Fiction


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.

by Jennifer Mason-Black

The bitch was one of my favorites. Big-boned, brindle, with a bay that could bring the moon down and the sense to use it only when necessary—the finest of her kind. I’d worked her since she was a pup, trained her and tracked her and brought her in to sleep on my bed nights when the cold ran to ice along the window panes.

She’d survive the wound. It was clean, easy to sew, the edges as straight as if I used my dagger on her. She panted on the ground, foam on her lip, eyes vague with pain. “You’re a good lass,” I said as I touched her head.

Jonas knelt beside me. “Take her in,” I told him. There was something, puzzlement, disappointment, in his face, but the King’s horn had blown twice now, and the baying of the hounds ran through me like fire through dry grassland. The hunt belonged to me. I’d not come this far to be stayed by a downed dog. I left it to Jonas to earn his keep.

Still, it wore at me as I swung into the saddle. This morning, she’d waited by my side as I inspected the hounds, lifted her nose to push at the hood over my face when I bent near. Now she’d hunt no more. The King believed bitches as fragile as the ladies of his house, spun glass vessels to admire and to fill. He’d say it cruel to risk her again.

I knew this hound though. To keep her home would be far crueler than to send her to die in the field, but he’d never see it as such. “Nay,” he’d say, the authority in his voice raised over my foolish request. “Kennel her. Once she’s whelped she’ll forget the rest.”

As if a creature who lived with her nose to the air and her feet worn from running would ever find joy behind the walls of the nursery kennels, in the milk teeth and whimpers of pups and the pointless quarrels of their dams. I could have told him that.

“Tend her well,” I called back to Jonas, and he half-turned, nodded over his shoulder, her body gathered in his arms.

By the time I reached them, the dogs were milling about the banks of the river. “What say you, Gen?” called the King. Were I to speak my mind, I would have said the dogs were lazy from winter. I would have said the men were the same, pale and paunched from months of melancholy drinking and trysts with serving girls whose willingness would turn to regret as soon as their bellies began to blossom along with the summer flowers. I’d have wagered that most gathered here would be happiest were the dogs not to come into scent again.

Not the King. His hunger for the chase matched my own. The others, they came because their place at his table required it. No, that was not fair. Some enjoyed the venture, simply not the way he did. The way I did.

He met my eye over the others, the color risen in his cheek in a way I found…. I looked downriver. “The dogs are no use once a quilth has taken to water, my Lord. We’ll be traveling blind. We enter the water, we risk the horses.”

A half-year past we’d caught the first. No more than a yearling, full of fury when we finally brought it down in the deep winter snow. It had lacked weight, lacked size, its shadow-patterned coat containing but handful of the scales that would have covered an adult—though it had shaken the life from two hounds before the King’s spear had taken it down. The tracks of this one pressed deep into the softening snow, the claws of one toe still stained with the blood of the hound. Bigger. Big enough to feed on lifestock, but not yet turned to the taste of the farmer as well.

It was in my heart to deny the King this thrill. The bitch had been lucky to escape with no more than she had received. Too easy to imagine him laid open in the slush, steam rising as his blood darkened the ground under him. The quilth was his by right; none save the King could kill one save in defense of a woman or child. To violate the law meant death at the hands of the King’s executioner.

But the King’s safety did not come from his royal rights. It rested on my shoulders alone.

The restless dogs, snouts up, looked to me for guidance. Simple enough to send them upstream to track until they found other scent to follow. The speckled hound the King favored had a child’s nose, easy to distract and full of impatience. With them gone, I could return alone, track the creature to a place clear of water, somewhere that favored the King and a speedy kill.

It was not law that brought me to heel. In the King’s face shone unguarded delight. I could not take it from him. His countenance had been my study for many years. I knew the shades of it more thoroughly than I knew any man’s, his joy becoming my own.

My face he knew not at all. Never once had I lifted my hood before him, shared with him the feel of a brisk wind across our skin. A boundary as complete as the ocean he believed I’d crossed to come into his service. The mark of a pious man, so devoted to my alien faith that I would wear black broadcloth in the heat of a summer’s day, would risk heatstroke to preserve my modesty.

Better that than the truth. Faith was a worthy cradle for a man’s honor. But for a woman? Her honor was bound to her flesh alone.

“What say you, Genner?” The King’s brother stood at my side, his black mare laying back her ears and shaking her head.

“I say your mare’s a sour wench.” My own edged sideways, as eager for action as the hounds. The only quiet animal here belonged to the spear carrier; her eyes drooping low as she waited, her master’s long legs wrapped round her bony barrel.

“Do we continue?” Tiburon bore keen resemblance to his brother, though he was taller, slighter, his beard lacking gray. He’d missed the throne by eighteen minutes. He’d told me those eighteen minutes were the finest gift his mother ever gave him.

“My Lord,” I began, but went no further. It was the way the dogs’ heads moved like daisies in a breeze, the sound of water rippling where no ripple existed before. I was off my horse, spear withdrawn before the spear bearer could come to his senses and choose for me. The horses whirled as one as the water sprayed upward and took on form and mass. I dropped to my knee, braced as the beast hit the spear tip. For a moment, as its body slid forward to meet the guard and its blood ran dark along the haft, I knew I would not be able to hold. Death, I thought. Give me complete death or complete life. Do not me leave wounded and exposed.

Then the King’s body pressed close behind mine, his weight paired with mine as the beast snarled and twisted in anger. The others closed in around us, hands on the spear to steady it, freeing the King to draw his sword. The beast hissed and spit, unable to do anything more as the King neared. He drove his blade deep into the thick neck and twisted it until the blood ran free. The quilth shuddered and mewed, the water-blue orb of its eye rolling, one paw scrabbling in the air before dropping to the ground.

The King wiped the blood from his hand and called for a drink. I refused the flask passed among the men, content to contemplate the quilth. Beautiful and still so young—the skull not yet grown to greatness, the teeth white and unbroken, the coarse dappled hair overlaying a sprinkling of glittering scales, the webbed toes tipped by slender claws. Catlike some called them, but their wildness surpassed any cat I’d ever seen.

My heart still beat triple time, the blood a tempest in my veins. The King gripped my shoulder as he spoke past me, the heat of his hand an echo of the heat of his body behind mine minutes ago. I smiled, alone within my hood. As the men patted one another, made jovial by drink and pride, my palm burned, the flesh scored by a splinter from the haft of the spear.

“You are a fool, Genivieve.”

Tiburon picked at my hand with a darning needle. He’d yet to have a drink; I had had far too many.

“Do not call me Genevieve.”

“I call you it only because it riles you so.” The needle moved deep and my palm stung. I caught hold of his hair and pulled his head back, the needle still within my flesh.

“I could kill you.” My dagger rested on the table.

“You could, but I am your only friend. Even you could not stand being totally alone.” He looked in my eyes with knowing certainty, and I released him. When he returned to the splinter I leaned forward and rested my face on his shoulder. He smelled of pine, of leather. Nothing like his brother.

“You could have finer company than me tonight. You could have the daughter of the grateful farmer to warm your bed. That beast had taken four calves in as many weeks,” Tiburon said. The focus of the needle narrowed and his fingers squeezed.

“God save me from grateful farmers and their willing daughters.” I took another drink, wiped my lips on the sleeve of my nightshirt. Even unbound, my breasts barely lifted the fabric that covered them. My hips were narrow as well; it was not the shape of my body that would betray me, Tiburon had once said, but the fineness of my skin, my lack of beard, the things acceptable in a boy but not in a weathered man of thirty-two.

“God save the daughters from your perversions,” he said.

I snorted. Something—curiosity, desperation born of a need for human touch—had once driven me to kiss a blushing maid lacking the experience to question the softness of my lips. The sweetness of her curves had aroused nothing in me though, other than frustration at being offered all I wanted of a thing I did not desire.

My chastity puzzled the King. On more than one occasion he’d questioned me. “Surely,” he’d say, his brow knit with brotherly concern. “Your god must understand how it is with men. Women exist for our pleasure. There is no evil in lying with them.”

I fended him off with lines of prayer I invented during my lonelier hours. “I am a vessel of Kansat,” I said, solemnly. “I shall be known by the manner of my dress. Temptation shall come to me in many forms and every time I shall turn it away, and my faith shall grow with my strength.”

And he’d shake his head, and we’d talk instead of the merits of stainwood over ashertree for spears, or of hunts we’d shared. His interest in the world ended at the seaport of Dormian, the ocean’s expanses and beyond nothing to him. A more cultured man might have probed for details I could not provide. Not my King. My skill bought me his indulgence in all matters, and his indulgence protected me from all curiosity.

All curiosity save Tiburon’s.

“Yes, God save the farmer’s daughters from us both.” This time his needle moved in a way meant to cause pain, and I dug my chin into his firm muscle. “It’s not my fault you are as you are, Tib.”

Much could be forgiven a man, a King’s brother. A royal sibling could spawn bastards by the dozen, could take unwilling girls with impunity, could even, if he so desired, practice such acts with the local livestock.

Provided, of course, the animals were female.

I’d been young, naïve, when we met, my thoughts on when I’d be found out, not why the King’s brother chose my company. In those early days I did not drink, not even in my cottage with the door barred and the shutters drawn. Instead, I’d sit alone, fletching arrows, honing blades, nerves and excitement and solitude grown to a tapeworm inside of me till I could scarcely sleep. The night Tiburon came to my cottage with mead in one hand, friendship in the other, my resolve trembled and broke.

He’d coaxed me with questions: would we find a stag for the midsummer hunt, did I think the King’s new horse an improvement over the old? I refused his drink at first, until his conversation made my objections feel childish. The alcohol warmed me, made laughter come more easily and affection seem only natural. Until he approached me as I stood by the table.

Eighteen years old, so young, and I’d never had a man approach me so. “Genner,” he’d said softly as he placed a hand on my wrist. “Gen, I’ve seen how you watch my brother.”

I’d understood and not. I believed he’d seen through the disguise, had recognized the woman in me. I froze. He took my stillness as invitation and pulled me closer.

“He and I are not so different,” he said. “I can give you what he won’t. I promise to tell no one.”

His fingers rose to the ties of my hood. I shook my head, panic beginning to cut through the fuzziness there.

“Tiburon, I am not what you think.”

He did not desist, his hand still moving. I could feel the strength of him as he leaned close. “My brother believes whatever is most convenient to him. I think I’ll find you to be a local boy beneath these clothes, but it troubles me not. It is not your past I desire.”

“No, you don’t understand.” No easy answer presented itself to me. The touch of him thrilled me, for I could see his brother in him. No, that is not truthful. It was because skin craves skin sometimes, because I was eighteen and lonely, because I’d committed to a life of falsehood without a thought about what it would mean.

But what Tiburon wanted I could not provide, and my awkward rejections did nothing to cool his interest. I did the most expedient thing I could think of, loosed the drawstring at my waist and dropped my pants.

His gaze flickered from my hood to my nakedness and back again until at last he laughed. “Well,” he said. “That does rather change things. Might I see your face as well?”

So we became the keepers of each other’s secrets. Tib’s would cost him as dearly as mine, were it to be known. Such a wicked thing, for one man to love another, for him to watch another and desire him while the others passed women between them like chattel. Like I would be, were my truth known.

One final stab and he sighed, the splinter teased free at last. “It is set,” he said, filling his glass. “He’ll marry the girl from the North by midsummer. Her charms are much bolstered by the lands she brings.”

I said nothing, just took a long swig from my cup. The bottom came sooner than I expected, and I filled it again from the green bottle.

“My offer still stands, Gen.”

“Which one.” The firelight flickered. If I squinted just right I could almost imagine Tiburon was his brother.

“Any. All. Let’s say for the moment that every offer I’ve ever made is completely available.” He drank as well, the needle left out on the rough-hewn table between us. “Marry me. You’ll pretend I’m him, I’ll pretend you’re the huntsman I dreamed of, and we’ll manage to do so until you provide me an heir. After that, you’ll be free to do whatever you desire, including be available in woman’s form when my brother’s eye begins to rove.”

“You speak as if it is certainty.”

He stared steadily at me, silent.

“You’re an idiot to believe I’d agree.”

“You’re an idiot to believe you’ll never be found out. Come with me to the Promising Feast. I’ll introduce you as a novice from the Daughters of the Moon.”

“A bastard, you mean.”

“It means you cannot be expected to provide your father’s name, or his lands. It saves you a great many questions.”

“My mother is guilty of many things, but abandoning us has never been one of them.”

Anger colored his face. “You stay here, Gen, eventually you’re thrown from a horse, or the next quilth is faster, and the men rush to your aid only to find you’re a woman beneath your wraps. Do not think they will be kind. Do not think my brother will forgive you for besting him.”

“Better to live short with my nose to the wind then to waste away bearing your pups,” I said. The drink tasted weak as water as I considered the futures before me. Were I stronger, I could have left when I was young. I could have found my way upon a ship, sailed forth from Dormian and searched for a home in which to be both hunter and woman. I’d heard such places existed, for those with the coin to travel the seas.

But the doors we ignore when young serve no purpose other than to haunt us later. I stood, testing my feet. My hand ached and my head spun and my traitorous body longed for the feel of another against it.

“It’s late and you must find your way home before someone wonders at the company you keep,” I said.

“No one would dare question your manhood.” His tone belied the crooked smile on his face.

“No, but I am a devout man, not one given to the pleasures of drink and late nights.”

He grimaced before rising, held my hand in his. “He’s not worthy of your love, Genevieve. I know him far better than you.” He kissed my cheek goodbye with all the heat of a brother.

After he left I took one more drink. Just a sip, just enough to pull me over the cliff and into a chasm of sleep so deep that even dreams dared not gaze down.

Jonas was a man given to silence, a quality I much appreciated as I squinted out from my hood at his homely face. He knelt by the mat he kept for injured dogs. On it rested the bitch. She wagged her tail at his approach, one, two, three steady pats before he lifted the wrap from her side and showed me his handiwork.

“You sew pretty as a girl.” It was true, his hand far more careful than mine. His good one, that was. Jonas’s fate had been decided at birth, when he emerged with one hand as twisted as a talon. No following his father as Huntsman, doomed to never pull a bow nor manage any task requiring the strength of two hands rather than one. Another man might have turned to bitterness, but he’d never shown sign of it.

He nodded, nothing more than agreement. My head pulsed in time with the beat of the hound’s tail and I rued last night, the night before, the long string of nights I’d followed to this point.

“She’s right fine.” He fondled her head, rumpled the velvet of her ear.

There was a blue-glazed jar on the table. Beside it lay a dainty silver spoon, a viscous stain darkening the wood beneath. I knew the bottle; I coveted its contents. A drop or two and my head would hurt no more. I’d be left quiet and simple, content to lie on a mat as Jonas cut the meat free of the quilth carcass and measured it into buckets for the kenneled dogs waiting outside.

A man such as Master Genner would never succumb to such pleasure though. A man such as he would pray for relief, would pray for forgiveness for having sinned in the first place. Such a noble world, the one I created for others.

The bitch relaxed, her tail gone limp against the blankets puddled around her. Weariness came to me as well, less of body than of mind. “She’ll hate it, you know. It’s not what she’s made for.”

Jonas eyed me. He was plain, his face pockmarked, his ears overlarge. His eyes, though, they were the color of the grass that grew in the streams winding through the marsh. The sort of eyes that gave one pause, like gems left amidst a cup of dry seed.

At first I’d thought him simple. I kept my silences well enough, but Jonas held his words close and careful as gold. Truth be told, I allowed his hand to distract me, as if the outward damage marked some inward as well. Then, there was his easy temper. Surely, had I been born as he, I would have been given to harshness.

But Jonas was no fool. The years had taught us as much understanding as possible between a liar and a silent man. He loved the dogs. I could see it in his face, I could hear it in the timbre of his voice when he told me stories from the kennels. He did not love the hunt though, for it meant death, and he cared not for that piece.

I looked up from the hound to find him watching me with his moss-green eyes. He nodded. “No, it’s not in her to stay quiet.”

“The King believes otherwise.” I could almost taste the syrup from his spoon on my tongue, the bitter and sweet bound together, the way my lips would numb with the touch. I shook my head and rued the gesture. “He’ll not allow her back in the pack. Better she’d been killed by the beast.”

“Never.” He hesitated. “Every problem has its fix.”

I bit back a laugh. Perhaps I had been wrong. Perhaps the man was simple after all.

Or perhaps he would keep her drugged. He took the bottle in his hand and measured out three drops onto the spoon. These he mashed with crumbs he pulled from a breakfast crust, and the clotted juice collected from the cubed quilth flesh. He knelt by the bitch again, worked the substance into a soft ball and rubbed it against her lips until she took it in her jaws. She swallowed, her tail thudding in sleepy gratitude, and lowered her head once more.

When he stood, I had the urge to draw his fingers into my mouth, to take what still remained there. What would he think, I wondered, were I to raise my hood to him?

The fancy passed quickly enough. I reached instead for the door, leaving them both behind.

The winter had left my mare fat and full of mischief. She pulled at the bit and jumped sideways without provocation, her muscles aching for a run. “You’ll not have me off,” I said, legs tight round her. “I’ve stayed on better than you.”

I urged her forward along the trail away from the kennels. The hounds and their keepers had always lived outside the castle proper, their noise and smell kept separate from the King’s household. The kennels were well suited to those protecting secrets; none could move through the space unnoticed thanks to the hounds. My cottage was hidden from the castle by meadows and forest, and from the cottage Jonas lived in with his sister by the barn and runs.

When I rode, it was always through the woods and along the great fields that bordered the castle, my eyes drawn to its stony grey flanks. In some matters I had the foolish nature of a girl. For this day, I bid myself to think naught of them and enjoy the ride instead. The branches overhead, barren just a week ago, cast lacy shadows upon us, their leaves still soft and pale. The mare danced as we neared the edge of the wood. My heart did as well, the open space calling us to run.

She leapt sideways as we passed into the field, distracted. Toward us came the King, dressed in royal blue and riding his bold steed. With him rode a lady, her arms draped in golden veil, her dainty mare blanketed in gold as well. Behind both, on a plump gray pony, rode an older woman, the dark gray of her heavy skirts matching her mount’s dapples.

Would that I could have turned and been deep in the forest before the King saw me, but his hand was raised, his voice calling my name. My mare, suddenly the coquette, minced her way toward them, collected prettily. “You have no honor,” I whispered to her.

“How goes it, Gen?” The King’s smile, generous, unaffected, welcomed me. His companion glanced at me from beneath downcast lashes. I studied her hard, eager to find her faults. Pretty in the formless way of young women—her cheeks flushed from the spring air and sun, her eyes blue as summer sky—she was everything I’d expected. The drape of her skirts hid her legs from view, her gloves covered her hands. Soft, pliant, butter to my steel. I despised her.

“Better since the last of the snow is gone, my Lord.” My mare dipped her head and blew. I pulled her up more sharply than was fair.

“Genner, this is the Lady Adelaide. My Lady, this is Genner, my Huntsman.”

“I’ve heard others speak of your heathen dress.” She looked directly upon me now, all shyness gone from her gaze. I was Huntsman, she would be Queen. It afforded her the right to stare.

“Come now, Gen’s a man of faith,” the King said. His grin pulled me close, left her outside. “The two of you share a need to preserve modesty, my dear, even if his beliefs are contrary to ours.”

Her laughter sounded like soap bubbles, all pop pop pop. “An honorable man then.”

“Aye, Gen’s nothing if not honorable. I doubt even your nanny could find fault with his manners.”

She giggled again, her eyes lowered. A mere bauble, a token passed between the hands of men to finalize their transactions. Her value rested in her father’s lands and her future husband’s rule and her fair hair and ability to carry a child. I envied her nothing. Almost nothing.

“You’ll be at the Promising Feast, of course?” He waited. He held his reins in his left hand. On the right a red ridge of scar coursed along the top. I’d staunched the blood when that wound had been opened. I’d bandaged his hand, raised a bottle of drink to his lips to ease the pain. I’d skinned the beast that had injured him and tanned the hide for him.

My mare shook her head impatiently. I drew a deep breath of clean spring air, my freedom suddenly a meager good indeed, the kind easily traded away. “No, my Lord. ‘Tis the time of the Spring Renewal. I must spend it in solitude and penance.”

“Good God, penance for what? Next thing I know you’ll be living in a cave and beating yourself with rushes.” He looked upon me with kindness. “I cannot fault you for your beliefs, Gen. You’ve served me well for many years. And better to be gone now than for the wedding.”

“Aye, my Lord.” I bowed my head quickly to them both before turning homeward.

Tiburon came in the evening to drink and play cards. I drank before he arrived, drank more once he was in the door. He brought with him typhum, and I smoked that as well, the burn of the heat from the pipe and from sharp amber spirits making my voice rasp like a file drawn along an unshod hoof.

“You’ve met her, then,” he said. He dealt the cards with a practiced hand. I glanced at my hand, scowled, and chose two cards to turn up. I lay them before me—the spotted bull, one foot raised, and the sightless maiden, with her murky eyes and reaching hands.

“I’ve met her. She reminds me of that little hound, the one we lost last year, with the hopeless nose and not enough sense to stay from under the horses’ feet.”

He raised one eyebrow, rested his head on his hand. “Let it never be said that you lack for opinions.”

He turned face up two cards—the lost prophet and the bitter fruit—shaking his head ever so slightly. He did remind me of his brother at times, inconvenient times, when my head spun with smoke and drink and my imagination wove tapestries of temptation.

“Your dealing leaves much to be desired,” I said. The world had reduced itself nicely to table, chairs, the black hairs along the back of his hands, the curl of smoke from the discarded ashes. I forced my thoughts elsewhere. “The quilth cubs, they were not alone.”

“What are you talking about? Do us both a favor and learn the art of conversation some day.” He tossed two more cards my way.

“I could have believed it of one, not two.” His eyebrow cocked in a way designed to irritate. “They weren’t small for their age. They were young. Too young to be traveling alone. It means their dam must be near.” A seven of stones and a two of stars. My luck had not changed.

“Gen, tell it to my brother. If there is, she’s his quarry to chase. I’m sure he’ll be delighted. After you’ve found her for him to kill, he can share tales with you of the wonders of his new bride.”

I stared at him as he considered his two new cards. He did not look up.

“Do you seek to hurt me, or have your wits gone soft?”

He sighed, laid his cards face down on the table. “I am your friend, Genevieve. You are mine. My wish is that you cease to beat your wings against the glass round my brother’s heart, for your own good. If a little pain speeds that along, I’m not above using it.”

It sounded true. His dark eyes said it was so. The back of my throat filled, with want, with drink, with all the things I denied myself, one after the other. “I’ll do it.” He looked at me, uncomprehending. “The feast. I’ll go as your woman.”

“What are you saying?” Tiburon’s hands stilled, a single card balanced on edge, one finger poised to spin it.

“I’m saying I’ll do it. I’ll be your wife. One heir, in exchange for your promise of my freedom in all things.”

He spun the card. It dropped face up, the quilth. “Gen,” he began, only to stop and study me long and hard, with eyes so very like those of his brother’s.

I ran my hand through my cropped hair and imagined what it might feel like to have it run long down my neck as it had when I was a girl. “For midnight’s sake, Tib, give me something more than that.”

He considered everything: the wood stove, the curtains over the windows, the ummade bed, his own broad hands. After a moment he held one out to me. “I look forward to having you as my wife,” he said.

I took his hand in mine and we shook, gravely, like children at a funeral.

A gown. One needed a gown if one was to be a woman, especially a woman accompanying the brother of a king. I’d been a child when last I’d worn such a thing, and never once had I possessed the sort that might grace a lady of the court. No, mine had been patched, made of threadbare linen, worn loose and well above my ankle. Long before I’d made my way to the kennels, I’d taken to wearing my skirts split and mended into trousers of a sort.

From within my hood I watched the ladies, studied their fashion as I would the spoor of my prey. They wore fabrics that covered their skin and yet exposed their bodies with subtle drape, their long hair held back by ornate nettings adorned with beads and gems. Their floral scents, bought in the markets of Dormian, were potent enough to reach even my sequestered nose.

There existed only one woman I trusted to craft a gown for me. To reach her required a two day ride, along roads as familiar to me as the sinews of my own hand. I loathed to travel them. At every farm I passed, children came out to follow me along the borders of their fences, while their fathers would raise their hands in grudging salutes. I knew what they thought of the King’s foreigner here; I knew what they thought of women too. The further I drew from the castle, the more grateful I was for the damp confine of my hood.

At night I stopped in the midst of a spindrift forest, the ground bare beneath the great limbs, the spiral leaves whirling in circles round their stems. I wrapped myself in a patchwork blanket of racule skins, soft and warm as down, and fell asleep watching the dance of branches against the starlit sky. A different kind of sleep happened out beneath the trees and sky, the murmur of running water and the whisper of the breeze conjuring dreams of magic. I woke clear, reluctant to continue on, questioning my promise to Tiburon, but I mounted and went forward.

The old dog was barking long before I rounded the last turn and the cottage came into view. Nothing much there—a pen with a sow and six piglets in front; the old hound, rawboned and grizzled with age, straining at the end of his rope; the remainders of a wood pile decimated by winter; two hobbled mares lipping the few green shoots making it up from the muddy earth. At the door leaned a boy grown halfway to manhood. Halfway to nowhere. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Figures,” he said.

I dismounted, untied my package from the saddle, tied my mare to the top rail of the pig’s fence. His anger spun in brittle circles between us.

“What makes you think she even’ll let you in?” he said.

“Because she’s my mother.” The package weighted my hands like chain mail.

“Maybe I won’t let you in.”

“Little brother, we bastards must stick together.” I was close enough to see pain spread over his face like mud in clear water. Kindness had always come too dear for me; regret far too easy. “How goes it with you?”

He looked at me from beneath a forelock of midnight hair, his eyes bright with shame. “Does it matter?”

I could not give him what he craved, he could not help but hate me for it. At arm’s reach the truths between us were harsh. But he was my blood, this angry lad, and his suffering mine to see.

I brushed past him through the door. “Is she here?”

Before he could respond her rasping voice reached me. “If it isn’t the King’s whore, come home to lord over us.”

Hard not to say what came so quickly, that had I been I a whore it would have been thanks to her tutelage. “I’ve need for a gown.”

“A gown?” She came forward from the shadows. Even now her face held remnants of loveliness. Such a dangerous thing, beauty on a woman. Her hair, fair as it was, hid the gray admirably. Her eyes were dark, burnished as chestnut shells, her fingers long and nimble. Her shape had gone from womanly to gaunt though, and her cheeks shone fever-bright with color.

“I hear you right? A gown? What use have you for a gown?” Hope, it was hope that glistened like syrup in her eyes.

“Don’t excite yourself. There’s no future at the castle waiting for you, mother dear.” Unlike with my brother, to punish her gave me no pain. “I’ve brought the fabric, more than enough. Make me a gown like the women at court wear and I’ll leave the rest for you.”

Within the package the fabric slipped and sloshed like water in a skin. Tiburon had bought it on a trip to Dormian: spider-spun silk the color of primroses, carried from over the ocean. “The clerk swore it was the very hue to delight any maiden,” he said as he tossed it onto my table. “I figured you were close enough.” He’d paused, flashed me a look, half-startled, half-curious. “You’re not, are you? Promise me we’ve not that to deal with as well.”

I’d been saved then by the sudden barking of the hounds that warned me to cover my face. His look had stayed with me though. Take away my hood, my black garb, and suddenly I must be virgin or whore, mother or nothing, subject to everyone’s scrutiny.

My mother’s hands were on the package, fingers stumbling in their haste to loosen the bindings. “Oooh, lovely,” she said as she lifted the folds to the light. “This cost considerable coin, Genevieve. You’ve an admirer.”

She searched my face. I knew what she hoped to find. Kinship. She wanted to see I’d learned what could be bought with an unlined cheek and a soft thigh.

For that I could forgive her. But she also looked for the dream-addled vagueness I’d seen in her every time my father had ridden up to the gate, and remained when an hour or two later he would ride off, leaving in her enough seed to get another child who’d never carry a father’s name.

“I bought it myself. You forget I earn my own money.”

“You father would’ve—”

“My father would do nothing for me. Don’t fool yourself, old woman.”

Unshed tears hardened to glittering stone. “He’s found work for your brothers. He’s taken good care of us.”

“He found work for them with men who asked him for cheap labor. He’s done naught for me. He’s done naught for Alain, other than leave him waiting on the doorstep for someone to ride by. He’s left us all children of the Moon.”

“You’ve done nothing for your poor brother. You could bring him along, find him work for the King.”

“I cannot.” I fought to keep my voice steady, to bring it down into the register necessary for a huntsman. “I cannot bring Alain to court. There can be no connection between us.”

“Because you are selfish. Only one daughter I’ve had, and she carries a cold and selfish heart.”

“Only one mother I’ve had, and she was too busy raising her skirts for a minor Duke to tend any of the children he gave her.”

The bright stain of color swept over her cheek. She pulled herself up, and for a moment I believed she would cast me from the house. For a moment, I believed she’d demand my respect. But then she ran her fingers over the cloth again, looked down at the uneven stone of the floor.

“Let me get my pins and tape. It’ll take time to finish, you understand. You’ll have to send for it.”

Seven sons she’d had, seven bastard sons for the Duke, whose wife had born him but one child, a frail knock-kneed boy who spooked at his own shadow. Seven robust boys grown into seven strapping men, all with the Duke’s dark curls and his broad shoulders, none with an honorable name. And one daughter, cursed with her mother’s fair hair and dark eyes and her father’s strong hands and bold heart, and no love for either of them.

I could not wait to be measured and gone.

Alain was standing by my mare when I went to leave. She rested her muzzle on his shoulder, blew her sweet breath on his neck as he patted her.

“She’s grand,” he said, and I could see the painful lonely youth of him.

“Aye, she’s fine. A bit fresh after the winter, but she’ll come round.”

He untied her, smoothed an unruly strand of her mane.

“I cannot take you along.”

He didn’t look up, just tugged her browband into a straight line.

“Alain, I am not Genevieve there. I’m not even from this land when I am there.”

“I could be like you. I could dress the same, live the same. Do you not trust me?”

“It’s not even trust, it’s…” How to explain? How to say that what I had given up freely wore at me every day, that I’d never allow the same for an untried youth. “I grew up hunting. You wouldn’t know, you were born after I’d left. But I was the eldest and I learned to hunt for our food.”

