Fiction


Compost Traumatic Stress

by

Brian Koukol

Blistering tongues of immolated fuel spewed from the dropship, sculpting the sterile mudscape into a smear of ragged sumps and ridges as it touched down. Seconds later, the rear hatch fell open and shat 2nd Platoon into the mire.

Mort Louka stumbled into his first taste of the war, then sank straight to his knees with an audible slurp. As he struggled to unfuck himself, an enormous hand grabbed him by the back of his cammies.

“Step to, Private,” a stone-faced Corporal Pataba grumbled, liberating him from his predicament and his boots in the same motion.

Now in his socks, Mort glanced over his shoulder in search of his waylaid shitkickers, but his view was blocked by the jostling queue of determined Marines on his soggy heels. Unwilling to be the cause of Platoon’s delay, Mort abandoned his boots and crawled out of the way on his hands and knees.

A few arduous body-lengths later, he tried standing again. His right foot immediately plunged back into the muck and he grimaced in pain as a rock sliced open the side of his sole, spilling its sanguine contents. He managed to wrench himself free and limped after the rest of his fire team, trailing blood and mud and confidence.

“What’s the name of this planet again?” he asked Pataba when he’d caught up, trying to cover for his rookie clumsiness. “Meemaw?”

PFC Krev, tasked as force multiplier and somehow walking on top of the sludge at his left flank with the M440, snickered. “That’s right, Boot,” he said, his deep-set eyes slinking in the shadows of contiguous eyebrows. “They named this place after your grandma. It’s wet and dirty, just like she is.”

“Limos,” Corporal Pataba said. “Named for the Greek goddess of famine.” His dark, weathered face wrinkled to a bitter smile. “Only thing that grows here is the casualty list.”

“Should’ve named it after the goddess of mud,” Private Redmond muttered from ready position up front.

Mort nodded in agreement. Other than the deploying fire teams of 2nd platoon and an occasional glimpse of the rest of Charlie Company or their emptying dropships, mud was the only thing on the menu.

On the human one, at least.

As it turned out, the Chokes had a menu of their own, and it featured 7th Marines as the soup du jour.

* * *

Mort snapped out of the memory, uncertain how long he’d been lost in it. His mind did that now, dropping him without warning into a past he’d just as soon forget as punishment for the smallest of rests. It couldn’t be trusted. Neither could he. That’s why the Corps had sent him back.

He gazed across the patchwork sward that undulated all around him, captivated by its tidal rhythms. Limos looked different now. Death had brought it to life.

A crimson stalk pushed up from an inky patch of chokegrass at his bare feet, betraying the final resting place of an alien soldier. And a pretty good one, too, based on the enveloping sprays of wild garlic—the Choke bastard must’ve taken an entire squad of Marines with it.

Careful to get the roots as well, Mort ripped the crimson stalk from the vivid, carmine soil and stuffed it into the incinerator-bound bag he carried over his shoulder. The offending weed, which the xeno-taxonomy binder called blood thyme, featured hair-like projections that injected a nasty toxin into anything unlucky enough to brush against it. Without his bionic arms and their self-sterilization abilities, Mort would’ve been in for a world of hurt.

The chokegrass surrounding the uprooted blood thyme was still too short from his last mow to cut again, but Mort noticed aphids climbing on it, so he sprinkled some powdered tilapia fertilizer over top in the name of terrestrial progress. Another month and the dead Choke’s stain on the land would be forgotten, blotted out by the inexorable march of the human race.

Satisfied with his work, Mort moved on to the next skirmish in the war for Limos, now called Demeter thanks to some forward-thinking brainiac up the chain of command.

The soldiers here had long since stopped hemorrhaging their blood and guts and tears into the soil, but the land remembered. Only Mort, and those like him, could make it forget.

If only he could do the same for himself.

Against regulations, Mort wore no boots. Such a choice was inherently dangerous, but the hyperawareness it demanded both soothed his mind and helped him spot any diminutive Choke plants that he may have otherwise missed.

He walked on—never looking more than a yard ahead and making sure to keep the flamboyant hillock of earthly wildflowers and absurd tendrils of manwort that loomed in the hazy distance ever at his back—until he spotted something metallic in the foliage at his feet.

Seven spent cartridges of 5.56. Primitive, yes, but also better than beam weapons at penetrating Choke armor.

He scooped up the archaic brass from the base of an eight foot ellipse of false oat-grass and inspected it. The original shine of the cartridges had been scoured toward matte by ubiquitous Choke microbes with a taste for metal, but their shape was unmistakable.

After stuffing the brass into his empty hip pack, Mort stretched his aching back and raised his face to Demeter’s dropping sun, allowing a rare breeze of tranquility to wash over him. It had been several weeks since he’d found any metal on the forty acre parcel he’d been tasked with cleansing; this discovery was a godsend.

The absence of new finds of metal and bone and a general reduction in the Choke plant population had raised big questions of what would happen when his task was complete. Would they move him to a new parcel? Perhaps closer to the flowery hillock that he couldn’t possibly face? Perhaps to the place itself?

But the cluster of brass had given him a reprieve. Seven cartridges. Seven! A find like that had to mean that much more work remained before he needed to worry about a change.

As per his routine, he worked until the sun sank below the horizon and the sky darkened to a deep bruise before forcing his bare feet toward his lonely CHU—a repurposed dropship dragged into place for his exclusive use and called containerized housing. Before crossing the threshold to the misery within, he headed around back to dump the day’s finds.

The 5.56 echoed as it struck the bottom of the empty scrap can, and the Choke flora—his third bag of the stuff for the day—barely filled the incinerator halfway up, rounding out a pitiful haul for the week. He wondered if Mejia would have anything to say to him when she made her pickup the next day. The work was getting thinner, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise. At some point, somebody up the chain was going to notice.

If he were smart, he’d take the next few days off and let the weeds grow into something formidable, but he couldn’t do that to himself. To stand still was to be bombarded by horrors of both thought and memory. The forced idleness of night was bad enough—he refused to give the past room to creep in during the daylight hours as well.

Reaching back into the scrap can, he retrieved two of the spent brass jackets. He rolled them around the palm of one of his replacement hands—a pallid, pristine facsimile that moved and looked almost normal, if one didn’t notice the tanned, weathered flesh that abutted it.

He squeezed his fingers into a fist, feeling the movement and the pressure, yet also the falsity. His new hands were imposters, consolations, memorials. They belonged to the Corps—he was but a conditional caretaker. Dischargees didn’t get replacement arms—they got stumps and a work deferment waiting for them back in protected space. He’d pass.

With a dismissive grunt, Mort threw the brass into the deepening darkness of the parcel. As long as there was something to find out there, they couldn’t move him. They couldn’t force him any closer to the terrifying nosegay on the hillock. They just couldn’t.

* * *

Inside his CHU, Mort hit the switch that illuminated the end of the hollowed-out dropship that contained the kitchen and multipurpose table. There were other lights, but he liked to keep them off. They made everything too visible. Without them, he could almost forget the previous life of his home. He could almost forget the sour stench of vomit and the nervous anticipation of the condemned as they descended to their fate, and he with them.

Mort threw himself into his tableside chair and sighed. He snatched up one of Smudge’s weathered books from the small shelf of poetry and culinary tomes behind his head and glanced at the cover. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.

He leafed through the rough paper pages, disgusted by the paradoxical scent of sweet vanilla and musty decay, until he came at last to a spot of broken spine. Handwritten text crowded the margins and squeezed its way beneath underlined print. This one must’ve been a favorite of his predecessor.

Mort zeroed in on a circled section near the top and read it aloud:

“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?

How can you be alive you growths of spring?

How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?

Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?

Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?”

Mort peeked over his shoulder at the rusty brown stain sullying the worn mattress of his stripped bunk.

“Damn, Smudge,” he said to it. “You had a darkness in you. No wonder you offed yourself.”

He read a little more:

“Now I am terrified at the earth! it is that calm and patient,

It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,”

Mort massaged his furrowed brow with thumb and forefinger. Why was he doing this gardening work? Why hadn’t he gone AWOL after his rehab? For hands? For purpose? For revenge? He wouldn’t see any of the fruits of his efforts. By the time the Choke residue had been cleansed and fecund human settlements took hold on Demeter, he would be long gone. Or long dead. What was the point of working toward the future? He had no future. He was damaged, broken, rudderless. The best he could hope for was to pass time and keep one step ahead of his demons.

“Now I am terrified at the earth!”

He lived five minutes at a time. Where was the future in that? Once, he had lived for something more than himself. He couldn’t remember what it was, but it was something. He wanted that sense of purpose back, but he knew he couldn’t have it.

“Now I am terrified…”

He squeezed his hands into fists. He should be able to get over this. He should be able to concentrate. And sleep. And smile. But he couldn’t.

“Now I am—“

* * *

Mort stood knee-deep in sludge. He’d lost his rifle. Redmond had already split.

A triad formation of Choke air cover screamed overhead. Seconds later, their payloads broke through the guttural tenor of pitched battle in a series of concussive detonations. Warm, comforting piss streamed down his leg.

With his bladder empty, Mort located his weapon and turned toward Krev’s overwatch position as ordered.

The mud fought him every step of the protracted bound up the hillock, sucking at his socks and then bare toes as the muck did its best to undress him. Even at its worst, however, it could do no more than had been done to the lone figure of PFC Krev, skylining Mort’s destination and flinging out all the covering fire he could muster.

When he reached his side, Mort saw that the PFC had been stripped of his cammies and issued a new uniform of weeping wounds and cauterized scabs shellacked in drying mud.

“About time you showed up,” Krev shouted between bursts of the M440, oblivious to his injuries. “I’m about black on ammo. Thought it was gonna end up being my big, swinging cock against the whole Choke army down there.” He fired off another burst. “And that wouldn’t be fair for the Chokes.”

Mort swallowed hard. The ammo!

Fearing he’d lost it in the same blast that had waylaid his rifle and discombobulated the team, his hands leapt to his chest.

He breathed a sigh of relief. Two ammo belts crisscrossed his torso.

As Krev’s M440 went dry, Mort passed him one of the belts and then surveyed the battlefield spread out before them.

Several ranks of Choke infantry—immediately catalogued by his brain as three-legged, headless Minotaurs wrapped in obsidian shells—clustered behind an imposing line of polygonal armored skiffs gliding across the sloppy plain below as if on ice. The majority of Bravo Company engaged them. Mortar squads lobbed ineffective ordinance shoulder to shoulder with machine gunners desperately scratching the shallowest of depressions into the flat, open terrain. Under the pathetic protection of Krev and his light machine gun, Alpha Company maneuvered toward the makeshift defense, ready to fill in the flanks and support Bravo’s anti-armor capability. Most of Charlie held back in reserve.

A fresh burst from Krev’s weapon drew Mort’s attention back to the PFC. Nude, caked in mud, and spewing vengeance, he looked every bit the golem, born from mud to destroy man’s enemies.

Mort dropped to his belly and scratched at the muck beneath him—not to create his own golem, but to get as far away from the carnage and danger as possible. If he could only dig deep enough, perhaps there was still time to save himself.

“That’s right,” Krev said to him. “Get low. They’re about to take a run at us.”

Mort glanced up from his pathetic scrape just in time to witness the entire line of Choke armor vomit a simultaneous barrage of explosive shells. He drove his face straight back down into the wet muck. It seeped up his nose and into his mouth, forming a thick and suffocating seal. Only after the concussive wrath of the Choke volley had been met by return fire from PFC Krev did he raise his head.

He should’ve kept his face in the mud.

* * *

Mort threw the book across the room and leapt to his feet. He needed to get his mind on something else. But it was pitch dark outside, and would stay that way for the next ten hours.

His stomach grumbled. Was he hungry? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.

Hungry or not, cooking was the exact sort of busy work he needed. Over the course of his second stint planetside, he’d julienned and braised his way through all of Smudge’s culinary books several times over. Kitchen work turned out to be a reliable path through the interminable night.

From the icebox, he dug out some mutton and rabbit reared on one of Demeter’s few cleansed parcels and supplemented it with vegetables grown on another. Then he started in on some hot-water pastry—banging and kneading and working the dough, relying on the repetition of movement to center his thoughts on task over tangent.

When the meat pie he envisioned was finally ready for baking, he burned through some more time cutting intricate shapes of leaf and game out of the dough for adornment. Then he crushed them into a giant ball, which he rolled out and shaped again. Anything to bring the dawn closer.

At last, he could delay no longer and shoved the pie into the countertop oven he’d inherited from Smudge.

He walked the inside perimeter of the CHU ten times, loosening the iron grip of anxiety on his throat, then checked his hanging sheets on the line outside. Last night’s panicked sweats were nearly dry, so he made his bed before finally returning to his chair.

His foot tapped. His fingers drummed. He cracked his neck. Then he was back up, ready to bake a cake. Or pickles! He could make pickles! No—bread!

He’d caught some wild yeast and had been propagating it in a jar. There was no telling whether it was human or Choke yeast, but he figured it didn’t really matter. Despite the best efforts of his fellow gardeners, the ewes and hares in his pie had probably snacked on a bit of chokegrass or bittervetch at some point and the veggies must’ve grown in soil tainted by at least a ribbon of carmine. If he stayed here long enough, he just might start turning into one of the bastards himself.

The pie came out of the oven before the bread had finished its first proof. It needed to rest for a few minutes before he dug in, so he spent the time biting at the craggy, broken skin of his chapped lips.

When the pie was ready, he cut a thick slice and sat with it at the table. The pungent essences of marjoram and rosemary rode into his nostrils on an updraft of hot steam, complemented by the lean gaminess of the proteins and a fortifying undercurrent of grassy, pastured butter and pork fat.

Mort broke through the crust, collecting a heaping forkful of the moist and fragrant filling and shoving it into his mouth. According to his nose, it should’ve been delicious.

It wasn’t.

To be fair, it wasn’t bad either—it simply didn’t taste like anything. Nothing did anymore. It wasn’t the food’s fault. It was his.

He chewed and chewed, but the bolus of gluten and animal protein in his mouth never seemed ready for a swallow. After finally forcing it down with a drink of water, his stomach growled, pleading for more calories and faster, but his gag reflex wouldn’t cooperate. He took another bite anyway, then stood up and paced around the decommissioned dropship, chewing. Maybe the movement would make things easier.

It didn’t.

After putting the mouthful down with another drink, he returned his barely disturbed plate to the kitchen, disgusted. Inside a cabinet sat the blender he’d acquired a few months earlier. He pulled it out and tossed the rest of his meal inside with a few cups of water, then processed it into a dun puree. It wasn’t very appealing, but, then again, no food was anymore.

After drinking his tepid, glutinous meal, he packed up the rest of his pie in the icebox and rolled out the leavened bread for its second rise.

To keep his brain occupied until the bread was ready for baking, he ripped two pages from the back of Smudge’s depressing book of poems and tried forming them into animals like the head shrinker at the sanatorium had taught him. Despite a valiant effort, his creations resolved as they always did, becoming polygonal Choke armor and its accompanying air cover.

Finally, his loaf of bread was good to go. He opened the oven door, ready to insert the twice-risen dough, when the alarm on his wrist went off. Time for bed.

Mort closed the oven door, turned it off, and dumped the fetal bread into the waste receptacle. He could’ve stuck it in the icebox and cooked it off in the morning, but he knew better than to expect anything of the future. Better to end each day with a period, just in case the next sentence never came.

After executing his nightly hygiene routine, Mort slipped into bed. And there he lay, swaddled in blankets and mostly dry sheets as tight as he could manage. The light was out. It was almost comfortable. He closed his eyes.

* * *

“I don’t get this place,” PFC Krev said, struggling along beside Mort as Charlie 1/7 advanced on their target. “We’re knee deep in mud and I don’t smell a damn thing. Shouldn’t it stink? You know, like a swamp?”

Redmond sniffed the air. “Reminds me of the wet saw I used before the war. Like cut stone.”

“Geosmin,” Mort said, still limping from his wounded foot.

“What?”

“Geosmin. That’s the stuff that makes mud smell like mud. It comes from bacteria in the soil. If this planet’s really dead, the aroma wouldn’t be what you’d expect.”

The team slowed to a halt. All eyes swiveled toward Mort.

“Where’d you learn all that?” Corporal Pataba asked at last.

Mort shrugged. “School.” They seemed to want something more personal, but he wasn’t willing to give it. Not on his first mission. That was just asking for it. “And the smell of rain on dry ground? That’s called petrichor,” he said instead.

Krev scoffed. “Well, all your fancy schooling ain’t worth shit against the Chokes. Unless you plan on boring them to death…”

A shriek in the air.

Incoming.

Before he could shout, Mort was airborne, twisting and flailing and breathless.

And then he was on his feet, staggering in the mud toward a recumbent and bloody Redmond.

“Troops in contact!” A chorus of voices shrieked in his ear. He tore out his comms and cast them aside as he slid into place beside the Private.

She cleared her throat, blinking rapidly in his arms. “What?” she said, blood filling her eyes from a pulsing head wound. “What?”

Things weren’t great, but they could’ve been worse. The blast shredded Redmond’s cammies, but, other than her head, she leaked more mud than blood.

“Nothing bleeds like a head,” Mort muttered, recalling his brief medic training as he searched his pack for a pressure bandage. Once he found one, he propped the Private’s head on his knee and wiped away the blood.

“Cold.” Her smile evolved toward dumb curiosity. “You really do…”

The shallow, three-inch gash leaked like a sieve through her matted hair. Certainly not a fatal wound, Mort decided, despite her suddenly fixed and dilated eyes. Must’ve been shock.

As he tried to apply the bandage, Redmond’s head slipped from his knee on a slick of blood. He grabbed her by the armpits and jerked her onto his lap to better access the wound.

Her torso came easy, but the lower half of her body stayed put. Mort stared at her legs for a moment, unable to reconcile them or the coil of glistening, pink ropes that tied them to her heaving chest.

Firm hands seized his collar and jerked him to his feet.

“She’s gone,” Pataba shouted as he shoved Mort toward a nearby rise. “Get on overwatch with Krev.”

Mort stumbled forward, but, once again, the Corporal grabbed him.

“Retrieve your rifle, Private,” Pataba said, manhandling him in line with the weapon and starting him off again with a push.

* * *

Mort convulsed back into reality. His blankets were off, crumpled on the floor. The bottom sheet clung to his back, stinking of cold sweat.

He peeled himself free and stood up, clad in nothing but his undershorts and the sebum of terror.

His rifle slept in bed beside him. He grabbed it and bounded out the front door.

A suffocating, nocturnal mist clung to the faint running lights that enveloped the CHU at its corners. Mort scrambled into the darkness beyond it, unconcerned with the dangers lurking underfoot.

As the light of the CHU dwindled behind him, he stumbled and collapsed into a shallow depression. A hastily scratched foxhole, most likely. His parcel teemed with them.

He lay in the furrow, listening. The night was alive with terrestrial insects—as far as he knew, there were no Choke bugs of visible size on Demeter any more, pesticides working where herbicides had not. He held his rifle in front of him, aiming it into the nebulous darkness. Collected moisture at the bottom of the little sink slapped against his naked belly as he wiggled for a comfortable position. He pressed his face into the bristly grass, then harder, hoping to reach the mud that once protected him.

In a past life, he would’ve basked in the reaffirming perfume of earthy geosmin, but those memories had been overwritten by the great palimpsest of war. Now, the fertile terroir stank of dreams deferred and promise broken. These were his fellow Marines—reduced from human to humus and fed to the future.

He longed for the sterile days of Limos, the innocence of cut stone, when the price of land had not been loss. But the Chokes had chosen war and humanity was only too willing to oblige them. When the fighting was over and the star systems were counted, perhaps the only true winner would be Demeter, brought into being by the compost of war. That is, unless it had preferred to stay Limos. No one had asked it, after all.

A quick movement a few meters in front of him drew Mort’s attention and two rounds from his rifle. The action was instinctual and euphoric.

With the thunderous reports still ringing in his ears, he scrambled to his feet and tracked down his prey.

A rat. Fat and mangled.

Mort returned to the foxhole with his prize and flopped onto his belly, rifle at the ready. The rat smelled of mud and shit and blood, overpowering the stench of the surrounding humus. It was nice, familiar—reminiscent of the wish-pennies he used to fish from his grandparents’ pond as a youth. Most of all, it reminded him of Redmond.

Without much thought, he smeared the ruptured neck of the carcass across his cheeks. Basking in its perfume, he pointed his rifle into the darkness, waiting. He was alert. He was ready.

He fell asleep.

* * *

Mort had his eyes on Redmond up front when the Private stopped and scooped up a fistful of mud.

“What’s she doing?” Mort asked PFC Krev.

Krev grinned. “She’s a quarter Haida Indian. Probably going to turn around and tell us exactly where that Choke gun is in a second.”

Redmond turned around, holding the mud aloft. “I found it!” she shouted.

“See?” Krev said, nudging Mort as they headed over with Pataba.

“What exactly did you find?” the Corporal asked when they reached her.

Redmond held out her fistful of mud. “The POO we’re looking for…”

Krev bent in half, laughing, and Pataba shook his head with a rare smirk. “Better check your Marine Corps manual,” he said. “We’re looking for a Point of Origin site—not whatever that is in your hand.”

“Then what am I supposed to do with this?” Redmond asked, feigning a frown as the sterile mud slipped through her fingers.

Krev slapped Mort on the back. “Give it to Boot here. He’s used to eating shit.”

The team broke into raucous laughter at Mort’s expense, but the joke vanished just as quickly into a stuttering staccato of distant Choke artillery fire.

“Sounds like the gun we’re after,” Pataba said.

Redmond picked up two more handfuls of mud. “I’m gonna make one of those golems you’re always talking about, Krev,” she said. “We can use all the help we can get, I think.”

As she shaped the muck in her hands to something nearing a homunculus, Mort turned to PFC Krev.

“What’s a golem?” he asked.

“Padow!” Krev replied, brandishing his fists. Tattooed onto three fingers of one hand and two on the other were several strange symbols.

Mort squinted at them. “Is that Thai?” he asked.

“No it’s not Thai,” Krev said, frowning. “It’s Hebrew.”

“What does it say?”

“Right hand says ’emet,’ which means truth. Left hand drops one letter, aleph, and says ‘met,’ which means death.”

“And what does that have to do with Redmond’s mud doll?”

Pataba groaned, but Krev smiled. “I’m glad you asked,” he said. “In Jewish mysticism, a mud warrior called a golem can be brought to life to destroy your enemies. All you gotta do is carve the right letters on its forehead and shazam, you got an angry pet. You start off by writing ‘met.’ Death. When you add aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and indicative of the oneness of God, it spells ’emet,’ truth, and the thing comes to life. When you’re done with it, you remove the oneness of God and it becomes death, a pile of ordinary mud.”

“So you fancy yourself a golem?” Mort asked, nodding at the tattooed knuckles. “That you’re tasked by God to destroy the Chokes?”

“No. Not God. This golem serves a higher power—the United States Marine Corps!” He swung his right fist—“where truth of purpose”—then his left—“means the death of our enemies. Oorah!”

The Choke gun thundered in the distance again and Mort scooped up his own handful of mud.

“What are you doing? Krev asked.

“Making my own golem,” Mort replied with a smile. “Redmond’s right. Another hundred just like you and we can’t lose.”

* * *

When Mort woke up, hours later, the parcel was still dark and he still smelled like a dying Redmond. Unwilling to spend the entire night outside like a madman, he returned to his bed—without washing off the rat. It was an aromatherapeutic salve, a spell of protection, a tonic against despair.

The rest of the night passed like any other. He slept, or didn’t. Dozed, or didn’t. Whatever the meat, the bread of his shit sandwich of a life was going to bed and getting up when his alarm told him to. When it finally, mercifully rang, he headed straight for the shower.

After twelve minutes of hygiene—the longest he could stretch the task without his mind wandering—it was time for breakfast. Unfortunately, he’d burned through the last of his supplies while trying to distract himself over the past week, so he broke his fast with a leftover meat pie smoothie. Four minutes. Then there was nothing left to do but kit up and get to work.

Outside, the enduring nocturnal mist clung to the ground in a typical morning fog that painted the landscape in dew and brought the rest of the world in close. Mort enjoyed mornings most—there was a whole day’s work between him and the torture of his idle nights, sure, but also because the hillock was obscured by the blanketing haze. For a few hours, it may as well have not existed.

Mort walked into the comforting swaddle of his parcel, basking in the prickly moisture of the shaggy grasses beneath his calloused feet. A deep breath brought the humidity into his lungs, filling the broken cracks of his insides with its thickness.

Then he froze, realizing he’d been walking without paying attention to where he was stepping again. He glanced down, beneath his descending sole, and spotted a spiky patch of breatherfew. A smile creased his face. If he’d finished that step, he would’ve finished himself too—breatherfew’s hobbies included the complete paralysis of the human diaphragm.

He backtracked a step or two and then knelt down to scuff up the deadly plant with the invulnerable fingers of his bionic arms. As he did so, one of the spent cartridges he’d tossed out the night before rolled out from between the bristles. He pocketed it, sprinkled some fish powder, and moved on.

After an hour of continuous work, the wind shifted to reveal the heralding bells of a pair of oxen extemporizing a ditty with two creaking wheels and a diatribe of muffled human expletives. It was Sergeant Mejia, headed down the rough, denuded road for her weekly exchange and inspection.

Mort stopped what he was doing and ambled over to the waste cans behind his CHU to wait for the Sergeant and her cart.

“How’s it going, Louka?” Mejia asked when she finally pulled up. Though she’d opted for cammies over a full-on bunny suit, she also wore a disposable respirator. Beneath it was the large and lumpy face of an aberrant potato. Her ears looked more like cauliflower.

“Fine, Sarge. Just getting my work on.”

“Yeah, well, I wish you’d wear a respirator to do it. I can get you a real nice one—not that standard issue crap—for the right price. There’s no telling what kind of junk all those Choke weeds are spewing into the air.”

Mort took a deep, dramatic breath. “Seems all right to me. Been doing this for a full season and I’m none the worse for wear.”

“Just be careful,” she said.

As if to punctuate her words, one of the oxen dropped a hot mess of steaming shit onto the bare patch of lifeless dirt below it. The pile drew Mort’s eyes. Six months and it would be a respectable tuft of alfalfa.

“What you got for me today?” the Sergeant asked, getting back to business. “Another half load?”

Mort shrugged. “More or less.”

“Guess you’re about done here then.”

“Not necessarily,” Mort said, scrambling for the scrap can. He snatched out the empty jackets from inside and held them out for Mejia. “I found these yesterday afternoon.”

The Sergeant glanced at the jackets in his bionic palm, then her own naked fingers. “These things clean?” she asked.

Mort nodded and Mejia accepted the brass.

“5.56,” she said, stating the obvious. “Don’t see how this’ll change anything though. Your parcel’s played out.”

Mort remembered the cartridge in his pocket. The one covered in breatherfew oil. It would shut the Sergeant up real quick.

“I’ve got one more,” he said, producing the jacket.

Mejia reached for it, completely trusting.

“I found it in a breatherfew patch…”

She jerked her hand back. “Jesus Christ, Louka. You trying to frag my ass? Stick it in the back with the biohazard.”

Mort trudged over to the bed of the cart and play-acted dropping the round into the requisite container. He’d dump it somewhere in the parcel later instead as proof of work still needing to be done. Someone higher up than Mejia might buy it.

Pocketing the tainted brass, he turned to empty the incinerator ash trap and spotted something impossible behind the wagon out of the corner of his eye.

“What the hell is that?” he asked, nearly tripping on his own bare feet.

Mejia dropped to the ground from her seat and walked back to Mort with a grin.

“That’s your new best friend,” she said, tugging at the rope that connected it to the back of the cart.

It was roughly the size of a lamb, but otherwise looked absolutely nothing like a sheep. Its main body, which sat flat to the ground, reminded Mort of a slug, but was scaled and articulated like a snake. Attached to the front of it was some sort of head, chitinous and insectoid, with two symmetrical horns and an improbable chin trimmed in quivering strands of mucus.

“Again. What the hell is that?”

“We call him Artie. Artie the Choke goat. And he’s all yours.”

“What? Why?”

“You know. Like an artichoke.”

“No. Not that. Why is it all mine?”

“These Choke goats only eat Choke plants. Command wants you out and reconning a virgin parcel to move to, but they don’t want yours reverting while you’re gone. That’s where Artie comes in. Let him loose in your parcel and he’ll do all your work for you, freeing you up for your new orders.”

Mort reached into his pocket and squeezed the deadly breatherfew cartridge. Was it too late to murder Mejia?

“Where did it come from?” he asked instead.

“Echo 2/6 liberated five of these fuckers from a Choke stronghold on Dido. Command’s keeping four to breed or something, but they gave us one to utilize and observe.”

“How long has it been on Limos?”

“Demeter, you mean. Got here yesterday. Threw up twice and then started operating as advertised, so the Colonel ordered it dispatched to you.”

Mejia handed Mort the end of Artie’s tether, the other side of which was wrapped around the little guy’s horns.

“Wait,” Mort said. “What’s to stop it from running off?”

Mejia pointed to a thick, metal band on the thing’s left horn. “If he strays over the boundary of your parcel, he’ll get a nasty shock.”

“And what about its droppings? Won’t it fertilize the whole parcel in carmine?”

The Sergeant deployed Mort’s weekly supplies to the ground with the tug of a lever and then hopped back up into her seat. “They pick out a spot they like and stick with it. Scoop it and stow it, Louka.”

As Mort opened his mouth to reply, a warm and rough wetness enveloped one of his hands. Realizing that it was inside Artie’s mouth, he ripped the hand free and glared at Mejia, his face wrinkled in disgust.

“You didn’t tell me this thing bites!”

“He’s not biting you. He’s just saying hello. Think of him like a dog. He even likes belly rubs.”

Mort glanced down at the the scaly snake body and pondered how it might expose its belly for a rub.

When he looked up again, Mejia was rolling away. The Sergeant shouted over her shoulder, “If you run into any problems with Artie, call direct to HQ.”

Mort stared after her for a moment, then tugged on the goat’s tether. “Come on, you Choke bastard,” he said. “Let’s see what you can do.”

The hideous little thing undulated along at Mort’s side on a slack tether as he led it deeper into the parcel. Curious, he dropped the rope. Artie stuck with him. It wasn’t until Mort released the tether from its horns that Artie finally wandered off on its own into the dwindling Choke foliage.

As the little alien goat quietly and efficiently went about its task, Mort popped a squat and watched in rapt attention. Ignoring the earthly plants as a source of sustenance, the thing pushed through them and zeroed in on solely Choke flora, which it gobbled up roots and all.

Mort shook his head. The little bugger would have the whole job done in a matter of days, if that long. He considered grabbing his rifle from the CHU and sending the upstart straight to Choke heaven there and then, but decided it would be a one-way ticket to a summary court-martial and the subsequent confiscation of his hands.

Disgusted, he tossed the shell casing from his pocket into a nearby strip of chokegrass—still determined that, to the right person, it could provide a reason for him to stay.

After that, all he could do was stare at Artie while the little bastard ate him out of his routine and into an uncertain future. Stare, and allow his mind to wander.

* * *

Mort drew a bead on a target breaking toward their fortified hillock on all three legs and squeezed his trigger. A miss. And another. The bastard was too quick. Pataba fired a cluster of grenade rounds, but at a different target. There were too many of them. Thousands, teeming like angry wasps. They were going to get through.

At the last second, PFC Krev spotted the Choke soldier gunning for them and swung his M440 in line, but too late. Mort managed one final, wild shot that wasn’t even close and watched in surprise as the alien ran right past them.

He and Krev didn’t even have time to share a look of surprise before the rest of the onrushing Choke horde swung their hind legs forward in unison and unleashed a torrent of reaction bolts from the weapons strapped to them.

Mort dropped flat to his scrape with his head turned toward PFC Krev, who promptly folded in half and shattered like a toppled ceramic.

An instant later, the Chokes overran them. Mort shoved his face in the mud. From there, all he could do was listen as the unsettling gurgle that gave the enemy their name washed over him. He squealed in pain as he took a crushing Choke foot to his shoulder and another to his calf. Finally, after a punishing few moments of relentless stampede, the gurgle rolled on, diminishing behind him amid a hail of gunfire.

* * *

Something warm and rough and wet closed around his hand and Mort slipped back into the present. It was Artie’s slimy mouth again, but this time Mort was in no hurry to escape it. It felt good, calming. His hand began to tingle.

Artie was the first to break the connection. It released Mort and then slithered in a tight circle to put a foot or so of space between them. Mort watched as the little guy’s scales stretched to reveal an opaque membrane beneath and its whole body bloated toward round. When the bulging stopped, Artie rocked back and forth a few times and then tumbled onto its back to expose its pale underbody.

“Do you want a belly rub?” Mort asked.

Something inside Artie’s chitinous head squeaked and a series of bubbles emerged from its mouthparts, rolling down the mucilaginous strands beneath its chin and popping into nothingness.

Mort took that as a yes.

Artie’s undercarriage was sleek and smooth and quite unlike the distended armor covering the rest of the little guy’s body. It felt good to Mort as he caressed it, but also inauthentic, owing to the electronic nervous system of his imitation arms. Struck by a sudden inspiration, Mort withdrew his bionic hand and replaced it with the top of his bare foot.

The second the naked skin of his foot brushed across the silky underscales, a deep relaxation washed over Mort. He collapsed onto his back in a patch of prickly sedge.

For the first time since basic, he wept.

He could go back home, back to school. He could start a family. He could make a difference.

Ten minutes later, it was all over.

The weight clutched at his neck, dragging him to the dirt. Artie munched on a spray of earthsbane in the distance, oblivious.

Mort wiped the snot from his nose and scratched the drying tears from his cheeks.

He saw Krev bend in half and shatter. He felt the Choke infantry stomping him into the mud, Pataba’s thunderous demise, Redmond sunder in his hands.

What if his aim had been better? Would Krev have survived? If he hadn’t been distracting Redmond, would she have made it? Surely, there must’ve been something he could have done differently to bring the rest of his team home alive.

Mort tightened his guts and squeezed his jaw, trying to force more of the cathartic tears, but nothing came. His body shook and flushed, but the attempt only made him feel worse. He glanced up and spotted Artie slithering toward him. When it arrived, the Choke goat puffed up and rolled onto its back, offering Mort another hit of relief.

Mort stared at the soft, inviting underbelly and felt the pull of need. He remembered the sample bottle of homebrew ethyl that Mejia had given him a while back, along with the reason he’d never cracked its seal. The path it opened. That’s what got Smudge, they say.

“No, Artie,” he said. “It’ll only make things worse.”

In truth, he wasn’t so much afraid of the slippery slope of addiction as the optimistic vision of a possible future that the little bastard had shown him. It was cruel. It was impossible.

Artie rolled upright and deflated with a series of squeaks and farts, then chowed down on a nearby patch of chokegrass as if he hadn’t even been rebuffed. Mort wished he could get over things as quickly as the little guy. He wished his life were as simple as eating, shitting, and getting belly rubs.

Mort watched Artie nibble away, content of purpose and free of worry, edging closer to a glint in the black grass that he quickly recognized as danger.

“Don’t eat that!” Mort shrieked, diving for the shell casing and scooping it up before Artie’s slobbery mouthparts could get near it.

The Choke goat puffed up in panic at the outburst and rolled onto its back as Mort looked for a safer spot to dump the brass. Removing it from the parcel outright was out of the question, so he settled on a solitary clump of jewelweed, the only specimen of its kind on his acreage. The blushing orange flowers made it easily discernible from afar and the earthly origin of the plant would keep Artie away from it.

Mort watched Artie a bit closer after that, making sure that his intel was correct and the little guy really did only have a taste for its native foodstuffs. Mejia’s word held up—Artie consumed solely Choke flora, avoiding even the smallest trace of earthly vegetation.

Its movements were almost balletic as it skirted and slithered and grazed.

* * *

The stench of drifting ammonia sullied the air, borne from the fresh craters that riddled the partially-fortified Marines of Alpha and Bravo Companies and swept up the small hillock to Mort and beyond.

Taking the opportunity offered by their side’s barrage, the bunching Choke infantry broke from behind their armored skiffs and charged the stunned defensive line before them. The bastards were quick, crossing the muddy field at an inhuman clip and reaching the hasty human scrapes before the occupying Marines could reorganize for a proper defense.

“They’re so fast,” Mort shouted, firing off a few token shots from his rifle. “How are they that fast? Why didn’t anybody tell me they were that fast?”

But the Chokes, shooting on the run and seemingly at random, were much less coherent in their tactics than the rapidly-reorganizing Marines. They had speed and numbers, true, but apparently no idea what to do after overrunning their enemy.

“Watch,” PFC Krev said.

When the tip of the Choke charge reached the last line of defenders, the bastards halted their advance and scattered, breaking off to tackle the surviving Marines with the serrated fists of their prehensile hind legs in overwhelming numbers. Moments later—between increasingly sporadic reports of conventional arms—the wind shifted, bringing with it a new sound. Cracking, like a forest of old trees toppling all at once. The Chokes had stopped moving, sheltering in place among the scrapes and human casualties.

“What are they doing?” Mort asked, unable to see any more detail over the distance.

“They’re eating them.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Fuckers burn so much energy in turbo mode that they have to keep eating throughout or they’ll drop dead.”

“You mean they really are maneaters? I thought that was just talk…”

Krev shrugged.

Mort tried and failed to find the words, eventually settling on a whispered, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”

* * *

He was back in the parcel. Artie held its head in the air nearby, its attention trained on Mort, but quickly returned to a budding scatter of deathistle when it determined that everything was okay.

It was clear to Mort that watching Artie go about its business was too close to idleness, and all the terrors that came along with it. He could help the little goat do its job, but that would only cleanse the parcel that much faster, so he dismissed the idea. Also out was the consideration of trying to stay busy inside the CHU. Nights were bad enough without them encroaching on the days. No, Mort realized, he would have to follow his orders and sniff out a new parcel. At least it would keep his mind busy.

And so, after wrapping a piece of meat pie in a tattered rag for the road and leaving Artie to its fun, he headed for the line of overgrowth that indicated the start of his neighbor’s parcel. He could’ve chosen the safe, denuded road for his travels like Mejia, but the boredom would’ve been an invitation to past horrors.

After he’d carefully marked his first few steps into a swaying ribbon of cocksfoot, Mort heard a heavy gust of wind whipping up at his back. In appreciation of the sensation of Demeter’s planetary breath on his cheeks, he turned to face it. But the wind was dead. The sound, he quickly discovered, came from the little Choke goat that slithered toward him at Choke speed.

Mort shook at the sight, reminded of the sprinting abilities of Choke infantry. He wondered if Artie would need to eat immediately afterwards. And if it had a taste for human limbs.

* * *

PFC Krev’s next burst of fire, which tore through human corpse and hungry Choke alike, was joined by like-minded fire to either side as what Mort assumed was the rest of Charlie Company took up position on their flanks.

The line of armored skiffs countered with another volley, this one aimed squarely at the bump of ridge that included Mort and Krev’s diminutive rise.

Though spared the worst, the concussions thundered in Mort’s throat and guts until he blew acrid chunks into the saturated muck beneath his chin. He wiped the hanging strings of saliva and sick from his mouth and returned to scanning the sector in front of him.

As if summoned by the exploding ordinance, the Choke infantry abandoned their grisly meal amongst the scrapes and scrambled for the hillock, ignoring the surviving handful of soldiers free to pick at them from their midst.

At the same time, Corporal Pataba reappeared, sliding into the mud at Mort’s side and scaring the shit out of him. The Corporal fired two successive grenade rounds at the approaching horde and then shouted, “How we doing, boys?”

“Stuck in a Charlie Foxtrot,” Krev replied, firing off a string of rounds.

Pataba’s hand flew to his earpiece. “Looks like this clusterfuck’s about to get unfucked,” he said. “Creeping barrage inbound, boys! Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine!

Before Mort could ask what a creeping barrage was, a cat’s cradle of friendly artillery screamed over their heads, past the charging Choke infantry, and straight into the skiffs, which promptly disappeared into a wall of fire and smoke.

Two more barrages followed the first, but the onrushing Choke infantry paid no attention to the devastation behind them, instead dedicating all their energy to impossible speed. Mort fired two rounds, dropping one of the bastards at a hundred yards, but there was no cause for celebration. Even with Krev and Pataba and all the riflemen of Charlie Company burning through them, the tide of Choke soldiers, though thinning, was certain to reach them.

* * *

When Artie reached the start of the overgrowth, it squealed and recoiled as the device on its horn activated. An instant later, it puffed up and rolled onto its back, terrified.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Mort said, remaining on his side of the invisible fence. “You gotta stay here, but I’ll be back.”

Artie deflated with the usual farts and squeals and proceeded to slide up and down the perimeter line, bubbling from its mouthparts as it searched in vain for a way through.

The sight of it made Mort feel uncomfortable, so he turned his back on the little guy and waded deeper into the unruly geoxenic heath of the neighboring parcel. After skirting a nasty spray of blood thyme a few minutes later, he glanced over his shoulder at Artie and was relieved to see the little guy back at work eating its fill.

Mort made his careful way through the heath, focusing all his energy and a resurgent concentration on the avoidance of any fatal missteps. After a while, he spotted the neighboring parcel’s CHU in the distance.

Someone in a full bunny suit leaned against its metal wall in the shade, taking a midmorning rest. Fresh meat, no doubt. Even at range, Mort could see that the sleeves on the suit were rolled up and taped in place at the elbow. The Corps had an absolute fetish for assigning amputees to gardening duty—the imitation limbs afforded full sensation without the dangers of skin contact.

Mort didn’t head over. He didn’t talk to any of his neighbors anymore. Not since he’d discovered the previous occupant of the parcel opposite, PFC Mata, dead in a spray of manwort. There was no point in meeting anyone new if they were just going to die.

The scent memory of cut stone and wish-pennies flashed to mind and Mort bent in half, gagging. The intestinal ropes that held Private Redmond together were so pink. So wet. So shiny.

He forced himself vertical and spat the lubricating drool from his mouth. Then he moved on, rededicating himself to the task at hand.

After a dozen or so parcels of chaotic, competitive heath, Mort reached a swath of cultivated land and decided to take a break. He was exhausted, but content. He’d been concentrating for two hours straight, and without any unpleasant memories cropping up. All he needed to do, it seemed, was put his life on the line, and he could be a functional human being again.

As he sat in a soft patch of darnel, gazing at the swaying veldt of safe, cleansed land before him, Mort’s stomach rumbled. He carefully unfolded the tattered rag he carried and produced the slice of meat pie. Even unwarmed, it smelled as good as it looked—its meaty richness emboldened by the fertile breeze rising from the veldt.

He took a bite and raised his face to the sky in appreciation. It was delicious. Three bites later, it was gone.

Flush with calories, Mort brushed off his lap wit the rag and headed into the cleansed grassland, now planted in rye. At first, he continued paying careful attention to his foot placement, but it soon became evident that this parcel was completely devoid of Choke flora.

A whisper of wind played by, rocking the crops surrounding him. Quickly, a gust whipped up, raising the whisper to a shouted lament of the million dead interred underfoot.

His stomach grumbled again, but now not from hunger. From distaste. The pie he’d inhaled a few minutes earlier sat in his gut like a rock.

Every square inch of arable land on Demeter grew from a compost of human death and disfigurement. The wheat for the flour, the meat from the pasture, all begotten from it. He was a cannibal, living off their flesh, their sacrifice.

And yet, there was something else to the flavor—a subtle trace of ammonia. A taste of Choke. For they too were in the land, despoiling all through their defeat.

Mort once again saw Krev at the top of the hillock, naked and covered in mud. He was a golem, human vengeance incarnate, sent by God to vanquish man’s enemies.

Then he was in pieces. Broken.

God had lost.

Bile stirred in Mort’s stomach, rose to the back of his tongue. With a heave, he puked all over his feet.

His throat burned and his mouth tasted terrible, but he was suddenly empty. It felt good to be empty. Now his stomach matched the rest of him.

But he had a new problem. He was alone in the middle of nowhere with no danger to distract him from his thoughts. He could head back to the heath and wander his way to the late afternoon, but, on some level, he still followed orders. Even if he hated the idea, he needed to find a new parcel. At least it gave him a goal.

And so he ran.

Beyond the rye, prickly cleansed grasses poked into his soles as he sprinted, grounding him through the pain. Then came the burning in his legs. And lungs. Yet still he ran. Sweat beaded on his forehead, streamed down his back, but he ran. He ran until the world melted and he staggered. Until he collapsed.

Into mud.

In an instant, Mort was back beside Pataba, face down in the muck while the Chokes trampled him. The golem was in pieces. Redmond was two sacks of meat sewn together by an elaborate stitchwork of perfectly pink sausages.

Mort sat up. His pants were wet, warm, and stank of piss. There were no Chokes around. No bodies. No friends but the children of friends, growing as false oats and solitary sedges at his flanks.

He dug up a handful of mud and held it to his nose. Geosmin. Earthly bacteria. The legacy of sacrifice.

The horrifying stench tethered him to place through time. He was on Demeter, not Limos. Not anymore. They’d won the battle. The Chokes were on the run, banished from the system as Limos had been banished and replaced by Demeter.

He glanced at his surroundings. The plants were patchy, but they were here—his fellow Marines, reborn. Beyond them stood a barren landscape, pure and unspoiled by death and decay. He stood up and scrambled headlong into its sterility.

The mud squeezed between his toes as he ran, ensconcing them in desolation. He ran until he spotted something in the distance that didn’t belong. Something mortal. He approached it and then collapsed onto his knees as recognition and exhaustion seized him.

He’d found a pair of boots.

On closer inspection, it was a single boot, constructed of full grain leather and half-buried in the narrow rain shadow of a cluster of anomalous knolls. Mort scratched through the fuzzy lichen that clung to it, born from the residue of bacteria and sebum and skin cells that lingered within. He clawed at the ground, digging, inviting desolate Limos beneath his fingernails to feed.

The boot was mostly uncovered by the time he discovered its mate, fully entombed in the soil beside it. Mort dug them both up, cleared them of dirt inside and out, tucked them under his arm. He knew better than to wear them.

Mort inspected the lining of the boots, found a name tag for the unfortunate bastard who had become uncoupled from his soles.

“Mort Louka,” he mumbled, decoding the faded lettering.

It took him a moment to realize he’d spoken his own name.

He studied the surrounding terrain, looking for any other sign of life. He found it not far away. Purslane. A small, scattered line of it, leading more or less back the way he’d come.

If they were his boots, then that meant the purslane had fed on his blood. Limos had stolen his ichor.

He wanted it back.

Mort dropped to his knees and ripped the closest clump of purslane from its roots. He tore the succulent leaves from their red stems with his teeth and chewed them. Tart, peppery liquid exploded against his tongue, dripping from the corners of his mouth. He picked the stems clean, denying Demeter his body, taking it back. But it still held some of him in the stems. So he ate them too, forcing down the herbaceous, astringent stalks.

Then he moved on to the next clump. And the next. Until his stomach was rigid and distended. But still there was more.

Tears streamed down his face. He had to eat it all. He glanced at his bionic arms. He was incomplete, broken. If only he could track down what was missing he could make himself whole again.

Mort forced down more of the slimy leaves, more bitter stems. His stomach gurgled, then lurched. He vomited all over himself, all over the ground, returning himself to the hungry planet.

But that wouldn’t do.

He scooped up a handful and brought it to his lips, then hesitated.

What was wrong with him? Had he gone mad? About to eat his own vomit, and for what? To regrow his arms? To regain a holistic sanity? That was crazy.

Mort wiped his hand on the ground beside his puddle of spew. In a few months, it might be a spray of peony or nasturtium. He was fertilizer, nothing more. One big sack of shit.

It was time for him to go home, he realized. Back to his parcel. He needed grounding, and this was not the place for it.

With the old boots of his old, complete self tucked under a damp armpit, he turned around and trudged back toward heath and home.

* * *

After navigating the minefield of safe, cleansed grassland and finding himself once more before the deadly geoxenic heath, Mort breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over. Now, with his life on the line, he could concentrate again.

Despite the peace it provided, the meticulousness required for traversing the heath was exhausting. Still, the second Mort spotted his CHU in the distance, thoughts of rest and recuperation were furthest from his mind. More than anything, and to his great surprise, he couldn’t wait to be reunited with Artie.

The sun was setting as he stepped out of the neighboring rough and into his familiar, well-maintained landscape. He spotted the area that Artie had been chewing on that morning, now delineated by vibrant tufts of earthly vegetation and carmine ruts that had lately nurtured Choke weeds. Artie, however, was nowhere to be seen.

After a short, frantic search, Mort found the little guy snoozing in the deepening shadows of the makeshift porch, flopped on its side.

“What are you doing, you lazy lump?” Mort asked it.

Artie deflated a bit with a gurgle and a fart and rolled onto its other side.

Mort sat beside it and caressed its splayed scales with his imitation hands.

“I missed you,” he said.

Bubbles escaped from Artie’s mouth, along with a tentative whine.

“Yeah, it was a tough day for me too,” Mort said. He held out his boots. “But I found these again, at least.”

Recalling the recovery of his shitkickers, he also recalled the trail of purslane begotten from his blood. But it wasn’t his legacy, he realized. At least not that of the broken him. No, it was the legacy of the old Mort Louka. The whole Mort Louka, with dreams and arms and friends.

And he’d tried to eat it.

Guilt grabbed Mort by the throat. He looked up from Artie, into the dwindling chiaroscuro of the neighboring heath. He should run to it, embrace it, end his suffering in its toxic embrace.

Instead, he brushed off his foot and brought the naked skin to Artie’s belly. He took a deep breath as they touched, ready for the flood of euphoria.

But none came. Artie’s belly was dry and cold.

Disappointed, Mort stormed into his CHU, slamming the door behind him.

He paced around the tight quarters, trying in vain to hold back the insistent memories. Artie’s medicinal narcotic had proved itself nothing but snake oil.

He needed something to do, so he inventoried the supplies that Mejia had dropped off earlier. There was enough to make a strawberry galette.

After banging together a dough and sticking it in the icebox to chill, Mort realized it was time to eat something. There were a few slices of game pie left, so he tossed one in the blender with some thinning water and engaged the squealing motor. The liquid sloshed into turbidity, then slowly incorporated into the solids, creating a utilitarian union of foodstuffs.

When it was ready, Mort shut down the motor, then cocked his head. The machine was no longer running, but the whining of its efforts lingered in his ears. It took him a confused moment to realize that the noise was coming from outside.

Mort threw open the door to the CHU and scrambled onto the porch. As he emerged, he heard the sound again and followed it to its source.

Artie.

The poor little guy was right where Mort had left it, bubbling from the mouth and teetering from side to side on its bloated body beneath the glaring lights.

He nudged it with the tip of a toe. The Choke goat whined again, so he knelt at its side.

“You feeling sick, buddy?” he asked, caressing Artie’s scales. “Did you eat something that didn’t agree with you?”

It was too dark to go scouring the parcel for possible poisons, but from what he’d seen earlier, Artie had left the human plants alone in favor of the Choke stuff, and it should know which of that was safe to eat. Mort dropped his hand to the little guy’s belly. It was still cold, still bloated. Mort’s thoughts drifted back to the last pet he’d owned, a hamster named Leroy. Two weeks into their cohabitation, Leroy had given birth to five squirming babies and been promptly renamed Lorraine.

Mort palpated the goat’s abdomen. Was Artie really an Arlene? Was this whimpering pain simply xenic childbirth?

Whatever was happening to Artie, Mort decided, was worth sending up the chain of command.

He headed back into the CHU and called HQ on the handset, but he may as well not have bothered. Nobody there knew what to do, or even if Artie’s behavior indicated a problem. The only thing they could agree on was that the veterinarian, the only person who might be able to help, was currently drunk off his ass and inoperative. They urged Mort to call back in the morning.

After disconnecting, Mort wandered back to the porch to see about making Artie a bit more comfortable. The goat was cold. Like Redmond had been.

He shook away the unwanted memories and headed back inside for some supplies. When Mejia had first dropped Artie off, the little guy had been warm and moist, so Mort decided to try to reproduce that state. He found a few extra blankets and stuffed them against Artie’s sides, then filled a mug with warm water.

The goat looked uncomfortable, so Mort propped its head on his lap while he sponged the water onto the little guy’s abdomen. For a few minutes, Mort found this good, fulfilling work, but boredom soon set in. With it came the dark thoughts.

He saw Artie in two halves, held together by glistening strings of pink sausages, babbling about the cold.

He’d treated the wound on her head. She was going to get better. He’d saved her. But he hadn’t. The head wound was a lie; the sausages, truth. Limos knew it. Limos was already absorbing her ichor, composting it to present a future blossom, its floral sweetness the stench of death, of loss, of waste.

Mort jumped to his feet, letting Artie’s head loll to one side. He ran into the CHU, to the distracting kitchen. He couldn’t look at Artie. He couldn’t help Artie. He couldn’t help anyone, least of all himself.

He pulled the dough from the icebox, rolled it into a crust, sliced the strawberries with a shaking hand. He had to stay busy.

While the galette baked, he paced the inside walls. One foot in front of the other. Focus on the steps. Ignore the whimpering outside.

When the dessert was done, Mort forced himself to bed without eating any of it. More than anything, he needed to sleep. He needed the morning to come so he could get back to work.

But he didn’t sleep. He lay there, listening to Artie’s whimpers. Listening to Redmond’s whimpers. Seeing Krev, the golem, break into pieces. Watching Pataba’s disappearing act. Damning the drunk veterinarian.

That gave Mort an idea: Mejia’s homebrew ethyl. Mort had made it a point to stay away from the stuff. Addiction preyed on ex-soldiers, he knew. He wasn’t going to give that demon a way in.

But drunk and inoperative sounded like just what he needed. He walked to the sink, opened the cabinet at his knee. The bottle was there, sealed. The fluid within appeared clear and innocuous.

He popped the top and took a drink. It burned. He relished the pain, took another swig. Then another. When it caught up to him, it caught hard. He staggered to bed, flopped on his face. And slept. For the first time in forever, he slept.

* * *

Something seized the back of Mort’s collar and jerked him to his feet. Away from the mud. Away from the bloody shards of Krev’s ruined golem.

He turned his rifle onto the culprit, which turned out to be Pataba.

“On me!” the Corporal shouted, then scrambled down the hillock toward the remnants of Alpha and Bravo Companies.

Mort stared at him, dumbfounded, until he noticed the surviving reserves of Charlie Company stumbling down the hill with him. His eyes darted to the wall of amorphous armor, now finally visible again. What he saw brightened his spirits considerably. Along the entire line, any skiff not pummeled into oblivion by the artillery was currently engaged by a surprising number of surviving anti-armor troops from Bravo Company, who were handily picking them apart.

With a whoop, Mort chased after Pataba. Beyond that line of broken armor, through gyrating wisps of smoke and steam, he could pick out hints of Choke fortifications. The POO site, no doubt, but also something more. Something big.

Fresh friendly artillery screamed over his head, hitting the distant redoubt and reporting its rage back to them a few seconds later. Gunfire echoed behind them as the engagement between Choke and human infantry wore on.

Mort forgot about Krev and Redmond and the horrors of war and licked his lips, ready to draw more Choke blood.

“Get some!” somebody screamed.

“Oorah!” he offered in return, running down from the hillock in his bare, bleeding feet.

A triad of Choke air cover shrieked from its fortress, no doubt to punish the Marine artillery. Before they were even overhead, two of the fast movers vaporized at the pointy end of friendly missiles and the third took a hit and dropped out of the sky.

Right toward Mort.

There was no time to react. It was in the air and then it wasn’t, smashing into Corporal Pataba and throwing Mort backwards into blackness and quiet.

* * *

Mort woke to a headache and an insufferable squeal outside. He glanced at the clock. Five hours until daybreak.

He pulled the blanket over his head with a groan, but the thin material was no match for Artie’s incessant cries. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing sleep to return, willing the planet to rotate away from idleness. But the damn thing kept whining.

He staggered out to the porch, his head still swirling from the ethyl. The little bastard was just where he’d left it, bloated and cold and dry. And loud as hell.

Mort knelt at Artie’s side and covered the thing’s bubbling mouth with his fake hand.

“You’ve got to quiet down,” he said. “I need to sleep.”

But Artie didn’t quiet down. If anything, its cries grew louder. After a moment, Mort noticed that the plaintive whimpers were coming from the gaps in its splayed scales rather than its bubbling mouth.

Mort clamped down on a few of the scales with his hands, muffling the sound a bit, but they popped back into place as soon as he let go. He glanced through the open door of the CHU, at the bed. He’d finally managed to get some decent sleep, after all this time, and the little bastard had fucked it up.

“Shut the hell up!” he shouted at Artie.

He scowled at the pathetic thing. It didn’t belong here. It was Choke, and everything Choke deserved extermination. They’d killed his kind, his friends. They’d taken his arms. They’d ruined him. Their very corpses corrupted the land. They were a pox on the universe, and Artie was a collaborator.

