Fiction


by Alex Jeffers

“The men are afraid,” I said.

“Of course,” said my friend the foreign magician. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Behind us in the belly of the boat, my crew huddled over their oars, muttering, praying. I felt that was not wise. The Mother, it seemed to me, must have fled our island, far beyond the reach of any man’s voice, long before the little people who honored her. Else why had the great bull of fire under the sea grown so restless, so angry? Even as I thought this, he bellowed. I flinched. Murmuring my own vain prayer, I glanced over my shoulder, north across the choppy waters of the gulf. White steam and black smoke billowed from the peak of the new mountain the bull had shouldered out of the sea. It appeared to be taller than when last I saw it, only two months before. Red as bull’s blood, subterranean flame stained the smoke and steam. Lightning flickered within the column of cloud as the bull thundered again. A warm, caustic ash of burnt stone began to fall. One of the rowers coughed violently.

“None of you need accompany me,” my friend said. “I will go ashore and you may leave.”

I stared at him, perturbed. “But how will you depart? You cannot mean to remain.”

Turning away, he indicated the southern shoreline, where the handsome villas of princes and magnates clustered, white and red, among orchards and terraced fields on the hillsides. Knossos and the seaports of Canaan are impressive from any distance but not beautiful, not as abandoned Thira was beautiful. Several of the newer buildings had slumped, broken backed, when the island shrugged beneath them. A few scarlet columns had cracked or split, revealing the pale wood at their hearts. Below the hillside villas, the humbler dwellings of sailors, fishermen, market gardeners, artisans were less grand, more charming, each with its olive or pomegranate tree and terra-cotta trough for pot herbs and flowers. All of it lost, all of it abandoned—I had not known I was a sentimental man. The trees still lived, though their leaves were dulled by films of ash, but without irrigation flowers and herbs had wilted and died.

I glanced to my ship’s prow where a pottery bowl was filled with the earth of Thira and planted with simple herbs, thyme, oregano, rosemary, an ancient charm meant to keep the home port always in wandering sailors’ eyes. Every morning those herbs received a sailor’s measure of precious fresh water and now they flourished as those on land could not.

But my friend was indicating a litter of small, forgotten fishing boats drawn up on the strand beyond reach of the waves, canted on their keels. “If I choose to depart, I imagine I could handle one of those.”

He was no sailor, my friend: he was an entertainer, a mountebank, a poet—a madman. I turned to remonstrate, but said nothing, struck again by his unchanged countenance. I was merely a boy when the magician came to Thira, exotic visitor from an unknown land. Ten years later, he looked no different: austere, handsome, amused. As a boy I had believed him the tallest man in the world. Now that I was a man myself, he still towered over me and every man I had ever met. I had voyaged to Tyre and other towns of Canaan, whence he had permitted us to believe he came, and seen handsome, swarthy men who somewhat resembled but none who matched him.

He smiled.

I turned again, to order landfall, but my mate spoke before I could. “We will not ground the boat. The bull is restless. We must leave.” He addressed my friend. “If you insist on setting foot on this cursed island, sir, you will have to swim.” He had the grace to look ashamed and avoid the magician’s eyes. “You have paid us well, and we thank you, but neither payment nor thanks can benefit any of us beneath the waves or under broken earth.” As if in agreement, the red bull below the waters bellowed again.

The magician inclined his head and smiled again. “Your argument is persuasive. Very well. One word of advice before we part. The bull of the sea, as you call it, will break free very soon. There is nowhere you can sail that you will not hear it. If you are still at sea, remain far from land for a day or longer if you wish to survive to spend your gold. If you are on land, retreat at once from the coast, find the highest ground you may, for the bull’s escape will cause waves mightier than you can imagine to fall on the shores of every land you know.”

For an instant he continued to appear stern, then smiled for the last time and moved to embrace me. “Farewell, old friend.” He bent to untie the sandals from his feet and then pulled loose the dyed linen of his kilt, keeping only stout leather belt and sheathed bronze knife. Before I could think to stop him, he had stepped to the side and leapt. Striking the water, he raised a splash that fell back on us—the droplets of water felt shockingly chill.

“You have sent him to his death,” I said, too shocked to be angry.

“He intended to die already. Better one man than all eleven.”

The mate began to harass the oarsmen into turning the boat about and beating free of Thira’s anchorage onto open sea, where the sail might be raised and a swift wind found back to Anafi, tiny, inhospitable isle of our exile. It was a place of no springs and entirely without snakes and thus, I believed, out of favor with the Mother. When it was decided to flee the bull, I argued we should flee farther than Anafi, west to the great island of our ancestors or much farther east, to the island of copper, but I was one small voice. Unfortunate princes and magnates of Thira would be but small men in Knossos, while the people of the copper island did not speak our language or know our Mother, their own being a strange, savage god who married the king for a year and then demanded he die. In tiny Anafi, Thiriot princes might be kings, magnates princes, though the realm be paltry and unblessed.

I watched my friend swim strongly across the deep waters toward my home. I could see the house where I was born, not the grandest nor yet the meanest. Until the red bull woke, I had never imagined lovely Thira would not be my home—my destination at the end of every voyage: that I would not, someday, wed there and raise my children and finally die. In Anafi was the exiled girl I was meant to marry, a child I scarcely knew and to whom I felt little attachment, small affection. The magician had paid me to bring him back, true (the gold and other goods were in my mother’s safekeeping in her new house above the harbor at Anafi), but it was friendship, old attachment and old affection and stranger bonds, that made me agree. I saw that he had nearly reached the shore, and glanced once at my fearful mate and crew. I dove into the sea.

I have not called my friend the foreign magician by any name, for the one I knew was, it seemed, merely a convenience. When he came from the east, he had us call him Nuh, a name common enough among the people of Canaan. He came aboard my father’s ship from Byblos, though it was not his home, and dwelt with us in my mother’s house for some time until his stories and songs, his sleights of hand and glamors and tricks recommended him to the patronage of wealthier families. He could persuade one of marvels, conjuring flowers from a child’s ears, causing the ring on a man’s finger to vanish, then reappear on his other hand. If a woman among his audience wore an armlet in the form of a serpent, he transformed it for moments from flesh-warmed gold to cool golden-scaled flesh coiling about her arm, tasting the air with its flickering tongue. He made music sound from the empty air, eerie, fluting music such as nobody had ever heard.

Even after he moved on to larger, grander households, he remained friendly with my family. When he met me or my small sister or smaller brother about the town, he greeted us fondly. Whenever my father returned from a voyage abroad, Nuh was certain to congratulate him on the success of his endeavor and attend the feast that celebrated survival and profit. He told stories of Canaan and ancient Egypt, distant lands I should not have believed existed except I knew my father had visited them. He brought to life for his listeners the mighty cities of the Hittites, the antique land of two rivers, the isle of copper to the east, the strange, far western countries where tin was found. Sometimes, not often, he spoke of a place no man of our nation had seen.

Irem of the Thousand Pillars lay far from the sea, many long days’ journey south of Canaan’s ports and farmlands, across stretches of barren desert that would swallow Keftiu, Thira, and the isle of copper whole and not be satisfied. Surrounded by endless wastes of dreary sand was Irem and yet the city thrived, for beneath the bedrock of its foundations lay a subterranean sea of sweet water that might never be exhausted. More ancient than Egypt of the pharaohs was Irem of the Thousand Pillars, and yet more ancient still was the abandoned, ruined, nameless city that stood on the sands just beyond the underground shores of the lightless sea, for that city was older than men or the gods of men, nearly as old as time.

When he spoke of Irem of the Thousand Pillars and its nameless neighbor, Nuh’s eyes would grow distant, bleak and cold. He never said it, but I believed Irem had been his home and he longed for its palaces raised on mighty columns above fertile gardens, its grand avenues and fountains, the colossal statues of its kings, men and women who looked like him. Had he left by choice, I wondered, or if not by choice what terrible act had he performed to be exiled?

I was a romantic, dreamy child, eager to grow up so I might follow my father’s wake across the blue sea to distant shining cities. It never occurred to me that his voyages were labor, as much as the tedious household chores I performed for my mother, nor that he might long for home when he stood in the markets of Canaan and the ports of the Nile delta. One day I, too, would ache to return to Thira, but as a boy I never tired of Nuh’s stories.

He was not my first lover, the foreign magician. As a travelled man, I have learned that our customs are not followed in every land—that, indeed, many people believe us perverse and wicked. Why, they wonder, do we not honor the Mother and our lesser gods with grand temples? Their gods are better pleased if lovely young women and men sell their bodies in the temple for priestly profit than risk their lives dancing with the Mother’s bull. How is it we have never gone to war? Our bravado in trusting to the sea to defend our wealthy cities astonishes them. How can boys on the brink of manhood tolerate being kidnapped by their father’s brothers and friends, married in the Mother’s eyes as if they were girls, and bedded like slaves?

I was carried away at midnight from my mother’s house by a band of raucous bandits, yes, adorned like a bride in tiered skirts and serpent bracelets, poppies and cornflowers, a golden dust of precious saffron around my eyes and on my nipples, the perfumed oil of almonds combed through my hair. Outside a shepherd’s croft in the hills far from town, I was made drunk on unwatered wine. And then a priest wearing a mask of the Mother’s face, the bladders of his leather tits dribbling more wine, his unwieldy leather prick bouncing as he danced—then the priest made me swear awful oaths, and wed me to my father’s youngest, handsomest, merriest friend. And then, while his fellow bandits continued feasting and drinking and singing about the bonfire, my first beloved carried me into the croft and on soft sheepskins fucked me very soundly, made me a man. As has always been done among my people.

Not long after, for now I was a man, I took ship with my father for the first time. We sailed no farther than Keftiu, which I had been taught (though the lesson never took) to consider my true home, yet I saw marvels and acquitted myself well enough. But when we came again to Thira, I learned I was widowed: my handsome, merry husband had eaten bad shellfish in a distant port and died in puking agony.

It was not done for any man to wed a widowed boy. We possessed no temple-brothel where I might offer myself up or find another lithe body on offer. Eventually, of course, when I had built up sufficient fortune, I should take a suitable girl to wife, and it might be that one day some friend would discount my bad luck and invite me to kidnap his son. For the present, though, I was alone and unloved. As was the foreign conjuror, that beautiful, exciting, frightening man.

As ever, the water of Thira’s bay was cold, as chill as if there were snow on the island’s hills instead of hot ash and summer-withered grasses. It was only off other shores that the sea was pleasant. I lost all my breath and nearly replaced it with choking salt water before breaking surface again. Glancing back once, I was relieved for their sakes to see my oarsmen’s sweeps dig into the waves, rise, dip again on steady meter as the boat retreated, unfaltering. My madness was not their concern. I turned again toward my lost home.

Struggling through icy water, I believed I saw something move in the depths below. Something larger than any fish I had ever seen in harbor waters familiar since childhood. The cold would not permit me to pause but I gazed down when I could.

There were more than one, moving about at the margin of darkness where the sun’s light failed in the depths. They were black, so black as to be entirely distinct from the darkness below them, with an oily sheen so that they resembled huge inconstant masses of bitumen. They were not wholesome fish. In some ways they resembled jellyfish, in that their substance was mutable, fluid; in others, those fleshy, immobile, flowerlike creatures that crowd rocks at the water’s edge and sting the finger of the unwise child who touches them. All were bigger than a man my size, though their shapes varied so that it was hard to tell—most appeared larger than the greatest tunny of the open sea. Sometimes they moved slowly, creeping somehow, by extending a portion of their substance like a long arm and then pulling the remainder of the body into that limb, which swelled until it became the entire body again; at others merely drifted as though on invisible currents; sometimes jetted swiftly, with great purpose, the trailing end fluttering like a mantle in high wind.

Perhaps I should have felt fear of these peculiar interlopers—and yet we were very far apart, I splashing at the surface like the drunken fly in your wine cup, they the fantastic creatures painted in its depths. It seemed to me they knew I was there but did not care to notice me. I was irrelevant to their purposes, inconsequential, not worth the effort of turning their innumerable, inconstant eyes like the jellied eggs of frogs on me, still less to capture and…not devour, but absorb my flesh. Were they the interlopers or I? When my ears dipped under water, I believed I heard them speak among themselves in a kind of high, irritating whistle, a repetitive idiot cry made up of no words I knew: Tekeli-li, tekeli-li.

By the time I floundered ashore, I felt nearly dead. My limbs trembled and my teeth chattered. Scrambling across the strand to where the sand was dry and hot, I half-buried myself to bake out the chill.

I was not there very long before a shadow fell on me and my friend said, “Foolish young man.” The long frigid swim had not, it seemed, affected him as it had me. As though I were a tiny child, he lifted me in his arms and carried me up into the town. Once a sharp tremor shook the ground under his feet but he scarcely staggered. At length, he brought me within doors of a deserted house that was not my family’s, through several rooms, until he deposited my unresisting self into a basin of scalding water piped from one of the springs heated by the red bull’s subterranean fires. “Rest,” he said, “recuperate.”

He was gone only a short time but I was beginning to rediscover myself when he returned. Lowering himself into the bath with me, he lifted my head and held a cup to my lips. It was cool, unwatered wine that caused me to choke and sputter first but then went down nicely and began to warm me from the inside. “What were you thinking, my dear?” he asked.

He was no sailor, I told him in many more words: when it came time for him to leave, the smallest abandoned boat would defeat him, he would founder or be lost forever on the trackless waves.

My friend was gentle with me. When my tremors ceased at last, he helped me out of the bath and dried my unresisting limbs. He did not dress me but nor did he dress himself. The summer air was warm—it was only the waters of the bay that were chill. He led me upstairs, to a high open terrace overlooking the town, the harbor, the bull’s smoking mount. We must sit on sun-warmed flags, for it seemed the owners of the house had not abandoned all their furnishings when they joined the exodus to Anafi two months previous. They had abandoned some parts of their larder, however: Nuh offered me morsels of salty dried fish, hard as rocks, leathery strips of salty dried beef, and sweet oil to soften them. There was more wine, a good deal of wine, crisp cool water, and bits of dried fruit. It was no worse than I would eat on any long sea voyage.

We spoke little. I had not inquired before, nor did I now, his reasons for returning to Thira after joining, indeed encouraging, the exodus. Although I had no cause to believe he should know, I asked about the strange sea beasts I had seen.

“Not beasts, precisely. Less than beasts, for they are made things, and in some ways more. They are servants, you might say, who do the bidding of certain…persons whose aims I do not favor. You need not worry. They will not survive.” He looked away, over the bay, and his fine lips formed half a smile within his beard like the pelt of a black lamb. “They like the cold,” he murmured, as if I was to understand the chill of the gulf’s waters to be a consequence of the creatures’ preference.

He said no more. We finished our repast. He led me back indoors.

This was the house of the last family to host him before we all departed for Anafi. In the chamber that had been his remained an adequate pallet on the bed platform. I made a noise when I saw the four bronze hooks embedded in the walls, for I recalled being puzzled by them the first time. “Yes?” he said mildly.

There was also a box, a chest, of unusually fine workmanship—no Thiriot craftsman could match it. I had always avoided inspecting it, both because it was his and because the panels of incomprehensible ornament carved in high relief on its ebon sides and lid made me uneasy. That he had not taken it to Anafi made me think my friend had all along meant to return. When he knelt to open it—something he had not done in my presence before—he muttered a phrase in an unfamiliar language, syllables and sibilants that no human lips ought to utter. My throat tightened. A tremor shook me but I could not determine whether it was the floor beneath my feet or my own muscles, and I took a careful step back. He lifted the lid.

An odor breathed from the yawning chest, at once sickening and intoxicating—as if fragrant lilies bloomed from a decomposing corpse, or aromatic resins and woods and herbs burned atop a mound of fresh shit. I gagged, and hungrily inhaled.

My lover pulled out the oil. I can’t say why I had not on earlier occasions questioned the container though it was fashioned from a substance I had never encountered elsewhere, as if the most transparent quartzes were to be smelted together like copper and tin, then forged into a flask as insubstantial as a bubble on the surface of the sea. The slippery oil within, neither olive nor almond, always smelled to me like new blood.

He drew out the familiar coils of rope and tossed them behind him toward the bed. Twisting through the air, they writhed like the Mother’s serpents. One fell short. Snatching it up from the floor, I ran it through my hands. Braided of cured, oiled leather, it would not chafe and, if one struggled, the knots would draw tighter.

Next would come the switches and batons, supple cane and leather-covered wood, one covered in fine, dense fur, another shaped like an oar’s blade and wrapped in the scaled hide of a Nile crocodile, which made for artful welts. Eagerness settled my uneasy bowels even as I felt increasing distress. I did not believe I had followed my friend with no other desire than to be beaten, and soothed, beaten again until pain became something quite separate from pleasure, until my flesh could no longer contain me. I had meant to rescue him from himself, surely, not beg him to grant me momentary salvation.

As he continued sorting through the implements of gratification in the chest, I turned away. The room’s eastern wall contained a small niche. In another man’s chamber, I would expect to find there an image of our Mother, a figurine of bronze or painted clay. Her arms would be raised, coiled with serpents, while a lock of her hair coiled between life-giving breasts and her great black eyes recognized me, judged me. Perhaps, instead, in some households it might be a heavy-shouldered figure of the red bull, great horns lowered to toss the dancer who grasped them. But it was something else. I moved closer.

It was black, like the beast-things in the bay, shiny, greasy looking, like a congealed lump of bitumen. I could make out no marks of carving or molding, as if it were indeed merely a piece of débris collected for no reason, and yet I could not doubt its intention: that it was a made thing meant to be regarded, contemplated—and I felt it would contemplate me in return if I were not too small to be noticed, a minute spark flickering for an instant amid concerns too vast for a man to comprehend.

Dizzy, I placed the palms of my hands on the wall to either side of the niche. Like the beasts in the water, this…idol was shapeless, its shapelessness altering with each glance, but where they appeared to be membraneous bags of fluid, variable by nature, the entity represented by this object was incomprehensibly complex, incomprehensibly vast. Each glimpse encountered but the tiniest fragment of its being, more difficult to reconcile than a man’s ear and his small toe, or the parts of an island gently sloped and forested to windward, craggy and barren on its leeward shores. If my eyes followed a crease or contour in the oily substance, it seemed always about to resolve into something, something recognizable: the arm of a man or a crab or an octopus’s tentacle, an ass’s jaw, a bull’s horn or the curled horn of a ram or the fierce beak of an eagle or a dolphin’s snout. But always as I was about to grasp that fragment of appearance, I would slip into an abyss of meaninglessness, only to emerge seeking something very different. An aimless, irritating music seemed to have been playing for all my life, as if an idiot child had been given a flute and infinite patience, infinite breath. My temples throbbed with a sullen ache and colors I could not name sparked and bloomed before my eyes.

The conjuror prevented me from falling. He crossed his arms over my ribs and I pressed back against his broad chest and firm belly, grateful for human warmth, gasping for the air that had been too frozen, moments before, to breathe.

“Not now,” he murmured in my ear, and I knew he was contemplating the black idol—seeing more within its enigmatic twists and congealed knots than could ever be visible to me. “Never now, never in your lifetime nor the lifetimes of men or their gods, their worlds, their suns. My lord sleeps and dreams us, and the worlds and all of time dream him. When he wakes….”

The magician did not complete his sentence. I feel that if he had I should not still be breathing. The horrible mad music fluted on, its strident notes muted by distance. I shuddered—unless it was the island beneath the foundations trembling. “Your lord?”

“My lord,” he agreed. Taking my left hand in his, he lifted it and, despite my vain struggle, forced it to touch the black idol. I still feel the searing chill of that momentary contact, which caused me to groan in a high, thin voice and forced tears from my eyes. The slick scar on my index finger does not fade. It aches in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

“My antics amuse him, now and then when the paths of his dream lead me to him.”

He sounded so calm. I trembled again—I and the island, both, jolting—and I felt a sharp pang in the flesh of my chest. Raising my uninjured hand, I touched the place and discovered fluid oilier, more substantial than sweat. Blood. New red blood smeared on my fingers. My friend moved his own hand, not so much to reveal the blade that had sliced my skin as to press its hilt into my palm. Unthinking, I closed fingers around shaped wood.

Knives, blades, had not before been accessory to our pleasures. Sometimes there was blood, but by the way, never from intentional slicing or gashing or nicking or pricking. The crocodile hide was rough and might open the skin it bruised. There were bites, fingernail scratches. He might fuck me before I was prepared, more roughly than flesh tolerated.

He said nothing as I turned the weapon in my hand. Its fashioning perplexed me: the means by which wooden handle was fastened to metal blade. It appeared inevitable, I could not comprehend a more elegant method, but I had never seen it done nor could I understand the way of it.

The blade itself, too, puzzled me. I did not recognize the metal. It was neither copper nor tin, which any smith can work, nor the stronger, less brittle bronze that masters forge from the two ores, mixed. It was not rare silver or rarer gold, either too soft to be fashioned into useful tools. The craftsmanship was so subtle it scarcely seemed to have been worked at all, no hammer dents or file blemishes, only the smooth, unwavering lines of the white metal and an edge so sharp I didn’t recognize it had cut the testing thumb until I saw welling blood.

My lover bound me. Or I bound him. It was not clear in my mind. One of us was bound spread eagle on the bed, anchored by leather ropes to the hooks in the walls. One of us was thrashed about buttocks and thighs and shoulders until pain and the impossibility of escaping it became a drug like wine. One’s bruises and scrapes were kissed, bathed with cool water and burning wine, anointed with soothing oil, punished again. One of us was marked by that knife, its impossibly sharp blade fashioned of a metal, my lover explained, no person of this world could work. I believe it was him, that I wielded the blade, for my skin carries no scars of that precision, that depth of artistry and affection. One of us was fucked, and again I believe it was him for it would have been the only time.

And all the time the flute went on piping, ceaseless, deranging. Frequently I was overwhelmed by dizzy blackness. Once, my shoulders stroked by the supple leather-bound crop, I twisted to look back at my lover and he did not resemble himself. Rather, I was scourged by a fierce scowling black man—blacker than the very dark persons I have seen in Egypt’s markets, as depthless black as the idol of his lord. His skin gleamed with sweat but his eyes were dull as stones. Once, carving an intricate design I did not understand into his lower back, I discovered the skin my knife cut to be no longer human but tough, pelted animal hide, which nevertheless the blade sliced effortlessly. And then he slipped his bonds, for no rope could restrain boneless tentacles, and then he embraced me with all his limbs, holding me tight and safe until the blackness of his eyes and membraneous wings became the blackness of existence.

I followed him across the sky on leathery black wings to Irem of the Thousand Pillars with its palaces stacked high on columns formed of stone drums a thousand men could not have shifted, and I saw untold thousands of tall, austere men and women going about their business in the markets and gardens and courts. The men resembled my friend, indeed, as I had known him, swarthy and handsome, with oiled beards like the pelts of black lambs. I could not see their bodies, nor the women’s, for all wore voluminous white robes and head cloths bordered in gold and Tyrian purple. We joined a procession of such persons into what seemed a great cavern. I felt it was a temple—I had seen such edifices, in Egypt, in Canaan, though my people do not build them and I had been shy of entering them.

Within, the air smelled of blood and rare woods and the sweat of countless people. It was dark but there were lamps that did not gutter and smoke but burned white and true within transparent shells, illuminating idols of polished stone and polished metal. These gods resembled neither my companion’s lord nor the Mother of my nation nor the idols of any people I have done business with. Some were unholy masses of flesh, hybrid assemblages of limbs, wings, claws, toothy maws, hundreds of blind, staring eyes; yet the majority seemed merely to be enormous crocodiles until I saw that each of their four limbs bore delicate, clever hands. The worship of the folk of Irem was mistaken, I seemed to understand, yet my companion remained charmed by them, unready to destroy them.

And then he led me through the earth to the subterranean sea he had spoken of. I feared to see the amorphous black beasts of Thira’s harbor as we dove deep, but perhaps the waters were not cold enough for their liking, perhaps they preferred salt to sweet.

We came to the labyrinths and catacombs beneath the ancient nameless city—the ruined city of those very crocodile men worshipped as gods at Irem. These strange folk, too, were mistaken: their gods were the misshapen things that appeared equally ill suited to live on earth, in the seas, or soaring in the air. Below the catacombs, I was allowed a glimpse of the strange radiant cavern where the last few thousands of the crocodile people believed themselves still to be alive.

And then we flew up, up, through the labyrinth into the air and high into the sky, beyond the sky. I saw that the world below was round, something that did not trouble me though it was larger than I had imagined—my long sea at the center surrounded by many broad lands, themselves encompassed by illimitable ocean. I saw that all the great works of men were merely scabs on the earth’s flesh, scabs that would heal and slough off and leave no mark, not even scars.

Deep within moon-washed seas I saw—for my eyes were very keen—titanic subaqueous cities inhabited by those same black, formless creatures of the harbor at Thira. My eyes and mind were troubled by the great ashlars that made up the cities’ buildings. Straight lines appeared not straight, angles turned in impossible ways, solid stone was fluid, metamorphic. The black monsters went about their business as if they were people, swimming or creeping along deep stone avenues, serving each other or being served, occasionally eating one another, ensuring their own gods’ comfort.

And these gods, heaps of disordered flesh, were the models for the crocodile folk’s idols. They slept and dreamed, agelessly, uncaring, as they had slept since before there were sensible, thinking beings in the world, nearly since the distant eons of their advent from far shores, far stars. Now and then one might wake for a moment, negligently wreak destruction or as thoughtlessly create, and then as if relieved of an itch subside again into sleep. They amused my companion as often as they irritated him, bound as they were into their minute perception of time and space, this world and others, and now and then he found it entertaining to stir them up, as a child stirs up a nest of ants, or crush one and all its foolish followers.

As we rose still higher, beyond air or the need to breathe, it came to me that the world was not round like a platter but round like a juggler’s ball, a toy, or like a fruit, its rind all the earth and all the sea. As I saw it, this perception seemed merely true, but now it distresses me and I wish to dismiss it. When I stand on the planking of my ship and look out over the sea, I know the surface of the waters to be flat to the farthest circuit of the horizons and I can no longer comprehend how liquid should cling to a globe without cascading off.

We grew vast, my companion and I, vaster than worlds, and we became one.

Beyond time, beyond space, we entered the precinct of his lord. The music made me mad but I was all ears and could not stifle them. Great entities like drifts of stars, the sleeping lord’s waking attendants swirled around us, a ponderous whirlpool larger than time. Sight of these beings—if being could be ascribed to them, for were they not brief unthinking emanations of their master’s dreams?—sight of them maddened me, but I was all eyes which I could not close.

I believe I glimpsed the sleeper, the dreamer. Yet how can that be? I continued living.

I was once again small. A frightened, deranged, bruised young man, I woke crumpled in the round belly of a little fishing boat, adrift on the pathless, star-speckled sea. In one hand I clutched a crude clay statuette of the Mother, whom I now understood to be the foolish fancy of blind, ignorant men, in the other Nuh’s subtle knife. Untangling my limbs, I rose to my knees.

The boat’s mast was stepped but the linen sail not raised. No sail, but leathery black vanes outstretched as though to harness a wind from the stars. My lover clutched the tip of the mast with his octopus tentacles lest he be blown away and whispered in a voice like whistling flutes, “Remember the advice I gave your crew, old friend. And now farewell.”

When he launched himself from the mast, the fragile boat rocked and dipped, nearly swamped. I was thrown again against the ribs of its hull, gaining more bruises for my own ribs. I struggled upright. I thought I still heard the thunderclap beat of his wings, retreating but growing ever louder. I was mistaken.

Not so far as the horizon, the red bull under the sea wrestled into his own awakening. I saw the birth of his fires but then had to clench my eyes shut against blindness, and saw it still through the translucent flesh of my eyelids. I felt the blasting heat of those fires must crisp my skin and char my boat, but it did not. I felt the tremendous thunder of the bull’s waking would deafen me, and perhaps for a time it did—still, years later, I seem to hear its distant echo booming far away. Projectiles of flaming rock, each far larger than my little boat, rocketed forth from his bed beneath the waters and traced black arcs across a sky now brighter than day. Where they fell, geysers of steam blew up and whirlpools of foam roared. My boat was rocked and buffetted but miraculously never struck, never swamped. Perhaps my lover watched over me.

It went on and on forever, the explosive destruction of the cyclopean undersea city it was my lover’s caprice to extinguish. The black beasts whimpered mindless in my ears: Tekeli-li, tekeli-li. The hot ash drifted down.

It was not much later that I sailed within view of little Anafi as the sun rose before me from the sea, yellow and less fearful than the red bull’s fires. I could hear him still grumbling in the far west behind me. My lover’s advice I had not forgotten but I no longer cared for my life.

My boat rose up on a vast swell of the sea until I towered high above the little island and saw the waters withdraw far from its coasts. The ships and small boats moored in Anafi’s paltry bay subsided into the sands and muds of the harbor floor. Hundreds of minute persons, tiny as flocking ants, gathered at windows, on terraces, in the open spaces of the town to witness the marvel. And then the waters returned.

Eventually, I came again to Keftiu. Knossos, city of palaces, great Knossos—tiny Knossos, pathetic Knossos—lay far enough from the shore that it had not been overthrown, though columns had snapped and roofs fallen when the earth shook. Its port, though, and all its great fleet were splintered, and the surviving peoples of my nation demoralized.

I possessed nothing but my battered little boat, having lost the idol of the Mother when first the boat overturned. The small fortune I had accumulated was swept away when the wave took my mother and her new house at Anafi and all the sorrowful exiled princes and magnates of lost Thira. My lover’s subtle knife was not a thing to be bartered.

I possessed nothing but I was fit and able and my sad little boat was more than remained to the merchants and captains and sailors who yet lived in Knossos. So over forgetful years I endeavored to accumulate another small fortune. I did not marry, for that girl was a sodden corpse gnawed by fishes and crabs. As I grew prosperous, I found or purchased lovers who were horrified by the practices of love that would soothe me, and so I continued unsatisfied.

And years later I sailed in a fine new ship to the place that had been Thira, lovely Thira. My crew were all young men: they had never seen my home, knew only dreadful stories of its destruction—were indifferent, unamazed.

My home was gone. The very shape of the island was altered, the outlines of its coasts. I recognized nothing. Where I believed the town had stood in serene jumble on gentle slopes rose sheer, titanic cliffs of jagged new rock. The red bull’s mountain was entirely vanished, as if it had never risen from the sea, but there was a new, small, smoking peak just protruding from unsettled chop where, surely, once had gaped the deepest, coldest gulfs of the ancient harbor and once had stood the subaqueous city of the black creatures and their unknown god.

My home was gone. Standing in the prow of my fine new ship, I looked from this burned and barren unknown land to the earth-filled bowl at my feet, green with herbs from Keftiu—never my home—and silently damned the dreams of young men. I tossed the thing overboard.

I am no longer young but I am not the oldest man I have ever encountered—I don’t imagine I will live so long. Yet I have outlived every man and woman I cared for save one. Him I saw once, years after, in the market of a distant land.

I had changed as he had not, the lover I knew as Nuh and as something other than a man, but though I knew he recognized me as easily as I him we did not speak. Unsmiling, he looked past me, through me, as though I were too small to make out. His eyes were black with vaster visions, larger than any prosperous merchant or unforgotten lover, larger than a world in which merchants and lovers believed themselves persons of substance, of value.

Then he half-mantled his eyes and the lips in his oily black beard smiled as he began to turn away. I pulled from my belt his subtle knife.

What I intended to do with it I do not know. Plunge its sharp blade into his flesh? Carve my own desires and terrors into mine? On the white metal which had always been blank, too clean and keen for blood to stain, were inscribed opaque signs that made my eyes tear, my mind flinch.

Unmanned, I lifted my eyes again. The capricious savior of my little life, changeless companion of my youth, was not to be found amid the throng of foreign and resident merchants. Those strong, clever men continued about their business in the way of men, or ants, unaware, but I no longer heard their voices. In my ears, the red bull once again destroyed my home, a leather-bound crop striped willing flesh as an idiot flute piped. Tekeli-li, tekeli-li, sang black creatures beneath the trackless sea.

I knelt to the sandy paving of that market far from any home I have ever known and laid the knife on the stone. He was not watching but he would know. I had no doubt the subtle knife would return to his possession before I reached the temple-brothel where no gold could buy what I required.

____
Copyright 2013 Alex Jeffers

Since his March 2012 first appearance in GigaNotoSaurus, Alex Jeffers had published two books: the collection You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home and the novel Deprivation; or, Benedetto furioso: an oneiromancy. He has stories forthcoming in a number of anthologies later this year and into early 2014.

by Rahul Kanakia

On the morning of my fund day, our pilot landed the house with a particularly gentle touch. I was probably the only family-member who felt the house kiss our Philadelphia docking station. I abandoned my desk and went to the window. A crowd of grubby locals from the adjacent Suareztown had already gathered around the marble pediment of the docking station. It might be hours before we began recruiting, but they had no better use for their time than jostling for a place near the house’s entrance. Although Father refused to indulge their pretensions to serfdom by directly sharing our family’s arrival times with the Suareztowners, some groundskeeper had probably told them, days ago, that we were coming.

The leading edge of the crowd was just fifty feet below me. The mass of dirty limbs and garishly clothed torsos swayed, and arms were raised up. I waved, and the carpet of humanity rippled in time to my movements. I presumed they were cheering.

For years they had cheered me on the basis of the slenderest hope that I could help them. Today, I was finally going to fatten up those hopes.

I saw several phones raised high in the air. They were taking photos of me. I grimaced, and made the window opaque with a tap. I was glad that Yasmina, the remote operator who watched me on most days, had interpreted that gesture right. Last time, she thought I wanted to open the window. I flashed a thumbs up to the empty air and was rewarded when a whisper-soft “Thank you, ma’am,” dribbled out of the speakers.

Once, I’d loved being photographed, but my looks had suffered during my long exile. I was no longer the energetic sixteen year old waif with short hair and a size 2 frame that had fashion designers competing to dress me. Now, my waistline had expanded, and my face had begun to acquire my mother’s florid features. I wasn’t ugly, but I’d lost my youthful vividness. And that was fine. It would only make it easier to recapture the public imagination: the tabloids would glory in calling attention to my physical deterioration.

The intercom chimed. Andreas, the house’s chamberlain, said, “We have just landed in Philadelphia. First, I and all the staff would like to join together in wishing Natalia a happy twenty-first birthday. It has truly been a pleasure to watch you grow up into such a poised young woman. Second, your mother and father would like to remind you that you have a presentation to make in one hour, at today’s family status meeting, and that a birthday celebration has been scheduled for you this evening.”

On the other side of the door, one of the guards groaned. The servants hated Andreas’ updates, but I appreciated them. Of course Andreas hid all kinds of nonessential information from us, but the public nature of his updates reassured me that he wasn’t actively lying to us.

Andreas continued, “Carmina, Mr. Suarez is running fifteen minutes late. Please delay his breakfast. Guards, take your places by the entrances. Recruiters, stay by your screens, we should have initial procurement information available within the&#8212”

I snapped my fingers. The intercom went silent: another victory for Yasmina.
Normally I liked to listen to the full morning update in order to ensure that my penny-pinching father hadn’t fired half the staff during the night, but I needed to prepare for the meeting.

Luckily, my presentation consultant was based in McKinsey’s Vientiane office, where it was already tomorrow. I called him up on the wall screen and let the sweating man&#8212one of those loathsome MBAs that even the most socially conscious owner must sometimes enrich&#8212energetically expound upon the analysis I’d commissioned. Our consultation was constantly interrupted, though, by birthday congratulations from a number of friends and relatives.

Finally, my cousin Letitia called.

“Happy fund day,” she said. “It’s been too long! You look…good.”

I hadn’t spoken to Letitia in years. Her father thought my father’s stinginess was unconscionably boorish, and they took turns cutting each other dead at various public gatherings.

“I’m ready to reenter society,” I said. “Can you help me?”

“I’d heard you wanted to come back,” she said. “But doesn’t your dad still have a veto?”

“A joint veto,” I said. “I think I can persuade Mother.”

“Your mom? But she’s poor. Why does she get a vote?”

“Our family operates rather democratically,” I said.

“All right then,” she said. “I’ll have you set up in no time.”

“I’ll send the money later today. You’ll have five percent of my fund to play with. Your activities should be in line with the latest fashions. I don’t want my people to be ashamed of me.”

“We’ll start with a spritz from the air. It’s no problem. I’m happy to help!” Letitia would expect to be paid well for her “help.” Since most of Letitia’s fund had been stolen by a deceitful financial manager, she was little more than a servant nowadays.

I ended the call and tried to concentrate on my slides, but my heart was beating too fast. This felt just like the first time I had tried to pilot the house. After I’d taken control, we’d dropped ten thousand feet in a few minutes. During the dive, I’d quickly run out of ideas as to what to do, and I’d just sat there stock-still and quiet. The housepilot, Amit, laughed and waited until we were a few thousand feet from crashing before he took over.

Johan was in the West receiving room, lying on his back and chanting, with his belly stretching up into the air. I smiled. The backpacker had been wandering the house for eight weeks, ever since he’d responded to my online proffer of couch space. Johan was the latest in a series of servant-class itinerants whom I’d tried to befriend during my parentally-imposed exile from polite society.

As I passed, he said, “Where are we? Yesterday it was snowing, but today it’s sunny.”

The wallscreen right next to him showed an up-to-the-minute itinerary, but, of course, to Johan that wall would be blank.

When I stepped into the sunroom, a glass table extruded from the wall and a section of floor rose up and reconfigured itself as a seat. Carmina entered from behind a sliding panel and put a bowl of mixed fruits on the table. I wondered what she saw on the screens. Probably the prices of seasonal produce. We always ate local.

“Carmina,” I said. “Could you print a copy of our itinerary for my guest? Please underline that we’re here for eight days and that our next destination is Mexico City.”

“So we’ll definitely stay here tonight?” Carmina said. She clapped her hands together. “I would really like to attend the party at the Klein/Sandoval house tomorrow.”

Mother and Father liked to joke about the fad for democracy that had given Carmina a number of invitations to households where they themselves had never been received, but they refused to see that this fad was being used to deliver some very calculated insults to our family.

I paused my fork in mid-air. The house groaned, settling down into its foundations. As usual, no one else noticed. I was the only one with ears for the house. I was awake to its snorts, when clogs in the pipes were blasted free with an increase in pressure, or its twice-daily sneezes, when cleansing fluids misted all its inner workings, or the long inhalation right before it leapt into the air. The house was alive to me, and dead to everyone else. For years, I’d looked forward to inheriting it and rescuing it from Father’s neglect. But, after today, I wasn’t sure I’d be welcome here anymore.

I arrived in the executive suite fifteen minutes early to make sure that Fritz, Father’s personal assistant, had printed the agendas and loaded the slides onto the conference table, which was currently showing a large picture of Grandfather. I wondered if that was Father’s doing.

Before his death two years ago, Grandfather’s disdain for me had driven him to make several comments to the media regarding my shallowness and stupidity. Father had convinced him not to cut me out, but Grandfather had made several last-minute changes to his will that had led us to today’s impasse.

Father came in exactly at nine. He embraced me and said, “Happy birthday! Tonight’s party will be great fun. I kept it to limited attendance.”

That was Father’s polite way of saying that attendance was limited to whichever members of our family loved him so much that they were willing to endure the social stigma of being seen at his table. Most of the large owners were disgusted at how Father had steadily downsized our household since Grandfather’s death; he’d fired hundreds of long-time servants without providing any pensions.

Father sat on the edge of his seat and studied the papers that Fritz handed him. Mother came in fifteen minutes late, wished me a happy birthday, then reclined in her chair, and glanced through the papers.

As usual, she went first.

“Let’s see here,” she said. She flipped through the papers. “I’ve got five surgeries scheduled today. Fritz has the details attached as an annex somewhere in this mess. Bottom line: I’m being paid about eleven grand. The total expense to the family, including amortization of the tele-operating suite in the basement, uplink time, technician time, etc, etc, is about five thousand, for which I’ll fully reimburse you.”

Father and I approved Mother’s schedule without any discussion. The last time we’d used our family veto had been four years ago, for their twenty-fifth anniversary. She’d suffered through the party with such a sullen simulation of good humor that we now purchased her at her hourly rate whenever we needed her time.

Father’s schedule presented more difficulties. I had not wanted to anger him prematurely, but when the picture of Grandfather was replaced by a patched-in feed from Suarez headquarters, I knew that we were about to be subjected to more of Father’s cheapjack buffoonery. On the screen, Morris Kenneman, the CEO of Suarez Industries, rubbed his jowls with his weathered hand.

I leaned in to the camera so that my face filled the outgoing picture. “You don’t belong in here. This is a family meeting.”

In that slow voice of his, the CEO rumbled, “Hell, Nat, you know I’m just a hired hand. When your dad claps, I’ve gotta jump.”

Father held a majority of the company’s voting shares and had uneasily occupied the chairmanship of the Board ever since Grandfather’s death, but he remained overawed by the CEO&#8212Kenneman had been one of Grandfather’s protégés.

“Come, come,” Father said. “I just wanted Mr. Kenneman’s opinion on some expenses. At the request of some…some interested parties”&#8212an anonymous letter from some of our workers&#8212 “I’m here to take a look at the mining concerns. Now, Fritz says that his cousin can rent us a car for about $100, and with all the expenses, including gas and Fritz’s time, the day shouldn’t cost more than $750. And really, I think that just a day should be fine, don’t you, Mr. Kenneman?”

“No,” I said. “That is unacceptable. These people have spent their lives working in mines bearing your name, and you want their first glimpse of you to be rolling up a dusty road in a single car? How will they be able to trust your judgment? This will be a disaster! Productivity will plummet! Did you learn nothing from last year’s oil field strike?”

“I don’t want to step on any toes,” Father said. “We have managers to deal with the workforce.”

“The managers are part of the workforce,” I said.

“Do you want to end up like Taru Mittal?” Father said. “His father meddled too much in the business, and they lost everything. No, I’m not going to subvert my own managers.”

“Haven’t we seen the folly of trusting MBAs?” I said. “They’ve robbed the whole world blind, and now they’re robbing you too. The mines are probably failing because the managers are siphoning off assets. No, you’ve ducked your responsibilities as an owner for too long, but surely you see the necessity of showing the workers that you are the real boss. The minimum you’ll need is four helicopters, a team of accountants, a business processes analyst, an armored car, a driver, a caterer, a mobile kitchen, an event planner, guards, wardrobe, lighting, servers, and…oh, of course you’ll want to hear grievances and dispense gifts…the workers need to trust you enough to disclose to you the crimes of their managers…”

I continued gently trying to educate Father as to his responsibilities, while Morris Kenneman looked on. His deep eyes were a nest of wrinkles; he never spoke, except sometimes to say, “Good point” after one of my salvoes. He knew that someday he’d be working for me. Still, after a few moments, Father called for a vote, and Mother sided with him, overriding me.

“Wonderful.” Father said. “Can you make the arrangements, Fritz?”

The assistant nodded and glanced up at the ceiling. Somewhere, Andreas was watching. Andreas never let anything slip.

I snapped a finger and pointed at the screen. Morris Kenneman unceremoniously disappeared.

“Well then,” Father said. “You should have gained control of your trust fund today, but, because of your Grandfather, you’re unfortunately just getting a vote. However, you’ve been good and quiet for so long that your mother and I are prepared to let you set up a life outside this house, as long as you’re not too extravagant. This money has to last for the rest of your life, and maybe your children’s’ lives too. But…well…why don’t you tell us what you’re thinking?”

“I’m thinking of taking upon myself the responsibilities that you’ve abrogated,” I said.

With a wave of my hand, I called up my first slide and began describing the Natalia Suarez Foundation: a tax-exempt charity dedicated to bettering the standard of living in all seventy-eight Suareztowns. I proposed donating 95 percent of my trust fund to my eponymous charity over the next ten years.

Father attempted to cut in, but I spoke over him. Finally, he exploded, “Don’t be absurd! Your Grandfather spent his life earning that money. Do you really think I’m going to let you give it away? You might as well be burning it!”

After he’d gone on for some time, I called a vote to approve disbursement of the first tranche of funds to the NSF.

Father burst forth with more objections right as Mother said, “Okay.” We outvoted him.

While the argument continued, I told Fritz to witness the decision, scan it, and send it to Letitia. He smiled at me for a long moment before bending his head to examine the documents.

Andreas met me in the stairwell. “Did you hire the agitators?” I said.

“They’re moving through the crowd right now,” Andreas said. “The news crews are waiting at the south entrance.”

“Good, keep the cameras away from me until the right moment.”

Andreas smiled at me, and I swear that it was the first time I’d ever seen his facial expression change.

I descended.

The Lower Quadrant was the belly of the house. It encompassed the garages, kitchens, servant’s quarters, storage, and engine rooms and was served by the North Entrance: a two story metal arch that opened onto the marble surface of the docking station.

Johan was down there, sitting on a wheel well and heating tea on a portable burner he always carried with him.

Anxious for my moment, I approached the entrance. At the scanning stations, the guards were carefully searching the new hires for weapons and parasites. Farther out, recruiters were assessing the crowd that had gathered beyond the arch.

In front were tired men with old faces who had worked for us before and had been in the system for years. They stood quietly, often holding boxes of tools, because they knew the recruiters were familiar with their skills, which ranged from plumbing to debt collection, and that if we needed them, then they’d be hired. Behind them was a clamoring mob of young men, some of them shirtless, who waved their ID cards and vied with each other in making claims about how long and how hard they could work. Some threw their ID cards forward, at the recruiters, in the hope that the card would be picked up and scanned into the system instead of being trampled underfoot. Snaking along one edge of the crowd was a line of men and women in business attire. This line attempted to stay in contact with the entrance, but it also wriggled fitfully whenever the boisterous working men came too close. Off to the side was a little clot of women&#8212often dressed in chic, if dirty, clothes&#8212who stood up on their toes and shouted at me, calling me “Natalia” or even “Tally”. They cried out that they’d played with me when I was a kid, and didn’t I remember how I’d come to their house all the time and taken tea. They probably weren’t lying. I’d played in so many Suareztowns over the years.

Down at the base of the docking station, the Philadelphia Suareztown was almost empty. It was a tightly-packed shantytown sprawled over many acres. The richest homes&#8212where the families of our permanent house-servants often lived&#8212were silvery trailers that had sunken into the mud. Slightly less affluent were the houses made of scavenged plywood, with roofs of corrugated tin. Others lived in nylon tents, or mud huts, or lean-tos propped against ruined buildings. Cooking fires still burned in places, tended by distant figures: the ones too old, crazy, disabled, or depressed to engage in the job search. Most of the estate was given over to parks and gardens that constrained the growth of the Suareztown. But even in the gardens there were patches of ground that were scarred and blackened: places where dwellings or illicit crops had been burned away to prettify the estate for our arrival.

While we were docked, this Suareztown would bloom like a desert after a rainstorm. Pipes that only flowed when the house was docked would scrub clean the refuse-strewn alleyways and allow these people their first decent showers in ages. Electricity illicitly tapped from the house would light up a few of the wealthier homes, where dozens would gather at night to watch television or listen to music. Men would come back from the house with their pockets full of money and put new shoes on their children. Their families would eat hamburger for the first time in months. At night, there would be dancing atop the marble docking station. Liquor would flow. Debts would be repaid. Minds that were used to thinking only of food would open up and find room for love. Young couples would ask Father for his blessing and after he irritably waved them off they would hold their weddings under the arch of the North Entrance and carry on until late in the next morning.

When we left, a little bit of that life would remain. Maybe someone would use a fully charged battery to power a phone, so they could search for jobs, or a light, so they could keep up with their studies. Maybe one of the permanent staff-members would marry a local or father a child and continue to send remittances for awhile. Maybe someone in this crowd would be hired on permanently and their family would move into a trailer. But mostly the town would lapse into silent, tenacious struggle. There’d be thefts and killings and beatings. Old hustles would be trotted out. Some would sicken, or starve. Others would move away, hoping to find a better village, and leave their homes open to those arriving from worse villages. All would anxiously pass the business gossip to each other, hoping that each little rise or dip in Father’s portfolio heralded another visit from us. They knew that our next visit might not be for ten years, and they’d regret not having made the best of this one.

Theirs was a tragic life, but it was the life to which they’d been born. I could pour my whole fortune into that hole without improving it. I wasn’t the cause of their poverty. Their livelihoods had been stolen by much more cunning people than I: people who’d held it for only a few moments before squandering it. My fortune was merely that portion of the world’s wealth which had not yet been destroyed by that insatiable manager-class of MBAs.

I heard the sound of my helicopters. There were two up there, and a third arriving. Johan sauntered up to me.

“I still can’t believe people live like this,” Johan said.

“Is your village much better?” I said. “What family do you follow? I hear that the Stern-Hsus have spent considerable money on cosmetic improvements.”

“I don’t live in a village…I’m from Houston,” Johan said. “I lived in a nice, little suburb. My parents have jobs. I went to college.”

“Did you?” I said. “I never saw the point in it.”

“I guess you wouldn’t,” he murmured. The sound of the helicopters almost drowned out his words.

Bits of paper started falling from the sky. My men and women in the crowd must’ve done their work well. Long before the first piece of paper was low enough to be clearly seen, hands were reaching up for it.

The crowd surged away from the entrance. The Suareztowners were jumping up and down, trying to snatch money out of the sky. Then my embedded agitators started the chant. Soon the whole crowd was shouting, “Natalia! Natalia! Natalia!” as they jumped.

The guards moved amongst them, looking for people who’d fallen underfoot. They pulled up one man, and he shook free from their grasp and started leaping up again. Far away, I heard the South Entrance open. Somewhere, news cameras were rushing towards me, but I did not let that stop me from observing the happy spectacle in front of me.

Some of the falling papers were not green dollars, but silvery coupons for admittance to the house tonight. At first these were looked at with puzzlement, and then they too were fought over.

“This is so inefficient,” Johan said. “You’re just encouraging them to cluster around your docking and mooch off you. If you really wanted to help people, you’d&#8212″

“I don’t want to help people,” I said. “I want to help my people.”

He shrugged. Then he heaved his backpack up onto his shoulders and walked into the crowd.

Father was right that we couldn’t really improve their lives. This was the world we had, and no one knew how to change it. But that didn’t mean I had no responsibility towards them. At least I could be kind to them. Father shunned them, and still they persisted in the belief that they were vassals of the Suarez family and that their fortunes rose and fell with ours. Despite the flimsiness of this belief, it provided them with some consolation.

I wouldn’t be as cruel as Father. I would do my best to show them that my family was worthy of their loyalty.

Over the next several hours, Father telephoned several times to berate me. I didn’t take the calls. His opinion wasn’t important right now.

The near-riot at our docking station was featured on a number of news channels. At the scene, I’d told the reporters about my newfound commitment to the greater good. It was not a major story, but it was a slow day, and the channels were anxious to recycle images from my spree of five years ago: the high-speed chases, the smashed cars, the burning buildings, the overdosed companions….the evolution of my supposed pathology gave the commentariat something to mash their lips about.

I hired a publicist from the line of professionals at the North Entrance and told him to field all my media calls, while I handled the personal calls.

Ever since my name had hit the airwaves, long-lost friends and family had been calling to accept invitations to tonight’s party. I forgave them for their late RSVPs, and ordered Andreas to double, triple, quadruple the size of the celebration.

When Mother emerged from the operating theater, she said, “How much did that stunt cost?”

“Five thousand for the helicopters. Fifteen thousand for the cash.”

“Not a bad expense-to-giving ratio. If you can keep that up, I’m willing to give you a little more slack,” she said. “At least it’s more productive than burning down a nightclub.”

“So you saw that they’re replaying the old footage.”

“It’s not my name that’s getting dragged through the mud,” Mother said. “But…there won’t be any property damage this time, right?”

“I don’t need to do that anymore.”

“Okay,” she said. “I knew you’d never really get serious. It’s the money; it doesn’t let you do anything seriously. At least you didn’t end up all fussy like your dad.”

With the exponentially increasing size of tonight’s party, the whole house was in a tumult. Andreas was barking over the intercom every ten minutes. Each time his voice filled our ears, the workers cursed his name and then redoubled their labor. Everyone who’d ever served before had been hired, and now rank newcomers were being scanned, searched, and put to work.

And Andreas had ordered the reopening of the banquet hall: a vast lung right at the top of the house, covered with a thin bubble of screens that could go transparent to show the sky or could display panoramic views of 1.4 million real or simulated locales. Father hated the extravagance of the place. It hadn’t been used since Grandfather’s wake.

It was a joy to see it brought to life again. I stood in a corner, as tables and silverware were brought up from the docking station’s warehouse by the new workers. The dust was blown out of the place, and its familiar smell of aged wood, with a slight tinge of cigar smoke, reasserted itself. Overhead, the dome was lit up with skeining colors as newly-hired technicians calibrated the screens.

Two Suareztown workers walked past me, holding a table. The older of them said, “Now see here, Dan, I worked here plenty of times. You got to be careful not to scuff these floors. These floors are ancient. The old man installed them when he built this place. Hell, I was here when this room had its first event: the old man’s second wedding.”

The other worker said, “I heard that whoever’s got these silver invitations is gonna get a million dollars tonight.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, if that girl can show she doesn’t care about money by giving away all her millions by midnight then her dad will feel safe about letting her inherit his billions.”

“Shit, my daughter had one. She sold it to Ken Rodgers for $100.”

The silver tickets were Letitia’s innovation. I hadn’t yet asked her what she meant to do with them.

I was still in the banquet hall when Father caught up to me several hours later. The tables were set up and clad with silverware. The servers were being hastily retrained at the other end of the hall. Father wove through the tables with a hasty step. He was within arm’s reach before he let a word escape from between his gritted teeth.

“You’re going down that evil road again,” he said.

“I did what I said I would. I gave the money away.”

“I’ve had a lot of calls today from my brothers. They said that these ‘charities’ are the new fad amongst you kids. You use the money to stage horrible events: rallies, fights, races…making people crawl and debase themselves for money…they showed me pictures of the charity games that your cousin Letitia threw on her fund day….they made me sick…really physically sick…I thought you’d changed. After your last…difficulties…we talked things out. You went to therapy. You said you realized you’re not the center of the world.”

“I did what you should have been doing,” I said. “You’re too old to understand that we can’t treat people like mere employees anymore. They won’t let us. They demand to be treated like peasants, because peasants get taken care of.”

“And the gladiator fights your cousin staged? Was that taking care of them?”

I had never heard of any fights, but I wasn’t going to cede my ground. “Some kind of abasement has to be demanded from them as a symbol of our interlocking responsibilities.”

“I don’t know how I raised such a monster,” Father said. “I can’t believe I spent all those years arguing with your Grandfather about you. I’m done. I’m giving all this up. The servants, the docking stations, the house, the helicopters, the cars, everything. It was a mistake to keep them. Your Grandfather deserved them, because he’d earned them. You and I haven’t earned anything. I’m putting the house on the market tomorrow morning.”

“You can’t!” I yelled, as Father stalked away.

I stopped myself from running after him. He couldn’t be serious about selling this place. An owner without a house would be nothing more than a name on a bank account.

By nightfall, there were a dozen houses floating above, larger than clouds, and sending down tiny helicopters full of guests. Some had flown for much of the day in order to attend what was being called the rebirth of an enfant terrible onto the social scene.

All three of Father’s brothers arrived, with wives and children in tow. Mother’s family was cobbled together, thrown on planes, and picked up from the airport by limousines. More distant cousins, whom even my father hadn’t seen more than twice in his lifetime, appeared by the score. And there were a number of attendees from other families: the Aldritches, the Yamagachis, the Stern-Hsus, the Bilals, the Mittals, the Morgensterns, the Okowonwes, and many more. I recognized most of the scions from my younger days.

And then there was Morris Kenneman. How could my Father have invited him? He and his wife walked alone through the halls of my house. Wherever they went, eyes narrowed and heads shook. At dinner, the Kennemans’ assigned tablemates stood up and went to other tables. My father took pity on the CEO and invited the Kennemans to sit with him and Mother up on the dais. In the presence of my parents, Kenneman became expansive. He exploded with laughter and clapped my father on the shoulder. My father sat forward, with the splayed fingers of one hand poised on the table, and soaked up Kenneman’s business lectures with open eyes. Why did he worship that man so much?

After dinner, the guests drank copiously, and the youngest set, the ones who’d come up after me, sampled the new drugs in bathrooms and bedrooms and carports. The din reached a crescendo and fell and started again like it was some modern composition, ‘Wealth,” As Performed By Three Hundred Voices.

I was feted wherever I wandered. I preferred the darker corners, where my old set gathered to relive more dissipate days.

I’d last seen Father on the dais in the banquet room. He was speaking in soft, but quick, words to Kenneman. Their heads were so close that they were almost whispering into each other’s ears. When I tried to gain his attention, he remained silent.

I was standing with Letitia, Sean Stern-Hsu, and Leon Aldritch in the sunroom. While I’d spent the last five years contemplating my place in the world, they’d spent them in a continuous debauch. Apparently, I’d chosen the more taxing occupation. They’d managed to retain the beauty which I’d lost.

“Natalia was always the wildest,” Sean said. “Remember the time you bought out a library that was closing down, and burned all the books?”

“Oh god, you loved fire,” Letitia said.

“It was a political protest,” I said. I didn’t like to be reminded about those wild days. I’d derived far too much pleasure from that mayhem.

“What were you protesting?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You did everything for the cameras,” Letitia said. “And you got more of them than anybody.”

“I…must have been protesting the library closure.”

“When did you ever go to a library?” Leon said.

“People use libraries,” I said. “They’re necessary things. People use them. Come on. We all know that this is about more than cameras.”

After a few more drinks, Letitia took us down into the little holding room where we jailed erring servants until land-based authorities could be reached. Right now it was crammed full of about fifteen Suareztowners. We stared at them through the one-way glass.

“They’re the ones who came with the silver tickets,” Letitia said.

“What do you have planned?” I said.

“Maybe an Impossible Game?”

“What about A Red Herring?” Sean said.

“My sister tried an Adoption Party,” Leon said.

I laughed along with them. During my exile, I hadn’t paid much attention to society news. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I had asked Letitia to make my return as chic as possible.

Some time later, I detached myself from them and shadowed Father through the back hallways. I needed to catch him alone and make him see reason.

At the end of the hallway, someone said, “I can’t believe anyone could have this many servants.”

“Most of them are temporary. They’re from the Suareztown.” I recognized Johan’s voice.

“Oh god. From that slum?”

Johan came into view. He had a girl with him who I’d never seen before.

“Hey Natalia,” he said. He waved to me. “This is my college friend, Sarah.”

“So all this is for you, then?” Sarah said.

“It’s my birthday party.”

“How can you bear to do something like this when people are living in shacks all around you?”

“I’m sorry, what family do you serve?” I said. If this girl and Johan came from such wonderful villages then some family was making the rest of us look bad.

“I work,” Sarah said. “I’m in marketing.”

“Mother works,” I said. “She doesn’t earn very much money, but she likes it. She pulled herself up. I’m glad you managed to pull yourself up. It’s not easy to do.”

“What is she talking about?” Sarah said.

“What family is your village attached to? Have you ever met them? They might be here.”

“I’m not from a slum!”

“Oh, you’re another one like Johan. Some of the older Suareztowners still call their home ‘a suburb’ too.”

“We’re nothing like your fucking ghetto servants,” Sarah said. Her face was flushed now, and her chin was shaking. “I work. My parents work. Everyone I know works. I have an MBA in&#8212”

“Oh,” I said. “You’re managers.” I turned to Johan. “You as well?”

He shook his head as if he didn’t understand me.

“What is your father’s profession?”

“He’s in financial services, what he does is…”

As Johan went into a long explanation, I got angrier and angrier. Two managers had snuck into my home and taken advantage of my hospitality. Of course, I’d rubbed shoulders with managers before, at the stores and bars and clubs where that vulgar class was only too quick to squander the earnings it had stolen from us. But at least in those settings, I was not expected to socialize with the managers.

“How dare you step foot in a productive household?” I said. “How dare you steal our hospitality?”

“Look,” Johan said. “I’m just travelling around, trying to learn about the world and about how people live so that I can start trying to fix all the prob&#8212”

“You want to manage the whole world, don’t you?” I said. “I thought you were a struggling beggar, trying to find a place. But you’re just a manager spy.”

I turned and walked away. I thought of having them ejected, but I’d much rather round up Sean and Leon and convince them to pulverize some managerial scum, they way we used to.

While I was looking in the banquet room for Letitia, Sean and the rest, I ran across Father. He was on the dais, worrying away with delicate nibbles at the morsels of flesh inside the broken-open torso of a crab. One of his brothers was snoring next to him. The dome was lit up with a view from Father’s hunting lodge in the Smoky Mountains. It was a sped-up view, transitioning from dawn to dusk in less than fifteen minutes, and going through the night and back to day.

I sat down next to him and waved at the sky. “Is that where you’re going?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll live in a New York apartment.”

