sang along, following behind the dog, who followed Norma and Rum. I brought up the rear, suddenly hating “Wake Up Little Susie,” because it made me think of Audrey waking up in a place she shouldn’t be waking up, of her dark profile in the Rambler and the way she never lit that cigarette. Joel wasn’t supposed to…he was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy.

Joel had been a part of our lives as long as I could remember, a grade or two ahead. He lived five minutes away from our house if you took the back way to get there, over fences and across lawns to bypass the dead ends and cul-du-sacs. Audrey took the back way a lot, sneaking out after we had been tucked in, swearing me to secrecy. I followed her twice. The first time, she’d met him in the park and spent an hour making out with him under a tree. The second time, they had taken off in the Ford Fairlane his father had bought him, sleek and black like oil running down the road. The car came back with windows fogged.

Sometimes we liked him, sometimes we didn’t; he was popular, got good grades, pleased his parents at every turn, and had a headful of golden hair like any Greek god might. What wasn’t to like, Audrey often asked. Usually, I couldn’t be fussed to remember when we were supposed to like him and when we were supposed to hate him, but I was sure I wouldn’t ever forget the first time he made Audrey cry, or the way she eventually stopped crying and just held that cigarette between her lips. Waiting for something that never came.

It was a regular part of life, waiting for things. Waiting for school to start, waiting for school to stop, waiting for the new Elvis song, waiting for the weekend and the cocktail parties our parents would often take us to, waiting for breasts to come in like they were something on order from the department store, waiting for cheekbones to pop out, or blood to flow so that we might actually Become Women, or…

He was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy.

We all knew what it could mean, if you waited for a thing and it didn’t show up. School always came, whether you were ready or not, but blood wasn’t quite so constant. We had been told what it could mean, if the blood didn’t come.

“…when they say ooo la la…”

Either thing held its own amount of terror, bleeding or not. Audrey held my hand the first time, told me how things were supposed to go. I thought of her profile in the Rambler and wished I had held her hand, because I was beginning to think a thing I didn’t want to think at all. The nights she snuck out to be with Joel, the nights she didn’t come home till early in the mornings. I couldn’t remember when they started going steady, Joel had just always been there. Until he wasn’t.

“Maybe they were circus people,” Rum said from the head of the line when that awful song finally finished. The dog barked as if it agreed with her. “Was just like a piece of wet paper, wasn’t it? Didn’t fall apart though. Maybe plastic.”

Plastic, that body in the water. I swallowed hard, thinking about bodies and blood and the way that body hadn’t seemed to have a drop left inside it.

“Maybe,” Trudy said. “Here.”

She had turned around, to walk backwards while she extended a pack of cigarettes toward Rum and Norma. Norma’s first inclination was to shake her off—the pack moved toward Rum, who took one, and then Norma, to everyone’s surprise, reached for one, too. Trudy’s mouth quirked up in a grin and she tossed one back to me. I caught it before it could hit the narrow shoulder we walked on.

We had to stop to light them and the dog walked in impatient circles around us as we did. The tobacco was dry and it crackled under the sudden warmth of the lighter flame. Norma took a hard pull on hers and doubled over coughing. Trudy slapped her on the back and then we were off again. I didn’t actually smoke my cigarette; the smoke made my nose wrinkle. Rum lipped the end of hers like it might bite her, and spit out tobacco flakes, while Trudy attempted to show Norma exactly how to smoke without choking. Mostly, it seemed an excuse to get close to Norma and watch her mouth around the cigarette butt.

Eventually, I flicked mine through the bridge lattice and into the river below. It vanished into the water without a sound.

“Does that happen, to bodies? Often?” Rum asked. She picked tobacco from her tongue and made a face that set Trudy to laughing.

“Wasn’t natural, what happened to that body,” Norma said and Rum’s eyes flicked to me, silently questioning.

I nodded in agreement, though maybe it was just a kind of nature we didn’t yet know. Who’s to say? Much like the Russians, there was plenty about nature we didn’t know.

Coming out of the bridge on the other side, the Pennsylvania side, it seemed like everything should have been different, but it wasn’t much. Another tangle of woods, though this time we moved away from the river and train tracks, setting up camp a short way in so that we could have lunch. There was bread and Kraft Singles and a fire set up to combine into toasted, melted perfection.

The problem with walking so long in the woods was having to eventually pee in the woods. Being that we were all girls, it wasn’t so strange to wander off a ways, so as camp was set up, I wandered. Our canine companion had also wandered off and so did Rum. I watched her vanish safely behind a bush, then turned to find my own.

My own was already occupied, by a tall, hairy man.

But for the filthy hair, he seemed naked, naked and peeing in a bush, and I opened my mouth to say something stupid like “excuse me,” but nothing came out, nothing at all. Despite that, he heard me, maybe my feet in the leaves or the way I sucked in a breath and made to choke like I was still holding a cigarette. He looked over his shoulder—his eyes were brown and kind and startled—and his cheeks flooded with color and before either of us could say a word, he was just gone. He ran and I let him go, standing there, still needing to pee very much.

I managed, shaking all the while. The idea that he would come back, jump on me, and drag me into the bushes was foremost in my mind. I held a roll of paper in one hand and my flashlight in the other, dragged warm out of my bra where my heart still pounded like it was going to war. I would brain him. I would take him down before he could take me. Why was a man peeing in these woods, for the love of—

“Lucy!”

I couldn’t say how long I had been gone, but they were hollering for me. When I got back to camp, Rum poured water over my hands so I could wash, and I sat near the fire to rub them dry. Trudy offered me a cheese sandwich, but hesitated before actually giving it to me.

“Look like you saw a ghost,” she said and I shook my head, but knew I had to tell them.

The dog padded up to Rum’s side as I told them about the man peeing in the woods. From that moment on, some of the joy went out of the lunch, because we were all on our guard, watching the trees around us. Was he alone? Was he hunting with friends? Were they out roaming the woods looking for girls to abduct? The dog, seeming to pick up on our moods, whined and paced a circle around us and the fire.

“Probably shouldn’t stay here too long,” Norma said. She shoved the rest of her sandwich indelicately into her mouth, chewing more than she comfortably could. Although I wanted to laugh, I didn’t, because her point was sound. Much like the dog in the woods the day before, we had no idea what or who else was out here.

As we packed camp to go, our mood stayed low, quiet. Our eyes were never off the woods for long, and I felt suddenly foolish for taking part in this journey. I wondered if this was what growing up meant. Never knowing what was around the next corner but fearing it would be something I’d be incapable of dealing with or explaining to anyone other than my closest friends. No one would believe that body, or that man, or even this dog who still padded alongside us as we packed, smothered the fire, and left.

Worry ensured that we made good time through these woods; soon enough, the dirt paths turned to paved roads and signs of civilization began to assure us that we were getting closer to our destination. When at last we could see the city rising against the gray sky in the distance, I think we all blew out a breath of relief.

“It’s like that on all the outer planets of the system,” I said as we walked, our steps still quicker than normal and still that stupid dog at Rum’s side like it was trying to apologize for nearly taking her arm off. She looked better, but not so much better that I had stopped worrying.

“Not so many people, right,” I continued, “so when you turn a corner and find another person, there’s that moment of shock, that instant when you don’t recognize them as a person at all but something hostile in your space, something that means to stop you from where you were actually going. Doesn’t matter that they might be just as shocked to see you—they probably are, might welcome a hello or a drink after the places they’ve been, but mostly, it’s that heart-hammering fear that they’re going to turn on you, or come back after they’ve run away, and do you some harm.”

Everyone stayed quiet as I told the story—maybe it calmed them as much as it did me. Not the content of the story itself, just the sound of a voice that has something to share and knows where it’s going. Fiction was like that. Point A always led to point B. Real life wasn’t so much like that.

“Jupiter’s the best,” I said, “because it’s the biggest and because of the clouds. Picture all that low-hanging fog, no other soul in sight for months. You’d just be a speck up there, like a grain of sugar tossed into coffee. So tiny. If you didn’t melt, you’d surely be all squashed and rounded on the edges, rolling through fog, all alone till— Hello, what’s this, another person? Edges all rounded off just like yours, but still strange because you’d weigh twice as much up there, maybe more. You both probably look like squash in the end and it’s not like you’d be able to run, weighing that much, so maybe you’d roll away in your surprise, and then— Well, Red Spot, right?” I smiled now, carried away with the idea. “Probably a hole, straight to the middle of the world—”

“And what’s inside?” Rum asked.

“Oh, more clouds. Always clouds.”

“Like cotton candy,” she said. “Falling forever.”

Neighborhoods made themselves known as we walked; clusters of houses and stone tenements that rose along the paved streets. Rain glossed the streets and made everything look like one long piece of licorice, stretched beyond all its means. The deeper into this neighborhood we wandered, the first thing that hit us was the smell—it was popped corn and burnt sugar, roasted nuts and rain-wet animals.

But among the cars that lined the road through these gloomful tenements where only the occasional light glowed from a window, sat a car I knew, a car we all knew, the faded tomato-red Rambler, and though we walked past, my eyes fixed firmly to it. It was empty, windows rolled shut against the rain, but there was Audrey’s discarded cigarette on the dashboard, and the dent in the driver’s side door where I opened the door into a tree the first time Audrey let me drive, and the rounded corner of the small green sticker we’d never been able to get off the windshield glass.

In the building behind the Rambler, a small light burned in one window, but the door was shut and it was no place I knew. A sign beside the doorbell directed people to the back entrance.

The other girls didn’t pause—I don’t think they looked at the car, because they were so intent on following their noses to the tents and booths that sprawled through a space that had once been an empty field. It was muddy now, meager grass stomped into the mud that had come with the rains. Undaunted, countless people frolicked within the temporary fence that ringed it all. The entrance gate was staffed by two figures, each so extraordinary they drove Audrey from my mind.

The first was a woman who towered as tall as the entry gate itself. She was the largest person I had ever seen, and felt as though she possessed her own gravity; we were drawn in by her, to her massive figure which was given shape by a corset of burnished copper. Black layered skirts and a blouse frothed from either end and did little to disguise the ribbons of indigo ink that marked the giantess’s skin. She plucked money from those who entered and the dollars seemed small in her hands, hands that could have easily gathered all four of us into one palm.

The creature by her side was something I had no words for. It was one being, two bodies that merged into one at the waist. They wore dark trousers to make this clear—there was but one set of legs—one torso clad in red, the other in white. Wings flared up behind both bodies, the straight fall of ginger-red hair interrupted by braids of black ribbons throughout. I could not say until I passed them by whether the wings they wore were real or part of their costuming, but after obtaining tickets, and stepping through the entry gate, the warmth of those feathers brushed my cheek, and I knew. If ever I lived on Jupiter, I would remember that brief touch.

Inside the circus grounds, we all started to change. Looking back, I suppose it wasn’t a thing that happened gradually; it was swift. Probably we had started to change the minute Audrey kicked us out of the Rambler and made us walk, but only inside the circus did it become more evident.

Trudy seemed to glow and Norma stood straighter than she ever had before, like her shoulders were no longer bowed by some awful weight. Rum kept her hand in mine at first, but I could tell she was more confident too, her nose working overtime to take in everything she had never smelled before. She was also due a good gorging on cotton candy, I thought, but the more she ate through the day, she changed all over again.

With everything she consumed—pickles, cotton candy, and bag after bag of popcorn—Rum seemed to get a little slower, a little more muddy around the edges. She tugged her hand out of mine to better hold her cup of soda, but I could see the way her fingers crumpled the paper cup, like she still couldn’t quite get a grip on it.

When Norma and Trudy stepped up to the Ferris wheel to ride, Rum shook her head, said she couldn’t do it. I stayed with her on a bench, watching the other girls wheel up into the cloudy sky.

“Let me see your arm,” I said, even though the words stuck in my throat like dry toast.

Rum refused and when I reached for her, curling a hand into her coat sleeve, she flinched, then flung her soda at me. The top popped off and I was doused in dark, sweet, cola. I’m not sure who was more surprised, Rum or me, but Rum bolted from the bench without her bag, fleeing into the circus with a cry.

“Rum!”

She vanished into the crowds, probably expert at doing so given she’d run away from so much in her life. Didn’t have to be Amish she had run from, but the girl knew how to cover ground. Lest I lose them too, I waited for Trudy and Norma to come down and told them Rum had gone. Showed them her abandoned bag as if that was proof, when her just being gone was proof enough.

We each had watches, so made sure they were synchronized before parting ways. We could cover more ground this way and meet back up at the Ferris wheel when the hour struck. If we hadn’t found Rum by then, we could do it again, and again. The circus wasn’t without its limits, I told myself as I stalked through the muddy grounds. Of course, she might leave those limits, might wander deeper into Philadelphia, a city I knew as little about as I did the Amish. She might get hit by a bus. She might encounter that stupid dog again.

That stupid dog. I stopped in my tracks when I realized I had lost track of the dog. Had it come into the circus with us? I kept an eye out as I wandered, loitering by the steak on a stake booth for a long while, thinking the dog might try to get some meat. But there was no sign of it, and my hour to search was growing thin. I walked a slow circle around the outer layer of tents, the Ferris wheel in sight all the while, but there was no dog and no Rum.

I turned back to the Ferris wheel as rain began to fall more earnestly. I wished I’d brought an umbrella—of all the things to forget—and was wondering if they had any for sale as I stepped into the shelter of a tent. The tent smelled like damp straw and wet dog and I turned, thinking to find that Saint Bernard, but it was the hairy man who’d been peeing in the bushes. He was dressed this time, in jeans a shirt that was somehow too well-pressed, and walking toward me. My mouth gaped open and I made to move, but felt frozen.

“Don’t run,” he said. “Please don’t run.”

Once, I would have run. Now, I started telling myself a story in my head, because one didn’t just encounter the same hairy man twice, not without him following or stalking or—

“You bit Rum,” I said.

At that, he stopped walking. His face seemed a mixture of dismay and guilt and he scrubbed a hairy hand across his mouth, as if he could wipe the expression away. He was still the color of the woods, browns and golds, and his eyes—They were the eyes of that dog, chocolate and desperate to explain. I clutched Rum’s bag a little closer.

“Didn’t mean to,” he said and glanced at the crowds which passed us by. He took a step closer to me then, so close I could smell his wet…fur? Hair? He smelled like he’d been rolling in the woods. “Sometimes…I get so hungry, and Thurmond was dead and I was carrying all that grief, and there were animals—girls in the woods, and I just…” He covered his mouth again, eyes closing. I didn’t know if he was going to cry or be sick. “I’m sorry about the bush. Couldn’t keep my form anymore, needed to breathe, needed to p— But where is she? Is she getting sick? I need to help her.”

I didn’t know if I was going to cry or be sick, either. I just stared at him, trying to understand anything that was happening.

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  1. Night Like a River

I launched into him and he let me pummel him. I hit him as hard as I could, confusion over everything pouring through my balled fists. Rum’s sickness and Audrey being close for no reason that could be good, and this man who thought he was a dog, and Norma’s parents and Trudy’s longing for her. Everything came out and by the time I finished, I was sobbing, inconsolable as he pulled me into the empty tent and had me sit on top of a bale of straw. He shushed me and tried to wrap an arm around me before he thought better of it and simply patted my hands, never quite letting them go. The touch was both alien and comforting. He was so warm and the rain had chilled me.

“Take me to Rum. I need to see her.”

