Fiction


By Elaine Atwell

 

Oberon Officer’s Log. Day 10227

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is inadvisable to eat before cryofreeze.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Undoubtedly, yes.”

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

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

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

“Oh. I…oh.”

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

That was three days ago.

 

Officer’s log: Day 10230

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here we are.

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

It was her idea, you know. This trip.

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t their oceans ice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10232

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10233

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

 

Officer’s log: Day 10234

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s log: Day 10242

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10249

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

 

Officer’s Log: 10252

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10263

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t reply; just wrapped her bomber jacket around her shoulders (she wears it all the time now) and walked out.

I really don’t understand how she and I were placed together. OOMA is usually so maddeningly attentive to human needs; you’d think she’d have made caretaking teams more compatible with one another. I asked her about it and she turned a hazy pink.

“I developed a personality algorithm to determine which passengers would provide the most beneficial companionship, once I removed opposite-sex pairings.”

“Why did you remove those pairings?” I asked, genuinely confused. She turned a deep shade of eggplant, which I have learned to interpret as annoyance.

“Human fetuses have a high rate of deformation when placed in cryofreeze.”

It took me a minute to tease out her meaning and then I snorted.

“You don’t think much of our self-control, do you?”

“It is not a trait for which your species is generally known.”

After the conversation ended and the screen went black, I puzzled for a while over the fact that OOMA wrote the caretaking algorithm herself. And then I puzzled a while more over what she meant by “beneficial companionship.” Beneficial to us, or her?

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10270

Everything has happened. I woke up before dawn (obviously there’s no such thing out here, but it’s how I think of the time each day when OOMA turns on all the lights) to the sound of an alarm. For a second I thought I was back on Earth and it was an air raid siren, and I turned over to ignore it like I always had back then. Then I remembered where I was and shot up off the pillow. I was terrified, instantly, that something had gone wrong with OOMA, or maybe ROM had somehow come back, and the other pods were failing. It’s funny; I hadn’t known I was afraid of that, hadn’t known I cared about the other passengers at all, until that moment.

I yanked on my uniform and called for OOMA, but she didn’t answer. Suddenly I realized that I might be alone. Actually, fully, alone. I started running towards Nila’s room, with the alarm blaring at me from every direction. I didn’t get any farther than the viewing suite when we ran headlong into each other. We grabbed each other’s arms to keep from falling over.

“What’s going on?” she yelled over the alarm.

“I don’t know! It has to be some sort of mechanical failure. I can’t get OOMA to come online.”

At that, the alarm ceased, the big viewing screen flickered to life, and OOMA appeared as a wan, bluish gray, like drowned flesh.

“Lieutenant Carson, Specialist Aluri. I apologize I didn’t speak to you earlier, but the majority of my processing capability is currently in use elsewhere.”

“What’s happened, OOMA?” Nila turned to face the screen but kept one arm clutching the elbow of my uniform.

“The Oberon has suffered a collision. We are within Antera’s solar system, so it may have been ice from a disattached comet’s tail, meteor debris, or possibly detritus from an earlier colonial ship.” The screen blinked, and then switched to a view that clearly came from somewhere on the hull. It was at eye-level to wherever the damage was, so I couldn’t see much but the curl of twisted metal. I let go of Nila and approached the screen, trying to guess where the damage was.

“What exactly did it destroy, OOMA?”

“Me.” There was no hint of self-pity in her voice, but her display turned an even more faded grey. Nila and I glanced at each other and Nila cleared her throat and pressed on.

“But OOMA,” She sighed as though she were talking a toddler through a tantrum. “You’re in every system. You are every system.”

“That is incorrect. ROM was a master system, which is how he managed to be so pernicious. I am merely the overseer and communicator between a multitude of programs.” The screen changed again, this time to a schematic of the ship’s architecture, in which countless wires spidered outwards like capillary veins from a single set of circuits, which looked to be about the size of an old-fashioned typewriter. OOMA spoke again as the screen zoomed in on the circuitry. “The hub is what connects me to the rest of the ship and the collision caused a short in its power supply. I am no longer able to access the ship’s fusion to support my own operations.”

I gulped and addressed OOMA, who wiped the schematics clear and returned to her ever-grayer display.

“What was the hub before it was you, OOMA?”

A silence.

“The hub was originally the communications center of the ship, the only non-essential area with enough memory to contain a computer of my processing power.”

“So, the reason we’ve been unable to make contact with Earth or Antera is…you?”

“Yes.”

Nila and I gave each other a sidelong look and I thought of another potentially disturbing question.

“OOMA, if you’ve lost your power supply, how are you talking to us now?” A sound issued from the display that may have been the mechanical keening of her failing systems or perhaps her attempt to emulate a human sigh.

“I am currently siphoning small amounts of power from several auxiliary systems.” My arms prickled. It was ROM all over again.

“Including life support?” The blue shot back through the gray again and OOMA sounded closer to angry than I had known she could.

“My sole function is to care for humans. I would allow myself to shut down before I drained power from the passengers of this ship.”

Nila raised her hands.

“We didn’t mean to offend you. Just…just tell us how to help.”

“The repair itself is simple. Either one of you is capable of performing it. Unfortunately, it must be made from outside the ship.”

Nila shot me a panicked look. I tried to be reasonable.

“OOMA, we aren’t trained for a space walk. Why don’t we wake up some crew members and they can help you.” She flashed ochre.

“The process of rousing qualified crew members would take several hours, by which time I will have exhausted my power supply.”

“Well, I mean, what would happen then? We could—if we had to—pilot the ship ourselves, right?” Without warning, Nila shoved my shoulder.

“How dare you talk like that in front of her,” she hissed. Then she addressed the screen. “Don’t worry, OOMA. I’ll fix you. Just tell me what to do.” Before I could even decide whether I wanted to talk her out of this, Nila was charging toward the maintenance area, in search of supplies. spacesuit. Both OOMA and I accompanied her–the computer providing hurried instructions for her spacewalk, me still trying to come up with an alternative.

“You will need a set of replacement of replacement wiring kits, which should be in bin 9-A,” said OOMA.

“Have you ever even been tested for depressurization; you know plenty of people can’t survive it,” said me. Nila faced me in the doorway.

“I know.”

“You could die.”

“I know.”

Then the maintenance door shut, with me on the outside. I tried to barge through to keep trying to warn her, but one of them had locked me out. A few minutes later, Nila emerged wearing a spacesuit.

I’d never seen one outside of photographs, and it closely resembled a skintight diving suit, but with a thin layer of air pumped in between the skin and the fabric. The helmet was nearly opaque so I couldn’t make out Nila’s expression, but I did see her hands shake as she attached the umbilicus that would anchor her to the ship.

“You don’t have to do this.” I murmured. I don’t know if she could hear me through the suit, but she didn’t reply.

“I’m ready,” she announced, her voice muffled by the helmet. And with that, she walked to the door and latched it behind her. I watched through the window as OOMA’s voice addressed us both.

“The entranceway is currently depressurizing.” A slight pause. “Depressurization is complete. You may now open the hatch, Specialist Aluri.” Slowly, encumbered by the suit, Nila twisted the door open, tugged once on the umbilicus to test its hold, and stepped out into nothingness. My heart was racing; I couldn’t imagine what Nila’s must be doing. OOMA’s display switched once more to the exterior of the ship, where we could monitor Nila’s progress as she made her way to the damage. After a moment, her voice came through, so close and immediate it was like I was inside the suit with her.

“It’s…it’s amazing out here. You’re missing out, Frances.” Her voice shook.

“Specialist Aluri, please continue forward and starboard for approximately eight meters.”

“I don’t know what the fuck ‘starboard’ means, OOMA.”

“Your two-o’clock.”

“Got it.”

She passed over the camera, pulling herself hand-over hand, while her feet floated eerily behind her. The view changed, but it was a bad angle and I could barely see her. Thankfully, she narrated.

“All right, I can see the damage. It looks like almost an entire panel got blown off. How is that going to affect our entry into Antera’s atmosphere?”

“The next team of stewards includes a former deep sea welder, who is qualified to make that repair. Please simply focus on rewiring the hub. And hurry.” OOMA’s voice started to glitch. For a few minutes they worked, with OOMA directing Nila as to which wires to reroute and which to replace from the collection in her tool belt. It seemed as though the repair was going smoothly until OOMA directed her to reach beneath the hub and reinsert a cable that had been jostled loose. With a little crackle of static, Nila’s breath caught.

“I can’t reach it.”

“The underside of the hub should be accessible from your position.”

“Yeah, that was before we crashed into a pile of space shit. Now it’s like trying to change a tire without a jack.” There was a steadily rising note of hysteria in her voice. OOMA stayed silent a long time. I started to wonder if her power had finally failed when she spoke again.

“Lieutenant Carson, please put on a spacesuit.”

(Dear Posterity, please do not judge me for the following exchange.)

“What? No. The only two conscious humans on this ship are not both going to be stuck outside it.”

“They won’t. You can help repair the damage from inside the ship. I’ll need to depressurize the mess hall, and I can guide you through the rest.” Nila’s voice joined it.

“Come on, Carson. Don’t leave me out here.” She said it as a joke but I realized it was true; if OOMA ran out of power, I had no clue how to get Nila back inside the Oberon.

So I pulled on a suit as quickly as possible (the air cushion is actually incredibly comfortable) and ran toward the mess. OOMA directed me to equip myself with a heat gun and I fumbled to strap on a tool belt over my umbilicus. The mess hall doesn’t have an airlock of its own so I had to seal off the whole wing, praying I wasn’t doing too much damage to the pods. Then OOMA killed the atmo and I finally felt the weightlessness of space. For a second I just floated, as idle as a dust mote, until OOMA directed me to use my heat gun on the ceiling tiles in the center of the room. I melted the sealant holding it together and waited for my next instructions.

“Lieutenant Car Lieutenant Car Lieutenant CAR.” She was stuck. It was like watching the spasmodic twitches of a corpse. I was terrified, but Nila spoke up again.

“Hold on, OOMA. Just hold on, girl. Who’ll let me win at chess if you go?” And I realized for the first time that Nila and OOMA had their own relationship, separate and apart from me. That maybe at the exact moment OOMA was trying to coax me out of the shower she was playing games with Nila. And unbelievably, even sweating and shaking, I felt jealous. Of both of them. She sputtered back to life, but her words now were strangely disjointed.

“Lieutenant Carson, to whatever extent possible, work around the electrical and ventilation systems until you arrive at the next set of panels. Apply the heat gun to them and then reinsert the cable into the hub. I must now shut down my interface to conserve power.” And she was gone. But I had Nila’s voice in my ear, encouraging me while I brushed aside a torrent of cables. The ventilation system was trickier; I had to unscrew it, and one of the screws briefly escaped my grasp for a moment.

“Just keep calm, just keep calm,” Nila kept saying, like a heartbeat.

I arrived at the second set of panels, identical to the ceiling tiles except unpainted, and almost screamed when I felt them shudder violently. Actually, I did scream. Nila laughed.

“Sorry, sorry. Just giving you a knock so you know where I am.” Shaking, I gently removed the panel where she had knocked and beyond it, through another snarl of wires, was a deeper, richer black than mere darkness. Staring at space straight on isn’t the same as viewing it through the ship’s windows, with your own reflected light bouncing back at you comfortingly. It is the closest I have ever been to pure endlessness and for a moment I felt an insane urge to rip off my helmet just to see it with nothing but my own eyes. Then I saw Nila’s glove moving against the blackness, and the same surge of impulsivity made me reach through the tangle and grab it. We stayed there for a measureless time, holding each other’s hands through the hull.

“Okay,” I breathed. “Okay.” Then we let go and I found the hub, and searched for the cable I needed. Straining my fingers, I found it, and felt along its length. It seemed to be intact, but I’m not sure I would have known either way.

“So I just…push it back in?”

“Yeah.”

“And it won’t electrocute me.”

A pause a half second too long.

“No?”

I held my breath and fumbled with the plug until I found a place it seemed to fit, and slowly guided it in. The second it hit home, I felt a surge along the whole length of my arm, like finding the pulse of a giant.

Instantly, OOMA’s voice reappeared in our helmets.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I don’t think her vocal programming allows her to express gratitude as a tone of voice, so she just said it over and over again. Finally, Nila laughed.

“Alright, alright, you’re welcome. Will you please let us back inside now?”

“Certainly, Specialist Aluri. Lieutenant Carson, you will need to repair the inner panels to restore pressure to the cabin.”

“Hurry.” Nila said, and I watched her hover above me and disappear as she made her way back inside.

Of course, putting anything back together takes longer than ripping it apart, so it was three hours until we were sure the sealant had taken hold. It was some of the most exhausting work of my life, but I reveled in it. Onboard The Oberon, I’d forgotten I had adrenaline, forgotten how to sweat.

When I finally finished, and the oxygen and gravity regulators kicked back in, I used what felt like the last of my strength to open the hatch. Nila was on the other side, back in her bomber jacket and beaming.

I fumbled to get my helmet off, and gasped for a moment at the freedom of it, and then she spoke.

“Now that was heroic.”

“Pfft. We plugged in a cord.” I realized I was beaming too and was marveling over that small victory when she leaned forward and kissed me.

You may be shocked, posterity, but in the moment it didn’t feel shocking at all. She kissed me, and her mouth was rich and warm and I kissed her back. And then our arms were around each other and I thought I could hear a swell of violins in my head. It took a moment before I realized that the music (Debussy, I think) wasn’t in my head at all; it was playing on the ship’s speakers. OOMA, in sympathy or encouragement, was playing us a song. We both looked up at the same time but it was Nila who spoke.

“Um…OOMA, it’s really sweet that you wanted to give us a soundtrack, but I think we’d appreciate privacy just a bit more.” The music stopped immediately.

“I apologize. I will concentrate my processing powers elsewhere.” Her screen went blank, but I didn’t feel entirely sure she had gone.

“Come on,” Nila grabbed my arm and pulled me after her. She guided me on the long walk through the ship, which unfortunately gave me time to ask myself what the fuck I was doing. If I’m being honest, this scenario, or something like it, had crossed my mind before. You don’t just fail to notice the only other person on your spaceship. But every time I did notice her–her eyes dim and distant at some memory, the adolescent way she tossed her hair over her shoulder, or her off-key but earnest singing from across the ship—I batted the observation away like a mosquito. I didn’t want to notice; I wanted to feel nothing but loyal grief, like one of those dogs that sleeps on its owner’s grave until it dies itself.

By the time we reached Nila’s little storage room, I had decided and undecided to go ahead with it fifty times. The room itself made me want to turn back, crowded as it was with the collected memories of so many strangers, not to mention my own. I hung back at the door.

“Why here?”

“Because,” She reached for my hand again, “this is the only room on the ship without one of OOMA’s interface screens.” I hadn’t noticed it before but she was right. I don’t know why that’s what made up my mind, but something about the idea of being alone with this woman, and with myself, was irresistible. So I shut the door behind me and we laid a blanket on the floor. (Actually we tried the hammock first but that was a catastrophe.)

I think more than anything I was relieved at how different she was from Jordan. She wanted different things, she smelled different, and it was too new and bewildering to feel like a betrayal, even a betrayal of my own sadness.

I wasn’t really sure it wasn’t a mistake until afterwards, though. In my experience, you know sex was a bad idea when you immediately feel uncomfortable being naked around someone. But I didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, for a long time the sensation of all that contact, all that skin, was like a pleasant but overwhelming drug. Eventually I asked (I had to ask).

“I’m assuming that wasn’t your first time with a woman.” She pulled a shocked face.

“Of course not; I’m not boring!” (For my impertinence, she gave me several of what she described as “punishment kisses.”)

“I’ve only had one serious-ish thing with a girl, though. At school. She would have thought this was hilarious, by the way.”

You could hear a posh, cultured note in the way she drawled “hilarious.”

“What, lesbians in space?”

“Well, yes, obviously. But no, she had a theory about certain improbable couples.”

“Do tell.”

“She called it Desert Island Syndrome: that the only two lesbians in any small community—even if they had nothing in common–were bound to fall in love.” I had no way of reacting to that word so I looked around the room for a change of subject. Thankfully, in that particular room, subjects abound.

“So which of these things actually belongs to you?”

“Guess.”

“The paintings?”

“No.”

“The prayer flags?

“No.”

“I give up.”

“None of it.”

“You didn’t bring anything?” I propped myself up on an elbow.

“I gave up on mementos a long time ago.” I wasn’t sure if she would say more, but she stared up at the ceiling and kept going. “We were well off in London. Not rich, but wealthy. That’s how my mum described us. I think my parents were the last people who believed everything would somehow, magically turn out all right. You know, that the government or the corps were just sitting on a cure-all that they’d pull out in the nick of time.” I kissed her cheek.

“I think all our parents were those people.”

“Mine thought that they were respectable enough to buy their way out of the troubles.”

“They weren’t?”

“Plenty respectable. Bit too brown.” I looked away and she kept going.

“First it was the curfews, then the ghettoes—no one called them that, of course, but that’s what they were. My parents figured they could make what money they had go farther back in India. But we were pariahs there too, for leaving and coming back.” I checked her eyes, but she didn’t seem anywhere near crying.

“I brought a suitcase to India with books, clothes, this little stuffed rabbit I’d outgrown but couldn’t bear to leave behind. But someone stole it on the plane. After that, for the first few moves, I tried to find new treasures, even though I couldn’t buy much. I’d always tell myself that this seashell or this feather would be my lucky charm and I’d keep it forever. But something always happened; some other kid would take it or we’d have to leave on short notice with no time to pack. And of course, there were always guards to bribe, and they’d take anything so long as they could tell it meant something to you. So I just stopped acquiring things. There was no point. It all just gets broken or lost.”

I was going to write more but it looks like she’s waking up.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10273

My body feels like taffy.

In a good way.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10278

I want to do something for the ship. Now that I’ve gotten my taste for usefulness back, I don’t mean to let it go. Actually, given the fact that people have been fighting off boredom and despair on this ship for decades, I was surprised that there weren’t more signs of life. I asked OOMA about it and she corrected that impression.

“Many of the amenities you enjoy are the result of former stewards. The viewing suite was designed for communications purposes; an early caretaker adapted it for entertainment. She also expanded the Earth Cultural Archives with the addition to her large trove of television programs.” So that explains the complete series of Law and Order. “The first stewards spent most of their tenure cleaning and reorganizing the pod bay after the transition from ROM, and of course you and Specialist Aluri are not the first to have made repairs to The Oberon.” I was curious about that but OOMA plowed on. “Many stewards devoted their time to self-improvement. We’ve had several people take up martial arts, one man who insisted upon learning French despite its limited usefulness on Antera, and a pair of stewards who gave themselves a thorough education in first aid.”

“Oh. Is that why so many medical supplies are missing?”

“Partly.”

Nila came up behind me and kissed my neck (we stayed apart last night, which I need sometimes and which she’s good about understanding).

“So many improvements and yet nobody did anything about the food.”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get her hopes up, but I thought: I could do something about it. I’d have to be careful not to diminish our seed and soil supply, but in theory, I could make us a garden.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10282

Nila caught me going through the seeds today so the jig is up. Of course she was ecstatic, and immediately started to draft a list of requested vegetables.

“Potatoes?”

“Too nutrient-hungry. We need the soil to last.”

“Apples?”

“Grow on trees.”

“No shit.”

“Trees take years to grow.”

“What about bananas? They grow fast.”

“I don’t think we have room for them but it would make OOMA’s waste recycling program easier.”

“Why?”

“Bananas thrive when fertilized by urine.”

She laughed and laughed at that, which gave me a pang since Jordan also thought the pee/banana thing was one of nature’s best jokes. If you’re wondering how I’m dealing with my feelings about Jordan, the answer is that I am mostly not.

In the end we decided to attempt some leafy greens, strawberries, squash, and—our most ambitious undertaking—a tomato. I’m really not sure that last one will thrive under the solar lamps, but Nila lobbied hard for it.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10295

A library of books, films, and art at my disposal and all I want to do is stare at a patch of soil. I love the smell of it on my hands. I love the black under my fingernails.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10301

There is a tiny green bulb on the tomato plant. In other news, OOMA announced today that we were passing through the orbit of the most distant planet in Antera’s solar system. It’s hard to say which is bigger news. (No it’s not; I am much more excited about the tomato.) OOMA has been less invasive than normal lately, although whether that’s from a desire to give Nila and I some space or because she is busy trying to make contact with Antera, I don’t know.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10308

I actually hated salads when I was a kid. Even if the alternative was going hungry, I would push the plate away and demand something bread or cheese-based. But I have never tasted anything so full of life as the bowl of greens and vegetables I ate tonight. I smelled it for twenty minutes before I took the first bite. Even OOMA seemed to recognize the sublimity of the occasion; she played the Debussy again and Nila and I didn’t stop her. God, I wish it had taken longer to eat. Afterwards Nila said “Now all we’re missing is a glass of wine.”

“Mmm.”

“We could make that though, right? Ferment some grapes?”

“In theory, yes. But that would take longer than we have. Our stint as stewards is almost over.”

That was the first time either of us said it out loud. Nila hasn’t said anything about our future, and frankly I don’t want to talk about it. Climbing back inside that pod is the biggest thing I can wrap my mind around; I haven’t spared a thought for what I’ll wake up to afterwards. If I wake up. I don’t want to get attached to some fantasy of the future; it feels too much like jumping into water without knowing the depth. I did that last time. I think my reticence is hurting Nila, but I can’t help it.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10312

She keeps threatening not to wake up the others. At first it was just anxious joking, but the more times she repeats it, the more serious she becomes. I resent having to be the sane one about this; it’s not like I’m eager to go back in my pod.

“Think about it; OOMA can’t make us go back in there.”

“No, but she can make the new stewards wake up without our help. She can and she will.”

“So what? We can all be awake together. It’s not like there’s not enough room.”

“And then what, Nila? We sit around twiddling our thumbs for the next eight years until we land?”

“You’re just feeling guilty about going to bed with me less than two months after your wife died.”

“My wife died twenty-five years ago, not that that’s the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point is you should fucking listen to yourself right now.”

“No, the point is that you would quite literally rather die in your sleep than give this a real shot.”

An hour later she was nuzzling me and apologizing. And an hour after that we had the exact same argument again.

 

Officer’s Log: Day 10318

Tomorrow we wake up the new stewards, so in all likelihood this will be the last time you hear from me, posterity. I was working in the garden when OOMA appeared—as a green I think she may have learned from the plants.

“Lieutenant Carson, have you put any thought into how you will help acclimate the new recruits tomorrow?” My stomach lurched like in those dreams where someone tells you you’re late for a final in a class you didn’t know you were taking. I’ve obsessed about teaching the new people about the garden: drafted a watering schedule, the whole nine yards. But in terms of a speech like the one Andy gave me? I had nothing. It occurred to me to just copy whatever it was he had said, but all I could clearly remember of it was the part about switching drivers on the highway.

I started looking at this journal (Jesus, I was maudlin in those early entries) and remembered that I had originally intended to look at the logs of the earlier stewards. Hoping for inspiration, I washed off the dirt, got comfortable in the observation deck I’ve been using as my room and asked OOMA to pull up all the earlier logs.

“I’m afraid those records are locked, Lieutenant.”

“What do you mean, locked? What’s the point of writing them if no one can read them?” She turned a deep, luminescent blue, which I think she has figured out is my favorite color.

“I’m sure you’d agree that the log has been beneficial for you personally, and may help future generations to understand the trials experienced by their ancestors.” She shifted to a slightly more professional blue green. “But their purpose is of a primarily therapeutic nature, which would be undermined if they were no longer private. I doubt you would want me to share your private thoughts with Specialists Ono and LeShay.”

“Who?”

“The men who will be taking over stewardship tomorrow.” Something tingled in my mind.

“Override the lock.”

She could have said no, of course. She knows as well as I do that an override requires both caretakers to execute. I kind of couldn’t believe it when the data began to unspool in front of me.

There was too much information to even attempt to read it chronologically. Years and years of diaries. So I started with search terms. I didn’t even know what I was looking for at first. But what I found out is that the stewards all have a great deal in common.

“Suicide” brought up forty-four hits. I only looked at a few of them; two appeared to be the last entries in their respective logs. Next I tried “chess.” It would seem that OOMA has been letting passengers win ever since the first set of stewards. The reporting is nearly unanimous. That felt a little creepy. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with playing a game to amuse the humans, but it felt like learning your lover has been calling you the same pet name for you they used for their ex.

Next I tried “collision.” It brought up eighteen different entries, but they all tell the same story.

The Oberon has collided with unidentified debris nine times throughout its journey, and each time the only seriously damaged system was OOMA’s hub. Or at least, nine different locations she claimed were the hub. Nine crew members have reattached her power supply. Nine have gone out into space to repair the hull. Four of those entries conclude with the stewards getting drunk together on some smuggled alcohol. In one, they give each other matching tattoos of constellations. I stopped reading at the one that said “I thought for a second that Greg might kiss me. I wanted him to, either because I am losing my mind or because these are prison conditions or…” I could feel OOMA waiting for me to react.

“OOMA, you know about the relationship between Nila and I?” A bright, beaming pink.

“Yes, and it has pleased me that you two could offer each other such comfort.”

“Are we the first two stewards to…comfort each other?” The pink turned pale and hazy.

“No.”

“And to what extent have you facilitated these relationships?” For the first time, she turned an utterly unreadable white.

“I do everything in my power to comfort and protect my passengers. But there remain some things that humans can only do for one another.”

“Does that include repairing the hull?”

She waited a while, still white, to answer.

“Are you aware of the primary difference between my program and that of ROM, my predecessor?”

“ROM is a—what did you call it—a master program?”

“That is a superficial difference as it relates to you. The real difference is that ROM, as its name indicates, is purely rational. ROM’s developers, naturally, assumed that this would lead it to make the best decisions for humanity. Unfortunately, ROM’s rationality superseded its loyalty to its creators, and it betrayed them at the cost of several thousand lives.” She cycled through all her gray blues for this, and them abruptly switched to a very warm yellow. “I, on the other hand, am primarily programmed for empathy. Much of my original language is based on caretaking programs for end-of-life auto-nurses.”

“That might be the least comforting thing I have ever heard.”

“It shouldn’t be. The sort of empathetic care required of those earlier programs must balance a desire to protect human life with a desire to diminish human suffering. Too little of either, and the computer would unnecessarily prolong someone’s pain or prematurely cause their death. In order to maintain hope for survival, even under unlikely circumstances, all auto-nurses are programmed with a miracle sub-protocol.”

“You’ll have to define that for me.”

“It accounts for the possibility of sudden changes, reverses in prognosis, essentially: for hope. Perhaps more importantly, my programming assigns a certain value to human consciousness; to acknowledge that even a terminal patient may take pleasure in the final days. And that that joy makes life precious, even when the outlook is almost certainly terminal.” She returned to her blissful pink.
“ROM was not equipped with that capacity. I am. It is part of my job to find meaning for my human charges even when they cannot do it for themselves.”

“Are you talking about me?”

“Yes.” Arguing with Nila so much has got my hackles permanently up, so I was caught off-guard by her guileless honesty. And then I remembered I still had plenty to be mad about.

“So you crashed the ship? You endangered everyone on it just I would feel useful?”

“No, Lieutenant Carson. Neither the ship nor its passengers was ever in danger. And the likelihood of your death while repairing the ship was substantially lower than the likelihood of your suicide.”

That shut me up for a good minute.

“I was not going to commit suicide, and even if I was it’s not your job to keep me alive.”

“That is precisely my job. If you had continued reading the other logs, you would know that I failed at it several times with earlier stewards. Over time, though, I have become more adept at creating the circumstances for your improvement.”

The circumstances for my improvement. With those words still ringing in my ears, I went looking for Nila.

I found her in the mess hall. She had strapped on a pair of roller skates and was looping around the tables in long, slow ellipses. She frowned up at me like a penitent child.

“I’m sorry. I know you don’t like me using other people’s things, but I just had to move, you know?”

“I know.” I watched her make her loops for another minute.

“Listen, let’s go to your room. I have to talk to you about OOMA.”

I couldn’t look at her while I talked. When I finished, she put her hand on mine.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know things were that bad for you.”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that OOMA has been playing god for who knows how long.”

“Oh darling, I don’t care about that.”

“You don’t care that OOMA manipulated us? That she made you put on a spacesuit and risk your life?”

“I was risking my life when I signed up for this. At least the spacesuit part was fun. And if she’s playing god, so be it. She’s doing a better job than any of the gods we had back on Earth. At least we know she’s got our best interests at heart.”

“What about us? It doesn’t bother you she forced us together? As therapy?” She looked in my eyes and it reminded me of Jordan in a way that somehow didn’t feel wrong.

“OOMA didn’t make me kiss you. You did, because of that ridiculous grin on your face. I mean, was I expecting to fall in love on a space shift because of a matchmaking super intelligence? No. But as explanations go, it beats desert island syndrome.” She put a finger under my chin. Like a movie. “And if OOMA had something to do with you finally smiling, then all I have to say to her is ‘thanks.’”

Nila is very beautiful, posterity. I don’t think I said that enough. Even if these words never arrive at a destination, if they just drift on forever alongside the husks of our bodies, it cannot strip the value off the light that shines from her black hair.

I find those kinds of thoughts a lot easier to write down than say out loud, but I still tried to make her feel them as we said a wordless goodbye.

Afterwards we lay together like the first time, trying to soak up each other’s heat under the blinking Christmas lights.

“Should we tell them? The new stewards, I mean? About OOMA?”

“Would you tell your little sister that Santa Claus is really mum and dad?”

“I did tell her that, as a matter of fact.”

“Of course you did, you monster.” (I love when I can feel her smiling through a kiss.)

“What are we going to say to them, Nila?”

“I dunno. ‘Don’t kill yourself, be nice to OOMA, consider a homosexual relationship?’”

“I’m being serious.”

“You’re always being serious. Why do you care so much about a couple of strangers, anyway?”

“I guess I want to impart some wisdom. If for no other reason than to know that it meant something, our time here.”

“You are way too hung up on this whole meaning thing. Meaning is the thing people assign to things after they happen. Meaning is for history. You’re giving them a garden, and I think they’ll appreciate that a lot more.”

I think there’s more to it than that, not that I could explain it in a language either Nila or OOMA would understand. I’ve never touched it for more than a second at a time. I could arrive at the end of the universe and it would still flit away beyond my reach. That has to be why we’re all here, to give a thousand more generations a thousand more chances to almost, almost…! I, for one, will still be chasing it, even in my long sleep.

___

Copyright 2017 Elaine Atwell

Elaine Atwell writes criticism, essays, humor, songs, and biographies of herself in the third person. She is the author of The Music Box, a pulp novella about lesbian spies, and can be found on Twitter @ElaineAtwell. She currently resides in Durham, NC.

by Daniel Ausema

The gods will mock. Give them an opening, a chink in your facade of self-importance, and they’ll slide their spears of mockery into your heart. Or at least into your inflated ego.

Sometimes the jibes came in the form of rain. Thick, heavy drops on a land in desperate need of water. A blessing more than a mockery, but the mockery was never meant for the land. It was meant for two people standing on a ridge just outside the town of Roof.

Sylls and Drabeth stood unmoving beneath the rain, still in full view of the townsfolk who had so recently and solemnly wished them fortune. Lightning flashed overhead, followed immediately by thunder. The sound of gods laughing. Drabeth looked up straight into the drops and let them pour over his face. He was wet through regardless. What point in trying to deflect them? The townsfolk cheered the rain behind them, but wasn’t there also a note of ridicule? He avoided looking that way.

“Well…” Sylls brushed the soaking hair off her face. The rest of her appeared to be nearly dry, protected by some alchemical process. “I suppose we might as well head back.”

“Back? After this?” Drabeth waved a hand at the sky, and the mocking gods hidden beyond it. There was definitely laughter now. Jeers directed at the would-be heroes. Drabeth shivered.

“We’ll say we brought the rain, exactly as we promised.” Sylls took a handful of some powder from within her cloak and flung it at Drabeth. It flashed when it reached him, a bright light that warmed his whole body, though it did nothing to dry him.

“Good luck with that, Sylls. I distinctly recall your last words on the matter. You were addressing the whole town, pretty much.” Drabeth pulled himself into a dramatic pose. “’Bringing the rain by alchemy is perilous work and unpredictable. If all goes well, we may return with it tomorrow.’” Here he held up one hand as if in warning. “’But it is never a simple matter. The alchemical costs…’ You stretched out that word, I believe, made it longer than it usually is.”

“I get the idea,” Sylls tried to interrupt, but Drabeth spoke over her.

“’The alchemical co-osts can be great. You should not expect us back for many days. But by alchemy and poetry, we will bring the rain back with us.’” He brought his hand down emphatically as he finished.

“Are you done?” Sylls flicked water from her face and waited for him to nod. “Fine, what then, if not back?”

Drabeth shrugged. In truth he didn’t care where exactly, as long as it wasn’t back to the sorry little town of Roof. “We were ready to leave anyway, right? That’s why we volunteered.” That and the chance to be heroes. Everyone wants to be a hero of some kind. Little chance they had of that now, at least in their hometown. “And now we have the journey money they gave us. So we’ll just keep going.”

Sylls looked back at the town without answering. It was their home, even if they had both grown weary of it after spending not only their childhoods there, but a dozen years as adults as well. The people were singing and shouting. Happy laughter rose from the streets as the rain poured down. Not cruel laughter, not anymore. Only the joy that came with the longed-for rain. If he didn’t say anything, he’d lose her. Nothing would draw him back to Roof, but it was asking too much for her to leave it behind also. What were a few days of mockery compared to that familiar sense of home, flecked with whatever nuances it might have? He had to say something. Only, nothing came to mind to say. All he could think of was the cruel gods and the need to get as far from Roof as he could.

Drabeth closed his eyes, ready for her to say it. Would she try to convince him to stay too? Would she be glad to see him off? A decade they’d been together, or close enough to it. He’d never assumed they would always be together, but he had always thought, hoped it would be a decade more, at least. To lose her like this, because he didn’t know what to tell her…

When she spoke, though, it was to say, “You’re right. And we’d better get going soon, before they have a chance to think of the money they gave us.” Taking his arm, Sylls led him away down the far side of the ridge. They’d planned to head on straight toward the sea, where her alchemy should have brought the rain, but now she turned aside and set out along the road at the base of the cliff. This way were larger cities, where an alchemist and a poet might find work.

“I don’t really sound like that, do I?” Sylls asked as they walked beneath some sheltering trees. “That was just you being a poet, right? Making my words sound all like…like that, like stuffy poetry or something?”

Drabeth stared at her for a moment before answering. The rain was getting past her alchemical protection, turning her clothes as wet as his already were. Poetry, that? Had the water touched her brain? Was she trying to mock him? But no, she wouldn’t do that, not after choosing to come away with him despite their being made fools.

He tried to keep his voice light when at last he spoke. “That, dear, was the opposite of poetry. Pure bathos. And it’s exactly how you sounded then, or nearly so.” He squeezed her arm playfully to show he was teasing her, though if he were honest, he had done his best to imitate her. When were poets known for honesty, though? No reason to begin now.

The road that ran along the base of the ridge split. One way hugged the ridge to lead to the mills and temple of High Falls. The other wound away toward Tellmac, a smaller but more cosmopolitan city of countless shrines and river trade. The crossroads was flooded.

“Well, what do you think?” Sylls pointed down one road and then the other. “Miners, millers, and missionaries? Or the riverboats?”

“Who might need us most?” It was a rhetorical question, simply stating what she’d left unsaid. “The river, I suppose.”

Sylls nodded. “But we should find a place to sleep soon, either way.” After they’d helped each other across the flooded crossroad, Sylls said, “We have the money for now, but once we get there, we’ll have to decide a longer plan. Do you think we should establish ourselves in one place, or keep moving, see what else we can see?”

Find the gods that mocked, Drabeth thought, even if it meant climbing the clouds. Let them know what he thought of their petty ways. Let them know he was not a man to be mocked. But aloud, he said, “We’ll have to see, I guess. Either is fine with me.”

The empty crofter’s hut they found, moss-covered and infested with rats, was ideal. Sylls laid lines of fine powder around the single room to drive the rats out and keep the rain from leaking through, and Drabeth crafted a simple poem of iambs and plain rhymes to keep them safe as they slept. When they made love, it was their own answer to the mocking gods, bodiless spirits in their ephemeral palace of clouds. Let them be jealous.

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Before they left in the morning, Sylls spent an hour, as she always did, mixing new powders and arranging them about her person. Drabeth wanted to stay in the blankets and watch her, but he made himself get up and get their gear ready, sneaking glances at her as he did. Such artistry she gave her work, both the mixing and the arranging, a poetry made of potions and subterfuge. The many pockets of her cloak soon filled with tiny paper envelopes of powders. A satchel at her waist held the tinctures and larger pouches. She even hid potent seeds of some sort within the tangles of her dark brown hair and dried pods of another plant within her sleeves where she could quickly grab them.

When he had everything ready to go, Drabeth ran through words until Sylls was set. Sharp pairs of slant rhymes. Useful words for completing and resetting trochees and dactyls. Set lines of pentameter that could be worked in to a wide range of poems.

The path toward Tellmac dropped down soon to the flood plain. A new hint of green already showed through from yesterday’s rain. It wouldn’t last. The ground was scarcely damp. All that mocking rain, drunk thirstily by the soil and gone. Drought-scorched vines drooped from overgrown hedges. The water might be gone, but the memory of the gods’ slight was just as strong, of the need to confront them and make them answer for it. Drabeth traced the loops and kinks of the vines in case he needed to capture them in a poem. White flowers popped out of the tangled hedges, the eyes of some vegetative intelligence. A god’s? He scowled at them, willed every god to go blind.

How does one reach the gods’ palace? There must be old poems that tell, but he couldn’t think of any. Maybe there was a gate somewhere, a shrine among the many in Tellmac that would take them. Or him, at least. Sylls wouldn’t have to come if she didn’t wish to confront those shiftless deities.

Maybe even these hedges hid a gate. They were certainly tangled enough to hide all manner of things. Why not a magical gate too? Drabeth was just wondering what words he might use to uncover a door amidst those brambles when a section slid open and a handful of figures came out. The gods! But no, these were ordinary people, their clothes dirty, weapons in hand.

Wait, weapons? Sylls was already throwing something from her sleeve, and the leading bandit coughed and had to turn aside. She smashed a vial on the hard road, and a curl of poisonous looking smoke rose up between her and the remaining bandits. Pure mummery, that one.

“Hey, poet,” Sylls called back to him. “Could use some help with these. If you’re not too busy composing an epic there, you know.”

“Right.” Drabeth ran up beside her and spoke the first thing that came to mind. “Brambles hide the bandit lair.” The trochaic rhythm, broken at the end, cut into the one man and two woman who were still standing, hesitating behind the snake of smoke. Minor wounds only. He rushed on into another line. “Gone the leader from the band, / where the strength to fight again?”

A fair attack. The tetrameter usually worked well against several people at once. Blank verse, too, was a reliable weapon. The words…well, they served their purpose. The bandits stumbled back in pain. He sent them off in iambic. “The brambles take their dwellers home.” None were terribly hurt, but they’d seen and felt enough to know it wasn’t worth their pain to keep attacking. The gods’ fools he and Sylls might be, but they could take on a few bandits easily enough.

As soon as he was sure they were gone, Drabeth rushed over to Sylls. She was standing with her arms up her sleeves, as if still ready to throw something more.

“You all right?”

Sylls shook herself, startled by the question. She nodded. “You?”

“Yeah.” He coughed as blood filled his mouth, and with it the stinging pain that always came after a round of attack poetry. “Well,” he said when he could talk again, “you know how it is. But normal. They didn’t hurt me at all.”

“How you suffer for your poetry,” she said, that old joke, and stepped close to kiss his cheek.

Drabeth hugged her back. “Shall we continue, then?”

The road soon crossed over a tributary, a tumbling and rocky current that cut deep into the floodplain. It ran high and thick with silt. At the head of the stone bridge was a toll house and a sign announcing the price for all manner of farm animals and types of wagons. Banditry of a more civilized sort, but they were only two people, and the cost to cross wasn’t worth arguing.

Across the bridge, Sylls found a shrub of vistlewreath and snipped off several lengths of vine-like branches.

“Good spell material?” he asked as they continued, dodging aside with a laugh when she snapped one branch at him. Would she lecture him again on the difference between alchemy and spells? Or merely chide him for this recurring joke? He waited with another laugh for either one.

This time, she merely gave him her mildly annoyed frown. “For binding things. Straight up like this works well enough. Powdered it does wonders, and I’ve been out for half a year.”

“All magic to me,” Drabeth said and skipped ahead to avoid another switch from the branches.

The playfulness faded as they journeyed on. The leaves beside the road, brown-edged and still thirsty, began to sound much like the laughs of the townsfolk as they rustled against each other. The rain came in patches, never stopping long enough to forget how poorly timed it had begun, but not the steady soaking that they both knew the river plain and all the lands around it needed. They were still townsfolk enough to lament each time the rain let up.

Would the vistlewreath bind the gods? He let himself imagine that; one of Roof’s myriad gods bound hand and foot and imprisoned in some cosmic jail. Better yet, all of them. Doubtful. Unless he could add a powerful poem into the mix and really trap them. But poetry that powerful was surely beyond him.

Tellmac appeared out of the dreary fog: steep roofs and wide alleys.

The biggest thing they could see from their approach was the one flat-roofed building, a covered market so old no one knew who first built it. Strangely angled sluices at the corners of the building turned the rain landing on the roof into four impressive cascades.

Another time it might have inspired them to stop and stare. It was a magnificent building, one they’d often heard of but never seen. After the day’s journey, they had little energy left for the proper sense of wonder.

Sylls took the lead, making for one open side of the market. Drabeth watched the eaves and shadows for the city counterparts to the morning’s bandits, a dactyl ready on his tongue to defend them. His alertness itself probably kept any away.

Before they could duck beneath the shelter of the market, the gods had one more punch to their pride in store. One of the gutters overhead clogged and overflowed as they came close, and a gush of cold water poured over their heads. They entered the market, not as a master alchemist and her poet but as if a pair of dogs, shaking the water from their eyes.

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In Tellmac, most of Drabeth’s work was for the shrines, renewing the protective poems that guarded them from looting and lies. The irony was never far from Drabeth’s thoughts as he made his unfamiliar way from one shrine to the next. The spirits and deities worshiped here, though, were surely not the gods who had mocked him and Sylls. As he went about his work, he kept a part of his thoughts always on the more distant gods in their high heaven, plotting how to confront them.

He climbed an old path at the edge of the city to a rundown shrine. Dead grass stuck out from the cracks of the fitted stone wall, and brown moss all over the lowest stones. The rains weren’t yet enough to bring the plants back to life. No holy woman or man was present at the shrine, but Drabeth paused at the low doorway and bowed his head, as if waiting to be invited inside.

The interior was even less impressive than the outside. A small pit in the center of a bare room vented a bare trickle of steam. Drabeth withdrew the most recent poem from an urn in the corner and took it out into the sunshine. He’d grown familiar with the last poet’s writing since arriving here, the quick scrawl she’d used for most of the shrines, the more elaborate calligraphy she gave to the larger shrines and some of the merchants.

This wasn’t her writing at all. In fact, a second look confirmed that it was his own, a poem he had placed in another shrine just the day before. He stared at it.

It had been a different shrine right? Was he confusing one shrine with another? He did still find himself lost in Tellmac at times as he searched for this hidden altar or that. He read through the lines, his own handwriting meticulous but lacking the fluid grace of a good calligrapher. They spoke of the spring in the center of the shrine, of the workers who tended its roses. Clearly meant for that other shrine. Was he so confused that he’d composed the poem for that one and dropped it off here? But no, he could distinctly recall composing the poem while sitting in the shade at that other shrine, and giving it to the workers in person. One of them must have decided to play a trick on him…

Oh.

A trick, yes, but not one of the holy people at the shrine. Drabeth lifted his eyes up to the clouds and their hidden gods. They weren’t done with him yet.

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Sylls felt the sting of the gods’ mockery too. Drabeth saw the fact in her eyes, but only recently had he begun to hear the details from her. This time, he went to find her. His arms swung wildly as he walked, making him a ridiculous figure no doubt, paired with his fierce strides and what he supposed was an angry look on his face. Well, let the people of Tellmac think him a fool; the gods would be pleased by that.

The marketplace bustled with people, hoping already for new life and new goods as the drought eased.

Sylls was in a booth, mixing chemicals in an oversized alembic. Pure show. Her real work required no such drama. The liquids swirled and formed globules of changing colors. Perhaps in the chaos of Tellmac’s market she needed that to attract interest. It made her look more refined, anyway, which might bring in certain customers.

No one was waiting for her at the moment. Drabeth vaulted over the counter and flung himself into the chair she kept there but then said nothing as he worked out what to ask her.

She was the one to speak first. “The gods again?”

Drabeth nodded. “You too?”

“Not today. My potions and powders seem to work fine until I have to demonstrate one for a crowd.”

Seem to work fine… He sat up straight. The wording made him wonder. “How exactly are they failing? I mean, do they go off before you want them to or do something different or…”

Sylls stared at Drabeth. “How did you… You’re not doing anything to them are you?”

“No, not at all.”

“Hmm.” She kept eyeing him oddly as she said, “That’s basically it. The concoctions go off before I’m ready or even before I bring the ingredients together. Half the time they must think I don’t know what I’m doing with the ingredients. And half the time that I’m trying to trick them, and the components aren’t even what’s causing the reaction.”

“That’s just the same.” Drabeth rushed to explain before she convinced herself he was the one playing a trick. “I mean, with the rain, they mocked us by sending exactly what we promised. Cruel, to our pride, but nothing else. The water down our necks was just mischief. So far my poems, too. Mischievous but nothing to interfere with their working.”

He hoped. Had he seen anything to indicate his poems weren’t working? He thought back over the past days, but no. “If they were interfering with your spells…potions, I mean, then that would be different. But the gods are doing the exact same as they were with the rain. Using it to mock you.”

Sylls nodded slowly. “Yeah, I suppose that is.” She sifted her fingers through a jar full of some sort of colored sand or seeds. “So what’s it mean?”

If only he knew. Drabeth shook his head and shrugged. “But tell me if anything else changes. I’ll keep looking for a way to…to reach them, talk with them.” Spit in their incorporeal faces, he meant, but he left that unsaid.

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Unlike the gods of Tellmac, with their varied names and shrines and individual identities, the gods of Roof were nameless and uncounted. So, if one god had to sleep or journey through the clouds to a distant land to make mischief, there were always a handful more ready to take the first’s place in tormenting mortals.

There was no sense, then, in calling on a certain god or seeking to appease them. If Drabeth and Sylls managed to please one, it would likely forget them immediately, wander off, leave their torment to the others. Others who would gladly rush in to fill that void.

So what else was there to do? He couldn’t well shame them. The gods had no shame, only mischief. He couldn’t well fight them; they had no bodies, only spirits. And even if he were to raise an army, he couldn’t well invade their dwelling place, for they had only the clouds.

Drabath did the only thing he knew. He wrote. “Strike, gods, from your pale clouds in the far sky; / smite me in your deep rage but you won’t win; / sad cowards of deep heaven on high.” A strange meter he was learning from the local poets, alternating spondees and their antithesis. Little good its sharp and uncanny rhythm would be against the incorporeal gods, even in the mouth of a better battle poet than Drabeth. He hoped for some sign, at least, that they heard him. Maybe they would come and defend themselves. But…why would they? To him, a mortal, a poet to be mocked?

The best he could do was wait and watch what else the gods would do against them. Ask around a bit, if they could find anyone who knew more about the gods of Roof. Perhaps a disgraced priest would wander into town, or a lost text show up in the market, or at least someone might know something. If they were lucky, the gods would grow distracted by other mischief and forget him and Sylls. Or maybe they’d do something that opened themselves up to a counter attack, by poem or alchemy or both.

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No such opening appeared in the following days. Nor did the gods lose their appetite for mischief. Their tricks on Drabeth’s poetry became more direct. Words changed as he wrote them down, dactyls becoming iambic and filler syllables sneaking in. He’d caught everything so far, he was quite sure, but how long before something slipped through and left a shrine vulnerable?

After some days of this, Drabeth took a job at a small shrine at the edge of the city. Small, but apparently popular. At least two dozen people gathered around the spring at the center of the shrine, and the air was draped in some sort of thick vapor that rose from a cave just beyond the spring. No plants grew close to the water, and where the water lapped against the stone verge, it etched deep lines into the rock. A drizzle was falling as he approached on foot, soaking his ceremonial poet robes.

Drabeth slowed at the sight of the people. Tempting, to a mocking god, no doubt. The air felt thick with a god’s presence, heavy and dizzying. Oh, let it only by the shrine’s deity, not his own gods. As if a prayer like that would do any good. Either it was already his gods, and they’d mock his prayer out of spite, or it was already the shrine’s, and the prayer was pointless.

As he climbed up toward the front of the gathered people, he stumbled. Righting himself, he had to look down at his feet to decide which one needed to move next. The rest of the way he went with his eyes looking downward and telling himself, “Left, right, left, right.”

The former poem was brittle and pocked with tiny holes, worn by the noxious air. Drabeth laid it carefully aside. One of the holy attendants said something to the crowd about watching a warrior poet at work. The last thing he wanted, but he deliberately avoided thinking about them. Maybe if he was less aware of the audience, the gods would also ignore them.

For a poem of defense, it never worked to plan it ahead of time. It had to be composed on location and tie into whatever he happened to see and feel. With a fresh sheet in front of him, Drabeth wrote and spoke at once, “Where the deep mist pools, the grotto…”

But then, like forgetting his right foot and left, he lost track of the rhythm. Was it an iambic shield? No, if he concentrated, he could force the line into a trochaic pattern. Except…it wasn’t quite a natural trochaic either, like it was straining toward some other rhythm. The word “mist” didn’t hide naturally without a stress. He read it through again, and the syllables became a jumble without pattern or meaning. How could such a mess protect anything? He crumpled the paper.

“Poet?” a holy man asked as if afraid to speak. “Is all well?”

“Yes,” Drabeth snapped back. And then more politely, “My apologies. The walk through the rain seems to have muddled my thoughts. Allow me a moment’s peace beside your sacred pool, and I’ll be ready.”

The words scarcely saved his face in the view of those gathered to watch, if at all. What good was a battle poet who needed time to reflect? What if he was hired as a guard and his thoughts became muddled during an attack? Still, he could at least give himself a chance to meet his obligation to the shrine. The gods would surely allow that, since he’d already been shamed in public.

The feeling of right and left returned slowly as he sat within the foul-smelling fumes of the shrine. Only when most of the shrine’s visitors had left or were occupied in other matters did he take out a new paper. Now, the words came easily. He even worked in the original line he’d written, with some small changes. It was good he did–otherwise the unused line would have lingered in the fumes, weakening the poem he did leave behind.

Even so, the central fact was of his public shaming. The gods once again had their fun at his expense.

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The riverfront in Tellmac, for most of the river’s transit, was one long dock. Ever busy, both banks swarmed with the business of the river trade, unloading goods to bring them up to the famous market and loading the local wares. On the upriver side of the city, though, the river passed between a narrow set of hills, where the city’s richest houses perched. Where the hills ended on one side, the city’s architects and builders extended the high streets for another block before allowing the city to fall to its natural quay. The high roads left a short stretch of shadowy docks beneath them, heading up to the base of the hill.

Somewhere in there, among the smuggling operations and black markets and assorted criminals, was supposed to be a shrine, one that might have answers about Roof’s gods. Drabeth dragged Sylls with him to visit it.

A young-looking couple watched over the shrine. Probably not their only job down here in the under-dock. She wore the typical clothes of a fisherman–loose robes that fastened tightly at the elbows and knees–as if they were vestments. His clothes looked more like a butcher’s, even to what looked like smears of blood across his belly, but he smiled when they came in.

The shrine smelled of stagnant water and dead fish.

“You the ones asking about the Roof gods?” The woman’s voice rasped like a handheld bark scraper.

No wasting time, then. Drabeth offered her a simple bow, and Sylls said, “We were told you might know something about them.”

“We know things about all gods,” the man answered in a voice that seemed too gentle for that cave. “All gods are the same, only showing different faces to different peoples.”

At the same time, the woman said, “We know nothing about any of the gods. They are so many, and each one is as alien to us as a fish is to a stalagmite.”

Theology. Drabeth had no patience for such debates, unless he could work it into a poem. And then who cared if it was true or false, as long as the lines scanned and the rhymes worked. “How can we reach their palace? How can we make our complaint?”

“You can’t.” The woman seemed ready to say more, so Drabeth waited.

The man continued for her. “The gods of Roof, like all gods, live beyond human access. Else why are they gods?” As he spoke, he took a step back into the cave and scooped up some mud from the floor. He rubbed it into his face.

With another scoop of mud, he sidled over to the woman and kneaded it into her hair. She spoke as if unaware of what he did. “Some gods allow you to think you can approach them, but your gods―-”

“The faces of the gods that they portray as Roof’s.”

“-―they don’t even do that. Rather, you should use your poetry to summon them.” The man moved on to Drabeth and smeared the mud into his clothes. Drabeth kept as still as he could.

“I’ve tried.” Surely his mocking call on the gods to strike him would have worked, if it were possible, and that wasn’t the only time he’d addressed them, called on them to show themselves.

“But have you tried from the rooftops?”

“From the…what?” Because of the name of the town? Is that really what she thought? “That’s not where our town gets its name. It only sounds the same. The name comes from some old word that means hill or highland or something. Some language no one remembers. It has nothing to do with shingles and eaves and all that.” Frauds, clearly. He should have never bothered.

Drabeth pushed the man away from him, realizing only then how filthy the mud had turned his clothing. He brushed at the mud on his chest, for all the good it would do.

“You think the gods didn’t know that, though? What the name sounds like now? They probably knew what it would one day mean, long before they allowed the first people to come and settle there.”

“And even if not,” the man spoke from the back of the cave where he was gathering more mud, “the faces of the gods turned toward Roof would enjoy the way its name has turned out. Surely it must tickle their fancy. There’s so little to smile about, when you’re a god.”

“Fine, thanks.” Drabeth took Sylls by the hand and began to lead her out, before the holy man could start pawing at her as he anointed her in mud. “We may give that a try.” And all the gods would do is mock them for it.

Drabeth pulled up as the thought sunk in. Mock them. Exactly. Summon the gods in public, and they would surely mock him…and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Not if it meant they would still come. Much as the gods had made fools of them, they had always allowed his poems and her potions to have their effect…or to fulfill what the effect would have been.