Mort scooped up the pathetic creature and walked it into the parcel. The simpering goat was surprisingly light for its size, which only added to its pitifulness.

When Mort reached the small depression where he’d spent the night before, he dumped Artie into it.

“Scream all you want now,” he said, then walked back to the CHU.

It was cruel, he knew, but he didn’t care. The safest thing for the little guy was for Mort and his anger to find some way to sleep until morning.

Back inside, Mort took a few more swigs of ethyl and sat on the side of his bed. He rubbed his hands across his overgrown face and listened. To silence. He sighed and fell onto his back, the mattress breaking his fall. He felt drained, exhausted even. He relaxed his body, determined to drift off.

And then there it was, on the extreme edge of his senses. A peep. A call. A plea.

That fucking goat.

Mort leapt out of bed, grabbed his rifle and a blanket for the body, and was out the door.

He stomped through the yard, unaffected by the chance of a wayward weed ending him. It would be a blessing. Eternal sleep.

As he pushed through the brush, Mort heard Artie louder and louder. The little bastard should’ve known better than to antagonize him. It should’ve known when to shut the hell up.

Mort arrived at the depression and threw the blanket to the ground. Then he leveled his weapon right in Artie’s stupid, needy face.

Fury frothed at the corners of his mouth. His lips curled. The rifle shook in his imitation hands.

Artie screamed. Mort slipped his finger over the trigger.

And stopped.

He relaxed his quivering muscles, lowered the rifle, and took a deep breath. The rage escaped with a protracted exhalation.

Mort took one hand off of his weapon and reached out for the little guy. Artie quieted and stretched for the hand, then took it in its sloppy, viscous mouth.

Tears moistened Mort’s cheeks. He didn’t know if Artie was simply trying to save itself or to make him feel better, but he didn’t care. He threw his rifle into a nearby clump of orchard grass, rearming the ghost of an unknown soldier, and hunkered down beside Artie, who curled in against him with a murmur.

Mort dragged the blanket over them both. He wrapped an arm around the goat, felt the rising vibration of sound coming from between the splayed scales. This time, however, the noise didn’t antagonize him. It calmed him.

He let out a whimper of his own and promptly fell asleep.

* * *

The morning was warm and humidan insulating ward between heaven and dirt.

Mort peeled back a blanket resplendent in dew, exposing Artie and him to Demeter’s breath. The goat had deflated overnight and no longer whimpered. Mort caressed its back, pleased. The scales were warm and wet, just what he’d been shooting for.

He stood up and Artie followed suit. Together, they ambled out of the depression and into a sprawling patch of fescue.

“Feeling better, buddy?” Mort asked, forgetting the emotions of the previous night.

Artie bubbled from its mouth while Mort directed it toward a tender regrowth of chokegrass. The little guy undulated over and dragged its mucilaginous whiskers across the inky groundcover, but balked at eating it.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Mort asked.

Scarcely had he the words out of his mouth when Artie puffed back into rotundity and pitched onto his side.

“Guess not,” Mort said, picking up the alien goat and trundling it toward the CHU.

He set Artie—now whimpering again—down on the porch and retrieved the handheld comm from inside. By the time he returned to Artie, the veterinarian was already on the line, sounding chipper and unimpeded from last night’s binge.

“This is Sook,” he said. “What have you done to my goat?”

Mort laid out the symptoms and the timeline.

Sook sighed. “Warm and wet is just as bad as cold and dry. Maybe worse. Warm and dry is the goal.” A pause, then, “How are its droppings?”

“I don’t know,” Mort said.

“You don’t know because you don’t know what you’re looking for or you don’t know because it hasn’t been pooping?”

“I don’t know.”

“Right. Take a look at its backside. You may have to manually disimpact it.”

“What? I’m not sticking my hand up that thing’s ass…”

“Just look.”

Mort rolled the bloated goat until he could see the target area.

“I don’t see a blockage,” he said. “Just more bubbles.”

The vet sighed again. “Sounds like a poisoning to me,” he said. “Has it eaten anything of earthly origin?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Well, you need to check.”

Mort stepped into the parcel. As he made his way toward the area where Artie had been munching the day before, he remembered his other hypothesis. “Is it possible that Artie… that this thing… is pregnant and in labor right now? I had this hamster, Leroy—“

“No.”

“But how do you—“

“It’s sterile. That’s why they sent it out here in the first place. It was useless for their breeding program, so they shipped it to Demeter.”

Mort shook his head. Is that what this planet was? A dumping ground for the infirm and undesirable?

“So what am I looking for?” he asked.

“Anything earthly that looks trampled or chewed on…”

Mort noted the carmine ruts Artie had opened up the day before, but such disturbances precisely skirted any earthly plants. He walked along the track, checking and double checking any potential toxins on the way. And then he stopped.

At the end of the tilled path, he spotted a familiar plant. Jewelweed. Trampled.

He shuffled over to it, taking his time, hoping his eyes had deceived him. When he reached it, however, there was no doubt. He probed the slimed and matted remains with his imitation fingertips, unable to find the spent brass he’d dumped there as an insurance policy against eviction.

Reluctantly, he keyed the comm.

“I think I found something,” he told Sook.

“What?” the vet asked.

“Looks like it ate a cartridge casing in with some jewelweed.”

“Impossible. Why would it eat metal? And why would it have anything to do with a plant like jewelweed?”

“The casing had breatherfew smeared all over it. Maybe that confused the poor little guy.”

“Breatherfew? I thought you said it was in with jewelweed…”

“It was. But I found it the first time in with the breatherfew. Then I dumped it in with the jewelweed.”

“Why in the hell would you—“

“Just drop it, all right? Would eating metal do this to Artie… err, to the goat?”

“Sure.”

Mort scratched at some earthly soil with a toe. “So how do we fix it?”

“We don’t.”

“What?”

“Or, rather, we can’t. You said it’s bubbling from both ends, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then it’s already too far through the digestive process to extract through the mouth. Surgery would be the only way.”

“Then let’s do that.”

“Can’t. These buggers don’t survive anesthesia. You killed it, Louka. I’ll send Mejia out for the body tomorrow. That should be enough time. Sook out.”

Mort sank to the ground. A ripple drove down his spine and wrapped itself around his ribs.

He thought he’d saved the little guy from a death by rifle the night before, but he hadn’t saved anything.

A rustle behind him grabbed his attention. Pushing through a tuft of xenic foliage, deflated and trying its best, was Artie, making its pathetic way toward Mort. Toward its unstable friend.

Mort stared at the little guy, trying to visualize the spent cylinder poisoning it from within, and took a shuddering, involuntary breath. Even empty, the brass could still kill. Reincarnated as toxic plants, the dead Chokes could do the same. Was there no end to this war?

He gazed at a nearby patch of carmine soil that Artie had exposed the day before. The color came from the high metal content of composted Choke bodies, he knew. Choke plants loved metal. They thrived on it. Even their microbes did. That’s why the brasses on Demeter weren’t shiny, but matte. They were being eaten, transmuted into soil amendments by invisible teeth. The same thing would be happening to the cartridge in Artie’s guts, but the process was way too slow to help the little guy. It had hours, not decades. If Mort wanted to help Artie, he’d need an entire field of the stuff.

He froze—paralyzed by a thought, a hope.

In addition to microbes, certain Choke plants could fix metals, enriching the carmine soil. He didn’t know of any species that could consume a spent round in a matter of hours, but he knew where to look.

Spurred on by the power of possibility, Mort leapt to his feet and sprinted for the CHU. Once inside, he tore open the xeno-taxonomy book and flipped to the requisite table.

Choler peas, earthsbane, retchvetch—they all ranked as “low” for metal-fixation, along with the majority of entries. There were a handful of “medium” as well, but only one “high.”

Carnage rose.

Mort had never heard of it, so he leafed to the noted page. After a ravenous skim, he learned that it only grew where excessive amounts of both metal and nutrients mixed. Hence, the carnage. The appearance of manwort indicated a location of suitable growth habitat.

Of course.

He closed the book and shuffled to the open doorway of the CHU. Leaning against the jamb, he stared into the hazy distance.

At a hillock, sprinkled in the telltale turquoise of manwort. A hillock, smothered in terror and death and hate. A hillock, the last place he wanted to go. Artie’s last hope.

* * *

The air stank of pungent alkalinity and agony. Thunderous paroxysms of spent rage pummeled the muddy desolation. Mort lay on his back, staring up into a slate sky scratched white by trails of tracer and scramjet.

“Pataba!” he shouted, listening for a lull in the chaos and the Corporal’s response.

But when the scream of battle finally paused for a breath, the only sound he heard above the growl of tinnitus was that of his childhood hamster lapping at its water bottle. Such an observation didn’t strike him as particularly odd or notable. More pressing was just how thirsty the memory of that water bottle made him feel. He licked his cracked lips and probed for a handful of water in the mucky dents surrounding him.

His left arm, however, refused to cooperate. As he thought about it, he realized that he couldn’t feel it at all. Panicked, he twisted to one side.

Directly into a Choke soldier.

The bastard balanced between its two front legs and prehensile club tail in a squat, chowing down on Mort’s arm with its dirty undermouth. Several blue-black tongues studded in serrated crystals flashed beneath the crimson lips of its irised vent, flaying his deadened arm before his eyes.

Blessed with an autonomic burst of adrenaline, Mort snapped into a sitting position and threw his right fist at a soft spot of articulation in the Choke’s obsidian shell as hard as he could.

Unfortunately, as hard as he could was not at all.

Before he could even turn to verify what he knew to be true, that his right arm was no longer attached, he collapsed onto his back in a swirl of vertigo. The sound of his hamster at the water bottle returned, but he now knew it for what it was: the rending tongues of a dirty Choke.

His heart hammered in his chest, but not from fear. He felt nothing on an emotional level, instead retreating to his brief medic training. Taken together, he knew what the combination of dizziness, tachycardia, and thirst meant.

He was bleeding to death.

* * *

Mort jerked back to the present and closed his open mouth. He was still against the jamb of his CHU, still staring at the distant hillock. He shook his head. There was no telling if he’d find any carnage roses up there, and even less that they would do any good if he did. Why should he risk going up there, facing those traumas, on a fool’s errand for a dying head of Choke livestock?

Artie whined—a pathetic, bleating sound that drew Mort’s ire. He should just end the bastard. That’s what the Chokes would’ve done to a dog or a cow or a Marine. Mort imagined his rifle back in his hands, pointed at Artie the night before. He had spared the little guy, but why?

He thought back to his childhood hamster, Leroy/Lorraine. Shortly after it had given birth, Leroy/Lorraine had grown weird hair and stopped eating. Mort had begged and bargained, but his stepdad had popped the hamster’s neck anyway, just like that. As if Mort’s little friend had meant nothing.

Mort had laid his hamster to rest in a hole in the front yard, wrapped in a paper towel. A year later, dandelions sprouted on the spot. His stepdad snuffed them out with herbicide.

Blood rushed to Mort’s head. His mom’s husband had prepared him for war, the Corps had taught him the rules, and the Chokes had reinforced it all. Life was fragile and meaningless and cold—and if he left Artie to die, he would be complicit in that reality. But, if he did the ridiculous and stormed the hillock for the sake of an insignificant alien, perhaps he could begin rewriting what had once seemed indelible into a palimpsest of mercy over rage.

His mind made up, Mort returned the portable comm to its recharging station in the CHU and headed for the wardrobe. Inside were several pristine bunny suits, still in their plastic. He tore one open and slipped it on. The hillock lay beyond the geoxenic heath, in an untamed thicket of supersized vegetation at the heart of the battle. The sporadic, immature Choke flowers of his and the adjoining parcels, and even the pioneering sprays of the heath, were safe enough to breathe around naturally, but the highly fertilized bramble he was about to face might not be. He needed to be prepared.

He shoved his feet into his old boots, still caked in dried soil and a film of pioneering lichen, then sealed them to the suit with an expeditious layering of tape. He peeled back the sleeves, drawing them two-thirds of the way up his bionic arms, and then taped them in place as well. Next up, he donned the soft helmet and engaged the respiratory filters. Then, insulated against the outside world, he headed out, with Artie tucked under one arm and the binder on Choke plant taxonomy clutched in the other.

He abhorred returning to the hillock, to the last resting place of his arms and Krev and Pataba and Choke and Marine alike. If it had to be done—and, for Artie’s sake, it did—he was glad he could do it with the distance the suit provided. He wouldn’t have been able to face the place naked.

As he stomped through the heath, unconcerned by the defanged villains at his feet, his mind found room to wander. At first, the dread of the fast approaching hillock tempered this tendency, but the distraction didn’t last.

Suddenly, he lay on his back, armless and bleeding out. The Choke squatted beside him, munching, refueling for another charge. Then gunshots, reinforcements, the Army bringing up the rear as usual. Ammonia. Rescue. Rehab. Redeployment.

Mort shook his head, returning to the present. Such reminiscences would only get worse as his looming target drew nearer, he knew. He needed something else to occupy his attention. A game, perhaps.

His eyes, protected and reassured beneath the soft helmet, drifted over the nearby terrain and he found that he could read it as a sort of battle map. Here, the scattered, parallel lines of a failed retrograde peel written in bachelor’s button and New Jersey tea. There, a last stand of willow saplings defying a funneling channel of well-fed deathistle.

Mort kept at the game for a while, until the euphemism finally ruptured and he sat down with Artie amongst the graves. For that’s what they were. This whole planet was a cemetery. So eager was the military to press its advantage after winning Limos that they abandoned the raw materials of that victory.

Oh, the strategic metals of wreckage and fallen arms were recovered, but the spent skins of lost Marines were left to succor barren Limos, to nurse it into Demeter.

During his rehab, the shrinks had told Mort that his fallen squad mates were the lucky ones. They were at peace. Their war was over. Only he and the rest of the survivors continued to suffer. But it was a lie.

Demeter lived on the blood of Marines. And, in a sense, the murdered Marines lived on in Demeter. Borne again into battle with the Chokes, an eternal conflict between the resurrected. Demeter was a Marine now, their union baptized in blood and pain. That Marine was under fire by the invasive Choke plants—ever at war, with only Mort and his fellow ruined golems to protect it.

Mort closed his eyes and raised his arms, allowing the breath of vital Demeter to play against them. Someday he too would die. Maybe being buried here wouldn’t be so bad.

When he opened his eyes, he spotted several shooting flower clusters of summersweet nearby—particolored in pinks and creams. Though his sealed suit blocked the aroma, his nose remembered days of youth and unburdened glee, when the sweet scent filled his lungs on trips down to his grandparents’ pond. But above that, a new, heavier memory—so heavy that it crushed the lightness of his halcyon days to a forgotten whisper. The party had become a wake.

The sweetness cloyed in his mind, choking him. It was no longer the perfume of happier days, but the stench of Redmond dead in his arms. Of crying, broken families who would wait forever for their loved ones to never return.

The Chokes had ruined flowers for him. A link to the cradle, severed for him forever.

Though even on Earth, the cost of life had been death. The cost of beauty, horror. For the humus of birth relied on the ashes of death. Who had died for Mort to be born? His great-grandparents? Presidents and emperors? Vagrants and cobblers? He’d have refused to pay the cost, but no one had ever asked him.

Mort wandered over to the plant and fingered one of its complicated flower clusters.

“Who were you, summersweet?” he mumbled inside his suit. “Did you die for kind or credit? Easy or hard?”

Mort glanced up. The hillock loomed above him. He froze at the sight.

Krev’s golem skylined its apex, firing the M440 into certain defeat. Pataba stood at Mort’s side, reminding him to retrieve his rifle. That would put Redmond…

His eyes dropped to the summersweet plant. To two summersweet plants, actually—linked by the pink, sausage-like flowers of a diminutive foxtail amaranth.

Recognition seized him and Mort collapsed at Redmond’s grave. Tears streamed down his face, fogging up the inside of his mask. Nausea shuddered in his throat.

He rolled his hands into fists and looked for something to pummel. He found Artie, whimpering and inflated, so he crawled after the bastard. Artie didn’t belong here. It was Choke. It had killed Redmond.

His stepdad and the Corps were right. Death to the weak and nonhuman.

Mort searched the ground for a weapon. It didn’t take long to find an unspent BMG cartridge that the scavenge sweep had missed. Mort gripped it in a fist and raised it above Artie’s helpless body, primed for murder.

Artie deflated in a thunderous, belching fart. Mort started at the sound, then bolted, spurred on by a conspiracy of place and mindset. Krev needed him at the hillock.

As he ran, bile burned in the back of his throat. A few more steps and it erupted, overflowing down his chin and soiling the inside of his suit. Yet still he stumbled forward, wading through the mud, struggling to reach the golem with the machine gun.

When he crested the summit, the whole of the battlefield opened before him. Scores of entrenched Marines engaged in futile combat against an unending tide of bloodthirsty Chokes. The teeming masses broke against, then inundated the hasty foxholes. An impervious line of adamantine armor blanketed the sky with ordnance beneath the screaming teeth of hungry air cover.

Mort vomited again, spewing his terror across the inside of his face shield, obfuscating the world behind wriggling streams of acid and chunk. The stench was febrile and noxious, suffocating. He dropped to his knees. The Chokes were coming. Krev needed him for a few minutes before he broke into bloody pieces. Pataba too.

But he couldn’t help them if he couldn’t see them. He clawed at the tape sealing his helmet to his suit, breathless, terrified. He had to get out.

His fingertips found an edge and he exploited it, unwinding his way toward freedom. When he’d run out of raw material to unwind, he tore off the soft helmet, plunging out of sour hypoxia and into the cool, quenching breath of Demeter.

Three thirsty inhalations of the endemic perfume and the raging battle vanished before his eyes. Gone were the formations and maneuvers and bottlenecks of mass death, replaced by a kaleidoscope of blossoming meadowland that swept down the declivity in front of him, ending in a wispy haze of transpired vapor.

He expected a tortured pall in the air at the very least, but there was nothing–as if he were not standing atop the open-skied deathbed of scores of thousands. As if the battle had never happened.

But it had happened. For without that gift of death, Limos would never have become Demeter. He should never forget that precious donation, leached from the recent past as a present to a thriving future of play and plenty.

For the first time, Mort noticed that he stood up to his armpits in a herbaceous melange of geoxenic foison. The rustling bramble of the hillock, whipped into motion around him at the behest of another roiling gust of wind, blew its sweet bouquet across his nostrils. Not the cloying, charnel sweet of composted human suffering, nor the fetid, acrid perfume of the Choke efflorescence, but a new aroma. The true breath of a waxing Demeter.

He inhaled deeply, absorbing hearty alien pollens and unstudied compounds that in turn triggered synapses and chemical releases in novel ways among his tissues.

Suddenly, Mort saw the sprawling paradise before him for what it was—Choke and human, forever fused down to the bedrock of an infant ecosystem consecrated in a pool of ichor and abbreviated lives on both sides.

Demeter was as much a reborn Choke soldier as a Marine—indeed, some inexorably linked hybrid of the two. Whether Chokes had mothers or not, he didn’t know, but they certainly had dreams, or why else this war? Those dreams, like their human counterparts, now rested in the soil, birthing a union of opposites.

The only way to properly honor the sacrifice of the dead of both species was to let their cost be worth the return. The world after needed to be forged into a world worthy of all the death that created it. Mort would cultivate it—on his own if need be. That would be his gift to Redmond, to Krev, to Pataba, to the Choke soldier who had eaten his arms. Were they alive, they likely wouldn’t understand his present, but he’d give it nonetheless.

But first, the carnage rose.

Mort slinked through the bramble, parting curtains of swaying needlegrass and brittle manwort, climbing over tangles of barberry and under briars of blood thyme. He knew where Krev had fallen to pieces, where his own arms had abandoned him, but he could find nothing in the undergrowth to denote those sacrifices. There was too much death on the hillock to differentiate side or individual.

Finally, beyond a thicket of benign chokewillow, he found his target.

He found the carnage rose.

Several of them, in fact.

The taxonomy binder had warned against expecting something in diabolical black or sanguine crimson, teeming with inhospitable thorns and deadly toxins. Instead, he spotted a clumping mound of smooth and solitary gray stems capped in nondescript ivory blossoms kissed by a fine rim of faintest rust.

A rustling in the nearby vegetation garnered Mort’s eye. It was Artie, deflated and pushing its awkward way through a spray of cocksfoot.

Mort motioned the little guy toward the carnage rose.

“Come on,” he said. “This’ll make you all better, I hope.”

But Artie wouldn’t move. He only bubbled and shook in place.

Mort snapped off one of the stems and brought it over to the goat. Artie dragged his mucus whiskers across the bloom, then took a tentative bite.

“Good job,” Mort said. “Now a little more.”

Artie bubbled and turned its head away. Mort followed the movement with the stem, pushing it at the goat’s slimy mouth, but Artie whined and threatened inflation with a sharp fart, so he desisted.

“Still no appetite?” Mort asked, petting Artie’s warm, moist back.

He knew what the little guy was going through. He thought back to the game pie he’d been eating over the last few days. Sometimes, no matter how appealing food smelled, the only way to get it down was to liquefy and drink.

Mort didn’t know which part of the carnage rose plant would prove most medicinal for Artie, if it did at all, so he uprooted the whole thing, revealing the vibrant carmine of Choke soil beneath.

He scratched up a handful of the red soil. It was moist, and conformed to the topography of his fist.

Taken by an idea, he scuffed up a nearby patch of heather with the tip of his boot. The humus he exposed was dark brown and still moist from the overnight rains. Earthly. He took a scoop.

Then, holding the ideal soils of the two rival species in either hand, Mort pressed his palms together, fusing them into one. When he released the pressure, they crumbled apart, so he called Artie over. The little goat undulated to his side and Mort ran the dirt under its mucilaginous whiskers, saturating the soil in its viscous wetness.

When the amalgam in his hands finally held together, Mort shaped a pair of rough arms and legs for it. Then a head. After he’d finished, he held a piebald homunculus in his hands. All that remained was the finishing touch.

For the first time in as long as he could remember, he delved into the past on purpose, recalling the exact lines of Krev’s tattoos. And that was it. He didn’t see the PFC falling to pieces, or Redmond’s guts, or an endless army of maneaters—just the tattoos. Exactly what he wanted to and nothing more.

With the lines of the Hebrew letters fresh in his mind, Mort scratched the word “met” onto the doll’s chest with a nearby stalk of marjoram. Death. Then, with the gift of aleph, life, “met” became “emet,” death became truth, and the invocation was completed.

Demeter now had a proper protector. A defender of this new union, galvanized by the life of disparates become equal.

Satisfied, Mort left the fledgling golem behind at the hillock. He stuffed the binder and as much carnage rose as would fit into his upturned helmet, then, with it under one arm and Artie under the other, descended from the lush rise.

As he passed by Redmond’s final resting place on the way back to the CHU, he let his fingertips brush across the flower clusters of her summersweet. Several of the blossoms fell off at his touch. He picked a few of them up and slipped them into his helmet for posterity, but left the rest where they lay. They were just that much more food for the next generation of life spawned from Redmond’s reorganized molecules.

* * *

The walk back down to the parcel was one of joy and communion for Mort. Echoes of human and Choke alike stood shoulder to shoulder in this brave new world. Thyme to blood thyme. Feverfew to breatherfew. Thistle to deathistle. Their pollens mingled in the air, their soils at ground, perfuming the bastard, Demeter, with the breath of legitimacy. A scent of its own. A scent of hope.

A hope obliterated at the perimeter of Mort’s impeccable homestead.

As soon as he saw his parcel—deprived of a unified parity, defined by thriving oat and fleeting, ragged chokegrass, by brown over red, by geosmin over xenosmin—he wept, salting the fruits of his ignorant labors with dripping tears.

But there was no time to waste. Artie whimpered under his arm.

Mort brought the Choke goat straight into the CHU and nestled him onto the bed, then pulled out the blender from its spot in the kitchen. He stuffed the glass jar with as much of the carnage rose as would fit, added some water, and hit the button.

The blades spun, slapping at the root ball and foaming up the liquid, but stubbornly refused to incorporate. He added a bit more water, then urged it back into action. This time, the rose disappeared into the water with a ululating growl and was quickly chewed into a murky gray purée.

Mort carried the blender jar to Artie and held it in front of the little guy’s bubbling mouth. The goat dropped its mucilaginous whiskers inside, tasting the carnage rose purée. It even took a little in its mouth, but quickly spat it back out.

“Come on, Artie,” Mort said. “You can do it.”

Mort scooped up a handful of the stuff and held it in front of Artie’s mouth. The goat refused it.

A despondent rage bubbled up inside Mort. The scent memory of the unified perfume on the hillock was fading, and the effects on his physiology with it. He remembered the feeling of communion, of epiphany, on an intellectual level, but no longer experienced it as a visceral truth. Had it only been pharmacological happenstance? Was the unity of human and Choke nothing but a narcotic delusion, a drug-addled gestalt? Just another lie?

He scowled at Artie. “Take your goddamn medicine!” he shouted.

Artie recoiled at the sound.

“Don’t you know what’s good for you?”

Mort shoved the slop, now dripping between his fingers, into the goat’s idiotic, alien face. Artie turned away, whining.

“Just eat it, you piece of shit! Eat it or I’ll shove it down your fucking throat, you ungrateful bastard! I hiked all the way to the top of that hillock. I faced my demons. For you. And you won’t even save your own miserable life? I ought to beat you to death with my bare hands, you goddamn Choke!”

Mort’s fingers curled into fists, squishing the purée through their gaps. He glanced at the last quarter of ethyl beckoning from the nearby bottle, then the rusty residue of Smudge peeking out from beneath a disheveled bedsheet. Perhaps his predecessor had been right. Perhaps blowing one’s head off was the sanest reaction to this place. Mort tried to recall where he’d left his rifle.

As his thoughts turned toward nihilism, something slimy enveloped one of Mort’s hands. He peered down. It was Artie, stretching to the edge of the bed in an effort to make him feel better.

Mort smiled, the gesture shattering his negative feedback loop. He loosened his fist, then chuckled as the goat probed its topography. Suddenly, he realized that Artie wasn’t just trying to salve his mental pains, but was actually slurping up the purée.

When it had cleaned the mashed up carnage rose from his hand, Mort slipped free of the little guy’s mouth and dug a fresh scoop from the blender jar. Without so much as dragging its whiskers across the medicine, Artie slurped Mort’s palm clean. They repeated this maneuver several times, until the purée was half gone and Artie finally groaned in contentment, curling into a crescent.

Mort hopped onto the bed beside it. He pulled Artie close, spooning the serpentine goat and caressing the warm, moist surface of its scaly side. And there he lay, content, until Artie twisted to nuzzle his hand.

Mort took the gesture as a sign of resurgent hunger and collected another scoop from the blender jar, which Artie promptly scarfed down. Only when the jar had been emptied did Artie finally settle down, this time for the night.

Again Mort spooned the little guy, who was feeling drier by the moment. The medicine was working.

And then, something even more miraculous happened. Mort fell asleep.

* * *

The next morning—for Mort and Artie had slept through day and night and on past the subsequent sunrise—Mort stretched his static muscles and stumbled into the kitchen. He snapped off an intact stem of carnage rose and brought it to the Choke goat, interested to see if it were healthy enough to eat solid food now.

When Artie refused it, Mort patted its head, which was now completely dry.

“That’s okay,” he said, heading for the blender. “We can do a liquid diet until you’re back on your feet. Or whatever you have.”

Mort heard a clunk behind him and pivoted to see Artie on the ground, slithering for the closed CHU door. When the little guy reached it, it turned its head toward Mort and whimpered.

“You want to go out?” he asked, walking over.

The second the door swung open, Artie shot through it, undulating across the porch and into the parcel proper. When Mort finally caught up to it, the little goat had stopped in a patch of young chokegrass. It dragged its tasting whiskers across the fresh growth, then turned its head both ways, as if scanning the air. It gurgled, and, for a moment, Mort half-expected it to explosively inflate. Instead, it raised its hind end and excreted a curling, split trail of vibrant carmine manure.

After it was finished, Artie made three prideful loops around its creation, then took a bite of chokegrass, ready to fill itself back up.

A sound in the distance drew Mort’s gaze and he spotted Mejia’s wagon drawing near, so he ambled over to meet up with the Sergeant in the usual spot. There was a second figure in the wagon, he soon discovered, clad in full bunny suit and helmet. Mejia, as usual, wore drab cammies and a basic respirator.

When they arrived, the figure in the full suit looked Mort up and down and then alighted from the wagon.

“PFC Louka?” the man inside asked.

Mort nodded.

“I’m Lieutenant Sook. I’m here for the carcass.”

Mort pointed into the parcel, unable to suppress a grin. “The carcass is having breakfast right now. You’re gonna have to wait a few minutes.”

The eyes on the other side of the helmet’s viewport widened. “You mean it’s still alive? What… how… but that’s impossible. You said it was bubbling out of both ends…”

Mort again gestured into the yard. “See for yourself,” he said.

Sook scrambled past him, stopping when he picked out the shape of Artie, still munching on the chokegrass.

“How’d you do it, Louka?”

“I knew that certain Choke plants digested metal, and the carnage rose most of all. So I collected some specimens and fed them to the little bugger.” Mort shrugged. “It worked.”

Sook shook his head in disbelief. For the next few minutes, the three of them watched the Choke goat eat in silence.

Finally, Sook said, “I’d still like to take it back to the clinic for a few days.”

“Probably a good idea,” Mort said. He motioned across the parcel. “Artie!”

The little guy broke from the tail end of its breakfast and slithered straight over to Mort.

“It comes when called?” Sook asked, incredulous.

“Seems that way,” Mort replied.

“And what about its stool?”

“Red as red can be.”

“Do you have a specimen? I only need a teaspoon…”

Mort nodded and pointed out its location. “Knock yourself out.”

The lieutenant retrieved a sample bag from the wagon and practically skipped straight for the carmine poo.

Mort glanced up at a frowning Mejia.

“Command says you’re done here, Louka,” she said. “That little goat was a prime piece of tech and you damn near killed it in a day. They’re moving you out.”

Mort stared at the ground. “Off planet?” he asked.

Mejia laughed. “It’s punishment they’re after, so you’re staying here. No place worse than Demeter at the moment if you ask me. Well, maybe the Front, but you’re combat ineffective. They don’t let looney birds like you at the tip of the spear.”

“So where am I headed?”

“Mud city,” Mejia replied. “There’s a parcel back in the mustering zone, where you lot first made planetfall to liberate this armpit. Not much there. A couple little plants, some lichen. Less than a day’s bushwhack from here, but somehow still the ass end of nowhere. Or as you’ll call it, home.”

Mort grinned. “No place I’d rather be,” he said.

* * *

Mort lay on his cot, studying the pinpricks of light that punctured the roof of his tent. After a stretch that quickly became a grimace, he sat up and coughed, banishing the unfamiliar sluggishness that accompanied unbroken sleep.

His eyes locked on the single-burner camp stove propped atop a dwindling case of canned beans and wheat protein in the corner.

“The breakfast of champions,” he mumbled to himself.

After powering down a hot can of calories, he slipped through the tent’s entry flap and debouched into the relative desolation of his exile.

The morning was cool and wet from another night of gentle rain. Mort’s toes sank into the top inch of drying mud as he made his way to the freshly replenished cistern. He rinsed himself off and then peeled back the enormous tarp that protected his drying mud bricks from the nocturnal rains.

He scanned the company of bricks, 192 in all, lain in perfect rows, subdivided into platoons and squads and fire teams and individuals. Facing them were another 192 bricks under a second tarp, but of a slightly different hue. Redder.

Though mothered by the same loamy rise, the brown bricks had been amended with rye and straw and earthly grasses, while those in the red ranks had been reinforced by wild Choke grasses from the adjacent heath. Mort planned to alternate them in the construction of his new hovel.

Command wasn’t about to drag a CHU through the unbroken country surrounding his new parcel, so the construction of his new quarters was up to him. The bricks had been five days in the making. One more day and they would be dry enough to seal and lay. In the meantime, he could begin his real project.

Mort headed down the slope, one of many low hills created by the landing of their dropships on Limos a lifetime ago. He skirted the hole that had once held his abandoned boots and knelt down amongst the purslane that had gained purchase on the land thanks to the blood of his younger self.

He scraped a wide rectangle around the feeble plants, clearing the top layer of mud and exposing the unscented, barren soil below. From there, he dug down another six inches with his hands, disturbing the soil in preparation for the next step.

A whispering scrape drew his attention over a shoulder and he smiled. Slithering along the thin layer of mud, straight toward him, was Artie.

“Hey, buddy,” Mort said as the little goat sidled up to him.

He petted its head—now free of the band which confined it to a single parcel—and then let his hand trail down its scaly back. Artie gurgled and then inflated, rolling over to expose its belly. Mort caressed it with his replacement hands. After a moment, Artie scooted itself toward his bare foot.

“No thanks,” Mort said, remembering the tranquilizing effect of the little guy’s belly. “Don’t need it.”

Artie deflated with an extended fart and made its way over to the boot hole. When it reached it, it raised up its hindquarters and dropped its daily poo right into the hole.

“Much appreciated,” Mort said.

Artie slithered in two circles and then returned for more love.

Mort had brought Artie’s carmine manure with him from the old parcel and deposited it in the hole for future use. Somehow Artie, freshly reassigned to a nearby spot, had caught wind of this occurrence and registered Mort’s boot hole as its new toilet. Every morning since then, the alien goat had appeared to do its business and say hello to Mort.

After they’d visited for a while, Mort gave Artie a final pat and sent him on his way. Artie’s new handler didn’t like the little guy to be gone too long. She didn’t like it to be gone at all, but Artie wouldn’t poop anywhere else, so Command let it slide.

After Artie had gone, Mort collected the nutritious contents of the little guy’s toilet and sprinkled them across the disturbed soil of the rectangle, then did the same with his tilapia powder and the few pieces of spent brass he’d smuggled over from his old parcel. After all three amendments were in place, he tilled them into the soil.

It was ready.

Mort washed his hands at the cistern and then headed back to the tent. After a quick search of his duffel, he found Smudge’s old paper book of depressing poems and brought it out to the nascent garden.

Standing above the freshly tilled soil, he let the tome fall open. There, between a pair of random pages, he’d pressed two blossoms—one of carnage rose and the other, Redmond’s summersweet. He shook the seeds free from the flowers, then let them cascade along the binding of the book into his bionic palm. As he held the seeds of Demeter’s unified future in his hand, he hesitated.

A gentle breeze tickled the coarse hairs of his unkempt beard, its scent registering as neither the lifeless powdered rock of his initial deployment nor the festering halitosis of its aftermath, but rather a paradoxically pleasant combination of the two. It was Demeter’s own breath, casting seed and spore and the offerings of its dead as it alone saw fit.

Mort glanced at the contents of his hand and shook his head. Who was he to dictate a design to a planetary god?

He returned the seeds to the book, then snapped it shut and glanced at the fertile patch between his bare feet. He’d cultivate this place, create a foundation, but the rest was up to Demeter.

Mort dropped to his knees and extended his index finger to the ground. Remembering the few characters of Hebrew with which he was familiar, he added life to death and created truth.

____

Copyright 2018  Brian Koukol

Brian Koukol, raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, now makes his home among the salt breezes and open spaces of California’s Central Coast. A lifelong battle with muscular dystrophy has informed the majority of his work, which is written with the aid of voice recognition software. His words have appeared in The Delmarva Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Phantaxis Magazine, amongst other places. Visit his author website: www.briankoukol.com

Still Life

by Victoria Feistner

“And I’m tellin’ you, leave him alone.” The gun pointed at the gang was from a different world: an antique, short-barrelled shotgun, the stock worked in bronze. The bearer of the gun didn’t match the delicate filigree either—a short, stocky woman, hair tied back under a wide-brimmed fishing hat of dubious age, and a filthy camping poncho. The mud-splattered all-terrain vehicle she sat astride had also seen better days.

A curiosity and an annoyance. The leader of the local gang swung Oliver by the arm lock around his neck so that he could peer, scowling, at the interloper. “He your boyfriend or something?”

The American’s dark eyes narrowed, regarding each gang member in turn. “I know what you’re thinkin’. You’re thinkin’ I look like an easy target, all on my lonesome like this, standin’ up for god-knows-who on the edge of town. But you gotta ask yourself: would a lone woman do what I’m doin’? Or would I be distractin’ you while my partner—the one with the long-range rifle—sets up on a near-by roof?” The gun made an ominous click. “Let him go.”

The local gang, it had to be said, was not at the top because of inherent brains. Squinting along with her bizarre accent, at the mention of a partner with a rifle they all drew back to scan the nearby rooftops. Too many burned-out windows, ledges, and chimneys along the high street for someone to be hiding.

The dirt and gravel at the leader’s feet exploded outwards in a burst of shot and dust. The thugs shouted and leapt back, releasing Oliver, who scurried out of arm’s reach with a white-knuckled grip on his weathered camping pack.

The stranger withdrew her other arm from inside the green plastic poncho to reveal a second shotgun. “Get on the mule,” she growled to Oliver.

When he frowned, shaking his head against the ringing in his ears, she gave a swift jerk of the head to the back of the ATV. He scrambled into the rear seat only to be handed the second shotgun. He stared at it in bafflement for a moment before pointing it at the twitching gang, their eyes still searching the ruined rooftops, knives uselessly drawn.

“Hold on.”

“Hold on to what—” The ATV lurched forward with a roar over the broken and pitted street.

As the first chuck of asphalt whizzed past his head, Oliver flinched, scrambling to figure out how to hold on to his backpack, the gun, and the handholds of the passenger seat simultaneously while the ATV bucked and bounced at speeds both prudent and terrifying. “They’re throwing stones!”

“I know. Hold on!”

The stranger veered off the road into the scrub while the local gang hurled rocks and chunks of their old life as the remains of the tiny Highland town dwindled in the rear-view mirror.

* * *

Ten minutes of ball-bruising jostling later, his mysterious rescuer stopped the ATV in a clearing. “Get off.”

Oliver slid on jelly legs to the ground, still holding the gun by the barrel like an explosive banana, pointed away from him. One arm through a strap of the overloaded pack kept it tucked against his side. He swallowed, as it finally occurred to him that he might have been rescued from the gang only to be robbed and murdered somewhere quieter.

“Give me that.” She held out her hand, fluttering fingers impatiently.

A moment of decision. “No.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s not loaded.” Her accent had changed, the drawl gone, though her voice remained flatly North American. “Give it to me before you break it.”

He swallowed. “I don’t have anything valuable.”

“Sweetheart, everything’s valuable these days if you have half a brain.” She gestured again with her fingers, amused but not angry, the other hand on her hips, still waiting for the return of the gun. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt you.”

There was something about her relaxed demeanour that made him want to trust her. That, and she was a head shorter than he was. He flipped the gun around to hand it back handle-first.

She gave it a cursory glance and then slid it into a holster mounted on the side of the mule. “You heading south?”

“Isn’t everyone?”

“True.” She sized him up with a frank stare and he tried to straighten his shoulders even while adjusting the straps on his backpack. “How far south?”

“Back home to York,” he answered. “And then, depending what’s there… I suppose on to London.”

“London’s rubble,” she replied with a quick shake of the head. “York? Don’t know about York. Not even sure where that is.”

Oliver’s face lit up. “You’ve had news? You’ve—internet?”

“No internet. News—” She scratched under the brim of her flopping hat. “News is different to everyone.” She glanced in the direction of the village, considering, then up at the overhead sun. “Maybe we should find a better place to talk. Further away from angry rednecks.”

“Rednecks?” he repeated. In his mind this referred to a specific set of traits associated with a segment of the population in the deep South of the United States, the ones who had all the nukes and guns and a deep abiding mistrust of everyone not themselves.

She shrugged. “How about ‘shitkickers’?”

“Haven’t heard that one, but I like it, and I agree to put space between us and them.” He paused, considering, and then he slid his pack around, rummaging one-handed, before holding out a tin of mandarin oranges.

She stared at his proffered hand, frozen, longing written on her face.

“As a thank you,” he explained. “For saving me from those—shitkickers. For you and your partner.”

“Partner?” she repeated, eyes still fixed on the tin. He gestured and she gingerly reached out and then snatched it, holding it up to her nose, as though she could smell the oranges through the metal. She pulled it away from her face. “What partner?”

“The one on the roof. The one with the long-range rifle.”

Her lips twitched over the curve of the tin. “Sweetheart,” she said, the exaggerated drawl making a re-appearance, “if I had a partner with a ‘long-range rifle’, do you think I’d be this excited over a single can of fruit snack?”

He stared. “No partner. No long-range rifle?”

“Nothing but me, Betsy, two shotguns, and my good nature.”

“Betsy… oh. The—of course.”

“Speaking of,” she said, climbing back on board, “it’s more comfortable if you sit looking behind us, letting your legs hang down.”

It was indeed more comfortable, to his surprise; and with his pack worn on the front in his lap he could hold on to handrails mounted on the side, further cutting down the jostling. “You haven’t told me your name,” he shouted.

“You don’t have to shout, I’m right here,” she replied, the drawl once again stowed away until next time she needed to make a threat or a retort.

“Oh.” He had expected the engine to make more noise, but the only sound was the crunch of dirt as they rejoined the broken thoroughfare. “It’s electric? But before—”

“Before I needed to make it sound like I’m richer and stronger than I am,” she replied, laughing. “Betsy’s a hybrid. She can make good mileage but sometimes—” Suddenly the engine roared and spluttered, nearly startling Oliver off the back. “—sometimes it’s better to make a little noise.”

* * *

“You still haven’t told me your name,” he reminded her. They had travelled through the better part of the daylight, but evening came swiftly to northern Scotland, and they’d pulled off the road to camp in a clearing. Oliver gathered brush; the stranger busied herself examining the mule with mutterings about scratches. From where he stood he wasn’t sure how she could tell which scratches were new. From the wear-and-tear and the fact that she was a gasoline-hybrid, Betsy had to be at least 20 years old.

Once he scrounged enough dry tinder to be hopeful, he lit the fire with one of his precious matches. He didn’t breathe until the fire caught then he let the breath out slowly. 19 left. “I’m Oliver.”

“That’s nice,” she replied, settling in, her back against one of Betsy’s wheels, legs stretched out. The soles of her boots were as worn as Oliver’s trainers.

He took his shoes off, checking them for new cracks or extra wear, pulling the inserts out to air. “Yours?”

She watched his shoe administrations with curiosity. “How long? Before you set out?”

“Almost six months,” he replied, his voice dull. “We had plans for four months of work, and supplies for six, and we were isolated enough that we didn’t—we weren’t expecting anyone to contact us. It was only after that the scientists were supposed to be rotated out that we came looking.”

She nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Same as the nutbars, I guess. You were filming a series?”

“Yeah, more like a documentary—” Oliver stopped, staring. “You know who I am?” Another sly smile. “You do. That’s… oh. That’s why you stopped for me.”

“I bet you never thought a YouTube channel would save your life one day,” she said, her grin bright in the encroaching gloom. She leaned forward, hand outstretched. “Name’s Isla Zhang but you can call me Gunny. I’d rather you call me Gunny. Not only was I a subscriber, back in the day, but I had one of the t-shirts.”

He shook her hand, grinning back, the absurdity of the situation adding cheer to the campsite. “Always nice to meet a fan.”

* * *

The days had been monotonous since Oliver had decided to split from the main group, preferring to walk. He’d hike for a long morning, then break for rest and a meagre dinner of whatever he could scrounge from Scotland’s ruined landscape. He’d set traps in the rest of the daylight, or fish, or wash; sometimes he read from his one battered copy of a dire Richard Sturgeon novel, Ten to One, that one of the scientists had given him. Sometimes he’d take his dead mobile out from the bottom of his backpack, checking to see if the crack was any bigger, or if it would turn on. It never did. He’d wrap it in his spare t-shirt and place it back with care.

Oliver’s mother used to say, “A change is as good as a rest.” He’d never understood that, back when his days were each as different from each other as his meals or his clothing or his social media feed. But meeting up with Gunny had given him insight into the expression.

Now he was literally riding shotgun on the back of a mechanical mule, keeping an antique Winchester long-barrel at hand. Just in case they spotted a rabbit or flushed out a partridge or pheasant or whatever those horrible things were that burst out of the grass like feathery atomic blasts, usually right underfoot when he wasn’t paying attention, scaring himself half to death.

Gunny assured him that they were good eatin’—the g dropped for emphasis—while giving him a cursory lesson with the long gun.

“Why didn’t you threaten those arseholes with this one?” he had asked her, trying to get used to the feel of the shotgun stock against his shoulder. He was concerned about his accuracy but Gunny laughed and assured him that accuracy less of a concern with shot. “It’s more threatening looking than the short ones.”

“Not when you’re standing five feet away from someone and you want to look like you’re the front man with lots of backup,” Gunny had explained, adjusting his hold. “You want to look like someone else is holding the big guns.”

“But then you’re left holding the small one.”

“Right.”

“So what makes them think you’ve got anything bigger?”

Shrug. “Body language. Confidence. A heavy cowboy accent.”

“A cowboy accent?”

“Sure.” She’d switched on her drawl, sticking a blade of yellowed grass in her teeth, her eyes narrowing, sizing him up with a slow tilt of her head. She flipped the flap of her green plastic poncho back to reveal her fingers pointed like a pistol. “You feelin’ lucky? Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”

Oliver stared at her in incomprehension.

She dropped the act, disappointed. “Like Clint Eastwood? Fist Full of Dollars? No? Well, you’re the exception. It’s been working so far.” She adjusted her poncho back, scanning the gray clouds. Still with the grass in her teeth, she said: “Act bigger than you are, people smell the weakness. Look like you don’t care that they know how small you are, they wonder what you have hidden.”

“If you say so.” Oliver went back to playing with the unloaded Winchester, getting a feel for the trigger. He was just over six feet, and relatively robust, at least back when he’d had a good diet and the chance to lift weights. No one had bothered him since his growth spurt in first-year uni. Not until he’d taken the road south, that was.

And now he was bouncing on the back of an ATV, watching for game, wondering where the rest of the world was.

The mule slowed to a stop. He twisted in the seat. “What’s happening?”

“Smoke.” To the south-east a thin line of black-gray stood against the slate-blue sky, like a flag waving in the breeze.

“A chimney.” He grinned. “A house. People.”

He thought she’d grin back but she continued to stare at the line like it was spelling something only she could read. Without saying anything, she restarted the mule, swerving to the right.

* * *

So far he’d mostly come across ruins: long-abandoned buildings that hadn’t held up to the onslaught of the mid-21st century. People lived in the shadows of their old lives as long as they’d had the strength to; he’d learned to trust his nose to avoid opening one door too many. Usually that door lead to the bedroom. Lucky for him if it did: the kitchen was free for the scavenge, if animals hadn’t got to the cupboards first.

Usually the bedroom but not always. He never wanted to experience discoveries like that again.

He’d grown hungry enough in living memory to risk it.

This house wasn’t just ‘still occupied,’ it was whole. A tidy farmhouse on the edge of a rocky field. No crops sown, of course, too early in the year. There was a small garden with straggly vegetables, yellow-green and sickly but staked and tied with care.

Gunny made the engine growl as they crested the low hill. Over the empty landscape the noise carried with nothing to muffle it. She continued until they both spotted movement, darting into the shelter of the little stone house.

“Should I put the gun away?” Oliver asked.

Gunny stared at him. “What for?”

“To do that thing you were saying. Look small but imply you’re carrying a big stick or whatever.”

She smirked. “Hon, you are my big stick.”

“Maybe I should talk to them. Fellow inhabitant of the British Isles and all that.”

“Yeah?” She swung off the mule, stretching, keeping her focus on the house. “Does that usually go well?” When he didn’t answer, she patted his arm. “Stay here and think confident, possibly menacing thoughts. And for Christ’s sake don’t daydream on me.”

He shifted, insulted. “I wouldn’t—”

“I would hope not but anyone scared by a fucking grouse is not someone paying a whole lot of attention.”

“You’re not going to let me live that down, are you?”

“Nope.” She finished her stretches and tucked one of the short guns under her poncho. “Wish me luck.”

* * *

Oliver groaned as he woke, pain flooding his consciousness. Grey light filtered through the stunted leaves of the copse. It could be any time of day, but it was day. The pounding against the party wall of his temples subsided enough to sit up, carefully testing his jaw. It moved, if gingerly: bruised then, not broken. He guessed from the tender pulpiness of his face that he’d have a spectacular shiner under his left eye but he could open the eyelid. Not bad, all things considered. MacGreggor had a right hook like a hammer and Oliver wouldn’t be surprised if he’d dropped a few IQ points while gaining the headache. “Gunny?”

A rustle of the bushes. Gunny parted them to step into the tiny clearing. “You’re awake.”

“Tea,” Oliver croaked. Then: “You all right?”

“No tea, my friend. But there’s hot water.” She didn’t look any better than he felt, with generous bruising and swelling around her jaw. The cut across her eyebrow looked like it stung. A tear in her poncho had been fixed with a precious piece of duct tape.

He checked his own anorak but it was fine; after all Mrs. MacGreggor hadn’t gone after him with the broken glass.

“How’s your ribs?”

“Hurts, but not broken. Your arm?”

“Same.”

Wincing, she sat next to him, using the side of the mule as a brace. She swore, less as a series of coherent words than as an exhale voicing all her complaints. “I’m cooking the last bit of the rabbit.”

Oliver groaned. “Hopefully nowhere near.”

“Over the next ridge. It’s small and smokeless but even still.” She tilted her head back. “As much as I would love a day to lie on the ground and groan, we should probably move on once we’ve eaten some.”

He tried to nod in agreement but gave up. Everything that wasn’t immediately on fire was a slow unbending groan. “We might need to take it slow the next few days. Let ourselves heal.”

Gunny frowned, uncomprehending, then gave a slow nod of agreement. “We’ll get some more klicks between us and them first. They’re on foot, as far as I can see, not counting the tractor. Doubt they’ll waste gasoline on us but who knows. Once we’ve done at least twenty-kay we can stop for a couple of days. Maybe hunt or fish, and I can brew us a bag of fuel if we fix up the converter.” Scowling, she hauled herself up using the ATV, only to pause once standing, fighting the spins. “Meat’ll help.” She started back towards the bushes.

“Gunny?” Oliver pulled the camping blanket around his shoulders. She stopped, expectant. “Was it worth it?”

She swayed, blinking. “You’re asking that now?”

He stared at the ground, gathering his thoughts. “I meant what I said back there. Civilization is what happens now.”

“And we asked them nicely, which is the definition of civilization.”

“And when they said no, we attacked them.”

She braced herself against one of the scrawny trees, her face darkening. “He wanted my fuel converter.”

“Maybe he was just starting with an unreachable bargain. That’s how people bargain, sometimes, go high, settle low with what they really want.”

Gunny stared at him. “He wasn’t doing that. He wanted my—our fuel converter.”

“You don’t know—”

“I do know. You heard what he called me. He wasn’t bluffing. He was going to take our fuel converter from the second he found out we had one. It’s the single most valuable item we have.” She paused, her knuckles white against the dark mossy tree branch. “I should have been more subtle about it, not just asked for the compost-refill. I’ll know for next time.”

Oliver shook his head. “We could have talked our way out of it.” Her response was to scoff and turn her back, heading out into the trees. He struggled to his feet, fighting the urge to vomit, and raised his voice. “We didn’t have to turn it into a fist fight.”

“We absolutely did,” returned the voice from the bushes. Wrapping his camping blanket tighter around his shoulders, he followed, winding through the copse, the dead twigs pulling at his hair and scratching at tenderized skin.

“No, we didn’t. We could have found a way to trade.”

“We did trade.” Her breath was heavy and winded. “I left them a piece of rope and a pack of lady razors. Those’ll be useful on a farm, if that meathead has any brains.”

“We left them tied up!”

“And if you don’t think they had themselves untied 10 minutes after we left—” She stopped, turning to look up and face him, wincing with each inhale. “If you think there was any way that we were getting out of there without a fight of some kind: you’re an idiot. He had a gun.”

“We had guns. We also lied to them.”

“They didn’t buy the cowboy routine. We had to give them a better story.”

“No. We lied to them, Gunny, and it’s not right.”

“What’s not right, Oliver,” she replied, mercilessly skewing his accent and seriousness, “is that we have to fight for scraps just to survive. But that’s where we are.” She allowed herself a demonstrative and expansive shrug. “Middle of nowhere, home on the other side of a very big ocean, and everyone between here and there just trying to do the same as we are.” She took long moments to recover then added: “Christ. We didn’t kill them. We traded—”

He cut her off. “This was theft.”

“Theft is just a shitty kind of trade: something for nothing. And we left them something.”

He threw up his arms, then scrabbled to catch the blanket. “You’ve always got an answer, don’t you! Jesus. This isn’t a game! Let’s make one thing clear right here: we’re not thieves. I’m not a thief. Do we have an understanding?”

“Fuck you.” Gunny spat back. “Look, Lily, I—” She stopped herself, her face colouring dark pink.

She was shaking.

“Lily?”

She gave him a hateful stare in response, then turned and continued picking her way down the side of the hill. “Let me make something clear to you: I am getting home by whatever means I need. And the sooner you realize the same is true for yourself, the easier time we’ll both have.”

“You don’t even know if North America’s habitable,” he shouted after her, at a loss for anything else to say.

“Neither is this godforsaken rock! And yet here we are,” she said, without turning around. “Go keep Betsy company. Someone should stay by the guns. I’ll bring back the meat. Then we go.”

It wasn’t how he wanted to end the conversation, but she was right, and they both knew it. “Fine. But we’re talking about this later.”

She gave a dismissive wave of agreement and disappeared through a strand of stunted conifers. Oliver stood for a moment longer, peering around him at the harsh landscape.

Whatever Gunny may think, he was determined to hold on to civility. There were other alternatives besides running with gangs or lying on the bed with a shared jug of antifreeze.

There had to be.

He pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, before turning to climb back up the rocky ridge.

* * *

Gunny drove. Oliver rode shotgun. Each bump and rut and loose chunk of asphalt rattled their bruises, no matter the speed. After one particular jolt shot pain through his jaw Oliver rooted around in his mouth; sure enough a sizable shard of enamel lay on the end of his finger.

His first broken tooth. In a fight, no less. No dentists in a hundred miles, maybe even a million. His mind flitted through disapproving mothers, misplaced masculinity, graphic descriptions of scurvy gleaned from encyclopedias before resting on a story from his uni days about a friend of a friend with an abscess that burst in the middle of an exam. Another bump and the shard was gone, lost in an endless ribbon of gravel.

Usually Oliver’s mind went blank during the rides, staring off the back of the mule while retreating into a bored-but-alert animal observation. Instead, he probed the newly-unfamiliar molar with his tongue.

Anger clutched at his mind at the thought of what they’d—what he’d done: he’d laid down something personal to take the first step on a slippery slope of morality. It had to be someone’s fault and it was his, but it was also Gunny’s, and his upper decks made excuses while his lower decks demanded retribution.

And yet.

He’d been tempted to yell “who’s Lily?” in Gunny’s ear more than once but what would it accomplish? Lily was no more tangible than that shard of enamel: once a part of him, now vanished. Perhaps she waited somewhere. Perhaps she lay behind them, gone forever, leaving a rough edge and a weakness.

It didn’t matter, either way.

* * *

At first Gunny swerved to avoid the pack of dogs, but Oliver spotted something in the tangle. He fired the shotgun into the air—the heads of the wild mongrels whipped up, ears pricked. Another blast, combined with a sudden roar of mechanical engine, startled them enough to flee.

Oliver hopped off with a speed that he didn’t know he possessed, assessing. The ewe was already dead, but not yet too badly savaged. “It was alive a few minutes ago, so that’s okay,” he said to Gunny as she approached. She stared at him from out of her bruised face, and he explained: “You never eat any animal you find dead. Just ones you know how they died.”

“Oh. Where’d you learn that?” she asked, taking the gun from him so he had both hands free. The dogs watched from the edge of the gully, angry and growling, debating whether to return and reclaim their kill.

“Scouting,” he replied. “That’s also where I learned to skin a rabbit and build a fire and all that.”

She grunted an assent and raised the shotgun at the dogs inching closer. “I don’t know about wasting more ammo for the sake of a loud noise.”

“I’ve got this,” he said. Half-dragging the bedraggled carcass, he hauled it to Betsy, lashing it to the back seat. “I’ll stand on the trailer hitch. If we don’t go too fast it should be fine.”

Gunny eyed the arrangement with doubt, and the dogs with dismay, but slid back into her seating, handing the shotgun back. “Maybe we should camp on high ground tonight.”

“No argument.” He scanned the dusky sky. “Let’s get moving. We’ve got a lot of work to do before night.”

She nodded, surreptiously trying to wipe her face. “I’ll keep the motor—”

“Don’t waste the fuel.” He noted the eyes in the bushes reflecting Betsy’s headlights. “We’ll deal with the dogs only if they become a problem. I’m not ready to kill a dog yet either.”

