Fiction


by Ian McHugh

  

Part One: To The End of the Earth

“Which way did my mother go?” Rhy-lee asked her father one day.

“North,” he said, and pointed without looking. Young as she was, she could see the small collapse that happened inside him when he heard the question, knowing that one day she, too, would leave him. ‘Distant heart’, her name meant. Her grandmother and aunts made sure that Rhy-lee and her father could hear when they said that her name was well chosen.

Rhy-lee loved her father. But even so, in her quiet moments, she took to climbing the ridge above the village, where she would sit with the warm red-and-white brush of her tail curled around her legs and just the inquisitive tip of her nose sticking out from the hood of her parka. She would look out from the top of the steep north face of the downs, over the forest and the bare plain beyond, all the way to the horizon.

Rhy-lee watched the plain change its colours, season by season, white to green to yellow to brown and back to white again. She wondered what her mother, that mysterious woman, had found out there, and whether she was wandering still.  Her mother’s name, Tiere-lene, meant ‘never turn’.

As she grew older, Rhy-lee began to set out on treks of her own. Some curiosity would catch her – a circling hawk, a distant crag that she had never climbed – or she would be taken by the simple urge to walk, and she would be off. For single days, at first, then for one night, then two. She knew her father fretted while she was gone, and that her grandmother and aunts would mutter among themselves where he could hear. But her wandering heart would not be stilled.

She tried to resist it, for a time, and become so miserable and ill that her father chased her out the door. When she returned, tired, filthy and elated by the things she had discovered, her father chucked her under the chin and said, “Come, tell me your stories by the fire.”

Once, she was away for three nights and returned with a bloody gash on her forehead that would certainly scar. In her hands, she carried a pair of antlers. She had been to the forest, she said, where she had been startled by a stag who accused her of coming to hunt his harem. She had tried to retreat but the stag had blood in his eye and insisted on a fight. She showed her father her knife, broken just above the hilt. The antlers she offered him as a gift, but when she saw his sick look and the tears in his eyes, she dropped them to the ground and hugged him fiercely.

“Soon, now,” said one of her aunts, where Rhy-lee and her father could hear, and the others nodded in sage agreement.

“Well enough that it happens before she marries and has a man and children to leave behind,” said her grandmother.

So they were dismayed when a young man of the village named Culm-mane, a homebody like her father, offered her his shawl and she accepted.

Her father refused any dowry. “You know what she is,” he said. He addressed himself to Culm-mane, but his eyes were on Rhy-lee. “She has her mother’s heart. Make best of the time you have with her, and live for what children she gives you.”

Rhy-lee and Culm-mane were married and, in due course, Rhy-lee gave birth to twin sons. Yfan-wyn and Aoin-rhys they were named, when they reached their second year – ‘secret path’ and ‘safe haven’ and, like Rhy-lee, their names reflected their natures. Yfan-wyn was an explorer from the moment he could wriggle out of his bassinet and squirm across the floor. Aoin-rhys was his father’s son and would watch from the bassinet, his nose tucked under the fluffy tip of his tail, while his brother went about his business.

Rhy-lee loved her husband and adored her sons. But still, she obeyed her wandering heart. Every so often, once her boys were weened, she would give it release for one night, or two, or three. But she always came back. She would touch her nose to Culm-mane’s and pick up her two boys and it was enough.

As he grew older, she began to take Yfan-wyn with her. He would come back, his eyes as bright as his mother’s, and regale his grandfather and father and brother with his adventures. Aoin-rhys preferred to stay at home with his father or, when Culm-mane was out tending the village flocks, with his grandfather.

And then Culm-mane was killed. He was out searching one night for a missing ewe and her lambs and found the animals being butchered by a company of wolves, one lamb already spitted over the fire. The wolves caught Culm-mane and tossed him over a cliff.

“Wolves,” Rhy-lee snarled. For a week, she stayed home and grieved with her boys. Then she went out. She took her bow and iron traps and hunting spear. She was gone for six nights.

When she returned, she had three wolf tails hanging from her belt. She would not speak to her sons of what she had done, just touched her nose to each of theirs and held them and, later, sang them to sleep with a cracked and weary voice. Afterward, sitting with her beside the fire, her father chucked her under the chin, which he hadn’t done since she was a child, and looked at her with serious eyes.

He held her while she wept. He did not comment – and growled at Rhy-lee’s grandmother and aunts for their comments – when Rhy-lee tanned the three wolf tails and sewed them onto her parka.

After that, Rhy-lee returned to sitting at the top of the ridge, gazing north. Yfan-wyn would sit with her, the two of them silent side-by-side, tucked up in their parkas and with their tails around their knees. And the urge grew in Rhy-lee – long delayed – to go, to walk and not stop and fill herself up with the world.

Aoin-rhys stayed home and sat on his grandfather’s lap by the fire. “Mother will leave soon, won’t she, Grandfather?” he said, one day. “And Yfan-wyn will want to go with her.”

“Yes,” said his grandfather.

“And I will stay here with you.”

His grandfather smiled with tears in his eyes. “I would like that.”

So, when the day came that Rhy-lee had to go, her father said to her, “Take Yfan-wyn. Aoin-rhys will stay with me.”

Rhy-lee started to shake her head. “It is dangerous, out in the world.”

“Then better if he wanders with you than being left to wander on his own,” said her father.

Rhy-lee recalled the nights she had lain awake as a child, camped out in the open and staring at the sky, trying to find some memory of her mother, wondering why she couldn’t have waited, just a little while, and taken Rhy-lee with her. She looked from one son to the other. Aoin-rhys hugged her hard, then Yfan-wyn took her hand.

When they were packed, Rhy-lee’s father chased her aunts and grandmother back into their houses, then he and Aoin-rhys accompanied her and Yfan-wyn to the top of the ridge.

“Thank you,” Rhy-lee said to her father, touching her nose to his.

He chucked her under the chin. “Come back one day,” he said.

Then Aoin-rhys and his grandfather watched while Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn picked their way down the steep north face, stayed until they had splashed across the river and disappeared beneath the eaves of the forest.

And then they went home.

Yfan-wyn stuck close beside his mother as they went deeper into the forest. He was not so frightened, yet, but she had never before taken him beyond its fringes and he knew the story of the antlers above the mantel in his grandfather’s house.

Rhy-lee chose a path where the locked branches of the trees were most dense and so the undergrowth the sparsest. The leaves on the trees were brown and brittle. Many had fallen already, breaking up the canopy with patches of light. Underfoot, the moss that coated the rocks and the exposed roots of the trees was brown, too, and powder-dry.

At a creek crossing under open sky, pushing through thick bracken, they came face-to-face with a doe and her fawn. For an instant all of them froze. The doe and fawn looked at them with enormous, frightened eyes. Rhy-lee raised her hands, showing her empty palms. She caught Yfan-wyn’s arm and led him into the creek to splash across.

Yfan-wyn stumbled, staring at the deer, and Rhy-lee had to drag him upright. He took in the deer’s narrow faces and frail-looking arms with their short, black-hoofed fingers, the barrels of their bodies poised on spindle legs, tensed to spring and flee on all fours. He couldn’t make them fit with the frightening tale of the stag his mother had fought in her youth.

Then they were out of the creek again and the deer were lost behind the bracken screen.

At night they rested in the high boughs of a tree, where wolves couldn’t reach.

“The stalking cats won’t trouble us,” Rhy-lee said. Those beasts would take a deer, but avoided people who were eaters of meat.

“It feels strange to not be going home,” said Yfan-wyn, not quite willing to voice his fear.

“Yes,” Rhy-lee agreed. “It does.”

“It feels good,” he said, because it felt like that, too.

He saw the flash of her teeth and eyes. “Yes.”

He was quiet a moment, reassured by her smile. Then the magnitude of what they were about welled up again, so much greater than any of their past wanderings together. “How far do you think we will go?”

His mother looked past him, as though seeing past the trees and over the horizon. “Who knows?”

“I miss Grandfather and Aoin-rhys,” he said, softly.

“Yes. Me too.”

“I miss Father.”

“Yes.” The word was a rasp of air, with barely any sound.

Yfan-wyn hesitated, then confessed an idea that he had been nurturing since before his father died. “Perhaps we could find the end of the earth, so we can go back and tell them.”

She reached across to chuck him under the chin. “I think they would like that.”

When they came, at last, to the far side of the forest, Rhy-lee stopped and looked out over the vast brown plain, speckled with the first dusting of snow. She felt Yfan-wyn slip his hand into hers.

“It is a long way to the end of the earth,” he said.

“Yes. It is.”

Rhy-lee took in the distance to the horizon and filled her lungs. She felt bigger somehow, as though life in the village had kept her small, and now at last, out here, she had the room to grow.

They walked throughout the day. When Yfan-wyn began to lag, Rhy-lee slung her pack around to her front and carried him on her back. They shot hares for their dinner, and Yfan-wyn was very pleased to have shot his own, cleanly and on the first attempt. The animals’ fur was speckled white, their winter coats already growing through. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn camped in a little hollow that would hide the light of their fire from curious eyes.

In the morning, they awoke to find snow falling thickly. There was a rumble in the earth beneath them. They sat up and saw bison streaming past, a vast herd of them, jostling and lowing in their simple tongue, more than beasts but not-quite people. The steam of their breaths hung in a cloud over the creatures’ backs.

Another movement caught Rhy-lee’s eye. She gasped and grabbed at Yfan-wyn, but it was too late to duck out of sight. Stooping grey figures loped towards them – three in a staggered line, their lean bodies clad in rough furs, heavy hunting spears dangling from bony paws and round shields slung across their backs. Their yellow eyes were fixed on the bison herd. The closest wolf almost stepped on Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn before it glanced down. Its eyes met Rhy-lee’s, the flat gaze of a predator, with no recognition of one person to another.

And then the wolf was leaping over their little hollow, accelerating.

A surge went through the herd, and the bison were running. The wolves yipped and whooped. A bison bawled in pain, crying out for help. Wolves closed in from all sides.

Rhy-lee clutched at Yfan-wyn’s parka. Her heart rattled. She lifted him, pushing. “Move,” she said. “Move!”

Quickly, they gathered up their packs and weapons.

“Don’t run,” said Rhy-lee, but she hurried him, nonetheless.

She didn’t let Yfan-wyn slow until the wolf pack and their kill were far behind, long lost in the veil of falling snow. They forded a river where it sprawled over shallow beds of rounded stones. Yfan-wyn slipped over and had to be pulled up spluttering from the water. On the far bank, Rhy-lee scooped out a hollow in the settling snow, and made a low mound of the stuff for a windbreak. Yfan-wyn sat and shivered while she lit a fire, his teeth chattering so hard Rhy-lee could hear them over the sound of the river. He stayed there, huddled in his parka and sheepskin blanket, with only his sodden tail visible, drying in the heat, while Rhy-lee went back to the ford with her spear and fished.

The land around the river was so flat that it seemed the banks hardly rose from the water at all. The horizon was lost from view, and the grey-white land and the grey-white river and the grey-white sky all blended together.

Rhy-lee stayed awake after darkness fell. During the night the snow stopped and the clouds rolled aside. She watched the stars wheel overhead. A few hours before dawn, she awoke Yfan-wyn to take his turn.

He yawned himself alert while she rolled up in her blankets and went to sleep. Yfan-wyn pushed back his hood, hoping that the cold around his head would keep him awake, and the better to listen. His ears twitched, searching for any sound over the chuckle of the river as it played with its stones. The land about was still.

In the morning, there was a blue sky and ice floes on the river. On the horizon to the north, they saw that the land rose and cracked.

Yfan-wyn took a turn at fishing, this time. There was a curious restfulness in it, standing tense beside his mother with the icy water rippling against their shins, spears poised to strike the instant any silver shape darted away from their shadows. His feet were numb with cold. All he could feel was a dull sensation of the rounded pebbles underneath.

Sitting down for a hot breakfast, he spoke the thought that had been turning in his head since the previous morning. “Mother, how did you kill three wolves?”

Rhy-lee didn’t answer immediately, but sat and looked out to the horizon. At length, she said, “Let us not waste a good day.”

When they reached the cracked upland, late in the morning, and climbed its slope, they saw that they would not be able to make their way along the top. It was so broken apart by the criss-cross of cracks and ravines that there was no way across.

“Through the ravines, then,” said Rhy-lee. Before they descended, she looked back over the plain. There was a herd moving along the river in the distance, of bison or caribou, dark against the snow. Closer at hand, white herons waded in the shallow water, fishing with their beaks. She saw no other movement.

It was slow going through the ravines and tiring. Sometimes, when they seemed to be turning too far from their course or came to a dead end, they scrambled up the crumbled, heath-covered sides and along the top to a crack that better met their needs. Occasionally, one or other of them had to climb up just to get their bearings, then back down into the deepening shadows below. At nightfall, they camped on a stub of ridge top that was sheer on three sides. Rhy-lee took first watch with an arrow nocked loosely to her bow.

Yfan-wyn was woken by grey pre-dawn light. His mother still sat watch. She looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.

“What is it?” he asked.

“We have been followed,” she said.

Yfan-wyn felt a chill of fear. “By the wolves?”

“One wolf,” she said. “Alone and therefore sick or mad. Probably driven out by the pack we saw. It would have crossed our trail while it was still following them.”

“What will we do?”

“We shall have to kill it,” she answered. “Today. We will find a place to ambush it.” She reached over to squeeze his hand.

Yfan-wyn followed her through the ravines with his ears pointed backward, straining for any sound of steps behind. He looked back frequently, dreading what he might see. Whenever he turned his attention to the placement of his feet, the fur stood up along his spine. When, inevitably, he stumbled, Rhy-lee picked him up by his parka and set him in front of her.

“I will keep watch behind,” she said.

She called a halt not long afterwards. They were in an unusually long, straight stretch of ravine. “Here,” Rhy-lee said. She pointed up to the ridge top ahead, where the ravine bent to the right. A clump of snow-capped boulders perched on the rim. “I will hide there and shoot when it comes past here. You,” she said, turning to look up the scree beside them, “hide up there. Once you hear me shoot it, jump up and shoot it from behind if you can and I haven’t killed it cleanly.”

Yfan-wyn chewed anxiously at his lower lip, his tail curled up behind his legs. “I want to stay with you.”

She shook her head. “You’ll be safer this way. It might have a shield. If I don’t hit it cleanly and it comes at me, I don’t want you close.” She knelt in front of him and held his shoulders. “And if you’re behind it, you can shoot it if it charges me.”

He swallowed, then nodded, wide-eyed.

They went past the bend in the ravine to climb up, so that the wolf wouldn’t see where they had ascended. Rhy-lee lay her spear beside her feet and stood with her bow ready at the place she had chosen. She watched Yfan-wyn scamper along and throw himself flat where she had told him to hide. He looked so tiny, carrying his bow and cut-down spear. He was tiny, she thought.

She squatted down behind the boulders and stilled herself, bow across her knees. She listened.

For a time, she heard only the wind, humming softly along the cracks in the broken landscape. Then a clink, a scrape of grit over stone. A low cough, half caught words – the wolf, muttering to itself. Mad, she thought.

Then silence.

Rhy-lee strained her ears. Nothing.

There was a clatter of falling rocks, a loud growl, a scream from Yfan-wyn. Rhy-lee leapt to her feet, raising and drawing her bow in the same motion.

Yfan-wyn sprinted towards her along the ridge top, his weapons abandoned. The wolf bounded after, gaining quickly despite a lopsided gait. Rhy-lee glimpsed ragged clothes and patchy fur. It was armed with a stone-headed axe, but no shield or other weapons.

“Get down!” Rhy-lee cried.

Yfan-wyn was too panicked to hear. The wolf ducked lower. With a curse, Rhy-lee dropped her bow and grabbed her spear. She charged. Now Yfan-wyn threw himself down in the snow. Rhy-lee vaulted over him. The wolf snarled, showing rotted teeth. Its skin was covered in scaly growths where it was bald. One eye was grown shut and tears of pus streaked its cheek.

She ducked under a wild swing of the wolf’s axe and stabbed at its belly. The wolf batted the spear upwards with its free hand. Rhy-lee’s momentum sent her crashing into its legs. She pivoted, using its own weight to fling it to the ground.

Yfan-wyn scrambled to get clear. The wolf’s axe flailed and he squealed. Rhy-lee didn’t see where it struck him.

Rhy-lee stabbed at the wolf’s chest but it moved at the last instant and she missed its heart. The wolf mewled like a hurt child. Again Rhy-lee thrust the spear and again the wolf moved and cried out. Rhy-lee screamed in anguish and struck once more. This time she struck true.

The wolf gripped the shaft of the spear, holding its head and shoulders clear of the snow. Its tongue flickered between its teeth. Its last breath rattled out in a fitful cloud of vapour. The wolf spat blood.

Its head fell back and it lay still.

Rhy-lee sank slowly down onto her haunches. The aftermath of the struggle, with her blood still hot, made her shake.

She wiped her face and looked up. Yfan-wyn sat a short distance away, regarding her with unblinking eyes. Blood seeped between his fingers, clamped around his calf, and speckled the snow beside his foot. His lips were pale, peeled back from his teeth.

“Yfan-wyn!”

She rushed over to him, hugged him, gently pulled aside his hands to see the wound. The axe had caught him above the top of his sheepskin boot. She pulled up his trouser leg to reveal a gash just below his knee. The sparse fur of his leg was matted with blood.

Rhy-lee made herself take a slower breath. “Let’s wash it and see how deep it is,” she said.

She hurried over to her pack for her water bottle and medicine kit. Kneeling again beside Yfan-wyn, she carefully slid off his boot, then splashed water over the cut. She peered anxiously into it. The gash was wide, but not deep.

“It’ll bruise around the joint,” she said. “You won’t be able to bend it or stand on it tomorrow.”

Yfan-wyn didn’t respond. His gaze was fixed on the dead wolf. It was good for him to know what killing was like, she told herself, the awfulness of it. But still, his shock was distressing. Rhy-lee tried not to think about how badly things had almost gone.

“This will hurt.” She unrolled a parcel of lime from inside the medicine kit and pressed a handful onto the wound. Yfan-wyn gasped. Rhy-lee quickly rinsed her hand, then bandaged his shin.

“The body will draw attention,” she said. “We need to be away.”

Yfan-wyn got himself back down into the ravine, then Rhy-lee carried him as far as she was able. They camped early and watched the crows descend in the distance. Their gathering would be visible for miles around.

“We can go home, back to Grandfather and Aoin-rhys, if you wish,” she said.

Yfan-wyn shook his head. “We haven’t found the end of the earth yet.”

Rhy-lee found a laugh in that, just a breath. She sobered. “I was afraid, when I saw the wolf chasing you.”

“Do you want to go home, Mother?” he asked.

Part of her did, the small part that feared the cost of her wandering, feared losing Yfan-wyn, never seeing her father or Aoin-rhys again. The greater part of her answered. “No.” Hearing herself say it made her more certain. “No. We will find the end.”

She let Yfan-wyn take his turn at watch, once he had rested, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

As Rhy-lee had predicted, Yfan-wyn’s leg had stiffened and swollen by morning and would not take his weight. Again, she carried him. She was thankful when, before noon, they reached the end of the cracked country and climbed up to find themselves on a plateau. This land was not so flat as the river floodplain they had left behind, but contoured instead with hummocks and hollows and low folded ridges, dotted with boulders large and small, left behind by the ice of ages past. Low heath bushes grew wherever the landscape offered the tiniest shelter.

The snow was deeper on the open ground, though, and soft with a new fall overnight. Rhy-lee was unable to carry Yfan-wyn far.

She found a cleft at the bottom of a ridge, partly hidden by a screen of heath and deep enough to shelter them from the wind and any casual gaze. “We’ll rest,” she said, “and see how your leg is tomorrow.”

“I can walk,” said Yfan-wyn – and indeed he could put his weight on it and hobble about.

Rhy-lee chucked him under the chin and said, “You will walk better tomorrow or the next day. There will be rabbits hereabouts, probably not all hibernating yet. I’ll set some snares.”

Once that was done, she opened the dressing on Yfan-wyn’s leg and checked the wound, then they took turns to nap through the afternoon. In the evening, she went out to check her snares and came back with a pair of rabbits, which she gutted and skinned. Yfan-wyn had set a fire, but Rhy-lee waited until full dark before lighting it. They sat close to watch the rabbits char, their noses dry in the heat of the flames and the fur of their tails hot to the touch, wrapped around their feet.

A soft sound, a clink of two hollow things bumping, made Rhy-lee’s ears twitch. She listened. When it came again she reached for her spear.

A massive silhouette rose up above the edge of the cleft. Rhy-lee froze. Bear.

A gust of wind brought its scent down to them, a pungent aroma of maleness and carnivore. Yfan-wyn gasped, only now noticing the arrival. Rhy-lee put her hand on his forearm to hold him still.

The bear stepped into the light. Rhy-lee’s gaze travelled up from his black claws, hanging over the edge of the cleft, each one as long as her hand. The bear’s limbs and torso were covered in a pelt of yellow-white fur that her spear and arrows would probably not even penetrate. He wore an apron made of the long bones of old prey and vanquished enemies, bound together with leather thong and decorated with feathers, claws and teeth. A girdle of wolf scalps bound the apron at his waist. He leaned on an iron-headed spear that Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn would have struggled to even lift between them. Black eyes peered down at them from a startlingly narrow head.

Slowly, Rhy-lee stood. She picked up the spitted rabbits and held one up to the bear. She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Please, won’t you share our meal?”

Blood pounded in her ears. She waited for the bear’s response. Then he made a rumble deep in his throat – an approving sound, Rhy-lee thought – and stepped carefully down into the cleft. Just as carefully, he lowered himself to his haunches. The rattle of his bone apron put Rhy-lee’s hackles up. Their little fire looked tiny between his enormous feet, a spark. This close, he seemed to block out the stars.

He reached out and took the rabbit, so delicately that Rhy-lee barely felt the brush of fingers large enough to crush her head. “Thank you,” he said. The deep growl of his voice put her in mind of waterfalls in the canyons of the highlands.

Rhy-lee resumed her seat. She offered the remaining rabbit to Yfan-wyn. He didn’t move. The whites were visible around his eyes, his fur standing up all over. She took the rabbit off the spit and snapped its spine, then lifted Yfan-wyn’s hand and closed his fingers around the hind portion. He blinked, looking down in surprise.

The bear observed in silence. His rabbit dangled, untouched, from his finger and thumb, his acceptance of their hospitality not yet consummated. It was a morsel for him, barely a mouthful.

“You are far from home, little foxes,” he said.

“Yes,” said Rhy-lee.

“You have wandering hearts, as I have heard your people say. I have seen others such as you, over the years.” He lifted his chin to scratch his throat, seeming to be musing more to himself than them. “It is a curious affliction for a people who thrive when closed behind walls of stone.”

Thoughts of her mother boiled up. Rhy-lee wondered if this bear had ever met her. Might he have killed her, if he had? The bear noticed Rhy-lee’s reaction. She said, “My mother came this way, when I was a child.”

“And you seek her still.”

Rhy-lee shook her head at that, but inside, she could not be certain that it wasn’t true.

“I found your wolf,” said the bear. “That was well done. A mad wolf is a threat to young bears, who are wont to stray.”

Rhy-lee inclined her head but kept her eyes on him. The bear’s smell was overpowering. He examined his rabbit, but still did not eat.

“You have killed wolves before, I see,” he said.

“Wolves murdered my husband,” she replied.

“Ah.” He regarded her a moment, then added, “Yet you did not take the tail from this one.”

Rhy-lee said, “This was necessity. A mercy, even.”

“Rather than passion,” the bear said. He tipped his head to one side and his top lip curled up, a quizzical smile. His teeth were thicker than Rhy-lee’s fingers, and as long. “Mercy for wolves?” He harrumphed, then chuckled. As he dipped his head, she saw the scars that crisscrossed his muzzle and brow.

The bear sniffed, looking at Yfan-wyn. “Your son?”

Rhy-lee’s heart lurched. “Yes.”

The bear nodded slowly. “I have a son. He is grown, now, and left his mother.”

“I have two sons,” said Rhy-lee. “The other stayed home with his grandfather.”

“Ah,” said the bear, returning his gaze to her. “He has not your wandering heart.”

“No. Only Yfan-wyn.”

“‘Yfan-wyn’?” the bear repeated. He addressed Yfan-wyn again, “It is a good name. I am Inanakurekuri – ‘the death of all wolves’. Where does your secret path take you, little fox, if not in search of your lost grandmother?”

Yfan-wyn stared up at the gigantic being, his lips peeled back in terror. Rhy-lee answered for him, “Yfan-wyn wishes to see the end of the earth.”

“Aha!” The bear slapped his knee, making them both jump. He smiled broadly, a terrifying sight. “It is a fine ambition. A pilgrimage well worth the journey.”

Wonder made Yfan-wyn’s eyes even more huge. He forgot his fear long enough to gasp, “You have been there?”

He shrank back as Inanakurekuri’s gaze turned back to him. “I have.”

“Is it far?” asked Rhy-lee.

“Further than you have come, I expect. But not so very far,” Inanakurekuri said. He shrugged. “Further for little legs.”

Rhy-lee met his eyes in silence for a moment and felt no sense of threat. “I am Rhy-lee,” she said.

Inanakurekuri nodded. “Thank you, Rhy-lee of the wandering heart, for the hospitality of your fire.” He lifted his rabbit, peered at it briefly, then stuck the whole carcass in his mouth, holding it behind his teeth while he pulled out the skewer. He chewed three, four times, then swallowed. “I will rest.”

With that, he lay down his spear and shuffled around to lie with his back to them, filling half the cleft. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn sat still, listening to his deep, steady breathing. With excruciating slowness, Rhy-lee turned to Yfan-wyn. She carefully slipped the sheepskin blanket from his shoulders, then rolled it and placed it in his arms. Then she reached behind him and picked up his pack. She held the straps for him to slip his arms into and handed him his bow and spear. She picked up her own gear and, moving as silently as they could, they padded out of the cleft.

They hurried across the moonlit plateau, Yfan-wyn skip-hopping on his injured leg to keep up.

“Was he really asleep, Mother?” he asked.

“No,” said Rhy-lee. “No, he wasn’t.”

“Why did he pretend?”

“For his honour. Because he had decided not to kill us.”

They saw bears twice more over the following days, but only at a great distance. Each time, they slunk low and hurried on their way. Winter’s march reversed, briefly, as the skies stayed clear and the sun offered a last burst of summer warmth. Some of the snow melted, and everywhere there were tinkling rivulets of water, that pooled in the lower ground. Rabbits and other small creatures were out to nibble up the exposed grasses and heath, their coats caught between summer brown and winter white. Geese flew over in formations that spanned the sky. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn stopped to watch, shading their eyes with their hands.

They hiked for short days while Yfan-wyn’s leg healed, starting late and camping in the afternoon, until he said, one day, “I can keep going,” when Rhy-lee made to stop.

She surveyed the land ahead. A line of hills, steep but low, marched across in front of the horizon. Rhy-lee pointed to a gap between two hills. “Can you get that far?”

Yfan-wyn eyed the distance doubtfully but nodded. “I think so.”

As it turned out, his leg began to ache before they reached the hills, and his pace slowed. He was determined, though, and Rhy-lee let him go on, even though it meant that it was nearly dark when they reached their goal.

Yfan-wyn’s leg was stiff again when he woke the next day. His mother smiled at him and chucked him under the chin. “A short day’s walk, today,” she said.

He grinned, feeling sheepish, but still pleased by yesterday’s effort. She gave him a little while to hobble around the campsite and loosen up before they set out.

The valley curved gently to the west at first, then doglegged back to the east. The hills were wider across than they had looked from the south. The hills of the valley grew steeper, smooth and nearly vertical.

“This is a made place,” said Rhy-lee, softly.

Yfan-wyn’s hackles stood straight up. “Made?”

She nodded. “Let us see.”

Her ears were up, showing no sign of fear. Yfan-wyn’s wanted to lie flat against his head. His mother did not slow, though, and he scurried after.

Another turn pointed the valley almost directly northward. Here, it widened out, and here Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn stopped.

Wooden posts flanked the path – whole tree trunks stripped of leaves and branches but otherwise uncarved. More posts surrounded both sides of the space. On top of each post had been placed a skull. Yfan-wyn moved closer to his mother.

“Hunters,” she said.

Alarmed, he turned to see. “Where?”

“The skulls,” she said. “Look – wolves, panthers.” She pointed up at one of the posts nearest to them. The skull on top of it was broad and heavy. “That is a bear.”

Yfan-wyn looked up at the other near post. “What about that one?”

It was a similar shape to the panther skulls, but much bigger and with bizarrely oversized fangs, like scythe blades.

“A sabre-toothed lion!” his mother exclaimed.

“I thought they were only in stories,” said Yfan-wyn.

“So did I,” said Rhy-lee. “It has been here a long time.”

All of the skulls had the decayed, crumbling look of bones that had been out in the weather for many years.

Yfan-wyn took a step away from her and looked around with renewed wonder. “What place is this? What could defeat all of these hunters?” He thought of Inanakurekuri and the others like him that they had glimpsed. It seemed to him that a white bear should defeat any person or creature in the world.

“I think I know,” said Rhy-lee.

She strode past him. The ground inside the ring of posts was filled with low hillocks, covered in heath and moss. Yfan-wyn thought he spied pale rocks peeking through the plant cover. No… Not rocks.

Dry wood?

His mother reached the closest hillock and, with a heave, pulled aside the heather branches. The object was covered in moss and so large – longer than his mother was tall – that it took a moment for Yfan-wyn to realise that it was another skull. Long tusks descended from its jaw, their points buried in the earth. Rhy-lee pulled aside more heath, revealing a rib cage the size of a shepherd’s hut.

“A mammoth,” Yfan-wyn breathed.

His mother nodded. They looked around. The other hillocks – all of the hillocks – were really enormous, overgrown skeletons.

“It is a graveyard,” said Rhy-lee.

Yfan-wyn stared at the monstrous skull in front of him. He tried to imagine what these greatest of all people had been like when they were alive. Even one as fearsome as Inanakurekuri would have had to yield to these. He felt a sudden thrill of fear.

“Mother, we should go. Before any mammoths come.”

Rhy-lee shook her head. “There have been no living mammoths here for generations. This is an old place, long forgotten.”

It was true. The decayed skulls on the posts and the overgrown skeletons said as much. He could feel, too, the weight of time and long years of stillness.

“But you are right, we should go,” Rhy-lee said, after a while. “This is no place for the likes of us.”

Quietly, they picked their way across to the other side of the graveyard, where the valley opened out once more onto the surrounding plateau.

Rhy-lee paused to look back. She put her hand on Yfan-wyn’s shoulder. “Now that was a rare thing,” she said.

It felt wrong, somehow, to just scurry away from the place. After a moment’s thought, she took an arrow from her quiver and went back to lie it at the foot of the nearest guardian post. Yfan-wyn followed her, uncertainly, and laid a second arrow across hers.

She reached out to scratch him behind the ear.

“Are there any mammoths, anymore?” he asked.

“Not in this part of the world.” Might there be somewhere else? Now that would be a wonder. “Perhaps in the east,” she said, “where the land stretches on. Perhaps there might be some there.”

“Perhaps we will go there one day.”

She looked down at him with a smile. “Perhaps.”

By the end of the day, the plateau had started to rise. It continued to slope steadily as they continued in the morning. The sky grew leaden again, clouds heavy with snow. As they neared the crest, Yfan-wyn saw that the rise broke off along a ragged edge. Beyond, he could see a white horizon, a perfectly even, barely perceptible curve. His ears caught a sound, and he saw from their twitching that his mother’s did too, a low rumble, a crashing and hissing that rose and fell but never stopped. He caught a scent – salty, but more than that.

And then, suddenly, they were at the edge. Below, water smashed and boiled over the feet of black cliffs. A few crags and broken spits of rock scattered out from the cliffs but, beyond them, there was no more land, only chill grey water and floating ice.

“The end of the earth!” Yfan-wyn breathed.

He filled his lungs with the heady smell. The wind tugged at his parka, snuck underneath to lift it from his shoulders and fill it with cold air. Beside him, his mother laughed aloud. Behind them, to either side, lay all the earth that was theirs to walk.

“The sea,” said his mother. “It is the sea!”

Movement in the water caught Yfan-wyn’s eye. Tall black fins broke the surface, piebald backs curved out of the water and under again. A blunt snout broke the surface, jaws agape to show pointed white teeth.

“What are they?”

“Hunters,” said Rhy-lee. “What their name is, I do not know.”

Yfan-wyn took a big, shuddering breath. “What will we do now?”

“Now?” She smiled. “Now we will wait for the clouds to lift and darkness to fall. Then we shall see.”

They lit a fire, back a way from the lip of the cliff and somewhat out of the wind, and huddled up together to wait. Yfan-wyn dozed on Rhy-lee’s shoulder while she chewed mutton jerky.

It snowed, briefly. Then, just on sunset, cracks appeared in the grey blanket to show a pink and mauve sky. Rhy-lee watched the sun touch the horizon, turning orange, then red, before sinking below. She glanced at the sky behind her, then nudged Yfan-wyn awake.

“Now,” she said and turned him around.

Yfan-wyn gasped.

Curtains of light rippled across the northern sky. Ghostly, dancing, never still.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It is the souls of the dead,” said a deep voice, “dancing before they are reborn into the world.”

They turned. Inanakurekuri approached, leaning on his spear to climb the last stretch of slope. This time, Rhy-lee felt no fear.

“You forgot your snares,” he said, laying a handful of rabbit corpses by Rhy-lee’s knee. He sat.

“Thank you.” She turned her gaze back to the sky. “My people say it is the birth light of the world.”

Inanakurekuri rumbled deep in his chest. “It is that, as well.”

“You followed us,” said Yfan-wyn, peeping around Rhy-lee.

The bear smiled at him. “I did. I found I had a notion to see it again, too.” He was quiet for a time, then said, “I am not one who finds sport in hunting little folk. Some do. Wolves I hunt, for necessity and satisfaction, both.” Another pause. Rhy-lee looked up at him, sitting as still as a mountain, his eyes on the lights in the sky. His black tongue came out and he licked his teeth.

“Years ago, I was badly injured and starving, unable to hunt or even gather herbs to clean my wounds. A fox found me. By then I was mad with pain.” He touched a ragged scar on the side of his belly. “This wound had turned sour, and the sickness was in my blood. In my fever, I tried to drive her away. Or kill and eat her, I do not know.

“Rather than leave me to my fate, she brought me food, herbs to cure my sickness and lime to clean and seal my cuts. When I had the strength, again, to walk, I followed her to her campsite, but when I reached it she was gone and had covered her scent. She left me a last gift of salmon, caught from the river. I left a token in exchange. When I came back, it too was gone.”

He held out something to Rhy-lee. The half-jawbone of a wolf, she saw, its teeth still attached. Angular letters were etched into its surface. “It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” he said. “While you carry it, no bear will harm you. Most wolves will think again. Perhaps you will find another wanderer who carries my Word. I cannot say that she will be your mother, but she will be a kindred heart.”

Rhy-lee felt her ears tremble. It was known that, on a rare occasion, a white bear might carve their name as an honour gift, a mark of respect when a fine deed had been done. But what had she done?

Her tail curled as she asked, “Why?”

Inanakurekuri shrugged a huge shoulder, as if not quite certain himself. “Because I like the thought of a fox who hunts wolves,” he said. Another shrug became a shake of his shoulders and head and he added, “Because my heart, too, is often distant. It would please me, if your quest was successful.”

Rhy-lee felt tears come, unexpected. A great balloon of a sob rose up from the pit of her belly, squeezing her heart on its way through her chest and bursting out between her teeth. Another followed and a third. Yfan-wyn held onto her hand with both of his.

Inanakurekuri looked at the sky. “The birth light of the world,” he said.

Yfan-wyn touched the carved jawbone. “Will we go home?”

Rhy-lee felt it, too – a longing for her father’s reassuring stillness, for Aoin-rhys’s comfortable warmth in her arms. “Yes,” she said. She wiped her eyes. A slow smile tugged the corners of her mouth. “Yes. But we will go the longer way.”

Part Two: The Long Way Home

The bull elk stood over them, hoofed fingers planted on either side. He bent his head to peer at the half-jawbone, etched with sharp-angled letters, that Rhy-lee held up for him to see. Rhy-lee’s heart battered the inside of her ribs. Antlers as wide as tree branches fenced her and Yfan-wyn in. One swipe would be enough to kill both of them.

The elk snorted. “The Word of a white bear,” he said. “Though this elk does not read such marks. This elk has little time for bears.” He growled deep in his throat and lifted his head to bellow, “Bears kill young elks!”

Rhy-lee flinched as he shook his antlers. Yfan-wyn squirmed underneath her. He had tripped when the elk charged suddenly out of the river – having watched them, seemingly unruffled, for several minutes while they filled their flasks. What had triggered the elk’s sudden change of mood, Rhy-lee had no idea. Hearing Yfan-wyn’s cry, she had turned and flung herself over her son just as the elk reached the shore.

“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” said Rhy-lee.

“‘The death of all wolves’”, said the elk. “This elk knows of that name.” He harrumphed and withdrew a short way. Cautiously, Rhy-lee got her feet under her and stood.

“It is a good thing to kill wolves,” the elk mused.

The gigantic head lunged back towards Rhy-lee. She yelped and fell over Yfan-wyn. “This elk sees that this fox, too, is the death of wolves,” said the elk, nudging his nose at the wolf tails sewed to Rhy-lee’s parka. He withdrew once more. “This is unusual for a fox, who this elk knows is littler than a wolf.”

The elk shook his head again and grimaced, as though trying to dislodge a stuck thought.

“Mother…” Yfan-wyn gasped.

Rhy-lee hissed at him to be quiet.

“A bear kills elk. Wolves kill elk,” the elk said. His voice rose with each sentence. “A bear kills wolves! A fox kills wolves!” He punched the pebbled beach. “A fox is a friend to bears! A fox–”

Rhy-lee cut him off, “You said you knew the name of Inanakurekuri.”

“Hmm?” The elk blinked at her. “Yes. This elk has seen the Word of this bear before. Or at least,” he frowned, “this elk recalls that was what the fox said who carried the bear’s Word.” He looked hard at Rhy-lee. “Perhaps this fox was that fox.” He nodded to himself. “Yes, that must be the case, for bears do not give their Words freely, this elk knows.”

“No,” said Rhy-lee, getting her feet under her again. “That wasn’t me–”

“This fox was that fox,” the elk declared. He turned and splashed back into the river. “Though this fox had no youngling with it when it was that fox.”

“Which way did she–” Rhy-lee began, then stopped. Her mouth worked silently while she reframed her question. “Which way did this fox go, when it was that fox?”

The elk dipped his muzzle into the water and snorted, making bubbles. He lifted his head again and answered, “East. And now this fox has returned from the west. This fox is going in circles.” The elk chuckled to himself. “Perhaps this fox is not so clever.”

Rhy-lee stared at him for a moment, then stooped to haul Yfan-wyn up by his collar. She hurried him across the pebble beach to the edge of the trees.

“Mother,” he exclaimed. “He’s seen her!”

“We don’t know that it’s your grandmother,” she replied, gruffly. “Inanakurekuri didn’t promise us that. And we don’t know how long ago.”

She was not inclined to press her luck by asking the elk any further questions. But still, her mind burned with the same need to know that she saw lighting Yfan-wyn’s face. Need, but also fear. What if it was her mother? Did she really want to meet that woman who had left her behind so long ago? Who had not thought to wait for her, as Rhy-lee had waited for Yfan-wyn, before she let her wandering heart take her.

“East takes us towards home,” Yfan-wyn said.

Home, Rhy-lee thought, where she had left Aoin-Rhys with her father. Aoin-rhys, who did not share her wandering heart as Yfan-wyn did, preferring the sameness and solidity of stone walls around him, like his grandfather. Like his father, Culm-mane, had done, she thought with a pang.

“Mother?”

She nodded, dragging herself back to the present, and chucked him under the chin. “We will go east,” she said. “Perhaps we will build ourselves a raft and make our journey easier for a while.”

She was pleased to see him smile at that. Yfan-wyn fidgeted with his parka. His wrists stuck out further from the sleeves than they had done when they set out from home. “You have grown,” she said.

Building the raft took most of the rest of the day and when it was done it was a rough and rickety looking thing. But it took their weight well enough to keep them dry. Rhy-lee cut long poles to push them along the shallows and fashioned rough paddles of bound twigs for when they reached the deeper water. They poled down to where the forest river emerged from the trees and camped there under the leafless eaves, looking out over the still-white plain. The forest river meandered out to join the greater watercourse that looped across the plain, both rivers fat and smooth with the first snowmelt of spring and reflecting the darkening blue of the sky.

A breeze had come up by morning, that wrinkled the water and sent bits of cloud scudding overhead. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn poled the raft out onto the great river. Rhy-lee could feel the strength of the flow underneath, but the current was not fast. She unwrapped the fish they had smoked a couple of days before and they ate that for breakfast as they drifted along.

Around noon, Yfan-wyn stood up and pointed at a triangular ripple that was spearing across the current towards them. “What’s that?”

Something swimming, Rhy-lee thought, but not a fish. The river had curved away from the forest and the country was too open for beavers. Her fingers had just closed around the haft of her spear when a blunt, brown furred head popped up at the side of the raft. Stout fingers caught hold of the logs. Long whiskers and small, round ears twitched. Black eyes fell on the spear in Rhy-lee’s grasp.

“Foxes on a raft,” said the creature, with a little chuckle. “I am alone. May I share your perch a while?”

Keeping her eyes on it, Rhy-lee nodded. “You may.”

The creature laughed and pulled itself up from the water, revealing a long, sleek body and short, thick limbs and tail. It – he – wore shorts made of some hairless animal hide and had a heavy wooden club slung from a thong around his neck. Other weapons were strapped to his thighs. An otter, Rhy-lee realized, but far larger than any she had ever heard of, almost wolf-sized in his length of body and breadth of chest. She wondered if allowing him aboard might have been a mistake.

“Where are you from, friend otter?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light.