“You can’t be serious. There’d be MBAs everywhere. You might even have to share a wall with one of them.”

“What is it that you think your Grandfather and Great-Grandfather did?”

“They were businessmen,” I said. “They created wealth. They didn’t steal it.”

Father snorted. The banquet room was in disarray. There was half-eaten food on many of the tables. The tablecloths were splotched. Near the bar there was a large group of heavy drinkers still going at the whiskey. Here and there, tables were still animated and full of life. Elsewhere, duos looked into each others’ eyes or up at the shifting starscape and whispered quietly.

“You can’t give it all up!” I said. “Mother and I will veto it.”

“I already talked to her. She will approve it, as long as we settle near a hospital. She’s anxious to have blood on her hands again.”

“And what about me?”

“You have your fund,” he said. “We’ll allow you a small stipend for your upkeep. And your mother supports your charitable activities. She even suggested that I start my own charity.”

“She doesn’t support me,” I said. “She’s just unhappy. She hates us.”

“I know you love this house,” Father said. “I won’t sell it.”

“Thank God,” I said. “I knew you’d recognize your duty, eventually.”

“I’ll destroy it,” he said. “I’ll burn it down like you burned down that nightclub. I’ll leave it right on this docking station as a blackened wreck.”

“Grandfather built this house,” I said. “You have no right to harm it!”

“He left it to me. He trusted me in a way that I’m not sure I can ever trust you.”

“That trust was misplaced,” I said. “You’re ruining this family. You know you’re not as capable as Grandfather, so you pinch pennies, trying not to lose the money he left behind. But your miserliness has made you weak and friendless and vulnerable to the managers. They’re bleeding you, just as they’ve bled so many other owners. If we’re going to survive, we need to make sure that the servants and workers are loyal enough to combat this management robbery.”

“If you want this house to survive, then abandon these regal pretensions,” Father said. “Dissolve your trust fund. Return it to me. Learn thrift and caution. Then, maybe, when I die, I’ll be able to hand all this over to you in good faith.”

I felt a tear forming, and surreptitiously wiped it away. Father didn’t say anything. We sat there in silence for a long time. Eventually, he started snoring. I sniffed his glass. It was very full of undiluted whiskey.

“Yasmina,” I said. “Please make this dome transparent.” The landscape altered, and I could see the blank, grey night. Most of the houses had drifted away by now. One hundred feet below, the Suareztown was lit up brilliantly. There were thousands of people down there. They’d stopped whatever they were doing to look up at me.

Even after a lifetime among them, the Suareztowners were still faintly alien to me. In my mind, they existed only collectively, and I found it hard to credit them with individual thoughts or feelings. I loved my house more than I had ever loved anyone from the servant class. It had cocooned me since birth and learning its secrets had been the major joy of my life.

Was their loyalty really important enough to me to be worth losing the house forever?

“There you are!” Letitia’s voice called out. “I should’ve known you’d be precocious enough to meet us here.”

Letitia, Sean, Leon, and the rest of our set had rambled in, herding the fifteen ticketholders, each of whom was now holding a young child.

“You missed the first round,” Letitia said. “We did it by the North Entrance. They had to pick their favorite child!”

“The crowd loved it,” Sean said. “The women were crying, and blessing each child, and saying prayers over them. It was quite a scene.”

There were dozens of news cameras trailing them, held at a decent distance by our guards. Andreas was there in the wings, directing the movements of the crowd. Servants came to the front, near the dais, and cleared the tables. Two workers picked up my father and took him off to bed. The party was ushered towards me.

Letitia sat next to me on the dais.

“We’re playing The Scholarship Game,” Letitia called out.

All of my set applauded. A few older people stood in the wings, looking on. Some shrank away when the cameras panned to towards them, and others did not.

What Letitia proceeded to outline was an auction. The bidders had educational data on each of these children, and knew all about their potential for work, so they’d compete with each other to pay money to the parent of each child. The winner of each auction would get to take the child away, for a ten year term of service, during which they’d learn a trade. It was the Suareztown dream of finding a place in a big house.

I thought the children would fidget through these explanations, but they stared with wide unblinking eyes and seemed to see everything that was inside us. Only one parent objected. He said, “But we want to work for Mr. Suarez.”

Letitia carefully explained that all of us came from good families but any parent had the option of refusing the money when the auction was over.

I was sitting in the place of honor, with all those cameras pointed at me. Letitia served as auctioneer. She brought up the little boy of the father who’d spoken out. I knew that all this about educational data was just a pretense. My set joked with each other, starting off with absurdly low amounts, and only raising their bids infinitesimally, trying to see the father squirm.

The father thought he was going to have to choose between selling off his boy to a stranger for a pittance or losing the best opportunity he’d ever been given.

I entered the bidding, and kept bidding, destroying their fun. I ignored Letitia’s whispered comments that I was disrupting the cadence of the game, until she was forced to gavel the auction to a close and declare me the winner.

I sat the little boy down next to me, and motioned for some more food to be brought out.

Letitia whispered, “You weren’t supposed to win. Leon liked the looks of that one.”

“Wait,” I said, before Letitia started the next auction. “Yasmina. Please enable exterior broadcast.” It was the protocol my Grandfather had used to show the town his wedding ceremony. I knew that the exterior of the dome would light up with the image of the dais, and that our words would be broadcast through the town at ear-splitting volume.

Then I proceeded to buy all the rest of the children. At first, my set was angry that I’d disrupted the auctions. What was it that they had planned to do with these children?

But then Letitia went among them and told them about a new game. After that, they smiled and bid me up to astronomical sums just to see the sheer, molten hope bubbling out of those parents’ faces. I wasn’t going to pay the money, of course. I’d claim a misunderstanding and send them off with only a tiny sum, just as I wouldn’t really enslave their children, I’d apprentice them so they could learn to be pilots, or sommeliers, or cooks, or waiters and eventually find good places in good households…or more likely just spend their lives waiting, silently, in front of some family’s recruiting entrance.

When Letitia returned to her seat next to me, I asked, “What are you doing? If I hadn’t stepped in, you’d have riled up the servants.”

Letitia wrinkled her forehead. “I thought you wanted to have some fun…”

I opened my mouth and then closed it. My hands smoothed the edges of my dress. Letitia wasn’t acting. The reddened faces of my peers were open holes that drained bottle after bottle and spit up jangly laughter. None of them were acting. They’d become what society needed them to be. But they hadn’t yet realized they were necessary. They thought they were just having fun.

Letitia rose to raffle off one more child. But then my cousin squeaked and an amplified gasp ran out over the room and, presumably, the Suareztown below. Father had pushed her back down into her seat. He rose up at one end of the dais and shouted, “I’m here! I’m your master, aren’t I? Well I’m right here! Listen to me! I have”&#8212his voice suddenly grew ten times louder as the contextual operators caught on and began amplification&#8212″an announcement for you!”

I gestured frantically at the walls. I even went so far as to mouth the words, “Yasmina. Cut off the exterior feed.” But nothing happened. Her eyes were probably pinned on my father.

“Come on up here, Mo.” Father gestured, with an empty champagne glass, at the CEO. A waiter appeared and filled the glass. “Don’t be shy. Come up here! This is all going to be yours soon!”

Every organ in my body was switching off. I wanted to stand. I wanted to shout. Letitia looked at me with her eyes wide open and grabbed the meat of my upper arm. But I could do nothing.

Morris Kenneman maneuvered his old man bulk onto the dais. My staggering Father grabbed the CEO’s hand and raised it high into the air. All of this was being projected live on the exterior of the house!

“It’s a complicated transaction. I’ll leave Morris here to explain it. But the company’s buying all of this. The house. The docking station. The lodges. The summer homes. Everything. And they’re buying back all my stock too. Every share. Morris is going to arrange financing through his contacts in the financial sector. And I’ll be stepping down as Chairman, of course. It’s time the company was entrusted to more capable hands than mine.”

I couldn’t speak. I could barely think. Was Father really subjecting our company&#8212Grandfather’s company&#8212to a leveraged buyout?

Morris was stony-faced. He said a few words, but quickly realized he wasn’t being amplified.

Father said, “Andreas! Fritz! You’ve got the contracts. File them.” Then he sat down abruptly. Immediately, Fritz was on hand, having shouldered his way past Kenneman. He gave a bottle of water and a few pills to Father, who swallowed them without looking. Kenneman assayed another attempt at a speech, but his voice still came out quiet. He shook his head once and then clambered off the dais.

All around, guests were leaving. Above, helicopters danced around each other as they tried to land and pluck their owners from a birthday party that had suddenly turned into a funeral.

My father sank down, rested his head against the back of his chair, and fell asleep. Fritz organized a crew of servants to carry him to his room. At the foot of the docking station, the Suareztown shimmered: doors were opening and closing; hundreds of people were milling in the streets. Within a few weeks, they’d be living in a Kennemantown.

I woke up with a splitting headache. Letitia and I had kept drinking until early in the morning. She wouldn’t stop asking me if things would be alright. Finally, she left me and hopped a ride with Sean.

The house rumbled through my body. Laying atop my bedspread, in the darkened cocoon of my room, I could pretend that everything was still okay. What time was it? I snapped a finger and pointed at the windows.

They remained opaque.

I sat up.

Wait…the house was rumbling a bit too much. I dropped to my knees and put an ear to the hardwood floor. The whole house was humming with the distant orchestral sound of eight engines working in concert.

We were flying. Why? Where was Father taking us now?

I stepped into a pair of sweatpants and shrugged into a t-shirt, then I said, aloud, “Yasmina. Put me through to Father.”

Nothing happened.

I walked to the door and it did not open. I tapped on it and it did not open. I slammed my open palm against it and that whispery voice drifted out of the speakers, “I’m sorry, ma’am…Andreas says…”

“What the hell is going on!” I yelled.

The door clanged. A muffled shout. Then footsteps echoed out.

The room filled with Andreas’ voice. “Greetings and good morning! Late last night, the house developed technical difficulties that hampered central control of appliances. Currently, we are in the air above Los Angeles, en route to our maintenance station in Yokohama and…”

I put my ear to the door. This wasn’t the daily report. This was only coming out of the speakers in my room; it wasn’t being broadcast to the hallway.

“Help me!” I shouted. “I’m held prisoner!”

Andreas’ report suddenly cut off. I kept shouting and slamming my body against the door. Finally, I heard voices on the other side:

“…she’s a whore…just keep her hip-deep in cocaine and cock and she’ll let us do whatever we want…”

Then Andreas said: “She’ll stay inside until we figure out how to manage her.” The voice wasn’t coming through the speaker. It sounded like he was actually standing in the hall.

“…then what? You’ll be in charge? No…fuck that…” this voice sounded a bit like one of the cooks.

“Last night she promised money for my boy…what about his scholarship…?”

Andreas said, “We must stay calm. She will be released eventually. We just need to&#8212”

“You all saw her face last night. She hated the old man just as much as we did. She’ll be grateful to us.”

“Sides…we can’t keep her holed up for long…all kinds of reporters have been calling and emailing and trying to get ahold of her…”

This time the speaker was my usual door-guard: “…if someone’s gotta be in charge…then it sure as hell can’t be old Andy here. He’d work us to the bone in no time.”

“…she was going to give away all her money. She wants to help us!”

Andreas said, “We can manage without her. You just need to trust me.”

But the chant had already started: “Let her out! Let her out! Let her out!”

Through my speakers, Yasmina whispered, “Forgive me” and then the door opened. The servants surged into my room. Carmina put an arm around me and warded off the rest with her other hand. She pulled me out into the hall. The guards yelled at me to forgive them. A woman, holding her son by the shoulders, told me she didn’t have anything to do with this, and did I really think her boy could&#8212

“Wait!” I said. “Where are my parents!”

A throat cleared. Andreas said, “Your mother is in her operating room.”

Fritz burst out. “We did it for you! He was going to sell your house!”

They swirled all around me. Through the windows, all I saw was white. Not clouds&#8212ice. Off to the left, a huge jet kept pace with the house: it was our in-flight refueling tanker. With it, the house could remain aloft indefinitely.

“Where are we?” I said.

They went silent. Andreas said, “We’re in international waters. The Arctic circle.”

“This is insane,” I said. “You can’t hold my father prisoner…”

“He’s sick,” Andreas said. “Thousands of people saw him behaving erratically last night. He’s been getting stranger and more withdrawn for ages. Now he doesn’t want to see anyone.”

“Take me to him.”

The crowd pulsed and opened up a space for me. Cooks, guards, maids, drivers, and dozens upon dozens of people I’d grown up alongside&#8212none of them met my eye. Andreas stepped into the vacuole.

“No,” he said. “Your father doesn’t want to see you.”

“That’s a lie. You’re imprisoning him.”

Andreas pursed his lips. “Fritz and I both witnessed and signed the documents attesting to his incapacity.” He sighed. “And…in light of that incapacity, certain provisions of his and your trusts have become active. As of today, you are his voting proxy for the company stock.”

A warm sensation sludged my veins and Carmina caught my outflung hand. We tottered for a bit, but she kept me upright.

“The company is still ours, then?” I said.

“Your Father grew ill before we could file the paperwork,” Andreas said.

Someone in the crowd shouted, ” He was going to sell us downriver!”

They devoured me with hungry eyes. As my breathing quieted, they grew stiller and slower. Movement stopped. Even the boy eventually stopped fidgeting. How desperate must they have been to join together in this terrible plot?

“What are you going to do?” said the boy’s mother.

I looked out the window and shivered. Then I let out a holler. “Can’t say I’m in the mood for snow right now. How about you prep the shuttle? I think I’ll take a run down to Rio. A few days on the beach sounds like just the ticket.” We hadn’t visited the Brazil Suareztown in six years. If the house servants were this desperate, then how much bolder and angrier must they be in the neglected Suareztowns? Our family’s apathy had bred so many enemies.

“We’ll have you prepped for departure within the hour,” Andreas said. The crowd milled around me. Then Carmina smiled, and they broke open, sweeping me along in a babble of questions. At one point, I was carried past mother’s operating room. Amid the torrent of noise, she emerged with the sensory-transmission gloves still on her hands.

She nodded to me. “I thought you’d finally have to make something of yourself,” she said. “But I hear you wriggled free.”

“Take good care of dad!” I said. “I’ll be back soon to check up on him.”

“You could have been something,” she said. “You could have done something.”

I was loaded up with bags upon bags: everything I could possibly need. They didn’t give me an unescorted moment until they loaded me into the shuttle. But then, just before its doors closed, Andreas plopped down beside me.

“If he goes free, you know that he will sell everything.”

I was going to have to spend the rest of my life watching Andreas. He was my Morris Kenneman.

“Give me a month or two to build the case for dad’s ‘illness.,'” I said. “Then we’ll transfer him stateside.” I’d give him his apartment in Manhattan, if that was really all that he wanted.

Andreas nodded slowly, and then he popped out. The hatch snapped shut immediately.

As the shuttle flew past the house, I thought I saw a man in a suit standing in the window of Father’s bedroom. But he did not see me. His fingers were touching the glass and his eyes were locked on the glaciers down below.

___
Copyright 2013 Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, the Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He currently lives in Baltimore, where he is enrolled in the Master of the Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Stanford University and used to work as an international development consultant. If you want to know more about him then please visit his blog at http://www.blotter-paper.com or follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rahkan.

by C.S.E. Cooney

For Janelle McHugh

Of the woman he was to wed on the morrow, Shursta Sarth knew little. He knew she hailed from Droon. He knew her name was Hyrryai.

“…Which means, The Gleaming One,” his sister piped in, the evening before he left their village. She was crocheting by the fire and he was staring into it.

Lifting his chin from his hand, Shursta grinned at her. “Ayup? And where’d you light upon that lore, Nugget?”

Sharrar kicked him on the ankle for using the loathed nickname. “I work with the greyheads. They remember everything.”

“Except how to chew their food.”

“What they’ve lost in teeth, they’ve gained in wisdom,” she announced with some pomposity. “Besides, that’s what they have me for.” Her smile went wry at one corner, but was no less proud for that. “I chew their food, I change their cloths, and they tell me about the old days. Some of them had parents who were alive back then.”

Her voice went rich and rolling. Her crochet hook glinted on the little lace purse she was making. The driftwood flames flickered, orange with tongues of blue.

“They remember the days before the Nine Cities drowned and the Nine Islands with them. Before our people forsook us to live below the waters, and we were stranded here on the Last Isle. Before we changed our name to Glennemgarra, the Unchosen.” Sharrar sighed. “In those days, names were more than mere proxy for, Hey, you!”

“So, Hyrryai means, Hey, you, Gleamy?”

“You have no soul, Shursta.”

“Nugget, when your inner poet is ascendant, you have more than enough soul for both of us. If the whitecaps of your whimsy rise any higher, we’ll have a second Drowning at hand, make no mistake.”

Sharrar rolled her brown-bright eyes at him and grunted something. He laughed, and the anxious knots in his stomach loosened some.

When Shursta took his leave the next morning at dawn, he lingered in the threshold. The hut had plenty of wood in the stack outside the door. He’d smoked or salted any extra catch for a week, so Sharrar would not soon go hungry. If she encountered trouble, they would take her in at the Hall of Ages where she worked, and there she’d be fed and sheltered, though she wouldn’t have much privacy or respite.

He looked at his sister now. She’d dragged herself from bed to make him breakfast, even though he was perfectly capable of frying up an egg himself. Her short dark hair stuck up every which way and her eyes were bleary. Her limp was more pronounced in the morning.

“Wish you could come with me,” he offered.

“What? Me, with one game leg and a passel of greyheads to feed? No, thank you!” But her eyes looked wistful. Neither of them had ever been to Droon, capital of the Last Isle, the seat of the Astrion Council.

“Hey,” he said, surprised to find his own eyes stinging.

“Hey,” she said right back. “After the mesh-rite, after you’ve settled down a bit and met some folks, invite me up. You know I want to meet my mesh-sister. You have my gift?”

He patted his rucksack, which had the little lace purse she’d crocheted along with his own mesh-gift.

“Oohee, brother mine,” said Sharrar. “By this time tomorrow you’ll be a Blodestone, and no Sarth relation will be worthy to meet your eyes.”

“Doubtless Hirryai Blodestone will take one look at me and sunder the contract.”

She requested you.”

Shursta shrugged, sure it had been a mistake.

After that, there was one last hug, a vivid and mischievous and slightly desperate smile from Sharrar, followed by a grave look and quick wink on Shursta’s part. Then he set off on the searoad that would take him to Droon.

Of the eight great remaining kinlines, the Blodestones were the wealthiest. Their mines were rich in ore and gems. Their fields were fertile and wide, concentrated in the highland interior of the Last Isle. After a Blodestone female was croned at age fifty, she would hold her place on the Astrion Council, which governed all the Glennemgarra.

Even a fisherman like Shursta Sarth (of the lesser branch of Sarths), from a poor village like Sif on the edge of Rath Sea, with no parents of note and only a single sister for kin, knew about the Blodestones.

He had no idea why Hyrryai had chosen him for mesh-mate. If it had not been an error, then it was a singular honor. For his life he knew not how he deserved it.

He was of an age to wed. Mesh-rite was his duty to the Glennemgarra and he would perform it, that the world might once again be peopled. To be childless–unless granted special dispensation by the Astrion Council–was to be reviled. Even with the dispensation, there were those who were tormented or shunned for their barrenness.

Due to a lack of girls in Sif, to his own graceless body, which, though fit for work, tended to carry extra weight, and to the slowness of his tongue in the company of strangers, Shursta had not yet been bred out. He had planned to attend this year’s muster and win a mesh-mate at games (the idea of being won himself had never occurred to him), but then the Council’s letter from Droon came.

The letter told him that Hyrryai Blodestone had requested him for mesh-mate. It told him that Hyrryai had not yet herself been bred. That though she was twenty one, a full year past the age of meshing, she had been granted a reprieve when her little sister was murdered.

Shursta had read that last sentence in shock. The murder of a child was the highest crime but one, and that was the murder of a girl child. Hyrryai had been given full grieving rights.

Other than this scant information, the letter had left detailed directions to Droon, with the day and time his first assignation with Hirryai had been set, and reminded him that it was customary for a first-meshed couple to exchange a gift.

On Sharrar’s advice, Shursta had taken pains. He had strung for Hyrryai a long necklace of ammonite, shark teeth and dark pearls the color of thunderclouds. Ammonite for antiquity, teeth for ferocity, and pearls for sorrow. A fearsome gift and perhaps presumptuous, but Sharrar had approved.

“Girls like sharp things,” she’d said, “so the teeth are just right. As for the pearls, they’re practically a poem.”

“I should have stuck with white ones,” he’d said ruefully. “The regular round kind.”

“Bah!” said Sharrar, her pointy face with its incongruously long, strong jaw set stubbornly. “If she doesn’t see you’re a prize, I’ll descend upon Droon and roast her organs on the tines of my trident, just see if I don’t!”

Whereupon Shursta had flicked his strand of stone, teeth and pearl at her. She’d caught it with a giggle, wrapping it with great care in the fine lace purse she’d made.

Hyrryai Blodestone awaited him. More tidepool than beach, the small assignation spot had been used for this purpose before. Boulders had been carved into steps leading from searoad to cove, but these were ancient and crumbling into marram grass.

In this sheltered spot, a natural rock formation had been worked gently into the double curve of a lovers’ bench. His intended bride sat at the far end. Any further and she would topple off.

From the smudges beneath her eyes and the harried filaments flying out from her wing-black braid, she looked as if she had been sitting there all night. Her head turned as he approached. Perhaps it was the heaviness of his breath she heard. It labored after the ten miles he’d trudged that morning, from the steepness of the steps, at his astonishment at the color of her hair. The breezy sweetness of dawn had long since burned away. It was noon.

Probably, Shursta thought, falling back a step back as her gaze met his, she could smell him where she sat.

“Shursta Sarth,” she greeted him.

“Damisel Blodestone.”

Shursta had wanted to say her name. Had wanted to say it casually, as she spoke his, with a cordial nod of the head. Instead his chin jutted up and awry, as if a stray hook had caught it. Her name stopped in his throat and changed places at the last second with the formal honorfic. He recalled Sharrar’s nonsense about names having meaning. It no longer seemed absurd.

Hyrryai the Gleaming One. Had she been so called for the long shining lines in her hair? The fire at the bottom of her eyes, like lava trapped in obsidian? Was it the clear bold glow of her skin, just browner than blushing coral, just more golden than sand?

Since his tongue would not work, as it rarely did for strangers, Shursta shrugged off his rucksack. The shoulder straps were damp in his grip. He fished out the lace purse with its mesh-gift and held it out to her, stretching his arm to the limit so that he would not have to step nearer.

She glanced from his flushed face to the purse. With a short sigh, as if to brace herself, she stood abruptly, plucked the purse from his hand and dumped the contents into her palm.

Shursta’s arm dropped.

Hyrryai Blodestone examined the necklace closely. Every tooth, every pearl, every fossilized ridge of ammonite. Then, with another breath, this one quick and indrawn as the other had been exhaled, she poured the contents back and thrust the purse at him.

“Go home, man of Sif,” she said. “I was mistaken. I apologize that you came all this way.”

Not knowing whether he were about to protest or cozen or merely ask why, Shursta opened his mouth. Felt that click in the back of his throat where too many words welled in too narrow a funnel. Swallowed them all.

His hand closed over the purse Sharrar had made.

After all, it was no worse than he had expected. Better, for she had not laughed at him. Her face, though cold, expressed genuine sorrow. He suspected the sorrow was with her always. He would not stay to exacerbate it.

This time, he managed a creditable bow, arms crossed over his chest in a gesture of deepest respect. Again he took up his rucksack, though it seemed a hundred times heavier now. He turned away from her, letting his rough hair swing into his face.

“Wait.”

Her hand was on his arm. He wondered if they had named her Hyrryai because she left streaks of light upon whatever she touched.

“Wait. Please. Come and sit. I think I must explain. If it pleases you to hear me, I will talk awhile. After that you may tell me what you think. What you want. From this.” She spread her hands.

Shursta did not remove his rucksack again, but he sat with her. Not on the bench, but on the sand, with their backs against the stone seat. He drew in the sand with a broken shell and did not look at her except indirectly, for fear he would stare. For a while, only the waves spoke.

When Hyrryai Blodestone began, her tones were polite but informal, like a lecturer of small children. Like Sharrar with her grayheads. As if she did not expect Shursta to hear her, or hearing, listen.

“The crones of the Astrion Council know the names of all the Glennemgarra youth yet unmeshed. All their stories. Who tumbled which merry widow in which sea cave. Who broke his drunken head on which barman’s club. Who comes from the largest family of mesh-kin, and what her portions are. You must understand,” the tone of her voice changed, and Shursta glanced up in time to see the fleetingest quirk of a corner smile, “the secrets of the council do not stay in the council. In my home, at least, it is the salt of every feast, the gossip over tea leaves and coffee grinds, the center of our politics and our hearths. With a mother, grandmother, several aunts and great aunts and three cousins on the council, I cannot escape it. When we were young, we did not want to. We thought of little else than which dashing, handsome man we would…”

She stopped. Averted her face. Then she asked lightly, “Shall I tell you your story as the Blodestones know it?”

When he answered, after clearing his throat, it was in the slow measured sentences that made most people suck their teeth and stamp the ground with impatience. Hyrryai Blodestone merely watched with her flickering eyes.

“Shursta Sarth is not yet twenty five. He has one sibling, born lame. A fisherman by trade. Not a very successful one. Big as a whale. Stupid as a jellyfish. Known to his friends, if you can call them that, as ‘Sharkbait.’”

Hyrryai was nodding, slowly. His heart sank like a severed anchor. He had hoped, of course, that the story told of Shursta Sarth in the Astrion Council might be different. That somehow they had known more of him, even, than he knew of himself. Seeing his crestfallen expression, Hyrryai took up the tale.

“Shursta Sarth is expected either to win a one-year bride at games, do his duty by her and watch her leave the moment her contract ends, or to take under his wing a past-primer lately put aside for a younger womb. However, as his sister will likely be his dependent for life, this will deter many of the latter, who might have taken him on for the sake of holding their own household. It is judged improbable that Shursta Sarth will follow the common practice of having his sister removed to the Beggar’s Quarter and thus improve his own lot.”

Shursta must have made an abrupt noise or movement, for she glanced at him curiously. He realized his hands had clenched. Again, she almost smiled.

“Your sister made the purse?”

He nodded once.

“Then she is clever. And kind.” She paused. The foam hissed just beyond the edges of their toes. A cormorant called.

“Did you know I had a sister?” she asked him.

Shursta nodded, more carefully this time. Her voice, like her face, was remote and cold. But at the bottom of it, buried in the ice, an inferno.

“She was clubbed to death on this beach. I found her. We had come here often to play–well, to spy on mesh-mates meeting for the first time. Sometimes we came here when the moon was full–to bathe and dance and pretend that the sea people would swim up to surface from the Nine Drowned Cities to sing songs with us. I had gone to a party that night with a group of just the sort of dashing handsome young men we would daydream about meshing with, but she was too young yet for such things. When she was found missing from her bed the next morning, I thought perhaps she had come here and fallen asleep. I thought if I found her, I could pretend to our mother I had already scolded her–Kuista was very good at hanging her head like a puppy and looking chastised; sometimes I think she practiced in the mirror–and she might be let off a little easier. So I went here first and told nobody. But even from the cliff, when I saw her lying there, I knew she wasn’t sleeping.”

Shursta began to shiver. He thought of Sharrar, tangled in bladderwrack, a nimbus of bloody sand spreading out around her head.

“She was fully clothed, except for her shoes. But she often went barefoot. Said even sandals strangled her. The few coins in her pocket were still there, but her gemmaja was gone. I know she had been wearing it, because she rarely took it off. And it’s not among her things.”

A dark curiosity moved in him. Unable to stop himself, Shursta asked, “What is a gemmaja?”

Hyrryai untangled a thin silver chain from her hair. If she had not been so mussed, if the gemmaja had been properly secured, it would have lain across her forehead in a gentle V. A small green stone speckled with red came to rest between her eyes like a raindrop.

“The high households of the eight kinlines wear them. Ours is green chalcedony, of course. You Sarths,” she added, “wear the red carnelian.”

Shursta touched the small nob of polished coral he wore on a cord under his shirt. His mother had always just called it a touchstone. His branch of Sarths had never been able to afford carnelian.

“Later, after the pyre, I searched the sand, but I could not find Kuista’s gemmaja. I was so…” She hesitated. “Angry.”

Shursta understood the pause. Hyrryai had meant something entirely else, of course. As when calling the wall of water that destroyed your village a word so common as “wave” was not enough.

“…So angry that I had not thought to check her head more closely. To see if the gemmaja had been driven into… into what was left her of skull. To see if a patch of her hair had been ripped out with the removal of the gemmaja–which I reason more likely. But I only thought of that later, when… when I could think again. Someone took the gemmaja from her, I know it.” She shook her head. “But for what reason? A lover, perhaps, crazed by her refusal of him? She was young for a lover, but some men are strange. Did he beat her down and then take a piece of her for himself? Was it an enemy? For the Blodestones are powerful, Shursta Sarth, and have had enemies for as long as we have held house. Did he bring back her gemmaja to his own people, as proof of loyalty to his kinline? Was he celebrated? Was he elected leader for his bold act? I do not know. I wish I had been a year ago what I am now… But mark me.”

She turned to him and set her strong hands about his wrists.

“Mark me when I say I shall not rest until I find Kuista’s murderer. Every night she comes to me in my sleep and asks where her gemmaja is. In my dreams she is not dead or broken, only sad, so sad that she begins to weep, asking me why it was taken from her. Her tears are not tears but blood. All I want is to avenge her. It is all I can think about. It is the only reason I am alive. Do you understand?”

Shursta’s own big, brown, blunt-fingered hands rested quietly within the tense shackles of hers. His skin was on fire where she touched him, but his stomach felt like stone. He said slowly, “You do not wish–you never wished–to wed.”

“No.”

“But your grieving time is used up and the Astrion Council–your family–is insisting.”

“Yes.”

“So you chose a husband who… Who would be…” He breathed out. “Easy.” She nodded once, slowly. “A stupid man, a poor man, a man who would be grateful for a place among the Blodestones. So grateful he would not question the actions of his wife. His wife who… who would not be a true wife.”

Her hands fell from his. “You do understand.”

“Yes.”

She nodded again, her expression almost exultant. “I knew you would! The moment I held your mesh-gift. It was as if you knew me before we met. As if you made my sorrow and my vengeance and my blood debt to my sister into a necklace. I knew at once that you would never do. Because I need a husband who would not understand. Who would not care if I could not love him. Who never suspected that the thought of bringing a child into this murderous world is so repellent that to dwell on it makes me vomit, even when I have eaten nothing. I mean to find my sister’s killer, Shursta Sarth. And then I mean to kill him and eat his heart by moonlight.”

Shursta looked up, startled. The eating of a man’s flesh was taboo–but he did not blurt the obvious aloud. Had not her sister–a child, a girl child–been murdered on this beach? Taboos meant nothing to Hyrryai Blodestone. He wondered that she had not yet filed her teeth and declared herself windwyddiam, a wind widow, nameless, kinless, outside the law. But then, he thought, how could she hunt amongst the high houses if she revoked her right of entry into them?

But.”

He looked up at that word and knew a disgustingly naked monster shone in his eyes. But he could not help it. Shursta could not help his hope.

“But you are not a stupid man, Shursta Sarth. And you do not deserve to be sent away in disgrace, as if you were a dog that displeased me. You must tell me what you want, now that you know what I am.”

Shursta sat up to remove his rucksack again. Again he removed the lace purse, the necklace. And though his fingers trembled, he looped the long strand around her neck, twice and then thrice, before letting the hooks catch. The teeth jutted out about her flesh, warning away chaste kisses, chance gestures of affection. Hyrryai did not move beneath his hands.

“I am everything the Astrion Council says,” Shursta said, sinking back to the sand. “But if I wed you tomorrow, I will be a Blodestone, and thus be more useful to my sister. Is that not enough to keep me here? I am not so stupid as to leave, when you give me the choice to stay. But I shall respect your grief. I shall not touch you. When you have found your sister’s killer and have had your revenge, come to me. I will declare myself publically dissatisfied that you have not given me children. I will return to Sif. If my sister does not mesh, you will settle upon her a portion worthy of a Blodestone, that she will never be put away in the Beggar’s Quarter. And we shall be quit of each other. Does this suit you, Damisel Blodestone?”

Whatever longing she heard in his voice or saw in his eyes, she did not flinch from it. She took his face between her palms and kissed him right on the forehead, right between the eyes, where her sister’s gemmaja had rested, where her skull had been staved in.

“Call me Hyrryai, husband.”

When she offered her hand, he set his own upon it. Hyrryai did not clasp it close. Instead, she furled open his fingers and placed her mesh-gift into his palm. It was a black shell blade, honed to a dazzle and set into a delicately scrimshawed hilt of whale ivory.

“Cherished Nugget,” Shursta began his missive:

It is for charity’s sake that I sit and scribble this to you on this morning of all mornings, in the sure knowledge that if I do not, your churlishness will have you feeding burnt porridge to all the grayheads under your care. To protect them, I will relate to you the tale of my meshing. Brace yourself.

The bride wore red, as brides do–but you have never seen such a red as the cloth they make in Droon. Had she worn it near shore, sharks would have beached themselves, mistaking her for food. It was soft too, to the touch. What was it like? Plummage. No, pelt. Like Damis Ungerline’s seal pelt, except not as ratty and well-chewed. How is the old lady anyway? Has she lost her last tooth yet? Give her my regards.

The bride’s brothers, six giants whose prowess in athletics, economics, politics and music makes them the boast of the Blodestones, converged on me the night I arrived in Droon and insisted I burn the clothes I came in and wear something worthy of my forthcoming station.

“Except,” said one–forgive me; I have not bothered to learn all their names–“we have nothing ready made in his size.”

“Perhaps a sailcloth?”

“Damis Valdessparrim has some very fine curtains.”

And more to this effect. A droll scene. Hold it fast in your mind’s eye. Me, nodding and agreeing to all their pronouncements with a fine ingratiation of manner. Couldn’t speak a word, of course. Sweating, red as a boiled lobster–you know how I get–I suppose I seemed choice prey while they poked and prodded, loomed and laughed. I felt about three feet tall and four years old again.

Alas, low as they made me, I could not bring myself to let them cut the clothes from my back. I batted at their hands. However, they were quicker than I, as are most everybody. They outnumbered me and their knives came out. My knife–newly gifted and handsomer than anything I’ve ever owned–was taken from me. My fate was sealed.

Then their sister came to my rescue. Think not she had been standing idly by, enjoying the welcome her brothers made me. No, as soon as we’d stepped foot under the Blodestone roof, she had been enveloped in a malapertness of matrons, and had only just emerged from their fond embraces.

She has a way of silencing even the most garrulous of men, which the Blodestone boys, I assure you, are.

When they were all thoroughly cowed and scuffling their feet, she took me by the hand and led me to the room I am currently occupying. My mesh-rite suit was laid out for me, fine ivory linens embroidered by, she assured me, her mother’s own hand. They fit like I had been born to them. The Astrion Council, they say, has eyes everywhere. And measuring tapes too, apparently.

Yes, yes, I stray from my subject, O antsiest (and onliest) sister. The meshing.

Imagine a balmy afternoon. Warm, with a wind. (You probably had the same kind of afternoon in Sif, so it shouldn’t be too hard.) Meat had been roasting since the night before in vast pits. The air smelled of burnt animal flesh, by turns appetizing and nauseating.

We two stood inside the crone circle. The Blodestones stood in a wider circle around the crones. After that, a circle of secondary kin. After that, the rest of the guests.

We spoke our vows. Or rather, the bride did. Your brother, dear Nugget, I am sorry to say, was his usual laconic self and could not find his way around his own tongue. Shocking! Nevertheless, the bride crowned him in lilies, and cuffed to his ear a gemmaja of green chalcedony, set in a tangle of silver. This, to declare him a Blodestone by mesh-rite.

You see, I enclose a gemmaja of your own. You are no longer Sharrar Sarth, but Damisel Sharrar Blodestone, mesh-sister to the Gleaming One. When you come of croning, you too, shall take your seat on the Astrion Council. Power, wealth, glory. Command of the kinlines. Fixer of fates.

There. Never say I never did anything for you.

Do me one favor, Sharrar. Do not wear your gemmaja upon your forehead, or in any place too obvious. Do not wear it where any stranger who might covet it might think to take it from you by force. Please.

A note of observation. For all they dress so fine and speak with fancy voices, I cannot say that people in Droon are much different than people in Sif. Sit back in your chair and imagine me rapturous in the arms of instant friends.

I write too hastily. Sharrar, I’m sorry. The ink comes out as gall. I know for a fact that you are scowling at the page and biting your nails. My fault.

I will slow down, as if I were speaking, and tell you something to set your heart at ease.

Other than the bride–who is what she is–I have perhaps discovered one friend. At least, he is friendlier than anyone else I have met in Droon. I even bothered remembering his name for you.

He is some kind of fifth or sixth cousin to the bride–though not a Blodestone. One of the ubiquitous Spectroxes. (Why are they ubiquitous, you ask? I am not entirely sure. I was told they are ubiquitous, so ubiquitous I paint them for you now. Miners and craftsmen, mostly, having holdings in the mountains. Poor but on the whole respectable.) This particular Spectrox is called Laric Spectrox. Let me tell you how I met him.

I was lingering near the banquet table after the brunt of the ceremony had passed from my shoulders.

Imagine me a mite famished. I had not eaten yet that day, my meshing day, and it was nearing sunset. I was afraid to serve myself even a morsel for the comments my new mesh-brothers might make. They had already made several to the end that, should I ever find myself adrift at sea, I might sustain myself solely on myself until rescue came, and still be man enough for three husbands to their sister!

I thought it safe, perhaps, to partake of some fruit. All eyes were on a sacred dance the bride was performing. This involved several lit torches swinging from the ends of chains and what I can only describe as alarming acrobatics. I had managed to eat half a strawberry when a shadow dwarfed the dying sun. A creature precisely three times the height of any of the bride’s brothers–though much skinnier–and black as the sharp shell of my new blade–laughed down at me.

“Bored with the fire spinning already? Hyrryai’s won contests, you know. Although she can’t–ah–couldn’t hold a candle to little Kuista.”

I squinted up at this living beanstalk of a man, wondering if he ever toppled in a frisky wind. To my surprise, when I opened my mouth to speak, the sentence came out easily–in the order I had planned it, no less.

(I still find it strange how my throat knows when to trust someone, long before I’ve made up my own mind about it. It was you who first observed that, I remember. Little Sharrar, do the greyheads tell you that your name means Wisdom? If they don’t, they should.)

“I cannot bear to watch her,” I confessed.

“Afraid she’ll set someone’s hair on fire?” He winked. “Can’t really blame you. But she won’t, you know.”

“Not that. Only…” For a moment, my attention wandered back to the bride. Red flame. Red gown. Wheels of fire in the night. Her eyes. I looked away. “Only it would strike me blind if I gazed at her too long.”

What he read in my face, I could not say (although I know you’re wishing I’d just make something up), but he turned to follow her movements as she danced.

“Mmn,” he grunted. “Can’t say I see it, myself. She’s just Hyrryai. Always has been. Once, several years back, my mother suggested I court her. I said I’d rather mesh with a giant squid. Hyrryai’s all bone and sinew, you know. Never had any boobies to speak of. Anyway, even before Kuista died, she was too serious. Grew up with those Blodestone boys–learned to fight before she could talk. I wouldn’t want a wife who could kill me with her pinkie, would you?”

My eyebrows went past my hairline. In fact, I have not located them since. I think they are hiding behind my ears. My new acquaintance grinned to see me at such a loss, but he grasped my forearm and gave it a hearty shake.

“What am I doing, keeping you from your grub? Eat up, man! You’re that feral firemaid’s husband now. I’d say you’ll need all your strength for tonight.”

And that, Nugget, is where I shall leave you. It is morning. As you see, I survived.

Your fond brother,

Shursta Blodestone

He was reading a book in the windowseat of his room when Shursta heard the clamor in the courtyard. Wagon wheels, four barking dogs, several of the younger Blodestones who had been playing hoopball, an auntie trying to hush everyone down.

“Good morning, Chaos,” a voice announced just beyond his line of sight. “My name is Sharrar Sarth. I’ve come to meet my mesh-kin.”

Shursta slammed his book closed and ran for the door. He did not know if he was delighted or alarmed. Would they jostle her? Would they take her cane away and tease her? Would she whack them over the knuckles and earn the disapprobation of the elders? Why had she come?

The letter, of course. The letter. He had regretted it the moment he sent it. It had been too long, too full of things he should have kept to himself. He ought to have expected her. Would he have stayed at home, receiving a thing like that from her? Never. Now that she was here, he ought to send her away.

Sharrar stood amongst a seethe of Blodestones, chatting amiably with them. She leaned on her cane more crookedly than usual, the expression behind her smile starting to pinch.

No wonder. She’d come nearly twenty miles on the back of a rickety produce wagon. If she weren’t bruised spine to sternum he’d be surprised.

When Shursta broke through the ranks, Sharrar’s smile wobbled and she stumbled into his arms.

“I think you need a nap, Nugget,” he suggested.

“You’re not mad?”

“I am very happy to see you.” He kissed the top of her head. “Always.”

“You won’t send me away on the next milknut run?”

“I might if you insist on walking up those stairs.” He looked at his mesh-brothers. His mouth tightened. He’d be drowned twice and hung out to dry before asking them for help.

Hyrryai appeared at his side, meeting his eyes in brief consultation. He nodded. She slung one of Sharrar’s arms about her shoulders while Shursta took the other.

“Oh, hey,” said Sharrar, turning her head to study the newcomer. “You must be the Gleaming One.”

“And you,” said Hyrryai, “must be my sister.”

“I’ve always wanted a sister,” Sharrar said meditatively. “But my mother–may she sleep forever with the sea people–said, so help her, two children were enough for one woman, and that was two more than strictly necessary. She was a schoolteacher,” Sharrar explained. “Awfully smart. But I don’t think she understood things like sisters. She had so many herself.”

For a moment, Shursta thought Hyrryai’s eyes had flooded. But then she smiled, a warmer expression on her face than any Shursta had yet seen. “Perhaps you won’t think so highly of them once I start borrowing your clothes without asking.”

“Damisel,” Sharrar pronounced, “my rags are your rags. Help yourself.”

There was a feast four days later for the youngest of Hyrryai’s brothers.

“Dumwei,” Sharrar reminded Shursta. “I don’t know why you can’t keep them all straight.”

“I do not have your elasticity of mind,” he retorted. “I haven’t had to memorize all three hundred epics for the entertainment of the Hall of Ages.”

“It’s all about mnemonic tricks. Let’s see. In order of age, there’s Lochlin the Lunkhead, Arishoz the Unenlightened, Menami Meatbrain–then Hyrryai, of course, fourth in the birth order, but we all know what her name means, don’t we, Shursta?–Orssi the Obscene, Plankin Porkhole and Dumwei the Dimwitted. How could you mix them up?”

By this time Shursta was laughing too hard to answer. When Hyrryai joined them, he flung himself back onto the couch cushions and put a pillow over his face. Now and again, a hiccup emerged from the depths.

“I’ve never seen him laugh before,” Hyrryai observed. “What is the joke?”

“Oh,” Sharrar said blithely, “I was just mentioning how much I like your brothers. Tell me, who is coming to the feast tonight?”

Hyrryai perched at the edge of the couch. “Everybody.”

“Is Laric Spectrox coming?”

“Yes. Why? Do you know him?”

“Shursta mentioned him in a letter.”

Shursta removed his pillow long enough to glare, but Sharrar ignored him.

“I was curious to meet him. Also, I was wondering… What is the protocol to join the Sing at the end of the feast? One of my trades is storyteller–as my brother has just reminded me–and I have recently memorized a brave tale that dearest Dumwei will adore. It is all about, oh, heroic sacrifice, bloody deeds and great feats, despair, rescue, celebration. That sort of thing.”

Observing the mischief dancing in Sharrar’s eyes, a ready spark sprang to Hyrryai’s. “I shall arrange a place of honor for you in the Sing. This is most kind of you.”

Groaning, Shursta swam up from the cushions again. “Don’t trust her! She is up to suh–hic–uhmething. She will tell some wild tale about, about–farts and–and burps and–billygoats that will–hic–will shame your grandmother!”

“My grandmother has no shame.” Hyrryai stood up from the edge of the couch. She never relaxed around any piece of furniture. She had to be up and pacing. Shursta, following her with his eyes, wondered how, and if, she ever slept. “Sharrar is welcome to tell whatever tale she deems fit. Do not be offended if I leave early. Oron Onyssix attends the feast tonight, and I mean to shadow him home.”

At that, even Sharrar looked startled. “Why?”

Hyrryai grinned. It was not a look her enemies would wish to meet by moonlight.

“Of late the rumors are running that his appetite for hedonism has begun to extend to girls too young to be mesh-fit. I go tonight to confirm or invalidate these.”

“Oh,” said Sharrar. “You’re hunting.”

“I am hunting.”

Shursta bit his lip. He did not say, “Be careful.” He did not say, “I will not sleep until you return.” He did not say, “If the rumors are true, then bring him to justice. Let the Astrion Council sort him out, trial and judgement. Even if he proves a monster, he may not be your monster, and don’t you see, Hyrryai, whatever happens tonight, it will not be the end? That grief like yours does not end in something so simple as a knife in the dark?”

As if she heard, Hyrryai turned her grin on him. All the teeth around her throat grinned too.

“It is a nice necklace,” Sharrar observed. “I told Shursta it was a poem.”

The edges of Hyrryai’s grin softened. “Your brother has the heart of a poet. And you the voice of one. We Blodestones are wealthy in our new kin.” She turned to go, paused, then added over her shoulder, “Husband, if you drink a bowl of water upside-down, your hiccups may go away.”

When she was gone, Sharrar nudged him. “Oohee, brother mine. I like her.”

“Ayup, Nugs,” he sighed. “Me too.”

It was with trepidation that Shursta introduced his sister to Laric Spectrox that night at the feast. He need not have worried. Hearing his name, Sharrar laughed with delight and raised her brown eyes to his.

“Why, hey there! Domo Spectrox! You’re not nearly as tall as Shursta made you out to be.”

Laric straightened his shoulders. “Am I not?”

“Nope. The way he writes it, I thought to mistake you for a milknut tree. Shursta, you said skinny. It’s probably all muscle, right? Wiry, right? Like me?” Sharrar flexed her free arm for him. Laric shivered a wink at Shursta and gravely admired her bicep. “Anyway, you’re not too proud to bend down, are you?”

“I’m not!”

“Good! I have a secret I must tell you.”

When Laric brought his face to her level, she seized him by both big ears and planted an enormous kiss on his mouth. Menami and Orssi Blodestone, who stood nearby, started whooping. Dumwei sidled close.

“Don’t I get one? It’s my birthday, you know.”

Sharrar gave him a sleepy-eyed look that made Shursta want to hide under the table. “Just you wait till after dinner, Dumwei my darling. I have a special surprise for you.” She shooed him along and bent all her attention back to Laric.

“You,” she said.

He pointed to his chest a bit nervously. “Me?”

“You, Laric Spectrox. You are going to be my friend for the rest of my life. I decided that ages ago, so I’m very glad we finally got to meet. No arguments.”

Laric’s shining black face broke into a radiance of dimple creases and crooked white teeth. “Do you see me arguing? I’m not arguing.”

“I’m Sharrar, by the way. Sit beside me tonight and let me whisper into your ear.”

When Laric glanced at Shursta, Shursta shrugged. “She’s going to try and talk you into doing something you won’t want to do. I don’t know what. Just keep saying no and refilling her plate.”

“Does that really work?”

Shursta gave him a pained glance and did not answer.

Hyrryai came late to the feast and took a silent seat beside Shursta. He filled a plate and shoved it at her, as if she had been Sharrar, but when she only picked at it, he shrugged and went back to listening to Laric and Orssi arguing.

Orssi said, “The Nine Islands drowned and the Nine Cities with them. There are no other islands. There is no other land. We are alone on this world, and we must do our part to repeople it.”

“No, no, see–” Laric gestured with the remnants of a lobster claw, “that lacks imagination. That lacks gumption. What do we know for sure? We know that something terrible happened in our great-great grandparents’ day. What was it really? How can we know? We weren’t born then. All we have are stories, stories the grayheads tell us in the Hall of Ages. I value these stories, but I will not build my life on them, as a house upon sand. We call ourselves the Glennemgarra, the Unchosen. Unchosen by what? By death? By the wave? By the magic of the gods that protected the Nine Holy Cities even as they drowned, so that they live still, at the bottom of the sea? Let there be a hundred cities beneath the waves. What do we care? We can’t go there.”

Laric glanced around at the few people who still listened to him.

“Do you know where we can go, though? Everywhere else. Anywhere. There is no law binding us to Droon–or to Sif–“ he nodded at Sharrar, whose face was rapt with attention, “or anywhere on this wretched oasis. We know the wind. We know the stars. We have our boats and our nets and our water casks. There is no reason not to set out in search of something better.”

“Well, cousin,” said Orssi. “No one could accuse you of lacking imagination.”

“Yes, Spectrox,” cried Arishoz, “and how is your big boat project coming along?”

Laric’s round eyes narrowed. “It would go more quickly if I had more hands to help me.”

The Blodestone brothers laughed, though not ill-naturedly. “Find a wife, cousin,” Lochlin advised him. “Breed her well. People the world with tiny Spectroxes–as if the world needed more Spectroxes, eh? Convince them to build your boat. What else are children for?”

Laric threw up his hands. He was smiling too, but all the creases in his forehead bespoke a sadness. “Don’t you see? When my boat is finished I will sail away from words like that and thoughts like yours. As if women were only good for wives, and children were only made for labor.”

Hyrryai raised her glass to him. Shursta reached over to fill it from the pitcher and watched as she drank deeply.

“I will help you, Laric Specrox!” Sharrar declared, banging her fists on the table. “I am good with my hands. I never went to sea with the men of Sif, but I can swim like a seal–and I’d trade my good leg for an adventure. Tell me all about your big boat.”

He turned to her and smiled, rue twining with gratitude and defiance. “It is the biggest boat ever built. Or it will be.”

“And what will you name her?”

The Grimgramal. After the wave that changed the world.”

Sharrar nodded, as if this were the most natural thing. Then she swung her legs off the bench, took up her cane, and pushed herself to her feet. Leaning against the table for support, she used her cane to pound the floor. When this did not noticably diminish the noise in the hall, she set her forefinger and pinkie to her lips and whistled. Everyone, from the crone’s table where the elders were wine-deep in gossip and politics, to the children’s table where little cakes were being served, hushed.

Sharrar smiled at them. Shursta held his breath. But she merely invoked the Sing, bracing against a bench for support, then raising both fists above her head to indicate the audience should respond to her call.

“Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.”

Obediantly, the hall repeated, “Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.

Sharrar began the litany that preceded all stories. Shursta relaxed again, smiling to himself to see Hyrryai absently chewing a piece of flatbread as she listened. His sister’s tales, unlike Grimgramal, were not endless; they were mainly intended to please greyheads, who fell asleep after fifteen minutes or so. Sharrar’s habit had been to practice her stories on her brother when he came in from a day out at sea and was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. When he asked why she could not wait until morning when he could pay proper attention, she had replied that his exhaustion in the evening best simulated her average audience member in the Hall of Ages.

But Shursta had never yet fallen asleep while Sharrar told a story.

The first city was Hanah and it fell beneath the sea
The second city was Lahatiel, and it fell beneath the sea
The third city was Ekesh, and it fell beneath the sea
The fourth city was Var, and it fell beneath the sea
The fifth city was Thungol, and it fell beneath the sea
The sixth city was Yassam, and it fell beneath the sea
The seventh city was Saheer, and it fell beneath the sea
The eighth city was Gelph, and it fell beneath the sea
The ninth city was Niniam, and it fell beneath the sea…

Sharrar ended the litany with a sweep of her hands, like a wave washing everything away. “But one city,” she said, “did not fall beneath the sea.” Again, her fists lifted. “That city was Droon!”

That city was Droon!” the room agreed.

“That city was Droon, capital of the Last Isle. Now, on this island, there are many villages, though none that match the great city Droon. In one of these villages–in Sif, my own village–was born the hero of this tale. A young man, like the young men gathered here tonight. Like Dumwei whom we celebrate.”

She did not need to coax a response this time. Cups and bowls and pitchers clashed.

Dumwei whom we celebrate!

“If our hero stood before you in this hall, humble as a Man of Sif might be before the Men of Droon, you would not say to your neighbor, your brother, your cousin, ‘That young man is a hero.’ But a hero he was born, a hero he became, a hero he’ll remain, and I will tell you how, here and now.”

Sharrar took her cane, moving it through the air like a paddle through water.

“The fisherfolk of Sif catch many kinds of fish. Octopus and squid, shrimp and crab. But the largest catch and tastiest, the feast to end all feasts, the catch that feeds a village–this is the bone shark.”

The bone shark.”

“It is the most cunning, the most frightening, the most beautiful of all the sharks. A long shark, a white shark, with a towering dorsal fin and a great jaw glistening with terrible teeth. This is the shark which concerns our hero. This is the shark that brought him fame.”

This is the shark that brought him fame.”

By this time, Sharrar barely needed to twitch a finger to elicit a response. The audience leaned in. All except Shursta, whose shoulders hunched, and Hyrryai, who drew her legs up onto the bench, to wrap her arms around her knees.

“To catch a shark you must first feed it. You must bloody the waters. You must send a slick of chum as sacrifice. For five days you must do this, until the sharks come tame to your boat. Then noose and net, you must grab it. Noose and net, you must drag it to the shore where it will die upon the sand. This is how you catch a shark.”

This is how you catch a shark.”

“One day, our hero was at sea. Many other men were with him, for the fishermen of Sif do not hunt alone. A man–let us call him Ghoul, for his sense of humor was necrotic–had brought along his young son for the first time. Now, Ghoul, he did not like our hero. Ghoul was a proud man. A strong man. A handsome man too, if you like that sort of man. He thought Sif had room for only one hero and that was Ghoul.”

Ghoul!

“Ghoul said to his son, ‘Son, why do we waste all this good chum to bait the bone shark? In the next boat over sits a lonesome feast. An unmeshed man whom no one will miss. Let us rock his boat a little, eh? Let us rock his boat and watch him fall in.’

“Father and son took turns rocking our hero’s boat. Soon the other men of Sif joined in. Not all men are good men. Not all good men are good all the time. Not even in Droon. The waters grew choppy. The wind grew restless. The bone shark grew tired of waiting for his chum.”

The bone shark grew tired of waiting–

“—Who can say what happened then? A wave too vigorous? The blow of a careless elbow as Ghoul bent to rock our hero’s boat? A nudge from the muzzle of the bone shark? An act of the gods from the depths below? Who can know? But our hero saw the child. He saw Ghoul’s young son fall into the sea. Like Gelph and Saheer, he fell into the sea. Like Ekesh and Var and Niniam he fell into the sea. Like Hanah and Lahatiel, Thungol and Yassam. Like the Nine Islands and all Nine Cities, the child fell.”

The child fell.

“The bone shark moved as only sharks can move, lightning through the water, opening its maw for the sacrifice. But then our hero was there. There in the sea. Between shark and child. Between death and the child. Our hero was there, treading water. There with his noose and his net. He had jumped from his boat. Jumped–where no man of Sif could push him, however hard they rocked his boat. Jumped to save this child. And he tangled the shark in his net. He lassoed the shark with his noose and lashed himself to that dreadful dorsal fin! Ghoul had just enough time to haul his son back into his boat. The shark began to thrash.”

The shark began to thrash.”

“The shark began to swim.”

The shark began to swim.”

“Our hero clung fast. Our hero held firm. Our hero herded that shark as some men herd horses. He brought that shark to land. He brought that shark onto the sand, where the shark could not breathe, and so it died. Thus our hero slew the bone shark. Thus our hero fed his village. Thus our hero rescued the child. He rescued the child.”

He rescued the child.”

It was barely a whisper. Not an eye in that hall was dry.

“And that is the end of my tale.”

Sharrar thumped her cane to the floor again. This time, the noise echoed in a resounding silence. But without giving even the most precipitous a chance to stir, much less erupt into the applause that itched in every sweaty palm present, Sharrar spun on her heel and glared at the table where the Blodestone brothers sat.

“It was Shursta Sarth slew the bone shark,” she told them, coldly and deliberately. “Your sister wears its teeth around her neck. You are not worthy to call him brother. You are not worthy to sit at that table with him.”

With that, she spat at their feet and stumped out of the room.

Shursta followed close behind, stumbling through bodies. Not daring to look up from his feet. Once free of the hall, he took a different corridor than the one Sharrar had stormed through. Had he caught her up, what would he have done to her? Thanked her? Scolded her? Shaken her? Thrown her out a window? He did not know.

However difficult or humiliating negotiating his new mesh-kin had been, Sharrar the Wise had probably just made it worse.

And yet…

And yet, how well she had done it. The Blodestones, greatest of the eight kinlines gathered together in one hall–and Sharrar had had them slavering. They would have eaten out of her hand. And what had she done with that hand? Slapped their faces. All six brothers of his new wife.

Shursta wanted his room. A blanket over his head. He wanted darkness.

When his door clicked open several hours later, Shursta jerked fully awake. Even in his half doze, he had expected some kind of retributive challenge from the Blodestone brothers. He wondered if they would try goading him to fight, now that they knew the truth about him. Well–Sharrar’s version of the truth.

The mattress dipped near his ribs. He held his breath and did not speak. And when Hyrryai’s voice came to him in the darkness, his heartrate skidded and began to hammer in his chest.

“Are you awake, Shursta?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” A disconsolate exhalation. He eased himself up to a sitting position and propped himself against the carven headboard.

“Did your hunting go amiss, Hyrryai?”

It was the first time he’d had the courage to speak her name aloud.

The sound she made was both hiss and plosive, more resigned than angry. “Oron Onyssix was arrested tonight by the soldiers of the Astrion Council. He will be brought to trial. I don’t know–the crones, I think, got wind of my intentions regarding him. I track rumors; they, it seems, track me. In this case, they made sure to act before I did.” She paused. “In this case, it might have been for the best. I was mistaken.”

“Is he not guilty? With what, then, is he being charged?”

“The unsanctioned mentoring of threshold youths. That’s what they’re calling it.”

She shifted. The mattress dipped again. Beneath the sheets, Shursta brought his hand to his heart and pressed it there, willing it to hush. Hush, Hyrryai is speaking.

“What does that mean?”

“It means Onyssix is not the man I’m hunting for!”

“How do you know?” he asked softly.

“Because…”

Shursta sensed, in that lack of light, Hyrryai making a gesture that cut the darkness into neat halves.

“Well, for one: the youths he prefers are not, after all, girls. A few young men came forward to bear witness. All were on the brink of mesh-readiness. Exploring themselves, each other. Coming of age. Usually the Astrion Council will assign such youths an older mentor to usher them into adulthood. One who will make sure the young people know that their duty as adult citizens of the Glennemgarra is to mesh and make children–no matter whom they may favor for pleasure or succor or lifelong companionship. That the privilege of preference is to be earned after meshing. There are rites. There is,” her voice lilted mockingly, “paperwork. Onyssix sidestepped all of this. He will be fined. Watched a little more closely. Nothing else–there is no evidence of abuse. The young men did not speak of him with malice or fear. To them, he was just an older man with experience they wanted. I suppose it was a thrill to sneak around without the crones’ consent. There you have it. Oron Onyssix is a reckless pleasure-seeker who thinks he’s above the law. But hardly a murderer.”

“I am sorry,” Shursta murmured. “I wish it might have ended tonight.”

From the way the mattress moved, he knew she had turned to look at him. Her hand was braced against the blankets. He could feel her wrist against his thigh.

“I wished it too.” Hyrryai’s voice was harsh. “All week I have anticipated… Some conclusion. The closing of this wound. I prepared myself. I was ready. I wanted to look my sister’s killer in the eye and watch him confess. At banquet tonight, I wished it most–when Sharrar told her tale…”

“The Epic of Shursta Sharkbait? You should not believe all you hear. Especially if Sharrar’s talking.”

“I’ve heard tell of it before,” she retorted. “Certainly, when the story reached the Astrion Council, it was bare of the devices Sharrar used to hold our attention. But it has not changed in its particulars. It is, in fact, one measure by which the Astrion Council assessed your reputed stupidity. Intelligent men do not go diving in shark-infested waters.”

The broken knife in his throat was laughter. Shursta choked on it. “No, they don’t. I told you that day we met–I am everything they say.”

“You did not tell me that story. Strange,” Hyrryai observed, “when you mentioned they called you Sharkbait, you left out the reason why.”