Not just when we were hungry. Ten years old, watching the Duke ride up to the cottage. He spared me no words, no pat on the head as he passed, just hurried up. My mother at the door, her cheeks rosy, leaning into his embrace. Me, taking up the bow I’d strung myself, the arrows I’d taught myself to fletch properly through trial and error, leaving along the paths through the wood known only to me and the delicate alopes with their limpid eyes and legs as fragile as grass stems. Returning home carrying an alope stag, my thigh scraped raw from the rub of his antlers against my skin as I struggled to bear him past my little brothers sitting on the steps. Into the cottage, the musk of bodies heavy in the air, my mother, her bodice barely laced, the first words from her lips, “Your father, the duke…”

“The hunt is all I know, Alain. I’ve sold my life for it. What you want is proper work. You want to be able to drink ale with the others late one evening and not wonder what secrets you might let slip. You’ll want a lover, Alain, or the chance for one.”

He looked up, his dark eyes half-closed against the words I flung at him. Ah, little brother, pain was all I had to give.

“Does he come any more?” The mare stomped her foot at me, annoyed at my intrusion.

Alain shook his head. “I’ve heard he has a woman in town.”

“A woman?”

He blushed, fire-red. Not a woman then. Someone young enough to have caught my brother’s eye as well. “The innkeeper’s daughter.”

I didn’t know her. I didn’t need to. She would be young, and lovely, and she would fancy the Duke as more than he was, and he would fancy her on her back. Neither of them would think of my mother waiting by her door, or of his wife. Or of Alain, turning from boy to man without father, without name, without hope.

“The King’s brother.” I tightened the mare’s girth, swung myself into the saddle. “His groom is aged and without a son. If you find yourself with the means to reach his estate, you might inquire at the stables there. See if he might be willing to take an apprentice.”

The mare shook her head as I collected my reins. “Whatever you do, do not tell him the Huntsman sent you. It will send a message you do not wish to give.”

I turned her homeward but he called me back. “There’s a farm not far from here…there was trouble.” He ended it like a question, as if unsure there had indeed been trouble.

“Of what sort?”

“Cattle. They were killed. Eaten.”

The mare shifted beneath me as my legs drew taut. “How many?”

“First, a few calves. Then a bull, a prizewinner.”

Only one thing could take down a bull. The world round me came clear, sharp. “How recently?”

“Just three nights ago for the bull.”

The dam, larger, stronger than her cubs, her cleverness grown long and cruel as her claws. I’d heard many definitions for magic, stories whispered when campfires had burned to ashes and men had lost their reason to dark and drink. There existed only one understanding of the word for me—simple, complete, capable of making my skin shiver on a hot day. Magic was the moment when predator and prey first knew one another, and I’d devoted my life to its service.

“Thank you,” I said.

I looked back as I rode away. Alain lingered by the fence, a slim, handsome boy, his first whiskers dotting his chin. I saw not myself there, nor my mother, nor even the Duke. Instead, I saw merely the man he’d yet to become, and wished him well I as might any stranger I passed along the way.

I did not tell the King upon my return. At first I promised myself that I merely wanted more evidence of the quilth—tracks, kills, knowledge of her routes. It seemed plausible enough. When you feed yourself on lies, they eventually lose all power of surprise.

But as the moon waxed and waned without sign of her, as no further news found its way to my ears, my reluctance to speak discomfited me. I’d no reason, nay, no right to withhold such information from the King. The quilth belonged to him. My loyalty belonged to him. My…but I could hear Tiburon scoff in my head. My heart was my own or it served me no purpose at all.

I would tell him. Just not quite yet.

One final hunt before the Promising Feast, a diversion for his guests. I’d promised him as much, said I’d not leave for my time of penance until I’d led them out and back. A gentleman’s hunt, hounds and horses trailing a hapless racule. Blessed with long legs and crafty hearts, racules held no danger in them, save for the occasional hen they pulled from under a farmyard gate. No, the only danger to be found on such ventures was in the inept riding of the King’s ministers, grown fat on cream and honey and likely to jostle their mounts into misery. More often than not I’d pull up my mare halfway through and watch the graceless slip in their saddles and flap their elbows.

Were my goal to actually capture a racule, I’d travel on foot, carrying only a bow. I’d wait along the meadow edge as evening laid her claim, and watch until they came out to hunt, their black-ringed tails held high. No spectacle, no currying favor, nothing but the quickness of the arrow, the suddenness of death.

I shook my head, tired before the hunt had even begun. Jonas waited in the yard, his short whistles calling the hounds in close. I paid them no mind. I knew they’d be fresh and I knew they’d stay true, and if any could not keep pace, Jonas would be there to collect them.

But as they raised their voices to the morning sun, I dragged my mare around and studied them with care. Among them, her coat the gray of kitchen ash and not yet full enough to cover the line of scar along her ribs, stood a fine-boned bitch, her voice raised like a hymn.

And then the horn sounded and we were off, and I fed on the speed and the hounds and the blue sky thrown over us all like joy.

“You ran her against King’s orders.”

Jonas said nothing. The bitch lay at his feet, contented. She smelled of smoke, thanks to the oily paste of ash and water he’d worked through her fur.

“She belongs to him, not us.” By right I should have docked him pay, should have made him admit his fault to the King himself. But she had run like a dream, her bay ringing through the air deep and strong. She did not belong in the nursery. I could not bring myself to anger with him.

“If I kennel her, she’ll die.” He spoke flat and dry. “It’s nothing more than that. Some must live outside the rules, Master Huntsman.”

She knocked her tail against the floor, and I touched my hand to her head. “It was a fine run,” I said.

“Aye.” He looked up, his eyes crinkled tight with smile. “There’s none like her.”

“There’s none,” I agreed.

I’d been to the castle often. Just not like this, my hand on Tiberon’s arm, my bare face lit by the rosy light of lanterns, dressed in my mother’s flawless handiwork. Every tiny stitch, every angle, every seam of my dress designed to the mirror the flow of my form. It suited me like rainwater suited stone, the fabric betraying the body beneath. I shivered, and Tib patted my hand.

Blue and gold banners hung the stone walls of the great hall, honoring king and sun. The guests milled about, the table not yet fully set. Tiburon stepped from me to collect a drink, leaving me adrift amid men I’d known for years, men who’d bared themselves before me without a thought, who’d asked, with words or sheepish glances, that I keep secret their falls and inept arrows and indiscretions. In the woods they honored my judgment like children. Here, I existed to them as a posy pinned to Tiburon, sweet to look upon, but nothing more.

Perhaps that was not fully true. Bayne came forward early. He was a careless rider, unbalanced as a poorly-made stool and quick to whip his horses for his own failings. A man who mistreated his horse or hound was a man I did not trust, and yet I had no cause to either cut him down with my tongue nor back from him when he took my hand between his and smiled.

“I’d not heard Tiburon had found himself a woman at last. Now I can see he was wise to wait.” His words dripped from his mouth like pig fat to the fire below. “Tell me your name, my dear.”

“Genevieve,” I said. A weak place, this world of women, requiring weapons I did not have.

He eyed the break of my collarbones above the neck of my gown. His breath smelled of mead as he leaned in to speak more softly. “Your father’s name, my dear. What is that?”

“I am a child of the Moon, sir.”

A flicker of tongue at his lips, a more lingering glance below my face, the bitterness of my words a tonic to him. The beat of blood within my veins rose; my fingers curled round an absent dagger.

“And from where did Tiburon pluck you? Might I find another such rose were I to return there?”

My arm caught at my side, Tiburon’s hand fast round my wrist. “Genevieve comes from a convent of Daughters of the Moon. It is an upbringing that has left her naïve of the world, I’m afraid, but she is true and that is enough for me.”

Bayne mumbled some words of congratulations and took his leave. I pulled my arm free of Tib. He bent his head close to mine. “Gen, your honor is mine here. You must leave it to me to defend it. All that remains for you is to be lovely.”

Lovely. It was not a word I’d ever applied to myself. Until that afternoon, I’d not seen my own face in years, save for moments of reflection in rippling water, fearing someone might catch me without my hood. Tiburon had provided me a girl from his kitchen as a maid. Stout and stern, her blunt efficiency had soothed me as she hooked the delicate bone clasps of my dress, tucked the ragged ends of my hair into a cover of fine netting carefully seeded with minute pearls.

“It’s a shame what they do to your pretty hair,” she said. “Just a shame. Doesn’t make you any less a believer to keep your hair, least that’s what I think.”

She’d led me to a looking glass after placing a silver circlet on my head. I did not know the face that looked at me. A woman, not the girl I’d been when I came to the King’s service, not the man I was every day. She stared back, her dark eyes so like my mother’s, a question on her lips.

Dinner placed me between Tiburon and his brother. The King was dressed for ceremony, not work, his sleeves stiff with fine gold thread, his beard trimmed and the tip waxed to a fine point. He smelled the same though, a blend of wood smoke and wealth and earthy maleness, and when he turned to speak to me, his eyes shone just as blue.

“So my brother has found himself a woman of faith,” he said. He raised his glass to his lips, watching me over the brim. His bride-to-be sat to his other side, her attention given to the earnest conversation of Lady Bayne.

“Sometimes faith is mere expediency, my lord. I was landless, left with no one to raise me. Daughters of the Moon provided me more than I might have achieved alone.”

He swallowed his mead, touched a napkin to his lips. “Ah, a pragmatist. That sounds more to Tiburon’s taste. Still, had I known they’d taken to keeping such beauties, I might have looked there first for my own bride.”

His gaze stayed on me, waiting, searching for something. For a moment I wondered if he could see the truth, if what held him there was the memory of the time I’d bound his hand for him, our heads bent close together, his thigh against my knee, my chest full of desire.

“Where is your Huntsman, my Lord?” Bayne’s voice carried across the table like a cockerel’s cry.

The King turned slowly from me. “Genner is away at the moment,” he said, returning his napkin to his lap.

“Away? Where could he possibly have to go?”

“I’ve no idea. Howling at the moon, I expect. I do not delve into his pagan ways.” The King cut his meat with the same care that he’d choose an arrow from the quiver.

“No man can be as pious as he pretends. He’s more likely out whoring.” Bayne, on the other hand, could scarcely control his knife, dripping juice from the tip across the white tablecloth.

“There are ladies present,” said the King. The hair on the back of my neck stiffened at his tone. “And Genner is a damn fine huntsman. He provides all I ask of him. I’ve no reason to demand more. Frankly, if it’s women he seeks, there are plenty who’d welcome his attention.”

“Yes, yes,” Bayne continued unabated. “But a man should serve his master just as a woman serve her man. Were he mine, I’d have him whipped for disrespect.”

“Would you, Lord Bayne?” I could feel the gazes shift to me, the hush traveling the length of the table like a wave. “I would imagine a huntsman such as the King describes would treat not even his hounds that way. I would think a man who resorted to such might be a man unable to inspire devotion without fear.”

Bayne’s face turned the color of the dripping roast before him. His lady moved not at all, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes vacant. Were I to strip the silks from her skin, what scars might I find beneath them?

“Genevieve fancies herself knowledgeable about a great many things.” Tiburon’s voice carried the joke, encouraged the men to shake their heads in camaraderie. “I find it most enjoyable to merely watch her face, not listen closely to her screeds.” He patted my hand. I withdrew mine from him, took my water glass and drank deeply as the talk rose and swirled about me.

But as I waited there, longing for the darkness of my hood, one more touch reached me. Beneath the table, his face never turning my way, the King placed his hand warm and heavy on my thigh.

After dinner, the men and women retreated to separate rooms. I knew well what would take place once the men gathered behind closed doors. In no time there would be the acrid scent of typhum in the air, smoked in short stone pipes, and rude laughter as the tales turned to conquest of beast and maid.

The women enjoyed no such thing. They collected around small tables in groups of four as servants hurried silently through with bottles of clear herbed spirits and tiny crystal cups. Each table held a wooden box filled with dried and polished bones, none longer than a finger. The women unpacked them and dealt them out, twittering gossip as they went. I’d no use for playing houses, so I watched for a bit as they took turns building fragile structures, shrieking when a careless placement brought the bones clattering onto the table.

I’d not watched long when a servant tapped my elbow. “This way, please,” he said. I followed him into the hall.

It was not Tiburon waiting for me. The King, his breath tinged with smoke, took my arm and led me along the corridor.

I knew well the room to which he took me. Against one wall sat a long low settee, dotted with plump cushions and draped with a coverlet made of the furs of a great many alope. On the far wall hung a painting of the King as he was when we first met, beardless, ungrayed, his hand on a brindle hound’s head. Beneath the painting, draped across a low bookcase, lay the hide of the quilth cub we’d killed in the fall. I turned toward it, thinking of the skill of the tanner who’d worked on it.

“I enjoyed our conversation, brief as it was,” he said. He came closer. I knew it not through his footfalls, but through the tide that pulled in me whenever he neared. He knew. He had to. How could he not, how could we be as close as we were without him recognizing who I was, veil or no.

“Genevieve, I understand,” he said. The touch of his hand on my shoulder turned me to him. So close, as close as when we’d knelt beside the dead quilth together and marveled at its razor-edged claws. His hand rose to my cheek, his knuckles brushing along the smooth skin there.

“I know my brother better than you. I think you are not worldly enough to understand him. He’ll not be able to give you what you desire. He’ll not enjoy you the way you should be enjoyed.”

This place, I’d been here before. I tried to think of my cottage, of Tiburon’s hands on me, but it was not Tib before me, it was not his lips on mine. The taste of typhum was as strong as if I’d smoked it myself. I moved, felt his hand on my lower back, pressing me to him like a reed surrendering to the wind. His scarred hand on my hip, my waist, slipping up to my breast.

“We are twins, Genevieve.” It took me a moment, longer, to understand he did not speak of the two of us. “Tiburon’s heir or mine, it will make no difference to either of us. It is the nature of brothers to share. He’ll not care and no one else shall know.”

A flash, my mother’s nimble fingers at work on honey-gold homespun, her fine stitches lost in the coarse material. A farmer’s wife watching her, asking why she did not leave for the coast, someplace where her skill might be used for more than funeral shrouds and bridal quilts. My mother, laughing, saying, “Oh, you know how love makes other things seem unimportant.” Her eyes, though, they filled with vinegary regret.

One of the King’s hands rested inside the bodice of my dress, the other held a handful of silk above my knee. The look in his face was not recognition. I’d been a fool to ever think it so.

I stepped back. “My lord, this is not seemly.”

“It is not a question of seemly or no.” He spoke to the skin of my throat.

“No, my lord, there are some things about my education I am not willing to forget.” I pulled my skirt and the material fell free of his hand.

“You’ll find little satisfaction with my brother,” he said, gone cold.

“No, I see that now. I think perhaps I was more meant for my former life than this one.”

He raised his hand, but merely twirled the tip of his beard to a sharper point as he stared at me. “Petty morality will waste you,” he said. I said nothing, simply stood there until he left.

I stayed on, for minutes, hours, I do not know, my hand buried in the fur of the quilth’s cold hide.

Tiburon took my refusal with anger. I expected no more, but had hoped nonetheless. “You’ve not many years left you,” he stormed. “I would have given you a life of comfort, more than that, you could have had my brother. It’s more than you’ll have any other way.”

“It would cost me the hunt.” It was all I could say, and I did not expect him to understand. Denial was his nature. How could he understand anything else?

After, I returned to my cottage. The unopened bottles of mead on the shelf tempted me. But mead was naught but a shallow well. What I sought required unknowable depths.

I went to the kennels when I knew Jonas would not be there. The blue-glazed bottle sat on the shelf, surrounded by tinctures for worms and salves for open sores. I poured some into a cup; not much, a dram or a little more. Then I retired to my cottage, barred the door, and took my cure.

For the first taste I used a spoon. I swirled it in the cup until the liquid, resin-thick, coated the tip. I lapped it from the metal, eagerly, like a babe at breast. It left streaks of strangeness along my tongue, threatened to turn my stomach until it hit the bread I’d swallowed first. My muscles went limp, my limbs jellied, and my mind soared free.

For three days I swam deep amid dreams of beasts and men, of the King’s body against mine as we withstood the quilth, as we faced one another with only the water of silk and legging between us. When I surfaced I would drip the sweetness onto my tongue and sink down again.

I woke finally to an empty cup and a terrible thirst in the dark of the night. The floor was cold beneath my feet, my empty stomach twisting until I coughed up foam and spat it into a wash basin. The cool air smelled clean when I opened the door, and I went out into it free of my hood.

The water ran cold from the spring. It tasted of nothing, of night, I suppose, of iron, and my own dirty hands. My innards resisted it at first, but I drank it anyway, drank my fill and then some. I sat back on the ground, lay back and stared up into the sky. I’d slept my way through the banishment of the moon and she was on the rise, a fine silver crescent high in the sky. Stars dappled the night around her. Still unclear of mind, I believed they fell around me, burning streaks of light as the world spun forward through them.

It was not the stars that spoke to me in the dark though. Far past the realm of thought and voice, something else waited for me. A jolt, the fear prey feels when the predator nears, the thrill that runs through the predator’s bones like lightening returning from ground to sky. In a forest overrun with a thousand beating hearts, just one sounded in time with mine.

I drew a deep breath, as if I might catch the scent of her on the breeze. Only the scent of moon lilies there, sweet and toothless.

A royal right, its violation punishable by the executioner’s axe. But must one live by the rules of the sun if one is a creature of the moon? Or what if one belongs to neither, living instead among those animals who shun both night and day for the slivers of time between the two? Whose right rules those creatures, I ask you?

I packed light the next morning. The land was generous this time of year, and my own needs few. I would bring the slip behind the mare to carry the great spear, and that would be trouble enough. A single spear, for I’d have only one chance to place it right.

Before saddling my mare, I went looking for Jonas. He was not in the kennels, nor was he working in the garden outside of his cottage. His cottage was larger than mine, the one his family had lived in since his great-grandfather’s time, its walls covered in vines given to dangling blue bells which swayed with the movement of the bees inside. I went to the door, knocked, listened to the scuff of chair legs drawn across a stone floor.

It was not Jonas who opened the door. The woman before me shared his sea-foam eyes, but wore her russet hair in a plait running long down her back. There was a blue smudge on her nose, her fingertips stained blue as well.

“You’ve caught me a mess,” she said. I’d never seen his sister’s face anything but solemn, save in the moments I’d witnessed from a distance, as she worked among her herb beds with her children and shared their laughter there. “You’ll be looking for Jonas. I’m afraid he’s away.”

She brushed a few loose hairs back from her face with the back of her wrist, wrinkled her nose as she looked up at the sky. “He’s gone to collect a gift of hounds given the King in honor of his coming wedding.”

I could smell the virilium on her—sweet, fruity, a woman’s herb. A woman’s smell. It freshened the stale sweat of my hood. “Will you tell him I’ll be away. No more than a few days, I expect. I’ll be taking the ashen bitch, tell him.”

“Aye.” She raised her arm again, this time held it against her forehead. “Are you not well, Master Huntsman?”

My mother had used virilium when I was a child. She’d kept a plant of it by the back door, and had broken off twigs to chew when her monthly pains plagued her. I could remember the way it had tinted her teeth blue, her gums gone pale as a drowned man’s. No tincture for her, no fine stoppered bottle.

“I am fine, Mistress Healer. It’s a small matter I must attend to, nothing more.”

“Be well,” she said.

“You as well.”

She didn’t move as I left, for I didn’t hear the door close until I had passed the corner of the kennels. There was something in the way she’d stood, in the arch of her eyebrows, that suggested she’d something more to say.

Or perhaps it was I who longed to speak. My mare snorted at me as I combed her forelock smooth, but once I had finished she rested her head against mine. “Deep down,” I whispered to her. “Deep down, beneath all the testing and the stubbornness and the foolishness…beneath it all you have no love for me, do you?”

She nipped idly at my neck, her nostrils flared, and I pushed her away. Twice she shied as I hitched the slip, once catching my fingers between the wooden spar and the leather. I cursed her and held the bloody nail in my mouth. When I finally mounted though, she was quiet and steady, and I loosed the reins as we rode out through the meadow, my thoughts blessedly free of anything but the motion of her stride and the sun on my back and the freedom of pleasing no one but myself.

I rode for three days to reach the farm my brother had mentioned. The first night I camped in a field, falling dead asleep the moment I lay down. The second night I spent beneath the canopy of a vast spindrift tree, her leaves whirling in the soft breeze. I hobbled the mare and kept the spear close at hand. With the hound by my side and no water in sight, I did not believe the quilth likely to surprise me, but I could not fully relax.

I did not make a fire that night. I fed the hound pieces of dried meat I’d taken from the satchel Jonas kept for extended trips. Myself, I ate only the root of a banebranch bush that I dug from along the edge of the wood. I peeled the gnarled outside away with my skinning blade, the pale flesh beneath dotted with purple sap. I could not take much of it, my innards still too roiled and shrunken to accept hardy sustenance. There, my back to the tree, watching the mare flick her tail lazily, the hound lying against my knee, the crisp, tart flavor of the root tasted sweet as honey.

The sweetness did not last though. By the time the dark had drawn thick and full around us, my mouth tasted of a thousand nights of drink and a bitter drought of regrets.

The following day, I reached the outskirts of the farm. I didn’t stop in to talk to the farmer, merely left the hound and mare in a field outside of his careful stone walls and followed the boundaries toward where a line of trees marked the river.

Pride and comfort suggested I travel light, but only a fool would have left the spear behind. It was not a weapon designed to be carried for long. Balanced to sit between arm and hip, made of weighty asherwood, it exceeded my length by an unpleasant distance. The well-turned guard, sole protection against a beast running the length of the spear and reaching the bearer, made a painful arc against my body.

For a long time I searched the ground in vain. There were many cattle paths down to the banks of the river, the ground churned and dried hard as brick in places. The jangle of bells drifted out from the farm, the sound of the herd as they gazed and switched their tails at the flies. Inside my hood, the sweat trickled down my neck, the clean scent of banebranch root strong with every breath.

In the muddy end of the furthest trail, I finally found what I sought. A single print, twice the span of my hand, a single scale large as the nail of my thumb pressed into the edge. A chill tickled the back of my neck as I watched the light speckling the stones beneath the water of the river’s edge. For a moment I could feel the weight of the yearling quilth as he struggled on the spear, the solid bulk of the King’s body curved behind mine.

“This is days old,” I said to no one, touching my hand to the track. “Days old and no attacks in a half moon’s time. She’s moved on.”

I slept that night beneath a waking moon, her body tipped to fill with the dreams she would spill once she’d grown birthing swollen. The rustle of the grass was joined with the yips of a litter of racule somewhere nearby, and the booming calls of a nightmare bird high overhead. Despite it all, I slept deep and quiet.

We traveled downstream together, the mare, the hound and I. Watching for further trace of the great beast made for slow going; I stayed on foot for much of the distance, so as not to miss a sign. The river twisted in great undulations, such that to stay along her banks meant journeying four times the distance I might have were I to walk a straight line. Unlike the wooded stretches by the castle proper, here the land stretched clean and open, no break from the sun anywhere. The sweat ripened my hood into foulness; I would have shed it gladly, were it not for the trappings of huntsman that identified me.

Toward the end of the day, I found further evidence of her. The head of a great stag in the mud at the water’s edge, torn clean from the neck and deserted. Drag marks remained where she’d brought the body into the water, along with the lines where her claws had rent the soil.

The head was old, fresher than the prints at the farm, but the eyes were gone and maggots thick in the scant meat of the rest. At the next curve in the river I found the remains of the body, the ribs protruding up from the grasp of a deadfall, an emerald waterlizard gnawing on one bone. Little remained of the flesh, and half the ribs were stove in. I spread my hand reflexively, thinking of the print at the farm.

She’d left no other signs behind for me to find. I counted out two hundred careful paces from the water’s edge and threw my blanket down. My trust was in the hound, in her nose and her courageous voice.

Twice during the night she roused. Both times I leapt up, spear battened to my side. The first time I glimpsed a band of alope, their heads barely above the tips of the grass, bounding away. The second time I saw and heard nothing. A damp heavy mist had moved across the field, and the hound pressed close to me, her muzzle beneath my bent elbow. A tremor shook her sides, though for chill or fear I could not tell.

I drew slow careful breaths, my ears strained against the hush, until the scream of a nightmare bird jarred my heart into wildness. Even then I held tight to the spear, waiting, waiting. Footsteps, the slow thud of feet in the soft grass, and the breath of my mare as she lowered her head to us.

“It’s a sad day when you’re the steadiest head of the lot of us,” I said to her. She nickered in response, pulling at my hair with her blunt teeth.

Sleep did not return after. I lay back down, the hound stretched out beside me, and traced the pucker of scar along her side. “You smell of dog,” I said, and she wagged her tail in return. Her smell was only of dog to me, but I must have smelled of so many things to her. The potent sweat startled from me; sleep; woman, for there was not a hound in the kennels who did not know the truth that ran from my pores and bled from me monthly; lies, surely my lies must carry their own scent, surely she understood and forgave me them.

I scratched at her lean belly, my fingers tripping over the tight small nubs of her unused teats. She sighed, pulling one foreleg up to give me better access. “You don’t care, do you? You’d run for me all day, run and risk damage and be happy to simply lay beside me at night. It is a fine life you lead.”

One more pat of the tail and her breathing settled slow and regular. The mist thickened and moon vanished and I lay there listening and waiting. It was not sleep I found, but the dreams of flesh, of the weight of the quilth on the spear, the weight of the King on my back, my body crushed between the two.

The morning rose dark the next day, the clouds packed in sullen and gray. A low hot wind laid the grasses down, and the mare tugged restless at the end of her tether. Even the hound was uncertain, her ears and tail carried low. Had I fur, it would have bristled with the spark of my ill temper, my teeth bared for good measure. The spear chafed at my side as I carried it, and my hood felt as though it had grown too small, too tight, too impossible to bear another minute.

By midday we reached the edge of the King’s wood. I’d seen no further sign of the quilth, but as the river passed into the wood, it grew straighter and swifter, and the ground harder along its banks. The chance of finding trace of her grew slimmer; the danger of her finding us greater. I loosed the hound from her tether and gave her command to track, offering her the scale I’d collected from the mud.

The mare…I’d not decided what to do with her. In the back of my mind lurked thought of the easiest way to catch a quilth. A bound animal, cattle or horse, hunters lying in wait. Simpler, less dangerous, especially with a beast as large as the one I followed. I need not be honest. I could tell myself that I would stay close enough to halt the beast before she took the mare.

But that lie became me no more than the hood round my head. I brushed the mane back from the mare’s dappled neck, drew a deep breath of her comforting smell, and undid the girth from her belly, the bridle from her head.

“Go home, pretty girl,” I said. “Go home and wait for me. I’ll be along soon enough.”

She shook her head, her forelock falling across her eyes. I raised one hand, swinging the bridle, and she turned and trotted away, in no rush to be anywhere. Her tack I covered with a skin and left leaned up against a tree.

The hound traveled in a zigzag trail back and forth along the water’s edge. The bed of the river had changed to stone and sand, the pattern of light and shadow reflecting on it much the same as it did the scale in my hand. Here and there the river cut a deeper path through the earth, and my shoulders tightened as I followed along the drop of the edges. My thoughts cut a deeper channel as well, full of the limitations of wood and the spears made of it, of the strength of a quilth’s body and the power of its attack.

The hound stiffened, her nose to the sky. Nothing, the ripple of the water, the stillness of the air, a faint smell of musk and laurentian flower. She held steady for a moment longer, then relaxed, continued on, back and forth, the weaving trail of a drunk.

It happened again after we’d gone long enough for me to question my judgment twice more. The questioning did not hold long, for in my blood stirred a potent flame. I tore the hood from my head and breathed in scent as if I were the hound, my ears tuned to every rustle. When she paused I did as well, raising my own head, though I could smell nothing but the green of the wood and the metallic bite of coming rain.

And nothing again, except the wind beginning to pick up among the tops of the trees. I watched the water on the stones, the flashes of the fish swimming in the currents there, no longer conscious of the weight of the spear or the heat of my clothes.

The sound of the river grew louder. We were coming to where a stream joined in on the far side. The bank changed to ledge there, the rock carved by the water into a damp plateau. The trees were swaying now, the first of the rain beginning to fall. The patter of it distracted me, for a moment, maybe two, my concentration turned to the touch if it on my skin. A moment of distraction gone as the hound raised herself into a great bay, as if sounding for all the hounds that had ever chased prey.

I was calling her back as I dropped to my knee, the head of the beast rising over the bank with the speed of water breaching a dam. I yelled again, no words this time, as the beast met the spear, the tip finding purchase through the heavy scales of her chest. She drove forward until she hit the guard; I flew back, weightless, until I twisted and lodged the end of the spear against a tree.

We faced one another, me with my back to the rough bark, she close and malevolent. Her mouth was open, the long curved teeth to either side of her jaw yellow with age, one broken halfway down. Her eyes were silver, the pupils narrowed to flat slits of rage. She spat at me, her breath foul, and put one massive foot forward. Five claws dug into the ground as she pushed against the guard. The spear bowed beneath my arm.

A prayer escaped my lips, to the rain or the tree, or perhaps the quilth herself. The dark blood running along her teeth named her wound as mortal. The give of the spear beneath my arm warned me I’d likely join her. I’d always believed the choice a simple one, but now, death pressing toward me, I craved life with a hunger beyond all reason.

I pulled my feet close, away from her, and watched as she dragged her other foot forward. The claws flexed as they dug into the ground, and she hissed as she leaned forward. The wood arced further under my arm. Blood ran down her chin and over her shimmering scales.

Another push, her chest straining against the guard. The rain broke from the sky, the water filling the air, running down my face, turning her body shadowy as a ghost. The shaft of the spear slipped against the trunk, then lodged again. She pressed forward.

The hound was gone. I told myself she’d escaped, that she’d been clear and away of the bank. The quilth dug her claws in again, her breath labored, and a sharp pain tore into the underside of my arm as the spear began to splinter.

I let go with one hand, scrabbled at my belt for my dagger. The blood was a river down her chest, but her tail twitched like that of a cat preparing to pounce. Another hiss, my face covered in fine red spray, and she jumped.

The wood gave with a great crack, the broken ends driving up into my arm as I raised my dagger. It entered her neck as her teeth closed round my shoulder. I let go of the dagger and she shook me, my legs striking the tree with every motion. A moment of such pain, our bodies wrapped round one another, our blood one and the same. Then she dropped to her knees, one last feeble shake, and down she went with me beneath her.

There is a bird I love. It’s a plain creature, small enough to sit in the palm of my hand and drab as the brown clay that lay thick round my mother’s home. Its song though…it is the sound of the water rippling through shallows, of the scent of virilium in bloom. Its song was the first thing I heard outside the window on the morning I opened my eyes and knew I would live.

Two young boys watched me gravely, their hair in ringlets round their heads. “Best tell mama,” one said to the other, and they ran from the bedside together. I lay still. The bed was unfamiliar, as were the walls and the windows, the smell of the sheets. I tried to push myself upright with my hands, but one arm would not work, and both gave great pain.