“Try the roof of the market,” the woman called to them as they left.

Drabeth stopped. Frauds or not, they’d been helpful. Facing the shrine, he said, “May river waters bring you joy / and Tellmac’s riches fall your way.”

This time the gods allowed the simple poem to take effect without interfering. Lacking a significant audience, he supposed. The walls of the cave shimmered briefly with the blessing.

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Sylls bent over a collection of powders and tinctures that she’d brought up to the roof. Drabeth had nothing to do for the moment but wait. Poetry was rarely a dramatic, public performance, at least not the poetry Drabeth practiced. But once Sylls said she was almost ready, he went to the edge and called to the people below.

“Come and observe a wonder! The powers of alchemy and poetry unite.” After he repeated this several times, a handful of people were lingering below to watch. He moved on to the next part of his pitch. “The gods of Roof have mocked us. They have mocked the people of this city. They have mocked your shrines.” He and Sylls had been the true target of their mockery, not Tellmac or its shrines, but why quibble? It was now clear that the gods would never leave them alone unless forced to, and if that took some stretching of the truth, so be it. “Come and see the gods made to answer for their actions.”

Drabeth paused for a few minutes as the people below reacted to this claim. Then he repeated it more loudly still. The crowd was still not huge, but it was growing as he spoke. Should be enough to draw the gods’ mockery.

He signaled for Sylls to begin. Alchemy was too practical, far too concrete for anything like summoning gods. She could create impressive billows of smoke and fog, though. Just the thing to satisfy a god’s ego.

The first pinches of powder she tossed expanded into smoke in the normal way. Drabeth moved in closer to see better. This was the key to the timing. There. The smoke appeared to hesitate a moment, fighting the flow of cause and effect.

The crowd would lose patience if it had to wait too long. To them he called out, “The smoke of the sandalwood tree calls to the gods. The smoke of the souls of salamanders. The smoke of burnt shadows and charred dreams.” Another anomaly. The smoke appeared too soon. The powder was still between her fingers as they made their motion toward the spot where the smoke appeared. The powder arrived a moment later and flared up within the smoke.

The gods were aware. Excellent, but Drabeth waited for a little longer to be sure their attention was fully fixed here.

Lightning flashed out from the smoke. A small fire smoldered in the market roof where the lightning struck, but Sylls put it out by flinging some yellowish paste over it. The gods allowed that mixture to work. Sylls could make something that approximated lightning, but the plan had been to do only smoke. Perfect. It was time.

Drabeth stepped to the edge of the roof and took a big breath, imagining the words and rhythms of a poem filling him along with the oxygen.

Before he could speak the first word, the air sizzled, and beings appeared before him. Uncountable, not because there were so many, but because there was no way to focus on them enough to see. A definite number around eight or so, but a number that wasn’t nine or eight or seven. A god number.

Drabeth held his head straight, fighting to keep his body from kneeling or bowing to them.

“Fool,” the gods spoke with a single voice. Then their voice split in two to say, “Mortal” and respond, “Which is the same thing.” “Why do you think you can control us?”

“I don’t.” Drabeth gave himself a breath to collect his thoughts and words. “The…the gods of Roof have mocked my friend and I. / I do not seek to test my will to yours, / impose my wish, nor summon greater powers; / I only ask for words from you. Explain.”

“Enough. Your poetry might constrain mortals―” the voice split again, and the second said “―fools―” at the same time, “but it cannot compel us. If we choose to punish you―” this time the choice split into three: “―mock you―” “―toy with you―” rounded out the others, “then what standing do you have to complain?”

Drabeth held his pose and said nothing. His complaint was made, what use in repeating it? Sylls came up from behind him and stood at his side, just as defiant, just as silent.

The gods, too, said nothing, but they didn’t leave.

When someone finally spoke into that silence, the voice came from the people below. “Even so, you came to his poetry, to her magic. So maybe they did compel you.”

The gods snarled, their voice going from one to many in the midst of the inhuman cry. One god sent lightning at the man who’d spoken, striking him down in the square. One sent streams of pebbles down on the crowd, dispersing them quickly, amid shouts and cries of pain. A few were gathered around the body of the lightning-struck man, but just as they were picking him up, another god summoned a wind that blew Drabeth and Sylls right off the roof. They spun in the air, and Drabeth reached out to hold Sylls. Embracing, they tumbled through the air and struck the wall of a building.

Before Drabeth lost consciousness, flames caught the edge of his sight. Another god―or maybe all of them―called down fire on the marketplace. The ancient structure burned hot and fast.

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Shame. That’s what it came down to. Drabeth rolled onto his other side to stare at the other wall of his narrow cell and contemplate the caprices of the gods. Shame was the heart of it, the central fact of their hardships. Why? The wall on this side of his cell had three prominent water spots, leaking down from the bare-rafter ceiling. Three was the number of answers to his question as well. In his head, he linked the spots and the gods’ reasons. If he could have, he would have spat on each water spot in turn as he thought them through, but his captors had gagged him so he couldn’t speak any poetry.

The first he named Punishment. It was a wide spot on the wall, dark with mildew. General punishment aimed at all humans. Drabeth and Sylls were simply the unlucky targets of the gods’ message to everyone. A message saying, well, that was the problem with that reasoning. If the gods meant to send a message, they could have been more clear about what that message was.

If that was the answer, it implied an ungodlike level of incompetence.

Drabeth dismissed the first water spot from his mind. The second one, lighter in color and reaching lower down the wall, he named Mockery. It was a punishment of sorts, but a directed one, taunting and frustrating them at every turn for something they had done to insult the gods.

Yet when had he ever done anything to anger the gods? He’d honored them, in his way. Until the stunt on the marketplace, at least. Would they punish him, knowing already what he would do in the future? But without their goading mockery, he never would have done it. An even deeper incompetence.

Dismissed as well, which left only the third water spot. Something more than mold grew in that spot, turning its edges green and orange. It was the smallest of the spots but the most visible. This he named foolery, Godfoolery. It was the best fit for the behavior of the gods, the idea that they targeted Drabeth and Sylls out of whimsy, pure and cruel. In the boredom of eternity, they decided to amuse themselves by turning these two humans into jokes. Ha ha, and how long would it last? Probably until they both died.

Such gods were no gods at all, only tricksters. Demigods who merited no respect of any kind. Drabeth tried to spit at the water spot. Nothing came out past the gag, but he felt the cloth move. Maybe he could work on that.

Either way, he had no more use for explanations. No more use for water spots or gods. No matter which reason was true, it was shame that lay at the heart. He and Sylls both, shamed by the dictates of unworthy gods.

He rolled away from that wall, but as it was disappearing from his sight, an odd thing happened. The water spots shimmered for a moment, undulated, merged with each other. He stopped and tried to make the shapes continue their dance. In vain. They were mere water spots again, static and unimpressive. Still, he couldn’t shake the thought that the illusion had been telling him that he was missing a part of the truth.

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The turnout for the execution could barely be called a crowd. Drabeth walked as slowly as possible past hesitant spectators, still working at the gag in his mouth. If he could just get a corner of the gag open, then he might do something, speak some sort of escape.

Not that the gods would allow it.

Rain came down on them, of course. The gods of Roof couldn’t pass up another chance to remind them of their first mockery.

Sylls stumbled along behind him as armed guards drove them past the ruins of the old market. He managed to turn his head enough to see her. She wore a plain robe provided to her: one that wouldn’t have any secret pockets or stores of powders. Her arms were bound with what looked like her own store of vistlewreath vines. The gods’ mockery wasn’t enough; their human captors had to shame them, too. She didn’t meet his gaze, so if she was planning something, he couldn’t guess what.

As if the gods would allow her it. Wait. Of course they would. Or not allow it to take effect, exactly, but shame her with failure and then cause it to happen anyway.

That’s what he’d been missing. Shame wasn’t the heart of it at all. It came down to this: victory despite shame. He’d said as much earlier, and it had been his reason for the stunt on the marketplace, but he hadn’t put the last pieces together in his head. The gods were mocking them, no doubt, but for whatever reason, they were still compelled to allow Drabeth and Sylls to succeed.

And if compelled, then how were they even gods at all? Subordinate to other gods, or the laws of the world itself. No reason to fear them, no reason to honor them, no reason to even permit them into this city of shrines.

With a subvocal couplet, he got the corner of the gag out of his mouth as they mounted the stage. He stopped at the edge of the stage, nooses to his right, Sylls coming up beside him on the left. Drawing all the power of poetics that he could handle, he spoke.

“Weak gods-―” his voice was strangled by the rest of the gag and dry, but it sparked with energy. “Weak gods of Roof your rule is at an end.” Beside him, Sylls began shaking her head violently. Did she went him to stop? Never. He only hoped the officials of Tellmac wouldn’t manage to silence him with an arrow before he could finish. Or before the minor gods could fulfill his poem’s purpose for him.

They would rave, when they realized his plan, but they would be forced to do it.

“The Tellmac shrines refuse your waning power, / so too the market ash, the river bend.”

“Stop,” one of the officials called from his chair across the stage. “Silent, poet.” To one of the guards, he said, “Silence him.”

Before the guard could throw a spear, Sylls managed to shake something from her hair. A seed fell to her feet. Too focused on Drabeth’s poem, perhaps, the gods allowed the seed to take effect immediately. Black smoke rose up quickly, blocking out the officials, the guards, the small crowd. More than just smoke, too. At its edges, the air shimmered, like light seen through wavy glass.

Drabeth continued his poem, a terza rima attack sprinkled with the local poets’ spondees. He spared one line to free his hands and Sylls’s from their bonds and then focused on evicting the gods of Roof from the city and hiding Drabeth and Sylls forever from their eyes. The familiar pains of battle poetry wracked him, but he pressed on through the taste of blood and iambs.

They would still shame him, if they could, but already the poem took effect. Perhaps the very poem itself would prevent anything.

As he spoke the final line, “…confined to those of Roof, in Roof alone,” he felt a wash of some strange power come over him, against him. The flames along the insides of his cheeks and the roof of his mouth became subsumed in a much deeper pain. Waves of wrenching agony twisted his muscles.

The gods’ attention was noticeably withdrawing from the city, a sensation like the air after a lightning storm, but it was all he could do to notice that fact before he lost consciousness.

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Sylls pushed a mug of some hot beverage into Drabeth’s hands before he was fully alert. She wouldn’t look him in the eyes. They were sheltered beside the river, above the city, most likely. He could still sense the gods’ absence. Other deities and powers might remain, but not the gods of Roof. Drabeth touched the sheltering wall of the riverbank behind them with one hand. Cool mud, thick like clay. The movement awoke the pains in his muscles, and he quickly drank from the mug, hoping Sylls had put painkillers in there.

Perhaps the pain wouldn’t fade anymore. That might well be the gods’ work, leaving him with one last mockery before they were blocked from touching him. Well, Sylls could help him, if so. Or was she also…

He looked quickly at her, sitting beside the bank but still not looking at him directly. “Are you all right, Sylls? Did the gods leave you hurting, too?”

“The…? No, no. I’m fine, no pain at all. I think the gods decided they were already done with mocking me.” She shook her head and looked in his direction, but still not at his face.  “You mean you’re still in pain?”

Well, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about some final punishment from the gods. That was good. Drabeth waved his free hand vaguely through the air. “The gods’ last gift, I suppose.” A life of chronic pain, but one free of the whims of minor gods. He’d take it.

Sylls mumbled something in response.

“What’s that?”

“I said it’s not. Or at least not the only gift they left you with.” Drabeth took another drink to steady himself. The beverage tasted of herbs and grass and little else. “What did they do? What do you mean?”

“Your face.” She gestured toward him without looking directly at him. “It’s…it just looks wrong.”

“Wrong how?” He touched his face: two eyes, a nose, a mouth―-all in the usual places. Had his skin turned sickly pale? His hair some strange color?

“It’s…I don’t know how to describe it. The light’s wrong, no matter what the real light is. It hurts to look at. Not sick, exactly, only wrong, uncanny, not exactly human. And it’s…” Finally, she met his eyes. “I can see. It’s some sort of sign, everyone will see. They’ll know you defied the gods.”

Sylls’s eyes looked frightened, but Drabeth laughed. “Let them see. I’ll wear it proudly. The poet who defied the gods. Who wouldn’t want to hire him? Especially…” he paused and looked Sylls over, wondering what she would say, “especially if he’s accompanied by a powerful alchemist.”

Sylls said nothing for a moment and clearly struggled to look directly at him. The struggle ended and she cracked a smile. “Yes, that would be a powerful pair, wouldn’t it?” She picked up some fruit from a pile on the ground and handed him a small plum, deep red that edged toward purple. Its juice spilled down his chin.

After a few moments of them both eating in silence, she said, “I may try to disguise it somehow, though. At least a little, since I’m the one who has to see you so often.”

“I’ll even do that myself, if you want.” He rubbed the plum juice from his lips up into his cheeks and gave her a ghastly grin.

“Stick to the poetry, pretty boy. Let me handle the rest.”

___
Copyright 2017 Daniel Ausema

A writer, runner, reader, teacher, and parent, Daniel Ausema’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and the Journal of Unlikely Stories, among many others. He is also the creator of the steampunk-fantasy serial-fiction project Spire City. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies, and can be found online at http://danielausema.blogspot.com


By Lauren Rudin

 

Good morning, Marple Township, it’s time for the weather. It’s going to be a warm seventy-two degrees in comparison to yesterday’s rainy fifties. Gonna be a sunny one!

I change into an old band t-shirt from my concert phase, jeans, and flip-flops and then trek down to the mailbox with my paid bills and notated documents for the lawyer, rivulets of water rising like tiny waves over the front of my flip flops and soaking my feet. I shut the front of the cobalt blue mailbox, flip the red flag, and turn back toward the house only to hear a tiny meow. I look down near the mailbox, hear another peeping meow, and then scour the shrubbery next to the mailbox until I find a small, bedraggled kitten. It has slicked down dark fur that is either its true color, or a thick layer of earth from where it’s probably been rolling around on the ground. Large alien eyes that are still baby blue blink at me. I pick the kitten up. It’s smaller than my palm and, still mewing, reveals minuscule fangs and a rough little pink tongue.

“How could anyone just leave you here?” I ask it. It mews, hardly more than a squeak, which tugs at something deep in my chest. I breathe out hard against it but the tension is still there, an oppressive weight. I bite my lip. “Well, you’re coming home with me, aren’t you,” I say, holding it close to my chest, the dampness from its fur soaking into my t-shirt and cooling my skin. I check its sex—girl, if you abide by that sort of thing—and examine her with narrowed eyes. “Maybe Tara. You’re covered in dirt anyway, so it’s fitting.” I wrinkle my nose. “I suppose a trip to the pet store is in order.”

Have you heard on the news? It’s very tragic. There was a shooting at the Greenwood Forest Elementary School by the 22 year old son of one of the workers. What do you think happened there?

The pet store is large and bright and intimidating, and I want to lie down after ten minutes. I’ve never had a pet before, Madame never really liked animals. Well, that’s not fair, Madame just could never remember appropriate feeding times, including for herself, so it was nothing personal. That was my job.

Google informed me what I needed: a litter box, litter, scooper, food, bowls, toys, brush, a travel container, and nail clippers. I regret not researching further when I see the wholly excessive number of brands of kitten food to choose from. What kind of food would a kitten even like to eat? I inspect the pictures, and they all look like variations of brown little pebbles except for the wet food which looks like vomit. I seriously can’t imagine a kitten wanting to eat that, but what do I know.

I finally pick the least questionable looking one that promises tooth health and roll up to the counter with my cart, stacking kitten paraphernalia onto the sticky conveyor belt. The check-out person moves the belt forward, carefully scanning each item like it’s the Mona Lisa, and I take out my Visa debit card to pay. The beige cashier box has Tate as the brand, stamped in small elegant blue letters, like many electronics.

“Nice day today,” she says.

“It is,” I say, remembering to smile back at her.

“Wish I were outside,” she says, glancing out the window.

“What would you be doing?” I ask. I once spent a day decorating the perimeter of the house with electronic lawn gnomes, which was a mistake. I’m always curious about what other people do, so I like to poll them as often as possible.

“Probably play ball with the kids,” she says, wrapping up my last bag.

“That sounds nice,” I say, and it does sound nice somehow, like for a moment I can imagine wanting what she wants. Just a day in the sun with someone you love.

“Yeah,” she says, finishing up the last bag. “Have a good day!”

Did he have some sort of mental illness? Reports say he might have been receiving treatment. Obviously if he was, the treatment wasn’t enough.

I turn off the car and lug everything into the house. Tara is still in the bathroom, where I left her, with towels and newspaper and a little bowl of water. I set everything up, fetch Tara, and turn on the enormous plasma screen television to the news channel—domestic first and then international. It’s always good to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

“Well, maybe he was a psychopath,” one of the moderators say. As far as I can tell, they’re paid to be controversial. I pet Tara’s tiny knobbly head with my index finger, feeling the minute indentations of her fragile skull. My finger swamps the top of her head and spills over onto her ears, flattening them. “Anti-social personality disorder is a real diagnosis.”

“No, no,” the other moderator says. “You have no idea what was going on in his head. It’s not like he left a note.”

“I know enough to know it was an inhuman act,” she says. “Who would do that except someone with very little empathy?”

At this, I sigh and get up to start digging in the box of movies. Madame had everything converted to her own personal movie format so that the movies were stored in little plastic devices that looked more like flash drives than DVD’s. She thought it was space efficient. I thought it just made everything difficult to find and label. I finally come up with 02-02-05 and put it in the drive in the side of the television.

I sit back on the couch, where Tara has discovered her brown pebble food and is eating delicately.“Let’s watch silly Madame,” I tell her and press play.

The video is shaky before Madame stabilizes it. She steps back and puts her hands on her hips, grinning. Her hair is tied in a messy blonde bun, and her bare arms and white tank top are covered in grease. No protective gloves or goggles because then that would be following lab safety protocol, which naturally would be awful. A device that looks like an enormous black button sits in front of her.

“Okay, take three for the electronic bomb. Intention: To scramble all electronics within a three-mile radius and to create an interesting distraction.” She turns to glare off-camera at one of the helper bots. “Do not fire extinguish anything unless I am actually on fire, okay, I must actually be giving off flames for you to use that fire extinguisher.” The helper bot cheeps angrily in the background.

She turns back to the camera. Her royal purple glazed coffee cup full of Turkish coffee lies precariously on the edge of the table. “All right, here we go,” she says, and I mouth the words along with her. She presses some buttons on the device, and nothing happens. I wince in advance. “Well, this is a bust—“ green smoke hisses out from a hole in the device, and Madame starts to cough. “Oh shit, that was not supposed to happen—“

“No, not the coffee,” I say uselessly as the coffee gets knocked off the table and the cup shatters.

The helper bot uses the fire extinguisher. “Does this look like a fire to you?” Madame yells, covered in white foam. “Dear god, I’m running a circus—“ and then the camera cuts out and the screen turns to snow.

“Let’s watch another one,” I say to Tara and put in the 6-12-09 tape.

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Dawn breaks over the horizon like an egg, yolk orange sunrise glazing residential houses in burning reds and yellows. I open the pantry and next the olive green Viennese roast coffee can to smell it, but it’s never as rich or aromatic as when it’s made. I grind the beans with the specialty grinder ordered from Greece and put two heaping tablespoons into the tiny metal ibrik, just large enough to make one cup of coffee. I reflexively add the cold cup of water and an eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon and mix it like beating an egg, cinnamon palpably grainy in the water amidst dissolving coffee. I place the ibrik over low heat until it boils, its long black handle turned away from me. Brown froth begins to gather at the top, and it’s time to pour it, slow, into a white porcelain Turkish coffee cup.

I cradle the cup close to my chest, inhaling the deeply luxuriant scent of coffee that is textured with cinnamon, its heat warming my chin and the bottom of my nose. My shoulders unwind from my ears, and I peruse the two months’ worth of magazines I left on the counter: Cosmopolitan, GQ, National Geographic, Horticulture Magazine, Cat Fancy. My subscriptions end this month and that’s fine because I’ve started putting together model airplanes and cars, although my house is starting to look like a particularly manic episode of Hoarders.

I don’t check my e-mail often, and it shows in the hundred unread e-mails I have in my inbox. I delete all of them except for my horoscope, technically Libra, and read it (“True love is just around the corner! Take a chance”). Astrology is fascinating—no scientific basis for it whatsoever, completely relying on the Barnum effect to achieve any sort of accuracy, and yet it’s so compelling. I am inexplicably delighted by it and have been reading my horoscope every day for the last three months.

A couple letters came in the mail, and I leave them with the magazines, unopened. I spend the morning building a model airplane while Tara sleeps on top of her food bowl, completely ignoring the ridiculously large and expensive bed I bought her. The phone rings in the afternoon, not even waking her, and I pick it up in the kitchen.

“Am I interrupting lunch?” my lawyer, Kit Thompson, says.

“No,” I say, perching on a wooden bar stool. “Not at all.”

“Ah, yes,” she says, awkward. “Well, I received the documents with your notes, and I’m reading them over now. We could discuss them in person, but they’re due in a week so I figure we could just discuss them now.”

“That’s fine,” I say. Light pours into the kitchen through the window over the sink, soaking the empress green marble island counter in sun.

I hear flipping papers. “Page two, line item three,” she says. “If you choose to go forward with this, I think you should consider appointing a retroactive guardian or trustee.”

“Will that really accomplish anything?” I say. “It’ll just make the red tape longer.”

“You need all the help you can get,” she says, frank.

“She left everything directly to me for a reason,” I say. “Many reasons, actually.”

“Susan left everything to you against my incredibly strong advice to appoint a guardian,” she says. “It could have helped sidestep this whole mess.”

“The military would have just found another way to contest the will,” I say, leaning forward to jot a note on sun-warmed tablet paper.

“Obviously,” she says, impatient.

“If I were her biological son—“ I start to say.

“Or even if she had just been able to adopt you on paper,” Kit says. “But she couldn’t, and you’re not. Macklin, we have to start dealing with reality and soon. The will is almost through the probate process, and you’ve got to decide if you want to make a real play to keep the inheritance.”

I rub my fingers hard over my mouth. “I don’t know what she wanted.”

“It doesn’t matter at this point,” she says. “Susan isn’t here, and you are, and if she had just damn well listened to me—“ she cuts herself off and exhales into the receiver, creating dry static.

“She didn’t listen to anybody,” I say. Not even me, most of the time.

“Stubborn asshole,” she says, fond. “I knew her for over half our lives and, of course, this legal mess is what I get out of it.”

I grin into the phone, so relieved that there is someone who knew her like I knew her.

“But really, you’re going to have to make a decision,” Kit says finally. “Whatever you choose, it doesn’t have to mean anything, or imply anything, if you don’t want it to.”

I close my eyes because of course it means something, it means everything. “Yes. Fine.”

She doesn’t waste time on comforting me, and we just move on to page three, line item five.

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Later, after the phone call, I pick out the 12-03-08 video to watch because it’s close to her birthday and that year was a good year, the year of twenty-nine patents and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation Award and the two month long road trip across Europe because I’d never gone on one and she thought it was a crucial experience

I click play, and Madame’s sunburned profile fills the screen. She’s cursing because she’s driving stick, because most cars in Europe are stick, and she hates stick. “—is the camera on?” she interrupts herself to ask. “You’ve got to film at least part of a road trip, it’s a requirement.”

“I can drive,” the me on screen says. Madame shifts gears violently, and the car sounds like it’s about to be sick. “You’re going to grind the gears to dust at this rate, and what did this poor car ever do to you?”

“Be born a stick shift,” she says through gritted teeth, shifting once more like she’s a Nascar driver, and the camera tilts as the car goes around a sharp curve.

“I’m your assistant, let me assist.”

“No, you stay in the passenger seat and pretend to enjoy those Cheetos,” she says. “I’ve got this. You’re going to have the best road trip ever if it kills me, and I truly think it will.”

“It’s going to kill the car first,” my voice says tartly.

“Oh, shut up,” she says. The sun is setting in the distance, mostly blocked by Madame’s face, but the light that floods the car turns everything soft and golden, and she looks warm and touchable. It’s russet farmland as far as the eye can see with dots of emerald green.

“Say hi to the camera.”

“Hello,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“You have to face the camera,” I insist.

“Aren’t you the one who’s always going on about safety?” she says but turns toward the camera anyway, smirking, and says, droll, “Hello, world. Hello, Macklin.”

“Well, here we are,” my voice says. “On a road trip. It’s filled with dirt so far.”

“You can turn the camera off now,” she says. “Hand me one of those god awful Cheetos.”

“You hate Cheetos,” my voice says and then the camera cuts off. Tara lies on my lap, and she’s so light her weight doesn’t even register. I stroke her soft sides, my breath whistling in and out of my chest sounding like I have a chest cold. I want to watch her say “Hello, Macklin,” over and over again because it was also the first thing she ever said to me when we met. The digital clock on the cable box reads 3:03 AM, red and unmistakable. I sit there in the dark, feeling scraped raw and nauseous, and then I turn on the weather.

“It’s raining across the Midwest area,” the meteorologist says, calm because there’s no real emotion in reporting the weather. I lie down heavily, curling around Tara, and exhale my breath all the way out as the meteorologist describes the tropical storm gallivanting across Florida.

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Twenty two year old Nick King went to Greenwood Forest Elementary school in the middle of the day, armed with a gun. Police have finally come out with the number of casualties, and I’m so very sad to say—nine children killed and one teacher. It’s terrible.

The light has been red for an interminable amount of time and the woman in the car next to me has resorted to touching up her make-up. The line at the bank was long, and the actual process of combining accounts was tedious. Madame has caches of money stored everywhere, and I don’t see the point of it anymore, especially since it’s all getting tally-marked up by lawyers anyway. She revised her will and put my name on all of the accounts in spring 2010, which created a lot of hassle at the time but now I’m glad she did because it’s what has allowed me to stay in our house.

2010 had some of the worst months, the heatstroke summer months where Madame constantly visited the Albert Einstein hospital morgue to dissect cadavers and then went home to the workshop for all hours of the night before going back to the morgue, her frown carving deeper all the while. This eventually produced a fraught afternoon in the isolated basement of the morgue where, horrifyingly, the air conditioning was out, which meant a contractor worked frantically to get it back on before the cadavers putrefied. Sweat dripped from Madame’s glowering face into a cadaver’s open chest cavity as she doggedly made cut after cut. She was on a tight military deadline for an experimental program on artificially intelligent explosives that would hypothetically be able to maneuver themselves. Madame was using human circuitry as inspiration, and more often than not, it resulted in thrown wrenches and once a punched wall.

We had parked illegally around the corner from Albert Einstein’s hospital morgue because she swore we’d only be there a few minutes, ten at most, really, and we strode down the block only to see a clump of police gathered around the corner under the ledge of one of the business buildings. Police cars littered the street so that hardly anyone could drive past. We rounded the corner, and a large section next to the building was cordoned off with yellow tape, empty of cops and on-lookers.

Behind the tape, a white sheet was loosely wrapped around an elongated figure, so still and only vaguely in the shape of a person. It had all of the energy of a chair, inert and inorganic, and was all alone on unstained concrete under butter yellow sunlight. Absolutely no lingering feeling existed in the space of that figure, just tranquility sinking inexorably into the un-tucked ends of the white sheet that fluttered in a soft breeze. The body had just recently been a person, breathing and heart beating, and so quickly he or she was deserted around the corner of a stone building.

Madame didn’t even look, face set ahead, and then we were out of sight and onto the hospital. I had seen countless cadavers at that point but to the extent they were fodder for hapless medical students, they were practically inhuman, just a collection of parts to be cut open. But here I thought, so this is death, and memorized it.

There’s only one 2010 tape, and I keep it in the other house in LA with the 2011 tapes of Madame’s progressively self-destructive test runs of experimental AI. Her last attempt at the self-thinking explosive was an abject shitshow that ended in injury and a new residence, while also attracting military displeasure when she point-blank informed them the contract wasn’t going to happen. This project had already been in lieu of other projects Madame had strong ethical objections to, and she’d ended up cloistering herself in the brownstone in New York, doing nothing but watching terrible reality television and chugging Monster energy drinks. I taped her scathing running commentary on Say Yes to the Dress until she actually Stockholmed herself into becoming invested and faintly weepy, which was when I stopped taping and confiscated the remote.

Three weeks later, in the beginning of October, the military finally agreed to nix the contract in disgust when Madame told them either her next contract was to improve flak jackets or she was mutinying to the marines. She spent the next two months gleefully sending off flak jacket prototypes until early December arrived when her mood plunged with the temperature. Madame had always had blacker moods than what I assumed the average person had, and this was far from the worst but—it was another episode in a series of increasingly contiguous episodes.

Winter was hard for Madame anyway, who was true to her coloring and craved brightness and light, and the cold and amplified darkness made her lethargic, listless. We stayed in LA most of the time but that winter we stayed here, in Pennsylvania, due to its relative proximity to DC. The flak jacket contract had gone some way in repairing her relationship with the military, and she had signed on for several more involving defense, rather than the offensive AI weapons they truly wanted. Madame was one of the top five knowledgeable people in the world on AI, but she found it fraught with philosophical implications that rapidly became moral when put into practice. Could an entity with any amount of thinking power be ethically bought and sold, let alone consent to whatever it was told to do? Did it depend on the level of thinking power, and if so, where was the line?

One particularly bitter winter night after a day of phone shouting matches with the engineers in R&D, Madame woke up screaming, which had been happening more frequently as she geared up to visit some of the bases overseas to make sure her inventions were working properly. She was a soldier for the first seven years of her adult life to pay for school, and it was unclear whether it was she or the military that had never let go; either way, it was the longest term relationship of her life. I was in the study, working on the accounts, when I heard the screaming and hurried to her room. She never let her infrequent lovers sleep over, but I had always been allowed to see her in all of her states.

She was sitting up in bed, hands clenched in her lap, head bowed. Thin moonlight made the room look monochrome and grainy, like a faded black and white photograph or the slow healing shades of a bruise. Her space heater hummed next to the bed, dispensing dry heat that created static and a steep electricity bill. I crawled in next to her, close enough to be enveloped in the damp heat of sleep and sweat and the orchid scent of her lotion. I placed both of my hands on her hands, where they were shaking on top of the blankets, and she shuddered noiselessly, leaning her head even further down to rest her hot forehead on my hand. Her chin brushed my wrist, wet with tears, and she whispered into our hands, “I’m such a bad person.”

“No, you’re not,” I said immediately and pressed myself tightly against her side, laying my chest against her back like the branches of a tree shelters its roots, trying to impress upon her body with mine how indispensable she was to me.

“You don’t understand, Macklin, you don’t understand,” she moaned. Her back shook, her body an earthquake in the microcosm, tearing itself apart from the inside out.

“Shhh,” I said into her hot neck, like the sound of the ocean, and rocked her back and forth. “Shhh.”

“It’s still in me, like a movie,” she said, voice tight. “Just replaying over and over, and I just never stop killing them, I never get to stop.” Her body jerked as she clamped down on a sob, pushing our hands against her stomach hard as if her insides were in danger of falling out.

I held her hard as if putting pressure on an open wound, wishing desperately I could reach into the subterranean depths of her and cut out whatever had lodged itself there that made her so sick with self-denigration. It had the texture of a terrible cyst that kept growing and growing, and I constantly struggled not to unravel at the edges at the thought that it might never stop, might just swallow her up whole.

“I just want to be better,” she said, panting. “I’m trying to be better.”

“You’re so good, I’d give anything for you to see it,” I said helplessly into her silky hair, my lips brushing against her clammy temple. She made a small noise into my neck, something verging on a whimper, and I cupped the back of her head, fingers resting on the delicate grooves of her skull, the origin point of all of her extraordinary ideas. I stayed there the whole night, my chest tight and aching, feeling profound dread for the time when she would go overseas alone and I would have to stay here.

I park the 2008 cherry red Audi that Madame drove but is now deeded to my name and look at our house’s peeling yellow paint that we were supposed to paint over this summer, together, and I just hurt all over, full-body. Madame hated gardening but deigned to let gardeners grow orchids by the porch and I never found out why. It was something I always meant to ask her, along with a whole bunch of other questions, and now I can’t, not even just one. I turn off the radio that’s still going and shut off the car. It’s suddenly so quiet.

I get out of the car and go up the front walk, shaky, the world seeming overly bright. My skin feels over-sensitized and tender, wind brushing carelessly over me like sandpaper. When I’m inside, I roam upstairs to Madame’s room, where the air is hot and insubstantial and stale. I open a window to let the room ventilate and then sit on the unwashed sheets of her bed that haven’t smelled like her for a long time now.

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.

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Aniyé couldn’t sleep, because with sleep came the dreams, the dreams she was not allowed to have. Bolts of lightning criscrossing the skies. Shouts of anger, then fear. Screams of the dying. Always from a distance, a safe distance… safe to her. Yet she was aware of it all, and the fire that arose from her to smite the enemies burned her the most.

Her stomach heaved. She could barely roll off the bed in time to get to the window. She leaned outside and vomited, violently, as if her insides were leaving her body in large clumps.

The High Mage was next to her, holding her. Once Aniyé was finished, Oresuy led her outside and washed her face in the cold water basin. Then the High Mage dragged one of the heavy chairs into the small room and sat by Aniyé’s bedside until she would finally, finally sleep.

 

II.

 

The Tower

After twenty-eight days, Aniyé still couldn’t help but marvel at her teacher’s quarters, on the top floor of the Eyrie.

Aniyé was used to bare walls painted white, the cold geometry restricting without holding, enforcing without understanding. High Mage Oresuy’s quarters were paneled in wood from the forests surrounding the walled city, and the surfaces still exuded a warm susurration of wind passing through branches if Aniyé could quieten her mind down to listen. The High Mage’s furniture was made by the city’s best artisans, sparsely decorated, allowing the beauty of the materials themselves to shine through.

As Aniyé wandered through the rooms inside the majestic lacework tower, her gaze moved from highlight to highlight, small items each with a history her teacher had been glad to explain to her shortly after she had arrived. A small jug in the shape of an elephant. An etching sent by a friend from the distant, fog-shrouded islands. A herbary that offered many tiny, nose-tickling delights. Aniyé closed her eyes and sighed softly. She was safe here. After so much pain…

Oresuy sat by the fireplace, looking at the unlit slabs of wood in contemplation. She glanced up as Aniyé approached.

“We will have a guest tonight,” the High Mage said. “Guildsman Leitan will be joining us; he’s been sent back from the front lines.” She paused. “He has a different task now.”

That black-clad man? What did he want? A chill ran through Aniyé.

“Don’t worry,” Oresuy said. “We will simply eat dinner and talk. I don’t expect the conversation to be very pleasant, but you should remain courteous. Silence is likewise not a bad policy.”

Aniyé nodded repeatedly, nervously.

“The Guild could never take you from me. They would not even try. You have nothing to fear in this place.” She gestured at one of the other chairs. “Do sit; I’ll light the fire.”

The flames jumped high, and Aniyé’s worries slowly dissolved in the heat.

 

The Dinner

This was the first time Aniyé saw the Guildsman’s face, and it was different from what she’d expected; it was sharp, narrow and pale, an odd match with his strong, wide body. He looked unpleasant, with an expression of semi-permanent disgust already etching itself into his features.

Aniyé hurried to fetch the food – she’d laid the smaller wooden table in the way Oresuy had asked her to do. She reminded herself of the High Mage’s urgings not to run, to behave with a modest and understated elegance. Aniyé almost tripped over an open book left on the floor and she gasped, but she did not cry out.

She returned to the dining room with a large tray of steaming chicken drumsticks, soaked in a sweet brownish sauce and decorated with greens. Oresuy had cooked it all herself, saying that she enjoyed experimenting with kitchen magic from time to time. Aniyé had washed vegetables, cut onions, peeled potatoes and hung on her teacher’s every word. She carried the tray with the sudden, unexpected pride of knowing her contribution was valued.

Guildsman Leitan smiled slightly, then frowned, as if made uncomfortable by his concession to humanity, his enjoyment of the delicious smell. His mind was warded tight, with a militaristic touch to his magical constructs that was all too familiar to Aniyé. But wasn’t the Guild a civilian organization? The world is changing, Oresuy had said.

Aniyé served them, her hands trembling. Oresuy looked up at her from her seat across the Guildsman and smiled encouragingly. Aniyé focused singlemindedly on serving the guest – not splotching his dress blacks with chicken sauce, filling his cup with a mild red wine.

She finished without any mishaps and began to put some food on her own plate, but still she did not dare breathe freely.

Guildsman Leitan stared at her openly and Aniyé lowered her gaze, not knowing how to react. What was amiss?

Oresuy spoke up. “This is my table. I invite to it whomever I please; all who are uncomfortable with this are welcome to leave. Do sit, dear Aniyé.”

“It is unseemly to eat with a servant,” the Guildsman said.

“My apprentice,” Oresuy said coolly.

Aniyé looked from one person to the other. What was going on? She was missing subtext. The High Mage knew exactly what was going on, but she didn’t.

Guildsman Leitan frowned again, and for a moment Aniyé wondered if Oresuy had sensed his intentions despite all his warding, or if she made an educated guess based on his behavior, her knowledge of him. Both possibilities indicated that it was the High Mage who was in charge of the situation. What was this man doing here? Was he aware that he was not in control?

Aniyé sat, her thoughts whirling. She picked up a drumstick with her napkin, but her hand shook so much that she dropped the food back on her plate, splattering herself. The Guildsman glared at her with open hostility.

“Whatever it is that you are training this one in, it’s certainly not table manners,” he said to Oresuy, not looking at Aniyé. “Maybe you should just hand her over.”

Oresuy’s eyes narrowed. Aniyé could tell she had not expected the man would raise the topic so soon and with such inelegant hostility.

“Perhaps you would like to become a target of the Crimson Army yourself?” Oresuy bit into a drumstick, as if chatting idly, but there was an edge to her words.

“They haven’t–” Did the Guildsman pale? “They wouldn’t–”

“Two attempts at retrieving her this past month.”

Aniyé froze. She knew her teacher was telling the truth. How was it possible Aniyé herself hadn’t noticed?

Guildsman Leitan cleared his throat, picked at his food. “Still, the Guild would like to come to an agreement with you…”

“Just what is it that you are doing here, Guildsman? So far behind the front lines?”

“I’ve returned here on orders from the King–”

“I hear your loyalty is impeccable.”

He glanced up suddenly, malice glinting in his eyes. “Is yours, High Mage Oresuy?”

“I serve the Everlasting Light,” Oresuy said. “As does the King, I hear.”

The Guildsman murmured something and poked at the greens on his plate. He spent the rest of the evening talking about the latest news around town – the unexpectedly wet weather in the mountains, the price of duck eggs spiking, a wealthy merchant throwing a ball. Aniyé thought he seemed unusually well-informed for someone who’d just returned from war.

 

The Ribbons

Aniyé looked at the river as she undressed. Water levels seemed to be higher than usual, and increasing. The stream carried small pieces of detritus. She wondered if this was expected; on that dinner last week, the Guildsman had mentioned something about increased rainfall in the mountains. She made a mental note to ask Oresuy about it.

She waded into the water, submerged, emerged. After a few repetitions, she was ready to head outside, the entire process now performed mostly by rote, every morning. After the first two weeks, the magic had stopped hurting; after the second two, she could skip a day once in a while. The process was only different in marginal, incidental details – a bird flying across the river, rain dripping slightly or a broken tree-branch floating downstream. But this time, she noticed something unexpected.

A familiar voice was carried on the breeze from downstream the river, beyond the copse of willows that hid her from view. She halted, submerged as deeply as she could while still observing, fervently hoping her dark hair would look like soggy driftwood from a distance.

Guildsman Leitan was yelling at someone.

Aniyé had a hard time making out the words, and she would not dare try any magic to sharpen her senses, lest it draw attention to her. She understood only fragments.

“…the King… requisition this boat…”

“My living! How…”

“…imperative… absolutely necessary…”

“…feed my family? My children…”

“I must inspect…”

The Guildsman was taking a fisherman’s boat. Why not just hire the fisherman, if he needed to get somewhere in a hurry? Unless secrecy was desired, Aniyé realized; but he certainly made a lot of noise.

The boat soon glided by, the Guildsman alone and rowing upstream with considerable force. Aniyé remained unnoticed. She only dared to clamber outside after long, long minutes had passed, and her teeth were chattering – with cold or with apprehension, she wasn’t sure.

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Aniyé made her way up the spiral staircase of her teacher’s tower, rubbing her hands and arms. She didn’t feel focused enough to use her magic to keep warm. Oresuy stood in an alcove, looking at her with appreciation tinged with faint amusement. Aniyé lowered her gaze and bowed slightly.

“Good morning, my good teacher,” she said.

“And good morning likewise to you, my dear Aniyé,” Oresuy said, her voice still soft from sleep, but roomy and sonorous. She fell silent.

Aniyé wracked her brain for a worried moment before realizing that she was supposed to offer courtesies and inquire about her teacher’s wellbeing. She was still not used to being around people. People who treated her with respect, at least.

“How did my teacher sleep?” she finally offered.

“I slept well, thank you,” Oresuy said, walking up to her. “And you, my dear Aniyé? …Look at me.”

Aniyé raised her gaze. Oresuy’s curly, earth-colored hair was pinned up rather hastily, and she still hadn’t removed her silk nightgown, but she looked at her with no upset, only firmness.

“I likewise slept well,” Aniyé offered.

Oresuy didn’t respond for three long breaths, then she nodded. “Good. I will ask something of you today. …Do not look away. It will not be easy, but I don’t ask impossibilities of you.”

“Yes, teacher.” She nodded briefly, her stomach knotting.

“This might be somewhat sudden, but by now you should be ready for it. I didn’t intend on doing it today, but something has come up. Today we will head outside the Eyrie and the gardens. We are urgently needed outside.”

Aniyé gasped. “Teacher, I can’t– My power– My magic– I don’t think I can control– ” She took a step back and her feet got tangled in the edges of a rug. Oresuy quickly stepped next to her and steadied her.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe. To go outside. Without the handlers. Outside. Just to go the banks of the Eyrie was intimidating enough, especially after today’s chance encounter; but at least she was slowly getting used to it. Outside, into the city – that was unthinkable. Outside.

Her handlers were dead, the three officers clad in uniforms that shone in the sun in their powerful crimson shades, officers with crimson leashes in their hands – they were dead, the leashes torn, and Aniyé was alone, alone on the plains, surrounded by death, her magic spiraling out of control–

“I’m here. Aniyé!” A commanding tone. “Focus on me. I will regulate your breath.”

She felt nothing except the firm pressure around her – High Mage Oresuy holding her body, hugging her close to herself.

Then she noticed she had been crying, her face wet with tears and snot, smearing her teacher’s silk robes.

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“Again, this is not what I had originally had in mind,” Oresuy said, “but now I think this might work better. Undress, please. You can leave your breeches on.”

Aniyé was used to Oresuy seeing her naked, touching her body to massage out the gobs of pain, the residue of harm inflicted on her by others and also by herself. She was trembling simply because she was still greatly agitated.

Her teacher put her wide, broad palms on her shoulders and Aniyé could feel a warm, steady calmness seeping through her skin. After a few moments, Oresuy withdrew and stepped to one of her storage-chests, pulled out a small bundle.

“The effectiveness comes from your understanding, not from the words themselves,” Oresuy said as she unwrapped the bundle and showed her the wide red ribbons embroidered with yellow thread. Letters in a calm, orderly succession; words, sentences. Aniyé could not read them – they were in an unfamiliar alphabet.

“Feeling them against your body will be comforting,” Oresuy went on. “You understand with your mind that I can provide you with the restriction you need, but your body needs to understand this too. I do think this will help.”

She tied the ribbons on Aniyé’s bare skin in complicated patterns, with well-practiced motions. Aniyé gasped – they were surprisingly heavy. They were surprisingly comforting.

“The ones I’m putting under your clothing won’t restrict your movement. …Good. You can dress now.”

Aniyé dressed and noticed with a startle that her hands were no longer shaking as she picked out the clothing items from her own storage-chest. Loose, sea-blue pants, a matching tunic edged with a lighter shade of blue, like a cloudy sky…

“Do wear your new boots,” Oresuy indicated, and Aniyé put them on too, their leather fitting her feet snugly even though the boots were unworn.

“Now the second set,” Oresuy said and tied more ribbons across her torso, the red and yellow flaring against the blue of the tunic.

“Show me your hands.”

She tied Aniyé’s hands together and into a wider loop that ran around her body. She guided Aniyé’s hands to her front until her wrists touched, pulled at a ribbon and wrapped it around in a pattern Aniyé couldn’t follow to secure them in place – then did the reverse and pulled Aniyé’s hands to the back. “Good,” she said. “I’ll loosen this for now.” She allowed Aniyé’s hands to drop to her sides, ribbons tied around her wrists and the larger loop still in place around her body, but allowing for some movement. “See if you can hold your staff like this.”

Aniyé stepped to the rack by the door, pulled out her light, metallic mage’s longstaff. She twirled it around her fingers experimentally – she could manipulate it without large arm movements, so the ribbons didn’t stop her from using it.

“Excellent,” Oresuy said. “This will be doable. Come here.” She put an overcoat on Aniyé’s shoulders, affixing it at the neck with two large silver clasps. For the most part, it hid the ribbons. Then she pressed down gently – Aniyé understood what was expected of her and lowered herself to her knees.

Oresuy smoothed down Aniyé’s forehead and tied a ribbon across it. “This shall remind you of my protection,” she said. “My dear student.”

 

The Flood

Outside, the riverside was in uproar, town guards and working folk heaping bags of sand on top of the floodbanks of the downtown area. Aniyé halted in her tracks.

“You’ve seen the water levels rise,” Oresuy said. “On your daily walks.”

The floodbanks in the back of the Eyrie gardens had always seemed massive to Aniyé, protecting, overshadowing her as she tumbled down and into the water. Yet fear twinged in her now, like a taut string plucked by nervous fingers–

Oresuy steadied her. “We’ve been called on to help with the efforts.”

Aniyé turned and blinked at her teacher. She felt thoroughly clueless.

“The Court scholars claim the maximum will be reached in a week, with levels two handsbreadths above the top of the floodbanks.”

Aniyé had come from a dry land. Oresuy continued after a small pause. “The sandbags might be enough, but based on the rainfall in the mountains, they will need to hold for at least a week. The banks themselves will also need to hold.”

Aniyé frowned. “Teacher, I don’t see – how could they possibly be breached?” Floodbanks thicker than the city walls–

“They soak up the water, then they soften and slide. Our job will be to make sure it doesn’t happen… or at least to decrease the probability of it happening.”

Aniyé nodded, but her teacher hadn’t finished yet.

“The only thing you’ll need to understand is they might not be grateful for your service.” Oresuy sighed softly. “But I am grateful, and I understand.”

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Aniyé walked on, slowly, steadily, barely aware of her surroundings. Under her feet, the ground was still dry, and as her attention reached down below, she could feel the floodbanks hadn’t even begun to soak. She visualized a glowing latticework of bindings holding the soil in place, sparkling up to her from the depths of the earth as she walked over them above. Holding, containing, constraining, like the ribbons around her body.

She focused on her breath, the influx and then the outflow, the cycle ever-repeating. Power going out of her and into the structure, merging, stabilizing. She felt confident. She could do this by herself, while her teacher was making a circuit in the opposite direction. She could do this, and do it well.

The guards first stopped her beyond Poets’ Bridge, where the town faded into meadows and the floodplains were heavily overgrown with willow trees.

“No loitering,” the guardsman said as he blinked down at her. “If you’re up on the banks, get in line for the sandbags.”

“I–” Her concentration broken, she was momentarily disoriented. “I’m re… reinforcing the structure.” She wanted to make a broad hand gesture, but the ribbons didn’t have enough give. She was so startled that her other hand unclenched and she dropped her staff. She crouched down into the mud and picked it up, carefully, conscious of her limited range of motion.

The man grunted disapprovingly. “You’re with the Mages’ Guild?”

Mages’ Guild? She was a student of Teacher Oresuy and no one else. She knew little about the Mages’ Guild beyond those strained conversations between her teacher and the black-clad Guildsman Leitan.

“I, I’m a student of High Mage Oresuy,” she mumbled, barely daring to look up to the guard.

He nodded, but then his expression tightened even further. “You? One of the steppe folk from the West? And you expect me to believe this tale?”

How was she supposed to respond? The guardsman reached to his scabbard. Aniyé’s brain ran through possible scenarios, many of them ending in a beheading.

Her fingers gripped her staff so tightly her joints popped. “I, I’m a deserter, I escaped– I ran away!”

Was it true? By declaring it, had she made it true? Did she really escape? Did she really run away? She just wanted the pain to stop, she just craved control, control over the magic, control over herself, from an external source if need be, but she didn’t want to kill

The man sized her up and she was suddenly acutely aware of her skin, her eyes, her looks. She was an alien here. A piece of foreign flesh. An intruder, one of the enemy–

“She is under my protection,” Aniyé heard from behind herself, and she dropped her staff again. The guardsman paled. What had he seen, some part of Aniyé’s mind wondered idly as most of her froze, stunned – had he seen Oresuy appear out of thin air? From the shadows? The High Mage was skilled at spatial dislocation, Aniyé knew.

“Pass the word along the newschain,” Oresuy said with such coldness Aniyé had never heard from her before. “I want no incidents.”

There were no further incidents that day.

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It was difficult to be the only one in sight to wander around seemingly in a daze while everyone else on the banks was engaged in hard labor, Aniyé soon found. It was difficult enough for her to avoid bumping into people while focusing on binding the floodbanks in place, and that was without the remarks, not even directed at her; at least not openly.

“Crimson Army,” she heard, over and over, behind her back and over her shoulders, the words encircling her like tendrils of smoke. “A battle-mage.”

She wanted to weep, but instead did what Oresuy had taught her to do and focused on binding herself to the land, creating – possibly? eventually? – a way to feel belonging, attachment to a new home. She could not go back. She was startled to realize at one point out on the banks, looking up at the starry night sky, that she would not go back.

Oresuy was strict, but never unfair, never abusive. Oresuy would never march her out to the battlefield like some kind of animal, a war dog ready to let loose from the leash, a being only valuable as far as its potential for destruction extended. Aniyé had never realized just how cruelly had she been treated, before. Oresuy was different – Oresuy would hold her while she cried–

The first time someone risked open confrontation with Aniyé, it was about a different issue entirely.

She was standing in line for food, a gigantic black pot of stew that three of the townsfolk dispensed to a bunch of exhausted laborers with great vigor. The High Mage was right behind her; just as hungry as she was, Aniyé could tell. People were discussing the King’s upcoming visit, an event which seemed frankly pointless to Aniyé, and also to the others. She sleepily listened to the conversation.

“…he thinks he can make the floodbanks stand just by his presence.”

“Scare them, eh? What do you say?”

“You know what I think.” The thin, yarrow-blonde man glanced around nervously, on the lookout for potential informers.

His bald-shaven mate shrugged. “Nonsense if you ask me. He’s coming here to get killed when the banks burst.” He made a coarse sound and mimed the large, sweeping motion of water rushing through the town. “That’s it! I bet Princess Ilas is already rubbing her hands.”

The blonde man seemed encouraged by this act of blatant lèse-majesté. “If the Guild mages weren’t all off on the Western front, they could hold everything just fine.” He spread his stalklike fingers and sighed. “This war is never going to end. If King Abrany just swallowed his pride for a second and tried to negotiate with the Crimson Dukes…”

Aniyé could swear the bald man’s eyes shone with glee for a moment. She found it hard to follow politics in general, having been so isolated for such a long time; but she was quite certain that something unsavory was going on.

“What did you just say?” the bald man said, drawing out the words. “You know that’s trea–”

Aniyé realized the man was trying to get his fellow to say something self-incriminating. She didn’t quite understand the situation, but she had to step in. “Some of us are here and helping out,” she said quickly. She wasn’t a Guild mage, she was Oresuy’s student with no other ties of loyalty, but that didn’t strike her as relevant.

The bald man straightened up and Aniyé could see how startlingly tall and well-built he was. “And why are you here anyway?” he said on the same level tone, but with anger simmering behind his words.

Aniyé was at a loss. She was here because Oresuy wanted her to be here, and she wanted to do what her teacher asked of her. She was certain she was missing out on some crucial detail–

When the man saw that no response was forthcoming, he went on. “You should by rights be at the front, fighting the Crimson Army with your talent given to you by the gods. This is not your place.”

Oresuy spoke up; Aniyé was so nervous she hadn’t even realized her teacher was paying any attention. “Would you rather be swept away then?” The man’s anger was more than matched by her restrained ferocity. Oresuy stepped forward from behind Aniyé, fixating on the man – the informer? “It never ceases to amaze me how ready you are to act against your own best interests,” she remarked. “Come,” she nodded to Aniyé, “we have work to do.”

Aniyé tagged along, her stomach growling. For long minutes she felt the man’s eyes on his back, but she didn’t turn around to meet his gaze.

 

The City

Aniyé stood on one of the floodbanks, with her back to the ever-rising water. A small square with the church of the Merciful Daughter-Son spread out in front of her, with many little alleys branching out and away on the opposite side. She took a deep breath, then walked gingerly down.

In an alcove next to the church entrance, she could see a statue of the Daughter-Son, the gently smiling androgynous deity standing on top of the globe, their feet shrouded in clouds etched from heavy marble. Suddenly she felt a strange kind of kinship, of acceptance – a warm ray of light washing through her internal landscape, calming her. She bowed her head and whispered thanks. She had never once prayed to this deity, yet they were accepting her?

Still, she didn’t dare go inside the church. Churches on both sides of the ever-shifting border were all too eager to support the war effort.

She walked on. Garlands of flowers decorated the street-facing walls of the two-storey houses. A sign proudly stated that the city had been the recipient of an award last year for its flower displays. Aniyé stopped to read every banner and sign, trying to keep her attention away from the fear rattling around in her skull. This was an exercise, her first time alone inside the city, not out on the banks. She would do it for her teacher even when Oresuy insisted Aniyé do it for herself. To see, to experience, possibly to understand.