Shursta pulled the blankets up around his chin. “You didn’t mention it either. Maybe it’s not worth mentioning.”

“It is why I chose you.”

All at once, he could not breathe. Hyrryai had leaned over him. One fist was planted on either side of his body, pinning the blankets down. Her forehead touched his. Her breath was on his mouth, sharp and fresh, as though she had been chewing some bitter herb as she stalked Onyssix through the darkness.

“Not because they said you were stupid, or ugly, or poor. How many men in Droon are the same? No, I chose you because they said you were good to your sister. And because you rescued the child.”

“I rescued the child,” Shursta repeated in a voice he could barely recognize.

Of course, he wanted to say. Of course, Hyrryai, that would move you. That would catch you like a bone hook where you bleed.

“Had you not agreed to come to Droon, I would have attended the muster to win you at games, Shursta Sarth.”

He would have shaken his head, but could do nothing of his own volition to break her contact with him. “The moment we met, you sent me away. You said–you said you were mistaken…”

“I was afraid.”

“Of me?” Shursta was shivering. Not with cold or fear but something more terrifying. Something perilously close to joy. “Hyrryai, surely you know by now–surely you can see–I am the last man anyone would fear. Believe Sharrar’s story if you like, but… But consider it an aberration. It does not define me. Did I look like a man who wrestled sharks when your brothers converged on me? When the crones questioned me? When I could not even speak my vows aloud at our meshing? That is who I am. That’s all I am.”

“I know what you are.”

Hyrryai sat back as abruptly as she had leaned in. Stood up from the bed. Walked to the door. “When my hunt is done, we shall return to this discussion. I shall not speak of it again until then. But… Shursta, I did not want you to pass another night believing yourself to be a man whom… whom no wife could love.”

The latch lifted. The door clicked shut. She was gone.

The Blodestones took their breakfast in the courtyard under a stand of milknut trees. When Shursta stepped outside, he saw Laric, Sharrar and Hyrryai all lounging on the benches, elbows sprawled on the wooden table, heads bent together. They were laughing about something–even Hyrryai–and Shursta stopped dead in the center of the courtyard, wondering if they spoke of him. Sharrar saw him first and grinned.

“Shursta, you must hear this!”

He stepped closer. Hyrryai glanced at him. The tips of her fingers brushed the place beside her. Taking a deep breath, he came forward and sat. She slid him a plate of peeled oranges.

“Your sister,” said Laric Spectrox, with his broad beaming grin, “is amazing.”

“My sister,” Shursta answered, “is a minx. What did you do, Nugget?”

“Nugget?” Laric repeated.

“Shursta!” Sharrar leaned over and snatched his plate away. “Just for that you don’t get breakfast.”

“Nugget?” Laric asked her delightedly. Sharrar took his plate as well. Hyrryai handed Shursta a roll.

“Friends,” she admonished them. “We must not have dissension in the ranks. Not now that we’ve declared open war on my brothers.”

Shursta looked at them all, alarmed. “You declared… What did you do?

Sharrar clapped her hands and crowed, “We sewed them into their bedsheets!”

“You…”

“We did!” Laric assured him, rocking with laughter in his seat. “Dumwei, claiming his right as birthday boy, goaded his brothers into a drinking game. By midnight, all six of them were sprawled out and snoring like harvest hogs. So late last night…”

“This morning,” Sharrar put in.

“This morning, Sharrar and Hyrryai and I…”

Hyrryai?” Shursta looked at his mesh-mate. She would not lift her eyes to his, but the corners of her lips twitched as she tore her roll into bird-bite pieces.

“… Snuck into their chambers and sewed them in!”

Shursta hid his face in his hands. “Oh, by all the Drowned Cities in all the seas…”

Sharrar limped around the table to fling her arms about him. “Don’t worry. No one will blame you. I made sure they’d know it was my idea.”

He groaned again. “I’m afraid to ask.”

“She signed their faces!” Laric threaded long fingers through his springy black hair. “I’ve not played pranks like this since I was a toddlekin. Or,” he amended, “since my first-year wife left me for a man with more goats than brains.”

Sharrar slid down beside him. “Laric, my friend–just wait till you hear my plans for the hoopball field!”

“Oh, the weeping gods…” Shursta covered his face again.

A knee nudged his knee. Hyrryai’s flesh was warm beneath her linen trousers. He glanced at her between his fingers and she smiled.

“Courage, husband,” she told him. “The best defense is offense. You never had brothers before, or you would know this. My brothers have been getting too sure of themselves. Three meshed already, their seeds gone for harvest, and they think they rule the world. Three of them recently come of age–brash, bold, considered prize studs of the market. Their heads are inflated like bladder balls.”

Sharrar brandished her eating blade. “All it takes is a pinprick, my sweet ones!”

“Hush,” Laric hissed. “Here come Plankin and Orssi.”

The brothers had grim mouths, tousled hair, and murder in their bloodshot eyes. They had not bothered looking at themselves in the mirror that morning, for Sharrar’s signature stood out bright and blue across their foreheads. Once they charged the breakfast table, however, they seemed uncertain upon whom they should fix their wrath. Sharrar had resumed her seat and was eating an innocent breakfast off three different plates. Laric kept trying to steal one of them back. Hyrryai’s attention was wholly on the roll she decimated. Orssi glared at Shursta.

“Was it you, Sharkbait?” he demanded.

Shursta could still feel Hyrryai’s knee pressed hard to his. His face flushed. His throat opened. He grinned at them both.

“Me, Shortsheets?” he asked. “Why, no. Of course not. I have minions to do that sort of thing for me.”

He launched his breakfast roll into the air. It plonked Plankin right between the eyes. Unexpectedly, Plankin threw back his head, roaring out a laugh.

“Oh, hey,” he said. “Breakfast! Thanks, brother.”

Orssi, looking sly, made a martial leap and snatched the roll from Plankin’s fingers. Yodeling victory, he took off running. With an indignant yelp, Plankin pelted after him. Hyrryai rolled her eyes. She reached across the table, took back the plate of oranges from Sharrar and popped a piece into Shursta’s mouth before he could say another word. Her fingers brushed his lips, sticky with juice.

It did not surprise Shursta when, not one week later, Laric begged to have a word with him. “Privately,” he said, “away from all these Blodestones. Come on, I’ll take you to my favorite tavern. Very disreputable. No one of any note or name goes there. We won’t be plagued.”

Shursta agreed readily. He had not explored much of Droon beyond the family’s holdings. Large as they were, they were starting to close in on him. Hyrryai’s mother Dymorri had recently asked him whether a position as overseer of mines or of fields would better suit his taste. He had answered honestly that he knew nothing about either–and did the Blodestones have a fishing boat he might take out from time to time, to supply food for the family?

“Blodestones do not work the sea,” she had replied, looking faintly amused.

Dymorri had high cheekbones, smooth rosy-bronze skin, and thick black eyebrows. Her hair was nearly white but for the single streak of black that started just off center of her hairline, and swept to the tip of a spiralling braid. Shursta would have been afraid of her, except that her eyes held the same sorrow permeating her daughter. He wondered if Kuista, the youngest Blodestone, had taken after her. Hyrryai had more the look of her grandmother, being taller and rangier, with a broader nose and wider mouth, black eyes instead of brown.

“Fishing’s all I know,” he’d told her.

“Hyrryai will teach you,” she had said. “Think about it. There is no hurry. You have not been meshed a month.”

True to his word, Laric propelled him around Droon, pointing out landmarks and places of interest. Shops, temples, old bits of wall, parks, famous houses, the seat of the Astrion Council. It was shaped like an eight-sided star, built of sparkling white quartz. Three hundred steps led up to the entrance, each step mosaiced in rainbow spirals of shell.

“Those shells came from the other Nine Islands,” Laric told him. “When there were nine other islands.”

“And you think there might be more?”

Laric cocked his ear for the hint of derision that usually flavored such questions. “I think,” he answered slowly, “that there is more to this world than islands.”

“Even if there isn’t,” Shursta sighed, “I wouldn’t mind leaving this one. Even for a little while. Even if it meant nothing but stars and sea and a wooden boat forever.”

“Exactly!” Laric clapped him on the back. “Ah, here we are. The Thirsty Seagull.”

Laric Spectrox had not lied about the tavern. It was so old it had hunkered into the ground. The air was rank with fermentation and tobacco smoke. All the beams were blackened, all the tables scored with the graffitti of raffish nobodies whose names would never be sung, whose deeds would never be known, yet who had carved proof of their existence into the wood, as if to say, “Here, at least, I shall be recognized.” Shursta fingered a stained, indelicate knife mark, feeling like his heart would break.

Taking a deep, appreciative breath, Laric pronounced, “Like coming home. Sit, sit. Let me buy you a drink. Beer?”

“All right,” Shursta agreed, and sat, and waited. When Laric brought back the drinks, he sipped, and watched, and waited. The bulge in Laric’s narrow throat bobbled. There was a sheen of sweat upon his brow. Shursta lowered his eyes, thinking Laric might find his task easier if he were not being watched. It seemed to help.

“Your sister,” Laric began, “is…”

Shursta took a longer drink.

“Wonderful.”

“Yes,” Shursta agreed. He chanced to glance up. Laric was looking anywhere but at him, gesturing with his long hands.

“How is it that she wasn’t snatched up by some clever fellow as soon as she came of age?”

“Well,” Shursta pointed out, “she only recently did.”

“I know, but… But in villages like Sif–small villages, I mean, well, even in Droon–surely some sparky critter had an eye on her these many years. Someone who grew up with her. Someone who thought, ‘Soon as that Sarth girl casts her lure, I’ll make damn sure I’m the fish for that hook! Take bait and line and pole and girl and dash for the far horizon…”

Shursta cleared his throat. “Hard to dash with a game leg.”

Laric plunked down from the high altitude of his visions. “Pardon?”

“Hard to run off with a girl who can’t walk without a cane.” Shursta studied Laric, who in turn tried to read the careful deadpan of his face. “And then, what if her children are born crooked? You’d be polluting your line. Surely the Spectroxes are taunted enough without introducing little lame Sharrar Sarth into the mix. Aren’t you afraid what your family will say?”

Damisel Sharrar Sarth,” Laric corrected him stiffly, emphasizing the honorific. He tried to govern his voice. “And… And any Spectrox who does not want to claim wit and brilliance and derring-do and that glorious bosom for kin can eat my…”

Shursta clinked his mug to Laric’s. “Relax. Sharrar has already told me she is going to elope with you on your big wooden boat. Two days after she met you. She said she’d been prepared to befriend you, but had not thought to be brought low by your, how did she put it, incredible height, provocative fingers and… adorable teeth.” He coughed. “She went on about your teeth at some length. Forgive me if I don’t repeat all of it. I’m sure she’s composed a poem about them by now. If you find a proposal drummed up in couplets and shoved under your door tonight, you’ll have had time to prepare your soul.”

The look on Laric’s face was beyond the price of gemmajas. He reached his long arms across the table and pumped Shursta’s hand with both of his, and Shursta could not help laughing.

“Now, my friend,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink.”

It was at the bar Shursta noticed the bleak man in the corner. He looked as if he’d been sitting there so long that dust had settled over him, that lichen had grown over him, that spiders had woven cobwebs over his weary face. The difference between his despair and Laric’s elation struck Shursta with the force of a blow, and he asked, when he returned to Laric’s side, who the man might be.

“Ah.” Laric shook his head. “That’s Myrar Yaspir, poor bastard.”

“Poor bastard?” Shursta raised his eyebrows, inviting more. It was this same dark curiosity, he recognized, that had made him press Hyrryai for details about Kuista’s death the first day they met. He was unused to considering himself a gossip. But then, he thought, he’d had no friends to gossip with in Sif.

“Well.” Laric knocked back a mouthful. His gaze wandered up and to the right. Sharrar once told Shursta that you could always tell when someone was reaching for a memory, for they always looked up and to the right. He’d seen the expression on her face often as she memorized a story.

“All right. I guess it began when he meshed with Adularia Yaspir three years ago. Second mesh-rite for both. No children on either side. He courted her for nearly a year. You could see by his face on their meshing day that there was a man who had pursued the dream of a lifetime. That for him, this was not about the Yaspir name or industry or holdings, but about a great burning love that would have consumed him had he not won it for his own. Adularia–well. I think she wanted children. She liked him enough. You could see the pink in her cheeks, the glow in her eyes on her meshing day. And you thought–if any couple’s in it past the one year mesh-mark, this is that couple. It’s usually that way for second meshings. You know.”

Shursta nodded.

“So the first year passes. No children. The second year passes. No children. Myrar starts coming here more often. Drinking hard. Talk around Droon was that Adularia wanted to leave him. He was arrested once for brawling. A second time, on more serious charges, for theft.”

“Really?” Shursta watched from the corner of his eye, the man who sat so still flies landed on him.

“Not just any theft… Gems from the Blodestone mines.”

Shursta loosed a low whistle. “Diamonds?”

“Not even!” Laric leaned in. “Semi-precious stones, uncut, unpolished. Not even cleaned yet. Just a handful of green chalcedonies, like the one you’re wearing.”

The breath left Shursta’s body. He touched the stone hanging from his ear. He remembered suddenly how Kuista Blodestone’s gemmaja had come up missing on her person, how that one small detail had so disturbed him that he had admonished his sister to hide her own upon her person, as if the red-speckled stone were some amulet of death. He opened his mouth. His throat clicked a few times before it started working.

“Why… why would he take such a thing?”

Shrugging, Laric said, “Don’t know. They made him return them all, of course. He spent some time in the stocks. Had to beg his wife to take him back. Promised her the moon, I heard. Stopped drinking. But she said that if she was not pregnant by winter, she’d leave him, and that was that.”

“What happened?”

“A few months later, she was pregnant. There was great rejoicing.” Laric finished his drink. “Of course, none of us were paying much attention to the Yaspirs at that time, because we were all still grieving for Kuista.”

“Kuista. Kuista Blodestone?”

Laric looked at Shursta, perturbed, as if to ask, Who else but Kuista Blodestone?

“Yes. We burned her pyre not a month before Adularia announced her pregnancy. Hyrryai was still bedridden. She didn’t leave the darkness of her room for six months.”

“And the child?” Shursta’s mouth tasted like dried out fish scales.

“Stillborn. Delivered dead at nine months.” Laric sighed. “Adularia has gone back to live with her sister. Sometimes Myrar shows up for work at the chandlery, sometimes not. Owner’s his kin, so he’s not been fired yet. But I think that the blood is thinning to water on one end, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” said Shursta, who was no longer listening. “I… Laric, please… Please excuse me.”

Shursta had no memory of leaving the Thirsty Seagull, or of walking clear across Droon and leaving the city by the sea road gates. He saw nothing, heard nothing, the thoughts boiling in his head like a cauldron full of viscera. He felt sick. Gray. Late afternoon, evening, and the early hours of night he passed in that lonely cove where Kuista died. Where he had met Hyrryai. Long past the hour most people had retired, he trudged wearily back to the Blodestone house. Sharrar awaited him in the courtyard, sitting atop the breakfast table, bundled warmly in a shawl.

“You’re back!”

When his sister made as if to go to him, Shursta noticed she was stiff from sitting. He waved her down, joined her on the tabletop. She clasped his cold hand, squeezing.

“Shursta, it’s too dark to see your face. Thunder struck my chest when Laric told me how you left him. Are you all right? What died in you today?”

“Kuista Blodestone,” he whispered.

Sharrar was silent. She was, he realized, waiting for him to explain. But he could not.

“Sharrar,” he said wildly, “Wise Sharrar, if stones could speak, what would they say?”

“Nothing quickly,” she quipped, her voice strained. Shursta knew her ears were pricked to any clue he might let fall. Almost, he saw a glow about her skull as her riddle-raveling brain stoked itself to triple intensity. However he tried, he could not force his tongue to speak in anything more clear than questions.

“What does a stone possess other than… its stoneness? If not for wealth… or rarity… or beauty–why would someone covet… a hunk of rock?”

“Oh!” Sharrar’s laughter was too giddy, almost fevered, with relief. She knew this answer. “For its magic, of course!”

“Magic.”

It was not a common word. Not taboo–like incest or infanticide or cannibalism–but not common. Magic had drowned, it was said, along with the Nine Cities.

“Ayup.” Sharrar talked quickly, her hand clamped to his, as if words could staunch whatever she thought to be his running wound. “See, in the olden days before the wave that changed the world, there was magic everywhere. Magic fish. Magic birds. Magic rivers. Magic… magicians. Certain gems, saith the grayheads, were also magic. A rich household would name itself for a powerful gem, so as to endow its kinline with the gem’s essence. So, for instance, of the lost lines, there is Adamassis, whose gem was diamond, said to call the lightning. A stormy household, as you can imagine–quite impetuous–weather workers. The Anabarrs had amber, the gem of health, the gem that holds the sun, said to wake even the dead. Dozens more like this. Much of the lore was lost to us when the Nine Islands drowned. Of the remaining kinlines, let me think… The Sarths have sard–like the red carnelian–that can reverse the effects of poison. Onyssix wears onyx, to ward off demons. The jasper of the Yaspirs averts the eyes of an enemy…”

“And the Blodestones?” Shursta withdrew his hand from her stranglehold only to grip the soft flesh of her upper arm. “The Blodestones wear green chalcedony… Why? What is this stone?”

“Fertility,” Sharrar gasped. Shursta did not know if she were frightened or in pain. “The green chalcedony–the bloodstone–will bring life to a barren womb. If a man crushes it to powder and drinks it, he will stand to his lover for all hours of the night. He will flood her with the seed of springtime. Shursta… Why are you asking me this, Shursta? Shursta, please…”

He had already sprinted from the courtyard. Faintly and far behind him, he heard the cry, “Let me come with you!”

He did not stop.

The Thirsty Seagull was seedier by night than by day. Gadabouts and muckrakes, sailors, soldiers, fisherfolk, washing women, street sweepers, lamplighters and red lamplighters of all varieties patronized the tavern. There were no tables free, so Shursta made his way to the last barstool.

Shursta did not have to pretend to stumble or slur. His head ached and he saw only through a distortion, as if peering through a sheet of water. But words poured freely from his mouth. None of them true, or mostly not true. Lies like Sharrar could tell. Dark lies, coming from depths within him he had never yet till this night sounded.

Women!” he announced in a bleared roar. “Pluck you, pluck you right up from your comfy home. Job you like. Job you know. People you know. Pluck you up and say, it’s meshing time. Little mesh-mesh. Come to bed, dear. No, you stink of fish, Shursta. Wash your hands, Shursta. Oh, your breath is like a dead squid, Shursta. Don’t do it open-mouthed, Shursta. Shursta, you snore, go sleep in the next room. I mean, who are these people? These Blodestones? Who do they think they are? In Sif–in Sif at least the women know how to use their hands. I mean, they know how to use their hands, you know? And all this talk, talk, talk… All this whining and complaining… All this saying I’m not good enough. What does she expect, a miracle? How can a man function, how can he function in these circumstances? How can he rise to the occasion, eh? Eh?”

Shursta nudged the nearest patron, who gave him a curled lip and turned her back on him. Sneering at her shoulderblades, Shursta muttered, “You’re probably a Blodestone, eh? All women are kin. Think that’s what a man’s about, eh? Think that’s all he is? A damned baby maker? Soon’s you have your precious daughters, your bouncing boys, you forget all about us. Man’s no good to you till he gets you pissful of those shrieking, wailing, mewling, shitting little shit machines? Eh? Well, what if he can’t? What if he cannot–is he not still a man? Is he not still a man?

By now the barkeep of the Thirsty Seagull was scowling black daggers at him. Someone shoved Shursta from behind. He spun around with fists balled up. Nobody was there.

“Eh,” he spat. “Probably a Blodestone.”

When he turned back to the bar, a hand slid a drink over to him. Shursta drank before looking to see who had placed it there.

Myrar Yaspir stared at him with avid eyes.

“Don’t know you,” Shursta mumbled. “Thanks for the nog. Raise my cup. Up. To you. Oh… It’s empty.” He slammed it down. “Barkeep, top her up. Spill her over. Fill her full. Come on, man. Don’t be a Blodestone.”

Amber liquid splashed over the glass’s rim.

“You’re the new Blodestone man,” Myrar Yaspir whispered. “You’re Damisel Hyrryai’s new husband.”

Shursta snarled. “Won’t be her husband once my year’s up. She’ll be glad to see the back of me. Wretch. Horror. Harpy. Who needs her? Who wants her?” He began to blubber behind shaking hands. “Oh, but by all the gods below! How she gleams. How she catches the light. How will I live without her?”

A coin clinked down. Bottle touched tumbler. Myrar’s whisper was like a naked palm brushing the sandpaper side of a shark.

“Are you having trouble, Blodestone man? Trouble in the meshing bed?”

“Ayup, trouble,” Shursta agreed, not raising his snot-streaked face. “Trouble like an empty sausage casing. Trouble like…”

“Yes, trouble,” Myrar cut him off. “Yet you sit here. You sit here drunk and stupid–you. You of all men. You, whose right as husband gives you access to that household. Don’t you see, you stupid Blodestone man?” His hand shot out to grab Shursta’s ear. The cartilage gave a twinge of protest, but Shursta set his teeth. When Myrar’s hand came back, he cradled Shursta’s gemmaja in his palm.

“Do you know what this is?”

Shursta burped. “Ayup. Green rock. Wife gave me. Wanna see my coral?” He fished for the cord beneath his shirt. “True Sarths wear carnelian, she says. Carnelian’s the stone for Sarths. You ask me, coral’s just as good. Hoity-toity rich folk.”

“Not rock. This–is–not–rock,” Myrar hissed. His fingers clenched and unclenched around the green chalcedony. By the dim light of the wall sconces, Shursta could barely make out the red speckles in the stone, like tiny drops of blood.

“This is your child. This is the love of your wife. This is life. Life, Blodestone man. Do you understand?” Myrar Yaspir scooted his stool closer. His breath was cold, like the inside of a tomb. “I was you once. Low. A cur who knew it was beaten. Beaten by life. By work. By women. By those haughty, high-nosed Blodestone bastards who own more than half this island and mean to marry into the other half, until there is nothing left for the rest of us. But last thing before he died, my grandad sat me down. Said he knew I was unhappy. Knew my… my Adularia wept at night for want of a child. He had a thing to tell me. A thing about stones.”

Dull-eyed, Shursta blinked back at him.

“Stones,” he repeated.

“Yes. Stones. Magic stones. So.” Myrar Yaspir set the green chalcedony tenderly, even jealously, into Shursta’s palm. “Take your little rock home with you, Blodestone man. Put it in a mortar–not a wooden one. A fine one, of marble. Take the best pestle to it. Grind it down. Grind it to powder. Drink it in a glass of wine–the Blodestone’s finest. They have fine wine in that house. Drink it. Go to your wife. Don’t listen to her voice. Her voice doesn’t matter. When she sees how you come to her, her thighs will sing. Her legs will open to you. Make her eat her words. Pound her words back into her. Get her with that child. Who knows?” Myrar Yaspir sank back down, his eyes losing that feral light. “Who knows. It may gain you another year. What more can a man ask, whose wife no longer loves him? Just one more year. It’s worth it.”

All down his gullet, the amber drink burned. In another minute, Shursta knew, he would lose it again, vomitting all over himself. He swallowed hard. Then he bent his head to the man beside him, who had become bleak and still and silent once more, and asked, very softly:

“Was it worth the life of Kuista Blodestone? Myrar Yaspir, was it worth the death of a child?”

If cold rock could turn its head, if rock could turn the fissures of its eyes upon a living man, this rock was Myrar Yaspir.

“What did you say?”

“My wife is hunting for you.”

Myrar Yaspir became flesh. Flinched. Began to shudder. Shursta did not loose him from his gaze.

“I give you three days, Domo Yaspir. Turn yourself in to the Astrion Council. Confess to the murder of Kuista Blodestone. If you do not speak by the third day, I will tell my wife what I know. And she will find you. Though you flee from coast to bay and back again, she will find you. And she will eat your heart by moonlight.”

Glass shattered. A stool toppled. Myrar Yaspir fled the Thirsty Seagull, fast as his legs could carry him.

Shursta closed his eyes.

The next three days were the happiest days of Shursta’s life, and he drank them in. It was as if he, alone of all men, had been given to know the exact hour of his death. He filled the hours between himself and death with sunlight.

For the first day, Sharrar watched him as the sister of a dying man watches her brother. But his smiles and his teasing–“Leave off, Nugget, or I’ll teach Laric where you’re ticklish!”–and the deep brilliance of peace in his eyes must have eased her, for on the second day, her spirits soared, and she was back to playing tricks on her mesh-brothers, and kissing Laric Spectrox around every corner and under every tree, and reciting stories and singing songs to the children of the house.

Hyrryai, who still prowled Droon every night, spent her days close to home. She invited Shursta to walk with her, along paths she knew blindfolded. He asked her to teach him about spinning fire and she said, “Let’s start with juggling maybe,” and taught him patterns with handfuls of fallen fruit.

Suppers with the Blodestones were loud and raucus. Every night turned into a competition. Some Shursta won (ring tossing out in the courtyard) and some he lost (matching drinks with Lochlin, now known to all–thanks to Sharrar–as Lunkhead), but he laughed more than he ever had in his life, and when he laughed, he felt Hyrryai watching him, and knew she smiled.

On evening of the third day, he evaded his brothers’ invitation to play hoopball. Sharrar immediately volunteered–so long as she and Laric could count as one player. She would piggyback upon his shoulders, and he would be her legs. Plankin, Orssi and Dumwei were still vehemently arguing against this when Shursta approached his mesh-mate and set a purple hyacinth into her hands.

“Will you walk with me, wife?”

Her rich, rare skin flushed with the heat of roses. She took the hand he offered.

“I will, husband.”

They strolled out into the scented night, oblivious to the hoots and calls of their kin. Their sandals made soft noises on the pavement. For many minutes, neither spoke. Hyrryai tucked the hyacinth into her hair.

An aimless by and by had passed when they came to a small park. Just a patch of grass, a bench, a fountain. As they had when they met, they sat on the ground with their backs to the bench. Hyrryai, for once, slumped silkily, neglecting to jolt upright every few minutes. When Shursta sank down to rest his head in her lap, her hand went to his hair. She stroked it from his face, traced designs on his forehead. He did not care that he forgot to breathe. He might never breathe again and die a happy man.

The moon was high, waxing gibbous. To Shursta’s eyes, Hyrryai seemed chased in silver. He reached to catch the fingers tangled in his hair. He kissed her fingertips. Sat up to face her. Her smile was silver when she looked at him.

“The name of your sister’s murderer is Myrar Yaspir,” he said in a low voice. “I met him in a tavern at the edge of Droon. He had three day’s grace to confess his crime to the Astrion Council. Let them have him, I thought, they who made him. But when I spoke to your grandmother before dinner, she said no one had yet come forward. I believe he decided to run. I am sorry.”

The pulse in her throat beat an inaudible but profound tattoo through the night air.

To an unconcerned eye, nothing of Hyrryai would have seemed changed. Still she was silver in the moonlight. Still the purple flower glimmered against her wing-black hair. Only her breath was transformed. Inhalation and exhalation exactly matched. Perfect and total control. The pale light playing on her mouth did not curve gently upward. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking sinkholes. The gleam in them was not of moonlight.

“You have known this for three days.”

Shursta did not respond.

“You talked to him. You warned him.”

Again, he said nothing. She answered anyway.

“He cannot run far enough.”

“Hyrryai.”

You–do–not–speak–to–me.”

“Hyrryai–”

“No!”

Her hand flashed out, much as Myrar Yaspir’s had. She took nothing from him but flesh. Fingernails raked his face. Shursta did not, at first, suffer any sting. What he did feel, way down at the bottom of his chest, was a deep snap as she broke the strand of pearl and teeth and stone she wore around her throat. Pieces of moonlight scattered. Fleet and silver as they, Hyrryai Blodestone bounded into the radiant darkness.

One by one–by glint, by ridge, by razor edge–Shursta picked up pieces from the tufted grass. What he could salvage, he placed in the pouch he had prepared. His rucksack he retrieved from the hollow of a tree where he had hidden it the night before. The night was young, but the road to Sif was long.

Despite having begged her in his goodbye letter to go on and live her life in joy, with Laric Spectrox and his dream of a distant horizon, far from a brother who could only bring her shame and sorrow, Sharrar came home to Sif. And when she did, she did not come alone.

She brought her new husband. She brought a ragged band of orphans, grayheads, widows, widowers. Joining her too were past-primers like Adularia Yaspir, face lined and eyes haunted. Even Oron Onyssix had joined them, itching for spaces ungoverned by crones, a place where he might breathe freely.

Sharrar also brought a boat.

It was a very large boat. Or rather, the frame of it. It was the biggest boat skeleton Shursta had ever seen. They wheeled it on slats all the way along the searoad from the outskirts of Droon where Laric had been building it. Shursta, who had thought he might never do so again, laughed.

“What is this, Nugget? Who are all these people?”

But he thought he knew.

“These,” she told him, “are all our new kin. And this–” with a grand gesture to the unfinished monstrosity listing on its makeshift wagon, “is Grimgramal–the ship that sails the world!”

Shursta scrutinized it and said at last, “It doesn’t look like much, your ship that sails the world.”

Sharrar stuck her tongue out at him. “We have to finish it first, brother mine!”

“Ah.”

“Everyone’s helping. You’ll help too.”

Shursta stared at all the people milling about his property, pitching tents, lining up for the outhouse, exploring the dock, testing the sturdiness of his small fishing boat. “Will I?” he asked. “How?”

Laric came over to clap him on the shoulder. “However you can, my mesh-brother. Mend nets. Hem sails. Boil tar. Old man Alexo Alban is carving us a masthead. He says it’s a gift from all the Halls of Ages on the Last Isle to Sharrar.” Taking his mesh-mate’s hand, he indicated the dispersed crowd.. “She’s the one who called them. She’s been speaking the name Grimgramal to anyone who’ll stand still to listen. And you know Sharrar–when she talks, no one can help but listen. Some sympathizers–a very few–like Alexo Alban, started demanding passage in exchange for labor. Though,” his left shoulder lifted in a gesture eloquent of resignation, “most of the grayheads say they’ll safe stay on dry land to see us off. Someone, they claim, must be left behind to tell the tale. And see?”

Laric dipped into his pocket, spilling out a palmful of frozen rainbows. Shursta reached to catch a falling star before it buried itself in the sand. A large, almost bluish, diamond winked between his fingers. Hastily, he returned it.

“Over the last few weeks, the grayheads have been coming to Sharrar. Some from far villages. Even a few crones of the Astrion Council–including Dymmori Blodestone. Each gave her a gem, and told her the lore behind it. Whatever is known, whatever has been surmised. Alexo Alban will embed them in the masthead like a crown. Nine Cities magic to protect us on our journey.”

Shursta whistled through his teeth. “We’re really going then?”

“Oh, yes,” Sharrar said softly. “All of us. Before summer’s end.”

It was not to Rath Sea that Shursta looked then, but to the empty road that led away from Sif.

All of us,” Sharrar repeated. “You’ll see.”

Dumwei Blodestone arrived one afternoon, drenched from a late summer storm, beady-eyed with irritation and chilled to the bone.

“Is Sif the last village of the world? What a stupid place. At the end of the stupidest road. Mudholes the size of small islands. Swallow a horse, much less a man. Sharkbait, why do you let your roof leak? How can you expect to cross an ocean in a wooden boat when you can’t even be bothered to fix a leaky roof? We’ll all be drowned by the end of the week.”

“We?” Sharrar asked brightly, slamming a bowl of chowder in front of him. “Are you planning on going somewhere, Dimwit?”

“Of course!” He glanced at her, astonished, and brandished a spoon in her face. “You don’t really think I’m going to let you mutants have all the fun, do you? Orssi wanted to come too, but now he’s got a girl. Mesh-mad, the pair of ‘em.”

His gaze flickered to the corner where Oron Onyssix sat carving fishhooks from antler and bone. Onyssix raised his high-arched eyebrows. Dumwei looked away.

With a great laugh, Laric broke a fresh loaf of bread in two and handed the larger portion to Dumwei.

“Poor Orssi. You’ll just have to have enough adventure for the two of you.”

Dumwei’s chest expanded. “I intend to, Laric Spectrox!”

“Laric Sarth,” he corrected.

“Oh, yes, that’s right. Forgot. Maybe because you didn’t invite me to your meshing.”

“Sorry,” the couple said in unison, sounding anything but.

“And speaking of impossible mesh-mates…” Dumwei turned to Shursta, who knelt on the floor, feeding the firepit. “My sister wants to see you, Shursta.”

For a moment, none of the dozen or so people crammed in the room breathed. Dumwei did not notice. Or if he noticed, he did not care.

“Mumsa won’t talk about her, you know. Well, she talks, but only to say things like, if her last living daughter wants to run off like a wild dog and file her teeth and declare herself windwyddiam, that’s Hyrryai’s decision. Maybe no one will care then, she says, when she declares herself a mother with six sons and no daughters. And then she cries. And granmumsa and Auntie Elbanni and Auntie Ralorra all cluck their tongues and huddle close, and it’s all hugs and tears and clacking, and a man can’t hear himself think.”

Shursta, who had not risen from his knees, comprehended little of this. If he’d held a flaming brand just then instead of ordinary wood, he might not have heeded it.

Sharrar asked, carefully, “Have you seen Hyrryai then, Dumwei?”

“Oh, ayup, all the time. She ran off to live in a little sea cave, in the… That cove.” Dumwei seemed to swallow the wrong way, though he had not started eating. Quickly, he ducked his head, inspecting his chowder as if for contaminates. When he raised his face again, his eyes were overbright. “You know… You know, Kuista was just two years younger than I. Hyrryai was like her second mumsa, maybe, but I was her best friend. Anyway. I hope Hyrryai does eat that killer’s heart!”

In the corner of the room, Adularia Yaspir turned her face to the wall and closed her eyes.

Dumwei shrugged. “I hope she eats it and spits it out again for chum. A heart like Myrar Yaspir’s wouldn’t make anyone much of meal. As she’s cast herself out of the kinline, Hyrryai has no roof or bed or board of her own. And you can only eat so much fish. So I bring her food. It’s not like they don’t know back home. Granmumsa slips me other things, too, that Hyrryai might need. Last time I saw her… Yesterday? Day before?” He nodded at Shursta. “She asked for you.”

Shursta sprang to his feet. “I’ll go right now.”

But Sharrar and Laric both grabbed fistfuls of Shursta’s shirt and forced him down again.

“You’ll wait till after the storm,” said Laric.

“And you’ll eat first,” Sharrar put in.

“And perhaps,” suggested Oron Onyssix from the corner, “you might wash your face. Dress in a clean change of clothes. Shave. What are they teaching young husbands these days?”

Dumwei snorted. “Think you can write that manual, Onyssix?”

“In my sleep,” he replied, with the ghost of his reckless grin. Dumwei flushed past his ears, but he took his bowl of chowder and went to sit nearer him.

Obedient to his sister’s narrowed eyes, Shursta went through the motions of eating. But as soon as her back was turned, he slipped out the front door.

It was full dark when Shursta finally squelched into the sea cave. He stood there a moment, dripping, startled at the glowing suddenness of shelter after three relentlessly rainy hours on the sea road. There was a hurricane lamp at the back of the cave, tucked into a small natural stone alcove. Its glass chimney was sooty, its wick on the spluttering end of low. What Shursta wanted most was to collapse. But a swift glance around the flickering hollow made it clear that amongst the neatly stacked storage crates, bedroll, the tiny folding camp table, the clay oven with its chimney near the cave mouth, the stockpile of weapons leaning in one corner, Hyrryai was not there.

He closed his eyes briefly. Wiping a wet sleeve over his wet face, Shursta contemplated stripping everything, wrapping himself in one of her blankets and waiting for her while he dried out. She hadn’t meant to be gone long, he reasoned; she left the lamp burning. And there was a plate of food, half-eaten. Something had disturbed her. A strange sound, cutting through the wind and rain and surf. Or perhaps a face. Someone who, like he had done, glimpsed the light from her cave and sought shelter of a fellow wayfarer.

Already trembling from the cold, now Shursta’s shivers grew violent, as if a hole had been bored into the bottom of his skull and was slowly filling his spine with ice water. Who might be ranging abroad on such a night? The sick or deranged, the elderly or the very young. The desperate, like himself. The outcasts, like Hyrrai. And the outlaws: lean, hungry, hunted. But why should they choose this cove, of all the crannies and caverns of the Last Isle? Why this so particular haunted place, on such a howling night? Other than Hyrryai herself, Shursta could think of just one who’d have cause to come here. Who would be drawn here, inexorably, by ghosts or guilt or gloating.

His stomach turned to stone, his knees to mud. He put his hand on the damp wall to steady himself.

And what would Hyrryai have done, glancing up from her sad little supper to meet the shadowed, harrowed eyes of her sister’s killer?

She would not have thought to grab her weapons. Or even her coat. Look, there it was, a well-oiled sealskin, draped over the camp stool. Her fork was on the floor there by the bedroll, but her dinner knife was missing.

Shursta bolted from the cave, into the rain.

The wind tore strips from the shroud of the sky. Moonlight spintered through, fanged like an anglerfish and as cold. Shurta slipped and slid around the first wall of boulders and began to clamber back up the stone steps to the sea road. He clutched at clumps of marram grass, which slicked through his fingers like seaweed. Wet sand and crumbled rock shifted beneath his feet. Gasping and drenched as he was, he clung to his claw-holds, knowing that if he fell he’d have to do it all over again. He’d almost attained the headland, had slapped first his left hand onto the blessedly flat surface, was following it by his right, meaning to beach himself from the cliff face onto the road in one great heave and lie there awhile, catching his breath, when a hand grasped his and hauled him up the rest of the way.

“Domo Blodestone!” gasped Myrar Yaspir. “You must help me. Your wife is hunting me.”

The first time Shursta had seen Yaspir, he had looked like a man turned to stone and forgotten. The second time, his eyes had been livid as enraged wounds. Now he seemed scoured, nervous and alive, wet as Shursta. He wore an enormous rucksack and carried a walking stick which Shursta eyed speculatively. It had a smooth blunt end, well polished from age and handling.

“Is that how you killed Kuista Blodestone?” he blurted.

Myrar Yaspir followed his gaze. “This?” he asked, blankly. “No, it was a stone. I threw it into the sea, after.” He grasped Shursta’s collar and hefted. Myrar Yaspir was a ropy, long-limbed man whose bones seemed to poke right through his skin, but rather than attenuated, he seemed vigorously condensed, and his strength was enormous, almost electrical. Hauled to his feet, Shursta felt as though a piece of mortal-shaped lightning had smote down upon the Last Isle just to manhandle him. “Come,” he commanded Shursta. “We must keep moving. She is circling us like a bone shark, closer, ever closer. Come, Domo Blodestone,” he said again, blinking back rain from his burning eyes. “You must help me.”

Shursta disengaged himself, though he felt little shocks go through him when his wrists knocked Myrar Yaspir’s fists aside. “I already helped you, child-killer. I gave you three days to turn yourself into the Astrion Council. I am done with you.”

Myrar Yaspir glanced at him, then shook his head. “You are not listening to me,” he said with exasperated patience. “Your wife is hunting me. I will be safe nowhere on this island. Not here and not in Droon cowering in some straw cage built by those doddering bitches of the council.” He bent his head close to Shursta’s and whispered, “No, you must take me to Sif where you live. Word is you are sailing from this cursed place on a boat the size of a city. I will work for my passage. I work hard. I have worked all my life.” He opened his hands as if to show the callouses there; as if, even empty, they had always been enough.

Shursta felt his voice go gentle, and could not prevent it, although he knew Myrar Yaspir would think him weakening.

“The Grimgrimal is the size, maybe, of a large house, and we who will sail on it are family. You, Domo Yaspir, are no one’s family.”

My wife is on that boat!” Myrar flashed, his fist grasping the sodden cloth at Shursta’s throat. His expression flickered from whetted volatilty to bleak cobweb-clung despair, and after that, it seemed, he could express nothing because he no longer had a face. His was merely a sand-blasted and sun-bleached skull, dripping dark rain. The skull whispered, “My Adularia.”

Shursta was afraid. He had only been so afraid once in his entire life, and that was last year, out on the open ocean, in that breathless half second before he jumped in after Gulak’s young son, realizing even as he leapt that he would rather by far spool out the remainder of his days taunted and disliked and respected by none than dive into that particular death, where the boy floundered and the shark danced.

Now the words came with no stutter or click. “You have no wife.”

The skull opened its mouth and screamed. It shrieked, raw and wordless, right into Shursta’s face. Its fists closed again on the collar of Shursta’s coat, twisted in a chokehold and jerked, lifting him off his feet as though he had been a small child. Shursta’s legs dangled and his vision blackened and he struck out with his fists, but it was like pummeling a waterspout. Myrar was still screaming, but the sound soon floated off to a far away keening. Shursta, weightless between sky and sea, began to believe that Myrar had always been screaming, since the first time Shursta had beheld him sitting in the tavern, or maybe even before. Maybe he had been screaming since killing Kuista, the child he could not give his wife, and who, though a child, had all the esteem, joy of status, wealth and hope for the future that Myrar Yaspir, a man in his prime and a citizen of proud Droon, lacked.

Is it any wonder he screamed? Shursta thought. This was followed by another thought, further away: I am dying.

The moment he could breathe again was the moment his breath was knocked out of him. Myrar had released his chokehold on Shursta, but Shursta, barely conscious, had no time to find his feet before the ground leapt up to grapple him. He tried to groan, but all sound was sucked from the pit of his stomach into the sky. Rain splattered on his face. The wind ripped over everything except into his lungs.

By and by, he remembered how to breathe, and soon could do so without volunteering the effort. His mouth tasted coppery. His tongue was sore. Something had been bitten that probably should not have been. Shursta’s hands closed over stones, trying to find one jagged enough to fend off further advances from a screaming skull-faced murderer. Where was his mesh-gift, the black knife Hyrryai had given him? Back in Sif, of course, in a box with his gemmaja, and the pressed petals of purple hyacinth that had fallen from her hair that night she left him. All his fingers found now were pebbles and blades of grass, and he could not seem to properly grip any of them. Shursta sat up.

Sometime between his falling and landing the awful screaming had stopped. There was only sobbing now: convulsive, curt, wretched, interrupted by bitter gasps for breath and short, sawtoothed cries of rage. Muffled, moist thumps punctuated each cry. Shursta had barely registered that it could not be Myrar Yaspir who wept–his tears had turned to dust long ago–when the thumps and sobs stopped. For a few minutes it was just rain and wind. Shursta blinked his eyes back into focus and took in the moon-battered, rain-silvered scene before him. His heart crashed in his chest like a fog-bell.

Hyrryai Blodestone crouched over the crumpled body of Myrar Yaspir. She grasped a large stone in her dominant hand. Myrar’s bloody hair was tangled in her other. Her dinner knife was clamped between her teeth. As he watched, she let the head fall–another pulpy thump–tossed the dripping stone to one side and spat her knife into her hand. Her movements ragged and impatient, she sliced Myrar’s shirt down the middle and laid her hand against his chest. She seemed startled by what she felt there–the last echoes of a heartbeat or the fact there was none, Shursta did not know.

“It’s not worth,” he said through chattering teeth, “the effort it would take to chew.”

Hyrryai glanced at him, her face a shocky blank, eyes and nose and mouth streaming. She looked away again again, then spat out a mouthful of excess saliva. The next second, she had keeled over and was vomitting over the side of a cliff. Shursta hurried to her side, tearing a strip from his sleeve as he did so, to gather her hair from her face and tie it back. His pockets were full of useless things. A coil of fishing line, a smooth white pebble, a pencil stub–ah! Bless Sharrar and her clever hands. A handkerchief. He pulled it out and wiped Hyrryai’s face, taking care at the corners of her mouth.

Her lips were bloodied, as though she had already eaten Myrar Yaspir’s heart. He realized this was because she had been careless of her teeth, newly filed into the needle points of the windwyddiam. Even a nervous gnawing of the lip might pierce the tender flesh there.

Blotting cautiously, he asked, “Did that hurt?”

The face Hyrryai lifted to Shursta was no longer hard and blank but so wide open that he feared for her, that whatever spirits of the night were prowling might seek to use her as a door. He moved his body more firmly between hers and Myrar Yaspir’s. He wondered if this look of woeful wonder would ever be wiped from her eyes.

“Nothing hurts,” she mumbled, turning away again. “I feel nothing.”

“Then why are you crying?”

She shrugged, picking at the grass near her feet. Her agitated fingers brushed again a dark and jagged stone. It was as if she had accidently touched a rotten corpse. She jerked against Shursta, who flailed out his foot out to kick the stone over the cliff’s edge. He wished he could kick Myrar Yaspir over and gone as well.

“Hyrryai–“

“D-Dumwei f-found you?” she asked at the same time.

“As you see.”

“I c-called you to w-witness.”

“Yes.”

“I was going to make you, make you w-watch while I–“ Hyrryai shook her head, baring her teeth as if to still their chattering. More slowly, she said, “It was going to be your punishment. Instead I came upon him as he was, as he was k-killing you.”

And though his soul was sick, Shursta laughed. “Two at one blow, eh, Hyrryai?”

“Never,” she growled at him, and took his face between her hands. “Never, never, never, Shursta Sarth, do you hear me? No one touches you. I will murder anyone who tries. I will eat their eyes, I will…”

He turned his face to kiss her blood-slicked hands. First one, then the other.

“Shh,” he said. “Shh, Hyrryai. You saved my life. You saved me. It’s over. It’s over.”

She slumped suddenly, pressing her face against his neck. Wrenched back, gasping. A small cut on her face bled a single thread of red. When next she spoke, her voice was wry.

“Your neck grew fangs, Shursta Sarth.”

“Yes. Well. So.”

Hyrryai fingered the strand of tooth and stone and pearl at his throat. Shursta held his breath as her black eyes flickered up to meet his, holding them for a luminous moment.

“Thief,” she breathed. “That’s mine.”

“Sorry.” Shursta ducked his head, unclasped the necklace, and wound it down into her palm. Her fist snapped shut over it. “Destroy it again for all of me, Hyrryai.”

Hyrryai leaned in to lay her forehead against his. Even with his eyes shut, Shursta felt her smile move against his mouth, very deliberately, very carefully.

“Never,” she repeated. “I’d sooner destroy Droon.”

They left Myrar Yaspir’s body where it lie, for the plovers and the pipers and the gulls. From the sea cave they gathered what of Hyrryai’s belongings she wanted with her when she sailed with the Grimgrimal into the unknown sky, and they knelt and kissed the place where Kuista Blodestone had fallen. These last things done, in silent exhaustion Shursta and Hyrryai climbed back up to the sea road.

Setting their faces for Sif, they turned their backs on Droon.

___
Copyright 2013 C.S.E. Cooney

Check out this fabulous video of “The Epic of Shursta Sharkbait.”

by Caroline M. Yoachim

Tripp got his first scrap of paper the day his mother died. He was four, and the paper was pure white. It was a rectangular sheet the size of his foot, folded into the shape of a feather. It came from the left wing of his mother’s god.

His mother died in the middle of winter, and it was so cold that the other kids crowded into the one big room of his mother’s house instead of waiting outside. All the kids who were old enough to have a chance at getting paper came, from eleven-year-old Warder all the way down to Smoke, who was a few months younger than Tripp.

Most of the kids played a gambling game as they waited, flicking small stones off of a big rock and trading scraps of paper depending on where their stones landed. From time to time the older kids would glance up at his mother’s bed, worried that she would wake up and yell at them for scattering stones all over her swept-dirt floor. They didn’t know whether Tripp’s mother would die from her illness, but Tripp was sure. This was the only time her god had ever stopped talking.

The god was perched on a piece of white plastic pipe that cut across the corner between two mud-brick walls. Its head was tucked beneath one wing. Tripp’s mother had no eye for color, and had taken any paper she could get. The parrot was, at least in Tripp’s eyes, one of the ugliest gods in the village. He was glad to have first pick from the paper when his mother died, because there was only one sheet worth having, and he was so small that if he had to fight for paper he’d likely get nothing at all.

His mother never woke before she died, never said a word to Tripp. Her spirit simply slipped away a couple hours before sunset. At the moment she died, the magic that held her parrot together ended. All the scraps of paper burst apart and fluttered to the floor. The children eyed the paper eagerly, but held back. No one else could take anything until Tripp had selected his one piece.

He walked along the edge of the room, careful not to trample any of the paper. He grabbed the white feather, and as soon as his hand closed on it, the room erupted in a frenzy of activity. The oldest kids emerged from the fray with armfuls of paper. Many of the younger children came out with nothing, for the parrot was not a particularly large god. Tripp was surprised to see Smoke clutching a tiny scrap of pink in her stubby fingers.

When the others had gone, Tripp unfolded his feather and smoothed out the creases. He put the flattened sheet into the collection box his mother had used when she was a girl. He vowed to collect more paper than she had, all in matching colors. His animal would be so fantastic that it would attract the most powerful of all the gods.

When Tripp was six, his uncle took him to see the wall of gods. It should have been his parents to take him, but his mother was dead and she had never spoken of his father.

“This is an important moment in your young life,” Uncle Sariff said. “You will not make your god until you are twelve, but you must collect your paper and plan. The sooner you choose the form of your god, the better.”

Uncle Sariff’s god was a monkey. It perched on his shoulder and picked through his hair as they walked to the temple.

“Different forms call to different gods,” the monkey said. “Think about what you want in a god, and choose carefully.”

The monkey gave good advice, but Tripp had trouble taking it seriously because it kept eating bits of fluff that it picked out of Uncle Sariff’s hair. He studied the road as they walked, so that he could avoid watching the disgusting monkey.

The temple was out beyond the outskirts of town, on a black-stone road that was built by the forsaken ones. Many years ago, the sides of the road were littered with ancient treasures. Even in his mother’s day, a little digging often turned up something useful. She’d found the white plastic pipe that her god perched on somewhere along the road.

The temple itself was a relic of those older times. The building was an enormous rectangle, with a vast expanse of black-stone spread all around it. Part of the roof had collapsed, but one room was completely intact — a room as big as Tripp’s mother’s house, with a large window made of glass. It was the biggest piece of uncracked glass that anyone in Tripp’s town had ever seen, even Granny Aura, who had seen a lot of things. On either side of the doorway that led to the wall of gods hung faded tapestries carefully embroidered with symbols that no one remembered how to read.

“Respect,” the monkey whispered as they approached the room. “Images of gods prefer silence.”

Uncle Sariff opened the door for Tripp, and he stepped into the temple. On his right was the window, stretching nearly the entire length of the wall. On his left was the wall of gods — every inch of its surface was covered in a strange material, white like paper and crisscrossed with black lines to form an uneven grid. Each box of the grid contained an animal, not a live animal, but not exactly a picture either. The entire wall writhed with the movement of animals scurrying or climbing, waddling or flying. A few animals slept, and others swam.

Several children sat quietly on the floor, studying the gods. Tripp made no move to join them, but instead walked right next to the wall, to get a closer look at the animals. Most were familiar — birds and lizards and small mammals. A few were grander gods, that Tripp had heard of, but never seen. After all, who could collect enough paper to make a rhinoceros? Even Tripp, only six years old, knew better than to attempt such a thing.

He shook his head as he walked, dismissing each animal as too grand or too plain, too ugly or too extravagant. Then something caught his eye. A small but prickly creature, covered in black spines with white tips. It was a god he had never seen in the town.

Tripp reached out to touch the wall, but before his fingers could brush up against it someone grabbed his shoulder and pushed him away.

He yelped.

“Don’t ever touch the wall of gods. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” Uncle Sariff had never laid a hand on Tripp before, and though his voice was quiet out of respect for the temple, Tripp could tell that he was angry.

Tripp hung his head. He should have known better. He would be banned from the temple for weeks now, maybe more. As his Uncle pulled him away, he snuck one last look at what would one day be his god. He didn’t even know what the creature was called.

One look at his uncle was enough for him to know that this was not the proper time to ask.

As punishment, Tripp was forbidden from entering the temple until four years had passed. This despite the fact that he had not actually touched the wall. He supposed he should be grateful to Uncle Sariff for stopping him, since if he had actually touched the wall he might have been banned for life.

Still, his punishment was harsh. While the others studied their gods and planned their construction, Tripp got further and further behind, knowing only that he should collect his paper in black and white.

Smoke was some help to him. She was making good progress on her flamingo, and if she was feeling particularly generous she would sometimes study his god and answer his questions about some little thing. There was so much he still didn’t know, although he had finally learned his god’s name. Porcupine, his uncle said, a few months after Tripp had been banned.

Some children took several visits to the temple to decide on a god, and many changed their minds early on. But Tripp was sure. It was the perfect god, all in black and white, covered in thousands of long needles. To do it properly, he would need a lot of paper.

Four years passed slowly, and Tripp gathered black and white paper as best he could. He could not go to the temple and meditate on the plan for his god, but he knew that he was far short of the paper he needed. When he was finally allowed back into the temple, he sat respectfully on the floor with the other children and studied his god. His heart sank. His paltry supply of paper was nowhere near enough. Paper was hard enough to come by for children who took anything — he had spurned anything colorful, anything dirty, anything damaged or torn. Somehow he had to find more.

As he emerged from the temple, filled with despair, he saw Smoke walking down the dirt road, her canvas collection bag slung over her shoulder.

“I’m going to walk the road to the dead city, will you come?” Smoke asked.

It sounded like a waste of time to Tripp. He had planned to watch Kale assemble his god, in hopes that there would be scraps of paper that would not fit. Kale had given a scrap of paper to Autumn yesterday, when it was clear that he had no use for it.

“Most of Kale’s paper is green, you wouldn’t want it anyway,” Smoke said, guessing the reason for his hesitation. “We might find something you can use in the city.”

Smoke had a knack for getting him to do what she wanted. He didn’t mind, really. She wasn’t as bad as most of the other kids. Her eyes were even kind of pretty, colorless and gray. She caught him looking and made a face.

“Fine.” Tripp said. “But I call dibs on everything that’s black and white.”

Smoke considered his offer.

“I still need some black,” she said.

“Do you want me to come or not?” he replied. She didn’t answer. For a while neither of them moved. He wondered if there was really a lot of paper in the dead city. Finally he relented. “I get all the white, and half of the black.”

“Deal.” Smoke laughed. “I’m hoping for mostly pink, anyway.”

Smoke was going to make a flamingo. Tripp thought it was ridiculous, but you didn’t go around questioning other people’s gods. It was a strange choice, though. Everyone else wanted the best animal, the most paper, the powerful gods. Tripp had asked Smoke once, before he was old enough to know better, why she wanted a flamingo. She’d simply shrugged and said she thought it suited her.

It took them a couple hours to get to the dead city, trudging along on the black-stone road. Smoke chattered the entire time, but Tripp didn’t pay much attention. The abandoned buildings here were bigger than the ones in his village, but fewer of them were intact. Nearly all of them had collapsed, and the ground was covered in gray rock rubble and sparkling piles of shattered glass.

It was a terrible place to look for paper. He turned to tell Smoke as much, but she had vanished. He peered up and down the road. There was no way to move forward, with the mountains of debris blocking the way. There was no sign of Smoke behind him, on the road back home.

“There won’t be any paper up there,” she called. Her head was poking out of what looked like a window, cut into the concrete at the bottom of a pile of twisted steel beams. “I’m not handing over half the black if all you’re going to do is stand up there and gawk.”

He squeezed himself through the window. He took a few tentative steps past Smoke and into the middle of the room. His movement triggered some technology from the time of the forsaken, and suddenly the room was lit nearly as bright as outside.

He jumped backwards, bumping into Smoke in his haste to get back to the window. Smoke laughed. “Lily told me about this place, once she had enough paper. There’s a whole maze of rooms down here, and most of them still have lights!”

“You could have told me,” he grumbled, and started towards the nearest door.

Smoke ran up behind him and grabbed his arm. “Sorry. Lily laughed at me the first time I came. I guess it wasn’t that funny to me, then.”

She handed him a bit of chalk. “Mark your path with arrows or something, and don’t get lost. We have to meet back here in time to walk back to the village for supper, so don’t go too far.”

Tripp snatched the chalk and walked briskly away. Smoke called something after him, but he ignored her. She should have warned him about the lights. It wasn’t funny.

He had gone through several rooms before he realized he hadn’t marked his path. He knelt at the door he’d just come through and drew an arrow pointing back the way he’d come. He thought about backtracking to mark the rest of his path, but it since it was a straight line of doors he was reasonably sure he could find his way.

He looked around. Like most things from forsaken times, he couldn’t make heads or tails of the room he was standing in. It was filled with machines, tall boxy things with switches and display panels. None of them appeared to be working, although Tripp wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell if they were. Certainly they were quiet and dark, and none of them were moving. He stood on tiptoe and reached up to brush the top of one. His hand came away covered in dust.

The next room had more machines, although these were more varied in shape than the previous ones. There was a table made entirely out of metal, and a cylindrical bin woven from wires. The bin was empty, but Tripp rather liked the odd container, so he stooped to pick it up, and when he bent over, he noticed a tiny strip of black along the bottom of the wall.

Higher up, someone had hung a decorative piece of cloth, a quilt or a tapestry, not unlike the ones that decorated the entryway to the wall of gods. There, the wall hangings framed the door, and Tripp could see scratches on the floor where someone had moved a file cabinet to see if there was an opening next to the quilt. But whoever it was hadn’t thought to look behind the quilt itself. Tripp pried one side of the quilt away from the wall, carefully placing the metal fasteners on top of the file cabinet.

He smiled to see the black door against the white wall. A hidden treasure, black and white, as though it was put there just for him.

When the lights came on in that next room, Tripp dropped the bin to the floor. The metal clanged against the tiles, but Tripp hardly heard it. One of the walls was lined with shelves, and one of the shelves was full of books.

Books. Each with hundreds of sheets of paper inside. He had never seen one before, he’d only heard the stories Granny Aura told. But they were unmistakable. The whole room even smelled of musty paper. It was intoxicating.

He ran back to get Smoke, carefully marking the entire path with arrows to be absolutely sure they wouldn’t lose the way to the treasure.

“It’s a holy place, we shouldn’t touch them.” Smoke said.

“No one has been here in a long time.” Tripp had been too excited to think it through, but of course Smoke was right. At some point, this had been a holy place. Otherwise why would it be behind the quilt? “And it’s a lot of paper.”

Smoke sat on the floor and studied the books, much like everyone studied the gods at the temple.

“We came here to find paper.” He wheedled. “And now that we’ve found it you don’t want it?”

“It doesn’t feel right to take them,” she answered. “Lily found a few loose scraps, I thought it’d be more like that. These are books. Do you actually think you could take one apart just to get the paper out?”

Tripp marched up to the shelf and pulled down a book. He opened it, and before he had a chance to think about it, he carefully pulled on the first sheet, slightly yellowed with age, but definitely white. It came free from the book with an ugly ripping noise. He stared at the jagged-edged sheet of paper in his hand, his emotions a mixture of pride and regret.

Smoke was nearly in tears. She ran from the room and out of sight. Tripp sighed. He placed the mutilated book into the wire bin he’d taken from the other room, and then stacked several other books in with it. There were still dozens of others on the shelf, but once Tripp returned with his loot the other kids would find this place and raid it for paper. One of the books on the lower shelf caught his eye. The cover was pink, and sure enough some of the pages inside were printed with pink castles and peachy-pink butterflies. His bin was full, but he took out one of his precious black-and-white books to make room for the pink monstrosity. He wanted Smoke to have something for helping him find all the books, even if she had gone all soft once they’d found them.

The town hall was packed full of every adult in the village, and, of course, their gods. Everyone was seated in no particular order, and gods slithered or scampered or flitted about, sometimes pausing to whisper something to their humans or to each other. Children, being godless creatures, were not normally allowed in the hall, but since Tripp and Smoke had found the books, they were permitted to stay.

“The books shall be displayed in the temple, alongside the wall of gods.” Tripp’s uncle was with the group that favored preserving the books intact, and his monkey was proclaiming such to anyone who would listen, as though it had already been decided.

Granny Aura’s guinea pig sidled up to Tripp. “Books?”

Tripp nodded, unsure of what the guinea pig was after.

“Books,” the guinea pig mused. “Books books books. Paper bound, blocked like bricks, boring boring block-bound bricks.”

Tripp continued nodding, hoping the guinea pig would leave.

“Free the bound! Break the bricks! Set them free and hope it sticks!”

Granny Aura, perhaps noticing Tripp’s discomfort, came to collect her god. “She gives good advice,” Granny said, “but she can get a little over-excited sometimes.”

The meeting went on for hours, with Granny Aura and her followers calling for the paper to be used to freshen the supply and make god-bodies, and Uncle Sariff and his lot calling for the books to be preserved and worshipped. In the end, it was the preservationists that won out, over the screaming protests of Granny Aura’s guinea pig.