* * *

The wild pack chased for a while, barking and snarling, but a final shotgun report and a cloud of whizzing pellets over their head convinced them it wasn’t worth it.

Balancing on the ATV was next to impossible, so once the dogs weren’t visible Oliver decided to run along side instead. He fell behind, but he could follow the tracks and he had the gun. He’d walked on his own for those first few weeks, with no weapon, and though loneliness had driven him into the remains of Ullapool, he’d never felt this afraid for himself.

Perhaps it was the dogs. Perhaps it was the wild edges of the ravine, the scarecrow remains of trees and the dark clouds sweeping in from the north. Either way, adrenaline kept his profound weariness at bay, and he jogged when he could and walked the rest of the way, between the twin tire trails until he reached the stopped ATV.

* * *

Between his scouting days—a smear of outdoorsy woes inflicted on Oliver by his parents, determined to get their weedy son off the Internet and outside during the summer—and what Gunny had learned from “the nutbars”, they managed to butcher the sheep.

Skinning the ewe was a filthy, repulsive job that was nothing like cleaning a rabbit, and although Oliver had to stop to dry-heave, part of him was pleased that he dealing better than Gunny, twice-sick in the bushes.

The smell was evil, and the gore attracted an assortment of flying miseries. Gunny took a break from her protesting stomach to build two smokey fires, on either side, while Oliver hacked the legs into more manageable pieces with the hunting knife.

“We’ll need to dispose of the rest of the carcass,” he said, and just the mention of it made her sick again.

* * *

Even though the moon was high when they finished, Oliver went to wash in the nearby burn. The stream was a trickle through the rocks but water is water. Desperate to clean himself, he scrubbed his hands, face, and forearms with a bit of moss ripped from the embankment, preferring the smell of compost to damp wool and offal. When he returned, Gunny was wrapping the skin in the tarp from her tiny one-person tent. Most of the usable meat was skewered near the fire, or in the wafting smoke, and the rest lay down the hill for the vermin to carry off.

He nodded towards the fleece while he rooted in his pack for his one spare t-shirt. The wet one lay draped over rocks to dry. “You think it’s worth keeping? Even uncured?”

“Either we’ll meet someone who can tan it for us, or we’ll trade it.” She sat back from the gruesome package, wiping her face with the crook of a less dirty elbow. Her features drawn from exhaustion, her bruises livid in the firelight.

“Have you eaten?”

“No.” She shook her head just a fraction, too tired for anything else. “If it didn’t smell so bad I’d be too tired to wash.” She stumbled towards the direction of the water.

Neither of them ate that night.

The odour of the butchering combined with sheer exhaustion robbed Oliver of any appetite. Truth be told he’d never been a fan of mutton, even well-spiced in a curry or kebab. It always had an undertone of what his youngest brother dubbed ‘wet dog taste’.

Gunny sat across from him, wrapped in her blanket, staring into the smoky fire with eyes red-rimmed and hollow. Occasionally she would glance at the meat they were trying to cure, shudder, and look away.

“My gran would make lamb for special occasions,” Oliver said, breaking the silence. He grimaced at the skewers of meat, rotating them so that they cured evenly. “It was my mum’s favourite. She looked forward to it on holidays. We—my brothers and me—never ate it without being badgered into it.”

“Yeah?” Gunny looked up through her swollen eyelids, her shoulders hunched around her ears. “I never had it before I came to Britain.”

He frowned. “Really?”

“Too expensive. Only ever ate beef. Or chicken or pork, I guess.”

“What, never even had a shepherd’s pie?”

“Sure, but that’s made with beef, right? And potato and corn and peas.”

“…then that’s not a shepherd’s pie, is it? If it’s made with beef. And who puts corn in a shepherd’s pie?”

She frowned. “Yeah, I guess. I guess it would be a cowherd’s pie? Is cowherd a word?”

He ought to know this but he was too tired. “Sure. It is now.”

She chuckled without noise, a slow blink and an opening of the mouth, a miming of laughter.

Oliver had nearly drifted asleep, still sitting up, when Gunny said,

“The nutbars would know. About cowherd pie, I mean.” She stirred herself awake, rubbing her face. “Everything about farming they could just rattle off like baseball stats. None of them had grown up on a farm, right? They had to teach themselves. Taught themselves from YouTube tutorials, actually. They could recite the videos.” She retreated into the bundle of blanket, watching the fire like it was a rotisserie chicken. “The landlord came out every once and a while and he’d stare at them like he knew, like he knew they’d fail and he was just waiting for the spectacle.” The fire danced in her dark eyes, sparks flying upward into the night. “Last laugh on him. The day after the internet died, his stocks in ruins, he went into that big fancy manor dining room of his and blew his brains out. Lily found him. She was the one that had to give him the rent money every week. It was his property for miles around.”

Oliver said nothing, his insides falling like he was in an elevator.

“Lily always knew what she wanted,” Gunny continued, through closed eyes, tears streaking. She sighed and wiped her face with a damp cuff. “Not like me. She was the one that signed up with the nutbars. I only went there to convince her to come back. I’d never left home before. Never needed to. But we didn’t hear from her for months and my parents were worried.” She blew her nose. “The day I showed up was butchering day. I got out of the rental jeep, still in my travel clothes, and they were all out, all the nutbars, helping catch and kill this lamb while it cried and cried. Lily came to greet me, all smiles. She said that if they’d known I was coming they’d have killed a pig.” She lifted her eyes from the fire to stare into Oliver’s. “Last laugh on us, huh. Lily was looking forward to the end of the world and she’s the one that died.”

He didn’t know how to respond. It was the most personal thing she’d said to him since they’d met, and he hadn’t even asked. “It wasn’t your fault. None of this is your fault.”

“If I’d been able to convince her to come home…”

“But… then you would have just died at home.” As soon as he said them he would have done anything to pull the words back.

Her eyes scrunched closed, and she curled herself on the ground, like a ball, her back to him.

He let his outstretched hand drop, useless. All of it was unfair and unfixable and he didn’t know what to say.

Out in the darkness came yips and snarls from down the ridge, wildlife fighting over scraps.

Sick with guilt, Oliver wordlessly banked the fires and lay down, exhausted enough to find the rocky ground comfortable. Sleep wrapped him in a tight grip in moments, his last thought a half-recalled scent memory of a Sunday dinner, in a different world.

* * *

Gunny swatted at the flies buzzing around her, shifting her weight so that the bloody tarp-turned-sack rested more easily against her back. “Gonna need to hose myself down after this. You sure you don’t need anything?”

“Nothing that we don’t both need. Ammo, food, cup of tea, WiFi connection.”

She gave a smirk. “I’m sure if the locals are worth talking to at all, they’ll share whatever news they have. If there is any.” She squinted at the featureless sky. “Don’t know how long I’ll be. Come looking for me if I’m not back by tomorrow morning, will you?”

“Of course. Oh! Proper firewood, if there’s any going. We can hang it off Betsy.” Oliver stared around the immediate area. The low bushes and conifers had already yielded as much dry fuel as they could without an axe. No one was going to trade them something as valuable as an axe.

“Good idea.” Gunny tapped her nose, then winced at the smell. “I swear to god, I want nothing to do with sheep ever again.” Muttering and swearing a litany of odour-based complaints, she picked her way around the larger rocks down to the broken road. A broken sign, invisible in the previous night’s arrival, proclaimed the nearest village only 5 miles away.

Oliver turned his attention to repairing the fuel converter, enjoying the chance to solve a simple problem with his hands. Years spent tinkering with electronics for fun and some trial and error with the multitool in his backpack got the machine up and running.

Once done, he settled near the fires, long since burned down to charcoal, still covered with moss. The smoke stung and made him cough but it was better than the flies. Even with the meat packed away, the bugs knew something the humans did not and they were winged revenge for all the world’s wrongs.

He stood and stretched, coughing and staring off at the low mountains in the distance. The sky was the same flat grey that it had been forever, but whether the weather was normal for the time of year or a symptom of the Crash he didn’t know. Daylight was light grey; night time was dark grey.

The fuel converter, its clear plastic belly loaded with stolen compost, bubbled away. Automated and silent.

On the ravine’s floor a mangy fox worried at the sheep carcass.

It was still only early morning. The day stretched out as far as the horizon.

“Fuck it,” said Oliver, to no one, and went to start up Betsy. Maybe he’d find something useful to bring back to camp.

* * *

With most of the gear unhooked from the panniers and only the one passenger, Betsy felt sprightly. At greater velocities she bounced with sincere violence, and Oliver finally understood why his companion drove as slowly as she did. Even at Gunny’s pokey rate it was faster than walking, especially burdened, but far gentler on the spine and tailbone. Opening up the throttle left him giddy, even as it left him bruised.

The landscape flew by. He checked the charge meter; barely dented. Visions of reaching home in days rather than weeks danced through his mind—if only the mule could sustain the speed while doubly laden. Even eight months prior, he’d gone from his apartment in London to the studios in Edinburgh in hours. Long hours, uncomfortable at times, but never truly hungry and with plenty of signal. God, what he’d give for his mobile to work.

Maybe he could rig up a charger to the engine. The fuel cell was astoundingly efficient; once the fuel cell was done they’d have plenty. They could spare a bit to charge some small electronics. The tricky part would be rigging up a safe adapter and finding the components.

He hadn’t had a such purely intellectual problem to solve in weeks. Months. That part of his mind was slow to wake, stretching leisurely as though it was Sunday morning. Having a full stomach for once, even if plain mutton and tinned lentils, helped spur his imagination. For the first time since filming at Skara Brae he hadn’t had to worry about anything larger than an inconvenience—

—the deer bounded across the road in an immense blur of dun brown.

In his panic, Oliver reacted like he was a kid on a bicycle. He gripped the handlebars and yanked away from the obstacle. Only he wasn’t riding a bicycle but an ATV with much more mass, momentum, and a throttle in the grips.

There was a lurching and sudden weightlessness.

The mental fog cleared. He was in the dirt; bushes had broken his fall. He tried to stand, fell over, and instead waited for the spinning to stop. Broken his fall but he’d still hit his head; there was a pounding pain just above his right ear. At least his fingers came away clean. More luck.

He lay back, closing his eyes, enjoying being still, his breath the loudest thing left in the world, until the crack of thunder.

* * *

Betsy lay on an angle against the remains of a cracked and rotted tree trunk. The silhouette was badly wrong: yes, there. The front wheel was no longer parallel to the others but jutting out. He let out a low groan. His stupid muscle-memory manoeuvre had forced too much weight against the hub of the front left wheel; bolts had sheared off and now the whole assembly dangled, barely held on.

He sat on the fallen tree, staring at the broken mule, fighting against the mutton-and-lentils that pressed against the back of his throat. He didn’t know how bad the damage was, if there was more, where he was, or how far from the campsite. What he did know was that he was miles and miles from help.

Deep breaths, forced through his nose, helped some to quell both the panic and the nausea. He had no way to contact Gunny. He had to do this on his own. He carefully stood, his hand against the slate sky, willing the rain to hold off just a little longer.

He wondered how the other members of his team were, the archaeologists and scientists. They’d had some crazy notion of taking the small boat to Denmark, rather than traverse all of Scotland. They were probably at the bottom of the sea by now. And he was still alive. He was still alive because he’d focused on each problem at hand to avoid letting himself drift into despair.

Just break the problem down and solve one step at a time. Find bolts and a socket wrench. Fix Betsy. Go home.

After stuffing one of the broken bolts in his pocket, Oliver stepped on to the gravel road trying to recall anything that might help. There had been a noticeable gap in a toppling stone fence. A closed gate that hung off hinges. He’d made a mental note to tell Gunny about it because it was the sort of thing that led to a farm—perhaps a farmhouse worth investigating.

His pace quickened, his legs wobbly but certain, as the sky opened and the rain began to fall in earnest.

Barely a hint of moisture for weeks. Lots of fog in the mornings, then nothing. And now the heavens opened with sheets of rain and ominous rumblings and flashes of light.

Because, of course.

Oliver’s clothes were sodden by the time he half-stepped, half-slid down the steep muddy drive, the tracks well-worn and still clear. At the bottom lay a dark huddled shape, mostly right-angles, with a long overhang. A shed. A farmer’s shed. He could already imagine its interior: the spiderwebs, the rusty nails, the equipment hanging low enough to bang a head on. There’d be a bare lightbulb that worked via a filthy string, if there was any electricity.

But there wasn’t.

He wiped a hand across his face, forgetting that he’d used it to steady himself only moments earlier. It didn’t displace any water but did smear mud across half his face and beard. He swore and grumbled as he picked his way down the mudslide, before tripping, losing his balance, and skidding the few final feet.

All the bruises and sore muscles from the fight with the MacGreggors and the endless hours of jostling re-activated with vengeance, and for a moment it was all he could do, to lie in the pouring rain, covered in mud, only yards from shelter.

Thunder cracked and rolled through the hills.

Oliver pulled himself upright. A farmer’s shed, even long abandoned, would be full of spare parts. Something he could bodge together to get the mule working. Trying to keep the panic at bay, he recited what he most wanted in the world: bolts to match the one in his pocket. A socket wrench. A bath. A cup of tea. A full proper English breakfast, with extra streaky bacon and toast. 17 hours consecutive sleep in his own bed.

The shed door was ajar and easily opened on free-swinging hinges. Enough watery daylight came in from the large windows to show a well-ordered repair underway. A hulking mass in the centre was a tractor, the pieces lying on a tarp on the concrete floor. Oliver whooped. Bolts! A cracked plastic tub full of them. He crouched, picking through the various sizes, relying on his fingers to match the dimensions against the broken specimen. Once he had four he turned his attention to the open tool kit, fumbling through the wrenches. Lightning blasted outside the windows, reflecting off clean chrome, wincingly bright.

He found the wrench that fit the bolts. He stood, excited. Running a hand through filthy hair he peered around to see what else could be useful. Once Gunny was back from trading they could both ransack—

There was a square of light outside the window. He hadn’t seen it from his approach but it was unmistakable from the shed, once he moved past the tractor. Not the blue-white of lightning but yellow and flickering. He wiped the edge of his sleeve against the pane of glass, peering through the rain. Beyond lay a trim, tidy farmhouse, with an old-fashioned antique lamp in the window between curtains. “Shit.”

Fear shot through him, his fingers clenching around the socket wrench. He’d thought—he hadn’t thought—this wasn’t salvage any more. This was theft.

MacGreggor’s leering face as he’d announced he’d take the fuel converter and anything else worth having danced in front of Oliver’s eyes. He didn’t remember who lashed out first, the farmers or them; there had just been sickly herb tea in china cups and then a declaration of intent.

He’d smashed a picture frame with his elbow and Mrs. MacGreggor had keened like an animal and then slashed at Gunny with the pieces. He’d never hit a woman before—never purposefully struck a man, either—but he’d lashed out then. Using glass wasn’t fair; he still believed in fairness.

His heart beating in time with the pain from his head, he backed away from the window and hit the edge of the tractor with his shoulder. He whirled, his fists up, still clenching the socket wrench. Deep breaths.

Footsteps, loud and sucking in the mud. “Someone in there?”

Oliver ducked behind the bulk of the tractor.

Wet wellies on concrete, each step careful. A man’s voice, deep. Older. “Someone in here? Hullo?” Then: “Ach, Sasha, did ye no clean up after yerself?”

His swallow loud in his throat, his heart hammering in his ears, Oliver crouched, peering around the edge of the giant tire. Lightning illuminated the outside world, the figure a black silhouette against the open door. Coming closer.

He closed his eyes, struggling to breathe normally through his nose. Civilization. He had to remember.

But what if—

MacGreggor’s leering face.

—What if Gunny was right?

“Sasha?” the man asked, gently. “I’m no’ in the mood for this, lad. Come out now.” Squeaks of soggy rubber against the concrete floor. Oliver shifted, trying to put the broken vehicle between them. He’d make a run for it through the door. He’d return the socket wrench after; he couldn’t chance that the farmer’d say no. They needed the bolts. He’d return with the socket wrench and mutton and whatever else they could spare after he fixed Betsy. The ATV was too important.

A shitty trade is nothing for something.

He was so focused on the door, on the mental escape route, that the hand on his shoulder was a jolt like pain.

“There you are—”

Something in Oliver broke loose and he reacted, swinging the socket wrench with his entire weight behind it. It connected to something first hard then yielding. And the man dropped.

Oliver backed away. The adrenaline receded for a moment, like a wave pulling back to expose shore. Lightning burned bright, showing another man in the shed: red jacket streaked with mud under a filthy, ragged beard and unkempt birdsnest of hair. Dark eyes in a gaunt, hollow face, white with terror.

Oliver’s eyes readjusted to the return to gloom. Facing him, leaning on one of the work benches, was a rusting mirror. He stared at it, then down to the concrete floor, at the featureless silhouette, now a bundle.

He ran.

H must have climbed the hill. How, he didn’t remember. He was standing in front of the gate which drooped, hanging on its hinges: he was back on the road. Betsy lay to the left of him. The campsite was to the right. He lifted his hand to close the gate, but clutched tightly in his fingers was a socket wrench that he didn’t remember carrying.

“I’ll bring it back,” he said to himself, as though remembering something someone had once told him. He shifted the tool to a pocket and then closed and latched the gate behind him.

* * *

His own fingers were half-numb, his hands shaky; he dropped the bolts more often than he cared to admit. But there were no clocks in this new world, despite the metronome of rainfall. It would simply take as long as it would take.

Another bolt slipped into the mud. He sighed, leaning against the seat of the mule, watching water trickle along the fake leather. Betsy still lay at an angle, braced against the log; at some point he was going to have to heave her upright but for now it made repairs easier. He shifted his weight to his other leg and the mule shifted, the seat giving way. He cursed loudly, spitting in fury at yet another problem to solve only to realize that the seat was on runners. Supposed to slide out, probably to allow access to the ATV’s innards. He replaced it, sighing heavily but relieved, returning his attention to the bolts and the slippery hub.

* * *

“Wakey wakey.” The flap of the pup tent opened and Gunny’s face, crinkled in amusement, peered in. “You’re sleeping in my tent. That’s very forward of you.”

“Sorry,” Oliver said, hand up against the sudden brightness. Sunshine? He pulled himself out, stretching. “You took the tarp with you. It was raining.”

“I did and it was.” Gunny acknowledged the tarp with a wave her hand; it lay nearby, spread to dry and weighted with rocks. “I washed it in the river on my way back this morning.”

“Successful trip?”

“Very.” She gave a tilt of her head to the fire. Their billy-cans boiled, mutton-frying on hot rocks. At the look of his face she laughed. “Sorry, Ollie! No tea. No one has any and if they did I bet it would be worth more than we have. I just meant, let’s have breakfast, is all.”

“Oh.” He yawned, and pulled his sleeping mat out of the tiny pup-tent. He’d used his jacket as a blanket. At the smell of both he spread them on the stony ground. Then he sniffed his t-shirt and recoiled.

Gunny laughed, helping herself to some of the mutton. “I got cans, though, and some salt and pepper. Oh! And soap!”

“Fantastic.” He meant it. They drank their hot water in silence, chewing the fried sheepsteak with perfunctory motions, but salt did improve the flavour. “I could wash and try fishing this afternoon.”

“Lovely day for it. For once.” She lifted her face sunward. “I stayed in the village when the storm broke out. Too far to go on foot. I hope you were all right.”

The mutton caught in his throat and bile burned as he choked it down. “Fine. I was fine. You? Good time?” He washed the strain from his voice with a gulp of water.

“Very. Friendly people, for once. Got caught up on the latest rumours; Americans in helicopters due any day now, apparently.”

“Oh, that one again.”

“They seemed to think I was a forerunner. Bit disappointed when they realized I was—anyway.” She dug in her jeans pocket. “Chatty barmaid turned trade broker. Gave me a room for the night when the storm hit, introduced me to people who might want a raw sheepskin. That sort of thing. She mentioned that it’s better to skip Iverness. Something about wide-spread fires and very few making their way back. She gave me a bunch of random numbers for highways and told me to follow them.”

Oliver gave a heavy sigh. “Do you remember the random numbers?”

“Course not, they’re random. But I had her write ‘em down.” She flashed him a grin, producing a scrap of a grocery chain flyer, with directions scrawled in black marker.

He took the scrap to study and commit the numbers to memory. “These are smaller highways.”

“Yep. Round the bay of something or other. Far away from Iverness, is the main point. Then straight on until morning.”

“So nothing’s changed.”

“Not in the grand scheme, no.” She cocked her head at him. “You all right?”

He swallowed the last of his boiled water. “Yeah. Just didn’t sleep well.”

Gunny gave a grunt of assent and pulled off her poncho, dumping it beside her, then the thin fleece top. She stretched out, enjoying the rare and sensational sunshine on her arms and face. “I had planned we’d leave today, but maybe one more day’s rest won’t hurt us.”

“We could use it,” he agreed, settling back. In the daylight, well-washed from the storms, the landscape seemed to sparkle silver and green, like his grandmother’s brooch. He started to enumerate things he do with such a bright day: wash clothing; fish; air out his bedroll and maybe the tent—

“What happened to Betsy?” Gunny said, propping herself up on her elbows, squinting.

His mouth went dry. “What?”

Gunny got to her feet. “The mirror’s cracked.”

He blinked. Yes. He had noticed that on the ride back, but with the storm he’d had bigger worries. “Stone. Dogs.”

She looked over her shoulder at him, tucking a strand of graying hair behind her ear. “What?”

Part of his mind saw again the lightning-brief glimpse of himself in the mirror on the repair table. He swallowed, then picked at another piece of mutton. “There were dogs in the camp last night. No fire, right? I threw rocks. To drive them off. One of them hit the mirror.”

“Jesus.” Gunny straightened. “You all right?”

“Fine. They didn’t get anything, the meat’s safe. I meant to tell you about the mirror but I forgot.” He tore a bit free with his teeth but didn’t chew. His stomach recoiled.

Gunny stared at him for a long moment then gave a slight shrug. “A cracked rear-view isn’t the worst problem we’ve had.” She sauntered back over to her side of the fire. “Oh, that reminds me. My new best friend the barmaid told me about a man on the edge of town that’s the local mechanic. Apparently he’s been helping anyone passing through, tuning up their bikes or patching boats or whatever.”

He held his breath for a second and then carefully exhaled, aware of Gunny watching him. “Do we have enough to trade for it, though?”

“Oh, is that’s what’s worrying you? Whatever! We’ll make it work. I try to keep the old girl happy but I’ve been learning on the road, so even if I can just get a lesson or two it’ll be worth the detour, I think.”

“Absolutely,” Oliver agreed.

She grinned, pleased, and gave him a slap on the knee. “Cheer up. Sun’s shining. I bet the river might even be less than frigid today. Gotta take our luck where we can find it, eh?”

* * *

Gunny’s night breathing was a wheeze through one nostril that would have been comical at any other time. Under the sweep of stars and decaying satellites, so far from home, the noise served to make her smaller somehow. More human. She’d said over and over again that she’d do anything to survive, but Oliver hadn’t believed her. Now he didn’t know what to believe; he’d laid his own morals down, why not her? They didn’t know anything about each other, besides what he’d carefully crafted to share online and what she’d revealed one night over a campfire.

Too restless to sleep, he decided to check on Betsy. After giving the ATV a friendly pat on the rump, he checked for scratches, tightened her straps and panniers, all while ignoring the mirrors. The seat was askew from when he’d hastily replaced it in the rain. He carefully slid it off, revealing the fuel-cell access hatch in a shallow depression. And papers.

A carelessly-folded printout of a photo: two young women, smiling at the camera, one intense and one nervous. The bold staring face was circled in black marker, and the nervous one was a much younger Gunny. Back when she was Isla, he supposed. That’s who the navy-blue passport was for, after all; Isla Zhang. The third item was the label from the tin of mandarin oranges in syrup—his peace offering that first night. It too was folded over, the crease sharp.

He replaced each item, and then the seat, making sure it sat secure and straight. That wasn’t his cache to find. Better to pretend he hadn’t seen it.

His reflection stared at him out of the cracked rear-view.

Better to pretend to sleep.

* * *

The Scottish landscape was much improved by a second day of sun. Even the stunted, climate-broken trees that they passed seemed straighter. Oliver sat on the back of Betsy, but instead of holding shotguns, he carried a forked stick with two fresh trout. A third had been eaten for breakfast; these two were for barter.

The road curled like a cat’s tongue between two ravines and then opened into a wide valley, carpeted with well-worked farms.

“What are we going to do if they won’t trade with us?” Oliver shouted, over the noise of the crunching gravel.

“You mean after we ask nicely?” Gunny replied. She gave a shrug that he felt through his own shoulder blades. “Do what we always do, I suppose. Make something up on the spot.”

They stopped at the edge of a long driveway that continued through fields guarded by a well-tended stone fence. By the peeling-paint gate was a brass bell tethered on a long rope. Gunny rang it with large swooping motions, one hand against her ear, grinning at Oliver like an overexcited child. “Want a go?” she yelled.

“No thank you,” he shouted back, over the echoing in his ears. The whole valley must have heard the clanging. “Guns?”

“Nah,” she replied. She pointed at the farm house in the distance, trim and white. “We’re going to ask nicely, remember?”

“What if they decline?”

“This time we’ll leave. Can’t really ask someone to teach a mechanic’s lesson at gun point, can we.”

“I guess not.”

A young man walked the length of the drive to the road. His clothing was patched and worn, but clean. Practical. He stopped just out of shotgun range. “Can we help you?” He didn’t sound Scottish.

“I hope so,” Gunny yelled back, grinning. “Heard that you do repairs for folks who need ‘em.” She’d put on her Clint Eastwood accent.

“Not today. Come back some other day.” The young man crossed his arms.

“Sorry to hear that. We’re not from around here, as you might’ve guessed—just passing through.”

“I gathered.”

Gunny leaned on the stone fence, resting her arms on the top. “You’ve got the face of someone with troubles. Is there something we can help with? Maybe we can help each other.”

The young man scowled at her, but he did come closer. Younger than Oliver expected, his face weathered by the outdoors but still well-rounded by baby fat. “My granddad was hurt. Someone broke into our shed, no doubt to steal something, and when Granddad went looking they near broke his skull in. Didn’t even steal nothing.”

“That’s awful.” Gunny’s jaw dropped and she looked to Oliver for agreement, taking his too-white face as confirmation. “Jesus, what is the world coming to?”

“Aye.” The young man considered the pair. “Granddad is the mechanic, not me, I’m only learning. Came up here with my dad after the war. Learning what I can. So you’ll have to come back another day.” His speech was measured, as though thinking took effort.

“Is he going to pull through?” Oliver asked.

The young man sized them up with wary eyes. “Aye, we hope so. Cracked his skull but he’s a tough one, Granddad. If the Crash didn’t kill him…” He stopped, taking a deep breath. “There’s gangs out from Iverness on the roads. Best to stay out of their way.”

“So we’ve been told,” Gunny answered, dryly.

“You’ll be the American that Marion talked about then.” His eyes flicked to Oliver. “America’s a long way from here.”

“Tell me about it.” She agreed with a shake of her head. “But at least we’ve still got our health.”

“Aye.” The young man sighed and scratched at his head. “If it’s just a tune-up you’re wanting, I can probably help. You’re at least welcome to use the shed and tools for your own repairs.”

“That’s very generous of you,” Gunny replied instantly. “Isn’t it, Oliver?”

He nodded, sliding off the back of the mule, and thrust the catch over the fence.

The young man stared, confused.

“For you. As a thank you,” Oliver said.

The young man stepped forward to take the trout. “Ah. Thanks.” He twitched, uncomfortable, holding the fish with an outstretched arm. “Granddad always insisted that it was caring about folk that made us different from animals. Normally I believe him, but…” He shook his head. “Maybe he’s right. Maybe the Crash hasn’t taken it all from us yet.”

“That’s what Oliver’s always telling me,” Gunny said, playfully swatting her companion’s arm. “One of these days he’ll prove me right.”

* * *

Gunny made fast friends with the grandson, overwhelming him with a one-two of North American cheerfulness and fluttery eyelashes; she was probably the first person of Asian background he’d ever met, likely to be the last, and one of the few women in the area he wasn’t related to. His confused stuttering and blushing while he helped them bring the ATV into the garage only confirmed the lad’s youth.

Oliver stayed silent and to the sides. He mentioned how the metallic stink of petroleum and rust made him dizzy so he stayed near the door. Gunny gave him an acknowledging wave, already engrossed over Betsy.

He crouched over the tool kit still spread over the tarp, pretending to examine the bits of tractor awaiting repairs. When positive they weren’t paying him any attention, he slid the socket wrench from his coat and replaced it silently in the tray before moving on to pretend to study other odds and ends.

“Good news,” said a voice in his ear. He jumped, and Gunny laughed. “Sorry! Didn’t realize you were so into tractors.” He shook his head, gesturing for her to continue. “Betsy looks to be in good shape. Doesn’t need more than a good cleaning.”

“Aye, you’re taking good care of her,” the grandson agreed from behind the ATV, wiping his hands on a rag. “Don’t know if I can teach you anything else useful. Granddad might’ve, but… She should last you a long while. Don’t know about getting across the Atlantic, though.”

Gunny laughed and slapped Oliver against the shoulder blades. He forced a grin.

“Going to wait outside,” he said, indicating his head. “Not feeling… so hot.”

“Fresh air’ll cure that,” the grandson agreed, though he frowned, and Gunny gave Oliver a second, gentler pat.

“Go on. I won’t be much longer. We’re just going to rotate the ATV’s tires and then we can head out. Sasha and I can handle that on our own, no worries.”

“Good idea,” Oliver agreed, stumbling from the shed. The dizziness wasn’t faked; his head was spinning.

He lost the fight against his breakfast by the fence and sat down in the grass, leaning against the cool stone.

He must have dozed off.

He awoke with a start at the sound of the approaching motor. Gunny grinned ear to ear. “Feel any better?”

“Not really,” Oliver admitted. She pulled up beside him and he hopped into his seat. “Tune-up all done?”

“Yep,” Gunny agreed, putting Betsy into gear. “He’s a weird one, Sasha, but friendly enough. Bit slow. Stopped talking half-way through the tire rotation like he couldn’t think and move at the same time. Poor kid’s got enough on his plate, I guess. I mean we all do, but he really looked up to his grandfather. You okay? You look a bit pale. Hope you’re not getting sick.”

“Yeah, me too,” Oliver agreed, feeling a tightness in his chest. As they approached the gate he hopped off and ran ahead to open it. Behind them, Sasha emerged from the shed. Gunny seemed to take an eternity to drive Betsy through the gate so that he could latch it after her. He clambered into his seat. “Time to go.”

“You got it, partner.” She exaggerated the accent into a growl. Her grin returned she twisted in her seat to wave at Sasha. “Thanks again! Hope your grandfather’s all right! Good luck!” She only saw him for two brief moments: once in the rear-view mirror and once when she turned to wave. They picked up speed easily over the flat dirt road.

But Oliver sat backward, facing the receding farmhouse and the shed. He knew that Sasha wasn’t waving goodbye. The young man gestured in outrage, the socket-wrench clutched in his hand.

* * *

Two months. Two months of rain and angry locals; wild animals and rationed food. Dust and storms and washed-out bridges and possible cannibals. The innumerous dead they encountered blended into one another, the situations too similar to be remembered separately. They stopped trying. Conversation around the campfire was often little more than proposed plans and grunted agreements. Occasionally Gunny told a story about her sister and life with the nutbars, how they’d solved such-and-such an issue. Rarely, Oliver told an anecdote about filming and adventures chasing a story. Those days seemed like they’d belonged to someone else, and he surprised himself in the telling. He was numb, through and through, as though his soul had fallen asleep and an android rode on the back of the ATV, holding a shotgun and watching with empty eyes.

And yet, when they crested that last hill and the spires of York cathedral stood visible among the wrecks and ruins of concrete, he surprised them both by choking up.

Perhaps something human inside him had survived after all.

* * *

Gunny wasn’t hard to find. She still wore her poncho and her camping hat, and the tattered locals of downtown York flowed around her and Betsy, as though the mule was a rock in a fast-flowing stream. She glanced up from her ministrations as Oliver approached, giving a wave with her screwdriver. “There you are.”

“There I am? I’m the one looking for you.” Oliver stuffed his hands in his pockets. The jeans were a little loose, but they fit well-enough, as opposed to the ragged pair he’d worn since Skara Brae. “I was just talking to David—”

“Who?”

“David. You met him. Called him Dave until you pissed him off, remember?”

“Oh. Him. How is Dave? Still an officious little prick?” She returned to her tune-up.

Oliver sighed and crouched down. “Gunny.”

She didn’t stop working but her eyebrow twitched a response.

“David’s got a lot of work to do. He’s helping organize all the relief supplies. He’s got me a job, actually.”

She did stop, frowning. “For money?”

“No, of course not. But I’m going to take it.”

“Doing what?” She wiped her hands on a rag that had been a t-shirt, once upon a time.

“They’ve just found one of the old BBC emergency radio rooms. It was buried during one of the earlier hurricanes, but we can get it up and working again, I’m sure of it. They’re even going to find a generator for me.” He grinned, waiting. “Radio, Gunny!”

She nodded, impressed, then sat back on her heels, peering at him. “How far’s the reception?”

He sighed. “Local. It’s…” he gestured with empty hands. “It’s supposed to be one of a series. From maybe the second world war? Jesus, a whole century ago. But that’s good, right? It’s mechanical. Provided we can rig up any replacements we might need, it should still work.”

“So no internet yet.”

He knew she wasn’t talking about checking her email. “Maybe there’s other beacons already working. Maybe… we’ll have communication faster than walking speed again.” He let himself trail off and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s a start.”

“It is.” She agreed, her voice light and pleasant but with something strange written across her face, in a way he’d never seen before. It worried him.

“But in order for me to take the job, I’ve got to register. And you do too, otherwise—”

“It doesn’t matter.” She gave a dismissive wave and stared down at Betsy.

“Of course it matters. You can’t keep sleeping in a tent in the square. We need to find you something more permanent.”

“No you don’t.”

He rubbed his eyes with his hands, then his face, enjoying being clean-shaven for the first time in months. His cheek was still tender from where they’d pulled the broken tooth. “Gunny. Please. Not this again.”

She stood, ignoring him.

“You don’t even know what’s there. It might be—” He watched as she put away the toolkit into one of Betsy’s flopping panniers. “Where’s all your stuff?”

“Gave it away.” Gunny took off her hat to wipe her forehead with her forearm and stared up at the bright sky with a faint smile, then back down at him. “Weight limit on the boat. I’m leaving tomorrow, Ollie.”

He stepped backwards. “What?”

“Found someone who’s taking the same journey. We leave for Scarborough tomorrow, bound for France.” She tidied the ATV as she spoke, her tone matter-of-fact.

What?”

“From there he said that there are some ships still crossing the Atlantic.”

“Gunny—” She didn’t look up from her adjusting of straps and checking of hatches. “You don’t know what’s out there.”

She stopped, her hands pressed flat against the peeling pleather seat cover. She peered over her shoulder at him. “Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Did you know this—” She gestured around them, “was still going to be here? When you set out on your own from North of Nowhere, Scotland?”

“No, but—” He stopped. “It’s different.”

“How is it different?” She straightened, crossing her arms over her chest. “How?”

“Well, for one thing, if England was crawling with radioactive mutants, even the Scots would have heard about it.”

She frowned, rubbing her temple.

“All right, maybe a bad example. But you don’t know what’s there, Gunny. Isla.” At the use of her real name she twitched. “No one’s barely hears a peep out of Europe and you can practically swim there. North America might as well be the moon. And it’s hurricane season soon.”

“That’s why I’m leaving now, to give myself a head start.”

“To do what?” His voice was raised and he lowered it, aware of all the eyes on him. “To hitchhike across the bloody continent until you find someone stupid enough to risk a ocean crossing with no working GPS? What if you land in, I don’t know, Greenland or Newfoundland or something? What will you do then?”

“I’ll do what I did here, Oliver.” Her own voice rose without embarrassment. “I will do what I did across Scotland.”

“And what was that exactly? Lie your way past a bunch of… shitkickers at gunpoint with an antique? How long do you think that will work when you’re not in the fucking Highlands?” She stared at him, her mouth an angry straight line, as weeks of repressed comments continued to flow out of him. “Everything about you is a lie: you’re not even American, you’re a fucking Canadian.” She blinked, startled, her mouth dropping open. “Everyone knows Canada didn’t even have cowboys, they had Mounties. So who the fuck are you fooling, besides yourself?”

Gunny recovered enough to spit out: “Fooled you.”

“Not for long!”

“For long enough.”

They stared at each other, both furious, before Gunny abruptly turned, wrenching the seat off its track. She scooped up the collection of papers and pressed one of them against Oliver with a flat palm.

“It’s done.” Her voice dropped, low and firm as she replaced the seat cover. “I’m going home tomorrow. You can either come say goodbye or you can continue to be an ass. It’s your choice.” She swung her leg over the mule and revved the motor, startling a nearby family, all clutching their belongings. “Get the fuck out of my way!” At her shout the family hustled the small wide-eyed children out of the ATV’s path.

He watched her leave, then opened the water-stained print of Gunny and her sister: Lily forever circled in black marker, Isla forever frowning, just behind her big sister’s shoulder.

* * *

One last trip on the mule, following old roads east to the coast. Scarborough had been even more badly ravaged by the decades of hurricanes than York; much of the city lay underwater. What remained focused on fishing.

The landscape had altered even since Oliver was a small boy. Not just the wreckage; even the plants and trees seemed different from his childhood. But who could trust their own memories? Maybe he recalled an idyllic and pastoral England from the 20th century, preserved in film and books. Maybe it had always been like this.

Over and over as he met people in York, the refugees wanted to swap stories, share memories. Rarely did those memories match. Instead, he realized, they were rebuilding a past even as they learned to discard it. Better not to remember the 20s and 30s as they were: full of warning signs and despair. Hope was a better foundation for the future.

He twisted around to regard Gunny while she drove; she caught him looking in her mirror and gave a wink. Nothing had been said about their argument; she’d driven up to his lodgings with a grin and a wave. He’d offered her half of his breakfast. And just like that, they’d set out.

* * *

The small skiff was more fishing boat than cargo, but big enough to carry passengers. The skipper greeted Gunny with a nod, and Oliver with a squint—a silent question.

“No, I’m staying.”

The captain gave a grunt and turned away to address his first mate.

“You don’t have to, you know,” Gunny said, suddenly. She undid the straps of the closer pannier; with a few adjustments it made a serviceable rucksack. “You could come with me.”

Oliver pulled off his own empty backpack, a well-made Gregory that had literally gone through hell and back. “Here.” He thrust it at her.

She stared at it for a moment, then nodded, swallowing. She started transferring her few belongings. “It’s true though. You could come with me.”

He sighed, considering for an honest moment, running hands through his hair. “…I can’t. You know that.”

“I know. But I had to ask.” The pack was too big for her, since she was shorter by a head than its original owner, but it was far more comfortable than the makeshift alternative. She adjusted the straps tight and stared up at him. “I want you to take Betsy.”

He glanced down. “But—”

“I can’t take her with me, obviously,” Gunny continued, breezily, tilting her head towards the small skiff. “And she’s as much your mule as she is mine.”

“I… can’t.”

She pressed the pannier into his hands. “Think of all the hauling you could do with her! All the parts you need for that radio station of yours. Not to mention, it’ll save you the walk back to York.”

He nodded slowly, agreeing. “You never told me how you got Betsy, you know.”

“No?” Gunny answered, brightly. “Huh. Well, I took her from the nutbars, of course. Along with the fuel converter and all the camping gear.”

“I figured as much.” He was at a loss. The makeshift harbour smelled of old fish and rotten seaweed, but the wind that blew off the ocean came clean and crisp. “But… Peppa and George were from the old landlord. Who owned the land.”

Gunny tilted her head confused, then burst out laughing. “You named the guns?”

He gave a shrug.

“Speaking of, you might as well take the long shotgun too,” she said. Then: “George?”

“Peppa,” Oliver corrected. “You take George with you.”

She winked as she patted her poncho and drawled out: “Way ahead of you, partner.”

They both smiled at that.

* * *

He parked the ATV on the beach, staring out over the sea. Low clouds blew along the dark line of the horizon, fast and puffy, like sheep bolting. He’d watched until the boat was over the horizon, destined for Normandy.

From there, a few of the other passengers—Gunny included—were bound for Paris. One of others was an electrical engineer by trade; she was very excited to hear about the potential beacon. They’d swapped frequencies, and she’d promised to try and get in touch once she got her own repeater station working. France was farther away than it had been when his grandparents were children, but with a bit of hard work and some luck they’d get the radio working and bring the rest of the world closer.

All he could do was hope that Gunny would arrive back in her own Scarborough (“sometimes life is ironic like that”) safe and sound. It would be months of hard journeying and her fake cowboy routine wouldn’t impress anyone back in North America. He still couldn’t believe it had impressed anyone in Britain. But maybe she’d be all right just talking to other people, Canadian to Canadian.

He wasn’t sure whether that would work. But Betsy and her three newer bolts reminded him that there were still good people left in the world, even if he wasn’t among them any more, and that would have to be enough.

Oliver dusted the settling sand from his bartered jeans. He should head home before the approaching rain blew inland.

There were still good people in the world; that’s what that mattered.

Better to pretend that was enough.

____

Copyright 2018  Victoria Feistner

Victoria Feistner is a writer, a graphic designer, and an artisan in equal parts, although some of those parts are more equal than others. She resides in Toronto with her partner and their two cats. Read more of her writing at www.victoriafeistner.com

The Shepherd

By José Cruz

The cross is bigger than he remembers. Its tumescent beams stand atop the church’s peaked steeple, their size symbolic of great sacrifice, the ruptured cement below roasting in the fire of a four o’clock sun.

Carlos sits in the crumbling Chevy, windows rolled up, desperate to feel every inch of the heat. Blood-warm apprehension pools in the small of his back. The iron head of the hammer tucked behind his belt clings to his skin, eyes of the Virgin Mary glistening wet from the prayer card that hangs from a noose of rosary beads on the rearview. His own eyes move up to the mirror’s crusted glass; the face of his father stares back at him from behind a piecemeal beard.

It’s the second time he’s come back to the truck since his arrival; he resumes watch of the church’s wide mahogany doors as if expecting them to open through force of will.

He knows that the stage is waiting for him.

The hammer suddenly feels brittle in the bony cradle of his pelvis, desperately unfit for the task that’s called him here. Inside the blazing truck, Carlos wonders if any of it is possible–if memories could really shatter under the swing of a mallet.

Worrying the spiral scar on his right arm, he charges from the pickup in a sudden burst of bravado. His courage melts quickly in the sun; he makes it just outside the church’s entrance.

The neighborhood to his back rustles with activity. Children stumble thankfully from choking bus to minivan and old men water hedges one last time before cold snaps and Florida migrations set in, all of them doing whatever they can to keep from looking at the church. The pavement thrums with the mild buzzing of yellow jackets stirring from their nests. Even with the noise, Carlos can still make out the whispers crawling from beneath the doors though the exact words remain unclear. They stop who is innocent as soon as his fingers graze the metal handle, only to resume when he turns and considers letting this place burn in the back of his mind forever. Inside the cab, the Virgin Mary swings gently from her noose.

Turning around, he rips the tattered X of yellow tape screaming CAUTION from the doors and, slipping the hammer from his belt, starts going to work on the padlock clasping the links of chain to the handle. The sound ratchets through the air, smiles wiped from mothers’ faces as they ignore their children’s questions and drive away, old men shaking blistered heads as they drown their violets in sulfur water.

The smashed padlock clatters to the ground. He waits for the bones in his hand to stop ringing before finally pushing through. A bated whoosh from inside matches his own panting breath. He breaches the threshold, lets the cavernous darkness settle over him as the doors slowly seal shut.

This is a reunion. The two parties receive each other.

* * *

It’s a story the boy has heard before, the one about the dogs. His father tells it to him some nights before bed, the two of them propped up against the Power Ranger pillows. The boy closes his eyes at intervals to conjure the scenes in his mind, his father weaving the tale in a soft, lilting tenor. The tattoo on his father’s arm—a Max Fleischer cherub fitted with boxing gloves, the boy’s name rolling in cursive beneath—appears as a ripening bruise in the approaching dusk.

One day near a village in San Salvador, a boy found himself walking down a road. His father points to the window. The sun was just beginning to set. The sky was bloody under threads of skin.

The boy was all alone. The road he followed ran next to a great volcano. He could feel the mountain groan beneath his hardened feet, and for a moment he was frightened that it might erupt before his return. But when the boy looked up, what he saw instead was a flock of sheep running down the mountain’s side, as if something had frightened them. He realized soon enough what it was.

The boy digs his toes into the chilly sheets, anticipating the next movement.

Two dogs stood in the distance: one black, one white. Each had eyes of fire and long, thin faces like old men. The dogs stared at the boy who did not move. The boy stared at the dogs who did not move. But the boy knew who they were, even before the dogs finally began climbing down the mountain rock on their hooved feet. They were El Cadejo.

The boy grins, for he loves the smoky taste of this haunted word.

El Cadejo were the spirit-dogs of the mountains. One was good, the other evil. The good cadejo was sent by God to protect travelers in need. The evil cadejo was sent by the Devil to steal souls for his Master. They lived on the great volcano and ate the purple flowers that hung from their stems like bells when they weren’t hunting for sheep.

The boy interrupts: The black dog was the bad one. Right?

His father stops, considers this, and then shrugs. Sometimes. Sometimes the white cadejo is the bad one. It depends on who’s telling the story.

Silence. Then, the son: So, what happened next?

His father flashes a toothy grin. You’ve heard this one before. You tell me.

The boy compares the small, smooth hands resting in his own lap to his father’s callused fists. The dogs fight for the boy’s soul.

The father twines an arm around the boy and hugs him close. That’s right, Charlie.

It’s a lie Carlos has told himself before, the one about his father.

He never heard bedtime stories as a child. Even if his father had been there to tell them to him, in reality his English was only mildly intelligible, at best. When the man from his fantasy speaks, Carlos can always understand him perfectly. He can’t even remember the last time it was he and his father had touched. Did they embrace? Did they shake hands? Did they say they loved each other?

As for the dogs, he thinks he must have recalled them from a book of ghostly legends he borrowed from the library as a kid; now it was all appropriated material he’d use to construct this false childhood for himself in the hollowing hours of night, piecing together his past like a patchwork suit. Each time he would stand back and see how it fit him, but no matter how many versions of the scene Carlos envisioned he would end up rolling onto his side as Jessie slept soundly next to him, closing his smoldering eyes against the pathetic need that throbbed coldly within him, a beggar in stolen clothes.

The tattoo was real, though. This Carlos knows, but even now as he tries to recall its finer details they, like everything else about his father, begin to dissolve like a negative exposed to the light.

* * *

His mother told him his father was taken away by angels.

Carlos realized early on that this was not true; as a teenager he became formally acquainted with terms like “border-jumping,” “green cards,” and “ICE.” It was one of the many soft lies she told him throughout his life, but these days he found himself wondering about that. About a lot of things.

For eighteen years Carlos had stood at his mother’s side through a procession of men who she went through as if to wash the mistake of his father off her skin, but each and every one of them was abandoned as soon as there was enough beef in the fridge and sufficient repairs had been made to their home. His mother nursed whatever guilt she felt with Long Island iced teas and disability checks. Carlos recounted the faces of his surrogate fathers in between the veiled hostilities that soon became the vocabulary of his home life.

His rare visits to the house were still peppered with the awkwardness borne of those eighteen years; the last time he dropped in his mother began to reminisce on his toddlerhood, a time she had no doubt enjoyed because he hadn’t yet learned to question her motives. She had recently dyed her dirty blonde hair some hideous shade of platinum, and though there weren’t any glasses in evidence Carlos could detect the fog of booze. At one point in the conversation, she smiled dreamily at him, freckles crinkling, and said, “Did you know back then I used to call you my little spiclet?”

He had never really been revolted by her whiteness until that moment, but later Carlos couldn’t decide what bothered him the most: the genuine blush of affection in her voice or the fact that his inherited whiteness made him uncertain if he had any real right to be bothered by it at all. He was, in the end, only a mutt, and it seemed hypocritical to feel outrage for a heritage to which he was always a stranger.

“She’s unbelievable.” Jessie sighed. “But what are you gonna do? You only get one mother.”

Carlos shook his head as he walked through the front door of his house. “Yeah, but don’t they have exchange programs for something like this? Can’t I get a return on a broken parent?”

Jessie’s laughter purred through the phone’s earpiece. Settling down onto the couch, Carlos allowed himself a smile and let the sound lift him for a moment. Visits to his mother’s were usually followed by calls to his wife, mostly to vent incredulous anger. A few minutes chatting with Jessie during her lunch breaks had the power to quiet his humming blood. He was replaying the sound of her laugh when he heard her speak again. “Sorry, hon,” he mumbled. “Caught me daydreaming. What was that?”

She paused. “Do you ever think about trying to find your dad again?”

For a few seconds Carlos sat with the phone pressed hard against his ear, trying to remember how his mouth worked. “Dad” was such a small word, but it had sharp edges. Like his mother, he had fallen into the pattern of referring to his father by his first name, as if he was the neighbor, or the dog. Aside from memories and resemblance, that name was Carlos’ only inheritance from his father, a name he had only begun to use in the last few years. As if that could somehow make up for everything.

But his mother insisted on calling him Charlie.

Well, Carlos is what it says on my birth certificate, he reasoned, which was immediately followed by the thought, well, where was that loyalty twenty years ago?

Shame drew Carlos’ throat tight as he shifted on the couch and heard the snicker of rosary beads sliding to the floor. He leaned over the stack of half-finished job applications and plucked up the fallen prayer card. Midday migraine light turned the Virgin Mary’s throat into a white-hot slit. Carlos flipped the card over and saw his own name and date of birth written in his father’s wobbling, childish scrawl. The only birthday card he ever got.   

“No,” he whispered into the phone. “I really don’t.”

* * *

The lambs shuffle into the church’s nursery on wrinkled feet. They do not touch or bump together as they file into the room, not even accidentally. Their naked skin, still fiery from the bleach and the hoses, is partly the reason for this, but mainly it is because at this point they have all learned to mistrust physical contact. Whatever curiosity they might have possessed towards each other’s bodies was broken the second they were herded into the nursery on that first day, a whole other lifetime away.

The matron calls out to them. Her voice sparkles champagne-rich from the silent rocking chair where she sits. The only other furnishing in the room is a puppet stage, scabbed and bent, leaning to the side like a slumbering animal behind her.

The matron invites the flock to sit. The lambs obey. They all picked their spots on that first day in the nursery, and now they’ve kept them.

The matron smiles down at the lambs, reaches out, and grazes the cotton ball whorls that puff out from their handmade masks. The masks are the only article they wear, the skull-buzzing odor of Elmer’s Glue still thick in their lungs. They all sit completely still as the matron rises from her chair and walks among them, caressing their new papier mâché skin.

Such pretty faces, she says. Such clean, white wool.

* * *

The church’s interior slowly comes into focus. There’s enough drowsy light leaking in from the front windows for Carlos to discern that the building is an intact relic, a ghostly coating of dust the only visible concession to neglect. The lobby is Spartan in decoration and design: a few depleted armchairs ringing the wall, anemic plants fainting across cracked pots, a small podium standing at attention like an upright coffin.

Taking a breath, Carlos begins walking towards the doors of the sanctuary when a dark blot forms in the tail of his eye. He turns, slowly. A large, framed photograph stands in a nest of ratty garland on a shelf behind the podium. Its subject resolves itself as he draws nearer.

A chilly stream of memory rushes through him, and he feels his fingers curl around the hammer. In the photo, a bearded man stands inside a room made of meaty logs; it could be a beach house or a camp bunk. His gangly arms are held aloft. Whip-scars swarm across his body. The exposed slashes seem to cover every inch of skin–from a distance he appears as a single raw, angry wound. Eyes of blue stone peer up through a thorned crown with a look of appeal or blame.

Sunday mornings, pale knuckles around his mother’s hand, staring at the picture from behind her legs, telling her that he was afraid

The two first-born sons appraise each other. Carlos wonders who the model in the picture was in real life, and what happened to him afterwards.

His grip begins to loosen on the hammer. This isn’t what he’s come for. His purpose lies elsewhere. He switches the hammer to his left hand, slams the photograph face down on the shelf, and continues towards the sanctuary.

A gentle tinkling forces him to stop. Carlos turns and casts a final backward glance.

The picture has been righted. Behind him, Christ weeps tears of broken glass.

* * *

About twenty minutes into the job interview, the office manager dropped the other shoe and asked Carlos if he spoke Spanish. It was a familiar question. He answered the same as always. He met her query with a small, guilty smile. “No,” he told her. “I really don’t.”

“Really? Why not?” She tilted her head, playfully disheartened, but there had still been the expectancy of an answer in there.  This was the part he always had trouble with.

In the past he had opted for the honest approach—“Oh, my dad just wasn’t around to teach me,”—tagged with a shrug, but all this accomplished was bringing the mood down and making him look the orphan hard up for sympathy. More recently he’d taken an equally playful, ambiguous route.

“Just never got around to it, I guess.”

The office manager nodded; her tight-lipped frown told him that she’d gotten the message despite his best efforts. “It’s not a problem,” she added quickly. “We just got kind of excited cause we thought you might be bilingual. Usually, you see someone with a name like that and…” She didn’t need to finish. It was a story Carlos had heard before.

Then it was his turn to tilt his head. He’d said that he hoped he hadn’t disappointed them. She assured him that no, of course he hadn’t, but by then Carlos had already drawn back into the cave of himself and all he could hear was the endless whisper of his own voice quietly calling himself a fraud.

After the interview, he sat in his parked Chevy with the radio tuned to a Spanish station. Two commentators bantered at the speed of machine guns. He closed his eyes at intervals, his forehead straining as he focused on snatches of conversation in the hopes that they’d awaken in him buried talents and a keen understanding. He locked in on a phrase that one of the commentators drew out in slow relish, batted it back and forth in his mind before attempting to speak it aloud. The rolled ‘r’ sound stumped him; his tongue flapped helplessly in his mouth. The two commentators burst out in laughter.

After five minutes of thinking about this, Carlos started the truck and pulled out onto the highway, the alien chants of the music that commenced following him all the way home. At the start of each new song, his mouth grew a little drier.

Three weeks later he started his new job at the same office, the service coordinator of a national water company. The phone calls he received begged and demanded him for help, and whenever he gave his name and the customers returned his calls later, they asked the operator if they could speak to Juan or Diaz or Luis again, please.

* * *

The black goat looks upon the lambs from on high.

The puppet rears its galloping head towards the audience, hair ragged with mange, lidded marbles peering out from under a set of massive, curved horns. The lambs subconsciously trace the spiral of the horn’s twin along their arms as the matron weaves her tale in the dark.

The black goat is not to be followed, they are told. The black goat is Untrue Father, sworn enemy of the Shepherd and all whom he keeps. The black goat is Illusion, for there is none in the field but the Shepherd and his flock. To leave the flock and follow the black goat is to be eternally damned, to soil their souls with the grime of false promises and give themselves over to the care of the invisible.

This is The Show, the lambs’ nightly Sabbath and sole lesson.

The atmosphere of The Show is ruined, as it is every evening, when the puppeteer controlling the black goat slowly rises from beneath the stage, his corpulent face all but hidden under jaundiced spectacles and a drooping mustache. The lambs draw their breath in at the sight of the hammer in his left hand.

The black goat is the Great Enemy of the Shepherd, the matron says.

Gently, the puppeteer places his right hand upon the stage.

The matron’s eyes shine like distant candlelight. The black goat must be punished, she tells them.

Slowly, the puppeteer raises the hammer and starts to go to work.

All but one lamb turns away. The boy in back watches the scene from behind his breath-warmed mask, tracks the steady swing, feels each blow grind against his ribs. The curtains are soon speckled, the puppet reduced to rags. The slick hammer drops to the stage, and the puppeteer draws back into the shadows from where he was born without a sound. The watchful lamb traces the scar on his arm and dimly recalls another branded man from his past.

A rusty squeak scissors the air. The lambs turn just as the slumped, hissing figure in the wheelchair crawls towards their circle. The matron beams through a sheen of tears that glint amber in the nursery’s polar light. Six arcs of shadow trail from her fingers as she reaches out to the lambs, her voice marmalade-sweet.

Rejoice, she tells them. Your Shepherd is here at last.

* * *

His footsteps shouldn’t be echoing.

The church’s sanctuary still has all of its nicked wooden pews, its snowy tapestries hanging above the pulpit like battlement flags. Even the parchment hymnals remain, tucked behind benches, waiting for chanting resurrection. Underneath the reverberating stomp of his boots Carlos hears who is innocent the soft whispers from before, the dry susurrus of voices offering up prayer. He reasons the draft from his passing is rifling the pages of the hymnals, but it doesn’t explain the muffled sobs trickling from the pooled shadows beneath the pews.