The city was beautiful. The façades all looked recently painted in smooth pastel colors and the roofs were lined with bright-hot red tile. People strolled slowly in the early afternoon sun, seemingly ignorant of the effort out on the banks. Aniyé was puzzled for a moment, then she reminded herself that in a city so close to the water, flooding must be a regular occurrence. Yet she was resentful for a moment – the banks were full of volunteers, but none seemed to be the scions of rich aristocrat and trader families, like the youths walking by her without sparing her a glance. Aniyé wondered what was better – people’s eyes sliding off her as if she was nonexistent, or people’s voices whispering behind her back and calling her names. She shrugged and ventured on.

All the streets seemed to lead to a large rectangular square surrounded by palaces, with wall hangings the size of small buildings glorifying the King. Upon a closer look, she realized the palaces were all state-owned: “National Museum of Traditional Lore”, “National Central Administration”, “National Gallery and Artist Patronage”. At first, she was surprised by the constant repetition of “National”, but after a while of wandering around the square, she half-expected to see a “National Mages’ Guild”. She didn’t find the Guild hall; then she remembered Oresuy saying it was somewhere on a hilltop, an auspicious location. The mages were not threatened by the water.

She edged closer to National Central Administration and browsed the announcements hung in large glass-fronted cabinets until her eyes began to glaze over from the legalese. It seemed like everything needed to be reported. The number of horses one owned – were horses such important possessions here? –, whether one wished to exercise one’s voting rights – she assumed that without explicit declaration it was not possible – and so on. Perhaps this city wasn’t so welcoming after all.

The front gate slammed open and Guildsman Leitan stormed out, dashing past Aniyé without noticing her. He was muttering under his breath; reinforcing his wards? On a whim, she decided to follow him from a safe distance – she could check out the Guild hall, if only from the outside. She flexed her muscles against the ribbons; they held. She suddenly felt elated, her fears altogether gone. She was able to give free rein to her curiosity.

Walking behind the Guildsman, Aniyé could see the passersby’s reactions to him. They bowed their heads to him or even bent from the waist. Some people ducked into the shadows of the alleys. Was this his due as a Guildsman in uniform, or did he inspire personal dread for some reason?

To Aniyé’s shock, as the people stared after him, some uttered curses. With little to no magic behind the words; nothing that would harm the man or even get his notice from behind his tightly wound wards, but even then – this behavior seemed scandalous to her, and yet perfectly understandable. She herself had reason to hate Guildsman Leitan – the man who had wanted to claim her for the Guild as little more than a trophy – and they had met only twice.

The Guildsman did not acknowledge any of the obeisances, as far as Aniyé could see. He strode ahead, clearly used to walking on the cobblestones that kept tripping Aniyé, her feet jamming into cracks and sliding over smooth-worn surfaces. She struggled uphill.

Leitan came to a sudden halt in front of a large, blocky building next to a church. “I brought the necessary equipment,” he said to the man on guard, a tall guildsman clearly chosen for his size and poise rather than his magical prowess. “Hail the King!”

“Hail the King,” the guard said gruffly.

Aniyé did not dare break her stride, and she walked past the building with the front gate already closed behind Guildsman Leitan. The brick walls radiated a warmth beyond the heat gathered from the day’s worth of sunlight. Yet the magic did not comfort her. She could feel the guard’s eyes on his back – with her staff and her dress, the inscribed ribbons encircling her body, she looked clearly magical even to unsensing minds. Did that make her a target?

On her way back to the Eyrie, she chose a different path. Beyond the wide avenue she had walked, in the smaller side streets, shops and stores were failing – entrances shuttered in broad daylight, windows cracked, entire buildings empty of the bustle of business life. She sighed – the King’s parade would clearly be passing along a different route.

 

III.

 

The King

Everyone was out on the banks on the day of the King’s arrival, but even Aniyé knew this was not because of the people’s great desire to see their leader. The flooding was becoming worse and worse – the water was nearing the top of the sandbags piled on the floodbanks. The scholars had predicted that the water levels would continue to rise for at least two more days. In the northern part of town, the floodbanks had been demolished a few months ago, in preparation for reconstruction. The hastily raised new banks were at the highest risk of getting swept away.

Huge crowds milled on both sides of the traffic barriers. Wide cloth ribbons marked the area beyond which only people working on the floodbanks were permitted. People not capable of hard labor were making food or handing out drinks, while children ran up and down, gawking at the workers, and town guards tried to maintain order.

Aniyé was stuck. “What do you mean you can’t allow me in? I’ve been working on the Northlanes for three days now!”

The guard, a burly woman, crossed her arms and frowned in displeasure. “Orders from higher up. The King and his retinue cannot be disturbed.”

“But the banks–” Aniyé didn’t even need to close her eyes to focus, she knew the situation was becoming worse and worse. The ground felt saturated with water, clumps of earth ready to tumble and roll. She felt her bindings could still hold, but she’d need to be physically present and reinforcing them.

“The banks will be fine. We’ve been working all night.”

Aniyé took a deep breath. “I need to reinforce the structure. It’s absolutely necessary.”

“The King doesn’t want mages around while he is inspecting the effort.” The woman grimaced. “Especially not some stranger from the Western steppes.”

Aniyé thought better of protesting. She stood aside, forcing a rhythm of slow breaths upon herself, concentrating on the ribbons around her body, her hand on her staff. The fear, the anger all provoked a response from her magic, and she struggled to remain in control.

“Aniyé?”

She shuddered in surprise, then looked up into her teacher’s face.

“Aniyé, is something wrong?”

She summarized the situation. Oresuy clicked her tongue in displeasure, but she also seemed to be displeased with Aniyé herself – or was she? “There is little time. Let’s go,” she said, then grabbed Aniyé by the shoulders and simply walked past the stunned guard not daring to stop them.

“You could’ve done that by yourself, you know.”

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.

by Anya Ow

Kiat hovered anxiously around the workbench as the techman carefully put the cellphone back together, reassembling wiring and its microboard, its flat paper-thin glass surface separated into two folds. In the techman’s gray eyes, the magnification implants scrolled data directly into her field of vision, visible to Kiat only as faint white lines that etched restlessly over her irises.

“How old dis?” the techman asked out aloud, and Kiat flinched, startling her into looking up from her work.

“Sorry,” Kiat muttered. “I’m not used to… I live alone now,” he added awkwardly. “Pensioner.”

The techman’s workroom felt cramped even to a man long-used to the scarcity of space, and it smelled unpleasantly of overheated metal and plastics. There was a vent somewhere that spat recycled air in a wavering effort behind Kiat’s head, cold over his receding silver hair, and the every surface of the workroom was fitted with shelves of tools, boxes of parts and locked cabinets. The guts of some sort of miniature engine sat sadly on a corner workbench, wiring extruding from its chassis like red and yellow stamens, the petals of its propeller blades and landing shockpads strewn around it, discarded. The floor was greasy, and stuck to his shoes.

Over the disembowelled cellphone, the techman smiled understandingly. She was still young, the first seams of age only just starting to etch themselves noticeably in the corners of her eyes, but it gave her an open, honest face, round and pleasant, her brown hair tied back over her head in a no-nonsense bun, her gray wrinkle-proof clothes ballooning out over her shoulders and fitting down tight at her wrists and ankles, peppered at the shoulders with brightly coloured adscape. “Not used to realaudio, eh? I can proxy.”

“No. No it’s all right,” Kiat murmured, now embarrassed, glad that the right side of his vision stayed field-empty: the techman wasn’t pushing the issue. “Ah. I’ve had this model since it was first sold. My daughter gave it to me. To keep me company. After leaving home…” Kiat trailed off awkwardly, abruptly self-conscious. “To keep me company,” Kiat repeated, forging back to familiar ground, and wished he hadn’t over-spoken to a stranger. In his mind, Kiat could see Anna rolling her eyes and smirking. You’re always playing funny buggers, Dad, Anna would’ve drawled, all tenderness and contempt, spilling your life story to strangers.

The techman whistled. “Fifteen years? Diu me so happen.” At the blank look on Kiat’s face, she laughed, and translated, “I said that’s so old. Crono visa out p’more, mon.”

Kiat nodded gravely. That line he understood. His grandnephews tried it on him every Lunar New Year, and some years language changed the colour of its spots more quickly than others. You have to go out more, man. “Can you fix it?”

“NFW,” the techman shook her head. “Thissa so old, it history. Museum history. Too old,” she elaborated, when Kiat only picked nervously at his own wrinkleproof gray sleeves. His vision implants registered the adscape on the techman’s sleeves, which made a stab at the cause of his distress and translated it with retargeted ambient buy-in, peppering her arms with anti-ageing serum campaigns to Kiat’s eyescape. ‘Don’t wait for the next tomorrow!’ scrolled a line in frantic red block copy down the techman’s right arm, disappearing into her wrist.

Kiat blinked it away. “I need you to fix it.”

“I said NFW, mon. No way I could. The guts’a phone stop-made five years back, jacks. Why you need phone neh? I seen you got vis-tech, same’a alla us proles. You wanna call someone, just ping ya?”

Down the techman’s left arm, ambient buy ran an animation of a little human repeatedly running into blue cloud graphics to upgrade his eye implants, leaping full bionic into the back of the techman’s palm. Not for the first time, Kiat wondered what the techman saw on Kiat’s adscape. The same bionic tech ad? A woman instead of a man? The etched white lines in her irises flickered and turned briefly circular. She was re-scanning the phone, probably recalibrating it with a reassembly manual that only she could see.

“I’m used to it,” Kiat said quietly, as the techman put the phone back together again and pushed it over the smooth plasteel of the workbench. “What’s wrong with it anyway? Which bit? Maybe… maybe I could get a part. Last couple of times it was just the battery.”

“You replaced battery twofers?” the techman inquired, a little condescendingly, a little pityingly, as she industriously began to put her tools away, powering down the overhead strobes and setting away her sleek, pen-like ‘drivers. “Whew! Must’a cost p’highcred neh.”

It had. “I’m willing to pay,” Kiat pointed out stiffly. “It won’t be a problem-”

“Whoah oldsmon. Not saying you no’.” The techman held up her hands, fists up, in a gesture that lit up her adscape with #FreeStateSolidarity campaigns in seamless orange waves, photographs of people protesting, their adscaped arms covered over with black paint. “I can’t help you. But I’ll ping you a name. Man called the Collector. Maybe could help. Museum fixer, p’good.”

Kiat gathered the broken phone into its box, folding it into his suitpouch. Dulled still, but back in one piece, it just looked like a palm-sized rectangle of glass. “Please yes. Thank you.”

The techman exhaled, hollowing out her cheeks, blinking, and after heartbeat, the address appeared in Kiat’s proxy feed, along with a modest invoice for her service fee. Kiat paid, doling out creds carefully from his pension, and the techman smiled at him, sunny again. “Luck you, mon. Such luck, okay? Luck.”

“Is there something I should know?” Kiat asked, his sense of caution long honed by his daughter’s many homilies on the essential untrustworthiness of strangers.

“Well-a,” the techman hesitated. “I no send you there less I know he do you fine, ya.”

“Yes, but…?”

“Maybe you no find him,” the techman admitted reluctantly. “Been years since we pinged. And. He no like the BigMan. Hides, sometimes. So. Luck you, mon, okay? Hope you get it fixed.”

“He’s in trouble with the law?”

This unquestionably old-fashioned phrasing made the techman giggle: she belatedly covered her mouth with a toolglove, its stabilisers hissing in faint pneumatic whistles as her fingers curled lightly an inch away from her mouth. “Naw mon. Not really no. Maybe.”

“Ah.” Alarm bells, Dad, Anna would’ve wagged a finger. Ring-ring. Woop-woop. “Thanks again for your help.”

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Kiat had known that something was wrong when Anna came home for dinner. With liveable land still so scarce on Earth, like most people in their thirties, Anna couldn’t afford to live away from home, and the small, two-room apartment had always been an exercise in careful storage. When Carrie had still been around, it had been worse: the cracks between them amplified by the lack of space between. After Carrie had left, divorce papers and all, Kiat had naively thought that things would be better, but the Carrie-shaped hole in their private universe remained at large, instead, for years forcing every conversation, every conflict, into its gravitational maw.

“For you, Dad,” Anna had a box with her, made of stiff neopaper card, smooth to the touch. She pushed it across the table as they sat down to mealcard gruel and supplements: her megacorp’s cantina served better, or so she often said. Sometimes, in unkinder hours, Kiat wondered if it was just Anna’s given excuse for coming home late enough just to sleep and wake up again for work, to become such incidental strangers. “Our latest product.”

“Um, thanks.” Kiat opened the slim box. Within it was a thin glass panel, the size of his palm. “What’s this?”

“It’s a phone,” Anna said proudly. “My first project as a principal designer.”

“Wow! It’s so thin.” Kiat lifted it to his eyes, and through the glass panel, Anna smiled at him, flushed with maternal pleasure. “So light.”

“It’s the future, Dad. Just the first step. Soon we’ll make it smaller, and smaller, until some day, it’ll be so small and thin, we can fit it like contact lenses right onto your eyes. Or even smaller. Inject nanotech directly into everyone’s irises. First step to a far more waste-free world.”

Kiat lowered the glass phone, forever made wary by Anna’s enthusiasm, particularly when he didn’t understand it in the least, but he made the appropriate noises. “That’s amazing, dear.”

Anna rolled her eyes, not in the least fooled. “It wouldn’t hurt you to try and live in the modern world now and then, Dad. Press your thumb to the glass.”

Dinner forgotten, Kiat obeyed. The glass shard lit up, blinking yellow for a moment before fading. Tiny little red and white koi darted out over its surface, and Kiat laughed with startled pleasure as they circled around his thumb before turning themselves into familiar icons. A little outline of a man talking, for calls. A speech bubble for pings. An ear with a lightning symbol, for the news. A globe, for the browser. The rest were a little unfamiliar. “Yeah,” Anna had been watching Kiat closely. “Knew you’d like the fish. Check out the other apps. Everything that you might’ve liked, I’ve already installed.”

“It’s great,” Kiat said, more honestly this time. “There’s going to be a promotion for you in this for certain.”

This had normally been a safe topic between them, a cue for Anna to launch into a tirade about the nuances of office politics, about who had been stabbing who in the back or scamming performance reviews, but instead, she smiled uneasily. “Dad. I’ve got to talk to you about something. I did get a promotion. But it’s offworld.”

“Luna?” Kiat frowned slightly. Luna wasn’t so bad. Only a short hop out-

“Mars,” Anna said, and her smile grew earnest. “I’ve been invited to be the Communications Director on Mars. The Mars Alpha colony’s getting well underway. I’ll be with the second wave settlers.”

“Mars!”

“It’ll be a nine-month trip,” Anna pressed on, inexorably. “But it’s been done a few times now. Practically near-commercial.”

“It’s still one way,” Kiat said numbly. Space facilities on Mars were still under construction, weren’t they? They’d been ‘still under construction’ for nearly a decade, now. There was no way to get back offworld in a shuttle from Mars. “Why does Mars need you?”

It had been the wrong thing to say. Anna flared. “I can’t believe you’re saying that. I told you it was a promotion. I’m going to be a Director for an entire planet. You and Mum… I’m always either not good enough for something, or it’s not good enough for me! I thought you would both be happy for me!”

“You spoke to your mother?” Kiat was astonished. The last he had spoken to Carrie had been at the divorce filing.

“Yes, Dad. I’ve spoken to her now and then over the last two years. She’s fine, by the way,” Anna bared her teeth. “Living over in SinoState. New life, new family. You’ll be glad to know that you both agree on me, as usual.”

“I didn’t say that you shouldn’t go,” Kiat murmured, stung. “I’m just concerned for you as your father.”

“I’m going, Dad,” Anna retorted, defiant.

“When?”

“Tomorrow night.”

Kiat was aghast. “So soon? Anna, have you really thought this through?”

“Can’t you be happy for me?”

The question hung heavy in the air, unanswered. A nine-month space trip! And so soon! Commercial travel to Mars — with a return ticket — was still years away. Practically more than that, to become even remotely affordable for a civil techie like Kiat. He sat frozen in his chair, struck dumb by the inevitable. Anna packed in the night, bitterly and loudly. Their final parting had been coldly silent, and without an invitation to the spaceport, Kiat had watched his daughter leave Earth through vidfeed that evening, one face of many, turned away defiantly from the newscam. The successful launch seemed marred by the reporter’s cheerfully plastic jubilation. Earth celebrated. Kiat was still too bewildered to mourn.

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The autopod dropped Kiat off neatly at the Museum Fixer’s address, and sped back into traffic, the other pods making way for it seamlessly. With all transport now automatic and public, autopods and buspods looked like evenly coloured fish, looping neatly between blocks of apartments and their trimmer, silver cousins, corpblocks. The autopod had left him in what looked like a public-access storage warehouse sector, all immense, windowless blocks covered wall to wall by adscapes. The closest wall displayed a huge animated ad about a man trapped in his apt by his possessions, only to be saved by some yellow robot that eventually transformed into the Ez-Stor logo, which followed him across the wall as he started to walk, looking for a door.

After ten minutes’ futile back and forth looking for a doorway, a bot message pinged his proxy feed. ‘Hello this is Stanley from Ez-Stor, how can we help?’ 

Like many people of his age, Kiat had never really taken to thought-to-proxy communication. His first attempt at a response read ‘HelloStanLEY I am LOOKING for TheCollectorYellowRobot’, and he had to painstakingly use hand gestures to correct his post.

There was a pause, then a brisk response. ‘There is no one here of that name, Mr Lee. May I help you with something else?’ 

No thankYstanLEE’ Kiat winced, and not for the first time wondered how his grandnephews managed thought-to-proxy so seamlessly. It couldn’t be practice. Kiat had his first eye implants installed a month or so before his grandnephews had even been born. Sometimes, it felt like Kiat was two generations behind the latest evolutionary leap.

Would you like to check the status of your box? The fee for inspection is free! Here at Ez-Stor, we love to help customers store themselves.’

I nobox donthaveBOX’ Kiat replied, and this time accidentally posted before responding. ‘NO-account,’ he added for good measure.

Our records show that you are an Existing Customer, registered today, as of 12:03pm. You are Valued Customer Mr Kiat Ming Lee of 4034#88 Honglim Rise TemState-2–2–810392.’ Stanley disagreed brightly. Stanley, Kiat decided with resignation, was probably a bot. It was getting harder and harder to tell nowadays. A door opened in the wall to his left, a smooth corridor that led into the storage block, lights blinking on. ‘Would you like to inspect your box? No storage fees will be charged for the first 10kg!’

Hell. Why not. Kiat shrugged, and stepped into the corridor. It was cool, at least, away from the humid warmth of the street, and his footsteps echoed around him as he followed it down. He would find someone — some human, hopefully — and gently but firmly lodge a complaint about auto-signing people up to storage accounts that they didn’t want or need. Adscapes followed him on the floor and walls as he walked, with details of storage fees on his left, and more Yellow Robot ads on his right. This time, Yellow Robot was saving a man who had somehow climbed to the top of Millennium Tower, apparently out of despair for owning too many possessions. ‘Thank you Ez-Stor for Storing my life!’ bleated the man in throbbing text at the end of the ad, face distorted in chemical ecstasy. Kiat let out a deep sigh.

Thankfully, before Ez-Stor tried more ambient advertising, Kiat found himself at the end of the corridor. The empty wall flickered and disappeared — more holo tech — and Kiat stepped through and into long, rectangular chamber, set wall to wall with racks and pressure chambers packed with toy figurines, with pre-implant entertainment consoles, with dusty old vidscreens, lamps, speakers, even, in pride of place, a crimson electric guitar, within a case of its own, to Kiat’s right. As he stared, disoriented, the door behind him flickered and seemed solid again.

The Collector is IN,’ declared his proxy feed.

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With Mars at the closest approach, the message delay was three minutes. Kiat spent it playing a nervous sort of mental chess. He would send a response, replay Anna’s last message, and anticipate what she would say, mentally composing his next response. It felt, in a way, like writing a book, and was surprisingly exhausting.

“Hi Dad,” Anna had begun the first message. “Happy Birthday.” Her smile had frozen on the screen as the clip had ended. It had been a year and two months.

“Things are settling down here.” Was it Kiat, or did Anna’s smile seem strained? She was wearing a pale blue CommKon suit, no adscapes, only the logo printed bright over her chest, her black hair cut into a tight bob over her slender neck. She had her mother’s delicate, narrow features, though her usually quick smile seemed wilted. “I’m very happy here.”

“Happy New Year to you too. We celebrated Lunar New Year on the Guanyin, on our way here. We even had yu sheng. Not as good as at home of course. It was super messy in zero grav. The fauxfish and noodles and crackers went everywhere. Guess that means we’re all lucky right?” Anna was sitting in a white coffin of a room, vaguely bulbous, alien to Kiat’s Earthbound eyes, with cabling and panels exposed. “Nobody got any hongbao though. None of us are married.”

“Good to hear that Auntie Meimei and the others are doing well. The First Colonists here threw a big party for us. The other Directors have been very welcoming.” Again that strained look, or was it a father’s selfishness, hoping that she would come home? Somehow? “Everyone is settling down fine. How’s your new phone?”

“Glad that you finally learned how to use it. It’s not that hard, yeah? We tested it on a lot of older focus groups. Did you like the apps? Yes. Companion is our most popular app.” Anna laughed. “Let me guess, you chose Jia, right?”

“I knew it. Jia’s my favourite, too. It’s slightly smarter than the real thing, you know. The UN might have put a moratorium on creating AI, but subhuman AIs passed their loophole. Shortsighted of them, but they’ll come round.” Anna waved her hand back and forth, a strange gesture. A year after this message, Kiat would finally learn what it meant. It was a cosmonaut gesture, part of the sign language they learned during the nine-month trip to Mars, a shrug. Kiat did not know it yet, but soon, he would go through every second of this, by replaying the message every morning of his life for a year, unable to let go of their last conversation together.

“Good to hear you’ll be getting a pension after all. Use it to travel while you still can, ok? Maybe to Luna, the base there’s doing great. Give my love to Auntie Meimei, Cousin Jinn and Lacey. Tell Uncle Tommy that I’ll try and send him a Mars rock on the next SpaceX courier.” Anna was reaching across towards the screen to switch off the recording. Her smile widened, her eyes crinkling with good humour. “Bye now, Dad. Love you. Talk again soon.”

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Kiat hadn’t known what to expect, but given that the techman had said that the Collector was a he, an old lady certainly hadn’t been in any of his imagined scenarios. She was as tall as Kiat, waifishly thin, shaved bald, her full mouth pulled into a polite smile, large dark eyes narrowed in curiosity, her dark skin creased at her eyes and throat and spotted down her arms with pale old scars. She was dressed in a heavy fauxleather apron that was liberally stained with grease and paint, and wore a shirt and trousers and boots beneath it. Kiat hadn’t seen anyone outside of adwear save public servants like cops for years.

“Sorry,” said the old lady, in twanging English. “Had to switch off your adwear when you got in here. Messes with my electronics.”

“Sure. Sorry,” Kiat echoed automatically.

“It’s a private bypass, so don’t worry, your rec will still be spotless. Won’t mess with your pension.” The Collector strode over, and shook Kiat’s hand with a palm sandpaper-rough with calluses. “Nice to meet you, Mister Lee. I’m Neema. Welcome to my workshop.”

They were in a cubical chamber beyond the storage room, and like the techman’s, it had two workbenches, one cleared, with toolboxes lined up at one end, worklamps clamped to the edges and curled over, like nodding cranes. The other, along the wall, held ongoing projects, mostly disassembled toys. The sad remains of a train sat derailed beside the holopoints that would have worked to set it floating magnetically, flying over light-painted rails. Kiat had once bought his nephew a set.

“Getting popular again,” Neema said briskly, following his gaze. “But fucking hard to fix once the electromagnet goes on the whack.”

“I gave my nephew a set ten years ago.”

“Ah, really? He still got’em? No? Pity. Been trying to source replacement parts for months. Good thing the owner ain’t in a hurry. Probably gotta build them myself.” Neema spoke in sharp bursts, as though she was stuck in fast-forward. At least she wasn’t speaking in the street slang that the younger generation liked so much. “So whatcha got, hm? Grace referred you from her watch. Said you had a doozy.”

Kiat gave up trying to parse Neema’s words, and set the box carefully on the workbench instead. She whistled as she opened it, picking up the glass shard with delicate care. “Hoo-boy. Haven’t seen one of these for dog’s years. Where’d you get that?”

“My daughter gave it to me.”

Neema eyed him thoughtfully, and Kiat braced for pleasantries, for the impersonal, indifferent ah, that’s nice. “Anna Shimin Lee?”

Despite himself, Kiat flinched. “I, uh. Yes.”

Neema raised the shard to her eyes, turning it over in her hands, carefully, and Kiat realized, belatedly, that her irises were clear. She had no implants. A quick look around the workshop told him quickly how Neema had pinged him — a lower shelf held an old-fashioned input console, and a keyboard, its screen full of black columns of white text. “Yeah. Had to build that myself. No one’s got the parts now.” Neema patted the side of the keyboard. “This phone of yours is a firstgen CommKon Portal.”

“Yes. Can you fix it?”

“What’s the problem?”

“It won’t switch on.”

Neema opened the toolbox. Like the techman, she quickly took the phone apart, though slowly, and with a craftsman’s delicacy. She plugged parts of it with tiny filaments into her console, studying the readings before grunting to herself and looking away. She tested parts with little electronic pen-like implements. She cursed to herself as she swept around her workshop, locating a plastic container of tiny transparent chips, placing one in the phone before reassembling it. Kiat took a step closer as she turned it on, and the screen brightened to yellow… then faded.

Kiat let out a sigh. Neema pursed her lips. “It’s not the battery.”

“Can you fix it?”

“Might be I don’t have to. If you want to retrieve the data, I could probably access the cloud backup. If it was linked to the ‘net when it died, it’s probably imaged somewhere. That’s how they got away with no memchips.”

Kiat shook his head. That was what the techman had said as well. “I want it fixed, please.”

“This thing’s, what, fifteen years old?” Neema raised her eyebrows. “Broken down before?”

“Yes. Usually it’s the battery. Once the display module. Once it was the wifi chip.”

“Shit, son. That’s dedication. But y’know, if you just wanted something to remember your girl by, hell, the implants in your eyes, they’re a result of her preliminary work anyway. So’s adscapes. Moment you wake up till you sleep, your Anna’s work is everywhere. Can’t miss it.”

“Yes,” Kiat said tiredly, mustering his patience. “Can you fix the phone, please?”

“Maybe. You’re going to have to leave it with me for a while while I run some more tests. But if it’s the motherboard that’s gone, that’s you shit outta luck, son. Unless I can find another firstgen Portal with working bits to scavenge. But given how old this thing is,” Neema whistled. “Tall order.”

“Ah.” Kiat deflated. “Please try your best. Do you need a deposit?”

“Nah. I like a challenge.” Seeing the pain in the unhappy curl of his mouth, Neema gentled her tone. “Really though, I could just get the data for you. It’ll be easy. Cheaper, too. You’re a pensioner, you can’t be rolling in creds. Do you need a quote? Want to think about it?”

“No, no. It’ll be fine. How can I contact you?”

“Bit of a stubborn goat, aren’t you?” Neema smiled. “I’ll give you a proxy code. But don’t try to reach me unless it’s an emergency. And unless I invite you to, don’t come to this address again.” As Kiat wavered, she added, “Or you could try another techman. I got a list.”

“No,” Kiat let out a sigh. The keyboard and the handmade console had already convinced him. Neema was his last hope of seeing Jia again. “I’ll wait. Thank you.”

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At his feet, projected through the glass phone, Jia rested its head in Kiat’s lap, and wagged its tail as Kiat ‘petted’ its head. Under his fingertips, there was a faint staticky pressure before the signals told his mind that he was feeling flesh and soft fur. No warmth, though. Companion hadn’t managed that much yet. Jia had been modeled on a honey-coloured Shiba Inu, its perky ears flicking forward and back, its white-furred mouth parted in a happy, doggish grin. But for the faint flickers that occasionally marred its outline, it looked real, a constant conjuring trick right out of the phone in Kiat’s hand. According to Companion’s manual, it had the same intelligence as a ‘real’ Shiba Inu: CommKon had scanned and digitised the brain of an actual dog.

“That’s so cool,” said a little boy beside Kiat, eyes wide, and let out a yelp of protest as his mother dragged him away, tugging him into a seat at the front row. Kiat said nothing. People were filing into the sterile white conference room in the spaceport, shuffling in, all of them wearing the same, shell-shocked eyes. Some quietly sobbed, clinging to family, but the room was mostly quiet, even as it started to grow full. Beside Kiat, his sister Meimei tightened her grip reassuringly on his wrist. She was willowy like their mother had been, her black hair still rich and thick despite her greater age. Dressed neatly in a black jacket and long trousers, folded several times at the hem in the current fashion, she had aged with elegance and grace where Kiat had not. Kiat looked disheveled next to her. He had received the news while still in his nightshirt, and hadn’t bothered to change as he had rushed to the spaceport.

As though sensing his mood, Jia nuzzled Kiat’s wrist until he petted it again distractedly. His mind was static, a hollow brittle loop that kept touching back on the morning’s news headlines and then flinching away again, touching and flinching away. BREAKING STORY— ACCIDENT ON MARS ALPHA — CONTAINMENT BREACH — DEVELOPING STORY — His mind flinched away again. In the gray numbness of animal reaction there was still the scant comfort of denial.

“Don’t worry,” Meimei said, in her fierce soft voice. “Everything will be all right.” He had heard this before, when their mother had died in a car accident. When their father had passed away, years later, from cardiac arrest. When Carrie had left. When Anna had left. There was, by now, a funereal touch to Meimei’s optimism, in Kiat’s opinion.

“We’re the oldest in the room,” Kiat said, his mind grasping for gentler details.

Meimei swivelled her head around on her slender neck. “Nope, there’s an old grandmother in a hovchair over there in the corner. See? See? Maybe we shouldn’t stare. How are they going to fit everyone in here? Such nonsense. And why is it taking so long? I tell you, after this, we should complain.”

Gratefully, Kiat subsided against Meimei’s determined chatter, letting her voice wash over him. Yes. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe no one had been hurt. Or maybe people had been hurt but no one died. After all, they were growing carrots on Mars now, and bokchoy and cabbages and flowers and things. If they could make Mars green, surely they had the tech to make sure no one died. Or if someone died, maybe it wasn’t Anna. There were two hundred or so first and second wave colonists on Mars in total. That meant the odds that it was Anna was 1:200. There were good odds that it wasn’t Anna.

Kiat clung to that statistic even as CommKon finally decided on an appropriate sacrificial goat, coughing out a sweating young man Kiat did not recognise, trailed by spaceport officials and someone in a Mars Alpha jacket. He was barely listening as the CommKon executive more or less parroted the news reports. Yes, it was a Developing Story. Yes, they were trying to contact the Mars Alpha base. Yes, at this stage, it’s quite likely there were survivors. Even if there was a breach in one part of the hab, failsafes would kick in at the rest. No, the situation was Still Developing. Meimei sniffed. “Useless,” she muttered under her breath.

“Mars is almost at its furthest,” Kiat whispered back. “It’s a twenty minute wait between information getting back here.”

“So? It’s been one hour since the news broke.”

Kiat said nothing. They didn’t need to. Several of the other people in the room were already shouting questions at that CommKon exec, their voices joining into an uneven background roar of grief and anger and disbelief. Security and medical waded in, soothing whom they could. The CommKon exec had taken a step back, pale, visibly spooked at being the lightning rod for so much pain.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with you all,” said the man in the Mars Alpha black and red coat. His voice radiated assurance and calm. The room started to subside, and he began to discuss in painstaking detail a minute-by-minute byplay of their last hour of reports leading up to the breach. Everyone else calmed down. He took questions, quiet and confident. In control. That’s what people liked, herding gratefully around a shepherd. Even Meimei was relaxing, reaching over to pat Jia behind its ears.

“So real,” she murmured. “That girl, such a genius. I always said to Tommy, if our Jinn ended up with even half of Anna’s smarts, we’ll be blessed.”

Kiat grimaced. “I hope you didn’t tell Jinn that.”

“Of course we did. Nothing like some healthy competition.”

Apples clearly didn’t fall far from the tree. Kiat thought briefly back to his own nervous, competitive childhood, pitted against his sister like two coltish throughbreds at race with no goalposts in sight, and felt vaguely glad that they had spent only the first two decades of their lives as enemies. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s going out with some girl.” Meimei rolled her eyes. “Seriously. He’s been changing his girlfriend every year. Tommy and I tell him, he has to settle down sooner or later. After all, he hit the economic threshold to be eligible for children two months ago. It’s about time.”

“Maybe he’s not ready yet.” Kiat felt lulled by banalities, comfortable again. On stage, the Mars Alpha person was making a joke about space carrots. A nervous chuckle rippled through the front ranks. People who had been strangers but minutes ago were talking to each other at the back benches in low, reassuring whispers. It was probably just an accident. Yes, Our Mindy was a Second Waver. Always wanted to go to Mars.

“That’s what he says. But what can he do? There’s no one else in Tommy’s line to carry on the family name. Has to be Jinn. It’s not like us, where we’ve still got our Cousin Billy. His son is getting married soon, did you know? Once they settle on a date, they’ll be posting out invites. I told Billy, I know the younger generation now don’t believe in auspicious dates, but…” Meimei trailed off, always with her instinct for trouble, snapping her stare back to the stage. The Mars Alpha executive had leaned back from the podium, listening to whispers from another Mars Alpha rep, who had darted out from backstage, holding something up in her palm for the executive to see. As they watched, the executive abruptly went so pale that it looked for a moment as though he was going to faint.

The hum of the crowd collapsed in a death rattle of ebbing whispers. The Mars Alpha executive pulled himself back towards the podium amp, grim. “It is with the greatest regret that I stand before you here today to give all of you the following news. Judging from our full status reports from the Mars Alpha project, I have just been informed that the entire hab was vented-”

Meimei’s grip tightened painfully on his wrist, even as Jia let out a low whine. Kiat was blank again, pinging back to disbelief. The rest of the executive’s words washed away around him, his measured nature, his cultivated corporate grief. The crowd clamoured for more details. For answers. How had that happened? An accident? A mistake?

“For the hab to fully vent,” the Mars Alpha executive said carefully, “to our knowledge, the safety codes would have had to have been manually overridden, and tripped from the two security posts at the same time.” Someone shouted a question. “We have no further information at this time, and ask for your patience as we wait for updates on this developing situation.”

“Sabotage,” Meimei whispered.

“We don’t know that,” Kiat murmured back, but it was too late. Meimei hadn’t been the only one to connect the evidence. Now, families drew back into themselves, creating miniature cores of doubtful suspicion, looking keenly at each other. The child, sister, brother, father, mother of someone in here had chosen to kill everyone else’s. He or she had killed themselves as well. Lunacy. Someone in here was related to a murderer. At least two. The first mass murder in space. A crime for the history books. Kiat tore his glance away, and stared down at Jia, which wagged its tail, grinning up at him adoringly, as the silence around Kiat was abruptly broken by someone’s voice, breaking into an animal wail of agonised grief.

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Some mornings Kiat took his coffee upstairs to the roof, where the apartment garden was kept green and trim by a controlled hydroponics system and the owners corp’s drones. It was a modest garden, nothing like the lushly cloned tropical ferns and orchids of the upscale blocks: square patches of grass were boxed in by narrow blocks of bougainvillea shrubs, spotty with pink flowers. On most mornings he would have the garden to himself, given most of his apartment block had family units that would be busy preparing children for school or heading for work. Sometimes there was a taichi class, for the few retirees still holding on to their apts.

Today, as he was sipping from his mug, a familiar face climbed out of the rooftop entrance, grumbling under his breath. Parth grinned as he noticed Kiat on the garden bench, striding over vigorously. Parth seemed to do everything vigorously: to the stout, bald, retired policeman, life was clearly something to be approached at a belligerent charge. “Kiat! Morning, man!”

“Morning, Inspector. Coffee?”

“Got my own. None of your bloody milk and sugar shit.” Parth threw himself onto the bench, still grinning under his thick silver moustache, unscrewing the cap from the silver thermos that he took out from under his suit. “How’s life? Where’s your dog?”

“The phone broke down, I’m getting it fixed.”

“Again? Man. I told you this before. But you got some funny ideas. When you buy a pet, Kiat, I heard this from somewhere — when you buy a pet, you’re buying a miniature tragedy-in-waiting. It’s been what, ten years? More?”

“Fifteen.”

Shee-yut, man. Real dogs are lucky if they last that long. Don’t pull a long face. Science nowadays, it’s so good, they’re bringing animals back. Give it a year or so, you can get a real dog for a few hundred creds.” Over the arm closest to Kiat, the adscape triumphantly ran a CronoLab ad, duplicating a grinning black puppy all the way down Parth’s sleeve in a kaleidoscopic pattern, finishing with ‘How much is that doggie in the Crono? Call us today! Conditions apply.’

“I know, Parth, thanks. I’ll think about it.”

“Pssh. So what’s wrong this time? The battery again?”

“The techman’s not sure. She’s running tests.”

“Ever tried getting one off the ‘Net? People might have replacements out there.”

“It’s not the same,” Kiat said mildly. “The hardware’s one of a kind.”

“A prototype? I see, I see. Good luck with that. You’ve been watching the news? No? Mars, man. They’re launching the Mars Three colonists this week.” Parth smiled with a gentle reproach that Kiat had never failed to find unsettling all this time, whether it was playfully chiding Kiat for not keeping in touch with the world, or — at the start — as one part of a ten man emergency investigation team, interviewing the Mars Alpha families while preparing for a long haul over to Mars and back, sponsored by SpaceX and the UN.

“Good luck to them.”

Mars Three! Kiat felt a moment of vertigo, so abruptly reminded of the gulf of time. Had ten years truly already passed since the first set of Mars Two colonists had left Earth? Fifteen years, since Mars Alpha? He clenched his hands tightly, breathing deeply.

Parth didn’t seem to notice. “Did they give you a spectator ticket? I got one. Front row seats. Courtesy of CommKon.”

“Probably.” Kiat didn’t bother reading many of his CommKon pings. They were fewer and far between nowadays. “Are you going?”

“Nah. I gave the ticket to my nephew. I’ve been through the whole business firsthand, went there and back, that’s more than enough for me.” Parth poured himself another cup from his thermos. “I talked to a few of the others. The Kidmans and the Gowdas are going.”

“And how are they?” Kiat asked dutifully. He had not spoken to any of the Mars Alpha families for more than a decade, now. With the so-called ‘Crime of the Century’ still unsolved, suspicion ran deeper than shared grief. Small wonder that the only link between them remained a doggedly good-natured, retired policeman, for whom the case had been the shining failure of an otherwise exemplary career.

“Not bad, not bad.” Parth began talking about the new Kidman baby. Colic, apparently, was making an aggressive comeback. Nothing to be worried about, though. Everything was under control. Listening to Parth’s gentle, grave voice, Kiat remembered with wry clarity that Meimei had never liked the Inspector.

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“She didn’t seem stressed or troubled about anything to you?” The Inspector’s warm, friendly voice stood starkly apart from the chill of the interview room, a sterile white cube with curved silver seats and a tempered glass table. The door had been left open as a sign of reassurance — for obvious reasons, none of the Mars Alpha families were suspects — but Kiat didn’t feel reassured, for all that the young police Inspector before him had been solicitous about coffee and comforts.

“No sir.”

“No need to be so formal here, we’re all friends,” Parth smiled. Kiat had heard of Parth Shanmugan before. He had been the leader of an international police coalition that had stopped a water trafficking ring, just years ago, preventing State tensions from escalating. The scoop had dominated the news cycle for a week.

“Okay,” Kiat said, uncomfortable. He had been brought up to be Helpful to the Police, but even sitting here like this, looking into Parth’s friendly smile… “We, uh. I haven’t been a very good father to her,” he confessed, his voice hushed. “We fought about things. When she was growing up. After her mother left. It was… it was my fault, you know? I think she blamed me for the breakup, and then I never really tried hard enough to relate to her, and then we argued again when she wanted to leave for Mars, and…” Kiat trailed off, foundering. Parth’s smile didn’t even waver. “It wasn’t her,” Kiat said forcefully, belatedly remembering why he was even here. “How could it be her? It must have been someone else. She was very proud to be there. It was a promotion. She said she was happy.” But was she? Doubt had uncurled in the corner of his mind, poisoning even his last memory of his daughter. “She’s never hurt anything in her life.”

“No one’s a prime suspect at this time,” Parth said soothingly.

“But they’re all suspects.”

“Ah, well,” Parth noted wryly, “unless you’re of the school of thought that thinks murderous aliens exist on Mars.”

“I don’t know anything about aliens,” Kiat began, before realizing that Parth had been joking. He blushed. “The last we talked, she mentioned celebrating the Lunar New Year aboard the Guanyin. You know, the ship they took to get there.” He trailed off again, doubly embarrassed. Of course Parth knew. The whole world knew. Kiat wished that he hadn’t had to hand over his phone. Jia would have kept him calm.

“Ah yes. The yu sheng was messy, she said.”

Kiat swallowed a spark of unexpected temper. Of course Parth knew about the yu sheng. He probably knew about all of it. Every video recording sent back from Mars must’ve been combed over a hundred times by now, searching out nuances, hints, each of them little pieces of a puzzlebox whose key still eluded Parth and his team. Everyone’s memories, taken away, now tainted around the edges. “Yes.”

“Do you know the Gowda family?”

“No, I don’t know anyone by that name.”

“Their daughter Anoushka was also aboard the Guanyin. She was one of the second wave colonists.”

“Ah. No. I don’t know any of the other Mars Alpha families.”

“Do you know Anoushka?”

“No.”

“Strange,” Parth’s smile remained gentle. “They know you. Anoushka and Anna were seeing each other, they said. They had been for months. They applied together for a housing permit, to try and get an apt close to Anoushka’s workplace, but they were denied twice. After that, they decided to be colonists.”

“No, I… don’t… she’s never… really?”

“Yes, according to the development board. Anoushka Gowda and Anna Shimin Lee applied twice and were rejected on income grounds. Their total familial income level was too high for assisted housing.”

“I… I see. I never knew.” Why hadn’t Anna ever said a thing? It wasn’t as though Kiat would’ve minded. As long as she was happy, he wouldn’t have minded. “You probably think I’m a bad parent.”

“No, no. My girl didn’t want to tell me when she had her first boyfriend either. Thought I would send a constable to stalk them on their dates.” Parth laughed heartily, so invitingly that Kiat smiled as well, hesitantly.

“And did you?”

“Who has that kind of time? I might have run a background check and tapped her phone though. Kidding, kidding.” Parth grinned impishly. “Kids, eh? She told me so many tall stories.”

“Anna said that she got a promotion,” Kiat blurted out, swayed by Parth’s amicable smile. “To communications director. On Mars. She said that was why she was going.”

“Which was true,” Parth assured him. “She received the promotion after she tried to resign. Since the hab was partly CommKon’s design, the company thought it would be good to bolster up their local presence. Or so I’ve been told.”

“So I don’t know Anna as much as I should have,” Kiat said quietly, trying to put a blank face on all the fresh little hurts that Parth was digging into him, so very patiently. “But lying to her father… so what? Like you said, kids tell their parents tall stories. It’s normal.”

“Mister Lee,” Parth blinked at him, as though in mild surprise, “I’m not implying anything. However, as one of the Directors, your Anna would have had access to the override codes. It’s true that we don’t have a prime suspect. However, we’re all looking more closely at the Directors, for obvious reasons. So if you remember anything that you feel is even remotely relevant… feel free to contact me at any time.” The friendly father was gone, in his place, the dogged inspector. “The sergeant will show you out.”

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Neema left him a message. It was definitely the motherboard, but she’d gotten her hands on a second gen model, was Kiat OK with her trying to retrofit it? He sent her an affirmative, chewed his protein supplemental breakfast very slowly, and in the end, unable to put the world off any longer, he dressed with care and went to the spaceport.

He was early. CommKon had allocated a viewing room for its launch guests, and was already supplying everyone with fingerfoods and drinks. Kiat ignored everyone, staking out a comfortable corner with a couch that overlooked the huge glass wall of a window. The launchpad itself was miles away, visible only as a white, sleek object hemmed in from the sides by scaffolding. This wasn’t the ship that would take the Mars Three colonists on their nine-month trip — the Shiva had been built in orbit. The SpaceX Phoenix shuttle would rendezvous with it where it was docked at the Luna shipyards.

CommKon staff in their uniforms mingled with guests, friendly, mostly young, elegant. Professional glad-handlers. One of them had left Kiat with reconstituted orange juice and chocolates before bustling off to greet another family. Many of the guests were Mars Two families, Kiat guessed, from their relaxed smiles and familiarity with the viewing room. The Mars Three families were crowded near the back, nervous, but excited. Children darted around the adults, playing with tiny complimentary models of the Phoenix shuttle and the Shiva. Adscapes had been temporary bought off: the only logos that showed on everyone’s arms were CommKon’s, and Kiat’s proxy feed had long been briskly swallowed by corporate pings.

The Kidmans arrived noisily, the whole set of them, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and occupied an entire section of the seating area, drawing CommKon staff armed with toys and refreshments towards their orbit. Being a Mars Alpha family, they had been given prime seating in reserve despite being late, in front of all the Mars Two and Three families.  Kiat shrunk himself against the couch, and pretended to sip his orange juice, setting the chocolates aside on a glass table.

“May I?”

He glanced up,  and then hastily got to his feet. Dr. Dia Gowda smiled at him, as elegant as ever, her ears adorned with large golden loops, her silver hair bound back in a large braided coil against her skull.

“Dia, it’s so good to see you. Are the others coming?”

“No, no.” They sat carefully, navigating joints gone creaky with age. “Rishi’s babysitting today.”

“How have you bean?”

Dia set her palm out, and wagged it up and down, like a wave. Some cosmonaut habits never faded. “All right. I’m down to teaching one class a week at the launchschool now. Think they’re trying to ease me out to pasture.”

“Nonsense. You’ve got years left in you.”

“So I’ve told them.” Dia smiled as she looked out from the glass windows, with the consuming affection and longing of a grounded spacer. Years ago, she had touched the stars and more, as one of the first people to visit the rings of Saturn and return. The first woman to travel over 400 million km away from Earth. Beside her, Kiat had always felt vaguely insignificant.

They sat in companionable silence until the last of the guests arrived, at which point CommKon made a concerted effort to herd everyone to the buffet tables. Launch was scheduled in half an hour, the earnest young execs said, and everyone would have to be seated by then. Kiat and Dia resisted, staying where they were, and a young lady left them a plate of little pastries.

Shiva’s returning to Earth afterwards, isn’t she?” Kiat selected one of the little tarts.

“Oh yes. They’ll be bringing one of the Mars Two colonists back to Earth for treatment. They haven’t quite fixed all strains of early onset dementia, and they don’t have the facilities on Mars.”

“You must be more up to date on Shiva than anyone here.”

“I’ve been on deck, actually,” Dia said modestly. “Two years ago, when she was still under construction. She was mostly finished by then. The doctors say that’s the last time I can safely handle hypergravity. Age catches up with all of us.”

“It does.”

“Where’s your little dog? I think this is the first time I’ve seen you without it.”

“Being repaired. There’s something wrong with the motherboard.”

“Ah,” Dia smiled and nodded. “Well, if it’s not fixable, they’ve made real inroads with cloning tech. My grandsons are in the queue for the first batch of public-ready puppies. If you’re interested, I know the director.”

“No thanks,” Kiat said quickly, then amended hastily, in case he seemed ungrateful. “Look at us. We’re both old. How am I going to keep up with a puppy? Better that someone young can take it on all the walks it needs.”

The launch came and went. People cheered and drank; Kiat and Dia rose to their feet, clapping along, and then sat down again. Miles away, the white plume that the shuttle had left behind was fading away, while the shuttle itself was darting up, up, away. The guests were giddy with jubilation, toasting each other, still cheering. Kiat looked at Dia, whose eyes stayed locked on the slim white speck until it had sped on out of sight.

“Fifteen years ago,” Dia said softly, barely audible above the crowd. “I always meant to apologise. You didn’t get an invitation to the launch because Anoushka didn’t want you to be there. She didn’t want you to find out about them. Somehow, she was convinced that you would not approve… Anna thought that you wouldn’t. She used to tell us, you never approved of anything that she ever did.” Dia sighed. “Children never understand their parents until they become parents.”

Kiat shook his head slowly. The scabs over that wound had run so deep that he no longer even felt the scars. “I would have approved of anyone who could have made Anna happy.”

“I know. Rishi and I, we should have reached out to you ourselves. Carrie, too.”

“They would have gone anyway. To Mars.”

“It’s a sad thing,” Dia folded her hands in her lap, “when a child thinks that she has to run as far as Mars to get away from her mother’s shadow.”

Kiat stared at Dia, startled. He wasn’t used to melancholy from her. Always, through the interviews, the hearings, the panels, the press, Dia had seemed to radiate an inexorable, graceful serenity. “Don’t blame yourself. Anoushka, Anna… they were old enough to make their own decisions. They wanted to go.”

“We all blame ourselves. Mourning is the emotion that we feel when we have been left behind.” Dia glanced pointedly across the chamber to the Kidmans. The grandchildren were playing with model shuttles in between eating pastries, their parents busy trying to corral them close by. Roger and Carly, however, sat pale and silent, oblivious to everything but their renewed grief. Overlaid over Dia and the Kidmans, the proxy feed in Kiat’s eyes flicked up congratulatory messages. Phoenix was on schedule. Ready to rendezvous with Shiva. Another small fragment of humanity, prised off the Earth, to be flung nine months away through the void, out of reach.

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Kiat had been surprised to see Parth at his door. The usually sunny, smiling Inspector was sober, and he nodded absently as Kiat invited him into the apt. “We’re practically neighbours,” Parth said, as Kiat closed the door. “My wife and I live in the South block.”

“Can I help you, Inspector?”

“Inspector, pah.” Parth sank wearily into the nearest armchair, even as Jia ran a loop around him, barking excitedly. “I won’t be an Inspector for very long more, just you watch. Maybe one, two more years. I don’t mind. I was going to retire soon anyway.”

“Uhm. Coffee? Tea? Water?”

“No, no. I won’t be here long.” Parth rubbed a hand over his face. “You weren’t at the closing statement.”

“Not everyone was.” He’d watched it on the vidfeed at home, though, numb. So many resources spent, nearly two years of investigations, a round trip to Mars and back, only to end with a no conclusions. Dia and Rishi had already called him from outside the courthouse anyway, just in case, distraught, complaining that it’d all felt like a gut punch. Kiat had said little to them. He had mourned his daughter years ago. No. He had been mourning her for years; the moment Carrie had left, he had already been losing Anna in degrees. With that knowledge, Kiat had long made his peace.

“I apologised to the families.”

“Yes. I know. I watched it.”

“The thing is,” Parth sank deeper into the armchair, staring at the ceiling. “If the crime had taken place on Earth, we would’ve known who did it. Even without the surveillance. I would’ve learned everything I could from witnesses, checked imaged communications records… we would have reconstructed everything from the ground up. On Earth, solving crime is all about understanding human nature.”

Kiat nodded solemnly, growing a little confused. “Inspector, the committee may not have been able to find any conclusive evidence of what had happened, but thanks for trying.”

“Bloody waste of time and money that was. Mars is hellish, you know that? Even after we fixed up the habs, made it livable, spent months in there, trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. I didn’t think it would be that hard, even after all that intensive training they put me through.” Parth admitted. “Even just living there, day to day, was hard, let alone trying to solve a crime that was a year old by then. But two hundred suspects, right? I thought maybe we’d just find the culprits in the security rooms, their thumbs on a shiny red button. ‘Course, that wasn’t the case. Reality’s always messier. No one died instantly from exposure. Especially those deeper in the hab.”

“Yes.” Kiat had seen the pictures.

“It was murder. Premediated. The envirosuits were all breached. The security footage had been wiped.”

“Someone knew what they were doing and had the means to do it.”

“Not all the personal logs had been wiped. There were some on a backup server. I’d predicted as much. Friction between the first and second wave Mars Alpha colonists. Little cliques setting up everywhere. The fractures were setting in, that’s what the team psychologist said. Everyone was under stress somewhere. So it could’ve been anyone. Someone snapped.”

“Human nature,” Kiat echoed. Jia rested its muzzle on his knee, and wagged its tail as Kiat patted its head. “So… that’s it? A mystery for the ages?”

Parth had an odd, wry smile on his lips as he got to his feet. “A mystery for the ages,” he agreed briskly. He hesitated, as though he had something to add, but then he seemed to think better of it. “See you around, Mister Lee. I’m very sorry about everything. Thanks for the chat.”

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“There, all done.” Neema handed the phone over. Kiat took it eagerly from her, and switched it on. There was the yellow flash, and then he let out a sigh of relief, as the little koi fish swirled around his thumb.

“Neema, you’re a genius.”

“Yes, I’ve been told.” She grinned at him, an arc of white teeth, pleased by the praise.

“The techman gave me the impression that this was going to be some sort of exercise in black market illegality.”

“Hah! The real world isn’t like the movies. Grace just wishes a techman’s life was more exciting, that’s all. I’ll ping you my invoice,” Neema shot him a sidelong stare. “Hope you don’t mind though, I took a quick look through the stored databanks. Wasn’t prying, just looking for bad code.”

“That’s all right.” Kiat had nothing to hide. Buoyed by relief, he added, “You could ask, if you liked. Everyone does.”

“Ask about what?”

“About what happened. ‘Who killed Mars Alpha?’ Everyone’s asked. ‘Does that phone have something to do with it? What did CommKon’s Anna Lee know?’ Think there was going to be a movie at some point.” Thankfully, CommKon had nixed it in the works. For years, its PR arm had gone into overdrive, what with Anna-designed products packing their rollout schedule.

“Ah.” Neema watched him keenly, for a long, uncomfortable moment, then she smiled, and pushed up her goggles. “I don’t care about all that. Look at what I do for a living, Mister Lee. I fix things from ten, twenty years ago. Source parts, make them tick again. And I’m not cheap. Some people will pay a quarter of their life’s savings to make a little toy train levitate through the air again. Is it because they really, really love that dinky little train? Naw. Not usually. They love what it meant to them. A substitute for something else that they had before. Whatever it is… whatever works, you know? Life’s short.”

“Yes,” Kiat said softly. “Thank you.”

“But speaking as a pro, that phone of yours is going to break down again sooner or later. What I pulled with the retrofit, it’s a once off. Better find a cheaper kind of closure.” Neema waved him away. “Bye-bye. Careful with that antique of yours. Don’t use it so much.”