Tripp handed over the books that he had brought back from the dead city. All of them but two — the book that he had damaged and Smoke’s pink book were hidden safely away in his mother’s old abandoned house, under the bed where she had died.

Tripp saved the books, his and Smoke’s, until the spring before they turned twelve. He knew that Smoke had mixed feelings about the book, but he wanted her to take it. He waited to give it to her until he was sure she would need the pink paper to make her Flamingo.

“I don’t want it.” Smoke stared at the book in his hand, refusing even to touch it. He should have expected her response, but he had hoped that once the other books were in the temple she’d be more enthusiastic.

“You need pink,” he said, “this has pink.”

“I won’t destroy it.”

He could see that she meant it. Still, there was no way Smoke would have enough paper to make the god she wanted if she didn’t take it. He didn’t want her to have an ugly patchwork god, like his mother’s. She was the only one in the village who was nice to him, and she deserved a pretty god. So Tripp took the little pink book back to his mother’s house and used a knife he borrowed from his Uncle to carefully slice out each individual page.

He worked methodically, cutting a dozen or so pages at once, concentrating on keeping the cuts clean and straight. He put the pages in a neat stack. Then he looked at the cover and nearly burst into tears. He had cut the pages as close to the cover as he could, but thin strands of paper clung to the spine. When he had torn the single page from his book, it had looked much the same afterwards, once the book was closed. But this was different. The cover was empty, and it closed in on itself, mangled, hollow, incomplete. He resisted the urge to shove the papers back in. The paper would have new life in Smoke’s flamingo. How could that be wrong? Granny Aura’s god had wanted it that way, paper was better used than sitting bound in a book.

His hands trembled as he carried the paper down the road to Smoke.

She took it from him.

He waited for her to speak, but she said nothing. She stared down at the stack of paper with a sad expression, as though what she held was not precious pink paper but some sort of dying god.

“I thought. . .” He wanted to explain how she ought to have the best paper, the prettiest pink, so that she could make a beautiful god, but the words seemed shallow and empty in his mouth.

She shook her head and walked away without ever having spoken a word.

The last months before his godsummer were lonely. Smoke had been his only friend, and she wouldn’t speak to him now.

He sat near her when she studied the god wall at the temple, and of course they both went to collect paper when Parna died. Tripp was lucky enough to grab several sheets of black paper, but when he tried to give one to Smoke she refused to take it.

When summer finally came, Tripp and Smoke and the village’s four other twelve-year-olds buried themselves completely in the tedious task of building bodies for their gods. They all sat together in the town hall, a space too big for a group so small, and rolled and folded and smoothed their papers into shape. Adults came in to monitor their progress, and some days younger children came to watch, in hopes of a scrap of unused paper.

Day in and day out the twelve-year-olds sat together in silence, their god-bodies growing larger in front of them and their piles of paper shrinking behind them. Tripp often watched Smoke work as he rolled his paper. His god was mostly quills, which required a lot of rolling. The work was mindless, once he got into a rhythm. Black quills tipped with white, roll and roll the paper tight. He packed the paper rolls close together all around his god body, rolled so tight they were sharp. His fingers were laced with tiny cuts from the rolling and pinprick dots where he’d jabbed himself on the quills. Here and there the white paper bore stains of his blood, but his god would make its body pure, once it was summoned. It would absorb the blood and that would only serve to bind them closer.

Smoke, unlike Tripp, never looked up from her god. She worked carefully, but quickly, her hands flying over her paper to shape intricate feathers in shades of peach and pink and white. Tripp had seen her god on the wall, and thought it a gangly, awkward sort of beast, but in person it looked tall and stately, with long legs and a neatly curved black beak. Even the color was not so terrible. Tripp looked for the paper that he had given to Smoke, but could not find it in among the feathers.

For several days he watched for it, as he rolled his quills, packing them over the body of his god while Smoke mirrored his work in pink feathers. Even when she had finished, there was no sign of the paper he had given her.

He had destroyed a book for her, and she hadn’t even used it.

Her work finished, she sat quietly in the hall. Even without work to draw her attention away, she did not look at him.

Finally, without her flamingo to distract him, he focused on his god-body. In his inattention, he had packed his quills too close together. The effect was actually rather nice, it made the body of his god look fuller and more elaborate. But the effect on his paper supply was devastating. He had rolled far too many quills, and he had only a few dozen sheets of paper left to make legs for his god. Not nearly enough to support the over-packed quill-heavy weight of its body, and there was still a bare spot near the tail that needed more quills.

Worse, he was running out of time.

He laid out his remaining sheets, trying to think what to do. There wasn’t enough time to thin the quills and unroll them and press them flat and use them for legs. There wasn’t enough paper to make four legs. Or even two. He had enough to make a single leg, and what good would that be?

He rolled his last precious sheets of paper into quills and filled in the bare patch on his god-body’s tail. He wondered if anyone had ever created such a pitiful body before, and whether anyone had ever done so poorly as to not attract a god at all. He was so absorbed in this line of thought that he didn’t notice Smoke approaching until she touched his elbow.

“Here,” she said. It was the paper he had cut from her book, still neatly stacked and untouched.

It was pink.

He shook his head. He didn’t want the sort of god that would inhabit a pink-legged porcupine; he would rather carry his god wherever it wished to go. He hoped that there was a god that would understand his choice, and be willing to inhabit a legless body.

The disembodied gods began to arrive at sunrise on the last day of summer. They examined each of the god bodies in turn — Smoke’s flamingo, Tripp’s legless porcupine, Pike’s rainbow patchwork crow, Coral’s potbelly pig, and the twins with their matching set of geckoes.

Outside of any body, the gods were like smoke or mist, hazy wisps that drifted about, sometimes suggesting a human form, other times looking more like one animal or another. They were graceful, and at dawn the room was filled so full of them that Tripp couldn’t see the ceiling or the walls.

But very quickly some gods decided that they didn’t fit the bodies that were offered. Soon the air began to thin, as hundreds of gods became dozens, and dozens dwindled down to ten. Two gods were particularly intrigued by the matching geckoes of the twins, and as they were without competition, they settled in, one in each body, and their respective humans splintered off a piece of their soul to bind the god to the body and the body to themselves.

Two gods were interested in the potbelly pig, and they hovered for a moment in front of Coral before somehow settling the dispute. One drifted off, and the other became Coral’s god.

Two gods wanted the patchwork rainbow crow as well, although Tripp had no idea why. It was an ugly thing, with bright and garish colors that didn’t match. They too settled their dispute, with one taking the body and the other drifting away. Neither of the losing gods even came to look at his body before leaving, and there were only four gods left.

All four of them were gathered around Smoke’s flamingo, and these were more persistent or more stubborn than the others. Here, at least, Tripp could see that the god-body was worth fighting for. The flamingo was beautifully made with paper carefully matched and different shades of pink and peach scattered just right to make the body look natural. It had a subtlety that the patchwork crow lacked, that even his own god body would not have attained even had he managed to finish it. And Smoke, of course, would be a good human to have, if one were a god.

When none of the gods showed any signs of leaving, Smoke approached them. She whispered something, and two gods left. Neither came to Tripp’s legless porcupine. After a long pause, Smoke selected one of the two remaining. It swooped gleefully into her flamingo, and the remaining god hovered. Slowly, sadly, it came to hang before Tripp.

Tripp looked over at Smoke, but she was busy binding her god. What had she whispered, to make the first two leave? Had she coerced this god to come to him, if it was not chosen for her flamingo? He did not want an unwilling god, but he had little choice. It was this god or none at all, and he bound it to his pathetic legless porcupine.

“Take me to the dead city,” Porcupine said.

“Why?” Tripp asked.

“Because I don’t have legs to walk there myself.”

Tripp sighed. “I meant why do you want to go.”

Porcupine didn’t answer, and Tripp picked him up and put him on the newly-constructed wagon. “What do you think?”

“The wood is a little hard.”

“I’ll try to find a blanket.”

All Tripp’s agemates had bonded well with their gods, and they were comfortable with each other’s presence. Tripp, on the other hand, could never escape the guilt he felt for trapping a reluctant god in a legless body. It didn’t help that Porcupine was always bringing it up.

He walked to the dead city, pulling Porcupine in a wagon behind him. Porcupine made a big show of moaning and groaning any time there was even a slight bump. When they passed the temple, Porcupine said, “let’s go in. I want to look at the wall.”

Porcupine loved to look at the diagram on the god-wall that showed what he was supposed to look like. He sighed over his missing legs, and took no comfort from the fact that his quills were far lovelier than what was shown in the picture.

“Do you want me to take you to the dead city or not?” Tripp asked.

“Fine.” Porcupine said, then mumbled, “I am a god, you know.”

They walked in silence after that, until they got to the building where he and smoke had found the books.

“I want to go in.” Porcupine said. “You’ll have to carry me.”

Tripp picked up his god and carried him down through the narrow window that opened underneath the jumbled steel bars and concrete rubble. He took Porcupine through the maze of rooms until they found the door behind the tapestry, and went inside. The books were gone, of course — all taken back to the temple where they could be worshipped.

“This is where you found them?” Porcupine asked.

Tripp nodded.

Porcupine sniffed the air and studied the shelves. “Only one shelf with books, you said?”

“That one.” Tripp pointed it out.

“There were more. On other shelves.”

“No –” Tripp began.

“Oh yes. There were lots. I can smell them.”

Following Porcupine’s directions, Tripp went deeper into the forsaken building. Porcupine was awkward to carry, and his arms were soon covered in tiny pink lines where the quills scratched his skin.

Mostly, Porcupine led him down. There were stairways scattered here and there through the mazes of rooms, and they would travel down a few flights on one, then it would be blocked off and they would find another.

Tripp saw room after room of tall block-shaped machines. The ones up high were silent, but as they descended some of them were humming slightly.

“This one is mine,” Porcupine said, forcing Tripp to stop for several minutes beside a machine that looked exactly like all the others. What connection Porcupine had to that particular machine, Tripp didn’t know, but he had no choice but to wait since he hadn’t brought any chalk and he couldn’t remember how they’d gotten down here.

At last they moved on, winding through several more machine-rooms until suddenly they came through a doorway into the biggest open space that Tripp had ever seen. It was filled with shelves, and the shelves were full of books.

“There must be a million sheets of paper down here. Ten million, maybe,” Tripp said, awed.

“Yes.” Porcupine answered. “We used to call places like this libraries.”

They stood staring at the books.

“You can use them to make more gods.” Porcupine said.

“More gods?”

“Yes, why should you have only one? You saw the machines, there are plenty of gods waiting.”

“But how would I bind them? I only have so much self, and I must use a piece to tie my god to its body.” Tripp puzzled through his thoughts, speaking them aloud. “And besides, a god can only be made in a human’s twelfth summer, and called on the last day of summer.”

Porcupine snorted. “I don’t know where that started. Gods can take a body at any time, and they needn’t be bound to humans. But that’s no matter. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. First I’ll need my legs.”

Tripp looked down at Porcupine, who he’d set down on the floor. It was forbidden to add to your god body once it held a god, but was that restriction merely to make sure the children had enough paper? For here was paper enough to make an army of gods, and Porcupine needed legs.

“I think they should be black.” Porcupine said.

Tripp had hoped that once Porcupine was complete he would be less whiny, but apparently complaining was simply a part of his nature. The new legs were sturdy and held Porcupine up off the ground, but there was something wrong with them — they didn’t move. In between long tirades about the sad state of his defective legs, Porcupine berated Tripp to work faster at building new gods. Tripp was going as fast as he could — after a bit of exploring they had found a short route to the surface, and now he only stopped to go up and find food, or relieve himself, or to go to the temple and study the diagrams on the wall of gods. He even slept in the library. Working like this, he could make a god in a week.

The first god he made, on Porcupine’s instructions, was a monkey.

“He’ll have hands,” Porcupine explained. “So he can help you make the other gods.”

Most of the books in the great library were black text printed on yellowing white paper, and the monkey was made entirely from this. From a distance he looked yellowish gray, which Tripp thought was rather unappealing. Worse, the monkey did not move. Porcupine was furious, but he insisted that Tripp keep working.

More animals followed, getting bigger and grander as they went — a poodle and a bobcat, an ox and a horse and a cow, a striking black-and-white zebra, and finally an elephant so large that Tripp had to move a few of the shelves out of the way to make room for it. How it would get out, Tripp didn’t know, but Porcupine had become quite confident in his instructions, and Tripp felt like he was finally making up for his failure to give Porcupine legs.

But the new animals, small and large, remained stiff and lifeless, and not a single disembodied god came to look at them.

“You’re missing something.” Porcupine said.

“Maybe we have to go to the town hall?” Tripp asked. “Or it’s just the wrong time. We always call the gods in the summer, and it is winter now.”

Porcupine kept at him to build more gods, and Tripp did the best he could, although now his fingers hurt from all the tiny cuts, and his eyes hurt from working all the detailed folds in the dim light of the underground room. Still he kept working and working until finally he was interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Oh, Tripp.” Smoke stood at the entryway, ignoring the many shelves of books and instead looking only at the animals that Tripp had made. Her flamingo stood behind her, craning its neck this way and that to take in the room.

“It’s the porcupine’s fault,” the flamingo said.

Porcupine bristled and hissed, but since his legs couldn’t move, the threat was empty.

“Do you know which one is his?” the flamingo asked. “Which of the machines?”

Tripp tried to remember. They had not returned to that room after the first time, but there would be tracks in the dust. He backtracked along their trail until he found it, leaving Porcupine behind in the room with all the books.

“They sent me here to find you,” Smoke said, softly. “Some of them are angry, but the others are only worried for you.”

“Which are you?” Tripp asked.

“Worried.”

Flamingo was circling the machine, much as Porcupine had. Then he began to peck furiously against the casing with his beak, making a frightful clanging noise that echoed through the room. The casing fell away to reveal a tangle of brightly colored wires.

“Don’t do it, Flamingo, it’ll hurt the boy.” Porcupine called from the library.

“Is that true?” Smoke asked.

“Yes,” the flamingo answered, “but the boy is already hurting.”

“What will happen to me?” Tripp asked. “What about Porcupine?” Porcupine wasn’t a very good god, but he was his god.

“You will lose the part of yourself that binds him. He will lose all of himself.”

“Because we tried to make other gods?”

“It is not the way of things. One human and one god, bound together at the height of summer. What he wants will destroy the balance of the world.”

“So you will destroy him? There must be another way.”

“He cannot be allowed to build an army. When summer comes, the gods will take the bodies you have made, and they will remake the world to suit them. It has happened before.” Flamingo said.

“And why do you care, if you’re a god too?” Smoke asked.

“Because I am your god, and I am part of you and you are part of me. If Porcupine gets his way, both of us will be destroyed.”

“What if I just destroy the other god-bodies, and stop building new ones?” Tripp asked. He didn’t want to harm Smoke, but it didn’t seem fair to hurt Porcupine either, even if he was whiny.

“Porcupine would find a way to convince you again.”

“I will leave him here.” Tripp said.

“That would be worse than what I want to do — such a solitary existence might not be the mercy you intend.”

“He should have the choice,” Tripp said. “I will ask him.”

Back in the library, Tripp explained to Porcupine. “He’s wrong,” Porcupine sulked, “it wouldn’t hurt Smoke, or you, or anyone.”

Tripp wanted to believe his god, but he had known all along that building the other animals was wrong. Porcupine had led him down the wrong path, and now he had to make it right. “You have to choose, Porcupine. Stay here in the library, or let flamingo break the machine?”

“I don’t want to die,” Porcupine whispered.

“Then I won’t let them kill you.” Tripp replied.

Tripp took apart the paper god bodies sheet by sheet, smoothing each paper and stacking it in tidy piles on the library shelves. Last of all he took back Porcupine’s legs, though he wished he could leave his god at least that much. Smoke and her flamingo watched them closely the entire time, to make sure that Porcupine did not regain his influence.

When all the work was done, Porcupine said, “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to stay here.”

“If you do not stay, we will destroy you,” Flamingo said.

Porcupine turned his attention to Tripp. “Flamingo says I must be killed, because I would have killed people. But I never killed anything. We made things, you and I. Beautiful things. We could remake them, all the grandest animals to house the most magnificent gods –”

“No, Porcupine,” Tripp said. He had wanted that, once. He had spent his entire childhood dreaming of the perfect animal and the most fantastic god, but he had never meant for things to come out like this. He was surrounded by the evidence of his bad choices. Stacks of paper filled the shelves and empty book spines littered the floor. And still, in the midst of it all, was Porcupine, urging him even now to build more bodies.

Tripp looked at Smoke and Flamingo, waiting quietly for him to decide. He barely knew Flamingo, and yet already he trusted Flamingo more than he trusted his own god. Or maybe he simply trusted Smoke more than he trusted himself. They both knew that Porcupine was too dangerous, and that Tripp was too easily influenced. Tripp forced himself to admit it, and to say aloud, “I’m sorry, Porcupine. If you don’t want to stay locked away down here, we have to destroy you.”

“Destroy me, then,” Porcupine said. “I have backups, stored on machines all around the world. All I will lose is this sorry excuse of a body.”

Flamingo went to Porcupine’s machine, but Tripp stopped him.

“He is my god, I will do it. Tell me how.”

So he followed Flamingo’s instructions, pulling wires here and there, and when he was finished, he felt that bit of himself that held him to Porcupine dissolve away. He ran back to the library for a final goodbye — misguided as he was, Porcupine was still his god — but when he got there all that remained was a pile of paper.

Tripp walked back along the black-rock road with Smoke and Flamingo, keenly aware of his missing god. “It was my fault as much as his. I trapped him in a broken body. If he had been whole, he might have been content.”

To his surprise, Smoke put her hand on his shoulder. “When the gods came on the last day of summer, I did something foolish. I saw that none of the gods had chosen your porcupine, and so many wanted my flamingo. So I asked that whichever one I didn’t choose go and be your god.”

Flamingo stopped and gave her a hard look.

“Flamingo told me later that it wasn’t a request, but a command,” she said, “but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was asking. Either way, it’s my fault that your god was trapped in a broken body. Your god was so sure that I would choose him, he was willing to risk being stuck in a broken body.”

Tripp turned to Flamingo, “And you were also sure?”

“No,” Flamingo said, “I hoped for Smoke, of course, but I am not like Porcupine. I would have gone to you willingly if Smoke would not have me.”

Tripp wondered what it would have been like, to have Flamingo as his god. It didn’t matter, he supposed. Now he would be the only adult in the village without a god at all. “And now I’m broken, just like Porcupine was. I lost a piece of my soul and I don’t even have a god. I don’t know why I’m even going back. No one will want a godless man in their village.”

“You destroyed your god because you knew it was the right thing to do. There will be at least some people who appreciate that.” Smoke said. She reached out and held his hand. Even before Tripp had a god, his obsession with building the perfect god had gotten in the way of his friendship with Smoke. He’d lost his god, but regained his friend.

There was a town meeting not long after he returned. Tripp was not allowed inside to attend the meeting, but when the council had reached a decision, they called him in.

“It isn’t right to have a godless man in our village,” Granny Aura began, and Tripp’s heart fell. He stared at the old woman. Her guinea pig grinned up at him from her feet.

“We cannot have a godless man,” Granny Aura repeated, “but we will give you a second chance to make your god.”

Granny Aura beckoned, and Smoke stepped into view. In her hands she held a stack of paper.

“The only condition is that you must only use the paper that you had available to you on your twelfth summer,” she continued, “and you must use all of that paper.”

Granny Aura’s guinea pig, no longer able to contain itself, bounded over to Smoke and did an excited little hopping dance around her legs. Smoke smiled at Tripp, but also fanned out the paper so that he could see, in the middle of the stack, the pink paper she had offered him when all his black and white was gone. It had been available to him then, and he would have to use it now.

Strangely, the idea of a partly pink god no longer bothered him. He accepted the conditions of the council, and when the summer came, he sat amongst the twelve-year-olds, and built himself a god.

He made another porcupine, for there had been little time to plan and a porcupine was the only body he knew that used the right amount of paper. It would be another layer to his punishment, to look each day upon the god he had once destroyed. He packed the black-and-white quills tight around its body, and used the pink paper from Smoke to make short sturdy legs. It was not as beautiful as Smoke’s flamingo, but it was whole, and when the gods came to choose their bodies, one of them selected it.

At his new porcupine’s suggestion, Tripp collected all the paper from the disassembled army of gods. It was hard work, but rewarding to think that he was making up for his past mistakes. Every day for months on end, Tripp walked back and forth from the city, carrying stacks of paper in his basket made of wire mesh. He moved the paper to a small storage room in the temple, to be shared out amongst the village children. Even Uncle Sariff agreed that the paper should be put to use since the books had already been destroyed. With Porcupine’s encouragement, Tripp labored without complaint until it had all been moved — ten million sheets of paper, all in black and white.

____
Copyright 2013 Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Seattle, Washington. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and was nominated for a Nebula Award for her 2010 novelette, “Stone Wall Truth.” Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

by Cat Rambo and Ben Burgis

They said the Marielitas were escoria – scum. The abuelitas muttered it to each other, and the young girls coming home from school clustered together like butterflies, looking thrilled and worried whenever the wind whistled at them. The newspapers said Miami was under siege, that Castro had loosed the worst from the Cuban prisons and madhouses.

The respectable Cubans already in Miami – the ones who weren’t driving the boats to bring over their cousins and brothers and grandparents who’d managed to flee to the port of Mariel – were quick to repudiate the incoming. Some of them put bumper stickers on their ten-year-old town cars: No me digas Marielito.

The crease-browed TV news anchors said the Marielitas “contained a disproportionate amount” of drug addicts and the criminally insane. They predicted crimes, rapes, murders. In the evenings, they showed us it was already starting: a kid kicked to death over a pair of sneakers, a bosomy young woman with her tongue cut out. The baby that…

Some things are too hard to dwell on.

But I wasn’t too worried about the Marielitas. Petty criminals, drug runners, the occasional voodoo priest.

What I was worried about wasn’t human.

Liberty City was hot, sweltering, loose veins of traffic stitching the city’s languid body together. Tempers flared in the heat, producing bloody clots of violence and murder, stunned bruises of aftermath.

Sister Premonition had sent me to the bar, Cowboy Queso. The place was trying to be different by combining a hint of western with a dose of quirk, but no one was buying. There was more glitter than sawdust, and who cared about the longhorn skulls on the walls as long as they could get a gramito de cariño in the lariat-marked restroom. A silk-shirted man slid up, slithered away when I indicated I wasn’t interested.

Some guy arrived, flashed a baseball-sized lump of cash, bought everyone drinks. Ten minutes later he was two tables away, doing lines off the mirrored surface of the table top while disco ball sparkles danced off the back of his dark-haired head. I stood outside the snowfall, watching. Welcome to Miami, Sir. His pale skin marked him either a drug dealer from the East Coast or a nightwalker. Given how many people were coming to talk to him, it was a toss-up.

Pretty men and women glided by. I caught a few looks, but at the far side of thirty, it’s hard to stack up next to long-legged shy of two decades, no matter how good you look in high heels.

Then my eye went so cold in my head that I thought my brain would shatter.

The Powers of Light didn’t care much how they alerted me. Only one of the many things I hated about my life.

My attention snapped towards the cigarette-hazed entrance. She had smoke-textured hair, almost blending with the air except for the dress like a silver fish-scale shimmy.

She paused by the half-light of the entry-way and looked over the room, expressionless as a minnow. I observed her observing the room. I didn’t dip my gaze when her eyes met mine. Hers widened, attention caught by the challenge, an instinctual internal shudder like an eel caught in the moss of a neglected tank. Out of nowhere, I remembered about Wittgenstein saying that if fishes could speak, we wouldn’t understand what they said. No, wait. That wasn’t quite right.

She started towards me through the thump and drum of the club. When she got to me, the music was deafening. She tried to shout over it. I tilted my head forward, pantomiming my lack of comprehension.

She held out her hand.

I reached forward. A small round thing passed between our hands with a weird little squirm, like a moist newtling or unborn mouse.

She staggered forward as someone pushed past her, a guy with a bright pink shirt and a Native American profile.

He turned, black eyes glittering. Alarmed by something near her, but I couldn’t tell what.

His hand flashed out at waist height. She recoiled.

I stood up, gestured at the bartender, occupied eight red leather stools down.

She reeled away through the crowd, frantic long swoops through the sea of people that finally cast her towards the entrance. A scarlet stain swam down over the silver dress, falling on the heel of her shoe.

The pink-shirted guy snarled, staring after her. Then he turned to sweep the room, saw me, saw my gesture to the bartender, saw the bartender stepping forward. Then he was gone too, gone back into the sultry Miami night even as the bartender came to my elbow.

I shrugged him away before uncurling my fingers.

Centered in my palm, rolling along the crease of my life line, was an inch-wide black pearl. What they call a peacock pearl, a secret whispered from the ocean’s heart, full of blue and purple gleams. I closed my fingers over it again before it captured some pickpocket’s magpie attention. My vision had returned to normal.

What. The. Hell.

When I got back to the bike shop, I poured hot tap water in a cup and added a jasmine tea bag. I sniffed the delicate aroma, shrugged, and added a half mug’s worth of sooty liquid from the coffeepot, ink and rusty bolts thick. It would wake me up enough to decide my next move, before someone came looking for…

“You.”

I looked up. Standing in the doorway was tall, dark, and pink shirt. A lot of women would have melted under the force of those black eyes, crows-wing eyebrows, lashes like a smolder of incense. But something about the flatness of his stare, his hair’s swamp-water shine, gave me the creeps.

“Me,” I said, half question, half challenge. “Violet Twilight, specifically, being me. And you are?”

“Violet Twilight,” he repeated, stretching out every syllable.

“No, that’s my name. What I asked was yours.”

Pink Shirt snorted. “Sounds like a stripper name.”

I sipped my tea and smiled my very thinnest smile. Why me, why was I the one who couldn’t just live a quiet life with my bike shop, but had to seek out thugs who always said the same thing?

“A brilliant and insightful observation, which I have of course never heard before. But I’m guessing you’re not in my shop to discuss my mother’s naming skills.”

He glanced around at the clutter of parts, the pegboarded tools, the skull and crossbone neon behind the front counter. “Where is it?”

I flicked a menthol out of the pack on the counter, and stuck it in my mouth. With the amount of adrenaline I was generating au natural right now, I didn’t really need the nicotine, but it was a good excuse not to talk for a bit while I searched my pocket for the lighter and then got it going.

“’It’ is an interesting word. By remaining totally general and failing to rule anything out, it totally fails to fix reference to any particular object. You should read some philosophers of language. Wittgenstein. Kripke. They’ll help you get a lot clearer about the use of referents.”

My visitor made the kind of rumbling, sub-vocal noise I didn’t think mammals could make.

I shut up and took another drag of my cigarette, savoring the minty taste.

When he spoke, he drew out every syllable like something a little threatening and a lot obscene. “It. Is. The. Pearl.”

I blew out a mouthful of smoke, and gave him a blasé shrug.

“Do I look like the kind of girl who wears a lot of pearls to you? I own a bike shop.”

For the first time in our conversation, intelligence flickered behind the cold stare.

“So you do. How’s your insurance?”

Here are some interesting facts about me. Before I opened up Twilight Wheels, I was a waitress, and then a bike mechanic working for this guy Carlos…well, the less said about him the better.

Before any of that, though, the thing that I did for the longest and enjoyed the most was grad school. I wrote esoteric papers on paraconsistent logic, enjoying the feel of understanding and control that comes from manipulating long strings of symbols and deluding myself into thinking that my…condition…wouldn’t stop me from getting a tenure-track job when I got out.

I got my PhD. A diploma hangs in my office to prove it. I do enjoy that. Far from sounding like a stripper name “Dr. Twilight” sounds like something out of Marvel Comics.

Sadly, that’s about all that diploma does for me these days. It turns out that the job prospects for people who specialize in paraconsistent logic are not great.

They’re even worse if your glass eye is one of the Thirteen Artifacts of Power, and the damned thing is prone to sending waves of pain through your body when the Powers of Light decide they need you for something halfway through an interview.

I still subscribe to the professional journals, I still pretend I could have a normal life. I keep up my philosophical reading in my spare time. It’s fun.

Systems of logic are like motorcycles. You can ride them without knowing much about how they work, but to understand when and why they break down, you have to know what the pieces are and how they fit together.

Example: Let P and Q be sentences, any sentences. Maybe P is “Ron Reagan will win the election next year” and Q is “Violet’s store will be burned down by the creep in the pink shirt.” In logic we say that Q follows from P if every time P is true, Q is true too. The fancy way of saying that is that the inference is valid because it preserves truth.

In classical logic, any Q follows from any statement “P and not-P,” even though they have nothing to do with each other, because classical logic works on the assumption that ”P and not-P” is never true for any P. The claim that Reagan both will and will not win can’t be true, because nothing like that is ever true.

Sure, P can be true in one sense and false in another one, but nothing can be both true and false in exactly the same way at exactly the same time. Aristotle said that, thousands of years ago in a book called The Prior Analytics. Since then pretty much everyone’s agreed with him. You can see why, and if you’re talking about a normal sentence like the one about Reagan winning the election, it sounds pretty fucking undeniably reasonable.

Here’s the problem, here’s why I’m not part of that “pretty much everyone” who agrees with Aristotle and why I spent my grad school career looking into weird non-classical systems of logic where there are different rules about contradictions.

Let’s say I take a playing card with all the print worn off. I take out a ballpoint pen, and on one side of the card, I write, “1. The sentence on the other side of this card is true.” On the other side, I write, “2. The sentence on the other side of this card is false.”

Is 1 true or false? Well, if it’s true, then 2 is true, but if 2 is true, then 1 is false. If 1 is false, then 2 is true, but if 2 is true, then 1 is true too, because what 1 says is that 2 is true.

One way or the other, the stuff I wrote is both true and false, both true and not-true, and that’s just as much of a contradiction as Ron Reagan winning and not winning the election. It might seem inconsequential, silly, a party trick, a ridiculous reason to have to abandon thousands of years of western philosophy that was based on everybody agreeing with Aristotle, but that’s exactly what it is.

I broke logic with a faded playing card and a ballpoint pen. Pretty cool, right?

Pink shirt had been staring the whole time I explained this. First confused and then angrier and angrier as he figured out none of this had anything to do with the pearl. He asked the insurance question again, almost shouting this time.

I made an elaborate show of not responding to that. Slowly, I turned around to slip the playing card I’d marked up for my little logic lecture into my purse. Then I put my game face on, turned back to the bastard and stared him down.

I don’t like people pushing me. That’s just how I’ve always worked. When the Powers of Light first selected me to be a messenger, they started out with dreams and portents. A one-eyed crow, a purple moon. I ignored them.

They tried nightmares and a ghostly sending that kept appearing on my breakfast table, its head on the table next to its body, reading the paper that the hands held up to it. I started sleeping less and bought an extra kitchen chair so I didn’t have to sit on the ghost’s lap.

A kelpie appeared out of a fountain and tried to talk to me. Then a ki-rin, a selkie, and an I-shit-you-not flying horse that spoke in rhymed couplets. I ignored them all. Bottom line, I’m the kind of girl who cares a lot more about logical arguments and cost/benefit analysis than destiny and theatrics.

It wasn’t until a dragon swooped down, grabbed me in its claws and dragged me to a cloud-covered, half-metaphorical mountain that I had to listen.

Even then, it took a lot of arguing.

Now, rolling in the hollow ache of my left eye-socket is a purple orb that once resided in the purple skull of a toad god. It lets me see things that Normally Walk Unseen and spot lies more easily than most. It also does some other stuff, but when I can, I prefer to solve my problems with talking.

This guy was pushing me, but he wasn’t lying. He genuinely thought I should be scared of him, which meant that he was either over-estimating himself or underestimating me.

With people that didn’t know me, it was usually the latter.

I stubbed my cigarette into the once-white ashtray on my desk. “I think I misheard you.”

Tall, dark and stupid started again. “I asked you, how your insurance was.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought you said. Don’t say that.”

He growled and took a long step towards me, arms held out as though reasoning with a small child.

“Give me the pearl, and we don’t have a problem. You never have to see me again.”

One more step and he’d be close enough to kiss. I clenched my teeth and got ready to do my thing. I hated it when I had to do shit like this in my shop, where expensive tools and bike parts could get hurt.

I closed my real eye and concentrated. A beam of red light shot out of my glass eye and hit him in the shoulder.

I blinked before the hole in the pink shirt was much bigger than a cigarette burn. The skin under it would itch for a while, but that was it. Just enough to calm him down before he did anything stupid.

It wasn’t working.

Sweat poured down his forehead. His teeth chattered. He stumbled forward until he was directly in front of me.

His breath smelled like rotting vegetation in a humid night while he whispered in my ear. “You. Stupid. Bitch. You shouldn’t have pissed me off.”

I shoved him hard, and he collapsed onto his knees. He was still sweating faster than I’d ever seen a human being, or anything else, perspire.

“Seriously, dude? You’re going to give me the Bruce Banner line after what I just did? Really?”

He titled his head up and opened his mouth, but if he meant what came next to take the form of actual words, it didn’t work out that way. There was a blur of color, pink and brown, black and green, flailing arms and scales.

Oh yes. Scales. A pile of tattered clothes on the floor.

OK, this was new.

A long, greenish-black alligator stretched across the floor of my shop. Its snout opened and closed to expose rows of gleaming teeth.

A guttural croak came out of the thing. Random meaningless noise, probably, but for just a second, it sounded a lot like “I told you.”

Fire shot from my eye. Scales charred. The alligator caught my ankle and dragged me down. I twisted away, trailing blood over the floor.

He lurched and snapped. I punched and flamed. My shop got torn to shit.

Truth was, my insurance sucked.

I rolled away and scrambled to my feet.

We circled around each other, looking for openings.

I got ready to do my thing. The gator tensed.

The door to my shop swung open. With its one lousy ceiling fan, Twilight Wheels is never cool, and on a night this humid, warm wind should have come in every time any one came in or out.

This time it didn’t.

A wave of cold swept through the shop.

You know the way your head feels when you gobble up ice cream too fast? Multiply that by a hundred. All over my body. My goddamned soul.

This was the kind of cold that the ice and snow of all the cold places in the world are just silly imitations of. It was cold with a point, temperature with a message. It wanted you to know that no one ever really loved you, and you would die alone.

I fell on my ass. Across the room, the gator writhed.

Something walked between us, cloven hooves going clickety-clack on the cement. A cape swept behind it, made of a patchwork of animal fur and what I was fairly sure was human skin. Black horns jutted out of its head.

When it spoke, its lips moved like a regular human person talking, but the smooth unaccented voice came from everywhere at once.

“Which one of you has the pearl?”

“He does,” I said, pointing at the gator.

It must have had some sort of inborn lie detector like the one in my glass eye, because it snarled and lunged.

I fell back against the gator. Only the cold slowing its reflexes prevented it from taking off my hand at the wrist. Teeth scored my skin as I pulled my arm free of its mouth.

The demon landed on me from the side, clawing for my face. I couldn’t get a break. My foot collided with the gator’s stomach, and I pushed off and back against the wall, slamming the air out of the demon with a sulfurous puff. It flew up towards the ceiling as black smoke. Only moments before it reconstituted itself, as strong as ever.

I didn’t look back to see what the gator did. I made my way through the bathroom and out the tiny alley-facing window, landing next to the urine-scented dumpster.

I hailed a taxi. Sister Premonition had a lot to answer for.

She worked as a cleaner for a retirement home. But not just any retirement home.

I signed in at the front gate. She was with her favorite client, cleaning out the three room, one bath, and patio suite accorded him as a former star of a popular series still garnering considerable money in television reruns. She was in the kitchen trying to make him a lemon and mint drink that he’d like more than Lipton’s diet sweetened forced on him by his diabetes. The battle had been going on, by my estimate, for about a decade.

He bared his teeth and hooted in the direction of the kitchen as I entered through the sliding glass patio door. On the television screen, Tarzan signaled to an elephant.

“I’m here” I called.

I held out my hand with two sugar-free candies in it. Cheetah sniffed them and took the treats with a certain resignation. He crossed to the chest of drawers across the room, painted in bright primary colors, and slid open a tiny blue drawer in order to drop the candies in.

He turned to look at the TV as a younger version of himself came onto the screen. His lips twitched wide, he smiled, before turning back to stare out the glass door of the patio.

Chimpanzees are only used in television and movies until they reach adulthood. After that they’re considered too dangerous to be used and are retired, some to circuses or zoos, others to places like this retirement home for stage and screen animals, which housed six other chimps, two elephants, a shifting number of dogs and cats, and a horse that had been in all three episodes of an immediately –canceled and long-forgotten attempt to bring back Mr. Ed.

Cheetah and I both jolted at a plonk against the thick glass of the patio’s sliding door. A swallow lay twitching on the red bricks outside.

Sister Premonition came to the doorway and stared at me through strands of bone white hair, thick as a mop. Her eye shadow was blue and layered thick. The air smelled of artificial pine.

“Did you get it?” she rasped.

“Get what?”

“The pearl.”

“Maybe. The one you didn’t mention? So what about the gator and subsequent demon?”

She didn’t blink, just kept staring. Finally she huffed out a breath, reminding me of nothing so much as an ancient carriage horse, and went back into the kitchenette.

Cheetah hooted at me.

I said to him, “What’s up, old man?”

He gestured at the patio, signed, bad days ahead.

Sister Premonition came out with frosted cylinders of unsweetened lemon and mint. I drank half of mine down. Cheetah sipped his, lips puckering.

She said, eyes swiveling between Cheetah and myself to gauge reaction to both words and drink, “The pearl is an artifact.”

“Of course it is.”

She reached in the pocket of her apron, slid out a greasy Tarot deck. You could get a deck that looks a bit like hers, if you didn’t know enough to tell the difference, at a knick-knack store in Coconut Grove, not two blocks from Twilight Wheels.

The real thing has a lot of cards you might recognize, the Lovers and the Chariot, Hermit and the Magician and the Fool, but it doesn’t have the Fat Man. It doesn’t have the Murdering Sisters or the Emperor of Hell. It certainly doesn’t have the Clock of Skulls, which Sister Premonition turned over to find out that the last boats permitted out of Mariel would leave in a few short weeks, on October 31st. It doesn’t have the Thirteen Artifacts, which she turned over before announcing where the pearl belonged.

Which was a place that it was vitally important that I go, immediately, to return the pearl before the cloven-hooved demon or something worse got ahold of it. And which was a destination that I could now look forward to explaining to some boat driver when he asked me why I wanted a ride in that direction. The pop-culture Tarot does have the Tower, which was the deck’s reply to my question about what would happen to the world if the demon got the pearl, and which required no explanation.

“Well, fuck.”

Sister Premonition just nodded.

Cheetah looked up at me with big, sad eyes.

You’ll be fine, he signed.

I wished, not for the first time, that my glass eye wasn’t quite so good at detecting lies.

Cuba was like Miami on the other end of a fun-house mirror. The same palm trees swayed in the same hot wind. Life had the same languid pace and scantily-clad people talked and flirted the same way at outdoor bars. The same lilting Spanish filled the air, but without Miami’s ever-present contrasting stream of English.

On my first day in Havana, I kept doing double-takes as I stared at billboards that by all rights should be encouraging people to ENJOY COCA-COLA but were instead full of pictures of Che Guevara and slogans about la revolución and the ongoing struggle against yanquis imperialistas.

Che had been killed more than ten years earlier by the CIA in Bolivia, and if he hadn’t been he would have been in his fifties by now, wrinkles creasing his face and gray in his hair. On the billboards, though, he was perpetually young and confident, his beard jet black and his eyes, a few inches beneath the ever-present beret, cast ahead as if staring straight into some bright communist future only he could see.

On my first night in Havana, alone in a dingy hotel whose manager complimented me on my stilted Spanish–as far as he knew, I was a tourist from the Ukraine–I dreamed of Che. We sat together on the beach, under a blank blue sky, and shared a cigar spliffed with ganja.

He asked how I was enjoying my stay in his country. I took a puff and pretended to be confused.

Wasn’t he born in Argentina, I asked him as I passed him the cigar. Was this truly his country?

Instead of becoming prickly or defensive as I expected him to be, perhaps hoped that he would be, he surprised me by telling an old-fashioned joke, folksy and complicated, about an Argentinian and a Cuban arguing about the price of a chicken.

The joke was silly, its punchline barely a pun, but I laughed as if I had never heard a joke. Well, I thought, he is very handsome. Besides, I reasoned, the ganja was probably getting to me. No doubt it was mostly the ganja.

We sat, this young Che and I, in companionable silence as we smoked. Finally, I asked if he had killed a lot of people in the revolution here, or in the revolution he had been trying to start in Argentina. He shrugged, unmoved but unoffended, and asked me what I thought.

Was it all worth it, I asked him? Was what he died for worth it? I looked him in those striking eyes. Although this whole time we’d been speaking Spanish, he answered me in heavily accented English. “What about you, Violet Twilight? What you came here to die for, is that going to be worth it?”

But what sort of life did I have, at the beck and call of powers I didn’t even really understand?

What I had come to die for was to die.

On my second day in Havana, I started to puzzle out the clues Sister Premonition was able to give me about where I was supposed to return the pearl.

I had a few ideas, but mostly she’d provided vague and unhelpfully poetic stuff about the ocean and a river, something about “the place where the mighty fall.”

The whole island was a place where the mighty fell–the Spanish Empire was driven out in the Spanish-American war, the Batista dictatorship and its American backers were humbled by communist guerillas sixty years later.

I was pretty sure it had to be in the capital city. I just hoped the Powers of Light didn’t expect me to drop off the pearl in some mansion, historically important for some mighty-falling reason but now occupied by one of Castro’s generals. I was having enough trouble as it was avoiding contact with the communist policía and their thousand inevitable and utterly unanswerable questions about who I was and what I was doing in Cuba.

But an elementary school happened to be in a position relative to the ocean and one of the biggest local rivers that lined up perfectly with what Sister Premonition had mumbled to me.

There weren’t the armed guards at the doors that my fevered imaginings about Life Under Castro made me half-expect, but I got a lot of funny looks as I wandered the halls, passing by rooms full of bright-eyed children babbling away in Spanish and little conference rooms populated by teachers on their free periods, huddled together to drink from paper cups of café con leche and bitch about the kind of petty complaints that seemed to be the common lot of all the world’s teachers. When I saw an middle-aged woman point me out to a tall man in an official-looking suit, both their faces drawn in concern, I made my exit.

No sign of any mystical resting-place for my pearl there. Of course not. That would have been far too easy.

Frustrated, annoyed and increasingly hungry–I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, had barely eaten since I arrived–I beat a hasty retreat from the school. I ended up in a corner café a block up from my hotel, where I sat outside, sweating in the heat and eating down a breakfast of beans and rice, fried sweet plantains and black sugary Cuban coffee.

At first I people-watched as I took slow bites, still thinking through the next place I could check Ocean, river, the mighty fall, God damn it, Violet, think harder. After a while, I was just eating, gobbling down hot plantains gulping coffee and utterly focused on spearing bits of black bean with my fork.

It took me a long beat to notice the man standing in front of my table, casting his shadow onto my plate.

He was wearing a black shirt now, but there was no mistaking who it was. Tall. Dark. Sometimes turned into an alligator.

I tensed up. He laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant noise. “Not here, sweetheart. I don’t think that would be a good idea for either one of us.”

I nodded, conceding the point.

“So you still have my pearl, or are you here following it back too?”

“Your pearl?”

“You know fish girl stole it, right? Her tribe isn’t supposed to have it. It belongs to us.”

The glass eye let ”fish girl stole it” pass, but did its itchy lie-detection thing for ”it belongs to us.” No surprises there.

“It doesn’t belong to either of you. When the demon comes for it, you won’t be able to protect it from him. You won’t be able to protect it, and that’s going to be bad news for all of us.”

He puffed up his chest. “We’ll be able to protect it. We can handle ourselves.”

I didn’t quite get an itch from that, but the glass eye didn’t like it. It could tell gator-man didn’t know if it was true.

“It doesn’t belong to you,” I repeated.

For a second, I thought he’d lash out right there and then. He didn’t. He turned aside, spit on the dusty ground, and looked back at me. He spoke more slowly now, measuring his words. “Maybe, sweetheart. Maybe not. But if I find out that you’ve got the pearl, next time I see you alone I’m going to do my goddamndest to put you in the ground.”

With that, he turned heel and walked back into the hazy-bright Havana afternoon, knowing damn well that I knew that what he’d told me wasn’t a lie.

My second night in Havana, I dreamed about logic. I stood in front of a chalkboard full of P’s and Q’s and connecting symbols. Cheetah was there, wearing a suit and tie, and one of those Groucho Marx fake-mustache-and-big-fake-glasses combos. I held a piece of chalk, but I had no idea what to write next.

I can’t believe you haven’t figured it out yet, Cheetah signed at me. His hands flew up in more complicated signs that I’d ever seen him make, but I understood them. All of your fancy human philosophical training, and you can’t figure out a simple turn of phrase? For shame, Dr. Twilight.

Sister Premonition sat on the floor, shuffling and re-shuffling her deck as elaborately as a card shark in Vegas. “Pick a card,” she told me. “Any card.”

I reached for one in the middle of the deck. She stopped me. “Not that card.” She handed me the one on the top. “Pick this card.”

It was the Three Murdering Sisters, their young faces splattered with blood. I squinted at it, and cartoon-y speech balloons appeared next to each sister’s mouth. “The sister to my right” is lying, the one on the far left was saying. “The sister to my left is telling the truth,” the sister in the middle explained. “Please figure out where to put the pearl,” the one on the far right implored. “Please figure it out, Violet. I don’t want to die.”

On my third day in Havana, I woke up in my sweaty hotel sheets and ate my breakfast downstairs before the break of dawn. I pulled my Ukranian-tourist routine well enough to get a marked-up map of the city, and spent the entire day going from possible-pearl-resting-place to possible-pearl-resting-place, each one with a more tenuous connection to the original clues than the last.

Twice I saw gator-man, on the other side of a street or standing across a crowded room. We nodded at each other, wary, and left it at that.

Wandering around a park, I thought I saw the girl from Liberty City, smoke-textured hair and all, and I did a double take. Not the same girl. A few years older, less skinny and less skittish and more sure of herself. She saw me looking at her and smiled, genially confused.

By sundown, I’d resigned myself to the inevitable. I was going to have to start going to Big Official Historically-Important Buildings. Ones with guards and forms and questions, and why didn’t I have my Ukranian travel documents again? Why was it that I wanted to speak to the General? Why shouldn’t this strange woman with the world’s least-convincing accent simply be thrown into jail while we figure out who she is?

Damn it.

I wolfed down something with beans and pork and hot bread and went up to my room early, prepared to get as much sleep as possible before more than likely getting my ass tossed in a Cuban jail. When I opened the door, I saw, sitting on my bed, calm and composed, the woman who I’d mistaken for the girl who’d given me the pearl.

I leaned against the wall and looked at her.

She met my stare.

“Buenas noches,” I finally said. “¿Cómo está usted?”

“My sister gave you our pearl for safe keeping,” she responded in unaccented English. “In Miami, in the city of Liberty, she gave it to you to keep it safe from the men who become the lizards.”

“Yeah. Except it’s not really your pearl, is it?”

“It’s certainly not the lizards’.”

Suddenly even more tired, I slumped down on the floor. “You won’t be able to keep it safe from the demon.”

She let the silence stretch after that, and when she responded it wasn’t exactly a response. “You want to return it to where it came from.”

“Yes.”

“Very well.”

I nodded, immensely relieved. “Do you know where it came from?”

“No. But we will find it. Together..”

When I finally closed my eyes, I tried not to think about tomorrow at all.

That night, I dreamed about fixing bikes. I was in Twilight Wheels. Not only was the shop not trashed from my fight with gator-man and the demon, it was somehow glistening, like everything in it was shined-up with three layers of wax. I was reassembling the parts of a Kawasaki Z1900, the first Japanese super-bike when it came out six years ago and to this day one of the most beautiful machines I’d ever seen. Whatever had been wrong with this bike when it came into my shop, it was perfect now, or it could be. I couldn’t make a single mistake in the reassembly. I had to make it just as flawless as it was when it rolled off the factory floor.

It took me a long time, and when I was done, I kept running my hand, reverently, over the bike’s shimmering flank. I’d done it. Every part of it fit with every other part. If you just followed the logic.

I woke up with a start.

I knew where the pearl went.

Even after I roused fish-woman and we trekked back to the elementary school, it was still pitch-black outside. Mentally, I kicked myself over and over for my mistake. The place where the mighty fall, not where the mighty fell. No reason why it had to be historically important. It was present-tense. The demon was mighty, and if I returned the pearl, his plans would crumble, and the school fit every clue but that. It was such a simple puzzle, and I’d taken so long to figure it out. The place where the mighty fall.

On a roll, I went with my hunch about why I hadn’t seen anything interesting last time I was there. I popped out my glass eye, took the pearl out of my pocket–prompting a little gasp from fish-woman–and stuck it in my eye socket.

A wave of dizziness hit me. I was almost off my feet with the disorientation of seeing two completely different scenes at once. The deserted halls of the elementary school, and a cavern suffused in reddish light.

I closed my real eye and stared ahead. I held out my hand, and fish-woman took it without question. I stepped forward as the floor of the cavern curved up beneath me, fairly sure the floor the school was staying flat.

I turned to glance through the pearl at fish-woman. She stood with me on the elevated ground, silent but looking around in shocked awe. I let go of her hand, squinted with my real eye, then opened it all the way. No more double-vision. Just the cavern.

A few more steps brought us to a plateau. As we climbed onto it, I could see a stone platform emerging from a pool of water. On top of the platform, a shell was glowing so brightly it hurt my eyes. Damn thing might as well have had “insert pearl here” written on it.

And, standing half-submerged in the water, in between me and the shell, was the cloven-footed demon.

Gator-man had made it before me too. He’d come early, seen the demon and started to transform to fight him. I could see his alligator body, floating in the water by the demon’s knees, a few feet away from his bobbing severed human head.

Mental inventory of the contents of my pockets:

One glass eye, not in my eye socket where it can do the most good.

A faded playing card with paradoxical sentences written on the opposite sides.

Some crumpled-up Cuban money.

Basically, nothing.

“I can start eating your head and spit out the pearl into the palm of my hand before you’ve even lost consciousness.” The demon says this as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing bike repair. “You know I can do this.”

Just barely, I managed to unfreeze long enough to nod.

“If you just give me the pearl, I won’t tell you that I’ll spare you your life, that you’ll live to a ripe old age and die in your sleep, surrounded by fat and happy grandchildren. You can tell lies almost as well as I can.” I nodded again, more quick and jerky this time, desperate to keep the demon talking.

Something about that promise.

“I will assure you of this. Give me the pearl, and you will be the last human to die.”

I popped the pearl out of my eye socket, dug my glass eye out of my pocket. If I was going to pretend, I couldn’t actually say anything. He could detect lies.

He could detect lies.

For all my time in grad school studying paradoxes and weird logic, I’d never tested this. My eye only knew verbally-expressed lies, and only when someone else knowingly told them. Still, I was fairly sure that, if the eye was responding to someone it wasn’t attached to telling a lie that was also true, also not a lie, it would go haywire. If that could be combined with whatever reaction the demon’s internal system had to it, then maybe, just maybe.

I held up the pearl. Fish-woman let out a moan of longing. The demon stepped forward to take it.

In one motion, I swapped the glass eye into my hand and put it in the demon’s hand. I started running at the glowing shell.

“THIS SENTENCE,” I screamed, getting the words out in a rush as I ran, trying with everything I had to get them out before the demon dropped my eye. “THISSENTENCETHATIAMSAYINGRIGHTNOWISALIE.”

I released the pearl. The shell sucked it into itself like a vacuum. White flames engulfed the demon’s body. He kept trying to toss the eye onto the ground.

It was too late.

On the afternoon of October 31st, All Hallow’s Eve 1979, after a week in a Cuban hospital telling increasingly desperate lies to increasingly suspicious doctors, I stand on the deck of a boat speeding me and dozens of Cuban refugees to Key West from the Port of Mariel. The sun has just barely begun to set.

I sip rusty coffee from a thermos and look out at the water. I wear an eye patch, and I’m still having trouble with depth perception, but I’m getting more used to it with every passing day.

A long silver fish swims along the side of the boat. I stare in frank appreciation. Later, when no one’s watching, she’ll finish her swim and return to her human form. Later still, she’ll reunite with her sister in Miami. I’m looking forward to that part. I’ve lost my link to the Powers of Light, but it’s only a matter of time before they find a new way to reach me.

Dream-Che wasn’t entirely wrong about that.

I fought like hell to resist the Powers’ plans for me, once upon a time. I’d thought, more than once over the years while wallowing in self-pity after some botched job interview, or nursing my wounds after the Powers had sent me into some mess, that accepting that glass eye and everything that went with it had ruined my life.

But dream-Che was right. What happened to me in Cuba was a kind of dying.

A snatch of poetry I’d read as an undergraduate pops into my head. From Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot. “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”

Change is dying. And it’s life.

Any minute now we’ll see the landmass of Florida stretching out in front of us. In Miami, children will be going from door to door asking for candy. Grown-ups will get drunk at Halloween parties and make passes at each other. Television stations will play hokey old horror movies deep into the night. People will fall asleep on their couches watching those movies, unaware of the real monsters and the real magic alive in the unknown corners of the night.

Respectable Miami Cubans will still drive around with their “No me digas Marielito” bumper stickers for a while, and then they won’t. They’ll get used to the new arrivals, like people always get used to these things. The Marielitos themselves will adjust to their new life, the end of the world they knew and the beginning of life in America. I’ll adjust to my life, the monsters and the magic in the night, and the occasional mermaid swimming beside me.

I’ve seen death. I’ve seen birth. I know they aren’t different.

___
Copyright 2013 Ben Burgis and Cat Rambo

by Patty Jansen

The ship glided into the dock, into the care of grappling arms and snaking robotic leads.

Clang, click, contact.

The navigation hub flashed with the station control override. The screen showed a logo, but no inbound or outbound communication.

Seated next to the pilot, in the bluish glow of the controls, Zhyara didn’t realise how tightly he’d been gripping the edge of the seat, all the way while they’d drifted past the scratched surface of the station, all the way while he listened to the pinging of their unanswered broadbeam probes. His instinct, after being cut off from his associates on Zhiminda station for so long, ached for confirmation that personal networks were still intact.

“I think they could have provided some better damn light in here.” The pilot’s voice pierced the tense silence. The remark, no doubt intended to be light-hearted, fell flat. Everyone aboard the ship was tense.

“But I guess things could have been worse,” the pilot added into the heavy silence.

“Much worse,” Zhyara confirmed.

He breathed out tension. At least someone was still alive aboard the mining station. At too many other stations, they’d found nothing except dead husks of metal, where the emptiness of space had erased evidence of the living.

The floor shook and juddered in time with harsh metallic clangs.

“They’ve used hard-dock,” the pilot observed, unnecessarily; the team knew all the sounds.

“Certainly, we’re not going to get out in a hurry,” Zhyara said.

The pilot glanced aside, a reflection of blue light in gold-flecked black eyes. “Do you think we need to?”

Zhyara didn’t reply to that. Right now, he feared anything was possible.

“Damn,” someone behind him said. “We’re the only ship in this place.”

The dockside image feed, when it flickered into life, showed that three people waited outside.

Zhayra glanced over his shoulder at his seconds, and behind them, their seconds and the third layer of associates behind that. A neat pyramid of order. Eight technicians, four supervisors, two leaders, and him at the top. They were his people, his small branch of the loyalty network. They knew their places and functions down to the smallest flick of an eyebrow.

Aboard this station, his equal, his zhayma, was a woman called Emiru. She would fill him in on the station’s running. Both of them as a team answered to Asha Domiri, the stationmaster; that was how his part of the network slotted together.

But the people out there were all male.

“Who are those guys?” The unease in Zhyara’s mind grew.

“They’re not our associates,” said a technician at the back, reading data from the ID tags on the screen. “Names are unknown. No rank or affiliation known.”

“What happened to Asha Domiri or Emiru Azimi?”

“Truly, anyone’s guess is as good as mine.”

That held no good promise. An unknown man meant Zhyara would have to trace matters of superiority. A normal stationmaster would have been Third Circle, like Zhyara, and there would have been some prior contact, some precedent through which to trace rank. By rights, a stationmaster would have superiority over Zhyara. That was the way things were supposed to be.

The air lock flashed ready. Zhyara got up from his seat. “Is there anything good to report besides that the station is not completely dead?” What if we’ve disturbed the killers of the station halfway through their grisly job?

“Not at the moment. Most of the station functions are unresponsive.”

The door hissed open. With the cold tang of station air came wan light, and shadows of silhouettes on the dock, slowly walking towards the ship. Zhyara breathed the air, but could detect no offensive or challenging hormonal scents.

“They seem keen to meet us,” Chiaru said. She was strapping her gun bracket to her upper arm, ready to assume her position as Zhyara’s guard. If anything, she was exuding a challenging scent.

“Or board us,” a technician added.

“No one will be boarding anything. We’ll be happy to provide off-station transport, but first we need to know that we’re not letting aboard some kind of alien killer disease along with any passengers. Arrange a guard.”

His associates nodded assent; additional weapons were retrieved from storage places. The team’s obedience and their defensive scents brought Zhyara comfort.

He walked down the extended walkway into the cold and utterly silent docks. Only tiny pinpricks of emergency lights punctuated the huge curving hall. No ships, no people anywhere.

The three figures waited. One stood forward, the other two behind him, a classic triangle formation. They looked… normal, if unfamiliar. No sign of wounds or diseases. They weren’t alien like some of the inhabitants they had found on distant worlds. Some of those looked Coldi enough, in terms of body shape, numbers of eyes and hands and legs, but they had little or no social structure and showed unrestrained curiosity, anger and fear like Coldi toddlers. These three people were, without a doubt, Coldi, Asto people, but unfamiliar ones.

“Well met,” Zhyara said, tight like a spring.

The man bowed, his hands by his sides, a subservient greeting. He was thin, gaunt, and his hair, which should be black and glossy with a metallic sheen, was dull. His station uniform looked like he’d been wearing it continuously for a long time, the collar and sleeves tainted with grime. Zhyara could now detect a faint scent in the air, but it was a pacifying flavour, not the strong musk of a leader. In fact, one of the associates had a stronger scent.

The man didn’t look into Zhyara’s eyes. If he did, instinct would trigger and they would have to settle the matter of superiority immediately. With someone unknown like this, there could be a fight. Zhyara had led a protected life recently and was woefully out of fighting practice. Besides, he didn’t want to fight. Not before he knew what was going on, and not even afterwards. If he fought, he might win, and he didn’t want to be stuck with the command of this sick and limping station.

“Well met, network coordinator,” the man said.

“I’m Zhyara.”

The man nodded; he would know. Zhyara’s name would appear as network coordinator on all communication the station received from Athyl.

“And you are…”

“Desya.” Still no eye contact. His earlobes were bare, with little pinpricks of holes where he had removed his clan earrings.

Zhyara didn’t wear his clan designation either; it threw up too many questions, but the Ezmi clan name would also be displayed on all the records. This man didn’t smell like he was Ezmi, and the only other clan that didn’t always display colours…

“Omi?” Another clan of mainly workers. Unlike the Ezmi, they usually lived happily in the overcrowded cities of Asto and worked obediently in factories and offices; Omi had the reputation of being dumb and without ambition.

Desya nodded, again, still looking away. Not at the floor, like one who recognises subservience, but at the opposite wall. The stale air carried another whiff of his hormonal scent. Not subservient, not dominant either… confusing.

Zhyara rolled out his spiel. “We’ve been sent by the Mining Exploration Board at Athyl for your failure to send your scheduled report. We were worried.”

“Yes. We’ve had some problems,” Desya said. He hesitated.

“Problems?”

“Come with me, we can talk about this with all staff.”

Zhyara exchanged glances with his seconds. Chiaru tapped her gun, as if to assure him that they could handle the situation.

Zhyara nodded, not sure if guns could provide a solution. They followed Desya and his two silent associates into a corridor that led into the bowels of the station. With each step, his unease grew. Discussing with the staff? You didn’t discuss things with your staff; you told them what to do and they did it. Just who was in charge of this place? He hadn’t seen either of the man’s two unnamed associates make eye contact either. Not with him and his team or with their own leader.

This reminded him of something that had happened before he left.

“So, what are you doing here?” His mother’s voice held no warmth.

She sat across from Zhyara at the table of her one-room house. Her fingers were going lightning-fast over her embroidery work, pushing the needle in, out, in, out.

“I wanted to see you,” Zhyara said.

“You never come just to see us.” She tied off the thread and bit the end off with her front teeth–brown and worn to stumps. Her work was some sort of picture with patterns of leaves and thorns, likely a belt panel for a zeyshi desert rebel.