“I’d not try. Not yet. Let me help you up.” Jonas’s sister came to me. With one hand behind my back, she shifted me and plumped the pillows to hold me up. I lifted my working arm, wincing at the pain, and touched the bandages over my shoulder.

“It will recover.” She sat on the side of the bed and touched her wrist to my forehead. “You’ve had no infection, praise the moon.”

Praise the moon. The woman’s goddess, patron of fatherless children, of birth and blood. “Does everyone know then?”

She said nothing at first, just drew breath and watched the shadow of a cloud darken the light from the window. “The Huntsman is dead,” she said at last. “He died protecting a woman from a great quilth. It was honorable, for such is important to men.”

“So I am woman now.”

“As you always have been, Master Huntsman.” She smiled, sweet as virillium blooms.

“You knew,” I said.

She laughed, gently, as if the sound might break me. “One only need the ability to read hounds, Master Huntsman. And I know of no man’s religion which honors the moon quite as strictly as yours does. Men travel in linear paths, not the circular ones you take.”

“Jonas as well then?”

“Jonas as well. The others did not see because it served them not to. Few men choose to believe a woman could best them.”

She undid the tie of my shift, lifted the bandage from my shoulder. I could see little of it, but what I could was sewn by a hand pretty as a girl’s.

She sighed. “I do not know what strength will remain. It may be that quilth hunting will no longer be in your future.” Covering it again, she pulled the sheet up as well. “I believe it’s come time for you to make a choice as to who you are.”

I nodded, my eyelids heavy, and sank back into sleep.

Nothing else can be mistaken for the smell of the ocean. It smells of tears, of goodbyes, of freedom. Jonas accompanied me to the seaport Dormian. I wore his sister’s clothes, taken in and let out in half a dozen places.

“It is a small place you’re going, and it will take a long voyage,” she’d said, two pins held in her mouth. “I’ve not been since I was just past being a girl. Their ways are much different. They worship not the moon and sun, but the goddess of the hunt and her consort, the god of the plow. Your skill will not be at odds with your womanhood.”

“Why did you come back?” I asked.

She paused, her fingers collecting a pleat at my waist. “I can be myself anywhere. Men who found comfort in a breast as a babe find little threat in a woman when they are ill.” She placed a pin, smoothed the fabric. “I could have stayed. But it is hard to raise one’s children far from the places you ran as a child.”

“Children do not interest me,” I said.

“I see that.” She smiled. “You have hidden yourself enough, Master Huntsman. It is time to be who you are, all of it.”

Tiburon bought me my freedom. I’d considered going to my father and pleading my case, threatening if necessary, but Tiburon brought me a bag of gold and bottle of mead and bade me safe journey. I took the coin and left the mead behind. Pain I’d not expected came when I kissed him goodbye. “You’ll not come?” I asked him.

He shook his head. “I’ll take my chances with the next huntsman,” he said, and I cursed him and laughed as he rode away.

My mare I promised to Jonas’s sister, after she’d carried me to Dormian. She’d make a fine mount for the children. The hound was harder to part with, and in the end I could not. She’d carried my life on her swift legs, bolting for home as the quilth bore down on me, and leading Jonas back to the river. The night before we left I washed the ash from her coat, and gold shone forth from the brindle when we rode out together.

It took six days to reach the coast. I had more than enough to afford us nights in inns along the way, but I could not bear the thought of rooms and doors when the night sky lay overhead. Jonas understood, or gave good counterfeit, and at night we lay beneath a full dreaming moon and talked of many things. It was as if we were two springs, finally broken free to run, burbling out the secrets we’d learned far beneath the earth.

On the last night we neither ate nor made a fire, simply sat and watched the moon as she swelled up from the horizon and rose high above. “We could have been friends all these years,” I said.

“We were.”

I could smell the ocean on the wind now. It pulled at me. It pulled at Jonas too, I could see it in his face, but the pull was not the same. For him the world would remain the kennels and the cottage with the bluebells nodding at the windows.

“I’ve one last thing to ask of you,” I said. I could feel myself blush like a nervous girl, a blush my hood would have hidden.

He said nothing, just watched my face. I leaned close to him. His skin gave off warmth, and his cheek prickled with the stubble that grew there. There was surprise in the breath that rushed from him, and at first his lips did not respond, as if afraid, as if testing. Then, with a sigh, he moved closer too. He lifted his hand to my ragged hair and I wrapped mine round his immobile one, and we lay in the sea of grass together.

I’d never seen the ocean. I’d never even imagined it, just as I’d never imagined trading the fields and forests I knew for a chance to live in my own skin. A bitter trade, at least it tasted so that morning, as I looked at the great rigging of the ship before me, the bustle of the sailors tending her deck.

But there was sweetness in the way my heart beat keen and eager to go even as the pull of memory slowed my feet. I could not stay, not anymore.

I took the tether of the hound from Jonas when it was time to board the ship. I leaned in close and kissed him once, and he stroked the hair back from my forehead. Then I brought the hound to heel and we traveled up the walkway and onto the shifting deck. I continued forward, all the way to the prow of the boat, and stood there as the men below pulled at the oars to move us away from the shore. For a time I could see my face in the ripples below, the glitter of the water like scales on my skin. But before long the sails were opened with a snap of canvas and the wind filled them and the rush of waves erased my face, leaving only the depth of the ocean below.

_____
Copyright 2012 Jennifer Mason-Black

Jennifer Mason-Black lives in the woods of Massachusetts, surrounded by her human family and a menagerie of elderly animals. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and The Sun, among others. Additional information about her work can be found at cosmicdriftwood.wordpress.com.

by J. M. Sidorova

When I was a kid, any wizard could put a spell on me. I mean, there was always an occasion. We were either too noisy, or there was too many of us, and so there was always an old bitchy wizard who did not appreciate it when kids screamed, or a middle-aged impatient wizard who hired us to clip his hedge and wanted it done just right, or just a teenage curious wizard who sneaked in a little practice and–boink!–I was mushy in the knees, or my voice was gone, or my clippers seemed to lead me along the hedge in the most neat, level line.

Why not, right? They always wear off, the spells. And between you and me–they are not too bad. They are just like the first rush of smokescreen, when one inhaled and is ready to kick back and trip off. There is that same wave of chill. Like one got frizz in his body and it’s bubbling up into the air. Like one’s weightless.

That’s what one realizes when one grows up and starts–you know–using, and all that. Which brings me to my point: by the time one is my age, one knows a spell when it’s coming. And so when one knows it’s coming and then nothing happens–one’s like, “What’s up with that?”

She was a young girl, that wizard. Walked in, hands in pant pockets, shoulders up, head down. She did not see me. It was late, and the street was empty, and I was hanging out there like I always do, this being my trade post. Yeah, dealing–you can’t be serious into smokescreen and not be selling it in your spare time. What I’m saying is: it was my street, and I ain’t seen her here ever, what business did she have here anyway at that hour, smokescreen is not for wizards, I’m told it won’t work on them, so she could not be buying, and if not, stay out of my street, girl, go to your Towers of power or whatnot, did your boyfriend dump you and you are looking for some kind of experience? I’ll show you one! Ever seen a tommie’s ass?

So there I was, detaching my back from the wall, and I just knew she was already on red alert, and my only thinking went: will I be able to moon that girl before she’ll make me march away in a straight line reciting, I am a Good Boy? We were, like, in this race, I–reaching for my belt, and she–doing whatever they do with their palms before they extend them out towards us, and then–then we go all bubbly.

Except, like I say, this time nothing happened. So weird: I felt conflicted like some kind of a free will action was going on, Should I bow and retreat, or should I unbuckle that belt? Then I figured: that spell of hers was malfunctioning! It was trying to set in but something was not working. That was so WHOA! that I kinda forgot about my ass for a minute. I was just standing there, enjoying that freedom of choice inside me and watching her stare at her palm, and then try again, and again. Then I remembered to get to that buckle of mine and went on to release it. And she–she took off running. I swear! Running for her life like she wasn’t a wizard. And I–remained where I was. Freaked out, kind of.

Because this was totally unheard of–for a straight spell, cast from thirty feet, not to work!

I know I need to explain, so let me do it.

Our island wasn’t always the way it is now. And I don’t just mean social changes. I mean the whole mother-fathering genesis, as it is taught in school. This genesis says at the beginning the island was empty and void. Then wizards came from the faraway lands, over the seas, in big freaking ships with big freaking sails. As the ships ran aground, the sails turned into birds and spread into the skies, and the ships’ bodies turned into beasts and scattered over the land. And masts became forests, and I’m sure, all sorts of junk that piles up through the journey became all sorts of junk necessary to keep an island going, but too tedious to be all recounted in a genesis. The bottom line is–out of the ships came the wizards, and the machines that were in the ships’ hulls became their first Towers of power.

Then, the genesis goes, they lived in their towers, and gazed upon the island where all their beasts and birds multiplied like bunny-rabbits and celebrated the glory of, you know, life. And after some hundreds of years of that they felt this itch. They wanted to make something more like themselves, or rather, as my Uncle Tep says, something in between them and bunny-rabbits. So they made us. Not all of us, of course. They made the first one and named him Au Tom Aton, and then they made him a wife named Womb Au. And those two finished the job. Womb Au and Au Tom produced seven boys and seven girls, and those labored on it too, and give it a bunch of years–and you have a people. Tommies, we call ourselves, after our ancestor, Au Tom.

Now that’s what we are taught in school, and if you ask me, it makes darn good sense. Though my little sister Phoebe once ran around claiming that genesis is crap. She used to be into books and stuff, and they had this study group in school, and their biology teacher planted some seeds, so to speak. That genius had picked up somewhere the Theory of the Evolutionary Origin of Tommies and passed it on to the young and receptive minds, our little Phoebe that is. So that she would get all excited, and bring home these brochures, and call our Ma a reactionary, and me a brainwash job.

Then this one night five years ago she and fellow study groupies sneaked onto the school’s roof to hang down this big old placard, Genes, not Genesis! and she slipped and fell all the way down, and hit her head real hard, and now she just lies quietly, for the most part, like that chunk of wood from a wizards’ ship before it went on to become a bunny-rabbit. I say for the most part, because if you pinch her, or rub, or poke her, she stirs up and now she can talk a few words with you, and recognize you, and make a smile, but only for thirty or so minutes, and then she’ll just fade and collapse again. Doctors say it’s a drive injury, that she has this damage to her brain in the place where it’s all about alertness and arousal, and that this place no longer tells the rest of her brain when it’s time to wake up, only when you really annoy it by overstimulating.

Call it whatever but it looks just like a wind-up doll, good enough for thirty minutes or less; too bad it becomes our Phoebe for those thirty minutes, or maybe just plays a record of Phoebe — doctors say impossible to tell, and I say it’s worse than have her die on the spot that night, and Ma says there is hope even when she doesn’t mean it, and generally it is very, very hard to live with, thank god for smokescreen.

Phoebe was the reason I studied massage therapy. Yeah, I am a goddamn masseur by training. I had this crazy idea that I could help Phoebe if I did this–you know–deep stimulation. I thought, if I rubbed her tendons, and kneaded her muscles, and pressed on her bones, and squeezed her lymph nodes just the right way, I’d excite the heck out of all these nerve endings, and make them wake her sleeping brain, saying, yo, stay on, keep your eyes open!

So when I’d graduated from Primary Ed, I went to this best skills-school, and they were very nice, and told me I was the best in class and shit like that. They taught me the fluff-you touch and the squash-you touch, pat-ressage and ralphing; even the fancy-shmancy Binding Web touch that is rumored to send some people into a state of great unrest.

Didn’t work on Phoebe. A thirty minute wind-up was all I was getting. A dumb pinch could get you that! Maybe it was not supposed to work anyway. Or maybe I just wasn’t good enough, and they in their fancy school just lied to my face or didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

Anyhow. After that Whoa event I just could not keep it to myself and told Uncle Tep about it. Uncle Tep is Ma’s brother. He is a big guy. So big that I look dainty next to him, so big that he thinks he is being a hearty chap when he is being an into-your-face bulldozer. He’s had a standing greeting for me for the past five years, “Yo, Rubus, are you gonna take me on someday or what?” I guess he does not like me much–I am flesh and blood of that “asshole husband” of Ma’s, quote-unquote. I guess I don’t like Uncle Tep that much either. I don’t like it that he likes Phoebe. He’d arouse her every time he visits–not like me, with all my goddamn technique, no, he just pinches and wiggles her thighs and tickles behind her knees; and then talks to her in this loud and cheery way, like she is an idiot. I find it false and weird, but Phoebe I suppose cannot tell, so she smiles at him, and nods nicely, and lisps words, which sometimes pass for answers to his stupid questions.

I really don’t like any of it. I prefer the biology teacher, the genius, he’s been coming–he feels guilty, I figure,–and whenever he visits, he just sits down next to Phoebe and reads to her out of his evolution brochures. I prefer that, but Ma, she acts like those brochures will send Phoebe farther astray, so Jack–the teacher–is unwelcome and Uncle Tep is welcome. Ma says that all Uncle Tep is trying to do is keep Phoebe going, and he is family, and he supports Ma with money, and what it really means is that I can shove my dislike of him you know where, especially since I don’t give Phoebe massage anymore, and don’t have a job, and have instead a–a drug habit.

Anyway, what I’m saying is: if I tell something about myself to Uncle Tep, it means I really cannot contain it and need an audience. Not Shirk, my supplier. And not Heege, my buddy. A male family member kind of audience.

So I tell Uncle Tep about that girl’s failed spell, and at first he does not believe me. Then he says, “Well, nephew, I can tell you this. Something is broken here, either you or her wizardry. If I were to guess, I’d say it’s that chick’s wizardry, ’cause from what you tell me, it seems she didn’t have her shit together that night. While you–you may have something or other broken in your head, but it ain’t your wizarding receptacle.”

Uncle Tep’s judgment makes it all seem trifling and tainted, and I don’t like it. But it gets me thinking in the opposite direction: what if it was me, and not broken, but fixed! Fixed so I could withstand any one of their spells, an invincible man! This gets my juices flowing. I go around for several days, flowing my juices and thinking: what if I evolved to be resistant, like Jack would say? But then this other part of me that is kind of a sourface, screeches, it’s the smokescreen, you dummy. The dope got you desensitized, precisely because your dope seems to do the same thing as spells, at least at get go. So you are not an Invincible Man, you are just a junkie. This thought is disappointing, but I face it bravely. What I gotta do is do a test, I say. Harass any and every wizard I see and see if their spells stick.

Well, these days this is easier said than done. And not just because of the social change, no, first of all because before I can go and implement my plan, H.I.S. knocks on our door and rounds me up.

Now that, you gotta understand, is no small matter. H.I.S., Home Island Security, is not your regular tommie police, where you grew up with half of the force, and the chief used to wrench your ear off when you were eight years old and into practical jokes. No, H.I.S. is a wizard agency, and people no longer joke about H.I.S., not even when cowering in their beds, under three blankets and a mound of pillows. Okay, I’ll explain now.

Remember I was talking about genesis? Well, that was not our whole story. What came after genesis, was history, another subject in school. History says wizards and tommies lived side by side for hundreds of years and made it all work nicely. Wizards oversaw and tommies manned the cogwheels. Tommies stuck to their townships on the coast, fished and harvested sea-weed and salt, self-governed on small matters and looked up to wizards for anything bigger than a dispute over a dinghy; some held farms farther inland, still others worked in wizard-run factories, making wizard-food and wizard-things–many things they themselves would never own or even see again, which was just as well because they knew no use for all those wizard-things. And wizards lived mostly inland in the mountains, in a few big cities built around Towers of power, and did whatever they did to make our island run smoothly.

Then came the War. One day a fleet of ships came over the seas, and though some overly religious tommies hailed it as the Second Coming and danced on the beach, it became very clear very soon that those were no genesis ships but warships–when they started shooting at that very beach and pulverized those dancing, overly religious tommies.

War is a terrible thing. But war is also a mighty catalyst of progress, you gotta admit. The invaders were wizards too, but strange and foreign. Their ships issued not beasts nor birds, but metal machines–crawling and flying machines that shot at you. Those first hours and days of the war were horrible–and awesome. Tommies learned a few things about their home-wizards, as our home-grown flying machines, previously unheard of, suddenly came out of the secret holes in the mountains and engaged the enemy.

Our folk stood with their jaws dropped and watched those birds of war swoop down on each other, engines wailing, watched them rip through each other with hailstorms of projectiles and fall out of the skies, burning hot and bright, and sometimes landing on those very folks who still stood there fixed by the sight of power, and valor, and death… Those were the days of heroes, of legends. Take The Last Stand of the Falcon, where this one home-wizard held against a whole enemy squadron, in a bright blue sky, a lone silver bird playing life-and-death with a pack of raven-black machines, and sending no fewer than five of them to hell before he was shot corkscrewing into a breathtaking height, blurring with the sun so that the flare of the explosion could not be seen, and later the witnesses all swore that no debris fell on the ground as if the Falcon and his aircraft went straight to heavens…

I don’t know if all of it was exactly as legends claim, but pretty darn close, I’m sure. Those were the days of forgotten rules, lifted barriers. Bread and water were shared on evacuation routes. Wounded wizards were found and cared for, their lips moistened reverently, their heads propped lovingly, their strange, different colors observed in awe–the red of their blood, the yellow of their urine–all exposed by the intimacy of death. Those were the days when we saw how badly outnumbered were our wizards, and how bravely they fought for our land. For us. And so those days were not over when we, tommies, flooded recruitment centers. We were going to fight against those foreign wizards, we were going to fly those planes and drive those tanks, and shoot those big guns, we just needed to learn how. And our home-wizards looked at us, fishermen and farmers, and maybe they smiled crookedly at our resolve, but then they saw how many of us there were, and said, ah, what the heck.

The war was won. And by the end of it, some tommies really could fly planes, though the good old grunt-rushing by infantry tommies played its part too. There is a war memorial on Mount Arlemaine, a cliff that overlooks our largest bay. Over it flies a red-and-blue flag; its colors clash along a jagged line that is like a wound. They are the colors of our blood–their red and our blue. Ten years ago, when my father was still around, he told me that when he was a kid they used to bus them to the memorial on V-day, and he used to get a rush staring at the flag, feeling all patriotic, and fantasizing how he would spill his blue blood for our island if the war came again. On the way back he’d stick his head out of the bus window, and watch the red-and-blue banners flapping all along streets, and in windows, and on houses.

They still hang red-and-blue banners on V-day. In the official places, like police quarters.

Anyhow, after the victory, you see, we had our own heroes and legends. We had tommies who rose through the ranks and led our army. We even got our own Falcon. Martin Box was his name, and he was one of the few tommies who actually flew the fighting planes, he was just that good. The legend says, he flew the critical mission where they blew up the invaders’ mother-ship, after which the enemy wizards capitulated. And another legend adds, he also flew the mission after that, when they sank the remnants of the withdrawing fleet so that no one of the enemy would live to tell the tale of our blessed island in his foreign lands and induce another invasion.

The point is, when the war was over and all these decorated tommie heroes, Martin Box in their lead, took a deep breath and looked around, they said, well, let’s lock hands now and rebuild our dear island, and how about that: we were equals in death, so why not have equal rights in life? And every tommie nodded and said, oh yeah; and our wizards said, sure, because how could you not agree with the decorated war heroes who’d just got the taste of taking on the wizard race and winning; who’d done both the glorious extermination of the enemy mother-ship and the less glorious butchery of the fleeing survivors!

For a while it was working out. There was a post-war growth delirium — grand projects were carried out, lots of jobs, and tommies responded by multiplying. Political initiatives, schools, handshakes, grand openings. New living in mixed wizard-tommie communities. Now we had our Early Warning System, sensors encircling the island, fifty miles into the sea, spying for ships and probes that did not belong there. Miles of sea bed were raised above water. And of course, H.I.S. was founded. To gather intelligence, to listen to the outer world with the aid of the advanced wizarding devices, and to discern the hostile intent the moment it materialized anywhere in the vast universe across the seas.

The War was about eighty years ago. No enemy came to us since. Our sensors and land barriers were being quietly eroded by sea tides. Our equality lasted for as long as there were jobs and paychecks at the end of the week. As the face of our society went from plump to gaunt, its teeth began to show. Then one day twenty years ago Martin Box, a geezer by then, flew off the handle. I figure he got tired of being a token war hero, sitting like a clay effigy of his former self at all those functions, watching the things he thought he’d fixed decades ago, kind of go unfixed on him. Or maybe he just grew senile and defaulted to his swashbuckling days. At any rate, he fired up his old bird, a museum piece by then, got it airborne and steered it right into one of the wizards’ Towers of power, like it was an enemy mother-ship. A big explosion, an act of terrorism.

After that, some screws got tightened, some liberties expired. Some mixed communities began to segregate back again, like a water and oil mix that separates out if allowed to sit for too long. Uncle Tep says, if we only could screw each other, it’d be a different story. Then, he says, we’d be a one big happy family by now. But short of that…

Always has this way of making everything look trifling and tainted, that Uncle Tep. Though it makes you think, if wizards could create us looking any way they wanted, why didn’t they make us compatible with them in the sex department? Phoebe used to say that this is one of the proofs that we were not created, that we evolved. I don’t know about that.

It was after Martin Box’s flip-out, that spells became common. Towers of power got equipped with some kind of invisible shields. And H.I.S. turned its over-trained and under-used ear away from the echoes of the faraway lands to the much more relevant chatter of the home folk.

And now I am sitting in the H.I.S. detention block, biting on my nails, and nearly shitting my pants thinking what the reason for my arrest could possibly be.

How could I forget. The failed spell. The wizard-bitch must have complained. No, you wouldn’t want a spell-resistant punk running around, would you. Over the next twelve hours, in a barren chamber with only a pair of chairs and a console, and a very cold cement floor, they force-fed me so much feel-bubbly-all-over that I can no longer believe I ever thought it was anything pleasant. And I’ve done everything these two wizards, the interrogators, spelled me to do. Everything. I didn’t want to, but they made me. And the more I didn’t want, the meaner they spelled. I wept yet I wrapped my pants around my ankles and hobbled around in a star-shaped pattern, spanking myself on the ass till it hurt, and after that, till it stopped hurting. I wailed yet I got down on my hands and knees like a dog, with my bare ass and all, and they laughed at me, and they were, like, What else can dogs do? And… oh hell. And that after I gave them all I got, not just the failed spell… I’ve expelled my whole life story, every last detail–until I heaved dry, with no more things to tell…

When they were done with me, they cut me loose in some unfamiliar borough in the middle of the night, and I trudged for hours to the only landmark I could recognize, and now I’m crouched at the base of the war memorial on the cliff side, hollowed out, shaking, disgusted with myself, and I weep so hard that I bleed out of my nose, and I drool and smear my useless blue blood on the grass around me.

I am not an invincible man.

Jack, the teacher, does not say much more than “Hey, Rubus,” but waves me to the table in his kitchen and puts a pouch of Island’s Best pork and beans next to my left hand and a mug of steaming coffee next to my right hand. I’m hungry but I’m no longer certain about anything, my throat is as distrustful of eating as it is of speaking. I approach coffee, kind of on guard. He says, “I’ve been to your house. Your mother told me.”

Then, “If you wanna camp here for a couple of days, it’s fine with me.”

Then, “But let me go tell your family you are all right.”

Then, “Are you?”

I say, “Jack, your evolution is bullshit.”

He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, but otherwise bounces it right back to me, “No it isn’t.”

“Why?”

“’Cause it makes sense.”

“Lot of bullshit makes sense.”

He goes off to the chest of drawers and in a while returns with a shoe box. “Remember the Big Dig?” he says. “The last one of the military projects, the unfinished one. Well, there is that hillside there, sliced open and abandoned. The cut looks like puff pastry, layers upon layers of sandstone and clay. I used to take the biology club to that hillside every spring. The rains would keep eroding it, and the strangest ever things would get exposed.” He opens the box. “Your sister found this one. Look. Nothing that lives on this island today looks like this.”

“So?”

“So our island was not empty and void when the wizards landed on it.”

It’s a slate of rock, about a foot long and half as wide. The creature is kind of half-embossed, half-impressed on its surface. Its long neck is flung back in agony, its jaws are parted, its hind legs and tail are curled, long fingers of its forelimbs are spread out, and all around them are imprints of feathers.

“It kept drizzling, so pretty soon we were completely covered in mud. Kids spread all over the hillside like beetles, digging. Your sister held this one up over her head, started running down the slope, fell on her bum, and sledded all the way. Kept laughing, kept shouting, ‘Look what I found!’ Then we all sat in the van, drinking hot cider, shivering, counting and sorting our treasure…”

“Screw you, Jack,” I say. “Screw you!” I am about to start crying again, and I hate him for that. I hate that he does not need smokescreen, that manuscripts and chunks of rock are dope enough for him. I even hate that he’s never ever laid a finger on Phoebe yet he is so struck with guilt and sadness nonetheless. “You fucking love her, Jack, so you gotta take her out of there, you gotta save her, because I can’t… I can’t!”

He looks at me, stunned, but at the same time–not. “But I’m not supposed to… I cannot, I could not do much, it’s not–”

“It’s been five years. She is no longer a minor. You can marry her, for fuck’s sake!”

“But I don’t even know if she loves me… Ever loved me… I couldn’t force her to… ”

“It does not matter! Who cares! We are just wind up puppets, slapped together in some stupid way by gods who didn’t give a rat’s ass whether we made sense or not, who only care that we don’t get uppity with them! Puppets, all of us! Some have a longer charge, and some are down to thirty minutes at a time. Some start ticking when they see tits and ass, and some when they see dope, and some when they see some out-of-favor theory. Tick-tack! It’s either you or Uncle Tep, and I’d rather choose you!”

My words only make me feel worse, so I get up and leave. I go lay low at Heege’s for a few days. Then I go to Shirk and he offers me some dope in exchange for a massage job on his ugly feet. I do it. Then I lock myself up in Shirk’s shed and try to use my hard-earned dope, but I can’t even open the capsule. The anticipation of that first rush–the bubbly feeling–makes me want to throw up. Brings memories of that chamber, in H.I.S.

In a week, and after several attempts to inhale I am back on my street, selling what I cannot use.

That’s when I see her again. The wizard-bitch, this time she comes looking for me. She stops ten paces before me, puts her hands in her pockets. “Rubus Flynn,” she says.

So she knows my name now. What if I hit her? Has she fixed her wizardry yet? “Au Flynn,” she adds. That’s a formal, respectful way to address a tommie. Is she making fun of me?

“I didn’t tell anyone about our run-in. Those… hacks that took you in–it was their local source. A tommie. Hear that? It wasn’t me, it was one of your own people.”

She has no right to bring any of it up, whatever she thinks she knows! “Go away,” I say.

She steps closer instead. She wears her hair very short, it makes her head look small and her neck–fragile. “Ask me how I know it. Go ahead! I know because my father works for the H.I.S., that’s how. I know that those hacks you ran into are now suspended. I know all sorts of things, if you JUST ASK me!” She finishes in a shout, stomps her foot.

“I said go away!” I give her a shove, heels of my palms push into her shoulders. What my hands make contact with, feels weird and breakable, feels angular and unattached to her skin. Feels like I should not be doing this. I stare at my palms as if I could read on them what they’ve just touched. All of it while she loses balance and flops down on the pavement. I come close and stoop over her, “Just give me another one of your spellbinds so we can be done here.”

“I won’t.”

“Will not or can not?”

“Watch,” she says. She puts her right palm in front of my face and just as I see something on it, a rainbow-colored flicker, she grabs at this something with her other hand and rips off a curling, whitish peel of skin. She crumples the peel with her both hands, then drops it on the pavement and smacks and smashes it with the heels of her boots. “Here,” she says, holding her both palms up, “Now I can’t do anything at all, even if I wanted to. I can’t harm you and I can’t call for help. Can’t protect you either. Satisfied?”

Protect me? I bend over, pick up her palm-skin. It is creased but not torn. A tough little thing. I see no more rainbows in it though, it is dirty-white, dead. “What is it?”

“It transmits… spells.” She pronounces the word as if she is not used to it, helping herself with a spiraling gesture. She finally gets off the pavement. “Can you come with me, please? I want to show you something.” She holds my stare for a while, then nods at the peel. “Keep it. Just don’t tell anyone what it is and that I gave it to you.”

It’s almost funny. Like I can hide anything from wizards! As for tommies… none of them will believe me. Heck, I too find it hard to believe: right now the thing looks most like a discarded Island’s Best wrapper.

“Let’s go. My car is just around the corner. Please.”

She starts to go up the street, half turned to me–please, follow–and I do.

It’s not a short ride. When we drive out of the Bay area and start climbing into the mountains, part of me gets kind of worried. But then I decide that if she pulls something on me, I won’t go without some serious damage. What have I got to lose? In the meantime I might as well get comfortable. I like riding in her warm car, like it how our headlights brush against the curving mountainside. I like not knowing what will come next, only knowing that it’ll keep coming. It’s kind of like a smokescreen trip. Rules suspended, bent. Too bad, I am not feeling that well now. Hell knows why.

Next comes a dirt road. It’s blocked, but she gets out of the car and swings the bar out of the way and later replaces it like it’s a random tree branch and not an official roadblock. We rock and roll over bumps and puddles for about thirty minutes, climbing some more through the forest, then pop out onto a bare mountainside and pull over. She gets out, I follow. A chilly mountain night, clear skies. We are very close to a precipice, and she walks right to it.

She braces herself with her arms, draws her shoulders up. She is cold, or nervous. “So this is the one place where you can get a bird’s eye view on a Tower of power,” she says, “Wanna take a look?”

I’ll be damned. Straight below us, maybe a hundred feet or so down, a pitch black tangle, faintly gleaming in the moonlight. The structure is so complicated, it seems alive. It’s like a giant snake nest, with several sentinels poised upright to watch over the valley while the rest are coiled together at the base. I can’t help but think how this could have crawled right out of the genesis ship–and then perched itself on the mountainside.

“It’s one of our oldest, if not the oldest,” she says. “Martin Box nearly destroyed it. You can’t see it now, but there is a big old dent on the rock face where his plane burrowed into it.” She sits down, cross legged. I stop craning my neck and take a step back from the edge. “No, keep watching,” she says. “The problem with those protective shields is calibration. You don’t want it to capture every speck, insect and bird, or you’ll have a dust ball spiked with roadkill form around the thing every twenty four hours or so. You want it to let the small stuff through and zap the big stuff, like a plane, for example. But then again you don’t want projectiles to go through it either. Like grenades.”

I marvel at the way she speaks about it. As if these watchful black snakes with their protective shield are her pets.

“So it just happens that a rock the size of a cantaloupe or bigger, at whatever velocity it reaches by the time it gets down there, trips the shield. But a rock any smaller than that–doesn’t.”