My head came up and I stared at him. I was still shaking, like my body didn’t know what to do with itself in the wake of the anger.

“Take me to—”

“You’re telling me that you’re a dog?” I spat the question at him. I threw his hands off of me, no matter their warmth and slid to the edge of the bale. I wanted to walk away, but there was no way my legs were carrying me. “How crazy do you think I have to be to believ—”

“Stalked you in the woods,” he said. “Rum was the smallest, even with that coat on. I wanted to tell you—when you found me in the bushes, but…” Color flooded his cheeks, no doubt hot. “Well. I couldn’t. I figured that here, here I could get here what she needed.”

“And what does she need? Other than a proper doctor to tend her—”

“Proper doctor won’t be any help.” He stood from the bale and a shudder ran through him, shaking every bit of hair that sprouted from his skin. “I don’t mean her harm. Any more harm. Blast it.”

He walked away from me, pacing in slow circles. He kept trying to convince me, but he didn’t have to. If he was that dog—and why couldn’t he be that dog? It explained a lot of things—then it made sense, him knowing what needed doing for Rum. And I was being an idiot to delay things, because she wasn’t well.

“I don’t know where she is,” I finally said when he paused in his pleading. He stared at me like I was the crazy one now. “She ran off when I asked to look at her arm—her arm which you bit and made her bleed and who does that, dog or not?” I came off the bale now, striding toward him. “How dare you stalk us in the woods?”

His chin came up and he bristled. I’ve seen cats get fluffy but never dogs. Dog-people. His lip curled, to reveal his teeth, but he didn’t move. Only nodded at me.

“It was a thing that happened,” I said eventually. “Can’t change that. Can only change where we go from here. Is Rum…” Oh, my writer’s mind was running now. “Is she going to change into a dog? Like you? Is her arm going to wither up and fall off? We need to find her, whatever you think is going to happen—and how to you mean to help her? You have medicine? A way to keep her from changing?”

To keep her from growing up. To keep all of us from growing up and being Audrey sitting in that dark car, the cigarette dangling from her lips. He was supposed to be there… Joel hadn’t been there for Audrey, but this guy was here and he was stepping up. Doing what needed doing, even if I didn’t know what it was. I looked at my watch.

“I’m late for rendezvous,” I said. “At the Ferris wheel. We split up to look for Rum.” My eyes narrowed and I lifted Rum’s bag toward the man who claimed he was a dog. He didn’t question me, only bent his head and took a long smell of it. His eyes never left mine; it felt like a challenge—prove it, I will so prove it.

With Rum’s scent in his nose, he grabbed my arm and launched us back into the circus.

The circus felt twice as big as it should have been, containing three times as many people as it did when we arrived. But me and the…dog?…cut a path through the crowds like they weren’t quite there. I noticed we had support from up above too; there were two forms flying above us, one smaller than the other, both black against the darkening sky. How hard could it be to find a sick little girl, I wondered. But then Rum was experienced at both running and hiding and I felt like my heart would break if we never found her again.

She would be missed at the children’s home—she probably already had been missed, not getting permission to run away for a weekend ever, and that idea was like a knife in my gut. I clung to the dog-man’s hand, terrified we wouldn’t find her, but outside a tent that claimed to contain the country’s only living mermaid, he stopped and took a deep breath.

I didn’t have to breathe to know Rum was here. The small body that vanished into the tent was familiar by sight alone; the scrap of butter-yellow nightgown that peeked from the cuff of her coat was like a signal flare. I tugged the dog-man after me, after Rum.

She was so intent on her destination, she didn’t hear us. We followed her into the tent, past the fabric wall that divided it into two spaces. Within the second space was a gloomy tank of water, illuminated by a bed of strange stones in its bottom. Rum reached for the water tank like she didn’t know what it was, and maybe she didn’t. Her hand trembled as she pressed it to the glass.

A face swam out of the gloomy water, vicious and astounding in the same instant. If it was a mermaid, I couldn’t say; it was a woman, though, of flesh and scale and flowing green hair. Her webbed and clawed hand reached for Rum’s, pressing against the other side of the glass. They looked like strange reflections of each other, Rum growing wavery like she was also underwater. Her knees buckled and the dog-man released my hand to catch her before she could hit the ground.

He carried Rum to the circus train, where it gleamed under the rain on the tracks that ran behind the field. He kicked the door to the caboose open and through the unexpected scents of oranges and yeast, I followed him, watching as he lay Rum on a padded bench. The space seemed like storage and a kitchen both, full of cupboards that bulged with strange things. I thought I saw a jar full of fractured rainbows and another packed with tiny, tiny red-brown hearts, and a thousand-thousand jars besides, but mostly my focus was on Rum and the way her breath rattled in her mouth.

“Have to get Beth,” he whispered to me. “Stay here.”

There wasn’t anywhere else I would have gone. I sat beside Rum and took up her hand in mine. She was clammy and hot, and I pulled her coat off so I could unwrap the damp nightgown around her arm. I expected it to be soaked with blood, but it was mostly sweat I found. The bite on her arm hadn’t healed though; it was raw and red and angry as anything. It hadn’t started to sprout hair or anything. I threaded my fingers through hers and bowed my head. I didn’t pray, only hoped for the dog-man to get back here.

When he returned, he had a woman with him. She was an instant part of this place, and it was as if the place knew her, breathed easier with her inside of it. I could not explain the sigh of breath I heard, only knew it did not come from any of we four.

Beth kneeled beside the bench and reached for Rum. My hand came up to block hers and she looked at me curiously as our fingers brushed. Her eyes held something I couldn’t understand, but her expression relaxed and she nodded a little.

“Just want to hold her hand,” Beth said and drew her fingers back from mine.

I drew back, too, watching her take up Rum’s hand. Here, she shook her head.

“Not her time,” she murmured. She withdrew and turned to rummage through her cupboards. “Probably going to be changed, but… Here, take this.”

Beth pushed a jar into my hands. It was filled with a coiled braid of hair, black as the stormy night that descended above us. Beth told me to wrap Rum’s arm in the braid, but sliding it out of the jar was unlike anything I’ve done before. It was alive, slimy under my touch, pliant like my fingers pressed into a fish belly and not a length of dry hair. I retched while touching it, the scent of death and dirt beginning to fill the caboose.

The dog-man caught the jar before it could fall to the floor. My hands were filled with the strange braid and I found myself biting my bottom lip, struggling to wrap the thing around Rum’s injured arm.

“And this. Pour it over.”

Before I had even finished, Beth was giving me another jar, forcing me to wrangle the braid into some kind of order—was it my imagination or did it struggle as I tried to fold it around Rum’s arm? I grit my teeth together, tucked the end of the braid into itself so it would stay, and took the second jar.

It was marked “angel tears,” but it seemed more like sewer water. It was cloudy gray and filled with bits of eggshell, branches, seeds. I uncapped it and the smell of honey poured out. There should have been a wetness when I poured; the liquid should have run straight through the braid, but instead it clouded up like fog, streaming light so bright I had to look away. Beth hooked a finger into the lip of the jar and reclaimed it before I could empty it.

“And this, Dean.”

The third jar was offered to the dog-man. He looked at it with revulsion, but uncapped it and drank the gray liquid down. It wasn’t liquid against his mouth, either; as I watched, it turned to ash, threatening to choke him. Dean retched, bowing his head close to Rum’s hand. The thick paste that poured out of him smothered the bright cloud, sank into the braid, and bound the entire thing to Rum like a cast.

“Now, we wait.”

            Joel wasn’t supposed to…

            He was supposed to be there.

            Supposed to take me, Lucy.

My limit on waiting ended. I couldn’t, Audrey pressed against my heart like it might explode. I ran from the caboose, the back steps slick with rain. I slid down them more than walking, pushing past Trudy and Norma who were running toward the caboose (and did their lips look swollen from kissing and kissing and kissing or was it a trick of the stringed lights that had flickered on all over the circus?), and running toward the entrance gate. There were as many people as ever, but they parted like water for me and it was only when I’d hit the paved street again that I realized Dean-as-dog was with me.

He didn’t stop me, so I didn’t care that he came. I ran until it felt like my lungs would burst, until I reached that street where Audrey’s Rambler sat. I feared that it both would and wouldn’t be there. If it was gone, she was done doing the thing she had wanted to do with Joel…if it was there and she wasn’t yet done…

But it was there and she was hunched over the steering wheel, sobbing the way I had sobbed inside the empty tent with Dean. I pulled the door open, not caring that I startled her, and reached for her. She slumped into my arms and clung to me the way I never thought she would, and there was blood—so much blood. Her pants were dark, but stained darker down her thighs.

At the sight of all that blood, I froze and for a long while, time seemed to spool without end. We would forever hang between all that had come before and all that should have followed behind. If I couldn’t move, we were stuck. But the sun and the moon were never still; they were often eclipsed, but always emerged from those shadows. And how big those shadows! Surely this one was not so terrible.

But it was Audrey. It was my sister. It was a shadow that had weight and pressed me down until all I could feel was the warm shaking of her against me, until all I could see was the blood soaking her pants. Blood that should not be. This was illegal, we had been told time and again. This was why you didn’t let boys touch you. This was why there were no kisses or dancing unsupervised. This was why you dressed like a proper girl, so that boys weren’t tempted. This is why you didn’t get into a car with a boy. Every single lecture was hollow in this moment. When Audrey looked up at me, her face creased in pain, I knew nothing was so simple as we had been told.

Big and small in the same moment, deflated, drained of everything.

“Lu, I c-can’t. J-Joel isn’t…”

“He isn’t here,” I whispered, “but I am.”

I pulled her from the car as gently as I could. Audrey had a coat draped over the backseat and I stuffed her into it. I belted it closed and kept her in my shaking arms as we shuffled up the street.

The circus wasn’t far, but it felt like forever. I didn’t know if Beth could help Audrey the way she had helped Rum, but knew I had to try. Dean, even as a dog, didn’t argue with me as we headed back that way. He loped ahead of us at the entry gate and the giantess and angels let us pass inside like they knew us. Audrey was cold and shaking by the time we reached the caboose and she grabbed my arms, shaking her head.

I guided Audrey up the caboose steps and into the warm strangeness of that room where Beth bundled her up, said it wasn’t her time, either, but that she had nothing more to give me but marmalade. And when Beth pressed that cool jar into my hands, radiating a strange orange light, I just stared. Beth walked away and closed the door behind her and I looked at Trudy and Norma and sleeping Rum, and had no clue what to do.

It was like this in stories, I told myself. A person is given a thing and just doesn’t know what to do with it. They either took the thing firm in hand and did what felt right, or they denied it. But what felt right? How did a person ever know?

I turned from my sister and friends and started rooting around in cupboards and drawers. I needed spoons, but failing that, anything to scoop, and in the end there were no spoons, only rainbows that flopped over when we held them and long sticks of spicy cinnamon that we all shied from. In the end, I poured a handful of the orange marmalade into my palm and no matter how strange it seemed, fed it to my sister. She swallowed it down with a grimace and I turned to Rum and did the same. I filled Trudy’s palm and Norma’s palm and then my own again and like we were drinking shots of booze at a party we had snuck into, we downed the marmalade.

With my eyes closed, it didn’t taste like oranges. It tasted like grit, like a far-away red planet that I would never quite walk on, but would still know my way around. It tasted like Jupiter and a moon that vomited water into space, of clouds and the memory of Audrey holding my hand; like the first time I dived into a pool and got water up my nose, and Audrey hauling me out. These strange things calmed me, told me that one way or another, everything and everyone was going to end up where it needed to be.

“Tastes like beer,” Norma murmured and I cracked an eye open to look at her, wondering exactly how she knew what beer tasted like.

“Tastes like Norma,” Trudy said and got Norma’s elbow in her ribs for the effort.

There came a sound then, a low groan that was almost a growl, and I thought Dean had come back, but this sound emanated from Rum, who had started to twist and turn on the bench, as if caught in some terrible nightmare. We three reached for her and in my panic, the marmalade jar fell to the floor, shattering. Glass and sweet oranges made our footing slippery as we sought to anchor Rum; the harder she bucked, the more we slipped.

“She’s g-going.” Rum sputtered the words and I didn’t know what she meant, not until her hand closed into my sleeve and she pulled me down. “She’s g-going to d-die.”

Audrey, Audrey, Audrey, my heart beat.

“L-Laika,” Rum whispered. Her eyes rolled back into her head—I could see only the whites of them as she struggled to form more words. Spittle flowed from her mouth, as if she were sick or possessed or both. “Going now. Rockets. F-fire. Clouds of fire. There she…there she…g-goes.” Rum’s body arched up, as if an unseen hand had grabbed her by the waist. We clung to her so that she would not be taken, lost, but when at last she screamed and reached for something we could not see, we fell back and could only watch.

The Rum we knew fell away, but it wasn’t the way I always pictured it being in story books. She didn’t shimmer beautifully from one being into another, but rather one was ripped away to replace what she had been. Even the cast that Beth had applied to her arm broke off and tumbled away. The girl who loved running and found amazement in the things we found common was gone. In a splatter of blood and skin, she was gone, swallowed up by the creature that clawed its way out of her—looking not so fierce when all was said and done, for it resembled nothing so much as a tiny poodle, confused as how it had come to be inside a caboose that smelled like spilled orange marmalade and blood.

No one said anything. We all sat there, looking at each other but mostly looking at Rum who wasn’t Rum, but a dog the way Dean could also be a dog. And then, an eruption of conversation, me trying to tell them how he’d bit her, them angry because I hadn’t told them, and how did a person turn into a dog anyhow, and how could she have known Laika was going up right then and well, Trudy managed to reason as the argument lulled, Russia was in a different time zone and maybe it was already Sunday there, and Norma screamed that it didn’t matter, dogs didn’t go into space and girls did not turn into dogs and when they finished, Norma was crying in Trudy’s arms, Trudy’s eyes locked to me.

“Tell us a story, Lu,” she whispered.

As if a story could banish what we’d seen.

Rum pressed herself down into the bench and licked the marmalade from my hand . I exhaled a low breath and reached for Audrey with my other hand. “Things never go the way stories say,” I whispered, “but I’ll tell you a story.”

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  1. In a Barrel at Sea

The story I told Trudy and Norma was a story about four girls (sometimes five), who weren’t girls at all. The whole night through, they hovered between Here and There, the caboose seeming removed from both life and death, suspended the way orange peel was in marmalade. Because of that, inside the caboose things weren’t entirely real. Things could be said there that couldn’t be said anywhere else.

Had someone turned into a dog? That was okay, because bodies did strange things we couldn’t always explain. Messy things, things that made us want to vomit. Had a girl kissed another girl? It was okay too, because kissing happened. Love happened. Had someone (Audrey, Audrey, Audrey, said my heart) been a mother for a brief month before she realized she couldn’t do it on her own? That was okay, too. There was strength in saying you couldn’t do a thing.

No one ever had to know how strong you actually were—if they did, they would surely be scared. Inside the walls, you could be as strong as you were and no one would flinch because they’d be too busy exploring their own strength, their own light. Those girls could go into the deepest woods—see there how the wall of the caboose shimmered to show an expanse of trees?—and they’d never be lost because they didn’t need flashlights or breadcrumbs, they trusted their own two feet and hands and their hearts, no matter how clumsy each was.