Zhyara shrugged and blew out a breath through his nostrils. She always behaved like this, and he would do well not to let himself get riled up by it. “Well…”

“You’ve come to tell Xiya off again for illegal skim-racing? I guess you know that I can stay in his house–much as it is a dump in your eyes–only because of the money he earns?”

“I’m sorry that I did that, and I’ve already said this many times.” Every time he’d visited since that ill-considered action of his, in fact.

Zhyara sighed again, letting his gaze roam the rickety shelves on the wall behind her, with carefully-stacked, mismatched bowls and plates and boxes containing small treasures like buttons and sewing needles. She was not making this easy. “I’ve come because…”

She raised her eyebrows.

He hesitated. Carefully-rehearsed words evaporated like water poured in the desert sand outside his mother’s door. The heat and the sounds of the street outside–people talking and merchants yelling–suddenly became very loud. “I’ve come because I may not come back.”

That got her attention. She lowered her work. “What? You’re moving to the colonies? I thought you were all set with your associations and networks?”

He detected a measure of glee in her words. At times, he couldn’t work out whether she and his brother hated or were jealous of his proper association, and the thought that his mother rejoiced at the thought of it breaking up brought anger perilously close to the surface. He sat stiff, clamping his mouth to stop himself shouting Fuck you, I’m trying!

She raised her embroidery work again.

“I am the Mining Exploration Board’s network control manager,” he said, forcing his voice to calm. “I travel to all the mining stations throughout Coldi colonised space.”

She flicked her eyebrows as if she wanted to say Tell me something new, but the fact was that out here, in the Outer Circle, where poverty prevented people even buying a train ticket into the Inner Circle–if their permits would allow them to travel there, which they did not–people did not grasp the concept of interstellar travel, of the space port, of the Exchange network and anpar lines. Every time in the past when he had assumed his mother understood, he had found that she did not.

“Lately, there have been a number of mining stations failing to report in. When that happened, I…” and his associates, but he judged it better not to mention them, “… have travelled there to find out what was going on. Each time, and there have been three such occasions, the station was dead, destroyed, with no sign of the inhabitants.”

Again, that tell me something I don’t know expression.

He frowned at her. “You’ve heard the news?” Those few news channels that had coverage in the Outer Circle only broadcast local gossip, and betting information, lots of that.

She said, “Who do you think were the workers in those stations, lost while valiantly defending Asto and its colonies?” The last words were spoken with an intense mocking tone. “They were people off the streets from around here. Vashya from the workshop–but you will know him–has lost his brother. He only found out because he works in Eighth Circle and travels on the train every day. He’s been trying to find out what happened ever since.”

I have been trying to find out.”

“And?” She continued her embroidery.

“It seems like out there on the edges of Coldi civilisation, we’ve run into something hostile, something that doesn’t like us being there, but leaves no trace when wiping us out. This is why I’m here. There has been a fourth report, this time from a station at Zhiminda, which is… the furthest you can travel and stay within Coldi-colonised space. Ever since the first station was wiped out, I’ve feared that one day, I’m going to travel somewhere and run into the aliens who are wiping us out. I fear this may be the time. Zhiminda is nine anpar jumps away from here. It is deep into unfamiliar territory.”

She let a silence lapse in which she clearly expected him to say something.

He did not, so she said, “So? What are you going to do about that?”

“Be as careful as possible.”

She snorted. Not the answer she expected, obviously. “Son of mine, have you considered not going to these dreadful places? There is no one who says that you have to go risk your life for people who don’t deserve it.”

“Vashya’s brother doesn’t deserve it?”

“Vashya’s brother is dead. It’s the Third Circle bosses who are still running those evil places. They don’t deserve it.”

“How can you say that? Those people are my associates.” Most were as much bosses as they were subordinates.

She snorted. “Sometimes I’d think those associates are more important to you than we are.”

“They’re not. They’re just…” Associates. He’d known they were associates the first time when he met each and every one of them. He’d met Chiaru’s eyes in Third Circle training and they’d both known that instant that their relationship was meant to be. She’d brought to the association Diliya the pilot and his equal, his zhayma, and together, they had actively looked for someone to be Chiaru’s zhayma. When he ran into Eyana in the canteen, they both knew it was right, and Chiaru knew it was right, because Eyana smelled right, and the way he looked at Chiaru was right and the way he was subservient to Zhyara was right. The same applied to Menya, who he shared his apartment with, and everyone else in his social network. Choice did not come into the decision. In a similar way, he did not have a choice about checking on the stations. It was his job. His superior had told him to do it, because it was important, because the stations were part of the network.

His mother put her embroidery on the table. She rose and opened the door to the small cabinet on the wall behind her.

She took out a small box that looked very dusty and old and set it on the table before Zhyara and sat back down. “Since you’re so keen to get yourself killed, I may as well give you these. Your father had two pairs made when he came into some money. One pair for each of you. I’ve given Xiya his, so it’s only fair that I give you yours.”

Zhyara heard, I’m not sure you deserve this and he hated how she liked to use the word deserve as a weapon, as a wedge to drive between him and his brother. Did she even care about him?

He opened the box and found, as he more or less expected, a set of earrings. They were beautifully made, silver filigree with the amber stone that symbolised the Ezmi clan within. They must have cost a fortune.

Most children in the city were issued with clan earrings the moment they left the house on their own, usually to attend education. But in the Outer Circle, no one attended education, and if you walked the street with something valuable while looking unarmed, you were likely relieved of your possessions.

He turned the box, and the stone glittered in the light coming in through the open door.

“They are beautiful.” And they were, but the leaf and thorn filigree screamed zeyshi, desert rebels, people who rejected the city’s structure and lived in secret underground warrens, stealing water and food.

“Come on, then, put them in.”

Zhyara did, reluctantly, maybe just for now; he’d take them off again in the train. Zeyshi might wander relatively free into this part of the city, but there was no way he could wear these into the Mining Exploration Board office.

His mother smiled, but it looked forced.

“Thank you,” he said, and he rose. “I don’t have much time. I have to be back at work this afternoon. I brought you a bottle of medicine. Please use it when the water makes you ill again. Next time, I’ll see if I can bring a small purifier.”

She said nothing. He pushed the rickety chair back against the table, feeling its familiar worn surface under his hands.

“I’d like to see Xiya. Where is he?”

“To say goodbye to him? Iyamichu ata, huh?” she said. It was the pledge of loyalty to the Asto leadership, the confirmation of alignment to the ultimate loyalty network with the Coordinator at the top, a pledge normally taken by soldiers before going off to battle.

But her voice was mocking. “If you had any sense, you’d ask him for a place to hide so that you could escape your slave masters.”

“Mother…” Always needling him. “Please can you just tell me where he is?” Now he was getting worried. If his brother could arrange places to hide, then what was he getting involved with these days?

“He went to the Forum, but I can’t guarantee you’ll find him there. You know your brother. Hard to tie down to one place.”

The corridors of the station were empty, with long eerie shadows in the fitful light of emergency lamps, a mark of a low power situation. Again, there was no damage, no sign of a struggle or indeed anything that might have caused the near-catastrophic failure of the habitat.

The control room. Even that was virtually empty, many seats at the hub unoccupied.

“Where is everyone?” Zhyara asked, and the question seemed to sink in space.

Desya indicated a ring of chairs that surrounded the command chair. Desya did not sit in that chair, but left it unoccupied, like a sore in the middle of the room. There were only fourteen people. At capacity, the command centre would hold hundreds.

“Is this all that’s left of the station population?” Zhyara asked.

Desya nodded. A few others murmured words like terrible and unbelievable. Their faces were pale, mirroring unspeakable horrors. The air was full of conflicting scents. One young woman, slightly apart from others, had a fairly strong dominant scent, but her position–meek, with her hands in her lap–reflected none of that.

“We were sent to offer assistance.” Zhyara hesitated, not wanting to talk about the other dead stations he and his team had found. Just what sort of monsters had they run into at the edges of colonised space? “We can affect communication repairs so you can contact the Mining Exploration Board. We can offer our ship to take—”

“We didn’t ask for assistance,” Desya said. “We are coping.”

“Then where is everyone? My records say that you have more than ten thousand people aboard. I see only fourteen.”

There were a few moments of intense silence, and then one of the station workers broke the silence, against all protocol.

“There were… problems. We intercepted… signals. Hostile signals.” The man showed no deference, and looked Zhyara in the eyes.

“How were the signals hostile?” Zhyara did his best to ignore the itch in his head that told him to fight this man.

“There were alien ships. They pretended to hit us, and then swerved. When they passed, they fried our communication channels. The workers went to defend us. They took the harvesting rigs.”

Well, that explained the emptiness of the place. But… “You allowed so many of them to leave? You left no one of their associates here? And no ships, so you could evacuate?”

“There was a great hurry. We feared the aliens might… attack.”

“Who were these creatures exactly?”

“We didn’t see. There was no contact. But they destroyed one of our mining vessels.”

Zhyara filled in the blanks. “So you sent out an army, but they didn’t come back.”

“They haven’t… yet.”

“How long ago was this?”

“More than ten days.” Desya stared at his hands folded in his lap. “They vanished.” He didn’t look at anyone; no one looked at him. No one paid attention to him.

“Have you seen the attackers since?” Zhyara asked the talkative employee.

“No. We think our workers may have been taken prisoner, or possibly…” He glanced at Desya, who was still watching his hands; Zhyara sensed that there was an underlying disagreement, something else that shouldn’t happen, had the social structure been properly set up.

“We think they might have joined the alien force,” Desya added.

“What makes you think that?”

“Well, we noticed—” the employee began.

“No one knows what happened for sure,” Desya said over the top, his voice loud.

“Of course not,” the man said.

“What did you notice?” Zhyara pressed on.

“Well…” The employee cast another glance at Desya. A shrug. “He’s right. We don’t know what happened.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

Then Desya said, “The only thing we know for certain is that they left, and have not come back. Their beacons faded and became too weak for us to follow the craft. There were no explosions. We found no bodies. Wouldn’t you draw the conclusion that the workers have been taken alive?”

Zhyara remembered his father as a tall man–then again in the eyes of a four-year-old, anyone was tall. The only memory he had of his father’s face was of a grainy image his mother kept in one of her treasure boxes. It showed a man with uncommonly light eyes and a broad, flat nose. Whenever she took it out, his mother’s eyes went misty at seeing the picture, but he just felt… nothing.

Zhyara remembered hiding in the top bunk with his brother, pretending to be asleep when his father came in. His mother cried and threw herself in his father’s arms. They kissed and for a number of days after that, Zhyara had boasted to the other kids in the street that he’d seen his parents Doing It. Until an older kid told him that kissing was not It, and they teased him about that.

It seemed like a stupid memory to have of someone who was supposed to be important in his life.

Later he’d heard that his father had done times in jail. Mother never told him what the charges were; like so many things, she seemed to assume that he knew. Most likely, it would have been smuggling or evasion of some sort of duty, or any of the things young men and women were still being picked up for today. Skim racing, gambling, swearing at guards.

One thing he knew for sure: his father was not–and had never been–zeyshi. He had no tattoos and didn’t wear a shayka. His father’s brother and cousins lived in the Outer Circle, and not in the zeyshi warrens in the desert.

When Zhyara decided–much against his mother’s wishes–to try for the Eighth Circle exam, the officer had asked were there any zeyshi in his immediate family, and Zhyara had said no. It was the truth, and he felt proud of that. Poor Outer Circle people could be redeemed and educated; zeyshi were lost forever. They stole and murdered. They did not observe any social structure. Their lives were worth less than a cup of water, especially the young men.

So the question was this: why would his father have ordered expensive silver earrings made with leaf and thorn patterns?

He had promised his superior to be back for a meeting later in the afternoon, and time was short, too short possibly to try to find Xiya, but what his mother had said had disturbed him. Xiya was young and passionate, and could so easily follow the wrong examples.

He left his mother’s house for the dusty street, or the thoroughfare that passed for the street. Way back when the Inner Circle elite had grown sick of the eyesore of humanity that built up on the city’s fringes, someone in charge had ordered stone houses and streets to be built, but no one had thought to add any more buildings as the population grew. When people ran out of housing space, they built their own, lean-to shacks that were little more than glorified tents, and houses like his mother’s, built from second hand building materials. The streets suffered the same degree of neglect. No one cleaned or maintained them. Whatever paving had ever been present had been covered in layers of yellow desert sand. Street sellers occupying the sides swept their own little square every day, heaping the sand in big mounds, from where it blew away again in times of high winds.

Zhyara’s uniform gave him away as someone with money, so those street sellers followed him for as far as they dared stray from their wares. Most of the vendors were leather-skinned, deeply tanned older people. Grandmothers and aunties from the aquifer farming families trying to make some extra money over what the city’s food authorities paid by selling their produce direct. Their presence was illegal, but they came anyway.

They shouted at him, trying to sell their wares.

Mushrooms, sir? Very fresh, picked them myself this morning.

Two shirts for the price of one, sir. Quality material, sir. Real quality.

A group of street singers stood in a half-circle, chanting and clapping as sweeping rhythm. The song they were singing was an Ezmi clan chant, sung by adults at street gatherings, sung by his mother when he’d been little. He remembered Xiya banging the table with this little fists, as if the tabletop was daini drum.

Zhyara avoided meeting the singers’ eyes. Most of them were Ezmi people, wearing their amber stones with pride. The silver, zeyshi earrings felt like they were made of lead.

The Forum was one of those constructions built when this area had been settled. Originally intended as a covered marketplace, it had been used as such only until some stupid accident caused the explosion of a vat of zixas, and the deaths of hundreds of people from the resulting fumes. The building had stood empty and burnt-out, for many years. When Zhyara was little, older boys would crawl in through the gaps in the boarded-up windows and challenge each other to stay after dark, when the ghosts of the dead were said to come out.

Then one day there was a big raid by the First Circle guards. Zhyara remembered standing on the side of the street watching several zeyshi youths being marched from the building. In that time, people in shaykas were hardly ever seen in the Outer Circle. That night, he and Xiya had spent time trying to wind bedsheets from his waist to the left ankle, across the right shoulder to the right ankle, across the right shoulder back to the waist. And finding that he ran out of bedsheet less than halfway through.

Real zeyshi used huge lengths of thin fabric. The whole ensemble was held together with a broad belt, which could be plain fabric or metal, or made from beads or embroidered. Women’s shaykas crossed at the front, men’s at the back. This had a reason. Go figure.

Soon after that raid, a legal drinking house had moved into the building.

These days, all the building’s arched side entrances had been boarded up and the pink marble façade that had once looked grand was dusty and stained from years of neglect. The entrance on the corner was the only one still open, and out of this dark maw billowed a wall of heat and sound.

He lined up in the foyer, where people crowded to get in.

The people around him pretended they didn’t see him. In the Outer Circle, people did not do superiority greetings and they knew he had the power to arrest them for it, if he so wished.

When he had almost reached the door, he spotted two people, looking like a couple, leaning against the side wall of the foyer. The woman wore a tattered mechanic’s suit stained with grease, and the man non-descript dusty trousers and shirt such as worn by a lot of street sellers. Street sellers didn’t come here. They lived in the aquifer clefts and went to their families once they’d sold their wares. They wasted no money coming here. Street sellers didn’t have a head full of clean hair. Backyard mechanics didn’t have shoulders like they’d been in military training for years.

These were First Circle guards. Zhyara didn’t know them–their loyalty would branch off long before his, and they’d be connected through the Security and armed forces network that would loop back to someone in the Mining Exploration Board.

The two saw him. In his Third Circle uniform. Wearing damned zeyshi earrings. Double damn.

The woman smiled at him and gestured. Having travelled in First Circle company, Zhyara was familiar with the First Circle guard signs. She thought he was here on some undercover operation. Sure. Wearing his uniform and all that.

He nodded to her. Indicating what, he did not know. Bluff. Pretending that he had the matter under control, whatever matter they thought he was attending. He didn’t want them here. He didn’t want them anywhere near his brother.

Heart thudding, he went into the room, aware that the two were likely to follow. He’d make a round, then signal to them that he didn’t find what he was looking for, and then quietly sneak off to the station.

It was dark inside the Forum’s main room, and the air thick with the scent of bodies and vibrating with sharp staccato beats of the daini drums.

People bumped into him, dancing, talking and laughing. He did his best not to look at anyone, in case people would recognise him. He tried not to look behind him, in case the two guards were following. His head ached with the noise. At the back of the room, where there were tall tables where people stood drinking, the air was thick with the scent of zixas, a sharp and acidic scent that made his mouth tingle. You were not supposed to breathe the fumes.

He wanted to leave this place. He wanted to lose the guards. He didn’t feel at home here, and never had.

Then someone said, “Hey, brother, what are you doing here?”

Oh, no. Xiya.

His brother stood at one of the tables. All arms and legs like a typical adolescent, but with dust-ingrained skin, he looked wise as the desert itself. He wore his hair loose, and it hung past his shoulders in a tangle of metallic black curls. There were a couple of youths with him, and on the table between them lay a couple of sheets of waxy paper.

Zhyara groaned. His brother was arranging a race. Those pieces of paper were stakes, debts or other liabilities that racers wanted to be rid of. If a contestant won, the losers would pay off their debt. Usually they involved unpaid bills for rig maintenance–if workshops didn’t accept jobs by stake, they didn’t have much work–but sometimes there were more sinister things, like gambling debts. Of course all of this was illegal. And he turned up with two First Circle guards in tow.

Zhyara gestured with his eyes to where he suspected the two guards to be, while motioning for his brother to move the incriminating material out of sight.

Xiya’s eyebrows went up in a What are you being stupid about? kind of way.

Zhyara mouthed, Just for once listen the fuck to what I say.

But it was already too late. The pair of guards pushed past him and joined Xiya and his mates at the table.

“Hey,” said the woman. “I know this game. Can I challenge?”

“You race, huh?” Xiya said. He sounded so young, so naïve.

“Sure.” She flicked hair out of her face.

Zhyara wanted to scream Look at her shoulders, she’s a First Circle guard! but he could do nothing. He shook his head. The damn earrings felt like needles where they hit the soft skin of his neck.

Xiya ignored him. “Sure. What is your stake?”

“I’m not betting. I owe nobody anything, but my friend has a bet for you.”

The man produced a signature cube and set it on the table. “I got myself a contract, arranged by my family, but the woman’s a right bitch, and I’d be happy if someone paid half of what I paid to take her off my hands.”

Zhyara shook his head even more. First Circle contracts involved huge sums of money. Even half that was more than Xiya would ever see in his life. Besides, he was far too young for contracts.

But Xiya grinned, an innocent boyish grin. “I accept.”

“That’s a boy.” The man clapped him on the shoulder. Xiya wobbled visibly under the force of it.

“So what have you got as stake?” the woman asked. “Is it going to be worth the race?”

“I got something much better than you.” He extracted a piece of waxed paper from his pocket.

The woman picked it up and read. “Notice to report for work duty? ” She laughed. “A ticket? Is that worth a race for you?”

Ship-side quarters were cramped, and protocol dictated that visiting delegations were offered on-station hospitality. Zhyara had stayed in the station’s guest quarters before, but never had his party been the only one there. Mining stations normally bustled with visiting prospectors and others offering their services.

He ordered his people to take food supplies brought on their ship and instructed them not to touch any of the food provided by the station. He posted a guard at the entrance to their small apartment.

Normally, he would share his room with Emiru. They would talk over the latest news and bring each other up-to-date. She would talk about the station; he would talk about things happening in Athyl. Re-cementing loyalty networks over this huge distance. It would involve food, and many glasses of zixas and usually passionate lovemaking, because that was what associates were for, to make you feel loved and needed, and part of the network.

Now he was just alone. Too quiet. His associates in the next room only spoke in low voices, waiting for his orders. There were no other sounds from elsewhere in the station.

What if Desya’s story was true and aliens would come back and attack the station? They would be helpless. Too few to man weapons, if they had any, and most mining stations were woefully incapable of defending themselves. What if Desya saw him and his team as a threat, too? These rooms would be full of listening devices. He studied the ceiling and walls, examining every bump or depression.

Nothing.

He paced the room, past the desk, the cupboard, the bed–

Emiru, what had happened to her? The last time he’d been here, she’d ambushed him in this room, shutting the door behind her. Her cheeks had been red, her eyes bright, and through her gossamer-thin singlet, he could see the red tinge of her skin on her chest and shoulders. He’d been shocked; a woman only flushed when she wanted to conceive, and that only happened when contracts had been signed. But there she was, wanting, desperate and her reason clouded by the hormonal flush that she had allowed to happen. Shutting the door on him. Her expression saying come on, fuck me.

He’d protested, tried to tell her to get back to her quarters until the flush passed, but he was a man, evolved to react to her female scent. And react, he did, in a crazy and very satisfying way. He’d still been covered in bruises by the time he came home.

He’d never mentioned it to anyone, had been too embarrassed. It should not have happened, and he should not have given in. But what if there was a more sinister reason for her behaviour that he’d never thought to inquire about? He remembered asking, when lying exhausted in her arm, but she’d changed the subject.

Stupid. He should have insisted. Every woman with a permit to live on Asto had the right to have two children. No one gave that right away lightly. Not without contract, or payment, or both. Not on a mining station. Of course she’d been trying to tell him something.

He turned around and paced the other way.

This place was sending him up the wall. Too empty; the scents were all wrong.

He had to talk to someone.

In the small living area, the technicians were poring over the station’s communication logs which they had downloaded from the hub. Chiaru sat in the corner, staring in front of her and biting the end of her ponytail.

She looked up when he entered, eyes wide, like a startled animal.

He flicked his eyebrows and jerked his head towards the door.

She rose, her eyes still wide, and whispered past him into the room.

At home in Athyl, lower-ranking workers would never consort with their direct superiors. You just did not do that; it was abuse of power.

“I just need someone to talk to,” he said, by way of apology. That was wrong, too. You did not apologise to your seconds.

He shut the door, and then went to pour some drinks, his mind searching for a way to ask, What does it mean when a woman flushes for you without any agreement to do so? but failing. He was supposed to have all the answers, and he had none.

When turned back to the room, she sat on the couch, her hands jammed between her knees. One of her legs was jiggling up and down.

“Relax,” he said, putting the drinks on the table, and when she didn’t look convinced, he continued, “I just want to know what you think of this situation. What do you think happened?” He pulled his pad on his knees to open his report on the station.

“I… don’t know.” Her voice sounded oddly strangled.

“What is the matter–” He looked up from his pad just in time to see her charging at him, all muscle and fierce female strength.

His instinct fired immediately. He flung the pad aside and thrust up his arms. She crashed into him. He managed to get hold of one of her arms and deflected her direction away from him. She fell and dragged him off the couch. He rolled on top of her, and pinned her to the floor. Her chest heaved with panting breaths. There was nothing familiar in her eyes.

“Chiaru, what the hell was that about? Why did you do that?”

“I…” She shook her head. Confused. “What are you doing?” She craned her head to look at her hands, which he pressed against the floor.

“What am I doing? You looked like you were trying to kill me.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Her expression softened; she frowned. “I just… smelled nothing. No familiar scents at all. I… panicked. I don’t know…” Her eyes glittered with tears. “This place gives me the creeps.”

“Yes, me, too. Are you all right now?”

She nodded. “You smell right now.”

He let go of her and she sat up, rubbing her arms. “Can I… Can I please stay with you tonight?”

“I think we’ll all sleep in this room.” To keep an eye on each other. To keep his network strong.

He wanted to get out of here, and quick. He might have enough strength to bring his seconds back in line, but Chiaru might not be able to control hers.

Zhyara was powerless.

Xiya and the two undercover guards shook hands and handed their stakes to the racemaker, a young man who must be one of Xiya’s friends. Then they all left the Forum. At hearing that there was to be a race, all of the local ratbags crowded around the challengers, forming a wall of hot adolescent flesh, impenetrable to anyone not part of the group.

Zhyara ran after the group, furious. Why had his mother not told him that his brother had received a ticket? Zhyara could have helped his brother avoid duty–legally. Tickets were for poor Outer Circle people found loitering or otherwise having earned the displeasure of the authorities. They’d be sent to some place to work on a major project. Digging aquifers, building a sea wall to keep out the poisonous ocean water, constructing a train line across the desert, that sort of thing.

This woman was not racing to lose, and even if Xiya won, he would still lose. She wouldn’t take his ticket. She would arrest him, or hold him to the stupid bet with her colleague, or something else. It would cause him pain, literally or figuratively or both, or saddle him with insurmountable debts for the rest of his life.

That was her entire point of racing, to make an example out of him.

The procession came to the edge of the settlement. Unlike the Eighth Circle, the Outer Circle had no boundary wall or fence and slowly bled into the desert. Houses became less dense, streets petered out, mostly where the land became too rocky or steep to support the shacks.

The rumour of the impending race had preceded the contestants and a steady stream of people was already making its way zig-zagging up the side of the crater wall. Zhyara ran up, clambering through loose sand. The trail was only wide enough for one person at a time, and Zhyara had to venture into the dust and rocks to push past, which earned him raised eyebrows. Mostly men in dirty and dusty garb. Some were zeyshi, wearing their billowing shaykas without a care for who might see them. They wore fine belts, some with intricate metal work, some with more gruesome souvenirs, like teeth and talismans woven from human hair, or finger bones.

People elbowed each other, whispered in each other’s ear and pointed at him. He could almost hear their voices. Is that really Zhyara Ezmi? How dare he show his face here dressed like that?

Zhyara was too much in a hurry to allow himself to get angry at their comments. He could already hear the roaring of engines up at the crater rim; he could smell the cloying odour of the crater gas. And every time he came here, it frightened him how familiar it still felt.

He reached the crater rim, and even that felt like home. As well as the familiar path that led off to the left. And the view. He used to come up here as a young boy to get away, before he started racing. That was back in the time that Xiya had been such a pest, always arguing with Mother, never coming home when she had told him to. And then, all of a sudden, Xiya was her hero, and Zhyara, who was the oldest and had done something with his life besides illegal skim racing and gambling, was the cause of all ills in the world.

He hurried along the path. On one side, the steep curving abyss that fell away into the crater floor, invisible underneath a woolly mass of grey-purple gas. On the other side, the yellow sand of the desert bled into the pink buildings of the city. The sky was white overhead, the horizon dusty. To the left was the deep cleft of an aquifer, fenced off so that Outer Circle dwellers wouldn’t enter and steal the crops being grown there for the rich.

The city was like a multi-layered fruit. First came the Eighth Circle boundary, a stark wall higher than a house, with pointy metal spikes on top. Beyond that, the Seventh Circle boundary, a less stark presence, but still clearly visible. Beyond Fifth Circle, boundaries became less aggressive and less visible.

He could see the airport, rising from the buildings like a multi-pronged monster. The space port was in Third Circle. Third Circle was industry and commerce. The Mining Exploration Board was there, as was his apartment. A short ride in a rig, a slightly longer ride on the train, five check points, but for these people a lifetime away.

He came to the warm-up area at the crater rim, where the two rigs stood side-by-side.

The woman’s rig was, as he had expected, brand new, with a foldable canopy, now open, and beautiful seats of fresh green upholstery.

The other rig was the one that Zhyara spent many hours restoring. A low elegant shape with broad delta wings. Its surface shone silver, the open cabin upholstered in faded red fabric. Dusty and battered, but a mean machine. Familiarity hit him, heavy, unexpected. Damn it, that was his rig, in which he’d won many races. His brother had the engine panel open, checking the charge levels. Zhyara had hammered into his brother’s head, Don’t trust the gauge, it has a mind of its own.

“Xiya!”

Zhyara’s brother straightened. He raised his eyebrows. “Look who we have here.” But he wasn’t looking. His eyes were unnervingly black, devoid of any gold flecking, staring at some point in the distance, neither in obeisance nor defiance.

“Don’t race. It’s a trap,” Zhyara said.

Xiya didn’t move, but his eyes displayed an and? expression. The awkward silence stretched. Zhyara had never felt further removed from his family than this.

“They’re First Circle guards.” Look at me, damn you.

“You don’t say.”

“You actually want to race them? You’re crazy! They’ll lock you up if you lose.”

“Then I’d better not lose.”

“Xiya, please–”

Xiya laughed. “I’m going to race. I’ll win. They will eat their ticket.”

“Please, Xiya, don’t race–”

“Leave me alone, I have a race to fly.”

He turned his back.

Zhyara took a few steps across the dusty ground and hissed in his brother’s ear, “And you think that this stupid, criminal business is the only way you can have a life, huh?”

His brother’s hormonal scent hit him like a hot breeze. Blood rushed to his face. He was overwhelmingly aware how his heart thudded against his ribs. His ear registered little but the roaring of blood. He staggered back, jamming his hands in his pockets.

Xiya barely moved, although he must be aware of the effect. When had he grown up so much?

“We are skim racers,” Xiya said, with the emphasis on we.

I’m not. Not anymore.” Zhyara’s cheeks were on fire.

Xiya snorted. “Leave me alone, brother, with your superior moralising bullshit. Who are you to say what I can and can’t do? You don’t even live in the Outer Circle anymore.”

“You don’t have to live here either.” Zhyara put all his frustration in those words. “Please come with me. I’ll put in a good word with Eighth Circle instructors. I know people who work in the aircraft servicing plants. You’re smart. They’d be happy to have you. Then I’ll help you appeal to get out of your ticket. Legally.”

“You come all the way to tell me that? And you want me to live in your stuffy world, where there are rules about who I can talk to? And associations that tell me who I hang out with?”

“There are no rules. You just follow your–”

“You really don’t understand, do you?”

And Xiya still wasn’t meeting his eyes.

Zhyara, Chiaru and everyone who wasn’t on duty all slept in the same room. Chiaru slept in Zhyara’s bed, but he didn’t touch her besides letting her fall asleep against him, a warm and heavy weight.

He felt restless, and listened to the sounds of the station. From somewhere in the corner of the room came soft whispers and rustling of bedding. Someone was having fun there. He tried to repel feelings of intense jealousy. He couldn’t see who was in that corner, but he knew that all his associates had their zhaymas and he was the only one alone. He had not expected this: to be alone with the station still intact. He’d expected destruction. If not, he’d expected to have to deal with the fallout from his last visit, to be presented with a contract for Emiru’s child. Now, he lay in the dark wondering if that child had died before he had been aware of its existence. He imagined a small boy who would carry Emiru’s clan name and be unburdened by the fact that half the blood in his veins was Ezmi. His own family had never been taught the importance of loyalty networks. They didn’t understand and it was too late for them. But this baby, he’d teach him well, and he’d be successful, a well-respected member of society, free of his shameful heritage.

Staring in the dark, Zhyara gained and lost a son, letting the tears of grief stream down his face, until he was convinced that Desya was a killer and somehow at fault for what had happened.

And that was not a healthy line of thinking.

What if there were evil aliens out there? What if Desya and his remaining staff were so traumatised that they could not reform new alliances? What if they were scared not only of new aliens, but of Zhyara and his party and whatever punishment they could mete out?

He pushed himself up and left the room, carefully stepping over mattresses and legs.

In the apartment’s tiny hub, he found one of the technicians. The man quickly rose and took the subservient greeting pose. Zhyara touched his shoulder, making it all right for the man to meet his eyes. He noticed that the man had been working on the station logs.

“So, what did the logs say?” he asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. Since we were last here, there were sixty-three dockings of mining vessels. They unloaded ore and ice. They installed power satellites.”

“Any reports of alien sightings?”

“No. There was only one minor incident. A ship was put in quarantine on hold for a few days.”

“One of their own ships?”

“Yes. Station control said it was a contamination issue. They’d harvested ice and failed to follow decontamination procedures.”

“Let me have a look at that.”

The man displayed the information on the holo console.

The ship had been to the system’s asteroid ring, which occupied the habitable zone.

“I guess the asteroids show life signatures.” Any celestial body that contained water or ice almost always did.

“Microbial, yes.”

That was always the risk. If someone had told Zhyara at the start of his job, that he’d spend half his time observing procedures of quarantine, he would have laughed. These days, he would say Half? Is that all? “Do you think our killer could be microbial–no, there’d be bodies.”

“Desya would know. He might be telling stories about attacking aliens in order to hide shoddy quarantine procedures.”

“Might.”

Although the alien story was likely a lie, Zhyara wasn’t convinced. He was sure a microbial disease wiping out thousands would leave a much bigger trail, especially if only fourteen people were left to clean up the mess. With all the will in the universe, he couldn’t see fourteen people disposing of thousands of dead. But one thing about the suggestion did strike a chord with him.

“Whatever caused it the disappearances or deaths of the crew must have been random. If Desya had sent people to fight aliens, he would have sent whole associations, leaving an intact branch on-station.” Yes, that made sense. The fourteen didn’t show subservience to each other, because they had no relationships. And no new ones had been forged, because they were people thrown together by a random event, with no instincts firing between them.

So–could it be a microbial threat despite the absence of clear evidence?

He asked, “Tell me about this vessel that was refused.”

“It was just a mining craft.”

The holo display flickered and showed an open-cut image of a typical mining vessel, wide-hulled and square, with grappling arms down the sides. This ship had a crew of twelve. That seemed a little high. Twelve crew, four women, eight men. The number was wrong. If there had been a full network branch on board, there should have been seven on board, or fifteen.

“What was this vessel’s brief?”

“Gathering ice.”

“With twelve crew?”

What was more, the snapshot showed them all on the bridge, and none in the harvesting stations.

“What was the issue that caused the quarantine warning?”

“Station scans showed their water tanks to be contaminated with foreign organisms.”

He patched another scan. Clearly, bacterial life. Not in itself a reason to refuse the ship back.

“Did they order decontamination?”

“Yes.”

“And then, what happened?”

“Nothing, for two days. After that, the vessel was allowed to dock.”

“Was there any communication in those two days?” That seemed like an awfully long time for decontamination.

“No.”

“None at all?”

“Not that I can find.”

It’s been wiped, Zhyara realised with crystal clarity.

But what about the unusual crew configuration?

“Who were these people?”

“I don’t know. I could find out.”

“Please do.”

Surrounded by adolescent boys and girls who seemed to be his brother’s associates, Zhyara could do nothing. They didn’t look like normal associates, following a normal order. Several of them sported leaf-and-thorn tattoos, and everyone knew zeyshi didn’t do associations. They had this silly notion that everyone was equal, that the association instinct was some figment of the imagination. As a result, zeyshi were always brawling and had no clear long-term leaders, and Zhyara didn’t know how to appeal to any of these youths for help. Worse, they cheered; they helped unlash the rig’s teethers and shove the fuel canisters into the tubes. They liked seeing Xiya risk his life for this stupid race.

If Xiya was gone, then who would look after their mother? Zhyara had plenty of money and could apply for a bigger apartment so she could live with him, but she would never accept his help. People were allowed to live in circles higher than their qualification if they were dependents, but needed to carry permits everywhere, and were not allowed to work. That was not a solution; that would be prison to her. She never made much, and only sold a bit of embroidery at the markets, made zeyshi belts and fixed the dusty overalls of the builders and land workers from the aquifers, most of those garments already beyond repair. But her hands needed to be busy. Mother couldn’t look after herself if she got sick, or if people refused to pay, or came to extort money from her.

Xiya did that; she needed Xiya.

Zhyara scanned the onlookers for help. He saw his mother’s empty eyes in every face in the crowd. He also saw a lot of clean faces, and a lot of broad shoulders, a lot of Outer Circle people who… weren’t.

What was going on? What were they all doing here?

And here he was, in his uniform, standing out to them and to the locals.

A few rigs flew out slowly to mark the agreed race course, down into the crater where the blue murk swirled and eddied. Zhyara could almost smell the gas.

When you flew in that boundary between air and mist and engaged the landing gear, it boosted the craft’s speed. But woe betide the rigs that went too deep. The mist dragged on the wings. It made your voice go funny. A bit deeper, and you couldn’t breathe, and the engine would stall, and you would sink. No one knew how deep the crater was, but the bottom of it must be littered with dead stupid boys and their rigs. Stupid boys who had let the zeyshi criminals or murderous guards outsmart them, because few of the deaths were accidental. When the rigs left the mountaintop, all rules of flying and of civility were off.

A young boy with arms as thin as sticks and too-wide clothes beat the race gong. The thing was taller than him, and its sound made the very air vibrate.

Xiya climbed into the rig, slid in the pilot’s seat, his thin adolescent fingers on the controls of a machine that could kill him. That would kill him, if the woman in the shiny white rig had anything to do with it. At least if her rig was damaged, she had a canopy.

Zhyara wanted to scream at his brother to stop, to let him buy out his ticket. He wanted to point out the guards in the crowd, but they considered him to be loyal to them, and he was, of a sort. But he didn’t want anything to happen to his brother.

Xiya merely grinned, pulled the mask over his face and gunned the engines, hard. A cloud of pink dust billowed up.

The crowd cheered.

The youth hit the gong again, and with a roar, the rigs were off, diving into the crater.

The next morning, Zhyara felt exhausted. He would have liked to take a break, but owed it to his team to continue with the investigation and get out of the station as soon as possible.

One of the station’s nameless survivors came to collect him. He took Chiaru, and one of her seconds, and then was afraid that the station people would pick up on the fact that he’d left a relatively complete network on the ship.

But when he entered the oppressive atmosphere of the control room, it wasn’t distrust he sensed, but disorientation. All of the fourteen employees were doing things, but none of them exchanged looks or small gestures or fleeting touches that should have been common.

Desya appeared to be doing nothing. He sat in the same seat he had occupied the previous day, and still did not meet Zhyara’s eyes.

“You sit there.” He gestured at the empty command chair.

Zhyara bypassed the chair and took the seat he’d occupied yesterday. “I am not the station administrator. You need to appoint an administrator.”

Desya nodded, but Zhyara knew that it would not happen, at least not until the association had been repaired.

He continued into the silence, “We can offer you and your staff transport back to Athyl, once we have installed procedures that keep the station stable.” Leaving a station empty and unguarded would not please his superiors. “But for that to clear my boss’ approval, I’ll need to know exactly what happened. We’ve looked at the logs and can’t find any evidence of alien activity, save for one mining vessel that was held up in quarantine with alien bacteria in the water tank. The ship was help up for two days, without any communication to the station.”

“That was a technical problem. It has nothing to do with the attack.”

But Desya obviously remembered this otherwise insignificant occasion far too well.

“The problem is, we cannot find any evidence that an attack has ever happened. If you have anything, images, recordings, instrument readings, please give us access to them, so that we can help you.”

Desya nodded again, but said nothing, and none of the station crew moved.

Just what was going on here? Was he going to have to beat someone up in order to get to the truth?

Chiaru glanced aside; she would notice his aggressive scent. She made a small hand gesture. Calm down.

He sighed. “What sort of people were on board this ship?”

Surprise. “Just… workers.”

“Twelve of them?”

Desya’s eyes widened. He came very close to meeting Zhyara’s eyes, and Zhyara felt the heat of rage close to the surface. If Desya looked up, there would be a fight.

“Twelve is not a full association. A crew is three people, or seven, or fifteen, if you really need that many on a mining vessel. Twelve is not a crew.”

“We thought these people had gone to join the aliens. And then they came back, demanding access to the station.” Desya’s voice sounded strangled.

“There still is no evidence of aliens. These people were made to wait for two days. Either the communication between the station and their ship was absent, or, more likely, deleted from the logs.”

Another silence.

Zhyara repeated, “Who were the people aboard this ship?”

“As I said, just workers.” He sounded close to tears.

“Could we have a look in these workers’ dormitories?”

A slight hesitation. “Suppose. I don’t know what you expect to find there, they’re just dormitories. We’ve depressurised them, but we can pressurise one wing.”

“Please, do.”

Zhyara waited in tense silence while the crew opened the wing, and when pressure had equalised, Desya went with him.

The dormitory was dark and intensely cold. Vacuum conditions had done some interesting things with people’s possessions. A bottle of skin cream had burst and its contents snap-frozen and dried into hard globs. A bag had exploded, spilling underclothes all over the floor.

They walked past row after row of bunks.

Zhyara started at the very back, looking in each drawer and cabinet for personal possessions. In the third one, he found what he was looking for: a small marble carving with an amber stone. In the next one, he found an amber earring wrapped in a love letter. In the next one, a picture of a man with leaf and thorn tattoos. At another bunk he found a ticket taped to the wall, complete with marks for how many days the owner still had to go. He collected all these items in a pillowcase.

“What are you looking for?” Chiaru asked, her voice low.

Zhyara held the pillowcase open. She looked in; understanding hovered in her eyes.

The craft came out from nowhere and rammed into his brother’s rig. Zhyara saw it happen, and knew there was nothing he could do, not from all the way on the other side of the crater. There was an explosion of bits of metal. His brother’s rig was limping, losing speed while the First Circle woman raced on.

Zhyara cursed and pushed his brother’s astonished minders aside, then he was running, and jumped in the first rig he encountered. He ignored shouts, probably from the owner, yanked the mask over his face while gunning the engine. It roared under the floor. So familiar. He’d won so many races before he stopped racing, before he realised he was wasting his life doing something that would probably kill him.

The rig dived towards the cloud mass. He engaged the wing flaps and eased into the glide at that boundary between mist and air. The rig handled smoothly—he gathered its well-heeled owner would not be happy.

Ahead, his brother’s stricken craft was slowly sinking in the mist.

“Xiya!” Zhyara called out, his voice dark with the effects of the gas.

There was no movement in the craft.

For one heart-stopping moment, Zhyara feared his brother had fallen out, but then he spotted the slumped form in the pilot’s seat.

The idiot. He wasn’t even wearing a helmet.

Zhyara rammed the rig into hover mode, manoeuvring it as close to the familiar rig as he dared. He took the grappling iron and tossed it over the side.

It caught on the third try.

Then slowly, abandoning all pretence he was skim racing, he disengaged the flaps, gunned the flight engines and pulled the rig up.

The grappling mechanism emitted clangs and hisses. A small shudder, and the ship floated free of the station. The dockside viewscreen still showed Desya and his two nameless associates at the access tube; the outside screens showed the scratched side of the station. No real damage, just the normal weathering from micrometeorites and radiation.

A small backwards thrust and the pilot had fired the engines.

Zhyara checked the voice communication channel. The lights were off. Good. And it chilled him, too. He should not have any secrets from the people at the station. That was what loyalty networks were for.

“When you’ve engaged the autopilot, I want everyone here,” Zhyara said, from the command chair.

His people responded with assuring nods and soon gathered on the benches surrounding him. All at once, he felt at home and that thought filled him so much that emotion welled up in him. At home with his network of people who he could trust.

“Are you all right?” Chiaru asked, and her voice held concern.

“Uhm–yes. I am now. That group gives me the chills.”

“Me, too,” Chiaru said, and her zhayma Eyana squeezed her hand. The pilot, who was Chiaru’s second, put and arm on her shoulder, and the co-pilot, the pilot’s zhayma took his other hand, and so it went on, around the group, until everyone sat around Zhyara, and everyone touched one another. Zhyara held hands, touched cheeks, stroked arms, enveloped in familiar comforting scents from his people. A tear ran down Chiaru’s face. Zhyara wiped it off, but a new one formed. His vision blurred, too. He leaned on Eyana’s shoulder while holding Chiaru’s hand. Someone stroked his hair. Someone else sniffed.

This was associations were about. Not feeling ashamed. Feeling safe. He didn’t understand why anyone would reject this, but the fact was that all of his family did, and everyone in the Outer Circle did.

“All right,” he said when he sensed that everyone had calmed and relaxed. “I gave a number of you a task. Let’s hear what you have found out.”

His associates settled back into their seats, attentive expressions on their faces.

“There was no evidence of the use of any weapons against the station,” the pilot said. “I searched all the particle charge and radiation logs.”

Another reported, “The station workers were of all clans, but the mining crew were mostly Ezmi.”

Zhyara nodded; he’d suspected as much.

Chiaru eyed his empty earlobes, and shrugged. “Sorry.” She knew, of course, what clan he belonged to, but he had possibly never acknowledged it to her.

And she clearly wasn’t sure how to respond.

He wasn’t sure himself; for a long time after he left the Outer Circle, and possibly even before that time, a deep hole raged in his soul in the place where other people put their families. His family didn’t understand him, but he didn’t understand them either. He’d cringed at their chants, he’d refused to play the daini drums, he’d forgotten their stories.

And now his distant relatives were lost out there, and he had always denied them, never bothered to learn their clan chants, their lineages and their stories. And there were a lot, except none of them fitted inside what he considered respectable society. From his youth, he remembered the festive gatherings on the outskirts of the city. Rowdy songs played on homemade instruments. Robot-fighting contests. From a distance–from, say, Zhyara’s Third Circle apartment–Ezmi were eccentric, defiant, colourful. Easy to forget that they were real people. His cousins. And now ten thousand of them could be dead.

“I didn’t know the Mining Exploration Board used ticket holders to work in the stations,” she said.

He nodded; he had known. It was probably because so many new stations had been opened recently, and the Mining Exploration Board had found it hard to find workers.

He said, his voice thick, “Here is my theory: I don’t believe that anything attacked the station. I don’t believe that there were any aliens. I believe there was a disagreement and the workers left.”

“How can that be possible?” Chiaru asked. “We had all the loyalty networks in place.”

“I don’t know,” Zhyara said, and rubbed his hand over his face. “I just don’t know.” Surely, the Mining Exploration Board wouldn’t have put any of those Ezmi workers on the transport to this station if they had not yet formed associations? “It’s just that… I suspect that’s what happened. There was a fight, a break in associations, and they left.” Ezmi rejected associations. Their networks would have been weak, at best.

“I think that first a couple of them left–they were in that ship that was refused to dock. They found a place to live within this system, and they came back to collect the others. That’s where they’ve gone.” He let his shoulders slump.

“Are you… all right?” Chiaru’s voice was hesitant, scared almost.

He was their anchor and he needed to be strong to reaffirm their place in the network. “Yes, I’m just…” To him, finding the station in this state was barely better than finding it empty. The missing people included his family. They understood that; they feared how it affected him. Young men and women with amber stones in their earrings, but all of them in some way related to him.

Somewhere in a small box in his cabin he had the earrings his mother had given him, and right now, the felt an insane urge to jump up and get them.

But he sat and struggled to keep his breathing under control, to keep his face even.

In the forward viewscreen, the station was visibly shrinking in size. The engine hummed, the crew were busy at work.

The pilot asked, “Where do we look first? The vector showed that at least one ship has left outwards from the sun.”

Total change of subject.

Zhyara reviewed the information on the screen. “Do a total system scan.” Yes, he was going to find these people and bring them back.

The holo display behind the pilot’s seat cleared.

The system had seven planets. The sim shots showed him the approaches to each individual body. A diagram, then to scale, and then the planets one by one. The sim gave warnings for the innermost gas giant; the planet was very hot and had a violent magnetic field. It orbited so close to the primary that sunlight dimmed visibly when it passed in front, which it did no less than three times in each shipboard day cycle.

The second planet… was pretty much the same, minus the strong magnetic field. It had two smallish moons, rocky–the spectrum returned a high content of iron–and irregular in shape. The moons were too hot, too close to the sun to sustain the type of colony that could be plonked down in days.

The habitable zone contained only an asteroid belt, which was where the ship had been mining. Some of the larger bodies might support a small colony, rich as they were in metals.

“I think we should check those large asteroids.”

The ship’s engines increased their hum. At the back controls, the technicians engaged heat scanners and microwave receivers. There was comfort in the busy silence.

Zhyara went to his cabin and slept, alone. He was exhausted. But in his sleep, he saw Xiya’s face, and his empty expression, how his eyes had failed to meet Zhyara’s, how his scent had overwhelmed him. How his brother was unprepared for what was happening to him, and how he wasted the gift of network loyalties.

However, when he woke up, repeated beamsweep scans had turned up no signals, no engine signatures, no unexplained sources of heat, no emissions of any kind. There were some larger bodies that clung onto a tenuous atmosphere, some with a very small percentage of oxygen, but nowhere accessible. The asteroid belt was as dead as it looked.

Zhyara ordered the telescopes pointed outwards.

Three much smaller rocky planets orbited outside the habitable zone. One was rich in minerals, the other two were mainly rock and ice, but none of them had anything resembling an atmosphere. The scans were quick; they delivered nothing of interest.

Planet number six was a gas giant with a single huge moon, whose gravity constantly pulled and pushed the surface of the planet into asymmetrical shapes. One moment, the reddish bands would encircle the planet, the next moment, they would trail the moon before being sucked back into the planet. This strange dance of vast clouds of ions went on relentlessly. Zhyara had no doubt the moon was about to crash into the planet and the environment was beyond deadly for any living organism.

The seventh planet was perhaps the oddest of all. This planet, too, was a gas giant, blue-purple in colour, with a wide system of pretty rings. It had thirty-five moons, all of them either too small for a colony or too dangerously close to the rings. Many had erratic orbits. The planet described an elliptical orbit perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. And it moved backwards, spinning rapidly. More oddly, when the crew obtained a higher magnification scan, it showed that the planet wasn’t circular; it was more like a coagulating cloud.

“Does that thing even satisfy the requirements for the definition of a planet?” Chiaru asked.

“It’s… strange.” That was really all that could be said about it.

Then the pilot said, “The scan indicates life.”

Zhyara regarded the bluish misty outside of the cloud. It reminded him of the crater, and of skim racing. “If they’re anywhere, they will be on that one.”

Xiya hovered in and out of consciousness for two days.

Zhyara sat by his bed, while Mother spent most of the time crying. Occasionally he would lose his patience and snap at her. Not even in this time of distress did she call on her associates–who were they, anyway? Did she even have associates? His head hurt at the thought of being alone. Yet she and Xiya rejected him, time and time again.

Meanwhile, he knew he would have to do some talking to make up for his absence from his job. There would be questions. About what he’d done, about where he’d been. He would have to defend himself over and over again all the way down several levels of his carefully-built network. He would have to prove that while he might belong to the Ezmi clan and his family lived in the Outer Circle and didn’t have networks, he was 100% trustworthy. He sent messages to Chiaru. She spoke to his boss on his behalf. A bad accident in the family, he told her to report to his boss. He would understand better than his family might; Third Circle people had functioning family networks.

On the day Xiya regained consciousness, a group of scruffy youths filed into the house. They wore dirty clothes, missed limbs and had wounds and open festering sores. And thorn-and-leaf tattoos, plenty of those.

Zhyara sat in the corner in his Third Circle uniform pretending not to be there, but digging his nails into his palms. Did he feel ashamed of his neat clothes while his clansfolk were so poor, or did he feel angry at them for deliberately cutting themselves off from the loyalty networks in the city? They could be part of society if they wanted; they could be educated, get jobs and medicines; they chose filth, poverty and disease. For what reason?

Then another young came in and told a story of being chased by the First Circle law enforcers, but escaping into the maze of the Outer Circle.

Everyone in the room was laughing, and Zhyara could no longer contain his anger.

“That is what you get when you challenge the guards! They may not have caught you now, but they will, and then they’ll send you to a desert labour camp, or give you a ticket.” He turned to his brother, who sat, like a king, in his mother’s only comfortable chair at the table. “Why don’t you grow up, get sensible and get a proper network and find your rank in society? Then you won’t have to suffer like the people who get tickets. You can even bring something good to the miserable lives of your friends. I’ll be willing to stick out my neck for you; yes, I’m that stupid that I would do that for you, brother. Because I care for you, if only you get your shit together.”

Xiya narrowed his eyes and rose, slowly, from his chair. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

In two steps, Zhyara crossed the room, into the influence of his brother’s hormonal scent. He didn’t fight it this time. It was time to deal with it.

Mother screamed and the young men laughed.

Zhyara grabbed the front of his brother’s shirt. “Fight me, brother! Let’s have this over with.” His hands trembled. If only his brother would engage him so that they could settle where each of them fitted in the family association.

But Xiya only looked at the opposite side of the room and stood passively. Zhyara hit him in the face with all his strength. “Fight, damn it!” In all his life, this type of aggression had never failed to get a response.

But not in Xiya. He stood there, his cheek blossoming red.

Zhyara hit him again, and when his brother still did nothing, looped an arm around his brother’s neck.

Then his brother’s friends grabbed his arms and yanked Xiya from his grip.

Zhyara wrestled against their grip. “Let me go. I’ll kill him.”

But his brother’s friends kept a firm hold on him until he calmed down. A young man guided him to the other side of the room, out of his brother’s scent. He pushed Zhyara down until he sat on the floor and knelt in front, blocking his view of his brother. The man’s hair was long and loose, his skin tanned golden. He wore jewellery made of gold and silver, and had an amber gemstone set in his front teeth. He was dressed in a blue-green silk shayka and had several rows of thorn and leaf tattoos circling both arms.

“Yes, you would have killed him.” The tone in the young man’s voice sounded like that of a desert wise man.

Everyone in the room had fallen quiet. The young man smelled utterly like a leader, like his brother did, Zhyara realised. He looked down in the subservient pose.

“I love my brother,” Zhyara said, his voice choking both with anger and grief. “He’s not joining you, do you hear that. I forbid–”

“I think your brother can decide for himself.” His voice was clear and calm, and oozed authority. Zhyara fought the sense of being subservient to this man. Zeyshi for crying out loud. “I want the best for my brother.”

“The best for him is that you leave and stay out of his life.” A tanned hand entered Zhyara’s vision and pushed his chin up until his eyes met the fierce expression of the zeyshi man. “And stop this grovelling rubbish. No one owns you. Not your family, not your city bosses. Not even me.”

He let go of Zhyara’s chin, rose and spat on the ground. The wad of spit narrowly missed Zhyara’s right leg.

Zhyara left his mother’s house. Alone, he climbed onto the crater rim. He watched the blue mist swirl in the crater. A few young boys were throwing stones, as he and Xiya had often done when they were little. He cried. Later still, he slunk down to the station and caught the train back to his neat apartment in the Third Circle, back to the people he understood.

The world was a huge cloud, and from close-up, the ring system extensive. Zhyara counted twenty-seven bands in various colours. They were, inexplicably, not symmetrical, with ring material, ice mostly, accumulated more thickly in a couple of spots along the rings. The surface of the planet, if it could be called that… was an odd kind of blue-green and in the side turned away from the star, threaded through with fluorescent red auroras. The end-effect was luminescent purple.

The density was higher than one would expect for a gas planet. Much higher. But…

“It’s highly lumpy,” one of the technicians said. “There’s a circular area in the cloud mass that is very dense. The rest is much thinner.”

A bit later, another technician said, “That mass is moving.”

It was.

Zhyara replayed and replayed a recording of the dark spot. The dark mass looked like a shadow, but none of the moons were big enough to cast it, and besides, the system’s primary was on the wrong side.

Then he checked the read-outs again. The density wobbles. And he realised: the dark spot was a shadow indeed…

“I think,” he said, “…there’s something inside that cloud. Take us closer.”

So the pilot steered the craft closer. With each further measurement, it became more likely that Zhyara was right.

“It’s not really a planet. It’s a cloud of planets.”

“Rubble,” the pilot said. “It’s my guess that the planet was happily orbiting along in what’s now the asteroid belt, and a large rogue object struck it, not hard enough to fuse with it or destroy it, but hard enough to knock it out of orbit and do a lot of damage to the surface, or maybe a moon or two.”

By the time they were above the cloud tops, they knew more. There were two larger bodies inside the cloud, and a collection of smaller ones. The larger bodies were both large enough to be spheres. One consisted mainly of ice, and liquid water underneath. The second body was a rocky planet with a semi-molten core. The gassy ‘atmosphere’ enveloped them both. The cloud was probably unstable over a long period of time, but for now, it was replenished by huge outgassing cryovolcanoes on the ice planet.

“Fly into it,” Zhyara said.

“What?” the pilot turned to him, shock on his face. “I can’t do that. We don’t know what—”

“I’ll do it.” Zhyara pushed himself up.

The crew didn’t question his commands. The pilot slid out of his seat, and Zhyara took the controls, guiding the craft ever closer to the mist. The blue light shone eerily on the crew’s faces, which were wide-eyed with fear.

Once or twice, Zhyara spotted two of them talking to each other, but he knew they wouldn’t challenge him.

Still…

“You don’t need to worry,” he said. “One time, long ago, I used to be a skim racer in the crater outside Athyl.”

“For real?” the pilot said.

“For real.” Now that he had started, he wanted to tell them everything. For years he had hidden his background, never wearing his clan designation, always deflecting questions about where he came from.

But he needed his wits to fly the craft safely.

Further and further down they went.

The vision dimmed and blotted with dense cloud. The temperature of the craft’s outside rose, and rose. The extremities glowed orange. Updrafts and eddies buffeted the craft. Speed dropped.

Zhyara went through the motions. Slow down. Ease the craft onto the mist. The technician read out atmospheric measurements. Hydrogen, mostly. Something small thunked into the hull.

Several of his crew took sharp intakes of breath. Zhyara was sweating. It was like skim racing, but it was not. Yet, this was just the type of place where Ezmi people from the Outer Circle would have gone. Surely one of them would have been a skim racer.

He tried to un-cramp his hands, hoping they would hit nothing larger. The scans showed clear, but he wasn’t sure how well the results held up in this murk.

Then they were through the clouds. The mist cleared abruptly, the sky turned purple, and before them, in the feeble glow that filtered through the clouds, floated a planet and its huge white moon, orbiting each other in a tight circuit, inside the gas cloud. The moon showed as a crescent, and a huge glittering gout of gas spewed from its limb.

“Will you look at that,” the pilot muttered. “How in all the heavens is this possible?”

A few moments of stunned silence followed.

“I’m still getting heat readings on the hull,” a technician said.

“We’re in a bubble of air,” Zhyara said.

The tension was replaced by a long silence. The crew took measurements. Data readings scrolled over screens. Zhyara just observed the immense beauty of the strange world. Volcanic, rich in metals, clothed in velvet-black. There was water and breathable air, even signs of life, although how it survived in the dark was a mystery to him.

“This world couldn’t possibly be stable,” Chiaru said.

Zhyara agreed. “No, over thousands of years, it wouldn’t be.”

On the timeframe of a human life, however, it was stable. Surely this was where the workers had gone.

But scan after scan for radio or electric signals turned up negative.

Eventually, the technician shook his head. “It’s an interesting system, but there’s no one here.”

“Wait,” another technician said. “I’m getting a reading.”

A tense silence while he located the signal.

“It’s coming from outside.”

Zhyara flooded with relief. That was why they had found no one. The harvesting rigs were slow boats, and had taken much longer to reach the cloud planet.

“Let’s go to meet them.”

When Zhyara finally stepped off the train at the station in Third Circle, the day was turning golden. This was the time when the sky turned from white to deep orange and lengthening shadows grew distinct double edges, which were never as obvious at midday, when both Yaza and Beniz were overhead.

The plaza outside the station bustled with the usual busyness of people shopping and eating out and relaxing in general. There were no fights, and no beggars, and no rigs in the street, or mushroom-sellers. And no smell.

Home. And yet, it felt like something inside him had broken.

And he still didn’t understand why his brother would want to give all this up to join the zeyshi and starve in a hole in the ground. Xiya was good with engines. He was smart. The Third Circle Aircraft engineering Cooperative was always looking for good people. If he, boring, shy Zhyara, could do all the required exams to move from Eighth Circle to Third, then his brother could certainly do it. He wouldn’t even have the disadvantage of being the oldest in his classes, and if he took off his Ezmi earrings, no one would ask any questions about his origin.

He just did not understand it.

Many people had stopped work for the day, but he went to the Mining Exploration Board office, which was in the Third Circle’s vibrant commercial sector that surrounded the airport. Aircraft whizzed overhead, smaller local rigs and the occasional larger one from elsewhere on Asto, like the Beratha, or from Ceren, in-system, or other Coldi-colonised worlds.

In the huge hall of the Mining Exploration Board building, communicators sat in the glass-walled hub. A huge holographic in the centre of the room showed the locations of the Board’s stations, mostly supporting nearby planet-based colonies and their fledgling industries. Anpar lines flickered over the three-dimensional image, whenever communication took place.

Zhyara stopped briefly to watch. If only his brother could see the beauty of this, he would certainly want to come. But, without an Eighth Circle permit, Xiya wouldn’t even be allowed on the train. Why didn’t he want to try the exams?

Why, why, why?

He turned away and went into one of the cubicles that surrounded the central hub. Here, his local superior was at work. Valayu sat in her console, surrounded by images of cut-open technical drawings. She gave a brief greeting without looking up–as superior, she didn’t have to–and continued drawing on the transparent pad before her.

Zhyara took it as a sign that it was all right to sit next to her. He did and she said nothing for what seemed like a long time. The stylus tracked over the soft pad and glowed faintly where it touched the pad. Lines appeared on the holo-screen facing her, in three-dimensional projection. The soft glow lit her face.

“I’m sorry for being absent,” he said after a long silence.

‘It’s all right. It will be sorted out, one way or another.”

He wanted to say, Like how? but anything he said might bring his brother in danger. He wasn’t sure how much Chiaru had told her about his family, although most of it, she could probably guess.