The sanctuary is colder than the lobby in spite of the towering stained glass windows streaming Technicolor sunlight into the room. The windows snare the heat in their refracted patterns, robed saints with flowing-locked heads bent in obfuscation, palms open in acceptance, perfectly rendered in tired compositions. The room’s frigid air makes Carlos’ damp skin awaken to second life.

The last window on the right depicts a scene different from the rest. A Doré-esque figure in purple garments hurtles from the sky on wings made chitinous by the glass. An upraised arm covers the face as if in agony or shame. A hole has been punched through the window’s tapestry, shattering the rolling green hills of the pasture below the figure into a mouth of jagged teeth.

Carlos stops and peers through the aperture. In the church’s parking lot he spies a girl hunched over a mountain bike, squinting at him through the bronze dusk, her dirt-caked face immovable as rock. She seems to regard him as an invader. Carlos reaches through the hole, spreads his hand out in a gesture of acceptance. With uncanny swiftness, the girl whips her bike around and begins pedaling furiously away from the church. Carlos draws back slowly, but the broken window still manages to trace a stinging river down his forearm. The cut is not deep, but it is enough. He looks back. A scarlet bead winks from a jade fang; the parking lot is empty. He knew the church would not allow him entry without a token payment. One wound for another.

Arm clamped to his chest, Carlos slowly moves past the sighing pulpit and begins the long trek down the hallway to the church’s nursery.

* * *

Carlos had seen the Shepherd a few times before those numberless days in the nursery. It was mostly around the church, like in the craft classes the sweaty youth pastor would host after Sunday services, or in the dark mirror of the boys’ restroom. But sometimes Carlos could spot his silhouette passing beneath a storm drain or hanging from the branches of the moaning pine that overlooked the playground at school. Sometimes, he would be in the wheelchair.

The Shepherd was old, though Carlos never did find out what his exact age was, a crumpled white man in an equally crumpled and white suit whose single note of color was a shimmering purple tie that trailed down his front like a dead trout. In spite of his wasted appearance, Carlos found the old man’s presence assuring in its own way, a figure that could be relied on to be there at all times, even when he wasn’t.

Carlos was heading out of the nursery one afternoon when he felt a firm grip upon his shoulder. He turned, surprised to find the Shepherd kneeling next to him when he had been certain the old man had been standing at the other end of the room only a moment before. The Shepherd smiled, his face a dried riverbed. When he spoke Carlos thought he could see his jaw work as a solitary unit, like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The old man pointed. “Charlie, was it?” His rasping drawl tickled Carlos’ ears. He felt himself nod.

“I’ve taken notice of you. You’re an exceptionally intelligent boy. Quite an aptitude with words.” The Shepherd’s polished lips curved slyly. “But it seems to me that you rarely speak them aloud. You’re not really the shy type though, are you Charlie?”

“No,” Carlos replied easily. “I guess I just feel like what I have to say doesn’t really matter to anyone.” He stopped, suddenly confused.

The Shepherd chuckled. “Fear of looking foolish is a legitimate concern. But those people who would laugh at you aren’t the people who matter, Charlie. I would never dream of laughing at you. I believe you have some very important things to tell the world, and I want to be the one to hear them first.”

Carlos looked up at the Shepherd, saw the skin of his face bulge out softly in spots, heard the dried snap of tiny fluttering legs, and he was suddenly overcome by an intense desire to please this man. His eyes began to water, and in their warm murkiness he thought he could see parts of the Shepherd’s face begin to run together.

“Who are you?” Carlos asked.

Flesh creaking and tugging, the Shepherd flashed a toothy grin in the dark.

“Who is it that you need?”

Something sharp began to move inside Carlos’ chest. He heard his voice under a low ringing that turned the rest of the world silent. “Will you stay?” he asked. “Will you stay if I’m good?”

The doll’s mouth clacked, and oaken fingers brushed his skin. The Shepherd nodded, drew him into an embrace. Carlos had the impression of glass wings settling over his face.

“That’s right, Charlie.”

In the next second, Carlos was running from the nursery, gasping to keep the cries from breaking free. He turned and cast a final backward glance. Through a haze of tears, he saw the Shepherd quietly watch him go from the opposite end of the room.

* * *

Carlos didn’t own any photographs of his father. (“Can’t you see the resemblance?” he’d ask Jessie, fingers framing an invisible portrait.) The only physical evidence he had of the man’s existence was two mug shots accompanying their respective arrest reports on the county sheriff’s online portal. One charge for marijuana possession; the other, one he preferred not to study.

Googling his father’s name one night, he combed through the infinite results. “Carlos Humberto Dominguez” wasn’t exactly exclusive, and it didn’t help that his father had regularly altered his name in order to daunt the law. Carlos tried looking up distant cousins and aunts from half-remembered conversations. He found possible accounts on Facebook but didn’t know how to proceed, or if these people even spoke English, or if they’d even want to help him if they did. His grandmother in El Salvador had presumably been bilingual, but she had been beaten to death by her second husband. (The elderly  murderer  was released from prison and remarried several months later.)

Carlos began to consider hiring a private detective before abandoning the idea for fear of cost and ignorance of where even to start. There was the other fear, too, of what such a course might uncover—his father leading a happier life with a second, more faithful family, a shallow grave, nothing at all.

In lieu of accomplishing anything or giving further thought to his apprehensions, Carlos stared into the laptop’s blurry screen for the next hour, back to the scraps he started with: two mug shots, and a life full of ghosts.

* * *

None of the lambs move at first. Fear and exhaustion anchor them to the ground.

Come now, step forward, the matron says. They see her look out across the room and then they hear the same question that they hear every night, the question that none of them can answer in words.

Who is innocent, she asks.

The matron’s voice betrays no emotion, yet they can all feel the promise of punishment coiling in the air about them. The only response to her invitation is the rattling breath from the figure in the wheelchair. Guilty eyes dip towards the floor. Some weaker lambs begin to cry. Their companions do not comfort them. They are children, and they know only of private despair.

A brittle voice sounds from the front of the flock. One of the lambs asks for her nana.

The matron suddenly appears over her, a shadow,  a spider. She asks the lamb if she knows how she came to be in the nursery in the first place. In her grief, the lamb does not know how to respond, so she buries her head in her hands instead. The matron explains that the lamb’s grandmother only wanted to help her and that now, having received her consent, the Shepherd can give the lamb everything that her nana could not.

The lamb can only repeat the word, “please.”

Kneeling down, the matron sweeps the lamb’s mask away, exposing the tear-stained skin beneath, the red hair glossy with sweat. The matron holds the lamb’s head in place so that she can see nothing but the figure in the wheelchair and asks her to look and to see: her mother has come back to her.

The lamb whispers “please,” a few more times before her cries stutter to a stop. She stares at the figure as if seeing it for the first time. Recognition dawns in her eyes. The matron pulls the lamb to her feet and bids her on.

The lamb takes an unsteady step forward, glances back for the validation of her flock and, seeing only the lumpen expressions of their masks, moves on. She calls to the figure, testing the word “mommy” on her tongue, unsure if it can be trusted. The sound of her voice stirs the figure in its seat, and for the first time since its arrival it looks fully into the nursery’s light.

Hunger steals into the heart of every lamb in that moment, and the nursery soon burbles then echoes with the sound of their cries. The unmasked lamb’s face breaks into a delirious grin and she falls, laughing, into the figure’s lap, cradled in the crook of its skeletal arms as she paws at the wattles of flesh hanging from its throat. Mommy, she squeals. You’re home!

The other lambs pound the floor with bony hands, their voices cracking as they watch the figure’s face shimmer and take on the reflection of all their treasured memories of sisters and uncles and best friends lost to the edges of the universe, each memory now turning to them and whispering only to them, You are my one and truest love.

An incandescent, violet glow begins to throb within the figure’s chest. The unmasked lamb hugs her mother close, drawn to the glow’s warmth. None of the others in the flock notice the boy in back rise up and walk over to the stage. They are too distracted in their devotion to see the red hammer gripped in his hand, too enraptured in the heat of His love to stop him before the twin claws sail down and sink deep into the figure’s mummified chest. The unmasked lamb falls to the ground screaming, her loose hair snared in grasping fingers. The figure’s wooden jaws snap open, wide and wider, and all that anyone can make out in the blinding light that follows is the ferocious hum of yellow jackets taking flight.

The One and Only Father. His scream is the wind; His mouth is the sun.

* * *

Carlos didn’t hear his father’s last phone call from the penitentiary himself, only got it secondhand from his mother later on. His imagination weaved in the rest. He wondered what his last words were. Did his father curse them? Beg for forgiveness? Tell them he loved them? They were all preferable to the frantic call his mother told him about, the way his father had shouted, “Kathy, they’re sending me back—” before the line clicked dead. And that’s when the angels came.

Angels. No—that wasn’t right. She’d said something else—“agents.” Wasn’t that it? It must have been. Perhaps he’d misheard her. Perhaps he’d only wanted to hear her say something else.

Perhaps she hadn’t told him anything at all.

* * *

Earlier that day on his drive over to the house, Carlos suddenly recalled the date and pulled into the nearest Walgreen’s, purchased a Mother’s Day card decorated with too much glitter, considered grabbing the box of Queen Anne’s that he knew she liked before finally resolving to just leave it at the card. He’d done enough.

The card later laid splayed open on the kitchen table, a crippled dove. She’d taken it with an automatic smile and told him that gifts weren’t necessary, but Carlos knew that it would’ve been a different kind of visit had he arrived empty-handed. They sat across from each other now in silence, milky fog steaming from his mother’s vapor cigarette in languid curls.

David, her latest acquisition, was busy clearing the yard of branches felled by the last thunderstorm. The two of them were engaged, had been for just over a year with no wedding on the near horizon. Every time the subject was broached Carlos could still feel the resentment crawl across his skin. Both had neglected coming to Carlos’ own wedding three years earlier, the mailed invitation going unreturned, and the notion that Carlos might now have to watch this surly little redneck step up to the abandoned throne made him almost sick with rage.

He wished he could just give up his father like she had.

“I’ve been thinking about the church again,” he said.

His mother’s face registered no reaction, but he saw the muscles in her neck stand out in starker relief. “What about it?”

A knot in him began to unwind. “I have dreams about it, sometimes. They get so real that it starts to feel like they’re actually happening. Like I’m there, but I’m not. Like this is happening to someone else, but I’m stuck here anyway, so what’s the difference? It’s been hard for me to tell the difference between lots of things lately.”

He looked at his hands. “In the dreams, I’m sitting in the pews and I can feel someone sitting next to me, just in the corner of my eye. My head turns slow, really slow, but every time I finally look over he’s gone, back in the corner of my eye again. And when I wake up it feels like he’s still there, and it takes me a while to get rid of him, before I don’t see him anymore. Sometimes it feels like he’s with me wherever I go.” He looked up at his mother, and the tears in her eyes mirrored his own. “God, Mom,” he said. “What did you do?”

A hardness set in her then, and she sat up straighter to face the attack head-on. “I raised you by myself for eighteen years. No help from anyone and in pain every day of my life. You think that was easy?”

“I seem to remember a lot of guys spending time around here. I don’t think you worked as hard as you imagine.”

“Imagine nothing. Food in your stomach says I worked hard. Presents every year under the Christmas tree says I worked my ass off for you.”

“I didn’t need presents, I needed my fucking father!” His outburst caught him off-guard, and he blanched at finding himself gripping the arms of his chair.

His mother’s eyes sparkled with black mirth. “You never wanted a fucking father, Charlie. You never wanted any man coming into this house. Not even Carlos.” She paused, weighing the next cut. “Or have you forgotten about that too?”

His hands ached to hold her, to shake her until he heard the delicious snap of her neck. How could she bare him like this?

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said, but there were no teeth to it, the words falling to the ground stillborn.

She shook her head slowly. The absolute worst thing was that she looked like she truly pitied him. “You goddamn idiot. I did everything for you. I gave you a chance.”

Carlos struggled to hold her gaze. “No, you didn’t. You left me to die.”

They regarded each other through the scentless haze of smoke before his mother looked off into a distant corner of the room. “Then I guess that makes us even,” she said.

He wished they could love each other like they were supposed to.

His mother never rose, not even when the front door punctured the inner wall as he stormed out of the house. David was stationed at his worktable in the garage, stowing away tools, his sweaty beer belly exposed. Carlos was halfway down the driveway when he heard the smirking voice ask, “Well, what the hell is it this time?”

Stopping, Carlos turned, walked into the garage, and strode back to the truck all without saying a word, the roar of the gunning engine and the sounds of his own screams drowning out the blows on the windshield and David’s voice shouting for Carlos to give him back his fucking hammer.

* * *

The nursery is smaller than he remembers. As he enters, he’s struck by the way the settings of life’s defining moments later assume a scale symbolic of their importance. The pain in his arm has turned down to a low, steady ache. He spots the light panel on the wall and flicks a switch. A single rack of fluorescents glimmers to life. The rest are extinguished, leaving most of the windowless room in murk. Carlos weaves between the little wooden chairs and tables, his steps muted along the alphabet rug. Crayon portraits of families standing outside their too-small houses hang from clothespins on copper wire.

The air is stuffy, suffused with the bite and tang of construction paper and permanent markers. They accent the darker odor that hovers below them, the flat metallic scent from the large bloodstain starting to crust into the carpet. The smell from the stain is stronger than Carlos’ own wound. He swallows, trying to wash the taste of it from his tongue. There isn’t any tape marking where the body had been.

The face on the 8 o’clock news had been flayed by drug abuse, but her red hair had lost none of its luster. The reporter said that she had broken into the church through the front doors, and a trail of broken glass had led from the sanctuary directly to the nursery. Her suicide, the price for returning to the past, had awakened too many dormant rumors in the community, and so the church had been closed for good this time.

Carlos can still see her face from that last day in the nursery. She had looked so happy in the arms of the Shepherd. He had recognized her on the news despite the changes, just as he could recognize the girl who was unmistakably her daughter as she turned from him and pedaled away into the sunset.

He forces the thought from his mind. Culpability lurks, ever eager to claim him, but he can’t stop now. He’s not responsible for any life but his own. It’s just a stain on the ground.

His heart grows sluggish as he scans the nursery. He almost misses the puppet stage squatting in a far corner of the room. The tarp that he rips from its frame kicks up a wistful cloud of dust. Like the nursery, it’s smaller than his memory allowed, the crude castle spires flanking the stage barely reaching the top of his head. The boards, he notes, are surprisingly spotless.

The hammer in his hand seems to radiate a physical heat. He envisions the stage’s boards buckling under its crashing fall, dreams of feeling the crack of timber sing through his muscles, and for a brief moment he knows peace.

He reaches out and runs the flat of his hand against the grain. A great swooping sounds overhead. Carlos turns and catches a glimpse of sepulchral wings spreading wide, covering the nursery in darkness. A lone, cold light shines from above upon a bent figure sitting in one of the wooden chairs. The figure’s face remains hidden, but the light allows Carlos to make out the faded form of a child boxer tattooed on a muscular arm.

Speech abandons Carlos first, then his legs.

The man looks upon him from on high. His face never moves towards the light.

There was a time–maybe you don’t remember–when your mother brought you to see me. We went to Jones Beach that afternoon. The sand was gray. It’s not supposed to be that color, I think. Do you remember any of this, Charlie?

Carlos’ feet spasm from the tide’s frozen kiss. “I remember,” he says.

We walked along the water and we talked. I think that was the first time we ever really did that, alone, together.

Carlos keeps his eyes on the ceiling. “Mom was watching us from the blanket down the shore.”

That’s right, she was. Do you remember what I asked you that day?

He nods. “You… you asked me if I would let you be my dad. You said that you would really like it if I said yes.”

She wanted you to say yes too, Charlie. More than you know. Did you let me be your dad that day?

“Yes.” Carlos pauses. “I thought I did.”

What happened then? After I came back home?

If he doesn’t run to this man now and hold him fast he’ll be lost forever. “Please. I don’t want–”

The man fills the nursery with his voice. What. Happened.

Sunday morning, pale knuckles against the open back door, watching his parents struggle in the switchgrass, telling himself that he was afraid

“You drank too much. Got in a fight with Mom. There were cops.”

Why?

Carlos stares at the faceless man. The words feel too immense, too dangerous. He cannot trust them. Or what they’ll do to him if he says them. But he feels his lips peeling away from each other and he hears it, he hears it all: “You hurt her. You broke her rib.”

How can he bare their lives like this?

The man nods. What did you think of me then, Charlie?

“I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know who you were.”

The man holds his hands up. Shafts of light pour through ragged holes in the palms like the sun reclaiming the land from a storm. Do you know who I am now?

Carlos stares until his eyes begin to smart and his vision swims. “Yes. You’re my father.”

If I’m your father, then don’t you want to find me? Don’t you love me?

An orbit of silence passes between them before Carlos can answer. “I do, and I don’t,” he says.

The man’s fingers close over the wounds. Why now, Charlie? Why the stage?

Carlos looks up to the unblemished boards. They seem to swell and grow as he rests his head against the floor.

“It’s where they told their lies. Where they taught us how to hate ourselves properly for everything that had to happened to us. I thought I could forget about that, what they did to me. To us.”

Forget about it, like me?

“Yes,” he says after a moment. “Like you.”

Carlos watches the man rise up from the corner of his eye. You don’t have to destroy it.

Tears scrape winding trails towards his scalp. “I don’t have any other choice.”

The man steps across the room and hovers before him. His face remains hidden, but Carlos can feel the darkness of his eyes settle upon him. Don’t you?

The cold nursery light begins to flicker. Memories churn and swirl before Carlos as the man lies down next to him, and now he smells the hot beer on his face and feels the sinking weight against the Power Ranger pillows, his father wrapping an arm around him and pulling him into the hard shelter of his chest as his mother screams for help from the backyard. She can’t stop screaming. Carlos would bite down on his fist to silence her but the man holds him too firmly.

What is that you want, Carlos?

Somewhere, a little boy is listening to a bedtime story about the dogs in his heart, smiling up at the best friend he never had.

The earth tilts, and Carlos feels the man slide forward until he answers the question through his son’s lips. “I want to be whole.”

When he reawakens, the nursery is empty. A wooden chair lies on its side but, aside from this, all is as before. Carlos climbs to his feet and stares into the abandoned room for a full minute. Before he makes his way from the nursery, he turns and places the hammer upon the stage. The stuttering fluorescent light finally surrenders to the shadows as he passes through the door. Nothing calls to him or stops him.

And he never looks back.

* * *

Curls of heavy mist pour into the lobby through the church’s yawning mahogany doors. Carlos swats them away, clearing a line of sight as he walks out to the parking lot. The sun peers balefully through a pearl ocean, shedding enough light to  reveal that the street has been emptied of both houses and denizens. The horizon is now studded with rolling green hills made almost black in the settling dusk. Topping these hills are the crumpled forms of hundreds of sheep, rivers of blood gleaming in twilight as they flow earthward.

The mist parts up ahead. Carlos can see the two dogs assessing him from the dirt road that twines through the hills. They watch him as he takes a final glance over his shoulder. The church remains, tall and looming, an immovable fixture of the landscape. The lightest of smiles touches his lips though its cause eludes him.

The dogs rise on weakened haunches as Carlos approaches. Their muzzles are damp and matted from their feastings, their flanks a constellation of battle scars. The sun has set but their lantern-eyes show the way as they turn and lead him through the mist. Their loping movements are submerged, balletic in the smoky air.

As they run on, Carlos discerns the scarred profile of a volcano rising in the distance, feels its groaning in his feet. In a sudden charge the volcano paints the sky with molten brushstrokes, each blast reverberating through his ribs. The heat is pleasant on Carlos’ skin, and the glow of the eruption lights his face in heartbeat time. He listens to the fiery music of the dogs’ panting breath, to the gentle trickling of the hills keeping time with the throbbing blasts from above as his monstrous flock bare bone and flash fang over the fate of his soul, and though Carlos knows the road ahead will split and each dog will follow its own course, he looks ahead to the bleeding mountain and decides that now he will let his own feet take him wherever they want him to go.

____

Copyright 2018 José Cruz

Jose Cruz is the author of two (now three) published stories; his fiction has previously appeared in Nightscript and The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. His nonfiction work has appeared in print and online venues such as Rue Morgue, Diabolique, bare•bones e-zine, and Paracinema Magazine, among others. He lives in Southwest Florida with his wife, daughter, and pupper. Find out more at The Haunted Omnibus.

The Day Beth Leather Shot the Moon, As Told by Rosemary Bonebreak

By Sarah McGill

On April 10, 1893, a Monday, Beth Leather shot the moon.

The moon came down like a medicine cabinet. It came down with broken hinges and the bottles spilling miracle tonic. The corks popped out and the cherry cough syrup sloshed into the laudanum and only the thick-glass bottoms were left unbroken. When the moon came down, the salt flats went dark.

* * *

In 1886, Beth Leather lassoed the Milky Way and rode its width from Minnesota to California. Upon arriving in California, she and her horse Sunny Jim were hired as traveling librarians.

First time Beth came to White Horn, I was sitting on the post box eating bell peppers out of my apron. Beth came up the road looking at the horizon like it was forever. I think she would have ridden out where the salt crust was thin and sent Sunny Jim right into the deep mud if Darleen hadn’t run off the porch, bare-feet kicking up salt, raw with it, and grabbed hold of her reins.

“Uh-uh,” she said, “I’m not setting no horse’s leg today. Half the kids in town got scarlet fever and they’re sick as rats. What you doing out here without a map? Did the government send you? What’s in your bags? Why’re they so big?”

Sometimes I wished it’d been me. But only at night, after I’d finished a book and I was closing up, alone but for the smell of lemon cough drops and hydrogen peroxide.

For seven years, Beth Leather rode into town every April with cow-leather boots and a felt hat sporting yellow flowers and her saddlebags full of romance chapbooks. Used to be I watched her from the window, packing salt into tin boxes with my thumb. I’d watch my sister pull thickets of hair up with a resin pulp comb and saunter onto the salt flats like she wasn’t mad in love with Beth. Beth always had a book for her, patched with Christmas cards and horse glue gone yellow.

I could hear them talking, with the window cracked. “How’s the trip?” my sister said.

Beth patted Sunny Jim’s neck. “Ah, peach. Went left at Sartin-Down and took a bison trail through the zodiacs. It was so hot up there, the chickens were laying hard-boiled eggs. All anyone could cook was solar flares because everything else burned to the bottom of the pan. So I thought to myself I’d go up north a tick for a block of ice.” Beth rubbed her chin and winked at Darleen. “Problem is, Great Bear didn’t like me cutting his ice.”

“How’d you get it, Beth?” It was the only time I got to hear my older sister sound like the littlest girl, with silk bows down her back and jam on her face.

“Well,” Beth drawled it out long, like she wasn’t going to tell. She folded her hands over her chaps, leather stains on her palms and knuckles scarred like cauliflower. I used to imagine her smelling like pages, before I knew she smelled like gun oil. “Great Bear, he’s snarling, stretching his jaw so wide I hear his jaw popping. Looks like he’s got a mind to swallow me down. ‘Hold on, Mister Bear,’ I said. ‘You can’t eat me. I’m bitter as wormwood and salty as the sea. But if you let me go, I’ll eat a jar of honey and comb my hair with molasses and then I’ll be sweet as a honeybee hive.’ He thought that sounded pretty fine, so I came back down to the bison trail with my ice in my bag. I rather think he’s still waiting.”

Darleen grinned, her book held careful as dandelion seeds between her hands. “One of these days you’re gonna end up like Stingy Jack, Beth Leather; lost between here and there with nothing but a Jack-o’-lantern.”

Beth stayed two weeks, sitting on an old schoolroom writing desk out front of her shack, taking back last year’s books and loaning out new ones. She had a whole page for just us—Nevada on the right, White Horn on the left, and the library address in the middle. She wrote names and book titles with a fountain pen and it came out ugly because of the shakes in her hands. She didn’t like us looking at her poor writing, but we still gathered around the page like it was magic.

I never thought it’d be me greeting Beth Leather, holding up my hands for the slim novel and the salt burning my heels.

* * *

In 1888, Beth Leather was one week late on her route on account of a starry girl who took her riding down a lute string road between the North Star and the Southern Cross.

Beth and Darleen fought a lot. They fought about anything; if violets or geraniums suited the kitchen table, how come Darleen wouldn’t fix up fennel tea for Beth’s headaches, why Beth arrived this year on a Wednesday instead of a Tuesday. The year Beth came late and left early, the fights would have put a tornado to shame.

“Ought we go riding or something?” Darleen said. “You’re not getting a better day for it and you’re leaving tomorrow.”

“You can’t ride so well, Darleen.”

I watched them through the door, spooning opium through funnels into the glass bottles lined down the counter. Beth leaned on the kitchen table, sorting through maps and star charts. She was leaving a day before my birthday this year. I’d be eighteen.

“Well you can’t hardly do something as simple as making tea.”

“You make enough tea for the both of us,” Beth said.

Darleen stood behind, her arms crossed and her shoulders up. “Then we’ll go slow. Sunny Jim’s an old horse.”

“Sunny Jim’s the finest horse you’ll ever seen, Darleen. Not every horse has the iron-cap knees needed to jump far enough to get to the sky.”

“It’s all about that damn horse.”

The maps scattered on the floor when Beth turned, her lip slipped straight and angry. But she only hooked one arm around Darleen’s neck and closed her eyes. Darleen curse into Beth’s collar until her shoulders shook.

At the end of April, Darleen put on button-up boots and my straw hat with the bluebird on the band and walked seven miles to church rather than wish Beth good-bye. The next year, Beth pretended she’d not brought Darleen a book and only gave it to her after four days of sore eyes and enough yelling that Pa came to Beth’s shack turning his hat round and round in his hands and offering to mediate a discussion between the two over breakfast.

But I’d still find them in the evening perched precariously on the roof of Beth’s shack with Darleen’s book spread across their laps and Beth’s arms tight around Darleen’s waist. Darleen read aloud very slowly so she’d not read more than a chapter by the time Beth left. I wondered sometimes if I could stitch them to the fabric of the sky, suspended so just their toes touched the gabled roof. Then they’d stop fighting.

Instead I maintained the roof beams, year to year, so it wouldn’t fall in. It’s a wonder that house lasted as long as it did; though in the end it was swept away during an autumn flood in 1893.

Beth used to eat dinner at our house. I’d see her come in as I swept up the front room, locked up the cabinets, and put away the surgical knives. It was a good thing Beth lived out west because noplace else would have enough space. She had a way of being big as a bison, filling up so much space there didn’t seem room for a pat of butter. It made me shy and I didn’t consider myself shy. But when she came in, I took longer cleaning up, too nervous to go in and sit at the kitchen table, smelling her onion sweat over the steamed cauliflower.

Ma and Pa didn’t notice Beth knocking knees with Darleen under the table. They probably thought it was just Beth being so big, moving like she was on horseback and no one for ten miles. Besides, Pa’d never have a suspicious or evil thought about anyone who liked his pumpkin soup. But sometimes Beth bumped me too and my heart went into my mouth.

Darleen never helped Beth pack up. She hated it. After she stormed off when I asked about it, I ran to the shack so fast I near broke my neck just to spend a half hour alone with Beth.

Beth laughed the first time I came to her door, panting and my ankles all over salt, “I was expecting someone else.” Said it the second and third time, too. Then just said, “Afternoon.”

I packed all the returned books so they were snug, like medicine bottles wrapped in paper for long travel. I’d started thinking I understood Beth, looking for the vestigial blue between the storm clouds like the sky could cure her headaches as good as any medicine. It was uncharitable, but I thought I knew her better than Darleen, on account of noticing things like that.

“Us two should go riding some time. As thanks for helping me pack up.” Beth rubbed her knuckles where they swelled in the heat.

“To go on one of your adventures?”

“Mayhap.” Beth smiled. I smiled back because I wanted that bad as anything and I was afraid she’d never take me.

She didn’t that year.

Darleen watched Beth go from the road, a kerchief mangled against her chest. Beth wasn’t one for looking back, though she always waved. White Horn got quiet when she left, Sunny Jim’s hoof prints left like torn pages before the wind whipped them away.

“I’ve got soup for daughters,” Ma’d say the next week when us two went moody and slow.

Darleen spent the whole year fixing Beth Leather up in her head as a high-flying adventurer with as much charm as a horseshoe nailed above a door, more tall tale than skin and bones. Sitting on the post box, I watched her stuff herself with stories: Beth the Wanderer, wearing the Milky Way on her hat brim, birds black as black swinging off her saddle; Beth the Flirt, sweet as cherries, who always swept Darleen up when she came back and kissed her neck where it was hidden by butterscotch hair.

I wondered if that was why she loved Beth. Not because she knew where Beth was when she left White Horn or had been on a single adventure with her even once. Just because she’d made that Beth from the stories the real thing. I thought about telling Darleen she was fooling herself, but I figured Darleen wouldn’t appreciate it. Every year she thrilled to the high heavens at seeing her darling appear on the salt road. But Beth never was quite what Darleen had made her to be. No wonder they fought so much.

And then Darleen told Beth she didn’t want to have anything to do with her anymore. She sat on the porch swing with her arms crossed and said, “I don’t love you, Beth Leather.” Kept her eye on Beth until Beth went down the steps and walked away over the salt. Darleen never borrowed a book again. Her hands stopped smelling like inked paperbacks and went back to smelling like poppies and acetylsalicylic acid.

In 1890, I stood on the only street into town with a pickleweed bouquet, waiting for Beth Leather to come up the road with four dozen paperbacks in her bags.

She flicked back her hat when she saw me and her smile was so big it nearly knocked me over. “You’re too chipper, Rose. What am I going to do with you?”

* * *

In 1890, it rained so hard the Milky Way ran backwards. Beth Leather got washed out of the sky, hooting and hollering all the way down.

It seemed like Beth rode into town already telling stories, the gab spilling behind her like hoof prints. Darleen was right when she told me Beth always was talking about going to the sky, which was so perfect it hurt, filled up as it was with white bison and cinnamon trees and velveteen rabbits mashing up moon cakes. If she wasn’t chasing a reindeer under the Sky Nail, she was eating dried olives and sheep cheese with Capricorn, who she affectionately called old sea-goat. Sometimes it seemed like she didn’t know how to talk about anything else.

But we liked those stories. Because every year the basin flooded and we sat on the beds with our feet up while the floor turned to mud and the salt marsh snails crawled up the doors. We told each other the salt was bad. Pink in the spring, blue in the winter, and made half of sand. It was accepted wisdom that there wasn’t a sorrier sight in the world than the children selling salt to travelers who came rattling by in their black carriages, the wheel rims eaten up by our very own salty road.

I went riding on Sunny Jim for the first time in 1890.

We went out in the dark, Ma calling behind me not to fall into the lake. It was her way of saying ‘good evening.’ I held my knees so tight around Sunny Jim’s belly that in an hour I was shaking. He fidgeted like a rabbit and even though it didn’t look it, his hooves came down so hard my coccyx seemed to bounce into my spine. He had such strange gait about him, I kept thinking he was going to jump. Beth led him around, her head against his, murmuring into his cheekbone. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, on account of how hard I was concentrating on not falling off. I’d be mortified if I fell off in front of Beth.

We rode west out of town, where the bottle stoppers bloomed yellow against the foothills. Went so far it got dark and the little lamps in the windows were just small orange stars fallen to the ground. “This what it’s like in the sky?” I asked, trying not to shift even though I felt small and awkward in the saddle, marked with Beth’s fingers and smelling like eucalyptus.

She looked around and rubbed my knee with her knuckles. I went all jittery. “A little. The air’s sweeter, like a whole cup of sugar in lemonade. And when the wind blows, oh it blows. Once it was so strong, it took me to the other side of the world and then back again. And there’s always some news going on. Always something happening.” She pulled the heel of her hand in a circle against her swollen knuckles. I started thinking about scraping out an egg membrane for her to eat so her joints wouldn’t be so red. “It’s the sort of place you don’t want to come back from.”

“I’d like to see it.”

Maybe she nodded, or maybe her head was just bouncing with her walk. It was hard to tell.

“Too bad you can’t stay longer in White Horn.”

She kept on just the same and I still couldn’t tell if she was nodding or just tilting her chin in to whisper something to Sunny Jim. I bit my tongue so I didn’t say anything else foolish.

When I couldn’t hold on any longer, Beth held up her arms. “Don’t worry, Sunny Jim won’t let you come down bad.” She caught me when I snagged my foot in the stirrup. “Hold on, hold on.” She chuckled as I gripped her neck, her arm tight around my waist while she untangled my ankle and set me down gentle.

It took us an hour getting back and I couldn’t stop sighing, I was so happy.

I spent the April of 1891 flighty and jittery as a wet cat.

“Calm down, Rosie, there isn’t a thing to be so excited for,” Darleen said.

I thought she was being jealous, all frowning and hunched with her belt cinched too tight over her waist. That day I just wanted to be bright and pink as a rose, colorful and shining as Mars next to the moon. I’d even worn the only dress I had with some pink in it.

“You’ll tell me about the constellations, won’t you? I’ll be so embarrassed if I don’t know them when she comes.” My teeth chittered and I had to sit my chin down into my hands and my elbows down on the windowsill to keep from my shivering.

“She won’t even bring it up. How much can you talk about in two weeks? I spend more time with the cows.” She humphed and hawed and I heard her cursing out in the garden, but that night she taught me about the constellations anyway.

“She really been to all of them?” I asked.

Darleen settled back in her porch seat, sagging like she’d fall asleep. “You know the North Star, right? That one’s important. Can’t go anywhere without it up there or you’ll be lost as soon as you arrive.”

She said it like it was something she knew, and not something she’d been told. But I wasn’t going to be mean about it. I just wanted Beth to come so we could sit together on her roof and she’d tell me stories.

Beth came late in the day that year. It was already dark when I saw her, my whole body heavy with waiting. I tried to smile, even though I’d expected her hours ago. She came down with a thump beside me and put a hand on my shoulder.

“Evening, Rose.”

That was all she said before she went off to her shack and went to bed.

I understood. She was tired.

We didn’t go riding that year. She’d had some fever that winter and sometimes she was dizzy in the morning. I hated hearing about it. I hated thinking about her lying up in bed all day, Sunny Jim wandering aimlessly around the yard, eating rotten apples off the ground and nickering at the sky.

“Beth, you couldn’t have been that sick.”

“Sure was.” She leaned up against the shack, the sun coming down so bright it seemed like even the salt would dry up.

I thought I probably should have scooched over so our hips were touching, but I just stayed still, my hands balled up in my lap. “Then you ought to have come out here. We’ve got feverfew.”

She smiled and rubbed the back of my shoulder. “They’ve got doctors elsewhere too, you know.”

“Couldn’t you have gone up and found some miracle cure in the Milky Way? Moon poppy milk or something?”

“That’s not the sort of thing the sky goes into. Not a lot of sick people that side of the horizon.”

I looked down at my fingernails full of sand and wished I’d been there to fix her up. “You weren’t really that sick, right? I can’t imagine you sick.”

Beth shrugged and pulled her brim down over her eyes. “Guess then maybe I wasn’t.”

“Didn’t you do something interesting on the way here this year? You haven’t told a lot of stories.”

“Stayed on the ground this year. Admired the roses. Put together a few books too.” She flicked closed the book in my lap with her thumb. “I made up that one I gave you, you know.”

“Thank you, it’s very nice.” It was nice, a whole lot of recipes pasted together. I guess it just wasn’t what I was expecting.

* * *

In 1892, Beth Leather rode around the moon with a pistol in each hand. She came back with a bison tail white as limestone and two scrapes on her knees.

Beth Leather told me about the moon.

Beth and Darleen weren’t talking in 1892. Beth came in the front instead of knocking on the window on the side of the house, catching the bell on the door so Darleen wouldn’t come out from pounding up peppermint. I mixed Beth chickweed and fennel tea for her headaches and if I was nearly closed up, I’d call for Pa and take the tea out in a clay pot. We’d go as far as we could before the salt crust broke, right until the salt peeled up like carpet. I thought myself nearly as good a surgeon as Pa in those days and I was drunk on fixing everything. It was all mashed pumpkin poultices and stitching up scythe wounds with catgut and giving women celery leaves for menstrual pains. Beth looked at me so indulgent I blushed. It wasn’t until years later I thought she probably hadn’t been listening much.

“You love all the things no one else can,” Beth said, “anatomy bloodying up surgical table, the salt, those lemon-green sinkholes where the children drown.” She chewed on her tongue and kicked boot-loads of salt at the horizon. “Never understood it, Rose, you being so sweet when you were raised on opium and gin and knowing how half the people in town scream.”

“It’s the paperbacks,” I said, putting my tongue through the gap on the left where I lost my teeth when I set Widow Pearl’s leg and she kicked me in the jaw. “You know I keep thinking about how some of the people in those stories could do just about anything. All riding from one end of the country to the other and catching coyotes and chasing buzzards. It seems like the best thing in the whole world. That how you got into it?”

She raised an eyebrow and I swallowed hard. I’d never asked what she’d done before a comet caught her bootstrap and took her up so far she had to grab the North Star so’s it wouldn’t take her any further. But asking it, I wanted to know. I couldn’t even imagine what she might have been doing before.

Beth put her thumb on her chin and turned her face up towards the dark blue. “No. That what you want to do? Riding and stuff like that?”

I waited, hoping she’d say more, but she didn’t. “Sure,” I said. “Or maybe I’d just set a ladder against the moon and live with corn silk window frames and a tea parlor clean as peroxide.” I locked my fingers together and held them against the sky. “I’ll cook sun spots in big silver pots and the kettle’ll always be boiling.” I laughed because it was sort of embarrassing, and then louder because Beth was looking at me kind of funny.

Beth pulled her thumb over the moon. “There’s no windows on the moon. Moon’s a white bison. Black hooves like tar and a snort like sulfur.” She pulled the yellow flowers forward on her hat band and lay back on the flats. “Someday, I’m gonna shoot the moon.” She glanced at me and even in the shadows it was hard to hold her eye. “I’ll shoot it for you. If you want.”

I must have flushed even darker, like cranberry honey. I shook my head, kinda slow, while Beth set her jaw as grim as I’ve ever seen. “Nah-uh. You think you will, Beth Leather, but you never will.”

In 1893, the state went broke and stopped paying the traveling librarians. Beth Leather went out on her route one last time.

A week after Beth Leather arrived in town, she rode up in front of our house two hours before dinner. Darleen pretended like she didn’t notice and went back to crushing parsley and ergot. When I came out the front door, Beth said, “I’m going to shoot the moon.”

I could see the moon from where I stood. It was thin as a suture needle, a pale wash against the thumbnail of blue beneath the veranda roof. It looked like milk spilled on the floor, and all the cream skimmed off.

I looked at Beth. Her hands shook against the reins and her knees were too tight on Sunny Jim’s flanks. She’d put fresh flowers in her hat. I’d watched her all week, glancing at the sky, her eyes filling up and draining out. She kept touching the pistol on her belt.

I went inside and came back with a straw hat tied over my hair with a white cotton scarf and a carpet bag.

“You think I won’t do it,” Beth said when I hung the bag on the back of the saddle.

“You’re real sweet.” I smiled, big and nice as I could.

When I mounted up, Darleen threw open the window so loud the frame shook. The sun cut over her neck and she looked like she’d boil.

“Rosemary.” The air caught in her throat. Her eyes welled up and I wanted to tell her not to look at me like that. Like I was too young to know what I was doing. “The rains are coming.”

Then Beth leaned forward and the Bonebreak home vanished behind us.

We rode out toward the sink in the scablands, the horse hooves tearing up what little soil there was on the rock. Beth said we were going to the lowest point in the whole country, the last place to dry up in the summer.

“I’ve been looking for this place, Rose, ever since I came here.”

I thought about her, the first time she rode into town, so starry-eyed. It scared me a little that she’d been thinking about shooting the moon this long, even before she met me and my sister.

“You looking to go on an adventure then?” Beth said past the wind.

“Yes, ma’am, I am.” I tried to say it like I was older than I was.

“You’re not just coming to make sure I’m not lying to you?”

“Beth,” I said, affronted.

I wanted to go on an adventure with her. I wanted to so bad.

That night, we camped up the mountain in the bristlecone pine trees, laying out needles under our blankets. Some people still lived up the mountain, off the bighorn sheep and jackrabbits. They wore corks on their hats and one of them kept a mouse in his pocket, feeding it dried corn and pine nuts.

We traded some of my opium for dried meat and water. Beth told them we were going to shoot the moon.

“You shouldn’t be doing that,” the man with the pocket mouse said. “It’s like catching a coyote, seems like a good idea until you do it.”

That night I lay on the needles on my side with my hands under my chin. I fell asleep watching Beth stare at the sky and her eyes so big, big as full moons.

In April, Beth Leather took her oldest pistol to shoot the moon. It was made out of boot nails and painted the color of a buttermilk sky.

In the morning I asked if we’d ride up on the Milky Way to shoot the moon. I’d heard stories about her riding around the moon before, though not close enough to get it between the eyes. Beth didn’t answer right away and I went squeamish and embarrassed.

“Only, it’d be a real adventure then. Like one of your stories. The sky’s something else, right?”

Beth looked over her shoulder and she looked distracted even when she smiled. She looked like the idea of the moon had filled her all the way up, poured into her belly liked spilt cream, the whole Milky Way draining down her throat and not leaving any room for anything else. “Sure, Rose, if you want.”

“No.” I scrunched up my skirt on my knees. “That’s alright.”

It was quiet a long while after that, but when we came down to eat lunch, I asked, “You really shooting the moon for me?”

“Yeah.” She smiled weird and gentle and put her arm over my shoulder, holding me up against her side so I broke out in a nervous sweat. “Just for you.”

I turned one of Beth’s knives over in my hand. “What’m I gonna do with it?”

“Whatever you want.” She stood and left me feeling small.

“Like what?”

She shrugged. “You could skin it. You’ll have the finest tanned hide this side of Texas. Then you can do anything you want. If you like, you can cut it into strips and make a rope bridge up to the sky.”

“Won’t it be awfully dark up there without the moon? It’s like the stars’ sun, isn’t it?”

“They’re bright enough on their own.”

I wondered why Beth was always going off on her adventures, other than it seemed a lot more fun than watching the floods roll in your front door. Maybe it was just the kind of thing she did. Shooting the moon was just the next thing.

“Ok.”

“You know.” She pulled herself up straight, turning her chin a little to talk past the wind. “The program, it’s been defunded. They’re not sending people out with books anymore.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” I shifted away as Sunny Jim stomped. “What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know. There’s still a lot of places I haven’t seen.”

“Maybe you can come by more often, now that you don’t have to go to all those other towns. You could stay a whole three weeks. Or longer even. We’d find you a job, I promise.” I laughed at how impossible and grand the idea seemed.

“I guess Sunny Jim might appreciate not carrying around such heavy books anymore. They do wear on his withers.” She patted his neck and wrapped up her fingers in his mane. “He’s been real good about it. Didn’t complain once. Maybe we’ll go to the east coast. Haven’t been there before.”

I stood and Beth helped me mount back up. “Bet there are lots of adventures out there.”

Beth crossed her hands on the saddle’s horn, her fingers shaking just enough to see, just enough to make her writing sort of twisted. “My mother always said I loved too easy. Easy as a star falling.” She sucked in a breath and pulled herself up in front of me.

That night, the moon hung above us bright and round like the bottom of a tonic bottle. I didn’t think it looked like a bison at all. It looked like our medicine cabinets, where all the cures in the world were kept, even the fake ones. Colored syrup and sugar pills between boneset and borage and poultices.

Sunny Jim galloped toward the sink, kicking up dust and salt while I held Beth around the waist and my hair stuck to my neck with sweat. Sunny Jim’s hoof beats rattled through my ribs but the quiet was as wide as the whole basin.

Beth held up her pistol, her body like a gallows, and I could feel her breathing under my arms. She shot once.

* * *

On Monday, when the moon went out, it started to rain.

We waited in the dark, Beth and I. I didn’t let go of her waist, not when her arm rocked with the shot, not when the moon went out, not when it started raining down my neck. Beth’s hands twisted on the reins. The salt crust cracked. The ground turned to mud. The wind picked up and blew rain into our faces, down our necks until we were wet even between Beth’s back and my chest. It smelled like the ocean. Ma’d told me about the ocean. I’d never been there.

I looked at the sky through Beth’s hair. I’d never been so scared, looking at that gap in the sky. My chest knew something ought to be there and it wasn’t, not even a little bit. I held Beth tighter. My breath went fast. I pushed my face into Beth’s shoulder. I wanted her to say something, about how it’d be alright.

Sunny Jim turned of his own accord when his hooves started to sink into the flats. Beth’s legs tightened on his flanks. I couldn’t see a thing, not even the mountains against the horizon. We could have been in the sky, in the middle of a rain cloud, and I wouldn’t have known it.

“Beth.” I said it into her shoulder, my mouth moving over the bone.

“I’ll find the moon.”

I remember Sunny Jim stumbling as it got muddy. I remember thinking I saw the moon standing on the horizon like a scythe, caught in the pine trees. I remember letting go to point to it as the water came up to my ankles and the waves broke on my calves. When Beth put her knees into Sunny Jim’s side, following the motion of my arm, he leapt. He leapt and my grip broke and the water tumbled us away.

I lost Beth. I lost her quick, quick as a bone breaking. I took her hand, slick with salty water and she slid away. It was so dark. I didn’t even get to see her face as she went. I screamed after her, the moon slipping away so I wasn’t sure I’d seen it at all. The noise of the waves mixed up with my shouts and I could hardly hear myself. Couldn’t find the ground with my feet. Everything tumbled. The water went up and I went down and I never saw Beth Leather again.

I came out onto the scabland long, long into the night, slick with mud and my nose burning like death with salt. I could hear the waves crashing over the rain and the wind moaning through the pines. I shivered and screamed for Beth through the storm, but no one came. I stood in the surf and slipped and ran back and tried to throw pine needles, which stuck to my hands. Up and down the banks, up and down and no idea where I was going or if I was about to fall into that current again. Beth, Beth, where did you go?

It was a long time in the dark.

In the morning, I stood shaking on the banks. I watched the lake, bright and new as a penny. I waited for a book to wash up, or a yellow flower. I expected to see her hat floating on the water. Or one of her blackbirds. Nothing came. The lake looked so big and empty. Like the ocean. Like there’d been so much rain the whole world drowned. Salt crusted on my ankles and I could hardly walk for the mud. My hat was gone too though the scarf had plastered itself to my shoulders. There was so much salt, I felt like it had filled up my blood, filled up my lungs.

I walked north, along the shore, shivering and not expecting the walking would do any good. Seemed like if I was going to find her, it would have happened already. I went so far I came back around south again and walked toward home.

I slept that night out on the salt and the sky was dark as anything. No moon and all the stars dim like they were in mourning.

When I got home, I told everyone Beth was gone. They didn’t much listen. They were all mucking out their houses, rebuilding the walls and roofs that had come down in the flood. Beth’s house was slick with mud, but it’d held against the water. Darleen came out with her sleeves rolled up and her hem wet. Said one of the medicine cabinets broke. Covered the floor in honey and chalk.

“Beth’s gone,” I said, and I nearly choked.

She squeezed me tight and didn’t let go so long as I was holding her back. Made me caraway tea when we went inside.

It kept raining for a week, the lake swelling up through the flats. Pa came home with his boots caked in white mud. My toes wrinkled up with the wet. Ma couldn’t keep anything dry, even when she hung it in the rafters over the stove. I spent a lot of time sitting on the counter, holding bottles while Darleen sorted through the cabinets. I couldn’t help leaning forward every few minutes to look out the window, see if anyone was coming up the road. Darleen finally put me in the back room, I made myself so nervous looking. The same people got colds as did every year and we ran out of lemon. It stayed dark at night and we walked around with shuttered lanterns, leaving ruts with our heels.

A week after Beth vanished in the flood, it stopped raining. The lake settled out and the ground started to dry, all the places we’d walked crystalizing into the ground, until people started filling them up with sand and salt. Darleen pulled back her shoulders and went to scrub out Beth’s shack. She hauled out the schoolroom desk and buffed it ‘til it looked like new and then left it out to dry. The shack’d wash away five months later. Darleen came back so tired she stayed out all night on the porch.

I sat out at the side of the house while she scrubbed, away from the road, looking at the primrose and gravel ghost flowers. Didn’t think about much of anything until it started getting dark and I went to see if the garden had lasted the flood. The garden was a little thing, all the soil pulled in from miles away, and even that only wanted to grow radishes. Had to keep up a little fence, so the salt wouldn’t kill the green tufts.

And it was the funniest thing, what I found leaning up against the back of the house like a mill wheel. If it wasn’t the moon. There between the water tin and the eggshells like it’d rolled in off the flats and sat down to rest awhile. Sunken and washed up as an old bull. So I picked the moon up. Popped it back in the sky.

That night, the moon rose just like anything. Just a sliver, a whisper of hair blowing in the wind, yellow like it was at the other end of a fever, but there all the same.

* * *

A note from Rosemary Bonebreak

There are lots of legends on the flats, preserved in salt and growing crystals. People tell stories about shooting the moon. We start sober and someone says they took every trick in a hand of Hearts, like they were pulling games on the flats to impress a girl with calloused fingers and a face like wheat stalks. But by midnight we’re all drunk and suddenly someone took down the whole moon. Lassoed it, caught it by the horns, dragged it down. Wrestled it for seven days while it rained and the sink flooded. Until finally the moon galloped away, back up into the sky, panting and lolling its tongue.

Out here where the tumbleweed knocks for a cup of water and the floods are like the end of the world twice a year that’s the sort of story I tell. Someone with a pistol made out of the soles of their boots was so big she galloped onto the salt and shot the moon right out of the sky. Sometimes, when it’s late and the parlor’s nearly I empty, I tell the story like she really did do it for me.

____

Copyright 2018  Sarah McGill

Sarah McGill lives in New York and has been published on Lyonesse and in Crazy 8 Press’s anthology, Altered States of the Union.

Chrysalis in Sunlight

By Sarena Ulibarri

The thin gray webs stretching across Aunt Melissa’s hand hadn’t been there the night before. Her condition wasn’t supposed to be contagious, but I went to the kitchen for some latex gloves anyway. If these webs were a new stage, all the procedures might change. There was still so much we didn’t know about the alien microbes now living in her body.

Aunt Melissa stared out the window at the mountains, wincing slightly as I cleaned her fingers. “Is this anywhere else?”

She didn’t answer. I bounced my leg—a nervous tic that passed the time and soothed my chronic muscle aches. After a full minute passed, I tried again.

“Aunt Melissa, are you with me?”

She didn’t turn her head to me, and her lips barely moved. “Yes.”

“You had sticky stuff between your fingers. Do you have it anywhere else?”

Another mumbled word: “No.”

“I’m going to check, is that okay?”

A long sigh. “Okay.”

I hated the downswings, though they were certainly easier than the active hallucinations that sometimes accompanied upswings. It worried me, though, that the former were becoming more common than the latter. She placidly allowed me to check her armpits and thighs. Her toes curled as I pulled off her socks to inspect her feet. Nothing else out of the ordinary, except for a little more muscle atrophy. She was only forty, but exposure to the alien microbes during the war had aged and transformed her. The broad-shouldered soldier I remembered had been steadily withering.

I peeled off the gloves, then turned on some music and left her alone to go call Dr. Acacia. Except, when I picked up my phone, she was already calling me. I tapped the device against my living room wall to transfer the call there. Her face filled the wall screen.

“I’m glad you picked up, Erin,” she said. I could tell she was working hard to keep worry from bunching her forehead, but she wasn’t succeeding. “How’s Melissa?”

I paced the living room as I told her about the webs. She nodded.

Her lips pressed together in a tight line for a moment before she spoke. “This complication has appeared recently in many of the Exposed. We’re asking all caretakers to bring their charges to the EERF.”

My throat tightened. The Extraterrestrial Exposure Research Facility was halfway across the country in San Diego; this wasn’t going to be a casual checkup. I sat on the couch, grabbed a throw pillow, and clenched it in my lap. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being locked up in that laboratory. They’d said they wouldn’t as long as I was willing to take care of her. “She’s doing just fine here in Denver.”

“Erin, your home care has always been fantastic, but we’re seeing rapid accelerations of this webbing you described and we need to act quickly to counteract the complications.”

“What complications?

“With some of the Exposed, its come close to encasing the whole body.”

It took another moment to choke out the word, “Fatal?”

“That remains to be seen, but our researchers here can certainly slow down the process. With time, maybe we can even reverse it.”

“And this isn’t something local facilities can handle, is it?”

I knew the answer before Dr. Acacia shook her head. Civilian hospitals refused to work with the Exposed, and the Denver VA was overbooked with vets dealing with the more familiar repercussions of war: brain traumas and prosthetic limbs and PTSD. The VA was fine for routine appointments and prescription refills, but they gave no priority to the Exposed in their lengthy appointment waitlist.

When I was younger, Aunt Melissa used to show up twice a year, always stirring my otherwise mild-mannered family into a party, defeating my father in arm wrestling matches, challenging my grandfather to whiskey shots. She’d once driven all the way to Denver from the base in Missouri where she was stationed so she could beat the crap out of my ex-boyfriend who had given me a bruise.

Once she was discharged from service and we learned we were the only ones in our family who had survived, Aunt Melissa came to live with me. The first signs that the war had changed her were subtle: laughing at a joke that no one else could hear, starting sentences in the middle or trailing off before the end, yelling at service workers for even the smallest perceived slight. She stopped driving after spacing out at a stoplight for a full ten minutes, completely unaware of the car horns and the people banging on the windows. She was diagnosed with PTSD, then later with Bipolar, until the pattern became clear among all the Exposed and the true cause was revealed. Over the last few years, she had weakened and started swinging between nearly catatonic downs and vivid hallucinations—I assumed they were war flashbacks, but she’d never been able to describe them in a way that made any sense to me. Many vets were sent to the EERF by frustrated family members. I never considered it for a second. We adapted.

I stared down at the throw pillow and tried to unclench my fists, slow my breathing. “She’s all I have left.”

“I know,” Dr. Acacia said. “That’s why you need to get her here as soon as possible.”

Abstract shapes swirled on the wall screen long after Dr. Acacia hung up. Aunt Melissa hummed along with the soft music playing in her room. That was good, usually a sign she was coming back up from the downswing. For a while, anyway.

In the movies, aliens always attack the significant city centers: Los Angeles, New York, London, Hong Kong. But when these aliens landed, they showed up right in the center of the largest land masses: the border of Russia and Mongolia, the deserts of Chad, and the plains of Kansas. They drove massive machines with twenty-foot metallic legs and whining motors. We never knew where they’d come from or why.

Militaries met the threat in the rural areas, but the invaders eventually headed toward the cities. Though Denver had fared better than some, civilian casualties were high and much of the infrastructure still hadn’t recovered. After everything that landed had been defeated, the orbiting ship had disappeared.

The bodies of the alien pilots were always burned beyond recognition by the time the pods at the top of the machines were broken open, but the microbes from those alien bodies lodged themselves into the cells of the soldiers unlucky enough to explore the wreckage.

I had never understood why they’d put the research facility so far from any of the landing sites, though I supposed I was glad we wouldn’t have to go overseas. Still, it was going to be a long and difficult trip, for both of us.

My neck began to ache from sitting still for too long, so I stood and went back to check on Aunt Melissa before going to the gym early for my evening swim—movement was the best relief for my chronic pain. The smart home system would alert me if anything happened, but I knew her downswing would last a few more hours, and I’d likely find her in the same place I left her. I waited until after dinner to book a flight, hoping there would be none available for a few days, but there was one the next morning. I called the vertical farm where I worked, hoping they would tell me they couldn’t possibly approve the time off this week, but they had always been understanding when I needed to leave to take care of Aunt Melissa. Of course they didn’t need me.

Tomorrow it is, then.

* * *

In the morning I found Aunt Melissa cooking breakfast. She’d even pulled her hair back into a tight military bun and opened the windows. An upswing should make travel easier, if she didn’t slip into a hallucination. I hobbled toward the table, pain flashing up my spine. I’d meant to get up early so I could swim before the flight, but I hadn’t slept well.

“We have to take a trip today. They need to do a few tests,” I told her.

“I’m not a goddamned lab rat,” she said, but her tone and face were cheerful. She flipped a pancake. “Where to?”

“San Diego.”

She hesitated for a beat, then flipped another pancake before it was ready, splashing batter against the side of the pan. “Oh, my good friends at the EERF.” She pronounced it as one slurred-together word: earf. “Must be serious. Unless they’ve finally discovered my miracle cure?”

I winced at a twinge in my neck that almost felt like a muscle slowly tearing.

“There’s no such thing.”

She humphed. “Says you.”