Before I grasp the meaning, she says, “Watch closely,” and hurls a piece of rock down at the snakes.

I hear the rock hitting something, bouncing off, hitting again. A distant rustle of a run-off stream of gravel, then silence.

“That was a small rock. Now watch again.”

It’s like a–green convulsion. The air over the towers puckers in one spot, like this air is not air, but glass, and it gives off this momentary spider web-like crack and then–it is all quiet again. I don’t know when I backed off the edge.

“That rock was the right size.” She still sits in place, cross legged. Unmoved, unfazed. So the wizard patrols are not about to descend on us, I guess.

“What’s your point?”

“Coming. Watch again.” This time she weighs up two rocks, each bigger than a cantaloupe. Bigger than the previous rock. I find myself wishing her to stop. But she won’t. Off they go, one after another, arching over and plunging down. And–nothing.

She gets up, brushes dirt off her hands. “That’s my point,” she says. “I’ve played here since I was a kid. There were times when I was angry, too. I had my reasons. I still have them. My point is, it was like skipping pebbles at the beach, only knowing that it was the big one that always bounced. Always. Up until about three months ago. My point is, Rubus Flynn, that day we ran into each other, my–spell–did not work because this thing–this thing down there that powers up all wizardry this side of the mountain, and its own shield, is running out of juice. Its charge is winding down. This shield is like a light bulb that sputters before it goes out. After the first rock it can’t recharge quickly enough before the second rock strikes. It flutters off and on. And so did my spell. Do you see what I’m saying? My point is, those two hot shots, they tried you for twelve hours nonstop and they made it work. But they had to throw all they’ve got at you to get to where they wanted. My point is, they are now being charged with protocol violations, negligence, lack of insight, insubordination, you name it, in other words, general jackassery. But not with assault. My point is, I know a lot about you, and I am so sorry that you had to go through what you did because of me and a sputtering light bulb.”

I can see she is upset and angry, but I am so out of time and out of breath to put it all into context! I am not feeling well, and I can no longer tell if it is from what she said, or I am just going down with something. A sputtering light bulb, a windup Tower? This tower, its invisible shield, and her peel-off palm skin that lies crumpled in my pocket–are all connected? The jackasses had to crank something up to make me take my pants down? So many blanks in all of this that my head begins to hurt. Blanks hurt it. Voids. The island was empty and void, spins a phrase in my head.

“Can your people recharge it? The tower.”

“No,” she says, walking back to the car. “It was a one-time deal.” She turns back to me and makes a clownish gesture, the kind a tommie would do to mock spellbinding. “The e-ner-gy crystals. Otherwise known as U238mod. We brought it with us when we came.” She opens the car door. “One last thing before we go. Remember what I told you? One of your own people. Are you ready? You were arrested on a tip from a certain Tepidarius Ketch, a long-time H.I.S. informer. The jackasses were his handlers. Just so you know. Come on, I’ll take you back to town.”

She gets in the car and pushes the passenger door open, but I cannot make a single step. Tepidarius Ketch. A.k.a. Uncle Tep. I really feel like shit now, and this sucker punch–this sucker punch…

I wake up in the hospital. My first sensation as I am surfacing up is unbound happiness. Then the sights and noises fill in, and the heavenly joy recedes. I am parked along the wall in a hallway, my cot has a built-in pole for IV, a frame for a privacy canopy, a sliding counter top for taking food and writing, even the lock box at my feet where my medical history is kept. Under my bed must be shelves stuffed with supplies, my clothes, and my chamber pot. I am a moveable unit, a package of a patient. I know these things because we’ve been through all of this with Phoebe.

I hurry to jerk my arms and legs, ’cause I’m suddenly afraid I’ve ended up like her. But I haven’t. My head feels like it’s packed full of cotton, and I am wasted, that’s all. While I process all this, a couple of other sick units near me call for the nurse, “Lucky has come to. Yo! He’s thrashing!”

So I already have some history here, and a nickname to go with it.

The nurse checks on me, then disappears. I twist my head around: invalids in their cots and their family members in foldable chairs next to them, their bags of belongings squeezed between their ankles. Your regular tommie hospital. Whatever the reason I’m here, I gotta start figuring a way out. I don’t feel lucky at all.

Then the nurse returns, and behind her, comes my wizard-bitch. My wizard-bitch, I call her, but that’s inertia talking. Truth is, when I see her striding in, hands in pockets, shoulders up, on guard, her usual–I suddenly feel that my nickname fits. I am lucky. I’m happy. She smiles, “Good morning.”

They let her wheel me away to the end of the hallway, to the window. A door to the stairs is there too, and doctors and nurses come and go, and eye us every time they pop out of the stairwell, but still it is better than to be lined up under the vigilant eye of those other sick units.

“You mind?” She climbs onto my cot, settles by my side. “How d’you feel?”

“OK. What’s your name?”

“Yeah, I guess I never told you. Name’s Isabel. Since you’re about to ask, this is how it went: you more or less collapsed there in the mountains, foaming at the mouth and all that good stuff. I took you to your closest ER but the first thing they do when they see you is go over your pockets and find this–whatever you call it–a cute name, too cute for what it does though–”

“Smokescreen.”

“There you go. You didn’t even know it’s addictive, did you?”

“I… did. More or less.”

“Less than more. Or you’d not be walking around after quitting cold turkey. You’d be checked in. Anyway, that’s where it got hairy. Apparently your medical facilities are not obligated to provide services to drug addicts when they present with drug-related emergencies. The only way you can use the system is if you voluntarily enroll into a detox. Prior to the episode. If you want to break out of the habit and anticipate a withdrawal sickness.”

I can’t say I did not know any of it. I did, kind of. Without the gruesome details. At some theoretical level. But I didn’t believe it would ever happen to me. And those times when I did believe it, I just got more bitter and thus more drawn to smokescreen. And of course, after H.I.S. I was just kind of running myself into the ground anyway… I say, “So how did I get admitted? Did you… use your wizardry on them?”

She snorts. “Wizardry. My palmer is dead, remember? This is the third place I drove you to. I coaxed the doctor to sign you up by a past date. So you are in detox now, whether you planned it or not, Au Flynn. A week of injections and dialysis, and you’ll come out clean from the other end of the tunnel. Don’t let me down, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks.” Her palmer. Is that her palm-skin she refers to? I don’t want to think about it. I am off the ground, for now, and I have my own personal goddess, Isabel, who has rewound my clock for me while I was conveniently out cold. Lucky me.

I find her hand, touch it. My heart rate goes up. “I know you want to go, but would you mind… staying a bit longer? I wasn’t always a screw-up. I can be entertaining.”

“Don’t worry about it. I am right there with you. Father thinks I’m a screw-up, mother thinks I’m a wild child, and our culture as a whole thinks me an enfant terrible, and that’s kind of fashionable right now, to be juvenile and talented.”

“And you are?”

“I am not what anyone thinks I am or should be, that’s all.”

She reminds me of someone. This serious manner of saying things, even the funkiest ones! But no, I don’t want to go there. I want to keep the surface of my mind serene, like our seas in the early morning. I just want to be talking. “Tell me… tell me where your people come from, I always wanted to know. Were you created too?”

She gives me an amused look. “No, we weren’t. Although for the most part of our history we sort of lapsed in and out of thinking that we were. Dressed it this way and that… You don’t have to envision that your prototype was slapped out of clay and animated by an infusion of divine breath, to think you were created. Heck, you could even fantasize that your god or gods died through the act of creation of you, and that you are now left to carry the torch, and to become god to something else…”

“Hey, you are gods to something else–to us.”

“Right. So now it’s our turn to pass the torch and die.”

“Yes. No! I didn’t mean to mean that!”

“It’s okay. It’s just a belief, among many others. There is always a crack in knowledge wide enough to wedge a belief in, as long as it makes one feel better. Do you feel better knowing exactly how, when, and by whom you were created?”

“I? We? I don’t know. Maybe… not. It’s like–compared with what?”

“Really? Ha! Well, now that’s interesting!”

“Maybe it’s just the certainty of it.”

“Yeah, no kidding! We’re just way too familiar with each other. Like an old marriage, no more romantic feelings!” She laughs.

“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean we know it for a definite fact of life. So it kind of does not get our attention any more than any other basic fact of life would. Like eating and –”

“But what about the meaning of life?”

“What about it? Meaning, did you make us for something special or just for shits and giggles?”

She looks at me and I look back. She crimps her lips into a grin. I have a feeling I offended her, don’t know why. The surface of my mind is no longer serene. There are ripples on it, because there is something sitting just under the surface. A clock, I keep thinking. “But you said–that you were not created. That you evolved all by yourselves.”

“Yeah,” she says hazily. “And you know what? Some people don’t get it, but I think it is better that way. For morale, you know? Some people will say that if you have no one who created you, you will become irresponsible and wayward. I think it’s the other way around. There is more responsibility in knowing that we are shaped by natural forces, and with no other evident purpose than to stick around, for shits and giggles, really. You know, if you look real close inside us, you’ll see we’re made like a — rat’s nest! I mean–you guys are made intelligently, but we–we are this hairball of plug-ins, and add-ons, and tuck-ins, and afterthoughts, and shortcuts, and shortcomings. But there is marvel and gratitude in knowing that despite all that crap and clutter we still function so awesomely well, and we still–still!–can contemplate the universe, and past and future, and good and evil. And there is more responsibility in knowing that no one else will hold our wisdom for us if we don’t. You know? So what the fuck’s wrong with us, ah? Why won’t we claim the responsibility?”

Whoa. Looks like I’ve opened some can of worms. I bet I look so dumbstruck right now… The irony though. Wizards are not created, and wish they were. And tommies are created and wish they weren’t. It reminds me of something, but I don’t want to go that way. I want to keep on gliding on the surface of my mind. Stop–and you’ll sink. “Hey,” I say, “that first time we met… if you thought I was up to something bad… I wasn’t. I just wanted to moon you. You know. Purely as an act of civil disobedience.”

She looks at me, not understanding. Then erupts in half-suppressed laughter. “Moon me! Why, it is a perfectly fine act of civil disobedience!”

I watch her until her laugh winds down. I like it–watching how she laughs. “You know what? Yesterday –right?–when I shoved you in the shoulders–which was not an act of civil disobedience, by the way, rather me being an ass,–right here,” I point at my shoulder, “I figure you have something very different.”

She is puzzled, but seems to recognize it. “Oh yeah… Clavicles?”

“Clavicles… right. May I?” I reach out and put my fingertips on her–clavicle. It is so marvelous how it arises from this bumpiness at the rounded tip of her shoulder, arches out and then connects back at the base of her neck, in a place that has this neat hollow just big enough to nestle my fingertip in… I say, “What’s this?”

“A manubrium,” she says. “Name of the bone.”

“Ma… Manubrium?” The word feels weird in my mouth, like it’s indecent wrapped in solemn. “Where else are you different?”

She snorts. “Well, there is a couple more, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be letting you touch those.” We stare at each other and I feel I’m hot and blushing. She laughs again and wafts a hand in front of her mouth as if to chase the words off. “Never mind. Sorry. Bad joke.”

“No, it’s okay.”

Nothing helps. The something just under the surface of my mind is on the move. If only I could squeeze my brain shut, like it was an eye!

She turns serious. “You got quite a touch in those fingers of yours. Why’d you quit doing something you’re so good at?”

I wish she didn’t say it… but it’s just as well. The surface of my mind is parting… and out presses a black, tangled, expanding, writhing –a clockwork Tower of power, and Phoebe is embedded in it like that fossil she had found, ticking, tacking, time is running out– it’s all coming back, flooding me, I got to go, now, I have to find a way out of here–

“What’s wrong?” Isabel asks, and I whisper, “Can you please go find a doctor for me,” and as soon as she takes off, I flop over the edge of my cot, snatch my clothes, wobble right through the door to the stairwell, and down, down, down I go.

The rest, you more or less know from the newspapers. I cannot–do not want to – add much. Those memories, they make me sick. Like hearing that sound when I entered my house–bleating, more than anything else, like a sheep trying to cry for help and not knowing how to. And realizing it was Phoebe.

They give me freaking shivers and palpitations, those memories.

People tell me I carried Phoebe out of the house and left her seated against the wall in the front yard, propped by pillows and with her feeding tube neatly coiled in her lap. They tell me that the man I killed, I left him in my sister’s bedroom, and that I barricaded the door to it. They don’t need to tell me who it was — that part I remember. A certain Tepidarius Ketch. People tell me that my mother was out shopping, that he sent her to the store and she went.

Some day, when I manage to start talking to her, I’ll ask her, why.

They tell me I had my nose squashed in, my mouth torn, and my left wrist broken when I made it back to the hospital. I remembered only that I had promised to come out clean at the other end of the detox tunnel, and that’s what I kept repeating when I came through the doors of the ER.

…It’s been some time now, and the sentence will most likely be issued next week, or the week after. Rumor has it they’ll go easy on me, because of the extenuating circumstances. They also let me stay out of the facility until the verdict because I’ve cooperated all the way.

Isabel has been visiting. She and Jack jabbered on about evolution; seems like these two are just the right kind of audience for each other. Most importantly, Isabel had said that she might have a way to help Phoebe, and though I thought it was all bullshit, she got me convinced: “she said she’d rig a palmer just like the one she had, only it would be affixed to Phoebe’s nape, and it would be like a continuous spell, sending wake-up calls to her brain during daytime.

So one day Isabel came over and did calibrations on Phoebe, and a week ago she brought in the palmer and slapped it on, and it works. Phoebe still sleeps very much like a log at night, and needs canes to walk, and you don’t always understand what she is saying, but all that’s gonna improve, especially with her clopping about and chattering away like a rattle all day–catching up on her life, you know.

And even if it doesn’t improve, it’s a zillion times better than what it used to be. Besides, Jack claims that he understands her perfectly, and she agrees with Jack on that one.

Isabel says that the weakening of the Towers of power is becoming something her people can no longer pretend not to notice. She says, now that they are talking about it, they say that it is something they knew would happen all along, but just did not think it would be so soon. “Our energy consumption has sky-rocketed over the past century,” she says. Wonder why, huh. Spells, maybe?

“So what’re you gonna do,” I ask, and she shrugs and says in that nonchalant manner of hers, “One way is to go to war overseas and win ourselves more energy crystals for the island. Not a very smart idea. Another way is to leave the island and try to return to the place we took off from eons ago, and fight or beg our way back in. And the third way is to go on living here, where our home is, just stop being wizards. To become more like you and learn to be true equals. The most difficult way, eh?”

It is a mixed bag of a feeling, I guess, to know that our Phoebe’s time is now linked to the time that’s left for wizardry on this island. When the age of magic is over and wizards become our equals, and H.I.S. can no longer do the kinds of things they had done to me, my little sister will turn into that chunk of wood again. What irony. Isabel says it may happen in a decade, maybe a bit later, if they conserve the energy. But Phoebe says she is happy and grateful nonetheless, and that she will put the time she has to the best ever use. “Don’t worry about me, big brother,” she told me yesterday, “I’ll be okay.” And then she gave me a beautiful smile, “In ten years, maybe I won’t even need the palmer. Maybe I’ll evolve.”

So I guess if she is fine with it, so will be I, and by the way, if she and Jack ever get to making a little evolutionist or two in the next ten years, that will be fine by me too. Right now, I am sitting at the edge of a mountain road, looking at the span of the valley beneath me: the greenery, the patches of farmed land, the clumps of houses here and there, the sparkling metropolis of the Bay area further in the distance, and beyond that–only the blue haze of the seas. It’s so beautiful you’d think nothing bad can happen to any of it. So beautiful, you’d think I’d recoil at the thought that in a few days I may be sent to the penitentiary, for–who knows, maybe one year, maybe five. But I’m okay with that.

I know you’d say yeah, right, but I really need to have some quiet thinking time, about what to do with my life next and stuff like that. Plus, Isabel said she wouldn’t mind me being locked up, because then she could visit me and have me give her free massage. Just like her, to say something like that. I’m looking forward to it.

I sit and throw rocks over the edge, small rocks mostly, and every once in a while, a big one. Nothing happens. The black Towers of power beneath me are not pushing back. There’s bound to be a backlash when tommies get the wind of what’s going on with wizards. Maybe it’ll all go to hell, and we’ll all die clenching at each others’ throats. But just maybe–we’ll manage to settle in peace. Maybe I’ll manage… I am remembering what Isabel was telling me in the hospital, about responsibility, and I think I see her point. And you know what? I think I might try to live as if we have evolved all by ourselves. Claim the responsibility. It’s about time, right?

____
Copyright 2012 J. M. Sidorova

J.M. Sidorova is a biomedical scientist and a writer of speculative fiction. As a scientist, she sometimes can’t help but think of living cells as stupendous machines, other times — as stupid rat’s nests. As a writer, she tries to make such suppositions into stories. J.M. is a Clarion West workshop graduate of 2009. Her short stories appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Abyss and Apex, Albedo 2.0, and other venues, and her debut novel, The Age of Ice, is forthcoming from Scribner. She lives in Seattle, WA, and occasionally blogs at http://jmsidorova.blogspot.com.

by Ian McHugh

ONE

“Sing, Kio Lea! Sing!” Tapa O heard his wife urge, even over his own exhortations to his nephews and grandsons to paddle.

The young men bent their backs. Sluggishly, the big double-hulled canoe moved out of the harbour. Huddled on the platform that joined the twin hulls, a pile of shadows beneath the platform’s roof, the men’s wives tried to quiet their crying children. The sail hung slack, dyed orange by the light of the fires ashore, its turtle motif half-hidden in its folds.

Kio Lea’s voice rose at last. Tapa O put a hand to his chest, feeling the song in his heart and lungs, the pulse and breath of the world. His granddaughter’s voice belonged to the days of the ancestors, he was fond of boasting, when mankind still had one foot in the realm of the gods.

The Wind arrived, the goddess leaning into the sail as she inhaled Kio Lea’s song. The canoe surged forward. The young men gave a ragged cheer, the sail with its painted turtle filling out proudly above them.

Tapa O hauled on the tiller, bringing the canoe around. His eyes roved the heavens, mapping the tracks of the stars without needing to check the brass cylinder of the star compass at his feet. The Wind was a slight thickening of the air around the sail, distorting his view of the constellations directly overhead.

He looked back. The fires they’d set in the houses had spread to the palm trees near about. Jiro Inu and O Saa were in the midst of that conflagration, Kio Lea’s husband and her father – Tapa O’s son – stayed behind to battle her would-be kidnapper and cover the clan’s escape. Surely, they must be dead by now, had no chance of surviving against a god, even if the Sky had put aside the great part of his power to set foot upon the domain of Earth.

As Tapa O watched, one of the burning houses exploded up and out, a vast fan of sparks. Another followed. A glowing silver-blue figure raged about in the flaming ruins, then launched into the air. For a terrible instant, Tapa O thought the Sky would dive after the fleeing canoe, but he soared upwards, an ascending comet, heading for his palace in the heavens.

The Earth is our mother, Tapa O thought, watching him go, but she cannot defend us on these scattered specks of land on which we live. Grief threatened to overwhelm him. His vision blurred. Tapa O turned away.

Inside his head, behind his right ear, he felt the faint, familiar ‘rightness’ of his navigator’s sense, that told him his course to the island of his wife’s kin was true.

Nona Lupe herself was by the mast, on top of the platform roof, where Kio Lea had sat herself to sing to the Wind. Lupe was bundling a blanket of feathers and woven palm fibre fussily about Kio Lea’s shoulders. She straightened, holding the mast for balance, and looked at Tapa O.

Her face wrinkled in a sudden smile, sad and relieved. Even at a distance and in the dark, Tapa O could tell that her eyes were full of tears.

Daylight touched the sail. Tapa O looked over his left shoulder, to where the sun had crested the horizon. He took one hand off the tiller to rub his tired eyes. Through the soles of his feet, he could feel the flow of the waters beneath the double hulls as they rode evenly over the steady swell, stable with their heavy load. They were running before the Wind, still, the goddess driving them along, enthralled by Kio Lea’s song.

The stars were lost in the pale blue above. Only the Morning Star remained, not yet outshone. The palace of the Sky lingered in the firmament. One edge of the silver disc on which it rode was lit, the rest in shadow. Tapa O frowned. It seemed higher in the heavens than its proper place for this time of its cycle.

The Sky would be there, looking down on them. Tapa O could imagine him standing atop the tallest tower of his palace that pointed towards the world, his midnight face upturned. His pale eyes would be fixed on the tiny speck that bore the object of his obsession. On the Sea’s domain, Kio Lea was safe from the murderer of her husband and father. But they could not run forever.

Tapa O looked to his granddaughter. He could see her lips move, but her song no longer reached his ears. The Wind kept it for herself. Kio Lea was the only singer alive who could captivate the goddess so thoroughly.

White feathers poked through the dark strands of her hair. Tapa O chewed his lip. He wanted to get the family to Nona Lupe’s kin as fast as possible, but Kio Lea could not keep singing. Grieving as she was, he feared she would give herself over entirely to the spirit within her. If she allowed the breath of the world, her song, to take shape in her body, then she would inevitably take wing. And if that happened, the Sky would swoop down and pluck her away in an instant, and Tapa O would be powerless to stop it.

He turned his head to speak, was momentarily confused to find his O Saa’s habitual place on the running board empty. The place near Tapa O’s feet had been his son’s since the very first time O Saa accompanied him, at the age of five. O Saa had continued to sit there on every voyage they took thereafter, even as a mature man with grown children of his own.

Grief struck all over again.

Nona Lupe was perched at the near side of the canoe platform, where the cane wall screens had been left rolled up. Her eyes were on him, observing the direction of his gaze and the fall of his expression, divining from these his turns of thought.

She was already shrugging her blanket and climbing nimbly up on to the roof before Tapa O could think to call out to her. He watched her scuttle across to Kio Lea by the mast, and recalled when his wife’s legs had not been nobbled sticks, when her back had not been bent, her bosom not descended all the way to her waist. When her hair had been sleek and black, not unruly, brittle and yellow-white. Nona Lupe had been a fine woman in her day, though never so beautiful as Kio Lea, and she had always sung liked a squawking gull. A smile tugged the corners of Tapa O’s mouth.

Still able, though, he thought, watching his wife argue with their granddaughter. Still hale. And somewhat wise, now, the two of us.

Ah, but have we the strength, anymore? What lay ahead should have been O Saa’s quest, or Jiro Inu’s. Not a task for an old man like him. Tapa O’s gaze went to the turtle on the sail. How long since he had the courage to delve inside himself and immerse himself in the spirit of the navigator that resided there? How long since he had permitted himself more than the faint brush of his navigator’s sense?

Movement caught his eye, beyond the sail. A star fell from the shadowed disc of the Sky’s palace.

The sail luffed. The canoe tilted, its motion changing sharply. A face solidified in the air, cheeks puffed with alarm. The goddess hovered above the mast, staring wide-eyed at Tapa O. Then she fled.

For vital moments longer, Tapa O’s warning cry stayed strangled in his throat. Kio Lea and Nona Lupe looked up at the flapping sail in surprise. On the platform below, other clan members called out confused questions. Tapa O lurched away from the tiller, leaving the waves to carry the canoe on their back where they willed. He pointed frantically at the falling star, now pulling out of its dive and skimming above the surface of the waves.

At last, his voice came, “It is the Sky! Get her inside!”

Nona Lupe and Kio Lea looked about wildly. Tapa O scrambled up to them as nephews and grandsons tumbled from the platform into the open hulls on either side, spears and harpoons in their hands.

Growing nearer, the star resolved itself into a bright, silver-blue nimbus around a robed figure. Nona Lupe grabbed at her granddaughter, trying to drag Kio Lea to the edge of the roof. Too late, Tapa O thought. He planted himself in front of Kio Lea, painfully conscious that he had no weapon in his hand. Nona Lupe gave her a further shove back and stood up beside her husband.

“I will drown before I let him have me,” Tapa O heard his granddaughter spit.

And then the Sky towered beside them, the silver fringe of his robe trailing level with Tapa O’s chest, his starlit hair billowing around. Tapa O stared up into the god’s cold blue gaze and dark, scowling features. With a sneer, the Sky opened his fingers and flung something that clattered on the roof at Tapa O’s feet. Nona Lupe wailed. It was the shards of two broken spears.

“Wherever you run, Kio Lea,” the Sky said, “I will come and take you. Submit to me.”

“She will be safe from you in the domain of our mother, the Earth,” said Tapa O. The god bared his teeth. He held himself clear of the Sea’s domain, Tapa O realised. The Sky had set aside none of his power this time. He could kill them with a flick of his hand.

The Sky raised his hand now. Tapa O’s chest hurt.

He felt the presence rushing up from below a heartbeat before the surging waters cannoned into the bottom of the canoe. Women and children screamed as the vessel was bounced fully clear of the waves and crashed back down again. A column of spray burst up into the air, twisting and spinning to resolve itself into a second gigantic figure.

“This is not your domain,” said the Sea, with cold calm. “You may not intrude here.”

The Sky snarled. Tapa O thought he would lunge at his brother, that they would be trapped and crushed between the clashing gods.

But the Sky retreated.

“I will have my way!” he cried, accelerating into the distance. Then he was a shooting star once more, arcing back up to his palace in the firmament.

Tapa O fell to his knees before the Sea and bowed, his legs about to give way anyway. Nona Lupe lowered herself more slowly.

Tapa O felt the weight of the god’s gaze.

“Father of us all,” he said, daring to raise his head, “help me to save my granddaughter from your brother the Sky.”

The Sea’s hair and beard rippled in waves that crashed white upon his shoulders and chest. “So long as your courage holds, Tapa O,” said the Sea, “I will not permit him to assault you in my domain. But it is your strength and hers, Navigator, that will decide Kio Lea’s fate.”

“I am old,” said Tapa O, “and at the end of my strength.”

“Courage, Navigator,” said the Sea, already sinking.

Then he was gone.

Tapa O remained kneeling, too drained to stand. Nona Lupe watched him, the skin around her pursed lips a nest of wrinkles.

“Must it be you?” she asked.

“It must,” he replied. Though I fear I do not have the strength, added the traitor voice inside. He picked up the broken head of O Saa’s spear. “O Saa and Jiro Inu are dead.”

“Take some of the young men with you,” she urged.

He shook his head. Meeting her eye, there was no need to say that he did not know if he could bring them back.

“But you cannot alone!”

“I will save myself,” another voice interrupted.

A strong hand gripped under Tapa O’s arm, lifting him. He looked into Kio Lea’s dark eyes. The breeze pulled black hair and white feathers across her cheek.

“You can hold the Wind,” he said, “but you have not the Navigator’s skill to find your way.”

He caught Nona Lupe’s hand, balancing her as she rose too, and looked at them, the pride of his heart and the love of his life, side by side. The one in the high flush of youth’s power and beauty, the other with a lifetime’s wisdom and experience and an intimate understanding of him. That he must choose the one over the other was a crushing weight. Kio Lea met his stare with clear eyes, Nona Lupe’s were misted with tears.

Tapa O had to look away.

Out over the horizon, he spied a tinge of green on the underside of the scattered clouds – the reflection of an island, their destination.

Waves curled, hissing, over the island’s barrier reef. Within, the waters of the lagoon lapped serenely at the beach. Tapa O walked with his wife’s brother, Te Amoa, past ranks of beached canoes. Tapa O’s canoe was anchored out on the lagoon, as close to the reef as was prudent, with Kio Lea still aboard.

They went slowly, in deference to Te Amoa’s crippled leg. He had walked with a stick since before Tapa O had known him. But he had not always had liver spots on a bald scalp, nor had his skin sagged from muscles gone ropy-thin. And neither had mine, thought Tapa O.

They shuffled past big double-hull trading canoes like Tapa O’s and long outrigger war canoes, broad enough to be paddled by double rows of warriors with archers standing in between.

“Will they be safe here?” asked Te Amoa.

Would Te Amoa and his clan be safe with Tapa O’s family here, was what he really meant, thought Tapa O. He answered, “It is Kio Lea he wants.”

“The Sky is petulant,” said his brother-in-law, “and prone to fits of temper.”

“I cannot take them with me,” said Tapa O. “I regret that I must return responsibility for Nona Lupe and the children of her blood to you, but I must. Take them home, if they wish it. The danger there has passed.”

Te Amoa stuck out his bottom lip. His eyes roved the untidy ranks of fishing and racing canoes further up the beach. He gave a dissatisfied grunt and gestured with his stick that they should turn between the crowded boats. “Defying gods is a young man’s game,” he said. “Even you cannot outrun the Sky forever.”

“Not forever,” said Tapa O, examining the vessels ahead of them. “On the mainland Kio Lea will be safe under the Earth’s protection. The Sky will not be able to reach her there.”

Te Amoa halted and looked at him gravely. “No-one has made that journey in our lifetimes. Perhaps you will reach the dominion of Earth, travelling with the currents. But can you return?”

Tapa O lifted his chin, holding his brother-in-law’s gaze.

Te Amoa continued to stare at him for a time in silence, then nodded. “Does Lupe know that this is your plan?”

Tapa O felt a small, acute pain behind his breastbone. “She does.”

Te Amoa puffed his cheeks and turned to resume walking. Tapa O thought he stabbed his walking stick into the sand with more force than was strictly necessary.

“Here. This is the best I can offer you.”

Tapa O looked the vessel over, a narrow-hulled outrigger racing canoe that would make several times the speed of Tapa O’s double-hull trader. It would be hard in such a small craft, over such a distance, but the canoe would be manageable between the two of them.

“Thank you, brother,” he said.

Parting from Nona Lupe was hard, though they said little. She was kneading cassava flour into dough when he came to tell her it was time. Her eyes darted about, following the children playing outside her brother’s house and avoiding looking at Tapa O for long.

“Come back to me,” she said.

He wanted to promise, couldn’t, and so remained silent, watching the motion of her hands, turning, smacking, pressing.

“I don’t want to grow old alone,” she added.

He laughed, briefly. At length, he said, “I will try.”

Nona Lupe bowed her head, falling still for a moment, eyes closed, then went on with her kneading.

TWO

Sunset painted the western horizon pink. Tapa O marked the places of the early stars. Their course pointed them towards the part of the horizon where the constellation of the turtle was just rising. He hoped it was a good omen. His navigator’s sense was centred above his right eye, where it should be when they were tracking wide to starboard of the departing sun. The brass cylinder of his star compass rested across his thighs, mapping the islands of his people along the tracks of the stars. Somewhere, far beyond the world it recorded, lay the great realm of the Earth.

Kio Lea faced him, her back to the mast. Her hair was all black. Across her lap, her hands resting softly on the broken shafts, were the spear heads of her father and husband, all she had left of them.