He studied the hollow curved tube with supportive struts that she was drawing. Realisation clicked. “I didn’t know we were planning a new station.”

“At Beynazha. Has to be operational within a year.” Click, click, click went the stylus and a series of doors sprang into being.

Beynazha was where Zhyara had found the previous destroyed station. Memories of empty, airless passages sent a chill over his back. The station walls had peeled open like a fruit, all air and inhabitants sucked into the void.

“Is that wise? We don’t know yet why the station was destroyed, and now we have another station failing to report.”

“We must go on. We won’t give in to this alien menace. Now if we could get the personnel side sorted out…”

“Is there a problem?”

Click, click, click. Another wall with doors appeared. “Not my department, but yes, there is. We distributed tickets, but it appears that a young and charismatic zeyshi leader is convincing the Outer Circle residents that fleeing to the zeyshi is a better option.”

“That sounds… unwise.” Zhyara didn’t know what he was saying; his heart beat so furiously. Xiya had received a ticket. Both he and the young man who had told him off at his mother’s house had the strong hormonal scents of leaders. Xiya, who knew places to hide. What if his brother had already joined the zeyshi?

“Unwise, as you say. The only thing fleeing to the zeyshi will achieve is bringing forward the time of the next raid.”

Zhyara’s first thought was, No, Xiya! Raids meant huge numbers of troops coming into the Outer Circle and desert to weed out, gas, poison and destroy the zeyshi warrens, ostensibly to ‘clean up’ the Outer Circle. Raids meant bodies lined up in the street for all to see. Raids meant young men and women herded and taken away to jails and labour camps. His second thought was Of course, that’s why there were so many guards watching the race.

Zhyara and his crew found the source of the signal: an asteroid mining vessel, the hull battered and scratched, as these ships often tended to be. It was moving on a steady in-system pace, but on a vector directed out of the system, not aimed at the cloud planet. As with a ship that would not want to be seen, it projected no broadbeam signals, just the steady blip of the beacon, which couldn’t be turned off. Where did these people think they were going?

The pilot’s simple hail returned nothing but the most basic handshake command, nothing that required active pilot input. When they came close enough for a visual scan, it turned out that the ship’s lights were off. Worse, there was not much in the way of a heat signature.

Zhyara and his team suited up for vacuum. He chose to bring Chiaru and one of her immediate seconds. They opened the air lock and pilot matched speeds exactly with the mining vessel. As team leader, Zhyara went first. He unlocked his tether and jumped through open space to the miner’s emergency hatch.

This was why a leader needed reliable staff. He could only do these tricks of bravado because there was a tight team behind him, people bound to him through hormonal instinct, people he would trust with his life.

The emergency hatch’s outside control was dead, the lights dark and the panel unresponsive. He banged on the hatch, dread rising in him. By the time the rest of his team had arrived, there had been no reply from inside the ship, so Chiaru attached her power module to the control panel to force the door open.

This was the point at which the ship’s air lock should appear as a brightly-lit cubicle in the darkness of space. But when the hatch opened, it was dark inside.

“The ship’s dead,” Chiaru said, voicing what everyone already knew.

A victim of alien attacks? Zhyara had seen no damage to the hull.

They cycled through the air lock, the three of them crammed into the tiny cubicle.

As soon as the inner door opened, the environment scans on Zhyara’s suit blinked warnings. Low oxygen, high methane, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide. Cabin pressure higher than normal. And it was damn dark in here. The glow from Zhyara’s helmet light formed a beam of illuminated fine material—dust or haze he couldn’t tell. His analyser indicated that organic content was high. There was no one on the vessel’s bridge, and no one in the flight crew rooms. Zhayra floated from one compartment to another, finding nothing out of place, nothing that indicated what had happened or where the crew were hiding—

“Zhyara, please, come here!” Chiaru’s voice in his helmet comm had an oddly strangled quality to it.

In a moment of panic, Zhyara saw images of her being attacked by her technician in the way she had attacked him the day before yesterday. How dumb, he should have warned his team about this; he should have told them what happened.

Heart thudding, Zhyara pulled himself to the rear of the vessel, to the cargo hold, where the beam of his helmet light cut through a haze of thickening air. He grabbed the opposite door frame and shone his light in.

Chiaru was at the entrance of the cargo hold, her technician just inside the room. His first thought was one of relief that neither of them had attacked the other, but then he realised what the dark floating shapes in the room were.

Bodies floated in the cavernous space, most without suits, their skin and clothes horribly burned and blackened. Faces unrecognisable with black decay. Hands and feet bloated, skin split open. Foul globs of fluid floated in the air.

“How many?” Zhyara asked, feeling sick. As he turned to Chiaru, he noticed that her suit was coated with brown gunk.

“More than four hundred.”

“A flying sarcophagus,” Zhyara said, holding a hand over his faceplate of his helmet and imagined an unpleasant smell creeping into his mask, even though the suit was airtight and that was impossible. “This ship can’t carry this many passengers.” Overcrowding? Had they fled the station? Had they picked up refugees from another ship? He couldn’t see how they’d cram this many live people aboard a ship this size. And that gave him an awful thought. “How long have they been dead?”

“The ship log says the ship has been cold for more than fifteen days.”

Zhyara did a quick calculation. “That means…”

Chiaru completed, “They were killed inside the station.”

Third Circle was where Zhyara belonged. He had known that the moment he stepped off the train and smelled the faint scent of ozone that always hung around the airport. Now, on his way home, he saw it in the faces of the people, many of whom he knew. He could feel the power of the loyalty networks, and knew that it was right. The sight of the elegant building that held his apartment made his heart beat faster.

He almost ran across the street, and jiggled his hands in his pockets while the lift took him up to the top floor.

He went out onto the gallery, where the view over the city hit him more forcefully than usual. In the distance, behind the pronged landing platforms of the airport, he could see the white spires of the Inner Circle palaces. There was the seat of the Coordinator, to who all networks came back. Seveyu Palayi watched over all her little workers like a matron. She sat at her command post, enhanced with all technology to keep up with the demands of all het loyalty networks. Zhyara had three: his station network, his Mining Board network and his network of friends. Most people also had a family network. The Coordinator had hundreds. She was at the top of the Army, of the local government, of the wellbeing of her citizens, of the education, the guards. Every one of those networks would ask her for advice, and she would answer and delegate, often to more than one person at the same time, using three feeders at the same time to keep in contact with everyone. All her networks inter-linked and because of this, she stopped arguments before they had a chance to fracture society.

He had seen her in the flesh once, a woman not so much older than he was, carefully selected by the tests to be able to withstand the demands of so many networks. She had fought her rivals–fought and killed, as those at the very top often did, and every time Zhyara heard her name, he felt the need to look down and take the subservient pose. Ever since he came to Third Circle, it had been a comfort to him to know that someone at the top was in control and would decide to do what was best for the people.

And now he wondered how it could be that such a kind system was so badly failing a group of people he cared about.

When he opened the door to the apartment, there were fast footsteps in the hall and the next thing, Menya closed him in his arms.

Zhyara hugged his social zhyama back, and for a long time, neither of them said anything; they just breathed each other’s familiar scent. Then Zhyara went to change out of his uniform–the desert stains would need to be washed out–and returned to the living room in just a pair of shorts, where Menya had poured drinks. They sat on the couch facing the window, staring at the view.

“There was trouble,” Menya said. It was not a question.

“Xiya,” Zhyara said, and that was enough of a reply. Menya knew everything about Zhyara’s family. After a silence he added, “It’s worse than usual. I’m afraid he’s about to join the zeyshi, and there is going to be another raid.”

Menya tightened his grip on Zhyara’s hand.

Zhyara faced him. Menya’s earrings glittered in the golden light reflecting off the buildings of the city. Earrings with red stones.

“I love my family,” Zhyara said, his voice choking. “I just don’t know what I can do to help them.”

No longer just to help them overcome poverty, but to help them survive.

“And I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’m afraid that the raid will happen before I come back. Xiya has received a ticket, and he’ll be one of the ones sent to Beynazha station for sure… only to be killed by whatever is out there killing them. I’m out of ideas. Please help me.”

Menya said nothing. From previous discussions with him, Zhyara knew that people who had grown up inside the city, with proper networks, didn’t feel any responsibility towards those of the Outer Circle or the zeyshi. According to them, the Outer Circle people were never told that they could not do the Eighth Circle exams. In fact, the opposite was true. Industries always needed reliable workers. Organisations like the Mining Exploration Board paid for teachers in Eighth Circle. Many of them were even free. A steady stream of people, like Zhyara, did take the opportunity they offered. The ones who didn’t… well, it was their choice, wasn’t it?

But like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. Menya understood that. And if Zhyara had brought a tiny bit of understanding into an elite family like Menya’s, he felt he had achieved something.

Menya said, “You could, of course, warn them that a raid is about to happen.”

“I can’t go back. They’d kill me.”

“No, but I can.”

Zhyara met Menya’s dark eyes, the irises with tiny flecks of bronze, matching his earrings. He felt overwhelmed with emotion. He knew why he had a zhayma and why Menya did everything for him, and he would do everything for Menya. “I wouldn’t want you to put yourself in any danger.”

Menya shrugged. “There is no danger. I’m going to Eight Circle to pick up my rig from the workshop. I believe you know the man Vashya who runs the place. He’s talkative, and I might casually drop something about raids.”

Zhyara strode into the station’s control room at a pace just short of running. The few workers looked up, must have understood why he was here, tried to get up, but acted too slow.

Zhyara was already at Desya’s chair.

“Hey, what—” Desya’s eyes widened.

He grabbed Desya by the elbow and hissed in his ear, “What happened? Either you tell me the truth or we fight. In either case, I get to know.”

His fingers dug into thin flesh and twisted Desya to face him. Chiaru and Eyana had their weapons out in no time, but Desya didn’t resist. He hung limp in Zhyara’s grip.

“What is going on? There are thousands of bodies out there. You killed the workers and stowed their bodies into the cargo vessels and hoped we wouldn’t find them. You lied about attackers. There were never any attackers.”

“We had no choice! There was no one who could give us assistance. The workers had already killed everyone in the middle command. They had no ties of loyalty to anyone and there was no other way we could restore order—ow—I’m telling you the truth.”

But Zhyara heard nothing. “Those people were from my clan.” He dragged Desya from his chair by his collar. A few of the station workers rushed forward, but his seconds had their weapons out. There were flashes when weapons fired.

“They were people with families, people with lovers and brothers and sisters.” With every word, he lifted Desya up and slammed him into the control panel.

“Stop it, stop!” Someone, Chiaru he thought, pulled him back, leaving Desya on top of the panel, where lights flashed their protest. His nose was bleeding.

“You’ll kill him, and then we have no one to bring to court.”

Zhyara struggled through the red haze of hormonal anger. He took a long time to calm down. Desya’s breath rasped in the tense silence. A scent of ozone hung in the air, from discharged guns.

With great effort, Zhyara got control of his voice. “I’m guessing the trouble started when some of the Ezmi would not follow station orders?”

Desya nodded.

“I’m guessing that there was a breakdown of the loyalty chains within the station. A section of the population was never ready to conform to orders, most of those of the Ezmi clan.”

“They were useless zeyshi.”

Zhyara slapped him. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Desya wiped his cheek, but for once, his look was defiant. “They have no loyalty networks. Oh yes, some of them said that they did, but they were lying.”

Zhyara heard the voice of a charismatic zeyshi leader, Yes, you would have killed him. And he understood.

The zeyshi and many in the Outer Circle had no loyalty networks.

They had no need for them.

No need for leaders who took the job for life.

No need to fight to establish rank.

Zhyara took a deep breath and continued in a low voice, “They did not disobey because they don’t want to fit in, but because they can’t. Their instincts do not fire the way ours do; they are born that way and it seems that the Ezmi clan is heavily burdened with these people. Our instincts are programmed to see them as enemies. I know. I am Ezmi. I am not one of the instinct-deprived people, but once I almost killed my brother, who is.”

Why had no one realised that before?

He dissociated himself from the command hub, and everyone gathered there, and let his people deal with Desya. Anger and grief raged inside him. He should have seen this before, when it had stared him in the face.

He went to stand at the hub, staring at the three-dimensional display of the strange solar system.

They would have to take the remaining station workers to Athyl under arrest. He would have to put the station in sleep mode. Power down auxiliary processes, depressurise everything except the docks. The technicians would already have installed routines that would fire the station’s jets whenever it threatened to lose orbit. In time, there would be a new crew, and new workers… They were likely to be more ticket holders who only pretended to have loyalty networks, and the whole damn thing would start all over again.

It was wrong.

He looked over his shoulder.

Chiaru and Eyana were taking the station survivors’ details and arranging for them to be taken to the ship. It became more and more quiet in the command room.

Zhyara made the only decision that felt right to make.

Surrounded by silence, Zhyara called the station maintenance routine on the screen and turned off the orbit maintenance routines. Then he turned off the station’s beacon. With an unstable orbit like this, the station would have crashed into the sun by the time the Mining Board found it again. Then he focused on the cloud planet, and called up the coordinates. He wrote them on the waxy paper that held the dead worker’s ticket. At some time in the future, an astronomer might be interested in this strange planet.

Then he rose, and made his way to the ship where Desya and the others had been confined to cabins with whomever they were least likely to kill.

Chiaru and everyone else sat around the pilot and it was a while before Zhyara realised that something was off.

“Anything going on?” Zhyara asked, still feeling dazed.

The pilot frowned. “Listen to this.” He took off his earpiece and turned up the volume on the communication channel. It was a constantly repeating message. To all approaching ships. Parts of Third Circle airport are compromised. Do not use the western side of the airport, from prongs 3-576 ranging to 4-875. Doing so is likely to land you in rebel hands. Repeat…

Zhyara stared at the pilot, feeling stupid. “Rebels? Who are they?”

“It seemed that First Circle ordered a raid on the zeyshi, but they were prepared and set an ambush. They took the guards’ vehicles and flew into the city, and occupied a number of platforms.”

And just who had notified the zeyshi of the impending raid? He grew cold. “Show me.”

He slid behind the control and scanned through the news headlines.

Emergency situation.

Airport authority demands army action.

We cannot indiscriminately charge against our own people, administrator says.

…the young charismatic leader has struck a chord with many of the disenfranchised in the poorer parts of the city…

They are poor by their own choice, administrator says.

Zhyara raised his hand to cover his mouth. No, Xiya. When he had asked Menya to warn the zeyshi he’d merely wanted to save his brother’s life. He hadn’t thought he would start a rebellion.

By the time Zhyara and his group returned to Athyl, the occupation of the airport had developed into a siege, with part of the airport still functioning, busy and cramped, and another part sectioned off, as if it no longer existed. No one spoke about it, not even Zhyara’s boss to whom he delivered the traumatised station workers.

The Mining Exploration Board was in damage control mode, with outrage from the Outer Circle about the lost lives, and on top of that, Zhiminda station no longer sent in its automated beeps.

“We’ll lose the station,” Valayu said, seated in her console with the design of the new station in front.

Zhyara nodded. Yes, they would lose the station. A fitting end for a place where so many had died.

“Maybe we need to reconsider how we recruit staff for these projects,” he said, his voice measured and careful. “I wouldn’t mind working with some medical people to determine the pathology of this… defect of large parts of my clanspeople.”

She gave him a sharp look, and then her expression softened, as if she realised that his family would be affected. She sighed. “Yes.” And a while later again, “Yes.”

“Meanwhile, what is First Circle going to do about the zeyshi occupation?”

“What they usually do: they’ll ignore the issue until the occupiers decide to leave.” Did he detect some anger? She continued, “It’s a disgrace, and reflects poorly on the guards, but no one can talk to these people. There are no networks. And evicting them forcefully will make many other people angry. So they just wait until the zeyshi get hungry and leave of their own accord. It’s still a disgrace, and will not reflect well on them either. The next raid will be faster, and more vicious.”

That was right. Fighting someone was easy if there were no loyalty ties. But neither the zeyshi nor the Outer Circle was completely free of those ties, were they? There had to be hundreds of people like him, cut away from their families by this genetic flaw. Those people would not agree that there were no loyalty ties. The ties were one way, from Zhyara and others to their families, but they were present. And therefore, First Circle guards could not attack them where they were highly visible, but would have no qualms about attacking them in the desert where there were no witnesses.

He realised that Valayu was looking at him, probably expecting a further recommendation, or maybe a miracle solution. There wasn’t going to be one.

He shrugged. He’d better go back to Menya. A good cry, a bath and some action in the bedroom would make him feel better.

But wouldn’t help Xiya holed up at the airport.

Or his mother worried about her favourite son.

Or Vashya, whose business would be under strain if it became known that the warning had come through him.

As Zhyara rose from his chair, something crinkled in his pocket.

And he had an idea.

As soon as he left the building, he sent a message to Menya that he’d be a little while longer, and went to the airport.

Up on the third floor, he found the passage that led to platforms 3-566 to 3-600 barred by a couple of First Circle guards.

“Can’t go through here, Sir,” one man said after observing the proper greetings.

“I’ve been authorised to speak to the rebels.” When the guard raised his eyebrows, he added, “Xiya Ezmi is my brother.”

The guard’s face showed pity, but he let Zhyara through and he walked into the deserted corridor until he came to a closed gate, from where he could see the zeyshi camped out on the platform.

City people would see these young people as dirty, disgusting beggars, but to him, the figures in dust-stained shaykas with loose hair were familiar. He spotted a couple of familiar faces.

They sat in the shadow of a couple of larger troop-carrying craft that would belong to the First Circle guards. Craft with closed cabins that would be capable of reaching the anpar point. The zeyshi would have flown those craft here. Good.

Several of them, including Xiya, would be half-decent pilots. He wasn’t sure if they were up to the challenge he was going to give them, but he had to try.

He took the waxed paper from his pocket. He had nothing heavy to weigh it down except his timer. It was fairly new and had cost him a bundle–damn it–but it would be worth his brother’s freedom. He wrapped the paper around the device, and then yelled, “Oy!”

Several of the rebels looked in his direction.

He flung his missile over the fence. It bounced several times on the concrete. A young man ambled over to pick it up. He unfolded the paper, and then went to show it to his mates.

While Zhyara walked away, he retrieved his earrings from his front pocket and put them in. He went home, to his bath and Menya’s comforting arms.

They ate and drank and slept until late.

When Zhyara rose the next morning, he was not surprised to hear that the zeyshi had gone overnight, and had taken the First Circle ships.

No one knew where they had gone.

___
Copyright 2013 Patty Jansen

Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her story “This Peaceful State of War” placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. She has also sold fiction to genre magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Redstone SF and Aurealis. Her novels (available at ebook venues) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (middle grade SF), Charlotte’s Army (military SF), and Fire & Ice, Dust & Rain and Blood & Tears (Icefire Trilogy) (dark fantasy). Her novel Ambassador will be published by Ticonderoga Publication in 2013. Patty is a member of SFWA, and the cooperative that makes up Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and she has also written non-fiction. Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at: http://pattyjansen.com/

by Christopher Reynaga

This story is dedicated to Chuck Palahniuk, who helped me unlace the sutures in the skin to find the dark heart of it.

This is not about stitching a straight line through cloth like a seamstress. Not about the tight suture of a surgeon closing a wound. This is an art. This is about interweaving patterns of the fold and musk. An intricate lacework of innocence. Each tailor creates his own signature stitch unlike any other.

“Hand me the needle, girl,” said Papa. He took the curved steel from me, wetting the silvered thread through his lips to make it lie flat in the eye. “Now, hold her leg apart for me.”

He already had her other thigh parted with one callused hand and gripped the needle delicately with the other. The steel glinted under the oil lamps. My elbow wrapped around the girl’s knee and held the leg against me firmly. She was sixteen, a bit older and stouter than I, but I knew how to brace against her so she wouldn’t kick out in fear and rip the stitches. My other hand took her damp fingers. She looked at me, eyes wide and glistening. Her mouth squeezed shut, trying to be brave. Her family’s womenfolk surrounded her, the gelded aunts and sisters. Her mother wiped a damp rag across her forehead. The women stood in the back, singing the chants of celebration and maidenhood.

“It’s alright,” I said to her, pressing her hand against the upturned hem of her calico dress. The folks of Leedsville had pitched in, bought her such a pretty dress — cornflower blue with a bit of lace. “My papa’s the best tailor there is,” I said. “He’ll make you safe.”

The girl looked at me hard when I said it, and Papa’s eyes paused on me, needle poised just over her vulva.

“You’re no danger, Anna,” the mother said to her daughter, “You’re going to be a woman. You’re a woman and you’re not going to hurt anyone ever.”

The girl choked back a sob. “Please Mama, I don’t want to kill. Sew me up… Do it.” Tears ran as her mother squeezed her hand, hushed at her.

Do it!” she screamed at Papa.

Papa slipped the sharp steel through her vaginal lips and began to sew shut her womb. Her body jerked as the silver thread tugged through. I had that leg locked against me good, but something in her sobs shook me until I looked away from her face. Papa ran his thumb down her labia as he worked, wiping the blood away. He was a very good tailor.

When you sew shut a virgin-mother’s womb you use a polished, steel, taper-cut needle with a fishbone curve. The eye is threaded with silvered silk that holds a bend yet moves like butter.

A blacksmith’s son once told me what his father’s trade was like. I tried to imagine my hands forging the crude, silver rings. Piercing the blunt edge through the foreskin of a boy’s penis and sealing it tight. Tucking it around the scrotum and driving the metal through the hanging tendon until it was bound like a snake eating its own tail.

I reckon blacksmithing has its own grace and artistry, like tailoring, but both trades serve the same purpose. They keep the virgin-bound safe and all other folks from dying of their curse. The original sin of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Life. The curse the chapel priests say would strike if a virgin-mother and virgin-father had sex the way that animals do. A wrathful curse that kills everyone and swallows towns whole, leaving nothing but vast, haunted woods in their wake.

Woods like these.

Papa walked the edge of the path ahead, reaching his hand to brush a mossy trunk. My feet stayed in the center of the road, well away from the dark tangle of branches. Papa never was scared of the trees the way most folk were. As a tailor it was as much his job as a wood-cutter’s to keep the dark heart of the forest at bay. I trailed behind, slower than I’d usually walk in such a cursed place. I was in no hurry to get where we were going.

I saw the tumbledown walls of houses ahead in the trees. A splintered gray signpost tilted under the roots grown around it. Lexington. The root-tangled trunk that bound the sign was shaped like a woman, as if the tree had burst up and swallowed her. There was no face in the head-like burl, but the perfect grey lips of a hollow stretched in a surprised “O”, collecting the shimmer of dark rainwater.

“Papa?” I asked, stepping up next to him.

“What is it girl?” He shifted his gray felt hat to keep the dapple of sun out of his eye.

“I… don’t want to go to Portsmouth to see Tom.”

Papa’s face hardened and he started walking ahead, “I’m not arguing Elana. Jed Wayland’s son is a good man, from a good family of blacksmiths.”

“He’s only fourteen and I hardly know him,” I said, catching up.

“He’s a man of sixteen, and bound as a virgin father. His brothers have already left to take up their trades, and Tom’s ready to marry. Most firstborn girls your age are already sewn and married.”

“I don’t like him. He’s… he’s burnt across his face and can’t see out of one eye.”

“The boy knocked over a forge, Elana. It’s not his fault, any more than its your fault that you are what you are.” He stopped by a black oak with the vague shape of a woman gripping a misshapen burl as if it were a child. “You think this is easy, trying to find you a match when we have to pretend you’re gelded? Most towns we travel through would drive us out if they knew you were my firstborn. They’d look at you and see walking death. I can’t help that there’s no town or kin left to guard you. Sacramento is dead and gone, taken just like this place,” he said waving his hand at the trees.
“I don’t want to be…”

I swallowed. “I’m scared Papa.” The fear burned the inside of my belly. I glanced quickly at the dark silhouettes in the trees.

Papa’s face softened. “Look, this…” he looked around at the dark woods, “none of this is ever going to happen to you. It’s not a curse to be firstborn, Elana. It’s a blessing. You should have been raised in a town with all the honors and protection that a family gives to its virgin-mothers. We may have lost that home to the woods, but you still have the chance to marry out of this life of tailoring and hard roads. The road killed your mama, Elena, and I will not let it kill you.”

“Mama,” I whispered to myself. I reached up and touched her pendant on my neck, fingers tracing the way papa had etched her face into the wood with his needles. I could remember the stories he told of the way she would charm horses and pick their hooves and sing. Sometimes I could almost remember the sound of her voice, though her face was lost to me beyond this bit of wood. I felt the ache in my belly return, and the fear that chased it.

“You said Mama liked the freedom of the road,” I said.

“She thought she would,” said Papa, “but it was harder than she’d been raised to expect. She passed on that first hard winter, God bless her.” Papa looked away. I could hear the quake in his voice. “I never should have dragged you across the West Union territories like this,” he said at the trees, and then looked back at me. “But we do what we must to survive, and you must marry, Elana.”

“I just — Tom, he’s not the one, Papa.” The words caught in my throat. “Just give me one more season helping you with the needles and the girls. There’s time to find the right man — I haven’t had the change yet,” I tried to hide the quake in my own voice.

“No,” he said, and his voice carried the weight of a mountain. “It was easier to hide your secret when you were young, but you are growing up fast. You’re almost sixteen and your fertility is coming. I know it came late in your mama, but I won’t wait anymore — it’s dangerous.”

We passed a tangle of trunks like people clinging together. I put my hand on my belly and cringed. Papa pressed my head against him.

“If you come into your fertility on the road,” said Papa, “we’d be lucky to get you gelded before you were driven off to die. Not even Tom’s kin would have you if you were far enough along. The best you could hope for would be my own gelded fate. I don’t want you to become a tailor, Elana. Girls and their mothers screaming at you. Cold looks whenever you pass through town. Blacksmiths have it bad I’d wager, but no one likes knowing that you drew steel needles through their daughters. The world needs tailors and no one wants to live with us. It’s a hard life.”

Don’t leave me behind. My lips formed it, but I gave it no breath. I wanted to tell him a tailor’s life was all I’d known. That I liked the feeling of a needle in my hand far better than the feeling inside my belly. I wanted to tell him I would be gelded and stay. But I knew what things to push with him and which to leave be.

We passed the center of town. The shells of houses caved from the weight of limbs. The chapel’s roof was broken outward from the branches of a massive black maple twisted up with the curtain roots of a strangler fig. A tangle of faces had sprouted from the bark.

My eyes looked to a little tree below it in the town square, a smooth white birch. The milk-white body stretched slender and perfect with the eyeless face of a young girl. Her arms lifted into branches as if in prayer. Her smile was ecstasy. I shivered and looked away.
We walked past a well overflowing with roots to where the road south should have been. One of the great old trees had fallen, crushing a few others. It blocked the road with a tumble of dying branches taller than our heads, leaving a great blue hole for the sun.

“Can we go around it, Papa?” I said, searching for a break in the thicket.

“Stay to the road, Elana,” said Papa, putting down his carpet bag and testing a trunk with his foot. “These trees won’t hurt us, but there are things out in that underbrush that might. Now, you hand up that bag when I’m ready.” I held the bags in my hands, but I stopped short of touching the pale bark, wrinkled like dead skin.

He stepped up on two branches and glanced back. “You don’t need to be afraid of them, Elana,” said Papa. “The curse has gone from them. They’re just trees that drop seeds like any other now.” He leaned against the wide trunk at the top, trying to see a foothold over.

“I think,” he said as he put his foot out. His other foot thrust downward suddenly with the crack of a branch breaking. He gave a sharp cry as he dragged his bleeding leg up. He gripped his ankle.

“Papa!” I shouted. I dropped the bags and clambered up the branches. “Are you alright?”

Breath escaped his teeth. He nodded and looked at the deadfall above him like it was some dog that had turned on him. He glanced back at the long way we’d come through the woods.

“Let’s go back to Leedsville, Papa. We can’t stay here.”

“There is a town…” he said, “not far east of the river from here. Applington. We can make it by nightfall if we hurry.”

“I ain’t heard of it Papa. The Eastland’s not our route.”

“You wouldn’t have. I don’t much like it, but there’s a road back down to Portsmouth from there.”

My heart weighed when he said it, but it was a few more days between us and Portsmouth to bide my time. His arm went round my shoulder and we hobbled past the tree-filled chapel until a weathered trail opened up, barely more than a path in the forest’s green light.

A tailor’s stitch needs a flex against the skin that never loses pattern. The stitch must allow for the flow of urine out, and when it’s time for children, allow the straw head of the surgeon’s seeding rod in. It doesn’t take much of a man’s seed to do it. Just the smallest green drop.

Green, like the sap that comes from a virgin-mother when she becomes fertile. The green of grass and heartwood. The color of life. The stitch anticipates this change, allows for its constant flow. It guides the sap through to the pads of cloth that a virgin-mother wears always, except for those times she’s pregnant with child.

When I go down to the streams to wash the blood from the linen bandages we use when we sew the girls, I wash the small green spots from my own.

Papa limped drag-step by the time we passed the clear-cut fields of weathered tree stumps and entered the apple orchard on the edge of town. Smoke painted the twilight, and I saw the flickering of some bonfire on the southern edge of the village. Voices cried out in the distance and I could hear a concertina and a fiddle over the laughter. Two boys leapt around the corner of the slump-roof barn, chasing each other. The smaller one slowed to look at us. He had a fat frog impaled on a stick, and its long hind legs twitched as he ran.

My head pressed against Papa’s shoulder and I moved forward, but he shushed me with a finger over my mouth and pointed his head off to the right.

“Up through that way,” he said, nodding between the barn and the shadow of the tall, dark chapel. He stopped me with a fierce grip when we stepped off the road and pressed his mouth to my ear.
“Listen and listen well. We’re leaving as soon as I get my foot bound up. Don’t you leave my side and don’t talk to anyone. The ways are different in the east, Elana. They don’t suffer firstborn strangers. If they found out you weren’t gelded, they wouldn’t drive you from town — they’d kill you.”

I stood, stunned, until he nudged me forward. We shuffled around the barn until we came to a tall white house on the edge of the orchard. A weathered surgeon’s pole curled its red and white ribbon up one of the front porch pillars. My feet balanced up the steps until my hand could slip away from his back and rap hesitantly on the front door.

It opened quite suddenly to a lit candle-stick and a man’s stout, balding head.

“What is it? I’m closed,” he said. He glanced back and forth at the both of us. “Who are you?”

He brought the candle closer to Papa. “Joshua?” he asked. Papa looked away.

He held the candle on me for a moment and stared as Papa sagged against me.

“Who is it?” called a woman’s voice from the hall. A head craned past the balding man’s shoulder, tangled black hair in a bonnet. Her eyes blinked when she saw me.

The man held the candle away from our faces. “No one. Go back to your room, Wendy,” said the man. “Now,” he snapped when she didn’t move. Her footsteps hurried down the hall with a creak of wood. The man stepped back and said in a low voice, “You’d better come in.”

We stepped through the threshold to a set of rolling doors, and into a dark surgery with tall windows. The cracked stone washbasin beneath them was chipped smooth on one corner. The man held the candle to the basin’s oil lamps and turned up the wicks until the room glowed. A black iron swivel chair craned in the center, surrounded by cabinets and wooden benches.

I dropped the carpet bags and swung Papa into the chair. It swiveled toward the man, who had draped a surgeon’s apron around his neck and rolled up his shirtsleeves.

“What happened?” he asked Papa.

“He hurt his foot crossing the woods,” I said. The surgeon considered me carefully as he picked up a bandage from a crooked stack and dipped it in the basin. He cranked up the chair’s leg-rest, and peeled back the torn trouser.

“Now, what were you doing in Lexington Wood?” he asked, looking at Papa’s leg, but somehow I felt the words come at me.

Papa coughed, cleared his throat. “Traveling my way to Portsmouth. The roadway south is blocked. Deadfall.”

“Lot of dead ends in the woods,” said the surgeon as he moved the ankle around slowly. “The trees are treacherous. We’ve been clearing eastward, burning the wood at the quarter-festivals. Someday it will all be gone.” He smiled. “Wouldn’t that be something to see Lexington with children running in the streets again?” He seemed to cast his gaze out the window, but I felt his eyes in the reflection as he squeezed blood from the cloth. “Pity it’s a crossroads to the west. Some say Lexington fell because it was tainted by those loose West Union ways,” said the surgeon as he squeezed the wound. Papa winced and looked away.

“Is he alright?” my voice creaked out, my feet stepping forward.

“Your daddy will be fine, girl,” the surgeon said. “It’s a bad sprain, but I doubt the bone’s broken. I’ll bind it up with a poultice. He’ll be able to walk on it fully in a day or two.” He turned and dug his hands into a jar of yellowed herbs on the cabinet shelf.

“I can pay,” I said. I dug through the bags until I pulled out a few fat bundles of red bills.

“Unionist dollars,” the man said, raising an eyebrow. “We don’t take those here, girl. They’re hardly worth blowing your nose on, even in the west. If you don’t have coin then you’re going to have to trade something.”

“I got some good venison jerky,” said Papa, “or smokehouse almonds. I have a spyglass with a good fire-making lens.”

“I think you’ve got something more valuable to trade here, Joshua,” said the man as he glanced at me. “This town would appreciate the services of a good tailor. We’ve got two fine girls of age this quarter festival. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to cut out their wombs if a tailor didn’t pass through by quarter next.”

Papa nodded slowly as the man wet the poultice and smeared it on his skin. “There is that,” Papa said.

“Step into the other room child,” said the surgeon without meeting my eye, “Your daddy and I have things to discuss.”

I felt my face go warm and I drew in a slow breath. Papa looked reluctant. “Go on, girl,” he said.

I walked into the hall and drew shut the sliding doors. Some dim spill of light came from another door down the hall and I could see the red floral pattern of the hall rug.

Papa’s voice echoed through the wood with the quick, hushed tones of the surgeon. I turned my head, ear drifting closer to the crack trying to make out the words. I was focused so hard on the sound that I almost cracked my head against the door when I saw the woman staring at me from down the hall.

The sliding doors next to me rattled open. I stumbled back, the surgeon’s face close to mine. He stepped after me and slid the door firmly shut behind him. The candle in his hand was the only light in the dark hallway. The woman was gone.

“What’s your name, girl?”

“Elana.”

“I am Mister Greely.” He looked at me as if he was expecting me to curtsy. I nodded.

“Your daddy has agreed to stay on a few days and lace up our virgins. He is still a practicing tailor, is he not?”

“Yes sir, best in the West Union. I’m his apprentice daughter.”

“You uh,” he licked his lips, “you have had your womb branches cut and tied by a surgeon?”

“Of course,” I said, face reddening. “A summer back, in Georgetown.”

He gazed at me a moment. “Shame about Georgetown,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said.

“The news only reached us a fortnight ago,” Mr. Greely, said reluctantly, “Georgetown was taken by the woods. Killed every man, woman and child. There’s nothing now but a forest sprung up over it as wide as a county.”

I blinked.

“West Union or not,” said Mr. Greely, “damn to hell the whores that ended that place.” He shook his head.

“How do you know my papa?” I asked slowly.

“How do I know your papa,” he repeated, his eyes trailing up my chest before continuing up to my lips and eyes. “You look just like your mama. She was a fine woman.”

“Did you know… Did they pass through here?”

Mr. Greely sniffed his nose. “Your mama, Daphne, was from right here in Applington. Your daddy was from Lexington. Least he used to be.”

My mouth felt too dry to form words, but I said “I’m sorry sir, my momma and papa were from a big town called Sacramento, far in the west.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” he said.

“It was taken by the woods a long time back.”

“Is that so? Where is your mama, girl?”

I looked away, “She died on the road when I was young.”

“Elana!” called papa’s voice.

Mr. Greely paused, his mouth wide like he’d been about to ask something. He reached back and slid the door open partway. “Your daddy’s going to rest in the chair tonight,” he said. “There’s a room for you across the hall here, next to mine.”

I could feel Papa’s eyes on me even though I didn’t look. “I’d rather rest in the room with my papa if it’s all the same to you, sir. To take care of him.”

Mr. Greely’s eyes ran down my belly to my feet.

“Suit yourself,” he said.

Every tailor creates a signature stitch unlike any other. Papa’s stitch is like arched branches, holding back the wind. My stitch is a series of lacy, interlocking hearts. I used to practice it in secret on the edges of raw steak, my fingers slick with blood and fat.

When I knew I would follow my Papa’s trade, I pulled out the simple cat’s cradle of little-girl stitch from my own body, and took to practicing my tailor’s stitch on myself. I’ve completed and pulled it out countless times, working in furtive moments. It feels good to bind the fear in my belly away with a thousand little stitches. I never let myself think that doing this was lying to Papa, or that Papa would ever lie to me.

The sharp points of stars glimmered in the tall windows. I stared restlessly at them until my vision began to go white and I saw points of black on the insides of my eyelids when I blinked. Papa snored in the chair, hat over his face. I pushed off the carpet bags and wrapped my hands around my feet. Mama’s pendent dropped from where I’d held it gently in my lips, and it dangled against my neck. I tasted the musk of its wood.

Your mama, Daphne, was from here in Applington.

The sharp creak of wood from somewhere in the hall startled me. I looked to Papa. He snorted but his breath stayed slow and even.

I stood up and crept to the sliding door. It was open just a fingers-breadth and the wheels squeaked as I pushed it open farther. Shadows filled the hall, but the red trellis of rug wound its flowers toward a light at the end. A doorway held the glow of a lamp on a kitchen basin. The other doors in the hall were firmly shut, save the one I’d seen the woman looking from. It was open, dark. I glanced back at Papa and stepped into the hall. My toes felt the rough weave of the rug through the holes in my stockings.

I tried not to breathe as I stepped by Greely’s door. I let my breath out when I was past, but the floor creaked under me as if the sound had escaped with my exhale. A chair scraped in the kitchen and the shadow on the wall stood up.

“Who’s there?” came the harsh whisper of a woman’s voice.

The woman stood by a table, knife in hand. The crimson rind of an apple curled off her plate. Her shoulders hunched like I’d caught her at something shameful. Her other arm came up to touch her face, and I realized the slender stump of it had no hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, almost stepping back.

“You shouldn’t be back here,” she said. Then she looked closer, lowering the knife. “You look just like her,” she said.

“Look like who?”

“Daphne. She’s your mama isn’t she?” she said. “I’m Wendy –Wendy Greely. Is your mama with you, down the hall?”

I tucked the pendant back into my shirt. “No, she’s… passed.”

The woman flinched and looked to the side. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just hoped when I saw you. I mean, your daddy showing up suddenly after all this time. Most folks around here thought she and Joshua were dead after they run off fifteen years back.”

“Why did they run?” I said, stepping into the kitchen.

“Didn’t your daddy tell you?

“I’m starting to think Papa never told me anything at all.” I gripped the back of one of the chairs.

Wendy looked at me. “I think maybe you should go. If Harlan comes home from the bonfire and sees me talking to you, he ain’t going to be happy.

“Tell me about my mama,” I whispered as I sat down at the table. “Please.”

After a moment she nodded. “Would you like some?” she said, pointing the knife at the apple. She pressed her stump into the dimple at the stem and sliced off the rest of the red skin.

“What happened to your hand?” I asked.

She hid the stump in the folds of her skirt. “Penance. I touched a boy’s thing. Y’ain’t supposed to do that.”

She brought the knife up again, sliced the apple in half. She put down the knife and picked up the white meat, bit into it.

“Daphne was a bit older than me,” she said. “We wasn’t the closest friends, you know, not like her and Harlan and Sarah Turnbuckle, but we all spent a lot of time together. Daphne was arranged to marry Joe Underhill, the preacher’s firstborn son from Lexington. She put up such a fight with her daddy. Had no idea why. He was a boy of good standing. It made the other suitors come right out of the woodwork, it did. No one expected your daddy.”

“He asked for her hand in marriage?” I said, picking up the wedge of apple.

“Hardly. Your daddy was secondborn, and a tailor’s apprentice at that.”

The apple slipped from my hand leaving a wet stain on the table’s edge as it skittered onto the floor. I reached for it but I ended up staring at my own shaking fingers. Wendy gazed at the lamp, eyes far away.

“Joshua was supposed to help his daddy stitch Daphne up for her wedding day,” said Wendy. “Instead he up and runs off with her. What a scandal. He was my age — just about to get gelded like me. She was in love with him, though. I brought her my daddy’s brass seeding rod from his surgery kit when she asked. Told her she was a fool to do it…” she trailed off. Blinked, looked at me.

“You’re her firstborn daughter, ain’t you?”

“No, no,” I said, “I’m just a tailor’s apprentice now. I’m gelded.”

“It’s ok,” Wendy said with a grin, “I know how to keep secrets. I remember when you were just a dot. Your mama bore you right in that surgery chair in the other room. She and your papa snuck back into town for that. Nobody knows about that but Harlan and me. I think you were the first baby Harlan ever done deliver. He didn’t let me or your daddy watch but I heard you cry through that door crack.”

“He helped my folks?”

“Course he did. They ran off from their kin into a world of trouble. Who else were they going to turn to?”

“What happened to my mama’s kin?”

“Well… Some of them lived in Lexington, and the rest, they were all there the night that… Well that the woods ate everything. That’s how Harlan tells it.”

I sat back in the chair, eyes on the glow of the oil lamp.

“Harlan, Mr. Greely, he’s your husband?”

“No,” her laugh a nervous bray. “Harlan’s my brother, he’s firstborn but he ain’t married no one yet, so he took up daddy’s trade when he died. I’m secondborn, gelded but I ain’t an apprentice like you. I just keep the house. Help out in the surgery room where I can. But you… you’re Daphne’s firstborn, ain’t you?”

I nodded.

“Must be frightening, being a virgin-mother with no town or kin to protect you.”

I felt a chill pass through me, and she must have seen it. She reached out her good hand and laid it over mine. “Only woman I ever met that wasn’t scared of nothing was your mama, so don’t you worry either.”

I heard a door slam open and she stood suddenly.

“Wendy?” Mr. Greely’s voice echoed down the hall. I heard the front door close.

Wendy’s jaw worked, but nothing came out. She picked up the knife and waved me back toward the wall next to the doorsill.

“I’m getting a bite to eat, Harlan,” she called. His heavy footsteps came down the rug. She pressed me up against the wall by the doorsill with her stump, and stepped into the doorway.

“What are you doing out of bed?” His voice slurred just outside the sill. I could smell the corn whisky from his breath.

“Hush, Harlan, you got guests, remember?”

There was silence, a long sniff.

“You stay away from them, you hear? Just a tailor passing through. He’ll do his work and be gone come festival end.”

“Yes, Harlan.”

I heard footsteps move away, the creak of the hall floor.

“Not a word about them to anyone, you hear?”

“Yes, Harlan.”

The click of a door swinging shut.

“You,” said Wendy, looking down the hall.”Back to your daddy. Don’t come out. Not till you’re done with your work and heading far away from this place.”

I looked down at her hand with the knife. Her fingers were gripped white on the handle.

She took up the lamp and left the knife in the basin. I traced her footsteps down the hall past Mr. Greely’s room. She gazed at me as she turned down the wick to nothing. I turned in the dark doorway and couldn’t tell if I had seen the glint of Papa’s eyes, watching from the chair.

The heart of every stitch is the heartstring — the thread that, when cut, causes the pattern to effortlessly slip aside for birthing. The whole stitch must slip wide when the baby’s head is ready to crown or it can strangle the child. A tangle in the pattern can tear out the stitches, letting the mother bleed to death. The pattern must be able to draw back together like a boot-lace the moment midwives lay the leafy green placenta into a hot iron skillet.

I’ve helped Papa rethread the heartstrings of virgin-mothers. It’s simple work, whether the stitch is another tailor’s or your own. Sometimes I dream I’m threading a woman’s heartstring and when I look up from my bloody fingers, her face is the one on my mama’s pendant. These dreams always comfort me.

The nightmare is when the face is my own.

My fingers threaded the needle, licking on a bit of spit to make it lay flat on the eye. I placed it with the others on the fold of cloth, and laid out the spools of silvered thread, the linens, and kettle of steaming water. Papa was quiet the way he’d been since he returned. Nothing more than orders and grunts.

I had awoken late morning to find him gone. I could hear the bass of his voice from a closed door down the hall, mixing with Greely’s drawling baritone. The sun had crawled past noon before papa returned with a bowl of fried chicken.

Papa didn’t meet my eyes as we ate in silence. He’d spent his time staring at the empty surgeon’s chair. There was a knock and Mr. Greely ushered in the first of the girls before I’d finished my last drumstick.

This girl had to be younger than me by a year. She lay in the iron chair, her fingers playing nervously with her bonnet string. The hem of her red velvet dress fanned up below her chin, and she had to stop herself from folding it down as she watched Papa wash his hands again and again in the stone basin. The room felt naked without the familiar group of womenfolk gathered round to chant and hold her hands. I didn’t know if Mr. Greely had arranged to keep the womenfolk away from Papa, or if this was just the way they did things in the east.

“Mr. Greely has left us some ether to use on the girls, to keep them calm,” said Papa as if the girl wasn’t laying right there, eyes nervous. Next to the bottles of alcohol and penicillin, a wadded rag lay tucked against the ether. On the table before it, Mr. Greely had laid out a white cloth with a line of gleaming scalpels.
“Remember child, a little ether goes a long way,” said Papa. He folded his sleeves back to the elbow.

“What are the knives for Papa?”

“Don’t you worry about them,” said Papa. “Easterners, they often cut… the girls before they sew them. I won’t do such things. You just tend to that ether. No more than a few drops now.”

“Yes, Papa.” I uncorked the bottle and turned toward the sink. I poured a big palm sized splash of ether onto the cloth and spread it around with my thumb.

The girl flinched as I pressed the cloth over her mouth and nose. She glanced between me and Papa sorting his needles. Within a breath, her eyes went unfocused and rolled slowly back into their lids. The room was very quiet.

“Papa?” I asked as I handed him the first needle.

“Yes, girl?” he said flexing the girl’s flesh carefully with his fingers to pucker the folds of skin just right. He didn’t even need to hold her leg.

“Did you and Mama birth me in Sacramento, or… after you escaped from it?” I said.

His eyes glanced sharply between the girl and me. “Elana Anne, this is no subject to be speaking on,” he said, his tone final.

“She can’t hear us talking Papa.” My hand lifted the cloth from the girl’s mouth, showing the smooth, slack face.

“That don’t matter. These aren’t questions to be asking a father.”

“I ain’t got no mama to ask these things to, Papa. You’re having me marry Tom Wayland in less than a fortnight. You’ve showed me how to sew a virgin-mother, but there are things about birth and the curse that Mama would have taught me by now.”

He sighed, suddenly small and weary. “We bore you on the road, but your mama and I conceived you the way that all parents do. With a jar of water and a brass seeding rod.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not if it’s done right.”

“What if it’s done wrong?”

Papa kept working, his fingers nimble.

The girl moaned. I checked her eye with my thumb and draped the cloth back over her mouth.

“I reckon I should have told you the birds and the bees by now,” said Papa, drawing the threads taught. “I’m sorry I’ve kept so much from you.”

I nodded.

“Imagine,” said Papa, “that you are a woman whose fertility has come. Your womb is like a little tree Elana. A little girl tree with two branches, heavy with fruit. Every seed a man puts inside will try to find one of those fruit. Every seed. Inseminate a woman with a drop of a man’s green seed diluted in a pint of water and you may bear a child, or two or three. Give a woman much more, and she becomes something unlike herself. The little tree inside starts to grow and take shape. There’s something in us Elana, something that can’t be put to sleep once it’s woken.”

“What does it have to do with the curse, Papa?”

“I don’t know that it rightly is a curse, Elana. The chapel hymns will tell you so. Your mama used to say that the Tree of Life was supposed to grant life eternal. That there was something holy about the trees if we could just find it. I loved your mama, but I can’t say I believed her way either. The trees don’t burst out of the ground at God’s call to punish people nor to grant them eternal life.”

“They don’t?” I whispered.

“No,” said Papa. His eyes grew distant. His fingers laced without looking, making the pattern distort.

“The people are the trees, Elana. The trees burst from inside of them. It spreads like wildfire the moment they’re caught by the branches and roots of those others that have been touched. Their skin splits and the roots rush everywhere. The sound of it is terrible.”

My back touched the lip of the stone basin as I shrank back from his words.

“How would you know what it sounds like unless you watched it happen, Papa?” I said, staring into his eyes. “You didn’t come from Sacramento. You and Mama saw it happen right here, didn’t you? In Lexington.”

Papa stared at me, stunned. He stood still, trapped with a taught thread in each hand. “Where did you even… Shut your mouth, girl.”

“No.”

“You will mind me.” he said.

“You can’t make me. You can’t even make me marry Tom. You and mama ran away from that fate yourself.”

“You have no right no right to be talking to me this way!”

“You gave me this right,” I screamed, “when you lied to me about everything!”

His slap stung my face. My head turned round slowly, lips shuddering. The needles swung back and forth on their threads below Rebecca’s bleeding labia. All of the tension in the thread had gone out.

I stumbled back toward the doors and ran.

“Elana,” Papa cried as I shoved through the sliding doors and out the front door. It slammed open so hard it bounced closed again.

I ran past the barn and through the apple trees, ran toward the main road and the sounds of music, the distant smell of wood smoke.

I slowed and stopped amidst the dark boughs, my back against the far side of a gnarled trunk. The tears came. The ache of it wracked me from head to belly. I crouched and gripped the little pendant at my neck till the cord bit my skin.

“What are you doing out here in the trees, girl?” a voice said by my ear. My breath leapt from my mouth. Mr. Greely came round the far side of the tree supported by his hand.

“Leave me alone,” I said.

“Aren’t you supposed to be helping your daddy with the debutantes?”

“No,” I croaked and stepped back from the tree.

“Where you going?” He said, stepping forward. A half smile played on his lips.

“I have to get back to my Papa.”

He gave a guttural sigh and leaned against the trunk, nodding as if this were some great revelation.

“You picked a fight with him didn’t you?” he beamed. “Don’t deny it. I can see it on your face.”

“No,” I said.

He laughed, “I thought you would. Now what did you fight about?”

I edged toward the road and the distant sound of laughter.

“Oh,” he said, not moving. “You asked about your mama, didn’t you?”

My feet stopped.

“Did he tell you where your mama is?” he said, voice growing earnest. “Tell me, girl. Tell me what happened to her.” His eyes searched my face.

“I don’t know,” I said in a fierce whisper.

His eyes burned into mine for second, but then he laughed, settled his whole weight back against the tree. I caught that faint sharpness of whisky over the mold of fallen apples.

“Did he tell you that he was supposed to stitch up your mama and that he stole away with her instead?”

“No,” I whispered. His smile grew wider.

“Did he tell you they came sneaking back one night when her belly was like a cow, begging me with nowhere else to turn? She was half starved and I was sure those babies in her had to be dead. You and your little brothers and sisters–all still-born except for you. Your daddy ruined her, made her an outcast. And I was the one that pulled those dead babies from her and told her I’d take care of her and bury her secrets. I told her if she begged to the town elders, I’d say that your daddy took her against her will. I told her I’d love her and make her an honest woman. And she said yes.” He pounded his fist on the trunk.

“No, she’d never…” I whispered.

“Oh she did,” he said, pushing himself off the tree slowly. “And you know what she told me when I pulled you out of the womb, live and wriggling?”

I could only shake my head.

“She told me to give you over and she damned me to hell for tempting her. So I reached down and ripped out that whore’s stitches. Told her she’d never survive the bleeding if she didn’t stay. I would have killed you then if your daddy hadn’t burst in. He didn’t know why she was screaming and clutching at you, but for all the blood and those dead babies on the floor. He promised to drag you both off and never return. But I knew she’d crawl back to me if she wanted to live a good life. So I let her go. And the next day, Lexington was gone. Just gone. And she’s gone.” A tear rolled down his quivering lip.

His hand grasped my elbow and yanked me forward. My knees skinned against tree roots, and I shrieked. He pressed himself against me. “You may be no virgin-mother like her, but you’re a lying whore just the same.”

I screamed into the sweaty cloth of his shirt as my skin dragged down the bark. His weight stabbed the wooden pendant into my skin and I choked under his hand and his corn-liquor breath.

His fingers tore at his belt and my skirts until I felt the crude, metal rings in his skin press against me. He fumbled at them, trying to twist the metal as I kicked him. Rings are forged to hold, but somehow he worked them loose quickly until his hardness slapped against my thigh. The barbed jag of the open metal hoop tore my skin as he slid against my stitches and failed to thrust inside. He was blurting my mother’s name over and over, and there was a gush of warmth from his seed. I felt it splash across my aching thighs.

“Crap,” he said, in a small voice.

I choked against his fat palm, feeling the terror in my belly as his seed dripped down the outside of my stitch, burning my skin like a rash. I froze, afraid to move even as the anger grew past fear and my teeth bit at his hand till he yanked it away.

“You bastard!” yelled a voice that I first thought was mine. Wendy was slapping at Greely, hitting him on the head. “Get off of her!” she yelled. “You can’t make her touch you the way you made me. Don’t you know what she is? She’s a virgin!”

I yelled and fought to push him off, no longer hearing Wendy’s shouting, just kicking and wrestling. His face changed from angry to empty to terrified. His hands came back, wrapped around my throat, choked off my scream.

Something rose through my terror and fury, something like a distant voice. It called my name with the urgency of a mother. I felt the deep well of power in my belly as I thrashed and choked and the sky went black. Mama’s voice was with me as I was dying, whispering my name, and the sound of what I could become.

I reached for that inner fire as his fingers crushed the last breath from my throat. My fingers scratched down his side until they slipped between us and gripped my aching stitches. I found the heartstring and ripped it. My fingers twitched in the dying light, then thrust the failed wetness of his seed inside of me.

The pain left instantly. The shadows became such a beautiful color I had never known. Blackgreen. My body filled with strength and wildfire, pushing him up.

He clutched at me and began to yell. Tried to get off and couldn’t. He just kept slipping and shuddering as the black veins burst from my belly and burrowed into his flesh.

As he threw himself back, his penis ripped free of his crotch. The little thing dangled in the roots that grew between my thighs, draped like a weed caught in driftwood. Wendy started screaming. Mr. Greely fell over and made no sound.

I wanted to hold this hatred, but it’s hard when the world is so beautiful. The sound inside my head was the verdant chorus of a thousand leaves. I basked in the shafts of sunset light, each caressing me like a kiss. The woman’s screams clashed against the song, so I put a hand out to stop her. The vines of my fingers burst through her mouth. Her body writhed as my flesh rooted into hers, joining her into our growing song. She fell on top of him, already wracked with his own becoming.

Mama’s voice was in me, I could hear her song clearly from the wooden pendant against my skin and know that Papa had carved it from her own wood. In a language without words the voice welcomed me home.

Another voice, just as familiar as Mama’s, called out through the orchard. It rose against the music of the distant bonfire.

“Elana! Elana where are you?” Papa called and the sound of his voice felt like the color of summer rain. He limped around the trunk of the apple tree.

My many tendrils wrapped around Papa.

“Papa,” I cried, as he yelled and struggled. “What happened to Momma?”

“No,” he cried, “No… Not like this.”

“Tell me what happened to her.” The budding limb of my arm reached out and touched him, brushed his hair softly.

He broke into a sob and the words came out in a rush. “She was bleeding to death. We tried to go back to our kin in Lexington, but they beat her and locked us up. They were going to kill us. Kill you.”

The tendrils cradled him as he whispered the words. “She wanted us to cause the wood together, to live forever where we could always be with you. I pulled… myself out of her when she stopped breathing. I thought she was dead. I broke right out of that room and ran with you. When I heard the sound of the trees tearing through the town behind us, I knew she must have still….”

“It’s ok, Papa, Mama’s here with us, and it’s so beautiful,” I whispered, feeling the quickening inside. The song surged beyond all control, a joyful goodbye to all anger and lies. To all cruelty and shame. To all stitches and rings.

I stretched in all directions, tunneling through wall and stone, wood and flames, men, women and screaming children.

“No. Please,” he whispered as I brought him home.

____
Copyright 2013 Christopher Reynaga

Christopher Reynaga is a first place winner for the 2012 Writers of the Future, recipient of the Bazzanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. He has stories appearing in such venues as Cemetery Dance, The Book of Cthulhu 2, Boys of Summer and Expanded Horizons. You can follow him into the dark heart of the woods at @ChrstphrReynaga and www.ChristopherReynaga.com

by A.J. Barr

Prologue: Preconceptions

“What’s taking them so long?” Maggie said, not even trying to be quiet.

George hissed at her. “Pipe down. It’s the Government. They have to be thorough.”

“Thorough!” She sucked in air.

George bumped her with his shoulder, flicking a glance at the door.

Maggie didn’t even notice. “What are they doing to Jackie in there? Are they hurting him? He must be frightened half to death! I wouldn’t put it past them–”

“What I wouldn’t put past them,” George whispered, barely moving his lips, “is putting a camera right”–He glanced at the clock above the door–“there. They could be evaluating us right now.”

“So?” said Maggie. “If they want mothers to put up with useless bureaucratic nonsense, I’m in trouble. What does this have to do with raising children?”

“Child Proactive Services treats every family the same,” George said. “They can’t just look at you and say, ‘Fine, you pass.’ They have rules; procedures. Tests we all have to take. It’s for the children. All children. Just think about the future, honey. This is for the best.”

Maggie glared at the poster that hung on the wall by the door. “Parenthood is a Privilege,” she read aloud in a sarcastic singsong. “CPS Cares.” She squinted. “And what you just said, in fine print. Verbatim.”

George flushed. “Not everyone is fit to be a parent,” he said.

“I am,” Maggie said firmly. “How long has it been?”

“Almost an hour,” George said.

“Fifty-seven minutes,” Maggie said. “I’ll tell you one thing. If this goes our way…It’s Day 16. I just might be ovulating right now. You’d better be ready.”

It sounded like a threat. George managed the expected response: “Always.” His voice wasn’t as steady as he’d hoped.

The door swung open. Maggie jumped. George bit his tongue.

The social worker led Jackie out of the examining room. As soon as he saw Maggie, he pulled free and ran to her as fast as his short legs would go.

“He certainly seems well cared for,” the social worker said. “And well adjusted.”

Maggie dropped to her knees. Jackie leaped into her arms.

A man in a white coat strolled in. “Good news, I take it?” he asked.

“I’m recommending a full parent license, Doctor,” the social worker said crisply.

Maggie made a sound. It was the happiest sob George had ever heard.

“When…” She cleared her throat. “When can I have my tubes opened?”

“Right now, if you like,” the doctor said. “If you’ll just step through here…”

Maggie looked up at George, her arms still tight around Jackie. George was dizzy; he wanted to laugh like a loon.

“You better be ready,” she whispered. This time it was a promise.

“Soon as they’re done,” George said. “Right here on the waiting-room floor.”

Maggie laughed, while the tears rolled down her face.

Jackie licked them off, wagging his tail.

Act I: Point and Click

“Did you do your homework?” asked Mom.

“Yes,” I said, glancing at the shotgun. “I downloaded Chekhov, and I thought about it.”

“That’s it?” Mom said.

“That’s it,” I said. “All of Chekhov.”

“Lucky you,” said Mom. “When I was your age, you had to read it, and write an essay. Life is so easy now. Point, click, think. Did you do enough thinking?”

“I did a lot of thinking,” I said. The shotgun was a double-barreled twelve-gauge pump-action Remington. The kind what would do a lot more than shoot your eye out. “I’m still thinking about it.”

“You must be hungry from all this thinking. Eat some herring,” said Grandma. “You like herring.”

The shotgun was propped on the mantel over the blocked-up fireplace, against the only wall without a wallscreen. The one other thing on that wall was an old digital frame with a single pixelated picture in it: a much younger Mom, a young and bashful Dad, and my little furry brother Jackie.

Jackie loved herring.

“No thanks,” I said to Grandma. “It smells funny.”

“You could go to Florida,” said Grandpa. “Why don’t you go to Florida? Used to take hours to go to Florida. Now you just point and click. If you knew what a fascinating woman I met in Florida!”

The shotgun was Grandpa’s. It had always been there. Nobody ever touched it or talked about it or acted as if it meant anything. It was just there.

“It isn’t really Florida,” said Grandma. “There isn’t any Florida any more. It all blew away.”

“Or you could go to a brothel,” said Grandpa. “Why don’t you go to a brothel? In my day it used to be a big deal. You wouldn’t believe what some people used to say about brothels. Now…”

“Just point and click,” I said. If I stood up and walked across the room, I could take the shotgun off the wall.

“Right,” said Grandpa. “Click–brothel. Click–Florida. If you knew what a fascinating woman I met in a brothel in Florida!”

“It’s all virtual,” I said. “No one goes anywhere any more.”

“Yes we do,” said Grandma. “I went to get a haircut. You need a haircut, too. Go get a haircut.”

“Go to the brothel first,” said Grandpa.

Grandma raised an eyebrow.