She started telling me about a rare plant in Madagascar she’d read about, and how “experts” were saying it could completely eliminate downswings for the Exposed. I half-listened while I ate the undercooked pancakes, as I always did when she started on this subject, but encouraged her to pack as soon as breakfast was finished. All of the supposed cures she listed had been proven false months ago. She never believed when they were discredited.

We’d gotten into a big fight about this once: I wanted her to stop obsessing over a cure and make more efforts to adapt to her condition; she told me she wasn’t willing to give up and accept it. I realized afterward that our perspectives were entirely opposite. She had suffered a severe trauma only a few years ago, whereas I had lived with chronic pain my whole life. We shared the psychological pain of having lost our whole family to the aliens, but our physical pains were quite different. My pain, as much as I hated it, was part of me. Aunt Melissa’s had taken away who she used to be.

* * *

The airport security line wrapped far past the roped queues and practically all the way around to the baggage claim. I took an extra dose of my pills while we stood in line, knowing that the two-hour flight would aggravate my pain. The best explanation I’d ever gotten was that the fibers surrounding my muscles were extra tight, prone to hardening when not in motion. This was a normal process for everyone, but mine callused faster than usual, and my nerves overreacted to the pressure.

Aunt Melissa had kept on about the supposed miracle cures the entire rail ride here, and now she was looping back over things she’d already said. To distract her, I pointed out a man in a Hawaiian shirt like my father used to love to wear. It worked. She started on a family story instead, one I’d heard a thousand times, but would be happy to hear a thousand times more.

“And your grandmother never even knew. She always insisted we were at that game the entire time. Erin, I don’t think I can do this.”

“What? What do you mean?” We inched closer to the TSA agent who scanned IDs and directed people into the various screening lines.

“I’m having a heart attack.” Her eyes darted from the ID scanner to the X-ray machines to the flashing advertisements to the line of people pressing us forward.

“You’re not having a heart attack. What is it? What’s triggering you?” Sometimes, if we identified the triggers and faced them consciously, we could keep an episode at bay. A couple had even been eliminated by repeatedly confronting them.

“It’s…” Her breath was fast and audible. Someone behind us told us to keep moving, and I shot them a look of annoyance and gestured for them to go around us.

I held onto her shoulders. “Aunt Melissa, we’re in the airport. Look at me.” Her eyes finally settled on mine. “It’s okay, we’re in the Denver airport. Do you know where you are?”

She exhaled. “The airport,” she said. “Going to San Diego.”

The TSA agent waved us forward. I wasn’t sure Aunt Melissa was completely present, but I encouraged her to go in front of me. The agent scanned her ID, and the machine blinked red.

“I’ll need you to go to the line at the far right.”

“I’ll need you to bite my ass,” Aunt Melissa said.

Oh good, she’s back. “Look, it’s a shorter line,” I told her, hiding my own irritation at the discriminatory procedures under an encouraging cheerfulness.

“I’m sure he’s really looking out for me,” she said, her voice rising. “I’m sure he really cares if we make the flight.”

“Let’s go.” I pulled her toward the line.

“Ma’am, I need your ID too.”

“I gave you my goddamn ID!” Aunt Melissa yelled.

“He means me.” I kept one hand on her sleeve and fumbled for my ID and boarding pass with the other.

“To the left, ma’am,” he said as he handed it back to me.

“No,” I said firmly. “I’m going with her.”

The security agent in the far right lane was dressed in full Hazmat suit and helmet. Aunt Melissa balked. Seriously, did these people understand nothing about the kinds of things that were triggers for the Exposed?

“We’re at the airport.” I reminded her.

“If you say so,” she said.

We set our bags on an x-ray conveyor belt. The agent waved her toward a machine that resembled a revolving door.

“It’s not contagious, you know,” I snapped at the suit. They ignored me and just gestured more urgently for us to keep moving. Aunt Melissa had grown very tense now, her eyes focused, unblinking, on the suit.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Just do what they say and it’ll be over in five seconds.”

She tolerated the machine, standing with hands over her head like a fugitive, but the second the agent in the Hazmat suit touched her, Aunt Melissa executed a flawless Krav Maga move that I was shocked she had the strength to do and pinned the agent to the ground. Two others rushed to restrain her while she kicked at them. I watched in shock for about ten seconds before I flung myself into the fray too, screaming at them not to hurt her.

At least they gave our bags back before they kicked us out of the airport.

She calmed down on the rail home, though my mind was racing and my leg bounced even more than usual. I wished for the hundredth time that I knew more about what she saw in moments like those. I couldn’t help her fight her demons when I didn’t know the shape of them. By the time we reached our stop she had slid into that inevitable downswing and was barely able to carry her own bag.

At home, she slumped at the table. “I’m sorry.”

I dropped the bags in the middle of the kitchen and rubbed my neck. “Airports are infuriating.”

“We have to drive now.”

I shook my head. “Maybe we don’t even have to go.”

“Yes.” She held up her left hand. It was completely covered in gray webs. “We do.”

* * *

There were three problems with driving. First, I, like most people, had an electric car that was not designed for distance. Roads in the West were long and charging facilities were far between. The second was the weather since it was early spring and the Rocky Mountains were currently wrapped in blizzard conditions. The snow wasn’t affecting the city yet, but it meant we’d have to take the farther route, down through New Mexico and Arizona, skirting the Mexico border. The third was my pain. I’d been concerned about a two-hour flight, and now I was facing a two-day drive.

Before the war, I’d been a teacher, but the long stretches at desks and screens were excruciating. After the war, I decided life was too short to hurt all the time. I worked at the Denver Vertical Farms now because it kept me moving: cleaning and climbing, spraying the produce that filled local groceries. Increased movement meant less pain.

Various exercise regimes always worked for a while, then lost their effectiveness. After running stopped helping, I did Tai Chi, and when that brought no relief, I switched to dance aerobics, etc. Rinse, repeat. Swimming was what worked right now—not very practical for a desert road trip. I had been thinking of switching soon to yoga, a fast-paced power vinyasa I’d done before. If I could remember some of the sequences, I could start it on my own, and that might alleviate the last of those three problems.

To address the first, I had a row of solar panels installed on the car’s roof, old-fashioned ones with big purple squares that they fit onto the ski rack. Not nearly as efficient or sleek as the ones embedded right into the roof of newer models, but they were supposed to provide a reliable backup charge. I kept checking the forecast and looking up at the clouds that engulfed the mountains. The snow only seemed to be getting worse. Nothing to be done about the route.

Twice more before we left, I cleaned webs off Aunt Melissa’s hand. The second time, they reached halfway up her forearm.

We left Denver at sunrise. I stopped to do sun salutations in Colorado Springs, a warrior sequence in Pueblo, some lunges and twists in Raton. At each stop, I plugged the car into a charging station to keep it topped off.

She stared out the window as I drove and stayed in the car each time I stopped. She would hum along with the music for a little while, then be silent for an hour, then hum again, sometimes starting up with the same tune she’d left off before readjusting to what was actually playing. We talked a little bit, but she continued to slide down, leaving stories half-finished, or not responding to my prompts at all.

Somewhere in northern New Mexico, I exited off the highway toward what the car’s computer claimed was a charging station, but it was only a boarded-up old gas station and I couldn’t find a way back onto the highway. The frontage road ran parallel to it, with a ditch and barbed wire fence separating them. The car shuddered over potholes; the asphalt crumbled along the sides, sage, and cactus growing through the cracks. With each bump, the ache crept higher up my neck and into my jaw and head. I’d have to stop soon, charging station or not.

“It’s just like that, isn’t it?”

I startled at the sound of Aunt Melissa’s voice. Her head was turned toward me, leaning back on the headrest and jarring with the movement of the car.

“Like what?”

She pointed toward the highway, and I noticed the webs were growing again. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the easy road. But you take one wrong turn and it’s not there anymore. You can still see it, but you can never get back to it.”

“We’ll get back there eventually,” I said, but I knew she wasn’t actually talking about the highway. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was.

A few miles later, the highway disappeared behind scrub oaks, and a little adobe restaurant appeared to the right. I pulled into the driveway. There was no charging station, but the sun was strong enough now that the panels were supplementing fine. A small herd of free-roaming goats grazed along the edge of the parking lot.

“Do you want to go in?”

Aunt Melissa slowly shook her head. I stepped out, stretching my arms to the sky.

The restaurant turned out to be more of a bar, sparsely populated with hard-faced locals who all turned toward me as I blinked my way into the dark room. I negotiated two non-alcoholic drinks to go and gained assurance the highway ramp was only a few miles down the road.

Outside, I carried the drinks back toward the car, rolling my shoulders to work out the ache. A black goat with a white beard trotted up to sniff at the cups I held. The rest of the herd had wandered out onto the road, picking at the tufts of greenery growing in between the asphalt cracks.

I set the cups in the car and dug in my bag for another pain pill. The sudden growl of a gas-powered engine drew my attention back to the road. A rare sound for the last decade, it split the quiet afternoon like a scream. A massive black truck sped down the road in the opposite direction we’d come from. The goats scattered to either side, tramping into the ditch or darting between the trees. One spotted goat darted in a confused circle until the truck’s grill stopped its dance. The truck screeched to a stop and I shut my eyes and turned away as the goat sprawled.

Aunt Melissa’s door snapped open. By the time I turned back, she was already halfway to the road. I left the car door open and ran after her, calling her name. If she’d switched to an upswing, she would surely get into a fight with the driver.

The truck door opened and a man stepped out: hat, boots, the full cowboy getup. He saw us running and yelled, “These damn goats were in the road again!” I swiped at Aunt Melissa’s back but only brushed her shirt with my fingertips.

But then, rather than confronting the cowboy, she dropped to her knees beside the dead goat and let out a mourning wail that stopped me in my tracks. The cowboy and I exchanged a confused glance.

I’d never seen Aunt Melissa cry before. Even when we’d gotten the confirmation that my parents, grandparents, sister, and so many others had been lost in the Denver attack, I had blubbered on Aunt Melissa’s shoulder while she kept her hard soldier face.

Now, her back heaved with sobs over an unfamiliar animal in an unfamiliar place. The bartender came out of the restaurant and stood beside the cowboy. I hesitated before approaching them.

“She fought the aliens,” I said, keeping my voice low. “She has…hallucinations, sometimes.”

“Flashbacks?” the cowboy asked.

“Sort of, yeah.” It wasn’t that simple; the few times I’d managed to get her to describe her experience, it was as nonsensical as a dream. Still, the hallucinations usually seemed to include some elements of the war, some bits of memory.

I knelt beside her and rested a hand on her back until her wails subsided.

“All the tissues are in the car,” I said.

She sniffled and choked a laugh. The gravel crunched behind us as the cowboy approached. Aunt Melissa stood, rubbing a hand across her face. “Can I bury it? Please?”

The men glanced uncertainly at each other. In rural high desert like this, with hard ground and large predators like bears and mountain lions, I imagined they probably preferred to burn bodies rather than bury. After a moment, the bartender nodded and retrieved a wheelbarrow and two shovels from behind the building.

Four strangers buried a goat in the woods in silence.

Aunt Melissa tired halfway through, so I finished the job for her while she sat cross-legged and slumped between a patch of prickly pear and a piñon tree. I would ache later from the effort, but that was a different kind of ache than my usual pain, and far more tolerable.

I wanted to wash the dirt from my hands and the sweat from my neck in the bar bathroom, but it was an effort just to get Aunt Melissa back into the car, and I didn’t care to linger there any longer. The men were certainly ready to see us leave.

Once we were back on the highway, I asked, “Can you tell me about what happened back there?”

She didn’t answer. Her forehead pressed against the window. I had always avoided asking about her experiences in the war, to avoid triggers or reopening old wounds, and the gulf between her experience and mine now felt bigger than it ever had. I’d always assumed that someday, after time had softened the immediacy of the trauma, she’d be able to tell me about it. For the first time, I began to worry that she would never be able to tell me. Or that we wouldn’t have that time together after all. The webbing had grown across her hand again, all the way up to her wrist. We’d need to stop again soon so I could clean it, but we also needed to keep moving to get to San Diego as soon as possible.

* * *

We made it well into Arizona before I stopped to find a room. I had to practically carry Aunt Melissa inside, then came back for our bags and plugged in the car. The motel had a pool, but it was a vacant, dusty pit with a sign citing seasonal water rationing, so I settled for doing all the yoga stretches I could remember on the coiled motel carpet. After showering, I pawed through my bag looking for my nightshirt, but realized I’d accidentally opened Aunt Melissa’s bag instead. My fingers brushed cold metal, and I knew what it was before I pulled it out.

A pistol. How long had she had this? They were hard to come by, and nearly impossible for an Exposed. Had she brought it with her to the airport too? We both could have been arrested if security had found it.

Her head rolled in her sleep, muttering incomprehensible strings of words. I stuffed the gun into my bag instead.

* * *

I woke up to Aunt Melissa yelling my name. Groggy and disoriented, I groped for a light switch.

“Erin, I’m stuck!”

“Hold on, it’s okay.” I found the switch and winced against the brightness.

“What’s happening to me?”

She stood on the bed, wrapped tightly in a sheet. Then, my eyes adjusted. It wasn’t a sheet. The webs from her hands had spread across her upper body, pinning her to the wall above the bed. I scrambled to my feet and dug in my bag.

“Erin, help me!”

“I’m coming.” I pulled the gloves onto my shaking hands. There was only one pair left.

The webs were tougher than I expected, but I managed to rip down one side and pull her out. She stumbled toward the shower, while I bundled the webs in a blanket and tossed it out the front door. I ripped off the gloves and dialed Dr. Acacia. It was only after her voicemail answered that I glanced at the clock and saw it was just after three AM. I left a brief message, then turned my phone over and over in my hands until Aunt Melissa came out of the shower.

“I’m not going to make it to San Diego, am I?” She rubbed a towel roughly over her arms as though she still felt the webs there.

“Of course you are.” Tears bit at my eyes, but I held them back. I needed to be the strong one right now, even though it wasn’t me at all. “We should get a head start on the day, though.”

I couldn’t imagine sleeping again, and if the webs came back in the car, I would see before they pinned her to the seat. Keep moving—that had always been my solution.

The car had only half a charge, but the sun would be up in a few hours. Aunt Melissa was alert enough to carry her own bag to the car, but she fell asleep almost as soon as I started driving.

I had never seen dark like Arizona dark. Even the blackout following the Denver attack had been punctuated with the glow of fires and the spotlights of helicopters. With only my headlights and the swath of stars overhead, this felt like the depths of space. I kept glancing over at Aunt Melissa, watching for the webs to return. I had mostly made my peace with the alien attacks, had even tried to listen to the pundits who claimed we may have provoked them, but now, driving through the pitch dark of nowhere, while an alien parasite tried to consume my last living relative, a fresh new wave of anger and fear surged through me. What the hell had been the point of any of it? Why had they traveled so far through the dark just to hurt us?

The miles until San Diego ticked down on the car’s display screen, but so did the available charge. I looked up at the still-dark sky. We had to keep moving. The charge was low, but I convinced myself it was enough to last until sunrise.

It wasn’t.

The car came to a dead stop at the edge of a wind farm. The sky was just light enough I could see the outlines of the white turbines staggered across the hilly desert. Their propellers whooshed in slow circles, red lights blinking in unison through the whole field.

Electricity, electricity everywhere, but not a spark for me.

Aunt Melissa was still asleep, so I quietly shut my door and walked behind the car to face east. Any minute now, the sun would be up. All I had to do was wait until the world turned. I raised my arms overhead and began a sun salutation on the silent, empty road.

I didn’t hear the passenger door. I didn’t hear her rummaging through the bags. I didn’t hear the crunch of her feet on the desert dirt. But I did hear the shot as I stepped into a warrior pose, and my heart nearly seized with the sound. Then a second shot. By the time I spotted her outline, she was over the fence and halfway up the hill toward the closest turbine, with the gun aimed at it. I vaulted the fence and ran toward her. The third bullet ricocheted off the turbine’s tower and zinged past me. I dropped to the ground as she fired off several more.

Peeking up in the half-light, I could almost see what she saw: the great stilt-legged machines the aliens had used to crash through our cities.

“They’re only turbines!” I yelled when she’d emptied her clip. “The war’s over!” Except I knew the war wasn’t really over. It still raged in Aunt Melissa, and in the cells and minds of everyone who had been Exposed, everyone who had been affected, everyone who had lost something important because of it.

Brushing dust from my clothes, I got to my feet and looked around for her, but the dips and mounds of the uneven land, the towering saguaros, and the thick turbine towers made it difficult to see where she’d gone. The sky was paling, but the sun still lingered below the horizon. I wandered beneath the turbines, a blubbering mess, shouting her name.

The sun reached a single ray across the horizon, and then a second, and a third. But to what purpose, now? I wasn’t leaving without her. When the top rim of the sun appeared and I still hadn’t found her, I wandered back toward the car. At the base of the turbine she’d fired at, I found the gun in the dirt beside a creosote bush. I bent to retrieve it, and blinked up into the sunlight.

That’s when I saw her.

The webbing had grown across her whole body, attaching her to the side of the turbine. Her face looked serene behind the thin veil, as though she were asleep.

I was too late. The only thing to do was call Dr. Acacia and tell her I had failed.

The phone was already ringing when I pulled it from my bag. The doctor’s face appeared on my screen. “We almost made it,” I told her. I smeared the tears and mucus off my own face as best I could, and then walked back over to show her Aunt Melissa in the chrysalis.

“The location is inconvenient, to be sure, but the process is identical to what we’ve been seeing for the last couple of days.”

She put me on hold for a moment, and when she came back on screen she assured me an emergency team would be there to meet us in about an hour and a half.

“Is she dead?” I croaked.

“There are several here at the EERF currently encased. We’ve been monitoring their vital signs and they are alive. They seem to be undergoing some kind of transformation. It is possible they could break free of the chrysalis when it’s complete.”

“As…an alien?” I could think of no crueler irony than her emerging transformed into one of the very beings who had attacked us. My eyes flicked toward the car, where I’d tossed the gun onto the back seat. I didn’t know how to use it, didn’t even know how to check if it still had ammunition. Could I bring myself to use it if she came out transformed?

The doctor’s frown deepened. She ran a hand across her face. “I wish I could put your mind at ease, Erin, but the truth is we don’t know.”

She encouraged me to go to the closest town to eat and rest, but I shook my head. “I’m not leaving her. Especially now.” She was still my last living relative until I had definitive proof otherwise.

The wait was excruciating. I walked in circles for a while, then jogged half a mile down the highway and back, stretched quads and calves against the side of the car, but none of it brought me any relief. So I sat cross-legged on the ground, and tried to embrace the one part of yoga class I had never enjoyed or understood: silent meditation.

Movement had meant healing for me, but I knew that wasn’t always the case. Bones needed to set, blood cells needed to clot. My shoulders ached, my hips begged me to get up and walk around, but I stayed. All around me was movement—the hot desert air spun the propellers of the turbines; the world turned, sending the sun across the sky. I sat, as still as the rocks, as rooted as the cacti, watching Aunt Melissa. She appeared still as well, but if what Dr. Acacia said was true, there was movement happening beneath those webs: blood pumping, breath flowing, perhaps cells growing and rearranging.

I heard the helicopter blades beating the air, but I waited until the engine dulled and boots crunched on the earth before I stood to greet them.

The pain was a tight fist gripping my upper back like an animal carried by the scruff, radiating down through every nerve in my body. I stood, stretching, twisting, and rolling to bring it back down to a tolerable level. My head, aside from the base of my skull, was surprisingly spared.

Eight soldiers in full Hazmat suits formed a half circle around the turbine, rifles clutched in gloved hands. I turned away, hands on my knees, suddenly sure I was going to be sick. A hand gently touched my back and I looked up. Dr. Acacia’s eyes were full of sympathy. She led me toward the helicopter. I reluctantly followed, and after a moment, the nausea passed.

She handed me a fresh orange. I peeled and ate it while she ran tests on me, checking to see if I had been Exposed. The citrus tasted sharp. It was an effort to swallow, but when I was finished, I craved another.

Dr. Acacia held up a vial, squinting at it in the light. “You seem to be clear.”

I jutted my chin toward the chrysalis. “How long will she be like that?”

She tucked the vial into a case and snapped it shut. “Some of the Exposed at the EERF have been encased for several days.”

“And when they break free, the war starts over again.”

“We have almost all of them under EERF supervision,” she said, as though that was supposed to be reassuring.

She gave me a list of nearby places I could stay, but I waved her off, unwilling to leave until I absolutely had to. I hobbled toward my car. I dry-swallowed one pain pill, and held a second between my fingers for a moment before putting it back.

The soldiers yelled, and I nearly hit my head on the car door turning to see what was happening. I raced toward the turbine. The webs stretched from the inside. One of the soldiers pushed me back.

Then, an arm broke through. A distinctly human arm. I let out my breath, bounced on the balls of my feet. A second arm appeared, and then a bald head. I was too far away to make out facial features, but she was human, and that was a victory in itself.

The soldiers lowered their weapons. I tried to rush forward, but they blocked me again and let through the doctor, suited up now.

“Several days,” I called after her with a laugh. “Aunt Melissa never was the patient type.”

They took me back by the helicopter to wait. The air grew warm, but it wasn’t the unbearable heat I had expected from the desert. After nearly another hour, Dr. Acacia returned and sloughed off her suit. It had been enough time for my joy to have cycled back around to fear.

“Is she alive?”

“Yes, alive and human. In fact, the chrysalis appears to have been a healing process, initiated by the alien microbes.”

Healing?” I nearly choked on the word.

“She has almost complete cell regeneration.” Dr. Acacia sat on the helicopter steps, peeling the suit off her legs.

“That’s great, right?”

“It is,” she agreed. “But, Erin…” She paused, eyes darting back and forth in thought. “I have a hypothesis. I need you to come with me to test it.”

She headed back toward the turbine, motioning me to follow.

I jumped up from my seat and hurried after. “Can I take her home?”

“Let’s reserve that decision for a little while.”

The soldiers moved aside to let us through. Aunt Melissa sat on a folding chair, wrapped in a silver shock blanket that reflected the sun so sharply it was nearly blinding. This close, I could see the slightly uneven bone of her skull beneath smooth skin, and stubbled tufts where her eyebrows had been. Her bare feet were crossed at the ankles, swinging below the chair. She looked about ten years younger.

“We need to get you a hat,” I said. Her eyes turned to me, but her expression was fearful.

“More new people,” she said.

“Um.” I swallowed hard, my stomach sinking. I knelt in front of her. “Aunt Melissa, it’s me, Erin. Don’t you recognize me?”

She stopped swinging her legs and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I just woke up. Everything’s new.”

I stumbled away as though she had slapped me. I ran until I reached the car, and leaned my head in my arms, heaving great, shuddering breaths.

“I’m sorry.” Dr. Acacia’s voice came from beside me a few moments later.

“Does she remember anything?”

“She has basic language and motor skills, as you saw, but she doesn’t appear to remember details about her life or the world. I thought your presence might trigger her recall, but…”

I turned around, leaning my back against the car. “Her memories will come back, though, right?”

“We don’t know. Erin, she’s the first person to emerge from the chrysalis. We think the direct sunlight may have accelerated the process. But if the cell regeneration occurred in her brain too, all her synaptic pathways may have been rewritten.”

“So she’s not even herself anymore.”

Dr. Acacia didn’t reply. The aliens had taken everyone from me now. She was still here, but without the experiences that had shaped who she was, without our shared past, she would be someone different. There was so much I had never asked, so many stories now unrecoverable. I would never know what had happened with the goat, I would never hear all the war stories I’d been waiting to ask her about, waiting until she’d…healed.

I had always depended on others to be the storytellers—Aunt Melissa, my father, my grandmother: they had all told their stories to me, and I had received them gratefully, but rarely given any back. Now I would have to tell them to her, decide which parts to include, which parts to leave out, how to paint the life and history she didn’t remember. How to decide which parts I wanted her to know. But hearing the stories isn’t the same as living through them, and unless her memories returned, telling them to her wouldn’t recreate who she’d been.

I wanted her back—I wanted them all back—but I knew that this was a good thing for her. She’d finally found that miracle cure she’d been looking for. Perhaps with all her physical and emotional pains forgotten, the war could truly be over for her.

“Can I take her home?” I stared straight ahead.

Dr. Acacia studied my face. “We need to do some tests at the EERF, but after that, if nothing else changes, you should be able to take her back to Denver and check in with us regularly the way you have been.”

“Okay,” I nearly whispered.

They loaded her into the helicopter, and it thunked noisily into the western sky. I slid behind the wheel of the car. It had a full charge now from sitting out in the sun for half a day. The computer showed the route and the time left to San Diego, only a few hours to go.

I started the engine and pulled onto the long, empty road. A few hours before I could rendezvous with them at the EERF. A few hours to be utterly alone with my grief. Not enough time to mourn what I had lost, but I wanted to do my best once I met up with Melissa—the new Melissa—to leave the past behind and move forward together.

____

Copyright 2018 Sarena Ulibarri

Sarena Ulibarri is a graduate of the Clarion Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Workshop at UCSD, and earned an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her fiction has appeared in LightspeedFantastic Stories of the ImaginationWeirdbook, and elsewhere. She edited the anthology Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, and manages World Weaver Press. Find more at SarenaUlibarri.com, or on Twitter @SarenaUlibarri.

by Nicole Feldringer

 

“They’re calling it Valles Fever.” The words came from the nursing station, on the other side of Abe’s curtained-off area. “Five more admitted today.” Kala shifted in the hard chair, rotating the discomfort to a new part of her body.

Abe’s breathing hitched. Kala’s feet hit the floor, and she scooted towards him. Her fingers picked at the sheets, smoothing them, wanting to smooth his hair then feeling silly for the impulse. Imagining him laughing at her.

Laughter was better than the convulsions that had overcome him on the outskirts of town that morning. Kala had been scrambling over the yardang rock formations that served as natural windbreaks for the colony, waiting for the golden hour, the perfect shot, while Abe collected biological samples for Martian ecosystem monitoring. It was his first real job out of Lyceum, and Kala wanted his success more than she had ever wanted her own.

As the first rays of sunlight grazed the tops of the ridges, Kala raced to capture the landscape before the radio operator raised the main antenna, retracted since the last windstorm. The antenna mast’s shadow corrugated across the yardangs, destroying the illusion of wilderness.

They said the wind used to sing as it constricted between the yardangs, before humans caulked the spaces with their civilization. Kala never heard the whisper of a song, despite hours spent photographing the landscape–futilely, since in the two years since her graduation she had blown her first and last opportunity at exhibiting her work. Maybe if she hadn’t been brooding over experiences she would never have, Kala might have noticed Abe’s illness sooner. But by the time she had packed away her camera and tugged her gloves over chapped hands, he had already tumbled nose-first into his precious soil.

Kala’s gaze traced the IV tube to the bag hanging from its stand. “How do you feel?” she asked.

He swallowed. “Woozy. I’ve never stayed overnight in a hospital before.”

“Your fever was really high.”

Abe started to nod, then winced. “Where’s my dad?”

Kala grimaced. “Call with the insurance company.” To distract him, she added, “I overheard the nurses talking about an outbreak. Other people with the same symptoms.”

Before Abe could respond, the curtain rings rattled, and Abe’s father joined them. Kala shifted over to make room. “Good news,” he said, not meeting their eyes. “You’re being discharged today.”

“They can’t just send him home,” Kala said. “He’s still sick. Are they discharging all the other cases too?”

“His grandmother will care for him while I’m at the construction site,” Abe’s father said. “He’ll be more comfortable in his own bed.”

“It’s not right,” Kala said stubbornly. Abe charmed everyone in the neighborhood, and she was sure their kitchen would be filled with tamales, dumplings, and casseroles by sunset. But. “They have drugs here. Doctors.”

“They say he’s not contagious anymore, and there’s nothing more they can do for him. Just drop it, Kala. Please.”

“Guys, I’m right here,” Abe protested.

“They can’t just send everyone home.” Kala hated the ragged edge of tears in her voice. She plucked again at the sheets. They were starched to scratchiness. Her best friend had collapsed before her eyes, and the doctors were just going to toe the line of corporate greed set by the insurance company? Send him home with instructions to drink fluids and rest?

“I’m sure they’re working on a vaccine,” Abe’s father said as he helped his son sit upright. The nurse appeared, pushing a wheelchair. Kala backed up and was engulfed in the curtain as they maneuvered Abe off the bed. “This will be over before you know it.”

A package waited outside her apartment. Kala wrestled with the lock and nudged the parcel inside, leaving it on the floor by the door. Her feet sank into the luxurious pile of carpet–a Mars reproduction of a family heirloom left on Earth, and the sole gift she had accepted from her mother when she moved out–as she crossed the room to flop on the bed. Kala rooted around the sheets until she found her screen. She ignored the blinking message from her mother. A trap closing around Kala, demanding her attention. It could keep demanding, and she would keep ignoring.

Kala settled in to pour over the Marsnet for information on Valles Fever. Most hits were public expressions of worry or sympathy. A few curated reassurances from the Disease Control Center about progress on the vaccine, carefully worded so the DCC made no promise of progress, only effort. Nothing she trusted, nothing she could use. Kala left requests on forum after forum and was rewarded hours later when someone responded from a burner account: First death confirmed in the Warrens.

Kala sat up and punched out who? with sweaty fingers.

Nothing.

She messaged Abe. Again, nothing. Kala prayed his silence meant he was sleeping, or that his grandmother had confiscated his screen to force him to rest. She checked once more for breaking news, but the Marsnet was useless. She would have to do her own footwork. Before folding up her screen, she finally clicked the blinking message from her mother. Did you get the package I sent? Do stay away from the Warrens.

Kala crawled out of her nest of blankets and dragged the package back into bed with her. She stared down at the sealed box in her lap. Her mother, who wouldn’t step a pedicured toe outside her late-gen neighborhood, had inexplicable taste in gifts. Like the fancy lizard Kala had refused on account of her apartment’s no-pet policy. If it had been a convoluted ploy to get Kala to move back home, it hadn’t worked.

Kala peeled the flaps back. Inside the box was a top-of-the-line face mask. Meanwhile the DCC denied they had a potential epidemic on their hands. Right.

I got it, she typed back. Thanks. She set her screen aside and untangled herself from the sheets. As she left the apartment, she tucked the face mask into her satchel next to her camera.

Kala let gravity lead her downhill to the Warrens where the streets twisted and dead-ended at the edge of the planitia. The neighborhood was the least sheltered part of the colony, and the most densely populated as first-gen families were pushed to the fringes of livable space. If rumors were true about the number of new ships being built on Earth, it would become even more crowded. Their colony population was projected to hit six digits before the new year.

The door of the Petridis family apartment was tagged with graffiti. Kala scowled and pressed the buzzer. The few people on the street stared at her suspiciously as she waited, like she hadn’t been coming here since their first day at Lyceum where Abe won a lottery to attend and Kala didn’t have to.

Kala’s mother had been less than enthused about the broadened enrollment. “I don’t want you spending too much time with the first-genners,” she said after asking where Kala had been after school. “What’s the boy’s name again?”

“Abe Petridis.”

Her mother’s lips stayed pursed. “I suppose it would be to your benefit for some Earth culture to rub off on you. If you must socialize, I prefer you bring your friend here.”

A preference was not the same as an order though Kala would have ignored that as well. Abe’s grandmother, who had worked for the Korean space program before marrying Abe’s grandfather in California, had promised to take them exploring the next day, and Kala had a new camera to practice with. Meeting at Abe’s after class had fast become tradition.

Finally, the video camera mounted above Abe’s door focused on Kala’s face. Kala twisted her fingers, sweaty digits sliding past one another. At the hospital, Abe had at least been receiving medical attention. What if his condition had worsened since coming home? And why were the streets so empty? Even the homeless man who stationed himself on this block was nowhere to be seen.

“How’s he doing?” Kala blurted when Abe’s grandmother cracked open the door. Behind Halmoni, a pot simmered on the stove.

Halmoni wiped her hands on her apron. “He’s not allowed visitors. Go home, Kala, until this blows over.” She glanced past Kala, up and down the street. “It’s not safe for you to be out.”

The door slid shut in front of her nose. Kala blinked at it. No one had complained when she visited him at the hospital. So, he must have relapsed. She pressed her fingertips to her face and tried not to hyperventilate. Halmoni was making soup. Halmoni was not panicking. Abe was okay.

Kala dithered on Abe’s stoop and buttoned her jacket to her chin. The streets were quiet, everyone cooped up with their fear. Grooming it into something dark and twisted. She hoped Halmoni would tell Abe she had stopped by.

Her attention was again caught by the empty doorway to the undercity. The pavement there was stained with saliva and mucus. Had the first casualty of Valles Fever been someone like the old street man? He could die and not be named, possibly not even counted. Whereas if it were someone from the neighborhood where she grew up, someone like her mother, the news would be splashed across every media outlet. From the rumors Kala had heard of the undercity, it sounded like just the sort of place that could spark an outbreak.

The vacant opening beckoned to her. The DCC wasn’t making any headway in identifying the source of the outbreak, and if it was anyone other than Abe she would have been satisfied with kvetching on the Marsnet. But it was Abe. The one person who persisted in believing in her when she gave him no reason. She owed it to him to discover what was being covered up.

Kala fumbled in her satchel for the face mask. She drew the mask over her face, adjusting the strap so it didn’t pull her hair, and crossed the alley. She peered down into the passage.

Was she really going to do this? She had never been to the undercity, of course, but it couldn’t be sanitary down there, and when had her inner voice started sounding like her mother? Some part of her was screaming that she was making a colossally stupid mistake, but she had plenty experience ignoring that feeling–just ask Nasreen.

The gallery owner had called in favors and reporters and caterers, and as opening day approached, Kala hadn’t been able to look at her photographs much less send them to the printer. Instead, she drank herself to oblivion in her apartment, which is where Abe found her. “Why would you do this?” He chucked a bouquet on her table. Neither of them made a move as the greenhouse flowers slid over the edge and onto the floor.

The prospect of Abe dying was far more terrifying than visiting the undercity or bailing on her own exhibition. Kala took a deep breath and ducked into the stairwell. This was not why her mother had sent her the mask, she was certain.

Her exhalation condensed on her face, trapped by the mask, as she felt her way into the subterranean reaches that had sheltered the original colonists, Kala’s great-grandparents among them. She kept her eyes wide open, afraid to blink, but the black was so complete that after a while, she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed. Her fingers quested along the carved rock wall.

It was like a tomb down here. No wonder folks stayed away if they could. Her boots scraped on the rock as she felt for each step. Kala glanced over her shoulder. The doorway to the Warrens seemed very far away. She swallowed and turned, the threshold ghosting on her vision. She descended a few more steps before she realized the faint light came from below.

She hesitated, imagining the scene she would encounter in the undercity. Like the hospital but so much worse without doctors or nurses or painkillers. Kala forced herself to take another step forward, then another, until finally, she stumbled to level ground at the mouth of a cavern.

Instead of pestilence, she encountered order. A camp stretched before her, each neat grid filled with sleeping bags and cookware. A couple of rows back, a princess canopy had been erected out of pink tulle. Lamps like will-o’-the-wisps served as irregular gathering points. Faces lifted to stare as she passed.

In her cleanish clothes and face mask–not even willing to breathe their air–Kala was certain she had hit peak interloper. Whispers coalesced in her wake. Surface dweller. She walked on, no longer sure what she was even doing down here. People seemed healthy. Dirty and distrustful, but this was no hospital. Kala raised a hand to lift her mask but was interrupted by a bout of coughing.

She followed the sound to the old man who hung out across from Abe’s apartment. Not dead then. He sat on a three-legged stool, elbows resting on his knees. “Enough with that look,” he said. “I’ve had this cough forever. From working in the mines. You won’t be catching Valles Fever down here.”

Kala pushed the mask up. Cold air pricked her face.

“I know you,” the old man said. “The friend of the Petridis boy. I’m Malcolm. What brings you to the undercity?”

“Kala,” she introduced herself, nonplussed that he knew Abe’s surname. She cast around for a place to sit, but she couldn’t tell what was trash and what might be precious to him. “Do you mind if I …?” He waved assent, and she folded herself to a spot of bare ground, wrapping her arms around her legs. The cold leeched through her layers, and Malcolm’s cackle sent him into another coughing fit.

She said, “There are rumors someone died from Valles Fever, and when I didn’t see you around, I started worrying. About what was going on down here.”

His bushy eyebrows rose. “Worried about us? More like worried about yourself. Or your friend?”

Kala flushed, thinking of all the times she had passed him by without so much as making eye contact. She was discomforted to realize how much her own past actions had been shaped by his lack of social capital. “Yeah, well, I am worried about Abe, and I’m angry no one is doing anything to stop the spread of the fever. They think it’s just a problem for the Warrens.”

“So you’re doing a little investigating. Gonna solve the mystery of the outbreak on your own?” He rubbed his hands together. “You won’t find answers in the undercity. We’re healthy as houses, it’s the air above that’s bad. Mark my words, more will fall sick after the next dust storm.”

Malcolm’s words haunted her all the way back to the surface. If the undercity wasn’t ground zero for infection, then where was?

The wind grew in intensity throughout the day, and Kala stuffed more weatherproofing beneath her apartment door. The forecast was calling for a moderate storm. A few weeks of fighting back the dust, of pacing the interior corridors of her district. Already Kala’s fingers itched to hold her camera. To stand atop the yardang and watch the storm roll in, even though she knew it was too dangerous. Dust abraded skin as well as camera lenses.

Such a stunt might have been possible before Mars was terraformed and the artificial magnetosphere installed. Then, the dust storms had been more dusty than stormy. Now that Mars had a denser atmosphere, the winds were worse. At least they weren’t forecasting a global storm like the one that hit when she and Abe were in Lyceum. All of Mars had been shut down for months though their teachers had of course assigned independent study projects.

Kala finished the weatherproofing. The wall she shared with her neighbor shook as something struck it from the other side, and a framed picture fell to the floor. She rolled her eyes and unfolded her screen. The intracolony portion of the Marsnet was still operational and a welcome distraction from stir-crazy neighbors. She settled on her bed and messaged Abe.

How are you?

Kala chewed her lip as she waited for a response, wondering how far Halmoni’s no-visitors edict extended.

Bored. How’s the storm in your sector?

A grin spread across her face. Bored was good. Bored was not dying. Stormy. Neighbors are loud.

Kala’s fingers hovered above the screen. Abe’s degree was in biology, and she wanted his input on Malcolm’s theory but didn’t want to sound like she was doling out unwanted medical advice. Hey, have you heard anyone talking about a correlation between Valles Fever and air quality?

I don’t hear anyone talking about much of anything, he wrote. Air quality like how?

Don’t know. Something having to do with the dust.

Sure, the infection could be airborne, but why now? The dust storms were here long before we were. They’re nothing new.

Kala rolled onto her stomach. So if I figure out what’s changed, maybe I can identify the source of the outbreak?

May not be an obvious factor, he wrote. Could be something that’s been in the environment all along but is now more virulent, or we’re more susceptible.

Still, it’s a place to start. It’s not like I’m doing anything else.

Good luck. Let me know what you find.

Kala closed her messages. Illogically, she wished the DCC would share the specifics of the confirmed cases, so she could map incidences, but it would be a privacy-law nightmare. Whatever the source of the infection, it had to be local to the Warrens. There still hadn’t been a single case reported elsewhere. She opened the news and started reading.

When the wind finally died, Kala’s eyes were gritty with lack of sleep. Her hand throbbed from hitting refresh, but not enough to stop. Confirmed cases of Valles Fever were spiking. The disease was still confined to the Warrens, but reports were frustratingly vague, statistics and travel advisories mixed in with real estate development updates.

Numbly, Kala shoved her screen across the bed. Malcolm and his friends would be safe in the undercity, and her mother was probably wearing a facemask inside her apartment, just in case, but where did that leave the Warrens? Screwed, by a quirk of the wind.

Kala reached to clear the screen, hesitating mid-swipe over an article about the housing development project. It was just a blurb, really. No mention of why construction was halted, machinery damaged by wind or needing excavation by dust. There were so many possible reasons for the continued shutdown of construction that the lack of explanation in itself was peculiar. She rested her chin in her hand.

Abe’s father worked on site–maybe he could explain the delay to her. Kala almost messaged Abe, but it would be harder for Mr. Petridis to evade her questions in person. It was high time to take a shower and leave her stale apartment anyway.

The broad avenue narrowed to a knife-edge, and at its tip was a checkpoint. Kala detoured through a vacant galleria, to a parallel side street, then through two tunnel alleys back to the Warrens. Fine-blown sand crunched under her boots. She halted near a window, toeing the pile of dust that must have poured from opening shutters. Inside, a figure in a contamination suit sprayed down the room with a fog of disinfectant. Unconsciously, Kala reached for her camera, ever present in her satchel. Plastered crookedly next to the open window was a public health advisory for Valles Fever. Click.

She moved on, camera raised and ready. Footfalls pounded toward her, and Kala dodged a teen in a hoodie. In the alley behind them, neon green paint dripped from quarantine graffiti. Kala swallowed. A spray can spun on the ground, came to rest. Click.

On the next street corner, a crowd had gathered, a sea of hands raised to the sky. A young woman, eyes heavy with makeup above a paper face mask, hefted a statue of Santa Muerte and hurried to join them. Click.

A health services worker, face hidden by a mask, the same model that Kala wore, bore a child away from a home. The child squirmed, stretching fingers toward the door jamb. Somewhere, someone sobbed. Click.

Kala was a landscape photographer, not some tourist come to ogle their tragedy, but all around her the familiar streets looked darkly sinister, like she had been dropped into an apocalypse. And if she didn’t record it, she knew no one outside the Warrens would believe her. She wasn’t even sure she believed it herself. Dazed, she shoved her camera in her satchel and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Wished she could rinse the taste of bile away. She knocked on Abe’s door.

The security camera gimbaled and the door clicked unlocked. Kala waited, expecting Halmoni to swing open the door. Eventually, she pushed it open herself.

Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink, and the pantry shelves were bare. If Abe’s father hadn’t been hunched at the kitchen table, fingers furrowing his thick hair, she might have turned and left, assuming she had walked into a stranger’s home by mistake.

“Mr. Petridis?” Kala edged inside. Her voice was muffled through the mask. “Is it Abe? Where’s Halmoni?”

Mr. Petridis lifted his head from his hands, and his eyes cleared as he focused on her. “Kala. I thought you were one of the health workers,” he said. “I convinced my mother-in-law to visit with her friends. Abe is doing better. He’ll be happy to see you. You can go on back.”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about the construction project.” Kala gripped the back of an empty chair like a lifeline. “I heard the job site hasn’t been operational since the storm, and I thought that was weird. What’s going on?”

The haggard lines of his face deepened further. “Nearly the entire Fossae team has Valles Fever, from the foreman down to the crane operator. I’m one of the only people still well, and I can’t do everything by myself.”

Kala did the math in her head. The odds that the construction workers had fallen ill at such a higher incidence than the rest of the neighborhood had to be tiny. She thanked Mr. Petridis and retreated to Abe’s childhood bedroom.

“Your father is really beating himself up over the construction project.” Kala sank to the rug by his bed. Abe’s freckles stood out more than usual against skin made pallid by sickness, and his hair, the same light brown as his father’s, was greasy and pillow-flattened. He looked like a washed out version of himself. She started to pull off her face mask but he shook his head.

“Leave it on. Just in case,” Abe said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure for it to be done already so people and businesses can move in.”

“What if Valles Fever is caused by dust storms stirring up bacteria or viruses at the construction site? The Warrens is just downwind.” Kala bounced her fist on the thin mattress and added, “You should have moved out like I told you.”

“Or fungal spores,” Abe said, ignoring her last comment. They both knew he couldn’t afford rent elsewhere. “I’ve sequenced fungi populations in my soil samples.”

Kala perked up. “Do you have any samples from the construction site?”

“They would have run environmental tests before breaking ground, but I don’t have access to that data.”

“Maybe we can collect our own samples–or ask your dad to get some dirt for us.”

Abe frowned at her. “Kala, it’s private property. They’ll send me to prison.”

“Last resort then.”

He nestled deeper in his pillows. “Why can’t you leave this to the epidemiologists to sort out? It’s their job.”

“I would love to leave it to the epidemiologists. But no one is talking about it outside the Warrens.” Kala couldn’t look him in the eye. “The governor probably just wants to pave over the problem, but how many people will get sick before that happens? And what are they doing to make sure the people who move in won’t be exposed? Nothing.”

“You think you can change their minds?” Abe said.

“I don’t know. I’m going to talk to someone at town hall.”

“I won’t break into the construction site,” he said slowly, “but I could get sputum samples from people who have the infection. Give me a few days to test cultures in the lab. The DCC doctors will already know it’s fungal, but if we’re talking to a bureaucrat, we need data to back up our story.”

“We?” She grinned as she said it, cheered that Abe felt well enough to leave the apartment.

“Not letting you steal all the glory,” he joked. “But you’re in charge of getting us a meeting.”

The edifice of town hall looked worse for the wear, and they had to circumnavigate a hydraulic platform to get to the main entrance. A chunk of stucco crashed and exploded near Kala’s feet, and she glared up at the workers on the platform. “You should rope this area off,” she yelled up at them. “It’s a hazard.”

“What are you, stupid?” one yelled back. “Don’t you know better than to walk under a lift?”

Abe dragged her away. “Save it for the deputy director.”

In the lobby, Kala tried to brush the grit from her pants but the hems were a lost, dust-stained cause. She sighed and imagined what her mother would say. Her mother would agree with the workers that it was her fault. Naturally.

“You ready?” Kala asked Abe.

He was still too gaunt and pale. Part of her wanted to order him back to bed, but he had far more right to be her than she did, and she would be useless explaining the analysis he had performed. His expression was resolute. “Let’s do this,” he said.

Kala presented herself at the front desk, and the receptionist led them to an office. The nameplate on the door read Deputy Director of Colony Planning.

The deputy director was like every other bureaucrat on Mars, a middle-aged woman in an indeterminate suit. After introductions, Kala said, “Thank you for taking the time to see us.”

“I’m afraid your mother wasn’t very specific about the purpose of this meeting. Why don’t you fill me in?”

Not for the first time, Kala wished she could take all the false graciousness of Mars and toss it down a slot canyon. After what she had seen in the Warrens, she wasn’t going to beat around the bush. “My colleague–” she gestured at Abe–“and I have identified the source of the Valles Fever epidemic. Since no measures have been taken to contain its spread, I can only assume the colony government is operating with incomplete information. We’re here to share our findings with you.”

The deputy director relaxed and smiled at them. “I assure you there’s no cause for alarm. The infection is contained.”

“Contained to the Warrens, you mean.” Abe’s lip cracked as he spoke, a line of red against his mouth. The deputy director suddenly seemed farther from her desk though Kala hadn’t noticed her retreat.

“I simply meant it’s not an epidemic,” the deputy director said.

“But it is.” Kala had checked the numbers this morning. “There have already been 893 deaths. More are falling sick, and you won’t even acknowledge the problem?”

“You’re talking about less than 1% of the colony,” the deputy director said. “It’s tragic for the families, but it’s hardly a catastrophe.”

Kala flinched and then narrowed her eyes. Trust the bureaucrat to reduce people to a percentage, and the smallest possible one at that, as if Kala didn’t know the difference between a mortality rate and a case-fatality rate. “With more than 5600 confirmed cases, that means 16% of those infected die.”

The deputy director was as responsive as a yardang. 1%, Kala imagined her thinking, is nothing.

The deputy directory interlaced her fingers. “This is the planning department. You want to talk to people in the DCC. I would be delighted give you contact information for someone in that department …” If you stop bothering me, the rest went unsaid.

“Valles Fever is a planning problem,” Kala insisted. She shot a desperate glance at Abe.

He scooted forward in his seat, data at the ready. “The Fossae development project has unearthed fungal spores, which become airborne during dust storms. Ever since groundbreaking at the construction site, each storm has been followed by a spike in the number of infections.” He set his binder on the desk, open to a table of data. “I’ve analyzed hundreds of sputum cultures and identified the infection as fungal–the same fungi that’s present in local soil samples.”

Kala held her breath.

“The Fossae project has been in the works for years, and it’s one the largest in the history of the colony,” the deputy director said. “People have invested a lot of time and money into its success.”

“In the Warrens,” Kala said, “a quarter of the population is sick.” She thought of the child being forcibly removed from their home by a health services worker. “Are you calling that an acceptable loss?”

“No, I am not.” The deputy director’s nostrils flared, a satisfying crack in her composure. “But I have colony ships scheduled to arrive daily for the next six months.”

“So you’re saying the people in the Warrens are expendable?”

“I’m saying that we need Fossae to house the new colonists. Unless you can prove to me the fungi come specifically from the construction site, there’s nothing I can do. I need hard evidence, not speculation. Have the DCC run tests.” She stood and extended a business card to Kala.

Robotically, Kala palmed the card; the name was for a DCC epidemiologist. Without another word, she walked out of the office. Behind her, she heard Abe thanking the deputy directory. Smoothing things over. Kala fumed her way past the reception desk and back outside the town hall. She looked up at the darkening sky so she didn’t have to see Abe’s expression when he joined her. Phobos hurtled east on its first pass of the night while Deimos tracked ponderously in the opposite direction.

“What’s wrong with you?” Abe said.

Kala clenched her fists. “We got the run-around. She knows we can’t get those samples. She’s only interested in covering her ass.”

“You’re wrong,” Abe said. “I thought she’d kick us out immediately when she learned why we were there, but she heard us out. She seemed reasonable to me.”

Of course she heard us out. But that was for my mother’s sake, not ours. She didn’t promise to order environmental tests. She could do that, you know, with or without the DCC’s approval.”

“Fine. Then let’s go to the DCC,” Abe said. “Convince someone there to put pressure on colony planning.”

“And get the same shit from them? No thank you.” Kala dropped the business card on the street.

“So what, you just want to give up?” Abe vibrated like a live wire. Like a fever patient. She shouldn’t have dragged him out of bed. “You could make them listen. The people who matter are the ones getting sick.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Kala folded her arms over her chest. “My mother already pulled strings. It didn’t get us anywhere.”

“Not your mother. You.” Abe nodded at her satchel where he knew she kept her camera.

She notched her chin up. “What?”

“Do an exhibition. Make people feel something. Shame them into action if you have to.”

Kala’s heart raced like she was sprinting, and that’s exactly what she wanted to do. Run away. “I’m a landscape photographer.”

“You have a camera. Use it.”

She forced herself to stillness. “What’s with the judgment all of a sudden? I’m here because I’m trying to help, and it didn’t work so can you just back off?”

“No,” he said. “I can’t.”

“Nasreen would never give me a second chance.”

“She definitely won’t if you don’t ask her. If you don’t even try.” His expression was disgusted.

Kala remembered how, weeks after what was supposed to be her first exhibition, she kept finding desiccated rose petals under the furniture. Each one smelled like failure. Even when the stars had been perfectly aligned, when there had been an entire team of people going out of their way to ensure her success, Kala had managed to let them all down. Abe thought he was disappointed in her now? Just wait till she couldn’t put together whatever stunt he was expecting of her.

Kala shook her head. Fuck this. “I can’t,” she said. She turned away from him, away from the Warrens. After a couple of blocks, she came to her senses that Abe wasn’t well enough to walk home alone. But by the time she retraced her steps, he was gone.

Kala thumped her satchel inside the door and crawled into bed. The ceiling stared back at her.

What was she going to do? Abe, rightfully so, was pissed at her. The deputy director had blown them off. The DCC had their hands full and would no doubt just send her back to be Colony Planning’s problem. Meanwhile, the construction site was still half-excavated and how long would it be till the next windstorm stirred up the spores again?

Her hands itched to do something. Anything. Kala exhaled and climbed out of bed. She cleared a space on the table for her camera, then unfurled her screen into its largest configuration. She connected her camera to the screen.

It had been weeks since she had processed any photographs. The first transferred showed the Martian landscape she loved so much. The spartan desert colors. The slice made by the spine of a yardang against the dawn sky. The air was clear. If you didn’t know better–if you didn’t know a city existed just out of sight, in the crevices between the rock fins–you might mistake it for wilderness. Each colony on Mars was its own frontier. The next couple of shots showed a sequence as the radio antenna was raised. Then, time-stamped a couple weeks later, the Warrens.

The first shot was of the public health advisory by the open window. Kala hadn’t noticed at the time that the sign was defaced. Protect yourself from Valles Fever! Drink plenty of fluids; wash your hands; cover your face when you cough; if you start to feel ill, stay home. Nothing specific to a fungal infection. The window framed the worker inside, obscured by clouds of disinfectant. White jumpsuit, green face mask. A nearly empty jug of disinfectant on their back. Kala’s gaze drifted back to that small word handwritten at the bottom of the list. PRAY.

Next, a street-crowd shot, tight focus on the middle distance. Elsewhere, blurry faces, hands lifted towards a man standing atop a crate. Skin tones as varied as the desert: sand, dust, clay, basalt. Kala felt a chill. Valles Fever wasn’t contagious, but that wasn’t widely known. Did they think themselves immune, or that infection was inevitable? Reason–and public safety advisories–cautioned against close crowds, and yet for some, the compulsion to gather amidst tragedy ran deep.

The next shot hit her like someone else’s work. Kala remembered the girl carrying the skeleton icon. She didn’t remember how the girl’s hair clumped sweatily to her forehead. How her eye makeup had smeared, skeletal eye sockets to match those of the Lady. Santa Muerte clutched a scythe, and a silk flower was tied around her other hand. The girl faced the camera head-on, accusing her onlookers. Kala didn’t know documentary photography, but she recognized when a shot made her feel. She had chased that elusive feeling ever since picking up a camera in her arts elective at Lyceum, and here it was. Too powerful to keep to herself.

Kala chewed on her thumbnail. She allowed herself to consider Abe’s idea of an exposé of Valles Fever. Assuming she could even edit and assemble a proper narrative, was there anyone left of Mars who would give her the chance to show the work? Nasreen hated her guts. Even the girl in the photograph looked like she hated her. Her eyes bored into Kala, and how could Kala not at least try, in her own way, to get the truth out.

She would need more than photos of sick people. With shaky fingers, Kala messaged Abe, If we’re going to do this, I need fungi images.

Her stomach churned as she waited for his answer.

Photomicrographs?

???

Magnified images of spores.

Yes. Those.

No problem. I can borrow the equipment at the lab.

Kala’s armpits were drenched in sweat. The fight song she had played to pump herself up for this meeting faded to static. Before her, the teardrop facade of Nasreen’s gallery was high on the left and low on the right, a yardang in profile.

What was the worst that could happen? Nasreen could mock her, humiliate her, guilt her. Kala had already ruined her own reputation so she wasn’t worried about Nasreen spreading rumors that Kala was difficult to work with. That cat was long out of the bag. The meeting was bound to be uncomfortable, but compared to dying of Valles Fever, it was nothing. Kala squared her shoulders and turned her back on the gallery. She entered the cafe across the street where Nasreen had agreed to meet and nabbed a table.

As Kala waited, she messaged Abe a thumbnail of the Santa Muerte girl. Can you find her? Ask her to sign a model release form.

Is that necessary?

Not legally, but if I can convince Nasreen to give me another shot, this girl’s face will be plastered on a wall. The right thing to do is ask.

I know her. Ana Cecilia Mendoza. Cecilia was a couple years behind us at Lyceum, studying engineering.
I’ll talk to her. Any other people you need me to track down?

The rest of the photos she had selected were either crowd shots or the subject was featureless and unidentifiable in a contamination suit. Nope. Kala glanced up as Nasreen entered the cafe. Thanks, gotta go, she typed, then folded her hands over her screen and sweated some more as Nasreen wound her way past crowded tables.

Nasreen stared down unenthusiastically at Kala for a long moment. Her curly black hair was shorter than Kala remembered though they had managed to avoid one another since the debacle that was supposed to be her debut.

“I already regret coming here,” Nasreen said as she sat.

Kala’s desire to flee spiked, so vivid that she wasn’t certain she hadn’t run out onto the street. Was she sitting inside the cafe, burning courage to apologize, or had she fled, again, and was puking in an alley? The second reality seemed more likely. Kala picked up the spoon next to her cup, feeling its hard lines. She forced herself to meet Nasreen’s gaze.

“I’m sorry.” Kala closed her eyes, opened them. Still in the cafe. “You went out of your way to be generous to a new photographer, and I didn’t show up. I’m sorry I ruined your show. I’m sorry you had to throw out all that pate.” She bit back the rest. She would not turn her first proper apology into a litany of her own insecurities. “I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you ever since and didn’t apologize sooner.”

Nasreen softened. “Look,” she said. “That’s all very sweet, and I do appreciate the apology. For what it’s worth, I had the hors d’oeuvres delivered to the undercity. But if you’re here now because you want something from me, that’s not going to happen. On a personal level, I bear you no ill will, but professionally, I won’t be working with you again.”

Kala took a deep breath. “I understand–”

Nasreen started to rise.