She had barely spoken in the two days and nights since they left their family behind. Tapa O refused to let her sing, with the canoe already rushing along faster than the ocean current, its outrigger high, barely slicing the top of the swell. Sitting as she was now, her head turned to the side, his granddaughter’s profile and the lines of her neck reminded him acutely of Nona Lupe in her youth.

He had a sudden, powerful memory of her, striking the same pose, sitting in another racing canoe in the light of another sunset, many years before. He couldn’t recall the occasion. Taking her home, he thought, from the island of her family to his.

He came abruptly back to the present. Kio Lea had spoken. “What?”

“Will the Sky pursue us still?” she said, with the last of the sun lighting a dull halo around her head.

“He will,” said Tapa O, and felt the weight of those words press down. “Perhaps you were a passing fancy. But now we have defied him and his brother the Sea has humiliated him. He will not abide that.”

She nodded, looking away once more, and Tapa O said, “You should sleep. I will need you to take the tiller later, while I rest.”

“You should let me sing”

He shook his head. “No.” It came out sharper than he’d intended. “Grief brings the spirits within us closer to the surface. If you gave yourself to the albatross…”

“Do you think I’m a fool?” she snapped, glaring at him. Her fingers tightened around the broken spears.

“You almost sang too long on the way to your grandmother’s kin,” he said, seeking refuge in sternness.

“I know myself better than that,” she said. “I’m not a child.”

He subsided, conceding the point. Ah, granddaughter, he thought, when you have held your child, their body no longer than your forearm and hand, and then years later, held their child, then you will understand. When you have seen, too, your own father and brother, in grief, embrace the spirit within them and never return… His father had been near the end of his long life when Tapa O’s mother passed away, and his father forsook the human world. But his brother had been barely older than Kio Lea, the death of his wife in childbirth too much to bear. Kio Lea’s gaze strayed up, to where a fat silver crescent marked the location of the Sky’s palace. Tapa O wondered what mix of anger and hate, sadness and fear lay behind the mask of her face.

He tried to remember the last time he’d climbed a coconut palm. Not since O Saa was a boy, he thought, and he’d shown him how.

He’d chosen a tree that leaned well out over the beach, so that much of his climb was not much steeper than horizontal and if he did slip he would hopefully not break his neck. The ground still seemed a long way down. His arms ached and his thighs were chafed.

He reached the crown of the tree and, with some relief, took his knife from between his teeth and started to saw at the stalks of the coconuts. The first one fell onto the sand with a dull thud.

Tapa O peered through the tree’s leaves. Kio Lea had the canoe back out near the reef, tacking back and forth on a short stretch and keep her eyes on the palace of the Sky low in the east. The island was one of a chain of atolls too small and distant from the settled parts of the archipelago to be inhabited.

Two more coconuts hit the ground.

They were nearing the end of the world that Tapa O knew, these atolls the last of the islands marked along the tracks of his star compass.

Another coconut thumped down.

A snatch of sound caught his ear. A voice. He sat up straight in alarm. Kio Lea was sailing the canoe directly for the beach. Tapa O could see the rippling air around the sail that meant she had called the Wind.

He looked around. A star fell from the palace of the Sky.

No time to climb down. Tapa O lay on his belly and slithered off the side of the trunk. He dangled a moment, then gritting his teeth in anticipation, let himself drop.

He landed well, but stumbled and twisted his ankle on one of the fallen coconuts.

Briefly, he considered trying to gather them up. But the shooting star was pulling out of its dive. If the Sky caught Tapa O ashore, the Sea would not protect him.

He hobbled for the water, stumbled in and lost his footing knee deep. He came back up gasping and floundered on, waist deep and then chest, Kio Lea bearing down in the canoe. She stood with one arm raised, a broken spear in her hand.

Tapa O’s feet no longer reached the lagoon floor.

The Sky soared overhead, arcing back up with a thunderclap that seemed to tear the heavens in two.

Tapa O caught the side of the canoe, was buffeted as the Wind pushed it over the top of him. The hull smacked painfully against his face.

Kio Lea gripped his arms above the elbows and hauled. Tapa O pushed himself up with what strength he had. He teetered, half in and half out of the canoe, then slithered suddenly over the side and into the bottom of the hull.

Kio Lea sat him up against the mast while he wiped saltwater from his face and coughed. His hands shook.

“No more heroics,” she said. “We’ll make do with what we have.”

Tapa O watched the shooting star loop back towards the disc of the Sky’s palace. The waters of the lagoon remained undisturbed. He tried to raise himself, to take his place at the canoe’s tiller. Kio Lea held him down as easily as if he were a child. Gently, she tipped him sideways to lie beneath the sail.

“Your strength and mine, grandfather,” she said.

Her song was in his ears as unconsciousness claimed him.

He dreamed that he rode the music of the world, the perfect harmony of creation. The song rose, out of the deep currents of the ocean, soaring above the waves, and he was unable to follow. He was left in darkness, tossed and battered and unable to find his way.

Tapa O awoke in daylight, under clear heavens. He lay awhile, looking up into the pale blue, feeling the familiar roll of the canoe, listening to rush of the breeze, the gentle creak and knock of the rigging, smelling the sea.

A foot rested near his head. Tapa O frowned. It was an odd colour – pale, more grey than tan – the toes long and webbed. Full alertness crashed in.

Kio Lea still sat at the tiller. Her hair was almost completely gone to white feathers. Downy feathers dotted her cheeks too, though her face was still human.

He surged upright, then had to grab at the side of the canoe as his head spun. “Stop!” he cried. “Stop it, you fool!”

“Sit down,” she said, coolly.

Tapa O had little choice in the matter. His back bumped heavily against the mast. Kio Lea’s eyes were dark, bagged with fatigue.

“I stopped singing a while ago,” she added. “It was probably the change back to tacking that woke you.”

“How long did I sleep?” he asked, rubbing his eyes. He twisted his neck to find the position of the sun.

“My turn, now,” said Kio Lea.

“Of course.”

He took the tiller as she curled up at the bottom of the hull, sat watching her in wonder as the feathers slowly receded. She opened her eyes, looking up at him, when he reached over her to shift the sail across to the opposite tack.

Licking his cracked lips just made them sting. Tapa O took a sip from the water skin. They’d passed other islands, not marked on his star compass, one a forested volcanic cone sure to have fresh water. He hadn’t dared put in again to try and replenish their supplies.

The heavens remained clear, had barely been shrouded since they began their journey. Tapa O wondered if it was the Sea’s doing, if he was holding in check the Storm, the wild brother of the Wind. The Sea is our stern Father, Tapa O remembered his own father telling him, he revels in our courage and our perseverance. He is proud when our triumphs are our own.

Just fortune, he said to himself now. And a good time of year to be sailing. But it was a curse as well as a blessing, for they’d had no opportunity to catch fresh water from rain. And so Tapa O sipped when he wanted to gulp, and hunger gnawed at his belly while they hoarded their last few coconuts and packets of pork jerky.

“What will you do, grandfather,” Kio Lea said, not looking at him, “after we have outrun the Sky and I am safe?”

He smiled, but sadly, thinking of Nona Lupe. “It does not matter.”

Her gaze remained distant, fixed on some point far out over the water. Her hands and feet, unshaded by her blanket, were red, her nose and cheeks peeling. “I would not have you die for me as well. I would not have grandmother left alone for my sake.”

“Not just for your sake,” he said. “For O Saa, my son, and Jiro Inu, your husband, I will not bow to their killer.” The words came out more fiercely than he’d intended.

Her eyes glistened, but she nodded.

After a time, she said, “It will never be safe for me to fly again.”

“No,” he said, softly. “But a life without is still worth living.”

In his mind’s eye, he saw Nona Lupe, young, with O Saa a babe on her hip. Saw her as he’d left her, bent and old, kneading dough. O Saa, running through the waves with his gangling half-grown daughter on his shoulders. A life worth living, Tapa O thought.

He smiled lopsidedly at Kio Lea. Her nostrils flared, emotion only just in check.

“I miss Inu.”

“Ai,” he said. “Ai.”

He spied a quartet of seabirds, wings outstretched to lean on the breeze, and noted the distinctive crab-claw silhouette of their tails. But their chests were speckled brown, not pure white, marking them as juveniles with no nests to mind, and so free to wander far from land.

They had long passed the limit of Tapa O’s world. But the star tracks still rolled across the firmament, still told him which way the world turned and where the great domain of Earth, the mainland, was known to lie.

The sail hauled the canoe along the stiff breeze in pursuit of the sun, fast enough to gain, faster than the turning of the world.

Kio Lea was asleep by the mast. Her brow was furrowed, even at rest, her fists clenched. Aloud, Tapa O said to her, “Ah, granddaughter, perhaps you will find happiness again when you are safe in the realm of our Mother. Perhaps there is another man for you, as fine and brave as your Jiro Inu.”

He glanced up at the firmament to check the tracks of the stars.

A star fell from the constellation of the turtle.

Tapa O felt a moment’s dread, thinking it was the Sky returning. But the star plummeted straight down, to strike the water without a splash. Tapa O could see the glow of it, floating just beneath the surface, whenever the swell pushed the canoe upward.

“Kio Lea!” he said, shaking her. “A fallen star. I watched it fall.”

He grinned at her as she pushed herself up to sit. Tapa O had seen such a thing only once in his life, on a journey with O Saa when his son was a young man. “It is over there.”

Kio Lea stood, holding onto the mast, and looked where he pointed. “Another,” she said.

“Two in one night,” he gasped.

“Three.” All from the turtle. Tapa O’s face fell, a sudden coldness coming over him.

They watched as the stars fell close beside each other.

“Look,” said Kio Lea, her voice barely more than a breath.

A swath of stars fell behind the first three. A dark gash was left across the track from which they had fallen, where the constellation of the turtle, the great navigator, had been.

More stars fell, great sheeting lines of them. All around the canoe, all over the sea, they fell. Tapa O knew what was happening long before he found the words to say.

“It is the Sky. He is cutting them down.”

He groped for Kio Lea’s hand, felt her strong young fingers clasp tightly around his knuckles. They watched as the Sky, unseen but for the results of his passing, ranged back and forth across the heavens until all above was dark, except the bright baleful disc of his palace, and the waters shone silver with fallen stars.

Already, the first to fall were fading.

Kio Lea wept. Tapa O shook his head, his eyes hot. The sail flapped, forgotten. The tiller thumped on the side of the canoe.

Quietly, the Sea rose beside them. He scooped up dying stars, his head bowed over them. They lay curled in his great palms, tiny limbs tucked around them, pulsing faintly.

“What cost, for our defiance?” choked Tapa O. He rounded on the Sea. “I have killed the stars! I have killed my people. How will they find their way?”

He picked up his star compass, useless, and held it for the god to see. With a shout, he flung it far out across the water. The brass cylinder spun end over end before it struck with a resounding smack.

The Sea raised his head. His face was calm, but the eyes that looked at Tapa O were deathly dark. “Stars are born and stars die,” he said. He looked up at the empty sweep of the heavens. “The constellations you have followed in your lifetime, Tapa O, are not the same as those your forebears saw. That is why every Navigator must make his own compass. In a handful of generations, the skies will begin to be bright again.

“And there are other ways to mark the turning of the world, as you well know.”

He paused, lowering his gaze again before adding, “But this… this is a crime.”

“If he will do this,” said Kio Lea, “then it is a far smaller thing for him to descend to the islands once more and slaughter our kin.”

The Sea looked at her. The waters of his beard and hair were a dark, cold grey. “If he comes, I will meet him,” growled the Sea. “You must not succumb. You must persist in your quest.”

“How?” demanded Tapa O. “I cannot find the way.”

The Sea regarded him levelly. “It is within you, Navigator.”

Tapa O’s throat and chest constricted. He could feel nothing of his navigator’s sense, the gift of the turtle that resided inside him. “I have not the strength.” He could see, in the periphery of his vision, Kio Lea watching him but refused to look at her.

“Please,” she said to the god. “Please, help us.”

The Sea continued to stare at Tapa O, before turning his eyes to Kio Lea. A strange expression came over his face.

“The domain of the Sky is distant and cold,” the Sea said. “One so bright as you, daughter, would quickly fade and perish there, a flower deprived of light and water.” The god reached out to brush her lips with a fingertip. Kio Lea gasped. Softly, he added, “Would that your song could fill the halls of my own palace.”

His hand lingered a moment near her face, before he withdrew it. “But you would find my home as suffocating as the Sky’s is airless.”

The Sea seemed to withdraw into himself for a while, looking down at the dying stars in his hands. At length, he nodded. “Ai, daughter,” he said, heavily, “I will help you.”

He reached out, and it seemed that his arm both remained its normal length and stretched out to the horizon. Or else, the perspective of the world shifted to accommodate his desire. When he brought his hand back around for them to see, it held another star, larger and brighter than the rest.

He handed it to Kio Lea. “It is the Morning Star,” he said. “Sing to it. It will guide you until dawn.”

Kio Lea cupped the tiny body in both her hands. Her mouth opened, but she did not sing immediately. She looked up at Tapa O, her expression tortured. “It will die,” she said, “as with all the rest.”

“Ai, granddaughter.”

When Tapa O turned back to the Sea, the god was already gone. He was quiet for a time, watching the fallen stars adrift beneath the surface of the water. Some were barely more than embers, now. “Sing, Kio Lea,” he said. “Let us do as our Father bids.”

She nodded. Kio Lea carried the star forward, and knelt with it in the point of the hull. Tapa O caught the faint murmur of her song as she bowed her head close to her cupped hands, her voice so full of sorrow and hope that he thought his heart might crack in two. The star’s light grew brighter.

A breeze cooled his back and he looked up to catch the slight thickening of the air around the sail that meant the Wind had come.

Kio Lea lifted her hands, her voice rising at the same time. Tapa O’s heart lifted with the bittersweet melody, even though the song was not for him. The Morning Star rose from Kio Lea’s palm to bob ahead of the canoe. It began to move away. Tapa O leaned on the tiller and let out the lines for the sail to swing wide, with the Wind pushing them along from behind. Kio Lea sang, and the star, the Wind and Tapa O were captives in her spell.

Through the night they followed the star, driving over waters carpeted in its dying kin. Kio Lea never rested, only pausing now and then to sip from a water skin and refresh her throat. The Sky’s palace hung cold and unforgiving above, no longer tracing its usual path across the heavens, that they might have followed.

Near dawn, the darkness below was as complete as that above. Only the Morning Star still glowed, and it was failing. Kio Lea’s hair was white with feathers. As the light of the sun lit the peaks of the ocean swell, the star dipped lower and lower, until at last it plopped sadly into the water.

Tapa O let the sail fall slack, ducking underneath while it luffed. He leaned over the side of the canoe, reaching into the cold water to scoop up the tiny body. He held the star against his chest, offering what comfort he could from the warmth of his skin and the beat of his heart, until it lay inert and no longer glowed. He recalled his brother, cradling his stillborn son the same way. He remembered how tightly he’d held O Saa, afterwards.

Gently, Tapa O lay the star back in the water and watched it sink from sight.

“Thank you,” he said.

Kio Lea wept.

He squeezed her shoulder, standing, and went back to the tiller. The Wind circled them, buffeting the canoe. “No more today,” he said to the goddess. He brought the canoe around, hauling on the rigging, as the prevailing breeze resumed.

“We can mark our course by the sun for today,” he said to Kio Lea. “It, at least, is beyond even the Sky’s power to harm.”

“Will a day get us there?” she asked.

He hesitated before answering. Within, he felt nothing of his navigator’s sense. “I do not believe so.”

“What will we do then?”

He shook his head, because he knew the answer, and dreaded it.

THREE

The Sea returned to them after sunset. Kio Lea curled beneath the mast in exhausted sleep, the spirit within her slowly releasing its hold. Tapa O had taken down the sail. He could feel the current beneath the hull, knew that it carried them adrift of their destination, but at least it did not drive them back.

“I have not the strength,” he said.

“Then all that has been lost will be for nothing, and the Sky will have his way,” said the Sea. “You know what you must do.”

He could meet the god’s eyes only for a moment. He nodded.

“Grandfather, what is it?” said Kio Lea, sitting up.

Tapa O began to strip off his clothes. He looked up at the Sky’s palace, out of its proper place and half in light, half in darkness. “Will you watch over her while she is alone?”

“I will,” said the Sea.

“Alone?” Kio Lea stood. “Why will I be alone?”

The breeze raised goosebumps on his bare skin. Tapa O looked down at his wizened body, the skin that sagged from limbs gone sinewy and thin, wrinkling around knobby, swollen joints. Still hale, he told himself. “Have you the strength to sing again?”

Kio Lea nodded.

“I must give myself to the navigator,” he said. She started to speak, to refuse, but he continued, “When I come back up, cast me a rope. I will guide us. Sing for as long as you are able. When you must rest, take down the sail. The turning of the world will not carry us too far from our course.

“Be brave,” he said.

He dived over the side of the canoe. The water was cold, almost causing him to gasp out his breath. He drifted, face down, with darkness above and below. He had thought the Sea would help him, give him strength. He could feel the god near at hand, but all that embraced him was cold water. His lungs burned. Suppressing a stab of panic, Tapa O sought out his navigator’s sense. He found a faint, guttering spark. He gathered it to him, let down the barriers he’d kept in place for most of his life.

The spark grew grew, strengthened, encompassed him.

He felt his skin harden. His bones fused and stretched and reshaped themselves. The chill of the water receded. His navigator’s sense burned in his mind and he knew exactly where he lay along the axis of the world, along its ever-turning girth and in the flow of its waters. Other bright loci burned too: the island of his birth, the other where he had left behind his wife. And in the opposite direction, not so very far now, lay the great realm of the Earth, his destination, the vast shore on which the ocean beat its pulse, where he had never before been.

He sculled the water with powerful flippers and rose back to the surface, opening his nostrils to spray salty mist and fill his lungs. The female aboard the canoe gave a cry, leaning over the side. Granddaughter, he knew, though he could not remember her name. He could not interpret her face or her words. He opened his beak to catch the rope she threw, and dove once again beneath the surface.

He swam ahead, angling across the ocean’s current. For a moment, the rope pulled taught, the weight of the canoe holding him back. Then the drag eased, as his granddaughter began to sing and the Wind filled the vessel’s sail.

He swam until the canoe became heavy again, time for his granddaughter to rest. Leaving her to drift, he hunted cuttlefish while she slept, then returned and once more took the rope in his beak. He floated, inert and only half aware, exhausted, until she awoke and it was time to begin again.

He became aware of a rush and crash, a rolling beat that shivered through his shell and bones. He came up, straining to lift his tired head as high above the surface as he could. Dark green peaks spanned the horizon, that did not rise and fall but remained fixed and constant. The stillness of it filled his navigator’s sense.

Land. The realm of Earth.

He heard a cry from behind, his granddaughter, standing to point, black hair and white feathers whipping about her face. He leapt ahead, diving beneath the swell. His granddaughter’s song swelled with joy, filling the water as well as the air. The canoe rode fast behind him as he skimmed beneath the surface, driving his weary, aching muscles for one last effort.

Suddenly, he was wrenched backwards.

He struggled, confused, as he was towed away from the shore. He spun, paddling frantically, saw the hull of the canoe lift clear of the water and was dragged up after it. Fighting to keep his grip, he bit too hard and severed the rope. He lunged after the trailing end but it eluded him and vanished above the surface. He pursued, despairing.

His head broke the waves. The Sky bore the canoe upwards. His granddaughter clung to the mast. He saw her raise a broken spear and plunge it into the forearm of the god.

The Sky bellowed in rage and almost dropped the canoe. His granddaughter flung a second broken spear at the god’s face and jumped.

Then a geyser of rage was boiling up from the depths, exploding through the surface of the waves. It bore him with it high into the air. He spun, tumbling, and saw the Sea knock the canoe from the Sky’s grasp. He saw the Wind catch his granddaughter as she fell, bearing her towards the shore and away from the wrestling gods. But the Sky caught the Wind’s tail and hurled her away across the ocean. His granddaughter tumbled down to splash in the water.

The waves came up to meet him, the impact hard enough to daze. He drifted, not knowing up from down. Gradually, his mind cleared. His navigator’s sense reasserted itself.

His granddaughter!

She was treading water not far from him. Echoes of the battle between the Sea and the Sky boomed through the ocean, moving gradually away from the land.

He came up beside her and she flung her arms across his shell.

Slowly, wearily, he set out towards shore. His granddaughter’s weight bore him down. Barely, he kept her above the water. He did not think he had the strength to carry her all the way.

Then he was in the ebb and flux of the tide. The water became cloudy. He felt his granddaughter’s grip loosen, her weight leave him. Panicked, he tried to turn. A breaker picked him up and drove him onto the beach. The underside of his shell struck sand, and then he was crawling up out of the waves.

Hands fluttered over him, his head, his shell, searching for a place to grip and help haul him up onto dry land. His granddaughter. She had ridden the waves ashore by herself.

He stopped at the high tide line, unable to go further.

For a time he lay, his eyes closed, listening to the flat, thin sounds above the water – the faint hum of the breeze, the hiss of the waves, gulls whistling and crying, his granddaughter’s sobbing. He wondered if he had the strength to bring himself back. He wondered how.

My name, he thought, then with an effort: My name is Tapa O. I am Navigator of my clan. This is Kio Lea, my granddaughter, who weeps over me now. I am husband to Nona Lupe.

He focused on her, recalling her face, as it once was and as it was now. Wanting to be with her. He felt the change come upon him, his bones and senses shifting, but it was weak. Tapa O cried out as soon as he had a human voice to do so.

He tried to turn himself, but his limbs felt clumsy and stupid. His back would not bend, a weight pressing down on his ribs. He lay face down in the sand.

“Grandfather!” Kio Lea’s hands scrabbled under his shoulder and hip. She heaved him over.

He flailed about helplessly, until he saw that below his elbows his arms were flippers, his feet the same. A turtle’s shell still held his spine rigid. Tapa O let his arms and head fall back on the sand. The tide washed up beneath him, cooling.

Drops fell on his face. One touched his lips, salty. Not rain. And not sea spray, either. Kio Lea wiped her cheeks with her fingers, then touched his. Her other hand propped his head.

He gave her a tired smile. “My strength and yours.”

“But not all your strength,” she said. “Not all. You still have to get back to grandmother.”

“Ai,” he breathed.

A shadow fell across them. Tapa O looked up.

The goddess wore robes the colour of soil and moss, her skin like pale, smooth tree bark. Long tresses of leafy vines and flowers grew from her scalp. Her face was kind and terrible, beautiful and fearsome as she gazed out to the ocean horizon. A dark stain, shot with lightning, spread between the water and the heavens, where the battle between the Sea and the Sky still raged.

“Mother of us all,” Tapa O whispered.

The Earth looked down at him with eyes like the depths of the world. She hitched her skirts and knelt beside him.

“You have done well, Navigator,” she said, her voice full of the richness of deep soil. “And you, daughter of the Wind.” She touched her fingertips to Kio Lea’s brow, a benediction, then placed her palm on Tapa O’s chest. Warmth like strong spirit spread through him.

“Rest, Navigator. Heal.”

He felt his eyelids drooping.

He drifted away. And back…

Kio Lea held him a long time, hugging fiercely.

“Goodbye,” she said. “Goodbye.”

The pulse in her neck pattered against his cheek. His mouth shaped a reply, but he wasn’t certain he made any sound. “I love you.”

Gentle hands lifted him. The people of the Earth’s realm carried him back to his vessel. He looked up at the sail and rigging against pale fragments of cloud. A cloak of animal hide was laid over him.

“Take him home,” said the Sea.

The Wind whispered to him as she leaned into the sail, a pale echo of Kio Lea’s song. Tapa O looked up into darkness, only the crescent of the Sky’s palace lighting the firmament. He remembered the star’s failing pulse against his skin.

He licked parched lips and squeezed his eyes shut against the sun. He groped for a water skin, clumsy with flippers, still, but now they articulated somewhat at knuckles and wrists. Water dribbled down his chin. He pulled up the cloak to shade his face.

He drifted…

The canoe jolted, its movement suddenly disjointed from the steady pulse of the waves. The cloak was pulled back. Black silhouettes gathered in front of the sun. Voices exclaimed in a sudden confusion of sound.

One stood out: “Husband, you have come back!”

Someone got hold of the canoe’s sail and hauled it over to make an awning. Tapa O blinked up at his wife’s weathered face. Reached, unthinking, and found a hand at the end of his arm. He lifted his head, and found that his spine flexed. There was webbing between his fingers, still, almost to the tips. Perhaps he would remain marked, at least that much.

Nona Lupe pushed him back. “Rest.”

She smiled, her cheeks creasing even as her forehead remained deeply etched with lines of worry, her eyes all but disappearing among the wrinkles.

She was beautiful.
___
Copyright 2012 Ian McHugh

Ian McHugh is a graduate of Clarion West. His previous publications include stories in Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Daily SF. He lives in Canberra, Australia, but would rather be closer to the sea. Links to read or hear his published stories free online can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com

by Annie Bellet

One moment there was snow beneath Kayi’s skis, the next just sky. Her wingsuit snapped in the sudden wind as she dropped off the south face of Annapurna. Her eyes watered despite her mask and the pressure shift of falling thousands of feet in seconds popped her ears with a painful squeak.

Kayi angled her body, tucking her poles in along the line of fabric between her arm and torso and angling her skis up, fighting the air that wanted to push them down and twist her legs up. The land beneath her was black, rust, and white; snow and stone blurring into one as she gained speed. Proximity flying, going so close to the steep slope that she could almost touch the snow, was dangerous. Doing it with ski equipment on was even crazier.

She was the only one she’d ever known who tried. This wasn’t a filming run, the sky was too grey today for that and the wind too strong for the hoversleds to come up this far. Kayi slid sideways along the cliff face and looked down and ahead. Far below the rocky slope turned to pure white.

Her landing zone. She angled her body up and started to rein in her speed. Seconds fled and she hit the point where her chute wouldn’t do any good. No choices now beyond land or crash and die.

Adrenaline sang in her blood and Kayi grinned behind her mask. Screw those assholes who didn’t think she was good enough to compete in their stupid race. She could out-ski the disappointment of being an alternate. The disappointment of never being the first pick. Or the twentieth.

Out-ski? Damnit, she could fly.

Still falling at just over sixty miles an hour, Kayi’s skis touched the snow where the slope leveled out to a fifty degree angle. For a moment she wavered and her poles clipped the thick powder, enveloping her in a thick, cold white cloud.

Then she was down, her wide skis catching the snow and slipping along as they should and only the expanse of the mountain before her. Kayi made wide, lazy turns the rest of the way down, sending up plumes of powder in glistening rainbows as the late afternoon sun finally peeked out of the steely sky.

Andy, her manager, was already waiting with Gem at the hoversled, pacing in the snow. He looked like a dark blot against the bright orange sled.

“Why did you turn your com off?” he said to her as she skied up and pulled off her hood and mask.

“Because I wanted to be alone?” Kayi blinked against the sudden cool air sweeping over her hot skin. She grinned at Gem as he leaned out and signed quickly to her, asking if she’d flown, as he always did after each run.

Tossing her poles and mask into the open bay of the sled, Kayi leaned in and caught Gem’s hand, brushing her chapped lips against his bare fingers before sitting on the edge of the sled to undo her skis.

“Hell of a day to be alone.” Andy had stopped glaring and started to smile, his teeth thick and white in his dark face. “Monica Alveros called. Kip Salander drowned while shooting a surfing video out in the Triangulum.”

Kayi slid her skis into their case inside the hoversled and turned to face him. She had a momentary pang about Kip’s death, but the guy had been a serious show-boater and a total jerk the two times their paths had crossed. In fact, last time she’d seen him had been at one of the qualifiers for the Great Race. When she’d barely missed qualifying, again, he’d sent her an empty bottle of champagne and a blank note.

Anyone who did extreme sports, especially on a galactic level, risked death. She was baffled as to why Kip’s was so important that someone like Grinder Galaxy’s main PR coordinator, Monica Alveros, would notify Kayi and her team personally. Andy’s grin got wider as she stopped unhooking her wingsuit and straightened up.

“Kip qualified for the Asgard race,” she said softly. Her mouth felt dry and she ran her tongue over chapped lips. “Does that mean. . .?”

“You’re in, Kayi. You’re going to get to run the most extreme ski race in human history.”

She was still stiff from the cramped trans-galactic flight from Earth out to Asgard and her stomach was punishing her for every drop of the anti-viral and vaccine cocktail they had IV’d into her for the flight. She’d been poked and prodded. She’d signed about nine-million pieces of legal documents that all boiled down to Don’t Die (which was one of Gem’s cardinal rules anyway) and, if you do die, Don’t Sue (like she had money for an inter-stellar qualified lawyer).

The lodge, tackily named Shangri-la, spread across a valley high in the foothills of the Olympiad Mountains like a giant red birthmark of lacquered steel and plexi-glass. Shuttles up to the cloud of ships orbiting Asgard came and went from the snow field to the east, ferrying those approved to view the Great Race from the hot, plush comfort of the lodge.

Those approved seemed to be all rich ski-TV junkies and overly made-up reporters, Kayi noticed as she stood in the shadows on her narrow balcony. The air here was thicker than she was used to at such altitudes, with an almost smoky aftertaste that clung to the back of her throat.

Her team, being the lowest seed, had been shoveled with little ceremony into one of the bulbous wings of the building, probably as far away from the celebrity contestants as Monica and her people could put them. With the other “hill fodder,” as the more lurid zines dubbed those not expected to finish the Race.

She shivered in her Insulwool jumpsuit. Andy wanted her to get in front of the cameras, to try for a couple “interest” pieces. She shook her head thinking about it. The Girl from Earth or, more likely, The Greenlander, will she survive the descent? Like any of these outerworld-born pale-skins knew shit about Earth or could pick out Greenland on a map. She’d been born in Greenland, sure, but most of her life had been spent in Russo-Alaska and Nepal. Just another way the media idiots showed their true colors.

Kayi unclenched her hands. It was still night, the cycle here lasting nearly seventy hours. She needed to check gear, go over the maps and refresh the memorization she’d done on the space flight. She needed to sleep or at least drown out the heady mix of anticipation and adrenaline that always rushed through her right before a competition. Kayi took in a deep, frigid breath, sucking the snow-scented air deep into her lungs.

Screw it. She needed to ski.

She slipped back inside and grabbed her coat and gloves, shrugging into them before snagging the skis resting by the door, waiting for a wax and sharpening. Andy and Gem were camped in front of the screens in the adjoining room, testing her goggle and shoulder cameras. Technically filming by anyone but the approved Grinder Galaxy camera feeds and satellite crews was utterly prohibited but the support people of a Race contestant could have a non-recording monitoring camera in case the forfeit flare was deployed.