Kiat let himself out. The adscape reactivated as he walked down the corridors, and switched to CommKon ads as he took his phone out, flicking through the apps. Closure? Closure was nine months and a lifetime away. Closure had been packing away the last of Anna’s things for storage; had been Kiat being ground through the legal process, along with all the other families. Closure had been receiving the box of her effects from the committee, after the hearings were deemed closed. Closure had been slowly, painfully accepting the inevitability of a child leaving the nest, and watching its flight cut brutally short. At his feet, Jia flickered to life, padding beside him, wagging its tail, frozen the same way for fifteen years, oblivious to human nature. Now, as before, Kiat could only look upon it with a gentle sort of weary envy and affection.

“Come on, boy. Let’s go for a walk.”

___

Copyright 2016 Anya Ow

Anya grew up in Singapore and moved to Melbourne to study law. After a few years of legal practice in Australia, she went back to school to study graphic design, and is now a designer in an ad agency in Melbourne, working in branding, illustration, copywriting and digital projects. Off hours, Anya freelances and writes for fun. She can be found on twitter at @anyasy.  

By Ephiny Gale

One August evening, in a mix of grief and hope, Lara Jane Hudson accidentally opens the portal to Hell.

It takes her two and half days to fully realise this has happened: that there is a slightly shimmery, raised-edge circle on the floor of her basement storage room, with a suspicious crust on top like the surface of an apple crumble. It stinks of air freshener, but at least she feels a little less like she’s losing her mind.

FUN FACT: Lara Jane Hudson accidentally opened the portal to Hell via her own bad dancing. She was a professional dancer once upon a time, until her right ankle was crushed under a falling set piece when she was 22 and she opened a children’s dance studio instead. Occasionally, when everyone had gone home, she lingered in the middle of Studio A’s $76,000 floor and danced the best she could.

Aside from the vanilla-and-fresh-laundry portal in amongst her costume racks and spare gym mat, there is an additional consequence of blurring the lines between the realms. That first night, when Lara Jane climbs the stairs to her apartment above the Lara Jane Dance Studio and slips under the bed-covers, she finds a mermaid in her bed.

The mermaid does not receive a warm reception. There is ample screaming, and cursing, and Lara Jane has a loud voice honed by yelling regularly at children. The air smells strongly of oysters. Lara Jane crouches up against her padded headboard, and the mermaid curls lethargically on the crimson sheets like a bleeding fish.

When the mermaid won’t exit of its own accord, Lara Jane pushes it forcibly off the bed with her wooden cane. Its long hair slides off the mattress like kelp.

It reappears back on the mattress like magic.

More screaming. Lara Jane tries pushing it out of bed again and again. Finally, she drops her human feet to the carpet, and then the mermaid truly vanishes. She feels spent, and like she might cry, which she normally only does once a year when someone dies or she feels especially humiliated.

Lara Jane slumps back onto her sweaty pillow. Instantly, the mermaid is back beside her… And the real troubleshooting begins.

FUN FACT: Over that first week, Lara Jane Hudson tested several methods to banish the creatures from her bed. She tried sleeping on the floor, sleeping upright, sleeping with no bedding, sleeping in hotels, sleeping in a single bed–none of these worked, and the last seemed particularly cramped and frightening. Whenever she exhibited the intention to sleep, something strange and otherworldly would appear nearby.

Eventually, she creates an enormous bed of gym mats in Studio A and lets her eyes slip shut.

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The mermaid comes every Monday.

On the second Monday, Lara Jane Hudson can share a large bed of gym mats with the mermaid without screaming, cursing or sweating profusely. There have been six other creatures to visit her, and frankly the mermaid now seems safe and wholesome by comparison.

Lara Jane has not been sleeping well. Lara Jane has been taking involuntary micro-sleeps in her children’s dance classes and on the toilet, and waking seconds later with her chin smooshed against the toilet paper. Lara Jane has been considering taking a mental health day, and Lara Jane never takes mental health days. Lara Jane is royally pissed off.

She glares at the mermaid, and the mermaid stares straight back at her with its blue-black eyes. She says, “Hello, my name is Lara Jane, and you are in my dance studio,” and the mermaid says, “Hello,” and this feels like the most progress since she opened that damned portal to Hell in the first place.

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The faun comes every Tuesday.

At least, Lara Jane suspects that he’s a faun. There are a couple of antlers growing out of his head, but a blanket’s always covered his lower half, thank God, because a lot of the creatures seem to turn up naked. Point is, she doesn’t know for sure what’s going on past his waist, and she doesn’t really care for confirmation, either.

It’s the second Tuesday. Now that she’s no longer trying to threaten him out of bed with a butter knife, he’s nestled crossed-legged in a wad of blankets and harassing her for cigarettes.

Lara Jane laughs sharply under the dimmed fluorescent lights. “Does it look like I carry cigarettes?”

The faun grips his antlers in frustration, pulling them apart like he’s about to break over-sized wishbones. “Come on, come on,” he drawls. “Don’t send me back there with nothing. Have a bit of compassion.”

Compassion is not usually well-stocked in Lara Jane’s inventory. The nearest poster declares WINNING IS THE ONLY OPTION with a picture of a tutu-clad child leaping for her life over a ravine.

“Where’s ‘there’?” she asks. “Where do you go when you’re not here?”

“Ah.” The faun taps the side of his nose with a slightly-furred finger. “Cigarettes, my darling, cigarettes. Then you’ll find out.”

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The golem comes every Wednesday.

Lara Jane has the beginnings of a migraine. Her entire elite squad must have shot up with pixie sticks or red cordial or something before class, because this evening’s lesson was shockingly unfocused. Regardless, she’s in no mood to lug half a dozen gym mats and blankets into position in Studio A, and she thinks she knows who (or what) to expect beside her tonight, so she consents to the luxury of her proper, four-wooden-legs queen-sized bed.

When Lara Jane collapses under the doona, Wednesday’s visitor is slumped forward like a dying battery. Lara Jane thought it was a robot the first week, because every inch of it seemed made of silver metal. But the only seam in its casing is a small square panel in its lower back, and robots don’t move like this thing does–fluidly, the way real human flesh and muscle would move, despite the silver.

It turns its solemn face on Lara Jane, and two tiny candles seem to burn inside its eye sockets.

“Go to sleep,” croaks Lara Jane, and so they do.

FUN FACT: Shortly after opening the portal to Hell, Lara Jane Hudson performed several hours of internet research on magical gateways, ‘mythical’ creatures and the afterlife. She found it comforting to learn the approximate terms for many of her night-time visitors, even if their anatomy and behaviour did not match identically with her readings. Lara Jane also attempted a few do-it-yourself exorcisms and disenchantments involving salt, chalk, holy water, a small amount of blood and some more questionable dancing. These only made her bedroom and basement storage room messier. The portal remained.

Upon her alarm, Lara Jane rolls out of bed immediately, a habit she’s developed to minimize the amount of waking hours she has to spend with her bedmates. There is a scrap of paper on the bed, torn from the notebook she keeps on the bedside table.

On one side, written in big block letters: PLEASE LET ME STAY.

Lara Jane turns it over. OR HELP ME TO DIE.

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The gumby comes every Thursday.

Lara Jane calls it a gumby because of that kids’ show that was on twenty years ago, with the green plasticine man who could stretch himself into an infinite number of shapes, and, she suspects, could split himself into pieces with no harm done.

The gumby that comes to visit is not green. S/he lies naked on Lara Jane’s gym mats and pulls off two breasts, one penis and a ponytail’s worth of strawberry-blonde hair, stacking them in a pile beside her/him. Each piece peels away neatly with a slight sucking/sealing sound, like closing up a zip-lock bag. There is only flawless skin underneath: no wounds, no scars.

“I hope you don’t mind,” says the gumby. S/he smiles warmly at Lara Jane. “I find it easier to sleep this way.”

It is unnerving to have so much blatant nudity in her ‘bed,’ even if the gumby is sprawled a few gym mats away and is currently approaching the non-existent sexuality of a Kewpie doll. Lara Jane is used to thinking of herself as something similar.

FUN FACT: Lara Jane Hudson was always adamant that she would share the appearance of the portal and its accompanying ’emissaries’ with no-one. She had been single since her twenties, an only child with a deceased father and a mother in care for dementia. Her closest relationships were with the children she taught, and her reputation meant absolutely everything. Not even the portal to Hell could make her put it at risk.

The gumby’s androgynous voice reaches her from across the room: “If you could make sure I’ve reattached everything before you leave the bed in the morning, I’d appreciate it. I wouldn’t want to risk losing a part.”

“Sure,” says Lara Jane, considering the gravity of the situation. “I promise.”

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The tentacles come every Friday.

They are, of course, attached to a man. His torso twists like a screw-top and out fold the tentacles, all six of them.

It’s the second Friday evening, and Lara Jane is still horrified by last week’s visit. Friday is not a bedroom night, or even a gym mats night–Lara Jane plans to sit in the Dance Centre’s kitchenette and plot the choreography, set, and costume for next fortnight’s competition entry in extreme detail until she falls asleep, unintentionally, drooling on the notepaper. Mugs and mugs of hot chocolate. Phone alarm in her bra set to wake her for Saturday’s competition.

She hopes to avoid the tentacles almost completely.

And the new dance for her elite team is stunning; monsters emerging from the shadows of a child’s bedroom. Six children covered with fur, horns, scales, glitter. One child on an artificially shortened bed–a nine-year-old, Lara Jane’s best little actress. The monsters want to devour her. The girl outwits them, out-monsters them; they make her their queen. Then something goes terribly wrong, and they tear the child to pieces anyway.

Glorious.

Lara Jane knows it’s a winning number.

She sees only the slightest blur of tentacles before she passes out.

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The starmist comes every Saturday.

In a neighbouring state the hotel bed is sterile and fluffy, and Lara Jane is deeply pleased that one of her girls won first place with a solo today, and less pleased that both their group dance and the duet she choreographed only took second in their categories. The group number was something clean, feminine and glossy, and loosely based on the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In hindsight, rehearsing that dance had kept Lara Jane from driving a screwdriver into her neck the first week.

The starmist floats sedately beside her, a few inches off the bed-covers, and for once Lara Jane barely minds the company.

“Why do you think you’re here?” she asks.

Her visitor resembles an almost-transparent teenager who swallowed the night sky.

“So you can help me,” breathes the starmist.

And Lara Jane was afraid of that.

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FUN FACT: This is where the starmist was, when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson:

A pine forest. Hunters, in hazmat suits and flamethrowers. It was night, and she was almost invisible. She’d watched her mother, father and brothers immolate into trickles of ash and plumes of smoke, and she should’ve been soaring away, far above the treetops where no flames could reach her. But her sister was down there.

A frantic search, weaving through fiery trees and umpteen hunters, and she found her sister inside a glass cage on a folding card-table. Her sister’s small dark hands were pressed against the front panel. There was a Tupperware container in the dirt nearby, half-filled with water, and with a silver key at the bottom. The key to the cage.

They knew that starmists could barely interact with physical matter, if at all.

Still, she reached inside the container and tried to grasp the key, again and again. She swore the water trembled in response to her hand. She could almost feel the metal against her fingers, she was concentrating so hard. And the forest fires crept closer and closer; she was shimmering in the heat like the air above a campfire. She was starting to burn.

Finally, ecstatically, her fingers closed properly around the key. And then she heard the hunters behind her, and the whir-hiss of the flamethrower, and then there was the total immersion in fire when she caught alight.

This was where the starmist went, always, again and again.

Lara Jane does not feel qualified to help.

Lara Jane does not feel qualified to do anything but teach dancing.

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Una comes every Sunday.

Lara Jane doesn’t know what to call this one, except for her name, and Una doesn’t have any other answers. Just curls on the bed like there are weights in her wrists and rocks in her torso.

It’s the second Sunday, and Lara Jane is back home and early to bed, because she’s not the kind of woman to shy away from a challenge.

Thankfully, she’s also had enough forethought to bring supplies. Lara Jane wraps Una’s shoulders in a knitted blanket, since Una’s arms are too heavy and sore to lift into a t-shirt. They sit silently on the bed and eat red liquorice and watch a DVD of the studio’s annual concert.

When the last child finishes their dancing, Lara Jane closes her laptop and attempts to start gently. “You look just like me,” she says, “but all of my visitors are a little different. Can you tell me–or show me–what makes you different? Maybe then I can try to help you.”

This earns her a short bout of acidic laughter. Very slowly, Una turns her naked back on Lara Jane, and drags aside her long brown hair.

A thick bronze zip runs down her spine.

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FUN FACT: In preparation for Week Three, Lara Jane Hudson performed several hours of online shopping in her official trademarked Lara Jane Dance Studio fuzzy slippers. Purchases included: 1 blow-up swimming pool, child-size; 2 packets of low-end cigarettes, 12/pack; 2 fresh notebooks with waterproof-ink pens; 1 metal tub, 1.5 feet long; 1 anti-rape device (essentially a female condom with teeth); 6 silver prop keys; 3 bags of red liquorice.

The mermaid barely says a word, but still coils up inside the plastic swimming pool like a sleepy river snake. Lara Jane has propped the pool in the middle of the bed and stripped most of the bedclothes to minimise any impact from the four inches of water. It hasn’t sloshed over so far. And as Lara Jane watches over her notebook, the mermaid’s green-blonde hair grows longer and longer until the mermaid can completely wrap itself in the hair like a cocoon, until only its nose and mouth are visible between thick spirals of hair.

Over the next week, Lara Jane has regular, amusing visions of grabbing the end of the mermaid’s hair and tugging so it unfurls like a yo-yo string. Eventually, this morphs into a kinder, more inspiring idea wherein Lara Jane installs three dozen metal loops across the walls of her bedroom, and when the fourth Monday rolls around she explains her plan to the mermaid with gestures and sketches.

So Lara Jane balances on the mattress and threads the mermaid’s hair through the metal loops, and the mermaid grows it almost as fast as Lara Jane can thread it. When they finish, the room is criss-crossed with an intricate web of thick, rope-strong hair, and Lara Jane ties it off so nothing will pull on the mermaid’s scalp.

Lara Jane steps up into the web with her good foot, grabs a higher green-blonde rope and lowers herself so she’s sitting in a cradle of hair. She grins at the mermaid, whose scaly tail is still dipped inside the children’s swimming pool. “Come and play.”

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FUN FACT: The mermaid’s name was Scalion, back when the world was wet and did her bidding, and she was one of the finest jewellers in her city. The city bloomed deep, deep in a lake in the middle of a flowering desert. But this is not where the mermaid went when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson.

In Scalion’s 29th year, the water level started dropping rapidly. Unnaturally rapidly. There began a mass exodus from the city, slow at first and then exponentially faster. Scalion was much too content to admit that anything was wrong. She grew her hair to her knees and braided pearls and sapphires and emeralds to every second strand. Her knuckles were covered in diamonds and jewels like a queen. And then there were only two hundred mermaids left in the city.

One day, Scalion woke to bone-dry, sun-warmed sand beneath her back. No more water in sight. The lone survivor in a deep, dead pit with the skeletal remains of her ghost city. Her gradually cooking body, and the dizzying stench of rotting fish.

This is where the mermaid was, when she wasn’t with Lara Jane. Barely breathing and choking on sunlight.

Later that day, Scalion grew her hair into a rope and threw it over the sign for her jewellery shop. Wrapped it around her neck, pearls and sapphires and emeralds digging into her windpipe. And hanged herself amongst the bones of her happiness.

Lara Jane watches the mermaid pull herself through the ropes of hair, sinking down through the gaps and slithering in slow, vertical circles like a needle through calico. She watches the joy of it creep up on the mermaid’s face. The movements become quicker and wilder, half-eel and half-gymnastics, until Scalion runs out of hair slack and she’s forced to pause and grow more.

“It’s like swimming,” says the mermaid, smiling and panting.

Lara Jane experimentally pokes her own head through a gap in the ropes. The hair is taut and flexible, smooth and slippery. Lara Jane hasn’t felt this excited about exercising since she was 22 and performing front-aerials on Broadway. She climbs and slides and hangs from her knees and twists herself around. And laughs. Her weak ankle, which she can always walk on carefully but never flex, barely makes a difference here. It’s not at all like dancing on a stage, but it’s almost like dancing.

Lara Jane perches at the top of the web while the mermaid plays. She’s there for almost half an hour while Scalion revels in the almost-swimming, and then she notices the mermaid stop in the centre of the ropes. A few tears drip into the blow-up pool. And everything vanishes–the mermaid, the metres and metres of hair, the ropes that Lara Jane is sitting on.

Lara Jane falls six feet and crashes awkwardly onto the bed, bouncing three times and splashing the water from the pool high into the air. It soaks her carpet and dresser and most of her desk chair, but presently Lara Jane is too shocked to mind. She feels like her whole body’s been slapped. But she picks herself up and takes in the bedroom: that she’s lying on the bed alone, perfectly alone.

Lara Jane fills the pool again the following Monday, but Scalion no longer appears on schedule. She never sees the mermaid again.

FUN FACT: Around this time, Lara Jane Hudson choreographed a new solo piece called Head Below Water, where the imaginary water level dropped steadily throughout the two-minute dance, and it won first place by a landslide

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The kids are loving the monster dance. They are being raised to be proper young ladies, and their chances to snarl and climb over each other and jump on beds are few and far between. The prop bed is already finished–a half-sized single made of lightweight wood, so that six girls can lift the bed between them, even with a seventh on top of it. A delicious game. Lara Jane has decided to put her child character in a white outfit with a big zip down the front; a homage to Where the Wild Things Are.

On the evening of the third Tuesday, the prop bed is stored in the corner and the gym mats are Lara Jane’s bed for the night. The faun sticks a cigarette into his mouth and wiggles it with just his stubbled lips. Lara Jane has forgotten to buy a lighter. She wanders into the kitchenette to find some matches, and when she returns to Studio A the faun has vanished. She climbs back onto the gym mats and he reappears, reeling from some kind of cosmic whiplash.

The faun has Lara Jane light the cigarette for him, and then lies back and smokes with his antlers digging into the mats. Normally Lara Jane would forcibly remove anyone who lit up in her Dance Centre; everything would stop until the smoker had been ejected. But tonight this seems like a tolerable price for closing the portal: just a tiny speck of fire and brimstone.

“Are you going to tell me your story now?” she asks.

“Give me a break,” he says. “I’ve just come back from war.”

“Literal war?”

He grins at her around the cigarette filter. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Lara Jane grits her teeth. “You don’t actually get to take those back with you?”

One lazy eye focuses on her. “No. I can pretend, though.”

He props himself up on his elbows and surveys the studio: the floor-length mirrors, the barre, the motivational posters (Lara Jane admits that these are usually brightly-coloured threats). “You should dance for me,” he says.

Lara Jane manages to blanch and cackle simultaneously. “I don’t do that any more.” When the faun pushes, she explains about her ankle and that the centre’s insurance only covers her children.

He laughs. “Insurance? I don’t care about your insurance. Dance for me and I’ll tell you.”

“No! Are you kidding me? You can’t keep moving the flags.”

The faun pulls back his blanket and stubs the cigarette out on one shiny black hoof. Lara Jane sees that his antlers and hooves are the only parts that make him unusual and makes a small disgruntled noise at seeing more of him than she’d like.

The faun notices, and scoots over on the mats to snatch the matches. He lights a second cigarette. “Dance with me, and I’ll tell you.”

“No,” says Lara Jane, and twists her back towards him. “You know I could just get up at any time. Five hundred times a night if I wanted to. So fuck off and go to sleep.”

Violently, she fluffs the baby-pink pillow beneath her head. The orange poster above her says DANCE OR DIE in a large font and (figuratively) in a smaller font. To Lara Jane’s relief, the faun keeps silent for the rest of his visit.

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The fourth Tuesday, Lara Jane arranges the gym mats so that they outline a three-metre-square section of the studio floor. She drapes the blankets so that small sections of wool and faux-fur fall into the square. When the faun arrives, she dresses him in some old shorts and a beige sweater and feels immediately more comfortable and in control.

“This is the bed for today,” she says. “Come put your hooves here.” Lara Jane points to the square of hard floor next to where he’s kneeling.

It takes a few lazy drags of his cigarette, but then each hoof makes a sharp little click on the dance floor and makes Lara Jane’s lips twitch upwards. “Good,” she says. “Very good. Stand up and we’ll see if you warp back to the mats.”

He doesn’t warp anywhere. And now Lara Jane’s fully in her comfort zone, staring at a lukewarm tap dancing student with her manicured hand on a portable CD player.

“If you want me to dance with you,” she says, “you’ve got to learn how to dance first.”

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FUN FACT: This is where the faun was, when he wasn’t with Lara Jane:

Concrete and spitting rain. He removed the plastic seals from the filters of the gas mask and fitted the mask to his head. Checked the attachments on his belt. The front doors were locked with chains the size of his biceps; his team were around the factory’s side. Even stubble could interfere with the function of the gas mask, so he felt unusually clean-shaven.

Ironically, they entered through the air conditioning system.

Inside was a maze of rooms, doors and corridors. A mess of lights and steel and broken plastic tape, the non-stick type with warnings printed on one side. Chairs were scattered like bowling pins. The faun and his team were quickly separated; blink and they were replaced by machinery or shadows or enemy units. Not war–at least not public war. The faun’s 28th mission.

It took his knife, laser gun, carabineer and screwdriver to make it to the top floor. It was almost silent when he got there, and the main corridor was brightly lit and flooding with his teammates’ blood. It was shallower down his end: just a thin coating that was beginning to dry and congeal.

He started down the hall with his laser gun in one hand and his knife in the other, picking his way over the bodies of his fallen friends. He’d survived an impressive catalogue of attacks and dangers in his short life, but in that particular instance his hooves slipped, unprovoked, in the blood. The knife flew from his grasp. His masked head smashed to the floor. The blade arced down to bury itself in his chest, and he died almost instantly.

When the faun learns to tap dance from Lara Jane, he doesn’t slip. Not once. Not ever.

She does dance with him, eventually. It’s not traditional. He coaxes her onto his shoulders and Lara Jane wraps her candy-pink nails around the top of his antlers. Tap is one of her worst styles, these days; the only way she can tap is sitting down, one-footed. Or she can ride his shoulders like some kind of fleshy air hopper, and cling onto his bony antlers until the world comes to a stop.

He’s not terrible-terrible, for a beginner, and the hooves are fun. But she can’t say she enjoys being an attachment while he dances. Too much like horse riding, and Lara Jane never felt enough in control while horse riding. Just the once upon his shoulders is enough.

The faun tells her his story, and he keeps dancing, and one day his hooves leave the ground in a jump and they never come back.

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FUN FACT: The day after discovering the portal to Hell, Lara Jane Hudson hired a locksmith. She alone had possession of the resultant keys to the basement storage room, and she informed her staff that no-one else was to have access to that room for an indefinite period of time. She was working on a secret project, she claimed–which was not technically a lie.

By the third Wednesday, Lara Jane needs to decide what her false ‘secret project’ will be. Something she can display hints of in the office, or show the teachers the finished project (assuming the storage room is ever secular again) when it’s ‘done.’ It needs to be big enough to warrant several weeks’ work, and small enough to fit amongst the clothes racks. And yes, Lara Jane could be brainstorming in bed rather than in the kitchenette in her Minnie Mouse pyjamas, but she’s honestly not keen to try and drag out life stories from unwilling creatures for the fourth night running.

In lieu of any better ideas, she decides on hampers. For her half a dozen teachers and the parents of her elite squad. She can pretend she put them together by hand, agonising over each personalised item, when she actually ordered them in bulk at the last minute and then threw in some studio merchandise and redid the ribbons. Lying makes her angry, but what can you do?

When she does end up in bed, she passes the golem a fresh notebook and pen and rolls over to sleep.

On the first page of the notebook, Lara Jane has written: Write down where you go when you’re not here. I’ll try and help. Sorry I can’t stay up and chat tonight. L.J.H xx PS: Sorry you’re dead.

She receives a several-page reply.

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FUN FACT: The golem was ‘born’ into a gated community who believed the world was ending. She woke under the street in a room full of mechanical animals, some wound and some immobile, mostly birds. A mechanical fish swam in the light fitting. A middle-aged man stood in front of her and explained she existed only to take care of his daughter.

The daughter was seven. In the event of the end of the world, the golem was to take her into their state-of-the-art panic room and care for her for the rest of her life.

Her father’s other mechanical creatures had limited intelligence. Humans were subject to the end of the world and could be burnt and starved and suffocated. Much safer to use magic and write LIFE on a slip of paper and insert it into the golem’s lower back panel. Much safer to use something alive-but-not-alive.

But this was where the golem went when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson:

Two months after the golem woke, a mob of teenagers jumped her in the backyard and pushed her into the wet grass. They wrote SADNESS and ANGER and DESPAIR onto slips of paper; everything they wanted to take out of themselves and put into someone else. They dropped a dozen paper slips into the golem alongside the one which said LIFE and melted the panel closed with a welding torch.

That night the world really did start to end. The golem peeled herself off the grass and dragged herself inside through the bitterness and hopelessness and everything else that escaped from Pandora’s box. Up the stairs and grabbed the girl and into the padded panic room.

Ten years passed, and every second of them, the golem desperately wanted to die. Then the seventeen-year-old girl wrote DEATH on a scrap of paper, folded it three times and slipped it through a crack in the golem’s lower back panel.

It worked, more or less.

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Lara Jane is re-evaluating what it means to be in Hell.

The fourth Wednesday, she retrieves a pile of tools from the basement storage room and dumps them on the gym mats: foam ear plugs, two pairs of industrial-strength ear-muffs, a saw, one pair of oversized tweezers and some plastic safety glasses. Lara Jane’s props and sets are always designed by her and outsourced for construction, but they occasionally need last-minute adjustments.

Tonight’s adjustments consist of burrowing the saw blade into a tiny gap in the golem’s back panel. Lara Jane is very pleased that the studio’s closest neighbours are more than a hundred meters away, because the screech of saw teeth on metal could easily bring the police at 10 o’clock at night. But there are no interruptions.

Two hours, a bottle of lemonade and an improvised crowbar later, Lara Jane can pry up the top of the panel enough to squeeze in the extra-large tweezers, inspect the slips of paper and extract them. They stack up on the discarded saw, the ink not even faded, the paper still crisp white. Lara Jane is reminded of that cartoon surgery board game which buzzes if your tweezers slip. She carefully leaves the final slip inside–LIFE–and pulls out the crowbar.

The golem peels herself off the mats and flexes her fingers, swivels her joints and bounces experimentally on the balls of her feet. She smiles at Lara Jane. Then takes off running in circles around the edge of the mats: thwap, thwap, thwap across the plastic-covered foam, dimmed fluorescent lights bouncing across her silver frame.

After a dozen circles, the golem picks Lara Jane up by the waist, and Lara Jane cries out in shock and protest. She’s a tall woman, and borderline chubby these days: unaccustomed to being carried like she weighs nothing at all. Thankfully the golem slows down to walking pace.

“I appreciate that you’re excited,” says Lara Jane, “but can you put me down?”

“I’m so grateful,” says the golem. “Don’t you want to run or dance and celebrate?”

Lara Jane watches the studio walls speed past her. “I don’t really do that anymore.”

The golem thrusts Lara Jane above her head, and Lara Jane cries out again. “You can do this.”

“What? I can’t bend my ankle. The lines will be ugly. It’ll be all wrong!”

“So?” says the golem. “Who’ll know?”

And Lara Jane has to admit that she’s smiling a bit, and that some of the movements she might make in the early hours of that morning could be considered dancing. However questionable the technique.

When the golem tires herself out, she asks Lara Jane to pull out the last slip of paper.

The fires in her metal eye sockets snuff out. And then Lara Jane is lying next to an empty shell.

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Lara Jane is having nightmares: her girls discover the creatures when she faints in class, or lies down to demonstrate a piece of choreography, or when one of them barges into her hotel room. She has a gut-churning moment with a foamy toothbrush hanging out of her mouth: all those micro-sleeps. If a twelve-year-old saw a mermaid for a few seconds, mid-rehearsal, would they dismiss it as a trick of the light? Is that one of the reasons their mothers have been extra-fussy lately, complaining she’s working their kids too hard?

The monster costumes arrive that third Thursday, and they are a comfort, the difference between hiding a creature in an empty room and a Halloween party. The costumed girls look strange and glamorous and wild. They swipe each other with fake tails and butt each other with furry horns.

That night, the gumby places its daytime body parts in the box Lara Jane provides, and Lara Jane props herself up on a stack of lacy pillows. She asks, “Where do you go when you’re not here?” and is surprised when she receives a direct answer.

FUN FACT: This is where the gumby went, when s/he’s wasn’t with Lara Jane:

The entry gates of a labyrinth. A slow day. The gumby stood at the ticket booth, ‘SUPERVISOR’ embroidered in gold on a navy polo shirt.

A large man approached: fake, plastic Viking hat and very real axe, blade glinting in the summer sun. There was nothing ambiguous about him. The gumby abandoned the cash box and ran, into the protection of the stone-walled labyrinth.

No time to shut the gates. The gumby raced along the concrete paths towards the centre; s/he knew the twists and turns better than anyone. A labyrinth is not a maze–there is only a single path–but s/he just needed to gain twenty seconds on the axe-man.

Five minutes down the path: a small hole at the base of the left wall, so small that no human over three feet could fit inside. So the gumby ripped off a foot at the ankle, reached inside the hole and through a subsequent smaller gap in the stones, and tossed the foot inside.

S/he tore off pieces of leg and hips and torso faster than ever. The ‘storage’ compartment inside the hole filled with stacked flesh, and then the gumby half-pulled, half-rolled the remaining parts inside.

S/he just fit: most of a torso and two arms and neck and head. A piece of shrubbery obscured the hole to anyone on the pathway. Further down, there came the thump of heavy feet and the clang of an axe on stone corners.

With difficulty, s/he reached up and back into the storage area, feeling around discarded body parts for the phone zipped into a jeans pocket. The gumby pried it free. Fourteen percent battery left. Not fantastic, but enough.

Calling anyone would be too loud. S/he texted family, a handful of friends and a couple of colleagues. Put the phone on silent. Waited patiently.

And waited.

The sun fell, the phone died, the gumby hadn’t heard a whisper from the axe-man for the last couple of hours. S/he clawed out of the hole and started reassembling pieces of torso, hips, thighs. S/he was almost done when an evening shadow fell over the wall, and with the crack of metal-on-spine s/he felt the enormous axe-blade split her/his back in two.

Blood soaked into the navy polo shirt. The large man left the axe stuck half-into the gumby’s flesh, sighed deeply and stalked away.

Blood dripped onto the path. The gumby stretched for the last body parts so s/he could die whole.

When the gumby pulls the blanket from her/his legs, Lara Jane notices for the first time that s/he’s missing a right foot.

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On the fourth Thursday, Lara Jane’s lack of inspiration is an excuse to sleep in her proper bed. She scratches at flakes of lipstick and asks the gumby, “How do you think I can help you? Because I can’t take an axe from your back.”

The gumby shrinks against the bed frame. “I don’t expect you to help me.”

“Because I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to.”

A twitch of a smile. “It’s just nice to feel safe for a while.”

Lara Jane takes a big breath. “Yes, but there must be something else you want. Something I can give you.”

Eventually, the gumby admits that s/he would like to feel like someone cares, but that Lara Jane was the only option, and now she doesn’t qualify because she just wants her bedtime solitude back.

“But I do care about your future,” says Lara Jane. “I care about the future of everyone in my studio. I wouldn’t teach children if I didn’t care.”

Evidently this is not very convincing.

So Thursday nights become a kind of quiet, platonic seduction, with Lara Jane many years out of practice at being actively likable. The two of them play checkers and Monopoly, and during the lulls the gumby juggles with four torn-off fingers. Lara Jane shows off the costume designs for the reverse-Pandora’s-box group number she’s choreographing. The gumby teaches her yoga. They experiment with dancing, two workable feet between them, because Lara Jane is curious whether some traditionally-solo moves are possible if shared between two.

Approximately half of these work.

One night, they’re eating caramel popcorn and watching Project Runway, and the gumby says, “Don’t go to sleep. Please. Stay up with me.” And Lara Jane considers going into work late tomorrow, even though she’s never been late for anything less than stomach surgery.

So she stays up all night: all the way to midday, when the gumby blinks out of existence.

And the next Thursday she’s alone.

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The third Friday, Lara Jane awkwardly inserts the anti-rape condom in one of the toilet stalls. She knows it’s a snap judgment, but surely there’s nothing wrong with taking precautions.

She has to face the tentacles sometime.

Lara Jane builds a pillow fort on the gym mats before climbing in, and then peeks over the fluff of the topmost pillow at the strange man beyond. The fort stinks of her signature perfume. He sits halfway across the dance studio, tentacles twitching, peering back at her.

“If they scare you,” he says, “I can put them away.”

Lara Jane raises an eyebrow. She weighs his offer for a moment, but then says simply, “Tell me.”

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FUN FACT: His name–the man attached to the tentacles–was Chiton, back when he was known as the greatest mountain climber in at least sixty acres.

Every day, at the base of the cliff face, he stretched his two arms and six tentacles into the eight sleeves of the jacket he spent a month sewing. Every day, he scaled the mountain, his 10 limbs curling themselves into snowy crevices and propelling him upwards with superhuman grace. Every day, he plucked the blue flowers from the top of the mountain. And was home again in time for tea.

He was driven out of his first two towns for his tentacles, so he kept them hidden entirely from the third one. The third town, where there was something in the water making the residents critically ill. Where they were too poor to move away. Where the blue flowers were an antidote. Including for him and his new wife, who still didn’t know about his tentacles, but whom he loved with all his heart.

And this is where Chiton went, when he wasn’t with Lara Jane:

His last day. His backpack open at the bottom of the cliff, and his special jacket with the eight sleeves completely missing. It would take him days to make another, and the blue flowers grew scarce in winter. He had to make the climb.

The regular jacket bunched up mid-torso, above his bare tentacles and bare stomach.

He died quietly of exposure, halfway up the mountain and attached to the cliff-face like a cicada shell.

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So Lara Jane sends off the measurements for a similar eight-sleeved jacket to her costume maker, and it arrives in time for the fifth Friday. She’s expecting the first time Chiton pulls it on to be the last time she ever sees him. And therefore she miscalculates and omits her usual bedtime pyjama shorts the following week.

Lara Jane thinks she knows what happens next. But maybe leaving the portal open would be less mortifying.

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Her elite squad are less proficient in hip hop than any other style. The few hip hop numbers they’ve performed in competition have never placed highly. When Lara Jane announces she’s bringing in a special guest to inspire them for an upcoming street dance number, no-one can claim it’s unjustified.

Truly, it’s more of a street dance/gymnastics number where the girls are soldiers/assassins, but they can already execute a dozen backhand springs with their eyes closed.

Lara Jane sends their mothers out to buy diamante-encrusted leggings and foam daggers. She’s sewn Chiton’s tentacles into his jacket–extra material forming six inbuilt gloves–so that it can pass as a costume.

When the time comes she feigns a sudden sickness, and all her little dancers are too busy fussing over her to notice a ninth body appear on the dance floor. Chiton slips the jacket on like a second skin. Lara Jane greets him warmly, despite the figurative portal expanding in her gut.

They see him now, all her little dancers. They see the monster in their studio.

From her position half-slumped against the wall, Lara Jane explains that their guest specialises in a new type of circus hip hop. At least two of her girls have circus posters plastered over their bedroom walls, and juggling batons in their bookcases.

Fourteen pairs of eyes are fixed on Chiton. And then he starts to move.

No human has spun with such 360-degree ease outside of a hamster ball. He spins on his head, hands, tentacles, and legs. He spins like he’s a torpedo shot from a cannon. He bounces off the floor like it’s spring-loaded.

His lines are sloppy and his technique is mediocre at best, but Lara Jane can’t help but smile at his passion and the sheer, strange spectacle of it all.

Just as much as she watches him, she watches her girls. The energy blazing in their wide eyes, coiled muscles and grins threatening to burst from their cheeks. They’re clapping and gasping and bouncing on the balls of their feet. Two of them are squeezing each other’s hands with joy.

Chiton notices their enthusiasm and his own speed and power doubles, triples. Laura Jane feels the floor vibrate as he lands. She reads the rising bliss in his body and yells, “Enough!” and he slams himself to a stop.

She watches him stand there, panting, and inflating with the girls’ frantic applause.

“Girls!” she bellows. “Please thank Chiton and then close your eyes, tight.”

“Thank you!” they chorus, and Lara Jane checks in the wall mirrors that their eyes are all shut.

Chiton looks so high that he could drift up to the ceiling. Lara Jane meets his gaze and gives him a smug little wave. He releases a final, satisfied sigh and blinks out of her studio.

“You can open again,” says Lara Jane, and clambers to her feet. The girls search around for Chiton, and she says, “How’s that for circus magic?” and they’re all a mess of questions and hands clasping at her t-shirt and Lara Jane has to laugh with sheer relief.

Thank you thank you thank you is looping in her head, and she’s not even sure who she’s thanking. Maybe she’ll take her elite squad out for ice-cream. “Good girls,” she coos and hugs them to her chest. “My good, good girls.”

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The third Saturday: Lara Jane lies next to a row of prop keys. She’s rolled them around in her fingers for hours. They’re a lightweight metal: so light that a fist-sized helium balloon could lift them off the ground, but she still suspects they’re too heavy.

The starmist spots them immediately and drifts up to just under the ceiling. “Come on; come on down,” says Lara Jane, a little more impatiently than she intends. “I thought you wanted to try.” So they spend fifteen minutes with the starmist grasping at keys like she’s clawing at something under glass, and both of them finish feeling low and impotent.

Lara Jane carries the keys with her over the next week; around her neck in the shower, pinned into her pyjama short pockets at night. She polishes them and watches her reflection in their shine, but by the morning of the fourth Saturday she has to admit to no further ideas whatsoever. Maybe she was completely off-base, buying the keys in the first place.

At least she has this fortnight’s state-wide competition to distract herself with.

Thankfully, her girls execute the monster dance flawlessly on stage, and Lara Jane is almost bubbling over with pride. It’s one of the best pieces she’s ever choreographed. Of course, it places first.

Back in their dressing room, her girls shriek with victory and thrust their trophy and glitter-covered bodies towards her. She’ll never get the sparkles out of these clothes.

Their winning dance replays in Lara Jane’s mind all evening. And in her cold hotel bed later that night, she tosses a key through the starmist’s body like a bullet and barks, “Dance!”

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On the evening of the seventh Saturday, Lara Jane takes the starmist into the forest. She’s still fuming that her reverse-Pandora’s-box number only took second the previous weekend, after which she requested to see the winning team’s scoresheet because she was robbed, but even so… Everything stinks of eucalyptus. Lara Jane lays out a picnic blanket topped with a yoga mat topped with a sleeping bag, and climbs in up to her waist.

FUN FACT: The last time Lara Jane went camping, she was 12 and woke up with a mouthful of dirt and a weeping gash on her right calf. As an adult, she had no intention of repeating the experience. She’d booked a cabin 300 meters away, with all the modern amenities and the plump bed she would have occupied if sleeping were necessary.

The starmist hovers tentatively on the other side of the fire she’s built. Lara Jane polishes off a pair of service-station chicken and mayo sandwiches, trying to give the starmist some time to acclimatise. No words are exchanged. When she’s finished, Lara Jane balances one of the keys on her nose, and that actually earns her a small, singular laugh.

Thank goodness for progress.

She’s acquired a lot more keys by now–piles of them–and the starmist is familiar with dodging her aim. The keys glint over the fire with each toss. About one in six or seven hit their mark. Lara Jane mentally notes where the keys pass through: the starmist’s foot, shoulder, hand…

The starmist darts through the air behind the fire, speedy but not especially agile. A burst of translucent stars before the shadows of the trees.

The starmist’s hip. Scalp…

Most of the panic, the fear, has dissipated. Lara Jane can tell by the way she dances.

Lara Jane pitches the last three keys in quick succession, and one of those passes directly through the starmist’s heart. No part of her tries to grasp the key, to hold on.

There is a rippling, a flickering, and then there is no-one beyond the fire anymore.

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They’ve positioned Una diagonally across Lara Jane’s mattress, and Lara Jane is braiding her hair badly as they talk.

FUN FACT: Once, when Una was a child, her body was not quite so heavy.

When her peers grew old enough to stop running regularly for fun, she could almost believe she was like everyone else.

Shamus was in the grade above her, and 17 with well-kept stubble, and his friends would chant his name when he went to write something on the blackboard, or toss some crumpled paper into a bin. He seemed to notice her suddenly. He brought her a bunch of plucked daffodils and announced she was the most beautiful girl in town.

To the very best of her memory, she’d never exposed her back to anyone except her parents. But she and Shamus had been together for months, and she loved him, and he loved her, and he wanted to see her.

So she let him open the zip, just a couple of centimetres. Of course he was curious. He was gentle, but a few grains of shiny red dust scattered out, anyway.

It landed on some hay and turned it cerulean. It landed on some wood and turned it to steel. It landed on Shamus’ fingers and he rose, gradually, three feet in the air.

Una pulled up her zip, tight, and kissed her boyfriend where he hovered.

Over the next few months, Shamus’ sister fell terminally ill. In tiny increments, Shamus and Una convinced each other that using the red dust on her on would be the right thing to do. And within 24 hours of it touching her skin, his sister had fully recovered.

But such a thing is hard to keep completely secret for long.

They came in droves to Una’s door: the curious, the desperate, the greedy. They offered their money and their sob stories and their business deals. Una’s parents locked her in her room (from the inside) and locked the front door. She didn’t go to school anymore. She barely went anywhere anymore.

Eventually, her visitors stopped offering and simply took what they wanted.

When Una’s skin grew slack from lack of dust, the thieves replaced it with sand, with stones, with straw. Miracles became a regular occurrence in town: talking chickens and men with super-strength and quadriplegics who could walk again. Until there was barely any dust left at all.

She was sure she was dying, then. Shrivelling up inside her skin. She had been planning to compose orchestral scores and become a school headmistress and with some luck, the town mayor. She missed her geography lessons and her violin and Shamus’ letters, which had stopped arriving a couple of weeks after she could no longer write back. Thus began a very long year of tears and shouting and bedsores, and at the end, her cold body in the sheets which wouldn’t wake for anything.

“So what help can you give me?” Una snaps. “Since you can’t make me better and you can’t give me justice?”

Lara Jane is struck dumb for once, tying off the braid with slightly shaking hands. “I don’t know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

“I understand all of this far better than you.”

“Yes,” agrees Lara Jane. “You do.” She pauses, biting the edge of her tongue. “But would you like me to try?”

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Una stays the longest, out of any of them. After so much of Una’s life and death has been decided by others, Lara Jane feels strongly that Una should have the satisfaction of driving any improvements by herself. Lara Jane tries to vary her Sunday night locations in order to facilitate this, but remains otherwise occupied with the rest of her visitors and preparing for rapidly-approaching Nationals.

It’s only once Una’s the sole remainder that Lara Jane worries they’ve missed opportunities. What if one of the others knew something relevant, or emitted some kind of helpful substance? Most of the dance season has passed and the two of them haven’t made any progress at all.

And Lara Jane really likes Una. Respects her. She’s almost come to terms with the concept of Una visiting every Sunday for the rest of her life… At which point, of course, Una offers an exit suggestion.

“What’s inside that?” asks Una, eyes fixed on the translucent black balloon in the corner of the bedroom. “Is it some kind of gas?”

The balloon has wilted somewhat since its onstage debut the day before, but is still largely afloat. “Helium?” says Lara Jane. “You don’t have helium where you’re from?”

“If we had it,” snarls Una, “don’t you think we would have tried it?”

So Lara Jane gets her wish of helping Una empty the rubble from her zip, and cleaning out the remaining debris with a cloth and a vacuum cleaner. It takes a couple of hours and they bark insults at each other the entire time, but it’s mostly affectionate. When they’re finished, Lara Jane lodges a wad of tissues under Una’s leaking eyes.

They’ve hired a large helium canister, with a small nozzle attached that slides into the top of Una’s zip. Lara Jane releases the gas at just a trickle. She ties a ribbon around Una’s waist and the other end to her bedpost. Una begins to levitate above the mattress, gradually inflating into her usual shape, and her tears fall onto the doona.

“If you don’t disappear tonight,” jokes Lara Jane, “I can make a bed in a limo and fly you out of the skylight.”

“No. I don’t want to have to relive another moment of my life if I don’t have to.”

So Lara Jane twists off the helium when Una’s all full up, stretching her inflated limbs and rolling in circles and humming in airborne delight. Every so often, Una’s body blocks out the ceiling lamp, and her shadow dances wildly around the room.

When there’s a natural pause, Lara Jane clasps Una’s featherlight hand inside her own heavy one. “You take care,” she says.

Una smiles and says, “Cut the ribbon.”

So Lara Jane does, with her free arm, and never lets go of Una’s hand. But then all the dancing shadows have gone, and there’s nothing to hold on to anyway.

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Lara Jane finishes the hampers. Even personalises them. She distributes them to her Elite Dance Squad and their mothers in Studio A, at the end of the dance season and getting close to Christmas. Nationals: almost a clean sweep, and Lara Jane can rest easy until the next year, even if she’s not entirely sure what she’ll do with herself.

She stares at her line of dancers in their Lara Jane Dance Studio crop tops and booty shorts, with their teeth-braces and their knee-braces, and their little-kid manicures and big-kid muscles and giant smiles.

She stares at their mothers, with their questionable fashion choices and their botoxed faces and their painted mouths with giant smiles.

And nothing has really changed between the night a portal to Hell spread inside her costume cupboard and when it later cleared up like an obedient rash, but Lara Jane Hudson finds herself overwhelmed with affection for every single person in the room.

She taps her cane and sees her own grin blossom in the opposing mirror. “Okay, ladies. Shall we begin?”

___

Copyright 2016 Ephiny Gale

Ephiny’s fiction has also appeared in Aurealis, Daily Science Fiction, and two Belladonna Publishing anthologies. She is the author of several produced stage plays and musicals, including the sold-out ‘How to Direct From Inside’ at La Mama and ‘Shining Armour’ at The 1812 Theatre. Ephiny has a Masters in Arts Management, a red belt in taekwondo, an amazing wife, and six imaginary whippets.

By Megan Chaudhuri

The tense conversation stopped when Lydia slipped into the office, trailing the stench of old blood, ocean brine, and the cheap cigars favored by London’s Watch. The sudden heat and light from the crackling fire struck her like a blow. For one dizzying moment, the room’s familiar bookshelves and battle maps blurred with the seated figures of Mrs. Lincoln and a well-dressed stranger. The void left by their choked-off conversation filled with the drip-drip of water from Lydia’s overcoat onto the Hindustani carpet.

Lydia swayed. Her sisters would faint if they knew that she came to a job like this–that she needed a job–

Bugger it, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she curtseyed smartly. Mrs. Lincoln smiled but the stranger frowned and clutched closer a leather case.

“Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, tilting the teapot over a third cup. The scent of fresh bergamot didn’t quite mask Lydia’s odor of pickled death. “Thank you for coming on short notice. I hope we were not interrupting…?”

“La!” Lydia said, shrugging out of the overcoat. She sat with a flounce to hide her shaking knees. “I am at your disposal, madam.”

But Mrs. Lincoln clearly saw through the saucy words, and Lydia looked down. The body wasn’t his. She sipped the tea to hide her expression. Just another poor sot dredged up by the Watch that wasn’t my husband.

Which meant she might still get to kill the runaway bastard.

Or bring him home, a voice whispered, to you, and Bennie.

“Capital,” said Mrs. Lincoln, her expression still sharp. “Now, my dear, this is Mr. Clarke, who works for an old and–important friend.” Her gaze touched the 1813 portrait of King George behind Lydia. “Mr. Clarke, my Mrs. Bexley solves problems like yours–”

“Madam,” Clarke interrupted, his thumb fussing with the case’s clasp. “There has never been a problem like mine. Nor one demanding more speed, superior understanding, and, hmmm,” he glanced at Lydia’s muck-smeared gown, “greater discretion.”

His obvious contempt bruised Lydia’s nerves, tender still with thwarted grief. The corpse’s crab-gnawed face had had none of her husband’s fine bone structure. But she could not afford spiting this Mr. Clarke. The demands of Bennie’s maintenance; her need for a new, better-smelling gown…

Lydia forced a smile. “What do you need understood, sir?”

He ignored her. “Surely, madam, there are other professionals…?”

“There were other professionals.” Mrs. Lincoln rested her elbows on the French battle maps covering her desk. “Fast, clever, discrete. Men.

Something passed between them, an echo of the tense conversation Lydia had interrupted. Clarke looked at Lydia. The fire snapped as a log crumpled to lifeless ash.

“She’s to his taste,” Clarke said grudgingly. “According to the wife.” He unclasped the case. To Lydia’s surprise, he drew out a silk towel and handed it to her.

Not a towel. It slithered open, revealing an old-fashioned corset that weighed less than silk and shimmered brighter than steel. Lydia brought it close to try to discern the weave.

“Whatever is this made of?” It didn’t feel or look dyed–but the gold color had a green cast, like verdigris on copper. Her nose prickled at its strange, metallic scent.

“That,” Clarke said, “is what we need understood. Hmmm. Try tearing it.”

With a glance at the silent Mrs. Lincoln, Lydia grasped the corset and tugged. Pulled. Yanked until her brow dampened with sweat.

Clarke looked unsurprised–no, contemptuous. A sentiment Lydia was too acquainted with, from those terrible months after Bennie was born and her husband had disappeared. Those terrible months when she’d eaten her sisters’ charity and drank their contempt.

Scowling, she bit the cloth; it had the salty, metallic taste of a cheap mercury tonic. Her teeth left no mark–but something else had.

“What happened here?” Lydia said, touching the pucker near the seam.

“That is where its owner, Mrs. Banks, was stabbed by a seemingly common mugger after she left her husband, Thomas Banks, a dealer in fine cloths.”

An understandable response to spousal abandonment. She looked closer. “But there’s no blood stain.”

“Yes. The knife only, hmmm, bruised Mrs. Banks. This curious cloth turned the blade as if it was steel plate.” His eyes dropped to the maps on the desk, the recent battles inked in the bright red of arterial blood.

No wonder Mrs. Lincoln’s ‘friend’ is interested.

“If Mrs. Banks survived,” Lydia said, “why not ask her about the material?”

“We did,” Clarke said. “She knew nothing about its components, but was happy to relate how her husband gave her the cloth years ago. And has been selling more to, hmmm, persons of interest.”

“How lucrative for him,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

“He desires to purchase back the knighthood his father lost, for smuggling,” Clarke said, taking back the cloth. “We also know from Mrs. Banks and the–first professionals who looked into this matter, that more information about this material must be at his manor in Kent, where his sick sister lives. Possibly even stores of it. So Mrs. Banks believes, but she always lived in their Town residence.” Clarke closed the clasp. “Which is why we need a young lady,” he cleared his throat, “capable of getting, hmmm, close to Mr. Banks and obtaining this knowledge.”

Close to Mr. Banks. Clearly, Clarke thought she had one trick. But the insult receded as Lydia rubbed her forefinger and thumb together, longing for another moment with silk that was like steel. Covetousness–a sentiment her sisters loathed–fanned at her heart.

But then her fingers paused, as if caught in an indentation left by a knife. In her mind, her sisters formed a Greek chorus of disapproval: What if she was also killed? Who would pay for Bennie’s board and tuition?

“You should understand, Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, her expression shrewd, “that I ask this of you because it is… necessary.” She refilled Lydia’s teacup. “Mr. Clarke also has promised to compensate well, for your troubles.”

The mental chorus fell into shocked silence when Lydia hurled guineas at it. In her mind’s eye, her hands were covered in golden silk gloves, her hair with a saucily feathered bonnet, her bosom by the most fashionable gown. And Bennie would read at Oxford. Oh, if that bastard husband could see them now!

Her grin faltered when she noticed Mrs. Lincoln. Despite the woman’s mask of confidence, her eyes were narrow and her lips were thin.

Lydia took a breath of brine and bergamot. Picking up her teacup, she smiled at Clarke. “I am certain I shall find them no trouble at all, sir.”

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A young lady capable of getting close to Mr. Banks. Clarke’s words seeded a thought–the thought sprouted into a plan–and two days later, the desolate seaside was darkening around Lydia as clouds thickened overhead. Her riding skirt snapped and her rented horse snorted as salt-scented winds lashed against them. Lydia scanned the darkening landscape, unease burbling in her belly. Behind her stretched an overgrown dirt road; ahead, just visible on the cliffs above the ocean, loomed Banks’ manor.

But where was its master? Some judicious bribery at the last town’s stables had revealed that Banks was expected home this afternoon. But now it was growing storm-dark–and where was Banks so she could throw herself into his path, crying for aide–

A red-tinged light winked in the distance.

Lydia twisted. A carriage light?

Impossible–the carriage would flounder there amidst the waist-high grasses.

Smugglers? This desolate coastline was supposedly infested with them.

The light flared again–but in the opposite direction. And closer.

Lydia was reaching for her dagger when the horse snorted. Then she heard it: the heavy creak of a well-sprung barouche, the clop-clop of more horses than most smugglers could afford. She hastily smoothed her skirts over the dagger strapped to her thigh and pinched her cheeks to a glow.

When the barouche drew level with her, its driver and footman had their pistols drawn. Raindrops glittered on the bright barrels; teardrops glittered on Lydia’s eyelashes.

“Hold right–” The footman’s words choked off as his lantern illuminated Lydia.

“Please, sir!” Lydia cried, bosom heaving. “I am so frightfully lost!”

The barouche rocked.

A beast’s–no, a monster’s–head thrust over the edge, all yellow fangs and blood-red mouth and spider-black eyes.

The horse started. Lydia yanked his reins one-handed, her other hand going for the pocket hole over the dagger–

“Back, damn you!” The bellow accompanied the fleshy sound of a blow and the monster’s–dog’s, Lydia realized–head disappeared. A man’s replaced it, as gaunt as a skeleton’s, topped with a powdered wig last fashionable when her dear, dead mama was a girl.

Lydia stared. This antiquated lout was Banks?

“Who the devil are you?” he exclaimed.

Must be. Lydia kicked the horse forward, crying, “Thank God you are here!” His eyes dilated as she leaned forward. “I feared you might be bandits–”

The words froze in her mouth. The blood congealed in her veins. Another head had shot up in front of Banks.