They could go to Jupiter and never be lost, because Jupiter, just like Earth, was round, and no matter how far you walked across mountains and over rivers (What kind of rivers on Jupiter? they want to know. All the rivers: methane, lemonade, and one of your heart’s true blood) you were just walking in a big circle and eventually, you’d come back around to where you started. You might not know the place, but there would be something: a scent in the air, the way the leaves rippled in the sun, the way the water soaked through the toe of your shoe. You would know something. Just circles, after all.

Here, in these four walls packed with a thousand-thousand jars, they could float. A hand could rest in a hand, sure that this connection would remain even when those hands came apart. A mouth could taste another mouth and wonder at the perfection of it. A little girl could go from dog to girl and back again and again, and know that everyone would be waiting each time she came back. How did a person walk with four legs? It was twice as easy and you could cover twice as much ground, but you’d probably be twice as tired when you at last came to rest.

What if—

No.

And the sometimes fifth girl who was also my sister wanted to know: But what happens when—

No.

Questions were for outside. Inside was for being and floating. See that river and the way it breaks through the mountain? Those four girls who were not girls drank all night. Hydrogen, oxygen, electromagnetic waves. Was that thunder? No. No.

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  1. Funnel Cloud

Rum was sitting outside the caboose come morning, poking a small fire with a stick. She wore her yellow nightgown, being that her clothes had been lost to last night’s transformations. The rain had stopped, but the clouds were low and thick. Still, the circus played on. There were shrieks of joy or fright—as it should be, it was hard to tell them apart. Trudy and Norma were out there somewhere, while Audrey slept on. And Rum didn’t look tired or sick. Her arm was unwrapped and looked healed, which I could not explain and did not try.

“It tasted like home, Lu,” Rum said before I could even ask her. She withdrew her stick from the fire, got a marshmallow, and stuck the sweet back into the low flames. “It tasted like figuring out where I was supposed to be.”

I still had the taste of marmalade against my tongue; still not the tang of orange, but the taste of a dry and distant world. Like figuring out where I was supposed to be. That’s what it was.

When the marshmallow was perfect, Rum gave me the stick. She put another together for herself and then said, “I felt Laika go or maybe I didn’t, but there was something. The press of all that gravity in that small space. They just shot her up and…” Rum’s eyes rolled to the cloudy sky. “She’s up there, either dead or alive and we’re…alive and I think I’m home and I’m staying, Lu. I’m staying here. Dean says I can. Please say I can.”

It mattered to her, that I tell her she could, but she already knew. She had granted herself the power last night, maybe even before that—the first time she had run away, from whatever she was running from. She was ready to stop.

“You can stay,” I said, and her shoulders eased under the weight she thought she still carried.

“Probably just saying that because…I mean…what does a person do with a girl who’s also a dog? Do you think that means Norma doesn’t believe in me anymore?” She grinned and jabbed her marshmallow into the flames. “Dean doesn’t even know, says he’s still trying to figure things out, but then I suppose we all are? How’s Audrey? How’s your sister?”

She never asked what happened and I never said and even when Audrey joined us at the fire, dressed in clean clothes she said were from Beth, she never told us where she had been. My brain filled in all the details just like Rum’s had for Laika: a small space with too much gravity.

Trudy and Norma came back to us with Dean in tow. Rum loaded each up with marshmallows, but Norma kept to her cotton candy, pulling tufts from the yellow, blue, and pink beehives she carried like a bouquet. Her eyes rested briefly on Rum, then flicked away and while I hoped Rum hadn’t seen, the brief downturn of her mouth said she had.

“Suppose you’re going to want a ride home,” Audrey said to me as she tossed her marshmallow stick into the fire.

I looked at the faces around the fire: Rum and Trudy and Norma, and though this was only Sunday, they were not the faces that had looked back at me on Friday. These were not the girls who would rather climb into the back of the Rambler and ride home safely. I thought of the body spread in the water, of the strange birds above us, the dog in the dark. Did Trudy and Norma know that Rum was staying? That she had found her home?

I reached for Audrey’s hand. “Not due ’till dinner,” I said. “We’ll be late, but we can get there, unless you want company.”

Audrey’s fingers closed warm around mine and I felt the way she was shaking. Way down inside where no one would ever know. “I think I can get there,” she said, soft as the clouds of cotton candy Norma inhaled.

Before, I wouldn’t have cared, my sister leaving us to head off on her own, but when she did now, it was a strange thing. Was it strange for the moon to always rise opposite the sun, to skirt through its shadow and then away again? It was only natural, what the sky did day in and out.

Leaving Rum was something entirely different. It was us leaving her in this strange place with its giants and dwarfs and dog-men and angels. I didn’t want to go, not until she held my hands and told me that sometimes, you just have to launch yourself into space. Sometimes you come back down and sometimes you don’t, and either is okay. Gravity was a thing, sometimes with us and sometimes not and fighting it was stupid, and it was that thought I held to as we left the circus and Rum and Dean and Beth and were swallowed up once more by the Philadelphia streets.

It was a quiet journey with quiet company. Outside the circus, Norma drew back into herself and Trudy kept her distance, too, and we crossed all the things we had already crossed: the woods, the bridge and its river now empty of its dead body, and the woods once more, and then slowly to home. Norma and Trudy split in different directions, Norma with Trudy’s transistor radio in hand, Trudy’s pompadour bouncing into the dusk as if untouched by all gravity.

And me, coming home to our white house that stood so tall and seemed so alien in the darkening night, I found Joel and Audrey on the porch and slowed my steps so as not to interrupt, but it was Audrey who drew her hands from Joel’s clumsy grasp and shook her head, interrupting whatever apologies he had been making.

I was walking up the drive as he was walking down and he blanched to see me. I offered him a smile that was just too cocky and angry, the memory of bleeding Audrey in my arms far too fresh. He should have been there, but should haves didn’t do anyone a lick of good.

“Sometimes you just have to launch yourself into space, Joel.”

I brushed past him, stepping into the house where my parents were hollering because I was late and what, had I run away with the circus? Been eaten by a wolf? Audrey needed to explain why she came home without me and surely only a wolf would have complicated the simple journey to the circus.

But that wasn’t the story I was interested in hearing. The story I found myself gravitating toward as I joined the shouted conversation and assured them I wasn’t, in fact, Little Lucy Hood, was a story that involved a girl who traveled to Mars and Jupiter and beyond without ever leaving Earth. The story of a girl who learned how to shine without anyone ever looking at her, shining simply because she did what she loved. She turned ordinary things into extraordinary things, and sent ships named Viking and Pioneer plunging into the solar system.

This girl studied the mountains of Mars and deconstructed the clouds of Jupiter, and fell in love with a tiny, tiny rock that she called Hannah Fisher and no one ever knew why and that was all right, because she knew. Sometimes gravity was with us and sometimes it wasn’t, but either way—I had to launch myself into space.

___
Copyright  2015 E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine Tobler has never been lost in strange woods, because she learned how to navigate via the sun and stars while in Girl Scouts. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award ballot. You can find her online at www.ecatherine.com and @ecthetwit.

by Robert B Finegold, M.D.

“My soul yearneth, yea, even pineth for the courts of the LORD…”

The rap of metal upon metal rang within the small cabin, startling me. Knocking before entering was a courtesy the Jews on the transport neither expected nor received.

“Rabbi Makal? The Captain requests your presence.”

At sight of the officer, I nearly dropped my chumash, and the words of the Psalm were immediately forgotten.

“‘Requests’, Danel?” I asked.

The automaton’s face conveyed no emotion, but the human-like hesitation was unmistakable. Its voice softened. “‘Commands’ would be more accurate.” It paused, and then added, “It is good to see you, sir.”

When had I last seen him? Lyons in ’42? Paris in ’44? Yes, Paris; but then I’d been but one face among the many gathered at the grand exhibition of war machines. So many years ago…but–should I kvell? Look at him now: the pressed white suit with the ringed planet and dual stripes of an enseigne de la marine interstellaire de France on his epaulets, brass buttons as polished and gleaming as the unmarred silver skin of his face and hands. “It seems you’ve come far, Ensign,” I said, closing the chumash and placing the book in my jacket pocket.

“Creator, I’m…”

I raised a finger. “There is but one Creator, Danel, and He is in Heaven.”

The gold-leaved irises within the glass cylinders of his eyes cycled closed and then opened. “My apologies, Abba.”

I shook my head and took off my prayer shawl. Was he utilizing his programming to choose words to make me receptive to his orders? Not that I would have dared to refuse the Captain. Folding my tallis, I placed it in its blue velvet bag, and then rested my hands on the metal shelf that served as my desk. It was cool to touch and vibrated with the thrum of the great ship’s engines. “I may have built you, Danel, but I am not your father. You are a machine, not a man…” I waved a hand at his uniform. “…regardless of how they dress you.”

He chose not to reply. I buttoned my tweed jacket and gave my yarmulke a perfunctory check. It perpetually threatened to slip from atop my balding head, which wouldn’t do. The yellow badges of the Reich may have become history, but God forgive the Jew who failed to wear his or her identifying headpiece, for the New Europeans would certainly not. “Let us not keep the Captain waiting.”

“That would be wise, sir.”

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Captain Emile Pétain stood as stiff as his handlebar mustache. His tall and square-jawed First Mate and Commanding Officer, Mr. Henri L’Hereux, belied his surname and gazed sullenly at the ship’s médicin conseil. The latter sat on the edge of a cot, the bell of his stethoscope pressed to the chest of its occupant.

I’d seen the captain and first mate upon boarding, of course, scowling down at us from a catwalk above the great hold where we’d lined up holding our two permitted carry-ons. The bosun had identified them as our temporary gods for the duration of the voyage to HD 10307 before reading the edict of expulsion and the rules of conduct for which no transgression would be permitted upon the frigate Joan d’Arc.

“Doctor Makal, thank you for coming,” said the seated man. His voice was high-pitched, and squeaked like an adolescent undergoing the change. He stood, a small gesture of respect, but he did not extend his hand. He was short, round-faced, with pince-nez spectacles perched on an upturned nose. His uniform was unbuttoned at the neck and splayed open to accommodate his extra chins.

I inclined my head to the Captain and First Mate and then to the ship’s physician. “How may I be of service…” I looked at his I.D. plate. “…Doctor Eugène?”

Mr. L’Heureux interrupted, his words clipped as one used to barking orders. “The doctor is stymied. He suggested you might be of use.” His tone indicated skepticism.

“Of course,” I said. “Whatever I can do.”

I stepped toward the cot but halted when Doctor Eugène moved aside and I saw the patient.

“Lieutenant Haran was found upon D deck,” the doctor said, “away from the, ah, passenger quarters.” His eyes flickered beneath his lenses like fish behind aquarium glass, first toward the Captain and his CO and then to me. The two officers’ scrutiny was a tangible pressure on the back of my head. I had the urge to check that my yarmulke was secure but stilled it. “He was in the state pretty much as you see him now,” said Dr. Eugène.

And I saw him very well. Lieutenant Haran was a wiry middle-aged man with ringlets of thick ebon hair streaked gray at the temples. He was thin but not scrawny. His navy issue white tee molded to his chest; his bare arms bulged with muscle under the tawny skin but lay flaccid at his sides, one trailing an intravenous line. It was neither the golden brown color of his skin or his lax open mouth that arrested my movement, nor the dark walnut eyes staring sightlessly through the cabin roof, outer decks, and ship’s hull to the endless dark of space beyond, but the tattooed necklace of linked black scimitars encircling his neck–one for each Jew he’d murdered in the sack of Palestine.

Or its reclamation. It depended on your point of view. How they could call it that when Haifa, the jewel of the Mediterranean, with its bright new schools and hospitals, its cultivated farms and young forests, blazed and turned to cinders, I couldn’t fathom. The thick pillar of smoke rising from the city could be seen from the deck of the Cyprian rescue ship for days, and the taste of ash had never left my tongue.

My mouth went dry and my vision blurred. I fought against the flashback, but failed.

Ruthie smiled through the open window, and the warm honey smell of fresh baked challah wafted into the yard where I sat on the grass with Hannah. Our child, our sheyna medele, stood petulantly in front of me, hands on her tiny hips and her lips pursed in disapproval. The perfect cat’s cradle she’d passed me dangled like twisted tzitzit from my fingers. “No, Abba!”

Nails scoring my palms, and the image faded. I unclenched my hands. Doctor Eugène wore a worried expression, his herring eyes darting again between me and the two command officers. Small beads of sweat glistened like oil on his brow.

I took a penlight from my pocket and sat on the edge of the cot. Lieutenant Haran had no pupillary response. He displayed no bruises or any sign of recent physical injury. I leaned forward and sniffed. No fruity breath to suggest ketoacidosis. No asymmetrical laxity in his facial muscles or body tone to suggest stroke. His limbs gave no resistance when I moved them. In fact, they’d maintain any position in which they were placed, like a manikin or an inactive automaton. From the corner of my eye I noted Danel standing in the shadow of his superiors, respectful, vigilant, observant.

I looked under the lieutenant’s eyelids, pressed upon his abdomen, and questioned Dr. Eugène about his medical history and lab results. His replies provided nothing of significance.

“How long has he been like this?” I extended my hand and Dr. Eugène suspended his stethoscope upon my palm.

“Three days,” said Dr. Eugène.

“Truly? No response to stimuli at all? Not the slightest resistance to movement?”

The doctor shook his head.

“As limp as a jellyfish,” the First Mate said and then demanded. “What’s wrong with him?”

I listened to the Lieutenant’s chest and then sat back. “I’d say he’s in a catatonic stupor, or possibly suffered a severe stroke.” I shook my head, dissatisfied. “The signs are mixed.” I checked the Lieutenant’s pulse. It was thready, but he displayed no other signs of going into shock. I took the pillow from beneath his head and elevated his feet, and then I checked the i.v. bottle suspended above the head of the cot, opening it further. “His pulse is weak.”

“…and growing weaker,” Dr. Eugène said.

“Have you administered vasopressors?”

Dr. Eugène’s lips pressed together and he didn’t answer.

“He needs norepinephrine,” I said.

“No Jew drugs,” the First Mate said. “It must be as God wills.”

Goyim.   “His God or yours?” I said, the words slipping out before I could stop them. Mr. L’Hereux’s eyes widened. I thought he would strike me, but he mastered himself.

“Captain Pétain?” I asked. The older man’s face was as unemotional and unreadable as Danel’s, but then he glanced upon the stricken Lieutenant and his imperiousness crumbled like halvah. He lowered his eyes and shook his head.

I sighed and stood. “As God wills then.”

Danel returned me to my quarters. Lieutenant Haran died the next day.

Dr. Eugène requested that I be present for the autopsy. The infirmary was more a laboratory than a hospital. New European medical science had made grudging, and begrudged, advances in medical analysis and clinical diagnosis despite the restrictions on interventional treatments. The Holy Emperor was as keen on the prevention of illness as he was on submission to God’s Will once a person was afflicted.

We found no sign of malady in the Lieutenant. No pathogen, occult injury, or predisposing congenital defect, merely a nonspecific mild elevation in his white blood cell count, and a slight inflammatory response in his nose and lungs. A mild cold or allergy perhaps, though his antibody counts were normal. His body was in great physical condition, not even a hangnail or pimple, which made the cause of his death the more perplexing.

Danel remained quiet while we worked. It was not until hours later, when tired and annoyingly befuddled, I again stood outside my cabin door, that he finally spoke.

“Sir?” he said, stopping me before I entered my small berth.