Kayi wouldn’t deploy the damn flare. She’d die out there before quitting that way. She tugged on her ski boots and opened the door. This was why she had to get out, stupid thoughts like the ones chasing their tails around in her brain. Finish or die. Finish or die. Finish…

“Hey!” Andy called out to her, too late.

“I’ll be in soon,” she called to him and pulled the door closed with her elbow before he could say anything else. The back of her neck prickled the whole way down the hall to the slide car, half expecting him to come out after her.

The slide car was an empty sterile lozenge that vibrated its way up to the main wing. She wasn’t sure where other exits were or she would have avoided the hot crush of reports and prep people that greeted her like a babbling gaggle of geese.

Kayi shoved past a group of women in brightly colored down jackets, keeping her head tucked alongside her skis and poles. She wasn’t too worried about being recognized, but the last thing she wanted to deal with right now were the press leeches. There was the slim chance some might have her picture in their Tell-All tablets.

Kayi drafted two men carrying equipment bags out to the hoversleds. Once through the red and black lacquered steel outer doors, complete with faux-Asian patterns, she struck out toward the empty plateau away from the shuttle pad and the bustle. Fresh snow crunched beneath her boots and a sighing wind tugged at her braids. Kayi strapped into her skis and shoved out, heading into the darkness.

She didn’t go far, heading just to where the valley started to slope upward and the lights of Shangri-la didn’t quite block out the heavy veil of stars. The point nine gravity made her whole body seem a little lighter and lent a heady floating sensation as she slid through the powder.

Her eyes sought the North Star out of habit and she wrapped her arms around herself with a grim, rueful smile. No constellations here, no markers to guide her. The mountains loomed, over fifty-thousand feet of white and black, a void in the shimmering skies.

“I am Kayi Akki Akkikitok, called Kayii Tingiyok,” she whispered into the wind, introducing herself to this strange world and whatever spirits might lurk beneath the deep white. “I am here and you will not kill me.” She jammed her poles into the thick snow crust and raised her arms, her orange gloves catching the distant light of Shangri-la and flickering in the darkness.

Kayi stood in the snow until Gem came to get her. He skied across the snow and she barely had to look, recognizing his heavy, sliding gate. He wrapped her in warm arms and for a moment she closed her eyes and let his pine aftershave and clean leather smell envelop her, grounding her where she belonged, on a world too far away.

After a long moment she pulled away, tugging gently on his braided beard so he would know it was time to go. Nine standard hours until dawn. Until the Race began and all the hype, the press, the sponsors, and the bureaucrats wouldn’t matter. Until it was just her and the mountains.

Kayi stood with four other contestants at starting area Gamma up on the summit of Zeus, staring out into the jagged expanse of the Olympiads and already running the race in her mind as she ignored the strobe of cameras from the press area. At about a sixty degree drop, the first pitch was steep but wide, avalanche groomed, and not particularly difficult. It was more a show descent before the real work began. Couldn’t have everyone wiping out and looking like idiots right in front of the cameras.

Sucking on her oxygen tube, Kayi turned slightly and studied the others in her group. Argyle Fontaine was a tall, wan-faced skier with a decent record. He gave her a little nod, though she couldn’t make out his features behind his face mask. Gavin something-or-other stood near Argyle, a skier she’d studied videos of but had never met until the lift up.

Beyond them, in a deep red suit with a gold dragon climbing the back, was Arthur Kyoto. Another one of the “hill fodder” skiers like Kayi, his claim to greatness was coming out of nowhere and miraculously winning one of the main qualifiers. She’d caught a bit of his pre-race interview early while getting ready and found herself riveted by the images of him carrying his twin toddlers down the bunny slopes, laughing in the snow. Her own father had taught her to ski in the same way.

He nodded hello to her and she smiled at him, raising a hand in greeting.

The race coordinators had tried to split up the top five seeds and the darling of this group stood out from the slopes in her signature pink and white plaid. Coraline Alvaros, the younger sister to the PR woman who’d coordinated Kayi’s own journey here. The younger Alvaros had done a metric load of cross-galactic web commercials and was the first woman to ski the Knives on Mirzam Prime. She tossed Kayi a smile which Kayi thought was just for the cameras, but then Coraline whispered “best of luck” in her ear.

On skiing skills alone, Kayi wanted to believe she could beat the people like Coraline. But she didn’t have the funding to afford the top tech, the designer drugs, the blood doping, and all the other stuff that was borderline illegal but allowed for those with money. The low-tech Great Race really had quite a bit of technology. Sure, no GPS, no communications, no little extras. Just poles, suit, one hour of oxygen, all the special sports goo needed to keep fueled for the hours of skiing, and skis.

For people like Coraline though, this meant high-tech skis that probably could whisk her down a mountain looking like she’d just come off a zine shoot, whip up a pot of tea, and then press her shirts. Before lunch.

Kayi forced herself away from useless thoughts. This was Asgard. The planet had never been skied. Once out on the slopes there would be something much more scary than going up against top technology and training. It was the mountain Kayi intended to race against. A hundred miles of terrain and a descent of ten vertical miles. Winning was not dying in a crevasse, or beneath thousands of pounds of crushing, moving snow, or breaking a limb out where a hovercraft couldn’t reach and starving slowly over time. Winning was survival. The placement was secondary.

She had the advantage of genetics and real experience. There was no room in the Russo-Alaskan winters she’d grown up in for weakness or indecision. No need for blood doping either, her Inuit and Norse blood giving her extra capillaries in her extremities and a higher tolerance for altitude. Also that insulating but not camera-friendly layer of pudge which Andy kept begging her to surgically remove so she could be more marketable. Gem liked her thick and she didn’t see the point of fighting her blood (and stomach) about it, especially when she was the one who had to stand out on freezing mountains waiting on race officials.

The warning horn blew and jerked Kayi out of her thoughts. She turned and duck-toed up toward the line, skiing closer to the leeches. The reporters even looked like invertebrates, all of them wrapped from hair to feet with masks in place reflecting the wan early morning sun and neon-green tents.

“Greenlander! Over here!” One reporter called out, her voice tinny through the microphone piece in her face mask.

Kayi almost shoved forward and ignored the leech, but she could almost hear Andy grinding his teeth back at the lodge as he watched it all on her head-cam. Small concessions. Right. She turned and spit out her oxygen tube, giving a small smile.

The reporter didn’t seem to want a picture but instead opened a file on her Tell-All and then held up the screen so that it projected onto the smooth snow under the dividing ropes between the press line and the starting area. Gem’s face suddenly appeared, his black eyes glinting with secret mirth and his braided beard twitching as he fought down a smile. Kayi’s heart gave a little jerk and she almost started signing to him before she realized it was a recording.

Gem seemed to be waiting, then he nodded, acknowledging some off-camera signal before his long gold-brown fingers spelled out a single word.

Asavarma.

Her mask threatened to fog for a moment as she blinked hard against the well of emotions stinging her eyes. Though she imagined this whole golden press-release slash interest story moment had been engineered by Andy, it was just like Gem to turn it into a private, special thing, taking the wide, scary world and pulling her back down to the ground.

“What did he say? What does that mean? Do you have a message to send back to him? How did he lose his hearing?” The reporter’s breath hung in the air like fog before falling away in glittering mist.

“Just wishing me luck. Thank you. I have to go.” Kayi slid up to the starting box, letting her skies poke out over the dramatically carved ledge and stared into the sky.

Asavarma. You love me. It was their silly joke, their code. His way of reminding her why she wasn’t allowed to die out here.

The other four lined up, each ten feet apart. Kayi slipped her oxygen tube back between her teeth, shivering as the frozen spit on it hit her tongue. She shifted her weight from ski to ski, waiting for signal. It was time to leave the world. It was time to fly.

The peal of a heavy bell rang out and she dropped off the edge. For a moment there was nothing beneath her skis and then she hit, carving deep into the champagne powder and leaning her whole body along the steep slope with each turn. The noise from above faded away and it was just her and the mountains. She was almost glad that Coraline, the only other woman in the race, was in her section. The satellite cameras and live feeds would all be focused on pink and not orange. It was something at least.

Kayi let her body warm up and found her rhythm. Flashes of color shifted in her periphery as the other starting groups found the slopes and paths crossed and converged, each of the twenty five skiing their own lines down the first drop.

The next part would be trickier. There were multiple ways down from here and none of them were particularly safe. The fastest route to the finish would be to follow the fall lines of the various slopes and peaks, but that way led through a deep ravine peppered with ice-tunnels and into the Spires, a cave-riddled section of melt-carved granite and quartz which dropped off into Thor’s Hammer, a series of unmapped crevasses. Andy had argued for at least cutting over to the Spires from her planned route, but she’d pointed out no company would sponsor a corpsicle.

Kayi shot across the ridgeline at the base of the first pitch, heading across a mostly flat plateau that would drop away into a series of snow mesas, named Loki’s Steps, which descended toward Mt. Athena and the second leg of the race. The stupid quaintness of the mixed Earth names bugged her. Everyone equated it with “low-tech” and it seemed that Grinder Galaxy had adopted themes without checking any of the history.

She shoved her annoyance away and focused on the next turn. In the periphery of her vision a pink and white blur went flying off a spur of snow-covered rock and headed toward the Spires. Figured.

Ahead of her she caught sight of a red shape and smiled around her mouthpiece. Arthur Kyoto was playing this part safe as well. Finishing, for hill fodder like them, would be enough to get noticed, a badge to stick on the wall of life.

The going was peaceful, her thighs starting to burn a little as she worked her legs to glide along the almost flat ridge. The rising sun cast diamonds of light across the snow, reminding her that she’d better reach the Steps before it got too high. The radiation would heat the snow, turning the lovely powder to crud and raising the risks of slides and avalanche significantly. She had hours though, thanks to the long cycle. As long as she stuck to the plan, the route she’d memorized, she’d be down by mid-morning.

In her mind, she heard Daddy quoting Sun Tzu about how no plan survives contact with the enemy. For a brief moment she could almost smell the thick musk of his pipe tobacco as he leaned over, checking the bindings on her skis as they set out into the Saint Elias wilderness to rescue the mountain’s latest lost soul.

Kayi turned her head slightly and stared out to where the huge glacial latticework and arched summit of Mt. Athena poked above the surroundings, still many thousands of feet beneath the long ridge. Her father had never left Earth. She wondered what he’d have thought of Asgard and the Olympiads. The atmosphere was thicker than Earth’s, but the gravity slightly less and humans could stand at heights here no one at home would attempt. If she’d been allowed her wing-suit, Kayi could have just dropped off the ridge and tried to fly down, beyond Mt. Athena. Miles and miles sailing beneath her body.

She checked her oxygen gauge and decided she could ski without using the tank for now. The cold, thin air cut into her throat as she inhaled a shallow breath and tucked her mouthpiece into its pocket on the collar of her ski suit, shutting off the flow from the refillable oxy-packet sewn between the bright orange layers of thermal suit on her chest.

Kayi fell into a rhythm and only slowed after many miles as the ridge began to drop to her right and the cliff drifted into more of a slope. Kayi spied a red shape ahead and grinned when the still-weak sunlight caught a glint of gold.

She skied up alongside Arthur Kyoto and cut sideways, halting next to him on the edge of the Steps. The pitch here dropped down at about a fifty-degree angle, less than the first descent but a prime angle for avalanche risk. The air was still lip-chapping cold and this descent lay in shadow.

“Looks like a heavy snow hit here recently,” she said, eyeing Arthur.

“Yep. Should be okay though if we stick to the fall lines and don’t disturb the snow on those outcroppings,” he said with a broad motion toward the plateaus.

They did look alarmingly top-heavy. Kayi abandoned her plan to ski down using the flatter parts as a way to slow and ease her descent. Threading between the Steps would mean a quicker, less controlled path. It sounded a lot better than accidently dropping off a bluff and taking a few tons of snow down on top of herself.

“Looks like fun,” she said. Her heart started to sing with adrenaline again as she stared down into the deep white expanse.

“You want to go first? I don’t want either of us to get caught up in the other’s sluff,” Arthur said.

“Nah. You were here first. I’ll hang until you get past the first Step and then follow, sound good?”

He nodded and they shared a grin, his white teeth flashing against cracked, grease-smeared lips.

“Safe skiing,” she said lamely. She wanted to say something about his kids, to tell him how she admired him for doing this when he had other commitments, other lives depending on him.

“Good luck, Greenlander,” he said before she could find the words. With a shove of his poles, he dropped down onto the slope, skis kicking up sluff in a plume behind him until his red form looked like a cardinal trying to out-pace a winter storm.

Kayi waited until he shot past the first plateau and cut out of sight, following the natural lines of the mountain. Then she, too, dropped down, crisscrossing his winding trail. The susurrus hush of the skis as she shifted her weight lulled her as she tracked Arthur’s progress.

Intense pressure in her ears broke her out of her pattern. She shook her head, stretching her jaw. As her ears popped, the silence was broken by a crackling rumble that grew louder like a wave crashing down. Kayi watched, horrified, as huge slabs of snow broke away immediately in front of her, and then as the slabs were followed by a huge mound of snow tumbling off a plateau just above where Arthur’s red shape wound down the slope.

She tried to scream out a warning, the distance hopelessly far. His red shape hovered on the edge of the snow wave for a moment, then was suddenly gone.

Her scream was lost in another loud cracking boom, this time so close she felt the vibrations before the snow gave way beneath her skis and suddenly she was surfing along a cresting wave of thick powder that rumbled and hissed like storm-churned waters. For a brief, terrifying second, she hung on that crest, upright and she stretched toward the edge, willing to believe she could ski out of the avalanche’s path.

Then the snow sucked her down, as treacherous as any ocean wave, and closed above her head. Kayi jerked her arms in, one hand reflexively reaching for her avalanche chute, forgetting that she didn’t have one this time. More snow smashed into her left side, shoving her hard into another wave and her legs wrenched as her bindings, set tight for this run, strained. Cold clogged her nose and she shut her eyes behind her mask on reflex more than necessity. The tumble whipped her neck forward and she tried to tuck her chin in, ride it out.

Then it was over. The world went still and all she could feel was horrible pressure as though someone had pinned her beneath a wet wool blanket. She opened her eyes and her mouth, regretting it instantly as loose snow smashed into her teeth and she choked hard, the cough emptying the last of her air from starved lungs. The world was clear blue now, as though she encased in glacial ice. Entombed.

No. Stop. No dying. Gem. Must get back. Remember his rules. But she couldn’t. She could barely find his face in her mind. No. Move. Move. Please.

Kayi panicked for a moment, trying to move her limbs as her heartbeat grew louder and louder in her ears, echoing the rushing of the avalanche. Her right arm was crushed up against her collar; her glove brushing the raw, exposed skin under her chin.

Oxygen. She needed to breathe. With painful slowness, Kayi worked her fingers over to the pocket with her mouthpiece. She shoved upward with her shoulder, trying to create enough room to push the device up to her mouth. Her shoulder popped and pain radiated down into her arm and through her back. Pain was good. Pain she could use. She clung to it, to this sign of life and twisted her head toward the freed mouthpiece.

It popped in between her lips and she choked hard trying to get enough space to suck the flow valve open through the melting snow filling her mouth. Air. She’d always found the slightly chemical taste from the sealants in the pack annoying, but this time it was the best thing she’d ever breathed, thick and revitalizing.

And going to run out in probably less than half an hour. With that sobering thought, Kayi lay, staring up, or at least what she hoped was up, into the glacial blue. No one was coming to dig her out. A whimpering sound broke through the rushing pulse in her ears. For a moment she wondered if someone was out there. Then she realized she was making that noise, deep in her throat. She sucked in another sweet breath of air and forced her scattered brain back into problem-solving.

Rule zero of any activity, according to Gem, was “don’t die.” Was she facing toward sky? Or hundreds of feet of snow and rock? She tried again to wiggle her feet. The right one had a little movement to it. Her left leg was twisted out to the side and from the pressure she thought her ski was still attached and being pulled by the snow, weight on top of a fulcrum.

Kayi wormed her hands up over her chest and made half-scooping, half-breast-stroke movements, shoving her upper body into the little bit of space cleared. Movement was good for her psyche even if she couldn’t tell what progress she might be making toward freedom. Blood rushed in her ears and she found herself timing her struggles upward to the thud of her heart.

Scoop, shift, scoop, shift, scoop, shift, scoop, shift. The light above turned from glacial blue to a clearer blue, then, suddenly, her hands scooped and pushed through, the orange gloves disappearing for a moment into the world above. Kayi flopped and wriggled like a landed salmon and her head broke through. Muscles protesting, she worked to sit up fully and spit out her oxygen tube.

She’d been wrong, before. This, this was the best air she’d ever tasted. Crisp, clean, best of all — unlimited.

She dug her legs free and took stock. Her skis were still attached and intact, though one only by grace of the leg strap, the binding itself had released. She snapped it back on, after checking it for damage, and stood gingerly, looking around. One pole jutted awkwardly from the snow just below her position. The other was buried most likely, her straps snapped in the mad tumble down the mountain.

And she had tumbled far. The snow had carried her down almost to the Spires. She oriented herself with the lace-like shadow of Mt. Athena and the farther-off shadows below that Kayi hoped were the granite and quartz formations.

The shivers hit her as adrenaline faded with the recognition of relative safety. With them came coherent memory.

Arthur Kyoto. She spit into the snow and tried to work a yell out of her sore, scraped throat. She managed a credible croak but not much more. Kayi twisted, frantically searching for some telling sign of where he might have ended up, some break in the newly smooth landscape. A hint of red. Anything.

Her injured shoulder protested as she twisted the other direction and Kayi gritted her teeth, side-stepping down the hill to get her remaining pole, taking it into her left hand.

The mountain was quiet, the stillness eerie after the explosion of snow.

Explosions. Kayi shivered again as she forced herself to remember what had happened. They’d been careful, taking a line that shouldn’t have disturbed the packed snow, not this early in the morning. Vibrations, and that weird pressure in her ears. Sub-sonic avalanche charges? Had someone rigged this slope to blow?

The mountain doesn’t kill you, her father had always said. The mountain doesn’t care enough to bother. People kill themselves on mountains.

Not this time. Kayi’s numb lips set into a hard line and she felt like collapsing. Grinder Galaxy. The Great Race, her ass. She’d known it would be a kitschy, glam, inter-galacticly annoying media-whoring sort of spectacle, but naively she’d figured the deadly terrain and sheer length of the race would provide enough fodder for the masses.

She had a camera on. So did Arthur. They also had locator chips sewn into their suits so that the live feeds could track and broadcast the contestants when they hit interesting points in the race and fill the between times with cutesy bio-pics and one-on-one filmed weeks ago interviews interspersed with the person in question skiing down some slope or another.

Kayi could put it together. Someone in Grinder Galaxy might have rigged the slope; probably long before the Race since there had been recent, heavy snow. They’d waited until she and Arthur were both on the slope and blown the charges. Maybe there wasn’t real malice in it; maybe some idiot didn’t realize that avalanches like that moved at speeds of over a hundred miles an hour.

Fat chance. Anger got her blood moving again as Kayi pushed off and tested her legs with a careful, controlled turn down the slope. They had just made the term “hill fodder” into a gruesome, literal phrase.

Murder. That’s what she would call it. If anyone would listen, would believe something that was hardly more than a gut feeling. Kayi’s neck stiffened. Cameras had to be on her. Digging her way out must have gotten millions of live views by now. Andy would be shitting himself over the potentials of this now that he was likely done panicking about her getting buried alive. She sucked on her teeth and pulled her collar up to hide her mouth, hide her expression in case someone was zoomed in, and resisted the urge to look up into the sky.

Kayi’s brain dumped ideas and worries down onto her as quickly as the avalanche had dropped snow, bumping into all sorts of ridiculous options and plans. She took another lazy turn and then another, slowly cutting over the slope toward the Spires in the distance. There were caves there, she remembered. A place maybe where she could sit, drink some electrolytic protein-filled goo and rest out of the immediate access of the satellite cameras at least.

Skiing worked the clinging ache out of her sore legs and she kept her arm against her body. There were two local anesthetic patches in her aid kit, another reason to stop. It wouldn’t fix the injury, but removing the pain would have to suffice for now.

Kayi laughed, the sound hoarse and grating. She hadn’t even checked to see if she’d lost anything from her various pockets. They were sealed, of course, but a crushing tumble like the one she’d just taken could break the seals. Her gear wasn’t rated for that kind of thing.

She patted herself and found most of her suit pockets still sealed tight. She had fluids and first aid. The only thing missing was the forfeit flare, which had broken loose of its strap on her belly and was now gone. Not an option anyway, not given what she suspected. No one would believe the accusations of a forfeiter. She’d be buried under so much scandal and so many lawyers for even thinking of about it.

She’d probably be buried anyway. She was the Greenlander, the chubby hick from a system humanity had grown beyond and half-forgotten. Poor Arthur Kyoto was basically the same. No standing, no status, no power. His twins would never know that their father had been murdered, that his death had been pointless. It was one thing to face the mountain and lose, but to fail because someone engineered it was wrong in every way.

Unless you win, an evil voice whispered, sounding in her exhausted mind a lot like Andy when her friend and manager had gotten too deep into the bubbly. A winner of the Great Race would have the purse and the inter-galactic public ear.

Kayi shook her head, wincing again. Up ahead loomed the first series of spires, green and blue-threaded black granite jutting up like totemic icons to long lost spirits. She angled toward one that had a thick shadow, looking for an underhang she could retreat into.

She was so intent on just getting away from the camera she imagined still stalked her from miles above that she missed the tracks in the snow at first. Once she saw them, a single skier winding their way toward one of the thicker Spires, Kayi followed, desperately hopeful that she’d find Arthur holed up the way she intended to do, to find him alive and well.

Kayi reached the stone and pulled up when she heard a woman’s voice. Disappointment brought acid up into her already raw throat. Coraline. But who was she talking to? A wan hope still lingered that Arthur to be here with Coraline somehow, but there’d only been one set of ski tracks.

Her rattled nerves and new-found paranoia counseled Kayi to caution and she slid forward quietly as she could, slipping right up to the bared tower of rock. Peeking around into the deeper shadows of the overhang, Kayi caught a glimpse of three people, two men and a woman. The woman wore pink plaid. Definitely Coraline.

The men, when Kayi ducked back out for a second, slightly longer look, were dressed in the same gear as the workers buzzing everywhere around the event. A looping double G with the tri-star logo confirmed what Kayi already knew.

“Let me check the maps again,” Coraline was saying, reaching for something that one of the men, whose backs where to Kayi, must be holding. “Then you guys can hoversled me through these stupid rocks?” With that statement, Kayi abandoned hope that this was just Coraline forfeiting the race and catching a ride down.

She leaned into the stone and tried to think. It wasn’t just manipulating the race to provide media fodder and life and death excitement, the game might actually be rigged. Might? Kayi bit her lip. It was time to face reality. She considered stepping out and confronting the cheating party right there, but her brush with death held her still. Evidence. Andy and Gem could witness. She was sure they were riveted to her camera, and though Gem couldn’t hear what was being said, Andy could probably make it out even with the low-quality microphone in her mask.

It was too bad that they weren’t recording her feed.

Oh. Kayi almost smacked herself upside the head. Her team could. Nothing really prevented it besides fear of being sued, a fear which seemed suddenly so small and stupid as to have become the molehill in light of the mountain of this deadly farce. All those papers she’d signed promising no recordings were as binding as sunlight now.

Kayi took a deep breath, hearing Coraline asking questions about the route around Thor’s Hammer. Now or never. She had to get this down. Kayi slid backward on her skis, making sure no part of her showed beyond the stone. She could still hear Coraline and hoped her mic was getting it also.

She unsealed her left glove and yanked it off with her teeth. Carefully she signed Gem’s name, hoping that would signal him without being too obvious to anyone else monitoring her feed. Then she told him what she wanted, spelling out the Inuit words, hoping that would be obscure enough that Grinder Galaxy wouldn’t pick up on it.

Even with recorded evidence, Kayi knew she’d still have to make it down to the finish to have a hope of accusing anyone of anything. They had to know that she was right next to their men, however. What else had they rigged out there? There were more ways to die on a course like this than just avalanche. Snipers, worse come to worse, could probably hoversled into the course and just pick her off. Once she was dead, arranging an accident or the disappearance of Andy and Gem probably wouldn’t be that difficult. They were safe now because of the race, because they were surrounded by people. Later, if she died, if she failed, they’d have no protection.
Pleasant thoughts.

Kayi grimaced and refocused on the conversation, risking looking around the spire again. Coraline was half turned away, studying a tablet. She tapped a pink finger onto the screen and told them she wanted to be dropped off there. Kayi prayed that Gem had gotten the message in time to record all that.

It would have to be good enough because Coraline and her escort slipped out from the overhang and after a long moment, Kayi heard the whirring of a hoversled. She stayed pressed against the cold stone until it was gone and silence reigned again.

Kayi ducked quickly into the illusory shelter of the overhang. She was still hours of hard skiing away from being in a position to help Gem or Andy. She just hoped they were figuring out some of what was going on. Hoped they weren’t already kidnapped or assassinated or something awful.

She had to trust that they could manage and take care of herself. That was Gem’s rule number one. Always play with the cards you actually have.

First thing, minimize the risk of being tracked too easily. Kayi sucked down a goo packet, the tart lingonberry flavored gel soothing her raw throat. She pulled the rest of the packets out and set them onto a little ledge in the stone.

Next she removed the first aid kit and opened her outer ski suit, then peeled back the insulating under-suit down off her injured shoulder with as little jostling as she could manage. The freezing air felt good, giving her a shock but numbing the exposed shoulder in a way that wasn’t awful. She pressed the Velcro-like morphine patch into her skin. The tiny teeth set and relief washed through her in a tangible wave, radiated out from the little blue patch.

Kayi slid the suit up and closed the insulating layer. She unsnapped her bindings and stepped out of her skis. Her outer suit had to go. The chip that allowed the satellites to easily track and lock her position was sewn into it and the bright orange, designed to be so easily seen against snowy mountain terrain, had become a liability. The quilted, white fabric in her under suit would have to suffice, despite its less than waterproof nature.

Play the cards you have, she reminded herself.

Shivering a little as her wind-breaking layer slid off, Kayi balled up the suit and shoved it into a crevice in the spire. It wouldn’t hold anyone off for long, and she didn’t dare go out without her glare and wind-blocking mask on, so the camera feed would still be there. The hood part of her mask was silver, thank god. She prayed these measures could buy her a little time and breathing room. Her gloves had to stay on, but she turned them inside out, hoping the grey inner layer would be camouflage enough. Nothing she could do about the boots or her skis so she shoved the nagging doubt from her mind.

She snapped back into her bindings and tucked the first aid kit and three packets of goo into the one pocket on her inner suit. Then she took up her pole, took a deep breath, and set out into the Spires.

Kayi skied in silence; her eyes focused on the quickest path through, watching for telling dark patches and odd shadows that might denote caving beneath unstable snow and thinly covered rocks and other dangers. Her ears strained for the sound of a hoversled and her mind kept trying to feed her gruesome imagery of her own mangled body or what the hood of her mask would look like when a sniper bullet exploded her brains all over.

She just wanted to get down the mountain. There was no race anymore. The allure of skiing the virgin snows and dangerous slopes of the tallest ascendable mountains in the known universe had died with the last of her sportsman instincts. Died with Arthur Kyoto in a crushing ocean of snow.

A different fire lit her now, pushing her even as she crisscrossed slopes between the blue and green and black towering stones. She wanted to live, not to beat the mountains, but to beat the people who’d tried to kill her in the name of ratings and profits. They were no less impersonal than the rocks and ice and cold.

The deck was deeply stacked against her, but damnit, Kayi suddenly felt a desperate need to win. Not from bitterness now about equipment or training or the money and ability to ski on more than one little planet.

The slowly rising sun caught the refractive surfaces of quartz spurs jutting like giant diamonds from the granite spires and drew webs of iridescent light between the stones. In the back of her mind, Kayi hoped that Gem was still recording. Was still able to record. She shoved that thought away.

She skied out of Loki’s Spires and turned to the north. She and her team had plotted out multiple courses on the flight to Asgard. They had even plotted the optimal path, what they jokingly had called the “as the crow flies but everyone else dies” course. Through the Spires and then to the north, shooting down a linked maze of steep ravines and directly into the crevasse-laden Thor’s Hammer. From the Hammer there was another steep slope, more of a cliff with an almost vertical slope that could drop her onto the straight shot down to the finish just above Shangri-la.

They’d ruled out that course as suicide. Even if the crevasses didn’t eat her, the hours of extreme carving needed to drop the thousands of vertical feet down the final descent would probably be beyond anyone after the hours of hard exercise preceding.

Kayi pulled her lips into a snarl as she shot down into the ravine maze. Her frazzled brain couldn’t recall what stupid name had been bestowed on this place. Win. This path, if she could survive it, it would beat even cheating. Probably. They couldn’t risk exposure by using the hoversleds too much or by having Coraline show up improbably early. Reporters might be sycophantic glory hounds, but they couldn’t be counted on to be reliable idiots either.

She was onto the final long stretch before Thor’s Hammer when she felt the snow vibrate beneath her and a sonic wave crackle in the air. Kayi screamed, more in fury than fear, and aimed her skis sideways, trying to shoot across the breaking snow.

Then the mountain broke away under her and she found herself perched in the middle of the avalanche plate like a grain of sand resting on the tension of water.

She rode the plate as it hissed and burbled, the edges peeling away as the snow gained speed, surging down toward the glacial blue scars of Thor’s Hammer below. Icy mists clouded up around her and for a brief moment she felt as though she was flying inside a storm cloud.

Just before the crumbling edges of the plate caught up her skis, the world dropped away, taking the deadly snow with it.

Kayi sailed through the air on her own now, the avalanche speed flinging her out over the deep crevasse that opened beneath, swallowing the mountain’s might. She tucked forward by habit more than by conscious design. Ahead was the edge of the crevasse. She strained her whole body toward it.

Not that it mattered; she wasn’t going to make it.

Kayi clutched her pole and thrust herself forward, arms against her side. She was just going to miss, the edge so close and yet her ski tips were dropping.

Her tips caught the edge. For an instant she thought she might be okay. Then the lip crumbled under her, frothing as the weak layer of snow broke. Her forward momentum died with a rough jolt and she started to fall backward.

Kayi jabbed her pole out and threw herself as far forward as she could. The pole caught and she gripped it with both hands, ignoring the sudden sharp bite of pain as her injured shoulder woke up from its drugged haze. The pole caught ice and stuck and suddenly she slid just enough forward that her skis caught and did their job.

Another raw scream broke out of her throat, followed by a stream of good Norwegian curses telling the cheating, malicious bastards where they could stick it and how.