The otter grinned, showing sharp, black-stained fangs. “From the sea.” He took an oilskin parcel from his pocket and unwrapped it to reveal dark-coloured leaves. The otter squeezed some together and stuck them into the corner of his mouth to chew. “And what of you, little fox?”

“We are wanderers,” said Rhy-lee. “Returning home.”

The otter’s interest sharpened. “Oh? And where is home?”

“The downs,” said Rhy-lee. With the sudden intensity of his stare, she felt oddly uncomfortable to share even that much.

He stretched himself up to peer that way, to the ridge of bare hills in the distance beyond the forest. “Ah,” he said. “A pity.”

Rhy-lee frowned, wondering what he meant. Out of the corner of her eye she could see that Yfan-wyn’s ears were flat to his head.

The otter shivered suddenly, but not from cold, Rhy-lee thought. “But east,” he said. “You are headed east, where the river wills?”

Rhy-lee shrugged warily. “For now.”

The otter nodded back, seeming pleased by that. He leaned forward to hawk a black gob of spit into the river.

Rhy-lee chewed her lip, considering, then reached into her parka and brought out the etched half-jawbone. The otter’s eyes glittered, watching.

“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” she said.

The otter scratched his throat. “Is that your god, little fox?”

“God?” Rhy-lee repeated, confused.

He chuckled. “I do not know this Word. It looks like a wolf’s jaw to me.” With a sharp bark of amusement, he slipped back off the side of the raft, making it wobble. The otter clung to the side a moment longer. “Go east, little foxes. Let the river take you and you will find the sea.”

Then he was gone.

Rhy-lee watched the ripples of his passage speed ahead of them downriver. She suppressed a sigh of disappointment and looked at Yfan-wyn.

“He was very strange,” said Yfan-wyn. “I didn’t like him.”

“Mm,” said Rhy-lee. She showed him a lopsided smile. “It seems it is a day for strange meetings.”

They had no more unusual encounters on the water, although they passed by wading herons and a herd of caribou, paused to drink at the water’s edge. The caribou eyed them with dumb incuriosity, having not even an elk’s simple intelligence. The river curled back towards the forest and, by evening, they were close enough to the trees that Rhy-lee decided to pull the raft ashore and make their beds up in the branches.

They had just dragged the raft up out of the shallows and onto a stretch of sloping bank when the wind shifted for a moment. Rhy-lee whirled to see tall, grey-furred figures stalking out of the trees.

“Wolves!” cried Yfan-wyn.

It was too late to flee. Rhy-lee reached slowly into her parka and brought out the Word of Inanakurekuri. The wolves fanned out, a dozen of them including two old grandmothers with white in their fur and a trio of half-grown cubs. They wore vests and kilts of roughly tanned hide, sewn together with gut, and carried spears and round hide shields. At their belts were stone axes and looped leather slings.

One she-wolf strode forward ahead of the rest. Rhy-lee’s hackles went up when she saw that this one’s vest was made of fox skin. In her hand, the she-wolf carried a rusted iron axe.

The she-wolf circled them. Rhy-lee turned with her, keeping her back to Yfan-wyn’s.

“I see you are a wolf-killer,” said the she-wolf.

“And you a fox-killer,” replied Rhy-lee. She was amazed that her voice was steady.

Several of the wolves growled. The she-wolf sneered.

Rhy-lee held up the etched jawbone. “It is the Word of Inanakurekuri.”

The she-wolf stilled, glaring at the jawbone with yellow eyes. A wolf’s jawbone. Her fingers tightened around the haft of her axe and for a moment Rhy-lee thought she was about to attack.

The she-wolf snorted. “This Word is known to me,” she said. “The name of this bear is known to be true.”

“The bear is far from here,” said a large male, with a ridged scar from his right eye across the top of his scalp and over his left ear.

The she-wolf rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“The ears of a bear hear far,” said one of the grandmothers.

The scarred male growled at her but was shouted down by the rest of the pack.

“There is no sport here,” the lead she-wolf declared, turning back to Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn. “We will trade. You will give us metal.”

Rhy-lee worked her tongue around her mouth, trying to generate some moisture there. Carefully, using only her forefinger and thumb, she pulled her skinning knife from its sheath. “I will give you this,” she said. “If you will answer my question.”

“A question?” The she-wolf’s ears came up in surprise. She eyed the bright blade of the knife. “Ask it.”

“Have you seen another fox who carries the Word of Inanakurekuri?”

Rhy-lee’s heart thudded as the she-wolf gave a quick nod. “There is one who has returned to these parts for many years – since I was a cub.” The fingers of the she-wolf’s free hand twitched. “She often shelters in the forest in the winter.” She thrust out her hand. “Give it to me.”

She. Rhy-lee handed the knife over. “Has she been seen this season?”

The she-wolf grinned slyly. “One question, for this blade,” she said. “More metal for more questions.”

Several of the pack yipped their appreciation of her cunning.

Rhy-lee took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. She. “I will give you wire snares to trap rabbits,” she said.

But the she-wolf’s gaze had shifted beyond Rhy-lee. Her brow furrowed. Rhy-lee started to turn. The she-wolf’s eyes snapped wide. Behind Rhy-lee, Yfan-wyn cried out in alarm.

She spun to see long-bodied figures burst out of the river, heavy clubs raised over their shoulders. Otters! Several of them lifted narrow tubes to their lips. The wolves howled and charged. Rhy-lee grabbed Yfan-wyn and lifted him bodily, away from the fight, then pushed him ahead towards the trees.

“Run!”

Something bit into the back of her neck.

She ran another dozen paces before her legs gave way underneath her.

“Run!” she cried to Yfan-wyn, and then her tongue was too thick to say it again.

Her vision darkened as wolves fled past. One stumbled and fell. Otters bounded after. Then the darkness was complete, and she knew no more.

Yfan-wyn was under the trees before he realised that his mother was no longer with him. In horror, he stopped to look back and was knocked off his feet by a fleeing wolf.

He scrambled quickly back up. Otters bounded towards him. He couldn’t see his mother. Something whisked past his face. He saw an otter lower a dart tube from its mouth.

With a sob, Yfan-wyn turned and sprinted after the wolf.

Even with its canopy bare of leaves, the forest still grew dark before the open plain at the end of day. Yfan-wyn could hear the otters behind him, whistling to each other in the gloom. They seemed to be falling behind. He slowed, listening hard.

A hand closed around his arm, another clamped down on his muzzle, preventing him from crying out. Yfan-wyn found himself dragged, struggling, towards a tree trunk – hollow, he discovered, when he was pulled through a narrow gap and inside.

“Be still,” his captor hissed. “They are close.”

Yfan-wyn stopped fighting. He could smell that his assailant was a fox. She released her grip on his mouth.

“They will smell us,” he whispered.

“No,” the word was barely a breath. “Their noses are dull, as are their ears. Only their eyes are sharp. Be still. Their ears are dull, but they are not deaf.”

Yfan-wyn heard movement outside the tree. A loud whistle, close at hand, made him jump. Others responded, further away.

The otter’s claws scraped over dirt, just outside. Yfan-wyn could smell its wet fur. He held his breath.

Then the otter moved off.

Yfan-wyn listened to the whistling calls move away.

“They are giving up the chase,” said the other fox. She shifted away from him and he felt her rummage about.

“My mother fell,” Yfan-wyn said. His lip trembled.

Flints sparked in the darkness. “Then she is alive,” was the reply. “And that is all that can be said for her.”

A light flared from the sparks, and the other fox closed the side of a small glass and tin lantern. Yfan-wyn looked at her face. She was old, he saw, with the white on the sides of her snout spread across her cheeks and forehead. The pupil of her left eye was milky pale.

“Better to forget her,” she said.

Yfan-wyn could only shake his head in horror.

“Where is home for you, little one?”

“The downs.” Tears were coming. He tried to keep them in, but couldn’t. He hung his head, hiding his face behind the sleeve of his parka.

“Of course. The downs.” There was an odd heaviness in the way she said it. “I will take you through the forest, to the foot of the ridge.”

Yfan-wyn shook his head, more vigorously this time. “No. I need to go back for my mother.”

“And do what?” the old woman said harshly. “Be caught yourself?”

Yfan-wyn glared at her.

She sighed through her nostrils. “So be it.”

“My name is Yfan-wyn,” he said. “My mother is Rhy-lee.”

He thought he saw her start, ever so slightly, on hearing his mother’s name. The reaction was so small that he wondered if he had imagined it. He stared, searching for some resemblance to his mother. Could this really be his grandmother?

She turned her face aside, so that he could see only her blind, milky eye.

“I do not need to know your name,” she said. “Rest here tonight, at least. They will not have gone anywhere in the dark.”

Yfan-wyn stared at her. Are you my grandmother? he wanted to say. But how could she be? How could she hear her child’s name and turn aside? The pressure of the words stuck inside him escaped in a tiny whine. Her ears twitched, but she did not look at him.

Rhy-lee woke up to find her wrists and ankles bound together with rope. She raised her head. The she-wolf lay less than an arm’s length away, bound as well, staring at Rhy-lee with yellow eyes.

The she-wolf bared her teeth but said nothing. Then she rolled over so that her back was to Rhy-lee.

Rhy-lee twisted her neck to look around. She wriggled onto her belly, then awkwardly pushed herself up onto her knees. Also lying bound on the riverbank were four more adult wolves and the three wolf cubs. There was no sign of Yfan-wyn. Otters armed with clubs and dart tubes stood guard around them. Beyond them, on the river, was a sight that caused Rhy-lee’s jaw to drop open in amazement.

It was built of timber and floated on the water like a raft, but was larger than any house Rhy-lee had ever seen. Its sides curved upwards, higher than a bear’s head. Rows of oars stuck out from holes set near the tops and wooden ribs arched overhead. At the vessel’s front and back its sides came together and rose to carved peaks. The front peak was fashioned into the shape of an eagle’s head, the rear carved to resemble a feathered tail. A high pole rose from the centre of the vessel, a long crossbeam near its peak wrapped around with the loosely tied, pale canvas of its sail. Similarly bundled canvas joined the wooden ribs at their peaks – a roof for inclement weather, Rhy-lee realised.

“A ship,” she exclaimed aloud. She had only heard them described in traveller’s tales. The sea, the first otter had said he was from.

The sea. Rhy-lee’s stomach tightened.

She called out to the nearest guard. “What will you do with us?”

The otter lifted its club and snarled something in a language Rhy-lee didn’t understand. Another barked, “Silence! Property does not speak unless it is told to.”

Property? Rhy-lee stared at him blankly for a moment, wondering if he had misspoken. Then understanding hit: the otters were slavers and they would take her away across the sea.

Sometimes, among the villages of the downs, if a person committed a crime, their punishment might include a period of bonded service, but slavery – the owning of one person by another – was something she had only heard told of as a distant myth of barbaric lands, far away. Panic rose up inside. She clenched her fists, digging her claws into her palms until she was sure they would bleed.

Yfan-wyn had escaped, she told herself. Yfan-wyn was safe. They were near enough to the downs now for him to find his way home.

Further along the bank lay the bodies of the two old wolf grandmothers. Too old for slaves, Rhy-lee thought, tightening her fists even more, holding her terror inside

Yfan-wyn had escaped, she repeated. He was safe.

Yfan-wyn watched from the branches at the edge of the forest while the prisoners were loaded aboard the otters’ gigantic, high-sided raft. He saw the flash of his mother’s red fur among the grey bodies of the wolves. He clutched helplessly at the hunting spear the old woman had given him.

Not his grandmother. He could not believe that she would let his mother be taken away if she were.

The oars along the side of the giant vessel were rising and falling, turning it to point the carved eagle head downriver. They were leaving!

Yfan-wyn slithered down from his perch, barking his shins and falling the last little way. He sprinted through the trees, keeping the vessel in sight but staying under cover. For a while he kept up, as the river meandered away from the forest and back again in a lazy loop, but then his strength began to falter and the river began to veer away from the trees in a long, steady curve. Yfan-wyn’s lungs and legs burned but he was left further and further behind.

Almost, he let himself stop and collapse to his knees and give up. But his mother would not have given up on him. Whimpering, despairing, he left the trees and kept on going in a ragged jog.

They would stop for the night, he told himself. The ship would stop, and he would catch up.

And then what?

He squashed the hopeless thought. She would not give up on him.

He ran on, as best he could. Now and then, the snow drift deeper and he would stumble and lie, panting and exhausted, with his pulse pounding in his ears and his vision turning black, wondering if he would rise again. Then the freezing cold of the snow would begin to soak through his fur, waking him from his stupor, and he would struggle up and get his feet back under him and moving again.

Sometimes he would get a stitch in his side, or a cramp in his legs, and he would lean on his spear and hobble on until it passed and he could run once more. And always, the ship faded further and further into the distance, until he wondered if he was only imagining that it was still in sight at all.

The blue of the sky began to deepen ahead. Yfan-wyn’s shadow began to stretch further ahead of him, as if it, too, would leave him behind. The sunset painted the snow golden, then crimson, then mauve. Then the sun was gone, and only the stars lit the way. Still, Yfan-wyn ran on.

At last, long after dark, he caught up.

The otters’ vessel was stopped again by the far bank, held against the current. From within its high-walled sides, Yfan-wyn could hear the frightened, confused cries of bison. A dull red glow rose from within the sides of the vessel. The smell of cooking meat wafted across the water.

A wolf howled. It sounded close. Yfan-wyn wondered if the wolves were following, too.

He eyed the otters on guard at the front and rear of the vessel and wondered, doubtfully, if he could sneak aboard. There was a large hummock in the snow closer to the riverbank. Yfan-wyn thought he might have a better vantage – and be better hidden there, too.

It was only when he neared it and the hummock suddenly moved that he realised his mistake. Only then, as an enormous hand lashed out to close around his body, crushing the breath out of him, did he smell the bear.

The bear’s narrow head came up from where it had rested, chin on the snow, and turned to look at him. The jaws opened, displaying fangs longer than his hand. Yfan-wyn would have screamed, but he had no breath to do so.

“Stop!”

The bear paused. Yfan-wyn twisted to see. It was the old fox woman who had saved him in the forest. She held up the half-jawbone of a wolf for the bear to see the letters etched into its surface.

“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” she said.

The bison packed into the bottom of the ship lowed incessantly, confused and distressed by the smell of one of their number being barbequed by the otters on the forward deck. Rhy-lee hunched in the shadows beneath the ship’s rear deck, manacled alongside the captured wolves and a half-grown bear who hiccupped softly as he tried not to cry. The chains that joined their cuffs passed through thick iron rings bolted to the keel of the ship.

The bison were all juveniles, too, Rhy-lee had noted when they were winched, unconscious, into the ship. They ranged from newly weaned calves to pubescents. Young, scared, easy to train, she thought. What did it mean for her and the adult wolves?

She spoke to the she-wolf. “Will those of your pack who escaped come for you?”

The she-wolf stared at her in silence for a long moment. Rhy-lee wondered if she would reply at all. Then she stretched her jaws in a wide yawn and said, “The pack will choose a new leader. We are dead to them.”

Dead, thought Rhy-lee, and wolves did not attend to their dead. She leaned across to the bear, catching his eye. “What is your name, young one?”

The bear sniffled, his dark eyes flitting from Rhy-lee to the wolves. “I am Babuk, born of Nuganaksaramun,” he said.

“I am Rhy-lee, born of…” Rhy-lee hesitated over her mother’s name, “Tiere-lene.” It felt strange to say it, so long unspoken. She asked, “Did your mother escape the slavers?”

The bear cub nodded. “I was not with her and Megi, my sister, when they caught me.”

“Then she will come for you,” Rhy-lee said, because it was certainly true.

Babuk glanced up at a pair of otters walking along the central gangway, overhead. The ship’s hold was largely open for most of its length, the areas of solid decking at the front and rear connected by the central gangway and narrower platforms along the high side walls. The gangways were joined by broad-topped ribs that held the rowing benches, above the backs of the frightened bison.

“But they are so many,” said Babuk.

“Too many, even for a bear,” said the she-wolf.

Rhy-lee wondered if that were true. Could the darts of the otters pierce the thick fur of an adult bear?

“Then we will need to help ourselves, as well,” she said. But both the she-wolf and Babuk had turned away from her.

Rhy-lee looked down at her manacled hands.

She wondered what had become of Yfan-wyn. He would have kept going, she told herself. He would find his way home. She had to push the thoughts back down, in case the fear undid her – that she would never see him again, nor Aoin-rhys or her father.

She watched the sparks from the otters’ cooking rise up into the night, past the ribs of the ship’s open roof, quickly fading. She would never know if that other fox, the other who bore the Word of Inanakurekuri, was her mother.

No, she told herself. She was not beaten yet.

She began to work her hands around in the manacles, trying to find a way to pull them free.

The otters’ vessel was a small red glow across the blue-white snow. There was a bank of cloud to the south, deep shadowed underneath and silver-lit on top, but directly above the skies were clear. With the moon not yet risen to outshine them, the stars formed a sky-spanning river of brighter and fainter sparks.

Yfan-wyn trudged after the bear, his ears twitching at the soft rattle of her bone apron. His perhaps-grandmother walked beside him, a barrier of unasked questions in between.

The bear slowed and growled a low inquiry. A snowdrift shifted off to their right. A young bear stood up, only half-grown but already several times larger than the two foxes. She carried a heavy iron spear and bow and arrows like her mother, but wore a girdle of tanned hide rather than an adult’s apron. Her mother held out a paw and the young bear ran to her, tucking herself against the larger bear’s side.

The mother bear faced Yfan-wyn and the old fox, her face in shadow as she peered down. “I am Nuganaksaramun,” she said. “The name of Inanakurekuri is known to me, as it is known to all bears.” She paused a moment, then added, “My son, Babuk, is aboard the slaver ship.”

Yfan-wyn’s tongue was sticky inside his mouth. “Yfan-wyn, is my name,” he said. “My mother, Rhy-lee, is aboard the,” he hesitated over the unfamiliar word, “ship.”

The old fox cleared her throat. Her voice was taught when she said, “I am Tiere-lene.” Yfan-wyn’s heart jumped. It was his grandmother’s name. She met his gaze as he stared at her. “My daughter is on that ship.”

“Can we get Babuk, Mama?” asked the young bear.

Yfan-wyn watched Nuganaksaramun’s head sink lower and his hope fell with it. Nuganaksaramun pulled her daughter tighter to her side. “I do not think we can, Megi.”

A whimper escaped between Yfan-wyn’s teeth, a wail bursting to follow. “What will happen to them?” he said.

“In the morning they will go,” said Nuganaksaramun. “They hunted the bison herd this afternoon and their ship is filled.”

“They will be taken to the south, to the cities of swine and dogs and fowl, where lions rule,” said Tiere-lene. “They will be sold.”

They were silent for a moment, their eyes all fixed on that distant glow.

Nuganaksaramun said, “In the tale of Inanakurekuri, he was taken by slavers as a cub, and he escaped and returned. But his is the only such tale.”

“Is there nothing to be done?” said Megi.

Her mother shook her head.

A wolf howled, sounding near.

Yfan-wyn’s grandmother said, “If we can distract the slavers, then Yfan-wyn and I are small enough to sneak aboard the ship and cut the prisoners loose.”

“How will they be distracted?” asked Nuganaksaramun.

“With an attack,” Tiere-lene replied.

The bear thought about that a moment, then said, “Megi and I will not be able to do that alone.”

“You will not be alone,” said Tiere-lene.

They smelled the smoke of the wolves’ campfire long before they spied its glow. The wolves had dug out a hollow in the snow, piling it around them. Their huddled bodies further shielded the fire’s light.

Yfan-wyn stared at his grandmother’s back as she walked ahead of him, the pressure of questions crowded up inside his chest almost unbearable. She had offered nothing, though, and he did not know how to begin.

Every so often, one of the wolf pack would lift their head and howl to the night. The sound made Yfan-wyn’s skin crawl.

Nuganaksaramun led them towards the camp from upwind. The wolves remained unaware of their approach until the great bear loomed up close beside them. Then there was a flurry of growls and startled activity as the wolves lunged for weapons and peered wildly into the darkness for other threats.

Nuganaksaramun raised a broad hand. “I have not come to fight.”

The wolves crouched behind their hide shields, weapons ready.

“There is a slaver ship on the river,” said Nuganaksaramun.

“We have seen it,” said a wolf. “It has not troubled this pack.”

“It has troubled other packs,” said Tiere-lene, stepping into view at the bear’s side. “There are captured wolves aboard.”

“That is of no matter to us,” said the wolf.

“The slavers have weapons and tools of iron,” said Nuganaksaramun. “We wish to attack the slaver ship and rescue our kin, but we have no interest in the slavers’ wealth.”

Yfan-wyn peered past his grandmother’s shoulder. The wolves cast sideways glances at their leader. Several licked their muzzles as the thought of iron riches took hold.

The leader straightened, lowering his weapons. “Even together, we would struggle to overcome them,” he said. “Slaver darts will pierce our skins and then we too will be as the dead.”

“We can beat them if we are cleverer than they,” said Tiere-lene.

Yfan-wyn shivered at the freezing touch of the river. The water rippled around his bare shins as he waded after his grandmother. They had left their clothes and gear on the shore, carrying only their hunting knives on thongs around their necks. His grandmother showed no sign of discomfort at the cold. The breeze ruffled the sparse, greying fur on her back and shoulders.

Tiere-lene launched herself into the current. Yfan-wyn braced himself and plunged after with a splash. His breath whooshed out at the shock of the water closing around him. The bears and wolves were meant to have crossed further downriver.

Teeth chattering, Yfan-wyn paddled downstream towards the red-rimmed silhouette of the slaver ship.

Rhy-lee gritted her teeth, bracing the manacle with her feet and her free hand. The first cuff she had wriggled her hand out of relatively easily, but this one was bent tighter. Blood trickled along her fingers from where she had skinned her knuckles on the metal. She twisted her hand, smearing it over the inside of the cuff, making it slick.

She pulled again. Her knuckles ground painfully against each other, but her hand started to slide through. The wolves and the young bear watched in silence, their nostrils twitching at the smell of blood. A nearby bison calf stamped its hoof.

With a sudden wrench, Rhy-lee’s hand came free. She flexed her bruised knuckles, wincing. She was free. It would be easy enough, she thought, to jump up onto a rowing bench and over the side before the otters could react. They could swim better than she, but she thought she could probably lose them in the dark.

Babuk and the wolves watched her in silence.

Rhy-lee hesitated. Her first thought should be to get free and find Yfan-wyn. But could she leave them to their fate? She knew the answer before she even asked herself the question.

“Can any of you get free?”

It was immediately obvious that the wolves, including the three cubs, were stuck, with their broad palms and bony wrists. Young Babuk had a bear’s thick forearms, but his hands were not so flexible as hers.

“Try,” she said. “I will get the key if I can.”

Exactly how, she did not know.

She slunk to the edge of the overhung deck and peered up. An otter sentry stood on the high gangway at the side of the ship, peering out into the night. Rhy-lee could not see if he carried a key on his belt or not – not all of the otters did.

Suddenly the otter staggered backwards. He stepped off the edge of the platform and fell. Rhy-lee barely had time to duck out of the way. The otter landed with a thump, a white-feathered arrow almost as long as Rhy-lee was tall protruding from his chest. A roar echoed across the river. Bear!

Young Babuk lifted his head and bellowed in reply.

On the forward deck, Rhy-lee saw otters dash for the anchor chains, only to be driven back by a hail of rocks. Slingshot, she thought. Wolves! A heartbeat later howls joined the roars of the attacking bear. The captured wolves howled back. The bison began to bawl and tug at their shackles.

A trio of otters leapt down after their shot fellow, clubs ready and barking angrily at the prisoners. Their eyes fell immediately on Rhy-lee, standing unshackled in front of them.

Yfan-wyn was so cold clinging to the slaver ship’s anchor chain that he wasn’t certain he would be able to climb up it and into the ship.

“Soon,” said his grandmother. “Hold on just a little longer.”

Yfan-wyn’s teeth chattered, making it hard to speak. He tried anyway, the words suddenly coming unstuck inside him. “Why did you leave?”

She glanced at him, just briefly. “Because I had to. You understand that,” she said. “But why didn’t I wait for your mother, you mean, as she waited for you?” She was quiet a moment, then continued, “She loved her father so much, and he her. I could not part them. And there was much of him in her, besides.” Another, smaller hesitation, then, “Does he live, still, your grandfather?”

Yfan-wyn nodded. “Yes.”

“That is good,” she said, her voice distant. “I did not think her heart would take her far, not as a child, anyway.” Her teeth flashed, suddenly – a smile, perhaps, but one without mirth. “If I had waited, then she would never have had you, would she?”

A bear roared – Nuganaksaramun, launching her attack. Wolf howls joined in a moment later and the ship erupted with barks of alarm from the otters and cries from the prisoners within.

“Up!” said Tiere-lene, giving him a boost.

Yfan-wyn almost slipped straight off the chain, but he gripped tight with his legs and fingers and hauled himself up. He kept his eyes fixed on the side of the ship, expecting to see an otter appear at any instant and raise the alarm, but the slavers were evidently all occupied with the attack from the shore, on the opposite side of the vessel. His arms burned before he was even halfway up, but he kept going.

Fingers cramping, he raised his head to peer through the hole where the anchor chain fed through the ship’s side. A rock arced out of the darkness and banged into the planks directly below the hole. Yfan-wyn jerked back, almost slipping.

He clung hard to the chain, while his grandmother demanded to know what was wrong.

Heart clattering, he looked again.

A pair of otters sprawled on the deck close by, one with a bloody face, the other with an arrow through his back. A brick fireplace stood with a spit-roasted bison unattended over its flames. On the far side of the deck, a group of otters crouched under cover, hauling frantically on the other anchor chain. All along that side of the ship, otters leapt up from cover to fire their dart tubes and bows. Yfan-wyn couldn’t see where the prisoners were held, but he could hear their shouts.

“Is it clear?” said his grandmother.

“I think so.”

“Then go!”

Yfan-wyn pulled himself up and over the side, drawing his knife as he landed on the deck, expecting to be spotted immediately by the slavers. Tiere-lene was right behind him. “Go! Down into the hold!”

She pushed him towards the edge of the deck where, down in the bottom of the ship, he could see the captive bison pulling against their bonds. He ran that way and leapt into the space below. He landed heavily and rolled into the legs of a bison calf, which bucked and kicked him painfully in the hip.

His grandmother hauled him upright. “Quick! Out of sight.” She pushed him ahead of her, between the rows of bison. “Hush,” she said to the bison, “we are here to free you.”

Yfan-wyn stopped. “They are chained,” he wailed. “We cannot cut their bonds.” His mother and Nuganaksaramun’s son would certainly be chained too.

Tiere-lene swore. “Then we will need a key. Go forward, we will find your mother first.”

Rhy-lee stumbled back from the otters’ clubs. There was a roar and a tearing, popping sound. Babuk had ripped the bolt that held his chains free of the ship’s keel. He lunged at the otters, ignoring the blows of their clubs, grabbing the head of one in both paws.

Rhy-lee leapt onto the shoulders of a second and heaved backward with all her weight, setting the otter stumbling off balance and towards the chained wolves. She hit the planks with the otter on top of her. His shrieks mingled with the snarls of the wolves as they caught hold of him. Rhy-lee wriggled out from under, expecting to confront the third otter or to hear him raising the alarm.

Instead she found him lying dead and a naked, greying fox standing over him with a hunting knife in her hand. Rhy-lee stared at the other woman. Memories of that same face crashed over her – that face, red-furred and with two good eyes, seen from below, a small child’s memories.

“Rhy-lee,” said her mother.

Rhy-lee’s legs gave way and she sat down sharply.

A small face peered around the Tiere-lene’s arm. “Mother!”

Yfan-wyn launched himself at her. Rhy-lee caught him reflexively, held him fiercely, then pushed him away to look at him, scarcely believing the evidence of her eyes. “I thought you would have gone home.”

“We need a key for these cuffs,” said Tiere-lene.

“There!” said Yfan-wyn. He started to reach for the belt of the otter that Babuk had killed, but looked up at the young bear, with his bloody hands, and thought the better of it.

Tiere-lene plucked up the key ring and unshackled Babuk.

Rhy-lee gathered herself together. “And them,” she said, indicating the wolves.

Tiere-lene hesitated, then tossed the ring to the she-wolf. Rhy-lee watched the wolves fumble awkwardly with the keys. “We must go,” said Tiere-lene, as Rhy-lee moved to help them.

Mother, filled Rhy-lee’s thoughts. Mother, mother, why did you leave? Why did you never come back? She pushed it down. Later, she told herself. When we’re clear of this and safe.

“How will we get out?” asked Yfan-wyn, looking at Babuk. “They will see us.”

“We fight,” said the she-wolf, picking up an otter’s club.

“No,” said Rhy-lee, her mind focused now and racing. “I have a better idea.” She pointed along the side of the boat furthest from the attackers on the riverbank. “Go up behind the bison. Once we have unlocked them, we need to get them all on the other side of the ship.” To Yfan-wyn and Babuk, she said, “Stay hidden.”

Glancing up at the otters lining the side of the ship, their attention still focused on the riverbank, she ran out between the chained lines of bison. The young animals stopped bucking, with the wolves moving among them. They stood shivering, their eyes rolling. She unlocked the first pair of chains and started to pull them free. A hand grabbed the chain beside hers. She looked up into her mother’s eyes, one clear, one clouded.

“Keep unlocking them, I will pull the chains free,” said Tiere-lene.

Rhy-lee moved on. The bison they had just released surged away from the wolves, towards the side of the ship where the otters stood. Those still chained watched Rhy-lee and Tiere-lene tensely, their ears flicking. One older calf gulped an enquiry in its simple tongue. “We are setting you free,” Rhy-lee answered.

She looked up at a yell from above. An otter tumbled backward, short limbs flailing. He bounced off the back of a bison and hit the planks beside Rhy-lee. He struggled to sit up, a bloody gash across his brow from a slinger’s rock. He saw Rhy-lee and froze.

Tiere-lene lunged past her, knife arm extended, but not before the otter let out a piercing whistle of alarm. He was answered from above as his comrades turned to see.

“Now!” Rhy-lee cried.

The wolves charged towards the freed bison. The terrified animals tried to scrabble up the side of the ship. The ship leaned abruptly with the sudden shift of weight. The otters yelled. The last few bison still chained bucked and kicked. Rhy-lee and Tiere-lene dodged among them, releasing the remaining chains. A bison tripped, bowling Rhy-lee over.

She scrambled up as the ship tipped even further. Darts shot down into the confusion of bodies. Rhy-lee saw the she-wolf leader clutch at her neck and sag. The ship rocked, halfway over. A couple of otters fell backward over the side. A couple more were dragged down from their perches by the wolves.

Not enough weight, Rhy-lee thought. There weren’t enough of them to get the ship over. There was a roar. Something huge thumped against the outside of the ship. The head and shoulders of an adult bear appeared over the side.

“Mama!” yelled Babuk.

The ship began to topple. It was going over.

“Yfan-wyn!” Rhy-lee cried.

She saw him, clinging to Babuk, the young bear’s arm locked around him as he charged up the side of the ship and leapt overboard. The bison surged after, sweeping the otters ahead of them. Rhy-lee saw the she-wolf struggling to follow as water poured in. In the manner of wolves, none of her fellows stopped to help her.

Rhy-lee ran to intercept her. She caught the she-wolf as she stumbled, pulled her backward into the water. They went under. Rhy-lee kicked furiously. Then she felt the she-wolf kick too and they broke the surface, gasping at the cold.

Still clinging together, they swam for the shore.

The otters had evidently already tried to force their way onto the riverbank. Two of their number and a wolf lay dead at the edge of the water. The rest of the wolves were off along the bank, harassing the otters who were now swimming away downstream. Babuk was in the arms of his mother and another juvenile bear. Yfan-wyn sat shivering close by. Rhy-lee could hear the frightened bawling of the bison calves as they fled into the night.

Rhy-lee gathered Yfan-wyn up.

“We need to get warm,” she said, after she had held him for a time.

The she-wolf crouched close by, ears raised and nose twitching, staring after the departing pack. Her fellows who had been captured with her were gone with them. She swayed unsteadily, even braced on hands as well as feet, with the otters’ dart potion in her blood. She noticed Rhy-lee’s gaze.

“I will not run under another pack’s leader,” she said. Her words were slurred. “And I am twice-dead.” Her lips curled back from her teeth in an expression of anguish. “I do not know my place, anymore.” She drew a deep breath, and nodded to Rhy-lee. “I will remember you, little fox.”

With that she rose, weak and unsteady as she was, and walked away in the opposite direction to where the other wolves had gone.

An enormous hand engulfed Rhy-lee’s shoulder. She looked up at the mother bear.

“I am Nuganaksaramun,” said the bear. “Come, we will light a fire.”

Rhy-lee nodded, looking out over the water.

“Where is she?” said Yfan-wyn.

Of Rhy-lee’s mother, there was no sign.

In the morning, the wolves returned to loot the half-sunk slaver ship, shouting and squabbling over their treasure.

Nuganaksaramun presented Yfan-wyn with a carved piece of antler.

“You are brave, little fox,” she said. “You will carry my Word truly.”

Rhy-lee had to laugh at her son’s incredulous expression as he stared at the gift in his hands.

They found Yfan-wyn’s gear where he had left it on the on the opposite bank. Tiere-lene’s clothes and possessions were gone. Her tracks led away across the thinning snow.

“Will we follow?” asked Yfan-wyn.

Rhy-lee shook her head.

“Do you think we will see her again?” he said.

She gazed out across the plain, wondering why her mother had run away once more. Too afraid, she thought, and wished it could have been different. She chucked Yfan-wyn under the chin, swallowing her sadness.

“Perhaps one day,” she said.

They went home, then, across the plain and through the forest, up along the first ridge of the downs. That was where they found Aoin-rhys and Rhy-lee’s father – sitting tucked up in their parkas with their tails around their knees, staring out over the plain, the way Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn had used to sit together before they left, daydreaming of the wide world.

Aoin-rhys saw them first. He leapt up and launched himself at Yfan-wyn, bowling him over and tumbling with him a short way down the slope. The two brothers wrestled and laughed in the new spring flowers. Rhy-lee’s father got stiffly to his feet. She was surprised by how old he looked, when only a season had passed.

He touched his nose to hers, then pulled back.

Rhy-lee could barely get words out past the lump in her throat. “I found her,” she said.

She saw his expression change, ever so slightly – just a fractional tightening around his eyes. He held her gaze in silence for a long moment. Then he said, “Come down into the warm and tell me about it.”

Weeks later, Yfan-wyn came out of his grandfather’s house and happened to glance up to the ridge top above the village. A person stood there – a fox – ears upright and parka hood thrown back, leaning on a hunting spear.

Yfan-wyn stared. His heartbeat tripped.

He crashed back through the door into the house, getting a yelp from Aoin-rhys.

“Mother! Mother! Grandfather, come and see.”

His mother caught him as he barrelled into her, knocking the air out of her with an “oof!”

“What has got into you?” she gasped, trying to get enough air to laugh.

He wriggled free. “She’s here!”

“Who is here?” demanded Aoin-rhys.

Yfan-wyn turned. His grandfather stood in the kitchen door. “She’s here.”

His grandfather nodded. His ears were up and his tail was straight, but his expression was peculiar. He didn’t speak, just took a deep breath and started walking towards the front door.

Rhy-lee caught hold of both her sons, saying, “Shush, now.”

She let them tow her to the door, then stopped them on the step. Yfan-wyn watched his grandfather disappear between the houses, and re-emerge a moment later, climbing the slope of the ridge. His grandmother, having come partway down, stopped.

She waited while her husband climbed up to meet her. For a long time they stood still, and it seemed to Yfan-wyn that they were not even speaking, just staring at each other.

“Mother…” he began.

“Shush.” Her hand on his shoulder was shaking.

Then his grandfather leaned over and touched the tip of his wife’s nose with his own.

___

Copyright 2017 Ian McHugh

Ian McHugh’s stories have appeared in publications including Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and (this year) The Year’s Best Science Fiction. His debut short story collection, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for Australia’s Aurealis Awards in 2015. His full bibliography and links to read or hear much of his previous work free online can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com 

 

 By Octavia Cade

  

Bletchley Park

Helen woke to a room grown smaller than before. It was no illusion, no result of short sleep and poor light, a head grown soft and malleable under code. Her knees knew before her brain. They barked up against the bed that lay beside her own, the iron of its railings, the thin mattress and the covers all smoothed over.

It had not been a large room to begin with. There were too many men, too many women, and all the billets were taken, all the houses filled. Helen never minded sharing – she’d shared with her sisters all her life, six of them, and sharing a room now with only one of them – and that her twin, the closest of all – was a marvel of quiet and space in comparison. Even if it were only a small room, even if it were only two feet between cots and one of those feet gone now: the walls coming inwards, the beds inching closer together and that was something they had tried before, her and V., cuddling together for warmth and comfort when news of bombs came in, and battles.

But the two beds pushed together made it harder to get through the door, so Helen and V. had pushed them back into place, the little narrow beds, and gone to sleep with their arms stretched across the gap, their hands clasped together in darkness. It wasn’t the same, but it was hard to balance themselves together on a narrow bed and sleep when concentration was required of them in the waking hours, in the shifts before Colossus, in the codes and ciphers and breaking of Bletchley. Now, the beds were somehow shifting towards each other again.

The door opened then and V. was there, her face fresh-scrubbed and more open-eyed than Helen had ever seen her – Helen who had learned talking with her, and walking and running down hills with kites streaming behind. “Do you see it?” said V. “It’s the same all along. The rooms are getting smaller. Everything’s getting jumbled up together.”

“But why?” said Helen, still stupid with sleep and rubbing at her leg. “Is it a new regulation?” There were so many: rules thick as branches and woven all about, rules to keep them quiet and safe. To keep them all locked in together when the geography of their isolation did nothing to keep others out.

“Strange if it is,” said V, fond and patient at once. She slid between the cots and sat beside Helen, their sides pressed close that Helen could feel, through her nightdress, the warmth of her sister’s body. “I’m sure we’ll hear about it if we’re supposed to.” It was the constant refrain, the determined avoidance of question. Bletchley was a place of packages, of little separations, and it was not the place of WRENs to open up every one.

“I wonder if it will happen again,” said Helen, eyeing the bed across, the tiny distance between. The way it reminded her of home.

Los Alamos

The Lodge inched closer to the horizon than it should have done. When Frank, atop his horse, held his hand out at length he blotted out its stories with a single knuckle, and the growing distance between them made his stomach clench in a way that was more than war, that was more than absence. The only thing that approached that hot, tight gut-sink was the news of his twin, dead on far fields and never coming home now, the sense of unlocking, of dislocation – the uncoupling of Frank from his former life, from the world in which he was embedded. He was an island now, a brother that was, that had been, and no more. In that he was not alone – Los Alamos was a place of isolation, an island in a dry land, weighted down with distance. He was not the only one so cut off – it was the undercurrent, the ties that bound together and underpinned as ignimbrite the mesas of this new life. All there had left someone behind, had gone on ahead in secrecy and in silence, leaving universities and family homes, leaving that family behind, sometimes, on a continent blackened with war and with no help to come. No help, unless, unless…

Frank had gotten used to it, the sense of insulation, of, isolation: the dream state of Alamos. He had tied himself to work and rock, found the island as a place to stand and then the island shifted and he was outstripped. The Lodge moved further from the laboratories, and further still, until the land between unravelled as if its elastic had been lost, as if the isolation weren’t enough. As if the country around was determined to see him truly alone, a man without a brother left to stand in an empty stretch, with all the landmarks gone and all the world in silence.

It was as if he existed at the midpoint of a landscape defined by war: by the gouge and stretch and pillage of it, and Frank at a place of beginnings, an epicentre. All around him waves spread outwards as if a pebble dropped into a pond, and those waves pushed the world away and left him grasping: a single man upon a mount, riding past a pond that he had thrown stones in so many times before. Ashley Pond, that he might have thrown a stone across in summer, had his aim been good and his arm strong. Ashley Pond, that now belied its name and had the appearance of a lake, perhaps, or a small inland sea though it did not have the salt for it, though its growth was untainted as yet by tears.

There were plenty of those, more now than ever. Frank had seen, in the stables, a WAAC being comforted, her face blotched and being blotted, a handkerchief clutched in one hand. He had squeezed her shoulder himself, a silent gesture to reach across the gulf between them. Contact, on the mesa, had become a precious thing.

Bletchley Park

Helen had never been so prim. With all her sisters, there had never been any room for primness – or privacy, or personal space. She was used to encroachment. It was natural, something to be expected – it was why she and V. had adapted so easily to the crush at Bletchley, to the close quarters of people who lived in each other’s pockets, to the quick tempers and easy forgiveness. Not everyone had been so lucky, not everyone found it so natural.

It was always so simple to tell the only children. To pick up on the small things, the little cues that spoke of space and silence and the expectation of room around. Helen had never had that, had never missed it – until now.

Now she sat apart, or as apart as she could when the walls were pressing closer and the rooms shrinking, when even the manor house was assuming the aspect of dolls. She wasn’t the only one. They were all the same now, and everyone sat with shoulders drawn up, hunched in, trying to make themselves smaller in turn. Trying not to touch one another. Touch, now that it was so difficult to avoid, had become a thing of rudeness, of flushed cheeks and muttered apologies.

Helen and V. no longer wanted to share a bed at night. No matter the news, the long lists of friends killed, of acquaintances missing, there was no comfort in clinging. Where once V. would have laid her head on Helen’s shoulder, cried a little perhaps, they turned from each other, balanced on bed ends and slept poorly, kept awake by nightmares of crushing and darkness. Of entanglement, of being trapped by tree roots and buried alive.

“It was different before,” said V., her voice flat and exhausted. Helen couldn’t see her face. They were on night shifts now, but with the windows blocked as if for black-out there was no hint of expression. “We chose to be together then.” To sign up together, to go through training together and request a posting where they wouldn’t have to be parted.