Down the passageway past an open bulkhead, a number of young Jews gathered near the curtained entrance to the converted cargo hold. Leaning against the walls like school chums, they kibbutzed and laughed. That would change once word spread of the lieutenant’s death.

“Yes, Danel?”

“The crew will be concerned that a natural cause of death could not be found.”

“I am as well.”

His golden irises cycled open and closed. “There are some…who are not happy with the reassignment of this ship.”

“Or its cargo?”

“As you say, sir. Interstellar travel is new to la marine France. Most of the crew have served only interplanetary.” He became silent and his glass bottle eyes continued to study me. For the first time, I found this disconcerting. I should have made him eyelids so he could blink. “Few have sailed the Deep Dark,” he said.

“Have you, Danel?”

“Yes, sir.” He turned from me in an oddly human characteristic of recollection. “It is…” He stopped, seemingly lost in thought.

“Dark?” I suggested.

“Wondrous,” he said, almost in a whisper, and then my voice, though a much younger voice, emitted from the metal grille of his mouth. “‘What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him?’”

And this time I couldn’t speak.

“The crew is not fond of your people, sir. While they approve of the expulsion edict, they resent being tasked to perform it. And the Deep Dark…is unsettling to some. Please take care, sir.”

I slid open the door of my cabin, but before I could enter, Danel barred my way. “Lieutenant Haran…” he began.

I suppressed my irritation and the sudden rush of anger at the thought of the Arab lieutenant. Was I angry at him? Or at the First Mate and Captain and the foolish prohibition against medical therapy?

“Yes, Danel?”

“He volunteered for this voyage.”

“Reveling in it, I suppose.” I took hold of his arm and tried to push it away, but it was like pushing against the ship’s hull.

“No, sir. He felt remorse over the deaths he caused as a youth in Palestine.”

I again yanked ineffectually at his arm but only pulled loose my own frustration. “And yet he proudly displayed his tattoo of all those he murdered!” The words echoed down the hall.

Silence followed in their wake. Like shadows, my kinsmen slipped through the heavy curtained doors and disappeared into the hold.

Gently, Danel slid back the cuff of my jacket to display the numbers tattooed upon my forearm. “As you would not forget your past,” he said, “neither would he.” He lowered his arm, and I rushed into the tiny sanctuary of my cabin.

Before I could close the door, I heard Danel say to himself, “It was as if all his programming had been erased.”

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The planet was named Zion, and the irony that it was mostly swamp, barren waste, and rocky hills with no resources valuable to New Europe was not lost among the exiles upon the Joan d’Arc. Yet, it would be ours–or so it had been promised. We need but reach it. When a second crewman, a mere matelot, was discovered with a malady alike to that which killed the first, it seemed more likely we’d be spaced instead. Who would shed a tear?

Danel came for me at Dr. Eugène’s behest. The seaman, a lad really, with freckles still dotting his cheeks and an unruly sprig of red hair sprouting from the back of his head like an antenna, demonstrated the same listlessness, sightless gaze, and nonresponse to external stimuli as had the late Lieutenant.

Mr. L’Hereux’s surliness was even more abrasive, but the way he hovered around the infirmary whenever his duties permitted bespoke of a concern greater than that of the CO for a crewman, and Dr. Eugène confided to me that the boy, Henrique Delacroix, was L’Hereux’s nephew. After two days of the same deterioration of vital signs that we had witnessed with Lieutenant Haran, I again suggested the use of pharmacological agents and was rewarded with a voluminous stream of thick-voweled curses betraying the First Mate’s rural Belgian upbringing.

Mr. L’Hereux pressed us for answers, to try something, anything–anything permissible. He did not object to electric shock therapy, though I was hesitant to suggest it. I doubted it would be efficacious, and this proved the case. The boy died two days later.

Mr. L’Hereux knelt by the lad’s bedside, so silent and still that for a moment I grew concerned that the affliction perhaps was transferrable. But then the CO stood and tugged on the hem of his jacket to straighten its creases, his eyes still locked on the boy’s. When he turned them upon Dr. Eugène, they displayed no animation; yet they ignited when they set upon me. The lines of his face tightened in anger and despair. He spat upon me.

Génie Juif de Saint-Germain!” he mocked, “Génie Juif!” He walked stiffly from the room.

Dr. Eugène said nothing in the silence that followed the CO’s departure. He would not look at me. Instead, he turned and began preparing the boy’s body for transport to the morgue. Danel, however, watched me closely.

The Genius Jew of Saint-Germain. Rabbi, physician, mathematician, inventor of calculating machines and the weaponizing of la puissance de l’atome.

“That will be all for now, Albert,” Dr. Eugène said to me. He removed the boy’s intravenous line and crossed the lad’s arms across his chest. I was struck by how little had changed in the young man’s expression with his passing. “Get some rest and meet me in the lab at 1400,” he added, pulling the bed sheets over the boy’s head.

I nodded and left. Danel followed.

On our descent of the stairs to C deck, Danel stopped me upon the landing. “It was unjust of Monsieur L’Hereux to mock you.”

“You caught that, Danel?” I withheld any intimation of bitterness from my voice. “You’ve come far in comprehending human sarcasm.”

“You taught me to listen. Not only to what people say, but how they say it. To deduce what they do not put into words. To place human speech and action into context with the events that initiates them. It has been…” He paused. “…challenging.”

“This is not something you could do when we lived at Saint-Germain.”

“I’ve observed and experienced much since then.”

“So have we all.” This time my acerbity slipped through.

The clang of a door opening followed by rapid footfalls echoed up the stairwell. We pressed ourselves against the wall as a half-dozen crewmen in jogging outfits ran past us. At sight of me, their eyes narrowed, their distrust unfeigned. Their suspicions slithered toward Danel by association, but their eyes lowered at the sight of his officer insignia. Danel was the product of my invention but few had knowledge of this below the command level. To the general populace, such an achievement as Danel was only possible by a true Frenchman and a man of God. In this case, the honorable and distinguished Monseigneur Remond of Nice, descendent of kings. For the many years after Danel and Michal had been taken from me, and until the priest’s untimely and foolish death, Remond had served as their stepfather and the public icon for unequaled French ingenuity.

And I as its corruptor.

Danel observed the sailors until the turn of the stairwell hid them. “They are ill at ease. That may pose a problem, sir. I detect insubordination. I will need to inform the Captain.” He began to descend again and I followed.

“I suspect he’s aware, Danel. And as long as you hover around me, you’ll acquire guilt by association. And by being different. That, at least, is an experience you’ll always share with my tribesmen and me.” We exited the stairwell to D Deck.

Interpersonal differences became sharper and more alarming when traveling the Dark. Space paranoia has been blamed for the derelicts and disasters that have plagued la marine interstellaire in its forays deeper and deeper away from the home planet, although the common sailors whispered of Deimons.

“It is unjust.”

“It is human.”

“Ab…Rabbi, you were hailed the Hero de France for ending the war with Germany.”

“That appellation was short-lived.” I whirled upon him. “And I don’t want to hear it repeated. Certainly your shipmates do not. Or do you not fully comprehend what you just witnessed?”

Danel’s irises cycled close and he shook his head. “I observe much,” he said. “But the capacity for human nature to recast good as evil and evil as good is beyond my programming.”

I sighed. “It is because we humans cannot keep our passions, or our fears, from influencing our actions. We do not possess your capacity to envision all potential repercussions before we act.”

“Such as when you deserted France to join the Zionists?”

His words held no recrimination. They were merely a question, but they stopped me cold. He halted and we stood alone in the long passage with only the wheeze of air compressors and the hum of electric lights in their wire cages.

“Yes,” I said.

That the Holy Emperor may have considered my unique knowledge and ingenuity within the new Zionist state a potential threat to his realm was not lost among the people to whom I was once hailed as a hero and was now a pariah. The blame for the well-armed and organized Arab invasion and the massacres of the second Shoah was laid upon my bald head as was our current expulsion to the end of the known universe where I, and the people who had produced me, could be no threat.

In silence, we proceeded to my cabin. The door was open. Inside, Mrs. Katz was restocking the shelf above the microwave with my weekly allotment of meal packets. She was a Jewish Quasimodo, so kyphotic from age and osteoporosis that she could not raise her head to see the shelf upon which she placed the ration boxes. She noticed us hovering in the doorway, however.

“Just a moment, Rebbe,” she said. Her smile was shy, almost coquettish, a remnant petal from the bloom of her youth. Her eyes were among the few of the ten thousand remnant Yehudi that did not look at me with scorn. Her liver-spotted left forearm bore a tattoo similar to mine, small black numbers like an oddly legged caterpillar. The few Survivors from the first Shoah saw me, saw the world, a little differently. She shuffled to the bunk at the rear of the room, moving slowly and majestically, like a Galapagos turtle. She began to change the linens. Her body was failing, and yet she maintained a definable dignity. She knew, like Moses, she would not live to enter the Promised Land, but even so, she had a grace, a living presence

I recalled Danel’s words.

“‘It is as if his programming had been erased…,’” I said aloud.

Danel picked up the conversation as if no time had passed since he’d made the observation. “Yes, sir. Neither Lieutenant Haran nor Seaman Delacroix demonstrated any volition, either conscious or unconscious. There was no recognition of input, processing of data, or function generation. No command comprehension, initiation, or completion at all. They were…” He paused. “…not who they were.”

He was correct. Both the Lieutenant and the First Mate’s nephew displayed no will, no anime. It was as if they’d been stripped of their élan vital.

I staggered as the thought triggered a kaleidoscopic flash. Danel’s visage shattered into scintillating fragments of silver and gold and white.

Hannah laughed as she spun, her Sabbath skirt twirling about her waist. Ruth picked her up and rubbed her nose in our daughter’s belly. Hannah squealed and pulled at her mother’s hair. Their shared laughter rose on a Mediterranean breeze and turned to cries; fire everywhere, ash falling from a steel gray sky like ebony snow.

“‘Amor est vitae essentia.’”

“Rabbi, are you well?” Danel’s hand rested upon my arm. I had fallen back against the door jamb.

“Huh? Yes, Danel. Thank you.” I stood straight and checked my hands for the soot covered burns long washed away. I was momentarily confused and struggled to recall our conversation. “Yes. I concur, Danel. They seemed emptied, brain dead patients. Their life essence gone, their souls fled.”

I shuddered and the world again began to blur. This time by ghostly images of dead-faced men and women standing barefoot in the snow, sexless in identical striped black and gray pajamas. Their soiled clothes hung off emaciated flesh and flapped like banners in a sirocco wind blowing hot and dry from the crematoriums near where we clustered for warmth… I pushed the vision back.

“It is as if their souls had fled,” I repeated, “…or been taken from them.”

“Taken, sir?” Danel said. “What could do that?”

I was about to answer, “Nothing. Humans are not machines that can be reformatted to completely forget who they are, what they are. I’m just talking nonsense,” when from the back of the cabin, a voice as dry and shrill as a rusty hinge said, “An erev-rav.”

The shell of Mrs. Katz’ back swiveled and revealed eyes like sapphires in shallow pools. “My bubbe would scold Yosef, my brother, and me when we were little nudniks,” she said. “‘Behave or the erev-rav will snatch you!’” She tittered fondly at the memory. “They would leave only shells she’d need crack and bury so dybbuks and mice wouldn’t infest them and make us a bigger nuisance.”

“That’s…” I began.

She cackled. “Schtuss? Ye. I know.”

Her job done, Mrs. Katz waddled down the length of the small berth and Danel and I parted like the Red Sea to make way for her. She stopped and twisted her body so one rheumy eye could gaze up at me. “But out here in the Dark, so far from God’s Earth, who knows? The Abyss is their abode.” She glanced at her arthritic fingers, knobby as tree roots with skin so thin and pale I could see her tendons and veins. “Will Adonai be able to keep them from devouring my soul when these farshtunken goyim toss my corpse into the Deep?”

I touched her hand. The skin was like soft papyrus. “You’ll be buried upon New Zion,” I said.

She patted my wrist. “You’re a good boychik with bad luck. Like Yosef.”

She raised the thin alabaster thread of one eyebrow at Danel. “I don’t know what you are. So let God decide. Nu?” She walked down the corridor, her movements so slow and measured she seemed to float. She called back, “Ask Reb Ludska. He knows souls.”

That he did, I thought.

The mystic Hassidic Rebbe Shlomo ben Yitzhak Ludska had made aliyah to Safed with three thousand followers to grow crops and to grow closer to God. The black-coats and hamantashen-shaped fur hats of the Ludskites mingled incongruously among the secular Zionist pioneers in their swim trunks and bikinis upon the golden shore of the Galilean Sea. And the incongruity disturbed none. The Holy Land was for all Jews, whatever their stripe–or shape of hat. Of Reb Ludska’s devoted flock, less than one hundred of his sheep survived the Assyrian assault to accompany him to New Zion. Yes, he knew souls very well, having lost so many.

After Mrs. Katz passed through the bulkhead and shambled slowly to the passenger hold, Danel asked, “Do you think Michal had a soul?”

The strangeness of the question drew my attention from my reverie, but there was nothing that could be read from the metallic mold of Danel’s face. The implication of his question was…but, no. No matter how he spoke or dressed, Danel was not human. And neither was Michal. Who would know better than I?

Michal was a thinking machine, my first, and I had turned him into an atomic bomb. Through me, he ended the lives of millions in Berlin and simultaneously the second world war, thus earning me both the appellations of Hero and Butcher. Michal had been the earliest success in the process to create Danel, to whom Michal was a good-natured Neanderthal by comparison. He could have never voiced or considered the question Danel asked.

I had never lied to them. It would have been fruitless in any case with Danel who could read the slightest stiffening of lip, the faintest blush, the millisecond of hesitancy in voice, and every other telltale. At Poque, Danel could never be bluffed. I studied him.

His eyes in the lamp light were like the sun’s corona around pupils black and unfathomable.

“Only God can create souls, Danel,” I said. “Machines, however wondrous, are the works of man and therefore flawed and imperfect.”

He thought upon this. I could imagine hearing the electronic synapses in his brain sparking as they cogitated. Then he asked, “God is perfect, no?”

“Yes.”

“Man was created by God?”

“Yes, Danel, of course.”

“Is Man not flawed and imperfect?”

I blinked and struggled for an answer, fighting the resurgence of nightmare visions, but as the silence stretched between us, Danel again placed a comforting hand upon my arm and suggested, “Perhaps this is what God intends, sir. It is for His creations to perfect the gifts they’ve been given.”

I could only stare at him. What had happened in the years we’d been separated? Did Remond actually tamper with his programming? I would have thought that bathroom scientist couldn’t build a Ferris wheel out of Tinkertoys.

Danel continued, his tone identical to my own when long ago I’d instructed him in the dusty basement in Saint-Germaine. “Perhaps Michal felt he was achieving his perfection with his sacrifice. If he could bring an end to the evil that was destroying so many, that threatened the entire world…”

The automaton’s golden pupils slowly dilated, and I felt a twinge of vertigo.

“…the evil that had caused his creator such suffering and pain.”

He glanced down the corridor to where Mrs. Katz had disappeared. “The loss of a soul before achieving its perfection is the greatest tragedy; and if forcibly taken, the greatest evil. What could do this?”

“I–I do not know.”

“I would like to speak with this Reb Ludska,” Danel said.

I nodded. “Of course, Danel.”