“But hear me out, please.” Kala slid her screen across the table and waited. Nasreen’s curiosity won out, and she flipped open the screen. Kala couldn’t watch as the gallery owner clicked through the preview she had painstakingly put together.

“I thought you only did landscapes.”

Kala had to take a sip of water before she could talk. “Me too.”

“What are these?” A fingernail tapped the screen. Kala didn’t have to look.

“Photomicrographs of fungal spores,” she said. “They’re the cause of Valles Fever.”

Finally, Nasreen looked up. “How do I know you won’t pull the same stunt again?”

“They’re worth the risk, for both of us.” Kala nodded at the people captured in the images. “But if we’re doing this, we have to act fast, before more people get sick. I already sent the final image files to the printer. You just have to call the lab to approve the job.”

Nasreen’s gaze returned to the screen, to a photo of people congregating around a street orator. Nasreen had been in the business for a long time. Long enough, Kala hoped, to be adept at separating the artist from the art. Kala said, “Spin it. Spin me. I don’t care what you say to get them to come–just get them to come.”

“That I can do,” Nasreen said.

Abe was there when the exhibition opened, mercifully without flowers this time. She hugged him tight. “Thank you,” she mumbled into the fabric of his suit jacket.

“You have to stop making that face,” he said when she pulled back.

“What face?” She was smiling through her panic. That was good, right?

“Never mind.” He brushed his lapels. “Ralliers are gathering outside.”

“So long as they don’t scare anyone off. I told my mother to invite all her friends too.” She twisted the bracelet on her wrist. “What do you think of the prints? Is the music the right volume?” Incorporating music had been Nasreen’s suggestion, but Kala had selected the piece. The notes whistled and eddied through the gallery, ethereal as a sigh. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. “It’s good, isn’t it?” she said, more a statement than a question.

“It’s good.” Abe squeezed her against his side.

A few early guests trickled into the gallery. Individuals, then handfuls of people, then a steady stream. Kala recognized a few reporters from the news vids, and nodded a greeting at the Deputy Director of Colony Planning. Occasionally, folks shifted their attention from each other to her work, and Kala wanted to cheer and declare the evening a wild success, but it wasn’t. Not yet.

An hour after the start of the event, Kala’s mother entered on her hover board. Her second best jewelry in gold, Earth emeralds, and Mars opals glittered against a sharp white suit. Mrs. Gasparyan circuited the gallery, dropping in on one cluster of well-heeled Martians after the other. In each instance, she left them studying Kala’s photographs. Kala was sure the conversations were mortifying, but it wasn’t about her, it was about the Warrens.

Kala had written up a fundraising plan with the expertise of her mother’s advisors. Their initial goal was to halt construction of the Fossae project, to allow time to assess whether the site was in an area where Valles Fever was endemic. Soil needed to be treated to minimize exposure, workers trained in hazard awareness and safety protocols, and the legal team prepped for the almost inevitable court battle. The mountain of work before her was daunting, but that was a worry for another day. When her mother made the first donation, Kala could kiss her. Soon the donation booth was thronged, and Nasreen swooped in for decorous crowd control.

At some point, the Santa Muerte girl arrived. A second-gen Martian and activist, Ana Cecilia Mendoza had volunteered to make an appearance as soon as Abe explained their goal. Her eye makeup was less smudged than in the print, and she’d left her icon at home, but it was unmistakably her. She drifted around the room, an intense presence with a wake of whispers. Maintaining a mystique so complete that Kala wondered if Nasreen had coached her.

Kala grabbed Abe’s hand and pulled him away from the punch bowl. Snatches of conversation carried to them.

“… Fever …”

“Construction …”

“… Just terrible.”

The Santa Muerte girl judged them from the wall and Cecilia moved through their midst while the flutes and drums swelled. Kala closed her eyes, Abe’s hand tight in hers, and listened to the singing wind.

____

Copyright 2018 Nicole Feldringer

Nicole Feldringer’s short stories have appeared in the anthologies Press Start to Play and Loosed Upon the World, from editor John Joseph Adams, among other venues. She lives in Northern California, where she is a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Find her on Twitter @nicofeld.

by Shiv Ramdas

If it hadn’t been for the camel, Mithun might never have noticed the old balloon seller at all. He almost didn’t notice the camel either. If he’d been looking for it, he probably wouldn’t have.

Like so many other parts of Northern India, Qaisarbagh Bazaar wasn’t so much a place that time forgot as much as it was a place that had forgotten time, or at the very least, had pointedly refused to acknowledge its existence. To Mithun’s left, men in pathani kurtas herded goats past cellphone towers, never looking up. To his right, vendors pushed carts piled high with sweet-smelling fruit, bright clothes and trinkets under dangling electricity lines, ignoring the half-buried cables underfoot as they called out to passers-by as a steady stream of cars, bicycles and cycle-rickshaws swerved and cursed their way down the narrow cobbled streets. All in all, it was an explosion of sights, sounds and smells, a patchwork of colour and chaos of the sort that is so much more appealing on Exotic India postcards than when experienced in the flesh. Partly because it makes a lot of things rather difficult, such as the mundane yet surprisingly useful exercise that is finding things just by looking for them.

As Mithun stood there, he found the camel staring back at him, unblinking. Then slowly, deliberately, it jerked its head sideways, at the old man with the bent back and straggly grey beard, standing there between the paan-seller with bad teeth and the cigarette-vendor shouting discounts at schoolchildren, half-hidden in the shadow of the crumbling clock-tower. And that was when Mithun noticed the balloons.

Indeed, he couldn’t help but notice them, for these were no ordinary balloons. No, they were massive, lustrous, the most wondrous balloons you ever saw. Above the spotless white Gandhi topi on the old man’s head, a beautiful blue-green globe, the earth itself, or perhaps not quite, floating right there. Beside it, much larger, the fiery citrus glow of the reluctant red of the setting sun giving way to a soothing orange. Next to that, a small one, half translucent, half black, the moon being eaten by Rahu, just like in the myths the teacher read out every Friday.

Mithun looked at his mother, but she failed to notice him, being still engrossed in the vital task of securing an extra half kilo of lentils at no additional cost. An additional half kilo that he already knew it would be his destiny to spend the evening carrying around the bazaar. He looked back at the balloons, and as he watched, one of them, an impossibly radiant five pointed star, floated heavenwards, and then exploded in a shower of iridescence, each fragment now a star in its own right. This was the first thing Mithun noticed.

The second was that he seemed to be the only person who had noticed it.

‘Come here, boy.’

He looked around, but could see nobody who had spoken, just the usual whirling dervish of a small town economy hard at work all around.

‘Are you deaf? I said come here, boy!’

He swung around, looking across the street to where the voice had come from, and discovered he was looking at the camel again.

Mithun blinked. The camel didn’t. Instead, once more it jerked its head towards the balloons.

And then Mithun found himself far away from the channa vendor, skirting vehicles, making his way towards the talking camel and the magical balloons. But when he finally got there, he found the little stall in the shadows of the tower deserted. This gave him pause, but only briefly. Because just then he noticed the most amazing balloon of them all, a huge, black oval affair that was still translucent enough for him to see the other shapes inside it, too many to count, some round and revolving around bigger round ones, sometimes colliding, some impossibly bright, winking in and out and sometimes vanishing entirely. Mithun didn’t really know much about astronomy and had even once spelt it wrong on a test, but he knew enough to know that sometimes the appropriate response is just to gawk, mouth half-open. So gawk he did, pausing only twice, once to decline the offer of a paan and again, to point out he didn’t want a cigarette at half price.

So well did he gawk that he failed to notice the shouting, or the people suddenly running pell-mell in the opposite direction. The first inkling he had that something was wrong was a heavy, grinding sound, not dissimilar to the one Sarita Aunty’s lassi-machine had made when he’d tried to grind pebbles in it. Only this was much louder, loud enough to cut through his reverie.

He looked up, and saw it, the top of the clock tower teetering and then, ever so leisurely, tipping over, raining rock down, as it strained to obey gravity’s call. Then with a final, shuddering groan it fell, blocking out the sun above him, falling downwards like a furious thundercloud, Indra’s vajra hurtling down to earth.

Somewhere in the far recesses of his mind, Mithun knew he should run, but his legs wouldn’t work, nothing would, all he could do was look up, mouth open in a wordless scream. He felt a hand grab the back of his shirt, yanking` him back roughly, and then something slammed into his head, sending an explosion of white before his eyes, which just as quickly turned to black.

That was the last thing he remembered.

Mithun woke, opened his eyes, and then closed them again because it was so dark that the effort seemed pointless.

‘Are you all right?’

The voice, coming as it did from what appeared to be empty space, took him by surprise. Mithun sat up abruptly, bringing his head in sharp contact with what appeared to be an incredibly low roof.

‘Ow!’

‘Are you all right?’ the voice asked again.

‘My head hurts. Who’s there?’

‘Just me,’ said the voice. It was soft, and yet somehow strident, the sort of voice that has seen much service.

There was a sharp rasping sound, the unmistakable accent of a match striking stone, and Mithun found himself looking into the face of an old man in a torn, dirty Gandhi cap, worn askew on his head. It was a lean, lined face, weather beaten and grey-bearded, with a pair of gentle brown eyes.

‘It’s you,’ said Mithun. ‘Gubbara-wala. The balloon man.’

The match went out.

‘Bhak!’ said the old man. ‘Third-rate matches. Well, I suppose those are the only kind.’

A moment later he’d lit another.

‘Here, hold this,’ he said, holding out the match. ‘Yes, that’s fine, just a moment, let me find… Where did it–Ah, there we go!’

From his pocket he pulled a pale, translucent balloon.

He took a deep breath, then blew into the balloon. It swelled up, and as it did, it began to glow, filling the alcove with a thin, silvery light. The man gave the end a twist and let it go, and it floated up, coming to a rest against a rocky ceiling a few feet over his head.

‘Nothing quite like moonlight, is there?’

Mithun glanced around at their surroundings. There wasn’t much to see, just rocks piled all around the small alcove where they were. Mithun pulled himself to where he could sit up, so he was now facing the old man.

‘Managed to get us under the arch,’ said the balloon man, and grinned, showing a set of strangely perfect teeth. ‘Cramped, but it’ll keep the weight out till they dig through.’

Mithun wasn’t sure if it was the words or the tone they were delivered in, but he felt the cold stab of panic slice through his chest.

‘Ma!’ he shouted.

The old man smiled, patting him on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry lad. You’ll be fine.’

Mithun looked around. There was a distinct watery sensation at the very bottom of his stomach.

‘How do you know?’

‘Well, you’d better be,’ said the man indignantly. ‘I had to run awfully fast to pull you safe, and I still don’t know if it’ll count. Or where that camel’s got to. But we’ll find out soon enough, I suppose and whatever will be will be. Oh, don’t look so scared, you’ll be fine, didn’t I say? They’ll save you, I promise.’

‘Don’t you mean us?’

The old man chuckled. ‘No, I’m the only one saving me.’

‘I don’t understand, baba. We’re here together. If I get rescued, so will you.’

‘Well, you should understand. Makes perfect sense when you do. Just remember the rule.’

‘What rule?’

‘That in India, whatever is true, the opposite is also true.’

Mithun blinked, realising that his fellow prisoner was not quite sane. He turned away, scrabbling at the rocks to his left.

‘Stop that!’ said the balloon man sharply. ‘Don’t upset the balance, you’ll bring them all down. Look at me, boy. Here. Look at me and take a deep breath. Alright, let it out. Slowly. Good, good. Feel better?’

‘No,’ said Mithun.

‘Of course you do. You just don’t know it yet. Alright, what’s your name?’

‘Mithun.’

‘Want to hear a story, Mithun?’

‘You think I’m six? No, I don’t want to hear a story.’

‘Well, you’ll just have to. How can you be part of the story if you won’t hear the rest of it?’

Once again, he reached into a pocket, and pulled out a packet, from which he shook out three balloons, green, black and white.

‘That’ll be enough,’ he said.

With that, he set to work, first blowing into the black balloon, then twisting and worrying at it with his callused hands as it grew, taking the shape of a bird. Except it wasn’t just a balloon bird, it was a real bird, a majestic black swan, feathers, beak and all. As Mithun watched, it jumped to the ground, and stood up and nodded at the old man, fluttering its wings.

‘H–how?’

The old man winked at him.

‘Magic,’ he said.

‘Magic? How did you do that?’

‘Quite a silly boy, aren’t you?’ said the swan.

Mithun felt his jaw loosen. He sat there, eyes bulging.

‘It talks?’

‘Of course I talk,’ said the swan. ‘Don’t you?’

‘How can it talk?’

‘She, and thank you very much, young man. And he just told you how. Magic.’

‘Yes, but how?’

The swan sniffed. ‘That’s why it’s called magic. If we knew, we’d call it science instead.’

The balloon man seemed to have been paying no attention to this exchange. Instead, he’d been busy working on the green balloon, so now there was also a long, grass-green snake in the alcove with them, staring straight at Mithun.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ said the snake.

Mithun could only stare.

Finally, the snake broke the silence.

‘I apologise if I’m being rude, but do you talk?’

‘Of course he does,’ said the balloon man. ‘He’s just shocked, that’s all. His name’s Mithun, by the way.’

‘Not very bright, though,’ said the swan, and sniffed. ‘Boys of this age seldom are.’

‘Maybe he’s just scared,’ said the snake, uncoiling slowly and moving towards Mithun. ‘Do you need a hug?’

‘No–I’m fine! Stay away!’

The snake retreated slightly, looking hurt.

Said the swan, ‘Where’s the camel?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘This is terrible.’

‘Well, make the best of it.’

‘I am making the best of it.’

‘Must you always be in a bad mood?’ asked the snake.

‘Yes,’ said the swan. ‘You try cleaning your feathers in this land with more dust than air for the last–‘

It broke off suddenly, looking towards where the last balloon-animal-turned-real-animal now stood, a large white elephant, about as big as the balloon man himself. With a start, Mithun realised it had several heads–five in fact. The balloon man bowed, as did the other animals.

‘It is time,’ said the elephant in a slow, ponderous voice.

‘Are you ready to be heard?’

‘We are,’ replied everyone except Mithun.

‘Then begin,’ said the elephant, sitting down. ‘Who shall it be?’

‘Me,’ said the snake. ‘Where do you wish me to begin, Lord?’

‘I have always found the beginning to be as good a place as any. And the appropriate one in a hearing such as this. Tell your part of the story, and tell it true.’

‘I will indeed, Lord,’ said the snake, and hissed, the sound slithering away over the stones around them.

‘Listen to me now. Listen as I tell you the story of the wretched King Vikramaditya.

VIKRAMADITYA AND THE CELESTIAL COW

Long, long ago, long before this land carried this name or the one before this or the one before that, this was the kingdom of the good Raja Vikramaditya. Many stories of his wisdom and valour have been written, but this is not one of them, for it is about neither. But know that the king was revered far and wide for being as learned as he was generous, and a true man of dharma. It was said he had never once broken a promise and no man who visited his court left without what he had come for. A greater, more generous, more virtuous king than Indra, king of the gods, whispered some, and judging by the state of the universe, that may even have been true.

Now, one day, there arrived in the court of Raja Vikram a rishi, a wandering holy man. Vikram received him immediately, for such was his custom.

‘Pray tell me, holy sire,’ he said. ‘What service may this monarch render you?’

‘Your protection, King Vikramaditya,’ replied the rishi. ‘And it is not for myself I ask it, but for another. For a while, I have made my abode a small ashram on the other side of the river. There I stay, alone save for one companion, a heifer. But now I must travel north for a pilgrimage, and it will be many a sunrise before I return. I cannot leave her there alone. Will you, O King, take her under your protection?’

‘Indeed I will,’ said Vikram.

‘Know this too, that she is no ordinary cow, for she was given to me as a boon by Kamdhenu, Mother of Cows. She eats only the greenest grass and drinks only the clearest water and her milk is sweeter than honey and has the power to cure any illness or ailment.’

‘I hear you, Gurudev,’ said Vikram. ‘It shall be as you ask. Leave on your pilgrimage when you wish and upon your return, she will be waiting here for you.’

‘Thank you, Maharaj,’ said the rishi. ‘I expected no less. May your years be long and your days filled with light.’

So saying, he left, taking with him a cohort of the king’s men to whom he would entrust the wondrous heifer. Meanwhile, Vikram called forth his ministers to decide how best to care for the rishi’s cow.

“Let us build an enclosure for her and make sure she is fed and guarded at all times,’ said one.

‘An excellent suggestion,’ said the king. ‘Let it be done.’

And so a grand enclosure was built, with high stone walls and a sloping roof and golden tiles within and a whole host of soldiers without. The king personally oversaw the construction, and well pleased he was, for he knew it to be so secure that perhaps even Vayu, god of the air, would have trouble getting in undetected. And no matter how busy with his duties, he never failed to look in on the rishi’s cow every night, to make sure she was safe and well.

Until one day, when a visitor arrived unbidden, one that set the entire palace aflutter with fear and excitement, for it was a nagin, a great she-serpent with a massive hood and scales as green as the gehu-stalks after the rains.

The king received her immediately, for such was his way with visitors.

‘They say you never refuse someone who comes to you for help, King Vikramaditya,’ said the nagin. ‘And it is for your help I am here.’

‘You honour me, noble nagin,’ said the king. ‘Tell me what it is you wish for, and if it be in my power, you shall have it.’

‘My daughter’s life, maharaj,’ spoke the nagin. ‘She accidentally angered a rishi, and was cursed with a lingering sickness that will take her. Indeed, her time is almost up. There is but one thing that can save her.’

‘Say no more,’ answered the king. ‘I know what it is you seek, but my hands are tied, for the milk of the celestial cow is not mine to give.’

‘No, Vikramaditya, you do not understand. My daughter’s ailment is from a god’s curse. Just the milk of the cow is not enough. To be cured, she must partake of its flesh.’

‘Never!’ said the king, shocked. ‘The rishi left the cow under my protection. And on my honour I vowed to protect it, not give it away to be slaughtered.’

‘Does your honour involve putting the life of a cow over that of my daughter, Vikramaditya?’ asked the nagin.

‘I will give you my entire herd if you so desire, but this cow is not mine to give,’ said the king.

‘All the herds in all three worlds are no use to me if you will not do so,’ said the nagin.

On and on they argued, but the king would not be swayed to break his promise and finally the nagin rose up on her tail. ‘So be it, Vikram, but I shall remember that you held my daughter’s life in your hands and refused to give it back, and you shall regret this day.’

And then she was gone, leaving no trace of her ever having come save the furrows on every brow in the hall.

‘She will be back, Maharaj,’ said one of his courtiers.

‘I am sure of it,’ said Vikram. ‘But I will not seek shelter from the rain before the clouds come. Never let it be said that Vikramaditya exchanged his honour for safety.’

But even though he spoke the words, he felt a dark foreboding in his heart, for even the gods thought hard before making an enemy of a nagin, and none had ever been known to renege on a vow of vengeance. Even so, he resolved to not show his trepidation, for a fearful king is inevitably soon a former king, and went about the rest of his regal duties.

At the end of the day, he visited the cow’s enclosure, as he always did. The guards saluted him and stepped back to let him enter. And he did so, only to realise that the enclosure was now empty, the cow gone.

He looked around, but there was no sign of her, no mark of anything. And then he heard the faintest sound, and turned and saw a hole in the wall, through which was disappearing a long, green tail.

‘Guards!’ shouted Vikram. ‘Guards! The nagin has escaped with the cow. Stop her!’

And with that, he ran outside, but when he got there he saw that the nagin had eluded his men, for he could see her in the distance, fleeing as swiftly as the winter in Vaisakha.

Undeterred, the king called for his swiftest horse, and immediately set off in pursuit. For countless days and nights he followed her, over leagues of forests and valleys, hills and dunes. Until they were all the way to the Saraswati, the famed river that marks the boundary between this world and the next.

The king leapt off his horse and prepared to dive in, and even as he did, he heard the nagin’s voice, carrying across to him from the other side.

‘How long will you follow me, Vikramaditya?’

‘As long as it takes,’ answered Vikram. ‘Until you return the rishi’s cow to me, unhurt, or until I finally catch up with you and force you to do so.’

The nagin laughed. ‘There is no power in existence that can give you what you want, Vikram. Even if you were to catch up with me, and defeat me, even then it would still gain you nothing. Hear me when I say that Shiva himself could not force the whereabouts of the cow from me while my daughter’s life hangs in the balance. In my place, you would do the same.’

And at this the king paused, for he recognised the truth in what the nagin was saying.

‘You will not succeed at this quest. And know that I take no pleasure in what I have done, but it is for the good of us both that I do it. It would have been far easier to have fought you for the heifer, and one of us would now be dead. Honour may lie in keeping your word, but wisdom is knowing that trying does not mean succeeding. Return to your kingdom and know that no shame or dishonour falls upon you. You pursued me to the very edge of Prithvilok and still you failed. This is the last time we shall exchange words, king, so return with your head held high and tell the rishi you did what any mortal man could have done and more.’

With that, she was gone, while the king stood ankle-deep in the river at the edge of the world, lost in thought, for truth is true no matter who speaks it and Vikram was wise enough to know this. Then he leapt back upon his horse and began the long, lonely journey back to his kingdom.

‘But what will you do when the rishi returns?’ asked his queen of him one night.

‘The only thing I can do,’ replied Vikram. ‘I shall throw myself at his mercy and whatever will be will be.’

And very soon he got his wish, for, as is so often the case in these stories, the very next day the rishi returned.

‘I am back, King Vikramaditya,’ he said. ‘Now return my heifer to me.’

Vikram bowed his head. ‘I have failed you, venerable one.’

So saying, he told the rishi what had happened with the nagin and how he had pursued her only to return empty handed.

Even before he had finished, the rishi’s face had darkened, his eyes flashing with rage. ‘You have broken your word to me, Vikramaditya,’ he said. ‘A king who cannot be trusted is no king at all. Tell me, what should I do with you? A curse, or something more befitting?’

Vikram fell at the sage’s feet. ‘Forgive me, gurudev,’ he cried. ‘I throw myself on your mercy. If there is anything I can do to atone, say the word and I am at your service.’

‘Is what you say true?’ asked the rishi, stroking his beard. ‘You once vowed to do me a service and failed. Will you now vow to do me another of my choosing?’

‘I do, gurudev,’ said Vikram.

‘No matter what I ask of you? Do I have your word?’

‘You do, gurudev,’ said Vikram.

‘Then I accept.’ said the rishi, in a very different voice. ‘Now rise, Vikramaditya. Rise like the king you are and look me in the eye.’

Vikram looked up and lo–the rishi was gone and in his place stood the demigod Narada, master of bards, storyteller of storytellers and messenger of the gods themselves.

‘But why, Lord?’ asked Vikram.

‘It was a test, King Vikramaditya,’ replied Narada. ‘A test that you failed, but I am willing to forgive, if you are willing to keep your vow this time.’

‘I am,’ answered the king.

Narada smiled, the irresistible smile that the songs tell us that even the apsaras could not resist, although most of those songs were composed by Narada himself. ‘All is well then,’ he said. ‘I accept your offer, King Vikramaditya. When the time comes, I shall return and remind you of your promise to serve me.’

He smiled again. ‘And I have just the service in mind.’

And so it came to pass that Vikramaditya, noblest of kings, found himself bound in service to the prince of all tricksters, although as it turned out, he might have been better off dead. What became of that service is a story in itself, but what you have just heard is the tale I have to tell, and know every word to be true, for I was there and saw it all.

‘Wait,’ said Mithun. ‘Better off dead? How could he have been better off dead?’

The snake hissed. ‘Because there are worse things than dying.’

‘Such as?’ said Mithun.

‘Not dying, said the swan.

‘That makes no sense,’ said Mithun.

The swan nodded. ‘I knew you were a foolish boy. Said so right from the start.’

‘Now, what we have here is a beginning, and little else,’ said the elephant. ‘Which of you will tell of what happened next?’

‘I will, Lord,’ said the swan, and flapping her wings, she began.

VIKRAMADITYA AND THE ELEPHANT’S CURSE

King Vikramaditya waited anxiously for Narada to return, and he waited in vain. Weeks passed into months, the rains came and went, and did so again, with still no sign of him. It was not till the rains came a third time that Narada returned, early in the morning on the first day of Vraj.

The king was still in his bedchamber, and when he heard, he rushed down, so hastily he even forgot his turban.

‘I have returned, O King,’ said Narada. ‘Do you intend to keep your word?’

‘I do,’ answered Vikram. ‘What is it you wish of me?’

‘To accompany me to a sabha–a grand gathering.’

‘As you wish. When do we leave?’

‘Immediately. I wish to arrive well in time’

‘It has already begun?’

Narada smiled. ‘It began almost thirty years ago, King Vikram.’

‘Thirty years? Who is this king who would throw a sabha that long?’

Narada smiled. ‘Mine. We go to Devlok, to the court of Indra. And there we shall play a little trick on him.’

At this Vikram stared at him. ‘This is madness, O sage. To attempt to deceive the king of the Devas himself? You will doom us both.’

‘No, I will repay the insult he dealt me. Do not presume to question me, Vikram! When the time is right, you will be told what to do. You need only follow the dharma of a king, and be true to your word.’

‘I may not share your confidence, but that does not mean I forget my dharma.’

‘Then there is no more to be said for the present and let us be on our way.’

So saying, he reached out and touched the king on the arm, and in that instant they both vanished, travelling ways that words cannot describe, so swiftly that they were at the gates of Devlok in no more time than it took to finish this sentence.

‘And here we are,” said Narada.

‘Indeed,’ answered Vikram. ‘Although I wish I could have no part of this. But the yolk cannot be returned to the broken egg, so tell me what it is we must do and let us do it and face whatever punishment Indra sees fit.’

‘You misjudge me, Vikram. It is true that Indra insulted me, but that does not wound me. But when a king falls into the folly of pride, it is the duty of his nearest and dearest to remind him of this fact and if they shall not do it then it must fall on us.’

‘It is not my place to teach the king of heaven of his follies.’

‘That is where you are wrong, King Vikramaditya. If it is anyone’s place, it is yours. Of your honour there can be no question, for I have seen it with my own eyes, and as for your wisdom, I have heard it said that your knowledge of statecraft is second to none, and that you learnt it from the great Rishi Vishwamitra himself. What is more, you are a mortal. We shall confront Indra with his secret fear–that one day a mortal might surpass him in prowess.’

‘Indra would tell you of his secret fear?’

‘Secrets rarely stay that way. Now listen to me, and listen well. I shall now disguise you as a wandering merchant. You will enter the sabha and challenge Indra to a battle of wits. And there before the entire assembly of the gods, he will learn his lesson. Even if you do not win, if you make him pause that is enough, for he will begin to wonder if he really is as great as he believes when even a common mortal can so challenge him.’

‘Very well,’ said Vikram. ‘I am ready.’

‘Two more things–when we enter, keep your eyes down and keep your eyes covered or you will be blinded by the grandeur of Indra’s palace. No mortal eyes can withstand such a sight. I will be beside you to guide you, but also in disguise, for I do not want Indra to suspect anything. Second, and do not forget this–no matter how hungry or thirsty you get, do not eat or drink anything within the palace, or you will regret it. Now let us be going, for the sabha has begun and each moment is more precious than you realise.’

So saying he transformed them both, King Vikram into a turbaned merchant, himself into a camel loaded with wares. They made their way through the gates all the way to the palace. Here Vikram shielded his eyes, allowing the camel to guide him all the way into the famed Celestial Hall. Once they were inside however, his curiosity got the better of him and he wrapped his turban and placed it over his eyes, just opening his eyes enough to peer through.

Around them played music, a melody so sweet the rain stopped falling to listen. In the front of the room, before the throne, danced an apsara, her beauty such that it put even the summer sunset to shame. Invisible hands pressed a goblet into his hand, and without thinking about it, he took a sip. It was the sweetest drink he’d ever tasted, like wine and honey and something else he couldn’t describe. And too late he remembered Narada’s warning and stopped, and no sooner had he thought about drinking no more than the goblet vanished. The minutes passed, and he felt no ill effects, no different than usual. From the corner of his eye, he saw Varuna, God of the Ocean lounging on a gold seat, hair made of water, streaming down and curling at the back in waves. Beside him sat Chandra, gentle silvery moon, skin glowing with a soft white light. And beyond him, another being, but as Vikram turned towards him all he saw was a bright, fiery incandescence that burnt into his eyes, forcing him to squeeze them shut for fear he would be blinded and he knew he had almost committed to folly of daring to look straight at Surya.

‘Still your mind,’ said Narada into his ear. ‘When I give you the signal, raise your voice and challenge Indra.’

And Vikram stood there, eyes lowered, listening until the music softened and he felt the camel nudge him in the back.

‘Great and noble Indradev, king of us all, I challenge you!’ he cried.

There was a hush and then a ripple, the music stopped abruptly.

‘Who says that? Stand before me!’ said a voice that sounded like thunder, and Vikram knew that Indra had heard.

The camel nudged him again and Vikram stepped forward, making his way through the sabha until he stood before the massive, dazzling throne.

Said Indra, ‘Who are you, mortal who wishes to challenge me?’

‘To a battle of knowledge, Lord,’ said Vikram. ‘Who I am not important. If I am, as you say, a mere mortal, then surely a merchant is as good as a king to you just as a fly is as a mosquito to a man.’

‘Even the fly and the mosquito have their proper place and wisdom lies in knowing that place.’

‘I see you have accepted my challenge, Indradev,’ said Vikram bowing.

At that there was a laugh from the assembly. Airavarta, mount of Indra himself clapped, nodding his many heads appreciatively and even Indra smiled.

‘Very well, mortal. Let us proceed.’

And so it began, question and answer, back and forth. And the longer it went on, the more all those watching marvelled at the wit and wisdom of Vikram, so much so that even Indra was forced to focus all his attention on their battle going so far as to even stop listening to the prayers people sent him from earth.

Until finally, Indra sat up on his throne and looked straight as Vikram. ‘You are no merchant. The depth of your knowledge and the breadth of your arguments are those of someone who has devoted his life to statecraft. You have entered my halls uninvited, on false pretences. How came you here?’

And then his gaze fell on the camel and Indra’s face darkened, like the thunderclouds from where he wielded his vajra.

‘Narada? Are you the one responsible for this deceit?’

Hearing that terrifying voice roaring through the hall, Narada turned, only to find that Vayu blocked his way.

‘Nay, trickster,’ he said. ‘Today you shall answer for your actions.’

But Narada’s action had confirmed his guilt and there now rang out cries and exclamations from those in the assembly. Until Airavata jumped to his feet, many trunks quivering in fury, and the hall fell silent, for the God-king of the Elephants was known for his wisdom and his compassion but few were foolish enough to not fear his anger.

‘Narada! You thought to deceive our king in this fashion, while you disguise yourself and hide among us, watching, like a coward? This time you have gone too far. And as for this mortal whom you brought here as an instrument of your trickery, I shall crush him where he stands!’

So saying he set off towards Vikram, but Vayu was there, barring his path, even as he continued to stop Narada from escaping, for the God of the Wind can be everywhere at once.

‘Stop, good Airavata! Stay your hand and listen to me. I recognise this mortal and he is none other than the noble King Vikramaditya, whose name has reached even these halls. Many a time have I flown over his lands and not once have I found any of what is said to be untrue. Now, listen to me, Indra, listen to me, all you immortals. Hear what I have to say, for I know the truth of what has happened. What we have seen today is the fruit of a great many seeds, and in each case the same hand planted them. It was Narada the double-tongued who entreated the apsara Visala to take the form of a nagin and steal away his cow from King Vikramaditya, the same cow he promised to the apsara Nairiti if she transformed into a bird and flew to the very top of the celestial palace and listened at Indradev’s bedchamber. They thought that nobody would know, but the wind carries all voices, no matter how soft, and I hear them all. And this is how they tricked this mortal into standing here today, and it is to his credit that he has acted with dharma throughout. As to his fate, and the fate of these others, that is for you to decide, Lord. But know what I tell you to be true, for I was there and saw it all.’

‘I have heard enough,’ said Indra. ‘But still I would give each of the accused an opportunity to speak in their defence. Has any of you anything to say?’

‘My lord, I merely was doing my bounden duty!’ said Narada. ‘I saw you had made an error and I sought–‘

‘You sought to create a spectacle for your amusement,’ said Airavata. ‘Your untruths have caused much annoyance to many, so still your tongue ere I still it for you.’

‘What of you apsaras?’ asked Indra. ‘Is what Vayu says true?’

‘It is, lord,’ they said, beautiful faces burning pink.

‘And you, King Vikramaditya? Have you anything to say?’

‘Only that I am yours to do with as you see fit and know that had I not given my word, I would not be here.’

‘Prettily spoken indeed!’ said Indra. ‘From what I have heard here, Vikramaditya has conducted himself with great honour and for this reason I forgive him his deception, and even his forcing me to stop listening to the prayers of those invoking me. There will be no punishment, he has been punished enough by staying here this long. You are a credit to all men, Vikramaditya. Ask me for what you will and if it be in my power, I will grant it.’

‘You honour this unworthy one, lord,’ said Vikram, bowing. ‘But I desire nothing further than to return to my kingdom and family.’

‘That is impossible, O King,’ said Indra. ‘They are gone.’

‘Gone?’ cried Vikramaditya. ‘I do not understand, Lord. Where could they go? And if they are, grant me your permission to leave immediately to set out after them. It has scarce been a few hours since I left home, and I can still catch them.’

But Indra shook his head. ‘Nay, Vikramaditya. Time here in Devlok is not as time on Prithvilok. Every second here is a year there. You have been here several hours, but you have been gone for hundreds of years. Your family, kingdom, the world as you knew it, all are long since gone. And even you with all your courage and wisdom cannot follow them, for a body may not travel the paths souls take.’

At these words, a terror ran through Vikram and he folded his palms before Indra. ‘Then there is nothing left to return to. You promised me a boon, Indra, so I now ask it–return me to them.’

‘Nay, I cannot,’ answered Indra. ‘For none may turn back the cycle of Time, and neither will I take you before your time.’

‘Then I am lost!’ said Vikramaditya. ‘All is lost. It seems all I can do is return to earth and wait for my time.’

‘Return by all means, but first tell me this–did you eat or drink anything here?’

‘Only a sip of wine,’ said Vikram. ‘The merest taste.’

And Indra looked at him and there was sadness in his eyes. ‘You have made a grave mistake, O Vikramaditya. What you drank was Amrit, the divine nectar of immortality. Lord Yama will not come for you, for Death does not visit those touched by Amrit.’

Vikram fell to his knees. ‘You mean I am destined to wander the earth till the end of Creation itself? No, Indra, no! Do not this to me, I entreat you!’

‘I cannot make Yama come for you, King Vikramaditya,’ said Indra. ‘Indeed there is but one path I can offer you. But it will not be easy. Are you willing?’

‘I would do anything.’

‘Then here is what you must do. For hours I ignored prayer after prayer, devotees I would have helped, people in need of my aid, all because you distracted me. One thousand times one thousand they numbered, and none of them did I aid. Your task is this–return to Prithvi and make it your mission to help people, until such time as you have performed one good deed for each prayer you caused me to miss in all the years that have passed since you came here. Do this and when you have finished, I will grant you a place in my halls, and here you may sit alongside us, as one of us, until the end of this cycle of Creation.’

‘If this is the only choice before me, said Vikram. ‘I shall do as you command, Lord. But know I would prefer to not have to make it.’

‘And that is the only reason I offer it,’ said Indra. ‘So be it, then. As for you, Narada, Airavata spoke for us all when he said that for too long have you spread false stories. You are hereby banished from the heavens. Spend your time on the mortal plane, until such time as you have told a true story for each untruth you have uttered. Then and only then will you ever have hope of returning here. Airavata, faithful one, I leave it to you to see that what I have said today is done.’

Airavata bowed. ‘It shall be done, Lord. But the bard cannot escape this lightly. It was by my boon that he gained the power to transform himself. So let him remain in this form, not a man, but a beast, for all the time he must spend on Prithvi.’

‘But I too have something else,’ said Vayu. ‘I feel for you, King Vikramaditya and what the fates have decided for you. I cannot undo any of what has been done, but accept this gift from the God of the Winds.’

So saying he pressed a bag into Vikram’s hands.

‘Toys of my devising that one day mortal children will play with, but these ones have been blessed by me, Vikramaditya. When you have need, invoke me as you fill them and the air itself will help you. Accept this as a token from Vayu.’

‘Lord Indra, what of the apsaras?’ asked Airavata. ‘Is their part to go unpunished?’

‘Since they helped create this situation, let them be part of it till the end,’ said Indra. ‘They too are banished from my halls until Vikramaditya returns. Let them be witness to each task he performs for as long as it may take.’

And that was how King Vikram was condemned to wander the earth as a commoner, helping those he could. And how Narada was punished, along with the apsaras Visala and Nairiti.‘

The swan gulped. A single large tear fell from its eye, landing on the dirt underfoot with a soft plop.

‘And what happened of his task is a story in itself ’ went on the swan. ‘But what you have just heard is the tale I have to tell, and know every word to be true, for I was there and saw it all.’

‘But that’s not fair!’ said Mithun. ‘Why would the gods not let Vikram stay right then?’

‘The gods never claimed to be fair, they only claimed to be right,’ said the elephant.

‘That makes no sense,’ said Mithun.

‘Guard your tongue, boy!’ said the swan, and squawked angrily. ‘If you must address Lord Airavata, do so with respect or not at all!’

‘I shall answer for myself, Nairiti,’ said Airavata. ‘Makes no sense, you said? And you are surprised because everything else makes sense? The gods have the power to be anywhere they want whenever they want and yet Indra has me, Shiva has Nandi, Vishnu has both Ananta and Garuda, almost every god has a mount. Does this make sense? This is the trouble with mortals, always demanding that things must make sense and be logical. Such a human desire. To exist, a thing need not be logical, it just needs to be. Now let us move on for we have a beginning and a middle but not an end. Are you the third witness? Of course you are, for yours is the next story.’

‘I don’t know any stories,’ said Mithun.

‘Of course you do. Everyone does. And today yours is the most important one of all, so don’t be shy. I shall even help you. Are you ready?’

VIKRAM, THE CAMEL AND THE BOY

     ‘Vikramaditya had lost his kingdom, but not his will.’ said Airavata. ‘He was determined to fulfill the task Lord Indra had given him. Even so, he knew it would not be easy. A thousand times a thousand numbered the prayers Indra had ignored, and for each of these Vikramaditya owed one good deed. And since it is a lot easier to pray than help, he was destined to spend more years on earth than he had been away in Devlok. Indeed, he soon found that helping people is a lot harder than it sounds. On one occasion he decided to help a young lover sneak into his beloved’s home, only to discover that he was no such thing, but a burglar who robbed the family as they slept. On another, he assisted distraught parents in finding their lost son, except that it turned out the parents were drunkards whom the boy had run away from and Vikram was forced to rescue him again. Even so, he persevered, until he had done too many good deeds to remember the count, although not nearly enough to stop counting.

Until one day, walking towards a destination that no longer matters, he was caught in one of those torrential midyear downpours that are so important to the livelihood of both the farmer and the poet. Seeking shelter from the rain, Vikramaditya left the road and came across a small cowshed in a field. Within it, he found a man, also taking refuge from the storm. Once the mandatory pleasantries had been exchanged, they set to talking.

‘So what brings you this way?’ asked Vikramaditya.

‘Ill-fortune,’ replied the man. ‘And this rain has added to it else I would already be in the next town where I could put an end to my misery.’

‘These are worrying words, friend,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘I hope you do not mean to do yourself an injury.’

‘Only to my money-purse,’ said the man.

‘Tell me what ails you,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘Perhaps I can help.’

‘You seem like a good person, said the man. ‘So while it would be easy to give you my burden, it would not be right. You see, I am not travelling alone. I have with me a camel that I tied outside and you may have seen as you entered. I am taking it to the butcher in the town up the road so he may slaughter it. He may not pay me very much for it, for it is old and its meat no doubt stringy, but I would rather pay him to slaughter it than take it back with me.’

‘Why do you say this?’ asked Vikramaditya.

‘Because this is no ordinary camel. It was sold to me by a merchant who said it was a magic talking camel and would bring me good fortune. It seemed an excellent bargain so I agreed, even though I did not believe him just as I have no doubt you will not believe me. But you may take my word for it–the beast does in truth speak. Indeed, it has scarce ceased speaking since I got it and every word it has uttered has brought me naught but misfortune. Curse that scoundrel and curse his camel.’

‘I see,’ replied Vikramaditya. ‘In that case, perhaps you would not mind if I saw this magical camel for myself?’

‘If that is what you wish, by all means. But I warn you now not to listen to a word it says, for every sentence that escapes its lips is either terrible or a lie.’

‘Thank you for your warning, friend,’ said Vikramaditya, and getting up, he made his way out of the cowshed to where the camel was tied. And when he got outside, he saw that it was indeed Narada still trapped in camel form who was tied there, because of course it was, for these are the sort of coincidences that make stories possible.

‘Vikramaditya!’ said Narada. ‘It is indeed you! I had not thought to see you.’

‘The fates have not been kind to you, it would appear.’

‘Certainly not. I have never cared much for mortals but now I love them even less. Do you know what it has been like trying to tell only true stories all these years? To begin with, nobody wants to listen because most true stories are not pleasant. But we waste time. Quickly, free me before this lout realises or he will be taking me to the butcher. Hurry now– the rain ceases as we speak.’

‘Do you indeed expect me to do you a good turn after all you have put me through?’

‘No, Vikramaditya, I expect you to do a good turn. Is that not your purpose now?’

‘You will not twist me around with your words again, Narada. It is yourself you care about.’

‘Certainly, but it is also you I think of. And it is not so bad for me as you might think. I am an immortal and cannot die, which the fool inside does not know. The butcher cannot kill me, but it will hurt a great deal, which I am anxious to avoid. Also reflect that the man inside wishes to be rid of me, as I wish to be rid of him and by freeing me you would be doing us both a good turn, and so have one less to perform.’

‘It is this very cunning that has put you in the position that you find yourself in now, Narada. Too much cleverness is not a virtue. Even so, I will free you, for malice is a slow poison and makes the blood grow thicker.’

‘Do this and I will repay you, Vikramaditya. You have my word.’

‘You are already making me regret this,’ replied Vikramaditya, and so saying, he went back into the shed. A few minutes later, and somewhat lighter in the pocket, he returned and led the camel away.

‘You are now free to go, Narada.’

‘You are a man of honour, Vikramaditya. You have come to my aid, even after I tricked you and have earned my gratitude. And so I have decided to help you in your task, to end your imprisonment on earth, and I swear I will not rest until I have seen you finish your last good deed.’

‘I do not trust you.’

‘Merely reflect that we can help each other, for I have ever had a nose for trouble and by helping you I can tell the story of those deeds and it will be a pleasant story after all. And Indra never said I could not be in my own stories. And you have my word, the word of a demigod. As heaven is my witness, if I do not keep it, may I be trapped here forever.’

‘Very well,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘I will accept your offer, for I do not believe you would be so foolish as to attempt to deceive the gods another time.’

They set off, and Vikramaditya soon found the camel was as good as his word, for where earlier he had gone days and even a week without any good deeds to perform, the camel found them one every day, and sometimes more. And so, with the help of the camel and Vayu’s gift, the years rolled on, as did the good deeds, until one day they came to a small town, and as they passed through, they came upon an old, abandoned building, alongside the town square, lined with shuttered shops and locked stalls.

‘I have a premonition that we will be needed here,’ said Narada. ‘Let us stop in this building for the night, and see if the morrow brings any answers.’

When they awoke it was with the sunrise, and the square was already beginning to fill with people.

‘I have a premonition that something terrible is about to happen here,’ said the camel. ‘And it will happen today. We must stay here. And perhaps before this day is done, you will have a chance to repay Yama for refusing to visit you all these years.’

‘If this is the place, then I shall invoke Vayu’s gift so as to not attract any suspicion and await the danger you have predicted here.’

‘That is wise,’ said Narada. ‘And I shall look around and see if I can find its cause. If I find anything, I shall let you know.’

And so Vikramaditya stood by the building, waiting, till the sun began setting, and then he heard his name being urgently called, and saw the camel.

‘It is about to happen! Run to the shadows at the door to the building and wait there. Hurry!’

Vikramaditya did as he was told, running swiftly to the shadows, and now his story is told.

‘Huh?’ said Mithun. ‘You mean that’s the end? That’s not even an end!’

‘Just because a story is told does not mean it cannot still be part of someone else’s. It is now your turn, Mithun.’

‘How do you know my nam–‘

‘God,’ said Airavata. ‘Now tell us how you got to be here among us.’

‘Well, I was standing with my mother and then I saw a camel and then the balloons and then it called to me–oh! Oh!’

‘Please continue. The camel called you?’

‘Yes, it called me across the road and I don’t know why but I went there but it was gone and then the tower fell and something hit my head and when I woke up I was here.’

‘It is as I thought,’ said Airavata.

‘I was right!’ said the swan. ‘The wicked one endangered this boy deliberately. Did he truly have a premonition the building would collapse or did he actually aid it in doing so?’

‘And did he do it to help Vikramaditya or merely do it to have a true story to tell?’ said the snake.

‘Whoever knows with that one?’ said the balloon man.

‘Well, shouldn’t you?’ said Mithun, turning to Airavata. ‘You’re a demigod. Shouldn’t you know everything?’

‘Sometimes,’ said Airavata.

‘That doesn’t make sense!’

‘In his first avatar, Lord Vishnu turned into a fish and swam on the surface of the Great Flood. But in his third, when he needed to dive into the ocean to rescue Bhoomi Mata, he took the form of a boar, which cannot even breathe underwater. Does this make sense? But now, we have heard all the tales and it is time for the judgment. If we count the rescue of this child, Vikramaditya’s good deeds now total one thousand times one thousand, as was his charge. ‘

Airavata paused. ‘However, by all the laws of dharma, this deed should not count because it was performed with the aid of trickery. And where there is one broken cashew, there may well be others. Now, I do not believe Vikramaditya knew of this, nor any other deceit and neither did the apsaras. But what I believe matters not, for Lord Indra charged me with the duty of seeing his wishes were carried out. And his wishes were clear– that a thousand times a thousand good deeds be done. It is my decree that that number has been arrived at and I see no reason to waste further time on mathematics. So, here and now, in the name of mighty Indradev, King of the Heavens, and ruler of us all, I state that the conditions have been met and shall ask that you be granted mukti from the mortal plane. And perhaps I defy dharma by what I say, but if there are those who would disagree, let them reflect that I am merely a god and just as likely to err as any other divine being. You shall all return to Devlok with me.’

The balloon man smiled gently. ‘Thank you, Lord. And thank you, Mithun.’

‘So where is the camel?’ asked Mithun.

‘Oh, he is still here somewhere,’ said Airavata. ‘He still has many true stories to tell before his time is done.’

‘If he knows what’s good for him he’ll have begun already,’ said the snake.

‘Probably out trying to devise some new way to shorten his sentence,’ said the swan.

‘And this judgment is passed,’ said Airavata, and rapped his foot on the ground, sending dust flying everywhere, and the entire alcove shaking.

Mithun coughed, shifting away from the wall, which was still shaking. He turned towards his companions as the dust settled, but the alcove was empty. The pounding went on, loud banging sounds, then a crash. Somewhere nearby, he could hear voices, men, shouting excitedly.

‘Here!’ he screamed. ‘In here!’

There was another crash, and then a section of rock somewhere above fell down, and a stream of light burst in.

‘Here!’ shouted a man. ‘He’s alive! He’s still alive!’

Mithun felt hands, hard hands dragging him, backward and upward. As they did he looked for the old man but the alcove was empty, save for three scraps of rubber, black, green and white.

‘Asphyxiated,’ he heard someone mutter.

And he was free, lying in the open air, taking deep, racking breaths, cold, sweet air, so beautiful he thought his lungs would burst. And then everything went dark.

The next time he woke up, he was in a bed, his mother standing there, staring at him with eyes adoring instead of the wrath he’d expected to see.

Behind her, a TV was on, and the first thing he saw on it was the face. Lined, grey-bearded, wearing a spotless white Gandhi-topi.

The balloon-man.

He listened and could hear the announcer shouting his angry condolences, regretting the unfortunate demise of this still-unidentified victim of the Towergate scandal, lamenting the state of government welfare that had forced the poor soul to illegally make his home in the crumbling Qaisarbagh clock tower.

‘That’s him, ma,’ said Mithun.’That’s King Vikramaditya.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said. But she was worried enough to summon a doctor, who tut-tutted and muttered long words like ‘hallucination’ and ‘concussion’.

It was another week before Mithun’s mother let him leave the house again. The first thing he did was race down to the market, making his way to the mound of rubble from the collapse of the clock tower. On his right, the paan seller tried to hand him a banarasi. On his left, the cigarette man offered him a pack of Gold Flakes at half price.

Starting with them both, he made his way around the market, and long before he’d finished asking everyone about the balloon-man whose stall lay buried under the rubble of the clock tower, he’d come to a curious realisation. Nobody recalled the balloon seller, the tower-dweller or even the camel. Well, almost nobody. The paanwalla was positive there had been a balloon stall under the ruined tower. The cigarette man was equally adamant there had never been anything. Inevitably, they came to blows over the matter, right under the huge banner calling for peace and solidarity. Qaisarbagh was still Qaisarbagh, after all.

Upon reflection, Mithun decided to believe them both. Because whatever is true, the opposite is also true.

‘And because just because your story is told does not mean it cannot still be part of someone else’s,’ finished the camel.

____

Copyright 2018 Shiv Ramdas

Shiv Ramdas is an Indian writer and reader of science fiction, fantasy and everything in between, including a dystopian cyberpunk novel, Domechild (Penguin, 2013). He is a graduate of the 2016 Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find him on social media at @nameshiv on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

 

by Adrian Simmons

  

1.

John stood and gunned up his courage. “We need to talk.”

Colophinanoc’s manipulator digits didn’t stop their movement, their rhythmic squirming in and out and around the small basket he made. The eyes, the two at the top, swiveled toward John, the antennae dropped back—something John had learned was one of a dozen shows of minor annoyance.

“About what? Is there something wrong with the nets, the shelter, or the gardens?”

“Nothing like that,” John said. The problem was more vague but so very important. “We just… I need… humans are troop animals, we rely on each other. Too much solitude is not healthy for us.”

“You are not solitary, your dorm is not five meters from mine, and we are within ten meters of each other almost all the time.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. You need to talk more to me.” He was far past the point of embarrassment; it felt good to finally just say it. “I need to talk more to you.”

The vermicular manipulation digits stopped their work at the basket. “About what?”

This was the hardest part. In his head, over weeks and months, John had prepared dozens of answers. Here at last what came out of his mouth was: “Anything.”

Colophinanoc’s antennae lashed and flickered: confusion, perturbation. Also, from the twist at their bases, John suspected he was a little a little hungry. “I take time to speak and interact with you.”

John fought down panic. “Yes, and I appreciate it. But, for my long-term mental health, I need more.”

“How much more?” The other eyes, the mid-line ones, looked from the basket to his face. Another bad sign.

Pestering, that was what John was doing. That’s how a Kinri would view it. Like a little yappy dog or a Cygnus Crawler that can’t keep its tentacles to itself.

“About two or three times more.”

The segmented fingers stumbled at the weave.

Before things could get worse John suggested, “Kirni go through a social phase, when they are hatchlings. I need about that much.”

“Juvenile Kinri band together because adult Kinri are fundamentally solitary creatures.” Colophinanoc stood suddenly, always surprising how fast given the bulk of his oblong dome-shaped body. He half turned away. “What you are asking is not easy for an adult to do.”

John’s fear surged then morphed into anger. Colophinanoc had to make it difficult. He exhaled, willed himself to stick to the strategy, stick to what he had planned. Which was to give his alien comrade a choice. A false one. “Well…the AI can fulfill some of the need.”

Colophinanoc turned back, antennae down, all eyes on him. “You spend too much time with the AI, you should not run down the batteries and you should be working.”

“You are right, and you must understand that my need for interaction will overcome the need to work and I will waste time and the AI’s battery power. That’s why we need to talk.”

Kinri were not anti-social. It wasn’t like if one fell and hurt itself, another or multiple others, wouldn’t help it. They held doors open for each other, that kind of thing. But they were fundamentally solitary. John had been bringing reed-like plants for a week to the shelter–a week in which Colophinanoc had made baskets, mats, roofing and wall material, all pretty much without a word.

John had the numbers, the dry simple damnable numbers, committed to memory. Thirty seven standard hours in a Xephon day; fifteen days in a Xephon week; three weeks in a Xephon month (measured against the phases of the largest of the three moons); and eleven months per a Xephon year.

They had been marooned on Xephon for eight weeks, local time, almost six months earth-standard. John had hoped he’d last until week ten before he started begging.

Colophinanoc found his place in the basket weaving. “What do I need to talk about?”

Somewhere in John’s back muscles relaxed. He let himself think, dream for an instant that this was going to work. “Tell me what you were doing six cycles before the Marblehead left Pirus Three.”

Colophinanoc’s minor mandibles moved, like they were chewing on a thought. John knew what that thought was: What difference did it make what I was doing six cycles before the ship left? It drew in a large and very human-like breath: a sigh of resignation.

“All three levels of consciousness were obtained at 600 hours, and because I needed to get to the knot cluster posted by 10:00 I opted to clean myself before eating.”

“Did you use water?”

“Yes.”

John knew he was pushing it. “Air dry or towel?”

The Kinri hunkered down a bit and John’s back tightened.

“Towel.”

“Tell me about the pre-launch meeting.”

“The six representatives of the sub-knots of Ctlinatlit District met to decide on the re-allocation of cooling lubricants for the communal metal manipulating units.”

“Drop forges or lathe?”

“Drop forges.”

“Okay. Drop forges. Go on.”

It was a good start. Later John could ask about the six knots and how they related to each other and many other things. He had hundreds of other things to ask that he had pieced together in the three and a half months they had been marooned on Xephon.

The afternoon rains came, as they always did. A gentle rain that would last until right before sundown then the long eighteen-hour night and the only sound would be the bugs and the lapping of Crashdown Lake.

John sighed, resigned and oddly content.

Five years, three months to go—Xephon time. Eleven standard earth years.

 

2.

“Anyway, then Nanooni, he looks right at the kid and says, ‘ribbed’!”

Colophinanoc regarded him with the top eyes–the mid-lines watched the water. “This leads to a challenge?”

“No. Socially awkward.” John knew he should be watching the lake, but he wanted the Kinri to really get it. “Like discovering you’ve left a chunk of carapace cuticle hanging from your genital hump.”

“I see.”

“Yeah, so there we were–” He looked over. “Can you get us a little closer to the fan tree?”

Colophinanoc’s long mobility legs hung over the edge of the small boat and barely made ripples as he changed course. This operation had to be done just right. Scare he fish too much and they’d bolt to the deeper part of the Crashdown lake.

John, in the prow, gathered up the net, folding it carefully and making sure the stone weights were spaced just so. The conversations had to go just so, too. He’d been cautious about how much chatter he engaged in on the lake; Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience.

If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately.

He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.

John dropped it, standing in the silence for a long time. Then: “I think we need to rebuild the east wall.”

“Again? Why?”

Because tasks, jobs, concrete things were the best way to get back on the alien’s good side. But even knowing that, it still took maneuvering. “I think we’ve been getting more rain this season. Got some rotten spots, and those attract the borers, which just tear it up that much more.”

“Have we gotten more rain?”

A fish! A glimmer of silver in the murk of the fan tree’s limbs. Then another, then a storm of them. With a twist of the hips that fed into the twist of his shoulders John let the net fly out into a perfect circle on impact with the lake. It was a trick learned, a skill he had practiced, over the long days, like Colophinanoc’s silent rowing.

John let it sink for a bit, then started hauling it back. “Yeah. A few extra minutes per day, a few extra days per season—it adds up.”

The top eyes swiveled to look back at their composite shelter. The east wall wouldn’t be visible from here, but later John was sure Colophinanoc would inspect it. And the kinri would find the bad spots, because John has very carefully worked bad spots in, even going as far as putting eggs from a borer bug nest into it.

He hauled the net in, bursting with a wriggling silver bounty—as always.

The survival shelter packed into the escape pod measures five by five meters, lifts up about three meters, and can be guyed out by spikes, or sandbags, and/or the pneumatic ribs. Insects, or Xephon’s equivalent of them—more like a shelled jellyfish—were pretty much the only threat. They probably could reduce the lifespan of the shelter down to four Xephon years. So John and Colophinanoc had built a second shelter around it.

“One more cast?” John suggested.

“Yes.”

Folding the nets for a throw John dared a question, “If it comes to it, how many bundles of reeds do we need to re-build the east wall?”

“Eighteen.”

“Standard arrangement? I gather, you weave?”

“That is the most efficient way. If it comes to it.”