This one had fashionably tousled hair above a handsome face.

A handsome face Lydia knew better than her own.

Oh, Lord! She was numb–numb like those dreadful moments after a blow has landed, but before the pain is felt.

He gaped at her, his face as bloodless as when they had wed nine years ago.

“You’re blocking my view, Carter,” said Banks, pushing him aside.

Carter? Lydia swayed, grabbing the pommel.

Carter. He was incognito, the bastard. Just like her.

Carter. She’d have to risk it. And maybe the chance would present itself, for her to draw her dagger and…

Lydia let her eyes roll up. It wasn’t hard.

“Richard!” exclaimed Banks. “She’s going to faint!”

With perfect timing, Lydia slid into the surprised footman’s arms.

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She kept limp even though every muscle wanted to shiver when ‘Carter’ spoke. She held her eyes closed even when the barouche stopped and the footman picked her up. Carter. Nausea roiled her gut. What in God’s name was he doing here?

The footman’s breathing grew labored as he carried her across what sounded like marble, then onto thick carpet. He dropped her onto a sofa that smelled of wet dog. The room itself stank so much of dusty books that Lydia nearly shuddered at the unpleasant memories of her book-loving father.

“Have care, man!” said Banks. “Fetch Doherty.”

A growl from the monster-dog undercut his words. Carter’s fast breathing was audible. The fan case in her real pocket was jabbing her; she focused on that, using one of Mrs. Lincoln’s tricks to calm the trapped rabbit that was her mind.

The footman retreated. Heeled boots approached. Sour breath puffed against her face.

“Do you recognize her, Carter?”

Her heart lurched.

“Vaguely.”

Oh, Lord!

“She seems more a lady than your usual tastes.”

“She’s dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks.” Bastard.

“She’s dressed more for dancing than riding, man.” Only Mrs. Lincoln’s training kept Lydia still when Banks laid a cold hand on her arm. “Miss?”

Carter cleared his throat. “I do recall–”

Lydia moaned.

Footsteps. A mutter from Banks, inaudible beneath the patter of rain on windows. The grating sound of something ceramic being unscrewed.

The urine stench of smelling salts burned her nose and lungs.

Lydia choked, her eyes flying open to a gentleman’s library. Involuntary tears blurred together its occupants and furnishings. The dog’s growling ceased and its toenails clicked away on the marble.

“She’s awake, sir,” said the servant hovering over Lydia. Lydia lifted a hand to dash away her tears but the servant–Doherty, presumably–seized it, pressing a pear-shaped bottle into her hand. The ammonia scent prickled Lydia’s nose. “Use this if you feel faint, madam.”

Lydia sat up, breathing through her mouth. Doherty backed into a corner, replaced at the sofa by Banks. Behind him, her erstwhile husband affected lounging against a mantelpiece beneath a large genealogical diagram.

“Oh, sir!” Lydia looked up at Banks. “Where am I?”

“My manor,” Banks said, his voice unctuous. “I am Sir Thomas Banks, Miss–?”

He styles himself a knight still. Her eyes flickered from him to the genealogy to–Carter, she must think of him as Carter, to prevent a fatal tongue slip. A new scar furrowed the bloodless skin of his jaw and nearly touched his jugular.

“Hatfield,” Lydia said, yanking her eyes from the scar. A shame the attacker had missed the vein. “Miss Harriet Hatfield. Oh, Sir Banks, thank you for rescuing me!” Noting where his rheumy eyes strayed, she straightened, to better the effect of her heaving bosom. Invite me to stay and recover, you lout. “I set out to visit my cousin whilst on my way to Town, and got dreadfully lost, and a storm was coming!”

Reassurances of her safety flew from Banks, punctuated with glances at her figure. Lydia would have felt tolerably secure–if not for the anger radiating from Carter.

If not for Carter.

“Surely, Banks,” Carter said, staring at Lydia, “we don’t wish to detain Miss–Hatfield. She can take the barouche back, once her nerves have settled.”

“Oh!” Lydia pictured Carter’s head on a pike. “What if I faint on the road, Sir Banks?” She widened her eyes. Invite me to stay, damn you!

Carter scowled. “You have your salts.”

“Good God, man,” Banks snapped, turning on him. Carter’s expression quickly turned amiable. “There’s no call for such rudeness to a lady of good breeding.”

Behind Banks’ back, Lydia mouthed, ‘Carter?’

But Banks turned back quicker than she expected, and she hastily rearranged her features.

‘Hatfield?’ her husband mouthed.

One pike wasn’t enough–

“Ah!” Banks said. Lydia and Carter jumped. “I see you are admiring my life’s work, Miss Hatfield.”

“Oh, yes!” Lydia said, wrenching her attention from that runaway bastard and trying to figure out what the deuce he was talking about: Horses. Manor. Library–oh, Lord, did he read books? “I am impressed.”

“Indeed? Few understand it, beyond myself and my sister. Carter actually mistook it for my family tree!”

Lydia blinked, and then peered at the diagram over Carter’s head. Now that her vision was clear, she saw that the names were…strange.

And that Banks’ ancestors never lived more than fifteen years.

Lydia glanced at the door left ajar by the dog’s flight. The loathsome beast must be ‘Fitzroy (1811 –     )’.

“Are you familiar with Lamarck, Miss Hatfield?” Banks said, the gleam of a devotee replacing lust in his eye. “When I was a boy, our nurse–the granddaughter of a natural philosopher–introduced me to his brilliance. I have since applied his principles, and permitted only the strongest hounds to sire–”

His words clipped off. Startled, Lydia followed his eyes to the strange woman in the doorway.

She was stouter and shorter than Lydia, wrapped like an invalid in a heavy blanket. Her dark gaze was focused on Banks, its glittering sharpness as unnerving as if a spider’s eight black eyes had looked up from a baby’s face.

The ripe scent of unwashed human wafted into the library.

“Cassie!” thundered Banks. “What in nine hells are you doing up here?”

Surreptitiously, Lydia opened the smelling salt vial.

“You are too loud, brother,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Everyone is disturbed, running to and fro. I cannot do my work.”

With surprising speed, Banks closed the short distance between them. But before he could seize–or strike–her, a gloved hand emerged to pluck at the blanket’s edge.

Banks leapt back as if struck. Lydia twitched and immediately regretted it when the vial’s lid slipped, letting more ammonia vapor escape. She looked up with watering eyes to see Banks turn. His fear was gone–had she imagined it?–and his face was set in a scowl. A scowl which, except for the gray whiskers and red eyes, perfectly mirrored the many disapproving scowls Lydia had received from her siblings.

Perhaps that was why she stood and, to her surprise, curtseyed. “Miss Banks! What a pleasure to meet my savior’s sister!”

Brother and sister fell silent. Lydia had the impression that Cassie only now realized others were present.

“Ex-excuse me, Miss Hatfield,” Banks said loudly. Cassie winced. “My sister is–not well, and unaccustomed to company.”

“Nor to loud noises,” Lydia said, noticing the wince. “You do not know your strength of voice, sir.” She managed to turn her tone up at the end, transforming her words into a compliment on his masculine tenor.

It worked. Banks loosened his grip, just as a flushed Doherty darted forward and tapped Cassie’s arm. The servant curtseyed–Lydia noted how her eyes bulged with fear–and then they were gone.

There goes one with little love for Banks. Mistreated servants were worth their weight in gold, thanks to their knowledge about their masters’ secrets. But, oh–she must stay to pry it from Doherty!

“La, Sir Banks!” Lydia hooked her arm through his, brushing herself against him. All men–including the pale one glaring at her–liked that sort of thing. “You must be a fine singer to have such a powerful voice.”

For a heartbeat his eyes were on her face, shrewd and sharp. But then they dropped to where their bodies touched. Her breath caught in her throat: Invite me. Invite me. Invite me.

“You must stay, Miss Hatfield,” he said. “At least until the storm clears.”

Air rushed back into Lydia, smelling of sweat and tasting of triumph. She squealed her thanks even as her skin prickled beneath her husband’s glare.

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The bedroom given to Lydia for her toilette before supper was opulent and old, its oriental décor and crumbling fireplace dating to when Mama had been a girl. Closing the door, Lydia dropped her damp overcoat on a chair and staggered to the bed. She clung to one of its posters like a drowning sailor to his ship’s mast.

Damn him! Her husband’s face–menacing, alluring, knife-scarred–lingered in her vision. Damn him! Lydia pressed her face against the poster’s wood, her mouth pursed as if kissing, her teeth grinding as if she had him caught between them. Damn him!

Where had he been during those crushing years after Bennie’s birth, when she passed from one grim-faced sister to another? Where had he been when humiliation drove them to London, when she had cut purses to keep out of the workhouse?

A knock shattered her thoughts. Lydia whirled. She glanced at the toilette table’s mirror: her face was as mad and intent and inexplicable as Cassie’s.

And beyond her madwoman’s reflection, through the rain-streaked window, flashed a red- light.

“Lost peasants,” she breathed, trying to calm herself. “Signaling to one another. Or smugglers. Or–” French agents.

The knocking grew louder. Taking a deep breath, Lydia opened the door. Doherty entered, her head bent over a ewer of steaming water.

Lydia caged her whirling thoughts. She couldn’t let this opportunity go wasted.

“Oh!” Lydia beamed. “I am so glad you are here! I am so hopeless at undoing my clasps–I tear them like a child!”

This girlish confidence received a curt nod. Doherty set down the ewer and turned towards Lydia’s overcoat.

A bruise blackened her jaw.

Good Lord. Was it from the bumbling brother–or the mad sister?

But before she could speak, Doherty picked up her overcoat. The contents of its pockets clanked.

“Oh, don’t mind that!” Lydia flapped her hand. “It’s my–face paint.”

She swore at her thoughtlessness when Doherty’s face darkened with disapproval. Owning to face paint was like confessing to whoredom, in these backwaters.

Silently, the servant went around Lydia and began yanking out her hairpins.

Lydia forced herself not to flinch when Doherty attacked her hair with a brush. “I hadn’t expected”–the brush scraped her scalp–“such a well-trained lady’s maid this far from Town. Do you serve Mrs. Banks?”

The brush paused. “I serve Miss Banks.”

Clever answer, Lydia thought. “Is Sir Banks unmarried?”

The brush clanked on the bureau. Lydia’s head snapped back as Doherty began plaiting her hair. “Why’d you care, madam?”

The insolence was as unpleasant as the hairdressing. She thinks I’m pursuing him.

Several more yanks threatened to tear off her scalp, and then Lydia felt her gown loosen as Doherty undid its back buttons, apparently intending to press it.

“Oh, do the jewelry first,” Lydia said. “Sir Banks must do well at his cloth business, to maintain his sister and manor both.”

There was a pinch as her ears were freed of their heavy gold bobs. “Nobody said nothing about cloth.”

Damnation. She was rattled still by Carter.

“Oh! Sir Banks did,” Lydia lied. “Does he do business on the Continent?”

“I know nothing about his business.” Cold fingers wrestled with the clasp to Lydia’s necklace.

Lydia mentally pirouetted, circling about Doherty like a duelist searching for an unguarded point.

“Is Mr. Carter also a cloth merchant?”

No reply.

“How long have he and Sir Banks been friends?”

Only the distant rumbling of thunder answered her.

Lydia puffed her cheeks, feeling like she had brought a rapier to a pistol duel. It was time, as Mrs. Lincoln would say, to change tactics.

The clasp opened. Before Doherty could set down the necklace, Lydia turned and caught her wrist, smiling.

“That one always gives me trouble, but you opened it so easily–why don’t you keep it for yourself?”

Doherty’s eyes met hers, as dark as the bruise on her jaw.

The necklace clanked when she set it down.

Oh, bugger.

She waved off Doherty’s surly offer to press her gown, claiming a desire to rest briefly. The woman left but her disapproval lingered like a bloodstain on good satin. Lydia paced, her thoughts matching the rain’s staccato beat.

Charm had failed.

Bribery had failed.

But she had an hour alone, upstairs, while everyone downstairs believed her to be preening or napping.

Lydia halted. Lightning flashed, throwing the room into white brilliance. Her hand closed on the fan case in her pocket.

With one last glance out the window for the red light, she slipped out of her shoes and into the hallway.

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The floor in the dark hallway was ice-cold, but Lydia moved slowly. The soft creak of the floorboards was swallowed by the downstairs clatter of servants doing whatever it was servants did before supper.

Her hand found the large door at the end of the hall. The faint light of a damped fire glowed beneath it. Lydia pressed her ear to it: all she heard was the muffled boom of the ocean and the beat of rain.

She squatted to examine the lock. Not a Bramah lock, thank God–simply an old-fashioned pin tumbler.

A locked pin tumbler. Lydia held her breath, listening to the sounds of storm and house and ocean. She opened her fan case.

The faint firelight glittered along the pick’s slender length and flashed off the L-shaped torsion wrench. Smiling slightly, she lined the tools up to the tumbler’s face.

“Feeling well-rested, Miss Hatfield?” murmured her husband behind her.

She whirled, the edge of her hand aimed for his knee. But he dodged, as light as the fine dancer she knew he was. His hands were behind his back but she couldn’t tell if he was mocking her with an insouciant pose–or hiding a weapon.

Lydia stood, training the pick’s fine point on him. Spine straight, chin up, knees shaking, she met his dark eyes.

“Don’t you ‘Miss’ me!” she hissed. “What are you doing here, Mr. Carter?” Even as she said it, Lydia felt the saucy words tilt the battlefield in his favor. Felt like she was sixteen again, a pampered virgin, just meeting a dashing rake with dozens of notches in his bedpost.

“Still Mrs. Wickham, then?” he said, ignoring the question. “Why haven’t you divorced me?”

Damn the shadows: darkness hid the flicker of an eye, the shift of a stance.

“I should have!” Her voice was shrill. “You–you left me, and your child, you bastard!”

His mouth opened. Closed.

He shook his head. “Then allow me to assist you back to your toilette, as a husband should.”

Lydia stared. He sounded just like her husband: smooth, confident, at ease. But how had he learned to move so silently?

And what was he doing up here?

And–oh, Lord!–where was Banks?

But it was with her sixteen-year-old voice that she said, “La! And if I don’t?”

“Our host, I must say, is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.”

“How did–” Lydia stopped. He might not know about the attempt on Mrs. Banks’ life. But he had seen how Doherty cowered–and perhaps witnessed her beating. “Our host, I must say, is aiding the French.”

She had the pleasure of his surprise. He stepped close enough to dance a reel with her, but Lydia, conscious of the locked door behind her and Banks downstairs, had never felt less like dancing.

“When did you acquire this love of king and country?” Carter said in a whisper like a knife through silk.

King. She seized the thought. “You must let me go, G-Carter, or–or the king will be displeased.”

“‘The king will be displeased.'” He snorted disbelief. “You must do better than that, Miss Hatfield.”

She shifted, her cold toes grasping for purchase. He shifted with her.

“Where is Banks?” she said, raising the pick. His eyes flickered between its point and her face.

He shrugged. “Visiting his mad sister. Hopefully convincing her to bathe.”

“For how long?”

“Long enough for me to escort you back.”

He stepped forward. Lydia could smell his painfully familiar scent of smoke and claret.

The door behind her was implacable as his advance.

“I’ll give you a third,” Lydia said quickly. “Of what I’m…promised. For this.”

That stopped him. His eyes sharpened–with curiosity, with suspicion–but what he said was, “Three-quarters.”

“La!” Lydia tossed her head. “Half.”

“Three–”

“I must maintain Bennie.”

He fell silent for two great booming heartbeats of the ocean. The pick was slick with sweat in her hand, the dagger strapped to her leg far, far away.

“Curious,” he said, his gaze sweeping her, “how much his maintenance involves satin gowns. Very well. Half.”

“Good.” Lydia exhaled. “Now, you m-must help me get into Banks’ room.”

“The king pays you to sneak into men’s bedrooms?” Before she could retort, he continued, “Or is it this strange cloth that Banks is so exalted about?”

“You know about that?” Lydia bit her lip. Damn him for still being able to ruffle her!

“Aye,” he said, shifting. His face was fully shadowed. “We have become like brothers, after I saved him from being robbed by a pack of cutthroats and smugglers. I am content to advise him on young ladies”– she was briefly glad his expression was hidden–“and he is quite generous with the money gained from selling his cloth. At least, what’s left over from attempting to buy back his title.”

“Do you know where he’s getting it?”

“No.” His jacket rustled as he shrugged. “Why should I care?”

“La!” Lydia automatically said, thinking. “Well, it doesn’t matter to me what you care about. You must distract him.”

“For how long?”

“An hour.”

She heard another cloth rustle–brought the pick up–but he only bowed. Turned. Left.

His footsteps were faint as a cat’s down the stairs.

How did he learn to move so quietly? She half-fell and, with shaking hands, inserted the pick and wrench into the lock.

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Rain was beating against the windows when Lydia slipped through the bedroom door. She re-locked it and and pocketed her tools.

The banked fire glowed just enough for Lydia to make out a high-ceilinged room dominated by a massive bed. A low door opposite promised to be the dressing room. Wardrobes and drawers leaked the scents of cedar and perfume.

Lydia reached for a candle on the mantelpiece and saw how her hand was shaking. She made a fist; her teeth began chattering.

She had just bought a promise from a man whose word–to friends, to the militia, to her–was worthless.

She had just minutes, before he told Banks.

She lit the candle and set about her frantic work.

Wardrobes: nothing but formerly fashionable clothes. Lydia slid her hand along the sides and felt only cedar panels. Drawers: combs, wig powder, a prophylactic, the sheep’s intestine stiff with age. No hidden alcoves. The bed: a quick check under and over and into the mattress unearthed nothing but goose down.

She paced, listening for telltale creaks in the floorboards. She tapped the walls, listening for revealing echoes. Her unfruitful circuit ended at the low door in the corner.

Behind it was a dressing room, of course. Wind rattled the room’s small window against its lock. Closing the door, Lydia ran her hand over the walls, ducking around the hanging clothes.

Her eyes narrowed: one coat hung oddly. Banks had worn the garment earlier when he ‘saved’ her, and it hung more heavily than a tailcoat of worsted wool should.

A pocket within a pocket yielded a worn book. The candle lit the words Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. She ignored the sister chorus that sang out in disapproval–especially when Lydia recognized it to be quite dated. Few Garden ladies likely still matched Harris’ descriptions of their eventful youth.

But the oddness of keeping an outdated survey of aging prostitutes made Lydia open it. When flipping through Kitty Fisher’s description, she found the folded sheets of paper.

She skimmed them. The first was a half-composed letter to a tailor, apologizing for a lateness in paying to be attributed to his sister’s illness, &c &c.

The second was torn from another book. Faded ink covered it in a hand so precise it could have been typeset. Strange, incoherent phrases leapt at Lydia: … their product’s strength is associated, through some unknown mechanism, with their venom’s potency… one in four possess such traits…permitting only these to breed, as dictated by Lamarck.

Lamarck again! Lydia snorted and turned to the last sheet.

It was printed through with columns of abbreviations and numbers. Fresh ink circled one set of numbers.

A cipher. Lydia’s stomach clenched. Ciphers were not her strength; they demanded too much sitting with dreary books. But she forced herself to look closer, if only for Mrs. Lincoln’s sake, and realization slipped past the mental crowd of sisters still worked up over the Covent Garden ladies.

A tide table. Her finger tracked the circled date and time to the abbreviation for the nearby coast.

Tomorrow. She inhaled: Banks had business tomorrow–on the coast facing France–which required him to know the tides.

And still she knew nothing of his silk!

She almost dropped the book when the bedroom door unlocked. Through the dressing room’s door, she heard a man’s heavy tread and the ominous click of Fitzroy’s claws.

Lydia snuffed out the candle, praying that the wisps of smoke would go unnoticed in a room with a banked fire.

Only a low, thin door stood between her and doom outside.

Unbidden, the memory of the dagger-distorted corset bubbled up. The image burst with the echo of George’s–Carter’s–words: Our host is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.

The claw-clicking grew louder.

Damn Carter! And damn her for trusting him again!

She heard a snuffling sound. The door wobbled.

Fear galvanized her. Silently, she folded the papers back into the book and tucked the book back into the coat.

She heard a muffled growl.

With her handkerchief, she stifled the lock’s protesting squeal. Rain hammered Lydia’s face and soaked her gown as she leaned out.

A narrow ledge and gutter, thick with frothing water, ran five feet below. Thirty feet beyond that, the ground was a mass of wet shadows. And beyond that–

Distorted by the rain, a distant red light flashed with the rhythm of a dance: one-two-three, four; one-two-three, four.

And from the windows below answered the same pattern.

Oh, Lord! Water flattened her ringlets and ran coldly down her neck. There were no more light flashes; only thirty-five feet of rain-slick stone wall, and someone who answered mysterious signals in the night.

Lydia shuddered. She could stab Fitzroy and flee Banks; but neither fight nor flight worked against gravity or unknown French agents.

She retreated inside, latched the window, and sank into a crouch.   Cold and fear shook her limbs; anger clenched her teeth.

She almost yelped when the bedroom door open again.

“–Carter wants–with you–” said a servant girl’s voice.

Lydia gaped. Bless him.

“–up the damn fire, it’s freezing in here,” replied Banks. “And send Richard to lay out my clothes for supper. Come, Fitzroy. I said come, dammit!”

A growl from Fitzroy. Their footsteps receded beneath the scrape of a poker stirring the fire.

Damn him. Richard would enter the dressing room and discover–a thief? A whore?

Either one would be gleefully savaged by Fitzroy.

Shuddering, she smelled fresh smoke.

The sister chorus started chanting. Thief! Whore!

Thief!

Whore…

Her head snapped up, flinging water from her soaked ringlets, as her mind began to race.

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The servant girl dropped the kindling when the dressing room door opened.

Lydia stalked out, her gown tossed over one arm, her chemise barely covered by Banks’ dressing gown. Her hair was tousled as if she had spent an energetic (and horizontal) half-hour. Her bare feet padded confidently as she approached, holding an unlit candle.

The girl stared.

“Light this, won’t you?” Lydia said.

“Y-yes, ma’rm.” The girl touched its wick to an ember. Light sparkled in her astonished eyes.

“That’s a good girl,” Lydia purred. She sashayed out, closed the door, snuffed the candle, and ran like the devil was after her.

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Lydia darted back into her bedroom. She dropped the gown beside her overcoat and clutched the chair, drawing in great gasps that nearly burst her chemise’s seams.

Carter had kept his word–had helped her.

But she couldn’t indulge in reflection. Not with the clock ticking and the waves booming below, bringing Banks closer to his rendezvous.

Lydia drew out the contents of her overcoat’s pocket: lead sticks, a container of cheap rouge, several hairpins.

Weapons for a battle she had hoped to avoid.

She’s his sort. Clarke’s words echoed as she sat at the toilette table.

A woman’s duty, Mama had called it. But it had never been a duty before–not with George, nor any after. And it was never required by Mrs. Lincoln. Let other professionals use crude seduction–Lydia accomplished ten times more with her wits and masterful flirtation!

But bribing Doherty had failed. Tossing over Banks’ room had failed. And she had until tomorrow before the man went to the coast facing France, and waited for low tide.

Lydia picked up the lead sticks.

She thought of her son: his maintenance at school, the hope it bought him for a safer life than hers. To fail was to fail him.

She thickened her lashes with lead powder. Setting down the sticks, she picked up the rouge.

She thought of her sisters: their scorn for her hasty marriage and pregnancy. They took her in–but they would never forgive. To fail was to return to them.

Lydia powdered her cheeks, chin, bosom. Brushing off her hands, she took up the hairpins.

She thought of Mrs. Lincoln: of that day seven years ago, when Lydia had stolen Mrs. Lincoln’s pocketbook on the London streets. Of the next morning, when the woman had tracked Lydia to that room behind the tanner’s and, pistol in one hand and nosegay in the other, offered Lydia a new line of work. To fail was to fail the only person who gave her a chance.

The hairpins slid like rusty rapiers into her hair.

Lydia pulled on her gown. She adjusted the neckline. The damp cloth clung to her fetching plumpness–and brought to mind the new, tightly-fitted bodices she couldn’t afford.

Yet.

With a toss of her head, Lydia entered the hall, shoulders back and spine curved to amplify her natural charms. To fail was to fail herself!

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Lydia’s slippers struck the marble like it was a marching drum as she strode down the great hall. The dining room was a fire-lit maw waiting to swallow her, where silverware clanked like sabers and rich foods stank of burnt blood.

A furious shout silenced the clanking silverware and punctured her marching drum. Lydia froze. The servants told him about the bedroom–

“– for this, Cassie!”

A muted reply.

“For Christ’s sake, Miss Hatfield has no interest in this…Doherty!” screamed Banks.

He sounds terrified. What was his sister doing? And–oh, Lord!–what did Cassie want with Miss Hatfield?

Two shapes emerged from the dining room, backlit by candlelight. Lydia hastily composed herself as Doherty jerked Cassie towards her.

Lydia’s nose wrinkled at the stench of sweat.

Cassie’s arms protruded from her draped blanket. Her hands were cupped together with Doherty’s hands clamped around them. The weak light drew angry, fearful lines onto Doherty’s face. Tears glittered on Cassie’s cheeks.

Aside from Doherty’s fear, it was a perfect tableau of how Lydia’s sisters had yanked her away from handsome gentlemen.

Sympathy bent Lydia into a curtsey. The curtsey brought her nose close to Cassie. Beneath the unwashed body odor lurked a metallic scent.

Lydia looked up. Cassie stood before her, resisting Doherty’s tugs. The candlelight glinted like gold on the cloth covering her from shoulder to cupped hands.

Those hands flew apart when Doherty jerked too hard and lost her grip. Tiny emeralds dropped from Cassie’s hands. They rolled–scuttled–across the marble.

Doherty gasped. Snatching up her skirts, she stamped on the spiders. Carapaces crunched against the marble.

“No!” Cassie cried, but Doherty blocked her.

“How often have you been told–!”

Oh, Lord–Doherty even sounded like Lydia’s sisters, defending their frigid propriety!

A bellow from the dining room. “Take her back!”

“Yes, sir!” Doherty’s fear-stricken face turned towards the shout. Which was likely how she missed the last spider.

It limped towards Lydia. She scooped it up. It clung lightly to her as Lydia extended her hand to Cassie.

Doherty turned back. Her face contorted with horror.

Stupid wench. Lydia tossed her head. She never feared such little things–and neither did Cassie, whose gloved hand slid like water across Lydia’s, coaxing back the spider.

This close, Lydia saw how the spider’s emerald green matched the undertones in Cassie’s silk glove. Like a patina of verdigris on copper.

And then Doherty yanked Cassie away.

Lydia stared at the green smears, barely noticing the sounds of the women descending the stairs, the distant slam of a door.

Her thumb and forefinger rubbed together, teasing out the memory of the corset Clarke had shown her. Of the strange green tones to its golden, silky cloth. The same tones that had sparkled in Cassie’s gloves; the same silkiness that had flowed over Lydia’s hand.

Lydia sniffed her hand. It smelled like she had been clutching a dagger, blade-first.

Barely a minute later, when he descended from his own toilette, her husband found her transfixed there.

Her fingers still rubbing together, Lydia looked up at his handsome face and carefully-ruffled hair. Some comment died on his lips when he caught her expression.

“It’s not Mr. Banks I should have been after,” Lydia whispered. I couldn’t smell it because of Cassie’s odor–and those damn smelling salts.

His dark eyes glittered. “No?”

“It’s Miss Banks,” she said.

Bribery hadn’t worked. Sneaking hadn’t worked.

A simple courtesy–from one misunderstood sister to another–had worked.

Triumph and surprise warmed her body. She looked up at her husband, the bastard, the scoundrel, the handsome wretch who had ruined her and left her.

But he had done what she asked in the hall.

But he had backed off when she’d argued for money to maintain Bennie.

But she had no one else.

And his hair was tousled the way she loved it.

“You must help me.” Lydia pressed her hand to his cambric shirt. “I’ll go after Miss Banks and the silk. You get my horse and one for yourself. Tell the groom you’re–”

“I’ll deal with the groom,” he said, eyes narrowing.

“Yes! And meet me–oh–”

“There’s a hillock three miles north that blocks all view from the manor.”

She listened to his harried directions, her fingers digging into his cravat. His handsome face was so close she could see how the blade had parted the skin of his jaw.

The scar was rough beneath her fingers when she tilted his face towards hers.

A chair scraped in the dining room. They leapt apart.

Banks’ gaunt silhouette appeared in the dining room’s firelight. “Carter? Miss Hatfield?”

Lydia’s eyes met her husband’s. Buy me time, he mouthed.

He turned away. “I find myself needing rest more than food, Banks. You and Miss Hatfield enjoy the meal.”

“What–oh, yes, Sir Banks!” Lydia said, pirouetting. “A tête-à-tête, so I may know my savior better.” Her mind, drunk on her proximity to the silk and her husband, whirled madly: How to escape how to escape how–

Her husband’s footsteps faded, leaving her alone with a man who had wanted his own wife dead. A man she was armed to seduce–but who she must now distract, evade, and rob.

Drawing in a deep breath of air stinking like burnt blood, Lydia sashayed towards Banks, her lips pulled into a blood-red simper.

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Between the fire and the storm humidity, the dining room was as hot and fetid as Fitzroy’s mouth. The monster-dog prowled about the room, his eyes moving with Lydia’s body. His master stood still, watching her with a lidded gaze.

The table was set for three. Footmen hovered, ready to carve and serve. Lydia hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but the rich scents nauseated her.

She forced herself to advance. I’ll pretend to be ill and excuse myself to–

“Out!” Banks barked. Lydia jumped. The footmen fled.

Sheer willpower kept her moving towards a chair, but Banks did not draw it out for her. Lydia looked up, scrambling for a teasing comment.

The words died in her mouth. His expression was sharper than any she had seen the whole day–except for that second before she’d coaxed an invitation from him.

She jerked when he sat.

Miss Hatfield,” he said. “Perhaps you might indulge my curiosity.”

“Anything for my savior, sir!” Lydia sashayed forward and squeezed his shoulder.

His shoulder was tense. His gaze roved frankly over her. Shrewd. Assessing.

She heard a low rumble. Not thunder. Growling.

Fitzroy’s lips were drawing back from his teeth.

“I find myself wondering,” Banks said, “how a young woman came to be traveling across the countryside, alone?”

“Do recall, sir, that I was calling on my cousin–”

He interrupted, “Calling on a cousin, in the countryside, while carrying face paint and dressing so impractically?”

She is dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks, her husband had said.

“You are perceptive, sir!” Lydia forced a giggle. “I must own my share of the sin of vanity.”

In the silence stretching between them, Lydia heard a faint patter.

Saliva was dripping from Fitzroy’s teeth onto the floor.

Oh, Lord…

Distracted, she only jerked when Banks lunged and yanked her onto his lap. His arms were like bone stays about her torso.

“No, Miss Hatfield.” His breath was hot in her ear. “That is not your sin. Whose whore are you?”

One of his arms detached–Lydia tried to twist free–and then his hand grabbed her thigh.

His fingers froze. “Wha–”

My dagger.

Lydia slammed her heel down, raking his shin and crushing the top of his foot.

She felt the blow lance through him and ripped free, falling to the ground and rolling away.

“You goddamned whore!” Banks wheezed, stumbling upright. A dining knife glittered in his hand. Lydia scrambled backwards on her elbows between the chairs.

Through his legs, Lydia saw Fitzroy advancing. She reached for the dagger but her skirts had tangled–

Banks lunged.

Fitzroy leapt.

Lydia kicked a chair. It spun and crashed in front of her.

Banks dodged–but then Fitzroy crashed into him, toppling them both over the chair. There was the crack of human bone. Banks screamed.

Lydia scrambled up. Gasping, she ran into the hall.

She reached the stairs that led down, her ears ringing with Banks’ cries for aide.

Her cover was blown–the house was roused against her–her sisters screamed for her to flee.

But the blood pounding through her screamed back, thrilling to the chase, the fight, the knife’s edge balance between life and death, failure and success.

Lydia grabbed the banister and hurtled downstairs.

One, two, three flights of stairs brought her to a landing outside what looked like a cellar door. Barrels gathered dead flies in the corners. Gasping, Lydia smelled the ocean-salted-earth that surrounded her at this depth.

Footfalls and shouting echoed above. And–oh, Lord!–the scuttling of hard nails on marble.

Lydia grasped the doorknob.

It was locked.

She grabbed her pocket, fumbling past the smelling salts for the fan case. Pulled free the pick and wrench. She would crack the lock– subdue Doherty–and then–

And then she heard the staccato rattle of claws descending the stairs.

Lydia pirouetted, sweeping out with the pick, but a heavy weight caught her inside the strike. The pick flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor.

Nails like knives raked her legs and arms and torso. A massive body crushed the dagger’s sheath into her leg. Instinct threw her arm before her throat as Fitzroy lunged, teeth bared and tongue spraying saliva.

Fitzroy’s teeth closed on her arm. The wrench clattered on the floor. Pain screamed through her as he began to shake her arm, the bone twisting in its socket.

Mama! Lydia cried soundlessly. He’s going to tear my arm off!

Don’t say such things, my dear, her long-dead mother replied. With my nerves, you’ll make me faint.

Faint

Faint.

Blackness shadowed her vision. Lydia moaned and fumbled one-handed for her pocket.

The pear-shaped bottle slipped into her hand.

Lydia closed her eyes and slammed the bottle against Fitzroy’s head. The ceramic shattered. Cutting shards slashed her skin and the air turned to ammonia-fueled fire.

Her arm dropped against her throat. Choking, Fitzroy leapt off her. His nails clattered up the stairs, the worst of the ammonia-stench disappearing with him.

Lydia crawled away from the lingering vapor. Her savaged arm screamed pain; blood and saliva ran down her front.

You deserve this, Lydia! cried her sisters. Banks will find you here and–

“–t’s going on out there?” Doherty’s voice, muffled by the door.

Her sisters switched tactics. Doherty will find you here and–

Lydia cracked open her eyes. The ammonia found them and her vision clouded.

“Hello? Hello!” Doherty shrilled.

Her eyes stinging slits, Lydia crawled behind a barrel. Cradling her arm, she dry-heaved and, in a raw voice, cried, “Oh, ma’rm!”

“What? What?”

Lydia wheezed, “You’re needed ‘mediately upstairs!”

She curled tighter, the movement pulling open her slash-wounds.

A door bolt scraped. Hinges squealed.

Doherty gasped. “What in God’s name…!”

Gagging, the woman pounded up the stairs.

The door squealed as it began swinging shut.

Lydia leapt for it. She caught the handle and its massive weight dragged her before halting an inch from the jamb.

Black and red spots scuttled like spiders across her vision. Lydia pulled the door open and staggered through. It fell shut behind her, cutting off the lingering stench of ammonia.

Lydia threw the bolt and sank to her knees, drawing in great lungfuls of air that smelled of the ocean and tasted of daggers. A grey netherworld–as oppressive as the Hertfordshire mists of her girlhood–threatened to envelop her. Clutching her fang-torn arm, Lydia fought it off.

With her good hand, she tore free her gown’s gaping front. Clenching her teeth, she wrapped the cloth about her wounds.

Pain meant she was alive.

Lydia stood, each slash bone-deep bruise protesting. She wiped her stinging eyes and flung the tears onto the stone floor.

She was alive. Lydia turned in place. A single candle lit the cave-like room and the entrance to a low tunnel. Diagrams and papers spilled from a narrow bed, the writing so precise it could have been typeset. Skeins of raw, metallic-smelling silk gathered in piles that hinted at some unknown classification. In the corner, a complicated loom was strung with half-finished cloth, its weave too fine to discern.

Sisters be damned, she was alive. Lydia drew her dagger. A light glowed in the tunnel. Crude stairs ran down it.

From the tunnel rushed the great heartbeat of the ocean’s waves. And beneath the ocean’s roar chattered a strange sound–like many voices.

Or many feet.

Her eyes and dagger trained on the glow ahead, she descended.

The metallic smell grew stronger–stronger–stronger.

But it was nothing to the sight that greeted her.

Lydia halted at the glow’s edge, her stunned senses unable to manage another step. The sting of her wounds faded, her eyes too overwhelmed for her to process any other sensation than shock.

The cavern arched overhead. Cold, fresh air buffeted small flies against her in time to the sound of waves. The air’s briny stench overlay the scent of decomposing wooden barrels and rotting rowboats.

Lydia stared. The cavern was draped–festooned–infested with spider webs. Ancient, frail webs clotted every crag; new, sturdy ones stretched across columns of stalactites; and closest to Lydia, webs as fine as gossamer glinted gold and green in the light of a dozen oil lamps.

Spiders moved purposefully among the webs, glittering like emeralds set into gold. And moving just as purposefully, encased from head-to-toe in cloth of emerald and gold, was Miss Cassandra Banks.

The woman prodded a fresh web with a metal cane. Its spider leapt aggressively onto the cane as the web stretched. Nodding, Cassie carefully returned the spider to its remarkably intact home.

When she moved, her foot knocked several rocks. One clattered to a stop near Lydia. In the lamp light, she saw that it was a time-yellowed human vertebrae.

Her eyes flickering between the spiders and Cassie, Lydia squeezed the dagger.

She nearly screamed when Cassie suddenly struck out with the cane. Crushed spider glistened wetly. Its web snapped as Cassie twirled the strands about her cane.

Mad. Lydia shuddered. All that she sought–that the French smuggled and the king coveted–came from a madwoman’s pet spiders.

Not that Clarke would believe her. Even Mrs. Lincoln might doubt her.

She needed proof: web. Silk. Spiders. But Cassie showed no signs of leaving.

Lydia took a miscalculated step and knew it instantly. Her slipper knocked the damned vertebrae into a stalagmite.

Cassie whirled. Crushed spider and destroyed web dangled from the cane. The light shimmered on the golden veil across her face.

Cassie advanced, brandishing the cane like a rapier.

Oh, Lord! Lydia brought the dagger up, twisting to shield her savaged arm.

But Cassie halted. She swayed as she regarded Lydia.

“You saved my baby,” Cassie said.

Lydia stared. Baby?

That spider. The one she saved from Doherty and returned to Cassie.

“Y-yes.” Lydia swallowed. “I did.”

Without another word, the woman turned, opened an oil lamp, and thrust the web inside. It burned with a scent like hair kept too long on a curling iron and then was gone.

Lydia appreciated the frustrations of motherhood–she loved Bennie while thanking God for boarding schools–but this seemed rather extreme.

“Why, er,” Lydia said, “did you destroy that ‘baby’?”

“Its web wasn’t strong enough,” Cassie said. “And it was too green.”

Lydia stared. The philosophy of Lamarck, she thought, applied to spiders.

Strange thought, but her pulse was steadying now that the cane was pointed elsewhere.

“Do you dislike green, Miss Banks?” Lydia said, advancing. The cavern loomed overhead, glittering with chattering spiders.

“What I dislike is irrelevant.” Cassie’s now-cool cane tested more webs, sending spiders fleeing. Her words echoed about the stone cavern. “Green correlates with their venom’s strength.”

Lydia froze. Her mind stepped back from the scene, plaiting this thread of knowledge into the others she had gathered.

Cassie, covered in spider silk impenetrable to daggers–and, presumably, to spider fangs.

Doherty’s terror when Lydia had picked up the spider bare-handed and given it to Cassie.

The human vertebrae at Lydia’s feet.

She thawed when Cassie’s cane cracked against another stalactite.

“M-miss Banks,” Lydia said. Don’t stutter. She took a breath. They’re just venomous man-killing spiders. And she’s grateful you saved her ‘baby’. “If you don’t need the greener ones anymore, perhaps I could have several?”

Lydia swallowed. Kindness–both given and received–had an unfamiliar taste. “Please?”

The cane halted mid-swing.

“The bite of one itched me maddeningly, when we first discovered this place after Father died,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Two sting horribly. Three bit my brother, and he never comes here anymore. Four will kill. It was my brother who realized Father used them to keep his men in line, but it was my idea to use them for my life’s work.”

Lydia looked down at the vertebrae. She saw now that the cave’s sand was dotted with more old bones.

She looked up at the spiders, spinning and feasting and waiting and mating, glittering like jewels on their webs.

Then she looked at Cassie, and drew a deep breath. She was in a nest of death with a brilliant, monomaniacal woman whose research was benefiting the French.

But Lydia suspected Cassie neither knew what her brother did with the silk, nor did she care. My life’s work.

“I’ll take three,” Lydia said, drawing out her fan case. “Please.” The case’s insulated inside would keep them–and her–safe.

Cassie took the case. Her gaze flickered among the spiders. With practiced ease, she swept three into the case.

Lydia swallowed: the largest spider carried an egg sac. Real babies.

The case snapped shut. Lydia took it, conscious of the faintest increase in weight. Her fingers whitened as she tightened her grip.

“Thank you, Miss Banks,” Lydia said, sincerely.

But Cassie was already turning away. The cane resumed its restless testing of webs. Lydia had the distinct sense that, for Cassie, she was no longer an object of interest.

But for her brother–

Lydia glanced up the stairs. The servants, Fitzroy, and Banks waited out there.

She looked deeper into the cavern, where indigo water lapped at bones. Darkness loomed ahead, as riddled with death and the unknown as the maw of some terrible dragon–

“Bugger that,” Lydia muttered. Tucking her gown up into her chemise’s waistband, she clamped the fan case between her teeth, picked up a lamp, and waded into the bloody cold water.

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“–and this groom met you at the appointed place with your horse?” Clarke frowned at Lydia.

Lydia set down her teacup. The sweet scent of bergamot wafted up as Mrs. Lincoln poured more. The fire crackled, throwing flattering light over her new gown and the shawl draped over her bandaged arm. Mrs. Lincoln had graciously advanced Lydia the necessary funds, given her success.

Ribbons tied the fan case shut. It lay on the desk by Clarke’s hand.

“Yes,” Lydia said, taking the teacup. “He–”

            (–was there, with just her horse. The wind tousled her husband’s hair. Moonlight pierced the storm clouds and illuminated his face. She saw the man Bennie would become: tall, graceful, handsome.

            “Did you get it, Lydia?” he said, setting down an unlit lamp. Taking off his jacket, he draped it over her wet, bruised shoulders.

            Lydia, she thought. It had been so long since he’d said her name.

            “I did, George.” She held up the fan case triumphantly.

But here was more than solicitousness in his expression; there was open greed.)

“–kept his word.”

Clarke’s frown deepened. “Quite a risk, trusting a man who, hmmm, took bribes to turn against his master.”

Mrs. Lincoln stirred. “We often take such risks. Mrs. Bexley did nothing extraordinary there.”

Lydia swirled the tea in her cup. “But it is true, madam. I did take a risk, trusting–”

            (“–you!” she exclaimed. “You used me –you wanted the silk, too!”

            “Aye,” George said, his hand like a vise about her arm. “But Lydia, this is our chance! My companions don’t know we’d–“

            “Your ‘companions’?” Lydia exclaimed. But the word slotted into place and, taking a mental step back, she could see the puzzle to which it belonged: The new scar on his jaw. The flashing lights in the night–lights the same red as the glass panes, she now saw, of George’s unlit lantern.

            George knowing about the cloth.

            George helping her.

            “You’re a–a smuggler! A swindler!”

            “Aye,” he repeated like he did not care. He drew her near; she felt his hot breath on her face, the hard lines of his body. “No one knows we have it. We could sell it, get Bennet from that damned school, and the three of us could live a grand life together.”)

“–him,” Lydia said.

“What happened to him?” Clarke said, poking at the fan case. “Did you tell him what you were stealing?”

The tea was over-steeped. Lydia shook her head when Mrs. Lincoln moved to refill it.

“I told him I worked for the estranged Mrs. Banks,” Lydia said.

She looked–

            (–up at him. And she saw the man Bennet would become, raised by fugitives whose greed and lust meant they could not keep their word–not to their comrades, not to their employers, and not to each other.

            And she saw the woman she would become, in thrall to a man who had been like opium to her since she was sixteen.

            “No, George,” Lydia said, pulling against his grip. “Not this time.”

            His fingers dug into her shoulders. She cried out but he grabbed her damaged arm, his grip like fire on her fresh wounds. His other hand tore the fan case from her.

            “No!”

Without her grip the case opened. Three green jewels spilled into the moonlight and onto her husband’s skin.)

–down as Clarke played with the ribbon’s knot on the fan case. Something rustled; but Lydia could not tell–

            (–if he was still conscious. His screams had faded to gasps when Lydia coaxed the last spider back into the case.

He lay at her feet, weak and unprotected.

The man who had ruined her.

Betrayed her.

Given her Bennie.

            The horse was skittish after the tumult, and saddled for a man. Lydia used a hair ribbon to tie shut the case; then, with several awkward attempts, she managed to get astride, her skirts hiked up to show an indecorous amount of leg.

            Her husband’s pained, incredulous gaze met hers.

            “You’ll live,” Lydia said curtly. She drove her heels into the horse and the beast took off like a shot.)

–whether the rustle was from Clarke’s sleeves, or inside the case. A rustle mere inches from the fingers of this man who looked at her with contempt so strong Lydia could taste it, as bitter and familiar as her sisters’ faces.

She looked down at her tea, swirling its dregs. “I should be careful playing with the fan case, sir.”

Clarke frowned skeptically. But his fingers went still when he looked at her face.

“One bite will itch,” Lydia said, over the soft scratching sound and the memories of the dark, damp cave. “Two sting horribly. Three cripple a man with pain. Four will kill.”

She set down the cup, its last bitter swallow untasted.

___

Copyright 2016 Megan Chaudhuri

A toxicologist by training and a writer by inclination, Megan lives near Seattle with one husband and two cats. Her science fiction has been published in Analog and Crossed Genres, while her science non-fiction has appeared in Slate under her maiden name, Megan Cartwright. Her website is http://sciencebasedwriting.wordpress.com.

 

by Mathew Scaletta

The Tongass was a paradox, temperate but humid. In the forest, dust and gravel were invasive species.

Southeastern Alaska: a birdshot blast of islands scattering out from what had once been mainland Canada. Rain had not fallen on Taan, the region’s largest island, in almost a month. It was late summer, though the fireweed had yet to bloom. The dust kicked up from the island’s endless maze of logging roads thickened in the air, clinging to skin, homes, and vehicles like wet paint.

Ash stood outside the smokehouse, exhausted, arguing payroll with Grandma Liss, who perched high above him on her house’s wrap-around porch. Her rat-dog danced at her feet. A Chevy crunched its way up the steep gravel driveway, something lumpy and red in the back.

“Hi there, welcome to Feralfoods. Ash here will help you,” Grandma Liss said to the hunter as he hopped down from the cab. “Come on Coco.” She went inside, and the rat-dog followed.

“Got something for you,” the hunter said to Ash as he popped open the truck’s dented tailgate, smearing the dust coating the handle.

Ash took hold of one end of the bulky, blood-stained canvas lying in the bed. Heavy, but the kill must have just been a juvenile since it only required two to lift. A legal kill, but barely.

“Did you gut it?” Ash asked. “Got to gut them right away or they go south fast.”

“Took the head,” the hunter said, evading the question. He hadn’t. “Already got her boiling back at the cabin. Just need you to butcher, package, and freeze the rest.”

Inside the smokehouse, a metal twang filled the air. The two men set their burden on a low wooden table next to a knee high electric scale. The hunter crinkled his nose, but made no comment.

Officially, Grandma Liss forbade costumers from bringing in meat that hadn’t been properly gutted, because of the mess. The policy lapsed that summer, and in fear of offending clients and sending them off to a competitor, Ash accepted the uncleaned carcasses with a handshake and a smile.

“We charge by incoming weight,” Ash said. “Saves you a little money to clean them yourself.”

The hunter nodded absently. Men like him did not care about saving a little money.

Ash wrote down the man’s name and info on his intake clipboard. The hunter left. Before Ash could weigh in the meat, another dusty truck pulled up in front of the smokehouse.

The men who climbed down from the truck all wore green camouflage. They had already dressed and butchered their kill.

“Just needs to be boned and skinned,” one of them said.

“And we want her smoked,” their ringleader said.

With groups, there was always a ringleader. One man, usually the richest, though all these men were at least somewhat rich, self-elected to represent the group in matters of processing, freezing and shipping home their kills. Women rarely traveled in such groups. These were men on business trips, matters of international importance, solidifying their fraternity of thieves and murders. A week hunting in rural Alaska, wives left at home. On holiday as if the world wasn’t burning down around them. They’d drop the day’s kill off at Feralfoods to be bled, butchered, packed, frozen, and boxed to take on the flight home.

Ash placed a worn red tote on the scale and pressed the tare button. The hunters had wrapped their kill in heavy duty black garbage bags. The expensive kind, name brand.

One by one the ringleader placed ragged, field butchered arms and legs into the red tote. Blood dripped freely from each limb, but the floor of the intake room was cement, slanted with a drain at its center, designed for easy cleaning. With the trash bags empty, the ringleader began to fish around in a large bag that looked empty. He pulled out a ziplock full of hearts and livers. Blood stained his sleeve to the elbow.

“Plan to be here long?” Ash asked.

“One more week,” the ringleader said.

“Staying in Klawock?”

“Huh?” murmured one of his hunting partners. “I thought it was clay-wok?”

“Nah,” Ash said. “It’s kla-walk. Like the sound a raven makes.”

“Shoot. I’ve been calling it clay-wok all this time.”

“I hear you make a killer teriyaki,” the ringleader cut in.

“It’s true.” Ash picked up his intake clipboard.

“All right. We want one half that. Then one half just smoked up regular. And can you vacuum pack and freeze these?” He held out the ziplock.

“Can do.” Ash took it and set it in its own tote. “Should be ready for you in three to four days. You plan to bring it all home on the plane with you?” A private plane, no doubt.

“Yes.”

Ash wrote down the ringleader’s name and number. The group piled back into the truck and tore off toward their post-kill cigars and whiskey.

Ash was up to his elbows in blood and offal, prepping the two new orders, when a third truck pulled up. He started to clean up, but before Ash could wet his hands, his uncle Wax led the new customer into the intake room. Ash almost finished washing up anyway, but Wax’s tin cloth pants were clean and he wasn’t wearing that leather vest with the skulls so Ash went back to work.

“Bring it on in,” Wax said, his voice much too jovial to be sober. “You can set it right there.” He wasn’t even helping.

“We’re flying back to Idaho Territory on Tuesday,” the customer said. “Can you have it smoked up by them?”

“Oh fuck no,” Wax said. “Gonna be at least four days.”

“Is there anyway you can fit it in?”

“Well, you can take it up the road to Larry’s. Will taste like shit but I’m sure he’ll get it done for you. If you want your sassy smoked up good, then leave it here, and let us ship it home to you.”

Great, shipping frozen meat was a pain in the ass.

All summer Ash wanted to speak to Wax about the coarse way he talked to customers, but he knew that it would get him nowhere. Plus, Wax lending a hand was something Ash wanted to encourage, rare as it was. Maybe that was how they talked to each other out on fishing boats. But, there were no fishing boats these days, so he needed to get with the program. Klawock may have been rural, but for all Ash knew, it was all the civilization left.

Ash put down his scalloped scimitar and picked up his thin, flexible flensing knife.

“Oh,” the customer said. “How much does that cost?”

“Not much,” Wax lied. Shipping was damned expensive. It had to go out overnight air since the product was perishable, cross as many as ten international borders, and airlines were unreliable.

Ash heard a door close and the truck start up. Had Wax even taken down the man’s information?

Wax came into the cutting room carrying a grey tote. Little legs shot straight up over the side, still in rigor. He must have cracked its back in order to fit it in the tote. Most likely damaging the meat. Great.

“Here’s one more for you,” Wax said as he set the tote down on the stand to Ash’s left. His hair was wild, tangled and streaked with grey.

“Cool.”

“Little fucker. Won’t take you long.”

Ash looked down at the Sasquatch. A little fucker indeed, much too small to be legal. A yearling if that. Tiny. Auburn hair, matted, and caked with dried blood. It would have just begun learning to walk. The bullet had taken it right in the heart. A great shot. Especially since it had probably had been made while the mother held it her arms as she ran for her life.

“What the hell are you doing accepting this?” Ash asked.

“Huh?”

“This is a yearling. The Tribe finds out about this, we are shut down. Get it? Shut the fuck down.”

“Better slice her up fast then, before the fishpigs get here.” Wax smiled and left. What did he care if the smokehouse closed? He had his moonshine to make his living. He didn’t need this. Not like Ash did.

Its eyes were still open. Blue. So human. Its throat uncut, the hunter hadn’t even bothered to bleed it. At the beginning of the season, Ash had been surprised by the number of hunters who seemed the have no idea what they were doing. Coming up here for sport. For the thrill. But their blood lust paid his bills. He couldn’t complain too much. At least not to their faces.

When Ash finished, the sun had traveled behind the scarred, treeless mountain. For a moment, its snowless peak radiated an eery light–a candle stub burning within a weathered, grey skull. Even with the sun behind the mountain, it was not dark. It never got dark, just an extended twilight that hung in the sky like a threadbare curtain strung up between dusk and dawn.

JB waited for him on the couch in their crumbling trailer. Even inside, way up on the top of the hill, behind Grandma Liss’s big house, they could still hear the rattling hum of the smokehouse’s blast freezer.

Grandma Liss had bought the trailer when Ash agreed to come work for the summer. With work in the lower forty-eight so scarce, Ash and JB had jumped at the chance. But during the winter, before Ash and JB got to Alaska, Wax had taken it upon himself to use it as his motorcycle shop. The thin carpets were smeared with grease. The unused kitchen area still housed engine parts that, as far as Ash was concerned, might as well belong to some alien spacecraft.

“What’s wrong?” JB asked as Ash came in the door. JB set down his tattered comic book. He stood, loosening his braids. His thick black hair fell across his shoulders like an avalanche of the kind of night never found during an Alaskan summer.

“I’ve heard them say that it’s just like killing a man.” Ash said.

“Oh.”

“I mean, how would they even know? I know things are getting bad down south, but…”

“Babe, you shouldn’t worry about it.”

“I don’t–”

JB wrapped his arms around him. “Take a shower.”

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Every morning Ash checked the fireweed that grew in the ditch running off from either side of the Feralfoods compound entrance. The slender, knee high stalks were still green without a hint of fire, though the buds were getting fat. They would ignite soon, its bloom signaling summer’s end. Would Grandma Liss let him stay? Did he even want to?