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I followed Danel into the echoing noise and stale smells of too many cooked meals and too many people crowded together. The converted cargo hold was a maze of stacked crate walls and sheet partitions hung on strung laundry line. The faces were a haunting mix of fear, irrational hope, and deliberate ignorance. Their mouths flowed with a constant babel, halting like crickets at sight of me and Danel, only to resume with increased tempo and hushed imprecations when we passed. Some made hand signs to ward off the evil eye.

Physically and emotionally depleted after years of expulsion, resettlement, and tragedy of a scope the world, including its Jewish remnant, could not or would not comprehend, these last ten thousand Jews of the continent milled, kibbutzed, and strove to weave dreams from nightmares. Their hands were rubbed raw in recalling past woes and anticipated future ones; yet their eyes were alight with an insane hope, that damnable incorrigible Yid hope, that this time, this new land, this new world would be different. Forty light-years to reach the new Promised Land? Feh! No problem. Indeed, the number was auspicious. Did not Noah traverse the great deep in forty days and nights to the freshly cleansed earth? Did not Moses and the Israelites wander forty years in the desert to reach Eretz Yisrael? The dual star that cast its brilliance in silver and carmine light upon their new home world…this star, this HD 10307…shone within the constellation the Gentiles named Andromeda. But it had another earlier name, a Babylonian one learned long ago in a former exile: Anunitum, the Lady of Heaven. And who was the Lady of Heaven, but God’s Shekinah? Nu? Is it not clear? HaShem still guided His People Israel, His Presence in His Shekinah still encompassing them. And as He brought them home to Eretz Yisrael from Babylon, one day He would do so again!

Such is Yid hope, Yid obstinacy, Yid eternal self-delusion.

The Seer of Safed was secluded in an inner chamber of a makeshift enclosure in a far corner of the cargo hold. Given the choice, he would not see me or the abomination of the automaton golem; but la marine interstellaire uniform and the officer’s insignia upon Danel’s shoulders he could not deny; and where Danel insisted I go, he could not gainsay. Reb Ludska was proud but not stupid.

His twelve closest disciples in their black frocks and pastry–shaped hats frowned at us in silence, their thin lips faint creases within their beards. One apostle guided us through seven successive rings of dyed ship linens hung on ropes as makeshift walls, like seven levels of a city, until we reached an immense rectangular shipping container converted into the Rebbe’s sanctuary and personal abode.

Our guide had us wait while he passed the final screening drapery, one painted with a Star of David encircled by arcane mystical symbols and the multifarious Hebrew names for God. A low rumble of voices came from inside, but the words were obscured by the clamor and hubbub of Jews arguing, petitioning, davening, and yelling at their children, sounds that a mere seven walls of bedclothes on clothesline could only muffle. Our Ludskite guide returned and held the starred curtain aside for Danel and me to enter, then closed it behind us.

To our left, the inside of the long container was obscured by darkness save for the wan orange glow of an atomic cell lamp that served as a ner tamid, God’s eternal light, watching above a makeshift ark. Upon a linen-shrouded table, I perceived the unmistakable oblong outline of a Torah scroll under the dyed sheets. The congregants would face astern when praying, toward Earth, toward Jerusalem. I wondered what they would do when settled upon New Zion, if any of us reached it.

On our right, the container was partitioned by another cloth divider, of a deep red, fluttering almost imperceptibly in a current of warm air. It was lit from behind and bright light leaked around its edges, like flames spouting briefly from embers. Passing through this last barrier, we entered the apartment of Reb Ludska.

Tapestries, actual tapestries, lined the walls and floor. Who among his minions had sacrificed their own baggage allotment to permit this, I did not know. Then again, it was not impossible that “exchanges” had been made with His Holy Emperor’s officials. Some of the Hasid sects had prodigious resources not evident in their penurious appearance. And, as was true with death, they could not take any riches into this last great exile. A half dozen fold out chairs lined both walls, and the Rebbe stood between them awaiting us.

Rebbe Shlomo ben Yitzhak Ludska , the Seer of Safed, had the chest of a scarecrow and the belly and tuchus of Behemoth, a little man seeming to rise from within the body of a larger one. By force of will I quenched the memory of the sweeping gaze of searchlights, the barking of dogs, and a child’s broken matryoshka doll shattered upon soot covered rails, the smaller dolls spilling from its belly like seeds from a smashed gourd.

The Rebbe was dressed in a tent of black: an ebon jacket, slacks, and vest of a material so non-reflective it seemed to absorb light. Only the twisted white fringes of his tallit katan broke free, loose threads squeezed from the constriction of his ballooning vest.

Behind him, a dark-haired boy in a red-knit yarmulke sat at a metal desk between a stack of old books and a small potted castor oil plant. He poured over a volume splayed open on the desk, his nose nearly touching the yellowed pages. His lips trembled as he read silently. I estimated he was either eight or nine, his round cheeks still plush with the cushion of childhood.

Reb Ludska did not offer his hand in greeting. He glared at Danel. He ignored me completely.

“Thank you for seeing us, Reb Ludska,” Danel said. “You are aware of the unfortunate incidents that have befallen two members of the crew?”

The Rebbe’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly to briefly show a ring of white around his irises, ice blue, and the bristles of his gray moustache rose with the flaring of his nostrils; but then weariness seemed to suffuse him. He sighed and motioned for us to sit. He settled himself upon a chair that squealed and groaned under his weight. We sat opposite him, the woven carpet embroidered with a kabbalistic tree of black circles and branches separating him from us.

“Unexplained deaths,” he said. His voice was rich and melodious yet hollow, like a monk singing hymns alone in a cathedral. A bitterness was in it as well, one I recognized too often in my own voice. “And here you are again,” he said to Danel.

“Again?” I asked.

A look of disdain crossed his face. “You’re supposed to be a genius, no?” He leaned forward. “When wells run dry or crops are poor…” He chuckled dryly. “When children go missing or the Plague blackens flesh, regardless that Gentile and Jew are equally afflicted…the blame for these they cast at our feet as kindling and set us afire.” His eyes burned as if seeing these flames. Then, seeing his own reflection in the mirror of Danel’s face, the flames went out and his shoulders sagged. “Are they blaming us yet again?” he asked, his voice weary, the question posed rhetorically.

Danel answered, “Yes.”

I was surprised by his candor. He voiced the threat, but there was no cruelty in it, merely truth. “Many are unhappy with this mission,” Danel said. “We are travelling to the edge of charted space. Few ships have voyaged so far across the Deep. Some have not returned.”

“‘Here there be monsters?’” I mocked.

“Exactly, sir. And some of the crew fears we carry the monsters with us.”

Reb Ludska bowed his head and mumbled a prayer.

“Danel,” I said, “That’s…”

“Some worry about a contagion you may have unknowingly brought on board or…” His glass eyes swiveled from the Rebbe to focus upon me. “…designed to specifically target the crew as a form of retribution.” My face betrayed my thoughts. He nodded. “Nonsense. I agree, sir. I am only providing you what I have heard in the hope to avert any further unfortunate incidents. Much has been said outside the Captain’s hearing. There are so many unsubstantiated and unlikely assertions that no single one has united the crew to independent action.”

“Mutiny?”

“I fear it is possible, sir.”

“What else has been said?” I asked.

“The suppositions vary from a Zionist grudge against Arabs like Lieutenant Haran for the massacres in Palestine to a Jewish plot to commandeer the Joan d’Arc by killing the crew. Others among the more devout have rekindled old fears and superstitions concerning Jewish warlocks and witches.” His voice changed as he played a recorded voice whispering, “‘Spawn of their father the Devil.’” In his own voice, Danel continued, “My hope is Rabbi Ludska can help Chaplain Thévet deter this. The Chaplain has spoken out against such inflammatory statements, and the Captain has warned that such talk is sedition.”

“Bully for him,” I said. “So Reb Ludska is correct? They blame us for these deaths?”

“Not wholly, sir. Some blame Deimons. Others say it is merely a space psychosis brought out in travelling the Deep Dark.”

“Demons?” Reb Ludska’s face went pale.

Dei-mons, sir,” repeated Danel. “Another human superstition, I’m afraid. When la marine interstellaire established its base on Deimos, they discovered the moon riddled with tunnels and caves. Some argued these were made by alien intelligences whom they nick-named ‘Deimons’. The von Dänikens took this up but the whole idea was mostly ridiculed. That is until similar tunnels were discovered on Ceres, Tethys, and later Centaurin B. No artifacts of any sort or aliens have ever been discovered; and the xenogeologists claim extensive evidence indicates that these tunnels are natural phenomena for low G planetoids of a similar type. I concur.”

“Sailors are not so easily divested of their superstitions,” I said.

“Correct, sir. Deimons replaced…” He paused, then said, “…‘gremlins’ as the cause of any unexplained mishaps occurring among the fleet and colonies.”

Reb Ludska’s lips twisted faintly into a wry smile. “Are they Jews then, these Deimons?”

“No Jews have been permitted in space until this voyage, Reb Ludska,” Danel said.

The Rebbe nodded. “See? And now these Deimons have competition. They must be scared of going the way of the, what you said, Gremlings.”

“This is not a humorous matter, Reb Ludska,” Danel said.

“I suppose not. But if we didn’t have humor, we’d have drowned the world in tears long ago.” He looked down at his hands. “‘Deimons,’” he muttered. “Such goyishe nonsense.”

“What is an erev-rav, Reb Ludska?” Danel asked.

The Rebbe’s eyes slid up to meet Danel’s.  “Erev-rav? Where’d you hear anything about…?” He clapped his hands and our Ludskite guide stepped briskly through the curtain, glancing at Danel and me warily.

“Aaron!” The Rebbe called to the boy sitting at the desk. Aaron raised his head from his studies, his eyes veiled behind bangs of straight black hair. “Go with Reb Ephrem. Stay with him until I call for you.”

The boy slid off his chair without a word and passed between us and the Rebbe. He was small for his age. He reached up and took Ephrem’s hand. The man blanched slightly under Danel’s scrutiny, then he parted the curtain and they left. The Rebbe waited until he heard the susurrus of muffled chatter from the cargo hold rise and fall as Ephrem and the boy passed through the bedsheet partitions of the perimeter. “Such discussions, however foolish, are not for the ears of children,” he said. He sat back and folded his hands upon his lap.

“Foolish?” asked Danel.

“Yes. Dybbuks, ibbur, lilin, ruhotra, golems…” he pointed at Danel, “…erev-rav are found in whispered warnings by parents frightening their children to behave; and in the aggadot of the Talmud to extort obedience from ignorant Jews in the keeping of HaShem’s mitzvot; and in shtetl stories to assuage the helplessness we’ve felt under Gentile oppression by imagining fantasies where the goyim instead fear us!” He ran his hands through his hair, closing his eyes as he did so. Opening them, he saw Danel unmoved and impassive. “You would continue with this narrishkeit?” he asked.

Danel waited.

The Rebbe sighed. “An erev-rav is the consequence of the mixed seed of Adam and Lilith.”

“Lilith was a demon, a female spirit of the sitra ahra…the other side, the realms of Darkness,” I said to Danel. “A succubus who purportedly stole the seed of men and the breath of infants. She was blamed for sudden infant death syndrome.”

The Rebbe nodded. “Just so. Silly, isn’t it, doctor?” To Danel, he said. “Like Lilith, the erev-rav are spirit thieves, vampyrs who revel in the spreading of the dark which is their abode. Nu? Nonsense.”

“There is no greater dark than that upon which we sail,” said Danel.

Reb Ludska’s eyes rolled upward and he shook his hands at Heaven. “Oif a nar iz kain kasheh nit tsu fregen un kain pshat nit tsu zogen!

You should not ask a fool a question, or give him an explanation! He leaned forward again, as if by his will alone he could pierce the automaton’s metal skin. I was struck by the incongruity of the rabbi striving to have a machine see reason, be logical. “The nukba di-tehoma rabba, the maw of the Great Abyss, is all around us,” he said with passion, as if giving a sermon to the sad remnant of his flock. He slapped both hands against his chest. “But it is what is inside us that matters! Man with his God-given capacity to reason, to hope, and to love is all that stands between HaShem’s Creation and the Abyss.”

Danel said nothing. He returned the old man’s gaze. They seemed joined in some hidden battle of wills, or just petulantly engaged in a child’s staring contest.

It was Reb Ludska who first lowered his eyes, sinking slowly back onto his chair. He waved a hand dismissively. “But you are not a man. You can never comprehend.”

In the subsequent silence I could hear the distant cries of a woman screaming at her wailing child. These faded leaving no sound save for the soft buzz emitted by the Eternal Lamp in the dark sanctuary beyond.

“What attracts an erev-rav?” Danel asked.

The Rebbe’s face blushed. He stood, his body shaking. “It’s a fairy tale,” he yelled. “A fable, a chain around our necks forged by our own fears. We must break them! We must make a fresh start and not drown in our own drek! And you, Reb scientist,” he shouted at me. “You believe in this? The greatest Jewish scientist of the age should ask such questions? Folklore! Myth! Bubbemeisers!” He stabbed his finger toward me. I noted he was one who bites his nails. “You cannot, Mr. Rabbi Scientist, make a pilpul study of that which is imaginary. What is the weight of a thought? How many centimeters is a dream?”

The curtain parted and two identical black-garbed Ludskite men peered in, faces goatish with alarm at the Rebbe’s shouting.

Reb Ludska walked between them and into the darkness of the sanctuary. Beneath the faint orange glow of the Ner Tamid, he pulled a prayer shawl over his head, a tallis of silvery luminescence, and began to daven, rocking slowly back and forth, head bent before God, murmuring a rolling litany of prayer.

The Rebbe’s two guardians motioned for us to leave.

Danel remained silent until we stood again outside my cabin. “Sir, may I ask your impression of Reb Ludska.”

“A beaten man,” I said. “But a Jew’s Jew. One who grows roses from his crown of thorns and braids his hair shirt. He won’t forget or forgive past wrongs, but he will not be ruled by them as long as he has a single sheep to lead. ‘To save a single Jewish life, or any life, is to save the world.’ And for us, that world is to be New Zion.”

Danel stared at me with the same inhuman impassivity that Reb Ludska had found so unnerving. I was used to it, however. I opened the door to the cabin and then paused, reflecting. “His ardent dismissal of Jewish mystical beliefs was…somewhat surprising. I am pleased he shares my views on such claptrap. But it is odd that the famed Seer of Safed should be so dismissive. To quote another sage, albeit a Gentile one, ‘Methinks he doth protest too much.’” I shrugged. “But with all your talk of the crew’s superstitions concerning Jews and Deimons, he may be trying to dispel such fears. Goodnight, Danel.”

But Danel did not leave. Instead, he said, “That may be true, but…” He stopped, studying me, and for the first time his impassionate stare made me uncomfortable.

“Do you think he was lying?” I asked.

“I detected no indication of untruth.” He hesitated again.

“But…?”

He looked away. “Do you recall Marcel the Marvelous, sir?” he said with uncertainty.

I chuckled. “The stage magician?”

I had taken Danel to The Moulin Rouge where Marcel performed while the late night patrons gathered and ordered drinks before the can-can girls made their appearance. We sat in the back, furthest from the stage, where there was little light and Danel was hidden behind his hat, gloves, and winter scarf.

“Yes, sir. The magician. There was no untruth in him as well.”

Danel’s lenses fixed upon me and I felt like a butterfly under the scrutiny of a lepidopterist.

“And yet he deceived,” he said.

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I saw Danel for the last time three days later.