“You’re so lucky to stay with each other,” their Dad had told them. “Most of you young ones are shipped off with strangers. You look after each other now. Your Mum and I will be depending on it.”

It had been such an easy promise. “Of course we will,” they’d said in concert, for who else could do it better? And now their relationship was one of shrinking, of trying to make a distance between them because closeness had become a thing of horror. How could they explain? How could Helen write home and hint at schisms – confess that when she reached behind her at night, reached for her sister’s hand, their flesh passed through each other because closeness was gobbling them up? Because the walls were moving in and the space between was so thick it could hold both of them – all of them – at once.

“You make me feel like a ghost,” said V.

Los Alamos

“I’ll never see my family again,” said Doris. Frank’s handkerchief was clutched in one hand, damp and crumpled.

“You don’t know that,” said Frank. Even to him the sound of his voice was shot through with uncertainty, and fragmented. He wished he were a better liar. He didn’t have much experience with crying girls, and all he knew to do had been to offer her his handkerchief, to take the reins from white-knuckled hands and settle down next to her in awkwardness. It might have been easier, but he was dizzy in his isolation, in the way that he was being dragged from a close-knit and often cramped community to one where the gaps were breaching friendships and forcing insularity. He shifted on the bale, uncomfortable. The straw made him want to sneeze.

“I’m sorry,” said Doris. “It’s difficult for you too, I know. It’s difficult for everyone. And I’ve been trying so hard to be cheerful. And the horses make it easier, somehow.”

“You’re not the only one to think so,” said Frank. There weren’t enough of them, not really, and with the distances in Alamos increasing the horses were ever more important. They were a comfort, too, as well as a help. More than once he’d come into the stables and found someone with their face buried in mane, with soft wet little sounds and stifled breaths. He’d laid his own cheek against one of those long smooth necks more than once, let his tears fall silent into hair. “I’ve done it myself.”

“That does makes me feel a bit better,” Doris confessed. “Terrible, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” said Frank. “It all seems terrible lately. Sometimes I feel…” Too much. He felt too much, and he didn’t know how to stuff it down or make it come out and share it.

“Who was it?” said Doris, and her hand on his was warm as horse’s hide.

“My brother,” said Frank. “In France. And sometimes I think that if there are more miles in Alamos than there should be then well. So what? There’s more distance out there than that, isn’t there, and it’s not so easy to cross.” There was a long silence.

“My husband’s in France,” said Doris. “I lie awake at night and wonder if it’s the same for them as it is for us. If he goes to sleep at night with his men and wakes up to find himself alone in the trenches. If he has to go calling for them. If they’re too far away when he needs them.”

“It’s only here, as far as I’ve heard,” said Frank, turning his hand palm up to squeeze her own. “So far it’s only Alamos.”

“Do you think we’re causing it?” she said, the two of them joined by hands and absence and clinging. By loneliness, by the experience and expectation of grief. “What we’re doing here. Is there something we’re doing that’s making the world all move apart?”

“I don’t know,” said Frank again. He hoped not. If it were true, the only thing to do would be to stop, and he didn’t know if they would stop. If they could, even, or if they should. It was too late for his brother but there was still a war on, still hundreds, thousands of brothers out there even if they weren’t his.

And wouldn’t it be a funny thing, if what they were building at Alamos could save the lot of them and push them away from each other, all at once.

Bletchley Park

In Bletchley Park, Helen dreamed of the man who would have been her brother-in-law. She had never dreamed of him before, even in her fascination at the person who would marry the girl who looked and thought and loved like her, but was not.

The courtship had been a hasty one, born out of leave and the desire for life amidst the bombs, the desire to connect with more than carnage. V. had begun spending her evenings apart, coming back with her face flushed and her blouse slightly askew and Helen would tease and giggle and make sure she was all straight before inspection, would cover for her sneaking. It was easy to cover when they had the same face, the same body – although their paths were diverging, it was still a small divergence as yet.

Then the leave had ended and the telegram had come, addressed to Miss Veronica Halliwell, and that divergence was cut off at the roots, cut off when it had barely begun to bloom and V. was alone with nothing but Helen and memory.

“You can talk about it if you want to,” said Helen, and that was something she had never needed to say before but V. hadn’t cried, had kept her lips shut and pressed together and Helen had wanted to make the invitation explicit. To give V. a chance to grieve in a way that wasn’t alone.

“I don’t want to,” said V. and her ring was put away, the pretty blue-stoned ring that she and Helen had gasped over and admired together. “Alright?”

“Alright,” said Helen and that was the end of it until she found herself dreaming in a room smaller than before. She was in a private room at a dance, or near one, with music and laughter coming through the door and a blue stone on her finger, and she was kissing the man who was to marry her sister, kissing him until she was breathless and feeling his hands come up under her blouse and he was kissing her neck and saying “V., I love you so.” And that had been enough to shock Helen into almost waking, into pushing him away and seeing on top of that same body a different face, the face of a boy Helen had danced the whole night with, the night that V. had disappeared with her boyfriend and come back to the dance with a ring on her finger.

Then she was awake, sat up sudden and straight and gasping, with V. pressed too close on a shrinking bed, their flesh merging where they brushed together and shocked awake herself, staring at Helen with a strange sullen dislike. “Those are my memories,” she said. “Mine.”

Los Alamos

Frank dreamed of a world he never saw. Dreamed of seeing his own face in a mirror, muddied about the edges and him scraping away the hair with a blunt razor with the trenches rising about him and water in his boots. He knew at once the face was not his own. There was no sense of dislocation, of entrapment. Their ways had parted a long time since, and there was normalcy in separation.

“Sure you should go to college,” his brother had said. “If I had your brains I might go too. Course, I got all the looks so I can’t really complain.”

It was an old joke, and Frank had never understood how the same face could have such different personalities, such different minds behind it. They had diverged early, with Frank more and more at school and his brother working at the shop, making up bundles and delivering packages, flirting with the girls that came in and taking them out every weekend while Frank was in his dorm, marking time with equations and homework instead of bra straps and soda pop. Then the war had come, or they had come to it, the sea between no longer enough to keep their country out, and Frank had been sent to science on the southern mesas and his twin had been sent overseas, tall in his uniform and neither of them knowing he’d never come back.

When the telegram came, the one that told Frank that he had been cut off forever, that he would never come together again, he had been patted on the back and comforted. There had been friends around, other scientists who had their own families and too much imagination and they had bought him drinks and the girls had come and hugged him as they’d always hugged his brother, because he was a twin alone now and that made it extra-sad, apparently. Frank had carried on, had borne up wonderfully, they said, but all the pats and drinks and hugs couldn’t make up for what the telegram didn’t say.

It never told him how his brother died. A bullet, a grenade… did he suffer, was it quick? Was anyone with him, and did that even make a difference when the only one who should have been with him was home safe and learning to ski in his off hours, exploring the old pueblo, horse riding? Horse riding, for God’s sake, while somewhere his brother’s heart was stopping, while his guts were spilling out, while he was drowning in his own blood.

Frank dreamed all these deaths, one after the other, and in each new end his brother was further away, the space of trench between them lengthening out until Frank couldn’t reach him, until he could barely see his face, the face that shaved in that beaten little mirror and even running couldn’t keep up.

In the last dream, the dream that woke him, his brother had been ripped apart by an explosion, his legs torn free from his body and when Frank tried to go to him he realised that it was his own legs, dressed in a uniform like his brother’s. His legs were blown off, blown far – tens of metres away and receding fast and there was nothing below his hips but separation.

He woke screaming.

Bletchley Park

When Helen finished her shift and returned to her room to change, V. was waiting for her at the door. Not inside, for inside was too much for them now, too close, and that closeness had become so stifling that they’d changed shifts, worked opposite hours so not to see each other, so not to be forced into touch.

“You need to see this,” said V. She waited while Helen slipped out of her uniform, looked away as she donned another dress – and that was another measure of the distance between them, for they had never bothered to look away before. What good would it do, when all they would ever see was themselves? There was no need for privacy when you shared a body, shared a face, but V. looked away and her hands were behind her back, an image of parade rest in a world where long lines and organisation still held meaning.

“I’m ready,” said Helen, and if she didn’t comment on V.’s stance or gaze it was because she fell into a distance of her own, a half-step behind until the corridor was passed and they were disgorged into open air, into the lawns around Bletchley, the manor gardens less smooth now than they had ever been with the house full of people, the temporary tacked-up buildings around. Less smooth, and smaller – but smaller was no longer something to comment on. Smaller was all around, the slow contraction of life under war, of rationing and lack and loss. It was boundaries of claustrophobia and silence a lawn all covered-over in footprints, because the space between treads was lacking.

“It’s here,” said V., herding her up to hedges, through trees and broken earth and the brief scattering of others, for V. had not been the first or only to notice, and the boundaries of Bletchley were no longer empty places. A dozen other people stood there, hands outstretched or stuffed into pockets, and as they stood back, too-careful to let the sisters through without bumping, Helen thought she saw shimmering, a slight glistening in the air.

“Gone all solid,” said one of the men, and Helen recognised him as one of the drivers, someone too leaden for mathematics but mechanically competent, someone used to fixing things. His palms were stained by wrenches, and there were tree branches round his feet, and crowbars. “There’s nothing that goes through it.” He looked at them, pale and disturbed, almost pleading. As if there were something they could do. “I’ve got nothing,” he said again, curiously blank. That was what Helen remembered afterwards, as if through prisms: how they all stood there, polite in their confusion and keeping careful distance. And quiet, because what if this was something that was planned, something that was meant to happen and they weren’t meant to know about? Something that shouldn’t be talked of, and they were all old hands at that.

When Helen reached out to touch it, her palm left little waves on the surface. She couldn’t push her fingers through, and the texture against her was strong and thin and flexible, like the surface of silk stretched loosely over frames. It made her skin itch, and when she took her hand away she could see V. scratching at her palm.

Los Alamos

Frank woke from trenches and disembowelling to a cold hand in his. “Mike,” he said, “Mike,” but the hand was too small, too unfamiliar. It looked nothing like his own. When he looked up, he could see Doris above him, her face shining in the moonlight and her hair was heavy about her face, as if it had dried from wet without styling, the strands roped together and limp. “What the devil are you doing here?” he hissed, and disappointment made him harsher than he would have been otherwise.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Doris. “But you need to come with me.”

“Keep your voice down!” said Frank, still annoyed but with a hold on himself now. He turned his back, pulled his trousers on over his pyjama bottoms because he didn’t want to ask her to turn her back, didn’t want to try wrapping the sheet around him in preservation of modesty. Even as he said it he felt her roll her eyes – the room he shared was the size of a large hall now, his room-mate pressed up against a distant wall and undisturbed. He fumbled with his shoes and even before they were fully on he was being tugged out of that cavernous room, down a corridor that stretched ahead and down stairs much longer than they needed to be, out into the dark.

“The stars look so bright here, don’t they?” said Doris, but all the stars that Frank could see were lower down, the lights on in the labs – only the true night-owls in them now, and the ones too exhausted to sleep – further away than they should have been. “I was in Ashley Pond” – “At night?” Frank interrupted, and he was even less interested in stars then, for their brightness on the mesa might be enough to show how his cheeks flushed – and Doris giggled. “Yes, Frank, at night,” she said, and he would have liked the way she sounded if there had been anything about her that was his, that could have been his if only things were different. “I was swimming. Floating, really, on my back and looking up. And I felt… I felt…Well. It’s easier just to show you.”

It was a long, quick-stepping walk to the Pond and when they arrived, Doris let go his hand and began to unbutton her blouse.

“Frank?” she said, smiling up at him from where she had bent to get out of her shoes. “Get on with it, will you?” There was something in her voice that sounded like a challenge, and for a moment Frank wondered if he should shrink from it, from vows that weren’t his but were vows nonetheless, but there was a little voice in his head then – a voice that sounded like his, the same tone and timbre and lilt. A voice that wasn’t his, warm and teasing in its familiarity.

“What are you waiting for?” that voice said, and it was a voice he’d never hear living again, that only came to him now in dreams. “Don’t make the lady ask twice, you idiot.”

He didn’t ask twice, but holding his tongue didn’t stop all the reservations in his mouth and they crouched there, heavy on his tongue as Frank stood in water up to his neck, feeling his feet in the mud, his flesh cooling in dark water, weighted down with wanting. Doris was almost pressed close to him, close enough that his brain stutter-started and all thought of wedding rings were gone, her hands resting on his shoulders because the water was too deep for her.

“Touch me,” she said and Frank reached for her, one hand lost in darkness below around the smooth flank of her waist, the other reaching up through the water and there she was in his hands, the smooth round flesh of her, the way her nipple felt in his palm. “Not like that,” she said and he jerked his hand back then, his face hot all over and perhaps if he’d done what his brother did, spent less time studying then he’d never have needed the instruction here, never have got it all so wrong and even if taking his brother’s path meant death in France, meant blood and slaughter then at least there wouldn’t be such embarrassment in it, such humiliation. But “It’s alright,” she said, and held his hand to her, forced his fingers open and encouraged his hand back to her breast, arched into him as if it were alright, really, and when she breathed out again, slipped further down into water her other hand slipped cool and wet over his face, closing his eyes to her. “Like this,” she said, and in the new darkness he felt her skin change. “Do you feel it?” she said. “Do you?”

Los Alamos

There were times when Helen wasn’t quite sure if she were asleep or awake. She existed in a shrinking world, one where beds were vanishing, merging into each other as the boundary on the edge of Bletchley tightened, drew ever closer. No-one was willing now to share beds, to become so entangled with their partner, to share flesh and bone and brain and dream. Instead, they slept in shifts and corners, and Helen woke once on one of the last cots to find a Colossus nudging against her mattress, its own bed-frame form fusing with the iron stead at the foot of her own.

For a time she and V. had kept themselves separate, on opposite shifts and their sleep cycles timed so as not to coincide. It didn’t make any difference – Helen was beginning to see through more eyes than her own and consciousness was no barrier. When she slept, she dreamt that she was transcribing code, checking tables and winding paper tapes onto machines, her fingers smelling of the French glue that kept the tape circling for decoding in giant speeding loops. When her fingers smelled of glue in truth, the letters blurred before her waking eyes and there was V.’s ring on her finger, a dream-state of love and naked flesh with nothing for her to do but clamp her legs together under the little desk and try to pretend that the pulsing between her thighs was a figment, a distraction from an often-boring job and not her sister’s sex.

And that still wasn’t the worst of it. V. was first and easiest, for all their caution, for they had been one to begin with once and this was just coming back together again, a natural thing. But every day there were different dreams, different persons coming all the way into her as the borders slimmed and deadened down to nothing, down to dregs and secrets and silence. As they were all opened up to her, laid bare.

Los Alamos

Her body was a puzzle to him. Frank had learned the shape of it first, the taste and heat and smell of it and on one level it was no longer a mystery to him. Still exciting, still forbidden and that made it even better, making sure not to get caught, not to be seen in betrayal. But when he closed his eyes Doris became a puzzle to him, a problem he couldn’t figure out, he who could use equations and models to map almost anything, to feel his way around the building blocks of cosmos. When he closed his eyes, he didn’t feel flesh – but his brother’s eyes were gone now, closed for good in the mud of trenches so it was no wonder that his sight was coming out all wrong for their eyes had been the same.

“I was floating in the Pond,” she said, “and I was thinking of how nice it was, and how nice I felt and even when you’re alone it can be lovely, the way it feels. And I got so caught up I forgot to worry about it, about any of it – France and Alamos and the bomb, and Harry out there all on his own. I wasn’t thinking at all. And I closed my eyes and I could feel it – the water and the way it held me and how my own fingers moved so nicely” (Frank had blushed here but hadn’t looked away, had wondered about repeat experiments, how it would feel to watch) “and then I felt other things.”

Rock. Ignimbrite, the dusty surface of mesa, the small green prickles of pine. Frank felt them too, over the surface of her body, over the surface of his own.

“They can’t both be right,” he said, afraid it was his mind – her mind as well, maybe all their minds, twisted somehow in the shadow of the bomb, a cruel consequence of physics. After all, when his eyes were open his hands felt what they should feel and that was soft, pliant, absent of geology.

Doris sat up in his bed, wrapped the sheet around her. Frank’s roommate was gone for the day, wrapped up in his section, in a flurry of calculation and breakthrough and the distance between rooms come too disturbing for casual visits. Most stayed in the crowds, now, where contact was an easier thing. “Close your eyes,” she said again. Then, “hold your arms up, that’s right. In front of you. Now walk.”

“Where?” said Frank, as if it mattered. As if there was anything in this room, the size of a baseball field (the room that was once so small it had seemed too tiny for two) that he could trip over. “Anywhere,” he heard, and so he walked forward, confident in the space around, and in three paces his hands hit a wall.

When he turned around, Doris was curled up on his bed, a hundred yards away.

Bletchley Park

Helen’s world had walls now, in a way that she’d never had before, back when she had believed the world was an open place, a place for her to be open in. Certainly, there had been times when she felt cooped up, locked in – so many sisters, such an omnipresence of her face – but she’d always been able to go out into the garden, look up at night and see the stars. See infinity, with her life at the centre of it and space all around.

Then she came to Bletchley and that was a world that was circumscribed, where the walls were more than the walls of her bedroom: temporary, and with windows. She learned stifling there, and suffocation, but even so it was a considered thing, a place where she could still exist under starlight, for Bletchley was a microcosm, a line between. She was there, and V. was there and all the rest, for purpose – so that the world outside would still be felt, would still exist in ways that mattered more than telegrams and casualty lists and radio transmissions.

“One day, this will all be over,” V. had said to her once, when Helen had come off a long shift, her head swollen and aching from cryptography, from the cramped and crucial efforts of code. “One day we’ll look back and think this was fun. We’ll laugh.”

“We won’t,” said Helen. “Because we won’t talk about it.” Because they had signed to say that they wouldn’t, because they had given their word. But their silence would be the silence of the world that they would go out into, the nature of their binding invisible.

And yet it was not temporary. Bletchley shrank, and the walls were hard up against them, brick and plaster and wood part of their bodies now as they were part of each other, as they were part of all the bodies at Bletchley, and all the glass and all the code, and pressed up against the outside of them was a world they could never reach, never fully be part of again. A world without their density, a world without their weight, where their presence was a shadowed thing and felt in absence. Outside, the world was fish-eyed: skewed around, bent as if in lenses. Helen could see the places that Bletchley had been, the places it had touched, and they were separated from her: the empty pits in London where the bombs had dropped, the memorials, the safer seas. All this she felt, at distance, and could not say how it was that she knew it. Bletchley was heavy, dense, a black hole in the Buckinghamshire countryside and on its edges was Whitehall, was Dollis Park, was the sinking, shrinking orbit of everything around, everything affected.

She could see the dome of Saint Paul’s from her bedroom window, from the windowless rooms where the Colossi were kept locked in and blacked out. She could see London bridge at the manor gate.

On clear days, Helen could see that she was surrounded by ocean.

Los Alamos

As the mesa stretched around him, Frank wondered whether it would crack in the stretching, whether it would become thin as eggshells and as fragile, baked under the hot summer sun of New Mexico, baked in the shadow of a different sun. Whether it would crack under his footprints, able to be levered up then and the old world underneath, the world that existed before the energy of atoms came to change it.

Doris, he thinks, would have called that an unworthy thought. “You know what we’re doing here,” she had said, naked against him and her wedding band shining in the light because she never looked away and there was no shell thick enough for her to hide her adultery beneath, no shell she wouldn’t have cracked to keep the truth from being buried under. “You know what we’re doing here.”

No. It wasn’t a shell. He watched Alamos stretch, watched the distances between their labs and themselves and knew that the new world they were creating wasn’t one that could be dug up again. It didn’t come in layers – distinct, with edges that cut. It came with softness, with sympathy, and so thin now that Frank could see through it, as though the essence of Alamos had spilled over the steep walls of the mesa, bleeding through into other lands, other countries.

When his time at Alamos was over, he carried it with him. He saw the labs superimposed on college campuses, the calculations carved into rock. All the scientists he ever met wore pork pie hats and everything he ever touched was gritty, as if overlaid by sand.

It made secret-keeping a mockery, really, when the secrets were so open, blasted into prominence on islands across the Pacific, and handed off on little bridges. Always, always there was that little bridge, on the edge of sight and on it stood a man who Frank worked with, sometimes, and never really knew. His name was Klaus, and he carried Alamos in his briefcase as Frank carried it in his eyes, in his touch – carried it to give away to outsiders on bridges, and to cover the world over with Alamos, to spread it wide and thinly so the holocaust that first ignited on the White Sands could spread everywhere, could spread all over.

Frank had never been a spy, never been a traitor, so he never took himself off to Moscow, to any of the cold countries come up with the end of one war and the beginning of another, but he saw photographs, sometimes, and the Lodge was there, pressed cheek by jowl first against the Kremlin then other buildings, other governments, and he wondered, sometimes, if when Stalin breathed in of a morning he could smell pine trees and mesquite.

Frank existed in two worlds, as if his twin had come back to him in ignimbrite and undercurrents. He spent his days walking between old landmarks and dust and white sands followed him all his days.

Bletchley Park

The thing that had been Helen – when she was Helen, when she was a separate creature, one who had boundaries and who understood islands, and what it was to be one – had only sensations of weight, and pressure, of rapid mental blinking. Bletchley now was so heavy, so massive, that it drew them all in together, bound them with its own gravity, stamped secrecy on their bones. They had signed in blood, all of them, or good as, and even when the outside world pressed against them that thin signed sheet left smears of ink along what had been cheekbones and glass valves and precedence, and kept silence.

A thought came: It’s like being in trapped in glass, but all the glass was smashed when the Colossi were destroyed, the machines broken down into little pieces no bigger than a fist. And that thought wasn’t Helen’s, that blink had never been hers – but neither was the feel of a blue-stoned ring on her finger, the sensation of another moving inside her and these had come to be her own. All of them had come to be her own, with Bletchley compressed down, smaller and smaller and oh, so heavy.

Perhaps we’re the size of a football now, thought one and she didn’t know if it was her. Perhaps we’re the size of a cricket ball. Perhaps we can fit on the head of a pin. A strong pin, not to buckle under. Not when there was such injustice in the squeezing.

Not fair, thought another when news came in from the outside, news of another computer – one called ENIAC, and feted as the first. Not the first, not the first! And Helen wanted to cry out in protest as much as the rest of them but space was not their friend, nor secrets, and Bletchley was so dense, the space between so tiny that there wasn’t any shouting that could breach the barrier, that couldn’t be pulled back by weight. And even if there was a way, even they could, they had made promises and that made the silence heavier than anything else.

No good. It was no good. There were some boundaries that couldn’t be crossed, some experiences of closeness, of bringing together and insularity, that could never be communicated. That could warp away, that could shift space-time and keep them enclosed in pockets, away from what was once familiar and which had become untouchable.

V., the thing that had been Helen thought. V. And it was cry and recognition at once, for V., was with her, pressed against and inside and the two of them closer now than they’d ever been in the womb, with all the space between them, between each separate atom of them, each cell divided away from each other, gone away. V.

I’m here.

____

Copyright 2017 

Octavia Cade’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Strange Horizons, amongst others. She has a particular interest in science history, and this story is one of a series that she’s writing that are linked to the WW2 cryptographic work at Bletchley Park. She lives in New Zealand, and attended Clarion West 2016.

 

 

by Tracy Canfield

 

The stereopsis module clicked open in Wren’s fingers. “For the next five minutes,” she said, “try not to play any ping-pong.”

She sliced deftly into my abdomen, and though my somatic subsystem signaled pain, I didn’t wince – wouldn’t want her to think I was nervous.

Usually Wren’s workbench loops were stuffed with starship components for customers brave enough to scavenge the Drift or rich enough to pay someone else to. Today, though, she was down to a disassembled Kviksølv cyborg body. Well, a knockoff Kviksølv. Wren unclipped a cable and my view of the bench sank to 2D as my eyes automatically switched to my backup visual processor.

“Okay, Buffalo, here goes.” She waved theatrically. Her fingers were grubby, but her burgundy nail polish was unscratched.

With a flare, the new Kviksølv stereopsis module brought the third dimension surging back. The workshop had developed a red tint, though, like a bootleg romcom dribbling over the ansible from seventy light-years away. I tried to recalibrate off my memories of Wren’s dark skin, but it didn’t help.

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “The camera’s adding ten pounds.”

“Depth’s good,” I said. “Color’s off. Might need a software patch.”

She drummed her fingernails on the bench. “I’ll see what I can do, but I doubt anyone’s ported the drivers. Your operating system is …” Obsolete, I thought. “Legacy,” she finished. “Now, if you wanted me to upgrade you into the Kviksølv –”

The comms rack hooted. Wren squinted past me at the screen. I have the parts to connect to the repair base computers directly, but I never enable them. I’m too much of a machine as it is.

“Someone called the Plasma Push wants clearance to land.” Wren’s gaze flicked back and forth across the display. “Ever hear of these guys?”

“Nope.” I leaned back and scanned the screen anyway. Had Ypsilanti Rowe ever heard of them, that’s what she meant.

“Base broadcast,” said Wren. “‘Plasma Push, you here to buy something? Otherwise you can dock at the Flotsam.’

The Plasma Push replied with a flash of torpedo tubes.

“Guess he doesn’t like their two-drink minimum,” said Wren. “I hope you can still shoot with that Kviksølv, Buffalo, ’cause there’s no time to pull it out.” Worry creased her face. Base defense had been hard enough back when there were three of us.

I held my guts shut with one hand and vaulted easily into the gunners’ chair –Wren had set up her repair shop on an asteroid where gravity was less of a law and more of a gentle suggestion. The incoming torpedo was still half a klick out, so I spared a precious half-second to fire off an automated alert to the sheriff. I didn’t expect any help from that quarter, but the record would show that we’d asked.

“I’ll handle the Push,” said Wren. “You keep those torps from flattening my mechanics.”

The combat display limned Wren’s magnetic bursters streaking towards the red ellipse of the Plasma Push. She was hoping to knock out its computer systems and salvage it. How much would we get for a high-end armed cruiser like that? I wondered. There might be flashier tech in the Drift, but the Push would bring in good cash, even after the sheriff took his cut. Maybe enough to hire a professional programmer from out in the Intersolar to code up some custom optical drivers for me.

But right now I had other worries. I latched my targeting ring onto the torpedo and squeezed the bars, blasting out high-impact rounds. I didn’t want the chair’s control ports – or need them. I have Ypsilanti’s memories, fresh as the day he stuck his head in the braincaster: Orbital Patrol flight school and freelance piloting through the roughest parts of the galactic arm. Plus my own fifteen years scavenging the Drift.

I stole a glance at Wren’s sly smile. My drives had plenty of room for one memory more.

I hated to turn back to the screen. The Push‘s torpedo pulsed closer, an inflamed red teardrop, and my shots’ gentle green trajectories curved to intercept it. Closer, closer – and then the attacking teardrop split in three.

My false-green bullets obediently wiped away the center target, the chunk of the torpedo that had stayed on the original course. That one would be a dummy – the warheads were on the daughter torps. I snapped my guns to spray.

The Kviksølv components rattled against the bench padding. Wren’s mechanics had loosed an artillery barrage from the gun battery in the spinward bay. With luck, even civilians like them could keep our airspace too hot for the Plasma Push to land. The Push could still bombard us from above, though, until and unless Wren and I brought it down.

Wren’s own burster shots were still only halfway to the Push. She fired off a second wave. “Buffalo, you got those baby torps under control? I want this jackass’s hide. Ammo costs money.”

“Don’t you worry,” I said, but I was worrying a little myself. The torpedoes were closing in on the base, and our domes wouldn’t hold up to a direct hit. I didn’t care about air, but I did care about Wren.

My autonomic modules wouldn’t switch on my synthetic sweat glands in the cool workroom air, but my hands were tight on the firing bars. I raked my shots across the torpedoes’ course.

The combat display chittered. A new dot was streaking into range – a second warship. Some bizarre model I’d never seen, a mass of chrome bubbles never meant to taste atmosphere. It didn’t even have viewports. The sheer strangeness of it confirmed what the combat screen’s plot of its course was telling me: it was straight out of the Drift.

“Wren, I guess even jackasses have friends. And this guy’s from the wrong side of the tracks.” The Drift was a Darwinian stew of wild AIs, endlessly devising new tech and building new ships to battle each other. Fortunately for everyone, they stayed there. Or they had, until, apparently, now. Too bad there wasn’t time to blast out another message to Sheriff Thibodeaux. “Drift ship attacking” would certainly grab his attention.

Wren rattled off some high-octane profanity. “That’s not a salvager, that’s salvage. The hell with capturing the Push. Let’s just stay alive.”

My bullet spray wiped one warhead off the display, and I turned my guns on the second. This close, the torpedo’s jammers were fuzzing the base sensors. The target jittered on my screen.

I instinctively switched to cameras and zoomed in. The display couldn’t keep the tactical overlay synched, and the torpedo was barely a gray smudge against the starfield. In a few seconds, it would smash into the base. I had one shot.

I dialed up the precision fire controls. The smaller caliber wouldn’t have the punch to knock the warhead out altogether, but if I could lead it just right …

My vision flickered.

I held my breath. My atmospheric sensor bleeped a warning.

The world reappeared, and I fired.

My bullets trimmed away the torpedo’s fins and sent it spinning into the dead rock beyond the base walls. I felt the slam of impact.

“You got it!” Wren whooped. “I’m not even going to complain about re-forceforming that landing field.” Wren was still alive, and I was still – well – me.

I swung my targeting ring toward the Plasma Push, but the rotten little bastard was racing away, out of our orbit and out of range. Had that Drift ship scared it off? If so, they weren’t working together. I wasn’t sure if that was good news or bad.

The Drift ship hadn’t fired. My screen showed a data squirt, but it wasn’t a standard ship hail, just a series of plaintext words: clip clock block solder light to tendon guard cover cushion keep keep safe.

“Should we be writing this down?” I said.

Not having received whatever mad answer it hoped for, the ship fired its torch and turned back Driftwards.

“Well,” said Wren, “that’s interesting. I’ll have some mechanics come up and warm our gun chairs for a few hours. I think it’s time for a visit to the sheriff’s office.”

divider

Everyone told Iron Jill she should’ve named the Flotsam the Corkscrew. “We can’t serve wine until Tramptown starts growing grapes,” she’d say in her gritty monotone. Same delivery every time. I never knew whether she was joking – I think her emotion chips were burned out.

The Flotsam was a vast spiral of metal and forceformed concrete, cruising among the miscellaneous scavenging ships that comprised Tramptown. It was too big and balky to be called a ship; the Flotsam’s engines were barely big enough to spin up a gentle half-Earth gravity that comforted visitors from the Intersolar and discouraged the locals from brawling.

The Flotsam’s bulky backbone was probably built to house starships while they were under construction, but long before my time, Jill towed it out of the Drift and set up shop. The only habitable section was the domed bar inside one end of the vast tube. But the Flotsam was more than a watering hole; salvagers came here when they didn’t feel like attending the Tramptown Baptist Church but still needed to see someone besides their own shipmates. Automated trade shuttles brought in what we couldn’t rig up for ourselves – like snacks from the middle of the food chain instead of the sludgy bottom, or Kviksølv cyborg bodies – and left with whatever technology we’d scavenged from the Drift. Iron Jill could even afford decent ansible bandwidth to the Intersolar. Someday the Flotsam would be the nucleus of a real town.

It was purely logical that Sheriff Thibodeaux would set himself up in the back room. Nothing to do with the Flotsam having the best stills in Tramptown. Of course not.

Thibodeaux’s office reeked of fried seaweed and mustard; he obviously didn’t take his meals with the common salvagers. He clinked his shot glass onto the magnetic coaster installed in his desktop.

“Nothing comes out of the Drift except salvagers,” he grunted, “so what makes you think that’s suddenly changed?” The counter app I’d coded on the fly popped a 3 into my visual display.

“Look at my logs if you don’t believe me.” Wren leaned her elbows on Thibodeaux’s smart desk. “And I’m a lot more interested in this Plasma Push newcomer, seeing as that’s who actually shot at me.”

“Which I understand to be illegal,” I said. Thibodeaux snorted at Wren, like her communicator had warbled some embarrassing cyborg boy-band ringtone, and poured himself another shot.

Thibodeaux had turned up in the Drift last year with an armed ship and an intriguing proposal. He’d heard Tramptown was getting big enough for a sheriff, and he wanted the job. He ran unopposed – truthfully, most of us had been thankful for the chance to give that authority to someone without a stake in any of Tramptown’s long-running feuds.

Wren tapped her wristpad against Thibodeaux’s desk. Logfiles and photos scrolled by under the grease stains.

“That’s a Silverback-model cruiser,” said Thibodeaux. “Like the Intersolar cops have. Wouldn’t mind flying one myself, if people would get better about paying their ten percent into the law enforcement budget.”

He sipped his whiskey. “When the Plasma Push‘s crew gets to the Flotsam, I’ll talk with them about the local customs. Now, about this ship you say came out of the Drift …” I bumped the counter to 4, set my ears to record the conversation, and started replaying my favorite memory. My first.

Wren tightened the pads around my head. I closed my eyes as Ypsilanti, and opened them as me. Silver threads had appeared in her black braids, and her smile was tight. I noticed the roundness of her face before her pregnant belly.

“You hear me okay?” she said. “Because I won’t fit into my v-suit much longer, and I could use some help around here.”

That bulge was her son Prentiss. Another, less welcome memory bubbled up – Prentiss ambushed by the Drift ship Absolute Magnitude, gasping, metal tendrils wrapping his throat.

My recording program blinked: Wren and Thibodeaux’s conversation had shifted to a new subject. I replayed the last few seconds.

“You still keeping Ypsilanti’s cyborg around?” said Thibodeaux’s recorded voice. I switched my attention to the here-and-now.

“Buffalo works for me,” said Wren, matter-of-fact. “Gets a paycheck and everything.”

Thibodeaux uncoupled the shot glass and swished whiskey in his mouth. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Ypsilanti lately.”

“Can’t say I have.” Wren’s voice had cooled. I didn’t think Thibodeaux picked up on it.

Thibodeaux looked me over appraisingly. I’d liked it better when he ignored me.

“So Ypsilanti abandoned this cyborg. That means that if you plan to hang onto it, you’re salvaging it, and you owe me ten percent of the value.”

“God damn it,” said Wren. “What is it with you? Every couple of weeks you come nosing around my base, checking whether I’ve picked up anything I owe you on, even though you and I both know it’s been years since I went into the Drift – and even though Buffalo’s lived, uh, been in Tramptown since before you got here. My mechanic business is a full-time job and then some, but there you are, clomping around with your scanner and your spreadsheet. I might as well outsource my inventory management to the sheriff’s office. To think I voted for you.”

“Never let it be said I showed my supporters any favoritism,” said Thibodeaux. He stood up – the meeting was over. “I’m off to tell the Pechins to keep their hands off other people’s nori webs. We’ll talk later about what this cyborg’s worth.”

“You might never have been to the Drift,” I said, “but you oughta know that around here, some salvage shoots back.”

“I’ll keep it mind,” said Thibodeaux, and held out his hand. I spent way too many computational cycles deciding whether shaking it was manly or cowardly.

divider

Iron Jill was spraying down the bar with a jet of carbonated water from her finger. I bellied up and ordered moonshine, coconut extract, extra grenadine – real liquid, not the algae gel you settle for out in micrograv. “For Wren?” Jill creaked.

She was a cyborg too, an older model, all metal and plastic. My silicone skin made me look human, but she’d never fool anyone.

“For Wren.” Neither Jill nor I ran on calories. “Throw in some of those chili strips. Hey, you seen any new ships around – maybe someone called the Plasma Push?” I thought about mentioning that strange ship from the Drift, but didn’t know how to answer the questions Jill was sure to ask.

“No new ships.” Jill counted my credit chips with her left hand, a surgical prosthetic designed for finer work. After she’d lost her factory-install in a docking accident on an Intersolar world years ago, she’d flown a cheap freighter to Tramptown, scavenged a dumb chunk of concrete from the Drift, and fused the two into the Flotsam. My color vision flickered, tinting her green.

Iron Jill was my future. I could replace my failing parts, for a while. But eventually there’d be nothing on the market I was compatible with, and Wren and I would jury-rig until our skill ran out. You can’t patch old jeans with new denim.

Wren waved me over – she’d snagged a table with a privacy hood. The Flotsam’s floor was transparent, and when the local gas giant Kameekoru slid past in the viewpane, she bounced her lucky ping-pong ball off it.

“Chili strips? Don’t mind if I do!” She broke one under her nose. Kelp flakes fluttered past her smile. “Gets the smell of Thibodeaux’s lunch out of my sinuses.”

I snagged the ping-pong ball on the rebound and snapped it at a distant, familiar flicker. Even through a viewpane, the Drift always gives me the shivers; I feel like I’m being watched. “Sounds to me like we’re on our own,” I said, “unless the Push parks in Thibodeaux’s docking space. We were better off without a sheriff.”

“Don’t say that,” said Wren, suddenly fierce. The ping-pong ball rattled under the table. “How many repairs did I barely break even on because some tough guy decided he deserved a discount, and I didn’t have the firepower to say no? Now at least we have a sheriff, and a two-cell jail, and a random lottery for jury slots. The old Tramptown was no place to raise a kid–” She stopped, hearing her own words.

I wanted to reach for her hand. That’s what Ypsilanti would’ve done, though he would’ve been more interested in looking like a compassionate guy – and maybe getting somewhere with Wren – than in how she actually felt. Instead I changed the subject. Fifteen years as friends had taught me she’d welcome the distraction.

“Maybe someday we’ll have an actual lawbook,” I said, “not just what Thibodeaux picks up from the Intersolar cop shows.” The seam where Wren had glued my abdomen back together tickled. Too bad there wasn’t a ping-pong match to distract us even more. The Flotsam was the only place in Tramptown that pulled enough g for a proper game, but all the customers were buzzing around the bar instead. “Shit, Wren, you’re right; life’s better. But we both know that if some scavenger broke me down for scrap, Thibodeaux might maybe warn them for littering.”

“Is it really two years to the next election? Christ.” She ran her burgundy fingernail around the lip of her glass.

Kameekoru slipped past the edge of the transparent floor panel. We scavengers didn’t bother orbiting it. There’s nothing there, unless you like hydrogen and gravelly little moons.

But we wouldn’t be here without it. Any object in its orbital zone was nudged by Kameekoru’s vast gravitational dominance, herded into the Lagrange points in its orbit. One cluster of asteroids at the L4 point was forever running away from the gas giant– that’s where we’d built Tramptown. And there was stranger cluster anti-spinward at L5 – the Drift. Once it had been a military shipyard, back in our granddads’ wars; now it was a bubbling Petri dish of combat AIs evolving new ways to kill each other.

Wren toyed with her swizzle stick, staring into the swirling liquids like a kid – it wasn’t something you got to do every day in the microgravity back on base. She looked more sad than dreamy.

“I wonder if Thibodeaux hates Jill the way he hates me?” I said, to lighten things up. “He doesn’t act as hostile towards her. Maybe he doesn’t want to piss off the gal who could put silicone lube in his whiskey.”

“Watch out for Thibodeaux,” said Wren. “He might take it into his head to collect his ten percent by weight.”

“If he hasn’t done it yet, he’s not going to.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it.” She sipped the red-swirled booze. “I don’t know why you stick around here. Some worlds in the Intersolar give cyborgs citizenship. The traders who pass through here can always use pilots, and gunners, and mechanics; I’d vouch for you.”

I thought of Prentiss’s body, the wet hole through his head.

“I like it here,” I said.

“Bull and also shit. I’ve known you longer than you’ve known yourself.”

The body language around the bar was looking rowdy. “Whatever’s so exciting over there, we don’t want to get left out of it,” I said. I snapped the privacy hood off, thankful for any excuse to change the subject.

Spacers were slapping money down on the bar for Iron Jill to sort into surgically precise piles. Natsuki Tedjo tossed in a chit. “Nobody’s ever flown through the Flotsam’s spiral at full speed,” the stocky red-booted scavenger was saying, “and I’ve got a pair of lifters says this new guy can’t do it either.”

Actually Ypsilanti Rowe had done it – raced his souped-up freighter down the Flotsam’s massive forceformed coil and mooned the bargoers on the way past. I remember every white-knuckled second. But he’s gone, and I have too much sense to try it myself. I quit pulling stunts like that when Prentiss was born.

Wren tossed back her drink. “With luck, flyboy’ll oversteer and come to us with repairs. With real luck, he’ll clip someone else’s ship, and we’ll get two paychecks.”

“With the luck we’ve been having, he’ll take out this dome and land square on our heads. Let me see what I can do.”

I got up to look for whoever was fool enough to try this stunt, but a heavy hand on my shoulder stopped me.

“Buffalo,” creaked Iron Jill. “I have a message for you.”

“Not now,” I said. “For the love of Euler, you and I’ll survive if this guy crashes into the glass, but won’t you mind losing all your customers?”

Her artificial grip didn’t loosen. “A message,” she said. She opened her mouth and the synthesizer where her tongue should have been spooled out the recording. “Watch watch over sentinel … all flesh will see buffalo … conserve preserve defend.”

It had to be from the same ship that had scared off the Plasma Push. Weird enough for some Drift ship to turn up at the Flotsam. It couldn’t be following me…could it? All flesh will see buffalo.

“Awaiting your response,” said Iron Jill. The crowd jostled around the bar viewscreens, peered up at the transparent ceiling, searching for the glint of the daredevil’s ship.

Shit, shit, I needed to do something before this dumbass stunt killed us all. “Tell it to hang on,” I said.

“Contact broken,” said Jill. “The source ship has left comms range.”

I dodged around her. There was no sign of the Drift ship’s chrome spheres on the bar screens, which were already tracking the incoming daredevil, extrapolating his course down the Flotsam’s throat. Only a couple of meters’ margin on either side. I didn’t like it.

The screens cut from camera to camera, algorithmically seeking the optimal shot. On the spiral’s exterior, customer ships bobbed at the ends of their tethers. One of the Flotsam’s engines, cannibalized long ago from Iron Jill’s freighter, glowed a lazy nuclear blue.