“On second thought,” said Grandpa. “Yes. Haircut. First, you need a haircut.”

“I just want to be alone,” I said.

Mom looked as if I’d said I wanted to open a brothel in our front parlor. “Don’t say that!”

“Why not?” I asked. I knew where the shells were. Grandpa kept them under his and Grandma’s bed. I could see it from the couch.

“We can’t afford another room,” Mom said. “I don’t know of anyone who can afford to be alone. Or anyone who isn’t an only child. Not since…”

“I was alone sometimes,” said Grandpa. “Back in the day.”

“Not since I’ve known you,” said Grandma sharply.

“I was,” said Grandpa. “Alone. Once or twice. Back in the day. Now… So many good things that we didn’t have, back in the day.”

Mom’s face shut down. When she did that, Grandma said she was crying inside. I didn’t see it, myself. That part of her died when Dad and Jackie did.

A lot of things died along about that time. Gone with the wind, so to speak. And twenty-four inches of rain in six hours.

Grandma sighed. Grandpa shifted in his seat. The shotgun stayed on the wall.

I stayed on the couch. Getting up wouldn’t change anything.

“You are right,” said Grandma. “The herring is going bad. Let’s finish it.”

Act II: Perception

“Another awkward silence,” I said.

I stared at the wallscreen. It was off. It didn’t matter. I still saw the rubble. And the faces: Mom, Grandma, Grandpa.

I couldn’t picture them buried in dust and grit and crumbled plaster. The couch, the dresser full of tchotchkes from the old country. Grandpa’s shotgun.

All gone. All fall down.

It was, literally, unimaginable. I kept reaching for the phone to call them. I got to the contact list once, before I shut it off. Sheila didn’t stop me.

That was hours ago. I didn’t know how many. I’d stopped counting.

“Not awkward,” Sheila said, responding to words I’d already forgotten I’d said, “and not really silence. We’re having a conversation. We weren’t this morning, but now we are.”

“Huh?” I said.

“Huh, what? This morning you were saying, ‘I couldn’t stand it at home any more but I don’t want to be here either, it’s all so crowded, everything’s so crowded, all those people crammed into all those tiny little boxes, why can’t everybody just leave me alone–‘”

“I was not!” I said.

“You were,” she said. “In your head, you were. So I left you alone. I flipped the wallscreen to news and Mother and I watched it, and you watched it too, but it wasn’t like we were watching it together because you weren’t up for any together. And then…when we saw…”

Sheila wasn’t the kind of girl who cried. But her voice sounded a little tight.

Mine was just fine. Not feeling anything. Just sort of existing. “Your mother must be in shock,” I said. “How long has she been in the bathroom? Should we be worried?”

“She’s perfectly all right,” Sheila said. “She’s giving us some privacy.”

“Why?” I said.

“Well,” said Sheila. “So we can have a conversation. You know, the one where you go, ‘This isn’t happening,’ and I go, ‘Good, then it isn’t hurting you,’ and you go, ‘I gotta get home,’ and I go, ‘Yeah,’ and you go, ‘I don’t have a home,’ and I go, ‘Yes you do, if you want one.'”

Sheila could make you dizzy, the way she got everything figured out and put it all out there and there it was. It was true, too. That was the thing about Sheila. Sheila knew things.

“I can’t stay here,” I said. “This place is barely big enough for one. What about your mother?”

“If she didn’t want you here, she wouldn’t still be in the bathroom.”

“People don’t just move in like this. I mean, it’s great that we hooked up online, and thank you for inviting me to visit, but–”

“Earthquakes don’t just hit Baltimore,” Sheila said. “Families don’t just get wiped out. Lots of things that don’t just happen, happen.”

Gray blank wallscreen. Gray blank mind. Nothing just happened. Nothing ever does.

“I don’t know if I miss them,” I said. “Or if I ever loved them.”

“Would you want it to be yesterday again?”

“Yes,” I said. “No. I don’t know.”

“I’ll go with ‘Yes,'” Sheila said. “That’s what you said without thinking.”

“Just like that,” I said. “You really want me to stay? It won’t be…uncomfortable?”

“Yes, we do, and no, it won’t,” she said. “We’ve an inflatable bed. Wash dishes tonight, and you’ll make both of us very happy.”

I felt the slow heat moving up along my skin. It was a weird feeling, but right, somehow. It reminded me I was alive. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll jump you in the middle of the night?”

“Aren’t you?” she shot back. “Girls have fantasies, too. There’s just one thing. Mother can’t sleep with lights on. She needs total darkness.”

“So?” I said.

“Try not to jump her by mistake.”

Act III: Deadman Switch

I was good at this. Scary good.

Sheila said I was in denial. “It beats being angry,” I said.

“Oh, you’re angry,” she said. “Staying up all night staring at drone feeds from the other side of the world, taking it out on those little blips on the wallscreen. Playing your war game that’s as real as shrinking land masses and rising seas and earthquakes that take out supposedly stable areas–except no area is stable anywhere any more. Racking up kill points as if they were just, you know, points. What’s that over there, in sector 6? An ambulance?”

“A delivery van,” I said. After a month and a half of roommates-with-benefits, I was so used to the way her mind worked, I didn’t even have to stop and fit the connections together. I zeroed in on the van and hit the zoom. “I’ve been tracking it all day. It hasn’t been near a hospital once. It’s made a lot of stops, picked up a lot of boxes.”

“It looks like an ambulance to me,” she said. “Don’t they use the blue Star of David in Israel, instead of the red cross?”

She was right. The back of my neck prickled.

Ambulances don’t drive around picking up and delivering boxes. “IEDs,” I said. “Got to be.”

“IEDs didn’t take out Baltimore,” she said.

Some days I wondered why I didn’t hate her. It must be love was all I could figure. Sheila, plain and tall–she called herself that. I called her Sheila who was perfect the way she was.

She leaned on my shoulder, pointing toward the next sector on the satellite view. “What’s that?”

“That’s old news,” I said. “Qassam site–old-fashioned steel rockets. I found it last week, called it in, got it wiped before it fired. Earned me a cool thousand kill points and a commendation from Israeli High Command.”

She huffed lightly. Her eyes had wandered back to the other sector. “Where’s your ambulance going? Is that a hospital?”

It wasn’t my ambulance, but it would stand to reason that it would end up at a hospital.

With a load of boxes that might be IEDs?

OK, I was good. Sheila didn’t even try, and she was better. I yelped and hit the alarm code.

Ten thousand points, that got me. My total score tied the all-time WikiWar record. Twelve hundred lives saved in the hospital alone. And six positive terrorhadist IDs.

“You’re right,” I said to Sheila. “I am spending too much time on the web. It’s time to get real.”

The headset crackled.

“How you doing?” said Ari’s voice.

“OK,” I answered. I was alive and awake. The deadman switch Ari’d hooked up to the throttle stopped the Teaspoon every time I fell asleep at the wheel. Which must have been more than a few, or he wouldn’t be calling.

“Want anything?” Ari said. “Coffee?”

“No coffee,” I said. I was running out of diapers. “How am I doing?”

“If you keep this up, thirty more hours.”

Thirty more hours. Ninety more rems. Give or take. Things start getting serious over two hundred rems. Give or take.

“You sure you want to do this?” Ari had asked, a lifetime ago. Or two days ago, depending.

“You got a choice?” I asked.

“We don’t. You do. I can’t order you to do the work of twenty people. Or take the exposure of twenty people, either,” Ari said.

“You don’t have twenty people,” I said. “You have me. And the sea is rising. It’s do or die.”

“It’s do and die here,” Ari said. “But usually we do first.”

“Nineteen Teaspoon operators just died.” I nodded toward the pile of radioactive rubble. “Didn’t get a chance to do anything first.”

I’d volunteered to drive for all of Yom Kippur; that’s six shifts. I was supposed to get the next week off. The sea wall would be finished by the end of it. It had to be; the sea would not wait.

All the other Teaspoon drivers were in the dormitory when the truck bomb hit. Story of my life: People in. People out. Rubble every time.

“You could die, too,” said Ari. “Radiation sickness–”

I shrugged. “Do and die, right? I’ll just have to work fast.”

“Fast,” he said. “Yes. Very fast.”

To the north, coastal cliffs stretched all the way past Tel Aviv, making the sea wall unnecessary there. The hills stretching from the coast to the Judean mountains would stop the water from flooding the heartland. If I stopped work now, only three cities would sink beneath the sea.

The headset crackled again.

“You are making good time,” said Ari.

“Anything new on the bombers?” I asked.

I heard Ari sigh; I almost heard him shrug. “Not yet. But whoever it is–”

“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” I said. “If they’re Arab, why would they want to drown Gaza? And if they’re Israeli, why inundate Ashdod and Ashqelon?”

“Welcome to the Middle East,” said Ari.

The Teaspoon grabbed another scoop of earth, pivoted to drop it a hundred feet inland. The berm grew ten thousand tons an hour. Only a nuke could do that: a leaky light-water job pulled from an old Russian sub.

I didn’t have a dosimeter on me. Because what it told me wouldn’t change what I did.

The Army had escorted us to the work site through silent Arab villages. Doors were shut, streets empty. The few people we saw turned their backs on us.

I hadn’t run under an open sky since Florida drowned. The simulator training sessions for the Teaspoon were the longest stretches of time I’d been alone in a room since I was born.

That part? Bliss. It actually made up for the other part. The one with the dosimeter I didn’t have, and the silent, invisible killer that was taking my blood and bones apart with every minute I spent in the Teaspoon.

Do and die. Welcome to the Middle East.

And if I lived? Between hazard pay and overtime I could buy a lot of land.

I could buy Connecticut.

Not all of it; just a part of the broad swath from Old Lyme to Hartford, still radioactive from the Yankee meltdown. Only five rems a year if I didn’t eat local food. Not completely abandoned, but real estate there cost next to nothing. And neighbors were few and far between.

Alone, I thought. At last.

“Ten hours,” Ari said.

I’d split in two by then. Part of me was building berm just past the edge of the lapping water. The rest was striding though green fields past herds of six-legged cattle, little dog bounding in ecstatic circles around my feet, shotgun cradled on my arm–same model as Grandpa’s, with a mantel back in the farmhouse to prop it on after I’d done my rounds. There wasn’t a human being anywhere in sight.

I came back fast enough, once I had to. “Ten hours? Clock says fourteen.”

“The leak is getting worse,” Ari said. “You’ll max out in nine hours, fifty-three minutes, forty-seven seconds. Forty-six. Forty–”

“I get it,” I said. “I looked it up. After Hiroshima, some survivors lived for decades. You can’t predict–”

“They weren’t sitting directly on top of the bomb,” Ari said. “You’ve got as long as you’ve got. If you don’t finish, don’t try to be a hero. Let us pull you out.”

“I’ll push as hard as I can,” I said.

“Don’t blow it up,” he said. “You’ll take out half the coast.”

That would be ironic, wouldn’t it? I shook the sweat out of my eyes. Ari had shut up, but the clock was counting down.

Minutes and hours against the relentless creep of water. Israel was dying by inches. So was I–but I’d go faster.

I grinned at the marching waves. Almost there. Almost.

“Near enough for government work,” I said.

Act IV: Lebensraum

The cattle had four legs each, but there was something weird about the horns. Tooners were holding them hostage on the island that used to be East Rock when there was still a city of New Haven. Half a dozen Coast Guard cutters circled, firing an occasional salvo from their bullhorns. “NOW HEAR THIS! NOW HEAR THIS! SURRENDER AND NO ONE WILL BE HARMED.”

The custom stem-cell treatments had worked as well as they were going to. I was starting to walk again. I was functional, more or less. And rich.

I’d made out better than I expected, back in Israel. Amazing what the gratitude of a nation will do when you’re mostly dead in a hospital bed. I was the proud owner of all that was left of Connecticut. This island here? Belonged to me. Along with a few hundred thousand acres of moderately radioactive, not too soggy land.

“Look,” said the captain of the cutter I’d come in on. “Those Pontooners are armed, and they’re pissed. They won’t listen to you just because you talk nice. At least wait for the Guard unit to get here.”

He was right, of course. But I wasn’t afraid to get hurt. Or dead, either. “Leave me at the dock,” I said. “I’ll send up a flare when I’m done.”

“What will you do if you get dead first?” the captain muttered. But he had his orders. He did what the crazy man said.

I knew that shotgun. I knew the woman who leveled it at my chest, too. Sheila, tall and only plain if you cared about those things.

“Where did you find the gun?” I asked.

She squinted at me down the length of the barrel. “Ebay,” she said.

“You did not.”

“Did so.”

“Did not.”

The squint opened wide. “You’re the evil capitalist hero?”

“Looks like it,” I said. “You’re the wild-eyed Tooner rabblerouser?”

“Passionate defender of human rights,” she said.

“I don’t suppose you’ll talk?” I asked.

“I’ll listen,” she said.

“You and my Grandpa’s shotgun?”

It stayed exactly where it was. “Trade you for it,” she said. “This island and everything on it, and a full legal allowance for every person living here.”

“I could just take it,” I said, “and call in the EPA. Clear you out and take what’s mine.”

“You could,” she said. “But you won’t.”

I could feel them closing in around me. Tooners, big and burly, armed with everything from a boathook to a police special.

I honestly didn’t care what they did to me. The two things I did care about were right there: the shotgun, and Sheila.

Not necessarily in that order.

“All right,” I said. “Deal.”

“Yours or mine?”

“Ours,” I said.

“You won’t get rich cutting deals like that,” she said.

It was night, with stars: piercingly clear overhead. The pontoon boat rocked under us. Somewhere onshore, one of the cattle moaned to itself.

“I’m already rich,” I said.

“Not rich enough.”

I looked into her face. Its angles were as sharp as the mind behind them. “I hope your fellow radicals never hear you say that.”

She shook her head, eyes squeezed shut. “Think of all the things you can do. You saved Israel. How would you like to save this part of the world?”

“I just want to be alone,” I said.

“I know how I would do it,” she said. Her eyes opened, staring straight through me. “I even know how you can have what you want.”

“No one person can save the whole world.”

“Maybe not. But he can do an awful lot with a few million nuEuros and a workable plan.”

It all came down to the shotgun. I’d spent years staring at it and never asking what it meant. She’d dug it out of the rubble, cleaned it up, and put it to use.

“I only saved Israel because there was no one else left to do it,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

Act V: Paragon

“Absolutely not,” said Sheila, her voice ringing clear and forthright through the speakers. “We are categorically opposed to violence.”

“How did you clear out the pontoon parks, then?” Morrison asked.

Morrison was as pretty as a newsreader needed to be, but he was smarter than most; smart enough to catch a lie. Not that we’d give him anything but the truth. That’s what we’d brought him here for.

“Common sense,” said Sheila. “We set up labor cooperatives, called in the EPA to help with the fishing rights and the waste disposal, got CPS to certify that the children were being brought up in a safe environment, and funded it all with grants from a wide range of sources. Everybody from the Fed to the Genius Foundation had a stake in what we did. It all came together just about the time the Macon Condominium completed the new tower.”

“Perfect timing,” said Morrison. “And as the prime contractor for Macon Metro…”

“…we completed the job on time, under budget, and got a Green Seal,” Sheila said.

“You’re paragons of social consciousness,” Morrison said, quoting one of our more popular promos–as far as I could tell, without irony.

His eyes had a tendency to wander, though they kept roving back toward Sheila. They only caught once, on the wall display behind her: an old-fashioned wooden mantelpiece with an antique shotgun propped on it, wildly out of place in that ultramodern, streamlined, minimalist room.

Sheila smiled when it was clear he wasn’t looking: a smile meant for me.

“This house is Green, too,” she said. “As are all the office buildings in Sunny Isles highrises. Upper floors alternate: office space, gardens, solar panels, solar heaters, wind turbines on the roof. Below the high-water mark, cafeterias and lounges with views much like this one.” She pointed toward the glass wall. “Deepwater coolers are at the very bottom; and of course every building has a closed water cycle. Luxury, perhaps, but socially responsible luxury.”

Sheila balanced on the edge of her desk and ran her hands through her hair. The naked sun would have struck its platinum to incandescence, but here it picked up the pale green shimmer of underwater light. Green sparks dancing in her eyes, green-washed pale skin, green highlights on her skintight suit: she looked like a mermaid drifting in the sea.

Morrison was well and truly hooked. He was no longer even trying to take in anything else.

Sheila read people better than she read reports, and she read those better than just about anyone. And she’d learned how to be beautiful. Quite recently, in fact.

Beauty, in the right context, is as effective a weapon as an ambulance full of IEDs. I still didn’t totally buy that argument, but she’d battled me to a standstill. We were building a mythos here, and this was an essential part. Beauty and the radiation-scarred, pathologically reclusive, never-seen Beast.

Morrison was a weapon, too, with his chiseled face and his anchor contract with Worldwide Rants. He was here for a reason, and he was playing the part we’d scripted for him, line for line. By the time we were done with him, he’d be completely ours, and we’d have a voice wherever we needed it most.

“And your partner?” he asked after a pause. “What part does he play in all of this? Is he just the bankroll? Or…?”

“He is the heart and soul of this enterprise,” Sheila said. “We couldn’t have begun to do it without him. It’s in his very genes. One of the first generation of licensed births, born and raised in the Baltimore Condo…”

“…self-taught, self-effacing–do you know what they call him?” Morrison asked. “The Man Without a Face. Burned off on the beaches of Israel, it’s said; no grafts would ever take, and no transplants would hold. But I’ve done a little digging. I know it’s not his face that got burned off. Wouldn’t you let me see him, talk to him? I promise I won’t make anything public without your full consent.”

“No,” Sheila said. Flat; final.

Morrison sighed with studied pathos. “But I came all this way, in person. Nobody does anything in person. Surely that’s worth–”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for me,” Sheila said. Her tone had a distinct and beautifully honed edge.

I wondered if he knew how effectively she’d played him. “I most definitely would not call it settling,” he said. “Tell me–what exactly is your role in this organization? Are you his partner? Co-owner? Princess consort?”

He flashed a dimple at that, as studied a reflex as the lift of the chin with which she laid him flat. “We don’t believe in titles,” Sheila said, “or job descriptions. It’s been our philosophy from the beginning: If something needs doing, find someone who’d do it for free, and then overpay them. And respect them. Always respect.”

“And right now, you are doing what you want to do?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I am.”

She’d studied acting, singing, dance. She’d learned to walk, to sit, to talk, with perfect and studied control. But the smile was all her own.

It started in the eyes, a slow light that swelled to fill the whole of her face. The lips were always last, but you never noticed that; you just felt warmed right through. You’d do anything then to keep from losing that marvelous warmth.

Morrison couldn’t have resisted even if he’d known how to.

“I hope you don’t feel you’ve made the trip for nothing,” she said.

“No,” Morrison said. “Oh, no. To be here, surrounded by such beauty…”

He spread his arms to take it all in: the woman, the sea, the curved walls of glass that kept the two apart.

I turned away from the wallscreen to stare through my own glass wall. A grouper stared back at me. Another poked at coral-encrusted vehicles lined up along what used to be Ocean Drive. Smaller fish darted in and out of cars and ruined buildings, then swirled together in iridescent clouds.

My wall faces west; I’m not a morning person. Sheila’s faces east, because she is.

I turned back to the screen. It had taken Sheila a scant second to step into Morrison’s arms.

The waves on the water’s surface made ripples in the filtered and refracted beams of sunlight. Morrison and Sheila seemed to shiver as they kissed. I felt that shiver in my damaged body, in my crumbling bones.

I zoomed in on their faces. Sheila’s was slack with pleasure, but her eyes were wide and sharply focused. She knew exactly what she was doing, and why, and what it would gain us.

I have videos of her in that same room with a number of different people. And videos of her watching these videos, and several of the two of us, watching these other videos together.

“But…” Morrison breathed in her ear, right above the mic implant. “I thought…you and he…”

“Beauty and the Beast?” She laughed in her throat. “Oh, but which of us is which?”

Morrison hesitated, drawing back to stare, to ask–who knew? Who cared?

“I told you,” she said. “We don’t believe in titles, or in job descriptions.”

“Are you sure…” Morrison whispered hoarsely, “…this won’t make…trouble for you?”

She loves the videos. She’ll still be beautiful on the screen, she says, long after even the most carefully constructed beauty has fallen into rubble.

“Of course not,” she replied. “We like…to see our people…enjoy themselves.”

Coda: Inconceivable

Sheila disappeared one morning. Signed out a corporate jet, took off. No note, no explanation. Nothing. Just gone.

After anger comes depression. Then you accept what you can’t change.

Until it did.

I got a ping.

“Where are you?” I asked–just a little breathless.

“Israel,” she answered. Cool, calm. Collected.

“What’s in Israel?”

“Your stem cells,” she said.

“That’s thoughtful of you,” I said. “But I don’t need any more–”

“If you throw hormones at them,” she said, “they turn into spermatozoa.”

“Oh,” I said. And: “Oh!

“It’s a girl,” she said.

___
Copyright 2012 A.J. Barr

“A. J. Barr” is a paradox (a Ph.D. and an M.D. collaborating). Both are located in North America, and both deal with obstinate juveniles by day and obstreperous plot lines by night.

by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

It is the aftermath of the world’s end, and nine birds–nine suns–lie dead while Houyi cradles the curve of her bow, her fingers locking around the taut hardness of its string. The tenth sun, the last, has fled. Chastise them, Dijun said, a father’s plea. But there is the land and the horror and the dryness, desiccated corpses in empty dust trenches that were rivers not long ago. There are dead dragons, too, and snake women with bright eyes–and is it not right to bring down the suns, is it not what Houyi is meant to do? She is a god who protects; she is a god given a duty.

The birds are dead. They no longer burn, but the places where they have fallen will long after be black scorch marks, indelible. There will be consequences. It does not matter that her first shot meant to warn: wing clipped, the eldest sun plunged and shattered on the earth. Seeing their brother fall they attacked, and she had to defend herself.

Behind her Chang’e is inhaling and exhaling shallow scraps of air. They will not let this pass. What will you do now? Where will we go?

And the archer whispers, I saved them all.

She knows, as she has known since she notched that first of nine arrows–even in the firestorm of their rage she was a peerless shot, one arrow per bird all she needed–that for her there will be no thanks. They have transgressed enough, wife and wife, and this shall be the final insult tolerated.

So Houyi only takes Chang’e’s hand and says, I am sorry.

Night comes, and with it the first drops of rain. Somewhere a dragon king or queen serpent stirs and tastes the air with a forked tongue. The Sea Mother sifts sand out of her eyes, which have been so parched, so dry. Out of their bellies and mouths rivers will surge forth, tides will rise bright-green with brine, and the world can go on as it did before the convening of ten triple-legged suns. This is their duty, as the murder of sun-crows has been hers.

Houyi sometimes thought she might have been mortal. But all she remembered was the bow and slivers of wind which she soon learned to pin to wood with arrowheads. Neither mother nor father commanded her early recall.

Easily enough she was accepted under the jade roof, for new yearly new deities swelled the court. When the time came to instate her, some consternation arose. What she was, ought to be, seemed evident from the divine weapon and quiver on her back. Whether she should be titled accordingly was a matter of debate. Archer-God denoted a militarial register: should she be appointed general, marshal, or captain in the bargain as other deities of similar associations were? Wasn’t there a young man from the realm below, skilled with the same weapon? Houyi could perform as his follower, his hunter, and she could keep the bow.

In the end Meng, who attended court rarely and spoke up less, pointed out the obvious solution. Let the god-to-be compete with the boy and decide thereby which deserved the title. The boy was summoned, Houyi matter-of-fact defeated him, and that settled the matter. Out of respect for Meng–who had abandoned gleaming nacre and ever-blooming gardens, and agreed to a duty of doling out oblivion in hell–the emperor did not gainsay the result, and out of fear too that the Old Woman of Forgetting might leave her hell-post in pique. Few were suited to it, fewer still willing. Brewing amnesia had become a woman’s work: no male of his court would stoop to it, and no goddess would leave the hard-won comforts of paradise.

Houyi became the divinity within the sacred instant between tautness and letting fly. But she remained merely Houyi the Archer. The army’s marksman division continued headless, making do with reporting to the artillery chief, whose main passion was vested in ballistae and who had little appreciation for the finesse of arrows.

All agreed, however, that the engineer’s eccentricities and injustices were preferable to Houyi. She endured this as she would endure other slights in the knowledge that she stood one excuse away from demotion. The archer might be new to celestial ways, but she’d seen how other women acted–the wives, the mothers, the sisters–and how they were acted toward: no fault of theirs, but it was a strict and narrow path they walked. Houyi was nothing if not a quick study.

“And where might I live, Your Majesty?” she asked of the emperor, kneeling in her men’s clothes.

An absence of answer from the man on the throne. He didn’t appear young, the emperor, though he took care to look in his prime: oiled hair, oiled mustache, earlobes lengthened to denote wisdom. A crown that dripped sapphires orange, blue, green.. “It’ll have to wait,” he said imprecisely, “for the masons need to rebuild the palace wings Dijun’s crow-sons burned down. They were most enthusiastic their last visit to our court, but who may deny a father his sons?”

“Yes, Majesty.”

She descended to the earth, passing through storms and sky-lakes, and sought out lairs of great beasts. One tiger, of some nine centuries in age and known for his cunning, fell to her after seven nights and seven days of tracking and trapping. An angry typhoon, manifesting in a litter of foxes joined to one mind, surrendered its flesh to her after she’d pierced the hearts of its bodies one by one. Her fame grew, almost incidentally, in the demons’ realms.

It couldn’t be helped that she was seen by mortals and that they began to chronicle her, imagining for her an origin rooted in one of their own. In one province they said she was a warrior hermit; in another they insisted she was the son of a goatherd, and in the capital they linked her to the royal lineage, calling her a prince.

Houyi considered correcting them, but she was busy drawing up the plans of her house. In any case the hearts of mortals were obedient. When she appeared to scholars in person, she was certain, they would immediately rewrite their manuscripts to match the facts of her existence. Academics must be empirical, or else what were they for?

She made the pillars of her home out of tiger femurs. The roof was the ribs of foxes, delicately strong, and the lattices of her windows were the finest in heaven, put together from the bones of immense sharks that feasted on the flesh of fishermen. Hardened feathers and scales of demonic owls and lizards became the tiles on her roof. Her methods of construction were barbaric, but when the house was completed few were able to say it was not exquisite. Her deeds, too, secured her position. Was it intended? None could tell, for she was indifferent to all–the praises more grudging than respect, her own skill, her effortless slaying of wicked spirits–and kept her thoughts hid and close.

The emperor was said to pay her a personal visit, telling her, “This is most excellent work.”

“I’m honored, Majesty.”

“You could consider the office of our chief architect. Building and making are the noblest of arts, the most dependable of sciences. We need nobility and dependability, Houyi. For look: many of the court are happy to range abroad and subjugate heaven’s enemies, yet when we call for solidity and wisdom, who provide but a rare handful?”

“Demons,” Houyi was reported to have said, “require killing, Majesty. It’s a fact that they are fecund and breed without need or care for the natural process of things. Quell one and five more rise to replace it, springing full-grown out of filth and mud.”

“That is a truth.”

“I am grateful, Majesty, that you thought me fit for a post so exalted. But while the matter of masonry and the laying of pillars may wait, the multiplying of devils can only be regulated through hard labor and vigilance. I give myself to this work so that another may enjoy the privilege and comforts of being your chief architect.”

And perhaps the emperor smiled behind his sleeve, half in chagrin. It might be that he took her answer for insolence and that it would explain what transpired in the following years. For the time being, he merely left her be in her house of bone and fur and scales. She cupped her hand over her fist and bowed to him as he departed.

The suitors started then. Houyi couldn’t pinpoint why men suddenly took up the fashion of wooing her, nor where the idea had started and caught hold of them like fire on dry grass.

First Xuanwu, a monarch in his own right, riding to her home astride the snake that had been his guts, the turtle that had been his stomach. He’d made himself young for her, donning a skin luminous as pearls and robes redder than wounds. Houyi did not receive him beneath her window: instead she took him to a howling gulf between two cloud-cliffs, where she honed herself by shooting sunlight, separating each beam into seven colors. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth rainbows she asked, “Why is it that you want a wife?”

On the turtle’s back he sat, placid; no marksman himself, he was content to watch and admire. “In my mortal years I never wedded.”

“That seems a fair enough rationale,” she allowed. “But I don’t think I will suit your court.”

“It is small, true, and solemn. Still I am a martial being and we ought to complement. I shall have your bow done over in hematite, and your arrows tipped in black diamonds. In your lap furs and feathers and scales shall be piled high, dyed black and obsidian-beaded. You shall be queen over the north, feared for your wisdom and prowess. As my wife you may hunt as many evil spirits as you like and, in the sunless hours, pour their blood into the rivers of my domain.”

“That’s most generous, Xuanwu, for a husband.” She didn’t mention that hematite was not much good to grip and that diamond arrowheads would defeat the point of her practice. “Yet I’m few in years and have not had examples: I do not know how to be a wife, much less a queen. I’ve a love for bright colors besides, which is why I’ve made my house as I did. Will you allow me to remake your palace? I’ll be most careful, papering the walls with the eyes of wolves and the bellies of peacocks, making lamps out of deep-sea beryls, draperies out of sunset skies. That is my requirement, Xuanwu, for what wife may tolerate a house not done in substances and style to her desires?”

He admitted that, certainly, a wife had every right on that matter; he also admitted he wasn’t willing to compromise, for he found the brightness she enjoyed distracting. They parted on good terms, over what was–or what he was led to think was–a philosophical difference.

Marshal Tianpeng, after that. He visited her drunk, as was his wont, gourd clasped under one arm. His fondness for women was legendary: if this one dressed more like one of his soldiers than the girls he chased, he readily discounted that. “For,” he roared, “what’s existence that does not vary? Boring, that’s what. Come with me, Houyi, and I’ll dig you a lake filled with the best wine. I’m a builder too, and have a deft hand with carpentry. I will take apart my abode and you may do it over, in any color and material you like. How is that?”

“Most magnanimous,” she was reported to have said.

“All I ask, lovely Houyi, is that once in a while you wear soft silks and hairpins. Oh, not much, not often–but perhaps one day out of a year, or even five? The rest of the months and hours are yours. You can practice with my men, if you like, to show them just why it is you are named heaven’s best archer and feared by all the wicked.”

The archer sipped the wine he’d poured her. “That sounds very well, Marshal. Then on those days you will also wear soft silks, hairpins, maybe even bangles on your wrists?”

Tianpeng paused his drinking. “What?”

“It is both your custom and mine to dress martially, and you wish me to spend a few days every year changed. Therefore it seems logical that on those same days you will alter yours so that we can be well-matched. It’s not orderly otherwise, and as wife and husband we’ll be subjected to ridicule. Or so I gather, being yet new to existence and not tutored in the ways of our kind.”

He stared into his gourd for a long time. Upending it he found the last drop gone. “I’m not sure it works like that, Houyi.”

“Why not, Marshal?”

In the end Tianpeng left to seek more liquor, more befuddled than angry, having spent an hour trying to expound on the logic of garments and the attributes of matrimony. His own rhetoric turned around to gulp him whole, for he’d never been scholarly. He wrote the archer off as a lost cause. Other girls were abundant, more voluptuous and pliable than she. Also, most women comprehended clothes.

Others followed, half-hearted attempts to make a bride out of Houyi. Not from any real yearning, she realized, but because she must be placed somehow, being fatherless, brotherless, unmarried, and not motherly in any way. But the tide ebbed. No mortal origin in her, so perhaps she was not dissimilar to Guanyin: meant to be celibate. The white goddess had even been known to take on a masculine aspect.

The suns’ father alone did not relent. Dijun watched her and sometimes they encountered one another at court, exchanging passing words and obligatory greetings. He had his avian sons, who lit the world with their heat, track her when she left the safety of celestial confines–to kill, to find new and sharp things with which to make arrows, to collect sounds and smells in her bowstring. Houyi did not require help and, with the wariness of a born hunter, knew when the presiding sun monitored her from his mother’s chariot. Infidelity in the hatching, and abetted unwittingly by Dijun’s own wife. She contemplated telling Xihe of this, but found no opportunity. The suns’ mother was remote, rejoicing only in her distance and abhorring any society not her sons’. And though Houyi was fearless, she could not fly so high, nor endure the birds’ fire.

She prepared herself, close-lipped, for one last courtship.

He came to her armed in the glory of himself, whose seed had made possible the winged conflagrations that were his sons, whose incandescence had captured aloof Xihe for ten fleeting moments. Even the emperor was not so resplendent: Dijun was gold of skin and mouth, and flame threaded through his hair and the fabric of his robe. When he found her, he knelt as though she was empress, as though she were not merely an archer.

Houyi tried not to cringe from the heat. She grimaced, in that subtle way she’d mastered, with only the crinkling of her eyes and the slightest shift in the angle of her brows. To most it did not show; to Dijun, clothed in brilliance, it was invisible.

“I have long admired your grace,” he began.

“You do not have to kneel,” she interrupted.

“I wish to submit and supplicate–to tell you that of you I will ask nothing, no silk or hairpin, no surrendering of your bow, no parting with your house. I will come to yours, if you will have me, and sleep where you point. I do not offer you jewels, for I know you crave none. I give myself and beg you to accept.”

The archer glanced skyward. “You have a wife.”

“Xihe and I had children to give humans life. We had children because we were alone. We had children because fires burned within us that had to be birthed, given shape. There’s ever been only duty, Houyi, and when my wife speaks it is only to our sons. They are her world; I am nothing.”

“I cannot mother the crows, Dijun, nor chariot them to their ascent. I’m not made of such material that can withstand the edged branches of Fusang. I cannot give them my breast to rest their heads when they tire.”

“You do not have to. Xihe loves her sons, and they will remain hers. I will forfeit her and forfeit my office. It will be my contentment simply to be yours, my peace to know your embrace.” Dijun opened his hands, and flame like molten gold fell, scorching the bones with which Houyi had paved her garden paths. “Please.”

She knew there would be consequences. She knew Dijun could not be crossed. She knew he could not be deterred, or brushed off, or misled. In the face of all this, she pulled him to his feet–she was strong–and said, “No.”

He looked at her, eye to eye. They were of a height, mandated to be tall. “Why?”

“Because,” she said very softly, “I do not wish to be your wife. This is not due to any shortcoming of yours, nor mine. I simply do not wish this, and ask that you seek elsewhere for a bride.”

In silence, Dijun gazed at her. In silence, Dijun took leave.

On the day Houyi returns to face judgment the court is gravid with the weight of immortals from every rank, celestial and ascendant, sage and disciple, even half-mortal apprentices. Divine beasts wind themselves around palace pillars, lending the gleam of their scales and seven-hued wings to the polish of everlasting wood. They shy away from Houyi, remembering well how she loves to adorn her quiver and house.

Today she does not see them. Grime and red sand cling to archer and mortal woman; they leave dirty footprints wet with the blood of birds, fringed with feathers and ashes. Though Houyi moves with the same grace she always has, and Chang’e with the same light steps, nothing in them is seemly. The archer tastes dust in her mouth, and death of shriveling and peeling, of flesh thinned to paper. Here the air is cool and sweet, the lakes fresh and full. Ten suns rose; nine fell before their scorching blast could reach these lands.

They kneel, wife and wife, before their monarch.

Who speaks. It was ill-done, Houyi.

Yes, Majesty.

He gives sentence. Her bow will be taken from her: quiver, arrows, string. She will be Houyi the Archer no longer but must take on another name, after which a goddess will take charge of her, to instruct her in the worth of wisdom and forbearance. On these qualities she must contemplate. In a few centuries, should she be deemed adequate, she may be restored to her former station.

Chang’e is widening her eyes, angry. Even so she recognizes that this may be borne. It could have been terrible and final, and it is not. She touches her wife, takes comfort, but Houyi remains wary. The archer knows predators and prey both.

Then: No, Majesty. No.

Distant Xihe, whose bare arms are muscled like an archer’s from eons of charioteering and the weight of her children; aloof Xihe, who rides in the silence of the sky, above and beyond the emperor’s regard. Where she walks the tiles blister. When she speaks the air sizzles. She does not kneel, and this breach of decorum draws forth a shuddering collective gasp. My sons, save one, are lost. I shall not suffer their murderer among our ranks, and if you decree that must be so, then I am quit of heavens. Better to seek refuge in the demons’ nation, for there at least justice of a sort may be seized.

The emperor shakes his head, admonishment. Justice is not a series of strikes dealt back and forth. It is not a duel, a skirmish, a war. Justice is weighed on a scale, right against wrong, wrong against wrong. Your sons were not blameless and there must be an accounting. What’s done is blood-hot, but righteous. Years of labor are ahead for all of us to repair and restore. The dragons shall weep until they bleed from their eyes to water the land. Who knows when the sea may brim again, may throng again with their thousand thousand lives?

She holds her head high, the mother of suns. I birthed them because I had to, and loved them in spite of that. They were children. They were only children.

Houyi is not a mother, does not intend ever to be. But she remembers that the crows soared and danced in the skies, and ignored her as children ignore interruptions to their play. She remembers their beauty and how their joy gripped her even as she brought down the eldest. They broke on a ground too cracked to cushion them, in lakes too empty to buoy their fall. They tried to burn her, but she fired the first shot; what else could they have done?

There is something in Xihe’s magnificence that hurts her.

And Houyi rises, while Chang’e grips her wrist whispering, No, no, please no, Houyi. It’s enough.

Majesty, she begins and Chang’e is trying not to cry, I did commit a wrong. Their deaths were at my hand. This too is a crime that must, on its own, be weighed.

My sentence has been given says the man on the throne. My word is final.

Xihe deserves better.

The emperor leans back into his vast, living throne, and when he exhales it is a long tumultuous sigh: like storms dying down. He looks from one goddess to one who will soon no longer be. Very well.

In the crowd, his flame swallowed, Dijun watches.

The feast nominally honored victory, but the palace thrived on a collective impulse for feasts, and any excuse would have done. Houyi ate with enthusiasm but drank sparingly, and chuckled at Marshal Tianpeng’s loudness. When the dancers–girls not yet ascendants but disciples of goddesses–appeared to undulate and sing, the marshal’s laughter crested to a rumbling that shook his table and his companions’ seats.

She allowed herself a smile that did not show on her lips, and gave Xuanwu a polite nod as he passed by. The lion she had fought was many-headed and ferocious, and she’d put its whiskers into the wood of her bow for hardiness, its deep-throated growl for flexibility. More than the hunt, and very much more than the revelry, this had been her true delight.

The court had grown accustomed to her, too, and she was surprised that she enjoyed the company of goddesses. They shared stories; Houyi had few of her own, and was therefore interested best when Xiangu told her of her mortal years. “Not,” the ascendant hastened to add, “that I had many of those.”

“It is no shame,” Houyi offered, “to have many or few. It is all experience and memory, wealth of the rarest and highest sort.”

Xiangu flushed, laughing. “You have such ideas. Do you not believe then in enlightenment, the discarding of the self?”

“I have no opinion. Sometimes I think it would be good if I could be mortal for a few years, so I can see for myself what it is like and thereby decide whether purity suits me.”

The goddess fell quiet. “You wouldn’t.”

“No?”

“Unless you can manifest as a man, you would hate such a life viciously.” She laughed again, sour this time. “Being a woman in the realm of men is… not easy. Certainly it’s not simple here, either, save perhaps for you and the great Guanyin. Yet even for me, for those dancers and serving girls, this is far better. This is the riches we dreamed of, this is the wealth and goodness.”

Houyi frowned. She was not oblivious, and had an inkling of what Xiangu meant. In the abstract: she couldn’t imagine the reality of it, the days and nights of living on earth. “Do you think I should consider taking a pupil? A mortal girl?”

“Yes! Oh, yes.” Xiangu presses her fingers to her lips. “Do you notice, so many more boys than girls are raised to immortality? I was never really taken in as anyone’s disciple. I had guidance, yes, but it’s not the same as tutelage, which makes all the difference. You would have much to teach.”

“I don’t believe I do, in truth, but it is a thought.”

A dash of ceramic on floor tiles. Houyi looked, found a servant standing over a ruin of shards and spilled soup. Her face pale, her eyes wide, and her lips taut over a cry that she had bitten in half.

The silence deafened, and filled Houyi’s ears with endless ringing.

One of the goddesses hissed into that quiet, and rose to grip the servant by her arm, chastisement–threats–on the tip of her tongue. Grim-faced too, the goddess bowed and pushed the girl to bow with her. The mirrors she wore, armor-like, clinked. “Majesty. She is one of mine. I knew she would… I shall send her back to her parents.”

Houyi stood. “My lord, might I beg for her pardon? It is a feast that honors my deed, and I wouldn’t wish to see it marred by severity for a mishap so little.”

The incident was small, and after all so was her request: the emperor granted it, as rich men granted trifles.

She did not dwell on the event or her part in it. So when the dining and performing were done, she did not expect to find a stranger waiting at her door. “I am Chang’e,” the girl said, “and my mistress Tianmu bade me seek you and give you thanks for sparing Wenlan, the servant who disgraced herself at your feast.”

“The feast wasn’t truly mine. You are one of Tianmu’s acolytes?”

The girl’s smile was balanced on a precipice. “I should be so fortunate. No, I was brought here to serve; she doesn’t accept followers. I haven’t the fortitude or the talent even if she did. The Lady Tianmu has been most kind to me, even so.”

Houyi opened her door. “Have you eaten?”

“I… haven’t, no.”

“I’m not much of a cook, but there are some buns I can steam, lotus seeds I can boil in syrup.”

Chang’e shook her head. “I’m not meant to touch celestial food. I eat with other servants. I don’t mean to be ungracious or ungrateful, only…”

“You are of earth?”

She looked down at the hem of her dress, a hint of color on her cheeks made gold by lantern light. “Yes. I serve. I haven’t earned ascendance.”

“I never had to earn it, technically,” the archer mused. “Might there be a difference between divinity earned and divinity inborn? If you put it in a box, the shape of it, the texture? But come in. The lotuses didn’t grow here. They are wild; I picked them while I was abroad. Unless you don’t like sweet things? I can boil them in ginger instead. Or you could eat them as they are, but they aren’t fresh anymore.”

The girl gazed down, up, and down again. “With the syrup would be fine. More than fine. Or anything, really. Please. And thank you.”

Chang’e waited as Houyi ignited the lamps and exhaled softly when she saw the house. Her fingers flowed over the porous tibia cross-sections, the chimeral overlap of mammal and reptile, the twisting curling horns that upheld the roof. When she ate the lotus seeds she did so reverent. “It tastes of home.”

The archer ladled boiling water into the teapot, reasonably certain that rainwater wasn’t beyond the strictures permitted to Chang’e. “Do you miss it? Your life?”

“Heaven is perfect beyond words. There’s no hardship here, no starving. There was a dry season when I was young, and I remember my mother weeping as she goaded our one ox to plow the field, weeping over food that was not and would not be. Over the empty bowls, empty plates. But it was home.” She splayed her fingers over sugared steam. “Though there’s much I don’t miss.”

“Such as?”

“Being a daughter. Being a sister.” Chang’e shook herself. “I didn’t mean to waste your time with all this. It’s unworthy of your attention. You are divine and I’m just–myself.”

The archer poured tea. She’d put a pickled plum in each cup, a hint of spice and salt. “I would like to know, unless you’d rather speak of something else.”

Reluctant, then freely, Chang’e spoke. Her childhood, in part, and many matters strange and new to Houyi. Playing in the river, trying and failing to spear fish with a sharpened stick, sleeping on a mat so thin it barely existed. Brothers came up in brief, sporadic mentions, creatures better valued than she was and who weren’t afraid to let her know this was the case. Hot with tea she revealed, in fragments, the red bridal gown and red bridal veil; of how she’d fled both into a night choked with thunder and there was found by Tianmu.

Later, emptied of words long lidded, Chang’e drowsed and drifted off. The archer found her a bed and went to her own, thinking of the puzzles she’d learned and thinking, more than a little, of the girl who had taught them to her.

Houyi asked for and obtained Tianmu’s reluctant permission to take Chang’e through sky and sea, and even to the demons’ world. Though not unafraid, Chang’e trusted the archer and, laughing, would pet glittering eels in one of the dragon kings’ homes. She asked Houyi to teach her to shoot, to cut, for they seemed to her useful things; lessons were given and Houyi made her a knife from the horn of an ox devil.

Once Chang’e pinched Houyi’s cheek. “You should smile more. I’ve never seen you laugh.”

“Neither have I.”

“Does nothing amuse you? Bring you joy? It’d make you look so lovely.” Chang’e reddened. “Not that you don’t already.”

They were standing underneath a tree whose trunk was silver, whose fruits were golden hands fringed with black petals at the wrists. Chang’e turned rigid, at first, when Houyi kissed her. Soon that changed, and when they were no longer breathing from one another’s mouths, the archer drew back and softly laughed.

Chang’e stayed silent for a long time, her breath quivering in her throat. At length she spluttered, “Well I was right. You are beautiful. I don’t know about what we just–” She tangled her fingers in the folds of her robes. “Though I would like to try it again. Maybe. Sometime. Sometime tomorrow. Oh and… I lied.”

“Yes?”

“That Tianmu bade me seek you and thank you in her stead. Wenlan was to do it, but she was too shy and I took it upon myself. Without Lady Tianmu’s leave. She reprimanded me for days and gave me twice my usual chores. But it was worth every scrubbed wok.”

Outings followed, and more trees, and more words, during which Chang’e lost her awe of the god and gained in its place a wrenching want for the woman. It culminated in a visit to Guanyin, whom Houyi had a faint idea might be wise in this matter. The white goddess was seated at the edge of a river, attended by two children who would remain children in perpetuity. Guanyin did not acknowledge Houyi.

“Chang’e and I have decided we would wed. But she has misgivings and suggested I seek advice. Might you have any for us, great Guanyin?”

The goddess turned her attention from the waters. Fish that she’d been communing with dispersed, the children likewise. “My advice is to pursue it not, Houyi. It wouldn’t be taken very well by heaven at large.”

“I am a god,” the archer said, unnecessarily. “I would think that’d give me liberty to marry whomever I please.”

“Perhaps if you intend to become a man–that is doable, of course.” Guanyin looked, for a moment, like someone else: clothed in yellow instead of her customary white, tall and bearded with bristling brows. “For the ceremony’s duration at least and, for preference, several years afterward. So the idea would stick. Beyond that if you return to being a woman, why, that happens.”

“I don’t think I can, but even if I could, I feel no urge to become a man.”

“Then,” Guanyin said, flattening water reeds into neat rows, “I recommend against it. You will not be happy; neither will Chang’e.”

The archer pursed and unpursed her lips. “There are gods with a taste for men.”

“Oh yes, I know a dragon’s son who has a great fancy for sun-beaten farmers. But that is… looked upon differently and in any case he doesn’t mean to marry them. Wife and wife are unheard of and, as a rule, we are not fond of things too novel or strange. There are limits to what is permissible, archer, even for you–and your doings are more permissible than most. You do recognize that?”

“We could be less than open about it.” Compromising.

Guanyin drew out a handful of water and molded it, sculpting it into a pagoda around the ribs she’d made with reeds. “Heaven is full of loose lips. One would think it ought to be otherwise, we being what we are, but there it is. Do you mean to persist in this?”

“Chang’e and I are in accord, yes.”

“Then bring her and I will bless you both, though I don’t believe it will do much good in the end. For that, archer, I am sorry. Even I may not protect everything.”

Chang’e and Houyi wedded, with the same quiet of a mouse stealing through a room full of cats. But Guanyin was proven correct: secret became news. On her part the archer heard the beating of wings, and felt the heat of the sun as it slanted onto their ceremony–both of them in red, though veils, being redundant had been dispensed with–as though, for a moment, one of Dijun’s sons was gazing down at them.

Not long after that, the ten suns rose and Houyi was called to duty.

Houyi has never been mortal and, in ignorance, knows no terror. The emperor’s sentence sits on her but lightly.

The land is slow to heal. As though making up for that single searing day the sky broods, clouds churning thick as mud, crackling with flashes from Tianmu’s mirrors. Rain fills cracks in the soil, transmutes dirt to mud, deepening red sand to bruise, ivory sand to honey.

Chang’e shivers, tugging useless drenched silks to herself. Houyi doesn’t feel the cold and damp so keenly. Her senses have not adjusted, not convinced yet of mortal fragility. She puts her arm over her wife, a trade of warmth for chill. “You did not have to come. This is my punishment to endure. You shouldn’t have come.”

“I came because I wanted to. Never forget that, Houyi.” Chang’e interlaces her fingers with the archer’s. “Tianmu would be loath to take me back under her wing in any case.”

“Guanyin would shelter you.”

“Out of pity, and I’ve had enough of that. It is not love. It’s not even appreciation. Does it help that we can now grow old together? No, it wouldn’t, would it?” She tries uselessly to wring her sleeves dry. “If we head northeast… My eldest brother makes his home there. He is, or was, wealthy and our mother lives with him. It’ll make this almost bearable for you, Houyi. No paradise, but it is comfortable.”

Houyi doesn’t require comfort, but does not say so. Her wife’s mother. She imagines that. A family. That too is a difficult concept to grasp, she who has had none.

If she has lost her deific span, she hasn’t lost that curious way with which gods travel: a method that truncates distances, sidestepping conventional time. Houyi is subliminally aware she will forget the how of this soon, but for the moment she puts it to use and they are at the estate when morning dawns cool and clear. Perhaps Tianmu and her husband have tired for the moment, and the dragons have gone to rest.

The brother’s home has survived, shaded under ancient trees too obstinate to wither and subsisting on a well hidden deep underground. Haggard but alive, servants and family both come to greet Chang’e and Houyi.

The brother: “Back from heaven at last? It was good of you, to be so silent. Never sending word to ask how we fare.”

But Chang’e’s mother, Yunping, only embraces her with eyes gone wet and full. She is bent; Houyi recalls the story of the ox and the goading.

Introducing Houyi is complicated. Her mode of dress is glanced at sideways by the brother, who scrutinizes with scowl and sneer. His family (two wives, three sons, and an ignored girl named Meijie: young, ox-horn hair buns) follows suit, some without any real conviction. What the house’s master does it is best to copy.

“My companion,” Chang’e says coldly, “is of heaven.”

Her brother’s outlook changes abruptly. So does that of his sons, wives, and daughter. “Great sage.” Deep bows.

It suffices for the moment.

Meijie pays attention, despite not having any paid to her, and is the first to notice Houyi’s bow. “Lady,” she says one day, “I hear things from… that.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think bows are supposed to hiss and purr and bark.” Said with the perfect certainty of the very young.

“It’s not a fashion, no.” Houyi watches Meijie eye her knives. “These things fascinate you.”

“No they don’t. They are boy things. For my brothers.” A little belligerent Meijie straightens. “You look silly. You are silly. Big Mother says so.”

The archer cocks her head at the child. “Would you like to learn how to use knives?”

“I’m not a boy.”

“Neither am I. Nor do I want to be one.”

Unable to reconcile this paradox the girl sticks her tongue out and runs away.

Houyi contemplates the unfathomable minds of children and returns to the room she shares with her wife, to find Chang’e red-faced and trembling with rage. “My brother,” she says when she’s regained her composure. “He wanted to know when you would bring him luck and coin and make shark fins magically appear on the dining table thrice a day. You are only two more mouths to feed, he said. How does he dare?”

“Technically he’s right. I could hunt. There would be meat, of the stringy and fatless sort. As for sharks, I imagine they’re all dead.” The archer settles into her wife’s lap. It’s a close fit and she has to hold her weight just so, but they’ve had practice. “There’s more, though, isn’t there?”

Chang’e crumples almost into her old self, the silent girl under Tianmu’s charge. “He wants me to marry. There’s a governor who–the details aren’t important, though my brother thinks he has a pet sorcerer of some sort, which is how he went through this unscathed. Stores upon stores of food. If he was a rich man before he’s swimming in gold now. And my brother had a portrait of me sent to him. That’s all I’m good for, all I ever was.”

“I’m sorry, Chang’e. For making you return to this. I shouldn’t have–”

“You’ve already apologized. Five times. Ten! I told you it doesn’t matter. I told you I will not bear heaven, or anything else, without you.” More quietly she says, “This governor took four wives. Only one remains. The other three died, supposedly by accidents or… worse. I don’t know. The living one is striped, my mother says, from back to ankles. Always she weeps. If he cannot have me, he will take Meijie, and my brother has already given his consent. Meijie, Houyi, little Meijie. His own daughter. She’s not even twelve. She’s a long way from twelve.”

“Where does he make his home?”

Chang’e looks at her wife sharply. “You are mortal now.”

“Yes.”

They always lie close, breast to back. Tonight Houyi keeps a small distance so that when she rises in the deep of the night she doesn’t wake Chang’e. She takes her weapons and finds a few servants still up, and coaxes out of them the governor’s address. They give it pale-faced, half in hope; they think her much more than she is. She cannot correct them.

Her strides are long and she doesn’t yet know fatigue. The moon, half-full, lights her way.

The monster is a blot in the sky, crouching on the roof of the lord’s mansion, which curves around a lake brimming with sleek fish. Houyi does not hesitate. She lets fly as she always has, cleanly, precisely.

It might have heard the twitch of released tension, the letting go of bowstring. It might have reached out and gripped the passing wind, and used that to turn her shot aside. The fiend moves and the arrow penetrates not its eye but a spot between ear and horn. Cartilage parts, noiseless, into shivering shreds.

Houyi shoots once more–a shaft lodges in, and protrudes from, the beast’s throat–and it is before her, closing the distance in loping bounds. A knife in her hand, its point testing and triumphing against tender places: she twists and pulls, trailing gore and ligament from the inside of the demon’s elbow.

It shrieks in her face, a spume of sound and bile. She turns aside, the blade again finding and plunging into the softest of its flesh. Blood warms her, filling her mouth with the aroma of coins, as it sinks teeth into her flank and wraps her close with the snake of its tail. This is not new to Houyi: she’s fought, been wounded, carries scars. It’s never made her heart stutter, nor slowed her down. Until this moment.

There is a third arrow, buried deep in the demon’s back. It spasms alert, pausing in its chewing and savoring of Houyi. She drives the knife deep, and hard, into its stomach where she’s felt the beating of its heart. Her hand follows and grips the organ that gives it life. “Do you know who I am?” she whispers through lips flecked with devil ichor. “You do. Tell your master to ply his trade elsewhere, and tell his master to submit to a sage, live a life of piety and repentance. Make this happen, demon, or I shall travel to your realm and end not only you but your entire clan.”

Her fist tightens. A burst of gore. The fiend’s spirit leaps through its mouth in a green-black mist, speeding toward the governor’s estate. Houyi finds herself, without meaning to, on her knees. Beneath her the broken earth is saturated crimson.

Chang’e comes, bow in hand, and presses herself against Houyi as though by sheer determination she can staunch the blood and dull the pain.

“I am,” Houyi murmurs, “mortal now.”

By the next hour she has begun to age.

Ascending Mount Kunlun, where virtue dwells, is simplicity itself to gods. To mortals it is different, not journey but pilgrimage, to seek what they have not, to petition for what they believe is the desire of their hearts. At the mount’s foot, a town has sprung up.

The home of Chang’e’s brother is months past, and the quiet disbelief of her mother likewise. Shouldering the weight of a bloodied, torn Houyi home, Chang’e stammered to her mother finally that they were not companions or–what Yunping wanted to think–goddess and acolyte, but something else entirely different. That there is a reason they share their room. That their marriage, however distant now, was blessed by Guanyin herself, and shouldn’t that have been good enough?

Chang’e desperately misses the indifference of paradise. If their marriage was not celebrated, if Tianmu found it disquieting, if the emperor had winced at its mention–it was still preferable to this, this crushing grief she cannot understand, the disappointment of her mother. Who will care for you in your old age? And she said, We will care for each other, Mother, and my niece will burn houses and gold for us but it did no good.

A servant listening at the door: in that same night her brother screamed at them Get out, no matter her pleading that her wife was wounded, near death. Is she not of heaven? Little liar. Unnatural whore. They beat Houyi while Chang’e fought, costing one of his men an eye; only by Yunping’s begging was Chang’e spared. When they were finally done they dragged Houyi by the hair and flung her out.

All that is behind, but it is so raw and she cannot ask Houyi for comfort. Houyi who knows hunger and despair for the first time, who lay broken for so long, and ages months in a day.

The town itself is small, as yet nameless though many nicknames have been thought up and hung under eaves. Being where it is lets it prosper, profiting from aspirants hoping to scale Mount Kunlun and gain the attention of a sage, to become ones themselves. Being where it is makes it a target too: too many men, and not a few women, of the world believe that great deeds will raise them to ascendance, and what greater deeds than saving cities and villages from malicious beasts? Vengeance-hounded they come to the bottom of Kunlun, and vengeance-hounded they bring with them collections of teeth and talons, maws and mandibles like butcher-hooks. Sometimes the aspirants are adequate to meeting them. Sometimes they are wanting. In the first week of their stay alone Houyi has killed five threats. A few, realizing who she is, keep their distance from the town–a phenomenon that doesn’t go unnoticed by the barbers, hoteliers and traders. They give the couple board, food, shoes. A tailor brings them clothes: brocade gown and sash-pendants for Chang’e and, never asking why, men’s robes and trousers for Houyi.

“They adore you,” Chang’e tells her wife as they attend a dinner cooked exquisitely by a widower living in the shop under their room. Soup thick with crab meat, soft bean curd in hot paste and diced shrimp, turnip cakes fried crisp and brown. Lavish, but the town is grateful.

“I despise what I have become.”

Chang’e’s breath hitches. “Mortal?”

“No.” Houyi gazes into the liquid red of her tea. “Afraid.”

She liberates the cup from Houyi’s unresisting fingers, and takes the woman who was a god into her arms. “It doesn’t make you weak, Houyi. Even gods are afraid. Do you remember the looks on their faces when the suns rose? They were deathly frightened, even the emperor.”

“He was born mortal.”

I am mortal. I’ve always been. If I’ve learned anything in so short a life it is that fear keeps you alive and coaches you to survive. You are still Houyi the Archer and you save people, and you are the woman I love without limits or conditions.”

Houyi lowers her head to the crook of Chang’e’s neck, pressing her mouth to her wife’s skin: acknowledges the transience of the beating pulse that reflects her own. “Thank you.”

She has not said why it is that they have come to this town and Chang’e was too relieved to escape her brother’s to ask: any destination would have done, so long as it was away.

But now there is a box, which Houyi unearths from the untidy collection that is her belongings: the lid is ivory, carved into a likeness of Houyi’s house. She opens it–there is no lock save the trust that lies between wives–and lays down the feathers, sleek and black, warm and huge. On each is calligraphy so atrocious it can only have been written with talon-tips. The sun-crow, last of his kind, must have balanced himself precariously: two legs for his weight, the third dripping ink and poised over his own feathers spread out like manuscript pages.

The first reads, We both grieve.

The second reads, more confidently, It was for love that we rose.

Our father said, in passing only, that he would like to see his sons in their utterness subsuming the sky. He thought us our mother’s but never his–and what belongs to Dijun must be Dijun’s alone: you will have become wise of this, we’ve watched you turn by turn. None of us wished to forsake our mother, but we were hungry, so hungry, for his affection. It’s the nature of crows to be greedy. So on that day we decided, what harm could it do? We pulled one another, for without Mother’s chariot the ascent is difficult, and thought we would present ourselves as our father wanted. A moment. It would not hurt anyone.

But it was bright and sweet, and made us drunk. To burn together! As never before, and never again. We did not think. That is why we did not listen when you called to us until our eldest brother died, and then what was there to do but fight, in grief, in fury?

Death was a stranger, to us, to me. To my mother too. She’s never lost, in her absoluteness, her self-contained grace.

The final one is small, half the size of a hand, and says only, I do not ask forgiveness, as you have asked for none. Some things are beyond forgiving and absolving.

“We must bring this to His Majesty,” Chang’e says, though she hasn’t the remotest idea how. Mortals do not petition the celestial monarch, not directly, and who would sponsor Houyi? Not the final sun-crow. “How did these come to you?”

“Falling from the sky at dusk, one by one. I’d have shown them to you, but I wanted to be sure. To have the entire tale.” Houyi puts them back and shuts the box. “I’ve done enough harm to them. To take this to His Majesty will press him to punish the crow. But knowing, for a certainty now, that Dijun did as he did–it is not right, it is not just.”

“It never was, Houyi. There must be an authority to which you can appeal.”

“I mean to ascend Kunlun. Xiwangmu rules there and she has… treasures. I don’t think she will send us back to heaven, but she may grant us life everlasting.”

Chang’e’s pulse leaps. She cannot lie to herself that immortality is a luxury she’s never coveted but, “She will not give it freely.”