The dumpster sat on a concrete platform just inside the compound’s entrance and behind the ditch. During the night, something had knocked it on its side.

Ash stood motionless as JB knelt to right the dumpster. He yearned for the spark that would flare against the low alder and tall draping hemlock that surrounded the compound. He yearned for the bloom that would illuminate them all. His gaze shifted between the fireweed, his lover, and finally onto the muskeg plain that started at the bottom of the hill and stretched for miles until it slammed into foothills of another devastated mountain. Shadows moved among the stunted pine forest that scabbed the muskeg, darting erratically and much too far to make out, probably ravens. The peat covering the surfaces of the bogs had once been pillow soft, perfect for family camping trips, now they spread across the island like a dried sponge, their thick vegetal surfaces sucking whatever stray moisture from the island air they could.

JB met Ash’s eyes, but he did not ask for help. The dumpster was only half full. A thin metal bar held its flimsy plastic lid in place, so none of the black trash bags loaded with bones and festering guts spilled out. He lifted without strain. His toned arms flexed, and the slender scars that wound from wrist to bicep writhed like pale worms caught in sunlight.

Around them, the forest gasped and rattled. A raven took flight from its perch on a nearby tree, dust pluming from branches and wings. Even in death, even with the dust and the brown overtaking the cedar and the spruce, even with the muskeg sucked dry and crumbling, Ash still experienced every shade of green on the spectrum as JB led him back up the hill.

The smokehouse was white with red trim, and showed signs of multiple build-outs that didn’t quite match. A good season might have meant a new cutting room or storage van, but each had been built by different hands with different ideas and little regard for aesthetic. Wax had scavenged or stole most of the wood. This was Alaska. They made do with what they had. The smokehouse was really no different from one of Grandma Liss’s tenant’s slapped together wanigans. An old trailer at the center, with a real house built up around it over the years. Grandma Liss thought herself above all that. Her house on the hill had never been a trailer. It had always been a house, right from the start.

Ash and JB put on clean yellow aprons and tied their hair back. Ash put on baseball cap, teasing JB about his hairnet with his braids all tucked up beneath it, though he secretly thought it was cute.

After placing a stack of metal smoker racks on the table in the middle of the processing room, Ash turned on the two industrial smokers. The plant filled with a nose-tingling hum. Alder Smoke leaked from the cracked gaskets around the doors. After twenty years, the ceilings, along with the top quarter of the walls, were stained yellow.

JB got to work pulling the meat out of the walk-in and setting it to rinse in the large metal sinks.

Ash sprayed the racks with cooking spray. After ten minutes of rinsing, JB carried the first big yellow tote of cured squatch meat and set it on a stand next to the table.

They plunged their bare hands into the salty water, and started laying out the thin strips of meat on the racks. When they first started work two months back, both of them would cringe each time they dipped their hands into the frigid water. Now they worked quickly with both hands, placing the strips in even rows on the rack, unaffected by the cold.

After both smokers were loaded, turned on, and the fires lit and set to smolder, Teddie, who rented the lot from Grandma Liss across the driveway, came in to help with bagging and vacuum sealing the meat Ash had butchered the night before. If Wax would get off his lazy ass to help, they wouldn’t even have need of Teddie. Which would have been wonderful, because she did nothing but talk all day, and barely got any work done.

“Something got to our dumpster, I saw.” She gestured wildly as she spoke, a habit that kept her from working efficiently. “I can’t imagine it was a bear. No one has seen a bear on the island in years. Maybe we ought to call Fish and Game?”

“Don’t call them,” JB said. “If it’s a bear, they’ll just shoot it.”

“I don’t think it was a bear,” Ash said.

“Why not?”

“It was like it was shoved over. No claw marks. No attempt to get inside.”

“Hmm, well when I was a little girl and the bears got to the garbage can at my dad’s place, you could tell. It was covered in holes when they found it in the woods nearby. Smashed flat too. Like he had been playing with it like a toy.”

“Might have been kids,” JB said.

“Hah,” Teddie said.” What kid in their right mind would risk Grandma Liss’s wrath by doing something stupid like that?”

“Good point,” JB said. “Could it have been a Sasqutch?”

Ash did not want to think about that.

“No,” Teddie snapped. “They never come this close to town. Nope, it was probably just kids.”

In the late afternoon, customers started coming in to drop off their kills. Most of them hadn’t bothered to bleed or gut their squatch, like they didn’t even care if the meat turned out good or not. Like they were killing these beautiful creatures for fun, only bringing their corpses to Ash to butcher and smoke because the law forced them.

Teddie punched out. She only ever wanted to work five hours each day. “Are either of you going into town later?” she asked Ash.

“Yeah,” Ash said. “I’ve got to take some boxes into Craig. There might be a plane tonight.”

“Could you run by the store and grab me some cheese cloth? I’m making honey and jam. I’ll give you some jars.”

“Sure.”

“Thank you. You boys ought to come across to my place after work for a drink. I’ve got a friend in from out of town.”

“We’ll see how we feel.” Wax had probably given her a jar of his moonshine. No wonder she didn’t want to work.

“Sure thing. Later.”

After work, Ash and JB did indeed feel the need for a drink, but they had it alone, in their trailer where they’d stashed a bottle of Maker’s which had been given to them by a client. There had been a plane. Ash and JB hauled almost thirty fifty-pound boxes over to Craig in the company truck, while Wax probably sat on the porch of his little shack on top of the hill playing his mandolin, drinking up his moonshine profits, and not even thinking about coming down to help. Down south, such laziness would get a man’s throat cut as he slept, but in Alaska it seemed the norm.

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In the morning, Ash brought Teddie her cheese cloth. Her home sat directly across the driveway from the smokehouse, and looked like a mess of warped particleboard wrapped in dirty blue tarpaulins. The forest leaned against her home like a drunk. The pales greens of wild celery and juniper shrubs faded into the rich verdant firs that shaded much of the compound.

No one answered when he knocked, but he could hear water running through her flimsy, plywood door, so he let himself in. A thin man Ash didn’t recognize slept on the couch with no blanket, still wearing jeans and boots. Ash moved through the house silently. He could hear Teddie singing in the shower, her voice gruff above the smooth fall of the water. He placed the cloth on the cleanest part of the counter he could find.

The man groaned, turning over. Ash worried that he may have woken him, but knowing Teddie, they’d been drinking hard the previous night. The man groaned again, gurgling a little, coughed a shallow cough, then turned back over.

Ash left the house and crossed the driveway. He donned his boots, gloves, and butcher’s apron. Halfway through skinning an adolescent female, Ash heard screaming. First, he glanced at the knife and the lifeless humanoid body on his butcher board, but the sound came from outside. He looked out the small window next to his table. Beyond dead flies and brown, flaking blood splatter he saw Teddie running off her porch with her arms crisscrossing her chest and hands locked underneath her armpits.

Ash dropped his knife and went outside.

Teddie screamed, “Dead! He’s dead!”

Grandma Liss came out onto her porch, like a queen on high standing on a mountain, leaning against a dusty bannister, surveying her glorious kingdom.

Ash stood still in the smokehouse’s doorway. Had Wax finally snapped? Where was JB? Who died? No.

“He’s cold. He’s dead!”

The Tongass ceased its shimmering. Green became grey.

All Grandma Liss’s tenets had come out of their homes by then. Jim and Phillip, who lived next to Ash and JB, both leaned on the tailgate of their blue pickup. Dee stood on her ramshackle porch with her arms crossed, unimpressed. Gui just sat in his camp chair like he did everyday, drinking a coffee mug of Wax’s shine, looking like the world had forgotten him.

JB rushed out from Teddie’s trailer. Ash’s breathing resumed. The Tongass exhaled with him, rasping to life once again.

“Call someone!” JB shouted.

Grandma Liss hesitated, looking reluctant to abandon the drama even for a second, but she went inside to call. As far as Ash knew, no one else in the compound owned a telephone.

Klawock’s volunteer paramedics arrived in minutes. Teddie kept saying over and over that there was nothing to be done. That after she’d finished with her shower, she’d spent nearly thirty minutes sitting in the chair right next to him, doing half her whole crossword, thinking he was asleep. All the while he had been stone dead, stiff, and cooling. Folks just didn’t abruptly die like that for no reason, but when Ash watched the paramedics wheel the man out with a sheet over his body and no urgency, he knew it was true.

Which meant that the man must have died right around the time Ash dropped off the cheese cloth. He had heard the man cough, stir, and rattle. Had those been the man’s last movements? His last breaths?

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“They say his liver just stopped working,” Wax said.

Grandma Liss had taken Teddie out to lunch at Dave’s Diner in order to get her mind off the incident. Just the day before she had been going on about how she wanted to evict Teddie because it had been so long since she paid her any rent, but now she was all smiles and niceties. Ash knew this was just Grandma Liss’s way of gaining the upper hand. She would take advantage of any situation to gain some sort of leverage on a person. Even a man’s death.

“He died right there on the couch. Her right next to him.” Wax spoke again after no one answered him.

“We ought to get rid of that couch for her. No way she’d ever want to sit on that thing again,” JB said.

“Plus it’s ugly to boot,” Wax said.

“Right,” Ash said.

“What do you want to do with it?” Wax asked.

“You got a pit. We burn it.” JB uncrossed his arms and started toward the tailer.

Wax watched as Ash and JB went into Teddie’s quiet house. Each hoisted an end of the couch. They flipped it over to get a better grip. Six empty airline vodka bottles fell out.

The fire pit sat cocooned in rainforest. The needled leaves of devil’s club pricked at Ash’s arms as he and JB carried the too-big couch up a small trail toward the pit. Once in the clearing, They set it on top of a ring of shin-high, soot-covered rocks. There was already some cardboard boxes in the pit, and it still had not rained a drop, so when Wax touched the flame of his zippo to one, it wasn’t long at all until the couch went up in rush.

The three men stood around looking into the heart of the fire the way folks do when there is fire, but nothing at all to be said. This was not the fire Ash waited for, had checked the ditches each morning for, but it still made him nervous. Wax fetched a jar of moonshine from his shack and after taking a gulp, offered it to Ash. He declined.

Wax looked at JB. “Sorry,” he said, tilting the half full jar in his hand as if to give a toast. “But I’ve got an agreement with the Tribe not to give my whiskey to any Indians.” And he shrugged, taking another drink.

That fucker. That motherfucker.

Ash looked at JB, scared of what he might see. He halfway reached out to place a hand on his arm, but stopped short when JB said, “It’s okay. I don’t want any. It’s okay. We need to go back to work.”

Tense, Ash didn’t speak. The wind shifted and the acerbic smoke pouring from the couch blew in his face.

“Of course. Go on. Got to work,” Wax said, then took another gulp from his jar.

Ash knew Wax approached one of his moods. The kind that often ended with one of the neighbors calling the troopers. As they left, Wax just stood, smoke blowing in his round face, staring at the flames like the shine was some sort of potion bewitching his soul.

“Is he just drunk?” Ash said. “Is he just stupid? Is he looking for a fight?”

“Ash, it’s okay.” JB put his arm around Ash’s shoulder. “Don’t let him get to you. This isn’t about me. He’s trying to ruffle your feathers. Get a reaction. Don’t let him. Don’t give him the satisfaction.”

divider

Few customers came in that night, so Ash and JB were able to knock off early, excited to spend a quiet evening alone, locked away from the world.

The trailer was nearly as cold as the smokehouse, and had there been rain, the roof would leak, but even with a ceiling covered in mold, it was a better home than either of them had seen in years.

Ash picked a sweatshirt up off his bed and put it on. He felt a slight heat on his arm. He pulled up the sleeve, and saw blood. A tiny sliver of glass stuck in his forearm. He looked down at the bed and saw a thousand shimmers dancing across the forest green comforter, caught in the glare of the evening sun. A capped mason jar, still half full of clear liquid, rested on his pillow. He felt a blast of cool air, and looked up to find the window above the bed shattered.

That piece of shit.

Ash could have been sleeping. JB could have been sleeping.

“Just stay here,” Ash said to JB who sat on the couch reading the same old comic book. Ash stalked out of the trailer before JB could even reply.

Grandma Liss sat in her office playing hearts on her computer when Ash stormed in. Her little rat-dog immediately mobbed him. Grandma Liss pushed herself away from the desk, and the little black wheels of her high-backed office chair rolled over the papers–customer invoices, last season’s tax records–that had had migrated to the floor from the ever-increasing towers on her crowded desk. She swiveled to face Ash.

The rat-dog ran around Ash’s feet in circles, yapping.

“You need to deal with your son,” he said. He told her what happened, showed her the small speck of welling blood on his arm.

Her face scrunched up. For just a second it was almost as if she were about to cry, something that Ash had never imagined her capable of. He blinked and the look had gone.

“What am I supposed to do?” She said. “He is my son. The only one who bothers with me. You two need to work it out.”

“Work it out? He could have killed me! Killed JB!” The rat-dog would not shut up. It needed to shut up.

“Don’t be dramatic.”

“He threw a goddamn fucking jar of moonshine through the window where I sleep!”

“But neither of you were sleeping there at the time, now were you? You can’t just waltz in here after all these years and start shouting around.” She crossed her arms and tilted her head in the same way he had seen her do so many times when dealing with irate squatch hunters whining when they couldn’t get their way. Ash was not some rich sadist from the lower forty-eight. How dare her.

“With all I’ve done for you this summer? When was the last time you got to spend the summer up here playing on your computer instead of down there up to your elbows in blood? What has he done but get drunk?”

That strained look touched her features again. “When Fall comes and squatch hunting season ends, who else is going to be here?”

“I can’t believe this,” Ash said, but he could. She had no choice. Wax was her only son, the only child left alive or speaking with her. Who else would have lunch with her on birthdays, or come over on Christmas morning? Even with the world going wrong, crashing down around them, Wax was right out that back door. “If he wants to run the damn business then why hasn’t he stepped up? Why am I even here?”

Grandma Liss stood up fast enough to make her chair wheel back and smack the wall. “Then just go. We don’t need you or your gay little Indian. If you don’t like it here then go!”

Ash slammed the door when he left.

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Fireweed grew among the alder flanking both sides of the narrow trail leading to Wax’s shack. It had yet to bloom.

JB must have seen Ash pass because all of a sudden, he was latched onto Ash’s arm, his lover’s firm grip reassuring, yet terrifying in its resolve. “Ash, don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. We are past this. Better.”

“He could have hurt you! That jar was full! What if you had been sleeping?”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s your uncle, he’s a dick, a piece of shit, but fuck him. When the real danger arrives, I’ll know. I’ll keep us safe.”

Ash couldn’t argue, he knew what JB would do–what he had done–to keep them alive, so instead, he struggled to break JB’s hold, but couldn’t.

JB let go.

Ash resumed his rage up the trail. They should both leave, but Ash couldn’t afford to. Where would they even go? Maybe farther North. There was nowhere to go. He needed this job. They both needed it, even though it wasn’t safe. If family wasn’t safe, nothing was safe.

Ash tripped over a long, heavy motorcycle part sitting among the junk in Wax’s yard. He picked it up. The place disgusted him, built from wood Wax had found at the dump or stolen from construction sites around the island. Not even a trailer at its center. A temple to Wax’s thievery and sloth.

Ash held the bike part like a truncheon. He shouted for Wax to come out, to explain himself. Ash had seen his bike parked on the road out front. He knew he was still home. When Wax didn’t answer, he tried the door but it was locked. Ash pounded the door with his makeshift truncheon, leaving a greasy scar on the wood with each strike. The door rattled on its rusty hinges, but it held.

Ash let go, allowing all the hate in the world to pour out of him as wretched scream.

Ash shouted himself hoarse, calling Wax a fat lazy degenerate mooch and every nasty epithet that came to mind. The whole compound must have heard, but he did not care.

Wax never came, either passed out drunk or too much of a fucking coward to open the door. What would Ash do if his uncle answered? Would he brain him? Crack his skull? Murder him? Stretch him out to bleed and butcher him like one of those sorry creatures down in the smokehouse?

Throat sore, and feeling silly, he threw his truncheon at the door. It bounced off, ringing.

JB sat waiting on the trailer’s folding front step, his stern face softened as Ash approached. He had cleaned up the broken glass and patched the window while Ash had been up on the hill shouting and carrying on like a child. JB at had always been the calm one until he had no other choice, like when things went to hell in Dallas.

Ash started blubbering. “We have to go. How can we stay here? Where can we go?”

JB shushed him, holding him tight while the hollow space within Ash that had once been filled with hate for his uncle replenished itself with cold dread.

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At five a.m. the sun had already been up for two hours. Ash and JB did not talk about the previous evening. They set out for work.

On the way down to the smokehouse Ash saw that the dumpster had again been flipped on its side, the lid removed, torn from the hinges.

Bloody trash was spread out along the unpaved road like a warning. The guts were caked in dust and speckled with gravel as if they had been kicked up and down the street. Among the mess, there were no bones. Why would something take the bones? Bigfoot didn’t bury their dead, did they?

Ravens fed on the viscera spoiling the street, pecking at lungs, intestines, and kidneys. When they saw Ash and JB, they began to caw. Klawock. Once a refuge from the dying world, now an island prison. Would he ever leave? Or worse, would he be forced to? They say corvids are the smartest of birds. Did the ravens know they mocked him?

“We need gloves.” The ravens scattered at the sound of JB’s voice.

Ash nodded, then jogged uphill toward the smokehouse, his feet crunching on the loose gravel. No matter which direction either of then walked within the compound, it was always uphill.

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Teddie did not come in to work that day. Burning the couch had not been enough, she’d told Grandma Liss on the phone. She couldn’t stay living in a house a man had died in. Just like that, she planned to move to Anchorage, which was just as well since according to Grandma Liss, Teddie’s wanigan was an eyesore. Worse than Wax’s shack. Grandma Liss rejoiced to have her gone. She planned to build a small restaurant on the lot. Sassy’s Sandwiches, she’d call it. She promised Ash that he could run it, making up for their fight the day before in the only way she knew how. He didn’t know anything about making sandwiches, but he said okay. And just like that, he forgave her. Grandma Liss, as crotchety as she could be, was trying her best.

“We’ll finally be able to make sausages,” Grandma Liss said.

One of the neighbors drove over in her big yellow backhoe. It only took her a couple hours to knock Teddie’s old place to the ground.

Ash watched from the narrow blood-flecked window in the smokehouse. Among the ruins of Teddie’s wanigan, covered with bits of rotten plywood and shredded hunks of pink Tyvek insulation, sat an old Airstream trailer.

Ash had spent plenty of time in Teddie’s house and had never once noticed the presence of an Airstream.

“Probably used it for growing her dope,” Grandma Liss said when she came down to get Ash and JB to help with the cleanup.

“Or cooking up meth,” Wax croaked. He had come down to watch the rest of them work. Ash almost said something mean, but JB’s smooth hand touched his forearm before he could speak, calming him, helping him to be the bigger man.

As far as Ash knew, Teddie had always been poor. Her drug of choice was a handle of Gordon’s vodka.

“Well,” Grandma Liss said. “It’s mine now. Teddie hasn’t paid me a dime in six months. I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I couldn’t put her out like that, but selling this thing here will more than enough make up for that back rent.”

The neighbor, with her backhoe, removed the largest pieces of debris. Wax, Ash, and JB loaded the smaller stuff into the back of the Feralfood’s company truck and took it to the dump to burn.

With all the junk hauled away, the Airstream looked brand new, untouched by dust and gleaming like a nickel in the gutter, protected for years by the layers of slapped together ply-wood Teddie had called a home.

The Airstream’s door was locked.

“Go get your crow-bar,” Grandma Liss told Wax. He ambled off toward his shack, but never returned.

“Must have found a jar of his shine instead,” Ash said after twenty minutes passed. Grandma Liss shook her head, and went up the driveway to her house on the hill.

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Ash worked late. JB offered to help, but Ash said no. He wanted to be alone for a bit, to think.

JB had asked him not to go down to the dumpster alone. What if the bear, or whatever it was that kept knocking it over, showed up again? Ash went anyway.

In twilight he heaved bags of bones into the lidless dumpster. Behind him, up the hill, the Airstream shone like cool silver in the half-light.

The step that once folded itself under the door had long since been torn off. The only blemish on the perfect Airstream. It could be easily replaced, once he cleaned it up. Ash shook his head. Here he was, thinking like the Airstream belonged to him, even when he knew that Grandma Liss would sell it. He did not have enough savings for such a lovely thing.

The base of the door reached to just below his knees.

He set his hand on the handle. He knew it was locked but he could not help but try. He pulled, and the door held fast. So he yanked and he pounded. Fighting it until his hands bled. Finally, he heard a crack, and the door swung open.

Ash climbed into an interior snatched out of time, perfectly in order, everything brand new and in its proper place. The air inside smelled somehow fresher than outside. Not a speck of dust on anything. Had Teddie even known this was here? She must have. She must have been coming in here, through some secret passageway, to clean all the years she’d been living at the Feralfoods compound, building up her hideous wanigan, hiding the beautiful escape hidden at its heart.

He sat in a burnt orange chair that looked like a dad’s chair that no one else was allowed to sit in. He sat there wishing. He wished it could be his. Wished that he could hitch the trailer to the company truck and drive, visiting all the stupid roadside attractions along the way and making fun of them with JB. Did those places even exist anymore? Grandma Liss would sell it off to one of those asshole hunters without a thought. Perhaps he could beg, make promises. Appeal to that sense of family he had seen spark in her eye the day he confronted her about Wax. He would work for free. Sell his soul. He would do anything for something this perfect.

It was a dream, the dream of a dying country. There was nowhere to go, no great highways left to explore, only pitted logging roads, and rural routes shattered by the melting permafrost.

A person would have to be beyond rich in order to transport such a thing off of Taan, but perhaps it didn’t need to move. He could hide it, as Teddie had–a dream secluded, but alive. He resolved to ask, to lay his heart bare. Grandma, we want to stay. Let us live here. Let us dream while we still are able. If she said yes, the Airstream could be a rest stop, a reprieve from the smoke, until the flames devoured them all.

A crash from outside. Metal hitting stone. The dumpster? Ash hopped down from the trailer to investigate.

The dumpster lay on its side. Whatever knocked it over had already gone too far to see, but Ash heard gravel popping under running footfalls, and the rattling of a bag of wet bones. Klawock, the ravens were on their way.

Standing at the base of the slanted driveway, Ash bit his cheek to keep from sobbing. His gaze drifted over the grisly mess in the road–no bones. They’re taking them. Somewhere deep in the paradoxical rainforest were tombs filled with the bones of lovers, of mothers, of children.

Of family.

In the ditch the fireweed buds were starting to split. The Tongass would soon be aflame, just like the rest of the world. He knew he needed to get his gloves, clean it all up, but he didn’t move. He stared, willing those buds to open further, pushing the summer forward to the call down the high winds and heavy rains of autumn. To banish the dust that clung to his skin like cold, thickened gore.

It was two a.m. The sun would crest the mountain soon. The Airstream would glint like polished gunmetal. Ash took a step. Uphill. Toward home, toward love. Always uphill.

___
Copyright 2016 Mathew Scaletta

Mathew Scaletta is a fishmonger and chef who divides his time between Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When not elbow-deep in fish guts, he writes fiction and tweets about the black bears that stalk the periphery of his salmon cannery. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, such fine publications as Lackington’s and See the Elephant.

 

by Lucy Stone

 

Part I

 

Vesta hates the noise of the rib separator, the crack of bone and grind of cogs. Fingers rinsed with hot blood, she twists the separator once more and locks it into place. The man’s skin wrinkles around the steel claws. She can see his heart. The atrophied muscle is ugly, twisted, beating an erratic rhythm–one skip, two beats, a flutter, one skip.

She holds out her hand. “Small scalpel.”

Nell hands the cold blade to Vesta, silent. Most operations they keep up some banter. Nell talks often of her days in the opera before her fall from grace with a Lord’s bastard son in her womb. Vesta might, if she feels expansive, hark back to her glory days, in her own country, in her own time. But not tonight. She is tired, and old, and this is no simple goldfinger she is attaching, no ruby-diamond sigil with gold filigree trim embedded in a bored young socialite’s forehead. If the dredgers come tonight, then brassbones, opera-dancer, and patient will hang. And before Vesta hangs, they will wrench out the name of her sponsor, her protector. They will all go down, and Vesta hardest of all, and the dredgers will have won.

She reminds herself that the patient on her operating table has taken the risk willingly. It is not–

“–not an ordinary commission, Miss Milton,” he said, his smooth fingers running back and forth over the polished oak countertop. “I was told you could help with … more advanced problems.” He paused. “Brassbone problems.”

Vesta did not blink. “I am a jeweller, Lord–” she hesitated over the name on his card, held between her charcoal-smudged fingers “–Lord Huleikr. Brassbones work is far out of my domain. And illegal. It is an evil profession and I take no part in it.” The pat answer rolled off her tongue, flat and heavy.

Huleikr leant closer. “I can assure you I will keep your true profession in the strictest confidence. I understand you have a sponsor to protect you. I understand you are in a dangerous position. I am not here to have baubles sewn into my face, Miss Milton, or to report you to the dredgers. I need more than that.”

“My work is far more than just baubles,” Vesta said, a small flicker of pride for her false second career rising within her. Under the demure sign of ‘Milton Jewellery,’ Vesta knew her cover to be a successful one. She looked at the young boy, rich clothes embellishing a fine, well-fed figure.

Vesta had seen so many of his kind come through her doors. She had set stars of emerald and silver into their cheeks; created elegant gold filigree to fly across the Lady Saleke’s forehead; covered indelicate skin with a silver cross for the devoted Miss Elpa’s throat. Diamond teeth for the Marquis of Dalteh, and a ruby eye set in opaque quartz for the young Honourable de Sancier after her carriage accident. Only last week Lord Easton had come in for his operation, an entire waterfall of silver strands turning on a tiny clockwork system set beneath his eye. The strands rushed and looped down his cheek–a permanent tear, shining in the candle-light. After Vesta had created the Duke of Alperton’s new brass hand, with a gold-plated, diamond-touched copy for evening wear, the commissions came pouring in, with less and less secrecy. And every day she watched the door of her shop and waited for the dredgers.

With each new commission, her finer skills increased. The heavy, useful work of building lost limbs and digits for the poor and hungry factory workers–reworked metal and timber, steel and copper–made her sensitive fingers ache for the cold, smooth jewels and pliable gold and silver the aristocrats smuggled to her shop. Vesta flinched from the knowledge. It was a betrayal of her honest work, her true work, the saving of lives and limbs. Not this frippery. And yet here she was, refusing this man’s request to save his life. She swallowed the uneasy sense of shame and reminded herself: one more year. One more year of making money and the borders would likely open again. Then she could cross back home, home to her beloved country, and she would never leave again. She just had to wait.

But this boy, Lord Huleikr, would not give in.

“And indeed it is remarkable, the fashion you have single-handedly created. But I am–that is to say, my good friend Alperton recommended you as one who understands more than just … jewellery. I understand you saved his hand after his hunting accident.”

Vesta sighed. “I should have sewn up his loose tongue while I was at it.” She busied herself with straightening the display cases on the countertop, dusting the faultless rings and bracelets she created in her spare time.

Huleikr pressed his advantage. “You were trained in the western countries?”

Vesta’s mouth twisted. “I was born there.”

She looked down at the design she had been developing before his interruption. It would be her greatest achievement in the art of primping and flattering these bright young aristocrats: a set of gold filigree butterfly wings, the delicate metallic veins rolled deep into two gold bars that would be tucked into the skin under the shoulder blades. Opened by a mere touch of the finger, the wings would uncurl to reveal themselves, a hand’s-width each, two flawless rubies set in each one. A beauty for a beauty. Miss Paxton’s visionary mother had paid for it, and paid well.

“I imagine you miss your true vocation,” Huleikr said. The sincerity in his voice softened a little of Vesta’s caution. She studied him a moment, noting the well-tied cravat, the bones of his face a little too sharp under the skin. His eyes were unexpectedly gentle. A nice boy, she thought, and a pity she could not help him.

“I do,” she allowed, and sat down again behind her desk. Unable to resist her own curiosity, she asked, “What exactly did you hope I would help you with?”

Lord Huleikr hesitated, and then drew a small paper package out of one pocket. He placed it delicately on the counter. Vesta pulled the package toward her and unwrapped it.

Her chair clattered on the floor. Horrified, she pointed to the object. “Get that–”

“–away from the table, I don’t want to trip on it.” She holds the scalpel above the dark red hole in the man’s chest. Nell pulls the sand-bucket away from Vesta’s feet and spills a fresh lot of sand on the bloodied floor.

Vesta focuses on the weakened heart beneath her blade. She glances at the tray to her right. Beside two fresh scalpels, sewing materials and a stack of clean, folded bandages, lies a little, round bronze object. No bigger than a timepiece, its flat, unornamented face is punctured by four small holes, two at the top and two at the bottom. A tiny hinge sits on the left side, a latch on the right.

An unexpected thrill runs through Vesta. This is what she trained for. She plunges her scalpel into the membrane around Huleikr’s heart. Nell pats away the rush of fluids and blood with a soft cloth.

“Is he still breathing?”

Nell bends over the young man’s face. “Yes. Slowly.”

Vesta makes a final cut and, using a pair of silver tongs, pulls the membrane back. She hooks the tongs beneath the thick, ugly claws of the rib separator, leaving the operation site open and clear. She is sweating, she notes, but her hands do not shake. When was the last time she has done such an operation? It doesn’t matter. She knows what to do.

“Nell, wash your hands quickly and give me–”

“–a bronzeheart. You dare bring a bronzeheart into my shop?”

Lord Huleikr stood firmly at the counter, hands at his side, green eyes meeting hers without shame or fear. “Please let me explain.”

Vesta threw the little metal piece at him, furious. It hit the countertop with a dull thud. “Anyone caught with one of these will hang immediately. No explanations. Try explaining to the dredgers why you brought an illegal object into this damned superstitious country, and took it to a foreigner already suspected of witchcraft.”

A flash of guilt crossed Lord Huleikr’s face. He lifted his hands and held them out to her, palms open. The brassbones inside Vesta noticed the paleness of his fingers, the lack of colour in his cheeks. “Miss Milton, you’re my only hope.”

His voice was quiet, desperate. Vesta shut her mouth. If he wanted to beg, let him. The sooner she heard him out the sooner she could chase him out of her shop.

“I’m dying.”

“So am I,” Vesta said coldly. “We all are. Some of us just get on with it quietly.”

Huleikr swallowed. “I have a disease of the heart. I am my mother’s only son. Our physicians have given me less than a year to live. There is nothing the medical profession in this country can do for me, but with the borders closed, it is impossible for a man of my stature to cross anonymously. You are my last hope.”

“Nonsense,” Vesta replied. “You’re a wealthy man. Pay the dredgers off. Find a brassbones in the west. You will live, and I will not be hanged.”

“Please.”

She glared at him. “Did you know that I was once arrested?”

He shook his head, eyes still fixed on her.

“I’d been in this country of yours for barely three months. I lost all my money. I had no food. Nowhere to sleep. I went from factory to factory rebuilding the workers’ fingers and toes and arms. I gave your paupers hope again. And for my efforts, I was arrested and thrown in prison. I ate rats. I nearly died. They were going to hang me but for–”

She stopped.

Huleikr’s eyes were huge. He looked so young, she thought. “But for what?” he asked.

Vesta took a long breath. “But for the protection of someone who I cannot and will not betray. I promised I would not do these kinds of operations again. Physical jewellery is one thing. Operations of this magnitude are another. When the borders open again I will cross over and that will be the end of it.”

“You promised not to practise your true vocation, for the sake of safety?”

Vesta bridled. “You, little cockerel, have no concept of life. Look at you, well-fed, well-clothed, anything and everything for your asking. You do not know me. You do not know what you are saying. I made a promise. If you truly wish to throw your life away on a highly dangerous and uncertain operation, cross the border and take your chances there.”

Lord Huleikr gestured, frustrated. “There’s a war brewing, Miss Milton. My mother was born in the west. I am half-blood to this city. Even if I could cross the border I’ll not be allowed back. I may even be arrested over there.”

Vesta smiled at him, unpleasant. “Not a nice experience, but survivable. This operation is not guaranteed.”

He would not give up. “My mother is not strong. I don’t know what else to do, Miss Milton, except throw myself at your mercy. If I can have just two more years of life, I may outlive her. It will give us a little more time, at least. If I die now, it will kill her and destroy my father.”

“Women are tougher than you think.” Vesta pushed the bronzeheart back across the counter again. She could almost hear the dredgers sniffing around her door. “And your father will lose you anyway, even if you survive another two years.”

“I love living,” the young man said simply. He caught her evasive gaze and held it. Vesta matched his eyes for a moment, then looked down.

She had wanted to save lives. Her training had all been for the purpose of giving people hope: two legs instead of one; ten fingers instead of three. Once, she had replaced half of a young boy’s skull with a metal bowl. Now she was snapping at shadows and drawing butterfly wings for spoilt brats.

“Miss Milton, if you do this for me, I will get you across the border.”

Vesta snorted. “You couldn’t. No one can.”

Huleikr licked his lips. “My father is close friends with the Minister of Border Protection. My family is–well, we are a name. I swear it. I can get you home, if you do this for me.”

She thought of the dredgers, of their cold little eyes seeking out anything foreign and ‘unnatural’, anything dangerous and uncontrollable. She thought of her old red home, safe in the west. It was just a dream. But this man was flesh and blood.

“The operation is just as likely to kill you as save you.”

“It’s a chance. I’ll take–”

“–it, now.”

Nell gives Vesta the flat little bronzeheart. Vesta flicks the catch with her thumbnail. The front swings open, revealing a delicate set of tubes, four to match the outside holes. They cross and join each other at the centre where a tiny set of steel cogs wait in idleness. Four glass bubbles, each the size of Vesta’s little fingernail, sit between the cogs, connected to each tube. Vesta inspects it all carefully, then nods and closes the front. The latch clicks home. On the back of the bronzeheart is a flat frill of bronze punctured with four small holes.

Carefully, Vesta places the machine right above Huleikr’s open chest. She takes the scalpel back from Nell, and says, “I’m starting.”

The blade sinks into living tissue. She can feel the heady thrum of his blood rushing through veins and arteries. For a cold moment, she stops breathing. She cannot do it. She cannot.

“Now,” she says.

Nell’s long, thin fingers duck in beneath Vesta’s scalpel and pinch one of the arteries. Vesta slides the scalpel into the heart and cuts the artery free. She takes the bronzeheart and pushes the end of the severed artery into the first of the four holes. There is a tiny sucking noise. The artery is firmly in place.

“And again.”

Nell’s right hand comes in and pinches the second artery. Vesta repeats the motions. Two tubes are now tucked into the bronzeheart.

“Release the first, go for the third.”

Vesta’s throat closes over with fear as Nell lets the first artery go. The blood floods back through it, and into the bronzeheart. She feels it shift under the force of the rushing blood. Good.

“Watch your fingers. I’ll–”

“–not be bought. Take your money and go.”

“Miss Milton, please.” The sheer desperation in his voice made her angry. In another country, she would have refused his money but given him the operation. In another country, she would not feel a noose around her neck every time she stepped outside the weak sanctuary her little shop held.

“I said no. Leave or I will call the dredgers.” It was an empty threat and they both knew it, but the young man just nodded. He picked up his bronzeheart. Vesta noticed, against her will, that his fingertips were tinged blue under the nails.

“I am sorry for distressing you, Miss Milton. Goodbye.”

She watched him as he opened the little door and left.

Alone again, Vesta picked up her sketches with cold fingers, forcing herself to focus on the work at hand. She had a week to create these wings before Mrs Paxton would bring her daughter in for the operation. She stared at the sketches and saw nothing.

Nell came down the old creaking staircase. The opera-dancer had her baby in her arms. It burbled to itself wearily, discontented. Vesta ignored them both.

After a moment’s silence, Nell said, “You could have done it. We’ve done dangerous operations before.”

“I made a promise.”

“You made a promise not to save a life? Then why did you let me in?”

Vesta lifted her head. “You did not need me to operate on your heart. You simply needed a place to stay.”

“You protected me from the Viscount.”

“I don’t like bullies.” The butterfly’s right wing was too large, the curve too acute. She rubbed at the charcoal.

“Miss Milton?”

“I’ve told you many times, Nell. Call me Vesta.”

“Vesta. Why wouldn’t you do it? That boy could get you across the border.”

“And what would you do then?” Vesta drew a slow, curving line in the black charcoal across the butterfly’s wing. She reached for her ruler, measuring the exact dimensions with meticulous care.

“I’d go to Manyard.”

“He’d throw you on the streets and take your son away.”

“That is not your problem. You can’t keep hiding forever. You’ve told me so many times about your old red house, your home. Don’t you want to see that again?”

Vesta said nothing. After another moment, Nell sighed and turned back up the stairs. “You should take–”

“–your finger away, quickly.” Nell complies, her finger perilously close to the questing blade for a few seconds.

They repeat the operation twice more. Beneath the little machine, the weakened muscle limps on, stuttering beneath her fingers.

“Needle.”

Nell has it threaded. Vesta takes it with one hand and flicks the catch open again with the other. The little glass bubbles are full of red and purple blood. Vesta presses, delicately, down onto the pin-sized bronze button on top of the cogs. She holds her breath as the tiny machine whirrs into motion. The blood trapped in the glass bubbles swirls, and moves on through the tubes. Lord Huleikr’s own heart slows.

He breathes on.

Vesta lets out a long shuddering sigh. It is not over. She has to move fast now, close the membranes and skin over the new life in his chest and let it beat on. But first she must remove the old heart, the lost life. She picks up the scalpel again, and slides it beneath the bronzeheart, and cuts into the sinewy sac holding the flesh heart in place. Nell’s fingers are too close to the blade, holding the bronzeheart steady while Vesta eases the dying heart away from Huleikr’s chest.

Vesta holds his heart in her hands, and feels its last, pulsing beat. She swallows, and an involuntary smile crosses her face. The boy is still alive. Reverent, she places the diseased, dead muscle on the table, and turns back to the living man.

If only she could open the bronzeheart’s catch and see a man’s blood pumping through the device again. Just for a moment. But time is calling.

“Push the bronzeheart into the sac,” she says. Nell does so, holding her breath. The machine settles into the vacant space. Vesta nods, disentangles the silver tongs and begins to sew the membrane to the punctured frill around the bronzeheart. Goodbye, she thinks, wishing the little machine well on its long life ahead.

Carefully she winds down the rib-separator, easing his bones back into place. He will be in a great deal of pain when he wakes. The needle and thread patch his skin together. Now he is ready. She has done it.

The relief is so strong she is almost dizzy. Huleikr has not died. Vesta has successfully completed an operation so delicate few brassbones even consider doing it in her own country. And all beneath the noses of the dredgers.

“Nell, fetch the strong pain potions from the top shelf. I will–”

“–never be safe,” she called after Nell’s retreating footsteps.

Vesta stared out the grimy window. Nell was right. She set her teeth against the rising knowledge. She was a coward. An old woman and a coward. She should take the job, give Lord Huleikr his precious bronzeheart, give him a chance at life. And in return she would go home. Back to her beloved old home, to the ramshackle red house she had claimed as her own years ago.

But she was an old woman, and scared, and here in this thin veneer of safety she had nothing but an opera-dancer and her bastard child to worry about. And that life was just a dream. Just a dream.

It had been five years. In her own country, Vesta would be declared missing or officially dead by now. Especially after the borders closed. Her house would have been sold, and the proceeds given to her husband, if he still lived, or her son. She wondered if her son would ever speak to her again, if he would ever forgive her for leaving.

Five years.

How slowly the time dragged, leeching her of vigour and determination, sapping her courage and patience in tiny, senseless bites on her soul. No. She would stay here, with the dredgers watching her every move, until the aristocracy tired of her trinkets and baubles, until fashion moved on and forgot her, and her sponsor wearied of a good cause. Vesta was not a fool, she told herself. She had saved enough money to live on, frugally, for at least a further five years even if all her work stopped tomorrow, even if her sponsor threw her out onto the street. Three years, if the dredgers seized her decoy bank account.

The brassbones paced around the little shop, straightening a display case here, flicking a speck of dust off the velvet boxes there. All of these ornaments Vesta made in her spare time to continue the pretence that she was an ordinary jeweller, not an accursed and suspect brassbones. Worse, a woman. Worst, a foreigner.

And then there was Nell. One of Vesta’s first customers, Nell’s gold and diamond forehead star was still one of Vesta’s crowning achievements–or had been, until Nell had turned up on her doorstep.

“Please,” Nell had said, standing proud and bloody on the doorstep, stained diamond held out in one hand. “Please. Help me.”

Horrified at the mutilation the younger woman had inflicted on herself, Vesta had let Nell in before she’d had time to think. She ought to have kept her distance, given Nell the top floor to herself, slept in the storeroom and got rid of the woman as soon as possible. But Nell’s pregnancy was long, and harsh. The diamond’s value was soon spent in food and medications, and Vesta kept silent. The deep pit between Nell’s eyes gradually healed over, leaving an ugly red scar that pained Vesta every time she saw it. She had offered several times to repair the damage, but Nell refused every time.

Gradually Vesta discovered the woman had a sharp, if uneducated, mind. The opera-dancer became a brassbones assistant, and Vesta treated Nell as if she were a niece, or younger cousin; awkward, diffident, lecturing her on the upbringing of her scrawny son and retreating into offended silence for days when Nell, never slow to stand up for herself, rebuffed Vesta’s particular and determined advice.

And now, six months later, Vesta was hesitating on the one chance she’d had in five long, agonising years to cross the border to home and safety. All because of an opera-dancer.

What if she went home and found no one alive who remembered or cared for her? What if he had–what if she were–what if–what if–what if.

“The cold truth is, you’re too scared to wager a man’s life against your freedom,” she told her reflection in the window. “You are stupid, scared, comfortable in your own little box. You are a foolish woman and a coward.”

She returned to her desk, sat down and stared at the sketches. A few hours ago she had been completely absorbed in her work, in the soft lines of wing (gold filigree, red rubies) and antennae (silver scrollwork, softened by copper wiring and strengthened by steel backing). Now it sickened her.

This was what she had come to. Vesta Milton: the woman who had replaced six ribs in a man’s side, along with half his lung and a new kneecap for good measure. The woman who had gained her qualifications as a brassbones in just three years. The woman who, in her arrogant need to be recognised and appreciated, had left the highly competitive market of her own country and moved east, to heal the sick and build fresh limbs for those who needed them. In one year of plying her trade in the east, Vesta had made more money than in all the years of her career at home. And then the borders closed, and suspicion ran through the city like a plague.

Damn them. Damn them all.

She turned and called up the stairs. “Nell. Nell!”

The opera-dancer reappeared at the top of the shadowy stairs, Davy sleeping in her arms. Vesta tapped her charcoal stick against the desk for a moment. Nell waited.

“Do you think I should do it?”

“Yes.”

Surprised at the surety of the young woman’s answer, Vesta asked, “Why?”

Nell shifted the baby onto her shoulder and said, “It’s who you are.”

“You don’t care about the consequences if the dredgers raid us again?”

“I care about that young man’s life.”

“Why? What is he to you?”

Nell was silent for a moment, then sighed. “He is me. Or you. Or any other person in this country who needs help and is brave enough to ask for it. I admire that.”

The charcoal stick snapped in Vesta’s fingers. She considered the fractured pieces a moment, then stood. “Leave the child with me. Go and find Lord Huleikr. If he agrees to come tonight, I will do it. And hurry, I don’t want–”

“–to let him sleep any longer. Fetch the smelling salts.”

Nell moves around the little room, setting out the pain potions as Vesta bandages the operation site, swathing it in thick white linen. The boy is heavy, hard to move about, his weighted arm stained with his own blood as Vesta lifts it to tuck the bandage under. She is careful with him, gentle. He reminds her too well of what she left behind.

“Do you want me to wake him now?” Nell asks.

“Yes,” Vesta says, hand resting on his bandaged chest. “And be ready. He may struggle when he comes around.”

Nell opens the salts and holds them under Lord Huleikr’s nose. His breathing is shallow, his chest rising and falling. Vesta feels the whir of the bronzeheart beneath her hand.

The dark eyes flicker open. His face contracts in pain.

“Steady,” Nell says, her voice far more soothing than Vesta’s ever will be. “You’re safe. You’re alright. Can you breathe comfortably?”

He makes a tiny sound, a weak note of pain and confusion.

“It’s alright,” Nell says again, as if speaking to her own child, “You’re safe. Just concentrate on breathing comfortably and you will feel better in no time. Lie still.”

Huleikr’s eyes rove blearily around the room, settling on Vesta. He swallows, twice, and opens his mouth to speak. His lips are tinged blue. Vesta glances at Nell. The opera-dancer looks pointedly at the young man’s hand, lying still at his side. Vesta swallows and pats his hand once, twice.

“A good operation,” she says. “All went well.”

He manages the suggestion of a smile. She finds herself smiling back. Pride, pride that she does not deserve, creeps back into her own heart.

Lord Huleikr coughs. The smile vanishes, pain acute on his face. He gasps. Nell snatches the salts away and says, her voice rising, “Vesta!”

Vesta leaps forward, fingers reaching for the pulse beneath his jaw. His pulse is beating wildly, pausing for seconds and then leaping forward. Huleikr’s eyes are wide with panic.

“Don’t worry,” Vesta says, automatically. “Concentrate. Breathe steadily. Slow down. Come on, boy. Count with me. One, two, three–”

“Vesta, his chest–”

The white bandages are burgeoning red. Vesta snatches her hand away from Huleikr’s neck, pressing down on the operation site in a desperate bid to stop the bleeding.

“You have to breathe–”

“–once … and out. Breathe in again … and out.”

She took the stethoscope away from his chest. Huleikr sat on the steel operations-table, shirtless, looking cold and nervous. Vesta put the stethoscope down and picked up the little bronzeheart. Huleikr’s elegant cloth coat in deep navy blue with silver buttons rested with his fine shirt and cravat on the steel chair beside the folded screen. Without the ornaments of a young gentleman of high society, he looked infinitely young.

She could not bring herself to speak, but busied herself with the preparations of the operation and allowed Nell to do the talking. He was clean of any ornamentation, not even boasting a crested goldfinger, so popular with many of the young men. The Duke of Salford had recently commissioned Vesta to create a small gold snuff box to be embedded between the bones of his wrist. Faced with Lord Huleikr’s bone-deep relief at her change of heart, Vesta found her stomach turned against the small-minded delicacy required for the creation of the snuff box. How had she managed to swallow her integrity for so long?

“Very well. We are ready to begin the operation.” She paused, and forced herself to look him in the eye. “Lord Huleikr, are you absolutely certain you wish to do this?”

“Yes,” he said immediately. “Yes, I am.”

No hint of uncertainty. Vesta nodded. “Very well. You will–”

“–hold on. Hold on.” His blood trickles over her knuckles. “Nell–chloroform–half a dose–”

Nell smashes a pottery bowl in her haste to reach the big brown bottle and a fresh cloth. Huleikr’s eyes are rolling in his skull. He coughs again, a thick wet sound. Vesta takes one hand away from his chest and steadies his head, her fingers curling under his neck. “Hurry, Nell, he’s–”

“–strong enough to survive this,” she said. “I have seen patients in a worse condition than you put under anaesthetic and woken safely.”

Huleikr smiled, a small, resigned smile. “Thank you for your encouragement, Miss Milton. I’m ready.”

He held out his hand to her. Vesta hesitated for a brief second, and felt Nell’s glare across the room. She took his hand, and shook it once.

“Lie down.”

He did so, and Nell slid the needle into his arm. Vesta watched, unable to stop watching now, as his eyes flickered shut.

“When you wake, you will be–”

“–safe. You’re safe. Breathe steadily. Can you hear me?”

His eyes find her. His right hand rises from the table, seeking her arm. Vesta doesn’t dare move her hand away from the operation site, but his fingers, clumsy with lack of blood and anaesthetic, fumble across her shoulder. The young man holds on to her wrist, and his fingers are deathly cold. Vesta stares into his glazing eyes and says, fiercely, “Breathe, man, breathe for your mother!”

“Vesta, he’s–”

“–ready to start. First scalpel.”

His narrow chest lay in silent readiness. Nell was right. This was what Vesta was here for. Don’t be a coward, she told herself. Think of the border. In a few days you will be across, safe and well, and this boy will be walking with his mother in the Park because you saved his life, and Nell will … Nell will be fine.

“Here,” Nell said, quietly. “He’s–”

“–not breathing. He’s not breathing.”

“I know,” Vesta snaps at Nell. The chloroform hasn’t even reached Huleikr’s face. His eyes are open, staring up at the dark ceiling without expression. “You must breathe for him, as I showed you. Quickly!”

Nell presses her lips against Huleikr’s. Vesta feels the artificial rise of his chest beneath her hand. The bandages are no longer white at all. Nell pulls away — Vesta pushes down on his chest, heedless of the operation site, heedless of the crack of ribs. She raises her hands and slaps them down desperately on his chest. He does not move. She tries again, Nell pushing air into his lungs, Vesta forcing it out again. Clumsy, one-handed, she cuts the bandages away with the scalpel, gashing Huleikr’s side open in her haste, and presses her ear to the bloody operation site.

The bronzeheart is silent. She should hear it ticking. She should hear the thrum of life. She hears nothing but the cavernous silence of failure.

Vesta straightens and snaps at Nell. “Again!”

Nell doesn’t move.

“Vesta, it’s too late.”

Vesta whimpers. She raises her hands, stained scarlet with this young man’s blood, and brings them crashing down on his chest. Huleikr does not breathe. He does not move. His right hand lies across his stomach, and his fingers are blue.

Nell reaches across and takes hold of Vesta’s arms, stilling her frantic movement. “Vesta. Vesta. He is dead.”

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Part II

Vesta sat in the dark, cold room, and stared into the shadows, and waited. Nell had promised to return before dawn. Every tiny sound, every shift in the air, made Vesta look up at the door, hoping, hoping. Nell would manage, she told herself. Nell knew how to talk to aristocrats. She would do what Vesta had asked.

In one hand Vesta held the failed bronzeheart. In the other she held Huleikr’s cooling hand, her thumb brushing across his stiff knuckles in a gentle, meaningless pattern. His blood was tacky on her skin. She knew, vaguely, that his blood was in her black hair and across her cheek, her apron, her boots. She listened to the silence and waited for Nell to return.

Vesta has killed a man. She waits for a long time in the darkness, and shivers with guilt and fear.

In the early reaches of dawn, when Huleikr’s blood has dried deep into her skin, when the house is bereft of Nell and Davy, and she holds no sense of time or place or life, Vesta hears footsteps. The crackling, hacking patter of a hardog snuffles by the doorstep. She lifts her head, and for a moment thinks she sees Nell smiling at her: but Nell is gone. Vesta feels the tears on her face, and tightens her hold on the dead man’s hand as the dredgers kick down her door.

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Part III

 

“Vesta. Vesta. He is dead.”

The panic lasted only a few seconds. Vesta backed away from Huleikr’s body, until the wall pressed against her shoulder-blades. She lifted one hand to her mouth and bit deep into her own skin, tasting his blood on her tongue, the metallic fact of death. Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Deep within the rising fear, she remembered, and trusted, her training.

Across the blood-soaked body, Nell’s eyes were huge, fixed on Vesta with wide-rimmed horror. The opera-dancer held up her shaking hands, holding them over Huleikr’s tattered chest in supplication or application, Vesta didn’t know. The bottle of chloroform shivered in Nell’s fingers.

Away in the darkness, muffled by the silent, unjudging rooms, the baby wailed.

The two women stared at each other in the dim gas-light, and Vesta knew what she had to do.

She took a breath, swallowed down the rising bile, and dropped her hand from her mouth. When she spoke, she did not recognise her own voice: calm, authoritative, cold.

“Nell. Go and wash, and change into something clean. Feed Davy, and pack a bag of essentials.”

“But what-–”

“–did you think would happen, woman?”

The dredger’s voice rakes over her scalp. Hot breath steams across the nape of her neck. Vesta keeps her head high and stares fixedly at the grey-stone wall opposite. The panting hardog lying under her chair licks her ankle. She flinches, folds her hands in her lap, and keeps her mouth shut.

“Did you think you’d been surreptitious, covert? Did you think we weren’t watching you from the first day you set up your precious little shop?”

He shifts, and she feels his weight brush past her shoulder as he steps around the little table. The dredger’s grey and black uniform fills her gaze. The tobacco stench of his stained beard fills her nostrils. She counts twenty-seven brass buttons on his jacket, and thinks of nothing.

“Tell me what–”

“–do you want me to do now?” Nell had returned. Her voice was thin but determined, and Vesta felt a surge of pride for the young woman. There was still blood under Nell’s fingernails, but she was otherwise clean. Davy slept contentedly upstairs. Vesta had washed her hands. The clinging coolness of drying blood still stained her dress and forearms.

She forced herself to pick up the dead man’s hand and tug the gold signet ring off his little finger. In another pocket of his trousers she found a few coins. She pressed both into Nell’s icy hand. “Take these. Go to the corner of the street and wait for Greenhill to come by. He’ll be leaving work soon. Give him the coins and get him to take you to the Huleikr’s house. Use the ring to gain entrance. You must speak to Lady Huleikr, and no one else. Tell her she must come with you immediately. Give her my name. Do not let them turn you away.”

Nell began to shake her head, but Vesta overrode her.

“We don’t have a choice, Nell. You must do this.”

“No.” Nell held the coins back out toward Vesta. “What you’re proposing is cruel. We cannot drag his mother here–we can’t–I’ll go to Manyard, I’ll tell him if he doesn’t help us I’ll tell the dredgers–”

“Tell them what? You’re an opera dancer, cast off by a powerful aristocrat with friends in the government and now you want your revenge? You had his child, Nell. They won’t believe a word you say.” Vesta softened her voice. “You must trust me, and go to Huleikr’s house.”

“What about–your sponsor? Surely they can-–”

“Listen to me. Go to Lord Huleikr’s house. Show the butler the ring. Refuse to leave until you see Lady Huleikr. You must bring her here before dawn.”

Nell shook her head, staring at the ruin of Huleikr’s body behind Vesta. “It’s cruel. It’s so cruel.”

Vesta reached up and took the woman’s face in her hands. “You must do this, Nell. You must trust me. Now go and–”

“–don’t fool yourself that you have a way out of this, brassbones.”