A blaze leapt among the stars – the daredevil ship had fired its torch. It raced towards the cameras, towards us. The plotter spun out one delicate extrapolation after another; the pilot had a light touch on the stick, adjusting again and again every second, feeling out the course that wouldn’t splatter him flat across the Flotsam‘s ribs.

“He’s cutting it too damn close,” I murmured. I looked up at the ceiling viewframe, but braced myself for impact.

The ship whipped into sight, and as it did, it flipped its atmospheric wings open, waggling them while it blew past. It missed the dome by centimeters, but it did miss. I replayed the split second. The wings were painted with naked mermaids. I simulated an internal groan.

The bar screens flicked up the ship’s request for a video feed, and Iron Jill obliged, though no one could hear over the shouting.

Grinning from the cockpit, slouching back in his pilot’s chair and running a hand through his tousled hair, was none other than Ypsilanti Rowe.

divider

Ypsilanti strutted across the bar, ankle-deep in Tramptown scrip and Intersolar credit chits, shaking hands and tossing down vacuum-sealed duck eggs to the cheering spacers. He had money to blow through, and it hadn’t all gone for party favors – the palms of his hands flashed a fishy white, the telltale sign of pricy rejuv. He was king of the mountain, and we weren’t.

“Hear about that civil war on Perun?” he said. “C’mon, Jill, you can’t show Intersolar sports all the time; you need to broaden folks’ minds. I met this very interesting – algae rum? don’t mind if I do – this very interesting Perunite, smart guy, university professor, who wanted to make sure Perun’s heritage wasn’t wiped out in the bombing.”

“And you helped him relocate it,” said Natsuki. Ypsilanti threw her a baggie of paprika, and she tucked it into her boot. “What a humanitarian.”

“Well, I did receive a modest payment from the collector who found the artifacts a happy new home.” Ypsilanti hooked a thumb through a belt loop, casual, like he’d never considered the monetary aspect until now.

But his practiced cool faltered when he saw me. He scratched his chin, to cover his facial expression, and I was annoyed to notice I was doing the same thing.

“It’s like looking into a mirror,” he said. Was he vain enough to think so? His rejuv was good, but he didn’t look fifteen years younger. “Hey, Wren.” He reached for her hand. “Guess you just couldn’t stand to give me up.”

The spacers guffawed. What did they really think of Wren keeping me around? What would they say if we’d been a couple?

“How’s the Bellerophon?” said Wren, the way she’d ask another guy about his wife and kids.

“Better than ever, and ever was pretty damn hot,” said Ypsilanti, scooping up his winnings. “New sensor rig. Orbital Patrol itself doesn’t have this stuff yet.”

If I’m vain enough to think I look better than him, I mused, he’s vain enough to think I don’t.

“Sorry, folks, got a date with the lady.” Ypsilanti flipped a credit chip to Jill, but the cyborg missed the catch, and the chit clinked into a jar of pickled kelp.

“Usually dates get arranged ahead of time,” said Wren. “Guess you wanted to see if there were any girls who were younger, prettier, and buying your brand of bullshit.”

Ypsilanti slipped his arm around her waist. Wren never had rejuv – the fifteen years that had passed had left crinkles around her eyes, a more generous curve at her hips. But she was still beautiful and she knew it. A perfboard barrette snapped back her crinkly curls, and her flight suit was tailored to flatter. Ypsilanti’s showing her off, making sure everybody knows he has money in his pockets, mermaids on his wings, and a woman in every port.

He gave her a roguish squeeze. “Let’s talk somewhere private.”

Wren jerked her thumb towards a booth with a hood.

“More private than that. I think Jill can read lips. Your place?”

Wren smiled indulgently. “We don’t need that much privacy.”

“Maybe we do.”

They faced each other, irresistible charm versus immovable grit. I could guess what thoughts were turning behind Wren’s narrowed eyes. Last time around, Ypsilanti’s deeds hadn’t lived up to his promises, and now here he stood, just as he had so long ago, hinting at bigger and better promises. At last she nodded and started for the airlock.

“How could she resist?” said Ypsilanti. “This way she gets two of me.” I snorted, which was kind of for the crowd too.

I had Ypsilanti’s memories of making love to Wren; I replayed them often, savoring her purring little laugh, her half-lidded eyes, the delectable nape of her neck. But right at that moment, I was so jealous I could have erased them all.

In the airlock I felt intensely self-conscious. Wren and Ypsilanti were still safety-checking their v-suits long after I’d pulled my hood on. All I need is the heater in my clothes and enough air pressure to talk.

“Planet-raised food for Natsuki Tedjo,” said Wren. “Who you hate. So you’re finally rich?”

“Not as rich as I’m about to be,” said Ypsilanti. “And you are going to be part of it. And so are you.” He turned his roguish smile on me. I had to fight to keep my facial tensors from mimicking the expression. It was uncanny, like looking into a mirror with a mind of its own. “I guess you would be Ypsilanti?” he said. “Maybe Little Ypsi?”

“They call me Buffalo,” I said.

“Let’s set up a secure channel,” said Wren. She bumped Ypsilanti’s helmet, then mine. My transrec light clicked to blue.

The lock seals drained air back into the Flotsam. Beyond the hatch, the stars glittered like a fistful of diamond dust: ten thousand worlds I could wander if I hadn’t planted myself in Tramptown.

The three of us clumped down the magnetic path that led between the starship tethers. Iron Jill didn’t see any profit in maintaining that much enclosed tunneling.

“So, Ypsilanti, now that we have all this privacy, tell me something.” said Wren over the transrec. “You show up at the exact same time as a cruiser called the Plasma Push. And you’re both interested in me. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence.”

“The Plasma Push?” said Ypsilanti innocently. He might really not have known about the ship; he and I are pretty good liars.

“Someone looking for you? Did you run out of places you’re welcome?”

“I piss off a lot of people, Wren. You know that. But I wasn’t followed – I set course for Tramptown in a stretch of vacuum light-hours from any scanners.”

We padded past Iron Jill’s old ship, the nameless freighter that brought her to Tramptown. The life support and toilets had been stripped out – Jill didn’t need them – and incorporated into the bar. It was little more than a shell, more decrepit than the cyborg herself.

“If you know how to get so rich in the Drift, why didn’t you do it fifteen years ago?” said Wren.

Ypsilanti’s rangy strut was unmistakable, even in his v-suit. “That professor I was telling you about, the one from Perun? He taught robotic archaeology. He’d studied a dozen AI nations – spent years out there, back when he was young enough to shuttle in and out of gravity wells.” Listening to Ypsilanti was like listening to a recording of myself. The timing, the phrasing, the wording was right, but it sounded so strange in my ears. “Well, this professor taught me some interesting things. And that is where you come in, Buffalo.” He waved a glove at me. “You can be my sidekick. How’s that?”

We were approaching the familiar form of the Bellerophon, battered but solid, its hull plates scarred by torpedo charges. It occurred to me that this was the first time I’d actually seen it. I had plenty of memories, but the Bellerophon, and Ypsilanti, had been light years away by the time Wren initialized me.

“I’m not a machine psychologist,” I said. “I’m just a pilot.”

“You’re not just a pilot,” he said. “Not with what you got from me.”

Even wearing magnetic boots, I’d say Ypsilanti swaggered into Bellerophon‘s airlock.

“Easy money,” said Wren. “Same old song.”

I had memories of Ypsilanti’s pillow talk with Wren, reassuring her that this plan or that was bound to succeed. I had older memories, from before he met her, of failed get-rich schemes on worlds throughout the Intersolar. I didn’t, of course, have memories of him telling her how those schemes had worked out.

I bumped my hood to Wren’s helmet for a new secure channel.

“Tell me I don’t talk that much,” I said.

She giggled. “Not anymore.”

“And, Wren … don’t trust him. I know him better than you do.”

“I know exactly how much I can trust him,” she said. “I trust you, don’t I?”

divider

“I’m surprised this thing worked at all,” said Wren from her perch on the Bellerophon‘s disconnected sensor rig. “I’ll need an angular refractor just to calibrate it.” I unclipped one from her workbench and tossed it over.

Ypsilanti stretched out in the gunnery chair. “How long will it take you?” he yawned.

Wren didn’t bother to look at him, but she didn’t frown, either. “Remember, you’re not my only customer.”

“Then let me speed things along.” He strolled over and unsnarled the dish’s web of cabling, as easily as if the fifteen years since they’d worked together had been fifteen minutes.

Wren wove the refractor in among the lines. “I saw something about your little artifact smuggling ring on the ansible at the Flotsam,” she said. “Apparently, when the dust settled, the artifacts were in the hands of the very people who should have been the first up against the wall when the shooting started. I knew you were in on it. You might as well have signed your work.”

Ypsilanti leaned in closer. “You know me too well.”

“You haven’t explained,” said Wren softly, “what makes this latest scheme of yours so brilliant.”

I double-checked that my voice would come out calm. “Don’t mind me,” I said.

Ypsilanti shot me a sidelong smile. “That robot archaeology professor, from the smuggling ring,” he said. “When he was younger, he’d spent months in micrograv, studying different machine societies – never the Drift, though, it’s too rough for an academic. And he said they all have similarities. For one thing, there’ll be some kind of monetary system – even if they don’t trade with the rest of the galaxy.”

“And where there’s money,” said Wren, “there’s Ypsilanti Rowe.”

He pouted. “I’m hurt. No, see, even in a ship-eat-ship wasteland like the Drift, some of the AIs will team up – maybe for microseconds, maybe for centuries. And they need some way of tracking who owes who what. Points. Credits. Tally marks on an asteroid. Probably, though, it’s cryptographically-signed certificates, with one long-lived ship acting as the server.”

“That money, if you want to call it that, is no good to anyone but a Drift AI,” I said. “You can’t spend it back in the Intersolar.”

“For my plan,” said Ypsilanti, “that’s not a problem. Remember that huge Drift ship, size of an orbital, always had smaller ships swarming in and out of it like a screenful of static?”

“The one we called the Absolute Magnitude,” I said.

I’d seen the Magnitude hundreds of times. Prentiss and I used to hunt the smaller ships that would cluster nearby. I scanned my memories, painful as they were – the mechanical tendrils reaching for Prentiss, Prentiss pointing his gun the wrong direction… “You’re right – other ships came and went, when the newer ones took them apart, but the Magnitude just got tougher.”

“Why would those other ships trust it enough to go inside?” said Ypsilanti. “And why would it trust them? I think it’s because they had an arrangement. The Absolute Magnitude is the cash server, and the other ships are all clients. They damage the Magnitude, they lose all their money – and so do all the other AIs in the Drift. Making the Magnitude untouchable. Every single customer doubles as a security guard.”

“And there was always a lot of comms chatter between the Magnitude and the rest of the Drift, even if we never decrypted any of it. This is just fascinating,” I said. “Maybe your professor friend can get tenure out of it. But the Magnitude is pretty hostile to Tramptown scavengers.”

“You gotta be smart,” said Ypsilanti.

“That’s not always enough,” said Wren. She lay back on a creeper and scooted under the sensor rig.

“Here’s where my plan comes in. If we had a Drift cash account on Magnitude‘s server, it’d trust us. We could fly in, just like all the Drift ships do, find the best tech on the Magnitude, and then run like hell with it. A ship that big and mean has to have cooked up some interesting innovations of its own over the years. And the Intersolar will pay and pay and pay to get them.”

“It’s a top shelf plan,” said Wren from beneath the rig. “The one little niggle I have is that we don’t have a Drift cash account. Or any way of getting one. And since your professor friend never went to the Drift, I don’t suppose he has one he’d let us use.”

“Ah, but I do,” said Ypsilanti. “Or at least I can get one. I’d scavenged one of those little ships just before I – went back to the Intersolar. I know I saw something in its files that said cash passphrase, even tried it out while I was decrypting its data, but it didn’t unlock anything.”

“But if you’d transmitted the passphrase to the Absolute Magnitude,” I said, “you would have accessed a bank account.”

“And you think that account’s still there fifteen years later?” called Wren.

“Deleting data – does that sound like any AI you’ve ever heard of?” said Ypsilanti.

“You’ve got the passphrase. You’ve got the Bellerophon. You’ll have this military-grade sensor rig by the time we’re done,” I said. “What do you need us for?”

“I don’t have the passphrase,” said Ypsilanti. “You do, Buffalo.”

Wren’s wrench rang against metal. “How’s that even possible? Buffalo’s memories from back then are copied from yours. If you don’t know it, he can’t, either. Right, Buffalo?”

“Usually,” I said, “unless …”

I skimmed the memories of that salvage run, how Ypsilanti had puzzled over the chaotic mix of English, assembly language, and AI cant in the data; how he’d tried 0940 sauce anapest throe MOV charioteer noggin as a decryption key while hissing a series of imaginative spacer oaths.

“By the time you gave up, you felt like the passphrase was worthless,” I said. “You never thought about it again. And at some point, you just forgot it.

“But you forgot after the braincast. When that memory was recorded, it was still fresh. And my memories never fade.”

Ypsilanti studied my face. “You remember it,” he said. “Yeah, you remember. What was it?”

“Why should I tell you?” I said.

He looked disconcerted. Then he chuckled. It was patronizing; I didn’t know I had it in me.

“Yeah, you’re me, all right,” he said. “You’ll get a cut, don’t worry.”

“How much of a cut?” I said.

“I’ll think it over.” Ypsilanti sauntered over to the workbench and inspected a side screen with Prentiss’s picture. “Hey, Wren,” he said, “who’s this?”

“My son,” she said.

“He around here somewhere?”

Wren slid the creeper out and sat up. “He’s dead,” she said, letting her wrench dangle. “Died in an accident, out scavenging the Drift. He was nearly fifteen.”

Ypsilanti reached down to touch her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “The Drift is no place for a kid.”

Wren flinched away. “Now you take an interest.”

Ypsilanti stood open-mouthed. “I didn’t know, Wren,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

“Prentiss was a great kid,” I said into the painful silence. “Smart, handy, natural pilot. And he had a good eye for salvage. We’d go out together.”

“I need to check on that pack venter at Bay Three,” said Wren. “Be right back. This is how I make my living.” She pondered something. “Buffalo, you were working that one, right? Can you spare a moment?”

There was no such repair. We walked casually out of Ypsilanti’s earshot.

“You thinking about helping him?” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Honestly, I am.”

“I – look, I’m not giving you an order. No matter what Thibodeaux thinks, you’re my employee, not my possession.” She tucked a stray corkscrew of hair behind her ear. “But you don’t have to do what Ypsilanti wants.”

“Wren, what Ypsilanti wants is – pretty much by definition – what I want.”

“Is it?” She looked at me from beneath long lashes. “You don’t have to justify wanting the money.”

“But I’m not settling for a cut,” I said. “We’re going in as partners.”

Back in the workshop, the comms honked. Wren brought up the details on the wall monitor and laughed. “Ships coming out of the Drift, Ypsilanti showing up after fifteen years – and now Iron Jill has left the Flotsam. She’s got that old hulk of hers in orbit, wants clearance to land.”

“I’m astounded that thing can fly,” I said. “I thought she’d stripped it to the bones.”

“I’d be surprised if she can take off again,” said Wren. “And that is no insult to our mechanics. That thing’s a hazard to navigation.” I pictured the aging cyborg, taking her ship out for one last run. I didn’t like the places that thought led me.

Wren tapped the screen. “The message is encrypted with Jill’s private key, but she says even that’s not secure enough for what she wants to talk about. Gotta be face to face. I’m clearing her for Bay One.”

“Have you started believing in coincidence?” I said.

“Nope,” said Wren. “Let’s invite Ypsilanti along. I want to see the look on his face when he realizes he’s activated Jill’s interest modules. Might be informative.”

“Ypsilanti!” I called. “Come say hello to our visitors.” Minutes later, the three of us were unsealing the Bay One hatch.

On the other side stood a big man holding a big gun. Behind him, crudely welded inside the empty hulk of Iron Jill’s ship, squatted the Plasma Push. The stranger dumped Jill’s head at our feet.

“Good to see you again, Kochevar,” said Ypsilanti.

divider

Shooting Jill, Kochevar said, had been the easy part.

“Told her I had some tanks of Viognier I could ship in. Gave her a sample; she stuck her finger in, said she’d take it if the price was right. Got her onto those magnetized walkways outside the dome, out of sight of the customers, and blasted her. Already had a program for rifling cyborg minds to pull out her private key.”

I took the hint. “I’ve set an auto-erase to run if I don’t have an orderly shutdown,” I said, “and I’ve never been backed up.” It was true – I’d enabled the erase procedure while he was marching us into Wren’s workshop.

“You’re not a perfect copy. You’re a little too smart,” said Kochevar. If we called the mechanics, he’d explained, he’d shoot; if we made a funny move, he’d shoot. He wasn’t yet ready to shoot us for talking out of turn. “After I sawed off the cyborg’s head, I quick-welded the Push inside the hull of its ship. That was a little harder.”

He grinned sardonically, baring gold canines. “Has Ypsilanti told you about the little smuggling ring we ran on Perun during the civil war? We’d milked all we could out of it, and then he bragged about this plan he had to make a killing in the Drift. He just needed a new sensor rig for the Bellerophon, which I could invest in, and then we’d come back and pick up some equipment he’d left here – something that would give us the edge we needed. But then we got busted for the artifacts. Oh, did he leave that part out? Ypsilanti was looking out for his own skin –”

“Which you would never do,” said Ypsilanti.

Kochevar leveled his gun and blasted Prentiss’s picture off the wall. Ypsilanti didn’t flinch. Wren and I did. “Ypsilanti turned informer. Set me and my partner up. My partner escapes; I get twenty years; Ypsilanti gets six months’ work release shoveling frozen methane on Epona. I hear he served two and got out with good behavior.”

“What a rebel,” said Wren.

“And then,” Kochevar went on, “I guess he figured he’d just mosey back here and get all the loot to himself.”

He was a massive man, with the kind of muscles you don’t normally see on a spacer. Drugs, probably, and monotonous hours spent pushing cargo crates back and forth in the Plasma Push‘s holds. Even in micrograv they have mass.

The pistol in his scarred hands had been police issue, once, before it was beefed up with a speed-load magazine. If we rushed him, there might be as many as one survivor.

“Turns out I didn’t even serve a year of my sentence,” Kochevar said. “A guard got sloppy on a transfer shuttle. First I had his gun, then I had his cruiser, then I was plotting a course to Tramptown.”

He centered the gunsights on my power supply. “This piece of equipment Ypsilanti wanted – that would be the cyborg?”

I looked him square in his massive face. This was a guy who took what he wanted and didn’t think it over afterwards. There was no guarantee he’d honor his deal. For a moment, I wished I’d let Wren copy me into the Kviksølv; I might die, but at least I’d leave a descendant.

“The way I see it,” I said, “you and Ypsilanti had a deal. Which means you and I have a deal.”

“Three-way split,” said Ypsilanti.

“Not happening,” said Kochevar. “If you want to pay your cyborg out of your share, be my guest. But I’m not getting dealt short so that you can get a double payday.”

The comms rack squawked. Kochevar leveled the gun at Wren.

“Who’s that? Who did you call?”

“I didn’t call anyone,” she said, exasperated. “I’m a mechanic. People come here. It’s kind of how my business works.”

“Tell them to come back later.”

She walked gingerly to the rack. “It’s that crazy ship again.”

“What?” said Kochevar.

“The one that showed up right after you did. It’s from the Drift.” She reached for the send button and Kochevar’s gun hand twitched. “We thought it was following you.”

“Think we can salvage it?” said Ypsilanti. “Since it’s here.”

“It’ll be gone before we can lift off,” I said. “It sends its little messages about couch cushions, then hightails. Let’s get going.” The sooner I got Kochevar away from Wren, the happier I’d be.

divider

“I’d forgotten what it’s like,” breathed Ypsilanti.

On the Plasma Push‘s huge viewscreens, meant for spotting smugglers and gunrunners, swarmed ten thousand identical Drift ships the size of my pinky. The Push‘s screens busily tagged them with individual IDs.

I hadn’t been back to the Drift since Prentiss died, but I felt the old excitement rise. Little ships like the swarmers weren’t good hunting. They weren’t a hive mind, didn’t have any new technology you could sell; they’d found a simple program that gave them strength in numbers. Still, wherever you saw them, you saw bigger game – like what was cruising towards them. At a glance it was nothing more than a pitted gray asteroid, brainlessly orbiting the L5 point, but then you noticed the hatches and gun barrels in its craters.

The stealth ship drifted, unnoticed, within a few meters of the swarm, and unfurled a charged net twice its own length. Immediately the smaller ships reacted, darting up into a glittering torus formation.

The stealth ship scooped at a straggler, and the swarm jinked – but not to attack. A sturdy warship with a maw full of spinning rippers had lined itself up behind the swarm, using it as cover. It charged the stealth ship, rippers whirling, grinding swarmers to shavings as it came. The swarm scattered. The stealth ship retracted its nets and fizzed its torch, seeking an escape route, but the warship fired grapplers and reeled the smaller stealth ship in. Titanium claws snapped, and data cables swayed like anemones, ready to eat the stealth ship’s secrets.

Ypsilanti and I were locked in one of the Plasma Push‘s cabins. There wasn’t much to occupy us besides dumb screens displaying the Drift’s familiar unfamiliarity. There were no controls, of course, nothing to sabotage; I suppose we could have plugged the toilet and made a puddle on the floor. And here we sat, disarmed, waiting for Kochevar to summon us, so I could introduce the Plasma Push to the Absolute Magnitude and Ypsilanti could point out the best tech to salvage. I was by far the more experienced salvager, of course, but Ypsilanti was human, and that shipped more weight with Kochevar.

On the viewscreen, the warship drew the stealth ship’s stony prow closer to the grinders, centimeter by centimeter. I winced.

But then the stealth ship thrust out a synthetic-ruby drill and whirred it into its enemy’s guts. The warship released its grasp too late – the gunship had drilled out its brains. The swarm darted around the carnage, snatching up shrapnel, the raw materials it needed to copy itself once more.

“Go get ’em, little drillslinger.” Ypsilanti looked at me obliquely. “How’s Wren been?”

I watched the screen tag more bogeys and sketch the cones of where they might be in one, two, thirty seconds. “When Prentiss died,” I said, “I told her the news, and she went right back into the freighter torch she’d been working on with the mechanics, got it done ahead of schedule. But she didn’t say a word the whole time, and then she just went back to her quarters and sobbed.”

“Prentiss,” said Ypsilanti. “I still can’t imagine I had a kid, and he’s gone before I ever met him. Tell me about him.”

“He was born behind the bar at the Flotsam,” I said. “Wren figured she’d let gravity do some of the work. Iron Jill rolled seaweed cigars.” Everyone agreed they were awful – I couldn’t smoke them, of course, and neither could Jill. Maybe she’d had a sense of humor all along, along with the driest deadpan in the galaxy. May her electronic brain patterns rest in peace.

“Wren made Prentiss’s toys in the machine shop,” I said. “He’d bounce around the base with these little ships. He could identify more than a hundred makes and models when he was five.”

His first word was Mama. His second was Baba, and that meant me. But I didn’t care to share those memories with Ypsilanti.

A tiny Drift ship, no bigger than a basketball, pulled in alongside the Plasma Push. I used to turn the spotlight on those to scare them off before they started munching on my hull. Which is free, but Kochevar’s solution cost a few cents’ worth of ammo. A shot whizzed through the Drift ship and sent it spinning, trailing shrapnel.

“I can’t believe Wren let her kid come out here,” said Ypsilanti.

“We – Wren didn’t want to,” I said. “But that’s what Tramptown kids grow up and do. We knew Prentiss would head in anyway when he was old enough, whether or not he had any experience. In the long run, it was safer to apprentice him with me.”

Numbers whirled in my peripheral vision. The Kviksølv vision module was performing a self-check.

“Prentiss started salvaging when he was ten, hauling things into my loading bay, but pretty soon I let him man the cockpit while I boarded Drift ships that were too big to drag back. Prentiss learned fast what was worth salvaging. We gave him a cut of the profits, and when he turned thirteen, Wren built him a little scout ship so he could go in on his own. He was mad as a badger in freefall when Sheriff Thibodeaux started taxing us ten percent.”

“I knew a Thibodeaux once,” said Ypsilanti. “They’re assholes.”

Even teenagers without Ypsilanti’s genes usually decide to piss off the world at some point. Prentiss came to consider himself a salvager no different from the grown men and women at the Flotsam. As far as he was concerned, Wren and I couldn’t tell him anything.

The Plasma Push‘s screen assigned one distant speck a number, then added a name: Absolute Magnitude. Ypsilanti gazed at it, rubbing his chin. Once again I spotted his white palm. In this part of the galaxy, his carefully-cultivated image wouldn’t do him any good.

I wondered if Ypsilanti would be happier not knowing about Prentiss’s final flight.

divider

The kid’s invitation to come scavenging as his co-pilot had been laden with teenage contempt, but I still accepted. At the time, I thought that if I blew off his needling, he’d outgrow it faster.

Prentiss’d planted a tracer on a mid-sized Drift sloop during his previous trip, and the signal led us to the surging cloud of Drift ships that surrounded the Absolute Magnitude.

The Magnitude might have begun its life as a shipyard during the war, or as an orbital intended to house a billion people – after a century of self-modifications, we would never be sure. It was a three-dimensional lace of forceform and steel five thousand kilometers long, without a single straight line. Photovoltaic patches the size of planetary cities dotted its sunward side. Other Drift ships teemed in and out of the arching gaps in the Magnitude‘s skeleton.

Prentiss approached the tumult of smaller ships a little closer than I liked, and he was stuck on a topic I didn’t like either.

“I woulda shot her,” he said. “Bam. Not like there was a sheriff back then.”

“I didn’t care what Elspeth said about me,” I replied. “Still don’t. All kinds of damn fool stuff comes out of her mouth.”

“There’s my ship.” Prentiss zoomed the screen in on a boxy sloop with his red R sprayed across its back. It was pulling away from the Magnitude and we slid in alongside.

Prentiss plotted an intercept and fired a non-explosive torpedo smack in front of the sloop. When the torp reached a preset distance, it opened a hatch and scattered scrap from our base.

The sloop took the bait, nosing at the chunks of dumb metal. Prentiss and I took advantage of the distraction to eject and EVA over to its ventral surface.

I ran my hand scanner over the hull, but Prentiss waved stop. “This is how I got in before,” he said over the transrec. He pointed out a crude hatch cut into a hull plate and started rerouting the new circuitry that had grown up around it.

“Be careful,” I said.

“I am being careful, Buffalo,” he groused. Nowadays I was Buffalo, not Baba.

And he was careful. But careful enough? You can’t assume a Drift ship will be the same from one contact to the next. Biological organisms evolve from generation to generation. When machines adapt to their environment, though, they re-engineer themselves.

We slid into the chamber beyond the hatch, where wall-mounted waldos were fiddling with the scrap we’d jettisoned. I spotted a hydraulic landing strut I’d discarded last week, destined for who knew what mad recycling.

“I’ve figured out a way to get my next delivery out to the Intersolar without paying the sheriff his cut,” said Prentiss.

I smiled. I – well, Ypsilanti – would’ve felt the same way in his place. The kid came by it naturally. But Ypsilanti could only get away with it because he never stuck around.

“How much would you pay to stay out of jail?” I said. “Never mind, I have a better question. When do I get to find out why you’re coming back to a ship you already salvaged? The Intersolar won’t buy the same tech twice.”

Prentiss reached into the mesh-lined wall. A spark fired and an internal door split open, and the nausea the sight aroused was so intimate that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t equipped to throw up.

The sun-bright compartment lights glared down on a web of flesh. Fused heads, sheared at the jaw and capped with steel, wriggled on plastic hooks. Thrusting pistons pumped oxygen into blushing meat. Human tissue, cloned and cultured from spacers who’d never returned to Tramptown – maybe even from the crews who’d manned the shipyard generations ago, when the AIs still worked for humans. Mismatched eyes turned to look at us.

“Everyone talks about selling tech,” said Prentiss smugly. “But art collectors have plenty of money too, and my contact tells me AI outsider art is going to be the next big thing.”

“Prentiss, no,” I said. “This is wrong.”

“You’re not my dad, you know.” He snapped a wristpad photo of a fountain of branching bones. “You’re only three months older than me.”

He had my nose, my eyes; he had my laugh, though I hadn’t heard it much lately. I hoped like hell he had Wren’s conscience, since he wasn’t going to inherit one from Ypsilanti Rowe. “Let’s take the incendiary and burn this thing,” I said. “Put it out of its misery.”

“It’s mine,” Prentiss snapped. “You’re my co-pilot, you’ll take my orders. Get that big one over there.” He nodded at a fluted tower of flesh wrapped around a plastic cloche where plump lips pursed and whispered. It’s just a reflex, I thought. Has to be.

“They have laws against this, in the Intersolar,” I said. “That’s why I never used to carry human-fusion –”

“You’ve never been to the Intersolar! That wasn’t you!”

I tuned down my anger response. I’d been a hothead at his age. “Prentiss,” I said, “let’s talk this over.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” He snatched out his gun. I don’t think he was planning to shoot me – I don’t think he knew why he drew. I think he just figured guns solve problems.

Behind him, an inquisitive silver tendril snaked out of the wall, bobbing back and forth, delicately balanced.

“You belong to my mom and me,” he said. “If you don’t do like I say, I’ll shoot you and leave you out here for the AIs to eat.”

“Watch out,” I said.

“Oh, now you’re going to threaten me? When I tell Mom –”

“No, behind you –”

The tendril slammed itself into Prentiss’s helmet. I heard the crack over the transrec. The kid’s eyes widened as his air hissed out. He looked desperate, desperate, and he looked so young. Then the tendril punched into his skull.

The Absolute Magnitude had spotted us boarding the sloop, and spun a single deadly filament, stretched it out across the kilometers, hoping to find humans to eat.

I couldn’t save Prentiss. But I could toss that vacuum-rated incendiary grenade so there’d be no body left for an AI’s art gallery.

divider

Ypsilanti’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Does Wren talk about me much?” he said.

“Maybe when I’m not around,” I said.

Light from the Plasma Push‘s cabin viewscreens played across his carefully-chosen expression.”I’m not the kind of guy who could settle down with Wren,” he said.

No, I thought, that’s not quite it. You don’t want people to think of you as the kind of guy who’d end up a woman who looks the age he is. He was playing the part of Ypsilanti Rowe as much as I was.

The cabin door chunked open to reveal Kochevar and his gun. “Let’s get rich,” he said.

Up on the bridge, the Absolute Magnitude loomed on the viewscreen, which had identified a receptor bank on the Magnitude‘s undulating surface and obligingly circled it in white. “As soon as we get a laser link, the cyborg will send the passphrase,” said Kochevar.

While the screen cycled through old comms protocols and newer ones we’d learned from Drift AIs, I ran a quick set of diagnostics on my mismatched internal components. I’d be in enough danger on the Magnitude without my body unexpectedly giving out on me.

The screen chirped. “Good morning, Mr. Magnitude,” I said. “I’d like to make a transaction.” I transmitted the passcode and caught myself trying to hold my breath.

The circle on the viewscreen changed to a white lock. We were in.

Kochevar flicked the Push‘s torch, and we coasted into the throng of Drift ships. A thousand wildly different designs, AI imagination run riot, churned around us. Any one of them could have earned a spacer a year’s living in Tramptown. Gunports tracked us warily as they gauged whether they could take us.

“I just want to gather these up and buy myself my own planet,” said Ypsilanti.

Kochevar tapped the pitch thrusters and nudged us inside the Magnitude. The vast labyrinth was woven from struts the size of skyscrapers, formed without a thought for human perspectives. Immense nodules, as richly folded as cerebella, nestled at the interstices.

“Spotted something promising?” said Kochevar. He didn’t bother to turn his gun on us. He could tell that once we got this close, we’d want the big score as badly as he did.

“Go deeper in,” I said. Kochevar probably would have argued if he hadn’t thought Ypsilanti was talking.

Metallic boluses shuttled along the translucent plastic tubes that flickered in the Magnitude’s frame. A shimmering fall of blue spread over a strut, then ebbed away, sucked into unseen ports.

“There,” said Ypsilanti. “That one right there.”

The nodule before us was richly connected to the others around it, and its coils swelled and receded in syncopation, as if it were constantly being rebuilt from within.

Kochevar maneuvered the Push onto a swaying strut many times its size, and we suited up.

“No one’s ever scavenged the Absolute Magnitude,” said Ypsilanti over the transrec.

“Maybe they just never came back,” I said.

“Aren’t you two cheerful?” said Kochevar. “Take your guns if they make you feel safer. Let’s fly.”

The Magnitude‘s surface didn’t contain enough ferrous metal for our boots to get a purchase. We pushed off from the strut, puffing air from our suits to nudge us towards the enormous AI brain. The smaller Drift ships that flocked here were ignoring us, for now. I marked some snapshots for long-term storage, in case I survived to scavenge here again.

The transrec light fluttered, and a message played across the HUD. imposter roster foster sentinel of the joined small, said the scrolling letters.

“It’s that ship that was following me,” said Kochevar. He raised his gun and took aim on the mass of chrome spheres that peeked out around the Magnitude‘s strut.

“Go away,” I said over the transrec. “Go! Leave us alone!”

The insistent little Drift ship reversed direction and drew away, losing itself in the crowd.

“I don’t like it,” said Kochevar. “Feel like I’m being watched. Let’s not waste time.”

I teased apart the fibers of the Magnitude‘s hull, re-routing connections, meticulously replacing the AI’s hardware hackery with stable wiring. If I did this right, the Magnitude would never realize it had been touched. Ypsilanti assisted me – our last fifteen years had been spent in different kinds of ship repair, but we worked together more smoothly than Wren and I ever had. It was like having a second pair of hands. Or being one, I suppose.

“Here we go,” I said. I lifted the section I’d cut away.

My vision flared and failed.

I queried the Kviksølv – but it was responding correctly to the glaring searchlight painting our space-black shadows across the Magnitude‘s hull.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” said Sheriff Thibodeaux’s voice over the comms. I adjusted for the light levels and looked up at his ship, the sheriff’s star emblazoned on its belly. For the first time as Ypsilanti or myself, I was grateful to see him.

“Wren sent me a data squirt,” Thibodeaux continued. “Said someone by the name of Kochevar had kidnapped Ypsilanti Rowe and stolen that cyborg of his.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get your ten percent of the haul,” I said. Thibodeaux laughed.

“Kochevar!” he shouted. “Heard you were in jail. Nice to be wrong.”

“Thibodeaux!” Kochevar answered. “How’d you end up scavenging here?”

“What a lovely little reunion,” said Ypsilanti warily. “Hello, partner.”

Thibodeaux chuckled. “I’m not scavenging here – law enforcement seemed like a safer way to pass the time. When I got away from the cops after our little artifacts deal in the Intersolar, I thought about Ypsilanti’s plan to salvage something big from the Drift. I knew he’d left something behind, something that would help, and thought I’d find it for myself. Figured it was some kind of astrogation equipment – maybe a tracer. Probably left it with the woman he’d dumped. You wouldn’t believe how many times I searched her place.”

“And it took you a year to realize that equipment might be me,” I said.

“Shit, I thought of that right off the bat, but I ruled you out. I already knew Ypsilanti didn’t have anything worth shit in that head of his. Stay where you are, I’m suiting up.”

“Watch out,” said Kochevar. “The cyborg’s smarter than he looks.”

“If he was that smart,” said Thibodeaux, “he would’ve noticed the tracer I planted on him when we shook hands on board the Flotsam. We’ll see what this cyborg’s worth soon enough.”

The entrance we’d carved led into a perplexity of rippling corridors, a soft blue glow like a planetary sea. Strange components bubbled across rounded walls. I inspected my hand in the cool light and spotted the speck of the tracer, planted in the decorative layer of silicone that served me as skin and encased my functional parts. I felt like a damn fool.

A hose snaked towards us, slick with gel. Ypsilanti and I reached as one for our guns. I was a little faster on the draw – after all, I hadn’t aged.

“It’s like a playground,” said Ypsilanti. “There should be kids eating chocolate cake, and slides through the gel.”

“This thing killed your son,” I snapped. Ypsilanti turned aside, refusing me a view of his face. Thibodeaux drifted up next to us, and I led the way into the Absolute Magnitude‘s brain.

The memory banks and data stores around us would have been worth trillions in the Intersolar. But we four were in silent agreement – now that we’d come this far, we were after the biggest prize of all.

The walls yielded at our touch, curving inwards towards the core – a quivering globe of microscopic circuits suspended in gel, the Absolute Magnitude‘s mind. You could cut it open and drown yourself in its thoughts.

“That’s it,” said Kochevar. “That’s what we’re taking.”

Ypsilanti and I fastened flash-plane explosive charges around the core, setting the timers to cut it out as simultaneously as technology allowed. Kochevar, less experienced with salvaging, took the cruder task of setting up the explosives that would open our route to the surface. Thibodeaux helped by staying out of our way.

“You sure that’s right?” said the sheriff as we placed the last charge. “Because you’re a screw-up, and that cyborg is a copy of a screw-up.”

“Yep, I’m sure,” I said.

“You have no doubts whatsoever that our one and only shot at robbing a vicious century-old AI can’t go wrong?” he said.

“I could not be more certain of it,” said Ypsilanti.

“Good.” Thibodeaux shot him.

Or he would have, but I knocked Ypsilanti aside and took the blast across my face. One of my eyes cracked, and ERROR 41313 flashed in my reduced field of vision. Ypsilanti spun into the soft blue wall. I drew my pistol, superimposed a crosshairs over Thibodeaux’s chest, and shot him through the heart.

“I warned you,” I said, unheard – the shot had mangled my hood along with my face. “Around here, salvage shoots back.”

“Don’t know who shot who in there, but that’s a bigger share for whoever’s left,” said Kochevar over the transrec. “On the count of three.”

“Hang on there,” said Ypsilanti.

I pulled off Thibodeaux’s helmet for myself, and wired an incendiary grenade to his head. “If a Drift ship incorporated him it’d probably just get dumber,” I said, “but let’s not take a chance.” Inside the helmet my olfacs registered fried seaweed and mustard. I shut them off.

We stood back from the core and Kochevar hit the trigger.

The Absolute Magnitude convulsed. Ypsilanti and I braced ourselves against the blown-out wall and shoved the core outwards – I could hear him over the transrec, gasping with strain. The core sailed serenely in the microgravity, and Ypsilanti and I kicked off to follow it.

Kochevar was waiting above the brain chamber’s surface, which rippled and rolled as the autorepair struggled to rebuild everything at once. The Plasma Push, cargo bay doors open, hovered above us the best it could. In the distance, the Magnitude‘s immense struts buckled. Dumb processors, robbed of the core’s guidance, had begun to miscalculate the millions of tiny adjustments that kept the great ship running. The elegant web of struts tangled, crushing nodules and Drift ships alike.

You killed my son, you AI bastard, I thought. I’m glad I’m here to watch you die.

From what I could see, we had a few seconds before the breakdown reached this part of the ship. The Magnitude‘s core was still skimming obliviously along its path.

“It’s the galaxy’s biggest game of ping-pong,” said Ypsilanti. He laid a hand on the core, sighted along it, and puffed out a precious burst of air to aim it into the Push‘s hold.

I held back. A pack of four small Drift ships approached and circled at about fifty meters, feeling us out. It’d take more than a searchlight to scare these off. I kept the leader in my gunsights. Damn, I hoped that little pistol would have enough kick to pierce the ship’s hide.

The Magnitude‘s core bounced off the padded walls of the cargo bay and came to rest. The Push‘s thrusters spat to compensate for the core’s momentum. Over the comms, Ypsilanti exhaled heavily. I knew how he felt.

The bay door swung closed, and the Push lit its thrusters again. It cruised out into the Drift, leaving us behind.

Ypsilanti and I shouted. I don’t know which of us said what. Kochevar waved frantically – no, he just pointed at the Push, and a glittering line shot from his glove to the hull. The Push accelerated away, reeling him in as it went. Ypsilanti and I were on our own, three hundred million kilometers from home.

“Ypsilanti, can you fly the sheriff’s ship?” I said, just in time to see the Push fire its missiles and blow Thibodeaux’s old cruiser to scrap, stranding Ypsilanti and me on a dying ship.

The Absolute Magnitude thrashed in slow motion, like a wounded animal as big as a moon. Was it trying to switch over to a backup brain? I doubted any wild AI had ever run a practice disaster recovery exercise.

A kilometer away, a strut broke open, spilling smaller parts into space. The smaller Drift ships broke into frenzied maneuvers. I guess they figured that if their cash server was in its death throes, they might as well get a chunk of it while there were chunks to be gotten.

But the pack of predator ships stalking us had other prey in mind. My suit’s HUD fluttered as they bombarded it with queries, seeking a vulnerability that would let them take control. Ypsilanti took aim at one of them, but held his fire.

Then the four predators wheeled as one and backed away.

“Behind you,” said Ypsilanti. I glanced at my rear cameras.

The bubbly chrome Drift ship had returned. Guns extending from among its bulges tracked the predator pack. A tube unfurled towards us.

Ypsilanti clambered in. I hesitated.

“Beats the alternative,” said Ypsilanti. “Come on.”

My vision went black. Clunky white error listings rolled by. I wasn’t sure where the problem lay, but my brain and the Kviksølv vision module were no longer on speaking term.

Something gripped my wrist. “Get on in here,” said Ypsilanti. “Damn, your face is a mess. Gives me the creeps.”

“I can’t see,” I said. “Vision gave out.”

“Well, there’s a … I think there’s just one chamber. Switch on your headlamp so we can get another –”

Impact rocked the ship. We were under attack.

“At least we got inside before those little ships charged,” said Ypsilanti. “There’s cables and parts wiggling around all over the walls. No controls I can see. Not even any viewscreens.”

Something brushed against my hand. “Hang on,” said Ypsilanti, “you’ve got something crawling on you.”

I ran my fingertips along a twining cable. It split absurdly into a dozen types of standard connectors, like a data bouquet.