The rest of the Hammer was a blur. Sometimes her skis left the ground as she flew over gaps and irregularities, but Kayi was beyond caring. Her shoulder made gravelly sounds and renewed its stabbing complaints with every landing, every sharp turn until finally, blessedly, her right arm went utterly numb.

She almost overshot the final descent but managed to check her speed and drop down onto the nearly vertical face. Each jamming turn was a tiny reminder of the hellish exhaustion she felt from her toes to her teeth. Her suit was soon soaked through and only the exertion itself kept her warm now. She wasn’t sure when she noticed that the snow below was no longer a far-off vertigo-causing shadow and instead had detail and glittering nearness. By the time she did see the far gentler slope and the clot of dark shapes off in the distance where the finish line lay, she was only a hundred feet or so off the curving final descent.

Kayi made a decision and dropped off the mountain. She flew down the last seventy feet; letting her spasming knees take a final jolt as she landed in nearly hip-deep powder soft enough to take a nap in.

The dull roar of excited voices grew as she approached. She hoped from the response that she’d made it down first. To win, then to expose this murderous charade.

The crowd took on colors and shape as she approached, skiing upright through sheer will. Her body felt dead, her right arm entirely unresponsive. It didn’t matter.

Once she won. . . Kayi stopped that thought. Winning meant she’d be mobbed by press. Maybe the Grinder Galaxy folks would find a way to twist it all up, find time to get some story straight. Winning wasn’t quite the answer.

With a hard jerk, Kayi twisted sideways and skidded to stop only feet from the finish line.

She stood there, leaning heavily onto her remaining pole, her eyes scanning the crowd, looking for her team. She didn’t see them at first and then suddenly both Andy and Gem shoved their way through the insectile horde of reporters and stockholders. Gem had his computer perched on one huge arm and hope lifted Kayi’s head as she drew on the last gasp of her reserves.

The crowd had grown silent, chatter dying away as they realized she wasn’t coming across the finish line on purpose. She slowly caught her breath and then pulled off her mask, letting her dark braid drop onto her shoulders.

“This,” she tried to say, but it came out as a raw croak and she stopped, swallowed painfully, and tried again, “This race is a lie, is murder. Kyoto died because of Grinder Galaxy.”

“Five,” Andy called out. “Five racers are dead.”

Kayi shivered and clung harder to her pole. Five. She strained to raise her voice, spitting out the words like broken glass. “It’s a lie. A set-up. Fixed. Manipulated. You aren’t watching reality or fairness.”

Gem smiled at her, teeth flashing white beneath his black beard. He did something on his little computer and suddenly the huge plastic view screens that had been showing her own exhausted image a moment before flashed to a shaky, somewhat fuzzy image of Coraline in her pink plaid glory, her whining, thready voice asking about routes and where the hoversled could drop her off.

For a moment, only Coraline’s damning questions reigned in the dead silence the recording brought on, as though everyone stood in the eye of a storm. The storm broke, people yelling, asking questions. Beyond Gem, the Grinder Galaxy officials who’d been coming out to try to shoo her team back halted on their snowshoes and froze like rabbits in the eagle’s shadow.

Kayi smiled at Gem and raised her left hand, finally releasing the pole. She slowly signed the letters to him. Asavakkit. I love you.

Did you fly? His hands formed the familiar question.

Kayii Tingiyok, she signed back.

She let her legs collapse, dropping into the snow. Yes, she thought as she closed her eyes, Kayi is flying.

______
Copyright 2012 Annie Bellet

Annie Bellet writes speculative fiction full-time. She holds degrees in English and in Medieval Studies and speaks a smattering of useful languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Welsh.

Her short fiction has appeared in AlienSkin Magazine, Digital Science Fiction, and Daily Science Fiction and is available in multiple e-book collections. A Heart in Sun & Shadow, a fantasy novel set in an ancient Wales that never was, is available now as both an e-book and in trade paperback.

Her other interests include rock climbing, reading, horse-back riding, video games, comic books, table-top RPGs and many other nerdy pursuits. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and a very demanding Bengal cat.

Find out more about her and her books by going to http://www.anniebellet.com or find her on her blog at http://overactive.wordpress.com/

by Francesca Forrest

“I have a song for you,” the girl said, appearing in Anj’s study unannounced. The two bluetails in the cage by the window trilled a welcome.

Anj looked past the girl to the outer chamber. Where was Shen? He was supposed to keep things like this from happening.

“Your servant is striking a bargain to get your roof repaired,” the girl said, joining Anj in looking into the outer room. Then she leaned across Anj’s desk, so the two were practically nose to nose. “He’ll probably overpay,” she said. She smelled of goat. Anj leaned back slightly, but then the girl herself pulled away and stood up straight.

“Here’s my song,” she said. She clasped her hands together and began to sing, full voiced, as if she were out on a hillside, among the goats and the clouds, and not in a tiny room filled with the accoutrements of a civil servant from the Empire of Cinnabar.

Anj considered herself fluent in the language of the tribes of the Cloud Mountains, but she couldn’t understand a word the girl was singing. The tune rose and then fell, fell, fell, turned and bounced like a mountain stream, fast and fresh. Was it the melody? The girl’s face as she sang? The knuckles of girl’s hands, white from the intensity with which one hand gripped the other? Whatever it was, it made Anj’s eyes sting with the threat of tears. She quickly turned her mind to the census and the requests from the commander of the Southwestern Army.

The song was over. The girl stood silent in front of the desk, hands still clasped and eyes distant. Then those eyes met Anj’s own.

Hastily, Anj pulled a couple of coins out of her jacket pocket, but the girl frowned. She took a step toward the window and opened the door to the bluetails’ cage. For a minute Anj thought the girl intended to free the birds, but no, now she was shutting the door again. She had taken from the bottom of the cage a feather whose bright blue hue matched her headscarf. She smoothed it, made it catch the light from the window, and smiled, then turned to go.

“That was a lovely song,” Anj said.

“I wanted you to know me,” the girl said, tracing the door jamb with the feather. “Now you know who I am.” Then she was gone.

Anj heard the creak of the outer door, then laughter and men’s voices. Shen entered, followed by two of the locals, one tall and broad, with a thick beard, and the other smaller in all dimensions.

“So Tilia Songbird paid you a visit,” said the larger man. “Sang for you, didn’t she.” Before Anj could respond, he continued, “It’s good luck when she does–not as good luck as some other things she does, though, eh Cousin Ezmah? That’s the real good luck.” He barked a laugh and gave the smaller man a clap on the back that ought to have made him stagger, but Ezmah didn’t budge, just clenched his jaw.

“Spirits move through Tilia Songbird,” Ezmah said, meeting Anj’s eyes briefly and then looking at his feet.

Women didn’t hold positions of authority here among the mountain tribes, and the only way the mountain people could accept Anj was to view her as a man, a fiction that was more difficult for some than others. “It’s a blessing when the spirits walk among us,” he mumbled.

“She blesses some more generously than others, that’s all I’m saying,” said the bigger man to Ezmah, and then it was his turn to meet Anj’s eyes, and he didn’t drop his gaze. “Not that I understand her choices. Like you, Your Excellency. Why did she pick you, I wonder. You people from Cinnabar don’t even believe in the spirits.” With each sentence his voice grew louder; the last rang like an accusation.

“Worthy Kehan and Worthy Ezmah will repair the roof,” intervened Shen. “We agreed on ten coppers each.”

Whatever storm had been brewing in Kehan dissipated at those words. He cleared his throat and said in an ordinary voice, “We’ll do it for you tomorrow. Have it finished by midday.”

“Very good,” said Anj. She rose and took a small chest down from one of the shelves along the back wall. Inside the chest were copper and silver coins, but also small obsidian disks, each with the imperial star chiseled in the center. Anj took out the necessary coins and also two of the disks, which she held up.

“These are for your families. Any service rendered to a servant of Cinnabar is service rendered to the Empire of Cinnabar. These disks are tokens of imperial acknowledgement.”

The men both bowed low, wished the spirits’ blessings upon Anj and the Empire of Cinnabar, and backed out of the inner room.

“Hah! I can’t wait to see that son of a jackal Nilma’s face when I wave this in front of him,” Anj heard Kehan say, and then the outer door squeaked shut. Anj and Shen smiled at each other. Each obsidian disk represented an increase in Cinnabar’s influence here in the wilds.

Shen paused by the inner door, and when he spoke, it wasn’t to mention the census or the arrival of a homing pigeon from the Western Capital or even to comment on the roof repairs.

“What was Tilia Songbird’s song like? Did you feel anything special?” he asked.

“Her song? It was– I couldn’t understand any of the words. I wonder if she was singing in some other dialect.”

“She doesn’t sing in words. Just nonsense syllables. But the people here say–well, you heard what they say. So I was just wondering. . .”

Anj thought back. The song. That liquid stream of sound. The tears they summoned to the gates of Anj’s eyes. But then there were Worthy Kehan’s insinuations. “I heard what they said. It’s shameful. The girl must be out of balance in the mind.”

“Well, if spirits fill you, you may not behave like an ordinary person,” said Shen mildly.

“’If spirits fill you’!” Anj scoffed. “You believe in spirits, now?”

“Oh no, not me. I know the foreign service code, and I value my job. But if you think as the people here do, then–”

“I don’t want to think as the people here do; I want to think as an effective adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary of the Cinnabar Empire, so I can get promoted to someplace more civilized. So let’s put aside Tilia Songbird and spirits and turn to business. Any news this morning from the Western Capital? Anything from Commander Tak?”

Shen shook his head. “Nothing this morning, but I-“ he paused, eyes on the scene outside the window.

“What is it?” Anj asked. She glanced out the window. A stranger was talking with Ezmah.

Shen sighed. “It looks as if we can’t turn away from Tilia Songbird just yet. Do you see that young man, the one talking with Worthy Ezmah? He’s from the Thunder Tribe, arrived yesterday. The chieftain himself is hosting him, and from what I understand, his business has to do with Tilia Songbird. I gather she’s from the Thunder Tribe originally, and this man wants to take her back with him.”

Shen frowned. Voices floated in through the window. Worthy Ezmah was all evasions, head shaking, hands raised, and finally, he started moving off, leaving the stranger standing alone, glowering.

“It appears the chieftain is reluctant to turn her over,” Shen continued. “So now this man from the Thunder Tribe is coming to you. To Cinnabar, as it were.”

Anj raised her eyebrows. As far as she knew, neither of her predecessors had had any dealings with the Thunder Tribe. And now one of their people was coming to seek a favor? It was possibly the first positive development since Anj had taken up her post.

Anj turned to Shen. “All right,” she said. “You go invite him in to the outer room. Have him wait there; serve him some of the best of the local tea but also break out some of the persimmon wine. That’s something he won’t have had before. And, hmmm . . . what else . . . I know: that palm sugar confection from the Jasmine Islands. Put that out too. When he’s had some tea, call me, and I’ll come in.”

Shen hurried out. Anj gave her medallion of office a perfunctory polish with the edge of her jacket and glanced at herself in the circular mirror hanging near the shelving on the back wall.

She was wearing local clothes, presents from the chieftain, men’s garments. The silky wool of the local goats had been woven into the fine, soft cloth from which her overshirt and trousers had been sewn; the goats’ hides, stitched together, made the long jacket. Strong yarn, brightly dyed, had been used to embroider geometric designs along the edges of the jacket–as much embroidery as on the chieftain’s jacket. In keeping with local custom, she wore a dagger in the sash at her waist, but a Cinnabar blade, not a local one.

Men here wore their hair shoulder length and loose, so Anj did too, though hers fell smooth and straight, while theirs twisted and curled. Anj turned sideways. She was of a height to look most of the men in the eye, but even with the goatskin jacket, she was slight beside them. She threw back her shoulders. Never mind. She had Cinnabar’s treasury and its imperial authority behind her.

Sometime later Shen opened the door and announced,

“His Excellency Adjunct Gubernatorial Undersecretary Anj.”

Anj entered the outer room and sat down on a cushion, local style, across a low table from the visitor. His eyebrows shot up when she had seated herself, and he looked over at Shen, standing by the door. Shen remained impassive and announced, “Worthy Siiar, from the Thunder Tribe, brings a petition, Your Excellency.”

“Worthy Siiar. May your days be reigned by balance. How can this servant of Cinnabar help you?”

At the sound of Anj’s voice, Siiar started. He stared openly at Anj for a moment, caught himself, shot another furtive glance at Shen, then dropped his gaze to the untouched sweet on his plate.

The Thunder Tribe must not know that the new adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary is actually a woman, Anj thought. And no one here bothered to inform this young man. Were they hoping he’d make a fool of himself?

Maybe the thought was occurring to Siiar, too; the visitor lifted his still sparsely bearded chin and spoke resolutely. “Your Excellency. May the spirits bless your days. I come on behalf of my brother, Chieftain Zara of the Thunder Tribe. There is one of our people here who needs to be brought home.”

Anj took a tiny bite of her sweet and tried not to cough. The vagaries of a three-month journey from the coast had rendered a supposedly chewy delicacy chalklike. She took a quick sip of wine. “The one they call Tilia Songbird,” she said.

“Tilia is her name, yes.”

“And you have taken the matter up with Chieftain Rosan, have you not?”

“I did, but Chieftain Rosan and Chieftain Zara are rivals. I didn’t expect satisfaction.”

“Chieftain Rosan refuses to turn over Tilia because . . . he wishes the blessings of the spirits she hosts to remain with the Freshet Tribe?” hazarded Anj.

“Blessings? It’s not spirit blessings that Chieftain Rosan or any of the others are after. It’s nothing more than . . . than the favors of a wanton vagabond.”

“I see. So why expend effort to bring such a one back home with you?” asked Anj, lacing her fingers on the table between them.

“Her behavior is a stain on my brother’s honor and a humiliation to the Thunder Tribe– Chieftain Rosan and all the worthies of the Freshet tribe mock us through her! And so.” Siiar reached for his glass of wine and downed it in a gulp. “And so she needs to be brought home. And dealt with.” Shen silently refilled Siiar’s glass, and Siiar took another drink.

Anj inclined her head. “Worthy Siiar, what are you asking of Cinnabar, exactly? You want me to compel Chieftain Rosan to turn the girl over to you?”

“Yes. Your Excellency.”

“I sympathize with your distress. The situation you describe is unpleasant, I agree. It does not, however, merit imperial intervention. Chieftain Rosan and the Freshet Tribe are Cinnabar’s hosts in this region. I’m afraid it would take an issue of somewhat greater significance to induce me to risk damaging the warm relations Cinnabar has established with the Freshet Tribe.”

Siiar started to speak, but Anj held up a hand.

“But that’s not to say that I have nothing to offer by way of redress. I could, for example, perhaps arrange for the girl to be sent away somewhere where she would not cause any more harm to Chieftain Zara’s honor or the standing of the Thunder Tribe.”

Siiar scowled.

“No more harm? The damage is already done. She was my brother’s wife! And now, word comes back to us, how she carries on here . . . by rights I should find her and cut her down where she stands!”

Anj thought of the narrow-shouldered girl, her song, the bluetail feather glinting in the sunlight. Cut down? She felt sick.

“But if I do,” Siiar was saying, voice low, “my brother’s shame will be even more public. There won’t be a tribe in the Cloud Mountains that won’t have heard the story by winter’s end. So I have to take her out of here–which Chieftain Rosan won’t permit.” He turned the stem of his wine glass round and round between his thumb and fingers. “Cinnabar should stand for virtue, shouldn’t it? And justice?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the wine glass.

“Cinnabar does stand for virtue and justice, but also for power, Worthy Siiar, power based on judicious action. It’s by choosing the right action at the right time that Cinnabar makes itself invincible.”

“Helping me is the right action at the right time,” insisted Siiar, looking up at Anj again. “You’re mistaken to put your faith in the Freshet Tribe and its allies.”

Anj sighed inwardly. If Siiar only knew how little the Empire of Cinnabar cared about any of the tribes of the Cloud Mountains–which was why its adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary was left to while away her days in a tiny house with a leaky roof.

“These eastern tribes are all Cinnabar facing,” Siiar was saying. “If you want to advance in the Cloud Mountains, you should align with the Thunder Tribe. My brother knows all the mountain passes. He’s led raiding parties into the Gate of the Mountain itself. What if your Southwestern Army knew about those passes? Forget sea battles–Cinnabar could sweep down on the Kingdom of the Plains from the mountains.”

Anj stared at Siiar in astonishment. The sea war was beginning to seem like a stalemate–did he know that? How did he know that? But not even Commander Tak thought seriously of advancing over the mountains; no pass was large enough. But many small passes? Could it be done?

“So. Upon further consideration, is it maybe Cinnabar’s pleasure to help me?” Siiar’s tone was positively challenging. Anj bought time by taking a sip of her wine.

“Possibly.” From the corner of her eye, she could see Shen stiffen, but she ignored him. She took another sip of wine.

“I will consider the matter and return you an answer in two days. Please do not act before then.”

Siiar bowed his head. “Thank you, Your Excellency.” His voice shook slightly. Relief? Anj gave a slight nod. The audience was over.

“People here are full of boasts and big claims,” said Shen, clearing away the stale sweets and empty glasses once the two of them were alone again. “But reality is often smaller. I wouldn’t let yourself be dazzled by Worthy Siiar’s last-ditch offers. No one tribe controls all the passes, and he would have promised the moon if he thought it would incline you toward him.”

He followed Anj into the back room; she could feel him hovering as she opened the chest that had the survey maps in it and dumped them on the desk.

“Did Bis make any overtures to the tribes in the west?” she asked. “Or Hum?”

“Neither of your predecessors did. The western tribes were hostile to the survey teams,” said Shen.

Anj found the area, colored purple, indicating the wintering grounds and summer pastures of the Thunder Tribe, stretching west along the Cloud Mountains just north of the small kingdom called Gate of the Mountain. The Gate of the Mountain was the logical stepping stone to the Kingdom of the Plains; it was getting a force of any size as far as the Gate of the Mountain that posed the problem. But if the Thunder Tribe controlled even some of the passes Siiar claimed, if Chieftain Zara really had raided into the territory of the Gate of the Mountain . . .

If either of those things were true, then Anj wouldn’t need to bide her time until she could be promoted away to someplace more promising. She could make history happen here.

“You’re not really contemplating trading Tilia Songbird away for the phantom of a possibility of advancement for Cinnabar, are you?” Shen had perfected the art of remonstration: hard words, gentle tone.

Tilia, who sings mountain streams into small rooms. Anj shut the door firmly on that thought–tried to, anyway. “My duty out in this wilderness is to advance Cinnabar’s cause. Even if it involves sacrifices.”

Shen folded his arms. “Ruthless doesn’t suit you.”

“Weren’t you just saying something about thinking like the locals? You and I might think it extreme to condemn someone to death for unseemly behavior, but if. . .” It was no good. Shen was right; ruthless was a coat she couldn’t wear. Maybe cunning would fit better. “Maybe there’s a way to keep Tilia safe and still see if Worthy Siiar is more than empty talk,” she said. “He just needs to believe she’s dead; she doesn’t really have to die.”

“He’s not going to settle for your word on the matter. I’ve seen this sort of thing before–he’ll want to accomplish the deed himself. At the very least he’ll require incontrovertible proof.”

It seemed to Anj that at some point during this conversation an invisible band of metal had been fastened round her head, and now unseen torturers were slowly tightening it. She rubbed her fingers across her eyebrows, massaged her temples a little.

“I’ll figure out something. You work on the census totals for now. Commander Tak’s expecting them. I’m going to take one of the ponies and ride up the western road a bit. See what the way to Thunder Tribe territory looks like.”

It was good to be outside, to feel the breeze and watch the dancing light of the Cloud Mountains, always changing as the configuration of clouds passing over the sun changed. Yesterday’s rains had given the air a scrubbed-clean feeling, and in the ample valley that was the Freshet Tribe’s wintering ground, people were harvesting millet. Now that those who had traveled with the goats to the summer pastures were back for the winter, the village and the hillsides were more lively. Passing one homestead shortly after turning onto the western road, Anj found herself the object of interest and excitement for a knot of siblings, who ran up to the roadside.

“Look, it’s the outlander, the woman-man,” the tallest boy called over his shoulder to a brother and sister, who came running up, followed by a barefoot little one in just a shirt, who toddled after the others, hands uplifted, calling, “Me too, me! Meeram too!” They waved, then ran off shrieking and laughing when Anj waved back.

Anj smiled to herself, but the smile faded as her thoughts turned to Tilia. What to do. She tried to array the elements of this problem in her mind: Siiar, his offers, Tilia. But at Tilia her thoughts veered off. A blue feather. A song like water.

The world grew perceptibly brighter as a rack of cloud that had been covering the sun moved away, and with the sun came the liquid sound from Anj’s memory, following her up the road. Anj looked back, and there by the road, back at the homestead where the children had waved, stood Tilia herself, holding a chicken and singing. When their eyes met, Tilia smiled, singing all the while.

Anj turned the pony (named, wishfully, Fortune) around and headed back down the road. Tilia was handing the chicken to the smallest of the four children, whose siblings were nowhere in sight, but it fluttered out of the little one’s arms and back toward the house. The child’s eyes grew wide as Anj dismounted and led Fortune over to the tall poplar where Tilia was standing. He turned and ran in the same direction as the chicken, calling his siblings.

“That hen won’t lay,” Tilia said, watching as the child tripped over it in his hurry to get into the house.

“Will your singing help it?”

Tilia shrugged. “Maybe. I held it, and a song came out. Maybe the song will heal it. I don’t know.”

A breeze caught at the poplar leaves; they flashed their pale undersides like a thousand signal mirrors. Tilia’s eyes were on them. Her hands moved away from her sides, fluttered like the leaves. A response.

“Tilia!” One of the older children was trotting toward them from the house, but slowed to a walk when he saw Anj. “Mama wanted you to have these,” he said, passing three grape leaf rolls to Tilia while staring at Anj.

Tilia popped one of the rolls into her mouth right away. “Thank you! Tell her thank you,” she said between bites. The boy grinned, waited expectantly, hopefully. She rested a hand on his shoulder and bent to kiss him on his cheek, right by his ear. His grin broadened, and he put his arms round Tilia’s neck and kissed her back, then dashed back to the house.

“Are you always so generous with kisses?” Anj asked.

Tilia laughed.

“That? It’s no more than what the wind does, is it?” she asked, gulping down the next grape leaf roll. “A light, light touch.” She tipped her head back, and the breeze pulled at her headscarf. She closed her eyes, smiled, then opened them again.

“So light,” she murmured. “Would you like one?”

“I–”

Tilia’s lips brushed Anj’s cheek, barely touched it, but Anj felt the touch in the pit of her stomach, and gasped.

Tilia popped the last of the grape leaf rolls in her mouth, swallowed, and sighed.

“Those were so good. I was so hungry all yesterday and today.” She looked back down the road toward the valley, then took a couple of steps toward Anj and Fortune.

“I promised I would watch Worthy Ezmah’s goats today,” she said, stroking Fortune’s cheek and letting the pony nuzzle her neck and chin. “Maybe his wife will have something for me too. She usually does. I’m still a little hungry.”

“Have you ever given Worthy Ezmah one of your kisses?” Anj asked, thinking of the morning’s conversations.

Tilia ran a hand along the edge of her scarf, tucking in a stray strand of hair.

“I sang for him once,” she said. “It was when his wife was very ill, this past spring, after bearing a third child so late in life. She could barely take care of the baby, and their daughter had just gone as a bride to Worthy Sunan. His wife couldn’t plant the fields, so Worthy Ezmah decided not to take their goats to the summer pastures or go on any raids. When he announced his decision, the men all mocked him . . . They called him small, not much of a man. But that’s wrong. He’s small in size but big in heart. I went to see him, and a song came out from me–his heart called it, full of love for his wife and their new baby. No one calls him a small man now.”

“But no kisses?”

“Maybe one kiss. I don’t remember.”

“You may not, but other people do. Other people feel jealous.”

Tilia’s face clouded, and she hugged herself.

“I know,” she said, hunching her shoulders. “Why, though? The wind touches everyone’s cheeks, but they’re not jealous of the wind. The rain wraps people up with its wetness, but they’re not jealous of the rain. But a kiss . . . And the jealous ones don’t wait to be given one of their own; they just demand and take . . . I need to go watch the goats.” She started walking down the road toward the valley.

Anj hurried after her. “Here, you climb onto Fortune; I’ll take you to watch Worthy Ezmah’s goats,” Anj said. She got Tilia settled on the pony and walked alongside, holding the bridle. Three, four, five leisurely paces in silence. Time to broach the subject of Siiar. “Tilia,” Anj said, “did you know that a man from your tribe has come looking for you?”

Tilia regarded her soberly but didn’t reply.

“You ran away from your husband, yes? The chieftain of the Thunder Tribe? He’s unhappy with the tales that travel back to him about you. Your songs and kisses–he feels disgraced. He’s sent one of his brothers to take you back, and from the way that one talks, I think he intends to have you pay for his disgrace with your life.”

Tilia murmured something inaudible.

“What?”

“Which brother?” Tilia repeated, only slightly louder.

“Siiar. Worthy Siiar.”

Tilia nodded, startling Anj with a flash of a smile that dissolved into trembling lips and closed eyes, but no sobs, no tears. Just wet lashes when she opened her eyes again.

“Siiar is my true love, and I’m his. He wouldn’t ever hurt me.”

“What?”

“My father did give me to Chieftain Zara. He couldn’t very well refuse the chieftain’s request. It was a huge honor.” Tilia shrugged. “I don’t know why Chieftain Zara wanted to marry me. He already has a wife, a rich and beautiful one . . . But some people, you know, every small thing that takes their fancy, they want to have for their own, and they won’t be denied.

“I went to stay at his house, in the women’s quarters, before the wedding, so I could get to know Adayla, his first wife, and learn what my duties in the household would be. I didn’t like it. The servants had hard eyes and spoke coldly. I spilled tea and Adayla slapped me . . . soon there were almost no songs in me at all–just, sometimes, when I would see the homing pigeons coming back to the dovecote in the evening, I’d find a song coming. Their wings are like leaves in the sun.” Her hands moved like the poplar leaves again, and she smiled.

“The birds are Siiar’s. He trains both the hunting birds and the homing pigeons. One time when I was singing, he asked me if I wanted to help feed the pigeons, up in the dovecote. I went with him up there, and–“

“I can guess the rest of the story,” said Anj, quickly.

Tilia nodded. Her right hand drifted to her face, her fingers finding her jaw, her cheek, her lips, as if either the hand or the face were someone else’s.

“I never knew, before, what ‘Tilia’ was,” she said. “Before, there were clouds, rain, leaves, birds, wind, sun, blossoms. . . Those things, they have songs, and when I come near them, their songs come out of me, too–there’s no boundary between us. But Siiar traced the exact borders of me. When he put his hands like this, when he held me, it was Tilia, just Tilia, he was holding. He said, ‘You are so precious. I will always treasure you.’ It was to Tilia he said it. Me.”

Tears were running down Tilia’s cheeks now, but her voice remained steady.

“Chieftain Zara has a sharp nose and a sharp mind. I was sure he’d sniff my scent on Siiar or his on me. So I ran away. I came here and went back to being Tilia without any borders.” She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Siiar can’t really mean to harm me.” A trickle of uncertainty dampened Tilia’s words. “I wish I could— maybe if I see him—“

“No, you mustn’t!” By rights I should find her and cut her down. Siiar’s words still rang in Anj’s ears.

“But if-”

“No! Listen,” said Anj. “Tonight, when you’re done helping Worthy Ezmah and his family, I want you to come back to the regional outpost–the house where I stay. All right? I’d like you to stay at the outpost, just for tonight and tomorrow. The next day Worthy Siiar will come back to see me. You sit in the back room while we have our conversation in the front room. If you feel like speaking with him after that, you may. All right?”

By now they were reentering the valley, and the fresh smell of the cut millet blew past on the breeze. Tilia didn’t respond; her eyes were on the millet.

“Worthy Nilma’s fields,” she said. “He takes his time and does things properly.”

“Tilia! Will you promise not to look for Siiar? And come to the Cinnabar outpost tonight, and stay there until I’ve talked with him?”

Still Tilia didn’t answer, or even meet Anj’s eyes. The splashing of Fortune’s hooves in the puddles seemed the louder for Tilia’s silence. Anj gritted her teeth. Trying to keep hold of Tilia’s attention was like trying to keep hold of water.

“Tilia? Will you promise?”

“I won’t look for him,” Tilia said at last. “And I’ll come to your house.”

Anj let out a sigh of relief.

“Look,” said Tilia, pointing. “There’s Worthy Ezmah, in Worthy Kehan’s fields. He’s indebted to Worthy Kehan, and Worthy Kehan never lets him rest.” She made a face. “And there’s Worthy Kehan, lording it over all the laborers. He always has to be the best and have the most. See how he’s already put the millet straw in his barns? It’s because he wants to be ahead of Worthy Nilma, but it’s been rainy, and I’ll bet the straw’s not all dry. It’ll molder, and then his goats will sicken in the winter.” She waved at Ezmah, who straightened up from his work and made his way over to the road, sickle still in hand.

“Look,” said Tilia, grinning. “His Excellency has put me on a pony!”

Ezmah smiled back. “You’re quite the fine lady.”

“Shall I take the goats to the meadow beyond the mulberry stand?”

“That would be a big help, Tilia. Thank you.” His voice was warm with affection. He glanced at Anj and frowned, hesitated, then spoke.

“The chieftain’s brother from the Thunder Tribe came to see you.”

“Yes.”

“I hope- I hope . . . whatever he asked . . . you’ll do nothing that would put Tilia in harm’s way.”

“I hope to ensure that harm doesn’t come to her, Worthy Ezmah.”

The man’s face relaxed. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

“Cousin!” called Worthy Kehan. “I didn’t sow grain in the road and don’t need you harvesting what you find there. Let’s have your sickle back where it’s of some use.” Ezmah returned to the field, but Kehan continued to stare at Anj and Tilia. Time to move along. Anj set a brisk pace, and soon they had put Kehan’s fields well behind them.

Eventually they turned onto a side path that climbed again into the hills, and arrived at Ezmah’s homestead. Tilia slid down from Fortune, waved to Ezmah’s wife, who was hoeing a patch of vegetables, her baby tied to her back, then went to collect the goats, several of whom she greeted with hugs.

Anj watched Tilia drive the goats up the slope behind Ezmah’s house, then mounted Fortune and headed back past the fields and houses of the Freshet Tribe, this time at a canter. She was nearly back to the western road when she became aware of hoofbeats behind her. She reined in, wheeled round, and was face to face with Siiar, who pulled in so close that their shoulders practically touched.