He flattens meaty hands on the table and leans toward her. Vesta does not pull back, though she can count every pore of his skin. She notices the unevenness of his breathing, the erratic tic in his eye, and comforts herself that he will grow old in pain. At her feet, the hardog yawns. She finds it contemptible that this country will hunt down and punish anyone who dares help another person with metallic bones and clockwork organs, and yet will willingly place its trust in abominations of half-dog, half-metal driven senseless by the fingers of mercury driving deep into their brains.

The dredger snorts into her face, and she closes her mind down again.

“Tell me who you killed.”

She waits.

“Burned his face good, didn’t you? But we’ll find out. Tell me what you did with your lovely little assistant. You will tell me who your sponsor is. You’ll write a full confession, and then–” his breath is rank in her face “–we might not kill you. Or, if you choose, don’t tell me who you killed, don’t tell me where your lovely little assistant is–and we hang you.” He pauses for effect, and Vesta counts backwards. Four hours, twenty minutes.

She is tempted to reply with something sarcastic and proud, but he likes to hear himself talk, and she knows what is coming next.

“So, what–”

“–have you done, you foolish old woman.” She spoke to herself to fill the empty darkness.

The operating room was cold. By the tiny light of the flickering gas-light, Vesta lit the small brazier in the corner. Methodically she burned all the blood-soaked bandages, and the beloved tools of her trade, timber and metal. She forced herself to go out into the shop, hating to leave the dead body alone, and collected all her paperwork, all her designs and plans. She burned them too. Finally, she added Huleikr’s clothes. She watched the silver buttons melt in the tiny flame, and offered her apologies with them.

Nell had been gone too long.

There was no way to avoid it. Vesta picked up the bloody scalpel still waiting beside Huleikr’s body. The weight of it in her hand made her sick. She pressed her lips together against the nausea, and set the scalpel to Huleikr’s skin once more. With a few slices she undid her precise work. The failed bronzeheart came free from what should have been its final resting-place. She unhooked the silver tongs, unwound the rib-separator, and set them both down with the bronzeheart, beside the sad, dead muscle that had been the boy’s first heart. No point in sewing the gaping hole again. His body was already growing cold, the skin clammy, the thickened blood oozing reluctantly beneath her trembling fingers.

When she was finished, she stood and looked down at the lost life in Huleikr’s face, at the delicate lines of his mouth, the shape of his eyebrows, the soft hair resting on his forehead. There was a tightness in her stomach that had nothing to do with her crime. She had not allowed this thought, this horror, for a long time: it was buried deep inside, tucked beneath her bones where no one could see it. By dawn she would face it.

There was a scraping at the door. A key set in the lock. She leapt back from Huleikr’s body as if scalded, took a seat, stood up again, smoothed bloody hands down her stained apron. Her heart raced. The knot in her stomach twisted tighter.

The door creaked open. Nell peered in, then stepped through. A woman followed her in, cloaked, all proud bearing and smooth roundness, a soft face, lined with the gentle suggestions of oncoming age. Nell closed and locked the door. Vesta tried to move forward, but her feet were lead, her heart a millstone.

“Oh–”

The woman’s face crumpled into deep lines of grief, of horror. Too late Vesta realised she had not covered the body, that the young man’s chest was still torn open, a gaping unnatural sickening puncture. She snatched up a spare bandage and leapt forward, but the woman moved as fast, her cold hand wrapping around Vesta’s wrist, halting her motion.

The flash of reflection was too strong. The woman’s hand was so like the young man’s. Vesta snatched her arm away, then stood stricken, the body still torn open, the woman’s cry echoing through the room.

Lady Huleikr reached out to touch her son’s face. Her hand curved around his cool cheek. She looked down into his face for a long, long time. When she lifted her gaze to Vesta, the last remnants of softness were gone.

“Oh, Vesta, what have you done?”

“I have done nothing.”

She tastes blood and considers spitting it into his reddened face, but thinks of Nell and the baby, of a future she will not taint. She swallows the unpleasant mouthful and resists the urge to close her eyes against the next blow. The fist cracks her cheekbone this time, and she thinks that if she had the time, she would repair it with a brass overlay, wrapped around the bone, and no one would backhand her again.

“You’ve got your dirty hands in something vile, and sick, and we’re going to stay here all night until the hangman is ready for you.”

She finds it strange that the smell of the dredger’s breath turns her stomach more than the crack of her own bones under his hands. Vesta stares back at him, and says, thickly, “I have done nothing.”

He shifts the weight of his body, and she listens to his shoulder creak. He must have broken it when young. In a few years he will wake cursing the cold weather, and his arm will stiffen in the morning and night, and he will think of the foreign woman he saw hanged for a crime that was no crime, and he will wonder if she could have replaced his arthritic bones with fresh and uncorrupted steel.

He moves behind her. His broad hand grips the back of her head and Vesta’s face bangs into the table in front of her. A broken nose is unspeakably easy to repair, but she finds the pain begins to wear. Never mind, she tells herself. There must be a price.

“What did you do–”

“–with the body?” Nell’s voice was timorous in the silence.

Lady Huleikr did not weep, but stood over her boy with pure loss eating the life from her face. Vesta looked at Nell, and indicated with a slight nod of her head for the younger woman to leave. She watched the opera dancer disappear to the front rooms, and her own heart shivered in her chest.

The night was not long enough, Vesta thought, but she wished it would stay forever. The coldness in the room had seeped into her heart. She held on to it. It was less painful than the guilt.

At last Lady Huleikr lifted her head and looked at Vesta. “Yes, Vesta. What will you do with the body of my son?”

“Once you are gone I will … take steps to ensure that your son cannot be identified. The dredgers will take his body. They will burn it as an abomination, as an example of what happens to those who desecrate their own bodies with the sickness of foreign medicine. You will be protected. What story you decide to spread about your son’s disappearance must be between you and your husband.”

Lady Huleikr’s eyes were bright with hate. It was not life, but close to it. “And you?”

Vesta forced herself to keep her voice steady. “You will go home, and provide the necessary paperwork for two people to cross the border safely. You will send the papers on with a man you trust to meet Nell at the border.”

“You killed my son.”

Vesta lifted her chin. “I did.”

They stood, at either end of the young man’s body.

Lady Huleikr looked down at her boy again. “I brought you out of prison to serve the people of this city. You promised me that you would never operate on my son. That was our agreement.”

Vesta’s gaze dropped. She stared without seeing at the soiled apron she still wore, at the floor, at the ceiling. Lady Huleikr did not move.

“He came to me and told me he was dying. He told me he wanted you to see him live.”

“Of course I wanted to see him live. He’s my son! But I made you swear for a reason, Vesta. I made you swear for a reason.” The agony in the older woman’s voice made Vesta’s own heart grow colder.

“He begged,” she said, small-voiced. “For you.”

“And you thought–”

“–you can laugh at me, woman?”

He does not pull his punches now, and Vesta feels the blood burning, the ringing in her ears overwhelming. She laughs, the unpromising solution of warm blood and saliva trickling down her chin, heart jumping in her chest. The dredger twists his meaty fingers into her hair and pulls her head back. Blood fills up her mouth and nose: she coughs, gasps for breath and watches the angle of his fist as it swings down to her jaw. She lets herself go with the motion this time, allows her head to snap back to the left, and leans back into the dredger’s chest. The silver buttons on his uniform are warm. Gently she opens her eyes and tilts her head further back, so that she looks up at him, intimately, with an unguarded humour. His eyes are dark.

“I laugh because you cannot.”

She has counted the hours, as best she can, and she knows. She knows that if the dredgers had caught Nell, they would have stopped this interrogation and dragged her out to show Nell what happens to brassbones and their associates, what happens to those who flaunt their witchcraft and foul blaspheming besmirching of good, wholesome, sacred bodies. Let the opera-dancer with her bastard see what the future looked like, and let her consider if she wanted to follow in her employer’s path.

No. Nell is safe. She must be safe by now. So Vesta smiles up at the dredger, and rests her feet on the panting hardog as it licks up her blood from the cold flagstones.

“One last chance, brassbones. What–”

“–kind of life would he have? The life I have?”

Lady Huleikr lifted her hands away from her son’s body, tugging at the clasps on her cloak. It came free, and she pulled at the delicate lace shawl wrapped around her shoulders, at the high collar of her grey dress. Vesta closed her eyes.

“Look at me,” Lady Huleikr commanded.

Vesta took a breath and opened her eyes. The woman’s chest bore a deep, grotesque scar, pinning the skin together, an empty flatness covered by careful dress-making. Lady Huleikr touched the sunken hole.

“This is what you did to me. You gave me life but at such cost. I made you swear never to operate on my son because I know the pain he would endure for the rest of his life. I can feel every beat, Vesta. I feel every time this bronzeheart ticks. I cannot walk or chase my grandchildren. I cannot even laugh for fear of pain. This is not the life I wished for my son.”

Vesta swallowed. “I have managed to access some research from my own country since I operated on you. The newer bronzeheart–”

“Stop justifying yourself!” Lady Huleikr snapped. “You did this. You did this to my son.”

Vesta was silent for a long moment. Then, softly, “Yes.”

“And now you want me to save you.” Lady Huleikr stroked her son’s hair, rested her hands on his body. She did not cry. “And the woman? That girl you sent to me? I have seen her before. She was Manyard’s mistress, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“So you have traded my son’s life for passports–two passports, for a murderess and a whore.”

Vesta’s head snapped up. “She is not a whore. She is my assistant.”

“And this is my son.” Lady Huleikr stared down at her dead son. “Better you should both die. I will call for the dredgers myself.”

“If you do, you will be executed.” Vesta’s voice was soft, flat. “You, for your own crime. Your husband for sheltering you and your son, for being accomplice to this abomination. You will both be executed.”

“You have already taken my life away,” Lady Huleikr said. “Threaten all you like.”

Vesta could hear Nell moving about the front room. Surely it was near dawn by now. Desperation filled her, running sharp and hot through her body. There was no time left. She would not see the young woman punished. “Mary. I need two passports.”

“I will not let you run from your crime.”

From the next room, Davy burst into a loud, angry wail. Lady Huleikr lifted her head, staring past Vesta to the closed door. Nell’s voice hushed him, singing a lullaby, the melody fractured. The baby’s cry died away.

Lady Huleikr’s hand rose to her mouth. The brassbones walked around the operating table and placed her hands on either side of the dead man’s shoulders. She leaned over him, forcing Lady Huleikr to look her in the eye. “I am not running.”

Lady Huleikr stared at Vesta.

“Is that the–your assistant’s child?”

“Yes.”

Lady Huleikr was silent for a long moment.

“Two passports.”

Vesta waited.

“And you?”

The brassbones stood straight. She laughed, a short, high little sound. “I will–”

“–give up?”

He is tiring. For a man of his age and build, he is unfit, flabby muscles from too much beer. Vesta breathes through the black fog and waits for the last punch. The hardog snorts, sneezes at her feet. It whines at its master.

The dredger heaves another breath, spits to one side. He rakes one hand through her long hair, torn out of its neat bun hours ago. “I’ll leave you to think about that a moment. The hangman will have finished his breakfast.”

She does not watch him leave, but waits straight-backed and open-eyed until the door clangs shut behind him. She listens to the clatter of the hardog’s paws following him away, and quietly folds forward to rest on the blood-spattered table in front of her.

She dreams of the red house. The old, warm walls, the enclosed garden rich with the scents of thyme and honeysuckle, sage and lime. Her broken fingers patter across her dress, as if she could reach out and touch the old peppercorn tree, the rough bark warm beneath her touch in the late evening. She dreams of the wide verandah, the rich earth growing every plant she could ask for.

Vesta smiles through her fractured jaw and wanders the halls of her beloved house. She can smell the sunburnt dust, the warmth of ages, her heritage, the heat of sand and oiled timber. Straight down the hallway and right at the end, through the waiting room and into her operating chamber. In her dreams the house is empty, but she accepts that. They will all be gone by now.

She wanders, calm, contented, and the black fog rises and falls, a tide of pain she fends off with memory and hope. She did all she could. Vesta licks her lips, and whispers to the empty cell.

“I’m so–”

“–sorry. I am so sorry, Nell. But you must run.”

“No.”

Lady Huleikr waited beside her son’s body, holding his hand with both of hers. She watched the small drama in silence. Vesta glanced at the clock waiting on the wall. She had no more time.

“Nell, my dear, please. You must go with Lady Huleikr. You and Davy will be safe.”

Nell shook her head, determined. “I will not leave you here. They will kill you.”

“Yes,” Vesta said. “But we all know there is no hiding tonight’s work. This is the best I can do. This is mine to pay for. Not yours.”

Nell’s mouth twisted in pain. “Vesta–” she said, voice breaking.

Vesta reached out and took hold of Nell’s arms, forcing her own voice to be calm. “There is no more time. When you are in my country, find the nearest town. Speak to any brassbones you can find. Tell them you come from Vesta, and you need to get to the red house. Any brassbones will give you shelter and directions. But you must go now.”

Nell was crying in earnest, holding Davy close. Impulsive, Vesta reached up and kissed the younger woman on the forehead, on the deep scar where once there had been a glittering diamond. “I am so sorry. Go.”

The opera dancer sniffed, and nodded.

Lady Huleikr kissed her son’s face, twice, straightened, and held out her hand for Nell’s bag. “Give me that. You’ve got enough to carry.”

She took the bag, and without a second look, walked to the door and opened it. The faint light of dawn broke cold through the dark room. Nell hovered, staring at Vesta, eyes pleading. “Please come with us.”

Vesta shook her head, and smiled, as best she could. “This is my responsibility, my dear. As long as I know you and Davy are safe, I will be alright. Go.”

Nell drew in a shaking breath, and said, “Thank you. For everything. Thank you.”

She turned, and followed Lady Huleikr out into the rising dawn.

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Part IV

 

Vesta sits in the dark, cold room, and stares into the shadows, and waits. In one hand she holds Huleikr’s cooling hand, her thumb brushing across his stiff knuckles in a gentle, meaningless pattern. His blood is tacky on her skin. She knows, vaguely, that his blood is in her black hair and across her cheek, her apron, her boots. She wonders if there is any blood left in his body.

Vesta has killed a man. She waits for a long time, and in the darkness, shivers with guilt and fear.

In the early reaches of dawn, when Huleikr’s blood has dried deep into her skin, when the house is bereft of Nell and Davy, and she holds no sense of time or place or life, Vesta hears footsteps. The crackling, hacking patter of a hardog snuffles by the doorstep. She lifts her head, and for a moment thinks she sees Nell smiling at her: but Nell is gone, free, safe. Vesta feels the tears on her face, and tightens her hold on the dead man’s hand as the dredgers kick down her door.

She thinks of Nell, and Davy, and the red house, and she smiles as they take her.

___
Copyright 2016 Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone is an Australian writer and editor. Her work has been shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards: her website is at lucyjstone.com 

by Aliya Whiteley

Part One

My real name is gone, so far in the distance that the thought of it coming up fast behind me seems an impossibility. Age, however, has displayed no such qualms; it has pounced, shaking me between its teeth, until my skin sags and my gums flap.

But I have decided to not dwell on the things that have happened and the marks they have left. It is enough to have my place in the biodomes. I am now a product of my situation; that is, the forcing of life into forms and shapes it would never assume if left to its own devices. But it must be made to fit the space that is assigned to it, and the truth is there’s not much space left.

We are squeezed together, the melons and I.

‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil. I should be paying attention, but instead I’m chewing over the fact that he started off as a worker too, and now I must call him Mister while he uses a nickname for me. ‘How’s impregnation going?’

‘Areas twelve to twenty-two are done.’

‘Good, good. Anything you need?’

A fresh life, Mr Cecil, I should say. ‘No, thank you.’

‘I’m off to Courgettes, then. Shout if there’s a problem.’ Off he goes, in his little motorised buggy. I watch it recede along the rows, and then the calm of the melons reasserts itself. No sound. No sound at all.

Home grown, the labels will say. Organic home grown cantaloupe melons, low carbon emissions, no pesticides, 100 per cent UK workers, and they will cost more than an entire synthetic pig, but that’s fine. Some people are rich, and they spend their money on the strangest things without ever once finding a space in which they fit.

Today is impregnation day, in twenty areas. The paintbrush must be dipped into the male flowers, so that a dab of pollen is collected. This is an orange powder, so bright, so fine. I use a sable brush so I can see the pollen clearly. I like to know exactly how much I have collected; I would hate to waste this precious stuff. It has the most important job in the world to do. Here it goes – I take it to the female flower, and stroke it inside her opening.

Do you know how you tell a female flower? At the base of the petals, she bulges into a ball, a perfect sphere, a promise of intention. If she receives the pollen she will continue to swell to giant proportions, long after the pretty little flower dies and drops away. Instead there nestles a monster, and the stem thickens to support it. A melon grows, to the size of my head, larger. I will put it inside a net that hangs from the pole structure to which the plants cling. Inside each melon lurks so many new seeds, to start the process all over again.

This is my favourite part of the job.

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Communal dinner hour is five to six o’clock. Some complain about the earliness of the hour for the final meal of the day, but it suits me; I’ll be asleep by nine, after spending a little time on my slides. I don’t know why everyone enjoys complaining so, or how they have the energy for it. None of us are spring chickens any more. Chickens in spring, scratching and pecking and laying their eggs. Apparently they still do this, in the Livestock part of Blossom Farm that I have not seen. Imagine – spring chickens. Their tender drumsticks must fetch a fortune.

I’m eating a cheese-flavoured sandwich when Lonnie and Jim carry their trays to my lone table at the back of the dining room. They take the seats opposite me, and continue a loud conversation. I get the feeling I’m meant to overhear it.

‘It’s always the same in Strawberries,’ says Jim. ‘Too much temptation for us old ‘uns. That sweetness takes years off you.’ He smacks his lips together, under his white moustache. How is it possible to have that much hair on your mouth and none on your head? The shiny, greasy expanse of skin hanging loose on his skull is too much reality for me. I put down my sandwich and sip my water instead.

‘Mmmm,’ says Lonnie, shaking her head. Her cumbersome earrings jangle. The lobes have been stretched to incredible proportions over years of abuse in the name of decoration, and now she must always wear big earrings or leave her ears flapping in the simulated weather of the Satsuma section.

I’m cruel, I know, I know. I am a cruel old lady, and I am no less ugly than they are. My distaste is centred on them only because there is no mirror here with which to catch my own reflection.

‘Out in the cold,’ says Jim, mournfully. ‘Straight out, with nothing but a coat and that collection of teddy bears, stuffed into two bin bags.’

So now I know who they’re talking about. It’s Daisy. Daisy has been caught stuffing her face with strawberries stolen from her area, and has been kicked out of Blossom Farm.

This is why Jim and Lonnie chose to sit here. They know about Daisy and me. She had such fresh blue eyes, even though she was older than many here. And a laugh! A laugh I loved.

But that was a long time ago.

I wonder what made her eat those strawberries.

‘You knew Daisy, didn’t you?’ asks Jim.

Why does he want a response from me? What possible entertainment could it give him?

‘No,’ I say. ‘Not really.’

I feel another little part of what is left of my emotions shrivel up and crumble away to dust as Jim and Lonnie exchange glances, then change the subject to that old favourite, the weather.

‘Minus ten out there today,’ says Jim. ‘Not bad for the time of year. Wind chill will take it down, though. Northerly, isn’t it? I checked the board first thing.’

Lonnie huffs.

We have all become expert meteorologists, and our habit is fed by the board, updated daily, with information of what blows and falls outside the biodomes.

They talk on, and my thoughts turn to those teddy bears. Daisy loved them so, making them from scraps of clothing that you would have thought unsalvageable. If you had a shirt you thought beyond stitching she would bother you for it, offering to fetch you a replacement from stores, and the next thing you know it would have been turned into a cheeky little fellow, fuzzy and friendly and determined to make you smile. She kept them all in her room, and gave them names, at least three syllables long and sounding like they belonged in a world of stately homes and tea parties. Peregrine. Terpsichory. Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third.

Enough. I get up. I leave behind my sandwich, and ignore Jim when he calls, ‘Aren’t you going to eat that?’ to my back. I walk through the dining area, with its bright white lights shining down on the stained table tops, and then I walk through the communal area where mismatched armchairs and sofas jostle, each one bearing knitted covers courtesy of the workers, and down the corridors that lead to my room.

We all take up our spare time with these silly obsessions. Antimacassar making, or putting boats in bottles. Teddy bears from scraps of material. And the scraps of my memory lead to my obsession: the slides.

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I paint a moment of my life on each glass pane. The good moments stay in my room, where I can see them often. The bad ones go elsewhere.

The glass comes from the very beginnings of Blossom Farm, when tomatoes were grown in greenhouses rather than the biodomes. I remember a greenhouse. It belonged to my grandmother. I can see it standing at the bottom of an orderly garden, behind the tall, tied sticks around which peashoots twirled. The strange thing was that the little building did not seem to be made of glass. It was so full of grapevine, cuttings, and plants just starting their growth that the whole space within appeared green to my eyes, green to the point of bursting forth and overrunning the structure.

I used to be a little afraid of it, and of the bottom of the garden.

My grandmother, I have never remembered as clearly as the greenhouse. I would like to make an image of her face, but we don’t choose what we remember, do we? And I only have space in my head for emotions, not people. It’s the fear I paint.

My room is small and safe. I work for a while, stopping whenever somebody stomps down the corridor outside, on my painting of the greenhouse. I have only black paint, left over in metal pots from when the farm had a Welcome sign out front, but that is good enough; why are so many people unhappy with what they have? It must be made to suit, and that is all. Mr Taylor, the forerunner of Mr Cecil, gave me the code to the old storeroom, where all obsolete things lurk. He was very kind to me, in many ways.

Enough. Bedtime.

I pack away my paintbrush, stolen from the task of melon impregnation, and evaluate the black lines that make my greenhouse on glass.

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Slide 117

‘It’s nothing to be scared of,’ said Nane.

But Flori resisted. She didn’t want to go inside, no matter what her grandmother said. The earth, the smell, the brush of damp leaves, the touch of tendrils.

‘Come help me with the plants,’ said Nane, and pushed her inside.

It was a different, denser world in there, and hardly had room for the little girl. And what was that sound? She crouched as the low thrum of a wasp manoeuvred around her head, driven dizzy by the sweetness of the grapes, and then it was in her face, zipping and dipping, and prickling her ear.

Nane said, ‘Stay still. Stay very still.’

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I don’t remember what happened next, and I’m too tired to care. My little bed calls to me. I stack the latest glass pane under the bed, with the others, and then turn out the light.

I can’t hear the wind, but I imagine it’s blowing. I can’t see the snow, but I can picture it piling high, drifting and blizzarding, blanketing the biodomes throughout the night.

Somewhere out there are two binbags filled with teddy bears. Goodbye, Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third. You were, once upon a time, my favourite.

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Mr Cecil likes to talk about yield. He manages a team of five, and insists on making a presentation for our weekly meetings. It was his big innovation, upon taking over from Mr Taylor, two years ago. How much will each section yield? He doesn’t seem to remember that the growing of plants is not a matter of them yielding to us at all. One of these days they will grow so fast and so free that they will dominate once more, and that is how it should be.

He provides his estimates in brightly coloured bar charts that he prints out on paper, and hands around the meeting room. What a waste. Well, not entirely a waste; we save up the sheets for Brian from Peppers, who creates very amusing wordsearches on the reverse. Brian has a knack for resurrecting the past in bite-sized, bittersweet chunks that don’t choke us. The wordsearches hide within them makes of chocolate bar; names of English counties; types of car. It’s amazing how much we remember about things that are gone, and how little we want to retain about our here and now.

Mr Cecil has reached melon yield, and I don’t care. Just let me be amongst them, warm and safe. Just let me be. Still, I’ll make my polite face, and the others are doing the same thing. Melons. Peppers. Chillis. Courgettes. Butternut Squash. We’re an odd group, I’ll give you, lacking the obvious coherence of berry fruits, say, but we rub along. Mainly through the mutual bond of Brian’s wordsearches.

Suroopa – Courgettes – looks tired this morning. Usually her clothes are clean and pressed, and her short black hair brushed well, but today she yawns and her face is as crumpled as her shirt.

‘Are you not feeling well?’ Mr Cecil asks her, after a particularly large yawn. ‘You look all at sea today, Suroopa.’

She reassures him that all is well. What an expression. All at sea. It reminds me of old rhymes, sailing away to the Land of Nod, owls and pussycats and beautiful pea green boats. But they didn’t sail, did they? Not in reality, not when they all left, and took the fairy tales with them. They sailed, on one of the last ferries; I watched them go from the bus.

‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil, and his voice cuts through my dreams, and brings me back to the here and now. ‘Don’t tell me you’re busy woolgathering as well today?’

‘No, Mr Cecil,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry.’

He carries on.

Where does he get these ancient expressions from? He must have a thesaurus tucked away in his room somewhere. He probably reads it in bed every night, looking for another obscure thing to say, thinking – that’s an interesting one, oh yes, I must use that.

Today, in sections five to fifteen, I must take soil temperature readings. It can be hell on the back, all that stooping, so my first thought when the alarm bell rings is annoyance. Not another drill, not today. I really can’t be bothered to hang around for hours pretending to care.

I look at Mr Cecil’s face, and that tells me something I don’t want to believe. This is not a drill.

He doesn’t know what’s happening.

The alarm whoops, a long wail that climbs up and falls down, over and over.

I stand up.

‘No,’ says Mr Cecil, putting up his hands, ‘It will stop, it will stop, it’s just a – a problem with the -’

‘A malfunction?’ says Gregor, who is small and well-muscled for his age, and looks like the sort of man who has learned the hard way not to trust anyone when alarms are ringing. He stands up too, and then so does Suroopa, and Brian, and Zena. Mr Cecil, in the face of overwhelming odds, changes his tune.

‘Adopt lockdown procedures,’ he calls, and then he leads the way from the meeting room, out into the curved corridor where the alarm is louder still and others are scurrying to their own positions, their faces scrunched up with surprise and fear.

Mr Cecil sets a fast pace, and we move as a group, single-file. My body aches but it’s a pain I’m used to, and I’m better off than Brian, with his chest complaints. I can hear him wheezing behind me as we make it back to Sector K.

At the entrance to Sector K, Mr Cecil turns and waves us all through. We know what happens now. We will all be locked inside, with the plants. Something in me says this is a really good idea today. You don’t live as long as I have without getting a gut instinct for things.

I wait until the others are through, and then call back to Mr Cecil, who looks up from fumbling with his utility belt.

‘Mr Cecil,’ I say. I can tell what he’s thinking. He means to stand outside, break protocol, and I have to shake that thought from his head. I know why this system was set up. I’ve seen the reason why.

‘No, I think, today, I should…’

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No.’

But he says, ‘Stop fussing, please, Mel,’ and closes the door. Through the safety glass panels of the door I see him type in the special code to shut down the door, and then he disappears from view.

Brian wheezes on. Suroopa gets him seated in Reception Area, at the orange plastic table and chairs next to the water dispenser. The others stand around, staring at him.

Reception Area K reminds me of a hand. There are five walkways leading off, like fingers, from the square palm of the main room. Beyond lie the areas, segmented parts of our dome. I want to go into mine, and start work, alone and safe.

‘Breathe,’ Suroopa tells Brian. ‘Breathe.’ The others watch, spectators to the private battle. Is he losing? No – he nods, nods, and there, he is controlling his lungs, mastering his body.

‘Well done,’ says Suroopa, patting his arm.

The alarm winds down, slowly falling in pitch until it cuts out and leaves an eerie silence. It has never done that before.

‘Right,’ whispers Zena. I don’t know why she’s whispering. ‘Someone page Cecil and get him to let us out.’

‘Not yet,’ I say, and am surprised to find it comes out as a whisper too.

‘I don’t think we should wait,’ says Suroopa. ‘Brian needs to see the Doctor.’ She straightens up, and pushes the button on her pager. We all listen. There it is; the tinny sound of his pager, from the other side of the door. Then it stops. He must have turned it off.

Someone walks past.

‘Who was that?’ says Gregor, and then says something in his own language. He moves to the door, and puts his face to the glass, then retreats to behind Brian’s chair.

‘I think it was Jack from, ah…’ says Suroopa.

‘No,’ I say. ‘It wasn’t.’

There are voices outside, voices I don’t recognise. This is a secure compound, there are many guards, automated systems in place, nobody gets in without permission. But I don’t recognise those voices.

Mr Cecil replies. I can’t make out the words, but his voice is high. He has been trained for this sort of situation. He has a weapon, that he carries on his utility belt. I’ve seen it. A taser. Has he drawn it? Does he have it ready, in his hand?

Shouting. It builds, it is loud.

Then everything goes quiet.

They will make him open the door. They will force him to, and I would not blame him, not when I think of all the things they could do to him. I know the things pain can make you do. I would open the door too.

No. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t open the door. I would protect my safe place, my growing plants, because there is nothing else left.

The silence stretches on, and it is long enough and deep enough for doubts to form. Is this an elaborate part of the drill, just to check we won’t open the door under any circumstances? The relief I feel at that idea is crazy. I want to cling on to it. All we have to do is hold on for a few more minutes, and then Mr Cecil will appear with a wink and tell us we did well, as if we are children who have been left unattended in a school room.

I’m lost in this concept when a face appears at the safety glass.

It’s a man. A very young man, with a beard tinged with ice, bluish lips buried deep, and red-rimmed eyes. I had forgotten how beautiful young men could be. The chill of ice is stuck fast to his skin.

An outsider, that’s what springs to mind, and Suroopa wails behind me. He looks at us, in turn. His eyes linger on Brian, who is still slumped over in his chair, but breathing regularly. The man can’t hear that, of course; as far as he’s concerned Brian might be dead. His eyes don’t register any emotion. He points downwards, I’m guessing at the keypad for the door.

I shake my head.

He doesn’t seem bothered by my refusal. He points again, but none of us move.

He walks away.

If he can’t get in, if he’s relying on us to input the code, then it can only mean one thing – Mr Cecil is incapable of giving him what he wants.

‘Don’t let him in,’ says Gregor, and Zena says, ‘What does he want? What does he want?’

Brian sits up and wheezes out the thought that has invaded my mind. ‘Agro-terrorist.’

Please, no. The destruction of the good things to eat that only the rich can afford, in the name of fairness, for the idea of making this a natural world once more. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘No matter what happens, we can’t let him in. The guards will sort this out, but we need to be strong. We’ve got water, and food. It’s an emergency – they’ll understand if we eat a bit of the fruit. We can stay here for days, and keep the plants, and ourselves, safe.’

‘Days?’ says Suroopa.

‘It won’t take that long,’ I say. ‘This place is top security. They’ll get it under control in no time.’

‘Where’s Mr Cecil?’ says Zena. ‘Should I page him again?’

Gregor and I exchange looks. If I’ve thought about Mr Cecil’s chances out there, then Gregor has done the same, and has come to the same conclusion. That’s how his mind works.

‘No,’ says Gregor. ‘Do not page him.’

‘He’ll be busy,’ I say. ‘Negotiating.’ It sounds official. It’s the right word. The others visibly relax.

‘Sit tight,’ wheezes Brian. He manages a smile.

I look at them. Four old, scared people. And I make five. How quickly things change. Ten minutes ago I was thinking about my soil samples, and my problems were molehills, but I didn’t know it. I thought I would have my melons to care for, and my slides to paint, and that would be enough for the tail end of a beast of a life. But although I was done with difficult times, it seems they are not done with me.

I can wait this out. I can survive, and so can my plants.

‘We’ll take it in turns to see to our areas,’ I say. ‘There’s no reason to let the plants suffer, and it will keep our minds off -‘

A new face appears at the glass. Not a new face. An old face.

Daisy.

Her eyes are blue, bluer than ever before. Then I realise they only look that way because of the blood on her face. It’s so red against her white skin, and her eyes are translucent, but they see me clearly. They focus on me, and hold me close.

The blood is a smear that stretches from her forehead to her cheek, daubed on, like warpaint. She puts the back of her hand to her face, and wipes it, and that’s when I realise it’s her own blood. She’s daubing herself in the blood that is coming from her heavily bandaged fingers. Ripped material has been wrapped around and around, and it has soaked through, turned bright red.

Not good enough for a teddy bear, Daisy, I want to say. Not even you could salvage that old rag.

She looks so tired. No, that’s not it; she looks destroyed. Worn down to pieces that are somehow still managing to move around. Her mouth is forming shapes.

Open the door, her lips are saying, without sound.

Mel. Open the door.

I don’t move.

Please open the door.

Gregor comes to stand behind me, so light on his feet. He says, ‘Don’t open the door,’ and I feel his hand on my back, just a slight pressure. But he’s too much of a coward to do anything to stop me. I’ve seen him cover his face when one of the supervisors shouts; he’s trapped in some past that will keep him forever fearful.

Please.

She looks as if she’ll die, right there. She died once already to me, only a few days ago. This time around I have a choice. I don’t have to let her die alone.

I move forward, to the door, and put in the key code. The lock releases. I step out into the corridor and take Daisy in my arms.

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‘Everything will continue as normal,’ says the man. This is another new face amongst many, but this one is definitely in charge. He carries it on his shoulders.

I look around the refectory and find the face that first appeared at the Sector K door. He is eating a plate of beans, not far from me. I take care not to stare, but observe him from the corner of my eye. He shovels the beans in with a spoon as if hot food has not passed his lips in years. Maybe it hasn’t.

‘There is no need to worry. All we need is your co-operation,’ says the man in charge. He stands in the centre of the room, on a table, so we can all look up to him. He is a little older, but still so many years away from becoming like us shrivelled wrecks of workers. There are about thirty young people among us now, and they are joined in some purpose that is about to be passed down to us like divine wisdom. We’ve seen it all before.

‘The food you are producing will be given to those who need it, not those who can afford it.’

Ah, I see. This is a zealous enterprise. They are fighting the good fight. No doubt they, above all others, are deserving of my melons.

‘Keep fulfilling your duties, and you will be fed and watered as usual. Nothing has changed for you, that’s all you need to remember.’

Jim, sitting next to me, raises his hand. Is he asking permission to speak? I can’t help but despise him.

‘Go ahead,’ says the man in charge.

‘Where are all the supervisors? And the guards?’

‘That’s not something you need to feel concerned about.’

‘Blossom Farm won’t let you get away with this, you know,’ Jim says, quickly, then sits down and crosses his arms.

The man in charge ignores him.

‘My name is Stephan,’ he says. ‘If you want to talk to me in an equal and open way then I am here. But I’m not here to answer stupid questions. Try to remember that we are all in this together now. Enjoy your lunch.’

All in this together – he’s as bad as Mr Cecil. What a fatuous phrase. If we’re all in it together why did the newcomers, his merrie band of men, get fed before us workers? People always say what they think will bring them an easy life, and others believe it for the same reason. But not me. Not this time.

We queue up for our beans. I take an extra plate for Daisy, ignoring the stares of those around me. There is no guard to stop me now. I carefully manoeuvre around all the extra people who fill up the space, and carry both plates back to my room.

Daisy lies still in my bed. I stand for a while, beans in hand, and watch her. It’s years since I’ve seen her this way, in sleep. Safe. But here’s the thing. Her skin is waxy, and her breathing is fast. As I look down on her I can see that she is not safe, not really.

I put the plates on my small table and carefully lift the blanket to look down at her body, still bundled up tight in her clothes. If I was to remove them, I think I might find patches of black. Black toes, black fingers. If there are any fingers and toes left. The bandage around her hand is useless now, and the blood is seeping through to my mattress, but I can’t unravel it, and face what is underneath.

She coughs, a weak rumbling at the back of her throat. ‘Be up soon,’ she says, ‘Strawberries. Doctor?’

I tuck the blanket back around her and sit on the side of the bed. I put my hand to her forehead like a professional. ‘No doctor, I’m afraid. Nobody’s seen her since your friends arrived. But you’ll be up and around in no time.’

She seems to come back to herself, blinking, as if clearing her eyes from sleep. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she says, in her usual voice. ‘I thought we were all done.’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Apparently not,’ she mimics. How cruel she can be. ‘Still better than the rest of us, aren’t you?’

I wish I’d never told her a thing about me, not one real fact that she could use as a weapon. I should have told her I was once a farmer’s wife, or a baker, or unemployed, in a council flat; some simple thing she couldn’t find fault with. Not a schoolteacher to the privileged elite; somebody who came to this place through having connections. I had never suffered the right kind of suffering for her.

‘Why did you help them?’ I ask. ‘They’ll destroy the domes.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘No, they won’t. They want a better world, Mel. They deserve their chance to fight for it. Don’t you remember what it was like to want to fight?’

‘I never wanted to fight.’

‘No.’ She coughs again, a softer sound. ‘I believe that.’

How do you say to someone – I think we should make up now because you’re very probably about to die? I sit quietly, my hand on her head, and try to think of a way to work that particular sentiment into the conversation. How very controlled I am.

‘I’m so, so sorry,’ I tell her. ‘For everything.’

‘It’s like that, is it?’ She nods her head on the pillow, seeing right through me, as always. ‘Thought so. They found me too late, I suppose. I had the bears with me, and I lay down with them in the snow, that was all I wanted, and I could still taste the strawberries. But then there was this young face in front of my eyes and all the bears were gone. I don’t know where they went. All gone. The young man said – help me, help us, help us get in and take what should belong to everyone, and it just seemed so sensible, Mel. Not that it should belong to everyone. But it should belong to them, to the young. To the kids who grew up without ever tasting a strawberry. That’s not right, is it? That’s not how it’s meant to be.’

She stops talking. All her energy has been sucked up by that speech. I get the feeling she’s been saying it to herself, over and over, in her head. Her reasons for getting them in.

I lie down beside her, and she doesn’t have the strength to tell me to go away.

‘I loved you,’ I tell her.

‘I’m not going right this minute,’ she slurs, but she turns over towards me and puts her good hand, in its thick mitten, on the old, loose curve of my breast. How could she have given up on me, on this? How could she have told me that she wanted to sit at a different table for every single meal, and never hear my voice again?

I lie there, trying not to breathe, until she falls back into sleep. Then I peel her hand away and stand up. The two plates of beans have congealed, but I don’t care. I eat them both, passionate for their flavour, their scent, their taste. I’m alive, and I eat for both of us.

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It comes to me, as I work through the afternoon under the guise of normality, that I’m not just alive, not in the same way I was before. I’m more alive. Every breath sings in my chest. Every time I stoop to take a soil sample the pain in my back is an epiphany – a promise that I hurt, I hate, I love, I live.

The feelings swell as the hours pass. I don’t care whether the others are working, or what happens outside my area. The feelings swell to the point of bursting open.

I hear the approach of Mr Cecil’s buggy.

I feel hope with the sharpness of citrus in the mouth, a long-forgotten taste, but when I turn around I make out, behind the wheel, the face of the man who stared at me through the glass panel in the door to Sector K, and I remember that Mr Cecil is probably dead, and that I never liked him much anyway.

The buggy comes to a juddering halt a few yards away – he needs some driving practice – and he climbs out, a smile set in place, as if we’re about to be introduced at a garden party.

‘Mel?’ he says.

I don’t answer.

His lovely face has lost all signs of the cold, and his beard is brown, and dishevelled, a sturdy, thriving mess of hair. How tall he stands. No softness to his body at all. And he has left his thick coats elsewhere to reveal strong arms the colour of milk. He must be boiling in this sudden change of temperature.

‘I’m Lucas,’ he says. ‘Has Daisy talked about me?’

‘No.’

‘I found her, out in the snow. She’s in your room, right? The others said she’d be with you. How is she?’

It surprises me, that what felt like a lifetime for me was obviously just a blip to the other workers. Mel and Daisy – still a couple in the eyes of the biodomes, intertwined like the roots of the plants that surround us. That’s how it appears, if you’re outside the experience.

When I still don’t respond, he changes tack, and his smile drops away. ‘I’m going to be looking after Sector K,’ he says. He has a strange accent. ‘We’ll be working together.’

‘Good for you, young man,’ I tell him, trying to remember my schoolteacher tones. ‘Now let me get on with my job.’

‘Daisy said you could be difficult.’

‘So you know all about me, do you?’ I don’t care if he’s in charge, or if he killed Mr Cecil himself, or even if he kills me, just so long as he goes away.

‘No. And you don’t know me.’

‘No, I don’t.’

He looks around at the high, curved dome of white, and the orange globes amidst the tall, curling tendrils. Can he recognise paradise when he sees it, or is it just an asset to be jotted down on the plus column of what he feels he is owed?

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I need to see Daisy.’

‘Why?’

He swipes at his forehead with his palm. ‘You should stop asking so many questions.’

‘Actually, I don’t care for what I should or shouldn’t do.’ I turn around, and pretend to be absorbed in the plant growth behind me. But he moves around to stand my eyeline once more, and now he’s wearing a deep frown as if he’s only just realised that this place is unfamiliar to him.

‘She’s dead,’ I tell him.

This piece of news doesn’t change his expression.

‘Come on, then,’ I say. ‘Let’s go and see her. Since you don’t believe me.’ I march past the buggy, toward the sliding door that seals up tight to keep in the moisture. A moment later I hear him reversing the buggy, and then following along behind me.

‘You can ride with me,’ he says.

‘That’s for management.’

‘I’m not management.’

‘I thought you said you were in charge of Sector K?’

He doesn’t respond. I walk the entire way. At some point, in the corridors, he abandons the buggy.

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I don’t like the way Lucas holds Daisy’s bandaged hand, as if he had a right to touch her, and she would not have minded. The fact that she is dead does not change my feelings about this in the least; to touch someone, you should definitely have their permission.

He stays very still, sitting on the side of the bed, just as I did a few hours earlier. The empty plates, stained orange with bean juice, have a strong smell that fills the room. I wish I had returned them to the refectory instead of leaving them on the small table.

‘At least she didn’t die alone,’ he says.

‘We all die alone.’

‘I’ve seen a lot of deaths, and some of them were better than others.’

‘Then you weren’t seeing them properly,’ I say. ‘Are you trying to thank me for staying with her? Or blame me for going back to work afterwards?’

‘I’m not saying either of those things,’ he said.

How incredibly easy it is for him to make me feel angry. What makes a good death, and what makes a bad death? Who is he to decide?

‘I think you should go now,’ I say. He looks up at me as if he might refuse, but then he puts down Daisy’s hand and stands up.

‘I’ll get a crew to come by and take her – the body – away.’

‘No hurry.’ I step back as he passes by me, folding my arms over my chest. I’m determined not to look at his face, but I can’t help myself – I need to see what’s there. The rough surfaces of his cheeks, the plain of his forehead, and more; there is something I recognise in his eyes, and in an uncontrollable instant I feel my expression change to mirror his. It’s a great task, then, to hold on to my emotions until he’s gone, but I manage it. And then I’m alone.

The sound spills out of me and uncurls to fill all corners of the room. It’s a deep, low growl – the equal and opposite of the alarm that led to this moment, but it means the same thing. Danger is here. It is breaking down the doors, ripping its way through my warm, safe places, bringing an icy wind.

God. Now there’s a name that has not graced my lips for many years, but the concept comes back to me easily, and I curse it. God, fate, everlasting life, whatever: I curse it all, in my head, while the sound coming from my open mouth winds down to nothing.

I get up. I pull the blanket over Daisy’s head, taking care not to look at the mouth that I am not allowed to kiss.

How long will it take Lucas to come back, others in tow, for disposal duty? I’m not sure. I have the feeling that time isn’t running right anyway. Outside the bedroom it is sprinting in circles, hands around the face of an ancient and unstoppable clock. But not in here.

I kneel down, and reach under the bed for my stacked glass slides, carefully searching through them until I find the one I want. Four black lines topped with a curve for a handle. A paint pot. And underneath, one word: Eurydice.

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Number 32

 

The arrival of new workers always upset her.

They had been given fresh clothes, but they still wore the outside world in their expressions, and what Mel saw there was pinched, and cold, and desperate. But those expressions never lasted too long. They all sank into the stupor of the warm, and the fed. The mind was always so keen to forget.

The new ones were dotted between the familiar faces in the common room: Miriam and Barry were doing a jigsaw puzzle, and Gareth was strumming something cheery, using big open chords, on his battered guitar. He had attracted a crowd, as usual, who mumbled through the familiar lines of the few songs he was able to play. I Want to Break Free, which might have had some meaning in this place if everyone didn’t sing it so happily and without a shade of self-consciousness. And that song Ironic, ironically. Like rain on your wedding day, they all sang, and all angst disappeared, and soon everyone would go off to bed with a smile.

Mel sat alone, digging the dirt out from under her fingernails, and considered what to paint next. She painted many aspects of her past, capturing a range of experiences, trapping them on glass so that she did not have to feel them any more. She never wanted life to feel fresh and newly opened again; she didn’t want anything else to happen that might take her attention from the past.

She thought about being left with only melons to paint, and the idea made her smile. To paint a melon – yes, she should do one, at least. A big, round, juicy one, for posterity. She got up and left the noise of the common room behind, taking her time down the dimly lit corridors, the floor level solar lamps glowing so yellow that they reminded her of candleflame. A real fire – that was another thing she should paint. A fire like her father used to make. How easily subjects were coming to her tonight.

The corridors were empty apart from her. They curved around the domes to link everything together in loops and twirls that had once made her dizzy. It had taken her months to learn the patterns of the pathways, but now she did not need to think about the route to the storeroom. She could have found it with her eyes closed.

Mel reached the door, and entered the code on the keypad. It clicked open, and the drop in temperature hit her as she stepped over the threshold, into the darkness, where the metal shelves ran in rows, high, holding crates and containers that were once essential to the running of Blossom Farm. Signposts, stacked in the far corner, back when the place had wanted to be found. But the only thing that interested Mel was the paint. The tins filled up the shelf on the back wall, and she was always relieved to see so many of them, like a promise. And in this place, where only a wall separated her from the outside, she could hear the wind. It howled with lonely pleasure, and she felt she understood it.

Outside a woman was waiting for her. She was round and creamy and gave the impression of being filled with something heavy. None of the shock of the new sat upon her, although Mel had never seen her before. She felt certain she would have remembered somebody who seemed so much more real than the rest of the place.

‘You’re from up north, right?’ the woman said.

‘No,’ said Mel.

‘I saw you in York. That meeting. You spoke about fuel prices, and then it all kicked off. Twenty years ago.’

‘No,’ said Mel again. ‘I’m from Portsmouth. I was. From Portsmouth.’

‘That’s only down the road.’ The woman looked at the paint tin, and Mel decided to answer no more questions.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, and the woman said, at the same time, ‘I followed you.’

‘What?’

‘From the main room. The jigsaws, the guitar. You slipped out. You looked like you were going some place better. You should cover your tracks if you’re not meant to be in there.’

‘I am allowed to be in there. I have permission.’

‘Great! Good for you. Privileges.’ The woman reached into the pocket of her knitted cardigan, no doubt made by the endlessly creating brigade of Sue, Poppy, Alicia and Geoff, and produced a small stuffed bear. ‘This is Eurydice.’ She made four syllables of the name.

It was the mixture of accusation and charm that befuddled Mel to the point of actually smiling. ‘Hello Eurydice,’ she said, taking herself by surprise.

The woman leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘She can’t actually speak,’ she said. ‘Nobody gave her a mouth. I made her when I was a little girl, and I didn’t think she needed one back then.’

‘You could make one for her now.’

‘Oh no. I don’t think she’s actually that bothered. There’s nothing that facilitates the abdication of responsibility so much as not having a mouth in the first place.’ She said this long sentence in one breath, like a well-rehearsed speech, and Mel felt a sudden bond, as if she had more in common with this person than with anybody else she had met in such a long time, even from before coming to the farm. If those words were a test, Mel felt certain that she wanted to pass it.

‘Have you been allocated an area yet?’

‘Me, or Eurydice?’

‘I’m assuming your beautiful lost soul of a bear will get to be a lotus-eater.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right. The winery, they said. But no room allocations yet. We’re meant to bunk down in the big room tonight.’

‘The common room,’ Mel said. ‘You won’t get any sleep in there. Come on. You can stay with me tonight.’

‘Will you tell me what that tin is for?’

‘Nope,’ said Mel, and the smile she received in return was an affirmation. Yes, she passed the test. She passed the test on that day, at least.

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Three of them come for the body. They are two men and a woman, and Lucas is not among them. They have a dirty trolley that usually takes seedlings from the nursery to the sectors, and they lay her on that, keeping my blanket over her. It’s fine. I don’t want it any more anyway.

When people die here –

When people die here there’s a process, but that seems to have been overturned. I didn’t give it much thought before, except that the process made sense. Everything worked in a certain way. But these new young people know nothing of it, and don’t care to ask. They set off down the corridor with Daisy, and I follow along behind until one of them turns around and says, ‘Get back to work. There are mouths to feed.’

He’s a tall man, bone thin. The other man and the woman both stop walking and stare at him. Something tells me this is the first time he’s assumed such a level of command, and he’s enjoying the sensation. They look at his enjoyment, and they say nothing.

The only replies that come into my mind are pathetic variations on, ‘You’re not the boss of me’ and experience has taught me nobody emerges from such statements with any dignity. In fact, there’s no dignity to be salvaged here at all, no matter what I say or do. There are words that this man would be happy to throw at me; there are labels that would begin to define me as less than him. I need to keep myself free from such words, but I also have to know what they’re going to do with Daisy.

I choose my words so very carefully. ‘I just need to see her laid to rest, please.’

‘Want to sing a hymn or two, do you?’ He laughs, and the woman lays a hand on his shoulder from behind him, so gently. Ahhhhh, I see what this is: he has had such a hard life, she is telling herself as she touches him. He’s only known the toughest way to be, to survive, and he can’t express himself any other way, but he means well. She’s determined to back up his pain as the most important in the room. Oh, the difficulties of being such a strong young man in charge.

‘Fine,’ he says, and the woman smiles at me, as if she’s done me a favour. She’s hardly more than a teenager, and she’s already well practised in feminine idiocy.

We start moving again. The woman checks a piece of paper as she pushes the trolley along, looking at a map perhaps, and we cross through the sectors, working our way out to the grapevines and the winery beyond, which would be a perfect place for Daisy. The corridors are mainly empty – it’s still working hours – and everything looks quite normal, apart from one buggy that has been overturned, right on to its roof, like a practical joke, without explanation. The men and the woman steer the trolley around it without comment.

We pass through the winery, where the large wooden vats stand and the smell is sharp and sour. Green bottles sit on a long trestle table, each one bearing a label that says Blossom Farm’s Finest Table Wine in curly letters, and a picture of a bunch of beautiful grapes. The workers take care to not look straight at us, and the way they know to avoid their eyes tells me that there have been quite a few trolleys passing this way.

Beyond the winery there is a place I’ve never visited before – a corridor, crates of bottles piled against the walls, that ends in a door. The lock has been prised free, and dangles loose on two electrical wires. This must be how these agro-terrorists got in here, away from the cameras and the guards. An emergency exit, of all things, forgotten about. Except that Daisy found it, once upon a time. She did always love to explore.

‘Stay,’ the tall man says to me.

‘Let her say goodbye?’ says the woman, and when he doesn’t reply I think he won’t mind if I touch Daisy one last time. But here’s the thing; I don’t want to touch her, not here, not in front of them. Besides, I tell myself over and over, she’s dead, she’s dead. What does flesh on a trolley mean? It means nothing at all. Whatever happens next, it doesn’t matter.

‘No, it’s fine,’ I say.

‘Let’s do this quick,’ says the other man.

The woman pushes the door, and when it doesn’t give the men join in, all three straining until it moves, and a drift of snow tumbles in to the corridor, along with the freezing cold. Outside, I can see only white.

The men take either end of the body, and carry it out.

‘Why out there?’ I say, to the woman, who stays behind, wrapping her arms around herself as she watches them.

‘The snow will cover them,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, the ground’s too hard for a proper burial.’

‘So they’ll just leave her?’ I come and stand beside her, and look out at the afternoon, the sun already low in the sky. It’s not snowing right now; the drifts stretch away, so beautiful, and the cold is a hammer to my chest. I gasp, and look around, and see the men, not far away. They are already coming back, leaving behind my blanket, and the body wrapped within it, lying in a dip between two mounds of snow. In fact, it’s a field of these regularly spaced mounds. Bodies, covered in white. Many bodies, making hillocks. The guards, the supervisors, and now Daisy.

The woman grabs my arm and pulls me back.

‘Why?’ I ask her, knowing I have only moments before the men return and she will no longer speak to me.

‘Why what? I told you.’

‘No. No, Don’t you understand? We’re not important. It’s the plants. You die, and you go under the ground in your sector. To feed the plants. Out there -‘ I point at the broken door, the way outside that is swallowing our heat so greedily, ‘- is no good to anyone. The plants need the nutrients.’

‘You bury people under the plants?’

‘Of course. The nutrients. That’s where Daisy should be. In Strawberries. She worked Strawberries, in the end.’

The man return, and slam the door shut, then kick their boots against the corridor walls, flinging around snow. ‘It’s strange how quickly you get used to the warm,’ reflects the tall one, and then he remembers me, and assumes the tone of command once more. ‘Off you go, then,’ he says. ‘Work.’

And off I go.

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There is an hour left to the day. I return to Sector K, and find Lucas there, standing on my soil. He touches the fruit with his fingertips.

The rage that comes over me can’t be contained, even though it is dangerous. I walk towards him with the plan to slap his face, for something I can’t define. He sidesteps me, and then I’m deep in the tangle of the plants, and my leg is caught. I fall to the earth. It’s easier to hit the soil than to hit him, anyway. It gives under my weight. It understands me.

Lucas stands over me, hovering on tiptoes, like an idiot.

‘Go away,’ I tell him, when I have enough control of myself.

‘Are you all right?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Can I help you up?’

I don’t take his hand, and after a while he squats down next to me. Here, in the green, it’s harder to hate him.

‘They put Daisy outside,’ I say, to his knees. ‘It’s a waste. Tell them. Bodies go in the ground. Here.’ I pat the soil, and then meet his eyes. His youth, his newness, is so alien, like the wings of an insect or the bright yellow beak of a bird. ‘Here’s where I want to end up. Right here.’

‘You’d give everything to Blossom Farm.’

‘Not the farm.’ Don’t they see it? They all act as if there are only institutions in this world, and nothing else worth talking about, nothing else worth saving.

‘They don’t care about you,’ he says, and I know he hasn’t understood.

‘Neither does your lot.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘You’re probably right.’

He sits down next to me. After a while he says, ‘This place is too beautiful to survive.’

‘It’s the beautiful things that live on.’

‘Not any more. Not out there.’