“I think I just found the controls,” I said, and plugged a compatable connector into my data port.

A desperate electronic thirst infiltrated every crevice of my mind – of my self. My brain frantically mapped the ship’s incoming data onto things I might understand, awakening long-unused sensations: eggnog prickles that stabbed at my fingers, leaving streaks of electric sweat; multicolored mud that smothered nonexistent lungs. I clenched my thoughts together, trying to withhold some granule of myself from the Drift ship’s probes.

The other mind relaxed without withdrawing. It wasn’t trying to read me, I realized – it was spreading itself out, showing me what it wanted me to know.

The ship riffled through its hacked-up subroutines, some optimized to black hole density, some mere globs of alien hackery, and brought up a recorded video feed. I watched the ship watch two tiny humans approaching a Drift sloop with a red P sprayed across its hull. I was watching a recording. A recording from a long time ago.

The camera drone putted closer to the sloop’s access hole and poked in a mechanical eyestalk, watching Prentiss, watching me.

Our captured transrec conversation had been overlaid with annotations.

help i you help i you lift guide assist, said my image.

no help different help, said Prentiss, threat bluff bluff.

benefit help help, I replied.

And then the Magnitude struck. I squeezed myself shut, but I couldn’t keep the images out – the broken corpse, the burning. The Drift ship was trying to tell me something.

“Cover,” I mouthed. “Cushion. Sentinel. Preserve. All the ways to protect.”

foster

And I understood. Prentiss and I weren’t like the swarmers or the pack of Drift predators. We hadn’t been built for each other. But I’d protected him, even when he didn’t know he needed it. And this little AI ship wanted a friend like that. It wanted to be a friend like that. The teeming Drift was the loneliest place in the galaxy.

The ship tumbled – I felt a double dose of spin, once from the ship’s sensors, once from my own vestibular module.

“If you’re planning to fight back, now would be a good time to start,” said Ypsilanti.

I looked through the data streams for the four attacking ships – only to find the Plasma Push on our tail.

The Push dodged among the Drift ships that were taking the Absolute Magnitude, and each other, to pieces. Colossal struts jolted together – vast collisions in slow motion. The Push loosed a torpedo, and the Drift ship and I took the engines in hand, merging my skills and its talents to spin safely away. I felt out the weapons systems, but they were too slight to crack the Push‘s hull.

To starboard, two tremendous struts twined together. If we could lose ourselves behind them, the Push‘s sensors might not pick us out from the crowd before we’d put some distance between us.

The Drift ship was my body now. I leaned in towards the groove between the struts and felt a pulse of worry – not mine, but the ship’s. trust trust hope, it sent.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You should’ve been there when I flew the Bellerophon through the middle of the Tramptown bar. This is nothing.”

The mighty pillars, the mindless mass that had been the Absolute Magnitude, clasped together in a frenzied attempt to fuse into something greater.

I shot between the pillars. The ship flattened itself in fear. Behind me, Ypsilanti yelped. The two of us were sealed in like duck eggs in plastic.

Kochevar fired through after us, riding a column of nuclear fire. He was coming through – and then the struts fell together on the Push‘s tail. The Push spun apart, a pinwheel of buckled metal and molten plastic.

Drift ships darted into the wreckage. When I saw their probes coming out red, I turned away and set course for Wren’s base.

“So much for the Magnitude‘s core,” I said. There was no one around to witness my fancy flying. Ah well.

Ypsilanti must have picked up the profanity he let loose during the last fifteen years. It was new to me.

“Kochevar’s down,” I said over the transrec. “I wonder what the Drift will make of him.”

“I wonder what your kids will be paying ten percent on,” said Ypsilanti.

I stretched out. The Drift ship eased its compression. “I wonder what you mean by kids.”

“Between you and Wren,” he said, “you’ll jury-rig something.”

divider

Beyond the Bay Two viewport, a mechanic gave us the thumbs up. The sensor rig had been re-installed, and the Bellerophon was ready to slingshot off Kameekoru and head back to the Intersolar. Even with my new eye, the view was flat – Wren had put my old vision module back, and I’d returned the Kviksølv module to the workbench where it belonged.

Ypsilanti peered out at his ship. “Okay, we didn’t get the payout,” he said. “But the way I see it, I got rid of my two worst enemies without so much as a scratch on the Bellerophon, and that’s something.”

“That’s the way I see it, too,” I said. I knew him too well to worry that he’d pick up on the lie.

Ypsilanti’s cocky smirk looked great, but it couldn’t fool someone who’d seen his memories. He couldn’t wait to jet off to some other world where no one knew he’d been taken down a peg.

“You want to see the galaxy?” said Ypsilanti. “Come with me. I’ve always wanted a co-pilot I could trust. I know a guy who can fix your face –”

“No thanks,” I said. “There’s something here I want more.”

divider

Wren and I watched the Bellerophon‘s departure from the breakroom screens. She clinked a squeeze tube of algae vodka against my hand.

“To absent friends,” she said. “May they remain so. Imagine what kind of trouble Ypsilanti’ll be in when he shows up in another fifteen years.”

“We better start writing the lawbooks now,” I said.

“I’ve got some ideas about that myself.” Her burgundy lipstick did nice things for her smile. “Now that there’s a vacancy, I’m running for sheriff.”

“You’ve got my vote,” I said. “Want to go to the Flotsam on Thursday?” The Flotsam didn’t have a new owner yet; a few low-ranking spacers from various ships were running it as a socialist collective. Wren said some of the food was way better and some was way worse, but it averaged out the same as Jill’s cooking.

“I’m in the mood for a drink I don’t have to chew.” Wren straightened her flight jacket. “We can go to the Flotsam right now.”

“We can,” I said, “but we have to set it up ahead of time for it to be a date.” She laughed and snuggled up against me. I liked it. Maybe I could upgrade my tactile modules and like it even more.

“There’s something I never said about Prentiss,” I said. “Wren, I wanted so bad to save him.”

She was quiet for a long time. “I doubted you’d stick around to be a father,” she said. “I’m glad you did.”

divider

I was so impatient for Thursday to come that I thought about shutting myself down for the intervening hours. But I had too much work to do.

I was just finishing up when Wren showed up in front of Bay Five, looking great from head to toe. “Take your hood off and change,” she said. “We have a date.”

“I’m not about to forget it,” I said. “I have one last thing to take care of, and then I’m one hundred percent a free man.”

The bubbly Drift ship was nestled in Bay Five. It might have been nervous. Certainly, when I came out, it perked to life, blinking its lights up and down the spectrum.

It extended a cable. I’d been planning to chat over the transrec, but what the hell. I plugged in.

“I don’t know how much time I have left,” I thought at it. “Maybe years, maybe not.”

repair you I please you I

I laughed. “It’s be interesting to see what you’d come up with, but I had something else in mind.” I opened the bay hatch and the Kviksølv body came loping out.

“Ship, meet the new copy of me,” I said over the transrec. “Copy, meet ship.”

“How do you do?” said the Kviksølv. “I’d introduce myself, but I don’t have a name yet.”

buffalo?

“I have dibs on that one,” I said. “Like I said, I don’t know how much time I have left. I guess none of us do. What I do know is that I’m going to spend that time with Wren.”

The Kviksølv laughed. “Yeah, I kinda figured I didn’t have a shot with her.”

“You don’t,” I said sternly. “But I know you’ll get the itch to wander. I got it from Ypsilanti, and you got it from me. So head out of Tramptown, out to the Intersolar, on past it if you have a mind to. See the stars. Or pick a world you like. Find a girl. If the knockoff Kviksølv parts are as good as the name-brand, you have fifty years ahead of you.”

The Kviksølv put a hand on the ship’s hull. “How’s that sound to you?”

yes

“Be happy,” I said. “Be wild. But you don’t have to be Ypsilanti, or me, unless you want to.”

___

Copyright 2017 Tracy Canfield

Tracy Canfield is a computational linguist who CNN once called a “Klingon scholar”. Her short science fiction and fantasy has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, and many other magazines and anthologies, and her game set in the same universe as “Salvage” is scheduled for release in Fall of 2017. Find her on Twitter at @TracyCanfield.

by Alter S. Reiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jione,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Clean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From far enough away,” said Jione.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What wreck?” asked Tam.

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

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

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

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

“Tam—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Risk?”

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

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

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

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

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

“There is none at all,” said Tam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm?”

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

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

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

“I’ll hold tight,” said Jione.

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

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

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

Jione waited for him to finish.

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

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

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

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

“Two.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tam,” started Jione, and then stopped.

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

“Everything,” she said, “And three–”

“Two.”

“And two Imperials.”

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

“Partner?”

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

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

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

“All that and three—”

“Two.”

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

____

Copyright 2017 Alter Reiss

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

by Julie Novakova

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

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

Angelo Neumann’s future had never looked this dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do not.”

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

“I’m turning twenty in January.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting. And what was their nature?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am,” Meyer said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what are you doing up there?”

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

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

Older, translated Meyer for himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shouted a kabbalistic binding spell. It usually worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what kind of ghost is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meyer would be prepared for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why have you come to this rehearsal?”

The ghost didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

“Herr Mahler! Please, stop the rehearsal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

“I think so,” Mahler answered quietly.

“Let’s start then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, thank god! Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Meyer nodded.

“And is he gone?”

“Yes –”

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

Yes, for a while, Meyer wanted to say.

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

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

He should make himself ready by then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good! Then you won’t stop my plan!”

Opera ghosts could sometimes be very theatrical.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The counterweight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neumann nodded gloomily. “I understand.”

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

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

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

“Vital.”

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

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

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

“I did.”

“So why give it away?”

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

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

“I’ll take care of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meyer bowed a little. “Master composer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of a bet?” he said.

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

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

It sounded like music.

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

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

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

A thoroughly unpleasant feeling settled over him.

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

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

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

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

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

“I may know…”

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

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

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

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

Meyer and the ghost sat to the small table.

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

The ghost shrugged. “As you wish.”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Twenty-two. He had lost his life.

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

Meyer exhaled slowly.

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

“Or none of us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neumann frowned. “Well, go on.”

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

“What bet exactly?”

“For my life.”

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t think so up until now.”

“None?”

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

“Any of them recently make an appearance here?”

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

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

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

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

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

And so he did.

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

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

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

A superstitious lot, they were – especially now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, brilliant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon.

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

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

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

Meyer looked around slowly.

It can be anyone.

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

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

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

He ran his fingers through the sand and whispered.

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

What does it look like? What does it signify?

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

What do you see now?

A few heartbeats went by. Then he saw it.

A ship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Meyer had prepared a rigging of his own.

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

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

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

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

The second intermission started.

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

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

“It would seem so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meyer felt the web disentangle.

The time was running out.

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

All in vain. And what do we get

What do we get?

“The music,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

A strange gleam covered his eyes.

He lowered his arms.

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

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

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

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

“Do you want another one?” Meyer asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tired and calm, Meyer smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neumann’s jaw dropped. “You mean…”

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

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

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

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

Meyer smiled a little. “Exactly.”

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

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

Neumann looked a trifle stricken but not quite persuaded.

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

Neumann gazed at him, puzzled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn it, you saved this house!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What name should I look for then?”

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

 

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

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

____

Copyright 2017 Julie Novakova

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

by Alex Acks

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my love, she got taken by la Vaca Muerta

off into the sky on the Devil’s tour

and ai yi yi yi

she’ll smile, she’ll sing no more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s music a-plenty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

divider

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s sure lively, for a dead dog.”

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

“What’s that?” Bill points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both.”

“This isn’t you.” He shakes his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not what you said either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That your ride?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Copyright 2017 Alex Acks

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

 

 

By Elaine Atwell

 

Oberon Officer’s Log. Day 10227

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is inadvisable to eat before cryofreeze.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Undoubtedly, yes.”

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

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

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

“Oh. I…oh.”

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

That was three days ago.

 

Officer’s log: Day 10230

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here we are.

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

It was her idea, you know. This trip.

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t their oceans ice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10232

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10233

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

 

Officer’s log: Day 10234

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s log: Day 10242

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10249

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

 

Officer’s Log: 10252

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10263

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t reply; just wrapped her bomber jacket around her shoulders (she wears it all the time now) and walked out.

I really don’t understand how she and I were placed together. OOMA is usually so maddeningly attentive to human needs; you’d think she’d have made caretaking teams more compatible with one another. I asked her about it and she turned a hazy pink.

“I developed a personality algorithm to determine which passengers would provide the most beneficial companionship, once I removed opposite-sex pairings.”

“Why did you remove those pairings?” I asked, genuinely confused. She turned a deep shade of eggplant, which I have learned to interpret as annoyance.

“Human fetuses have a high rate of deformation when placed in cryofreeze.”

It took me a minute to tease out her meaning and then I snorted.

“You don’t think much of our self-control, do you?”

“It is not a trait for which your species is generally known.”

After the conversation ended and the screen went black, I puzzled for a while over the fact that OOMA wrote the caretaking algorithm herself. And then I puzzled a while more over what she meant by “beneficial companionship.” Beneficial to us, or her?

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10270

Everything has happened. I woke up before dawn (obviously there’s no such thing out here, but it’s how I think of the time each day when OOMA turns on all the lights) to the sound of an alarm. For a second I thought I was back on Earth and it was an air raid siren, and I turned over to ignore it like I always had back then. Then I remembered where I was and shot up off the pillow. I was terrified, instantly, that something had gone wrong with OOMA, or maybe ROM had somehow come back, and the other pods were failing. It’s funny; I hadn’t known I was afraid of that, hadn’t known I cared about the other passengers at all, until that moment.

I yanked on my uniform and called for OOMA, but she didn’t answer. Suddenly I realized that I might be alone. Actually, fully, alone. I started running towards Nila’s room, with the alarm blaring at me from every direction. I didn’t get any farther than the viewing suite when we ran headlong into each other. We grabbed each other’s arms to keep from falling over.

“What’s going on?” she yelled over the alarm.

“I don’t know! It has to be some sort of mechanical failure. I can’t get OOMA to come online.”

At that, the alarm ceased, the big viewing screen flickered to life, and OOMA appeared as a wan, bluish gray, like drowned flesh.

“Lieutenant Carson, Specialist Aluri. I apologize I didn’t speak to you earlier, but the majority of my processing capability is currently in use elsewhere.”

“What’s happened, OOMA?” Nila turned to face the screen but kept one arm clutching the elbow of my uniform.

“The Oberon has suffered a collision. We are within Antera’s solar system, so it may have been ice from a disattached comet’s tail, meteor debris, or possibly detritus from an earlier colonial ship.” The screen blinked, and then switched to a view that clearly came from somewhere on the hull. It was at eye-level to wherever the damage was, so I couldn’t see much but the curl of twisted metal. I let go of Nila and approached the screen, trying to guess where the damage was.

“What exactly did it destroy, OOMA?”

“Me.” There was no hint of self-pity in her voice, but her display turned an even more faded grey. Nila and I glanced at each other and Nila cleared her throat and pressed on.

“But OOMA,” She sighed as though she were talking a toddler through a tantrum. “You’re in every system. You are every system.”

“That is incorrect. ROM was a master system, which is how he managed to be so pernicious. I am merely the overseer and communicator between a multitude of programs.” The screen changed again, this time to a schematic of the ship’s architecture, in which countless wires spidered outwards like capillary veins from a single set of circuits, which looked to be about the size of an old-fashioned typewriter. OOMA spoke again as the screen zoomed in on the circuitry. “The hub is what connects me to the rest of the ship and the collision caused a short in its power supply. I am no longer able to access the ship’s fusion to support my own operations.”

I gulped and addressed OOMA, who wiped the schematics clear and returned to her ever-grayer display.

“What was the hub before it was you, OOMA?”

A silence.

“The hub was originally the communications center of the ship, the only non-essential area with enough memory to contain a computer of my processing power.”

“So, the reason we’ve been unable to make contact with Earth or Antera is…you?”

“Yes.”

Nila and I gave each other a sidelong look and I thought of another potentially disturbing question.

“OOMA, if you’ve lost your power supply, how are you talking to us now?” A sound issued from the display that may have been the mechanical keening of her failing systems or perhaps her attempt to emulate a human sigh.

“I am currently siphoning small amounts of power from several auxiliary systems.” My arms prickled. It was ROM all over again.

“Including life support?” The blue shot back through the gray again and OOMA sounded closer to angry than I had known she could.

“My sole function is to care for humans. I would allow myself to shut down before I drained power from the passengers of this ship.”

Nila raised her hands.

“We didn’t mean to offend you. Just…just tell us how to help.”

“The repair itself is simple. Either one of you is capable of performing it. Unfortunately, it must be made from outside the ship.”

Nila shot me a panicked look. I tried to be reasonable.

“OOMA, we aren’t trained for a space walk. Why don’t we wake up some crew members and they can help you.” She flashed ochre.

“The process of rousing qualified crew members would take several hours, by which time I will have exhausted my power supply.”

“Well, I mean, what would happen then? We could—if we had to—pilot the ship ourselves, right?” Without warning, Nila shoved my shoulder.

“How dare you talk like that in front of her,” she hissed. Then she addressed the screen. “Don’t worry, OOMA. I’ll fix you. Just tell me what to do.” Before I could even decide whether I wanted to talk her out of this, Nila was charging toward the maintenance area, in search of supplies. spacesuit. Both OOMA and I accompanied her–the computer providing hurried instructions for her spacewalk, me still trying to come up with an alternative.

“You will need a set of replacement of replacement wiring kits, which should be in bin 9-A,” said OOMA.

“Have you ever even been tested for depressurization; you know plenty of people can’t survive it,” said me. Nila faced me in the doorway.

“I know.”

“You could die.”

“I know.”

Then the maintenance door shut, with me on the outside. I tried to barge through to keep trying to warn her, but one of them had locked me out. A few minutes later, Nila emerged wearing a spacesuit.

I’d never seen one outside of photographs, and it closely resembled a skintight diving suit, but with a thin layer of air pumped in between the skin and the fabric. The helmet was nearly opaque so I couldn’t make out Nila’s expression, but I did see her hands shake as she attached the umbilicus that would anchor her to the ship.

“You don’t have to do this.” I murmured. I don’t know if she could hear me through the suit, but she didn’t reply.

“I’m ready,” she announced, her voice muffled by the helmet. And with that, she walked to the door and latched it behind her. I watched through the window as OOMA’s voice addressed us both.

“The entranceway is currently depressurizing.” A slight pause. “Depressurization is complete. You may now open the hatch, Specialist Aluri.” Slowly, encumbered by the suit, Nila twisted the door open, tugged once on the umbilicus to test its hold, and stepped out into nothingness. My heart was racing; I couldn’t imagine what Nila’s must be doing. OOMA’s display switched once more to the exterior of the ship, where we could monitor Nila’s progress as she made her way to the damage. After a moment, her voice came through, so close and immediate it was like I was inside the suit with her.

“It’s…it’s amazing out here. You’re missing out, Frances.” Her voice shook.

“Specialist Aluri, please continue forward and starboard for approximately eight meters.”

“I don’t know what the fuck ‘starboard’ means, OOMA.”

“Your two-o’clock.”

“Got it.”

She passed over the camera, pulling herself hand-over hand, while her feet floated eerily behind her. The view changed, but it was a bad angle and I could barely see her. Thankfully, she narrated.

“All right, I can see the damage. It looks like almost an entire panel got blown off. How is that going to affect our entry into Antera’s atmosphere?”

“The next team of stewards includes a former deep sea welder, who is qualified to make that repair. Please simply focus on rewiring the hub. And hurry.” OOMA’s voice started to glitch. For a few minutes they worked, with OOMA directing Nila as to which wires to reroute and which to replace from the collection in her tool belt. It seemed as though the repair was going smoothly until OOMA directed her to reach beneath the hub and reinsert a cable that had been jostled loose. With a little crackle of static, Nila’s breath caught.

“I can’t reach it.”

“The underside of the hub should be accessible from your position.”

“Yeah, that was before we crashed into a pile of space shit. Now it’s like trying to change a tire without a jack.” There was a steadily rising note of hysteria in her voice. OOMA stayed silent a long time. I started to wonder if her power had finally failed when she spoke again.

“Lieutenant Carson, please put on a spacesuit.”

(Dear Posterity, please do not judge me for the following exchange.)

“What? No. The only two conscious humans on this ship are not both going to be stuck outside it.”

“They won’t. You can help repair the damage from inside the ship. I’ll need to depressurize the mess hall, and I can guide you through the rest.” Nila’s voice joined it.

“Come on, Carson. Don’t leave me out here.” She said it as a joke but I realized it was true; if OOMA ran out of power, I had no clue how to get Nila back inside the Oberon.

So I pulled on a suit as quickly as possible (the air cushion is actually incredibly comfortable) and ran toward the mess. OOMA directed me to equip myself with a heat gun and I fumbled to strap on a tool belt over my umbilicus. The mess hall doesn’t have an airlock of its own so I had to seal off the whole wing, praying I wasn’t doing too much damage to the pods. Then OOMA killed the atmo and I finally felt the weightlessness of space. For a second I just floated, as idle as a dust mote, until OOMA directed me to use my heat gun on the ceiling tiles in the center of the room. I melted the sealant holding it together and waited for my next instructions.

“Lieutenant Car Lieutenant Car Lieutenant CAR.” She was stuck. It was like watching the spasmodic twitches of a corpse. I was terrified, but Nila spoke up again.

“Hold on, OOMA. Just hold on, girl. Who’ll let me win at chess if you go?” And I realized for the first time that Nila and OOMA had their own relationship, separate and apart from me. That maybe at the exact moment OOMA was trying to coax me out of the shower she was playing games with Nila. And unbelievably, even sweating and shaking, I felt jealous. Of both of them. She sputtered back to life, but her words now were strangely disjointed.

“Lieutenant Carson, to whatever extent possible, work around the electrical and ventilation systems until you arrive at the next set of panels. Apply the heat gun to them and then reinsert the cable into the hub. I must now shut down my interface to conserve power.” And she was gone. But I had Nila’s voice in my ear, encouraging me while I brushed aside a torrent of cables. The ventilation system was trickier; I had to unscrew it, and one of the screws briefly escaped my grasp for a moment.

“Just keep calm, just keep calm,” Nila kept saying, like a heartbeat.

I arrived at the second set of panels, identical to the ceiling tiles except unpainted, and almost screamed when I felt them shudder violently. Actually, I did scream. Nila laughed.

“Sorry, sorry. Just giving you a knock so you know where I am.” Shaking, I gently removed the panel where she had knocked and beyond it, through another snarl of wires, was a deeper, richer black than mere darkness. Staring at space straight on isn’t the same as viewing it through the ship’s windows, with your own reflected light bouncing back at you comfortingly. It is the closest I have ever been to pure endlessness and for a moment I felt an insane urge to rip off my helmet just to see it with nothing but my own eyes. Then I saw Nila’s glove moving against the blackness, and the same surge of impulsivity made me reach through the tangle and grab it. We stayed there for a measureless time, holding each other’s hands through the hull.

“Okay,” I breathed. “Okay.” Then we let go and I found the hub, and searched for the cable I needed. Straining my fingers, I found it, and felt along its length. It seemed to be intact, but I’m not sure I would have known either way.

“So I just…push it back in?”

“Yeah.”

“And it won’t electrocute me.”

A pause a half second too long.

“No?”

I held my breath and fumbled with the plug until I found a place it seemed to fit, and slowly guided it in. The second it hit home, I felt a surge along the whole length of my arm, like finding the pulse of a giant.

Instantly, OOMA’s voice reappeared in our helmets.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I don’t think her vocal programming allows her to express gratitude as a tone of voice, so she just said it over and over again. Finally, Nila laughed.

“Alright, alright, you’re welcome. Will you please let us back inside now?”

“Certainly, Specialist Aluri. Lieutenant Carson, you will need to repair the inner panels to restore pressure to the cabin.”

“Hurry.” Nila said, and I watched her hover above me and disappear as she made her way back inside.

Of course, putting anything back together takes longer than ripping it apart, so it was three hours until we were sure the sealant had taken hold. It was some of the most exhausting work of my life, but I reveled in it. Onboard The Oberon, I’d forgotten I had adrenaline, forgotten how to sweat.

When I finally finished, and the oxygen and gravity regulators kicked back in, I used what felt like the last of my strength to open the hatch. Nila was on the other side, back in her bomber jacket and beaming.

I fumbled to get my helmet off, and gasped for a moment at the freedom of it, and then she spoke.

“Now that was heroic.”

“Pfft. We plugged in a cord.” I realized I was beaming too and was marveling over that small victory when she leaned forward and kissed me.

You may be shocked, posterity, but in the moment it didn’t feel shocking at all. She kissed me, and her mouth was rich and warm and I kissed her back. And then our arms were around each other and I thought I could hear a swell of violins in my head. It took a moment before I realized that the music (Debussy, I think) wasn’t in my head at all; it was playing on the ship’s speakers. OOMA, in sympathy or encouragement, was playing us a song. We both looked up at the same time but it was Nila who spoke.

“Um…OOMA, it’s really sweet that you wanted to give us a soundtrack, but I think we’d appreciate privacy just a bit more.” The music stopped immediately.

“I apologize. I will concentrate my processing powers elsewhere.” Her screen went blank, but I didn’t feel entirely sure she had gone.

“Come on,” Nila grabbed my arm and pulled me after her. She guided me on the long walk through the ship, which unfortunately gave me time to ask myself what the fuck I was doing. If I’m being honest, this scenario, or something like it, had crossed my mind before. You don’t just fail to notice the only other person on your spaceship. But every time I did notice her–her eyes dim and distant at some memory, the adolescent way she tossed her hair over her shoulder, or her off-key but earnest singing from across the ship—I batted the observation away like a mosquito. I didn’t want to notice; I wanted to feel nothing but loyal grief, like one of those dogs that sleeps on its owner’s grave until it dies itself.

By the time we reached Nila’s little storage room, I had decided and undecided to go ahead with it fifty times. The room itself made me want to turn back, crowded as it was with the collected memories of so many strangers, not to mention my own. I hung back at the door.

“Why here?”

“Because,” She reached for my hand again, “this is the only room on the ship without one of OOMA’s interface screens.” I hadn’t noticed it before but she was right. I don’t know why that’s what made up my mind, but something about the idea of being alone with this woman, and with myself, was irresistible. So I shut the door behind me and we laid a blanket on the floor. (Actually we tried the hammock first but that was a catastrophe.)

I think more than anything I was relieved at how different she was from Jordan. She wanted different things, she smelled different, and it was too new and bewildering to feel like a betrayal, even a betrayal of my own sadness.

I wasn’t really sure it wasn’t a mistake until afterwards, though. In my experience, you know sex was a bad idea when you immediately feel uncomfortable being naked around someone. But I didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, for a long time the sensation of all that contact, all that skin, was like a pleasant but overwhelming drug. Eventually I asked (I had to ask).

“I’m assuming that wasn’t your first time with a woman.” She pulled a shocked face.

“Of course not; I’m not boring!” (For my impertinence, she gave me several of what she described as “punishment kisses.”)

“I’ve only had one serious-ish thing with a girl, though. At school. She would have thought this was hilarious, by the way.”

You could hear a posh, cultured note in the way she drawled “hilarious.”

“What, lesbians in space?”

“Well, yes, obviously. But no, she had a theory about certain improbable couples.”

“Do tell.”

“She called it Desert Island Syndrome: that the only two lesbians in any small community—even if they had nothing in common–were bound to fall in love.” I had no way of reacting to that word so I looked around the room for a change of subject. Thankfully, in that particular room, subjects abound.

“So which of these things actually belongs to you?”

“Guess.”

“The paintings?”

“No.”

“The prayer flags?

“No.”

“I give up.”

“None of it.”

“You didn’t bring anything?” I propped myself up on an elbow.

“I gave up on mementos a long time ago.” I wasn’t sure if she would say more, but she stared up at the ceiling and kept going. “We were well off in London. Not rich, but wealthy. That’s how my mum described us. I think my parents were the last people who believed everything would somehow, magically turn out all right. You know, that the government or the corps were just sitting on a cure-all that they’d pull out in the nick of time.” I kissed her cheek.

“I think all our parents were those people.”

“Mine thought that they were respectable enough to buy their way out of the troubles.”

“They weren’t?”

“Plenty respectable. Bit too brown.” I looked away and she kept going.

“First it was the curfews, then the ghettoes—no one called them that, of course, but that’s what they were. My parents figured they could make what money they had go farther back in India. But we were pariahs there too, for leaving and coming back.” I checked her eyes, but she didn’t seem anywhere near crying.

“I brought a suitcase to India with books, clothes, this little stuffed rabbit I’d outgrown but couldn’t bear to leave behind. But someone stole it on the plane. After that, for the first few moves, I tried to find new treasures, even though I couldn’t buy much. I’d always tell myself that this seashell or this feather would be my lucky charm and I’d keep it forever. But something always happened; some other kid would take it or we’d have to leave on short notice with no time to pack. And of course, there were always guards to bribe, and they’d take anything so long as they could tell it meant something to you. So I just stopped acquiring things. There was no point. It all just gets broken or lost.”

I was going to write more but it looks like she’s waking up.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10273

My body feels like taffy.

In a good way.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10278

I want to do something for the ship. Now that I’ve gotten my taste for usefulness back, I don’t mean to let it go. Actually, given the fact that people have been fighting off boredom and despair on this ship for decades, I was surprised that there weren’t more signs of life. I asked OOMA about it and she corrected that impression.

“Many of the amenities you enjoy are the result of former stewards. The viewing suite was designed for communications purposes; an early caretaker adapted it for entertainment. She also expanded the Earth Cultural Archives with the addition to her large trove of television programs.” So that explains the complete series of Law and Order. “The first stewards spent most of their tenure cleaning and reorganizing the pod bay after the transition from ROM, and of course you and Specialist Aluri are not the first to have made repairs to The Oberon.” I was curious about that but OOMA plowed on. “Many stewards devoted their time to self-improvement. We’ve had several people take up martial arts, one man who insisted upon learning French despite its limited usefulness on Antera, and a pair of stewards who gave themselves a thorough education in first aid.”

“Oh. Is that why so many medical supplies are missing?”

“Partly.”

Nila came up behind me and kissed my neck (we stayed apart last night, which I need sometimes and which she’s good about understanding).

“So many improvements and yet nobody did anything about the food.”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get her hopes up, but I thought: I could do something about it. I’d have to be careful not to diminish our seed and soil supply, but in theory, I could make us a garden.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10282

Nila caught me going through the seeds today so the jig is up. Of course she was ecstatic, and immediately started to draft a list of requested vegetables.

“Potatoes?”

“Too nutrient-hungry. We need the soil to last.”

“Apples?”

“Grow on trees.”

“No shit.”

“Trees take years to grow.”

“What about bananas? They grow fast.”

“I don’t think we have room for them but it would make OOMA’s waste recycling program easier.”

“Why?”

“Bananas thrive when fertilized by urine.”

She laughed and laughed at that, which gave me a pang since Jordan also thought the pee/banana thing was one of nature’s best jokes. If you’re wondering how I’m dealing with my feelings about Jordan, the answer is that I am mostly not.

In the end we decided to attempt some leafy greens, strawberries, squash, and—our most ambitious undertaking—a tomato. I’m really not sure that last one will thrive under the solar lamps, but Nila lobbied hard for it.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10295

A library of books, films, and art at my disposal and all I want to do is stare at a patch of soil. I love the smell of it on my hands. I love the black under my fingernails.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10301

There is a tiny green bulb on the tomato plant. In other news, OOMA announced today that we were passing through the orbit of the most distant planet in Antera’s solar system. It’s hard to say which is bigger news. (No it’s not; I am much more excited about the tomato.) OOMA has been less invasive than normal lately, although whether that’s from a desire to give Nila and I some space or because she is busy trying to make contact with Antera, I don’t know.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10308

I actually hated salads when I was a kid. Even if the alternative was going hungry, I would push the plate away and demand something bread or cheese-based. But I have never tasted anything so full of life as the bowl of greens and vegetables I ate tonight. I smelled it for twenty minutes before I took the first bite. Even OOMA seemed to recognize the sublimity of the occasion; she played the Debussy again and Nila and I didn’t stop her. God, I wish it had taken longer to eat. Afterwards Nila said “Now all we’re missing is a glass of wine.”

“Mmm.”

“We could make that though, right? Ferment some grapes?”

“In theory, yes. But that would take longer than we have. Our stint as stewards is almost over.”

That was the first time either of us said it out loud. Nila hasn’t said anything about our future, and frankly I don’t want to talk about it. Climbing back inside that pod is the biggest thing I can wrap my mind around; I haven’t spared a thought for what I’ll wake up to afterwards. If I wake up. I don’t want to get attached to some fantasy of the future; it feels too much like jumping into water without knowing the depth. I did that last time. I think my reticence is hurting Nila, but I can’t help it.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10312

She keeps threatening not to wake up the others. At first it was just anxious joking, but the more times she repeats it, the more serious she becomes. I resent having to be the sane one about this; it’s not like I’m eager to go back in my pod.

“Think about it; OOMA can’t make us go back in there.”

“No, but she can make the new stewards wake up without our help. She can and she will.”

“So what? We can all be awake together. It’s not like there’s not enough room.”

“And then what, Nila? We sit around twiddling our thumbs for the next eight years until we land?”

“You’re just feeling guilty about going to bed with me less than two months after your wife died.”

“My wife died twenty-five years ago, not that that’s the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point is you should fucking listen to yourself right now.”

“No, the point is that you would quite literally rather die in your sleep than give this a real shot.”

An hour later she was nuzzling me and apologizing. And an hour after that we had the exact same argument again.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10318

Tomorrow we wake up the new stewards, so in all likelihood this will be the last time you hear from me, posterity. I was working in the garden when OOMA appeared—as a green I think she may have learned from the plants.

“Lieutenant Carson, have you put any thought into how you will help acclimate the new recruits tomorrow?” My stomach lurched like in those dreams where someone tells you you’re late for a final in a class you didn’t know you were taking. I’ve obsessed about teaching the new people about the garden: drafted a watering schedule, the whole nine yards. But in terms of a speech like the one Andy gave me? I had nothing. It occurred to me to just copy whatever it was he had said, but all I could clearly remember of it was the part about switching drivers on the highway.

I started looking at this journal (Jesus, I was maudlin in those early entries) and remembered that I had originally intended to look at the logs of the earlier stewards. Hoping for inspiration, I washed off the dirt, got comfortable in the observation deck I’ve been using as my room and asked OOMA to pull up all the earlier logs.

“I’m afraid those records are locked, Lieutenant.”

“What do you mean, locked? What’s the point of writing them if no one can read them?” She turned a deep, luminescent blue, which I think she has figured out is my favorite color.

“I’m sure you’d agree that the log has been beneficial for you personally, and may help future generations to understand the trials experienced by their ancestors.” She shifted to a slightly more professional blue green. “But their purpose is of a primarily therapeutic nature, which would be undermined if they were no longer private. I doubt you would want me to share your private thoughts with Specialists Ono and LeShay.”

“Who?”

“The men who will be taking over stewardship tomorrow.” Something tingled in my mind.

“Override the lock.”

She could have said no, of course. She knows as well as I do that an override requires both caretakers to execute. I kind of couldn’t believe it when the data began to unspool in front of me.

There was too much information to even attempt to read it chronologically. Years and years of diaries. So I started with search terms. I didn’t even know what I was looking for at first. But what I found out is that the stewards all have a great deal in common.

“Suicide” brought up forty-four hits. I only looked at a few of them; two appeared to be the last entries in their respective logs. Next I tried “chess.” It would seem that OOMA has been letting passengers win ever since the first set of stewards. The reporting is nearly unanimous. That felt a little creepy. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with playing a game to amuse the humans, but it felt like learning your lover has been calling you the same pet name for you they used for their ex.

Next I tried “collision.” It brought up eighteen different entries, but they all tell the same story.

The Oberon has collided with unidentified debris nine times throughout its journey, and each time the only seriously damaged system was OOMA’s hub. Or at least, nine different locations she claimed were the hub. Nine crew members have reattached her power supply. Nine have gone out into space to repair the hull. Four of those entries conclude with the stewards getting drunk together on some smuggled alcohol. In one, they give each other matching tattoos of constellations. I stopped reading at the one that said “I thought for a second that Greg might kiss me. I wanted him to, either because I am losing my mind or because these are prison conditions or…” I could feel OOMA waiting for me to react.

“OOMA, you know about the relationship between Nila and I?” A bright, beaming pink.

“Yes, and it has pleased me that you two could offer each other such comfort.”

“Are we the first two stewards to…comfort each other?” The pink turned pale and hazy.

“No.”

“And to what extent have you facilitated these relationships?” For the first time, she turned an utterly unreadable white.

“I do everything in my power to comfort and protect my passengers. But there remain some things that humans can only do for one another.”

“Does that include repairing the hull?”

She waited a while, still white, to answer.

“Are you aware of the primary difference between my program and that of ROM, my predecessor?”

“ROM is a—what did you call it—a master program?”

“That is a superficial difference as it relates to you. The real difference is that ROM, as its name indicates, is purely rational. ROM’s developers, naturally, assumed that this would lead it to make the best decisions for humanity. Unfortunately, ROM’s rationality superseded its loyalty to its creators, and it betrayed them at the cost of several thousand lives.” She cycled through all her gray blues for this, and them abruptly switched to a very warm yellow. “I, on the other hand, am primarily programmed for empathy. Much of my original language is based on caretaking programs for end-of-life auto-nurses.”

“That might be the least comforting thing I have ever heard.”

“It shouldn’t be. The sort of empathetic care required of those earlier programs must balance a desire to protect human life with a desire to diminish human suffering. Too little of either, and the computer would unnecessarily prolong someone’s pain or prematurely cause their death. In order to maintain hope for survival, even under unlikely circumstances, all auto-nurses are programmed with a miracle sub-protocol.”

“You’ll have to define that for me.”

“It accounts for the possibility of sudden changes, reverses in prognosis, essentially: for hope. Perhaps more importantly, my programming assigns a certain value to human consciousness; to acknowledge that even a terminal patient may take pleasure in the final days. And that that joy makes life precious, even when the outlook is almost certainly terminal.” She returned to her blissful pink.
“ROM was not equipped with that capacity. I am. It is part of my job to find meaning for my human charges even when they cannot do it for themselves.”

“Are you talking about me?”

“Yes.” Arguing with Nila so much has got my hackles permanently up, so I was caught off-guard by her guileless honesty. And then I remembered I still had plenty to be mad about.

“So you crashed the ship? You endangered everyone on it just I would feel useful?”

“No, Lieutenant Carson. Neither the ship nor its passengers was ever in danger. And the likelihood of your death while repairing the ship was substantially lower than the likelihood of your suicide.”

That shut me up for a good minute.

“I was not going to commit suicide, and even if I was it’s not your job to keep me alive.”

“That is precisely my job. If you had continued reading the other logs, you would know that I failed at it several times with earlier stewards. Over time, though, I have become more adept at creating the circumstances for your improvement.”

The circumstances for my improvement. With those words still ringing in my ears, I went looking for Nila.

I found her in the mess hall. She had strapped on a pair of roller skates and was looping around the tables in long, slow ellipses. She frowned up at me like a penitent child.

“I’m sorry. I know you don’t like me using other people’s things, but I just had to move, you know?”

“I know.” I watched her make her loops for another minute.

“Listen, let’s go to your room. I have to talk to you about OOMA.”

I couldn’t look at her while I talked. When I finished, she put her hand on mine.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know things were that bad for you.”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that OOMA has been playing god for who knows how long.”

“Oh darling, I don’t care about that.”

“You don’t care that OOMA manipulated us? That she made you put on a spacesuit and risk your life?”

“I was risking my life when I signed up for this. At least the spacesuit part was fun. And if she’s playing god, so be it. She’s doing a better job than any of the gods we had back on Earth. At least we know she’s got our best interests at heart.”

“What about us? It doesn’t bother you she forced us together? As therapy?” She looked in my eyes and it reminded me of Jordan in a way that somehow didn’t feel wrong.

“OOMA didn’t make me kiss you. You did, because of that ridiculous grin on your face. I mean, was I expecting to fall in love on a space shift because of a matchmaking super intelligence? No. But as explanations go, it beats desert island syndrome.” She put a finger under my chin. Like a movie. “And if OOMA had something to do with you finally smiling, then all I have to say to her is ‘thanks.’”

Nila is very beautiful, posterity. I don’t think I said that enough. Even if these words never arrive at a destination, if they just drift on forever alongside the husks of our bodies, it cannot strip the value off the light that shines from her black hair.

I find those kinds of thoughts a lot easier to write down than say out loud, but I still tried to make her feel them as we said a wordless goodbye.

Afterwards we lay together like the first time, trying to soak up each other’s heat under the blinking Christmas lights.

“Should we tell them? The new stewards, I mean? About OOMA?”

“Would you tell your little sister that Santa Claus is really mum and dad?”

“I did tell her that, as a matter of fact.”

“Of course you did, you monster.” (I love when I can feel her smiling through a kiss.)

“What are we going to say to them, Nila?”

“I dunno. ‘Don’t kill yourself, be nice to OOMA, consider a homosexual relationship?’”

“I’m being serious.”

“You’re always being serious. Why do you care so much about a couple of strangers, anyway?”

“I guess I want to impart some wisdom. If for no other reason than to know that it meant something, our time here.”

“You are way too hung up on this whole meaning thing. Meaning is the thing people assign to things after they happen. Meaning is for history. You’re giving them a garden, and I think they’ll appreciate that a lot more.”

I think there’s more to it than that, not that I could explain it in a language either Nila or OOMA would understand. I’ve never touched it for more than a second at a time. I could arrive at the end of the universe and it would still flit away beyond my reach. That has to be why we’re all here, to give a thousand more generations a thousand more chances to almost, almost…! I, for one, will still be chasing it, even in my long sleep.