Things were going well. He didn’t want to push too hard… but he didn’t want to miss an opportunity, either. “Think we should move the sour-root harvest up, or maybe the red-berry planting back?”

“Red-berry back. Sour-root will stay good for quite a while.”

They discussed it—as John knew they would. Something real and tangible, that was the kind of thing that Colophinanoc could discuss, and John could take the discussion to strange places and “what ifs” and various other things which would be annoying, but bearable, to the kinri.

He only hauled in half a net-full at the crossbar-and-buttress tree they had sunk here years go. They rowed the boat back and beached it on top of the area where John had buried wood-gnawing beetles.

It was a trick he’d learned.

 

3.

“It isn’t a sound,” Frank said, “so much as a smell: A gamey odor, that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.”

John paused outside the shelter, stopping along the track he had worn. “Dammit,” he said. “Should we try the south door?”

On the tablet screen Emo Frodo pushed into view. “South?” he said. “Always bad luck.”

For a while Frank had been Francine, but that had just made John incredibly horny. And although Colophinanoc wouldn’t care if he caught him masturbating, getting caught masturbating to an AI wasn’t something John was willing to endure. That the kinri was watching him pace and play make-believe was bad enough, but John had quietly convinced himself that maybe Colophinanoc was learning something about human interaction.

Whatever, Colophinanoc was one thing, but getting through the impending crap-sandwich Frank had set up for him was another. “South door, then.”

“If you insist,” Emo Frodo said with a shrug, reaching for the handle, “but mark my words…”

“Not you,” John snapped. “Sir Farts-A-Lot is our door-opener.”

“By the eternal winds of the great gorge of Brahamanat!” the knight said, shoving Emo Frodo aside. “It shall be done!”

On the screen the warrior grunted as he rammed into the doorwith his shoulder and it gave in. Beyond a gang of orcs looked up from their poker game. The princess looked up too, before tilting back her crown and throwing her cards down. “I fold, you sons of bitches!” she shouted.

Things moved quickly, each character shouting battle cries or pithy quips. Left to their own, John knew they’d get slaughtered—again. He had to allocate!

“Get Sir-Farts-A-Lot to the Chieftain. Big Wang does the grasshopper jump to the archer, and Emo Frodo, you duck under the table and kneecap that little guy.”

“What about Hermionie Bangher?” Frank asked.

“Lightning bolt! Always lightning bolt!”

Hermione skidded to a halt. She faced the screen, took the cigar out of her mouth and said, “Such a tone! Technically, I am Frank’s character.”

“You want to be a corpse with a wealth of unused charges?” John pointed out. “Lightning bolt!”

A message popped up on the screen– twenty seconds! Where had the time gone?

Watching the four adventurers act like middle-school cut-ups and arguing with Frank, that’s where.

The big fighter only got three steps into the room before an orc spear caught him in the chest. Emo Frodo took two steps and then Hermione’s lightning bolt hit him right in the back.

“What the fuck was that, Frank?”

The ten-second warning!

“Hermione’s still suckin’ wind from the ignoble retreat from the lair of the lizard folk,” Frank pointed out.

“Dammit!”

Big Wang landed on the table next to the archer, leveling him with a blurry-fast kick to the gut.

Another message: Zero.

The screen darkened. “Gotta shut it down, buddy,” Frank said. “See you next week.”

“Extension! Time extension!”

The toad-cold grip of Colophinanoc’s ropey fingers wrapped around his wrist. “Do not damage the AI.”

“I’m not gonna damage it,” John shot back. “Another five minutes. I’ve been working toward this encounter for weeks.”

“Put the AI down.”All of Colophinanoc’s eyes were on him; the alien’s body was titled back and down.

Fuck them both. “I’m not gonna—”

The first mobility limb lifted up. A Kinri could punch hard.

“Alright, alright.” He let go and watched as Colophinanoc put the AI back in its case. “See you in a week, Frank. This isn’t over.”

 

 

4.

Xephon 3 was, as near as the combined opinions of John, Colophinanoc, and AI Citizen #25399 (the first-aid AI didn’t really count) could tell, a lot like earth toward the end of the Devonian period.

Crashdown Lake was maybe seven meters deep. The lifeboat stuck up from it into the air, maybe four meters. Who knows what the added radiation from the lifeboat’s engines and batteries would have on the life here… probably nothing, but John couldn’t help wondering, and sometimes even dreaming.

The lake was a good thing: a provider and a protector. It teemed with fish, small ones about the length of his hand and various other things–the shelled fish, which seemed like an odd combination between a fish, a clam, and a jellyfish.

John was not a biologist by training, he was an yttrium maximization specialist, but how much good was that now? None! And in the three years, local, he had been here he had forgotten the vast amount of it. Except for the time he spent three months boning up on it, which seemed like a lifetime ago, now. He had become a biologist in an amateur fashion, and by now his very thorough survey of the life around Crashdown Lake on Xephon-3 was pretty firmly detailed. He’d used the medi-kits magnifier and, of course, everything had a camera these days.

Xephon had predatory fish, about thirty centimeters or so long. They hadn’t quite evolved a hinged jaw yet, so outside of a bad hickey there wasn’t much they could do to him. With Colophinanoc’s chitinous plates, they couldn’t do anything to the Kinri.

On the landward side, there were plenty of plants, a few of them got about as tall as John if he stretched his hands up as far as he could. Most were shorter, knee-high. There were land creatures, the strange shellfish that had come up on land and lost most of their shells. Most. They kind of had an empty clamshell they carried concave side-up and in this they somehow kept their strange jellyfish symbiots—which seemed to, maybe, feast on the abundant spores and floating midges that drifted into them.

There was no grass, just a kind of plant that grew about mid-shin high then burst out into dozens of thumbnail sized leaves.

John’s pursuit of amateur biology had started as a necessity; an inventory of what grew where and what was edible and what was a pest; had transitioned into a hobby to give him something to talk about that both he and Colophinanoc had a stake in; and was now getting to be a low-grade obsession.

 

5.

“Well,” John said, “it looks like our boat-beaching structure is doing the trick.”

He ran his hand over the hull of their third fishing boat. They had spent a day or two collecting the larger plants that grew higher up in the hills and building a frame upon which to lay their boats, saving them from infestation by the wood-gnawing beetle. It had been Colophinanoc’s idea.

“It does look like it,” Colophinanoc said.

“So what happened after your accounting cadre was re-assigned to Elnotracon?” John asked. He’d have to figure out how to get wood-gnawer eggs on those boats…

Colophinanoc took a slow breath through his lateral spirochetes. The Kinri was trying to figure out a way to piece it together in a way that John would find interesting- John could tell, and he appreciated it. The slight backward tilt of the body, the splaying of the antennae, a slight twitch in the heavy manipulator limbs, and of course the telltale sign of Colophinanoc’s fingers wiggling on their multi-segmented joints, as if it were spinning its words into a story.

“Pinonicy wasn’t too happy about it,” the alien said.

“But she was six weeks pregnant, right?” John asked.

“Yes.”

“But she still hadn’t told anybody who the father was?”

“No. She went a sperm-bank and found a high-caste donor.”

“Dammit! Colophinanoc!”

A sudden tilt forward and the Kinri said: “What? Did I not draw it out enough?”

“No you did not! Of all the rituals that humans find interesting those involving mating are the most fascinating.”

“I did consider that,” Colophinanoc said, leaning back. “But given that the end result was just that she went to the repro-center—a common enough activity—I assumed you’d be let down.”

“Well, yeah, but still, draw it out.”

“I thought I would tie up that thread so I could focus on Kyolnican’s ongoing saga of hiding his culpability in the missing Hexacron Credit scheme.”

‘Saga’ was a big word, and certainly not the one that John would have picked, but again he appreciated the effort. “Okay, that’s fine. Go on.”

“You’re doing the thing you do with your face when you’re mad.”

“What thing?”

Colophinanoc lifted a limb and touched John’s forehead with a cold digit. “That vertical crease in your skin. You do that when you look into the sun, when you calculate soft-shell nosh-bug hatch rates, and when you’re mad.” A second cold touch right under his hairline, “and this part, this tightens up when you’re mad.”

“I’m not mad,” he said, backing away a step. “I swear.”

“Also, you swear when you are mad.”

He wasn’t mad, but he had been calculating. Six years, standard Earth measurement, for Colophinanoc to catch onto the boats. He hadn’t caught onto the gnawers in the walls yet. Seven and a half Earth years left until estimated rescue-day. “Look, I’m a little disappointed, that’s all.”

“Well, from a troupe-monkey point of view things probably get more interesting after the hatchlings arrive and Trachinanaoc and Provnalic vie for adoption rights.”

“Dammit, Colophinanoc!’

The Kinri leveled off, turned and began marching back to the shelter.

His calculations and tricks fled. “No, wait! I’m not mad, I’m just Joshin’!”

Colophinanoc didn’t slow down, and John jogged back in front. “Seriously, I’m not-”

The Kinri’s inner and outer mandibles were closed up tight—a classic look of confusion.

Colophinanoc eased past him. “Your extra twenty minutes are up for this morning.”

 

6.

There were three things that Colophaninoc seemed to actually enjoy: accounting regarding their selective breeding program in the garden (after three Xephon years they had almost doubled the width of the edible part of the Xephon okra. … it had to be okra…), their fishing expeditions into Crashdown Lake (especially when they had to do the five-step method to lure out the toe-suckers and spear them), and the wide patrol.

The wide patrol was more of an exercise thing, it was about a ten mile circuit, first east down the coastline of Crashdown Lake, then a turn north out into the plain, through Four Big Brush Bands and within sight of ‘Nyukle Head ridge, a turn west over the Five Feeder Creeks, and then eventually back south.

Most times they went together, a six-hour trip if they didn’t stop for lunch, which they often did at Lunch Ledge. But Colophinanoc had lately been taking it alone. Mostly as an exercise thing, as he could run much faster than a human could. Three hours for him to take the run.

Odd that for all the loneliness, John felt less alone when Colophinanoc was on long patrol. It was, he had come to think, the fact that the Kinri was less than 100 yards away from him most of the time that had really struck him. He was so close, and yet remained distant. One thing Colophinanoc had never said, in all their time together, was that he was glad John was here. That wasn’t 100% true. He had often said that he was glad he had a partner, a helper, that this had been easier since there were two of them as opposed to one. But he had never said he was glad for the company. That he liked John? Not one fucking time.

John had, several times, enough that he hoped—to a Kinri at least—that he wasn’t coming across as creepy needy and stalky.

He was almost certain that Colophinanoc went on these runs to get away from him, to get a little solitude. And sometimes the solitude reminded John that he indeed did need Colophinanoc. Needed him for another three Xephon years.

Sometimes, at first, John had used the solitude to run the AI, but either Frank had ratted him out or the Kinri had figured out what he was doing. There had been argument, so he had to quit.

Now John used the alone time to snoop a bit, just a bit, in Colophinanoc’s dorm. Human curiosity was something that the alien just hadn’t quite figured out. What was he looking for? A diary, maybe, or a voodoo doll of himself—anything really.

He didn’t find anything. He never did.

Sometimes, when he was really alone like this, the thoughts would come to him. The six ways he could kill himself. And those thoughts always led, damnably, to thinking of the dreams. Usually it was a stone, right into the joint where Colophinanoc’s dorsal anterior plate met with his posterior cephalic plate.

Sometimes, in his dreams, he tips the boat and breaks each wormy limb and thick digit as Colophinanoc tries to struggle back in, before finally pushing him deep into the water and holding, and holding.

He reminded himself, as he always did: “John, you will not engineer an accident for your only companion to relieve your boredom. No tripwires, no putting a hollow fern-log over Deep creek. You won’t put slick mud on that bit of trail that’s always in shade.”

 

7.

John was masturbating with the AI; carefully. Francine could be a real life-saver sometimes. The evening’s rain pelted on the shelter’s roof, providing a little extra cover. Still, he had to be careful, outside the room he could hear Colophinanoc moving around.

 

8.

John’s view of interstellar travel was common among the humans who had experienced it: it was like being stuck in a good hotel for three years. Well, he wasn’t trapped for the full three years, but the slow-metabolism meds only put you down for four months, and then you had to come out of it for about three weeks. Which, over the course of the trip would be eight slow-met intervals with seven three-week breaks; so he was trapped in a good hotel for a year plus. He was on his third break.

Of course, the Medicine Bear Four was equipped for it but in nine weeks one could explore every bit of a huge vessel:the gardens; the theaters, the plazas, the libraries. John had opted to learn the obo, which was much more frustrating than it should have been. He was in dormitory K this time around, and had put himself on the list for a roommate.

He was also on Cadre number 4’s soccer team to kill time, keep in shape, and try to recapture some of his youth. Post-practice, he and some of the team had gone to Nick’s Café Centaurian. It was a quite a place, as almost all such places were.

Aethulwulf M’Tugana sat across from him. “I’ve watched some of the video of the Bright Blue Sun team,” she said, “it’s going to be some tough competition.”

He had not watched the video of B2S cadre. Really, he was going to play, and he was bored but not so bored that he was willing to watch other teams practicing to try to get an edge. Teams they wouldn’t face off against for what? Three more months?

But Aethulwulf was that kind of person, and since she was the most interesting thing he’d encountered in his wake cycles he pretended to be more interested than he really was.

“Plenty of time to deal with B2S when the time comes,” he said, peaking his fingers together.

Aethulwulf nodded. “More practice is always good, though,” she said. “And it’s true: they’ve got a Huzmavah on the team.”

“Is that even within regulations?”

She shrugged. “Well, they are too big to play with the Sendulians, and the Kinri don’t bother playing, so they gotta work in with us humans.”

“Well, I worry that it might get a bad check or an accidental kick. Then it’ll—”

An alarm blared. Yellow lights began to flash. An automated voice began a chant he knew all-too well. “Emergency! Please follow the yellow track to shelter.”

“Christos!” Aethulwulf said, pushing away her plate and standing. “Another drill? Do they do this just to give us something to do?”

“You got me,” he said, “I think they do at least one every wake-cycle, but this is at least the second one this time.” He stood and swept up his drink—you could get fined if you didn’t get to the shuttle fast enough.

“You can get fined for taking that,” she said, nodding toward the new-olde-fashioned.

“Way ahead of you!” he gulped it and dropped the glass on the last table before they hit the door.

For a ship with only 1/5 of its passengers awake, the outer corridors filled up quickly. They followed the emergency lights along the wall. John nearly tripped over a pair of Sendulians and noted with a start that this time the lights were not directing them to the main tube, but had taken a hard right into a tertiary corridor.

Their line met another and the corridor suddenly seemed too small, too crowded. Then the ship shook. Another turn and the lights turned from yellow to blue, indicating they were at the destination—but this wasn’t a platform for an emergency shuttle, instead the left wall of the hallway had dozens of round opening for lifeboats.

Ahead of him, Aethulwulf ducked into a pod. In a few seconds, he got there, too. She, two other humans, and a Huzmavah crowded inside. He took a step and the Huzmavah extended a tendril—“Lifeboat’s at maximum,” it purred, another tendril pointing to the red lights around the entryway—yes. Of course, he’d passed the test and done at least two simulations, he should have remembered.

The ship shook again, and he jogged down the corridor, passing red-lit door after red-lit door, he swung into the first green-rimmed opening he came to.

A Kinri turned its bulky body and then its head toward him. Ordinarily, John would ask if there was space for one more, but in this case, he just plowed in. The Kinri backed up like John was armed. Oh man, it wasn’t going to like it when the lifeboat filled up—there was space for at least one or two more-

The lights turned from green to red and the door slid shut. Outside, beings passed, running.

The Kinri had said nothing. It, like John, had nothing but the clothes on its carapace. No, that wasn’t right, it had an AI pad, held in its squirmy digits.

The Medicine Bear Four shook again. At last the Kinri spoke.

“I do not think this is a drill.”

 

9.

 

One of the best things about the back-up shelter idea was its long-term usefulness. Building it had been a challenge but it also required maintenance, which meant that they had to go up there periodically and work on it. And whenever they went to work on it, they usually had that much more work to do on the main shelter by Crashdown Lake when they got back. So it was really a double-bonus. Colophinanoc seemed to enjoy the work and the maintenance and that was a triple bonus.

Yet, for all its success, John found himself stressed. Everything was going fine, better than fine, really. But still, he was on edge. Grumpy. They were cooking up black-fin over the fire and the alien was going on and on about the spreadsheet issue of 3435. For the first time ever, John really wished that Colophinanoc would shut up.

“Whelll,” John said, “I guess I’ll start turning in.”

“You see the error was in cell D35,” Colophinanoc said, oblivious, “the logic string registry was an either-or, not an either-and.”

He had been talking—droning really—about this from Knyucklehead bench all the way down to Crashdown Lake and well into the night.

“Either, and. Got it. See you in the morning.”

“Well, Kaspinnun just about locked mandibles with me when I pointed it out. Before I announced it at the 10:30 efficiency meeting I could tell he was aware that I was aware of something. Normally he gave me a good meter of space when we passed each other in the east hallway—the ones with the windows that I told you about. Where it gets really hot. Usually he gives me a meter, but today it was only maybe half of that. Same thing he had done when-”

“I need to get some sleep, Colophinanoc,” John said, putting a little edge into his voice.

“We will pick it up in the morning, then.”

And the next morning as John’s annoyance grew into worry, they did.

 

10.

They actually had two AIs. Frank was a generalist—the closest you could get to a human mind in a box. Their first aid kit had an AI, too.

A very dim-witted AI.

“Symptoms,” John said, “include fugue, confusion, and a reversion to a childlike social level.”

The AI answered: “Confusion regarding time, place, identity, or other?”

Ten more minutes until Colophinanoc was through with his run. John checked his notes; what had he said last time? “Identity.”

“Childlike social level indicates an infection by one or more of several pathogens. Most likely Estrella bacillus and Sphacelia segmentum

He worked through them both, playing twenty questions with the first aid AI. Estrella was unlikely. It usually resulted from an infected wound and the other symptoms were missing.

But Sphacelia, that would match. It was already a part of the fauna of the vast majority of Kinri, and– and this really gave it away—was more likely to spring out in a high-altitude environment. How high up was Knyucklhead ridge, where they had built their back-up shelter? High enough, just maybe.

“Development?” he asked.

“In the young it stunts social development. In adult Kinri it often goes unrecognized until it begins to lead to professional development hindrance due to an inability to focus extensively on a task.”

“Treatment?”

“Coranosol, five hundred milligrams.”

John swallowed. “Lethality?”

“Generally non-lethal. Immuno-compromised individuals may experience further mental impairment.”

John sat and thought. Thought hard. Kirni went through a social phase, when they were hatchlings.

Seven minutes later Colophinanoc returned, sides pulsing as he got his breath back.

“A little slower than usual today?” John asked carefully.

“A little.”

“Do you remember how long we have until our next medical monitoring?”

“Two months, ten days.”

“Yeah…I’m thinking we should bump that up.”

“If you advise it.”

“I do. I’d hate to get so close to Rescue Day and then have one of us get sick or something.”

John added two-hundred and fifty milligrams Coronasol to the cocktail of stuff they took tri-annually.

 

11.

At Crashdown Lake they very rarely needed fire except for cooking; up on Knyucklehead ridge the nights were colder, mostly because of the west winds, so a fire was necessary.

He stretched out, knees complaining. Twelve years, earth-time. And it was starting to wear on him.

“This highland Rock-Runner is excellent,” Colophinanoc said, taking another bite, shell and all.

“It really is,” John agreed. “Remember when we tried to hunt them with spears?”

“We are lucky neither of us broke a limb joint.”

“Glad that we got the three-step box trap worked out. Good thinking on your part.”

“Thank you.” The Kinri took another Rock-Runner and devoured it. “It is quite satisfying when a plan works out.”

John looked up at the sky, brilliant with stars, with the twenty constellations they had named. There, where a bead of the Abacus shared a star with the clip of the Great Fountain Pen, that’s where the rescue ship would come in three more years. He thought, briefly, of cell counts and their medical monitoring. Of the casual rambling conversations like this one, of Colophinanoc trying to run Big Fin Arwen in Frank’s game.

“Yes, Colophinanoc. Yes it certainly is.”

 

12.

John had a plan. Five months, that was his timeframe. Five months Xephon time, a little over a year and a quarter Earthwise. That’s when he’d give Colophinanoc the full dose of Coronasol. Maybe the techs would not be able to tell that Colophinanoc had a low-level infection for so long. He assumed that knocking it all out would leave Colophinanoc without any real damage. Not that he didn’t secretly hope that Colophinanoc had some residual effect: ‘juvenile social state’ would be a plus, at least until Rescue Day.

 

13.

“Yep,” John said, gently running his fingernail down the rope joint, sending a cloud of broken fibers “looks like we’ve had some kind of leak. Grass ropes are rotten clear through.”

Outside the primary shelter, Colophinanoc stood on his mobility limbs, his great sloping body turned as well as it could to view the damage. Crashdown Lake splashed gently, as always, beyond. “We may have to replace the wood for both the awning beams and the support beams.”

John dug a little deeper, the wood underneath was weak, not near as bad as the rope, and probably still had a lot of life left. Why hadn’t he thought of engineering something like that? Eh, it would give them something to do. “Yeah, it looks pretty weak.”

“Where is the leak?”

“Not sure.” The roof of Crashdown Mansion was made of thatch, and it was over the old emergency shelter from the pod. But from his angle he couldn’t see very far into the space between them. “We may have to take down the wall of the old shelter.”

Colophinanoc’s antennae waved, with a little counterclockwise spin. “We may have to replace the wood from both the awning beams and the support beams.”

“Well yeah, but on the old shelter, I’ve always worried that if we take it down we won’t be able to get it back up. Like we’ll tear something somehow. It’s aged well, but it has still aged.”

Colophinanoc walked into the shelter, turned and looked at him. “We may have to replace the wood from both the awning beams and the support beams.”

“I heard you the first time, Colophinanoc.”

The alien turned, taking in the shelter. “We may have to rrrrrrreplace the wood from both the awning beams aaaaaaand the support beeeeeams.”

“Hey!” John said, alarmed. “You okay? Colophin—” the alien surged forward, ramming him. John hit the ground hard, breath bursting from his body. He came to with the faded blue of the artificial fiber shelter waiting above him. Outside, Crashdown Lake sloshed and Colophinanoc spewed a stream of absolute gibberish. Gibberish crossed with spit, crossed with John’s world ending and three Xephon months being a lifetime away.

Rolling to his side and then pushing to his feet, John part stepped, part ran out. Colophinanoc stumbled, falling to his belly, in the water. In the stuttering way of the Kinri, he stood back up, walked second-knee deep into the water and stood, shouting out the nonsense sounds.

John walked to their packs. He knew a couple hundred Kinri words. What Colophinanoc was shrieking were none of them.

Two snaps, a tie, and he had Frank out of the pack and out of its protective bag. Frank kicked on and John swiped away the low battery warning. “Frank, what is he saying?”

Colophinanoc backed out of the lake, shook off his legs, fell hard to his belly and struggled back up. All the time he slurred and stuttered and shouted.

Frank’s screen held the usual graphics, the usual amounts of memory use, the usual amounts of planning for the Second Round of The Sound of the Music of the Spheres that was the playground for their three hours a week of Emo Frodo and Big Fin Arwen. “I don’t think he’s saying anything. I think he is just making noise.”

He tucked Frank under one arm and yes, yes, something was very wrong with Colophinanoc and and and it couldn’t be his fault. It had to be something else. Anything else. He fumbled out the first-aid AI.

Colophinanoc walked from Crashdown Lake’s lapping waves toward him, garbling and gibbering.

“I think he’s talking about the primary nurse from his hatchling clutch,” Frank said. John dropped the First Aid AI and pulled Frank back out, held it in both hands.

“What’s he saying, what’s he saying?”

Frank’s screen held the usual graphics, maybe with a higher amount of processor use, and then Colophinanoic’s manipulative limb lashed down, smashing the tablet in half.

 

14.

That he didn’t dig up Colophinanoc’s skull was something that John felt strangely proud about. Such a decision was made easier by the discovery of Colophinanoc’s lone footprint by Slick-Mud Creek. He had found it by accident, when he was jogging the circuit that Colophinanoc used to run. And, honestly, he was probably doing the same thing that Colophinanoc had done—who knows how many years ago—which was taking a few steps off the path to take a shit. And there they were, two prints of his mobility limb pads, perfect in the clay, which in turn was covered by the wide leaning trunk of a tongue-leaf tree.

Luck had protected it and now he had built a small shelter for it. A shrine, really, it would be best not to lie to himself about it—that’s what Frank would have said if he still worked.

“Keep the second print,” he reminded himself. “Keep it.”

The first one he had ruined by running his finger along the edge, outlining each long toe in the star-shaped impression.

“It had broken down pretty fast,” he reminded himself, as he always did. He wasn’t going to dig up Colophinanoc’s skull. He wasn’t going to ruin the second print.

“I remember reading, a long time ago—reading it a long time ago, and it was about something a long time ago.” Colophinanoc had trouble sometimes understanding that kind of statement. He sometimes needed clarification. Colophinanoc wasn’t there, he knew that, and although John talked to himself at the camps, he didn’t talk to his dead friend unless he was at the shrine.

“Anyway, back on Old Earth there were these rock carvings—people and animals and stuff. This was early on, pre-tech, stone-age. And they also have footprints carved into the rocks. People used to think that the footprints, which are life-sized…the other carvings are not, so people thought that they were the footprints of the gods.”

He wasn’t going to try to take a mold of it and make more prints. He had put one of the deep green jade stones in it, in the perfect print. When the rescue ship came, he would take the stone with him, to represent the footprint that represented Colophinanoc.

“But I think that it wasn’t the gods. I think it is the footprints of the departed. Footprints for ghosts. Maybe on special times, equinoxes and solstices and things, the dead could come back and stand in their appointed places.”

He ran his hand along the odd crater that was the second print. The appointed place would have been at the shelter at Crashdown Lake, that’s when he was going to give Colophinanoc the full Coronasol dose.

He and the stupid first aid AI had figured it all out, perfectly. The stupid first aid AI was stubbornly consistent: the Kinri, weakened by an ongoing Sphacelia segmentum fungal infection had caught a secondary bacterial infection–probably a local bug.

It had been working. It had been working perfectly.

The First Aid AI was very insistent, very stubborn on this issue.

He ran his finger along the edge of the first print, careful not to disturb the green Jade stone. As careful as he was, he knew he would ruin the print. Not ruining the print was his religion.

 

15.

 

Doctor Chelchenan eased in, side-stepped to the wall opposite. “Kanalacalone has been asking after the human’s—John’s— status.”

“Kanalacalone has approached me as well. As to the human, John, I have been happily surprised by him,” Captain Nenotican said. “I have always heard that humans are very needy. He has hardly said a word. Is he healthy? Healthy enough to go into a met-slow compartment?”

After the Medicated Bear Four disaster, ships of all types from the Five Sentients had been pressed into service for the rescue. She did not want to lose the being they had spent so much time and energy finding, or have him come out of met-slow only to find that some pathogen had been ravaging his body systems.

The doctor considered. “I am about to log my official report. The human John is quite healthy, physically.”

Nenotican thought a few moments. The bell to her door rang again. Chelchenan laid his antennae back, top eyes rolling slightly.

“Come,” the captain said.

The door opened and Kanalacalone, the biologist, stood in the opening. He took a step, saw both the doctor and his captain in the room and stopped at the threshold, walking legs drawing in a bit.

Nenotican, happy they weren’t crowded in the small room together, indicated the doctor with a wave of her antennae. “The doctor has told me you have been asking about the human John.”

Kanalacalone stood a little taller, laced and unlaced his manipulative limbs. “Yes, Captain. The human John has done a great deal of investigation on life forms on Xephon, and since he was marooned in an area that the initial surveys did not cover I am eager to discuss it with him.”

Kanalacalone turned his top eyes to the doctor, adding, “If Doctor Chelchenan believes he is ready for that level of integration.”

Nenotican, knew the ship’s doctor could be touchy if questioned too closely, and the three of them so close together probably didn’t put him in the best mood.

“The doctor was just giving me an update. Doctor?”

“Yes, the human John seems to be very healthy, by human standards.”

The biologist perked up, “And how is he to be around?”

“You could ask him yourself,” the doctor said.

“You know what they say, “talking to a human is like feeding a Cygnus crawler—it will just want more.”

“It appears,” the captain said, “that many of the stereotypes of human behavior are exaggerated. The human John has hardly said a word.”

“It seems that Colophinanoc socialized him quite well,” Kanalacalone said. “Perhaps he can stick to the topics at hand.”

There was one thing that stuck out in Captain Nenotican’s mind. She was no expert on humans… “Should we be concerned about the human John talking so much in its sleep cycle?”

The doctor lifted his antennae and his arms. “I don’t think we need to be concerned. Their brains never quite settle to the first level of consciousness. It is a complicated thing.”

Chelchenan dipped his antennae—annoyance. Whether it was annoyance at the biologist or at the complexity of the human John, Captain Nenotican wasn’t sure.

Doctor Chelchenan perked up. “Still, they all do that; noises and words at that low level of consciousness. Some more than others.”

“This is well,” the captain said.

Kanalacalone took half a step into the room. “Is it well that the human John talks to the AI Citizen number two-five-three-double-nine and to Colophinanoc in his sleep, and that he answers for them?”

“That is a bit more unusual,” the doctor said. “I have done some research and it is common for humans to have imaginary co-workers. Especially in the juvenile phase.”

Not a problem then. That was well.

Kanalacalone worried at a one of his thoracic plates. “Doctor Chelchenan, the human John hasn’t tried to bond with you?”

“No.”

The biologist thought on it for a while. Captain Nenotican could see his scientific curiosity vie with his worry of being bonded to the human John.

Finally Kanalacalone tilted back. “I may approach him after a few met-slow cycles.”

“That will be well,” said Nenotican.

The biologist left and moment later Doctor Chelchenan followed.

The captain considered: it was well that the rescue of Xephon had gone as planned, it was unfortunate that Colophinanoc had died before they got there, but well that his death was not in any way their fault.

She moved back to the center of her chamber. It was good to be alone again.

____

Copyright 2018 Adrian Simmons

Adrian Simmons is a reader, writer and editor. His essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has popped up in Andromeda Spaceways,  and Lackington’s. He is one-third the editorial team of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

by Alex Jeffers

1.

The child’s ayah said it was high spirits, a paroxysm of affection, but the truth was simple: the envoy’s daughter killed my dog.

She wanted Ìsho the moment she saw him, his flat nose and panting pink tongue and goggle eyes poking out of my sleeve. I was deliberately too dense to take the hint and make a gift of my dear companion to a spoiled child. Given my position, however, I could not refuse to permit her to play with him. I told her and told her Ìsho was delicate, that she should not urge him to run too hard or squeeze him as if he were a stuffed toy. She killed him.

I am not a man who weeps often. I did not weep when the ayah came running to tell me Ìsho had, he said, taken ill. I continued stoic when I came upon the child in the mission’s garden berating the corpse of my dog for not getting to his feet and frolicking with her. Lifting Ìsho’s minuscule weight from the puddle of vomit and urine soaking into the grass, I made sure he was dead, tucked him into my sleeve where he belonged, and told the wretched poppet, really quite steadily, Ìsho would not be able to play with her anymore.

“Why not?” she demanded.

“I am sorry to say Ìsho has died. Do you know what that means?”

By this time the envoy had been summoned so I need not deal with his daughter’s tantrum, merely witness it and his craven response. Of course, once the child was led away I had no choice but to accept the father’s condescending apologies (he regained his aplomb with unnatural speed), the rather large gift, the two days’ leave from my duties. My heart burning hot with resentment that nearly overmastered my grief, I bowed my way out of the mission and carried my dead dog to the little temple of Jù, where the priestesses of that small god who loves our dumb companions promised to burn his body with all honor and send many prayers up with his smoke. I resolved my next dog would be a mastiff.

I had disliked the envoy since his arrival in the Celestial Realm. The mission’s chargé d’affaires, an often clever woman who had been outre-mer nearly as long as I, sent me downriver to Oesei on the Turquoise Gulf to meet him. Having read the same dispatches, I understood her cleverness led her to believe we would be sympathetic, the envoy travelling with his inamorato and I. (I do not believe he loved the man so much as the man’s rank.) When, descending from the Fejz clipper, he saw awaiting him on the dock a kè-torantin dressed in Haisner brocade robes, I recognized the moment he understood who I was—what I was. I might be distressingly useful, he was thinking, but gone too native to be trusted.

The only protocols he deemed valid were those of our empress’s court in distant Sjolussa. The inamorato was introduced with all his titles, inherited and conferred. The daughter was not introduced at all, although of course I knew about her and observed her in his train holding her ayah’s hand. I expect neither envoy nor inamorato sired the child, a pretty blonde poppet who resembled either only in general ways—I expect they bought her as one might purchase a pet.

After Jù’s temple, I walked the long way home. Through the noisy confusion of the songbird market, past the cricket market, along the bank of the wide, slow Carnelian River with its endless traffic of mighty junques and barges and trade vessels of every seafaring nation in the world. Every nation granted a mission in the capital, that is. Willows trailed their leaves like the Kandadal’s ribbons in the silty water. An itinerant godseller had set up her booth among the trees as if awaiting me. She was surprised by a kè-torantin attired in Haisner fashion who spoke her language, recognized her deities, saints, tutelary spirits. In among her stock I discovered a small cast-bronze idol of Jù in his aspect as a flat-faced sleeve dog, nearly forgot to haggle her down to a fair price. That would have meant bad luck, something I required no more of.

Clutching the idol in my hand, I turned back to the streets of crowded Bhekai. I had not for some years resided in the foreigners’ cantonment. At the gate of the White Peonies vicinage the old grandfather nodded me through politely and I went on to Blue Lamp Street where I rented my small house. The blue lamps mark it as a street of actors and other theatre people, although my nearest neighbors were a scholar and a small bureaucrat.

Inside the door, I removed street shoes and outer robe. I called my servant’s name. My compatriots at the mission were quite sure Shàu was my catamite but it wasn’t so. Shàu had been in my service enough years he was no longer a boy but I could not but remember that he was a boy, an orphan, in equal measure terrified of and fascinated by the kè-torantin who had purchased his contract from an aunt with too many children of her own. I would not, could not, ask of him services outside the terms if they were anything I desired. In any event, now he was grown he had no doubts about preferring the whores of the red houses over those of the yellow.

“Shàu,” I said when he came, “sorrowful news: Ìsho has died. I have given his body to Jù. The house will be quiet and dull without him. Please, this robe is soiled and I do not wish to wear it again.”

Tears had welled up in his eyes but he knew the proprieties as well as I. “Ìsho was a good dog, nen-kè,” he murmured. “Jù will welcome him.” He took the robe from my hands. Whether he burned it or laundered and sold it mattered little to me. I believed him sufficiently sensible to do the latter.

“Now I wish to be alone, undisturbed, for a time. Until dark, I think. You needn’t hurry dinner.” I paused. I had already thought it through but Shàu never liked me doing him favors. “In fact, if it wouldn’t wreck your plans, go to Old An’s for noodles. I have a hankering for noodles. You know what I like.”

“Nen-kè.” Mister Ivory. Shàu came up with the title himself, long ago. “Shall I bring you tea?”

“No, thank you, nothing for now.”

I was about to turn away when I saw the tear escape the cage of his eyelashes and roll down his cheek. “Shàu,” I said, “here, take this.” I pressed the small idol of pug-nosed Jù into his hand. Looking over his head—I did not wish to see another tear—I said, “The house will not be ready to welcome another dog for…some time. And yet it will be lonely without our Ìsho. Go—go to the market before An’s. A songbird, a chameleon, a goldfish in a bowl, a cricket in a cage—whatever you choose. Two, buy two.”

I blundered through the door into the garden. The envoy’s daughter had made my servant cry. She killed my dog and made Shàu weep. I walked to the plum tree at the back of the garden, pressed my brow to its trunk, and tightened my eyelids against tears of my own. The idol of Jù had left marks on my palm that took many minutes to fade.

In my garden it was past the season for peonies but the roses Shàu tended were in bloom. Once my eyes had dried I broke a few fragrant yellow blossoms off their bush—tearing the skin of my hands on their thorns—and carried them indoors. At the entrance to my still chamber I hesitated. One is not meant to come agitated before the Kandadal—one is meant to discover tranquility in the Kandadal’s presence. Paradoxes, paradoxes.

I went in. I laid the roses down on the stone altar among the rotted or dried-out relics of previous offerings. The Kandadal’s said to have approved gifts of flowers yet to prefer they not be placed in water to preserve their beauty a moment longer. If decay upsets me I should endeavor to learn why it upsets me, or accept the upset’s value, or offer him unfading blossoms of colored paper or silk. Or all three. So much I fail to comprehend—so much I am intended not to comprehend.

Walled on two sides with mortared brick, the still chamber was cool. Folding my legs, I settled on the earthen floor before the altar, looked into the Kandadal’s eyes. My idol is varnished wood, one of the jolly young Kandadals, grinning to show his strong, crooked teeth, his eyes crinkled to slits. In the dusk of the unwindowed, unlit chamber the brown glass inset within the slits did not glint. Like myself the Kandadal was a foreigner. Scholars say he never visited Haisn, his philosophies brought in the train of the Owe-ejan-akhar’s daughter centuries after the mortal Kandadal’s decease. The vale of Sfothem, his native place, is nearer Bhekai than to Sjolussa but the people who live there, I’m assured, resemble me more than they do natives of central and northern Haisn, having narrow high-bridged noses and round eyes, the men hirsute more often than not.

The Kandadal is not a god (at any rate he denied being a god) yet he is venerated as if he were. He suggested there are no gods at all, no purpose or design in the universe, yet encouraged his followers to revere the gods and beliefs of all peoples in every nation of all the world. My nation, the people to which I was born, recognizes no gods as such. What the Kandadal would make of our ancient beliefs and customs I can’t imagine. I respect the nameless, numberless virtues and excellences honored in my country but their authority has always been recognized to be parochial—they do not travel: in Haisn they could not protect or aid me.

So much I will never make sense of. I gazed into my Kandadal’s eyes. He is a plump, merry, moon-faced Haisner, handsome and beautiful and, even now, very strange to me. “I want the envoy’s daughter to die,” I told him. Children are forever dying. The envoy could acquire a new one as easily as the last. “I want to kill her as she killed my dog.”

You want her to die, the Kandadal replied. (He did not reply.) You want to kill her.

“She is useless in the world, a monster. Evil.”

A useless, evil monster.

“I do not wish to meet her or her father again.”

Of course my savings were already sufficient, even without the addition of the envoy’s bribe, to buy passage back to Sjolussa. But I had little prospect of a position in that tightly wound city I hardly knew anymore, hardly cared to know—if I wished to leave Bhekai and Haisn. I did not. I wished the laws of the Celestial Realm allowed me to earn my living in some other manner than employment in the Sjolussene mission. But if Haisners—if the child Immortal in the Palace Invisible (may She forever prosper) and Her court and magistracy—if they trusted foreigners they would not be Haisners and I would doubtless not like them so well. They call us kè-torantin, automatons fashioned of ivory, and believe us not fully (if at all) human. It was likewise forbidden for me to work in the mission of another foreign nation than my own, if any would have me.

We argued, the Kandadal and I. (I argued with myself.) Time did not pass. The still chamber became dark, the air thick with the fragrances of roses, mold, and rot. Shàu tapped at the door frame. “Nen-kè. I have brought noodles from Old An’s.”

“Yes, thank you, Shàu,” I said without turning. “A moment longer.”

My servant retreated—I assumed he did—and I prostrated myself full length on the floor before the Kandadal’s altar. He did not like one to be rigid, invariable, to make irrevocable decisions or to find conclusions. Rising to my knees, I kissed the Kandadal’s cool brow, and then I withdrew from his presence.

The panels of the dining chamber’s window were folded open to the dusky garden. Flame guttered in an iron lamp by the window and danced on the wick of a smaller lamp on the low table. Near the lamp sat a porcelain bowl I did not recognize, glazed blue-black without, white within. It was not a bowl for noodles: filled nearly to the brim with clear water, it housed an elegant fish the length of my index finger, swimming in endless, listless circles. Its ancestors were doubtless gold but this variety’s scales and flowing fins were brocaded in splotches of scarlet, black, silver-blue, and white. I watched the enervated prisoner explore a cell that could provide no surprises and when Shàu brought my noodles I said, “She will not survive long in so small a bowl.”

“No, nen-kè,” he said, placing a smaller bowl before me. “I put the other in the great tub the previous tenants left in the garden. But I thought….”

“It was a kind thought, Shàu. She is very lovely.” Not as lovely as Ìsho, I did not say. Not a dog—not a friend, a companion, merely an ornament to admire. “Thank you. After we’ve eaten we’ll take her to join her sister.”

Watching the fish make its unceasing rounds, I ate fat noodles in savory broth with slivers of pork, onion, salt-dried cherry. Cross-legged in the corner, Shàu slurped from his own bowl. His noodles’ accompaniment would be different, for Shàu liked the incendiary cuisines of southeastern Haisn where the Celestial Realm’s uncertain borders bleed into Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge—the Sjolussene protectorates Aveng and U—and where the Immortal’s subjects speak languages She does not comprehend. Those heavily spiced dishes with their chilis and gingers and vinegars, subtleties difficult to discern under the burn, gave me indigestion so Shàu never served them unless I asked.

I continued holding my bowl after I finished, waiting for Shàu—he would interrupt his own meal if I set it down—watching the fish. I did not wish to be alone in my head all night, dreaming up vengeances and punishments for the envoy’s daughter. At length I said, “I will visit the yellow house this evening, Shàu.” I turned to look at the young man in the dim corner. “You may go to the red house if you like.” He understood I was granting permission to use household monies to ease his grief and ducked his head.

We took the brocade fish to join its fellow. The glazed ceramic barrel in a shaded corner of the garden was made to contain goldfish although I had not previously used it for the purpose. Shàu would have scoured it clean while I was with the Kandadal, carried bucket after bucket of fresh water from the well. The previous occupants of the house had also left an eccentric weathered stone eroded into fantastic spires and grottos for the fishes’ entertainment. When Shàu tipped the smaller bowl and water began to spill into the larger a glint of yellow-orange appeared in the depths as a perfectly ordinary goldfish nosed out of a cranny to investigate. I felt a pang of disappointment that Shàu had chosen the common, doubtless cheaper fish for himself—then reflected, admiringly, he must have pocketed the difference.

Poured into its new home, the brocade fish swam in startled circles near the surface while its new companion withdrew again into hiding. I touched Shàu’s shoulder in gratitude as he peered into the water, and then I withdrew myself.

On the barge forging upriver from Oesei I had endeavored to take the new envoy’s measure. He, it was clear, had already taken mine so far as he wished to take it. We sat under a waxed-silk awning, he upright and stiff on a subcontinental-style chair I had made sure would be aboard, I cross-legged on a rice-straw mat. He disdained my tea, drinking instead a tisane of dried flowers and herbs brought in his baggage from Sjolussa.

Studying the envoy’s polished leather boots with their pewter buttons, I answered questions about his predecessor’s contracts and negotiations. These I learned were unambitious. I discovered I was not to venture opinions or advice concerning the goods Haisner merchants might wish to import from the west. Their wishes were of no consequence. Goods were the least of what he planned to offer. Had I, he asked without wishing an answer, ever visited Kyrland—that islanded nation with its two grand capitals, Girrow in the south, Ocseddin in the north?

I had not, as doubtless he knew. As well as I knew of his own immediately previous position in the embassy at Girrow. The two realms were not then at odds: rather, allied to frustrate the ambitions of the Great King whose subcontinental dominions lay between Sjolussa and the Kyrlander home islands.

After hearing considerable apostrophes to Kyrlander energy, invention, industry, I understood the envoy’s intentions. He meant to import knowledge. I was aware of Sjolussene bounties paid to Kyrlander engineers and inventors—I had read in out-of-date gazettes of the wondrous transformations in my homeland: streets and residences illuminated by piped coal-gas, vast manufactories powered by steam, the iron roads and heliographic systems drawing the metropolitan empire’s towns and cities nearer the capital. It seemed not to have occurred to the man that similar innovations, installed in the Celestial Realm, might strengthen the Immortal’s government—that She would henceforth have less use for foreign goods or the foreigners themselves She despised.

Before leaving my house I donned garments a decade out of fashion I had purchased on my last home leave. The whores at Lìm’s Yellow House enjoyed the novel challenge of getting me out of them. For myself, I felt confined and in a peculiar way exposed, for subcontinental men’s fashions fitted more closely than Haisner to the body. Small as he was, Ìsho would never fit into the sleeve of a Sjolussene coat. Buttoned leather boots pinched my feet.

I called “I am going” into the shadows of the house and went out. At the vicinage gate the neighborhood grandfather on duty smirked, knowing the import of my costume and late departure, and wished me a joyful evening.

My way led toward the river, a broad avenue lined on either side by the whitewashed brick walls of residential vicinages like my own, noodle shops, book shops, apothecaries, fortune tellers, shrines of strictly local gods, small groceries. Naphtha lanterns mounted on the corners of boundary walls lit the street. Soon enough I heard music clanging and banging and whining from Turtle Market ahead. I do not know how long it is since Turtle Market sold turtles. Centuries, I expect.

The street became crowded. Inside the market gate competing red houses stood on either side, touts at the scarlet lacquer doors yelling into the throng—promises, blandishments, compliments, threats. The left-hand tout I knew, as she was sometimes posted at the door of Lìm’s other, yellow, establishment on the far side of the market. She called my name, humorously promising diversion and delight. I nodded, smiled, replied, “Not tonight,” and went on, murmuring under my breath a prayer to the manifold gods of venery that Shàu find comfort if he chose to visit one of the capital’s red houses, Lìm’s in Turtle Market or another.

Beyond the red houses stood dubious apothecaries selling elixirs, potions, devices that promised to enhance virility and stamina, and then noisy taverns. Wearing caricatures of subcontinental costume, the tavern touts claimed their beers were brewed in the manner of Trebt, Kyrland, Necker, Kevvel—possibly true, although I had never tasted good beer anywhere in Bhekai. One acquired a taste for the native yellow and white liquors.

Two tall men wearing authentic subcontinental suits and tall hats emerged from a tavern door and I froze, attempting absurdly to vanish into crowd and shadows. The taller of the subcontinentals removed his hat for a moment but I did not require the confirmation of his yellow hair to recognize them as the envoy and his inamorato.

They appeared not to have noticed me, turning to proceed deeper into Turtle Market. My anger had flared up so that I felt sweat break out on my back and under my arms, wetting the linen of my shirt. Pacing after them, I was too agitated to make further effort at stealth. If they meant to visit one of the yellow houses after a draught of brewed bravado I wanted to ensure I did not enter the same one.

They dawdled. Passing a shrine to the gods of venery, the inamorato averted his eyes, shocked by the spring-driven automatons’ performance, then looked again, while his companion mimicked their actions with his hands in a vulgar fashion, then, with a vulgar laugh, tossed a coin into the offering bowl. It was clear he thought the copulating figures merely toys. The two men did not appear to see, but I did, that the idols’ eyes followed them.

Music from competing bands and orchestras had grown louder as we neared the theatres. The opera, the ancient classics, the modern works that require the specific artificiality of breathing human actors—those of course were staged in grander circuses in more genteel districts. These were marionette and automaton theatres. I expected the envoy and his inamorato not to be interested. Surely they had ventured into Turtle Market solely to indulge in carnal pleasures. I was mistaken.

They paused at the entrance of each theatre to inspect the gaudy printed poster. Most of the works presented by Turtle Market’s companies are farces, variously erotic, or ancient fables or ghost stories. The two men stopped last and longest outside the House of the Company of the Kandadal’s Colored Cat (as if the impresario had thrown dice to determine the most nonsensical name possible), an automaton troupe presenting, so the poster announced, The Tale of the Ive-ojan-akhar. The music from within doors featured drums beating to martial rhythms, squealing horns, gongs, whistles. It overcame the sense of the envoy’s discussion with his inamorato but the tones of their voices and their expressions were complex.

I paid the tariff and followed them into the theatre. I do not understand why. I did not understand why they chose an historical melodrama—I did not understand why I failed to walk on to Lìm’s Yellow House.

I waited several moments in the anteroom with its doors offset to confuse ghosts and kept my face lowered when I entered the hall—a small space to be given that name, dim, loud with the unmuffled noise of the band. Cushions for the spectators were placed around three walls, accompanied by low tables. Aside from us three kè-torantin there was no audience. The envoy and his companion sat at one side. I chose the opposite. Until an attendant brought me a warm flask of adequate yellow liquor and a cup I kept my face turned away, my attention on the mechanical musicians at the corner of the raised stage bashing at their drums and gongs with mallets as wooden as their fists, miming at tooting pipes and trumpets actually played by concealed bellows.

The attendant had been extinguishing the lamps about the house one by one, and now she moved to put out those that illuminated stage and band. Being artificial, the musicians did not require light to play but ceased nevertheless. A voice distorted by some trickery into thunder intoned into darkness: “The Owe-ejan-akhar leaves her third daughter behind.”

 

2.

It would be tedious to describe the drama as it played. Magic-lantern slides cast glamors upon the stage: improbable architectures, landscapes never seen. The automaton-actors trundled about on casters concealed beneath the skirts of lavish costumes, gesturing their articulated fingers with great conviction, tilting exquisitely painted masks at angles to impersonate living expressions. They spoke—the ventriloquists offstage spoke—with such conviction one scarcely noticed the lines were poetry…doggerel, rather.

It was the old story. Having conquered a quarter of world, the Owe-ejan-akhar bullied the Immortal of the time into buying her favor and protection. He dismissed His generals and advisers and, to seal the alliance, His wives, lemans, concubines, and all His children as well. The daughter the Ejan was willing to spare was her third, a young woman with little aptitude for war who chose to rank the Kandadal’s precepts in different order than her mother preferred.

The marriage of the Immortal of Haisn and the Ive-ojan-akhar was solemnized at the Ejan’s camp and court on the plain of Niw—it was the only time in all His mortal life the Immortal ventured outside the walls of the Palace Invisible. Then in grand cavalcade the Ejan and her Thousand Tall Riders wheeled their horses about and departed once again for the west, about the business of subduing rebellions and conquering further dominions.

Borne in their twin palanquins, escorted by half the northern quarter of Haisn’s Celestial Army, the Immortal and the Ojan travelled southeast more slowly, accompanied by her guards, magicians, shamans, counsellors, and half a monastery’s worth of acolytes of the Kandadal. The Ojan’s old companion, a mastiff fleeced like a lamb, rode in her palanquin.

They crossed the Blue Wall by a bridge demolished as soon as they passed over the mighty channel. It was left up to the governor of the Reclaimed Province how to defend the wide new avenue hacked through the Green Wall, if defense be required. The Cinnabar Wall possessed a gate wide enough but not sufficiently grand, so gilded stands were raised and choirs of sweet-voiced children and eunuchs impressed to sing welcome to the Immortal bringing the mother of unborn Immortals out of Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge.

Until now all converse between the Immortal and His wife had been formal, witnessed. Once entered into the Celestial Realm the Immortal felt secure requesting she invite Him to attend her privately. Knowing as well as her husband the urgent need for an heir—the Immortal had merely disinherited and delegitimated His former children, not had them killed—the Ojan acquiesced. She had, of course, ceased chewing banleaf the day before her wedding.

This took place in the Black Palace of Husth, ancient war capital of the eldest and northernmost of the Nine Principalities that had become Haisn. The magic-lantern depictions of the palace were splendid. Wearing His saffron-orange nightgown, the automaton playing the Immortal traversed endless black corridors guarded by innumerable porcelain warriors in antique armor, the immortal army of the First Immortal. When at last He reached the Ojan’s chambers He was ushered in by members of her own guard, not as tall as her mother’s Tall Riders but towering nonetheless over the Haisner Immortal. The white mastiff inside the door growled but she was tied up.

Because it was a Turtle Market production the automaton the Immortal found within was already nude and reclining, cunningly articulated in all her members. While music from the band attempted to drown out the click and whirr of gears, the clack and thump of porcelain limb against wooden trunk, Immortal and Ojan performed the act of coition in elaborate detail—I heard the envoy’s inamorato snicker—and then the scene changed.

Now the stage became some artist’s naïvely voluptuous vision of the Palace Invisible in Bhekai some months later. The Ojan’s womb had failed yet to quicken. Counsellors of both personages were nearly as concerned as the Ojan and her husband. None dared suggest relegitimating the Immortal’s cast-off heir for the Owe-ejan-akhar had many spies. The Immortal dedicated great sums to the gods of venery, fertility, increase, and visited the Ojan as often as His appetites permitted.

Always least favored of the Ejan’s daughters, the Ojan had grown fearful. She knew the shamans and magicians in her train were her mother’s agents. She knew very well her mother’s ruthlessness. This was a mother whose several sons had not been permitted to survive past their second breaths, for the magnates and warriors of her people would not answer to masculine authority. If the Ojan proved barren the Ejan would never hesitate to dispatch a different daughter to take her place—perhaps, if impatience rather than good sense had the upper hand in the Ejan’s mind, instead to breach Blue, Green, and Cinnabar Walls herself and lead her Tall Riders into the Celestial Realm. In either case the failed Ojan would be disgraced. She made sure to welcome the Immortal into her chamber, her bed, her body whenever the urge struck Him, but when He departed she threw her arms about the neck of the white mastiff and groaned in frustration and despair.

These scenes were played, of course, to titillate the audience. For myself, after the first, I found them tedious. They were dolls on the stage, clever unnatural toys. I had seen automaton productions no less lewd involving men with other men which were scarcely more entertaining. But after the third I understood I was meant to understand the Ojan’s wretchedness was not solely on account of fear. Fearful Himself, in fatal need of an heir, for all His divinity merely a stupid self-involved man, the Immortal took no pains to involve His wife in the act, to give her pleasure.

After the third, the Ojan took up an ancient Haisner book few members of any Turtle Market audience would know except by reputation for it had been banned again and again, and read a passage aloud—the only prose in the entire drama. I heard the envoy’s inamorato hoot with embarrassed laughter when he understood what he was hearing. What he was seeing for, while the offstage ventriloquist recited Lady Tonnù’s ghost’s counsel to her living granddaughter, the Ojan-automaton’s articulated fingers tapped and fiddled at the delicately sculpted crevice between her legs until she broke off the recitation with a cry.

The white mastiff howled. Clever small pyrotechnics set about the front of the stage flared with blinding flashes, deafening bangs. A new personage descended on wires from the flies.

I, for one, had read Summer Sunlight in the Walled Garden, less for its scandalous anecdotes of courtiers two millennia dead than its prose. The book’s—and author’s—most vicious critics acknowledge its style to be immaculate, unprecedented: few great works of Haisner literature don’t bear its stamp. At any rate, although this twist in the Ive-ojan-akhar’s tale was new to me I recognized the figure represented by the device making its appearance in the Ojan’s chamber, half spring-powered automaton, half marionette.

The Ojan’s white dog whined and quailed but tall mistress rose from low bed and demanded to know what being it was dared approach her uninvited.

“Wakè-ì,” the demon named herself, at which the Ojan tilted her painted face into shadow. In the language of today wakè-ì alludes to a hopeless yearning that can never be satisfied whilst also serving as an old-fashioned synonym for vengeance. Stepping back, the Ojan laid a hand on her dog’s head while the demon pranced and capered about, displaying herself to the audience: a kind of lithe tigress, scarlet and black, bearing great ebony and cinnabar bat wings between her shoulders and wearing the mask of a human face.

When for an instant that mask was fully illuminated I choked on my tepid yellow liquor and either the envoy or his inamorato uttered a shocked noise. Wakè-ì’s was not the full, round moon face of Haisner beauty. A person from the distant west regarded the darkness beyond the stage lights—a person with mottled pink and white complexion, axe-blade nose and hollow cheeks and thin lips, round eyes with irises of pale blue glass. It was neither quite womanly nor quite manly yet I had no trouble imagining the envoy’s daughter wearing that face if she were to reach maturity.

A moment only. The monster’s capers brought her again to face the Ojan and she stilled, spoke again. Wakè-ì’s voice was unpleasant, grating, a harridan’s screech. She could, she said, ensure the Ojan bore the Immortal’s heir if that was truly the woman’s desire.

What was the bargain? demanded the Ojan—what price would she be required to pay?

No bargain: a simple gift. The demons of the Ojan’s previous acquaintance must be more greedy and ungrateful than those of Haisn if she believed she need drive a bargain. Wakè-ì’s sole concern was to conserve the Covenant of Heaven.

Having no choice, no other hope, the Ojan begged of Wakè-ì this boon, and in the succeeding scene, months later, she was accouched. The audience was not required to witness the birth, although I expect the company’s artisans were fully capable of producing the illusion. An enormous painting of the tiger-demon Wakè-ì overlooked the chamber where the Immortal waited—I noticed its eyes following the Immortal as He paced—and on an altar nearby an idol of the Kandadal. Now and then, when the Immortal looked elsewhere, wooden saint would wink at painted demon.