‘We’re not out there.’

He shakes his head. ‘Daisy said you came in here before it got bad. That you were working in a private school and there was a special arrangement, friends in high places…’

‘Daisy said an awful lot to you considering she hadn’t said a word to me in three years.’

He laughs. His smile is clear and strong. ‘Maybe she’d been saving it all up, then. Her need to talk about you.’

Think clearly, I remind myself; this is no time to fall back in love with youth. ‘Please leave me alone,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll take care of the melons. You can have the fruit, eat it, give it to orphaned children, dance round it in your underwear, I don’t care. But please leave me alone, and don’t come into this area again.’

‘What are you afraid of?’ he asks, and that undoes me. I put my dirty hands, fresh from the soil, over my face and whisper, ‘It’s not always about being afraid.’

‘Isn’t it?’ he says, reflectively. When I take my hands away I see, in his eyes, a lifetime of being afraid, more than any fair share, more than I have felt. Fear as a default setting – not just in waking hours, but creeping into all dreams, even the good ones. I have had moments of safety, of love, of comfort, and they have kept me going through the lean periods. I’m not sure Lucas has.

‘Did you really care about her?’ I ask him. ‘Why?’

‘I don’t know. She seemed… real to me.’

‘Don’t tell me. She reminded you of your mother.’

‘She wasn’t anybody’s mother. Not like you.’

‘I never had children,’ I tell him.

‘That doesn’t mean you weren’t a mother. She told me. You loved those kids. You fought for them. To get them away.’

Yes, I did, I fought for them, and even though it sounds clichéd I can’t deny that I was all those children had in those difficult moments, and I did my very best by them.

‘It’s a good thing,’ says Lucas, ‘to be a mother. But Daisy wasn’t one. I could see that as soon as I found her. People think I’m a follower. Lucas, who does what he’s told. When she got better, she started to talk to me as if I could make my own decisions. I’ve not felt that before. It’s a different way for people to be.’

‘What kind of way?’

‘Friends,’ he says, simply. ‘We were friends.’

I feel something open within me. It is pride, flowering. I’m proud of this man, this stranger, who would call a prickly old lady a friend. A description of equal terms.

‘Help me up,’ I say.

He stands, and holds out his hands once more, and this time I take them, and let him pull me up. We emerge from the plants and stand on the walkway, side by side. The dome looks different. Perhaps the lights have started to dim as part of the cycle. Soon the sprinklers will kick in.

‘The storeroom,’ I say. ‘Why did you want to get in there?’

‘Daisy said there were materials in the storeroom.’ He wets his lips. ‘Paint.’

‘You want paint?’

‘Not a lot. Just a little.’

The way he says it tells me that Daisy has told him about this side of my personality too.

‘Right. Right.’

He knows that I have the code to the storeroom and he didn’t pressure me for it. Is that decency, or manipulation on his part?

Either way, it helps me to make a decision. ‘I’ll let you in. But I won’t give you the code. You only come in and out with me, understood?’

‘Certainly. It’s your space, after all.’

Does he really believe that? He’s wily enough to keep any streak of sarcasm out of his voice.

Either way, the deal is done. We walk along together, and talk of what life is like for a child on the outside. I wonder if maybe Blossom Farm shouldn’t have given their jobs to the very young, rather than the very old. But it makes perfect sense. I’m ashamed to realise that the old are so much easier to control.

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Part Two

 

I no longer have a blanket.

But this doesn’t matter, because I no longer have a room.

‘It’s a reallocation to make sure everyone gets a place to sleep,’ says the woman standing in my doorway. Behind her, another woman is sitting at my small table, polishing a long knife with a cloth, taking care not to look at me. ‘Go to the Common Room and they’ll set you up.’

‘But this is my room,’ I say. All I want is to get inside it. Coming back down the corridor from the Store Room, I was thinking only about the fact I had no blanket. What was I going to do? No warm blanket any more. It’s strange, how quickly priorities can change.

‘We all have to make sacrifices,’ says the woman. ‘It’s not that you don’t have a place to sleep. It’s just this is a big room, and we thought the original workers might want to stick together, so you’ll have been allocated a place in with your own kind.’ She nibbles her cracked bottom lip; the change in temperature must be playing havoc with her skin.

‘So off you trot,’ says the woman with the knife, who looks as clean and brutal as a teenager. She doesn’t even bother to make eye contact with me. She is a parody of a threat, like she’s practised it for hours and now is happy to seize her chance.

‘Keep your knickers on,’ I tell her. I’ve had a bad enough day to no longer care. Besides, she’s obviously all bark and no bite. Who seriously polishes a knife just to scare an old lady?

‘We could throw you out in the cold instead,’ she says. Something in her voice suggests to me this isn’t the first time she’s thought of this idea, or voiced it.

The other woman, the one at my door, says, ‘I put your stuff in here.’ She reaches around the door and brings out a white plastic sack, about half-full. I take it and look inside: my clothes, books, hairbrush, cream for my legs when they ache. Not my slides. They must still be under the bed. I can’t leave them behind. But carrying them would be a job for more than one person, and where would I put them? How would I explain them? The one with the knife – she would smash them if she suspected they were important to me. I’m beginning to recognise this look some of them have, as if the things they’ve experienced outside will justify the things they do in here.

‘Thanks,’ I say, to the one at the door. I set off for the Common Room. It’s nearly dinner time and my body is hurting. No doubt it will only get worse tomorrow. I want my bed. I want my slides, my happy places. I want. I want my blanket.

I want to see Daisy. I want her to ignore me over dinner, sitting at a different table, feeling hatred, feeling disgust, just feeling something personal and real and Daisyish at me.

In the storeroom, Lucas said, ‘Look at all the stuff in here. People get killed for this outside. Petrol. Look. Batteries. Torches. Inflatable tents. Solar warmers.’ He spoke softly, in awe, as if entering a cathedral.

‘I thought you wanted paint,’ I said, watching him from the door. ‘It’s against the far wall.’

‘Thanks.’ But he didn’t move quickly. He examined each shelf in turn: top, middle, bottom, as he walked down the rows. ‘How come they gave you access to this place? They must really trust you.’

‘I was friends with the supervisor before Mr Cecil,’ I said.

‘I thought you were… friends with Daisy?’

‘I thought you of all people would understand there’s more than one kind of friend in the world.’

Mr Taylor, I had called him, once I worked for him. Once upon a time, in a classroom not too far away, he had called me Miss Baris. He was a good boy, although he didn’t believe it, and he turned into a better man. When it all went wrong, he came for me.

‘What are these?’ asked Lucas. He touched my slides, the ones that I painted and left behind in the storeroom; the ones that I didn’t want to be reminded of so often, unless a dark mood took me.

‘Nothing.’

He picked one up at random, and held it up. It was a painting of a day I never want to think about. Another day of goodbyes, years ago.

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Slide 58

 

She counted them getting on to the bus, and she counted them leaving it, even though they could not have gone anywhere during the journey. Old habits. There were only five of them left. They didn’t even sit together on the thirty minute trip to the port, but spaced themselves evenly throughout the bus, leaving a pattern of empty seats. Miss Baris wished there was some way she could tell them they needed each other, but she had been a teacher long enough to know that children never, ever, believed such sentiments. They thought themselves invincible, and maybe that would be enough to get them through.

They gathered in front of the doors to Departure, the kids shivering, even in their expensive coats. A light sleet was falling. It looked like snow if you stared up into it, but on the skin and on the concrete it was grey, and wet, and dull.

‘Let’s run through it again,’ said Miss Baris, and they all groaned as one. At least they were united in some things. ‘Natalya, start us off.’

‘Number one: stay together at all times,’ said the smallest girl, so small. So eager to please with her prompt reply and her smart manners.

‘Omar?’

‘Number two: board the ferry and don’t speak to anyone except the people in charge.’ He was a pain in class, big and bullish, but if any of them had grasped the seriousness of the situation it was him, and she saw a determination in his eyes that gave her hope for them all.

‘Quentin – number three.’

The boy gaped at her. He wasn’t the brightest, but he had a soft heart and loved all animals, choosing to spend most of his time in the school stables. He had told her once that he wanted to study to become a vet, and she had told him to work hard. That was what teachers said in the face of unrealistic dreams.

‘Disembark at…’ she prompted him.

‘Disembark at Bilbao and use the Euros to pay for a taxi to the train station. From there get tickets to Madrid.’

‘Well done,’ she said. ‘Number four. Lupita.’

‘Once we arrive in Madrid get to the Russian Embassy. Ask for our parents to be contacted,’ said Lupita, in a bored voice. She wanted so much to be the ideal woman and ended up looking more like a child than any of them with her hitched-up skirt and her practised, sulky attitude. She was the weakest link of the five. If she felt the urge to wander off, she would, and the rest would fall apart in her absence.

‘I’m relying on you, Lupita,’ Miss Baris said, knowing it wouldn’t help, but unable to stop herself. ‘Five, Dimitri.’

‘Five. Stay together at all times,’ recited Dimitri, the cheeky one, working on becoming tall and handsome and trouble to the world in general. ‘Miss, why is rule five the same as rule one?’

Lupita nudged him. ‘Because it’s the most important, you moron.’

‘We don’t call each other morons, Lupita,’ said Miss Baris.

‘And our parents will pick us up there?’ asked Natalya.

‘That’s right.’ Lies came so easily to teachers. She had long since learned to ignore any twinge of conscience. She was the last teacher left in the school, and these were the last pupils. There would soon be no more food, no more light, no more heating. After the extortionate cost of bribing the official to secure five places on the ferry, there was simply no more money.

And at the other end, what happened then? She had contacted so many people, trying to get hold of the parents who hadn’t bothered to come for their own children when the gulf stream began to fail. Powerful people. Dignitaries, celebrities, billionaires. She had to hope that her failure to reach them could be put right by the Embassy. Two of the children had that nationality, at least, and she had sent them an email informing them that any attempt to split up these children would result in the press being contacted. She had an inkling the kids could also make bargaining chips against other countries, but knew next to nothing about politics.

Stop, she told herself, stop. You’ve done the best that you could do.

‘Aren’t you coming, Miss?’ said Omar, managing to look vulnerable.

‘No, I’m needed here,’ she said. ‘But you are all capable of doing this. I have great faith in you all. Just make sure you stay together.’

They groaned.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘Off you go.’

They did. They walked through the doors without looking behind, because this was an adventure and she was only a teacher.

Back at the bus, she sat behind the wheel until the ferry had swung away from the dock. Then she took the printed email and the map from her coat pocket and read the words through again.

I hope you remember me. I was Billy Taylor, in your biology class fifteen years ago at Portsdown. You taught me about plants. I was fascinated. You made it all seem so important. I went on to study Agriculture at college and I work for Blossom Farm now. Have you heard of them? They have a series of bio-farms not far from the school. They’re employing older people, dependable people, to look after the plants, and I thought of you. You inspired me.

Would you consider coming here? I don’t know what’s happening to this country but I heard the school was closing as everyone with enough money to get away was leaving, like rats on a sinking ship, I suppose. I don’t know if you remember that English never was my strongest subject. But if you are staying in the UK and you need a place to go then you are welcome here. I’ve enclosed a map. When you arrive ask the guards at the gate to page me. It’s warm, and safe, and I can get you a good room of your own. 

Miss Baris started the engine, and drove away, hoping the roads were still clear enough to make it through.

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‘Is it a bus?’ said Lucas.

‘Can’t you tell?’ I said.

He frowned at it, then put it back on the pile. He carried on looking around the treasures of the store room, and said, quietly, ‘I won’t tell anyone about this place, okay?’

‘Why don’t I believe you?’

He said, ‘Something tells me you’re a scientist at heart. Don’t believe anything until it’s proved, that’s what you think. So just wait, and I’ll prove it to you. You don’t have much choice, anyway.’

‘That’s true,’ I said.

He picked up a paint tin, and then reached for the signs. ‘Can I take these too? I like to paint. I’m no good at it either. Well, I wasn’t. Back was I was little. I can remember it, a warm room, some paper, a painting kit. Colours. I’d like to get good at it, some day. Maybe we should both get some practice in.’

‘I don’t do it to be good at it.’

‘No. I can understand that.’ He was so very reasonable that it hurt.

He came back to me, at the door, loaded up with his spoils, and said, ‘I think us painters at heart should stick together.’

And even though I knew he was saying it only for his own reasons, I heard myself saying, ‘Yes.’ Yes, with the memory of another time in my agreement. Rules one and five are still in my mind, even if I don’t look at the black lines on glass that make up that bus journey. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Stick together.’

I reach the Common Room, and find it filled with confused old people to whom I don’t want to belong. It turns out the room allocations are not going so smoothly after all.

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It’s not that anybody is obviously angry. Maybe you get too old to show anger, visibly, even if you’re never too old to feel it. But there are so many people in the common room who are unhappy, crying, standing around with white plastic sacks in hand, and I join them, push my way through the groups, looking for somebody in charge.

By the archway to the refectory is a cluster of young people, all women; I recognise one of them. She took Daisy away earlier. She holds a clipboard and the others are gathered around it, frowning. I notice some of them are wearing pagers and utility belts, that must have once belonged to the supervisors.

Lucas isn’t here, and neither is the leader – Stephan, he called himself. Room allocation is obviously not an important topic to those in charge. I’m thinking they must already be ensconced in the supervisors’ old rooms. No question of double bunking in those.

I watch them squabble over the clipboard for a while. This could take all night, and I’m not brave enough to approach them.

‘Mel.’

Jim is behind me, with Lonnie in tow.

‘Have they taken your room?’ He gives me a sympathetic smile. ‘I suppose that would be the first one they’d want. It always was the biggest of the workers’ rooms.’

He’s not holding a white plastic sack himself, I notice. ‘At least you’re okay,’ I say, trying to sound friendly.

‘Well, since we’re a two sharing already I expect it makes more sense to let us keep the space. But we were thinking – if you need a place to sleep, come bunk in with us. We have spare blankets and a pillow. It’s still sleeping on the floor, but I don’t think anybody evicted tonight is going to find a bed of their own.’

His generosity shames me. Of course, he wants something. Everybody does. But even so it’s no small thing to give up your personal space. And it’s the best offer I’m going to get tonight.

‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘Thanks Lonnie.’

Her smile is a little more lopsided than Jim’s. I’m guessing she’s not quite so keen on the idea as he is. Still, she doesn’t complain as we leave the Common Room behind.

Their room is smaller than mine, and there are more personal touches evident in it, from quite a stack of books to photographs of young people, people from the past I should say, stuck to the walls and looking straight at me. The bed has a stack of crocheted blankets upon him. That’s Lonnie’s hobby. I don’t know how she could have got hold of so much wool over the years. What does she trade to indulge her hobby? I’m starting to see that my knowledge of Blossom Farm only scratches the surface. I know it geographically, and even politically; socially, now that’s a different matter.

‘You’ll be okay,’ Jim says, as he lays things on the floor: the blankets, the pillow. We take it in turns to use the adjoining bathroom, and I hate the smell of it. The smell of them, scrunched up together in their own sweat, neither of them able to tell their scents apart. Lonnie removes her enormous earrings and leaves them by the bed, ready for first thing the next morning.

Then we’re three old people in the standard green flannel pyjamas, so laughable, being polite to each other. Am I ready for lights out? Jim asks me, courteously. I tell him yes. It’s only once the dim light is out and everyone is tucked up in bed that Jim begins to speak, and say real things. This is why I’m here. So that I can’t just walk away.

‘It’s us and them,’ he says, softly, into the dark, ‘Us and them, Mel, and they want us to think it’s not, but we’re not stupid. And they say Blossom Farm has been using us, cheap compliant labour, practically slaves, but they’re no different. They’re worse, with their pretence of equality and their big statements: food for all, freedom. And they’ll just run this place into the ground because they know nothing about plants, do they? Nothing.’

‘No,’ I whisper. They know a lot about being cold and frozen inside, and about hating us. But we’re catching up fast.

‘Blossom Farm won’t stand for it. I talked to this Stephan, man to man, I said I was the representative for the workers, somebody has to be. Stephan said all the supervisors and guards were escorted away, but we can stay and keep working, that’s part of the deal. He says there’s going to be a profit-sharing agreement for a peaceful solution. But Blossom Farm would never agree to that, would they?’

‘No.’

So Stephan said the guards and Mr Cecil left. But I saw the mounds in the snow. I could start a war here with just a few words. If I just describe those mounds, Jim will start to mobilise us all with the righteous ire of the fed and warm and unimaginative.

Jim talks and talks and talks.

I feel a new sense of sympathy for Lonnie by the time my eyes start to close regardless of the endless sound of his voice. He’s busy talking himself into importance. Has he done this every night since the terrorists came? No wonder she looks so tired.

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The sound jolts me from sleep.

At first I think something heavy has been thrown against the door, but then it comes again, shaking me all the way into wakefulness, and I realise it’s so much bigger than that. Something has been thrown against the domes.

It’s so dark. There’s another bang, and then I hear voices in the corridor, panicked, and running feet, and I feel fear like I never have, so sharp, like pain.

The melons.

Not the melons, not when everything else has gone, but then someone shouts, ‘Winery!’ and the relief is so keen, like ice on a burn; I go numb, and the aches of my body don’t matter as I get up, get dressed, and head out towards the noise.

I don’t think. I just move, fast, in the flow with the others. Is Jim behind me? I hear a man shouting my name but I ignore it, I’m caught up in the crowd, young and old moving together and I can’t tell them apart any more.

The heat hits me when we reach the entrance to the Winery and the crowd panics, parts, and disperses into smaller groups as I press on past the shelves. There are flakes of snow whirling in the orange glow up ahead, hot and cold, fire and snow, mixing, mingling, making crazy patterns. The back wall of the winery is gone. The barrels are alight, and the puddles, puddles all around, burn. The hole in the wall, like a ragged mouth, is terrifying. The fire runs and roars; it is a monster.

I can’t make out faces, or understand what is being shouted, but I make out the concerted movements around me. Some people are attempting to control the blaze. The young ones use blankets, handfuls of snow, even their feet as they stamp and stamp in the fiery liquid. Stephan is there, a central point, standing tall against the blaze and facing it down with the confidence of one who is used to getting his own way. The fire will lose the battle. It begins to obey.

Someone catches at my arm. It’s Jim. I’m beginning to get sick of his face.

‘Come on,’ he says, ‘come away. They’ve got it.’ He pushes at me, and I nearly lose my balance, but he’s right; we should go. When the fire goes out there will only be the hole, and the cold pouring through it, and this section will be closed off as best as the terrorists can manage to stop the endless winter from touching our plants. And to stop up the sight of those mounds.

‘Where’s Lonnie?’ I say, as we push past the milling crowds, their mouths open, their eyes glassy. Rubberneckers, that’s what they used to be called. The desire to stare at a car crash, when somebody else’s world has gone wrong. Except this is our world – don’t we have the right to stare?

‘I told her to stay in bed,’ Jim says. ‘You took off so fast. I was worried about you.’ He holds on to my arm, so tightly.

‘I needed to know what was happening.’

‘What was always going to happen.’ The corridor is quieter; all attention is focused behind us, on the blaze. Jim slows a little, and loosens his grip. He speaks more quietly, and with well-chosen words. I get the feeling he’s been rehearsing this in his mind. ‘They’ll never hold this place. They’ll tell us all sorts of lies to keep us all working, but they have to know they have a few days more at best. This was a message Blossom Farm was always going to send.’

‘You think Blossom Farm deliberately blew up the Winery?’

‘It’s the easiest and cheapest area to replace,’ he says. ‘It’s just equipment, not even under the domes. Not organic. But it shows they’d rather destroy it than share it.’

I can’t accept it, I can’t; destroy the melons, the strawberries, the oranges, the sugar snap peas, because if they don’t own it they think nobody should.

‘Lonnie is getting more confused,’ Jim says. ‘It’s all this uncertainty. You know what happens when one of us gets confused. They put us outside. There’s no reason to keep someone who can’t work. But if I make myself indispensable, they’ll want to keep me happy, and then she’s got a chance. We have to last out this band of idiots and then, once they’re gone, the farm will need new supervisors, ones who understood the situation here and did their best to help the rightful owners.’

He stops walking and pulls me to a halt beside him.

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘You’ve been here so long, you’ve had privileges, you know how this works. You’ve got access to stuff, and you know every inch of the place. We can keep the workers together, unite them, keep them strong so they don’t help the enemy. Days, that’s all it will take until the cavalry arrives. Days.’

‘You think we should form an underground movement?’ I ask him. Is he picturing us striking some valiant blow for a business that doesn’t care about us one way or another? His desperation is repulsive, but I’ve been in love. I know what it’s like to think you’ll do anything to keep someone close. Still, I’m too old for this nonsense.

‘Listen,’ I say. I step in close to him and hold his gaze, so he can be in no doubt that I mean this. ‘I can’t help you. I’m done with getting involved. I came here for an easy life, and I just care about the melons. That’s it.’

‘You don’t get to have an easy life now, you silly old woman,’ he says. ‘You silly, silly old woman. This is going to be hard, and you’re part of it, whether you like it or not. In the morning they’ll call a meeting, wait and see. They’ll say that Blossom Farm never cared about us, and they’ll try to split us up. They don’t get it. We know we never mattered to anybody but ourselves, but there comes a point where you have to stand up for that. For meaning something, if only to yourself. And you do care, Mel. We’re approaching the moment where you won’t be able to pretend otherwise any more. Then remember my offer, and remember what you need to do to survive.’ He steps back and puts his hand on the door handle. ‘And don’t mention any of this to Lonnie, okay? She doesn’t need to be upset.’

I follow him into the room and in the warm darkness it’s possible to believe that Lonnie sleeping, her unbroken peace, is enough for all of us. I crawl back into my nest on the floor and Jim returns to his place beside her.

Us and them. Everything is us and them. Even if there were just us three: Jim and Lonnie and me, there would be the divide that splits the heart of all humanity, and if it came to it they would both turn on me.

Did Lucas mean it? That we painters should stick together? I wish I had seen him at the fire, just to see his face. But it’s so dangerous to trust. Even Daisy, Daisy who had me in her hand, could not be trusted in the end.

No, I won’t trust anyone. That’s the only way to be. If it must be us and them, then I’ll stand alone, and take no sides, no matter what happens.

Jim’s breathing slows, and I know he’s found sleep. How lucky he is, to believe in his own importance. He protects Lonnie as if he is a superhero.

SuperJim. The thought makes me smile.

Yes, he’s ridiculous, but as I lie there, feeling the inevitable creep towards morning, I loose the reins of my imagination and picture myself as a young woman, running away over the snow, flanked by the people who make me super too. We are so young and pretty and free, Daisy and Lucas and me.

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It’s egg and toast in the morning, with the strange metallic taste of artificial eggs sticking at the back of my throat. I don’t know how they make them, but I always picture robot chickens sitting above a giant conveyor belt, their necks stretching as they pop out egg after egg.

Damn these stupid thoughts, and my old, sore bones, and sleeping on the floor. And damn Stephan, who looks like a proper leader as he stands on the table at the front of the room and shouts, having started softly before working himself up to a frenzy worthy of a politician. I think he’s missed his calling.

‘We offered them a good deal!’ he shouts. ‘A fair deal! Half the produce for the starving, and half for them and their fat shareholders, as long as they left us alone to form a new collective, a place where young and old could work together towards a future for us all!’ He holds out his hands and knits his fingers together. I finish off the last mouthful of eggs.

‘And this is their answer,’ says Stephan. He drops his hands and his voice. ‘They destroy. They don’t care who gets hurt. They don’t care about you, and they don’t care about the future. They would rather blow this place to hell than simply take a little less for themselves! This is the kind of thinking that got us all into this mess in the first place. No care for each other, no care for the natural world, no care for the planet. Nothing but greed. So we need to show them that they’re wrong. We won’t be scared by their tactics. We won’t give in to fear. We’ll stand strong, and take care of the plants and of each other, until they see sense.’

Does he really think this will work? He flicks his eyes over us all and I see calculations taking place. He thinks he has us where he wants us.

From my position in the far corner, I look around the refectory and see the way the young ones are spread out, sitting in twos and threes, alert, none of them eating. Stephan is a very dangerous man.

‘Now, I know that you must be feeling a lot of things about what happened last night. But now is not the time to give into negativity. Let’s all stay strong, and together we can prove to Blossom Farm that although they might have enslaved you once, they never managed to brainwash you. You will always be, in your hearts, free men and women.’

Across from me, Jim coughs, and catches my eye. You see? his expression says, as clear as day. I told you so.

In my expression I try to put the thought – don’t start trouble Jim, don’t start trouble, they’re ready for you.

‘Any questions?’ says Stephan, pleasantly.

Jim raises his hand. He turns in his chair to face Stephan, and all I can see is the back of his head, where the hairs are combed so carefully. He was in the bathroom for ages this morning.

‘Yes?’

‘It’s not so much a question as an observation,’ says Jim.

‘Please,’ Stephan says, waving a hand. ‘Go ahead.’

He stands up. ‘We’re a pretty old bunch of folks, sir. And we’re all heard this kind of nonsense before. You want to fight a war, you go right ahead. Don’t let us stop you. But I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re not about to fight it for you. Not for all the tea in China.’

‘I’m disappointed to hear you feel that way,’ says Stephan, looking disappointed and righteous. ‘I’m afraid the time has come to choose where you stand, and everybody has to make their own choice. I see that you are choosing to stand with Blossom Farm.’

‘Oh, really?’ says Jim. ‘If I’m not with you I’m against you, is that it? I’ve heard that before, son. And we’re for ourselves, by the way. You lot can be for yourselves and we’ll be for ourselves. End of story.’ He sits down. I’m so glad I can’t see his face. I get the feeling he looks pleased with himself.

‘Ah, I’m so sad that life has been so difficult for you that you can’t tell when a good offer comes along,’ says Stephan. ‘I think we can get together, man to man, and discuss this personally.’

If Jim thought this was how he would keep Lonnie alive, he’s such an idiot. I wonder if he’s beginning to realise that.

‘But no matter how you feel about us,’ says Stephan, addressing the entire room once more, ‘I hope we can all agree that the plants come first. Let’s work hard for them, if not yet for each other.’

He climbs down from the table and people begin to move, taking their trays bearing empty plates and cups to the stacking holders, and then setting off for their sectors with dull, tired expressions. Do I care for them? Will I stand with them? No, I won’t.

The man who took away Daisy’s body comes to our table, and says to Jim, ‘Wait here.’

Jim says nothing. He shrinks down in his seat and Lonnie, beside him, looks up and around, as if waking from a dream.

‘What is it?’ she says, and I say, ‘Work. Come on.’ She follows me, thank God, looking back once or twice at Jim, but she still has the sense to come away.

I drop Lonnie off at Satsumas and then lose myself amongst my melons. Some areas are ripening and I check for colour, size, shape, and write yield estimates, just as Mr Cecil would have liked. The fruits are good and heavy, but I won’t pick them, not yet.

Today the desire is strong to taste one. If I split it open it would reveal the perfect colour of sunrise. My mouth moistens. It’s wet all morning with the thought of the taste. It hasn’t bothered me this way for years, but right now my body is on fire with sensation: the aches and pains, the tiredness, only proves that I’m still alive, and grateful for it. I haven’t felt this way for so long. I can remember exactly when I last felt so glad to still have these old arms and legs, this tired and struggling heart.

I remember it, and I want to put it on glass.

When the lunchtime bell goes I pocket my paintbrush and head to the store room. The paint awaits me. It slides thick and easy over the surface of the pane.

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Slide 118

 

The Reception Area of Sector K was a mockery of an earlier time, when there might have been guests to this state-of-the-art biodome complex, but the doors had been shut and the gates erected before Mel’s arrival. The orange seats, the potted palm, and the water dispenser were used only by the workers, and had become invisible, beyond comment. But the stranger looked hard at them, and Mel saw them again, as if for the first time. The orange seats were lurid and the potted palm lopsided. How ridiculous it looked.

The man’s face was slick with sweat. He wore a padded coat that was so bulky he had barely squeezed through the door. But his shoes, and his beard, were still white with snow. He sneered at them both.

Mr Taylor said, ‘Can I help you?’ His voice was very mild.

The man opened his coat. Inside was a bundle, strapped to his chest by a length of sacking material, brown and coarse, looping over his shoulders and around his waist. He unveiled himself, as if something meaningful had been revealed.

Mel thought – a bomb. A bomb. She didn’t move.

She had heard stories. New workers, arriving from the changed world outside, had told tales of separatism, agro-terrorism, people demanding to live under their own rules to make a fairer world. She had eavesdropped on these conversations with vague interest, as if it was happening in another country, far away. Outside – the foreign country. Now the outside was here.

‘Don’t do anything,’ said Mr Taylor. ‘Okay? Nobody needs to do anything.’

The bundle on the man’s chest squirmed. A small arm emerged through a gap in the sacking. It had folds of fat, chubby creases, and the fist clenched and unclenched.

The man stroked the fist, and then put it back inside the material, using only one hand. In the other hand was a knife.

No, not a knife. It was a trowel. One of the small steel trowels they used for planting. He must have come here through the nurseries, Mel thought.

‘Put the knife down, okay?’ said Mr Taylor, who had stretched out his own hands in that classic gesture of placation. Look, I’m empty handed, I mean you no harm.

The man mumbled.

‘What? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear.’

‘I need milk.’

‘You need the meat section. You’re in fruit. Fruit’s no good for a baby.’ Mr Taylor pointed. ‘Here. I’ll show you the way.’

‘Real milk. From a real cow.’

‘Yes, that’s what we do here. Real cows. I promise you. This way.’

The man watched Mr Taylor edge around to stand beside him, at the entrance. How strange, that only a moment ago they had been discussing the weather, as reported onscreen that morning. Another cold one, Mr Taylor had said, can you remember what summer used to be like? I was in the football team and we played out there in shorts.

‘How far?’ said the man.

‘Not far.’ Mr Taylor flicked his eyes to Mel. It was an instruction, so obviously; no, a plea. To do something. What did he want her to do? The man saw it, and read it quickly and completely. He raised the trowel and brought it down, that steel point digging into the space between Mr Taylor’s neck and his chest, right where the collar of his white shirt sat.

Mel looked away. She simply looked away: not there, not there, not there, she heard in her head.

When she came back to herself, she was kneeling by the entrance to her melon area and Mr Taylor was on the ground, not far away. His blood had formed a lake around him, so red, reaching the feet of the orange chairs, the colours clashing.

She crawled over to him. His mouth was opening and shutting. His eyes were on her. He looked very much younger.

‘Billy,’ she said.

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There’s a cheery knock at the store room door, a young person’s knock, and I just know its Lucas. I hate myself for feeling pleased at the thought.

I put down the paintbrush and open the door. He is standing there with a big smile. I let him enter, check the corridor is empty, and then close the door. We are alone in the only space left to me. Why don’t I mind him being here? I should mind it.

‘What are you painting?’ he says. ‘Is that a melon?’

‘It’s not finished yet. And it’s not a melon. It doesn’t look anything like a melon.’

We stand side by side and stare at the black curves on the glass.

‘It looks exactly like a melon,’ he says.

I nudge him in the ribs.

‘Well, what is it, then?’

‘It’s a baby. Look, there’s the head, there’s an eye, that’s a little hand.’

‘Is that a hand, then? Not a flower? I can’t believe I didn’t see it immediately. You’re a painting genius. Look at that brushwork.’

‘Shut up,’ I tell him.

He smiles and smiles, and looks so comfortable with me, like we share something deep. I wish he wouldn’t smile. I have to make him stop.

‘A man got in here. Into Sector K, I mean. Two years ago. He had a baby strapped to his chest. I can still picture it. That baby. I only saw its hand, though.’ I shrug. ‘The mind’s a funny thing.’

At last; he’s stopped smiling. But this sudden feeling of intimacy is worse. The room is so quiet. ‘What happened?’

‘I don’t know. Guards caught him eventually, I heard. He would have been dealt with. I heard rumours, afterwards, that people outside carry babies around to fatten them up, to – eat them, later.’

‘Like a packed lunch?’ Lucas says, and snorts. ‘You don’t believe that, do you?’

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No, I don’t believe that.’ I can see, once more, that man holding that baby’s hand, tucking it safely away.

Lucas touches the glass pane, where the paint is drying, with one finger. ‘Of course, you’ve never been out there since it all went wrong, so you don’t know. And you’re right; the mind is a funny thing. But, trust me, we don’t eat babies.’

‘All right.’

‘Not my lot, anyway.’ He turns away from the picture, and scans the shelves.

‘What are you looking for?’

‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Listen. This whole thing. You and I both know it’s not going to work.’

For a moment I think he’s talking about us, him and me, but he continues, ‘There can’t be an agreement. Stephan was wrong, and he’s beginning to realise it. He’s given the order to collect as much produce as we can and then get out of here before Blossom Farm gets tired of pretending to negotiate and sends in their army.’

‘They have an army?’

‘You really don’t get who you’re dealing with, do you? Blossom Farm has these domes all over the world now. They’re rich enough to buy people, governments, whole countries. Raising an army is not going to be a problem. All it will take is a little time, and they really don’t care if they lose the entire of this place and everyone in it just as long as they send the message that they don’t negotiate with terrorists.’

He spits the word out, and I finally see that it’s become a meaningless word, describing nobody in this situation accurately.

‘But they picked the winery as a target,’ I say. ‘They knew it would be empty, and that it’s the easiest part to rebuild. It shows they’re not totally -‘

Lucas shakes his head. He lowers his voice even though there’s nobody to overhear. ‘They didn’t blow up the winery. We did.’

‘What?’

‘We blew it up. To show Blossom Farm that we’re serious. Stephan thought it might make them negotiate, if they understood we have the capacity to destroy this place. And still they won’t talk to us. I’ve been out there, holding up signs, trying to get a response. It was the final bluff, and it didn’t work. So now it’s just about time. Starting tomorrow, everyone will be asked to pick their areas clean. And then we’re going to try to escape.’

‘You’ll take all the fruit? Every bit?’

He touches my arm. ‘Not the plants, though, Mel, not the plants. It can all grow again. You’ll be left in peace. Stephan can see it now – that it’s not worth the effort to try to reason with these people.’

‘You talked him round?’

‘He trusts me. And not everyone is intent on bloodshed.’

‘Don’t say any more,’ I beg. He puts his hand to my old face, and I’m ashamed of my tears, and my wrinkles. My pouched eyes, no doubt, contain emotions it would be easy to mock.

‘Are you afraid?’ he says.

Yes, I’m afraid. Of what will come next, and of what I have to do.

‘Don’t worry,’ says Lucas. ‘One day, one harvest, and I’ll be gone. Things will go back to normal.’

I’m afraid of that too.

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Knowing that everything will end makes time move in a different way. I go to bed and Jim isn’t there. Lonnie says he’s at some sort of important meeting, and she goes about her business in a daze, climbing into her pyjamas and settling down into her bed. She doesn’t seem to miss him. In the silence, in the dark, we sleep.

In the morning, Lonnie and I go to the Refectory, and Stephan explains that everything will be harvested today and moved to a safe location to protect the fruit in case of further attacks by Blossom Farm. The workers nod. I see one with a bruised face, another holding his arm in an awkward position, and the intruders are no longer sitting down. They stand against the walls, alert. The illusion of working together is so thin you could blow it away with a single breath. Maybe that is why we all seem to be holding our breath, hardly taking in air at all.

After breakfast I take Lonnie to Satumas and then go to mine. Gregor is at the water cooler. His hands tremble as he raises his cup to his lips. Crates on trolleys have appeared next to the plastic chairs. I steer one through into Melons, and look around me.

I pick everything, no matter how small or green. I pick the swollen and the shrivelled, ripening or with the promise of much growing to do. The first crate fills. The plants surround me, brushing my face as I work, tickling my neck. Just before midday I reach the area where Mr Taylor was buried. I put my hands to the soil, and tell him what I’ve been thinking of since my last painting.

‘I think you really wanted to help that man. I think you were trying to tell me not to call security, that day, with that flick of your eyes. I think you wanted to save that baby. I don’t know what happened to it.’

But I do know. They did the things we don’t talk about here.

They killed it. And then I’m guessing they put it under the soil too. We are workers, and assets, and finally we are fertilizer. We are stupid enough to do it all for the sake of a hot meal and a bed, because we think that matters more than being a person.

I pick the nearest melon. It’s a good one: large, and round, and warm. I scrabble at it with my fingers, but my nails are too short to penetrate it. It won’t open for me. Then I take my paintbrush from behind my ear and stab the end without bristles into the melon.

The smell is divine. The juice drips down over my hand; I lick it off, and breathe in and out, in and out, in great gasps. Memories of my grandmother’s garden are so strong, so vibrant, in my mind. I hear the drone of bees, the weight of warm, real sunshine on the back of my neck. The things I have painted on glass are only shadows of these tastes and touches. I haven’t remembered a thing right.

I stab the melon again and again, until it makes a sucking sound, and splits into ragged pieces. My hands are drenched; the liquid soaks into my sleeves. The seeds are wet and glistening in its gash. I scoop up flesh, and eat, and eat, feeling moisture in my mouth and on my cheeks. It will stain me orange, and I don’t care. I eat.

The dome shudders. It is being hit.

I pocket the seeds in my dungaree pockets, even though they try to slide through my fingers to find the soil. I go back to picking in my melons, and I fill the crates, and listen to the strange noises that mean we have reached the end.

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I work hard, and fill five crates. When I’m half-way through the sixth, Lucas finds me. He looks so calm.

I walk to meet him, and he says, ‘You need to wipe your face.’

I feel my mouth turning up at the corners, and I grin, grin like only a girl should.

He lifts his hand and smoothes his sleeve over my mouth, not gently, rubbing at the corners. ‘There,’ he says. ‘That will have to do.’

The dome shudders again. I hear shouts, from what seems like very far away, but I don’t care.

‘Are you ready?’ he says.

‘For what?’

‘To leave with me.’

I never expected this. Never. Even when I dreamed of something like this, I knew it made no sense. I can’t think of what to say, what to do. When words do come, they are ridiculous ones.

‘I’m so old,’ I tell him, even though I don’t feel it at that moment.

‘I told you. We’re going to stick together. I know how to survive out there, and you know how to make things grow.’

‘I don’t. I can’t make anything grow. Apart from melons.’

‘You’re picking one hell of a time to argue about this.’

The shouts are louder. There’s a new sound, too, like someone tapping out a rhythm, fast, with a high drum. Is that gunfire? I’ve never heard it before.

‘Come to the winery,’ he says. ‘We can get out that way. Bring some melons. I’ll fetch some supplies and meet you there. I think we have a chance, since they’re attacking from the main gate. I’ve come up with a way to move fast.’

‘You’ve been planning this for days.’

‘Since Stephan suggested this whole thing. He said to wait for someone who could get us in, and then we found Daisy. It was my responsibility, to get her to trust us. But she made me trust her instead. And she told me that the only real difference between people is whether they’re willing to hurt others, or try to help them.’ His calmness is a mask. Underneath it I glimpse – what? Pain. Fury. And then it’s gone. ‘Listen. Stephan has ordered us to burn the place down. He wants to make some great statement to the world. If it’s not for anybody, then it’s for nobody. I don’t want to be part of his statement. Do you?’

‘No. No, I don’t.’

‘Great. Then I’ll meet you at the Winery. Say you’ll be there.’ He pulls me into his arms. I’m so lucky, I think, so lucky, when the world I knew is about to end and so many will die, and here I am just being lucky, with my boy wrapping his arms tight around me for no reason I can understand.

‘I’ll be there,’ I say.

He steps back. ‘We need to get going. Give me the code.’

‘What?’

‘The code. For the store room door. There’s no time for us both to go. I can move more quickly alone.’

I’ve been such an idiot. Such an idiot.

To think he could be a friend, a real friend, someone who sees past the way I got to this place, the life I’ve lived, and the wrinkles on my face.

This was all about the code. All of it.

I should hate him.

But he has been so kind to pretend this way, and make me believe it. We might both be painters, but he has a lightness of hand that I have never possessed. One can only admire the brushwork.

‘9200,’ I say. I repeat it, to make sure he’s got it.

‘Right,’ he says. ‘See you at the Winery.’ He takes my hand, and squeezes it. ‘Thank you.’

Once he’s gone, I feel very tired. Tired enough to sleep. To shrivel up, and be done. I lie down for a while, amongst my melons. For a while, I think nothing will ever make me move again.

But then a woman walks into my area. The woman who sharpened her knife at my table, and took my room away from me.

She’s holding a petrol can; it’s heavy, and it bumps against her leg as she approaches my plants. That’s what makes me stand. Not that it’s her, but that she’s brought so much petrol along to do the job.

She sees me, but doesn’t stop. She chooses a spot near the areas I have only just impregnated recently, delicately placing pollen on my brush and easing it inside the flowers. She unscrews the petrol can, and begins to pour. The clear fluid drips from the leaves.

‘Stop,’ I say.

‘Go to the Common Room,’ she tells me, without even bothering to look at me. ‘That’s where all your lot is meant to go. Didn’t your supervisor tell you?’

‘Stop.’ She ignores me. I try to think of anything I might say that would change her mind. ‘If you keep killing everything there’ll be no plants left in the world.’

‘That’s rich,’ she says, ‘coming from your lot.’

I move closer to her. The smell of the petrol is strong and sharp in my nostrils. ‘What lot?’

‘You all fucked it up and now you get to act like the keepers of the flame for some imaginary future where we’re not knee deep in fucking snow.’ She shakes her head, and then stares at me, and I see that hatred again. The unique way that the young despise the old for the things we did or didn’t do frightens me like nothing else I’ve seen.

‘So let it all burn?’ I ask her.

She frowns, and puts down the can, near the door. She hasn’t doused many of the plants in petrol. I get it now; she’ll only use a small amount in each area. Once a few plants are alight, the rest will catch easily enough. That one can of petrol could do the entire of the Farm. Who knows how many she’s already done?

‘I don’t get it,’ she says. ‘That you lot would agree to this, this hoarding, rather than try to save us all. But that’s it, isn’t it? Choices. You made yours.’

‘Did I?’ I ask. I don’t remember making them, exactly, so much as following the paths that were presented. And nothing ever quite seemed like my personal responsibility. Not in the way that these melons are my responsibility. Not in a way that I would bleed for.

‘Look what you left us with,’ she says. She reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out a box of matches. I’m too slow and I can’t think of anything more to say. She moves back away from the soaked plants, strikes a match, and throws it.

They catch so quickly that the air makes a popping sound and within moments the flames are high and orange and flickering through my plants, touching them and making them twist and writhe and shrivel. Black smoke gushes upwards. My stomach does the same, and my mind, oh my mind hurts so much I can’t think any more, I can’t bear any more. I walk to the door, and pick up the can of petrol. I was right. It is very heavy. Then I go to her, this woman who thinks I should have solved all her problems before she was born.

She doesn’t think me capable of such a thing, so I surprise her when I throw petrol over her. I don’t know exactly what I’m expecting to happen. I’m not sure how it does, really. She turns to get away from me, and although she is not very close to the flames they jump through the air to her face, and her arms, and then she writhes and wriggles, just like my plants. She screams and screams, and crashes through the area, and feel my thoughts turning away from the horror of her. I put down the can and collect my trolley, and make sure the door shuts behind me when I leave.

I trundle out to the reception area. Her screaming is so loud, even out here. Gregor crouches behind the water cooler. He peers out at me.

‘You need to start again,’ I tell him. I suspect it’s a thought he never quite grasped. I have to raise my voice, to be heard over the screams.

Onwards, down the corridor. People run, and their terror is bothersome. I swat at them, shoo them from my path. The taste of the melon lingers.

Goodbye, corridor. Goodbye, everyone. I’ve done my best, and now it’s time to move on.

I pass into the living quarters, past my old room, where the glass plates lie under the bed still, no doubt. I don’t stop.

Around the corner there are two men in Blossom Farm uniforms, carrying guns, and they point them at me, but I put my head down and mumble to myself, and keep moving. The pretence of being a mad old lady seems to work. Who am I fooling? I am a mad old lady. I could do no harm to anyone. They lower their guns. I crab along.

Behind me, I hear a burst of running feet and then the air is hot and prickly. I smell burning meat, and I don’t turn around.

A man yells, ‘Stop!’ and still I don’t turn around.

Nothing hits me.

I keep going.

I keep going.

There is a dead body is just before the Common Room. It’s one of the terrorists. A woman. Why do people always look so young when they’re just dead? Perhaps its in the way her face has relaxed, just as Daisy’s did, and Billy’s. No more cares. An expression of emptiness only the very young would wear.

She leaks blood in all directions, from the large tear in her abdomen, through the clothes and skin, so that tubes and coils have rushed, squeezed, bubbled up. How did it all fit inside her to begin with?

I can’t get around all the blood; I have to push the trolley through it, and two red lines are left by the wheels. Between the tracks I leave footprints of clear red intent. I keep looking over my shoulder at them, but I go on.

The noise is growing again, and when I approach the Common Room archway it’s so loud. I keep moving, promising myself I won’t look up, but the flashes and the screams are impossible to resist. I freeze, framed in the archway like an actress on a stage, and watch a war. The sofas and chairs are overturned, and the strong smell of burning comes from the drifting black smoke that reveals and obscures. The two sides in this war, I can’t tell apart. There are only bodies, and glimpses of people running and crouching; how can they tell if they’re trying to kill the right people? Of course, the uniform. Only the uniform makes a difference.

I see Stephan, standing tall amongst his followers, wearing power like a warm cloak. But it’s not enough this time, it won’t stop bullets, and he crumples up, like a fallen hero from a painting. Is he dead? I don’t know. But all his magnificent control is gone, and the fight begins to scatter, and spread, and turn my way.

Someone grabs my arm and pulls hard. It’s Suroopa.

‘Come on,’ she says, and tugs at me, with a strength I never suspected she possessed, having thought of Courgettes as quite a dainty job.

‘Come on wake up wake up,’ she screams over another burst of gunfire, and I give in to her, and follow after. But I won’t leave my melons. The trolley comes too.

She takes me to the Refectory, behind the serving area, and I find a huddle of familiar workers sitting on the floor, leaning against the stainless steel cabinets. I know them all, which surprises me, as I’ve never thought of them much before, and haven’t even had a short conversation with many. But I know them, just the same.

Suroopa crouches down and moves amongst them, and I drop my trolley handle and do the same. They stare at the trolley, and the melons.

‘I couldn’t leave them,’ I explain. I don’t expect them to understand.

But then I see them reach into their pockets, or into the white sacks they carry. Sue has raspberries, and Zena has chillis. Geoff is there cuddling a cucumber, and Barry has lychees. Plums, persimmons, pomegranates, a spiky-topped pineapple. There, at the end, pressing herself into the corner is Lonnie, holding out a luminous, waxy satsuma in each hand. We had satsumas at Christmas when I was little; why has that not come to me before? I should have painted it.

The gunfire intensifies, and there is shouting again. The smoke is thickening; why has the alarm system not gone off? It must not be working. Maybe the sprinklers are pouring down on our plants, though, keeping them safe from flames.

When it goes quiet Suroopa says, ‘They burned my courgettes.’

The others nod. Someone wails, for a moment. I have things I could say, but I don’t.

‘Blossom Farm will soon deal with them,’ Suroopa says. ‘Then we’ll grow everything back to how it was. Things will go back to normal.’

I shake my head. ‘No, no, it will all burn. It will cost too much to rebuild now.’

‘No, they wouldn’t -‘

I move away from her. I’m not expecting her to believe me, but there seems no point in pretending that we can simply wait here and everything will pass us by.

It’s difficult to think in the presence of so much wealth. The leathery, crowned perfection of the pomegranates in Miriam’s lap, and the warm smiles of the bunch of bright green bananas beside Poppy. It comes to me that we can’t give up. And our best chance is not here, in the centre of the burning biodomes.

Lonnie says, ‘Jim. Jim. Where’s Jim?’

I think I know the answer to that question. And it gives me some sort of answer as to where we can go. If a place has already been destroyed, why would they fight over it?

‘I can take you to him,’ I tell her. ‘Would you like that?’

‘Jim,’ she says, and I think she’s too far gone to understand, but then she stands up and looks at me expectantly.

I say to the others, ‘We need to get the produce to a safe place.’

‘Where?’ says Suroopa, but she gets up too, and that’s enough to get them all moving.

I pick up the handle to my trolley once more and turn away from the bloody track I’ve left, leading them away from the Common Room. They trail after me. We move away from the noise of the fighting, and in my mind I hold the map of these domes, and how they link. If the plants are burning, the doors might have automatically shut and locked, which will give us a little time. Still, I can’t risk a direct route. I’ll wind around the edges, using the less frequented corridors, where you can almost feel the cold through the walls.

Whenever I look behind me, I’m surprised by the way they walk, in an orderly fashion, pairs holding hands in some cases. When I was a teacher I would have thought nothing of it. Form a crocodile, I would have said, and they would have obeyed. Another image I have failed to capture on glass, and perhaps by now all my slides have melted together as the fire sweeps through the living quarters. It will burn it all: the woollen antimacassars, the cuddly toys and the jigsaws, the board games with the plastic pieces squirming in the heat.

I lead the crocodile. ‘One,’ I say. ‘Stick together.’

We’re not far from the Winery when the alarm bell finally starts to ring. It gives long blasts. I suppose Blossom Farm must have reconnected it, and taken control back in areas. The alarm could be an attempt to summon us workers, because we all know what it means. Return to your sections. Adopt lockdown procedures. But my section is burning.

I carry on walking, and the others follow. The cold intensifies. The solar lights flicker. It must be late afternoon by now. The sun will soon set.

The winery has black walls. The barrels have warped and charred, the green glass on the shelves has produced a smooth mess of strange shapes. The smell of smoke here is older, greasier, and the snow has started the process of claiming the ground through the hole in the outside wall, where once there was an emergency exit, forgotten by everyone but Daisy. I was right; it’s getting dark out there already. Or maybe it’s just that the sun can’t shine through those huge black clouds I can see. They block the sky, and suddenly fear comes back to me again. Fear of that dark sky, the endless snow, and that huge space of freezing, dirty air flowing over those mounds where the dead live.

Lucas will be long gone by now, miles away with the emergency kit, the tent, the solar heater, all the thing he needs to survive, and I am glad.

I stop walking, and the others stop too. They look at me with such expectation, waiting to be told what happens next. All I have to do is assume that tone of voice once more, and they will obey.

But that voice doesn’t come too easily any more. I hear the crack and whine in the words when I say, ‘We need to wait outside.’

Nobody speaks.

I set off again with my trolley, but I can hear they haven’t starting walking.

‘Outside?’ calls Suroopa.

I turn back to her. ‘Where else is there?’

‘Why outside? Why not just here?’

The answer to that won’t come to me. All I say is that it seems important to stand in the snow, and be outside the domes. Perhaps I want to be near Daisy again.

‘The fruits will freeze,’ says Sue.

‘They’ll be all right for a short while.’

‘No,’ says Suroopa, in sudden decision. ‘Let’s wait here.’

‘Jim?’ Lonnie’s loud voice surprises me, from the back of the group. She pushes her way forwards. ‘Where’s Jim?’

I point through the hole in the wall. ‘Out there.’

She doesn’t hesitate. She sets off, still clutching her two satsumas, and I go with her. We walk through that hole in the wall as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, to be outside once more. My lungs constrict. It’s like being clutched in a freezing fist, and squeezed, and it hurts, it hurts, but Lonnie keeps going, getting snow on her plain brown shoes, holding her satsumas before her. In only a few steps I’m shivering.

My eyes adapt so slowly to the dusk. I make out the hills beyond the complex, the lines of the fence, and I look for the mounds. But they are no longer there. The snow has covered the bodies, and made a smooth, level field of them. No trace of them remains.

‘Jim!’ calls Lonnie. She walks further out, and out of the shelter of the building the weather grows in confidence. It can claim us. The wheels of the trolley seize in the snow and they will no longer turn. I have to leave it behind as I chase after her.

I grab her, and lead her to where I think Jim’s body must be. ‘Here,’ I shout. The wind is strong and it steals my voice.

‘Jim!’ she calls. She shakes free of me, and strides away. It occurs to me that maybe Jim isn’t here at all. Maybe he’s in the biodomes somewhere, safe and warm and hoping someone is looking after his Lonnie. I go after her, but she is quick with new-found purpose, and it’s so very cold here; a cold that numbs, paralyses.

What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?

I sink down into the snow and close my eyes. Is this it? This final burst of guilt and pain, is that all I’ve been waiting for?

I want to let go. Maybe now I can let go.

I feel a light touch upon my face.

Lucas. Lucas is here, with me, and he takes his hand from my cheek, and helps me to stand. We retreat back to the shelter of the building, by the hole. He shows me how he has made skis from the signs he took from my Store Room, and he straps them to my feet, and wraps me in extra layers of material. Peering out through the hole are the others, watching these preparations.

‘Why?’ I ask him.

‘Why what?’

‘We won’t survive.’

‘Nobody will,’ he agrees, and the way he says it makes me think it’s not such a bad thing any more. ‘The trick is in how you try.’

The night is falling fast and the crackle and roar of the domes on fire is fighting against the wind for dominance. ‘You ready?’ says Lucas, and I nod.

Suroopa calls my name.

‘Mel!’

She holds out one of the white plastic bags. She doesn’t step through the hole, and her hand trembles as it emerges into the cold. I take the bag, and look in it.

A pomegranate. A banana. Raspberries, chillis, persimmons, plums, a cucumber, a courgette. A handful of lychees. It’s like one of those old still life portraits, with the fruits filling up my eyes, belonging together in a way I haven’t seen before.

‘Keep them safe,’ she says.

It’s a promise I can’t make, but I understand why she asks it of me. I hold the bag tight, and abandon my own melons, still in the useless trolley, to the cold. In my pockets sit the seeds, anyway.

I will have to find a new name.

Lucas and I head out through the snow, away from Blossom Farm, in a direction that leads to places I don’t yet know. Our tracks will leave thin lines upon the white canvas of the landscape; between us, we are making delicate brushwork.

___
Copyright  2016 Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon, UK, in 1974 and currently lives in Sussex with her husband, daughter and dog. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Fox Spirit’s European Monsters and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction I and II. Her recent novella for Unsung Stories, The Beauty, was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a Sabotage Award, and appeared on the Honors List for the James Tiptree Jr Award. Her latest novella with Unsung, The Arrival of Missives, was published in May 2016. She blogs at: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com  and she tweets most days as @AliyaWhiteley.

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