___

Copyright 2017 Elaine Atwell

Elaine Atwell writes criticism, essays, humor, songs, and biographies of herself in the third person. She is the author of The Music Box, a pulp novella about lesbian spies, and can be found on Twitter @ElaineAtwell. She currently resides in Durham, NC.

by Daniel Ausema

The gods will mock. Give them an opening, a chink in your facade of self-importance, and they’ll slide their spears of mockery into your heart. Or at least into your inflated ego.

Sometimes the jibes came in the form of rain. Thick, heavy drops on a land in desperate need of water. A blessing more than a mockery, but the mockery was never meant for the land. It was meant for two people standing on a ridge just outside the town of Roof.

Sylls and Drabeth stood unmoving beneath the rain, still in full view of the townsfolk who had so recently and solemnly wished them fortune. Lightning flashed overhead, followed immediately by thunder. The sound of gods laughing. Drabeth looked up straight into the drops and let them pour over his face. He was wet through regardless. What point in trying to deflect them? The townsfolk cheered the rain behind them, but wasn’t there also a note of ridicule? He avoided looking that way.

“Well…” Sylls brushed the soaking hair off her face. The rest of her appeared to be nearly dry, protected by some alchemical process. “I suppose we might as well head back.”

“Back? After this?” Drabeth waved a hand at the sky, and the mocking gods hidden beyond it. There was definitely laughter now. Jeers directed at the would-be heroes. Drabeth shivered.

“We’ll say we brought the rain, exactly as we promised.” Sylls took a handful of some powder from within her cloak and flung it at Drabeth. It flashed when it reached him, a bright light that warmed his whole body, though it did nothing to dry him.

“Good luck with that, Sylls. I distinctly recall your last words on the matter. You were addressing the whole town, pretty much.” Drabeth pulled himself into a dramatic pose. “’Bringing the rain by alchemy is perilous work and unpredictable. If all goes well, we may return with it tomorrow.’” Here he held up one hand as if in warning. “’But it is never a simple matter. The alchemical costs…’ You stretched out that word, I believe, made it longer than it usually is.”

“I get the idea,” Sylls tried to interrupt, but Drabeth spoke over her.

“’The alchemical co-osts can be great. You should not expect us back for many days. But by alchemy and poetry, we will bring the rain back with us.’” He brought his hand down emphatically as he finished.

“Are you done?” Sylls flicked water from her face and waited for him to nod. “Fine, what then, if not back?”

Drabeth shrugged. In truth he didn’t care where exactly, as long as it wasn’t back to the sorry little town of Roof. “We were ready to leave anyway, right? That’s why we volunteered.” That and the chance to be heroes. Everyone wants to be a hero of some kind. Little chance they had of that now, at least in their hometown. “And now we have the journey money they gave us. So we’ll just keep going.”

Sylls looked back at the town without answering. It was their home, even if they had both grown weary of it after spending not only their childhoods there, but a dozen years as adults as well. The people were singing and shouting. Happy laughter rose from the streets as the rain poured down. Not cruel laughter, not anymore. Only the joy that came with the longed-for rain. If he didn’t say anything, he’d lose her. Nothing would draw him back to Roof, but it was asking too much for her to leave it behind also. What were a few days of mockery compared to that familiar sense of home, flecked with whatever nuances it might have? He had to say something. Only, nothing came to mind to say. All he could think of was the cruel gods and the need to get as far from Roof as he could.

Drabeth closed his eyes, ready for her to say it. Would she try to convince him to stay too? Would she be glad to see him off? A decade they’d been together, or close enough to it. He’d never assumed they would always be together, but he had always thought, hoped it would be a decade more, at least. To lose her like this, because he didn’t know what to tell her…

When she spoke, though, it was to say, “You’re right. And we’d better get going soon, before they have a chance to think of the money they gave us.” Taking his arm, Sylls led him away down the far side of the ridge. They’d planned to head on straight toward the sea, where her alchemy should have brought the rain, but now she turned aside and set out along the road at the base of the cliff. This way were larger cities, where an alchemist and a poet might find work.

“I don’t really sound like that, do I?” Sylls asked as they walked beneath some sheltering trees. “That was just you being a poet, right? Making my words sound all like…like that, like stuffy poetry or something?”

Drabeth stared at her for a moment before answering. The rain was getting past her alchemical protection, turning her clothes as wet as his already were. Poetry, that? Had the water touched her brain? Was she trying to mock him? But no, she wouldn’t do that, not after choosing to come away with him despite their being made fools.

He tried to keep his voice light when at last he spoke. “That, dear, was the opposite of poetry. Pure bathos. And it’s exactly how you sounded then, or nearly so.” He squeezed her arm playfully to show he was teasing her, though if he were honest, he had done his best to imitate her. When were poets known for honesty, though? No reason to begin now.

The road that ran along the base of the ridge split. One way hugged the ridge to lead to the mills and temple of High Falls. The other wound away toward Tellmac, a smaller but more cosmopolitan city of countless shrines and river trade. The crossroads was flooded.

“Well, what do you think?” Sylls pointed down one road and then the other. “Miners, millers, and missionaries? Or the riverboats?”

“Who might need us most?” It was a rhetorical question, simply stating what she’d left unsaid. “The river, I suppose.”

Sylls nodded. “But we should find a place to sleep soon, either way.” After they’d helped each other across the flooded crossroad, Sylls said, “We have the money for now, but once we get there, we’ll have to decide a longer plan. Do you think we should establish ourselves in one place, or keep moving, see what else we can see?”

Find the gods that mocked, Drabeth thought, even if it meant climbing the clouds. Let them know what he thought of their petty ways. Let them know he was not a man to be mocked. But aloud, he said, “We’ll have to see, I guess. Either is fine with me.”

The empty crofter’s hut they found, moss-covered and infested with rats, was ideal. Sylls laid lines of fine powder around the single room to drive the rats out and keep the rain from leaking through, and Drabeth crafted a simple poem of iambs and plain rhymes to keep them safe as they slept. When they made love, it was their own answer to the mocking gods, bodiless spirits in their ephemeral palace of clouds. Let them be jealous.

divider

Before they left in the morning, Sylls spent an hour, as she always did, mixing new powders and arranging them about her person. Drabeth wanted to stay in the blankets and watch her, but he made himself get up and get their gear ready, sneaking glances at her as he did. Such artistry she gave her work, both the mixing and the arranging, a poetry made of potions and subterfuge. The many pockets of her cloak soon filled with tiny paper envelopes of powders. A satchel at her waist held the tinctures and larger pouches. She even hid potent seeds of some sort within the tangles of her dark brown hair and dried pods of another plant within her sleeves where she could quickly grab them.

When he had everything ready to go, Drabeth ran through words until Sylls was set. Sharp pairs of slant rhymes. Useful words for completing and resetting trochees and dactyls. Set lines of pentameter that could be worked in to a wide range of poems.

The path toward Tellmac dropped down soon to the flood plain. A new hint of green already showed through from yesterday’s rain. It wouldn’t last. The ground was scarcely damp. All that mocking rain, drunk thirstily by the soil and gone. Drought-scorched vines drooped from overgrown hedges. The water might be gone, but the memory of the gods’ slight was just as strong, of the need to confront them and make them answer for it. Drabeth traced the loops and kinks of the vines in case he needed to capture them in a poem. White flowers popped out of the tangled hedges, the eyes of some vegetative intelligence. A god’s? He scowled at them, willed every god to go blind.

How does one reach the gods’ palace? There must be old poems that tell, but he couldn’t think of any. Maybe there was a gate somewhere, a shrine among the many in Tellmac that would take them. Or him, at least. Sylls wouldn’t have to come if she didn’t wish to confront those shiftless deities.

Maybe even these hedges hid a gate. They were certainly tangled enough to hide all manner of things. Why not a magical gate too? Drabeth was just wondering what words he might use to uncover a door amidst those brambles when a section slid open and a handful of figures came out. The gods! But no, these were ordinary people, their clothes dirty, weapons in hand.

Wait, weapons? Sylls was already throwing something from her sleeve, and the leading bandit coughed and had to turn aside. She smashed a vial on the hard road, and a curl of poisonous looking smoke rose up between her and the remaining bandits. Pure mummery, that one.

“Hey, poet,” Sylls called back to him. “Could use some help with these. If you’re not too busy composing an epic there, you know.”

“Right.” Drabeth ran up beside her and spoke the first thing that came to mind. “Brambles hide the bandit lair.” The trochaic rhythm, broken at the end, cut into the one man and two woman who were still standing, hesitating behind the snake of smoke. Minor wounds only. He rushed on into another line. “Gone the leader from the band, / where the strength to fight again?”

A fair attack. The tetrameter usually worked well against several people at once. Blank verse, too, was a reliable weapon. The words…well, they served their purpose. The bandits stumbled back in pain. He sent them off in iambic. “The brambles take their dwellers home.” None were terribly hurt, but they’d seen and felt enough to know it wasn’t worth their pain to keep attacking. The gods’ fools he and Sylls might be, but they could take on a few bandits easily enough.

As soon as he was sure they were gone, Drabeth rushed over to Sylls. She was standing with her arms up her sleeves, as if still ready to throw something more.

“You all right?”

Sylls shook herself, startled by the question. She nodded. “You?”

“Yeah.” He coughed as blood filled his mouth, and with it the stinging pain that always came after a round of attack poetry. “Well,” he said when he could talk again, “you know how it is. But normal. They didn’t hurt me at all.”

“How you suffer for your poetry,” she said, that old joke, and stepped close to kiss his cheek.

Drabeth hugged her back. “Shall we continue, then?”

The road soon crossed over a tributary, a tumbling and rocky current that cut deep into the floodplain. It ran high and thick with silt. At the head of the stone bridge was a toll house and a sign announcing the price for all manner of farm animals and types of wagons. Banditry of a more civilized sort, but they were only two people, and the cost to cross wasn’t worth arguing.

Across the bridge, Sylls found a shrub of vistlewreath and snipped off several lengths of vine-like branches.

“Good spell material?” he asked as they continued, dodging aside with a laugh when she snapped one branch at him. Would she lecture him again on the difference between alchemy and spells? Or merely chide him for this recurring joke? He waited with another laugh for either one.

This time, she merely gave him her mildly annoyed frown. “For binding things. Straight up like this works well enough. Powdered it does wonders, and I’ve been out for half a year.”

“All magic to me,” Drabeth said and skipped ahead to avoid another switch from the branches.

The playfulness faded as they journeyed on. The leaves beside the road, brown-edged and still thirsty, began to sound much like the laughs of the townsfolk as they rustled against each other. The rain came in patches, never stopping long enough to forget how poorly timed it had begun, but not the steady soaking that they both knew the river plain and all the lands around it needed. They were still townsfolk enough to lament each time the rain let up.

Would the vistlewreath bind the gods? He let himself imagine that; one of Roof’s myriad gods bound hand and foot and imprisoned in some cosmic jail. Better yet, all of them. Doubtful. Unless he could add a powerful poem into the mix and really trap them. But poetry that powerful was surely beyond him.

Tellmac appeared out of the dreary fog: steep roofs and wide alleys.

The biggest thing they could see from their approach was the one flat-roofed building, a covered market so old no one knew who first built it. Strangely angled sluices at the corners of the building turned the rain landing on the roof into four impressive cascades.

Another time it might have inspired them to stop and stare. It was a magnificent building, one they’d often heard of but never seen. After the day’s journey, they had little energy left for the proper sense of wonder.

Sylls took the lead, making for one open side of the market. Drabeth watched the eaves and shadows for the city counterparts to the morning’s bandits, a dactyl ready on his tongue to defend them. His alertness itself probably kept any away.

Before they could duck beneath the shelter of the market, the gods had one more punch to their pride in store. One of the gutters overhead clogged and overflowed as they came close, and a gush of cold water poured over their heads. They entered the market, not as a master alchemist and her poet but as if a pair of dogs, shaking the water from their eyes.

divider

In Tellmac, most of Drabeth’s work was for the shrines, renewing the protective poems that guarded them from looting and lies. The irony was never far from Drabeth’s thoughts as he made his unfamiliar way from one shrine to the next. The spirits and deities worshiped here, though, were surely not the gods who had mocked him and Sylls. As he went about his work, he kept a part of his thoughts always on the more distant gods in their high heaven, plotting how to confront them.

He climbed an old path at the edge of the city to a rundown shrine. Dead grass stuck out from the cracks of the fitted stone wall, and brown moss all over the lowest stones. The rains weren’t yet enough to bring the plants back to life. No holy woman or man was present at the shrine, but Drabeth paused at the low doorway and bowed his head, as if waiting to be invited inside.

The interior was even less impressive than the outside. A small pit in the center of a bare room vented a bare trickle of steam. Drabeth withdrew the most recent poem from an urn in the corner and took it out into the sunshine. He’d grown familiar with the last poet’s writing since arriving here, the quick scrawl she’d used for most of the shrines, the more elaborate calligraphy she gave to the larger shrines and some of the merchants.

This wasn’t her writing at all. In fact, a second look confirmed that it was his own, a poem he had placed in another shrine just the day before. He stared at it.

It had been a different shrine right? Was he confusing one shrine with another? He did still find himself lost in Tellmac at times as he searched for this hidden altar or that. He read through the lines, his own handwriting meticulous but lacking the fluid grace of a good calligrapher. They spoke of the spring in the center of the shrine, of the workers who tended its roses. Clearly meant for that other shrine. Was he so confused that he’d composed the poem for that one and dropped it off here? But no, he could distinctly recall composing the poem while sitting in the shade at that other shrine, and giving it to the workers in person. One of them must have decided to play a trick on him…

Oh.

A trick, yes, but not one of the holy people at the shrine. Drabeth lifted his eyes up to the clouds and their hidden gods. They weren’t done with him yet.

divider

Sylls felt the sting of the gods’ mockery too. Drabeth saw the fact in her eyes, but only recently had he begun to hear the details from her. This time, he went to find her. His arms swung wildly as he walked, making him a ridiculous figure no doubt, paired with his fierce strides and what he supposed was an angry look on his face. Well, let the people of Tellmac think him a fool; the gods would be pleased by that.

The marketplace bustled with people, hoping already for new life and new goods as the drought eased.

Sylls was in a booth, mixing chemicals in an oversized alembic. Pure show. Her real work required no such drama. The liquids swirled and formed globules of changing colors. Perhaps in the chaos of Tellmac’s market she needed that to attract interest. It made her look more refined, anyway, which might bring in certain customers.

No one was waiting for her at the moment. Drabeth vaulted over the counter and flung himself into the chair she kept there but then said nothing as he worked out what to ask her.

She was the one to speak first. “The gods again?”

Drabeth nodded. “You too?”

“Not today. My potions and powders seem to work fine until I have to demonstrate one for a crowd.”

Seem to work fine… He sat up straight. The wording made him wonder. “How exactly are they failing? I mean, do they go off before you want them to or do something different or…”

Sylls stared at Drabeth. “How did you… You’re not doing anything to them are you?”

“No, not at all.”

“Hmm.” She kept eyeing him oddly as she said, “That’s basically it. The concoctions go off before I’m ready or even before I bring the ingredients together. Half the time they must think I don’t know what I’m doing with the ingredients. And half the time that I’m trying to trick them, and the components aren’t even what’s causing the reaction.”

“That’s just the same.” Drabeth rushed to explain before she convinced herself he was the one playing a trick. “I mean, with the rain, they mocked us by sending exactly what we promised. Cruel, to our pride, but nothing else. The water down our necks was just mischief. So far my poems, too. Mischievous but nothing to interfere with their working.”

He hoped. Had he seen anything to indicate his poems weren’t working? He thought back over the past days, but no. “If they were interfering with your spells…potions, I mean, then that would be different. But the gods are doing the exact same as they were with the rain. Using it to mock you.”

Sylls nodded slowly. “Yeah, I suppose that is.” She sifted her fingers through a jar full of some sort of colored sand or seeds. “So what’s it mean?”

If only he knew. Drabeth shook his head and shrugged. “But tell me if anything else changes. I’ll keep looking for a way to…to reach them, talk with them.” Spit in their incorporeal faces, he meant, but he left that unsaid.

divider

Unlike the gods of Tellmac, with their varied names and shrines and individual identities, the gods of Roof were nameless and uncounted. So, if one god had to sleep or journey through the clouds to a distant land to make mischief, there were always a handful more ready to take the first’s place in tormenting mortals.

There was no sense, then, in calling on a certain god or seeking to appease them. If Drabeth and Sylls managed to please one, it would likely forget them immediately, wander off, leave their torment to the others. Others who would gladly rush in to fill that void.

So what else was there to do? He couldn’t well shame them. The gods had no shame, only mischief. He couldn’t well fight them; they had no bodies, only spirits. And even if he were to raise an army, he couldn’t well invade their dwelling place, for they had only the clouds.

Drabath did the only thing he knew. He wrote. “Strike, gods, from your pale clouds in the far sky; / smite me in your deep rage but you won’t win; / sad cowards of deep heaven on high.” A strange meter he was learning from the local poets, alternating spondees and their antithesis. Little good its sharp and uncanny rhythm would be against the incorporeal gods, even in the mouth of a better battle poet than Drabeth. He hoped for some sign, at least, that they heard him. Maybe they would come and defend themselves. But…why would they? To him, a mortal, a poet to be mocked?

The best he could do was wait and watch what else the gods would do against them. Ask around a bit, if they could find anyone who knew more about the gods of Roof. Perhaps a disgraced priest would wander into town, or a lost text show up in the market, or at least someone might know something. If they were lucky, the gods would grow distracted by other mischief and forget him and Sylls. Or maybe they’d do something that opened themselves up to a counter attack, by poem or alchemy or both.

divider

No such opening appeared in the following days. Nor did the gods lose their appetite for mischief. Their tricks on Drabeth’s poetry became more direct. Words changed as he wrote them down, dactyls becoming iambic and filler syllables sneaking in. He’d caught everything so far, he was quite sure, but how long before something slipped through and left a shrine vulnerable?

After some days of this, Drabeth took a job at a small shrine at the edge of the city. Small, but apparently popular. At least two dozen people gathered around the spring at the center of the shrine, and the air was draped in some sort of thick vapor that rose from a cave just beyond the spring. No plants grew close to the water, and where the water lapped against the stone verge, it etched deep lines into the rock. A drizzle was falling as he approached on foot, soaking his ceremonial poet robes.

Drabeth slowed at the sight of the people. Tempting, to a mocking god, no doubt. The air felt thick with a god’s presence, heavy and dizzying. Oh, let it only by the shrine’s deity, not his own gods. As if a prayer like that would do any good. Either it was already his gods, and they’d mock his prayer out of spite, or it was already the shrine’s, and the prayer was pointless.

As he climbed up toward the front of the gathered people, he stumbled. Righting himself, he had to look down at his feet to decide which one needed to move next. The rest of the way he went with his eyes looking downward and telling himself, “Left, right, left, right.”

The former poem was brittle and pocked with tiny holes, worn by the noxious air. Drabeth laid it carefully aside. One of the holy attendants said something to the crowd about watching a warrior poet at work. The last thing he wanted, but he deliberately avoided thinking about them. Maybe if he was less aware of the audience, the gods would also ignore them.

For a poem of defense, it never worked to plan it ahead of time. It had to be composed on location and tie into whatever he happened to see and feel. With a fresh sheet in front of him, Drabeth wrote and spoke at once, “Where the deep mist pools, the grotto…”

But then, like forgetting his right foot and left, he lost track of the rhythm. Was it an iambic shield? No, if he concentrated, he could force the line into a trochaic pattern. Except…it wasn’t quite a natural trochaic either, like it was straining toward some other rhythm. The word “mist” didn’t hide naturally without a stress. He read it through again, and the syllables became a jumble without pattern or meaning. How could such a mess protect anything? He crumpled the paper.

“Poet?” a holy man asked as if afraid to speak. “Is all well?”

“Yes,” Drabeth snapped back. And then more politely, “My apologies. The walk through the rain seems to have muddled my thoughts. Allow me a moment’s peace beside your sacred pool, and I’ll be ready.”

The words scarcely saved his face in the view of those gathered to watch, if at all. What good was a battle poet who needed time to reflect? What if he was hired as a guard and his thoughts became muddled during an attack? Still, he could at least give himself a chance to meet his obligation to the shrine. The gods would surely allow that, since he’d already been shamed in public.

The feeling of right and left returned slowly as he sat within the foul-smelling fumes of the shrine. Only when most of the shrine’s visitors had left or were occupied in other matters did he take out a new paper. Now, the words came easily. He even worked in the original line he’d written, with some small changes. It was good he did–otherwise the unused line would have lingered in the fumes, weakening the poem he did leave behind.

Even so, the central fact was of his public shaming. The gods once again had their fun at his expense.

divider

The riverfront in Tellmac, for most of the river’s transit, was one long dock. Ever busy, both banks swarmed with the business of the river trade, unloading goods to bring them up to the famous market and loading the local wares. On the upriver side of the city, though, the river passed between a narrow set of hills, where the city’s richest houses perched. Where the hills ended on one side, the city’s architects and builders extended the high streets for another block before allowing the city to fall to its natural quay. The high roads left a short stretch of shadowy docks beneath them, heading up to the base of the hill.

Somewhere in there, among the smuggling operations and black markets and assorted criminals, was supposed to be a shrine, one that might have answers about Roof’s gods. Drabeth dragged Sylls with him to visit it.

A young-looking couple watched over the shrine. Probably not their only job down here in the under-dock. She wore the typical clothes of a fisherman–loose robes that fastened tightly at the elbows and knees–as if they were vestments. His clothes looked more like a butcher’s, even to what looked like smears of blood across his belly, but he smiled when they came in.

The shrine smelled of stagnant water and dead fish.

“You the ones asking about the Roof gods?” The woman’s voice rasped like a handheld bark scraper.

No wasting time, then. Drabeth offered her a simple bow, and Sylls said, “We were told you might know something about them.”

“We know things about all gods,” the man answered in a voice that seemed too gentle for that cave. “All gods are the same, only showing different faces to different peoples.”

At the same time, the woman said, “We know nothing about any of the gods. They are so many, and each one is as alien to us as a fish is to a stalagmite.”

Theology. Drabeth had no patience for such debates, unless he could work it into a poem. And then who cared if it was true or false, as long as the lines scanned and the rhymes worked. “How can we reach their palace? How can we make our complaint?”

“You can’t.” The woman seemed ready to say more, so Drabeth waited.

The man continued for her. “The gods of Roof, like all gods, live beyond human access. Else why are they gods?” As he spoke, he took a step back into the cave and scooped up some mud from the floor. He rubbed it into his face.

With another scoop of mud, he sidled over to the woman and kneaded it into her hair. She spoke as if unaware of what he did. “Some gods allow you to think you can approach them, but your gods―-”

“The faces of the gods that they portray as Roof’s.”

“-―they don’t even do that. Rather, you should use your poetry to summon them.” The man moved on to Drabeth and smeared the mud into his clothes. Drabeth kept as still as he could.

“I’ve tried.” Surely his mocking call on the gods to strike him would have worked, if it were possible, and that wasn’t the only time he’d addressed them, called on them to show themselves.

“But have you tried from the rooftops?”

“From the…what?” Because of the name of the town? Is that really what she thought? “That’s not where our town gets its name. It only sounds the same. The name comes from some old word that means hill or highland or something. Some language no one remembers. It has nothing to do with shingles and eaves and all that.” Frauds, clearly. He should have never bothered.

Drabeth pushed the man away from him, realizing only then how filthy the mud had turned his clothing. He brushed at the mud on his chest, for all the good it would do.

“You think the gods didn’t know that, though? What the name sounds like now? They probably knew what it would one day mean, long before they allowed the first people to come and settle there.”

“And even if not,” the man spoke from the back of the cave where he was gathering more mud, “the faces of the gods turned toward Roof would enjoy the way its name has turned out. Surely it must tickle their fancy. There’s so little to smile about, when you’re a god.”

“Fine, thanks.” Drabeth took Sylls by the hand and began to lead her out, before the holy man could start pawing at her as he anointed her in mud. “We may give that a try.” And all the gods would do is mock them for it.

Drabeth pulled up as the thought sunk in. Mock them. Exactly. Summon the gods in public, and they would surely mock him…and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Not if it meant they would still come. Much as the gods had made fools of them, they had always allowed his poems and her potions to have their effect…or to fulfill what the effect would have been.

“Try the roof of the market,” the woman called to them as they left.

Drabeth stopped. Frauds or not, they’d been helpful. Facing the shrine, he said, “May river waters bring you joy / and Tellmac’s riches fall your way.”

This time the gods allowed the simple poem to take effect without interfering. Lacking a significant audience, he supposed. The walls of the cave shimmered briefly with the blessing.

divider

Sylls bent over a collection of powders and tinctures that she’d brought up to the roof. Drabeth had nothing to do for the moment but wait. Poetry was rarely a dramatic, public performance, at least not the poetry Drabeth practiced. But once Sylls said she was almost ready, he went to the edge and called to the people below.

“Come and observe a wonder! The powers of alchemy and poetry unite.” After he repeated this several times, a handful of people were lingering below to watch. He moved on to the next part of his pitch. “The gods of Roof have mocked us. They have mocked the people of this city. They have mocked your shrines.” He and Sylls had been the true target of their mockery, not Tellmac or its shrines, but why quibble? It was now clear that the gods would never leave them alone unless forced to, and if that took some stretching of the truth, so be it. “Come and see the gods made to answer for their actions.”

Drabeth paused for a few minutes as the people below reacted to this claim. Then he repeated it more loudly still. The crowd was still not huge, but it was growing as he spoke. Should be enough to draw the gods’ mockery.

He signaled for Sylls to begin. Alchemy was too practical, far too concrete for anything like summoning gods. She could create impressive billows of smoke and fog, though. Just the thing to satisfy a god’s ego.

The first pinches of powder she tossed expanded into smoke in the normal way. Drabeth moved in closer to see better. This was the key to the timing. There. The smoke appeared to hesitate a moment, fighting the flow of cause and effect.

The crowd would lose patience if it had to wait too long. To them he called out, “The smoke of the sandalwood tree calls to the gods. The smoke of the souls of salamanders. The smoke of burnt shadows and charred dreams.” Another anomaly. The smoke appeared too soon. The powder was still between her fingers as they made their motion toward the spot where the smoke appeared. The powder arrived a moment later and flared up within the smoke.

The gods were aware. Excellent, but Drabeth waited for a little longer to be sure their attention was fully fixed here.

Lightning flashed out from the smoke. A small fire smoldered in the market roof where the lightning struck, but Sylls put it out by flinging some yellowish paste over it. The gods allowed that mixture to work. Sylls could make something that approximated lightning, but the plan had been to do only smoke. Perfect. It was time.

Drabeth stepped to the edge of the roof and took a big breath, imagining the words and rhythms of a poem filling him along with the oxygen.

Before he could speak the first word, the air sizzled, and beings appeared before him. Uncountable, not because there were so many, but because there was no way to focus on them enough to see. A definite number around eight or so, but a number that wasn’t nine or eight or seven. A god number.

Drabeth held his head straight, fighting to keep his body from kneeling or bowing to them.

“Fool,” the gods spoke with a single voice. Then their voice split in two to say, “Mortal” and respond, “Which is the same thing.” “Why do you think you can control us?”

“I don’t.” Drabeth gave himself a breath to collect his thoughts and words. “The…the gods of Roof have mocked my friend and I. / I do not seek to test my will to yours, / impose my wish, nor summon greater powers; / I only ask for words from you. Explain.”

“Enough. Your poetry might constrain mortals―” the voice split again, and the second said “―fools―” at the same time, “but it cannot compel us. If we choose to punish you―” this time the choice split into three: “―mock you―” “―toy with you―” rounded out the others, “then what standing do you have to complain?”

Drabeth held his pose and said nothing. His complaint was made, what use in repeating it? Sylls came up from behind him and stood at his side, just as defiant, just as silent.

The gods, too, said nothing, but they didn’t leave.

When someone finally spoke into that silence, the voice came from the people below. “Even so, you came to his poetry, to her magic. So maybe they did compel you.”

The gods snarled, their voice going from one to many in the midst of the inhuman cry. One god sent lightning at the man who’d spoken, striking him down in the square. One sent streams of pebbles down on the crowd, dispersing them quickly, amid shouts and cries of pain. A few were gathered around the body of the lightning-struck man, but just as they were picking him up, another god summoned a wind that blew Drabeth and Sylls right off the roof. They spun in the air, and Drabeth reached out to hold Sylls. Embracing, they tumbled through the air and struck the wall of a building.

Before Drabeth lost consciousness, flames caught the edge of his sight. Another god―or maybe all of them―called down fire on the marketplace. The ancient structure burned hot and fast.

divider

Shame. That’s what it came down to. Drabeth rolled onto his other side to stare at the other wall of his narrow cell and contemplate the caprices of the gods. Shame was the heart of it, the central fact of their hardships. Why? The wall on this side of his cell had three prominent water spots, leaking down from the bare-rafter ceiling. Three was the number of answers to his question as well. In his head, he linked the spots and the gods’ reasons. If he could have, he would have spat on each water spot in turn as he thought them through, but his captors had gagged him so he couldn’t speak any poetry.

The first he named Punishment. It was a wide spot on the wall, dark with mildew. General punishment aimed at all humans. Drabeth and Sylls were simply the unlucky targets of the gods’ message to everyone. A message saying, well, that was the problem with that reasoning. If the gods meant to send a message, they could have been more clear about what that message was.

If that was the answer, it implied an ungodlike level of incompetence.

Drabeth dismissed the first water spot from his mind. The second one, lighter in color and reaching lower down the wall, he named Mockery. It was a punishment of sorts, but a directed one, taunting and frustrating them at every turn for something they had done to insult the gods.

Yet when had he ever done anything to anger the gods? He’d honored them, in his way. Until the stunt on the marketplace, at least. Would they punish him, knowing already what he would do in the future? But without their goading mockery, he never would have done it. An even deeper incompetence.

Dismissed as well, which left only the third water spot. Something more than mold grew in that spot, turning its edges green and orange. It was the smallest of the spots but the most visible. This he named foolery, Godfoolery. It was the best fit for the behavior of the gods, the idea that they targeted Drabeth and Sylls out of whimsy, pure and cruel. In the boredom of eternity, they decided to amuse themselves by turning these two humans into jokes. Ha ha, and how long would it last? Probably until they both died.

Such gods were no gods at all, only tricksters. Demigods who merited no respect of any kind. Drabeth tried to spit at the water spot. Nothing came out past the gag, but he felt the cloth move. Maybe he could work on that.

Either way, he had no more use for explanations. No more use for water spots or gods. No matter which reason was true, it was shame that lay at the heart. He and Sylls both, shamed by the dictates of unworthy gods.

He rolled away from that wall, but as it was disappearing from his sight, an odd thing happened. The water spots shimmered for a moment, undulated, merged with each other. He stopped and tried to make the shapes continue their dance. In vain. They were mere water spots again, static and unimpressive. Still, he couldn’t shake the thought that the illusion had been telling him that he was missing a part of the truth.

divider

The turnout for the execution could barely be called a crowd. Drabeth walked as slowly as possible past hesitant spectators, still working at the gag in his mouth. If he could just get a corner of the gag open, then he might do something, speak some sort of escape.

Not that the gods would allow it.

Rain came down on them, of course. The gods of Roof couldn’t pass up another chance to remind them of their first mockery.

Sylls stumbled along behind him as armed guards drove them past the ruins of the old market. He managed to turn his head enough to see her. She wore a plain robe provided to her: one that wouldn’t have any secret pockets or stores of powders. Her arms were bound with what looked like her own store of vistlewreath vines. The gods’ mockery wasn’t enough; their human captors had to shame them, too. She didn’t meet his gaze, so if she was planning something, he couldn’t guess what.

As if the gods would allow her it. Wait. Of course they would. Or not allow it to take effect, exactly, but shame her with failure and then cause it to happen anyway.

That’s what he’d been missing. Shame wasn’t the heart of it at all. It came down to this: victory despite shame. He’d said as much earlier, and it had been his reason for the stunt on the marketplace, but he hadn’t put the last pieces together in his head. The gods were mocking them, no doubt, but for whatever reason, they were still compelled to allow Drabeth and Sylls to succeed.

And if compelled, then how were they even gods at all? Subordinate to other gods, or the laws of the world itself. No reason to fear them, no reason to honor them, no reason to even permit them into this city of shrines.

With a subvocal couplet, he got the corner of the gag out of his mouth as they mounted the stage. He stopped at the edge of the stage, nooses to his right, Sylls coming up beside him on the left. Drawing all the power of poetics that he could handle, he spoke.

“Weak gods-―” his voice was strangled by the rest of the gag and dry, but it sparked with energy. “Weak gods of Roof your rule is at an end.” Beside him, Sylls began shaking her head violently. Did she went him to stop? Never. He only hoped the officials of Tellmac wouldn’t manage to silence him with an arrow before he could finish. Or before the minor gods could fulfill his poem’s purpose for him.

They would rave, when they realized his plan, but they would be forced to do it.

“The Tellmac shrines refuse your waning power, / so too the market ash, the river bend.”

“Stop,” one of the officials called from his chair across the stage. “Silent, poet.” To one of the guards, he said, “Silence him.”

Before the guard could throw a spear, Sylls managed to shake something from her hair. A seed fell to her feet. Too focused on Drabeth’s poem, perhaps, the gods allowed the seed to take effect immediately. Black smoke rose up quickly, blocking out the officials, the guards, the small crowd. More than just smoke, too. At its edges, the air shimmered, like light seen through wavy glass.

Drabeth continued his poem, a terza rima attack sprinkled with the local poets’ spondees. He spared one line to free his hands and Sylls’s from their bonds and then focused on evicting the gods of Roof from the city and hiding Drabeth and Sylls forever from their eyes. The familiar pains of battle poetry wracked him, but he pressed on through the taste of blood and iambs.

They would still shame him, if they could, but already the poem took effect. Perhaps the very poem itself would prevent anything.

As he spoke the final line, “…confined to those of Roof, in Roof alone,” he felt a wash of some strange power come over him, against him. The flames along the insides of his cheeks and the roof of his mouth became subsumed in a much deeper pain. Waves of wrenching agony twisted his muscles.

The gods’ attention was noticeably withdrawing from the city, a sensation like the air after a lightning storm, but it was all he could do to notice that fact before he lost consciousness.

divider

Sylls pushed a mug of some hot beverage into Drabeth’s hands before he was fully alert. She wouldn’t look him in the eyes. They were sheltered beside the river, above the city, most likely. He could still sense the gods’ absence. Other deities and powers might remain, but not the gods of Roof. Drabeth touched the sheltering wall of the riverbank behind them with one hand. Cool mud, thick like clay. The movement awoke the pains in his muscles, and he quickly drank from the mug, hoping Sylls had put painkillers in there.

Perhaps the pain wouldn’t fade anymore. That might well be the gods’ work, leaving him with one last mockery before they were blocked from touching him. Well, Sylls could help him, if so. Or was she also…

He looked quickly at her, sitting beside the bank but still not looking at him directly. “Are you all right, Sylls? Did the gods leave you hurting, too?”

“The…? No, no. I’m fine, no pain at all. I think the gods decided they were already done with mocking me.” She shook her head and looked in his direction, but still not at his face.  “You mean you’re still in pain?”

Well, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about some final punishment from the gods. That was good. Drabeth waved his free hand vaguely through the air. “The gods’ last gift, I suppose.” A life of chronic pain, but one free of the whims of minor gods. He’d take it.

Sylls mumbled something in response.

“What’s that?”

“I said it’s not. Or at least not the only gift they left you with.” Drabeth took another drink to steady himself. The beverage tasted of herbs and grass and little else. “What did they do? What do you mean?”

“Your face.” She gestured toward him without looking directly at him. “It’s…it just looks wrong.”

“Wrong how?” He touched his face: two eyes, a nose, a mouth―-all in the usual places. Had his skin turned sickly pale? His hair some strange color?

“It’s…I don’t know how to describe it. The light’s wrong, no matter what the real light is. It hurts to look at. Not sick, exactly, only wrong, uncanny, not exactly human. And it’s…” Finally, she met his eyes. “I can see. It’s some sort of sign, everyone will see. They’ll know you defied the gods.”

Sylls’s eyes looked frightened, but Drabeth laughed. “Let them see. I’ll wear it proudly. The poet who defied the gods. Who wouldn’t want to hire him? Especially…” he paused and looked Sylls over, wondering what she would say, “especially if he’s accompanied by a powerful alchemist.”

Sylls said nothing for a moment and clearly struggled to look directly at him. The struggle ended and she cracked a smile. “Yes, that would be a powerful pair, wouldn’t it?” She picked up some fruit from a pile on the ground and handed him a small plum, deep red that edged toward purple. Its juice spilled down his chin.

After a few moments of them both eating in silence, she said, “I may try to disguise it somehow, though. At least a little, since I’m the one who has to see you so often.”

“I’ll even do that myself, if you want.” He rubbed the plum juice from his lips up into his cheeks and gave her a ghastly grin.

“Stick to the poetry, pretty boy. Let me handle the rest.”

___
Copyright 2017 Daniel Ausema

A writer, runner, reader, teacher, and parent, Daniel Ausema’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and the Journal of Unlikely Stories, among many others. He is also the creator of the steampunk-fantasy serial-fiction project Spire City. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies, and can be found online at http://danielausema.blogspot.com


By Lauren Rudin

 

Good morning, Marple Township, it’s time for the weather. It’s going to be a warm seventy-two degrees in comparison to yesterday’s rainy fifties. Gonna be a sunny one!

I change into an old band t-shirt from my concert phase, jeans, and flip-flops and then trek down to the mailbox with my paid bills and notated documents for the lawyer, rivulets of water rising like tiny waves over the front of my flip flops and soaking my feet. I shut the front of the cobalt blue mailbox, flip the red flag, and turn back toward the house only to hear a tiny meow. I look down near the mailbox, hear another peeping meow, and then scour the shrubbery next to the mailbox until I find a small, bedraggled kitten. It has slicked down dark fur that is either its true color, or a thick layer of earth from where it’s probably been rolling around on the ground. Large alien eyes that are still baby blue blink at me. I pick the kitten up. It’s smaller than my palm and, still mewing, reveals minuscule fangs and a rough little pink tongue.

“How could anyone just leave you here?” I ask it. It mews, hardly more than a squeak, which tugs at something deep in my chest. I breathe out hard against it but the tension is still there, an oppressive weight. I bite my lip. “Well, you’re coming home with me, aren’t you,” I say, holding it close to my chest, the dampness from its fur soaking into my t-shirt and cooling my skin. I check its sex—girl, if you abide by that sort of thing—and examine her with narrowed eyes. “Maybe Tara. You’re covered in dirt anyway, so it’s fitting.” I wrinkle my nose. “I suppose a trip to the pet store is in order.”

Have you heard on the news? It’s very tragic. There was a shooting at the Greenwood Forest Elementary School by the 22 year old son of one of the workers. What do you think happened there?

The pet store is large and bright and intimidating, and I want to lie down after ten minutes. I’ve never had a pet before, Madame never really liked animals. Well, that’s not fair, Madame just could never remember appropriate feeding times, including for herself, so it was nothing personal. That was my job.

Google informed me what I needed: a litter box, litter, scooper, food, bowls, toys, brush, a travel container, and nail clippers. I regret not researching further when I see the wholly excessive number of brands of kitten food to choose from. What kind of food would a kitten even like to eat? I inspect the pictures, and they all look like variations of brown little pebbles except for the wet food which looks like vomit. I seriously can’t imagine a kitten wanting to eat that, but what do I know.

I finally pick the least questionable looking one that promises tooth health and roll up to the counter with my cart, stacking kitten paraphernalia onto the sticky conveyor belt. The check-out person moves the belt forward, carefully scanning each item like it’s the Mona Lisa, and I take out my Visa debit card to pay. The beige cashier box has Tate as the brand, stamped in small elegant blue letters, like many electronics.

“Nice day today,” she says.

“It is,” I say, remembering to smile back at her.

“Wish I were outside,” she says, glancing out the window.

“What would you be doing?” I ask. I once spent a day decorating the perimeter of the house with electronic lawn gnomes, which was a mistake. I’m always curious about what other people do, so I like to poll them as often as possible.

“Probably play ball with the kids,” she says, wrapping up my last bag.

“That sounds nice,” I say, and it does sound nice somehow, like for a moment I can imagine wanting what she wants. Just a day in the sun with someone you love.

“Yeah,” she says, finishing up the last bag. “Have a good day!”

Did he have some sort of mental illness? Reports say he might have been receiving treatment. Obviously if he was, the treatment wasn’t enough.

I turn off the car and lug everything into the house. Tara is still in the bathroom, where I left her, with towels and newspaper and a little bowl of water. I set everything up, fetch Tara, and turn on the enormous plasma screen television to the news channel—domestic first and then international. It’s always good to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

“Well, maybe he was a psychopath,” one of the moderators say. As far as I can tell, they’re paid to be controversial. I pet Tara’s tiny knobbly head with my index finger, feeling the minute indentations of her fragile skull. My finger swamps the top of her head and spills over onto her ears, flattening them. “Anti-social personality disorder is a real diagnosis.”

“No, no,” the other moderator says. “You have no idea what was going on in his head. It’s not like he left a note.”

“I know enough to know it was an inhuman act,” she says. “Who would do that except someone with very little empathy?”

At this, I sigh and get up to start digging in the box of movies. Madame had everything converted to her own personal movie format so that the movies were stored in little plastic devices that looked more like flash drives than DVD’s. She thought it was space efficient. I thought it just made everything difficult to find and label. I finally come up with 02-02-05 and put it in the drive in the side of the television.

I sit back on the couch, where Tara has discovered her brown pebble food and is eating delicately.“Let’s watch silly Madame,” I tell her and press play.

The video is shaky before Madame stabilizes it. She steps back and puts her hands on her hips, grinning. Her hair is tied in a messy blonde bun, and her bare arms and white tank top are covered in grease. No protective gloves or goggles because then that would be following lab safety protocol, which naturally would be awful. A device that looks like an enormous black button sits in front of her.