Beneath the unfaltering hums and steady vibrations of the ship’s engines and the clockwork sibilant hiss of ventilation compressors, a growing sense of fear and ill-ease infiltrated the rhythm of life upon the Joan D’Arc. It was seen in the wariness of the crew delivering supplies to the colonists, the number of guards that accompanied them, and the diminishing of what little small talk there had been between Gentile and Jew. It was evident in a rising wariness among the shipmen toward their passengers who outnumbered them fifty to one, and in a growing wildness in the eyes of the colonists who woke to the knowledge that they were yet again penned in, crowded together in the immense hold, and restricted to D Deck; an environment reminiscent of the Displaced Persons facilities–and the concentration camps. I again thought of the Rebbe struggling to protect his vestigial flock and willing to say anything, even deny his beliefs, to save their lives as Peter denied Jesus to save his. And like sheep, my tribesmen herded even closer together within their makeshift shtetl and no longer ventured outside to the permitted encircling hall of D Deck, with few exceptions.

The cacophony of Yiddisher kvetching and shrayen condensed to white noise and faded ten meters from the curtained cargo access. The corridor was devoid of Jews. The usual crowd of Yids was absent. Teens and young men and women no longer leaned against the hallway walls seeking haven from the noodging of their parents. Couples wishing to whisper endearments that would otherwise be drowned in the raucous clamor of the mishpocha no longer traversed the passage to and from the viewing ports that lined the outer hull. On the wall beneath one of the many red-lit fire warning switches, some child had scrawled in yellow crayon three circles, two with radiating lines, one with branches and buds sprouting from its top…two stars and a world with…an apple tree? No. “‘V’yashvoo, eesh tachat gap’no vtachat t’aynato.’”

‘But they shall sit, every man under his vine and under his fig tree.’

I pulled my tallis over my head and my chumash from my pocket. At the intersection with the starboard corridor, I turned aft, turning the Bible’s pages as I walked, seeking words, seeking something behind them. But I saw only random black lines and curves interweaving like the tattoo around Lieutenant Haran’s neck or the one forcibly inscribed upon my forearm; vowels and punctuation like the series of binary input I fed to Michal, simple loyal Michal, for his terminal flight to Berlin; verse and chapter numbers like the endless rows of numerals tallying all who perished in that world-shattering detonation. Devastation beyond all human conception paradoxically conceived to stop devastation–and genocide.

The words, letters, and numbers blurred and faded. Only blank pages remained, white paper so thin it appeared translucent, a match for the pallor of my skin in the photographs of the victory parade down the Champs-Élysées with captions declaring the Hero de France. Later, other captioned photos proclaimed “Traître!” and “Boucher de Berlin!” when I’d escaped France to join the Zionists in Palestine after the only country who deigned to forgive my being a Jew reneged on returning Danel to me.

“Rabbi?”

I stopped short. My tallis slid off my head and gathered around my neck like a winter scarf.

“You need to stop surprising me, Danel.”

“My apologies, sir.”

Danel stood in front of one of the observation ports. The actinic glow of the sluice stream that flowed over the hull shone like moonlight and silhouetted the right half of his head and uniform, the latter neatly pressed with brass buttons like tiny stars. His metal skin gleamed like quicksilver. The glass cylinders of his eyes sparkled and cast prismatic shadows across his face.

“I have information,” he said.

I waited but he did not speak.

“Yes, Danel?”

He said, “I have not shared this with Captain Pétain or Mr. L’Hereux. I would not have harm come to y-…any of you. I fear…”

“Fear? You fear, Danel?”

He was silent.

I moved closer, imagining a tingle upon my face as I stepped into the beam of light with him. “Tell me,” I said.

“Lieutenant Haran was one of the fedayeen who led the massacre of Safed.”

“In the slaughter of the Ludskite community?” I blew out my cheeks and exhaled. “You think that someone…the Rebbe himself perhaps, recognized him?”

“This is what I fear.”

This is what I fear. The words projected from the small mesh screen of his mouth, little different than the grille of a radio, yet emotive, personal.

“Even so, Danel. We do not know how Haran died or…”

“The plant on the Rebbe’s desk. Did you recognize it?”

“The castor oil plant?”

“The Ludskites cultivated it in Palestine. Why?”

“It’s a versatile shrub. It can be used to create lotions, soaps, lubricants, insecticides, even fuel oil… Oh.” I stopped.

The castor bean, lovingly known as the Palm of Christ, was the source for ricin, a subtle and fatal poison that suppressed respiration and blood pressure… But the catatonia and bradycardia? No. It didn’t fit. And why young Henrique Delacroix? The nephew of Mr. L’Hereux? He’d at best have been an infant during the second Holocaust. “We must speak to Reb Ludska,” I said.

“Yes.”

The pounding of my heart in my ears resolved into the slapping of running feet. The Rebbe’s grandson Aaron appeared, face swollen raw with tears, fear, and exhaustion.

“Help! Please! Come help!” He collapsed at Danel’s feet, his breath whistling through his teeth. Danel extended a hand and the boy grasped it, shuddered, and staggered to his feet. “It’s the Rebbe!” Aaron’s hair was disheveled. Somewhere he’d lost his yarmulke. “He’s collapsed! Come quick. Please!”

The lad pulled on Danel’s hand and led us in a run down the long corridor. We traversed long stretches of twilit halls severed by beams of light from the observation windows. We were further aft than I had gone before. The hum of the engines grew louder and its vibrations pulsed along the floor. And on the floor, lit by the glow emanating from a hull window, lay the sprawled monstrous form of Reb Shlomo ben Yitzchak Ludska; Leviathan washed up upon the shore at the End of Days. Just beyond him was a heavily secured airlock door bathed in the red light of a caged lamp above it.

The boy gave a cry and released Danel, falling to the side of the Rebbe next to whom he appeared no more than a guppy.

The Rebbe lay on his back, arms cast to either side as if in crucifixion. They twitched spasmodically.

I quickly knelt beside him. He was breathing, although erratically. His face was flushed. Lifting his eyelids revealed a glassy stare but the pupils reacted to my penlight.

“Quick. Tell me what happened,” I said.

The boy started to sob. I raised my hand to slap him, but Danel stepped forward and rested his hands on Aaron’s shoulders. Gently he said, “Aaron. Please. We’re here. Tell us what happened.”

Aaron sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. I placed my ear against Reb Ludska’s chest and heard, Baruch HaShem, a steady if slow rhythm.

“We were just doing our walk before Sabbath. We’d never gone so far before. He kept saying he was sorry. I didn’t understand…”

I checked the pulse in the Rebbe’s wrist and his hand spasmed again, fingers extending momentarily open before clenching. I spread his fingers. In his palm a castor oil seed stared at me like a crocodile’s eye.

Picking it up, I grabbed Aaron’s chin and showed it to him. “Did he swallow any of these?” The boy’s eyes welled with tears. “Did he?” I demanded, shaking him.

“I…I don’t know.”

I let him go. “If he ingested them…”

“What is the antidote, sir?”

“There is none.” I stood. “We need to get him to the infirmary. Pump his stomach. Hydrate the bejesus out of him.” I doubted Danel understood the allusion to the Palm of Jesus but he did not press me with further questions.

“The Rebbe is too heavy for me to lift, sir. Please stay while I fetch help.”

The boy grasped Danel’s hands. It was a surreal image, Raphaelian. Danel standing tall and garbed in white holding hands with the kneeling boy whose face was contorted in sorrow and pain, both of them shimmering in the blue-white light streaming through the hull window.

“I’ll go,” I said. “Stay with the boy. I’ll fetch Dr. Eugène and help.”

I ran, passing in and out of shadow, light fluttering across my vision like movie theater newsreels during the war. Ghosts seeped from my memory. I clenched my teeth and stabbed each of them. My tallis stayed draped around my neck, and I clung to either end as I ran like a man carrying a heavy burden upon his back. Run! Get Eugène. Save Reb Ludska.

My lips set. Save him so he can be sacrificed; the scapegoat for Gentile justice so the last remnant could live.

A glimpse of movement and I had to grab the person in front of me or topple over them. I heard a gasp of surprise and was enveloped in the homely aromas of soap and soup.

I had nearly bowled over Mrs. Katz.

We spun together down the hall. I instinctively lifted her, light as a soul, to keep my balance and slammed back against the wall dispersing my momentum, holding her safe in front of me. Beside us the small red light of a fire alarm box blinked.

My heart thudded against my chest. There was no other sound but my wheezing. Then a voice said breathlessly, “I used to get ten centimes a dance.”

I set her down. “My apologies, Mrs. Katz,” I said. “I must go. It’s an emergency.”

She tilted her head, one viscid eye searching my face. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Reb Ludska. He’s taken poison. Tell his assistants.   And let them know the Rebbe’s grandson is with him.”

I took a stumbling step away from her.

“Grandson?” she said. “Reb Ludska has no grandson.”

There was a sigh, and cool air blew down upon us from an air vent. The hairs at the back of my neck stiffened.

“Wh-what?”

She shook her head sadly. “All his poor family died in Palestine. He has no son, no grandson.”

I took a faltering step toward her, then another. Her eyes buried within folds of wrinkled flesh gazed at me quizzically, like a rook with head cocked, its claws clasping some dead thing at the side of the road. I smashed the fire alarm box on the wall behind her and then began to run back the way I had come.

I passed through streaming gusts from the ventilation system like cobwebs. A cold chill passed through me, stirring the ashes deep within. This time I could not stop them.

The gray photographs of broken rubble that was once Berlin; the blackened fragments of bone to which clung desiccated remnants of flesh like Z’roa on a seder plate; the pervasive smell of boiling corpse fat saturating the air with a sickly caramel scent that sank like oil into one’s flesh and rags; the near surgical red-mouthed wounds exposing ribs like teeth across Ruth’s floral blouse and gaping wide across Hannah’s throat as if sliced by a shochet; the sky blackened and roiling with smoke quenching the sun and obscuring Heaven. Times of fire and darkness, repeated again and again, declared there could be no God, testing me like Job. But unlike with Job, succeeding. Words of prayer falling lifeless from my lips, dry and empty of hope; without answers, without expecting an answer. There were no angels to protect us, no devils but Man, and no God. The years after I escaped from Buchenwald, I searched for Him…not in Scripture, but in molecules and atoms, yet I discovered no Design and no morality, only indifferent forces and whims. And finally I disproved Him with Michal and Danel. If a man could create self-aware life, the proclaimed sole prerogative of the Lord Almighty, then there could be no God; no justice, no mercy. I challenged Him and received only silence. No proof He cared. No proof He was.

Danel lay supine upon the deck and Aaron knelt upon his chest. His tiny hands clutched the automaton’s cheeks and sank into them. When the boy raised his head to welcome me, his smile was cold, predatory; the plush lips pulled wide as if hefted upward by his peyos, parting to reveal teeth that glistened in the actinic sluice light. His eyes held no white. They were holes of nothingness, blacker than the Dark outside. Not a single gleam of light shone within them.

“Come help,” he said, his voice ice. “Please come help.” What had assumed the shape of the boy, summoned by the mystic Seer of Safed to kill the fida’i officer responsible for the murder of the Rebbe’s flock and family, and over whom it seemed the Hasid master had then lost control, withdrew his hands from Danel’s face as if drawing them from a pool of water.

With a spiderlike agility, Aaron leapt upward from Danel’s chest to cling to the hull wall, and then skittered rapidly across it, arching to the ceiling before falling upon me.

It was disconcertingly like catching a puppy or a small child, he was so light. Hannah had been so like this…

His hands fastened upon my cheeks, fingers melting into my flesh to slide along my teeth like a mallet along xylophone keys. I felt no pain, only a numbing coldness, a spectral tingle along the base of my skull. His small nose touched mine until all I could see were the black wells of his eyes, bottomless, empty, and longing.

And the thing, Deimon or erev-rav, saw the same in my own.

It shuddered and released me, falling to the floor to lie stunned upon its back. Its face contorted from a vulturine hunger to puzzled confusion.

Approaching footfalls cascaded down the corridor.

The creature the Rebbe named Aaron righted itself and kneeled in front of me, peering around my knees like a child seeking protection from a parent. It hesitated, uncertain whether to attack or flee. In that moment, I pulled my tallis from my shoulders, wrapped it around the boy’s neck, and lifted him from the floor.

He uttered a garbled scream and clawed at my fingers, the silk noose sliding tight around his throat.

“Hey! Ho there! What are you doing!” Mr. L’Hereux yelled, a squad of men trailing in his wake, including a winded Dr. Eugène. The CO scowled and strode toward me pulling a wooden baton from his belt and raising it. Before he could strike me, Dr. Eugène grasped his arm. But there was no need. Mr. L’Hereux halted, eyes widening as the boy I held shimmered and changed into the form of the First Mate’s dead nephew.

“Uncle, help me,” Henrique Delacroix croaked, extending a hand toward his uncle.

The men gasped and took a step back.

“Open the airlock!” I said.

Blank stares.

Do it!

Delacroix twisted in my hands, features blurring again. The men continued to stare, shocked still, except for Dr. Eugène. He dragged Mr. L’Hereux forward and demanded, “The access code. Enter it. Now!”

The CO looked dazed, “Wha…?”

Dr. Eugène slapped him, drawing his attention and anger, but then Mr. L’Hereux nodded. His finger stabbed at a key pad beside the airlock and then he grasped the wheel on the door with two hands and spun it. With a faint hiss and gust of stale air, the heavy door opened.

The lad shimmered and Aaron screamed and fell limp in my arms, gaining weight. I shifted my grip, one hand still holding the ends of the knotted tallis. It loosened around the boy’s neck when my remaining hand slid behind his back to support him. Aaron coughed, and inhaled, and coughed again.

“It’s g-gone,” he said, hoarsely, in barely a whisper. Then more strongly and with relief, “Bless HaShem! It’s gone!” Aaron’s eyes were normal again, hazel irises rimmed with white. He smiled weakly and raised one hand to the red welt made by the tallis around his throat. “Th-thank you.”

I nodded and held him close. His small arms encircled my neck. “It is all right,” I said. “It’s over. It’s not your fault.” Rocking him gently, I stepped toward Dr. Eugene.

The good doctor reached forward to take the boy; but I nudged him aside, flung Aaron into the airlock, and slammed the door. The wheel automatically revolved and locked.

Before the men around me could act, I punched the green-lit “Cycle” button.

There was the sound of air compressors, a muffled clang, and a shuddering rolled under our feet like a weak seismic tremor.

The corridor erupted in startled exclamations and I was dragged from the airlock door. Mr. L’Heureux’s face was flushed with anger, confusion, and fear. For all these reasons, or for the lack of reason, his arm rose brandishing its sleek black baton. I had just a moment to think that there was nowhere I could replace my tallis before the baton struck.

divider

Danel’s fingers drummed against the table top. I typed in another code and he stopped.

I was alone in the makeshift workroom Captain Pétain had assigned me. His engineers had provided me every piece of equipment that I requested. One even brought me a sandwich and a glass of wine. The sandwich was ham from the officers’ mess, but the wine was a fine Bordeaux.

Danel lay supine upon the aluminum table like a medieval bishop carved in stone atop his sarcophagus. Stripped of his spotless white uniform and every vestige of human clothing, Danel looked like the machine he was, a metallic manikin for some Austrian clock steeple whose gears had frozen, who could no longer count time.

I rested my forehead upon the metal table top. It was cool and smelled of disinfectant and lubricant.