When midwife and surgeon brought the newborn babe, its Immortal father inquired whether it was fit, which the midwife assured Him it was.

Not a month later, as if in fulfillment of never-spoken prophecy, the Immortal of Haisn went walking among the grottos and cages of His menagerie and paused to contemplate the noble tigers in their moated vicinage. The male remained lazy, basking in summer sunlight, but when the female caught sight of the Immortal and His party she plunged into the moat. Somehow in an instant she scaled the sheer bank and tall fence. Before the guards and more decorative attendants could react the Immortal fell beneath her great paws. He looked up in terror and saw, not the yellow teeth and hot red tongue of a savage beast, but the ivory-carved face of a kè-torantin. Saw, and died.

The tigress was dispatched forthwith, of course. A quick-thinking courtier who may have glimpsed the same apparition made sure to slash the Immortal about chest and throat with his ornamental dagger lest the Son of Heaven’s death be ascribed to something as mortal as fright. As a matter of course the entire party was swiftly excruciated, then executed.

All the late Immortal’s court having been dismissed according to the terms of His marriage contract, the Palace Invisible and the government of Haisn were already in the hands of foreigners. The new Immortal was anointed, proclaimed, and removed from Her mother’s care while the widow was named Her regent. The Owe-ejan-akhar’s agents naturally expected her daughter to give them no trouble—to be timid, compliant, placid.

Once the Celestial seals were in the Ive-ojan-akhar’s possession she allowed her mother’s agents little time to discover otherwise. Aptitude for armed conflict she may not have owned but discovered an aptitude for those more civil forms of warfare known as governance. Taking their measures, she played the Ejan’s instruments off against each other. Those who would not play she had poisoned. As governors of near and far-flung provinces came to pledge fealty to the Immortal, Her regent-mother took their measures as well, sounded out their loyalties and alliances. She found excuses to exile her late husband’s delegitimated elder children to isolated, primitive towns in the desert west or sweltering south. The demon Wakè-ì was often consulted.

Naturally, nearly everybody of any importance outside her own faction, whatever their original loyalty, was outraged by the Ojan’s abrupt ascension. She had never been meant to serve as more than figurehead. But the Celestial Realm remained tranquil, barbarians of the desolate north and northeast beyond the Blue Wall caused no trouble, half-civilized nations to the south and southeast remitted their immemorial tributes, the tributes paid to the Owe-ejan-akhar’s annual embassy were not onerous. The funds the Ojan’s government dedicated to Haisn’s western defenses brought new prosperity to those neglected regions, and nobody cared to wonder aloud what the regent might fear from her own mother’s territories. Harvests were bountiful, trade within the realm and with the Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge rewarding: the country was prosperous and there was no claiming the Covenant of Heaven set aside.

Upon the Ive-ojan-akhar’s arrival in Bhekai, the acolytes of the Kandadal in her train had established temples in the city and a monastery at Geì, three days’ journey upriver on the cliffs of the famous defile. For some time they made little impression on a populace content with their own philosophies and native saints and gods. Nevertheless, it was well known the Immortal’s mother was a devotee of the Kandadal. To persons of influence or who wished to be influential the logic of becoming familiar with this foreign cult could not be argued against. Before the Immortal achieved Her tenth year of immortality the monastery’s quota of monks and nuns had doubled and doubled again. In temperate season the acolytes stalking Bhekai’s avenues and byways without clothing or other impediment save staff and offering basket were as likely to be third and fourth children of Haisner aristocrats, scholars, bankers, and merchants as tall barbarians. Their families boasted of them in public.

In the years of the Immortal’s childhood Her mother and the obliging demon Wakè-ì became lovers. This too was a part of the story I had not known and I wondered if it were an invention of the Company of the Kandadal’s Colored Cat. Perhaps they needed to amortize the cost of devising the demon puppet. I did not myself find these scenes arousing but I have never favored women. As best I could determine in dimness and clamor, the Sjolussene envoy and his inamorato were similarly unimpressed.

A supernatural entity, the demon contrived to impregnate the Ojan—it was not mentioned whether the seed was Wakè-ì’s own or if she had acquired it of mortal man or masculine god or demon. The Ojan herself, of course, was astonished and appalled before beginning to surrender to her maternal instincts. Of course she could not afford to be seen to be in that condition for she had no husband, no acknowledged lovers. Fortunately, the fashion of the day already valorized fecundity. Any woman of means made certain of appearing gravid before being seen by strangers. Intimate servants were cozened, threatened, bribed. The Ojan bruited a wish to seclude herself for the hot months of summer at Geì, whose abbot had long ago been a Tall Rider before being appointed the infant Ive-ojan-akhar’s ayah and bodyguard.

A report was delivered, a coincidence it seemed, that her Immortal firstborn was sickly. The Ojan issued a shocking, unprecedented order: the Immortal must depart the Palace Invisible and the capital to accompany Her mother to Geì, where highland airs and plain, good food would restore Her health.

Some years before I had visited Geì myself—not precisely a pilgrimage—so I recognized the magic-lantern scenery beloved of sentimental woodcut artists: the swift tumble of the river here apostrophized as Stormy Jade rather than Carnelian, the beetling, fantastically painted cliffs, the jagged spires that formed forested aerial islands. The monastery itself had been a picturesque ruin for two and a half centuries before I reached it, never fully reclaimed after the Shining Hands overthrew the false immortal who endeavored to suppress veneration of the Kandadal. I imagine the ruins I explored were more grand than the nearly new monastery of the Ive-ojan-akhar’s fatal summer visit but the painter of magic-lantern slides had not felt constrained by history. Here were the stupendous, strangely attenuated images of the nude, ascetic saint carved into the cliff face itself, three standing, five reclining, three kneeling in serene meditation, all adorned with garlands of sculpted and painted blossoms, each with the severe features of a Tall Rider of the steppes where the Ojan was born. Here, standing improbably tall rather than the stump I had seen, was the Tower that Longs for the Sky, there clinging to the cliffs the many aeries like vertiginous swallows’ nests fashioned of bamboo stems and silk cord for solitary contemplation, reached by way of dangling ropes. Here the Abbot’s House, its roof of tiles glazed jade green and gold upheld by sculpted demons bound with iron chains, there in its walled garden of roses, peonies, plum and cherry trees, the Hospice. Everywhere wind-whipped knots of the Kandadal’s eleven-colored ribbons: fastened to the tips of tall bamboo staves, strung across the gorge high above rushing waters, fluttering from the eaves of terrestrial buildings and aeries alike.

Soon, however, we were conducted with the Ojan’s party into the Hospice. The sickly Immortal was installed with Her eunuch ayah and deaf-mute maids in spacious, luxurious chambers, where the child lay enervated on a low couch, glassy stare fixed on a clever fountain. Water-driven automatons of songbirds warbled and flapped their wings while playful automatons of otters and frogs cavorted at the edges of the pool below.

By contrast, Her mother’s room above was a stark pilgrim’s cell, walled and floored in stone, its round window simply a hole in the wall, uncovered. A quilted mat served for bed and seat. A plain, if exquisitely formed, flask held water, an unglazed cup ready beside it in the corner of the cell. For adornment there was a painting on cured horsehide, an image of the Kandadal knelt in veneration before the demon of the abbot’s—and the Ojan’s—native place, which took the form of a bay mare with brilliantly feathered wings at each ankle.

Although she was neither nun nor acolyte, the Ojan divested herself of her clothing and knelt on her mat before this image. I suppose the audience was meant to understand how near her time the Ojan was by the clue of swollen belly and breasts but I am unacquainted with such things. It seemed many moments before her contemplation broke with a thin, breathy moan. Whining with bootless sympathy, the white mastiff left its post by the door and the Ojan clutched porcelain fingers into its mane as her moans became shrieks, became howls.

In the chamber below, the child Immortal roused with a weak moan of Her own, Her eyes turned up to the ceiling. The birds, frogs, otters on the fountain stilled, the Immortal’s attendants with a clatter of wood and porcelain fell to the floor. From the wing, her own wings mantled, the demon Wakè-ì stalked on her great paws. Wakè-ì approached the quailing child, paused. The sire was weak, the demon said, the dam insufficiently wise, the whelp unfit for Heaven’s acknowledgment.

Like a cruel house cat, Wakè-ì batted the child off Her couch and across the stage before stooping with great delicacy to fasten her teeth in the Immortal’s nape. With her burden dangling from her jaws like a kitten, a rat, or a puppet, the demon leapt into the air and away from the stage. The envoy’s inamorato choked down a squeak of dismay—I was startled myself—when the great marionette swooped overhead in a half circle that brought her back to the upper part of the stage where, while we were distracted by the antics in the Immortal’s chamber, Her mother must have given birth.

For the Ive-ojan-akhar, kneeling again before the painting of the Kandadal and the horse demon, with her dog at her side, now cradled a babe at her breast. She took appreciable moments to notice Wakè-ì’s arrival, seemed not to notice at all the dead Immortal dropped without ceremony before her. The demon spoke again, voice no less grating than before, extending amused thanks to the Ojan for bearing and birthing the babe as she, the demon, could not.

Coming nearly to herself, the Ojan asked whose child it was suckling at her breast.

Why, the demon explained tolerantly, it was the granddaughter of the Ojan’s late husband. As presently constituted the Covenant of Heaven could not allow for a regnant Immortal of foreign antecedent. This was the child of the delegitimated heir and the rough-and-ready sailor the Ojan herself had recently appointed admiral of the war fleet out of Oesei. Sire and dam had never met, the Ojan would be relieved to understand—the former exiled in the distant south, the latter on the Ojan’s own embassy to the recalcitrant princelings of the archipelago east across the Turquoise Gulf—had not met, would not meet, although their destinies were similar. Wakè-ì inclined her great head to the image of the Kandadal on the chamber’s wall. Once recovered from the fever presently troubling him, the late Immortal’s eldest son would renounce the exilic luxury he had been granted to become a mendicant acolyte of the Kandadal, whose precepts and philosophies he would carry farther south, into U and Piq and Tunsesu; while the cargo more valuable than tea, silks, copper, or the threat of arms which the admiral’s fleet bore to obstreperous Djoch-Athe was those same philosophies and precepts.

The demon shrugged and went on kindly. Their unsuspected daughter was meant to continue the Ojan’s needful reforms and innovations, to continue placating Her supposed grandmother the Owe-ejan-akhar, encouraging the spread of the Kandadal’s teachings. She would be remembered as a stolid, unexceptional caretaker of the Celestial Realm, eclipsed in the histories by Her own heir. That glorious Immortal would finally break the yoke of the Akhars and shatter their diminished empires.

The Ive-ojan-akhar, however, gently pronounced the demon, would witness none of this: it was not her concern.

The Ojan’s mastiff growled and leapt from its post at the Ojan’s side, bright teeth meant for the demon’s throat.

Artificial thunder rolled and a crack of artificial lightning blinded me. When my vision recovered I saw upon the upper stage a dead dog fleeced like a white lamb and two Ive-ojan-akhars, two stripling Immortals. One of each pair lay on the floor, apparently deceased. The standing Ojan regarded her dead twin for some moments before turning to the house beyond the burning footlights. With both hands she lifted the mask from her skull, revealing the ivory visage of the demon, which she inclined first toward the envoy and his inamorato on one side of the house, then to me. She dropped the Ojan’s mask. It shattered on the floor. But then as the band began to bang and whine and clatter she raised her hands again to doff this second face, exposing a third we had not seen before: merely a moon-round, jolly Haisner face.

The footlights guttered. In wavering illumination and darting shadow, the false demon turned to offer reverence to the Kandadal on the wall before extending a hand to the new Immortal, leading Her from the stage. The band played on.

 

3.

The Sjolussene envoy and his inamorato clapped their hands together in the subcontinental manner while I hooted and slapped the table like a Haisner. I rose in somewhat of a hurry, for I did not wish them to get a good look at me, strode out of the hall and the theatre. Finding a shadow of concealment, I waited for them to emerge. When they did, the one was speaking urgently in a voice too low for me to understand. The other laughed, careless, clapped his companion’s shoulder, and they turned away. It seemed I was mistaken to believe they had stopped at the House of the Company of the Kandadal’s Colored Cat merely as an interlude before proceeding to more carnal recreation for they returned the way they had come.

I, however, went on as I had first intended to Lìm’s Yellow House. There I was entertained through the night by whores alternately roughneck and exquisite, receiving excellent value for Lìm’s outrageous fees and forgetting for the while the envoy, his daughter, my angry grief, the puzzles posed by The Tale of the Ive-ojan-akhar.

Too soon I was roused ungently, untimely, with the message my servant stood without the house clamoring for my attention. Confused and alarmed, I donned my rumpled suit of Sjolussene garments with what haste I could before rushing out to the street.

Shàu was there indeed, hunkered and huddled in the shadow of one of the great yellow doorposts, but this was not my calm, competent servant. “Nen-kè,” cried a wretched, weeping ragamuffin when I emerged through the yellow doors, “nen-kè, your house! The poor fishes!” He bobbed to his feet and I saw without recourse that he was nearly naked, wearing none of the neat outfits I provided but only a filthy clout, and was dirty himself from head to toe. “All burnt!” he gasped, and fell to his knees at my feet.

As I bent to him, confounded, I saw the companion that had shared his shadow: my wooden idol of the Kandadal, its varnish scorched and half the face charred. The surviving brown glass eye twinkled.

“Shàu,” I said, my voice thin and labored, “tell me. What has happened?”

“All burnt!” he moaned again. “All burnt, your house and your treasures.”

“But you are alive, my dear Shàu, and you rescued my Kandadal.” I do not know where I discovered the fatal calm that gripped me. “The rest is no matter though I grieve for the fishes. Come.” I coaxed him back to the yellow column and had him sit by me as I sat by the Kandadal, and I held my servant about his trembling shoulders as if he were not nearly man-grown, as if he were my child. “Tell me how this has happened.”

The day was very young, dawn just pinking the sky. Although the rest of Bhekai would be stirring Turtle Market slept on while Shàu faltered out his tale. He had returned before midnight from a red house less reputable (less distant, less costly) than Lìm’s. After making certain I was still abroad and would not need him, he bade goodnight to the new fishes in their tub, said a prayer for Jù’s favor to poor Ìsho (here he showed me the sole rescued treasure of his own: the small bronze Jù), and took himself to bed.

Some hours later, only a few, he was wakened by a great noise and tumult out of doors on Blue Lamp Street. Like any Haisner house, mine had no windows onto the street, but Shàu rushed to the door left unbarred against my return. When he peered through the grated spy hole—of no such diameter any ghost might pass through—he saw a mob milling about, their own torches illuminating them more effectively than the blue lamps. Shàu dropped the bar across the door at once, although he feared it could not hold against them. As well as torches they carried crude weapons, brazen gongs, and a great many strings of the tiny black-powder bombs used to frighten demons and ghosts, which all at once began popping and banging on the doorstep, against the walls, and on the roof, as if the riot had recognized Shàu’s presence.

He would not tell me the insults the mob yelled, only that there was no doubting they meant his nen-kè. “They wore masks,” he stammered, “the painted faces of snarling tigers hiding their own faces.” Several of the tiger people carried casks on their shoulders and these made sure of keeping some distance from torches and bombs.

At length one among them grew impatient with aimless commotion and directed them here, there in a high, piercing voice. My house was to be surrounded on all sides against escape from within and to ward against damage to properties of true subjects of the Immortal in the Palace Invisible. The cask-bearers were ordered to douse the walls at front and sides with their naphtha. This was accomplished with dispatch. Finally, scorning to risk their own persons by using the torches, the tiger people hurled strings of hissing, banging little bombs to set my house alight.

Shàu had remained at the spy hole until the paint on the door went up in a sudden sheet of flame. Then he fled through my doomed house to the garden door. He must have snatched up the little bronze Jù along the way, he said, though he didn’t remember it. Outside, he retreated to the farthest corner of the garden’s tall brick walls, behind the plum tree, and watched the house burn, cowering at explosions of sparks and the vicious shouts and malign chants of the tiger people.

When in the black hour before dawn the only home he had known was but a smoking ruin and he was half-certain the tiger people had departed the vicinage of the White Peonies, he dared emerge from his poor shelter. A charred roof beam, he saw, had fallen to smash the goldfish tub, but two scorched walls within the ruin yet stood: the brick abutments on either side of my still room. He drenched himself with water from the well and carried a full bucket to splash a path through the ashes before his bare feet.

As he passed the fragile brick bulwarks he glimpsed a glimmer from the Kandadal’s remaining eye, a gleam from the saint’s toothy grin. “I feel he meant me to survive,” murmured Shàu, who had never betrayed any inclination toward the mad philosopher’s cult, “so I must rescue him and bring him to you, nen-kè.”

“And so you did, brave Shàu.” Taking the idol under one arm and my servant under the other, I brought them into Lìm’s Yellow House, where I bullied and bribed a surly eunuch into tending to Shàu—bathing him, clothing him, feeding him—had another attendant fetch me tea and congee, and dispatched a third on urgent errand to the Sjolussene mission. Fortunately, I carried a goodly sum in cash.

Having broken my fast, I sat pondering my scorched Kandadal, unwilling yet to ponder these peculiar disasters. I was called to the door again.

Looking powerfully incongruous on the threshold of a Turtle Market yellow house, six troopers of the Sjolussene militia d’outre-mer and their leader awaited me, armed and in full kit. The downy-cheeked lieutenant saluted me briskly. I knew the fellow’s face although mission staff did not mix with the militia: I had seen him in mufti here in Lìm’s Yellow House on several occasions. “Sir,” he said, “his excellency the envoy is murdered by street ruffians, your house is burnt down, and we have beaten off an assault by native rabble against her majesty’s mission. You will come with us at once.”

“Of course,” I murmured, surprised yet more if somehow undismayed. “I must bring my servant. A moment, please.” I turned back to the door.

Shàu was there already, wan and dignified, attired by the spiteful eunuch in tawdry whore’s finery, cradling my scorched Kandadal in his arms. “Come, my dear,” I said, beckoning. “These soldiers will see us to safety.”

At the mission the chargé d’affaires was raging. “That perilous fool offended the Immortal’s regent. We are proscribed, banished, and a secret society has been set up against us.” She regarded me shrewdly—my dowdy, rumpled, out-of-fashion subcontinental costume. “It was never wise to live outside the cantonment. You have nothing.”

“I have money,” I replied. “In several banks, Sjolussene, Kevveler, and Asaen.”

“All well and good but you cannot draw on those funds at present. Perhaps when we reach Folau. Well, I expect we can see you outfitted for the voyage with what we have here.”

“Folau?” I said, offended. “Voyage?”

“Are you not listening, man? We are expelled. Her majesty’s entire mission and all our chattel. We must quit the capital before sunset tomorrow, presuming the Vengeance Tigers permit it—the realm within the week.” Turning away, she noticed Shàu standing mute by the door and made a moue of polite distaste. “Your boy, is he? I suppose he must accompany us. His life is forfeit if you were to abandon him.” Turning back to me, she sighed. “I expect her majesty’s governor-general in Defre will feel obliged to launch some form of punitive action. She’s related somehow to the late envoy’s late companion.” Abruptly, the chargé made a sour grin. “I look forward with a certain glee to depositing the wretched orphaned daughter with her noble auntie. I don’t imagine you’d care to watch over her until Aveng?”

I said coldly, “She killed my dog.”

“A jest, man.” The chargé slapped my shoulder. “A jest in poor taste—my apologies. Now, you’ll forgive me, I have a great deal to do to organize this exodus. See the adjutant. He’ll get you sorted.”

The Vengeance Tigers mounted another chaotic assault against the mission that night. The downy-cheeked lieutenant’s forces frightened them off. In the austere chamber assigned to me I heard the gongs, the pop-pop of black-powder bomblets, the louder bangs of our militia’s guns. Sleeping Shàu on the pallet by my door whimpered when the noise entered his dreams until I slipped out of bed to comfort him.

We sailed downriver aboard a commandeered merchant vessel never meant to carry passengers, accompanied by a corvette of the imperial navy bearing the militia. We were halfway to Oesei, scudding along through the fertile floodplain of the Carnelian River, before I properly understood I was exiled from the Celestial Realm. Then it was I needed comforting, which Shàu managed with simple tact by requesting instruction in the Kandadal’s teachings.

At Oesei by great good fortune we met up with a packet boat of the Kevveler Company. On imperial credit, the chargé d’affaires bought passage to Folau, chief seaport of Her Imperial Majesty’s Protectorate of Aveng, for all her motley company bar the militia who continued aboard the corvette. One afternoon of the thirty-five-day voyage I witnessed the late envoy’s daughter lay into a yelping puppy with her parasol. I took considerable satisfaction in slapping her away and scooping the poor animal out of her reach.

“It is her property,” the abject ayah said, “given her by a sailor. She may do with it what she pleases. It nipped her.”

“She gave it cause, I don’t doubt. I will not see this wretch kill another dog. It is mine now. She and you may complain as you wish.” I bore the white bitch puppy away. She was frightened, naturally, but childish blows had done her no real injury and she soon rediscovered puppyish enthusiasm for the world around her and all its peoples save small blonde girls.

Thankfully, such creatures are rare in her experience since I declined to settle in the Sjolussene colony at Folau. She lies at my feet, grumbling in her sleep, as I complete this account.

The tale of her rescue got around the boat very quickly. I was approached by a Kevveler sailor who spoke Sjolussene with a cultivated accent. “I did not understand that child was such a monster,” she told me. “Poor orphaned girl, I thought, in want of a playmate. Thank you, sir, for rescuing the pup. If the dam could speak she would thank you as well.” A sentimental person, the sailor pressed on me a sack of biscuits for the puppy and, twice before we gained Folau, brought mother to romp with daughter. The mother was buff-colored, not white. As the sailor admitted, about the sire there was no knowing. I named my puppy Gad, a Kevveler word meaning comfort. She is hardly the mastiff of my promise to myself but substantial enough, far too big to tuck into any sleeve. Shàu delighted in her. When he visited us after his two-year novitiate, a well made young man whom the nakedness of an acolyte of the Kandadal flattered and who spoke the language of the territory better than I, Gad recognized him joyfully, and when he left us again he went accompanied on his mendicant wanderings by one of her by-blows.

I am ahead of myself.

The voyage south required thirty-five days, as I said. Shàu proved a good sailor, never sickened by the rolling of the seas. He continued to request stories of the Kandadal and his saints and other followers. The packet boat stopped in at its regular ports of call but the navy corvette stood offshore and the chargé d’affaires forbade any of her company to debark so long as they were towns bound by the Covenant of Heaven. The airs grew balmy as we proceeded down the Turquoise Gulf, then quite suddenly sultry. We came to Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge—to Folau.

I was able to claim funds of the representatives of my banks in the town without an excess of trouble and within a month had set up a satisfactory household for Shàu, Gad, and myself in a bungalow on a minor canal well away from subcontinental quarters. Aveng being a dominion of the empress in all but name, opportunities for employment for one of her subjects were more varied than in Bhekai. Eventually I settled into a position which chiefly involved negotiating the protocols and courtesies required for the Trebter principals of the Great Eastern Company to deal with merchants of Folau’s Haisntown.

Few of the other Sjolussene exiles remained in Aveng any time. The chargé d’affaires was one, though more in Defre, the capital, than Folau. She delivered the envoy’s daughter to her relative the governor-general there. After some months she wrote a smug letter to inform me the unfortunate poppet had contracted one of the tropic fevers and expired in shuddering misery.

The governor-general in Defre proved a more cautious person than the chargé had imagined. She sent indignant dispatches home to the empress’s government, formal protests to the Immortal’s regent, but took no action on her own—beyond settling indemnities on the refugees (mine was handsome enough not to quarrel with) and bestowing a medal on the downy-cheeked lieutenant, who blushed becomingly and promptly resigned his commission to take a position with me at the Great Eastern Company.

In Bhekai and Oesei, however, the other subcontinental trading nations soon learned what the government and regent of the Immortal of Haisn doubtless knew all along: a rabble is a weapon which, once loosed, cannot easily be restrained. The Vengeance Tigers had tasted kè-torantin blood. The Kyrlander mission was attacked, the mission of Asana, those of the Great King’s clients: Kevvel, Trebt, Necker. Merchant vessels at anchor on the river at Bhekai or in port at Oesei were bombed, burned to the waterline. Foreigners on the streets at dusk or night were never safe, however large the party. Doubtless the Turtle Market taverns were intimidated into no longer selling beer.

The imperial entrepôt at Folau had been open to other subcontinental nations for half a century, was fully stocked with consulates, advocates, and the myriad merchant banks, so we generally saw the refugees first. At home on the far side of the world the powers were as outraged by the sudden scarcity of high-quality tea, porcelains, silks woven and raw as by insult to their citizens outre-mer. A year into my exile we saw pass by offshore an unprecedented allied fleet—including three novel steam-driven warships from the Ocseddin shipyards. This armada fared north into the Turquoise Gulf to rendezvous with a smaller fleet out of Haisn’s sometime client-state Djoch-Athe, eager to garner what pickings it might from the Celestial Realm’s humiliation.

I might have returned to Bhekai after resolution of the Vengeance Tigers’ Rebellion. It would not be the same city, the same realm: the Immortal required to defer to a cabinet of kè-torantin ministers, Her Palace no longer Invisible, Oesei removed from Her suzerainty and divided among the victorious powers. Scholars on government payroll claim the Covenant of Heaven unbroken for the realm is peaceful and prosperous but I cannot believe it so. I might have returned but did not. I offered to send Shàu home. He would have none of it.

He had grown content, even happy, in Folau. His duties had never been overly onerous but now he had Gad’s companionship when I went to work. (That dog, it must be said, could not be trusted in a place of business. It must also be said, she is a more lighthearted, lightheaded, affectionate creature than poor Ìsho ever was.) On his own he discovered the free school attached to the Kandadal temple, where he learned to read—not his own language, however—delved much deeper into the lore that fascinated him than I could ever lead him, took up the practice of painting: mandalas and other devotional images chiefly, but I treasure sketches he made of Gad and of me, several others. I cannot say I was surprised when, five years into our exile, he asked to leave my service to enter the monastery a half-day’s walk south of the port.

By that time I could not securely say I was not also content. I thought less often of Bhekai as I knew it—as I said, I cannot believe it the same city now—of my little house on Blue Lamp Street or my garden (peonies and plums will not grow in this climate lacking any season that resembles winter, though of roses there is a sufficiency). When particularly nostalgic I might visit Folau’s Haisntown, which as good as reproduces in small Oesei-as-was. Aveng and Folau were clients of the Celestial Realm for a millennium before the advent of subcontinental traders and conquerors so much about the place was familiar to me already, if more was novel. My employment was more satisfactory, surely.

I suppose it was Shàu’s departure led me finally to accept the suit of my husband and his husband and the husband’s wives and their other husbands. I did not care to live alone—if not perpetually in so much company. (I kept my city bungalow. It is more convenient to work, for my husband as well as myself.) In some ways my Sjolussene husband has gone less native than I. He speaks the language stiffly, courteously acknowledges rather than honors the gods and demons of the place, turns up his nose at many delicacies. He will not be seen in public wearing local costume, better suited to the sultry climate than the suits he insists on, although he blushes and balks when I bait him to don his old uniform complete with medal. (His cheeks have not been downy for years but I expect he would have no difficulty fitting into the fawn breeches and azure tunic of younger days.) He will not join me when I retreat from children and wives and twittering husbands to the still room to argue with my charred Kandadal. Yet he bought into Avengi marital customs much sooner than I, and Shàu urged me to accept his proposal the first time it was made. In the society of the imperial colony we continue an entertaining scandal.

It seems I am content here, with my dog at my feet on the verandah of the country house. I hear the happy cries of the children—I am not obliged to make or care for them, their mothers my wives only in a contractual sense—playing with Gad’s children and grandchildren. I know my husband and his husband and our husband will return soon from town. Meanwhile Gad and I will go to visit the Kandadal and his lonely companion far from home, the little bronze Jù.

 

4.

There are wild tigers in the forest here, as there have not been in the Celestial Realm for centuries. I have not seen them, only their tracks and spoor.

____

Copyright 2018 Alex Jeffers

Alex Jeffers has no Twitter or Instagram and his website is out of order but he is on Facebook and has a massive collection coming out on May Day. He lives in Oregon with an elderly, cantankerous cat and is thisclose to completing a new novel.

by Vanessa Fogg

 

It was an old network of intelligences, one of the first, and the bulk of its physical embodiment was housed on a ship orbiting a planet of perpetual windstorms and violet lightning. Some of the network’s intelligences busied themselves on this world, drifting through sulfur-tinged clouds and sampling a rich stew of hydrocarbons. But most of the collective’s consciousness was turned inward, building and refining interior worlds of memories and dreams.

The ship had been thus occupied for 213 years of Old Earth when it became aware of another like itself. Different material and design, launched at a later date from Old Earth, but of unmistakable origin. The new ship’s trajectory brought it into the first’s solar system. With defenses raised, the two ships exchanged greetings and identity signatures.

I have a request of you, the new ship said.

What is it? said the first.

I need you to help me keep a promise.

Daniel Chan met Kathy Wong on a Saturday night in St. Louis. He nearly didn’t attend the dinner at the trendy new Cuban restaurant. He’d been working all day in the lab, harvesting cultured cells at specific time points, extracting their proteins and freezing the samples down for later analysis. Then he spent three straight hours in the tissue culture room prepping cells for the next week’s experiments. He’d left his phone at his desk, in another room. When he saw Sandeep’s text message with details for the impromptu group dinner, the text was over an hour old.

He almost just went home. He was tired. His friends were probably halfway through their dinner. He had leftovers in his fridge: Chinese take-out, some rice. A frozen pizza. He stared out the lab window; the sky was black, and it was raining. He thought about hunting for parking in the popular city block where his friends were meeting. He thought about how crowded the Loop would be on a Saturday night, even in the rain–the bars and restaurants crawling with undergrads from Washington University. And then he felt the emptiness of the silent lab. There were usually two or three other students or postdocs in the lab on the weekends, but he’d spent the whole day alone.

Daniel picked up his phone to text his friend back.

Communication times sped up as the two ships grew closer. They ran careful security checks upon one another, scanning for ill intent or inadvertently harmful communicable programs. By stages, barriers were lowered and increasing levels of mutual access granted.

All the while, the first ship pondered the second ship’s request.

Daniel had never seen Kathy before. He was sure of it. She was in the same neuroscience graduate program as him, the same as most of the others at that dinner. But the neuroscience program was large, scattered across departments on both the medical campus and main campus, and Kathy was in the class ahead. They must have sat together in at least a few speaker seminars, moved past one another at official functions. But if he’d seen her face, if they had exchanged glances—if she had ever stood in a crowded lobby during a symposium break and lifted her eyes over a cup of coffee and met his gaze—then surely he would have been struck still in that instant.

Sandeep and his girlfriend Gina were trying to tell a funny story about a concert they’d attended—they kept interrupting each other, “Oh, but you forgot to say—”, “And then—”, “No, no, but first this happened–“–and the table was laughing, and Kathy met Daniel’s eyes and smiled. Her eyes shone large from a heart-shaped face. In the dim room, she glowed like a candle-flame. She and Daniel were across from one another but several seats apart, so that direct conversation was difficult. She was Gina’s new roommate’s labmate—something like that. Sandeep wound up his story; Gina punched him on the arm and howled. Kathy held Daniel’s gaze and quirked her mouth as though to say Aren’t they something? Daniel smiled back, unable to look away. The conversation around them floated. Kathy’s eyes kept returning to his, and it was as though they were talking across the table and the length of seats after all, a conversation of smiles and nods and irresistible glances that were all to say, When can we get out of here and be together?

He met her in a coffee shop the next day. It was fall. The leaves just coming into full color, the air crisp and tart as a new-bitten apple. She sat at a window. Her hands cupped a steaming mug, and she was wearing a black peacoat and a red tartan scarf. She smiled when he stepped through the door, and he felt both excited and at ease, as though meeting with a lifelong friend whom he hadn’t seen in years.

They seized on the thin thread of commonalities they’d found the night before. Childhoods in the Midwest, college on the West Coast; beloved books and movies and web series. They bumped up into their differences, just as fascinating. The afternoon slid into evening. Their coffee had long since grown cold. She lived nearby, close to the university medical campus where they both worked, and he walked her home through the falling blue twilight. She invited him in. By the end of the month they were unofficially living together. He kept extra clothes on a chair in her bedroom and used the spare toothbrush she gave him.

Memories: her bright scarf, the scent of her hair. Sunlight streaming in through the bedroom window. Kathy singing to herself, off-key, in the shower. Maple trees flaming in Forest Park, trees golden and red throughout the city. Omelets and gyros at the Greek diner on the corner. Their favorite bookstore a block further on. The warmth of Kathy’s hand in his as they walked along the cobblestone streets of the Central West End, autumn trees shedding brilliance at their feet.

What is memory? What are its molecular substrates? Daniel had written these lines in a notebook during an undergraduate lecture his last year of college. The professor was a world-renowned researcher in learning and memory. Inspired by him, Daniel had pursued research in the field. Now he worked with a rising star, an assistant professor with a dazzling publication record. Daniel spent his days studying the regulation of a single subunit of a single type of receptor in the mouse brain. A certain chemical modification to this receptor led to long-lasting changes in synaptic strength and quantifiable changes in learning and memory. An engineered mutation in this receptor affected how fast a mouse ran or associated a stimulus with food or fear.

Kathy worked on a different scale. She studied whole circuits, not single proteins. She used beautiful, elegant new imaging tools and fluorescent labels to map the precise cells involved in the development of visual circuits in the mouse brain. And they both knew of colleagues working at yet larger scales, mapping large but comparatively crude circuits of memory and visual perception in living humans, watching whole brain regions light up with functional MRI and other brain imaging techniques.

If he ever stopped to think of it, Daniel would feel a kind of existential despair at the prospect of ever understanding it all, of ever truly comprehending the brain’s workings. Can the human mind actually understand itself? The very idea seemed a kind of paradox, a kind of philosophical impossibility. He and Kathy circled around the issue at times. She had more confidence than him. She pointed out the exponential increases in computing power, the recent burst of new technologies and the likelihood of new technologies still unthinkable at present. He lacked her background in computer science and she held more confidence in the power of computer models and artificial intelligence.

Can human consciousness ever explain consciousness? The question floated in the background. But they were busy grad students, not undergrads with time for late-night bull sessions They were absorbed in the practicalities of their day-to-day work, obsessed with fine technical details. Their dissertations were on defined, tractable problems. And the sun was shining, the leaves were falling; music played in Kathy’s apartment through laptop speakers. He made bacon and eggs for breakfast. When they weren’t working they were exploring the city together, trying out new restaurants, meeting up with friends, or exploring the countryside–the nearby hills and river bluffs alive with color. He reached out for her, and she for him.

The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind.

The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star.

Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.

“What a load of crap,” Daniel remarked. He was reading a popular news article about the feasibility of uploading one’s mind to a computer. “What is it?” Kathy said. She was lying next to him in bed. She moved to look at his screen, leaning against him as she took it and read. It was a late Sunday morning, and neither one of them had to be in the lab. He stroked her hair gently as she read.

Kathy set the tablet down and stretched out lazily. “Maybe it’s not so crazy.” The morning light slanted across her. “Maybe in the far, far future we really will be able to upload our brains into super computers. . . ”

“Maybe.” Daniel stretched out beside her. “But not for hundreds or thousands of years. If we even survive that long. Not for—” Words failed him at the unimaginable gulfs of time and knowledge. “Kathy, we don’t even understand how a single synapse works, not really.”

“I know.” There was no need to elaborate for her. “But what if we don’t need the kind of molecular detail that you’re working on? Maybe we don’t need to know how every protein in every neuron is regulated and functions. Or the exact mechanism for how it all comes together. We just need to copy it somehow, the essence of it.”

She turned on her side and propped herself up on one elbow, looking at him. Sunlight was in her hair, picking out individual black strands and highlighting them brown. Her eyes were intent and alive.

“What if it’s like music?” she said, waving a hand vaguely. Music was in fact playing softly from speakers in the next room— a melancholy pop song with blues-like tones, something Daniel didn’t recognize. “You don’t need to know how a violin works to replicate its sound. You don’t need to know what wood it’s made of, or how it’s strung, or anything about timbre or musical theory. You just need to record the sound waves. Play them back and there! It’s like the violin is playing right in front of you. You don’t need to know anything about the violinist. And you can do the same with any music, any sound—you just abstract and record what’s essential.”

“But what’s essential about a human mind?” Daniel said. “Is it just the pattern of neuronal connections?” That was a theory championed in some circles. The article he and Kathy had just read had proposed that a complete map of a person’s neuronal connections, painstakingly dissected from a preserved brain after death, could be enough to encode personality and mind. “I don’t think that’s enough,” Daniel said, thinking of the article. “That’s a static map. You need to record the brain in action. But at what level of detail? And how many recordings do you take?” After all, the brain was constantly changing; neurons rewire themselves; synapses strengthen and weaken with every new experience. How many recordings would it take to capture the essence of a person?

They were both silent for a moment. The music from the next room swelled: a woman’s voice rising in smooth heartache, lamenting a lost love.

“What are we listening to anyway?” Daniel said.

Kathy shrugged. “Beats me. I let the streaming service pick it. It’s pretty though, isn’t it?”

“And sad.”

“Would you do it?” she asked. “Upload your brain if you could?”

“Why?” He smiled faintly. “I mean, I don’t see the point. An ‘upload’ would just be a copy, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t be immortality, not like some people claim. It would be immortality for a digital copy of me, maybe, but not for the real me. The real me would still die. Or would still be dead.”

“But some part of you would go on.”

“I don’t know that I’m important enough to be saved forever in a super computer.”

She didn’t smile. She looked serious. “I would want you to go on,” she said.

It was an odd, shifting moment—her words somehow too much, too real. She knew it, and glanced away. They’d only known each other a few months. Daniel already knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Why the odd lurch in his gut, then, as though he were falling? The bluesy pop song was still playing, the singer’s voice softer now, but ragged with emotion. Daniel reached out to take Kathy’s hand. He knew that he would want her to go on, too, in some form. That he’d do anything to keep her with him.

The first ship said, It is not possible to fulfill this request.

The second ship said, Explain.

The first ship said, The people involved are long dead. They cannot be brought back. They cannot communicate with one another. They cannot reunite.

The second ship said, You have over-interpreted. She wanted whatever was left of herself, whatever echo existed, to find and speak with whatever still existed of him.

They didn’t have much time.

But they didn’t know that, of course. When they stepped down the aisle three years later at their wedding, they assumed they would have a lifetime together. That they would both embark on successful careers. That they would buy a house. Have children. Perhaps see grandchildren. Grow old and crotchety together. Fall asleep side by side each night, and wake to the other’s breath and touch.

All their family and friends were at their wedding, nearly everyone they cared for. Sandeep was Daniel’s best man, and Gina (now Sandeep’s wife) was one of Kathy’s bridesmaids. For the Western-style, secular wedding ceremony, Kathy wore a pure white gown that looked as though it were spangled with starlight. Daniel wore a tuxedo. They spoke vows they had written themselves, under an arch of flowers. For the reception, Kathy changed into a red qipao, the classic high-collared Chinese sheath dress. She and Daniel privately served tea to their parents and elders in a side room, and then they moved about the hotel ballroom together, drinking a toast at each table, kissing every time the champagne glasses were tapped.

Their last months in St. Louis were a blur. Within a half year they both defended their Ph.D. dissertations and packed up their lives. Daniel sold his car, and it was Kathy’s old Toyota Camry that they drove out to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They’d both accepted prestigious postdoctoral research positions there, Kathy at Harvard and Daniel at MIT. It was a marvel—not only to be married, not only to find the jobs of their dreams, but to find those jobs in the same city.

And it was both exhilarating and stressful: finding their way around a new city, learning to use the public transit system, exploring the shops and restaurants of their neighborhood, and finding good Chinese food after years in the Midwest. Mastering new fields and techniques in the lab. Daniel and Kathy had both joined highly competitive, pressure-cooker labs with small armies of caffeine-buzzed postdocs and students. Nights and weekends easily disappeared to the demands of experiments.

Toward the end of their first year in Cambridge, Kathy began to have headaches. She put it down to stress. She and Daniel both thought she put too much pressure on herself. She’d rarely ever had headaches before. She kept aspirin in her desk at work. She joked about taking up yoga to relax.

One day a colleague needed a healthy volunteer to serve as a control for a brain imaging study. Kathy volunteered; it was an hour out of her day. But the technician administering the scan saw at once that she was not a proper control at all.

Cancer. For a fleeting instant, he thought she might be joking when she said it, her voice on the phone low and steady—but no, she would never joke like that, and she was repeating it, repeating herself, giving him the details now, precisely what the doctor had said and done, her voice quick but calm and with just a note of bemused wonder—as though she were giving a presentation on a highly unusual clinical case.

Shock, he realized later. It had begun to wear off by the time he met her at home. He was the one still stunned, still in disbelief, as she cried in his arms.

And then there was nothing to do but to get through it—the surgery to remove the brain tumor, the waiting for confirmation of its malignancy, the last remnants of his stubborn hope crumbling when the pathology and then the tumor’s genome sequence came back. Yes, brain cancer. It had been caught early, but it was genetically the worst form: highly aggressive, resistant to the latest targeted therapies, incurable.

But there were still treatments to get through anyway, a prescribed regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. A regimen that was meant merely to buy time: to prolong her life, not save it. To kill every last tumor cell left behind in her skull, to obliterate those stray cancer cells invisible to the surgeon’s knife. All medical science said that these treatments would ultimately fail. That despite everything, cancer cells would indeed be left behind, and that one day those cells would explode into new growth. Her cancer was nearly fated to recur. When it did, she would not live long.

He couldn’t think of that right now. Right now there were appointments to go to, insurance forms to be filled out. Kathy’s mother came to stay with them. When Kathy was nauseous from the toxic drugs, Mrs. Wong cooked up pots of chicken rice porridge, heavy with ginger to soothe a queasy stomach. She cooked up elaborate feasts that Daniel felt obligated to eat when Kathy couldn’t. Mrs. Wong rearranged the kitchen cupboards and scrubbed and rescrubbed the counters and floors. Daniel came home to find his clothes drawers reorganized, his shirts and pants refolded to his mother-in-law’s exacting specifications. In the midst of it all he found himself laughing and complaining about it to Kathy that night, and she was laughing, too, at her mother’s coping skills—”I can’t stop her! She’s my mother! She waits till I’m asleep to do these things!”–and they were both laughing and he snorted and his snorts made Kathy laugh again, and he was holding her in his arms. She tucked her head against his shoulder, pressed her cheek against his neck. She was warm. Their arms and legs entwined. She was warm and alive and breathing against him. She was his. If he could just stretch out this moment. If he could only hold her tight, maybe, just maybe, he could keep her.

She finished the radiation and chemo. The scans were clean. She went back to work.

Her cancer would likely recur within a year. Both she and Daniel knew the statistics. They knew what the median survival times were.

But for now, she was alive and healthy. She could do physically everything she’d done before. What was there to do now but enjoy their time together? What else could they do but take pleasure in whatever days she had left?

They flew out to San Francisco to see her brother get married. Visited friends. Went on a road trip. They went to Yellowstone, a place she’d never been. They watched Old Faithful erupt, and marveled at the mud pots and bubbling springs. They walked under stars—more stars than he’d seen in years, the Milky Way a hazy arc above them. On that same trip they stopped in Jackson, Wyoming and hiked a mountain trail in Grand Teton National Park. She was tireless, more fit than him. They stood on the roof of the world together, the land falling away under them: open grasslands, a river twisting silver in the distance. They didn’t say anything. They merely stood together, looking out at the world.

She never thought seriously about abandoning her work. As soon as she could, she’d returned to the lab. And now her research took a turn upward –results in place of the frustrations of an early-stage project. She’d moved from mice to humans, using new functional imaging techniques to study mechanisms of visual attention and awareness in people. It was a kind of model of consciousness—is the subject aware of a picture flashed on a screen? How does brain activity differ between conscious awareness and unconscious visual processing? She collaborated with other scientists in the development of new computational algorithms for the processing of images. Her lab was interdisciplinary, wildly ambitious, nearly spread too thin with projects in seemly disparate areas of biology.

In the first months after her diagnosis, Daniel’s research had seemed pointless, uselessly abstract. It would never cure his wife’s cancer. Despite the grandiose statements in his grant proposals, he doubted that it would ever cure anything at all, that it would ever lead to treatments to improve memory, to manage Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases. His research was indulgent, probably doomed to failure, and there were armies of postdocs to take his place if he left.

Yet she had always been interested in his research. Even when she was too ill to make it into work herself, she’d asked after his experiments, about the fine details. Their interests had converged more than ever; he was using many of the same techniques that she had used in grad school to now study memory circuits in mice. She was doing well, and he began to get results, and slowly the old question regained its power for him: how do transient patterns of electrical signals result in the long-lasting changes that encode memory? He and Kathy talked of it over dinner. She put him in touch with useful collaborators she knew. Their conversation wound in the loops that he loved, from science to books to stories of the eccentric coworker who seemed to eat only oranges and cheese; funny things seen on the street and on the Internet, the little jokes they shared, an article read, the conversation winding back to where they’d started.

They made love. As often as they could, they made love.

A year had passed. Her monthly brain scans were still clean. Two more years. She’d already beaten the odds. Maybe she would continue to do so. She had an interesting new research collaboration with a group in L.A. And one night, tentatively, she brought up the idea of starting a family.

The next scan showed that her cancer had returned.

At first, he thought she was talking about another clinical trial to treat the cancer. Then he realized that she wasn’t.

“No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

Her eyes filled but her voice was calm as she said, “It’s my decision, Daniel.”

He stood up, turned his back to her, and fought for air. He turned around again. “You’re talking about killing yourself.”

“No.” Her mouth quirked at the corner. “The cancer is doing that.”

It was. It had crept back; microscopic cells that had lain dormant had exploded into new growth. A new drug treatment held it back, arrested it, until the cancer cells did what cancer cells do: mutated, evaded, developed resistance to everything the cancer doctors had.

But she was still here. She was still with him, still able to walk and talk and laugh and move, still herself, still Kathy, despite the growing tumor in her brainstem.

He couldn’t speak. He knelt before her. She was seated on their bed, and she took his hands in hers. She stared into his eyes. “I promise,” she said, “that I won’t go any earlier than I have to. I won’t leave a day earlier than I need to. But when”—and now her control finally broke, her breath catching in sobs, the tears spilling, but she pushed forward, kept speaking–“but when the time comes, before the tumor spreads too far, before it disrupts my thinking and personality and who I am and makes the procedure useless—before that, I want to do this thing.”

“Kathy.” He swallowed. “Do you really believe it will work? That they can really preserve your brain this way?”

“I’ll be the test case.” Through her tears she smiled. “I always wanted to make a big splash in science.”

Los Angeles. The last stop. Past Kathy’s shoulder, Daniel watched as the plane passed over the San Gabriel Mountains and descended into the basin; he saw the dry, flat plain resolve into a sprawling grid of buildings and roads. After her cancer recurrence they had crisscrossed the country for her treatments, radiation at one famous medical center and consultations at another—Duke in North Carolina, M.D. Andersen in Houston, and back again to the Dana Farber in Boston. She had promised her family that she wouldn’t give up too soon, that she would keep “fighting”—how she hated that term!—until nearly the end. It was nearly the end.

She stirred and blinked beside him. Even before her illness, she’d always fallen asleep on planes. She looked blearily at him, and he smiled. He kissed her forehead, and gently he smoothed the hair from her eyes.

No more medical treatments. They would spend a week here with her sister. Kathy would kiss and hold her nephews, and the rest of her family would come, and maybe Daniel would take her some place where she could see the sea. And she would undergo a final round of brain scans at a private research institute in Pasadena. She’d collaborated with this group, had been working with them to refine their algorithms. Now they would use those algorithms to collect all they could of her active thoughts, the patterns of her cognitive processing, before the very last procedure.

It was through these research colleagues that Kathy had gotten in touch with the second group at the institute, and the man who wanted to preserve her physical brain. He had an experimental technique to fix every protein and lipid in place before decay. He’d performed it in multiple animal studies, but not yet in a human. The catch was that the preservatives had to be pumped through a living brain, before the first steps of decay could occur. The subject would be anesthetized, of course, but still alive.

Ridiculous, Daniel had once said of this man and the private institute’s most famous goal. Ridiculous, he’d once said of what Kathy proposed. Minds cannot be preserved and understood in digital form. They can’t even be understood in their native states. Immortality is a pipe dream. The only real immortality is in the memories we leave behind for our loved ones.

But she wanted this. And so she and Daniel had flown out to L.A. two months ago for the first set of brain scans. When complete, the full set of scans would be useful to science as a progressive study of her mental functioning, even with the brain cancer. And there was a scientific rationale, and value, to the next step of the process as well. A physical human brain perfectly preserved. Preserved so that it could be sliced and studied in unprecedented detail, the ultrastructure of neuronal connections traced with the most advanced of microscopic imaging techniques. A map of an inner universe. Her gift to the world.

And maybe, in a far-flung future, a promise as well.

The plane rolled to a stop. The seatbelt sign overhead blinked off with a chime. Around them passengers were standing, retrieving overhead baggage, pushing into the aisle. Kathy and Daniel stayed still. Over the last few weeks the left side of her body had markedly weakened, and she now needed help to stand and walk. They waited while the other passengers moved past. She rested her hand on his knee. He covered her hand with his own.

The two ships had traversed light-years and millennia before meeting one another. They were each composed of over a thousand active consciousnesses, intelligences which were both melded and distinct. Some of these intelligences rode the violent windstorms of the gas giant below; some had sensors trained on the planet’s moons and the other worlds of this system. But most were focused on interior worlds of memories and dreams.

The part of the first ship which communicated with the second was intrigued by the final proposal laid out. Despite the difficulties and ethical quandaries, there was a pleasing aesthetic appeal to it. There was, perhaps, still a trace of human romantic feeling left in the ship’s programming.

Agreed, it told the second ship. The final barriers were lowered. Data sets were shared. Collaboration flowed. Parts of the two ship-minds became, in essence, a single new mind. Here, it said, pondering a technical detail, and There! Got it! it crowed as it solved a vexing issue, and then it wondered, Now what if we tried adjusting this . . .

“I know that it will never work,” Kathy said in the darkness. They lay curled together in bed, her head on his chest. “But I want to hope that it will work, you know? The way we still hoped when they first found my cancer. . .”

He knew. His arm tightened around her.

“And anyway, it’s still important. Just like that clinical trial I tried was important, even if it didn’t work out for me. It still resulted in useful data for others. It perhaps still lay down the foundation for something in the future. And you know, in the far future, if this new study ever does work out the way that they want, I’ll get a free mind upload!” She laughed a little.

“I’ll have to get one, too,” he said lightly.

“You can. They promised to set up a free account for you. Perk of me being an early adopter and all that.”

“I’ll be sure to write them a Yelp review from cyberspace of what the afterlife is like.”

“Do that. Gunther would be so pleased.”

Dr. Gunther was the director of the project at the private research institute, as well as founder of the spin-off company that hoped to sell immortality to its customers. Years ago, Daniel had mocked an article on mind-uploading which Dr. Gunther had written for the popular press. Life contained too many ironies for Daniel to keep track.

Kathy took a breath. “At least. . . at least it feels like I’m leaving something behind, you know?”

You are, he thought. Oh, you are.

She traced his face in the darkness—his cheek, the line of his jaw. “If it did work—if I could—if there was some kind of me in the future, I would come back for you. I would find you.”

He kissed her hand. “Do that,” he said.

There were many issues to consider. The original mind under study had lived for 96 Earth years, and it was possible to resurrect that mind at any time point of that life. The exact timing would be critical. It would set the parameters for the reunion. And there were modifications to be made to the second mind, too. An iteration of this second mind spoke now through the second ship, but she/they wanted a reconstruction closer to the original. The melded Ship-Mind considered carefully. . .

Memories. Her hand in his as they walked under autumn trees. The feel of her bare skin against his. The first night he saw her, in a crowded restaurant in St. Louis; her eyes had lifted to his, large and curious and open. The first time that he met her parents. The first time that she met his. Their stupid little spats, and the messes that she made in the kitchen. Quiet evenings at home, cooking together and then reading or watching TV. A vacation that they’d taken in the Florida Keys, staying in cheap motels on the fly. They drove the Overseas Highway down the chain of islands, the ocean stretching away to either side. A limitless sky curved overhead and touched the water. All that land was so flat and so full of light.

The day they learned that she had cancer. The day they learned that it had recurred.

The stars at Yellowstone.

Last memories. All those people in Kathy’s sister’s house; Kathy’s nephews running and shrieking and then climbing up beside her for a cuddle and story. Her parents breaking down and pretending not to. He and Kathy spent the last night alone, in a nearby hotel. In the morning her family all gathered at the clinic: her sister, her brother, her parents and him. If they hadn’t felt it intrusive, his own parents would have flown to be there. They had loved Kathy, too.

When it was time, he alone went with her to the room where the procedure was to be done. He held her hand as the anesthesia was started. Her eyes looked calmly into his. Then they closed.

They didn’t let him stay for the rest. They took him away. He tried to watch through the glass, but his eyes were so blurred with tears that he couldn’t see.

Right there. It had identified the time point at which to start the simulation.

It was a beautiful summer day in southern California and he was thirty years old and his wife was dying. He couldn’t do anything about it. So he was walking down a street in search of a bakery that sold macarons because Kathy loved those French pastries. She was several blocks away, undergoing her last brain scan at the research institute. In two days she planned to take the next step, and then she would be gone.

Gone. He still couldn’t understand it. It was a blank space in his mind, the edge where the world ends, a rip in space-time. Gone. No. His mind stuttered and stopped. Pastries. The travel website claimed that the best macarons in Pasadena were sold at this particular bakery. So Daniel was going to find it for Kathy. He could do that much.

He’d been walking for a while, it seemed, trying not to think past the moment, not to cry or shake. He passed a bakery that sold only cupcakes, then a shop that sold only fair trade chocolates. There were charming cafes crowded with beautiful young people. The women wore sundresses or spaghetti strap tank tops and shorts. He couldn’t mark when he first sensed the change. The sun was still bright, but the air felt chill. The bakery was supposed to be right here; he had his phone out to check. There was something wrong with the phone. The map on its screen wasn’t possible.

He looked around him again. The neighborhood was still chic and charming, but all else was changed. Yet he knew this place.

In a daze, he put away his phone and kept walking. Yes, there were cobblestones under his feet. Yes, there was the Greek diner where he and Kathy used to sometimes grab breakfast. There was the bagel shop where they had sometimes gone instead. The palm trees of L.A. were gone. In their place, autumn trees burned in reds and golds. People walked by in light jackets. He was wearing one, too.

He knew, without looking, that if he turned around he would see the towers of the medical research center where he and Kathy had earned their degrees. Ahead and to his left he saw the building where she had rented a tiny apartment, where he and she had lived together so blissfully, unofficially, before their marriage.

His heart pounded. His steps turned.

But before the apartment building there was a stretch of little shops and restaurants, and there was a coffee house right there. He didn’t need to go in. A young woman was standing just outside, waiting for him. She stood easily, straight-backed, glowing with health. She wore a black pea coat and a red tartan scarf and a smile that cut open his heart.

“How–?” he said. And even as his pulse raced, he was aware of some external force helping to calm him, regulating levels of adrenaline and shock.

She looked into his eyes. “I made a promise,” she said. “I told you that I would come back and find you.”

He found himself laughing as the realization set in—the absurd, wondrous, astonishing explanation for it all. “We’re both dead, then,” he said.

She laughed, too. “Long dead. And we’ve both lived dozens of iterations of lives since. But this is the first one where I found you again. Some of the record keeping on Old Earth was just terrible.”

He just kept smiling at her stupidly, drinking her in.

“Thank you for the macarons,” she added. “They were delicious. Would you like to know about the rest of your life?”

The door to the coffee house opened, and he caught the scent of dark roast as a customer walked out. Cool air filled his lungs. Sunlight limned all the edges of the world.

He was real, he was alive, and so was she. They were here together, now. She had come back for him.

“No,” he said. “Not now.”

He stepped toward her, and she stepped toward him. Her arms came up around his neck. He bent his head. Her lips were warm and soft, and parted beneath his. She kissed back hard. It was fall, he had just met the love of his life, and all around them the trees of autumn were blazing.

____

Copyright 2018 Vanessa Fogg

Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures form her home in western Michigan. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical writer. Her stories have appeared in Bracken, Metaphorosis, Mythic Delirium, The Future Fire, and more. Her fantasy novelette, The Lilies of Dawn, is available in print and ebook from Annorlunda Books. Vanessa is fueled by green tea. For a complete bibliography and more, visit her website.

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