“We will earn it. Or I shall. You don’t have to. We wouldn’t be here in the first place if I hadn’t been–”

“Ridiculous but heartbreakingly earnest. Why else would I have consented to be yours? I will come with you, and we will do this together.” Chang’e brushes Houyi’s eyelid, lips to lashes, and does not tell her that back in heaven this plagued her: the gulf between them, the eternity that would be Houyi’s by right and hers never. “I will not say no to forever by your side, wandering and witnessing the world. Only make me one promise.”

“I would promise you anything.”

“When we have obtained this miracle, we find Dijun and settle the score.”

Houyi’s smile, which has become rarer than opals, is like the dawn. “You are not frightened of confronting the father of suns?”

“You were not frightened of refusing him. In all the heavens, and all the earth, there’s no woman braver than you.”

They share a laugh, and share a meal, and taste the desserts on the tips of each other’s tongue.

The paths to the summit of Kunlun are many, and a hundred times again as many maps chart the ways. In that little town the maps are sold, scrolls plain and gilded, striated like elephant hide and utter white, held in bamboo and silver tubes. Adventurous entrepreneurs extend the reach of their commerce through Kunlun’s roads, peddling liquor and glutinous rice, dried fruits and hundred-year eggs. Not a few used to be aspirants but, either in failure or realization, find fulfillment instead through the exchange of coins, in the trade of tales, and the wistful watching of others climbing the mount as they used to do.

There are rivers of fire, waterfalls of blades, and half-seen moths which sip breath and life from the ears of sleeping travelers. Kunlun, even a glimpse, must be purchased by torn flesh and shattered teeth, and blood like black pearls glinting in the night.

Houyi and Chang’e guard one another as flesh guards bone, burning tallow to lure and scorch the moths. When they fell a monster of hard hide they skin it, and sew it into armor against waterfalls. In deep pits they find aspirant carcasses, faces papered in yellow talismans, leaping futilely in death to an escape just out of reach. Houyi lights a torch and frees them from flesh and memory. Chang’e salvages their bones, fire-toughened, to fashion into raft and pole with which to cross the rivers that rise and ebb without rhythm or warning.

It makes them sharp, Kunlun; it is feral, for all its proximity to the virtuous court, and lessons them in wildness. A world is born between them where only they exist–Chang’e and Houyi, Houyi and Chang’e. Traders that they meet at all, for they avoid the mapped and trodden roads, are irrelevant. Sometimes conveniences, other times momentary irritants. Every few days one of them would have to remind her wife, We seek Xiwangmu and her treasures, which are said to confer unending life.

The air thins to needlepoints in their lungs and the rivers turn to rime. It is difficult to breathe, but the stairway that leads to the home of Xiwangmu shimmers in the distance: reachable, if only just. Out of an unspoken agreement they stop to gaze upon it, long and long, for though Xiwangmu’s house is not quite heaven, neither is it of mortals. And what will it be like to taste that air again, sleep under that sky, which looms beyond the one that men and women of the earth see, that roof of the world?

Making their way upward they fast, subsisting on bitter ice-water and each other’s heat: to gain entry to Xiwangmu’s home necessitates purification. Memories of rich warm food wear down until they are as thin and colorless as the cracked brittle road beneath their feet. They hold onto one another, charm against forgetting and hunger. Hand in hand they whisper the other’s name. They do not rest. Only the winds remain, and their hair crusted in frost whipping in the snow.

It is a lifetime, to mount the steps which are steep as walls and half again as tall. They cut apart monster hide and with it wrap their hands, their feet; even so each foothold and handhold draws blood, and the steps hoard every drop. Chill pulls at their eyes, draws tears that freeze on their cheeks as fast as they bead.

When they crest the topmost, the final step, the sky has changed and it is autumn. They are sinew, then, and bone: pushed and pulled by will, held up by the strength of one another’s arms.

Xiwangmu waits for them on the steps of her house, which is only a house, no larger than the needs of a woman content with her own company. Her fingertips are stained brown with soil; across her lap is a broom, its bristles tangled in twigs and leaves, moth wings and spider webs. She wears no regalia, no finery. Heaven’s empress could have been the wife of a merchant or a reclusive scholar.

“I know why you have come,” she says, “but that will wait. Inside: you will want something hot and balanced, and full of colors.”

There is no meat at Xiwangmu’s table, but it little matters. Chang’e and Houyi eat with the delicacy of those too long famished, without appetite, in bites they do not taste and sips they do not feel: hunger has infiltrated their arteries and it is easier to tolerate than to outright cure. If there are parameters and rules to what they should and should not touch, they are not told. When their hunger, conditioned into briefness by fasting, is sated the empress gives them steamed cakes dusted with sesame and studded in dried lychee. She offers tangerines in red papers that tell them it is the new year. Sweetness goes down easier.

“I know why you have come,” Xiwangmu repeats, “and I am willing to grant that which you desire, for it was taken from one of you unrightly.”

“It was never mine,” Chang’e says, and wishes she had not.

“You have equally earned the way: I will not grant it to one and deny the other. In return I ask for one favor. A mortal woman who served me passed and left in her wake an orphan son, Fengmeng. I would do her a good turn. Teach him the bow.”

The archer flexes her fingers, surprised to find them supple again so soon, stair-cuts turned to scars. The food was more than food, and the sweets more than a magic of fruit and flour. Beside her Chang’e grows quiet. “I have only ever taught my wife, Majesty. It seems trivial, that is true, and more than a fair exchange, but–”

“It is a favor, not a requirement.” Xiwangmu draws from her sleeve a casket no larger than her hand, and places it before the couple. “Within this is a single pill, the last of its kind. In its entirety it will tender divinity, if not acceptance at my husband’s palace, and deny death. Take half each and it will suspend: though it won’t heal flesh already broken, it will give you eternity side by side.”

Houyi’s hand hesitates over the casket. “Majesty.”

“Your loss of immortality came of your own doing, Houyi, of your arrogance. But you are only a child and making mistakes is what children do. My husband never interrogated Dijun, and that’s a galling lack of foresight. Take the pill, but delay its swallowing. It’s been made in a certain way, not meant for unpurified mortals, and it will take six turns of the moon breathing Kunlun before you are immune to its venom.”

Knowing exactly how acute her wife’s sense of duty can be, Chang’e makes herself speak. “Is there nothing I can offer, Majesty?”

“Were you not already a wife, and were I my husband, I would have demanded that you allowed Fengmeng to court you.” Xiwangmu ruffles Chang’e’s hair. “You are a good child. Once you have gained your wish, find your mother and tell her you are well. That you are happy. Whatever she might have felt at your marriage, it is the terror of all mothers to think their children dead.”

Inevitably Houyi agrees to train Fengmeng: the archer finds herself unable to accept Xiwangmu’s gift for nothing. He is a child of Kunlun, reserved and straining to look wise, and ought to have been taken as someone’s apprentice. The empress chooses otherwise. He must prove himself, like any other, and he cannot do that without being sent into the world to live. “So many ascendants are too young,” Xiwangmu tells Chang’e, “and I do not mean their years.”

The archer is not a lenient mentor. She forces Fengmeng away from the summit and makes him practice on the banks of burning rivers, tells him to aim at the leaping dead, pits him against ancient monsters. Xiwangmu has granted Houyi a seal with her name upon it, which lets the archer return to the empress’ house in a single step. But in the first week she informs Fengmeng he must climb the stairway, as though a petitioner. If Xiwangmu thinks this harsh she does not remark upon it. Fengmeng clenches his jaw and does as he is bidden.

Chang’e wheedles Xiwangmu into letting her pass onto girl petitioners what she’s gained from her own living and what she’s gained from Houyi. Difficult at first, for she’s little older than her pupils, even younger than some. Understanding is established slowly, respect slower, and eventually a connection emerges. Not quite the prescribed one of mistress and students, but no less true for that.

It occupies her and makes her happier, though she still paces the confines of the room Xiwangmu has given them, and stands at the edge of Kunlun’s summit to watch for her wife’s return. It is so easy to wait, an old habit of hers, from childhood to near-bride to serving Tianmu: and she remembers too how her brothers were the ones sent out to learn letters and make things, to apprentice and seize more than they were born with, while she waited to marry. Waiting, her mother educated her, is a woman’s lot. Waiting for a groom, waiting for a husband, waiting for a child to be born.

It is the first thing she tells her aspirants: You do not have to wait. Do what you must if they are necessary to keep your mothers or sisters warm and fed, but do not wait for luck or unluck to come to you. The second is: If, when, you ascend seek out Xiangu, Guanyin, Tianmu. There is protection, of a sort, and you may find it easier to be.

She observes Fengmeng, too, and what she sees indents her brow into a frown. “He is obsessed with your teaching,” she remarks as they undress for the night. Climbing Kunlun they have had to swathe themselves in layers of fabric, hide, worse; they have sorely missed heat sealed between the curves of their bodies, the immediacy of bare skin.

“That is a surprise, seeing that he nearly dies to it every other day.” Houyi, almost nude, hangs up her knives on the wall next to her bow. She has been cleaning the weapons while waiting for her hair to dry and, though it is routine, the sight of near-naked Houyi and unsheathed blades always excites Chang’e. She has never been able to tell if Houyi does it on purpose.

“He worships you, more than a little. The way he speaks, or doesn’t speak rather, around you. How he looks at you hold your bow. I think you’re the first woman he’s gotten close to.”

The archer makes a contemplative noise deep in her throat and, settling on her haunches, frames Chang’e’s face with her hands, which are callused, bas-reliefs of hunts in the pads of thumbs and joints. “Am I doing something wrong?”

That surprises Chang’e into a rueful grin. “I think I am only being jealous of your hours and I don’t much like the boy.”

“Fengmeng’s harmless. There are six months to put him into some kind of shape, and I want to be done with it within that span, no more. When Xiwangmu’s gift is safe we can both take it and leave him to his own devices.” Houyi climbs into the curtained bed. “I am grateful to her, but not that grateful. There’s such a life ahead of us and I’m impatient to meet it. But… before we get to that, do you want to go hunting?”

“Right now the only prey I want is you. Tomorrow? Yes, hunting will do.”

When Chang’e is not with her aspirants, then, she would be with Houyi keeping the wild beasts of Kunlun in check: they have a habit of proliferating beyond the quantity required to test those climbing the mountain. Fengmeng turns more withdrawn when he sees them ranging together; neither woman pays him heed.

Nearly half a year passes before a new petitioner arrives, bloodied, with a letter for Chang’e.

It is from Meijie and tells them that winter has been harsh on Yunping, and Meijie’s father is unwilling to send for a physician. The girl vows, in an unsure childish hand, that she will do what she can; she’s learned her letters, and enlisted the passing warrior to deliver this. She hopes that her aunt will be proud of her.

A week remains before the moon turns. “I can go ahead,” Chang’e says, worrying at the cheap paper with her nails.

Houyi shakes her head. “We will go together.”

They pay their respects, Chang’e making farewells to aspirants who hold her hands and tell her they will practice her advice. She promises to return to Kunlun when she is immortal, and the way forward and backward simpler for her to tread. For now she has Houyi, and a world to cup in her palms. “When I am here next,” she tells her students, “I will have more to impart. I will be less foolish.”

(As they depart Fengmeng tries to speak around the silence that sits in his mouth like a pebble, but they are gone before he is able to conquer it.)

Xiwangmu’s seal in hand, they are at the town at the foot of Kunlun in one step.

It is deserted.

Lantern light pools on the streets and ripples as they pass. In each shop chairs are empty, even though the shelves are as amply stocked as they ever were. At a teahouse the tables are set, bowls and chopsticks, soup-spoons and condiment jars. But the kitchen is silent, the chopping boards clean on their hooks.

They enter the widower’s shop, and find it too empty–would have walked on, if Houyi hasn’t heard the small noise they both recognize for hitched sobs muffled behind knuckles. When the archer uncovers her the girl screams, squeezing herself into the crevice that’s allowed her to hide between armoires, flailing and kicking as Houyi brings her out and Chang’e tries to soothe. Neither of them knows much about children, but by and by the girl realizes that the two are not demons. For it is demons, she tells them in a fractured tale pieced from glass sounds and shadow glimpses, that have emptied the houses. Her father, her aunts, her friends. Everything has been going wrong since the archer left.

Houyi examines the girl, closely, with a scrutiny that makes her burst into tears. “You are not one of them,” she says, at length. The disguises of children and maidens are the favorites of fiends and she has no intent of falling into such a trap. “Will you wait here? My wife and I will look for survivors.” But when Chang’e makes to leave the girl starts shrieking, clinging to her, brooking no attempts at disentanglement. The archer sighs and puts down their belongings. “I will be back quickly.”

When the archer has gone the child quiets down by degrees. Chang’e makes nonsense noises, one hand stroking the girl’s matted hair and the other clenched tight around the knife Houyi made for her. She tries very hard not to feel afraid.

She isn’t able to tell, exactly, when the unease begins. A lengthening of a shadow? A chill in the air that does not belong?

A shape on the wall, horned bull head and serpent tail. In a moment it is silhouette; in another it has bled through, tar ooze, and Chang’e remembers the first time she let fly at a beast without Houyi’s hands over her own. The first time Houyi bled, and feared.

Its grin is a wound, yellow mortification under a snout the color of rust.

“You have been slain before,” Chang’e says, and through will made fierce by Kunlun’s wildness, does not tremble. “I do not fear you.”

Its tail hisses derision, a soft wet sound of rotten meat parting.

“Do you remember what Houyi the Archer said? She will destroy you and all you love.”

Houyi the Archer is human. As are you.

It comes for her, a blur smearing across her vision.

If she isn’t as fleet as Houyi or as strong, still she has been tutored by the best. She dodges, and weaves, and draws it out of the house. Outside Houyi will hear; in the chilly night Houyi will come.

She is still thinking that when the monster’s broodmates, shadows given flesh, tear into her. Houyi will hear.

She is still thinking that when they pin her down, drawing blood-threads out of her skin as though for spooling and weaving, flaying and separating her flesh into strips as though for drying and preserving. Houyi will come.

And Houyi does come, when she can no longer see. But Chang’e hears a wail high and long: only that is not possible. Houyi does not make a sound like that, collected and graceful Houyi, who is always dignified and impervious even in deep pain, in deep grief. So it cannot be Houyi’s tears that burn Chang’e’s peeled nerves. It cannot be Houyi’s mouth which lets loose such cries.

Fingertips pry at her lips. Something small is slid through.

Awareness takes Chang’e like dry land takes a fish. Xiwangmu’s gift fills her, past capacity, past possibility. In her stomach it takes root, in her throat it blooms, and in her mouth it silences her scream.

The sky rushes toward her, and she is certain that the pill hasn’t lost its poison after all–that this is death, not apotheosis: and she is at peace with that, for divinity alone, divinity thieved, is nothing at all. She will die without having stolen immortality from Houyi, and that will be enough.

There are stars in her mouth, and night in her bones.

The moon is a mirror that swallows the sun-crow’s light, and gives it back–a miser’s jealousy–pale and drained in the night.

Chang’e doesn’t weep. She is past that, and in any case it is so cold that shedding tears hurts; it wrings too much out of her, heat and memories. Tirelessly she has walked its streets, for she is a god now and has transcended the limits of humanity–but though she has traced the paths, finding new ones and twists and turns she never saw before in those familiar, she cannot find a way out. She locates the moon’s edge and unthinking steps over to find herself back at the center. But she persists.

Once, during one of her explorations, she hears a voice like music and Dijun is there, seated on a carved stone bench. I have gone to Houyi and asked her, one last time, for her hand. She said no. But you–I can bring you to her, and for love of you she will consent. As my wife she’ll regain divinity, and you will both find I am not without mercy. You will see one another, at times of my choosing. Do you not desire this, girl?

Chang’e refuses with a knife that opens the sun-father’s cheek. His bone shines gold, and his blood gushes fire.

The rabbit tries to warm her as she navigates the city, telling her stories. It loves her desperately but it is small, and it is not Houyi. Accepting that, it tells her of a room with many windows, each panel painted black as in the court of Xuanwu. Each overlooks a different view, depending on the room’s whims and sometimes cruelty. Of the latter it warns: Please, please be careful.

She does not take caution. It is something. It is, by far, superior to nothing. Xiwangmu’s pill filled her with such lightness that she went up and up, until the moon caught her, and she woke. All her wounds were gone, save one. Existence without Houyi is an injury that festers deeper than apotheosis may overturn.

The moon is a labyrinth, its craggy mountains holding houses that have never been habited, palaces with empty thrones, stone gardens where black waters slosh in basins and ghost swans drift through the air. Through paths paved with calcified eyes the rabbit leads her, up and into a palace where lanterns are tasseled with peacock ligaments and feathers: and is that not a shadow of Houyi’s home, the one in paradise, which feels like many lives ago?

Please be careful. It will not amuse you, the sights. The city loves to deepen hurts. To kill without killing, if it may.

She opens one window and sees sunlight.

Houyi sits in a workshop full of canvas and cut bamboo surrounding her like pieces of a beast she’s slain and disassembled to craft into furniture and weapons. The bamboo ribs suggest the beginning of wings, or perhaps an immense sky lantern. Her lips move, though Chang’e hears only silence and she aches–it hurts, to see without hearing, to see without touching. But at least she sees.

Chang’e requires no sleep, and not much food, now. She holds the rabbit in her lap, and watches as the sky lantern inflates. It floats high into the night, and Houyi gazes after it until it is long out of sight.

The archer climbs a mount greater and higher than Kunlun, and there lays the foundations of a tower. It is built up, and up, but in the end it can bear only so much. Not quite collapsing but listing, and it is not anywhere near high enough.

She finds Chang’e’s mother in the capital and tells her, in words Chang’e reads from the parting and shutting of her mouth, Your daughter is a goddess now.

Yunping does not find any joy in this. She seems so much older, and doubly stooped, having survived but never recovered from that winter. Chang’e cannot remember how long it has been since their leave-taking of her brother’s house. There are lines in Houyi’s face, too, clustering thick at the corners of lips and eyes.

The archer asks after Meijie, and learns that it is now the girl who provides both for her mother and grandmother, a scholar of some means. If she doesn’t do as well as her male peers, she does well enough. The governor has been removed from his post, ensconced in a temple, white-haired and drifting toward a lonely deathbed.

Chang’e sees the Kunlun aspirants, some ascended now, others still seeking entry to heaven. Each does this in her own way, some by marrying a sage, others by the skin of their teeth. For none of them is the path simple or quick.

Between this, Houyi is joined by Fengmeng. She regards him distantly, him existing only at the furthest periphery of her vision and awareness–but her at the center of his. Chang’e can see it in his eyes, the same franticness with which the rabbit adores her but more dangerous, edged by humanity. By years spent out of Kunlun, perhaps, and he beats his fists against the earth crying Why can’t I best you? while Houyi stands aside, her bow clasped loosely. His he has snapped to halves then segments.

Later: Why do you want to best me?

Fengmeng holds himself small as though to protect his heart. To be worthy of having been your disciple; to be worthy of heaven–I cannot be lesser. Not to you.

That is not how the proving of worth functions; you want to be better than I am specifically, and that means nothing at all.

His glance at her face, furtive. You trained Chang’e.

My wife was the best that I ever taught. None compares. Without her I wouldn’t have overcome Kunlun’s trials.

Fengmeng’s hands have turned to fists. What if I’d met you before she did?

Another might have laughed, but Chang’e knows Houyi has always been too kind. It would have been no different. There’s no place for you; there never was. Why do you persist? I’m long done with suitors of any sort, and done with the obfuscations I fed them. They tired me when I was young. Doubly now they exhaust me.

Are you not afraid of being alone?

Solitude may be borne, with some patience. But she looks up at the sky where the sun-crow flies; where at night the moon would rise and she would glimpse the pits and etchings and, rarely, a woman’s shadow.

The last window opens to Houyi in a valley, surrounded on all sides by men gaunt with starvation, and Fengmeng in their midst whispering to them. She is of heaven; her liver, her hair–any piece of her will bring fortune and prosperity. It is an easy lie to believe for desperate men.

She grips her knives without tension, without fear; she was a protector god, forbidden once to harm humans, but she isn’t that anymore. She kills them with the sure knowledge that it is a slaughter, that none of them is a match for her. When it is down to just Fengmeng, who holds yet another bow having misshot again and again, who snivels on his knees begging for absolution–when it is down to him she only turns away, and tells him that he’s learned nothing from her instructions. For Xiwangmu’s sake I spare you. Nothing more. Of forgiveness she offers none.

The next time, the ambush is an army, amplified by the blood she spilled the first and second and third occasions. She is monster to their heroes, a god gone wrong, come down to earth to wreak ruin. And again there is Fengmeng with his lies, eliding always his own part, his unclean jealousy. She seeks godhood and toward that she has boiled young men in a great cauldron–from their blood, an elixir that’ll grant endless life. Your brothers, your sons.

This time there isn’t enough of Houyi, and too many of them.

This time Fengmeng does not miss, and when she falters for a moment between knife-slashes he takes aim.

He weeps as he loosens the bowstring. But even wracked by sobs and sickness and rage he does not miss. He did, after all, learn from the best.

Chang’e boards the windows shut, one by one, and then the door. She no longer seeks to escape the city.

Hell is red and black, and red and black, enough light to see yourself–what you have become–and the wounds the demons inflict upon you, with spears and thorn-trees, and long luxurious oil-baths in boiling brass cauldrons. For Houyi it is an arrow-shaft protruding from her breast, it is tears and gashes in her skin, and bruises where they beat her until her heart stopped.

She examines the shaft. She pulls it out slowly. There is pain; in this place there is nothing but. Enough to make her retch, though the archer does not. Within herself it is control that she values second after memories of her wife.

When the demons come, she is ready.

In her hand is only an arrow, stained in her own blood and Fengmeng’s sweat, but she remembers a knife and that is what it feels like, weighs like. Even in this light she is used to the finesse of cutting and tearing, and with the same precision she shoots she drives the knife into gaps between armor; she inserts its tip into eye sockets, and cuts off ears–horse ears, swine ears–with abattoir ease.

They give pause.

“I will go willingly,” she says to the soldiers of hell, who know who she is, who have lost kith and kin to her methodical massacres, “if you can show me that my name is on the registry of the dead.”

The one among them not armed, a capped and robed bureaucrat with a seahorse’s face, consults his scroll. On it unspools, collecting and puddling until it is up to the bureaucrat’s waist; when it has reached his shoulders he at last concedes Houyi’s name is not to be found. Still she must be placed, named and posited in the hierarchy of hell, and so they bring her to one of the high magistrates: a giant encased in bronze. His face is a mask, twisted into a deep scowl.

He asks, “Father?”

“My origins must be known to you. I have none.”

Ignoring her he goes on, “Mother? Sister? Husband?”

Thrice she says no; again she tells him that she was born of no parent, made only by the particular wants of heaven. Wants that seem to have expired, but nevertheless.

In the end she is sent to the Old Woman of Forgetting.

For expediency Meng makes her house by the gate under which all dead must pass. Its doors are always open, for hourly there are hundreds of men and women deceased who must be processed and made to drink Meng’s mixture. Some unwilling, but most embrace it and cradle the little cups she hands out as though it is salvation.

Meng receives Houyi privately, in a room full of earthenware and somnambulant lizards. When the archer has seated herself she is offered a cup. It is dainty, this cup, and no color at all–though its sheen reflects her face in rainbows, and behind her she can see the moon racing by.

She looks up and gazes into Meng’s age-soft face. “No.”

“It can buy you grace. You may start again a child. With parents and kin, and a life unwinding before you.”

“Chang’e is not part of this cycle. I’ll only make her grieve, watching from where she is knowing that I’ve discarded memories of her. It would be selfish.”

Meng withdraws the cup. “What will you do then?”

“Wait.” The archer fingers the arrow that is also a knife. “Watch.”

She sits by as the dead file through Meng’s parlor, sipping slow or gulping greedy. Houyi thinks she sees her wife’s mother among them once, but it is difficult to be sure. In the moment before they pass the gate a few become whole again, young again, and then are gone.

Houyi is a mindful guest. She helps with the brewing and distilling, though she’s careful never to inhale when steam bursts from beneath lids and wafts up in fragrant clouds. She also does the windows over so they would be draft- and fire-proof; Meng chuckles to see this, and asks what it is with her obsession with carpentry when first she was born with a bow. “It keeps me useful,” the archer answers. “It keeps my mind turning, my fingers nimble.”

It is when she is climbing up to patch Meng’s roof that the dragons come.

They pull a chariot, and upon the chariot are the mother of suns and her last child. If the demons give Houyi wide berth Xihe sends them outright scurrying, for she blazes and singes, and those who are so used to roasting souls like little to be roasted in turn.

Houyi is off the roof and on the ground even before Xihe’s eyes fall on her.

“Archer,” the goddess says as she steps out of her chariot. “Despite your new home you don’t seem especially tortured.”

Houyi does not speak of her mortal decades. “I’m sorry that I did not speak to you before. None dared approach you, and I could not myself reach so high.”

“I’m not here for your excuses. You seem adrift, archer, and in want of a new duty. So I’ve come to bring you to that.”

The archer gives her host thanks, promising to return and finish her work with the roof. Meng does not ask if this is what she’s been waiting for, and Houyi does not offer to explain.

Houyi touches the chariot; pulls her hand away from its metal to find blisters on her fingers. “It burns.”

“This was made for me, and drank in the fire of myself and my sons. You will absorb some, until the heat lives in your gums and your lungs, until you can illuminate a day mandated to be wan.” Xihe does not smile; her anger is beyond malice. “But it will always burn. Remember this, archer. Each dawn will hurt. This is punishment, not exaltation.”

“I do not fault you, lady.”

“Do not mistake me: I care little for Dijun’s faithlessness. We are barely spouses. I do not despise you out of puerile jealousy. It is the murder of my sons that I cannot forgive; it is for that you have been sentenced.”

“What I did is beyond forgiving.” Houyi touches the reins gingerly. It leaves a ruby welt on the heel of her palm. “But I would ask for a boon.”

Xihe looks at her, as though from a great height. “Why do you believe you deserve one, much less that I’d grant it?”

“It is not much.” The archer bows low, her humility an offering, lower than she ever bowed to the emperor. It is obeisance; it is a suspension of pride. “And I believe you might do, in recognition that we were all injured by the same blow.”

The goddess’ mouth twists. “Dijun keeps a scar from your wife’s hand. The first, for one so vain. He never understood why I forsook him, why the children are not his. It is a simple point. My sons could have spoken to me. Asked. I might have found them a safe way. I knew, I always knew, how tedious they found it to spend nine days out of every ten on Fusang. How they loved to be together.”

The one surviving son hides his face in the shadow of vast wings. He has grown thin and tattered in grief and singularity, in bleeding his light and heat, in rising alone and resting alone on Fusang’s empty branches. His wings droop, eyes like obsidian gone to dull stone, dry as baked prunes.

“I could have come and spoken to you. I did not. Of such silences are misfortunes built, I’ve learned, not fate or any decree greater than us.”

“Ah,” Xihe murmurs. Her eyes remain hard. “I will not forgive you. Understand this. I will never forgive you.”

“Yes,” Houyi says, and keeps her gaze trained on the dragons Xihe has tamed for her chariot. One rolls a limpid eye toward her, cautious, whiskers quivering.

“What is it that you want then? That you cannot grasp for yourself despite your conceit?”

She tells Xihe.

The moon is brittle spite and envy, and if it ever was a bird the memory of wings and flight is long past. The paths to it are hard, from it harder still. It is why those not quite of heaven, the chastised and the exiled like Chang’e, are sent here.

But the moon is hungry. It lusts for warmth, which slides past as though its jagged cliffs and mountains are sieves, and in that rare moment when the sun-crow comes near the moon lowers its guard. It drowses and basks, opening itself, a plea written across its barren city. The lanterns come alive all together, flickering into characters, tentative greetings.

Chang’e stands in one of the high courtyards. The rabbit curls in her arms, rejoicing that she–almost–smiles as chariot, dragons and crow pass overhead. From this distance the goddess’ figure is invisible.

This time the chariot pauses and lowers. City shadows cavort wild, unused to this abrupt change in light and temperature. The swans flee into ponds and lakes, some part of them recalling a day long ago where ten suns convened.

Houyi lands, lightly, on her feet. She climbs the path spiraling up to Chang’e in quick, long strides. There are tears in her eyes, the sun’s radiance on her skin.

“Oh,” Chang’e whispers, and, “oh, why are you crying?” Said even though she, too, gasps and her words are leaving her like broken glass.

When they embrace their cheeks are wet, salt-smeared and fever-warm. They touch and touch again to make certain the other exists. If they are seen, if they are watched, they do not care.

Houyi may not stay; her new duty tugs at her as hell tugs at the newly dead. But they have time to kiss, and love, and make each other laugh. Chang’e holds to her tight when it is time for Houyi to return to the chariot. “For now it will do,” she tells Houyi, “but you must come back soon. And write.”

The archer promises. “Always.”

On that night, the moon shines at its brightest: and mortals below see in that an auspice for newness and wonder, to be celebrated in rich cakes and lantern lights each night Houyi brings the chariot and finds her wife.

When they part, they do knowing that they will see one another again: a year to them is as short as an hour. And maybe, someday, they will find a path easier to travel, a freedom for Chang’e to come and go as she pleases. They plan for that, long days in sunlit grass and lotus seeds in syrup.

Nothing is beyond reach when they have come so far, and they are not afraid.

____
Copyright 2012 Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Benjanun Sriduangkaew splits her time between Hong Kong and Jakarta. She can be found blogging at A Bee Writes and tweeting as @bees_ja

by Ben Burgis

I live at the top of the world, and sell happiness for thirteen credits a pill. The product is worth every micro-credit, too, you can be sure of that. Take your chances buying from the gangsters and lowlifes on Gagarin Street or Sally Ride Boulevard, you’d best be prepared for some quality time rolling around in the cigarette butts and broken glass of an abandoned alleyway, repeating the same word ten thousand times while blood leaks out of your eyes. Here at the top of the world, we believe in quality control.

I rent a room on the five hundredth floor of one of the tallest buildings in the Sphere. Most mornings, I take my breakfast onto the roof. No seasons in our little artificial world, so I can eat outside all year long, smoking and brewing coffee and watching the sun rise from a perch so close to the glass, you can damn near see your reflection. Every seventh or eighth day, always right around eleven hundred hours, my re-supply guy floats down to join me.

Re-supply girl, if you want to get all technical about it. With long, curly red hair, pouting lips, bright, intelligent eyes, and the kind of curves that make you want to stand up and sing the praises of all-mighty God for having created them. She fucking hates me.

Something halfway between a parachute and a jet pack is strapped to her back as she floats down to the rooftop. It’s small enough to sneak onto the industrial supply ships she rides in as they make their stop-offs in the Sphere on their way from Earth to places like Mars and Jupiter and the Outer Planets, and powerful enough to make her runs once she gets here. After she un-straps herself, I hand her the cup of coffee I just finished percolating, and start up a fresh one for myself.

“Thanks.” She grunts the word with all the sincerity of a roomful of school kids reciting the Pledge first thing in the morning, all droning on in that lifeless sing-song way. We pledge allegiance to the Protector and his Generals. In all things, great and small, we honor and obey the Protector…

“Oh, think nothing of it.” I make a show of sniffing the air. “Do tell me, though, what lovely conveyance you came in on this morning. It wasn’t a…perfume merchant…by any chance?”

She looks at me and there’s this crazy moment where I actually think she’s going to start crying or maybe punch me in the face. Then she laughs. “Fish. They scoop them out of the ocean just before they leave the planet, cut ‘em up and can them right there on the ship.”

“Grand choice, that.”

“Arsehole.”

I give her a toothy smile. She starts scooping cloth bags out of her side pack, all business. I clear what’s left of breakfast off my little plastic table. “Arsehole though I may be, it does occur to me that you’re always giving me a hard time about my choice of profession.”

She looks up from the table, where she’s bent down lining her pills into neat little rows. “Aye…?”

“Well, it seems to me that, with a security clearance as impressively low as mine, if I was to abandon my fine and noble business, I might be a fish canner myself.”

“You might, at that.”

I gulp down the rest of my coffee. “I’m trying not to be too hurt by your indifference to that possibility.”

She reaches out an unpainted fingernail and punctures the top of a pill so I can sample the product.

I dig around in my jacket pocket until I find a loose cigarette. I sprinkle the tiniest dash of powder from the pill onto one end and spread it around with my fingers. Then I blink five times in succession to activate the computer in my contact lenses. I can’t afford more than a couple hours of Net time a month, so I usually keep the damn thing off. Still, this is an indispensible part of the process.

I bring the cigarette level with my eyes. My computer runs its clever little microscopic-view analysis, cross-referencing what it sees with whatever database of dangerous additives it’s hooked into. The pill gets a clean bill of health.

All that’s left is the subjective check. Now, don’t get the wrong idea here. I don’t use the stuff. People in my line of work tend not to live very long after they start using. I do, however, believe in quality control.

I stick the cigarette between my teeth, take a book of matches out of my pocket and light one up. I hold the lit match in the air for a dramatic pause.

Re-supply girl coughs and shifts in place, bored.

I make fire.

One day back on Earth, when I was seven years old, my Dad drove me five hours to see the ocean. We sang Party songs and played games on the way, counting the red cars and the blue cars and guessing how many of each we’d see before we got there. I never wanted that drive to end.

When we did get there, though? I felt like my eyes would pop out of my head from staring too hard. So much water, more than I’d ever imagined, stretching out forever and ever and sparkling in the sunshine. The warm ocean breeze, slapping against my face. Dad, laughing and pointing things out, spending more time with me than I can ever remember him doing before or since.

The next year, he was deported to the Sphere with me in tow. I never saw the ocean again, never saw any body of water that wasn’t man-made. That afternoon on the beach was and is my single best memory of Earth.

I’m twenty-five years old now. I was kicked out of school six years ago this spring. The last time I so much as spoke to my dad was before that.

But. Still. Sometimes, late at night, as I drift in and out of sleep, some fragment of that afternoon will slide up to the front of my mind. I’ll be in my sweaty cocoon of sheets and blankets, too exhausted to think, and that memory will sneak in and fill me with recollected warmth and happiness.

Take that feeling. Next, add in the way I felt the first time I got a blowjob. (Alexandra Q., the girl I’d been fantasizing about for a year, sucked me off under the downtown boardwalk the same afternoon I got expelled from school for selling product. In retrospect, her technique was a little on the toothy side, but at the time, when I blew my load, I thought my head would shatter into twenty thousand pieces from the pleasure of it all.) Now, double the combined feeling of those two experiences.

Got it?

Good.

Double it again.

That is how I feel after I take my puff. For about ten seconds. Then I’m down.

“Yeh,” I manage. “Izz pretty good.”

My eyes focus back in on re-supply girl. She’s giving me this look I can’t read. I pay her. She straps herself back into her contraption and starts warming it up.

I’ve almost got the pills scooped off the table and into my bag when she speaks again. “Truly, though, you’d be better off canning fish.”

“I would, would I?”

“Aye. You’d be doing useful work. Maybe you could be active in the fish-canner’s union or some such thing. Be part of the struggle that way.” She shrugs, as much as her shoulder straps allow. “Better that than helping addicts destroy themselves with garbage like this.”

“…says the woman who peddles said garbage to me. How exactly do you reconcile that one, I wonder?”

“You’re a drug dealer. I’m a fundraiser for the revolution.” Her contraption sparks to life, half-muffling her last words. “There is a difference.”

Later that morning, I recount the conversation to my business associate Crush. I add in some fake dialogue to make it a better story, and he starts laughing so hard he almost drops his gun.

It’s a big gun. It fires big bullets, precision-guided by a very small computer. Just being close to the thing makes me jumpy, but doing what I do and not having someone like Crush standing next to me on my rooftop would be a truly special kind of stupid. That, and he’s my friend.

“…and still smelling of fish. Grand.”

I nod. “Hardly even wanted to defile her, she smelled so bad.”

“Liar.”

I grin. He swats me on the shoulder. I wobble a bit, and re-gain my balance.

My first customer of the day shambles up to me. Then another, and another still. Business is good at the top of the world.

When the morning rush dies down, Crush and I have a cigarette. He likes to blow smoke rings. He does it so well, in fact, creating all manner of elaborate shapes and structures, that I’ve long suspected him of wasting precious Net time downloading training videos on his contacts.

For a time, we smoke in companionable silence. Then Crush blows three rings in a row, all in the form of exclamation points. When he gets his breath back, he says, “I have a thought.”

I nod. “I had surmised as much, yes.”

“Our supplier doesn’t like what we do.”

I wave my cigarette to indicate that this is indeed the case.

“And you want to get in her pants.”

“I’ve admitted that I wouldn’t be entirely adverse to that possibility, yes.”

Crush grins like he just made the winning move in a long and complicated game of chess. “Well, I bet she’d let you have a go if we joined up.”

I take a long drag before responding. “This again?”

“Aye.” The playfulness goes out of Crush’s eyes. “This. Again.”

“You truly think that instead of minding our own business and making a fine living doing exactly what we have been doing, which by the way benefits the resistance anyway, we should join up? Risk getting our heads burnt off for the sake of there being a Republic again and not a Protector? You think with a Republic, the sun would shine brighter in the day, the moons glimmer more beautifully at night? Perhaps the food would taste better?”

Crush lets out a ragged breath. “You know it’s the right thing. I know it’s the right thing. I just can’t work out why neither one of us is doing shit all about it.”

I take a short drag and let the smoke out real slow. “Have I ever told you about my father?”

That stops him short. “No…?”

“He was political. More political, in some ways, than the beauty who sells us our product. Near as I can tell, she’s just a normal republican. Dad, now, he was part of some splinter resistance faction, far far left-wing. So deep into it that he knew the difference between Stalinists and Trotskyists and actually gave a shit.”

“Aye?” Crush looks impressed.

“Aye. And it got us deported here.”

I toss my cigarette onto the ground, and stomp on it.

“You never know.”

That’s what my dad told me when I asked him if we were going to have to stay up in the Sphere forever. You never know.

I’d put off that question again and again in the first days after we were deported. I was terrified that the answer might be ‘yes.’ I just needed to know that it wasn’t so. I needed some kind of reassurance. “Are we going to stay here forever?”

“You never know.” Then some crap about how in 1916, Lenin said he didn’t think he’d live to see the revolution, but the Tsar was overthrown in February of the very next year and Lenin came back and led a second, communist revolution in October or November or some such shit. “You know, in a lot of ways our situation with the Protector and the mainline resistance groups is a lot like what the Bolsheviks were facing with the Tsar and the Mensheviks. There are, as I see it, three big differences…”

That’s seriously the way the man talked. All historical references and six resistance tactics and three big differences between two strategic situations and how to build up the revolutionary vanguard and on like that, even though I was a kid, just a fucking kid asking if we had to stay in the Sphere forever, because I missed my friends and I wanted to see the ocean again, and Dad couldn’t spent two minutes just being a father and by the time I was a teenager, I was selling product and getting kicked out of school and Dad barely even noticed and then he was shot by a soldier at some demonstration, years after I stopped talking to him, and I didn’t even hear about it until a month after it happened and now I can’t say any of this to him, can’t yell at him or take a swing at him or try to make things right because he’s dead and fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Fuck.

The next time I see my re-supply girl, her cheeks are flushed. She can barely stay in one place, so delighted she is. She bounces up and down on the balls of her feet. “It’s happening,” she tells me, so happy and excited she slips up and starts dropping her g’s, a thing she usually stops herself from doing. She’s so ecstatic she even forgets to insult me. “It’s happenin’ soon.”

Then she’s babbling away about military strategy and the Protector’s forces being all tied up with a rebellion in the Outer Planets and the need to strike when the iron is hot, whatever the fuck that means, and I’m sampling the product and I get too lost in my own private reverie to banter with her about politics.

Here’s what I know.

Doing what I do means having the long-term job security of a ball positioned at the top of a pyramid. It’s not that you might roll down or that there’s a risk of rolling. Sooner or later, you will roll down one side or the other.

For one thing, not all cops are corrupt. For another, when you make your living selling substances as seriously mind-altering as our little happiness pills, your core customers tend towards the erratic and unpredictable end of the spectrum.

Then there’s the competition. Most of the big organized gangs couldn’t care less about me and Crush and the little apartment rooftop where we sell expensive off-brand merchandise, any more than interplanetary fast food chains worry about competition from a guy with a corner bakery. On the other hand, if a misunderstanding were to occur, if stray fire were to be exchanged between Crush and one of their guys, they’d come down on us like the holy and unstoppable vengeance of the Lord.

And, of course, there are our fellow independents. About once every three or four weeks, some young idiot shows up on our rooftop, some wet-behind-the-ears motherfucker who doesn’t know his limits and figures we’ve got a pretty good spot and it’s easier to take it from us than find a rooftop of his very own. Nine times out of ten, all it takes is for Crush to turn around, bare his teeth and growl. The kid’ll turn tail and run. One time a few weeks ago, this happened and Crush had to fill me in about it later. I’d been too preoccupied talking to a customer to realize that anything was wrong. Crush is a really big guy.

Sometimes, though, the sight of my heavily-armed and caveman-large business associate doesn’t get it done. Sometimes the dealer who’s trying to move in on us will be one of God’s most special little retards, some stupid fuck who’s addled himself so silly with his own product that he sees Crush staring down at him, seven feet tall and growling and pointing that ridiculous gun in his direction, he sees this Viking berserker of a man and he thinks, “hey, maybe I can take him.” That’s when things get tricky.

Today is one of those days. The guy shoots round after round in the air, his hands so jittery that not a single bullet comes anywhere near Crush or myself. Customers curl up on the roof. They rock back and forth, muttering and trying to calm themselves down before their chemically-assisted happiness sours into something terrifying. Crush screams and rushes at our attacker. He just runs straight at him, not worried about getting shot. Crush barrels into the guy’s chest. They both go down. Crush gets up. He smashes his beast of a gun over the little fucker’s head.

No question, this guy should have lost consciousness after all that. He hasn’t. Whatever grotesque cocktail of his own product might be bubbling away in his bloodstream, he’s still writhing around, still screaming about how he’s gonna come back with his buddies and eat us for breakfast. Crush stares down at him, confused. He rubs his chin. You can all but see the gears turning in poor Crush’s head as he tries to work out what to do with the stupid fuck.

I clear my throat. Crush barely registers it with a wave of his hand. “Eh?”

I look at nowhere in particular. “You know what we have to do here.”

When the realization dawns, Crush shakes his head, decisive. “No. Way.”

I sigh. I want to point out that Crush has killed at least nine people I know about, probably a lot more. I want to point out that this is no different in principle, that this guy’s too far gone to smarten up and decide to leave us alone when he comes to. I don’t. There’s no point.

Of the two of us, one is intimidating and one is not. There’s a reason that Crush is in security and I handle sales. There’s a reason he gets the big gun. Me, I just have a little pocket thing, an officer’s side arm from a couple wars ago, sold on the black market with the identifying numbers filed off the side.

I take it out. Crush shakes his head again. I don’t argue.

The thing is, I can see all this from Crush’s point of view. The man on the ground might be the worst kind of live wire crazy fuck there is, and Crush knows that. This guy will try to muscle us out of our rooftop again if we let him go, and Crush knows that too. He just doesn’t care.

I cock the gun. It warms to life in my hand. Crush calls me a name. I ignore him. He turns heel and stalks away.

Bottom line, for Crush, a disarmed person on the ground is a disarmed person on the ground and there’s the end of it. Give him credit. The man has a code.

I don’t.

After I execute the dealer on the ground, Crush doesn’t speak to me for three long days. Then history lurches forward, and everything else stops mattering for a while.

The resistance takes the Sphere. The pitifully small “battalion” of Protectorate Forces that was left in charge of defending the place when everyone else rushed off to squash the rebellion in the Outer Planets is defeated and disarmed in a matter of hours. The officers are executed, the men given the choice between changing allegiances and going free.

If the Protector has any loyalists left after that, they must be awfully damn thin on the ground. From my rooftop perch, I watch the parades filling the streets. There are maybe a few hundred real outside resistance fighters in the mix. Everyone else is local. They chant and sing, hoisting flags and signs and handmade banners through the air.

Most of the flags are the usual republican tricolor, but the plain red flags of the extreme elements are out there too. Looking through a pair of viewing lenses on the first afternoon, I notice that a few of those red ones even bear the mark of Dad’s lot, the number four superimposed on a hammer & sickle emblem. Ancient, ancient history that. Can’t quite remember what it’s supposed to mean. When I try to call up the information, I just get a vague jumble of Dad going on about Trotsky and all the usual buzzwords. “Permanent revolution.” “The need for real workers’ democracy, in the cities and on the factory floor.” “A Fourth International.” Could be abstract poetry for all any of that means to me.

The sight of those red flags warms me, though, never mind that I can’t think of a single damn reason why it should. Then the feeling turns into something else at the pit of my stomach. I don’t realize at first that Crush is talking to me.

“What’s that?”

He gestures at the crowds below us. “You don’t suppose all this is going to be bad for business, do you? Everyone being all distracted?”

That brings me out of my funk. I laugh, long and deep. “Crush, my good friend, our line of work has many disadvantages, but we do command the kind of customer loyalty that other sorts of businessmen can only dream of. I would most definitely not worry about it.”

I always call the product we sell “happiness,” because calling it that cuts to the chase. That’s not to say, though, that happiness is the only thing those pills can deliver. You manipulate the chemical compound a bit, tamper with the molecular structure to shift things around just a touch in one direction or another, and you can produce all manner of effects beyond the usual euphoria. It can mess with your sense of location or produce a feeling of tremendous power. It can give you days and nights of vivid and beautiful hallucinations. It can help you forget the faces of dead people you used to love. There are chemists in the trade who daily play with new variations of the stuff, extracting a dash of this and beefing up the proportion of that with the open-hearted joy of jazzmen improvising together in a smoky club.

I can appreciate the allure of all that, I can, and I certainly admire anyone who’s that good at what they do, but me? I’ll stick with happiness.

That’s good enough, isn’t it? To make people happy? God knows it’s not as if that’s such a small thing. It’s not like someone else has devised a path to happiness that’s even half so reliable as the chemical shortcut we supply, half as straightforward as the pure and unadulterated happiness, the carefully quality-controlled happiness, that we sell for thirteen credits a pill.

Crush doesn’t abandon me. With the resistance so close, with uniformed resistance fighters walking around down on the streets below us, I’ve been sure he’d abandon me. He must know there’s a uniform of his very own waiting for him down there, any time he feels like taking the damn elevator to the bottom of our building. A cleanly-pressed uniform and slaps on the back and “welcome, comrade” and celebratory shots of off-world whiskey, any time he chooses to claim it all, and he’s been wanting those things since long before the resistance took the Sphere.

Still. He doesn’t go. He sticks by me. He stands guard while I sell product and he scares away our competitors, same as ever. Give him credit. The man’s loyal. He’s got a code.

It just doesn’t matter.

“One more time.” I glare at re-supply girl and light up another cigarette. Liza S., I should call her, since she’s my re-supply girl no more. She’s up on my rooftop with half a dozen heavily-armed resistance fighters. They all look tense. She just looks tired, and maybe a little sorry for me.

“Absolutely no exceptions,” she tells me for the third time in this conversation. “There’s no wiggle room in the directive.”

Everyone is getting shut down. No more corrupt, easily bribable Protectorate cops. The bright-eyed revolutionaries who rule the roost now understand that the drug trade Objectively Serves the Interests of the Enemy by keeping the masses too doped up and distracted to rebel. Never mind that the resistance itself had been supplying some of us with our product for years. That was then, this is now, and they intend to shut down all us “exploitive parasites” for the good of the people.

“You’ve been seeing what’s been going on, haven’t you?” Liza S. gestures vaguely at the street below her. “We have people out there shooting it out with the gangs, dragging dealers through the streets to face the justice of republican courts. You, we’re notifying peacefully. We’ve even been authorized to award you each a pretty grand credit transfer to tide you over until you find more productive work.”

“Touching, that.” I toss my cigarette and light up a new one. “What, I wonder, could account for that odd difference in approach?”

She looks pained as she mutters something about “past services to the Republic.” I give her my toothiest smile. “Quite. So nice to hear at least some acknowledgment of the fact that our vile, exploitive and, ah, parasitical trade paid for the weapons you’re currently waving in our faces.”

Even Crush, who’s been taking all of this far too well, rewards this last point with an appreciative snort. Liza S. spares him an irritated glance. He blows a huge round smoke ring and shrugs.

Liza S. puts her hands on her hips and looks me square in the eyes. “Take the money, gentlemen. Find somethin’ better to do with your lives.”

“History, in the end, gets down to economics no less than weather patterns get down to physics.” That’s one of the few full sentences I can remember from any of my father’s political rants. What he meant by it was all about how the Protectorate and the bosses and all didn’t do what they did because they’re evil or they have bad intentions. They did it because it was in their economic interests, helping the people at the top of society get richer and the people at the bottom stay in their place.

Dad could get frighteningly angry sometimes, debating grand questions of resistance strategy or talking about the “Russian question” or waxing all lyrical about the plight of the sentient AIs enslaved in the Outer Planets and how furious it made him that “some people who call themselves ‘revolutionaries’” were indifferent to that plight just because the victims weren’t human. That line about economics and weather patterns, though, he delivered that the way I’d tend to imagine a college professor might talk.

He said it in a conversation I heard him have with a new recruit to his resistance faction, one night around the dinner table when I when I was maybe sixteen. It was one of Dad’s usual “conversations” about politics, which is to say that he lectured and you nodded and maybe asked a question. Maybe.

I do remember that he had a great metaphor about cancer, about how if cancer cells were conscious and aware and intelligent, they’d do exactly what conscious and aware and intelligent beings always do and always have done since time immemorial. They’d come up with some line of bullshit to justify what were they going to do anyway, and make themselves out to be the heroes of the story. And they absolutely would find some way to convince themselves. It’s amazing. Hoping people won’t find a way to rationalize whats in their interests is like hoping the rain’s going to suddenly stop falling down and decide just for a lark to fall up for a while instead.

The Protector and his Generals no doubt think themselves great patriots, the bosses who squeeze every micro-credit out of their workers are surely convinced they simply do what they must to compete. None of that matters.

Dad’s argument was that under the surface, whatever any of those people told themselves, it was all about economics, and once he’d made that point, he’d start carrying on about workers’ control of factories and all that sort of nonsense, like he always did. Still, I’ve always thought that bit about cancer cells was one of the smartest things Dad ever said. People will always find a way to rationalize what they do, and a lot of that is about money.

Dad’s politics, though? That was like a pair of red-tinted contacts he never took off, making the whole world look red until he forgot he was wearing them. It limited his understanding.

Economics, money, it is important. No doubt about it. But at the end of the day, it’s incidental. We all want money because money buys things, and deep down, we think those things will save us from our darkest thoughts. History, human behavior, it isn’t about money. It’s about happiness.

“How are you doing, sir?”

I wiggle my fingers in front of my face. They leave ghostly white trails behind them in the air. I giggle.

“Sir?”

I lie naked on silk sheets. I haven’t shaved in weeks. I’m not sure who’s talking to me.

“Sir? I said, how are…”

“Am-az-ing.” I look around. Try and fail to locate the source of the voice. Give up. “I’m doing am-azi-ng.”

“Very good.”

The first time I holed up in one of these places, it was shut down by a resistance patrol a few weeks later. Crush and Liza S. paid me a visit while I was drying out. Tried to convince me to stop living like this. Such a smart fellow I was, and all those years seeing up-close and personal what this shit does to people. Why would I do this to myself?

When they came to visit me, Crush wore the same resistance uniform as Liza S., and they sat close enough together to make me certain they were fucking. I lay there and tried to decide whether that bothered me. The two of them took turns prattling on about my intelligence and my wasted potential and the like while I mulled.

“You seriously want to live like this?” Crush looked down at me with the kind of pity that would have infuriated me if I’d been sober. “You were always the brains of our…”

“S’OK.” I waved my hand in a dismissive little gesture. “I don’t mind. You can ‘ave ‘er.”

“What?”

“You can ‘ave her.” I propped myself up on my elbows and looked at Crush. Then the strain on my vision got to be too much and I collapsed back onto the sheets. “You can ‘ave her in, y’know, the naked way. Go nuts.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Crush give me one last look of unadulterated disgust before the two of them stalked off and left me to my squalor. Finding the next place I could hole up in to swallow happiness pills all day and all night? That took me almost twelve hours.

The resistance really is getting serious about its little war on the drug trade. It’s getting harder and harder to sell on the streets. That would be a problem, if they hadn’t given me quite such a generous payment on account of “past services to the Republic” when they shut me down. First time I saw it, after Liza S. gave us the bad news that day on the rooftop, I figured the computer in my contact lenses was malfunctioning. I thought it had to be some kind of mathematical error. Seems I’d underestimated the guilty generosity one can expect of revolutionaries who’ve found themselves involved in flagrant hypocrisy.

They are serious about the crack-down. No doubt about it. But expecting, even under the harshest enforcement regime, that people won’t find a way to get around it and experience the most efficient shortcut to happiness ever invented? Expecting that the happiness needs of those of us with credits to burn won’t be catered to by any means necessary? That’s not expecting rain to fall up. It’s expecting rain not to be rain.

For days, I float happily in a sea of green goo. I eat it. I swim in it. It jerks me off. The green goo of my fantasy is a full-service operation. Best of all, I don’t think about Crush. I don’t think about Liza S. I don’t even think about Dad.

The goo tastes like nicotine and mint chocolate and sunshine. It smells like the ocean. When you tease it with your finger, it moans. If someone were to swim up to me and ask my name, I’d be hard pressed to answer.

When I finally do come down, I lie in bed for hours without moving a muscle. I’m not still high, and I’m not sober either. I’m just sort of pleasantly washed out, and riding that.

When full-on sobriety does begin rear its ugly head, the kind of dangerous sobriety that, if left unchecked, will soon have me worrying about when I last ate or had a shower, I blink my computer to life and send a message to the always-obliging chemist who lives downstairs. I tell him I want something a bit different next time. I don’t care exactly what. ‘Surprise me.’ Meanwhile, I’d like a little bowl of standard-issue happiness pills to tide me over.

Right when I start worrying about whether I’d been clear enough in my message, whether I’d said what I’d meant to say at all or maybe I’d just rambled on about green goo tasting like mint chocolate and sunshine, the bowl of pills is delivered to my room. The man who brings it leaves the bowl right on my bedside table. He doesn’t look at me.

After careful consideration, I decide to snort the powder. The pills don’t last as long that way, but the rush is more immediate than the old ‘swallow and wait’ routine. I move the bowl to the edge of the bedside table, then break open a few pills and separate the powder into lines on top of it. After a few minutes of searching, I find a scrap of paper. I think it’s an old release form from one of my stints in jail. I roll it up and stick it in my nose.

“What about your mother?”

Crush asked me that a week after I’d told him about my father. “Was she political too?”

“Nah.” That’s all I told him. Truth is, I’d never understood how my parents stood each other’s company through a first coffee date, never mind having and raising a child. The Party was Dad’s life. He pulled no punches about anything, ever. Ask that man a child’s question about what happens after we die, and, depending on the time of day and his mood, he was liable to give you a lecture about how belief in an afterlife and supernatural entities Objectively Served the Interests of the Enemy by keeping people from demanding something better in this lifetime. That, or he’d sum it all up with a single derisive snort.

Mom got up at five in the morning, every chance she got. That way, she could go to go to Mass before breakfast. She had a simple and beautiful faith, a child’s faith, and I reveled in it. When I was six and seven years old, there were long and sunny afternoons when she’d take me to the park and we’d talk for hours about what Heaven must be like and about all the wonderful things I could expect to find when I got there. The question “what about Dad?” elicited a breezy “oh, your father doesn’t see things this way.” Something about her tone made me think Dad’s views were a sort of condition he suffered from, something it wasn’t quite polite to bring up.

As the years passed, if I’d had the chance, I’m sure I would have started arguing and baiting Mom about the holes in her theology, and generally giving her as hard a time as I ended up giving Dad about his politics. Mom got cancer and died when I was nine years old.

When I blink onto the Net, the invitation is waiting for me. I don’t know how Liza S. found my identity here, but she did, and she forwarded an official invitation to it.

I’m almost all-the-way sober when I read it. Even so, I have to re-read the words a few times. I can’t work out why the resistance is inviting me to a military funeral. It takes me what seems like an hour of concentration to put two and two together about the name of the deceased.

Herschel Levinson, better known for most of his adult life by the evocative nick-name “Crush,” is sent off by hundreds of grim-faced mourners. Whatever his past, these people consider him to have died a hero.

Crush’s body is badly burned. He was killed, Liza S. has informed me, after a Protectorate recognizance patrol infiltrated into the Sphere. It goes without saying that the patrol will soon be followed by an army, a flood of Protectorate troops freed up by their victory in the Outer Planets to rain down fire on our little resistance enclave. That much is as certain as night following day, rain falling down. No one here has any illusions.

When Liza S. and I leave the funeral parlor, oddly companionable for once, the air outside is chilly. That doesn’t make sense. There aren’t supposed to be any seasons in our strange artificial little world, and I can’t tell if the cold is some kind of early withdrawal symptom, or the Sphere’s weather control systems are on the fritz.

I walk with Liza S. and trade stories about Crush. I’m unsettled by the casual way she calls him “Herschel.” I’d vaguely known that was his real name, but I’d never really internalized the information.

She tells me that the Provisional Council of the Republic, which is what the main resistance group calls its governing body, is “bitterly divided” about their drug policy. I can’t sort out whether she’s making conversation here, or apologizing in a strange, roundabout way for shutting me down. I tell her that, from what I can remember of the arguments my father and his comrades used to have every Thursday night around our kitchen table, it seems to me that lefties are “bitterly divided” about damn near everything, pretty much as a matter of course.

Liza S. smiles tightly and goes on. It seems that some factions on the Provisional Council argue that substance use is a matter of personal choice, and that the new Republic can’t be seen as being more invasive of personal autonomy than the Protectorate. There’s even a compromise proposal being bandied about to cut the legs out from under the criminal traffic by legalizing a relatively weak strain, less prone to side effects and addiction.

“Grand. D’you suppose we’re gonna have time for any of that to happen?”

“You mean do I think we’re going to win? Hold on to the Sphere? Fight off the Protectorate?”

“Aye.”

“I believe we might.”

“It’s not rain falling up, I’ll give you that. But I’m asking if you think it’s going to rain.”

“Huh?”

I wave my hand, dismissing the analogy. “Never mind. Grant, indeed, that it is possible for you to win. How would you rate your chances? Better than one in two? Worse?”

We stop walking. She gives me a level stare. “Considerably worse.”

I nod. “So why bother?”

“Because… True enough, I might not live to see the final victory. Perhaps there won’t even be one. But even so. You’re thinkin’ about it wrong. Other things matter.”

I squint at her. “Other than what?”

She reaches up a surprisingly soft hand to touch my upper lip. It occurs to me that the recent signs of my habit must be painfully obvious there. With an effort, I hold still.

“Other than personal happiness.” She gives me a sad smile. “Truly, do you grasp that, at all? That there are other things?”

We talk and walk through what I’m now convinced really is an unnaturally cold afternoon. I don’t agree with everything she says, even when she isn’t sounding entirely too much like my father. She often seems to me to be naively sure about her cause. I often seem to her to be hiding behind a wall of exaggerated cynicism. She tells me that in so many words, more than once in our conversation.

Through it all, one idea sticks with me. It’s the first thing, and the simplest thing, that she said. It burrows into me and it starts to bother me and in the end, it decides me. “Other things matter.”

I’m not wrong about the weather control. The weeks pass, and before long, the resistance issues us entirely new uniforms. These ones include multiple layers. Flannel and long underwear. Fur hats emblazoned with the republican tricolor.

By sheer bloody-minded happenstance, Liza S. and I end up being assigned to my old rooftop. We man sniper positions up there, along with half a dozen others. We all carry big guns, the kind with big bullets precision-guided by very small computers. Each of us has been issued view lenses powerful enough that we can target approaching soldiers from miles away. We’re ready.

I lie there, flat on my belly at the top of the world, and smoke a cigarette. I focus on that, enjoying the simple pleasure of the warm air circulating in and out of my mouth, as I peer through the view lens at the empty streets below us. I see the sun rising over the Sphere, and my spirit lifts. Someone starts shouting orders. I cock my gun.

It’s time.

______
Copyright 2012 Ben Burgis

Ben Burgis writes speculative fiction and realist fiction and sometimes even grocery lists and rent checks and Facebook status updates. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast program in Maine, where he spent his residencies sitting in workshops during the day and sneaking bottles of whisky into swimming pools at night with degenerates like Zachary Jernigan and the lady sometimes known as Caspian Gray. These days, he enjoys a respectably bourgeois life as an adjunct community college professor in Florida.

His story “Smokestacks Like the Arms of Gods” was the first piece of full-length original fiction to run at Podcastle, and his story “Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence” appeared in Prime Books anthology People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy. He blogs at benburgis.livejournal.com.

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