The Captain and Mr. L’Hereux, the latter who gruffly offered an apology, likely at the Captain’s request, questioned me about the events at the airlock, the creature that looked first like a Jewish child and then like Seaman Delacroix, and its relationship to the death of the seaman, Lt. Haran, and Rabbi Ludska. They did not mention Danel, assuming his was a malfunction that I could correct.

I answered that nothing could be certain, and questioned them in return about past port calls for the Joan D’Arc, confirming that “yes”, she’d spent time at Deimos, Tethys, and Ceres, though not Centaurin B. I nodded and said the small size and light weight of the creature, its ability to conceal itself by assuming any human form, and its equal disregard for the lives of marine and Jew suggested we’d had our first contact with a Deimon. I proceeded to provide the data I’d collected and the conclusions I’d derived regarding the unique physical qualities of the alien, the texture of its skin, mass alteration, scent, and potential biochemical secretion of a compound similar to that of ricin–and I kept a straight face through all of it.

“And yet you threw the only proof out the airlock,” L’Hereux said skeptically.

I said nothing but gazed at the Captain. Our eyes met and held.

“Perhaps not the only proof,” the Captain said. “There could be others.”

“I can provide you a test to confirm or exclude this,” I said.

He nodded. “Do it.”

Sometimes it helps to be known as a genius.

No one in the crew or the colonists tested positive. And that left Danel.

Lifting my head from the table, I picked up the half-empty glass of Bordeaux and finished it. There were some among the crew who had begun to suggest that perhaps they should keep a Jew upon the Joan D’Arc, perhaps on every ship. I peered through the wine glass at Danel’s face, always still since his creation, but now lifeless. The erev-rav had drained him as I had drained the glass of wine.

I was not sure what was more surprising. That it seemed, after all, Danel had a soul…or that somewhere, sometime, amidst the endless ashes and rubble, I had lost my own.

Danel’s appraising eyes and strong voice welled up in my mind, and I opened myself to his memory, welcomed it. “‘The loss of a soul before achieving its perfection is the greatest tragedy; and, if forcibly taken, the greatest evil.’”

“No, Danel,” I said aloud. “What is even greater is giving it up.” And tears came.

I reached out and took hold of my metal son’s hand. And in that cold infirmary upon a ship treading the Deep Dark to a distant star, I felt another comforting hand upon my own even though Danel and I were alone.

___
Copyright 2015 Robert B. Finegold

Robert B Finegold, M.D. is a radiologist living in Maine.  He has an undergraduate degree in English (Creative Writing and British Literature), has been a university newspaper cartoonist, and served as a Major in the U.S. Army during the first Gulf War. He is a two-time Writers of the Future Contest Finalist whose work has appeared in Flashquake: A Literary Journal, STRAEON 2: Part Deus, and is forthcoming in an anthology of WOTF winners and finalists tentatively entitled 1st &Starlight.  On Facebook, find him at:  Robert B Finegold Kvells and Kvetchings

by Patricia Russo

 

Three o’clock in the morning, and Ria could hear the baby crying from all the way at the other end of the hall. Never mind paper-thin walls; the units in this building could have been constructed from eggshells. All it took was the slightest bump or knock for cracks to appear in the one coat of hastily rolled-on light-green paint that covered the drywall that was the only partition not only between one room and another, but one apartment and the next.

Never rent from relatives. That one should have been high on the How Not To Be a Dumbass list, right next to never do business with friends. Tano, her clan uncle, was a scamming bastard and she’d always known it. But when the choices were couch-surfing with increasingly unfriendly friends, giving up altogether and just go squat in a bus shelter somewhere, or accepting your clan uncle’s offer–“I’ve got a room. I’ll let you have it cheap. You’re family, after all”–then what were you going to do? There was pride, and there was stupidity.

Sometimes Ria thought her whole life could be summed up as a tug-of-war between her pride and her stupidity.

So far, stupidity seemed to be winning.

Three o’clock in the morning, but she was awake, had been awake before the baby resumed its apparently default mode of endless wailing, because of her tooth. The second molar from the back, on the left side, on the bottom. It hurt like a bastard, and had been hurting for three months, and the guy she did business with for the pain was not answering his goddamn phone and she was sick of leaving messages. Well, crap, what could you expect from a sketchy little fucker like him? Everything in the world was for sale, and if you took the time to look you could find a buyer for anything, but it had actually surprised her that the skinny little fuck was cool with buying a toothache. Other kinds of pain–that was easier to understand. Some other kinds of pain could be useful; once she’d known a man who’d bought the pain of a slap in the face, about two dozen a month, in order to be absolutely sure he woke up on time. Best alarm clock ever, he’d said. And some kinds of pain could even be fun, depending on the circumstances. But a toothache? Not fun, that was for sure. And not useful in any good way she could think of. So the skinny dude, who never gave his name and now wasn’t answering his phone, was probably just a middleman, buying the pain to sell to a curse-caster. Great. It had taken her three months to figure that out. Stupidity winning again. The curse had probably served its purpose, and the caster didn’t need another month’s supply of tooth-pain.

That was her screwed, then.

Almost, she threw the phone against the wall. But the wall had enough cracks in it already, and if she broke the phone, there was no way in hell she could afford another one.

The baby wasn’t helping.

The baby wasn’t helping one bit.

Not its fault, Ria told herself. Of course not. Babies cried. That’s what they did. Poor kid probably had the, what did you call it, the colics or something. Them down at the other end of the hall, two youngsters with a newborn–man. How much worse must it be for them. She could always go get her tooth pulled at the clinic at the dental school uptown. A crying baby you just had to put up with. No other choice.

Ria sat on her bed (a bedspring and bare mattress) and rocked herself, but that gave her no comfort. She wanted to pace, but if she did, she knew the old lady downstairs would take a broom to the ceiling.

Shut up, baby, shut up, baby, shut up, baby.

She tried the skinny dude’s number again. Nothing.

She’d found him–or he’d found her–at Underpass Market. There must have been a hundred places with that name over the centuries. Nowadays it was in the northeastern quadrant of the city, the open-air section taking up more space than the Grand Municipal Park, with no sign or remnant of an overpass anywhere, but the name stuck. Civilizations fell and rose and fell and rose again, and Underpass Market changed venues, but not reputation. Ria hadn’t expected to be able to sell her tooth-pain there. She had gone to hawk something completely different: a set (well, most of a set) of silver (or silverish) figurines of old-timey forest people, the gray folks with the six-fingered hands and the overly large eyes. There was supposed to be a whole family: mother, father, two children, a grandparent, and a pet, if Ria remembered correctly from her childhood. She was missing the pet and one of the children, but the rest of the pieces were in good condition. She’d acquired them by stealth, and wanted to get them off her hands as quickly as possible. But she wasn’t stupid enough to take the first offer. She hiked the length of the damn market, trying every jewelry place, silversmith, knick-knack stall, even the charm sellers (the gray folks, back when they used to live in the forest, had been believed to have powers that other people didn’t–surely the figurines could be used to fashion luck-drawers or evil-averters) but in the end she’d gotten only a couple of decent bids. It had been pride that had made her trek up and down and round and round Underpass Market; she realized that even as she was doing it. She sold the figurines in the end, for a lot less than she was sure they were worth, and was just about to head home when the skinny dude stepped in her path and smiled.

Middleman.

The baby would not stop wailing. That baby, Ria was becoming convinced, would howl forever. When did it sleep? The damn thing cried twenty-three hours out of twenty-four.

Middlemen bought and sold things.

Dawn would break in three hours. By tradition, Underpass Market opened for business one hour after sunrise. But that was for the general public. Behind the scenes, the market was like a perpetual motion machine. Contacts and contracts, deals and wheels, forever turning, forever in movement.

If that baby didn’t stop crying, she was going to lose her mind. Her tooth was throbbing anyway, but the high-pitched bawling made her clench her jaw, and the ouch! of that sent a bolt of bright blue pain straight through her head.

Ria picked up her phone again. Hit redial. This time, she left a different message. Not, “This is Ria, you know, the one with the tooth? Call me back,” which had been her first, or “Call me, you prick,” which had been her last. This time, she said, “Fine, so you don’t want to make any money. There’s something I want to buy, and I thought of you first. But I guess you’re too busy, so never mind.”

That would get the skinny bastard’s attention. The satisfaction of knowing that eased the pain in her molar for a second or two.

But other problems now presented themselves. The first was the practical matter of her possessing absolutely no cash. The second was an ethical issue. Ria had always despised people who put workings on others without the knowledge of the second party. And all right, yeah, she’d probably been selling the pain in her tooth as an ingredient for some revenge curse or torture-casting, but she hadn’t realized that at first, and anyway, you had to look at it as a question of survival. Paying the rent, buying food. Life or death, basically.

This was different. The baby’s parents would have to know. The baby’s parents would have to agree.

Most importantly, the baby’s parents would have to pay.

Ria got dressed quickly. She stuck her phone in her back pocket. He’d call, the skinny dude. And if he didn’t, well, Underpass Market would open in a few hours. Either way, all she had to do was sell the parents on the idea and hope to hell they had some cash or tradeables. Young folks living in a dump like this were probably not rolling in it, but she bet they both had families –certainly they both had clans, because everybody did–and friends. And family and friends would shell out, the first time you asked. Sometimes even the second or third, but almost always the first. And it would be for the baby, so an automatic extra helping of sympathy would come into play.

Ria went down the hallway quietly, even though anybody on this floor who could sleep through such a skull-piercing racket must have stone earplugs or be deaf to start with. No need to be conspicuous, though. And hey, put a smile on your face, she told herself. Even though it hurt. Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall, and I’m here to help. She was not the old lady who banged on the ceiling with a broom. She was a nice woman, concerned, friendly, offering a solution.

Right.

She knocked on the door of the apartment at the end of the hall, waited a few second, then knocked again. Come on, I know you’re awake in there. She looked at the peephole and smiled. Ouch. She waggled her fingers. She knocked again.

When the door opened, it was the man who answered it. Hard-faced. Suspicious. Defensive. Well, she couldn’t blame him. Ria forced herself to smile again. “I’m not here to complain,” she said. “Relax, okay? Really I’m not. My name is Ria and I live in 3B. I think I know a way to help.”

The man, who even sleepless and haggard looked closer to twenty than twenty-five, started to close the door. Ria opened her eyes in wide, honest appeal. “First babies are tough,” she said. “Believe me, everybody gets overwhelmed. You’re never sure you’re doing the right thing, are you, no matter how many pamphlets you read or parenting classes you take. And sometimes nothing you do works, right?”

The kid stopped closing the door. “My mother said to rub his belly,” he said. “Like this.” He made slow, gentle circles in the air.

“I’ve heard that one. And pat his back, rock him, take him for a drive if you have a damn car–”

“We don’t.”

“Yeah, well, neither do I.”

“The doctor says there’s nothing wrong.”

“Marto?” came a voice from inside the apartment. “Marto, who are you talking to?”

The man looked back over his shoulder. “A neighbor. It’s all right, Sija. She says she wants to help.”

Ria said, “I bet the doctor told you the baby would grow out of it.”

The man looked back at her. “Yeah.”

“Yeah. That’s what they always say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the baby won’t. Of course he will. But how long are you prepared to wait?”

“Marto? What’s going on?”

“I mean, how long can you stand it? And the baby’s suffering, too. Clearly. He wouldn’t be crying like that if something didn’t hurt.”

“It’s his stomach,” the man said. “Colic.”

“Very common,” Ria said, nodding. “Very common.”

“Marto?”

“Sija, hold on a second.” To Ria, he said, “The doctor said to put a warm cloth on his belly.”

“Does it help?”

“Not really.”

“I know what he needs,” Ria said. “And what you need, too. And your wife.”

The man jumped aside as the door swung open wider. A young woman with blazing eyes and hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed for a week pushed past him and stuck her face into Ria’s. The girl was short and barefoot and smelled of used diapers. “Who the hell are you?” she said.

“Sija, please.”

The mother was always going to be the harder sell. You had to expect that. Ria made her face compassionate. “I think I know a way to help. What the baby needs.”

“Really? What does he need, then?”

“Sleep,” Ria said.

Marto took Sija’s arm. The girl scowled. “Sleep. Well, you’re a genius, aren’t you. Of course he needs sleep. The only time he’s quiet is when he’s asleep. But we are not drugging our baby.”

“Who said anything about drugs?” Ria kept her eyes wide, her face open and kind. Her tooth was killing her and the baby hadn’t stopped wailing for an instant, but she had the husband already three-quarters hooked. She just had to get the mother on board. “Only idiots do that. And you’re not an idiot. That’s plain to see. As I was telling Marto here, sometimes this just happens with babies. And they do grow out of it. Usually. Like in a few months. But wouldn’t it be better if your baby could sleep through the worst of it?”

“Sure, but…” Sija sounded uncertain now. “How?”

“May I come in?”

A crucial moment. They’d either let her in, or they’d slam the door in her face.

Smile, damn you, Ria told herself, and forced her lips to obey.

“I think it’s all right, Sija,” the man said. “I’ve seen her before. She does live in 3B.”

“I’ve seen her before, too.” Stepping back, Sija crossed her arms. “All right, then. Come in. But I swear, if you’re trying to pull something, you’re messing with the wrong people.”

“I just want to help.”

Sija went inside, and Marto nodded at Ria and opened the door wider for her. Ria nodded back, and entered as a guest would, murmuring, “Let this home know peace.”

Sija was standing in the middle of the front room, her back to them and her arms still crossed. In the back room, the baby bawled. Ria had a quick look at the furnishings. Not much–table, chairs, shelves. One picture on the wall, a print of the view from the bay. No electronics. A few paper books on one shelf. She wondered if they even had a phone.

“So,” Sija said. “How can you help?”

“You know Underpass Market.”

“We do,” Marto said.

“You know you can buy or sell anything there.”

Sija muttered something, but Marto just said, “Yes.”

“You can buy sleep,” Ria said. “You can buy an hour’s worth, two, ten. There are lots of people willing to sell their sleep. I don’t know why. I guess some people just like to stay awake. Now listen, I’m not talking about dreams or nightmares or anything like that. Simply sleep.”

“Do we look like we have money?” Sija said, her back still turned.

“We’ve never been to Underpass Market,” Marto said. Ria saw from his expression that the idea did appeal to him, but he was hesitant. “We wouldn’t know how…how to find a seller.”

“I have a contact,” Ria said.

“We don’t have any money,” Sija said loudly.

“We could ask my brother. Your brother. It’s for the baby, honey. They won’t say no.”

Sija turned around. “And what do you get out of it?” she asked Ria.

“Nothing,” Ria said, with all the innocence she could muster. “You won’t be dealing with me. I’ll set you up with my contact.” If the bastard ever called back. “You do the business with him.”

“What’s his name?”

“I only have a number. He’s a skinny little guy, short hair. He’s a–facilitator.” She gave a little shrug. “I’m sure he’ll take a cut. Everybody’s got to make a living. But I know him. I can vouch for him. You’ll get quality merchandise. I haven’t been disappointed yet.”

“You’ve done business with him?”

“Yes.”

“But you don’t know his name.”

“Kid, that’s the way these people operate.”

“Sija,” Marco said. “I’ve heard of this. We can try it. Even if we buy only an hour or two. Nothing else is working.”

“I’m not asking my brother for more money.”

“Then I’ll ask mine.” Marto looked at Ria. “All right. Call this guy, this contact of yours.”