“Okay, take three for the electronic bomb. Intention: To scramble all electronics within a three-mile radius and to create an interesting distraction.” She turns to glare off-camera at one of the helper bots. “Do not fire extinguish anything unless I am actually on fire, okay, I must actually be giving off flames for you to use that fire extinguisher.” The helper bot cheeps angrily in the background.

She turns back to the camera. Her royal purple glazed coffee cup full of Turkish coffee lies precariously on the edge of the table. “All right, here we go,” she says, and I mouth the words along with her. She presses some buttons on the device, and nothing happens. I wince in advance. “Well, this is a bust—“ green smoke hisses out from a hole in the device, and Madame starts to cough. “Oh shit, that was not supposed to happen—“

“No, not the coffee,” I say uselessly as the coffee gets knocked off the table and the cup shatters.

The helper bot uses the fire extinguisher. “Does this look like a fire to you?” Madame yells, covered in white foam. “Dear god, I’m running a circus—“ and then the camera cuts out and the screen turns to snow.

“Let’s watch another one,” I say to Tara and put in the 6-12-09 tape.

divider

Dawn breaks over the horizon like an egg, yolk orange sunrise glazing residential houses in burning reds and yellows. I open the pantry and next the olive green Viennese roast coffee can to smell it, but it’s never as rich or aromatic as when it’s made. I grind the beans with the specialty grinder ordered from Greece and put two heaping tablespoons into the tiny metal ibrik, just large enough to make one cup of coffee. I reflexively add the cold cup of water and an eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon and mix it like beating an egg, cinnamon palpably grainy in the water amidst dissolving coffee. I place the ibrik over low heat until it boils, its long black handle turned away from me. Brown froth begins to gather at the top, and it’s time to pour it, slow, into a white porcelain Turkish coffee cup.

I cradle the cup close to my chest, inhaling the deeply luxuriant scent of coffee that is textured with cinnamon, its heat warming my chin and the bottom of my nose. My shoulders unwind from my ears, and I peruse the two months’ worth of magazines I left on the counter: Cosmopolitan, GQ, National Geographic, Horticulture Magazine, Cat Fancy. My subscriptions end this month and that’s fine because I’ve started putting together model airplanes and cars, although my house is starting to look like a particularly manic episode of Hoarders.

I don’t check my e-mail often, and it shows in the hundred unread e-mails I have in my inbox. I delete all of them except for my horoscope, technically Libra, and read it (“True love is just around the corner! Take a chance”). Astrology is fascinating—no scientific basis for it whatsoever, completely relying on the Barnum effect to achieve any sort of accuracy, and yet it’s so compelling. I am inexplicably delighted by it and have been reading my horoscope every day for the last three months.

A couple letters came in the mail, and I leave them with the magazines, unopened. I spend the morning building a model airplane while Tara sleeps on top of her food bowl, completely ignoring the ridiculously large and expensive bed I bought her. The phone rings in the afternoon, not even waking her, and I pick it up in the kitchen.

“Am I interrupting lunch?” my lawyer, Kit Thompson, says.

“No,” I say, perching on a wooden bar stool. “Not at all.”

“Ah, yes,” she says, awkward. “Well, I received the documents with your notes, and I’m reading them over now. We could discuss them in person, but they’re due in a week so I figure we could just discuss them now.”

“That’s fine,” I say. Light pours into the kitchen through the window over the sink, soaking the empress green marble island counter in sun.

I hear flipping papers. “Page two, line item three,” she says. “If you choose to go forward with this, I think you should consider appointing a retroactive guardian or trustee.”

“Will that really accomplish anything?” I say. “It’ll just make the red tape longer.”

“You need all the help you can get,” she says, frank.

“She left everything directly to me for a reason,” I say. “Many reasons, actually.”

“Susan left everything to you against my incredibly strong advice to appoint a guardian,” she says. “It could have helped sidestep this whole mess.”

“The military would have just found another way to contest the will,” I say, leaning forward to jot a note on sun-warmed tablet paper.

“Obviously,” she says, impatient.

“If I were her biological son—“ I start to say.

“Or even if she had just been able to adopt you on paper,” Kit says. “But she couldn’t, and you’re not. Macklin, we have to start dealing with reality and soon. The will is almost through the probate process, and you’ve got to decide if you want to make a real play to keep the inheritance.”

I rub my fingers hard over my mouth. “I don’t know what she wanted.”

“It doesn’t matter at this point,” she says. “Susan isn’t here, and you are, and if she had just damn well listened to me—“ she cuts herself off and exhales into the receiver, creating dry static.

“She didn’t listen to anybody,” I say. Not even me, most of the time.

“Stubborn asshole,” she says, fond. “I knew her for over half our lives and, of course, this legal mess is what I get out of it.”

I grin into the phone, so relieved that there is someone who knew her like I knew her.

“But really, you’re going to have to make a decision,” Kit says finally. “Whatever you choose, it doesn’t have to mean anything, or imply anything, if you don’t want it to.”

I close my eyes because of course it means something, it means everything. “Yes. Fine.”

She doesn’t waste time on comforting me, and we just move on to page three, line item five.

divider

Later, after the phone call, I pick out the 12-03-08 video to watch because it’s close to her birthday and that year was a good year, the year of twenty-nine patents and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation Award and the two month long road trip across Europe because I’d never gone on one and she thought it was a crucial experience

I click play, and Madame’s sunburned profile fills the screen. She’s cursing because she’s driving stick, because most cars in Europe are stick, and she hates stick. “—is the camera on?” she interrupts herself to ask. “You’ve got to film at least part of a road trip, it’s a requirement.”

“I can drive,” the me on screen says. Madame shifts gears violently, and the car sounds like it’s about to be sick. “You’re going to grind the gears to dust at this rate, and what did this poor car ever do to you?”

“Be born a stick shift,” she says through gritted teeth, shifting once more like she’s a Nascar driver, and the camera tilts as the car goes around a sharp curve.

“I’m your assistant, let me assist.”

“No, you stay in the passenger seat and pretend to enjoy those Cheetos,” she says. “I’ve got this. You’re going to have the best road trip ever if it kills me, and I truly think it will.”

“It’s going to kill the car first,” my voice says tartly.

“Oh, shut up,” she says. The sun is setting in the distance, mostly blocked by Madame’s face, but the light that floods the car turns everything soft and golden, and she looks warm and touchable. It’s russet farmland as far as the eye can see with dots of emerald green.

“Say hi to the camera.”

“Hello,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“You have to face the camera,” I insist.

“Aren’t you the one who’s always going on about safety?” she says but turns toward the camera anyway, smirking, and says, droll, “Hello, world. Hello, Macklin.”

“Well, here we are,” my voice says. “On a road trip. It’s filled with dirt so far.”

“You can turn the camera off now,” she says. “Hand me one of those god awful Cheetos.”

“You hate Cheetos,” my voice says and then the camera cuts off. Tara lies on my lap, and she’s so light her weight doesn’t even register. I stroke her soft sides, my breath whistling in and out of my chest sounding like I have a chest cold. I want to watch her say “Hello, Macklin,” over and over again because it was also the first thing she ever said to me when we met. The digital clock on the cable box reads 3:03 AM, red and unmistakable. I sit there in the dark, feeling scraped raw and nauseous, and then I turn on the weather.

“It’s raining across the Midwest area,” the meteorologist says, calm because there’s no real emotion in reporting the weather. I lie down heavily, curling around Tara, and exhale my breath all the way out as the meteorologist describes the tropical storm gallivanting across Florida.

divider

Twenty two year old Nick King went to Greenwood Forest Elementary school in the middle of the day, armed with a gun. Police have finally come out with the number of casualties, and I’m so very sad to say—nine children killed and one teacher. It’s terrible.

The light has been red for an interminable amount of time and the woman in the car next to me has resorted to touching up her make-up. The line at the bank was long, and the actual process of combining accounts was tedious. Madame has caches of money stored everywhere, and I don’t see the point of it anymore, especially since it’s all getting tally-marked up by lawyers anyway. She revised her will and put my name on all of the accounts in spring 2010, which created a lot of hassle at the time but now I’m glad she did because it’s what has allowed me to stay in our house.

2010 had some of the worst months, the heatstroke summer months where Madame constantly visited the Albert Einstein hospital morgue to dissect cadavers and then went home to the workshop for all hours of the night before going back to the morgue, her frown carving deeper all the while. This eventually produced a fraught afternoon in the isolated basement of the morgue where, horrifyingly, the air conditioning was out, which meant a contractor worked frantically to get it back on before the cadavers putrefied. Sweat dripped from Madame’s glowering face into a cadaver’s open chest cavity as she doggedly made cut after cut. She was on a tight military deadline for an experimental program on artificially intelligent explosives that would hypothetically be able to maneuver themselves. Madame was using human circuitry as inspiration, and more often than not, it resulted in thrown wrenches and once a punched wall.

We had parked illegally around the corner from Albert Einstein’s hospital morgue because she swore we’d only be there a few minutes, ten at most, really, and we strode down the block only to see a clump of police gathered around the corner under the ledge of one of the business buildings. Police cars littered the street so that hardly anyone could drive past. We rounded the corner, and a large section next to the building was cordoned off with yellow tape, empty of cops and on-lookers.

Behind the tape, a white sheet was loosely wrapped around an elongated figure, so still and only vaguely in the shape of a person. It had all of the energy of a chair, inert and inorganic, and was all alone on unstained concrete under butter yellow sunlight. Absolutely no lingering feeling existed in the space of that figure, just tranquility sinking inexorably into the un-tucked ends of the white sheet that fluttered in a soft breeze. The body had just recently been a person, breathing and heart beating, and so quickly he or she was deserted around the corner of a stone building.

Madame didn’t even look, face set ahead, and then we were out of sight and onto the hospital. I had seen countless cadavers at that point but to the extent they were fodder for hapless medical students, they were practically inhuman, just a collection of parts to be cut open. But here I thought, so this is death, and memorized it.

There’s only one 2010 tape, and I keep it in the other house in LA with the 2011 tapes of Madame’s progressively self-destructive test runs of experimental AI. Her last attempt at the self-thinking explosive was an abject shitshow that ended in injury and a new residence, while also attracting military displeasure when she point-blank informed them the contract wasn’t going to happen. This project had already been in lieu of other projects Madame had strong ethical objections to, and she’d ended up cloistering herself in the brownstone in New York, doing nothing but watching terrible reality television and chugging Monster energy drinks. I taped her scathing running commentary on Say Yes to the Dress until she actually Stockholmed herself into becoming invested and faintly weepy, which was when I stopped taping and confiscated the remote.

Three weeks later, in the beginning of October, the military finally agreed to nix the contract in disgust when Madame told them either her next contract was to improve flak jackets or she was mutinying to the marines. She spent the next two months gleefully sending off flak jacket prototypes until early December arrived when her mood plunged with the temperature. Madame had always had blacker moods than what I assumed the average person had, and this was far from the worst but—it was another episode in a series of increasingly contiguous episodes.

Winter was hard for Madame anyway, who was true to her coloring and craved brightness and light, and the cold and amplified darkness made her lethargic, listless. We stayed in LA most of the time but that winter we stayed here, in Pennsylvania, due to its relative proximity to DC. The flak jacket contract had gone some way in repairing her relationship with the military, and she had signed on for several more involving defense, rather than the offensive AI weapons they truly wanted. Madame was one of the top five knowledgeable people in the world on AI, but she found it fraught with philosophical implications that rapidly became moral when put into practice. Could an entity with any amount of thinking power be ethically bought and sold, let alone consent to whatever it was told to do? Did it depend on the level of thinking power, and if so, where was the line?

One particularly bitter winter night after a day of phone shouting matches with the engineers in R&D, Madame woke up screaming, which had been happening more frequently as she geared up to visit some of the bases overseas to make sure her inventions were working properly. She was a soldier for the first seven years of her adult life to pay for school, and it was unclear whether it was she or the military that had never let go; either way, it was the longest term relationship of her life. I was in the study, working on the accounts, when I heard the screaming and hurried to her room. She never let her infrequent lovers sleep over, but I had always been allowed to see her in all of her states.

She was sitting up in bed, hands clenched in her lap, head bowed. Thin moonlight made the room look monochrome and grainy, like a faded black and white photograph or the slow healing shades of a bruise. Her space heater hummed next to the bed, dispensing dry heat that created static and a steep electricity bill. I crawled in next to her, close enough to be enveloped in the damp heat of sleep and sweat and the orchid scent of her lotion. I placed both of my hands on her hands, where they were shaking on top of the blankets, and she shuddered noiselessly, leaning her head even further down to rest her hot forehead on my hand. Her chin brushed my wrist, wet with tears, and she whispered into our hands, “I’m such a bad person.”

“No, you’re not,” I said immediately and pressed myself tightly against her side, laying my chest against her back like the branches of a tree shelters its roots, trying to impress upon her body with mine how indispensable she was to me.

“You don’t understand, Macklin, you don’t understand,” she moaned. Her back shook, her body an earthquake in the microcosm, tearing itself apart from the inside out.

“Shhh,” I said into her hot neck, like the sound of the ocean, and rocked her back and forth. “Shhh.”

“It’s still in me, like a movie,” she said, voice tight. “Just replaying over and over, and I just never stop killing them, I never get to stop.” Her body jerked as she clamped down on a sob, pushing our hands against her stomach hard as if her insides were in danger of falling out.

I held her hard as if putting pressure on an open wound, wishing desperately I could reach into the subterranean depths of her and cut out whatever had lodged itself there that made her so sick with self-denigration. It had the texture of a terrible cyst that kept growing and growing, and I constantly struggled not to unravel at the edges at the thought that it might never stop, might just swallow her up whole.

“I just want to be better,” she said, panting. “I’m trying to be better.”

“You’re so good, I’d give anything for you to see it,” I said helplessly into her silky hair, my lips brushing against her clammy temple. She made a small noise into my neck, something verging on a whimper, and I cupped the back of her head, fingers resting on the delicate grooves of her skull, the origin point of all of her extraordinary ideas. I stayed there the whole night, my chest tight and aching, feeling profound dread for the time when she would go overseas alone and I would have to stay here.

I park the 2008 cherry red Audi that Madame drove but is now deeded to my name and look at our house’s peeling yellow paint that we were supposed to paint over this summer, together, and I just hurt all over, full-body. Madame hated gardening but deigned to let gardeners grow orchids by the porch and I never found out why. It was something I always meant to ask her, along with a whole bunch of other questions, and now I can’t, not even just one. I turn off the radio that’s still going and shut off the car. It’s suddenly so quiet.

I get out of the car and go up the front walk, shaky, the world seeming overly bright. My skin feels over-sensitized and tender, wind brushing carelessly over me like sandpaper. When I’m inside, I roam upstairs to Madame’s room, where the air is hot and insubstantial and stale. I open a window to let the room ventilate and then sit on the unwashed sheets of her bed that haven’t smelled like her for a long time now.

divider

When the doorbell rings, I pretend not to be home. Then I hear scratching at the doorknob, like a cat asking to be let in, and resignedly wait the thirty seconds it takes Rodney Morrison to break in.

“Little bit of help wouldn’t have been amiss,” he says, swinging the door open and walking inside, large heavy steel-toed boots on lush ivory carpet.

“That would presume that I want you here,” I say, not moving from the couch with Tara on my lap.

“And what happened to Susan’s alarm systems?” he says, as if I haven’t spoken. “You’re just a sitting duck here.”

I shrug because I know he hates shrugging, thinks it’s the last resort of spinelessness. Rodney and Madame had a long history of battling one-upmanship where she built bigger and better security systems, and he broke in at all hours of the day and ate all of our food.

“I sent e-mails, I called,” he says. “Hell, I even sent letters, so now here I am, and we’re going to talk.”

“Does the military know its dog is off its leash?” I say, polite.

“Very funny,” he says and then, “Macklin—“

I shake my head, slow.

He runs a hand over his face, and I take in the bruised eyes, the three days of stubble, the unslicked dark hair. He’s been traveling.

“Just as a point of interest, what are you going to do with all of Susan’s things?” he says.

“What she wanted me to do with them,” I say.

“And that is…?”

“None of your business,” I say.

His mouth tightens. “Susan was my friend too, you know. I miss her too.”

“But you’re not here for you,” I say. “You’re here on behalf of the military.”

“Why can’t it be both?” he says, defiant, and I’m startled by how he seems to truly believe that’s possible.

“Because now there’s no middle ground,” I say, gentle. “You’re either on my side, or you’re on their side.”

“She left everything to us first, you know,” he remarks, coming further into the room.

“And then she changed it,” I say.

“Yeah, she did,” he says tiredly. “Macklin, you have to understand, Susan made incredibly valuable contributions to our safety. Her inventions are meant to be doing something more important than gathering dust in storage.”

“Well, I think that was her choice, wasn’t it,” I say. “You seem to think it’s okay to just make whatever decisions you want, regardless of other people’s feelings.”

“When said people have gone off and died when they should have evacuated with all the other inessentials, I’m not sure it matters anymore,” he says, bitter.

“It still matters,” I say, frowning. “It always matters.”

“Look,” he says, “you didn’t know Susan before she joined the army. It was—bad. The army gave her the purpose she was lacking, and this is a way to continue that legacy.”

“And you weren’t here the past two years,” I say. “People change when you’re not looking.”

“She can’t leave it all to you anyway,” he says after a moment. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“And why not?” I say.

He looks completely taken aback. “Well. You’re not—you’re not a person,” he says, awkward, like realizing the person you thought knew their spouse was cheating on them didn’t actually know, and you were the oaf to tell them.

The room fuzzes, Rodney’s face dark against eggshell colored walls, and I suck in a breath, my cheeks becoming two nuclear spots on my face. “Don’t tell me that,” I croak out. “You didn’t even know until she told you.”

“Animals need some sort of trustee when they’re left something in a will, and you’re not even—” he tilts his head helplessly.

“I’m not even on—on the level of an animal,” I try to finish evenly, but I can’t, it feels like he gutted me open and he can just see everything inside, every dry, heartless inch. Rodney winces. “The thing is,” I say, carefully enunciating each word, lips trembling, “humans are capable of atrocious acts, and I mean, things so horrific that they can’t even be processed. Just watch the news. And while people may argue about their emotional states and the metaphorical status of their humanity, in the end—they still have more rights than I do?” I can’t help the way my voice goes up at the end, almost cracking, all unwanted vulnerability, and I feel absolutely razed by humiliation.

“I’m sorry, Macklin,” he says, and I’ve never heard him say sorry, not even when Madame and him got into the big blow-up of 2010 and they didn’t speak for a year.

I can’t speak, chest feeling like it’s gone too cold to absorb air, voice box on lockdown.

“Just—consider it,” he says, sagging conspicuously in his steel-toed boots before quietly opening the door and closing it behind him.

divider

My favorite show is Doctor Who, but really, I love any show with affection toward aliens. Fictional AI representation in the media has a tendency toward homicidal dictatorship (is there any other kind?), which I think is an incredibly narrow-minded view that mirrors both humanity’s fears of the unknown and something more advanced taking their place. But humanity also likes to create in their own image so perhaps it’s more of a reflection of their fears about themselves—that deep down, their base aggressions are the sum of who they are. Regardless, I like aliens because they’re not human, but they’re still considered people, capable of love and sadness and agency.

I do actually pass the Turing test, which I’m fairly sure is going to be brought up in court at some point. I mean, I don’t eat and I don’t sleep, but—are those tasks essential to the human experience? My skin is warm, and I can absorb the pleasure of touch, and my chest still hurts brutally six months later whenever I think about Madame. What is the definition of what makes someone human, and where is the line drawn between machine and person? At what point in the rungs of intelligence does a machine become a person instead of an object? The implications of this question for humanity make people think uncomfortably of eugenics and genocide, and, of course, everyone’s divided. But Madame’s always been on my side.

Madame wrote papers upon papers regarding this and never published them, in which she addressed the distinction between being human and being a person and how humans tend to subsume the concept of personhood into humanity, as if no one else is worthy of that honor. If Madame had wanted to make a human, she could have, but she didn’t. She made me.

I look into the box of tapes for the one I keep at the bottom, out of sight and touch: 07-08-12. Madame took intermittent trips overseas into war zones by herself for the last year to lend an inventing hand, and we had a big fight about it right before she left the last time. I wanted to go too because Madame had lost weight and color and who was going to care about keeping her fed and rested except me? But she shut me down with her usual argument of not wanting the military to get their long arms and grasping hands near me, blue eyes feverish and looking determinedly at the wall behind me. Even on the verge of collapsing in on herself, gaunt cheekbones taking up increased real estate on her face, she had her hands hooked firmly behind her in military stance.

In the end, she went alone, and this is the last video. I’ve only watched it once when I was hacking into the security cams, frantic because Madame wasn’t answering when I called and it’d been three days.

I press play and the television immediately drops into the pixelated grays of the security cam, 07/08/2012 blinking in the upper right-hand corner. Madame leans on the high desktop of the secretary, chatting to her about the bees she kept in her enormous backyard, which gave them fresh honey every year.

“I couldn’t keep a plant alive,” Madame says, dry and slightly wistful, when the room shakes from a deafening explosion from outside. The secretary’s radio crackles and a man’s voice says, “Break-Break, HE-FRAG in the north wing, Break-Break, HE-FRAG in the north wing, need CEV.”

“We need to get out of here,” the secretary says crisply.

Madame stares out the door from where the explosion came and says, “No, you go on ahead.”

“You’re only on the substitute roster,” the secretary argues.

“Listen to her, please, listen to her,” I can’t help whispering, feeling utterly sick with knowledge.

“John got transferred,” Madame says, and the secretary’s mouth opens and closes uselessly, the moment suspended in shitty gray-scale camera footage, two whole seconds ticking by in the lower right-hand corner. Madame turns again to look at the door, and I pause it there, right before she steps forward, and rewind it to the beginning.

Two days before she left, on July second, Madame and I went to the Springfield Diner, and we sat on sticky, duct-taped booth seats, waiting for her eggs, when she said, “What happens to characters when the book ends?”

“There are sequels sometimes,” I said. “Are we including series in the parameters of this question?”

“Even they end, usually,” she said. “Eventually. Therefore yes. So what do the characters do when it’s over?”

“Continue living their lives off-screen, presumably,” I said.

“But does the off-screen even exist?” she said.

“If you have an imagination, yes,” I said.

“It’s not written down though. No one’s watching. Maybe it doesn’t happen,” she said. “Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “What happens after the book ends is whatever you think happens.”

“If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear, does it make a sound?” she countered.

“Yes, I think a person can still live a meaningful life,” I said, as her eggs arrived. “That person still exists, even if no one’s watching. You could even say there’s an extra freedom there where even more possibilities open up.”

“Good,” she said, digging into her eggs. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

The video relentlessly unspools to Madame once again regarding the door, secretary frozen behind her, and Madame takes the step forward I wouldn’t allow her before. “Everything is all right,” Madame said without looking behind her. “Everything is fine.” She strides out the door, her gait assured and determined, but her face is distant, her eyes are wide, as if she’s bunkered down inside herself. And then she’s gone. The secretary waits one second, two seconds, before high-tailing it out the back door in sensible pumps. The room is empty and still, radio still crackling with orders.

I wait for longer than I did before, white numbered minutes turning into an hour, but nothing else happens, no one comes back. I rewind again to that last moment when she walks out of the room and pause when her face is most exposed to the camera. She never looked up at it once. Without the camouflage of motion, only her wide hurt eyes are left, the slight openness of her mouth as if someone hit her, and all I can think is, I should have been there, I should have gone. I can’t cry, all I can do is make a low flat sound into my hands, gasping and pressing my fingers into the skin under my eyes, trying to expunge the tight ball of overwhelming desolation from my gut. Her face is all muffled shock, like she’s on the tipping point of realizing what’s happening, and when I click play, she walks out before she ever reaches full comprehension. I can feel my face crumpling all at once, reflexive, because this is the finish and there’s no secret message meant for me, here or ever. I’ve looked, and I’ve looked, and here I am at the last stop, no one left on the train except for me.

I turn off the television and pick up Tara from where she’s buried herself in a corner of the couch. She’s already a little bigger, a little heavier, since she’s been living with me, and she feels blisteringly hot in comparison to the freezing skin of my arms. I move to the kitchen and dial Kit even though it’s half past ten at night.

“Macklin, what’s wrong?” she says immediately because I’ve never called this late.

“Nothing,” I say but I sound horrible and she can probably hear my teeth chattering. I clear my throat and sound marginally less ill. “I’ve considered, and I’m not letting this go. I’m not appointing anyone either.”

Kit is silent and then, “Are you sure? Once this starts, it can’t be stopped. It’s going to be plastered all over the TV and internet.”

“I’m sure,” I say. A large part of me quails at the prospect of the impending media shitstorm, let alone military ire, but the alternative is legally signing away everything I am. “This is what I want to do.”

“Okay,” she says. “Then let’s do it.”

I wait for something to happen, like lightning striking me for extreme hubris—how dare I think myself worthy—but it’s just Kit’s quiet breathing on the other end of the line and Tara purring in my arms. The relief catches me off guard, makes me light-headed, and I take in a breath unimpeded by the constant, low-grade tightness in my chest that’s been there for years. I made the decision and nothing happened except this terrible relief. The earth did not swallow me up, Madame did not come back, having resolutely finished all of her decision-making six months ago, and I’m still here, life continuing on even when no one is watching.

___

Copyright 2016 Lauren Rudin 

Lauren Rudin loves to read and write speculative fiction. Her favorite authors include Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Elizabeth Wein. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology in Pennsylvania.

 

by Bogi Takács

To R, who made it possible

 

I. 

The Battlefield

Aniyé staggered, the impossible landscape of corpses and detritus swaying around her, bending over her. Pushing her down. All around her, the proud crimson uniforms were stamped into the soil, stained with blood and clumps of gore. She tried to breathe, tried to hold on, moving forward in a wobbly line, towards an unknown point in the distance – away from the battlefield.

Her handlers were gone. She trailed crimson leashes, ties that no longer bound. A good length of chain clanked behind her as she dragged herself forward. Her white ceremonial garments were smeared with dirt.

Emptiness echoed in her head. Her handlers were gone, and with them, the only way to dam the tide of the white-hot merciless magic, the power that seared land and sky – She gasped, trying to contain what could not be contained. She fell to her knees, clutching her abdomen. There was a fire inside her, an ever-mounting pressure as the magic pushed against her skin, threatening to tear her open at any moment, and yet she could not let go – her body would not allow her, with reactions deeply ingrained by thousands of hours of training.

She knew she would die, and she knew she had failed. The battle was lost, even though she had done all that she could, bringing retribution down from the heavens, striking the Empire’s enemies. Remnants of that anger still shivered in her, looking for a target in this desert of rigid flesh, finding no purchase.

The other four battle-mages were all dead, and without her handlers, she wouldn’t last long either. She was on the verge of giving in. Drop to the ground. Release the magic. Release the self. Be gone. She didn’t even want to move on to the next world in the cycle of life, she just wanted to cease, a candle snuffed out by a streak of cold air, so refreshingly cold…

She felt clumps against her face. When had she fallen, toppled over like an inert marionette? Her strings had been cut. A shudder ran through her. No bindings, no constraints– pure raw fear– the magic rushed forward and up, always up–

She closed her eyes to get away from the devastating sunlight. She felt a gentle touch on her cheek. Her muscles contracted and she tried to jerk away, an instinctive response to touch–

“You’re still alive,” a full, deep voice said; a woman’s voice bringing to mind the coos of turtledoves. “I am with you.”

She opened her eyes just a crack and saw boots stained with dust but no body fluids, their leather a warm orange-brown color with no traces of crimson.

The enemy.

“Do you want me to help you?” the stranger asked, and before Aniyé could respond, the unconsciousness of utter exhaustion claimed her.

 

The Guild

“…our agreement.” Again the stranger’s voice. Aniyé was surfacing from the bottomless dark.

“You can’t seriously–!” A man this time, his voice edged with faint raspiness.

“The Guild promised me an apprentice years ago. To this date it has failed to deliver.”

Aniyé stirred. A hand on her shoulder gently pushed her back down. She opened her eyes just a little, but she could not see much beyond the smooth chest and abdomen of a black-clad figure. A sudden warning sounded in her mind and she squeezed her eyes shut, then tried to relax, pretend to be unconscious. Good. The stranger’s thoughts, reaching out to her mind?

Aniyé had trouble keeping track of what was happening around her; she missed a sentence or two. Yet, she started to be more attuned to their emotions as she regained consciousness.

“…you are yet young.”

A sigh. “Guildsman Leitan. I am older than the dirt of this land, and if my face is yet unlined, that’s only because the magic does not let me go until my task is complete.”

The man – Guildsman Leitan? – sputtered, mumbling something inarticulate.

Aniyé tried to concentrate on herself instead of the conversation. Her body ached. There was a huge knot in her abdomen and her skin flared with irritation. The power still hadn’t given her pause, and as she became increasingly awake, so the pain increased. She changed her mind: better to focus on the conversation again. She wished she could curl up into a ball, but that would alert this man, and he might try to hurt her…

Was the woman losing her patience? “…know that the Guild has directly caused Nairul’s death, and has not provided me an apprentice ever since, despite our longstanding agreement.”

No, this was an older anger, tinged with sadness. Aniyé struggled to make sense of the emotions.

“We sent several candidates!”

“Wholly unsuitable candidates.”

“We didn’t have better candidates!” Was the man lying? Aniyé wasn’t sure. He was protecting his thoughts well, and she didn’t dare push. She was happy she’d thus far evaded his notice.

“I have a candidate now, and the Guild is trying to take her off my hands. Isn’t that what’s happening?”

“Fine, fine!” A rustle of cloth; he must’ve made a broad gesture. “I just want you to know, High Mage, that I will have to answer for this to the King’s courtiers – I will be the one who has to explain, and they will want my blood for this, not yours!”

Exasperation. “No one will want your blood, Guildsman Leitan. The King is more than aware that the Guild would not be able to handle her, were I to turn her over.” You haven’t even produced a suitable apprentice. The woman thought so loudly at Guildsman Leitan that Aniyé had no difficulty picking it up even in her present state. “Leaving her with me is in your best interests. And that’s before you even consider what happens when the Crimson Army tries to retrieve her.”

“You mean they’d mount an assault?” The man’s breath hissed. “So far behind the front lines?”

“I imagine they would want to reclaim one of their more powerful battle mages, yes. Especially after today’s losses.”

Fear shot through Aniyé, her mind scrambling to catch up. The Crimson Army would come for her – but if they were her own people, why did that scare her so? She knew the answer all too well, and she tried to rein in the galloping horses of her thoughts with a desperation akin to–

“Hush,” the man said. “She’s awake.”

“All the more reason for allowing me to work in quiet, undisturbed.”

“Well then, High Mage Oresuy – I shall bid my leave.”

Aniyé opened her eyes just in time to see the man’s withdrawing back. He was tall, pale, black-haired, with a strong, tough build. She shuddered involuntarily.

The High Mage leaned closer to her, cradled Aniyé’s aching, stick-rigid limbs in her wide arms. Calm washed through Aniyé’s skin where she was touched. This stranger cared for her – but for what reason?

“I will take you home,” Oresuy whispered, “my home, with steps faster than the wind, with a stride longer than bridges and roads.” Then she lifted Aniyé with ease, covered her eyes with a fold of her robe, and began walking. Around them the air whooshed, and Aniyé thought that maybe – just maybe – she might yet live.

 

The River

How had they come to this place, this rain-soaked patch of land studded with stout rock fortifications and gentle lacework towers? Where was this garden of willow trees swaying in the soft wind? Aniyé rubbed her forehead, but the haze would not lift.

“I can help you get a hold on your magic.” The High Mage was tall and thick, and her robes allowed for ample movement. Her skin was not as oddly pale as the guildsman’s, from what little Aniyé had seen of him; she looked more like Aniyé herself, but still clearly of a different people. She held her wooden staff like a weapon, and yet she did not seem to be a soldier. She radiated calm without any trace of agitation. Aniyé could not look at her face.

“I–” Aniyé gasped. She wheezed, her entire self curled upon itself, unable to uncoil. The knot inside her abdomen pulled her close around itself. “I– Please.”

A sharp cut in her consciousness. She was crouching in wet grass, her fingers grabbing onto clumps of mud. She was trembling. The magic churned inside her, burning her up, destroying her from the inside, and she had no way to release it – she was alone, the inert bodies of her handlers lying on the plains–

“Am I a prisoner of war?” she asked without looking up.

“You are my student, if you accept my guidance,” the stranger said.

Aniyé bowed her head. She didn’t even know how to ask. “I will do what you tell me to do.” This was familiar, the expectation that she would obey. She would follow the orders and keep on living.

“You need to learn how to control your magic. I will tell you now how to go about it,” Oresuy said, with the cadences of a teacher rather than a drill sergeant. “You can do this on your own.”

To Aniyé it seemed impossible to do anything on her own. Not when she could hardly walk, when the magic forced all her muscles to tense and her limbs to go rigid. All her life she’d been told that she couldn’t do anything like this alone, that’s why she needed handlers.

“I will be watching over you, but you can do all this. You slowly walk to the end of the gardens, where they meet the river. Then you walk up the floodbanks and down on the other side, uncover yourself and wade into the water. You need contact on as large a surface as possible. If you can put your head underwater too, that’s even better. The water is clear around this time. Then focus on releasing the magic into the water. It will work to an extent even if you don’t focus on it, but that helps.” She waited a little. “Will you do this?”

High Mage Oresuy had her recount everything step by step before she let Aniyé go.

Aniyé walked. Slowly. She almost slipped down the floodbanks, but managed to regain her balance on one knee – she did soil her clothing with mud. Oresuy did not interfere.

Fear gripped Aniyé. She pushed it down. Undressed. Stepped into the water – almost slipped again.

The water was cool, but gentle against her skin. Calming. Taking from her. She ducked underwater and waited for as long as she could. Her lungs ached. She surfaced, then submerged again. Again. She lost track of time. Again. Was it making any change? She couldn’t tell.

After a while, she staggered out to the waterside, shaking in a sudden cold gust of wind. She toppled into the mud, all her energy spent.

Hands reached out to lift her.

 

The Fire

 

Aniyé sat in front of a wide, smooth-faced fireplace, her thin body wrapped in a heavy blanket. She couldn’t look away from the flames.

She had a thousand questions, now that she was well enough to talk, but she felt she wouldn’t be able to deal with the answers. Why had this stranger taken her to her home? Dressed her, fed her warm chicken soup and a sweet potato stew? How could she trust her, when Aniyé couldn’t trust her own self?

Aniyé didn’t even know how to address her. Aniyé felt she was powerful, but who was she? Maybe a guardian of the land. Someone belonging to this unknown and hostile country; bound to it, perhaps?

High Mage Oresuy sat down, close to her, but not looking at her. Giving her ample room. “I know it’s difficult,” she said after a long silence. “You may speak. I am listening.”

Aniyé looked away from the fire. The red bricks of the fireplace seemed to her as if blood-spattered. A vision – no. A memory. She rubbed at her dry eyes. Do not think. Just go, she remembered her instructor saying. She drew her arms around her. When had she become so thin?

“They wouldn’t even feed you,” Oresuy said, with a startling sadness. Aniyé stared at her – did the High Mage get sad on her behalf? “Would you like a bit more of the stew?”

Aniyé nodded eagerly. She grabbed the bowl she was handed with both hands. Tears filled her eyes that had been so dry just moments ago.

divider

Aniyé couldn’t sleep, because with sleep came the dreams, the dreams she was not allowed to have. Bolts of lightning criscrossing the skies. Shouts of anger, then fear. Screams of the dying. Always from a distance, a safe distance… safe to her. Yet she was aware of it all, and the fire that arose from her to smite the enemies burned her the most.

Her stomach heaved. She could barely roll off the bed in time to get to the window. She leaned outside and vomited, violently, as if her insides were leaving her body in large clumps.

The High Mage was next to her, holding her. Once Aniyé was finished, Oresuy led her outside and washed her face in the cold water basin. Then the High Mage dragged one of the heavy chairs into the small room and sat by Aniyé’s bedside until she would finally, finally sleep.

 

II.

 

The Tower

After twenty-eight days, Aniyé still couldn’t help but marvel at her teacher’s quarters, on the top floor of the Eyrie.

Aniyé was used to bare walls painted white, the cold geometry restricting without holding, enforcing without understanding. High Mage Oresuy’s quarters were paneled in wood from the forests surrounding the walled city, and the surfaces still exuded a warm susurration of wind passing through branches if Aniyé could quieten her mind down to listen. The High Mage’s furniture was made by the city’s best artisans, sparsely decorated, allowing the beauty of the materials themselves to shine through.

As Aniyé wandered through the rooms inside the majestic lacework tower, her gaze moved from highlight to highlight, small items each with a history her teacher had been glad to explain to her shortly after she had arrived. A small jug in the shape of an elephant. An etching sent by a friend from the distant, fog-shrouded islands. A herbary that offered many tiny, nose-tickling delights. Aniyé closed her eyes and sighed softly. She was safe here. After so much pain…

Oresuy sat by the fireplace, looking at the unlit slabs of wood in contemplation. She glanced up as Aniyé approached.

“We will have a guest tonight,” the High Mage said. “Guildsman Leitan will be joining us; he’s been sent back from the front lines.” She paused. “He has a different task now.”

That black-clad man? What did he want? A chill ran through Aniyé.

“Don’t worry,” Oresuy said. “We will simply eat dinner and talk. I don’t expect the conversation to be very pleasant, but you should remain courteous. Silence is likewise not a bad policy.”

Aniyé nodded repeatedly, nervously.

“The Guild could never take you from me. They would not even try. You have nothing to fear in this place.” She gestured at one of the other chairs. “Do sit; I’ll light the fire.”

The flames jumped high, and Aniyé’s worries slowly dissolved in the heat.

 

The Dinner

This was the first time Aniyé saw the Guildsman’s face, and it was different from what she’d expected; it was sharp, narrow and pale, an odd match with his strong, wide body. He looked unpleasant, with an expression of semi-permanent disgust already etching itself into his features.

Aniyé hurried to fetch the food – she’d laid the smaller wooden table in the way Oresuy had asked her to do. She reminded herself of the High Mage’s urgings not to run, to behave with a modest and understated elegance. Aniyé almost tripped over an open book left on the floor and she gasped, but she did not cry out.

She returned to the dining room with a large tray of steaming chicken drumsticks, soaked in a sweet brownish sauce and decorated with greens. Oresuy had cooked it all herself, saying that she enjoyed experimenting with kitchen magic from time to time. Aniyé had washed vegetables, cut onions, peeled potatoes and hung on her teacher’s every word. She carried the tray with the sudden, unexpected pride of knowing her contribution was valued.

Guildsman Leitan smiled slightly, then frowned, as if made uncomfortable by his concession to humanity, his enjoyment of the delicious smell. His mind was warded tight, with a militaristic touch to his magical constructs that was all too familiar to Aniyé. But wasn’t the Guild a civilian organization? The world is changing, Oresuy had said.

Aniyé served them, her hands trembling. Oresuy looked up at her from her seat across the Guildsman and smiled encouragingly. Aniyé focused singlemindedly on serving the guest – not splotching his dress blacks with chicken sauce, filling his cup with a mild red wine.

She finished without any mishaps and began to put some food on her own plate, but still she did not dare breathe freely.

Guildsman Leitan stared at her openly and Aniyé lowered her gaze, not knowing how to react. What was amiss?

Oresuy spoke up. “This is my table. I invite to it whomever I please; all who are uncomfortable with this are welcome to leave. Do sit, dear Aniyé.”

“It is unseemly to eat with a servant,” the Guildsman said.

“My apprentice,” Oresuy said coolly.

Aniyé looked from one person to the other. What was going on? She was missing subtext. The High Mage knew exactly what was going on, but she didn’t.

Guildsman Leitan frowned again, and for a moment Aniyé wondered if Oresuy had sensed his intentions despite all his warding, or if she made an educated guess based on his behavior, her knowledge of him. Both possibilities indicated that it was the High Mage who was in charge of the situation. What was this man doing here? Was he aware that he was not in control?

Aniyé sat, her thoughts whirling. She picked up a drumstick with her napkin, but her hand shook so much that she dropped the food back on her plate, splattering herself. The Guildsman glared at her with open hostility.

“Whatever it is that you are training this one in, it’s certainly not table manners,” he said to Oresuy, not looking at Aniyé. “Maybe you should just hand her over.”

Oresuy’s eyes narrowed. Aniyé could tell she had not expected the man would raise the topic so soon and with such inelegant hostility.

“Perhaps you would like to become a target of the Crimson Army yourself?” Oresuy bit into a drumstick, as if chatting idly, but there was an edge to her words.

“They haven’t–” Did the Guildsman pale? “They wouldn’t–”

“Two attempts at retrieving her this past month.”

Aniyé froze. She knew her teacher was telling the truth. How was it possible Aniyé herself hadn’t noticed?

Guildsman Leitan cleared his throat, picked at his food. “Still, the Guild would like to come to an agreement with you…”

“Just what is it that you are doing here, Guildsman? So far behind the front lines?”

“I’ve returned here on orders from the King–”

“I hear your loyalty is impeccable.”

He glanced up suddenly, malice glinting in his eyes. “Is yours, High Mage Oresuy?”

“I serve the Everlasting Light,” Oresuy said. “As does the King, I hear.”

The Guildsman murmured something and poked at the greens on his plate. He spent the rest of the evening talking about the latest news around town – the unexpectedly wet weather in the mountains, the price of duck eggs spiking, a wealthy merchant throwing a ball. Aniyé thought he seemed unusually well-informed for someone who’d just returned from war.

 

The Ribbons

Aniyé looked at the river as she undressed. Water levels seemed to be higher than usual, and increasing. The stream carried small pieces of detritus. She wondered if this was expected; on that dinner last week, the Guildsman had mentioned something about increased rainfall in the mountains. She made a mental note to ask Oresuy about it.

She waded into the water, submerged, emerged. After a few repetitions, she was ready to head outside, the entire process now performed mostly by rote, every morning. After the first two weeks, the magic had stopped hurting; after the second two, she could skip a day once in a while. The process was only different in marginal, incidental details – a bird flying across the river, rain dripping slightly or a broken tree-branch floating downstream. But this time, she noticed something unexpected.