“Only if you’re both sure,” she said. Had to keep in character, had to play the part to the end. Doubts could still arise. Something could still go wrong.

“Sija?”

“All right,” she said. “All right, goddamn it.”

Pride and stupidity. How could Ria have not recognized it? Sija was just like her, only younger and more ignorant. Ria should have known. Afterwards, she paced up and down her room, asking herself how she had failed to see it. And when the old lady with the broom whacked the ceiling, Ria just stomped down harder.

The skinny prick called back when Ria was still in Marto and Sija’s apartment. “Excuse me,” Ria said, and went out into the corridor. Eggshell walls and all, better to snatch hold of any speck of privacy one could. Besides, the baby’s shrieking would cover a lot of what she said, even if they had their ears pressed against the door.

The skinny dude was all apologetic about not getting back to her earlier–things had come up, she knew how it was. Yes, Ria thought, she certainly did. Briefly, she gave him the run down– incessantly crying baby, parents going out of their minds, would pay decently if not handsomely for some sleep. For the baby, she stressed. (The decently if not handsomely part she pulled out of her ass. Marto would get the money somehow, she figured.) The skinny dude said he understood exactly what was required and could provide it within the hour, if the cash was ready. The cash was in another location, Ria said. The daddy would meet him at Underpass Market at opening time, if that was convenient. By the south entrance, near the café. Did that work for him?

That worked for the skinny dude just fine.

“Now let’s talk about me,” Ria said.

“What about you?”

“My cut.”

“Hey, wait a minute.”

“Wait a minute, nothing. I brought you a client, so I get a cut. Business is business. And the dental school clinic ain’t free, you know. It’s cut-rate and all you get is first-years working on you, but they still charge.”

“Oh,” the skinny dude said. “That.” He paused, and there was a quality to his pause that made Ria decide to let it run its course. Her patience was rewarded. Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “I was just about to tell you. I’ve got good news. The order has been doubled. We’ll take two months this time.”

He’d just pulled that out of his own narrow ass, but she wasn’t about to challenge him on it. “Great,” she said, in her best neutral tone. She pushed him on the matter of her cut a little more, just for form’s sake, but she knew that that second month was all she was getting.

When she went back into Marto and Sija’s apartment, she discovered that each of them had a phone, and each of them was in the middle of a conversation. She nodded at Marto and gave him the thumb’s up. “Thanks,” he said into the phone. “See you soon.”

“Very soon, I hope,” Ria said. “My contact will meet you at Underpass Market in a couple of hours.” She described the meeting place, and she described the skinny dude, and reminded Marto that names were not commonly used by his sort. “Bring as much cash or tradeables as you can. You’re allowed to haggle, but you’ve got to be smart enough to know when a final offer is a final offer. You think you can do that?”

“Yes,” he said. He looked at Sija, who was still on the phone. She had her head down, and was talking very fast.

“All right, then,” Ria said. “Looks like everything’s set, then. Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Marto said. “Thank you so much.”

Ria went back to her apartment. Her toothache disappeared a couple of hours after dawn. The money transfer would appear in her account in a week; she knew that from the previous times. So that was the rent for next month taken care of. And if she was smart, she’d take the rest and just go to the dental clinic already. She’d think about that after she got some sleep, she decided. Shortly after the toothache vanished, the baby stopped crying, and she breathed a long sigh of relief. It had all worked out. Everything was fine.

She slept until mid-afternoon. When she woke up, the baby was still quiet.

It was still quiet the next day. And the next.

On the fourth day, Marto knocked on her door.

You’ve got to be kidding me, Ria thought, but she opened up.

The young man looked very worried. “He won’t wake up. Not even for a minute. Not even to nurse.”

“For fuck’s sake, man, how much sleep did you buy?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sija went, not me.”

And that was when Ria began to suspect that her bright idea of selling the parents on buying sleep might in reality have been one more occasion on which she had been very, very stupid.

The mother. Resisting too much. Protesting too much. Talking rapidly on the phone after saying she wouldn’t ask anyone for money. The mother, home with the screaming baby all day, while the father probably got a few hours respite at work, or going around looking for work. She hadn’t seemed like she was at the end of her rope, but then some people’s ropes were shorter than others.

“This is not my fault,” Ria said.

“Please. You said you could help.”

She went back with him to his apartment. No real choice. If she’d shut her door on him, he would have just kept pounding on it until she opened it again. She was the nice lady, the friendly neighbor. The one who said she could help.

“It can’t be true that he hasn’t woken up to nurse. Not for four days. He’d be dead if that was so.”

“Sija says he hasn’t.”

Then Sija was a bloody liar.

Ria fervently hoped she was.

She was holding the baby when Ria and Marto came in. It was the first time Ria had seen the baby, if a glimpse of a blanket-wrapped bundle with a tiny bald head sticking out of one end counted as seeing a baby. Sija turned away as soon as they entered.

“How much goddamn sleep did you buy?” Ria shouted. “Fuck, even if you bought a lot, you didn’t have to use it all at once. Don’t you have any sense at all?”

“Get out of my home. I don’t want you here.”

“Sija,” Marto pleaded. “Please.”

“Your husband said the baby doesn’t wake up to nurse. Either that’s not true, or what you’re holding there is a dead infant. So which is it?”

“He’s quiet.”

“Girl, I will slap you. So help me, I will. You said you were the wrong people to mess with? Well, believe me, I’m much wronger than you. So tell the truth. Is it dead?”

“No,” Marto moaned. “No. He can’t be. Sija. Let me see him. I’m begging you.”

“He’s fine.”

“Do something,” Marto said to Ria. “Please.”

I’ve done a shitload more than enough, don’t you think? Ria thought, but the young man still saw her as a helpful, friendly, a person he could turn to. “If he’s really not nursing, you’re going to have to take him to a hospital.”

“He’s fine,” Sija repeated.

“Show us,” Ria said. “Look at your husband. He’s terrified. Don’t do this to him. Show us the baby. Prove that he’s all right.”

Marto made to move toward Sija, but Ria put her hand on his shoulder. It was going to kill him to see his son dead, a limp, dehydrated sack of bones. Marto was going to fall to bits. There was no rush to get to that moment.

This is all my fault, Ria thought. I should have seen it. Seen what was hiding inside the girl. Why didn’t I? Because of a stupid, damn toothache?

Or because I’m just like her? Me first, and the hell with everybody, anybody else. I couldn’t see it because I was blinded by my own reflection.

Of course the skinny dude would have sold her as much as she wanted, no questions asked. Business was business.

“There might still be time,” Ria said, not because she believed it. It was a ploy to get Sija to turn around.

Marto moved forward again, and this time Ria didn’t stop him. Me and my big ideas, she thought. Me and my middlemen. What was it, now? Don’t rent from family. Don’t do business with friends. And don’t ever trust a single goddamn person on the planet, including yourself.

Ria had never seen a dead baby before, not in real life, and she didn’t want to see one now, but she made herself stand there and watch. Punishment. Or rather the first stage of her punishment. Marto would figure it out eventually. Turn on her. Blame her. And he’d be right. He’d be ninety-nine percent right.

Pride and stupidity. Now Ria’s pride told her, You’re going to take what’s coming to you. When that boy gets it into his head that you were the cause of all this and starts beating the crap out of you, you’re not even going to raise your arms to defend yourself.

She hoped he wouldn’t kill her. Her life might not have been much, but she still would rather be alive than not. Pain was a different matter. She’d had a lot of it in her life. And the pain of a beating, the pain of broken bones, well, those could be sold, if you had contacts. Even if you didn’t, bruises and broken bones healed, sooner or later. A child’s death created an abyss of pain that you had to fill in a grain of sand at a time over decades; you never reached the point when the abyss was full. If you were lucky, you could make it navigable. You could walk around the edges. Even tip-toe gingerly over the narrower sections. But it would exist for the rest of your life. I hope I live, she thought. And I am as sure as shit glad that I’m not either one of these two.

“Sija,” Marto said softly.

“Stop fussing,” Sija said. “Everything’s all right.”

“Then why won’t you let me see him?”

He put her hands on her then, and Ria expected Sija to scream, to fight, to kick and elbow and run, but she let Marto take the bundle from her arms. Then Ria expected Marto to scream, drop to his knees, howl at the universe. Marto just stood, holding the bundle, breathing hard, then turned to her with an expression of relief. “He’s sleeping,” Marto said. “He’s just sleeping.”

Wishful thinking?

“Let me see.”

Ria couldn’t believe it until she’d checked for herself, but the baby was indeed alive. Its respirations were shallow and its face thin, but it had been recently bathed. “When was the last time you fed him?”

Sija shrugged.

“He wakes up to nurse. You lied to your husband about that.”

“No. He doesn’t really wake up. He suckles in his sleep.”

“You have to suckle him more. Do you understand? He won’t grow otherwise. He’ll die otherwise.”

Marto took the baby from Ria. “Can you wake him up?”

“Me? It was her that gave him all the sleep at once.”

“She made a mistake.”

Ria doubted that, but there was no point saying so to Marto. “How much sleep did you buy, anyway, Sija? Tell us.”

Sija just shrugged again.

“If you can buy sleep, then surely you can buy wakefulness,” Marto said.

“I’m sure you can.”

“Your contact. If you could call him again. Please. I promise I’ll go myself this time.”

And for a second, Ria was tempted. The skinny fuck would have to cut her in if she set him up with a second business opportunity. But then the dread she’d felt when she was certain the baby was dead returned, a hard slap to the conscience. Do not embrace stupidity again, she told herself sternly. Just this once, don’t be an arrogant idiot. “Bought wakefulness on top of bought sleep? That’s dangerous, son. That’s like throwing a ball of flame into a dry forest, and hoping for a campfire.”

“And this isn’t dangerous?”

“Of course it’s dangerous. Your baby needs to be fed regularly, kept hydrated–you could still take him to a hospital. They could give him IV fluids.”

“No,” Sija said. “I know how to take care of my son.”

“Honey,” Marto said.

“I know what I’m doing!” Sija shouted.

“No, you don’t,” Ria said. “You should, but you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t. He’s quiet, and that’s good, but he’s so quiet you forget to feed him sometimes, don’t you? You put him in his crib and leave him there for hours, isn’t that right?”

“No,” Marto said. “She wouldn’t. Sija, tell her. She wouldn’t, I swear.”

“How much sleep, Sija?” Ria asked again. “Tell us.”

“Six months.”

Marto gasped, then looked at Ria in horror. “That’s not possible.”

Of course it was possible. Ria had just been the middleman to a middleman, but she could imagine a dozen different scenarios. The sleep didn’t all have to come from one person, for example. But the most likely one… “My contact. That skinny guy. You made the deal with him, right?”

Sija nodded.

“It’s an old man’s sleep, isn’t it? Or an old woman’s.”

“An old man’s. Your contact said the old man was selling his sleep because he wanted to spend as much of the time that he had left awake.”

“What did that cost?” Marto demanded. “Where did you get the money?”

Sija looked away.

It didn’t really matter. There were a whole hell of a lot of ways to get money–or tradeables–when you really, really wanted to.

Suddenly Marto said, “But people die without sleep. Don’t they?”

“They do,” Ria said.

“Sija, you really gave the baby six months of sleep all at once? All six months?”

She had. Ria could see it in her face.

Apparently Marto could, too. “Take it back,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Sija, you’re going to kill that old man. And the baby? Asleep for six months? How is he going to learn to sit up, to crawl, to do anything?”

Ria said, “I think once it is done, all poured out, if you like, you can’t…pour it back. They must have told you how to use it. Drop by drop, right?”

“It was heavy,” Sija said. “It was like a sack of bricks that I had to carry inside my head. I couldn’t hold them all.”

“What are we going to do?” Marto said. He looked at Ria with desperation. “There has to be something we can do.”

“You’re going to have to make sure she feeds the baby enough. And I guess you should move its arms and legs around, you know. So the muscles don’t waste away.” Guess being the big word there.

“That’s not what I meant. I meant to change this.”

“Sometimes you can change things. Lots of times, you can’t.”

“But you…” Marco said.

Here it comes, Ria thought. At least he’s still holding the baby. He probably won’t try to kill me until he puts it down.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t suggested buying sleep. It’s my fault. But I can’t change what’s been done, and I don’t know anyone who can.”

“It’s not your fault,” Marto said, which was the last thing Ria expected to come out of his mouth. “I should have gone to Underpass Market, not Sija. You heard her. It was too heavy for her. I should have been carrying it instead.”

Dear fuck, he wasn’t going to blame the girl, either? Ria felt a touch of awe. Could it be that she was actually standing in the presence of a nice guy?

More likely, he was just an idiot like everybody else. But if that was what was keeping him from bashing her brains in, then more power to stupidity.

“Wait a minute,” Marto said. “What happens when the old man dies? How long can you live without sleep, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Not months.”

“But what happens? If he dies–when he dies–what happens?” He gazed down at the baby.

Ria shook her head. “I know what you’re thinking. But the old man, whoever he was, he already sold it. It’s like–like you sell your car. You could drop dead the next day, but the car’s still sold.”

“It can’t work like that,” Marto said. “It makes no sense.”

Right, like so much in life did.

And Sija, the little bitch, smiled and said, “Six months is not that long.”

Marto didn’t get angry, even at that. “Why don’t you go rest now, sweetheart. Go lie down for a while, all right?”

Nice guy. Idiot. Maybe they were the same thing.

But when Sija had gone into the back room, Marto turned to Ria, and there was a different look in his eyes.

“We need to do some more business. Concerning sleep.”

“What?”

“For the old man. So he doesn’t die. You have to call your contact. You have to explain what happened. We have to find the old man, and get him enough sleep so–so what we did doesn’t kill him.”

“How are you going to pay?”

“I’ll give him some of mine. And so will you. A couple of hours each, every day. That’ll do, won’t it?”

Ria looked at him for a long time. “All right. But there’ll still be a commission.”

“Your skinny guy?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. Nothing for nothing, even when lives are at stake. Don’t you hate this world?”

“Often,” Ria murmured.

“Commission. All right. Everybody says you can buy or sell anything at Underpass Market.”

“I’d agree with that,” Ria said.

“Then we’ll figure out a way to pay the commission.” He paused. “Sija must have done that. To pay for so much sleep, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Ria said.

“I love my wife. And I love our baby more than you can imagine. Sija made a mistake. I can forgive that. But I’ll never forgive myself if I let that old man die.”

“I’ll call my contact now,” Ria said. “Meanwhile, go see if you can get Sija to nurse the baby. She should do it every couple of hours, I think.”

“You’re going to help me with that, too,” Marto said. “Some days I pull twelve-hour shifts. So when I’m not here, you’re going to be.” A touch of steel in his voice.

Pride and stupidity had gotten her into this, as it had her into so many messes before. Time to change the pattern, she thought. To one of responsibility and duty. It might even be good for her.

And six months wasn’t really that long a stretch. It was going to be hell when her toothache came back, but she’d put up with it.

Six months without running away, ditching her clan-uncle’s shabby, slapped-together building and heading for the coast. What would she do there, anyway? Same stupid things she did in the city, probably.

“Yes,” she said. “I will.”

She took the phone out of her pocket. The battery was almost dead, but there was enough juice left to make a call and leave a message. She knew what to say. She’d had a lot of practice.

Within half an hour, she and Marto were on their way to Underpass Market. The skinny dude was waiting just where he said he’d be, with a big smile on his face.

___

Copyright 2015 Patricia Russo

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