A familiar voice was carried on the breeze from downstream the river, beyond the copse of willows that hid her from view. She halted, submerged as deeply as she could while still observing, fervently hoping her dark hair would look like soggy driftwood from a distance.

Guildsman Leitan was yelling at someone.

Aniyé had a hard time making out the words, and she would not dare try any magic to sharpen her senses, lest it draw attention to her. She understood only fragments.

“…the King… requisition this boat…”

“My living! How…”

“…imperative… absolutely necessary…”

“…feed my family? My children…”

“I must inspect…”

The Guildsman was taking a fisherman’s boat. Why not just hire the fisherman, if he needed to get somewhere in a hurry? Unless secrecy was desired, Aniyé realized; but he certainly made a lot of noise.

The boat soon glided by, the Guildsman alone and rowing upstream with considerable force. Aniyé remained unnoticed. She only dared to clamber outside after long, long minutes had passed, and her teeth were chattering – with cold or with apprehension, she wasn’t sure.

divider

Aniyé made her way up the spiral staircase of her teacher’s tower, rubbing her hands and arms. She didn’t feel focused enough to use her magic to keep warm. Oresuy stood in an alcove, looking at her with appreciation tinged with faint amusement. Aniyé lowered her gaze and bowed slightly.

“Good morning, my good teacher,” she said.

“And good morning likewise to you, my dear Aniyé,” Oresuy said, her voice still soft from sleep, but roomy and sonorous. She fell silent.

Aniyé wracked her brain for a worried moment before realizing that she was supposed to offer courtesies and inquire about her teacher’s wellbeing. She was still not used to being around people. People who treated her with respect, at least.

“How did my teacher sleep?” she finally offered.

“I slept well, thank you,” Oresuy said, walking up to her. “And you, my dear Aniyé? …Look at me.”

Aniyé raised her gaze. Oresuy’s curly, earth-colored hair was pinned up rather hastily, and she still hadn’t removed her silk nightgown, but she looked at her with no upset, only firmness.

“I likewise slept well,” Aniyé offered.

Oresuy didn’t respond for three long breaths, then she nodded. “Good. I will ask something of you today. …Do not look away. It will not be easy, but I don’t ask impossibilities of you.”

“Yes, teacher.” She nodded briefly, her stomach knotting.

“This might be somewhat sudden, but by now you should be ready for it. I didn’t intend on doing it today, but something has come up. Today we will head outside the Eyrie and the gardens. We are urgently needed outside.”

Aniyé gasped. “Teacher, I can’t– My power– My magic– I don’t think I can control– ” She took a step back and her feet got tangled in the edges of a rug. Oresuy quickly stepped next to her and steadied her.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe. To go outside. Without the handlers. Outside. Just to go the banks of the Eyrie was intimidating enough, especially after today’s chance encounter; but at least she was slowly getting used to it. Outside, into the city – that was unthinkable. Outside.

Her handlers were dead, the three officers clad in uniforms that shone in the sun in their powerful crimson shades, officers with crimson leashes in their hands – they were dead, the leashes torn, and Aniyé was alone, alone on the plains, surrounded by death, her magic spiraling out of control–

“I’m here. Aniyé!” A commanding tone. “Focus on me. I will regulate your breath.”

She felt nothing except the firm pressure around her – High Mage Oresuy holding her body, hugging her close to herself.

Then she noticed she had been crying, her face wet with tears and snot, smearing her teacher’s silk robes.

divider

“Again, this is not what I had originally had in mind,” Oresuy said, “but now I think this might work better. Undress, please. You can leave your breeches on.”

Aniyé was used to Oresuy seeing her naked, touching her body to massage out the gobs of pain, the residue of harm inflicted on her by others and also by herself. She was trembling simply because she was still greatly agitated.

Her teacher put her wide, broad palms on her shoulders and Aniyé could feel a warm, steady calmness seeping through her skin. After a few moments, Oresuy withdrew and stepped to one of her storage-chests, pulled out a small bundle.

“The effectiveness comes from your understanding, not from the words themselves,” Oresuy said as she unwrapped the bundle and showed her the wide red ribbons embroidered with yellow thread. Letters in a calm, orderly succession; words, sentences. Aniyé could not read them – they were in an unfamiliar alphabet.

“Feeling them against your body will be comforting,” Oresuy went on. “You understand with your mind that I can provide you with the restriction you need, but your body needs to understand this too. I do think this will help.”

She tied the ribbons on Aniyé’s bare skin in complicated patterns, with well-practiced motions. Aniyé gasped – they were surprisingly heavy. They were surprisingly comforting.

“The ones I’m putting under your clothing won’t restrict your movement. …Good. You can dress now.”

Aniyé dressed and noticed with a startle that her hands were no longer shaking as she picked out the clothing items from her own storage-chest. Loose, sea-blue pants, a matching tunic edged with a lighter shade of blue, like a cloudy sky…

“Do wear your new boots,” Oresuy indicated, and Aniyé put them on too, their leather fitting her feet snugly even though the boots were unworn.

“Now the second set,” Oresuy said and tied more ribbons across her torso, the red and yellow flaring against the blue of the tunic.

“Show me your hands.”

She tied Aniyé’s hands together and into a wider loop that ran around her body. She guided Aniyé’s hands to her front until her wrists touched, pulled at a ribbon and wrapped it around in a pattern Aniyé couldn’t follow to secure them in place – then did the reverse and pulled Aniyé’s hands to the back. “Good,” she said. “I’ll loosen this for now.” She allowed Aniyé’s hands to drop to her sides, ribbons tied around her wrists and the larger loop still in place around her body, but allowing for some movement. “See if you can hold your staff like this.”

Aniyé stepped to the rack by the door, pulled out her light, metallic mage’s longstaff. She twirled it around her fingers experimentally – she could manipulate it without large arm movements, so the ribbons didn’t stop her from using it.

“Excellent,” Oresuy said. “This will be doable. Come here.” She put an overcoat on Aniyé’s shoulders, affixing it at the neck with two large silver clasps. For the most part, it hid the ribbons. Then she pressed down gently – Aniyé understood what was expected of her and lowered herself to her knees.

Oresuy smoothed down Aniyé’s forehead and tied a ribbon across it. “This shall remind you of my protection,” she said. “My dear student.”

 

The Flood

Outside, the riverside was in uproar, town guards and working folk heaping bags of sand on top of the floodbanks of the downtown area. Aniyé halted in her tracks.

“You’ve seen the water levels rise,” Oresuy said. “On your daily walks.”

The floodbanks in the back of the Eyrie gardens had always seemed massive to Aniyé, protecting, overshadowing her as she tumbled down and into the water. Yet fear twinged in her now, like a taut string plucked by nervous fingers–

Oresuy steadied her. “We’ve been called on to help with the efforts.”

Aniyé turned and blinked at her teacher. She felt thoroughly clueless.

“The Court scholars claim the maximum will be reached in a week, with levels two handsbreadths above the top of the floodbanks.”

Aniyé had come from a dry land. Oresuy continued after a small pause. “The sandbags might be enough, but based on the rainfall in the mountains, they will need to hold for at least a week. The banks themselves will also need to hold.”

Aniyé frowned. “Teacher, I don’t see – how could they possibly be breached?” Floodbanks thicker than the city walls–

“They soak up the water, then they soften and slide. Our job will be to make sure it doesn’t happen… or at least to decrease the probability of it happening.”

Aniyé nodded, but her teacher hadn’t finished yet.

“The only thing you’ll need to understand is they might not be grateful for your service.” Oresuy sighed softly. “But I am grateful, and I understand.”

divider

Aniyé walked on, slowly, steadily, barely aware of her surroundings. Under her feet, the ground was still dry, and as her attention reached down below, she could feel the floodbanks hadn’t even begun to soak. She visualized a glowing latticework of bindings holding the soil in place, sparkling up to her from the depths of the earth as she walked over them above. Holding, containing, constraining, like the ribbons around her body.

She focused on her breath, the influx and then the outflow, the cycle ever-repeating. Power going out of her and into the structure, merging, stabilizing. She felt confident. She could do this by herself, while her teacher was making a circuit in the opposite direction. She could do this, and do it well.

The guards first stopped her beyond Poets’ Bridge, where the town faded into meadows and the floodplains were heavily overgrown with willow trees.

“No loitering,” the guardsman said as he blinked down at her. “If you’re up on the banks, get in line for the sandbags.”

“I–” Her concentration broken, she was momentarily disoriented. “I’m re… reinforcing the structure.” She wanted to make a broad hand gesture, but the ribbons didn’t have enough give. She was so startled that her other hand unclenched and she dropped her staff. She crouched down into the mud and picked it up, carefully, conscious of her limited range of motion.

The man grunted disapprovingly. “You’re with the Mages’ Guild?”

Mages’ Guild? She was a student of Teacher Oresuy and no one else. She knew little about the Mages’ Guild beyond those strained conversations between her teacher and the black-clad Guildsman Leitan.

“I, I’m a student of High Mage Oresuy,” she mumbled, barely daring to look up to the guard.

He nodded, but then his expression tightened even further. “You? One of the steppe folk from the West? And you expect me to believe this tale?”

How was she supposed to respond? The guardsman reached to his scabbard. Aniyé’s brain ran through possible scenarios, many of them ending in a beheading.

Her fingers gripped her staff so tightly her joints popped. “I, I’m a deserter, I escaped– I ran away!”

Was it true? By declaring it, had she made it true? Did she really escape? Did she really run away? She just wanted the pain to stop, she just craved control, control over the magic, control over herself, from an external source if need be, but she didn’t want to kill

The man sized her up and she was suddenly acutely aware of her skin, her eyes, her looks. She was an alien here. A piece of foreign flesh. An intruder, one of the enemy–

“She is under my protection,” Aniyé heard from behind herself, and she dropped her staff again. The guardsman paled. What had he seen, some part of Aniyé’s mind wondered idly as most of her froze, stunned – had he seen Oresuy appear out of thin air? From the shadows? The High Mage was skilled at spatial dislocation, Aniyé knew.

“Pass the word along the newschain,” Oresuy said with such coldness Aniyé had never heard from her before. “I want no incidents.”

There were no further incidents that day.

divider

It was difficult to be the only one in sight to wander around seemingly in a daze while everyone else on the banks was engaged in hard labor, Aniyé soon found. It was difficult enough for her to avoid bumping into people while focusing on binding the floodbanks in place, and that was without the remarks, not even directed at her; at least not openly.

“Crimson Army,” she heard, over and over, behind her back and over her shoulders, the words encircling her like tendrils of smoke. “A battle-mage.”

She wanted to weep, but instead did what Oresuy had taught her to do and focused on binding herself to the land, creating – possibly? eventually? – a way to feel belonging, attachment to a new home. She could not go back. She was startled to realize at one point out on the banks, looking up at the starry night sky, that she would not go back.

Oresuy was strict, but never unfair, never abusive. Oresuy would never march her out to the battlefield like some kind of animal, a war dog ready to let loose from the leash, a being only valuable as far as its potential for destruction extended. Aniyé had never realized just how cruelly had she been treated, before. Oresuy was different – Oresuy would hold her while she cried–

The first time someone risked open confrontation with Aniyé, it was about a different issue entirely.

She was standing in line for food, a gigantic black pot of stew that three of the townsfolk dispensed to a bunch of exhausted laborers with great vigor. The High Mage was right behind her; just as hungry as she was, Aniyé could tell. People were discussing the King’s upcoming visit, an event which seemed frankly pointless to Aniyé, and also to the others. She sleepily listened to the conversation.

“…he thinks he can make the floodbanks stand just by his presence.”

“Scare them, eh? What do you say?”

“You know what I think.” The thin, yarrow-blonde man glanced around nervously, on the lookout for potential informers.

His bald-shaven mate shrugged. “Nonsense if you ask me. He’s coming here to get killed when the banks burst.” He made a coarse sound and mimed the large, sweeping motion of water rushing through the town. “That’s it! I bet Princess Ilas is already rubbing her hands.”

The blonde man seemed encouraged by this act of blatant lèse-majesté. “If the Guild mages weren’t all off on the Western front, they could hold everything just fine.” He spread his stalklike fingers and sighed. “This war is never going to end. If King Abrany just swallowed his pride for a second and tried to negotiate with the Crimson Dukes…”

Aniyé could swear the bald man’s eyes shone with glee for a moment. She found it hard to follow politics in general, having been so isolated for such a long time; but she was quite certain that something unsavory was going on.

“What did you just say?” the bald man said, drawing out the words. “You know that’s trea–”

Aniyé realized the man was trying to get his fellow to say something self-incriminating. She didn’t quite understand the situation, but she had to step in. “Some of us are here and helping out,” she said quickly. She wasn’t a Guild mage, she was Oresuy’s student with no other ties of loyalty, but that didn’t strike her as relevant.

The bald man straightened up and Aniyé could see how startlingly tall and well-built he was. “And why are you here anyway?” he said on the same level tone, but with anger simmering behind his words.

Aniyé was at a loss. She was here because Oresuy wanted her to be here, and she wanted to do what her teacher asked of her. She was certain she was missing out on some crucial detail–

When the man saw that no response was forthcoming, he went on. “You should by rights be at the front, fighting the Crimson Army with your talent given to you by the gods. This is not your place.”

Oresuy spoke up; Aniyé was so nervous she hadn’t even realized her teacher was paying any attention. “Would you rather be swept away then?” The man’s anger was more than matched by her restrained ferocity. Oresuy stepped forward from behind Aniyé, fixating on the man – the informer? “It never ceases to amaze me how ready you are to act against your own best interests,” she remarked. “Come,” she nodded to Aniyé, “we have work to do.”

Aniyé tagged along, her stomach growling. For long minutes she felt the man’s eyes on his back, but she didn’t turn around to meet his gaze.

 

The City

Aniyé stood on one of the floodbanks, with her back to the ever-rising water. A small square with the church of the Merciful Daughter-Son spread out in front of her, with many little alleys branching out and away on the opposite side. She took a deep breath, then walked gingerly down.

In an alcove next to the church entrance, she could see a statue of the Daughter-Son, the gently smiling androgynous deity standing on top of the globe, their feet shrouded in clouds etched from heavy marble. Suddenly she felt a strange kind of kinship, of acceptance – a warm ray of light washing through her internal landscape, calming her. She bowed her head and whispered thanks. She had never once prayed to this deity, yet they were accepting her?

Still, she didn’t dare go inside the church. Churches on both sides of the ever-shifting border were all too eager to support the war effort.

She walked on. Garlands of flowers decorated the street-facing walls of the two-storey houses. A sign proudly stated that the city had been the recipient of an award last year for its flower displays. Aniyé stopped to read every banner and sign, trying to keep her attention away from the fear rattling around in her skull. This was an exercise, her first time alone inside the city, not out on the banks. She would do it for her teacher even when Oresuy insisted Aniyé do it for herself. To see, to experience, possibly to understand.

The city was beautiful. The façades all looked recently painted in smooth pastel colors and the roofs were lined with bright-hot red tile. People strolled slowly in the early afternoon sun, seemingly ignorant of the effort out on the banks. Aniyé was puzzled for a moment, then she reminded herself that in a city so close to the water, flooding must be a regular occurrence. Yet she was resentful for a moment – the banks were full of volunteers, but none seemed to be the scions of rich aristocrat and trader families, like the youths walking by her without sparing her a glance. Aniyé wondered what was better – people’s eyes sliding off her as if she was nonexistent, or people’s voices whispering behind her back and calling her names. She shrugged and ventured on.

All the streets seemed to lead to a large rectangular square surrounded by palaces, with wall hangings the size of small buildings glorifying the King. Upon a closer look, she realized the palaces were all state-owned: “National Museum of Traditional Lore”, “National Central Administration”, “National Gallery and Artist Patronage”. At first, she was surprised by the constant repetition of “National”, but after a while of wandering around the square, she half-expected to see a “National Mages’ Guild”. She didn’t find the Guild hall; then she remembered Oresuy saying it was somewhere on a hilltop, an auspicious location. The mages were not threatened by the water.

She edged closer to National Central Administration and browsed the announcements hung in large glass-fronted cabinets until her eyes began to glaze over from the legalese. It seemed like everything needed to be reported. The number of horses one owned – were horses such important possessions here? –, whether one wished to exercise one’s voting rights – she assumed that without explicit declaration it was not possible – and so on. Perhaps this city wasn’t so welcoming after all.

The front gate slammed open and Guildsman Leitan stormed out, dashing past Aniyé without noticing her. He was muttering under his breath; reinforcing his wards? On a whim, she decided to follow him from a safe distance – she could check out the Guild hall, if only from the outside. She flexed her muscles against the ribbons; they held. She suddenly felt elated, her fears altogether gone. She was able to give free rein to her curiosity.

Walking behind the Guildsman, Aniyé could see the passersby’s reactions to him. They bowed their heads to him or even bent from the waist. Some people ducked into the shadows of the alleys. Was this his due as a Guildsman in uniform, or did he inspire personal dread for some reason?

To Aniyé’s shock, as the people stared after him, some uttered curses. With little to no magic behind the words; nothing that would harm the man or even get his notice from behind his tightly wound wards, but even then – this behavior seemed scandalous to her, and yet perfectly understandable. She herself had reason to hate Guildsman Leitan – the man who had wanted to claim her for the Guild as little more than a trophy – and they had met only twice.

The Guildsman did not acknowledge any of the obeisances, as far as Aniyé could see. He strode ahead, clearly used to walking on the cobblestones that kept tripping Aniyé, her feet jamming into cracks and sliding over smooth-worn surfaces. She struggled uphill.

Leitan came to a sudden halt in front of a large, blocky building next to a church. “I brought the necessary equipment,” he said to the man on guard, a tall guildsman clearly chosen for his size and poise rather than his magical prowess. “Hail the King!”

“Hail the King,” the guard said gruffly.

Aniyé did not dare break her stride, and she walked past the building with the front gate already closed behind Guildsman Leitan. The brick walls radiated a warmth beyond the heat gathered from the day’s worth of sunlight. Yet the magic did not comfort her. She could feel the guard’s eyes on his back – with her staff and her dress, the inscribed ribbons encircling her body, she looked clearly magical even to unsensing minds. Did that make her a target?

On her way back to the Eyrie, she chose a different path. Beyond the wide avenue she had walked, in the smaller side streets, shops and stores were failing – entrances shuttered in broad daylight, windows cracked, entire buildings empty of the bustle of business life. She sighed – the King’s parade would clearly be passing along a different route.

 

III.

 

The King

Everyone was out on the banks on the day of the King’s arrival, but even Aniyé knew this was not because of the people’s great desire to see their leader. The flooding was becoming worse and worse – the water was nearing the top of the sandbags piled on the floodbanks. The scholars had predicted that the water levels would continue to rise for at least two more days. In the northern part of town, the floodbanks had been demolished a few months ago, in preparation for reconstruction. The hastily raised new banks were at the highest risk of getting swept away.

Huge crowds milled on both sides of the traffic barriers. Wide cloth ribbons marked the area beyond which only people working on the floodbanks were permitted. People not capable of hard labor were making food or handing out drinks, while children ran up and down, gawking at the workers, and town guards tried to maintain order.

Aniyé was stuck. “What do you mean you can’t allow me in? I’ve been working on the Northlanes for three days now!”

The guard, a burly woman, crossed her arms and frowned in displeasure. “Orders from higher up. The King and his retinue cannot be disturbed.”

“But the banks–” Aniyé didn’t even need to close her eyes to focus, she knew the situation was becoming worse and worse. The ground felt saturated with water, clumps of earth ready to tumble and roll. She felt her bindings could still hold, but she’d need to be physically present and reinforcing them.

“The banks will be fine. We’ve been working all night.”

Aniyé took a deep breath. “I need to reinforce the structure. It’s absolutely necessary.”

“The King doesn’t want mages around while he is inspecting the effort.” The woman grimaced. “Especially not some stranger from the Western steppes.”

Aniyé thought better of protesting. She stood aside, forcing a rhythm of slow breaths upon herself, concentrating on the ribbons around her body, her hand on her staff. The fear, the anger all provoked a response from her magic, and she struggled to remain in control.

“Aniyé?”

She shuddered in surprise, then looked up into her teacher’s face.

“Aniyé, is something wrong?”

She summarized the situation. Oresuy clicked her tongue in displeasure, but she also seemed to be displeased with Aniyé herself – or was she? “There is little time. Let’s go,” she said, then grabbed Aniyé by the shoulders and simply walked past the stunned guard not daring to stop them.

“You could’ve done that by yourself, you know.”

divider

Aniyé was on all fours, breathing heavily, the ribbons around her arms loosened and her fingers hooked into the soil. The skin on her forehead itched under the headband.

Oresuy was standing next to her, the two of them right in the path of the approaching retinue. “Do you think the bank will hold?” Oresuy asked mildly, her momentary displeasure gone and displaced by a calm sense of concern.

Aniyé nodded, her teeth set too tightly to speak. She pushed another burst of power into the structure, her entire body shuddering.

“That will have to do for the time being,” Oresuy said. “On to the next spot.” They had been working their way along the Northlanes, making stops at regular intervals.

Aniyé straightened out and brushed off her palms, her knees. She was unsteady on her feet.

“Just three more,” Oresuy said as she steadied her and pulled the ribbons tight again. “You’re doing great.”

“Y-yes, but–” Her mouth had trouble forming words. She sighed and simply nodded in the direction of the crowd. A man in a garish tunic had broken away from the retinue and was running toward them.

Oresuy turned around to follow Aniyé’s gesture. “Yes? Ah.”

The man arrived, gasping and wheezing from such a short run. “Why are you here? The King’s orders–”

“We will finish our work here,” Oresuy said. “Tell your king that if he wants to live, he doesn’t have a choice but to allow my student to finish.”

The man paled. “They said the banks would hold– The King’s advisors–”

“The banks will hold, if you allow us to go ahead.” Oresuy was still calm. Aniyé blinked, looking from her teacher to the official and back.

More flamboyantly clad officials arrived, yelling with great consternation.

“You have to move!”

“Why haven’t you gotten them to leave?!”

“The King is coming and His Majesty brooks no–”

“Why wouldn’t you–”

Oresuy smiled serenely – she was taller than most of the retinue – and gazed up into the face of the King on his throne, carried on the shoulders of four strong servants.

Aniyé gasped. The King looked little like the person painted in oil on expensive portraits or enlarged to building-size on wall hangings. Certainly, there was a resemblance, but the face of His Majesty was more worn, and also more malevolent in a subtle, but to Aniyé, entirely unmistakable way.

Was he a magical person? He had to be! Why hadn’t she heard anything about this? Wouldn’t the citizens be proud? But then Aniyé realized that while he was strong in his own right, with his magic wound tightly around him and tuned finely to his desires, he was nowhere, nowhere near as powerful as Oresuy…

“If Your Majesty would please to make Your retinue a bit calmer,” Oresuy said.

King Abrany nodded with what looked to Aniyé like forced affability, then raised a hand.

“The King wishes to speak!” a tall woman yelled, and the entire retinue dropped to their knees, their gaze downcast.

Aniyé looked at her teacher with worry. Was she also supposed to–?

High Mage Oresuy returned her gaze, her no impossible to miss, transmitted not only over the magic but also plain on her face. Aniyé remained standing. She gazed at the crowd and spotted Guildsman Leitan, almost an entire head taller than the rest of his fellows. He stared back at Aniyé in silent furor.

“If it is not Oresuy again,” the King said. “We haven’t seen you in a long time, but We certainly remember.”

What was he talking about? Aniyé had previously had no inkling her teacher had known the King in person. Judging from King Abrany’s tone, their interactions had to have been mostly unpleasant.

“Indeed, Your Majesty,” Oresuy responded.

“We see you’ve acquired an apprentice.” Aniyé shuddered – it was as if the King’s attention sliding to her had dirtied her somehow. The feeling was very strong. “An apprentice who doesn’t seem to show us much respect.”

“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” Aniyé began, but then her teacher’s voice rang out in her head, part memory, part acute impression. Don’t apologize. She paused and took a deep breath. “Excuse me, Your Majesty, but I am not your vassal. It would not be appropriate for me to kneel to you.”

King Abrany’s face darkened with blood, but he kept his voice steady. “You are a vassal of the Crimson Dukes, from the looks of you?” Trickles of anger passed through his tightly-coiled wards and magical shields. He was leaking power.

“I belong to no one but my teacher, the High Mage Oresuy,” Aniyé said. “I will kneel when my teacher tells me.”

King Abrany was about to burst. “And would the High Mage Oresuy,” he said mockingly, “please to have you kneel?”

“If Your Majesty so desires,” said Oresuy with a hint of a smile on her broad cheeks. Go ahead.

Aniyé knelt.

Snickers and sound-fragments of suppressed laughter floated on the air from the retinue. If this was a battle of wills and wit, Aniyé thought, her teacher appeared to be winning.

“I do not accept your obeisance,” the King snapped, his voice edging into a squeak, his royal pronouns slipping.

“So be it,” Oresuy said, now smiling openly, an act of defiance. Aniyé stood. “Then we shall be on our way.”

“What are you doing here?!” The King demanded, leaning forward, gripping the lion-shaped arms of his throne. One of the servants involuntarily hissed, the King’s sudden motion almost dislodging the throne from her broad shoulders.

“As I’ve told your messengers, Your Majesty, my student is reinforcing the floodbanks so that your retinue is not swept away.”

“The floodbanks–” He clapped his hands together. “The floodbanks will stand!”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Was Oresuy also beginning to become annoyed? “They will stand because she will make them stand. You will be able to go ahead with your royal inspection.”

“I do not take orders from you!” The throne rattled. The servants passed glances.

“It was not an order, Your Majesty. It was a description of fact.”

He looked extremely distraught for a moment, then he gathered himself again and bellowed, “We shall bid our leave.”

Aniyé stood ramrod-straight, shaking, as the retinue passed, people glancing at her with more than idle curiosity. Why didn’t the king have them both arrested for their insolence? He must’ve been afraid of Oresuy. How does one restrain someone who moves with the wind?

Aniyé noticed the bald-shaven man, and gasped as she saw Guildsman Leitan make his way to him across the streams of people, say a few words and pat him on the back; then the crowds swept both of them away. She could still hear the King yelling, “No word! I want no word of this…” from behind her as Oresuy gently guided her down along the floodbanks.

“Just three more,” her teacher said. “We will do a brief exercise to make sure only the good magic goes into the structure, and the bad magic, what comes from fear, is absorbed by the sky.”

That night, it rained with a ferocity, and the water rose even faster than estimated – but the banks held.

 

The Slide

Someone pushed a bowl of warm, thick soup into Aniyé’s hands. “Thank you for your good work,” the stranger said and smiled at her, plump cheeks reddened by the early morning chill.

People still whispered behind Aniyé’s back, but now there was the occasional kind voice. Word had spread. But as her newfound allies popped up like mushrooms from the undergrowth, so had her enemies multiplied. King Abrany had a network of supporters, informants, snitches – all on the royal payroll, and money spoke.

She gobbled up the food, pushing these unwelcome thoughts away from herself. She could not allow herself pause – the Northlanes were at immediate danger of sliding and the townsfolk worked day and night.

She heard a scream and felt something in the earth shift and give way – she tossed down the almost empty bowl and broke into a run, fighting off momentary dizziness and a sense of the world slipping away, her sleep-addled mind struggling to get a hold on reality.

Teacher– she shouted inward and outward, her magic ratcheting up, expanding around her, reaching– but she didn’t know what to do, she didn’t have enough precision, didn’t have enough control, she only knew she needed to act–

Under her feet the ground was moving with an inexorable slowness, while the ribbons around her body flared with invisible fire, some part of her still trying to constrain her power– Teacher–

Oresuy came running, as if flying – her feet gliding above ground, her coat and robes billowing behind her. She grabbed hold of Aniyé from behind – the ribbons snapping, falling away in response to her touch – then she pushed her forward.

Aniyé dropped to her knees, then toppled ahead on all fours, her inarticulate shouting slowly turning into a raw, agonized keening as she tried to hold, to hold the banks with bare, unrestrained, unrefined power, pumping a stream of pure unprocessed magic into the earth, magic that rose from within her and flowed undammed–

and yet it was too unstable, too volatile, to be of any use–

her last thought was that it was over.

What Oresuy did then was too subtle for Aniyé to follow, but it spread outward from their point of contact, from Oresuy’s warm, comforting hands on her head, crystallizing in the substructure of the universe unseen but heartfelt, stabilizing, providing a pattern for the world to match.

The ground stopped sliding. People rushed in, laborers given a momentary respite from death, people with shovels and sand-bags, people with hands in tattered gloves and faces smeared with grime.

Teacher– Words failed her. Her muscles shuddered as if they wanted to tear themselves off her bones. Oresuy held her close in a bear’s embrace, stopping her from hurting herself with raw physical strength.

Consciousness dropped out of Aniyé, life dropped out of her and her muscles finally relaxed, her body passing into a welcome inertness, a well of starless dark.

 

The Bed

Aniyé only saw a warm yellowish light. She felt the pressure of the pillows and the heavy blanket, her body weighing itself down, devoid of all motion. Was she breathing?

She needed to get herself together. She needed to go out on the banks, she needed to work–

“Hush,” a soft, deep voice whispered. “The banks will stand; you can rest. It has been done.”

Then just the light.

Eventually a hand, palm tracing her forehead. “I am here.”

Nothing but the light.

divider

“I want to see her!” A coarse and uneven voice. Somehow familiar. Guildsman Leitan? The King? “We need to see her!”

“I cannot allow that. Not even you. For her own sake.” Calmly explaining.

“The country needs this power!” Subtext: I need this power. “The Western front is collapsing–”

An exhalation. “I will not allow that. This is final.”

“Very well, Oresuy…” A mind gearing itself up for a threat. “I will remember this. I will remember this!”

Angry steps hurrying away.

divider

Aniyé coughed, suddenly feeling the dryness in her mouth, the wasting in her body. A hand reached behind the back of her head, lifted her gently so she could take clumsy, tongue-tied sips from the cup placed to her mouth. After she finished, she cast her gaze down, bowed her head a little to indicate her thanks; she could not speak yet.

“You’re welcome, my dear apprentice.” Was her teacher crying? “You’re welcome.”

divider

It felt like aeons, but it took less than a day.

 

The Council

Aniyé stumbled outside, her clothes loose and ill-fitting on her body, the sunlight hurting her eyes. She was holding on to Oresuy with cramped hands that felt like claws. She felt unbalanced. The power was seeping back into her, replenishing ever so slowly. The ribbons were wrapped around her, holding her tight.

“It seems like a lifetime,” Aniyé said, the words fragile on her parched lips. “And yet the water hasn’t receded a handsbreadth. If anything…”

“It’s even higher,” Oresuy finished her unspoken sentence.

“Will the banks hold?” The words felt worn-out, repeated over and over, echoing in her head until they lost all meaning. It seemed like she hadn’t uttered any other sentence in days.

“The banks will hold,” Oresuy nodded. Yet something remained unsaid.

The meaning trickled through the connection between them. “They will not prove high enough.” Aniyé knew there was a maximum height to the bars built out of sandbags. There was so much exhaustion inside her, she couldn’t even grow upset.

“It is not our issue,” Oresuy said. “We did what we could.”

“The rainfall…” Aniyé whispered. Why had it fallen? She couldn’t remember, but she knew she had something to do with it… She searched her mind. She had released the bad magic, the tainted magic into the sky–

“Don’t blame yourself.” Oresuy put hands on her shoulders, pulled her close. Locked arms around her. “You did what you could. You did your best in an unfavorable situation. The rest is not up to us.”

The councilman showed up just a few moments later, as the two of them were looking out to the river in silence, their gaze-lines parallel.

divider

“There is a problem,” the councilman said, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His polished shoes were unsuited to the mud by the foot of the Eyrie and the crest of the city on the breast of his suit was half-hidden under dirt. Aniyé thought she’d seen the man in the King’s retinue, but wasn’t entirely certain.

We know there is a problem, Aniyé wanted to say, a tiny glimmer of anger flickering deep inside her boundless exhaustion. Oresuy’s arms around her tightened momentarily.

“We need your help. The floodgates upstream from the Eyrie are stuck.”

Oresuy made a noncommittal murmur. Aniyé was confused. What did any of them have to do with the floodgates?

“You have to help!” The man moved from anxiety and embarrassment to fear and desperation. “The city is going to be washed away!”

Aniyé still didn’t understand. Maybe all this made sense somewhere – it certainly made sense to this official – but she couldn’t see how the pieces fit together.

“Are you speaking for the city?” Oresuy asked, very slowly.

“I am, I, I– You need to come!”

Even through the haze in her mind it was clear to Aniyé that the man was hiding a crucial detail. What was it? She tried to muster her faculties – her reasoning, her magical insight…

Oresuy was also suspicious. “Slow down. Explain.” Aniyé thought that this was at least in part for her benefit; the councilman had casually ignored her.

“We need to breach the banks and let the water onto the fields upstream from the city. We’ll lose much produce, but the city cannot be washed away, surely even you can see that–” He tried to rein in his agitation. “I’m sorry,” he huffed. “But the floodgates are stuck – rusted, maybe? Or stuck from the water pressure? We never had water levels this high–”

He was telling the truth. He was also lying by omission.

“Are you suspecting sabotage?” Oresuy asked.

“We’re not suspecting anything, there is no time, the gates need to be opened! Please!” He seemed ready to fling himself at Oresuy’s feet. The High Mage drew back a step.

“Aniyé,” she began. “You know those banks better than I do. Do you think it’s manageable?”

She could barely walk. And yet– and yet–

She remembered all those times she felt she simply couldn’t move, couldn’t even inflate her lungs to take a breath of air, so spent – those people from the Crimson Army didn’t care. They didn’t inquire. They just pushed her onward, and there was somehow always more magic, rising up from a reservoir deep inside her, from an unknown place beyond thought, beyond even power… This was why she was a battle mage. Had been. This was why they had wanted her.

But now it was her choice.

“Yes, master,” she said. “I can do it.”

Oresuy hesitated, frowning. Aniyé realized she’d used the wrong title. “Teacher– I mean–” she scrambled to correct.

“Are you sure, my dear student?” Oresuy said, still disquietened. Aniyé nodded, holding on to her newfound confidence.

“Then on shall we go.” The High Mage glanced sharply at the councilman. “Lead the way.”

divider

Councilfolk were standing in the mud, looking scared, confused, intimidated. The King’s retinue was also standing by, drawing away from the council members and the throng of onlookers. Aniyé spotted Guildsman Leitan, standing next to the guard she’d seen in front of the Guild hall, but the bald man was nowhere to be found. King Abrany presided over the entire scene on his portable throne.

Oresuy gritted her teeth.

This, this was the deception, Aniyé realized. Why didn’t they want the two of them to know that the King and his retinue would be here? What did the King want?

She was beginning to see.

A demonstration.

Of her allegiance?

“He only wants your power,” her teacher hissed to her from between teeth. “Be very careful.”

They walked up to the metal structure at the top of the floodgates and Oresuy gave an experimental tug of the handle, but the rods remained inert. She doesn’t even trust them this far, Aniyé thought, blood running cold. Her teacher crouched, put a hand in the mud, closed her eyes for a moment. Nodded, just barely. Then gave a little probing push, this time with magic. Nothing moved. She stood, wiped her palms on the metal. She did not spare the King a single glance. To Aniyé’s shock, the King didn’t decry this insolence. What was going on?

“I must confer with my student,” the High Mage said to no one in particular, and drew Aniyé away from the crowds.

“Can you do it?” she asked – firm but not demanding.

“I have the power, teacher,” Master, “I’m not sure I have the skill.”

“I confess I am spent,” Oresuy said and Aniyé blinked up at her in confusion. Her teacher, saying–?

“I am spent from putting you back together.”

Aniyé lowered her gaze, but Oresuy touched her cheeks and turned her face again upward. “Do not be ashamed. I did it of my own free will. And you did well.” The High Mage’s expression darkened. “But I am not a battle-mage. I cannot draw and draw and draw on new power so fast, even though I command more than you.”

“I can do it, teacher, but I’m not sure I can control…” Her voice trailed off. They had never asked her to do things. Repeatedly, to make sure.

“I can help you control it, I have that much still in me,” Oresuy said and sighed deeply. “I need sleep.”

“What should I do, teacher?”

Oresuy frowned. “The gate seems to be rusted shut, down underwater.” Or glued shut, Aniyé thought. How far ahead of time? She had seen the Guildsman row upstream, in secret, for an inspection, then fetch some kind of equipment just the day before. Would the king endanger his people just for the sake of… Aniyé shook her head, trying not to venture into this maze of thoughts. Oresuy continued: “I don’t think it makes much sense to try to pry it open. We need to blast the whole segment out. Or one nearby – what do you think?”

Her teacher asked her for her opinion. On a technical matter. Aniyé fidgeted, body pressing against the ribbons, arms pulling them apart until they tightened. “The gates are a disruption… in the banks, I mean. I think it’s usually easier to tackle things along their edges? Points of discontinuity?”

The High Mage nodded, looking pleased to have some of her own thinking reflected to her. “But then the gate structure is lost; it might be more difficult to repair?”

Aniyé shook her head. “It’s damaged to begin with, possibly to the point of uselessness. I get an impression it’s…” glued shut, she thought at her teacher, and Oresuy’s sudden glance at the retinue demonstrated that the concept had made it across. “Unsalvageable,” Aniyé said after the silent exchange. “But the city can still be saved.”

Oresuy smiled.

divider

This is exactly what the King wants, Aniyé thought – a huge blast, a demonstration of deadly force. How long ago had the Guildsman set his plan in motion? Aniyé recalled his words, accusing the High Mage of insufficient loyalty. She looked on as the King’s servants shooed people to safety, behind the lines Oresuy had drawn into the mud of the banks, nearer the city.

Oresuy motioned her to kneel and Aniyé lowered herself into the mud. She was shivering, the power already beginning to mount – out of fear, she supposed, for she had done little to invoke it into herself by any voluntary means.

Oresuy pulled her hands behind her, pulled the ribbons tight. Aniyé gasped, startled by the sudden sensation.

“Now,” Oresuy said. Aniyé closed her eyes. A hand across her forehead – this did not startle her. Her teacher’s touch.

It rose from within her, ever-renewing, a blisteringly raw force that nonetheless was not, not – Aniyé felt this clearly even as the banks were about to be swept away – not destined for destruction, at least not the wanton destruction of war, the rampant murderous rage, but the power of simple irresistibility, that of the bolt of lightning striking from the skies, the tidal wave sweeping away seaside villages, a force of nature–

and she let go,

and she could hear another mouth breathing beside her, close as only we can be,

she could feel a practiced hand assigning lines of direction spreading outward, meeting points of weakness head-on, hitting with a sparkle and a hiss all the more deafening as it was not to be heard by the physical ear–

she leaned into the motion and pushed,

faintly aware of her body being lowered to the ground, hands turning her head to the side, clear of the mud

and she would use everything she could; her body meeting the naked earth, clothes soaked through not with blood – not this time – just with water and dirt, blades of grass stuck to her face; and she was suddenly aware of every single strand, every pebble in the mud, the waters below and the skies above–

and the waters rushed in, the flood ripping the gate apart, ripping the bank apart, impossible to tell as if by human intervention, or as if this was the way it would have happened all by itself, the natural course of events,

and was this not the natural course of events? Aniyé marveled,

then again darkness closed over her; not the darkness of utter desperation, but the darkness of rest and peace.

 

The Meeting

Aniyé was sitting by the riverside, the waters no longer threatening the town. The townsfolk gave her a wide berth, but she didn’t mind; she knew what was coming. But whenever it was coming, it was not then. She stood eventually, her bones heavy.

She walked to a stall, fished in the pockets of her robe for a few copper coins; before she headed out into the inner city, she had been trying to test the ribbons to see if her hands could reach, only to realize with a startle that she wasn’t wearing them. She could go outside for a short while without wearing the ribbons; the restriction was inside her, slowly internalizing. Oresuy didn’t push her to go faster. This was a time of slow, methodical growth, not of exertion, sudden leaps and bursts.

She put the coins on the counter. The man handing out soggy, greasy wraps looked at her with suspicion in his eyes. He took so much time getting ready to say his words that Aniyé could’ve repeated them verbatim before they were out of his mouth. For a moment she was tempted.

I saw what you can do.

“I saw what you can do,” the man said.

Aniyé nodded grimly.

You should be out on the Western front.

“You should be out on the Western front.” He looked proud of himself for having been able to say it to her face.

How many times now? She lost track.

She shook her head. “If I had been out on the Western front, you’d all be dead now. Twice over.”

She couldn’t phrase it any more directly, couldn’t repeat it any more often. It still couldn’t turn the tide of opinions reinforced with bribes, strengthened by the immensity of the regime, stronger and stronger every day.

She turned away, not expecting the change, biting into the wrap with sudden ferocity. Pieces of chicken crunched between her teeth; the unappealing-looking wrap proved surprisingly tasty.

A mural of King Abrany glared at her from the building opposite, the paint still unblemished. She glared back and took another large chomp.

She’d wait it out. As long as it took. She’d repeat her words. As many times as necessary.

Did the King win this round? His people would never dare touch her, and the Guildsman’s – the King’s? – plan was foiled. They might wish to pressure her into volunteering, but she knew all about that kind of volunteering. They could not force her – it was an impossibility. No one could force her as long as she didn’t force herself. Magic glowed in her like the evening-star and she was learning – she was learning.

She could stand on her feet. She could withstand the pressure. She was no longer alone.

She walked back to the Eyrie with a spring in her steps, and the world itself wound tightly around her, comforting her. She knew that high up in one of the lacework towers, Oresuy would be waiting.

 ___

Copyright 2016 Bogi Takács

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender person currently living in the US. E writes both speculative fiction, poetry and related nonfiction, and eir work has been published in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Apex, Capricious and more. Eir flash story All Talk of Common Sense, also set in the Floodbanks continuity, appeared earlier this year in Polychrome Ink #3.

Next Page »