“Decided against helping me, then? Cinnabar’s ambitions can be put aside for a song? Or was it more than a song?”

“On the contrary, I’d still very much like to advance Cinnabar’s ambitions, and I’d even be willing to help you with your current predicament. Your actual predicament, that is, not the disgraceful fabrications you wove for me this morning.”

Siiar growled and lunged for Anj, who leaned into him with the aim of grabbing him by the sash and arm and unseating him–but Siiar threw his free arm around Anj’s shoulders and they fell together to the ground, where they rolled free of their startled ponies’ dancing hooves and into the roadside flowers. Siiar had the advantage of weight, but Anj moved quickly, and just as Siiar managed to fling himself across her chest, she brought her dagger up beneath his jaw, cutting, but not too deeply. Just enough to startle.

Siiar gasped and fell back. Anj slipped free, and the two of them faced each other again, crouched and panting, Siiar with a hand pressed to his neck. “You’re playing with me,” he said. “You say you would be willing to help me–then why were you escorting Tilia through the valley today?”

“Who’s playing with whom? You neglected to mention to me that you were Tilia’s first indiscretion. You came to me as an aggrieved brother when really you’re no more than a jealous lover.”

Siiar looked as if Anj had struck him. “Tilia’s behavior among the Freshet people is still wrong, still shames my brother,” he said, voice unsteady.

“More wrong than yours? You betrayed your chieftain and your brother. Whatever she’s done since coming here, Tilia may well have saved your life by leaving your brother’s house when she did. She certainly could have ended it by denouncing you. Isn’t that worth anything to you?”

Siiar pressed both his bloodied hand and his clean one to his forehead, shut his eyes.

“I loved her,” he said, his fingers closing round his hair as he spoke. “And then one day she disappeared without a word. And later, the stories that came to us from the Freshet Tribe. . . my love must have meant nothing to her. Even knowing that, sometimes I fear I might still love her–but I refuse to! I refuse to. I can atone for the wrong I did my brother, wipe out the stain on our family’s honor, and cut out the disease from my own heart, all at once.”

Spoken like a general who promises victory in the face of an overwhelming enemy, thought Anj. Then, thinking on generals, she asked, “Your offer–access to the passes–was that Chieftain Zara’s idea, or yours?”

“Mine. But my brother will honor my promises. He’ll understand what an alliance with Cinnabar means–but he’ll do it as much to spite Chieftain Rosan as for any other reason.”

“How did you know about the sea war? These mountains are months away from the sea.”

He didn’t respond.

“You would have to have seen the messages from Commander Tak. Tilia said you raise hunting birds. And homing pigeons. That’s it, isn’t it. You were intercepting our messenger birds.”

Now a corner of his mouth quirked upward, almost a half smile.

“Yes. I trained one of my falcons to catch your birds without killing them. I read the messages, then sent the birds on their way.”

Anj nodded. “Clever. So you can read the Cinnabar tongue. I guess we’ll have to start using code.” Commander Tak had been wrong to dismiss encryption as a needless precaution. Clearly not everyone in the Cloud Mountains was unlettered. Anj sheathed her dagger and sighed.

“You have the wisdom to see the importance of Cinnabar’s plans and the perseverance to make yourself part of them. I won’t give you Tilia, but you don’t need Tilia to persuade your brother that the stain on his honor has been removed. A torn and bloodied headscarf, along with your testimony and mine, will be enough. If you can put aside killing Tilia, I can help you bring your brother true fame and glory, enough to make him forget any injury he suffered because of her.”

“And you’ll hide Tilia away somewhere, as you said before.” The hint of a smile had disappeared from Siiar’s face; it was bleak now, his voice bitter. “Somewhere only you know– your own private prize.”

“That is a ridiculous idea,” said Anj, heat rising in her cheeks.

“Oh? You don’t want her? You don’t love her? Then maybe it will take another song, or maybe two–or maybe you all have wooden hearts, in Cinnabar. All the better for you if you do. Better than to love, when the love can’t be returned.” He shook his head. “You might as well love the wind, that doesn’t care where it bestows its caresses.”

“But Tilia does love you,” murmured Anj.

“Yes, like the wind. She loves everyone. Anyone.”

“She loves you differently.” Anj felt a tickle on her cheeks, went to brush it away and found her fingers wet. Tears. Siiar tilted his head, his eyes lingering on Anj’s damp cheeks.

“Truly?” So much hope and doubt in one word.

“Yes.”

Simultaneously the two of them got to their feet, brushed themselves off.

“Come to the Cinnabar outpost the day after tomorrow, as we arranged,” said Anj. “Perhaps you can see Tilia one more time, before we carry out our vanishing act.”

First the sun left the valleys, but the hills and high peaks of the Cloud Mountains still glowed rose and violet, and then the light left the mountains too, and Tilia still did not arrive at the Cinnabar outpost.

“You’re likely to wear a groove in the floor,” remarked Shen, as Anj paced the length of the outer chamber.

“Siiar was persuaded,” Anj said. “He wouldn’t suddenly have changed his mind. Would he?” She chewed a thumbnail. “Or perhaps Tilia’s wandered off somewhere? Or forgot?” Anj was at the door. “I’m going to find her. I’ll take Glory this time.”

A near-full moon gave the landscape a ghostly brilliance, and the air shimmered with the tones of a multitude of unseen insects. Tilia probably sings with them, thought Anj, and urged Glory to a trot, aiming for Worthy Ezmah’s homestead. He might know where to find the girl.

Passing Worthy Kehan’s fields, a different sound caught Anj’s ear: movement, cautious, deliberate. Anj slowed and scanned the road and the surrounding fields, but the sounds had ceased.

The hairs on the back of Anj’s neck rose to attention, pushing at her shirt collar.

And what was this? A slim shadow, moving down a hillside track up ahead, crossing the road, descending into the field, and heading for the barn.

Tilia?

“Tilia!” Anj called.

The figure hesitated. Anj dismounted and hurried to meet her.

“What are you doing out here? You were supposed to come to my house tonight.”

“I know,” said Tilia. The moonlight shone in her solemn eyes. “But I had to come here first.”

Her voice shook. “It’s Worthy Kehan. I heard him tell Worthy Ezmah that he was going lure Siiar out to the big barn. He said . . . he was going to stop Siiar from making any trouble. He’s going to hurt him, Your Excellency, maybe even . . . I have to warn him.” She pressed her hands, one clasping the other tightly, to her chest.

The notion of Tilia trying to protect the man whom everyone else was intent on protecting her from might have made Anj laugh, if just then the door to the barn hadn’t opened. Four men jumped out, two tackling Tilia and two heading for Anj. Anj threw herself to the ground, drew her dagger, and sliced the ankle tendons of one assailant, who howled a curse as he fell, then curled up, moaning. The other aimed a kick at Anj’s head that she narrowly avoided. She caught his foot under her free arm and wrenched him down, but before she could take her dagger to him, a blow from behind caught her in the small of the back, winding her, and as she lay gasping, strong arms pulled her into the barn.

A heavy, rank scent, almost alcoholic, enveloped her. Coughing, she squinted into the murky dark. The large shape over there, that must be Worthy Kehan. The shape on the floor, still whimpering, with another kneeling beside him, must be the man she had wounded. And that must be Tilia, twisting in a fourth man’s grasp, heedless of the dagger he was attempting to hold to her throat.

“She’s cut herself; she’s bleeding!” the man whispered, frantic.

“Foolish girl doesn’t understand what’s good for her. No sense! Seeking out a boy who wants to kill her.” There was anger and impatience in Kehan’s voice. “Tie her feet and put something in her mouth; that’ll shut her up. Sorry you had to wander into this, Your Excellency, but now I’m afraid you’ll have to stay too, until we’re done with that Thunder Tribe boy. Then we’ll send you back to your little house and you can just forget all this ever happened.”

“That’s a bad plan, Worthy Kehan,” Anj said, speaking in level tones, though she too had a blade pressed to her throat. “You don’t want to start a blood feud with the Thunder Tribe, do you? Let me handle Siiar.”

Slowly and deliberately, she pushed away the threatening dagger.

“You don’t want a feud with Cinnabar, either,” she added, glancing at the man who held her. Then, to Kehan,

“Untie Tilia. How can you mistreat someone you seek to protect? You should be ashamed.”

“I don’t need your scolding or your orders, Your Excellency,” Kehan sneered. “You think because you’ve gotten cozy with Tilia that you know what’s best for her? Well, you don’t. Freak.”

Anj coughed again. The alcoholic odor was becoming overwhelming, and there was something else now, a sharpness that tickled her nose. . .

Smoke? Tilia had said that Kehan put up the millet straw too early, and wet straw was known to catch fire unaccountably sometimes.

“I think we’d all better get out of here,” Anj said. “I think your straw’s about to–”

“Father, listen! It’s him,” whispered the man by Tilia, nodding toward the barn door and drawing his dagger.

Anj could hear the crunch of millet stubble beneath footfalls. Then a pause. Anj started forward, but the man holding her yanked her back and clapped a hand over her mouth. The door to the barn swung open, and for the barest fraction of a moment, Siiar was visible, silhouetted against the moonlight. Then there was a sudden whoosh, like an invisible flock of birds taking wing, as the straw in the barn burst into flame.

The man holding Anj screamed as fire seized the edge of his jacket. He released her and ran for the door, but the flames there, fed by the rich night air, were dancing the fiercest.

“The back, out through the back,” someone shouted, and another voice cried, “Uncle, Tavat, help me with Sarban!”

The fire didn’t illuminate; it blinded, and each breath Anj drew seared her lungs. She pulled her jacket over her head and crawled toward Tilia. “Let’s go–this way!” she shouted, cutting the twine around Tilia’s ankles. “Use your jacket as a shield.”

There was a noise like thunder as a portion of the roof gave way. Flames leapt up to greet the stars.

“Hurry!” said Anj. The flames hissed and snapped; somewhere up above, something groaned and creaked. Then came a loud crack, and a thick beam, flames running its length, fell to the ground, striking Tilia and pinning her. The girl screamed and struggled, but couldn’t pull free.

Wrapping her hands in her jacket, Anj tried first to lift and then to push the beam away, to no avail. She looked about in desperation, but Kehan and his sons and nephews must already have made their escape. And now Tilia was no longer struggling; no, she was lying quite still.

“Tilia . . .” But there could be no tears in that furnace. And now the flames were coming to claim Anj’s jacket.

Anj let the burning jacket fall. She covered her face with her hands and peered out through her fingers, searching for the rear door.

And there, coming through the inferno toward her, was familiar silhouette: Siiar.

“Help me free Tilia,” Anj croaked.

Together they were able to lift the beam enough to pull Tilia free. They managed to stumble several paces away from the barn before Anj collapsed, coughing. Even after the coughing ended, she didn’t move, just lay with her face pressed to the cool and dewy ground, with no thoughts beyond the miracle of breathing.

“I think . . . I think she’s gone,” she heard Siiar say.

With effort, Anj sat up. Siiar was kneeling beside Tilia, ear to her chest. He raised his head and turned to Anj. “I let myself believe in your scheme,” he said, in wretched tones. “I found reasons, excuses, for putting aside my brother’s dishonor and shrugging off my own guilt. But then, when that swaggering loudmouth approached me, saying he could arrange for Tilia to meet me this evening–as if she’s at his beck and call–all my doubts and shame returned. So I came, vowing I’d be true to my original purpose.

“And now this. She’s been snatched away even better than you could have managed. My brother’s honor is avenged, and I haven’t lifted a finger. And all I want, all I want with all my heart and all my strength and all my will, is to have it not be so.”

His last words were barely audible, lost in soundless sobs.

Something like a ripple passed through Tilia, erupting into a spasm of coughing. Siiar sprang back an arm’s length, eyes wild.

“She’s alive–she’s just swallowed too much smoke,” Anj cried.

Siiar drew near again and extended a trembling hand toward one of Tilia’s.

Tilia’s eyes opened. Another wave of coughing claimed her, but at last she caught her breath. Her gaze traveled from Anj to Siiar.

“Your Excellency . . . Si- Siiar.”

Siiar gripped her hand tightly.

“His Excellency said you wanted to kill me,” Tilia whispered.

Siiar’s face contorted, as if many different answers were battling for his voice. “I won’t ever harm you,” he said at last.

“Tilia,” said Anj, watching the flames of the engulfed barn reaching for the dome of the sky, “Do you feel well enough to get up? Do you think you can walk? No broken bones?”

Tilia pushed herself up on an elbow. “No broken bones,” she said.

Remarkable. Anj felt a pang, but said, “Good. You need to leave here right now, before anyone–”

“She can’t go anywhere yet,” Siiar protested. “She–”

Anj spoke over him. “–before anyone from the Freshet Tribe comes to investigate the fire. Then Siiar can tell your husband you died in it, and no one will know otherwise.” It had, after all, very nearly been so. “No one will come after you ever again. But you have to stay unknown and unremarked on–I want you to go into Cinnabar.”

“No!” said Siiar.

More painful was Tilia’s own refusal. “I can’t go there. I can’t ever leave these mountains and skies.”

Anj felt arguments rise to her tongue, but what good was arguing with Tilia? Anj swallowed them. “All right. Go west, then, but stay clear of Thunder territory.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Siiar. “Just for a little bit, a little way–just to see you safe, just–”

“You’ll only endanger yourself and Tilia if you do that,” said Anj. “People will be suspicious if you disappear, after being sent here on this task.”

“Even just for a day,” said Siiar. Was he insisting? Pleading?

“Feel the breeze right now!” said Tilia, head tilted back. “It’s gone all soft.”

“Tilia,” said Siiar, touching her cheek. “You’re already floating away from me on that breeze, aren’t you. Will I ever find you again?”

Tilia put her hands over his and closed her eyes. “Without you, there wouldn’t be any me. Only you know where I begin and end. Of course you’ll find me.”

Somewhat unsteadily, she got to her feet. Siiar caught her in his arms, an embrace that was one last plea. But then he let go.

“You’re wrong, Tilia,” he said, speaking slowly. “There is a you, even without me. It’s the you I fell in love with–you, without any beginning or end.”

Tilia became very still for a moment, then leaned toward Siiar and kissed him full on the lips. She turned to Anj.

No, Anj wanted to say. No kisses! But there it was, a light touch, just by the ear. Then Tilia was off, turning back once to wave before disappearing into the darkness.

____
Copyright 2012 Francesca Forrest

Francesca Forrest has lived near the coast of Dorset, England, and by a bamboo grove in Japan, but has spent the last ten years within walking distance of the Quabbin Reservoir, in Massachusetts. Her short stories and poems hide out in various corners of the Internet.

by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Thursday 1 January 2601 (Earth Relative Time)

Ensign Darlene Charles took a deep breath to quell her nerves. This is my last chance to make a good impression. Because a third strike would not be a good career move in the Unified Star Fleet. As she picked her way through the dimly lit mess littering the docking bay, the quantity of unwashed bottles and glasses heaped in bins testified to the magnitude of the party. A sour stench from trash containers suggested many partied too well, an unfortunate reminder of some early college mornings. Ahead, the starship Evensong’s giant hangar doors were closed, unusual in port. But a smaller man-sized hatch remained open allowing her to step through into bright lights and a fresh, cleaner smell.

“Hullo?” Her tentative voice might’ve echoed in the vast chamber, but in truth the sound was more swallowed up by the emptiness. Darlene had never seen a single cargo compartment stretch off in the distance for more than one hundred meters, and it had to be fully sixty meters wide. Thick armored doors separating the cargo bay from the hangar bay were opened all the way, as were smaller compartments aft of the hangar adding to the space. Short, blond and still a very new ensign, she felt tiny. Intimidated by a military cargo ship was not how she’d expected to start this day. She’d looked up the USFS Evensong in the Fleet registry and found she’d be one of just eight officers in a crew of twenty-two. This ship was a lot bigger than she’d thought it’d be.

All she could say was, “Wow.”

Overhead something creaked. Startled, she glanced up to stare at a sign on the hangar bay ceiling which said Flexi-Seams, with arrows running in two perpendicular directions. No doubt that was what she’d heard, expansion joints of some sort shifting as ship and station moved between dayside and nightside. When no alarms were triggered, she assumed it was safe enough.

Nearby three crewmen worked on stacking folding chairs and tables onto robocarts. One lone male worked a databoard, checking off each load. None held a rank higher than spaceman.

“Excuse me,” Darlene said in her best professional officer’s voice, with just a hint of Southern charm. “Who do I check in with?”

The spaceman with the databoard nodded into the larger cargo bay. “You’ll find Mister Grimsley at the far end, sir.”

At least he’d been polite and said sir. Darlene didn’t know what to think of the absence of anyone else around. There should’ve been an officer, or at least an NCO, at a check-in podium. But there wasn’t even a podium set up in the hangar. Of course the huge banner still hanging in the empty cargo bay – WELCOME TO THE 27TH CENTURY – might’ve been instructive, along with the debris outside on the dock. And indeed, walking to the far end of the cargo bay Darlene approached a middle-aged woman in dress uniform, sitting casually on a lone folding chair, wine glass in hand and one last bottle of red wine on the deck. She was tall and still what one would politely call handsome, but clearly much older than Darlene. Her nametag read GRIMSLEY, so Darlene felt confident she’d found the right person.

“Ensign Darlene Charles, reporting for duty, sir.”

“Are you insane?” The question seemed so unprofessional and unreasonable Darlene chose not to answer. But the look on the seated woman’s face told her she seemed to think this was a reasonable question. “For one thing I’m not a sir. If you’re real nice, you might be able to call me Marilyn. But I don’t think we’ll be on a first name speaking basis for a while, ensign. For another thing, it’s New Year’s goddamn Day – which just happens to follow New Year’s Eve and in most jurisdictions, squashed up in-between is the big ol’ zero-hundred hours midnight. We are off duty today.”

“A Unified Star Fleet ship is considered in service and ready for action at all times.” The words from the manual came without bidding and Darlene tried not to wince as she said them.

“This is a Fleet cargo ship,” Marilyn said, with less annoyance than Darlene expected. “Our next assignment is assisting a civilian colonial deployment and – trust me on this one, Mister Ensign Charles – I’m pretty sure the civilians are not working on New Year’s.”

Something about this wasn’t right. Was the woman drunk?

“I know everything about you,” Marilyn continued, “though the reverse clearly isn’t true. Because you don’t seem to have noticed the sleeves to this uniform which say I’m a master chief petty officer. Or the stripes which mean I have decades of experience over your newbie self. Or the gold keys on my lapels, which should’ve told you I am the Chief of the Boat. This is my starship you’re on, ensign, and I’d rather you didn’t forget that.”

“Master Chief…”

“I’m not done,” Marilyn said, finishing her wine with a flourish and then standing up. She was much taller than Darlene. “You’ve broken seventeen Fleet regulations so far starting with getting the dock chief to let you aboard even though the dock is closed right now, because this ship is off duty. But that’s not so surprising. You graduated from the Academy in June and you’ve been in transport for 144 days – and that’s after getting bounced from two postings already. Jesus, you got fired from a job five days after you started boosting from Mars, woman. If that’s not a record, then surely you’ve made the top five of Fleet’s hall of shame.”

Darlene swallowed hard, but managed to stare straight ahead at the master chief. Technically as an officer – even the most junior of officers – Darlene outranked Marilyn. But you took on master chiefs at your own peril. Everyone at the Academy had said so. And a chief of the boat? Marilyn Grimsley was right. This was her ship. Even a commanding officer would ask her opinion as a matter of course.

“At least,” the master chief continued in a less threatening tone, “you didn’t come a few hours ago. Assholes in charge of this station took one look at my empty cargo bay the other day and decided then and there we had to host the Party of the Century. Whoo-hoo… what a thrill.” As Marilyn feigned enthusiasm for the party, Darlene had to smile. Despite an initial minute of terror, she began to like this Master Chief Grimsley. “Now everyone else who has any sense is asleep. What bright idiot station-side sent you over now?”

“That would be the Fleet station chief,” Darlene said. “A Mister Marlowe.”

“Ah. A man of substantially finite genius, I’m afraid. What we’ll never know is whether his sending you over now was his sense of humor or his feeble attempt to help. I’m being charitable in assuming he isn’t just completely incompetent as well.” Marilyn tried looking across the cargo bay back towards the hangar. “Is all your gear with you?”

“My spacesuit is coming later.”

“Sure it is,” Marilyn sighed. “Come on. The captain will want to see you now.”

“And he is…?”

“You haven’t looked up the roster yet, have you? Must be nice to be so new and fresh and green in that uniform. Our commanding officer is Captain Angela Dessin. And she isn’t a he. Neither is Lt. Commander Nancy Kramer, our X.O.”

Was this is the way Fleet really works? You put all the women on a cargo ship? Darlene had seen only one male crewman aboard so far.

Her face betrayed her thoughts. “You think this is punishment? Segregation?” Marilyn seemed particularly angry. “I’ve put in twenty-nine years – I’ve worked my way here. This is the modern, new and improved 27th century Fleet, Mister Charles, and the crew of a cargo ship is small. You build a company of officers for a ship like this, especially this ship.”

“Why? I mean, I don’t understand – why this ship?”

Clearly Darlene had finally asked a right question. “This is a prototype of things to come, Mister Charles. See this huge open space? New design. The pride of the Sebring Ship Foundry. In fact, they oh-so-cleverly managed to get the shipbuilder’s name in the class designation – SSF-91 USFS Evensong.” She paused long enough to add some real emotion to her voice. “My father is a welder for Sebring. He helped build this ship. I came into Fleet with a welding specialty, though of course I had to add all the others to make master chief.”

“My daddy welds, too,” Darlene said.

“Really? Did he teach you?”

“Yes, ma’am. A hot torch and a good bead solves most problems, Daddy always said.”

“A wise man.”

“I always thought so.”

“Starships?”

“No, Earth-based. He has a small Electroglide dealership and does customizations.”

“A biker,” Marilyn said, laughing. “I think I already like him more than I like you. You have a tattoo?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“But you’re not going to show me, are you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No, ma’am,” Darlene said with good-natured force.

“You’re not very good at this game yet, Mister Charles. I’m neither a sir or a ma’am in this Fleet.” Marilyn rolled her eyes upward. “O save me, Lord, from newbie ensigns.”

Captain Dessin couldn’t have looked more different than her tall and angular chief of the boat. Instead, Angela Dessin was short, wide, sixtyish. Her short graying hair lay flat against her scalp, cut as if almost done as an afterthought. There was the air of the no-nonsense about her. Any idea this woman had been booted to cargo ships evaporated at the brag shelf of awards, framed photographs and certificates. She looked to be a plankholder, an original crew member, of at least seven new ships – four of them as commanding officer. The Evensong was the only cargo ship of the lot – the rest were warships.

“We’re supposed to have a crew complement of twenty-two,” the captain said. “But with recent promotions and transfers, we’re down two people. A basic spaceman is supposed to report tomorrow – that means we have two rookies aboard.” She looked straight at Darlene when she said this last bit. “Unfortunately, our Quartermaster got promoted to Warrant Officer 1 so we’re only allowed seven commissioned officers now. That means you will have to be third officer – don’t let it go to your head. You’re a green ensign and you are not ready to take over this ship in an emergency except on paper.”

Darlene barely heard anything after her appointment to third officer. It seemed unbelievable to make a command position. Then she understood. “You’re completely correct, Captain. I’m not ready to lead.”

“Of course I’m right,” Angela said with some irritation. “It was never up for debate. For the moment though, take your assignments from the X.O. Dismissed.”

Darlene saluted and went looking for the executive officer. She found Lt. Commander Nancy Kramer in the hangar bay working at the recently wheeled out check-in podium and executed the best salute she could. Already the ship seemed more alive. “Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles reporting for duty, sir.”

The prim, proper and tough looking X.O. – forty-ish to fifty-ish, to judge by her slightly salt and pepper hair – held up a datapad. “I don’t like you, ensign. According to this, you have near perfect grades in all subjects over four years at the Academy. Your training performances in maintenance, logistics, navigation – both dead reckoning and relativistic/jump – and engineering are all above satisfactory. But you’ve received decidedly insufficient performance reviews in the real world. You’ve annoyed my chief of the boat and confused my captain. In short, your record stinks and you’re a very green junior officer who knows nothing, yet Fleet has seen fit to give you authority to screw up my ship. For now you get all orders approved by me before issuing them. Understood?”

Darlene didn’t understand how every order could be handled this way, but she wasn’t in charge here. “Yes, sir.”

“Where’s your gear?”

“My space duffel is on the dock,” Darlene said.

“No it isn’t. We’ve taken care of it. Docks aren’t controlled space – a Fleet starship is. Remember that. Where’s your spacesuit?”

“It’s being shipped over,” Darlene said, pulling a plastic tab from a front pocket. “Here’s the receipt.”

“Unfortunately the Strosser has already reported they can’t find your suit. That’s usually shorthand for Gee that was an easy way to steal a suit from a green ensign. You should’ve checked it personally before you left the Strosser – now God knows where it is. Hope you didn’t have any personal gear stowed in the suit pockets. See the Cargo Officer and have him issue you a new one.”

“You’re from the South,” Lt. Jake Henning drawled as soon as Darlene introduced herself. “I’m from Mississippi myself.”

“Aiken, South Carolina, sir.”

“Well that’s just right fine,” he beamed, swiveling slightly as he leaned back in his office chair. “Now what can I do for the pretty lady from the great and humble state of South Carolina?”

“Apparently I am out one M400 spacesuit. Neither the chief of the boat or the X.O. thinks it’ll ever show up from the Strosser. As third officer – strange as that sounds – I suppose I need to be issued a white command suit if you’ve got one.”

“We all get white command suits,” he said. “M400C. But I’ll be sure to come up with those third officer badges when I have the suit pulled from stores. You can report to the suit tech tomorrow and have the fitting adjusted.”

“Tomorrow? I was told by the first officer to get a suit today.”

The lieutenant waggled a finger at Darlene. “No-ooo. I s’pect the good commander told you to see me today. Fact is, there’s hardly a soul standing on this ship after last night. Not a helluva lot of work is getting done on New Year’s Day, I can assure you.”

“What exactly did happen last night?”

“Ah,” Lt. Henning said, leaning forward again. “Now there’s a tale to tell. By virtue of that magnificent wide open and obstruction free cargo bay of mine, the station’s senior Fleet officer decreed that said cargo space was to be used for a 27th Century Party to usher in the new year, decade and century. There’s about ten Fleet ships in port right now – everyone had a very good time, I can assure you.”

“And I missed it,” Darlene said wistfully.

“Oh, I’m positive they made sure you missed it. Otherwise, they’d have no one to stand watch today,” he said with a wink. “Meanwhile, if you need a spacesuit, there’s plenty of emergency lockers everywhere you look with perfectly maintained baggie suits. Now, if you were smart, I’d suggest you find out where you’re bunking tonight, because that’s where we both hope the rest of your gear is. Before someone calls and comes up with another assignment, of course.”

“Of course, sir,” she answered.

Jake chuckled. “You may be green, Mister Charles, but my oh my, the South does teach its officers to be polite.”

She only got lost twice on the way to her compartment and had to query the corridor screens for directions. When she got there, the doorplate read THIRD OFFICER / JUNIOR ENGINEER. Darlene didn’t mind a roommate – it was expected – and perhaps it’d make adjusting to life on the Evensong a little easier. With satisfaction, she noted the keypad responded to her standard access code, but when she reached for the hatch lever it clicked before her hand was set and locked her out. Slightly chagrined, she worked faster so the second time she pushed open the hatch with her other hand while the green light still glowed on the keypad. Apparently it wasn’t the same lock module timing she was used to.

Fifteen thousand ships in Fleet, she thought, and practically all of them are different. New design, indeed.

Inside, the compartment was just as ruthlessly efficient and compact as she’d expected, so this was not really a problem. She was off in space to serve, not spend all day hanging out in a cozy compartment. But the best thing that’d happened so far this New Year’s Day 2601 was a freshly charged datapad centered on her tiny fold-down desk. It accepted her ID sliver automatically and had been configured for third officer duty.

“Yes!” she said under her breath and smiled.

“Would you watch that light?” a new voice demanded when Darlene clicked the room lights on.

“Oh sorry,” Darlene said, killing the main lights and figuring out which switch turned on the task light centered on her desk.

“You must be the new vegetable of the month,” the other person said in a voice resigned to not getting instantly back to sleep.

“New vegetable… oh, you mean I’m the new green ensign. Yessir – guilty as charged.”

A hand snaked out of the wad of bedclothes on the lower bunk. There was a distinct lumpiness to the bed, but so far Darlene hadn’t actually seen her roommate. “Lt. Kirsten Van Zoeren.” The voice spoke perfectly acceptable Interstellar English, but with a clipped, European accent Darlene didn’t know enough to place. “I’m the junior engineer on this barge. And since we’re not going anywhere at the moment, the Evil Triumvirate decided I wasn’t needed in Engineering and so was assigned a double-watch overnight on the bridge while everyone else partied.”

“Evil Triumvirate. You must be talking about our esteemed captain, first officer and chief of the boat,” Darlene said.

“Those would be the ones.”

“Ensign Darlene Charles at your service. And you do know the Evil Triumvirate, as you called them, have made me third officer?”

“Sure. That’s why you’re standing in the third officer’s stateroom. And if you were in command, on the bridge, I’d probably salute you and say yessir and aye-aye, sir. But right now I outrank you and I’m trying to get some sleep.”

“Right. Sorry. I’ve located my bunk. My space duffels have somehow magically arrived here and the seals are still valid. I can come back later and unpack.”

“That would be nice. It’s nothing personal.”

“Quite understandable under the circumstances.” Darlene removed her standard cover and found her safety hat at the top of her duffel. She should probably change, but her gray khaki skirt and jacket uniform would have to do for the moment. “I’ll just be going…”

But there was no response from the lower bunk.

Darlene’s datapad gave her directions to any place on the ship, so she found the wardroom without any difficulty. If the officers of the Evensong were expected to have a scheduled sit-down luncheon, there was no evidence of it in the wardroom. Instead a coffee urn and a large cold tray stacked with sandwiches seemed to be the offering. From the state of the tray, others had already been through here.

She’d already placed two sandwiches on a plate when an older man in a clean uniform jumpsuit stepped in. “Looks like they’re still feeding us leftovers from last night.”

“Sorry – I just got here. I wouldn’t know.”

“It wasn’t a question, ensign,” he said. “You must be the new girl.”

Trying not to bristle that at twenty-eight, some male colleague was going to call her a girl, Darlene instead introduced herself. Still, he was old enough to be her father.

“Camp. Captain Herb Camp, Chief Engineer,” he replied and offered a firm handshake.

“I think I’ve met your assistant, Lt. Van Zoeren. At least I’m assuming that was her under the covers.”

Herb laughed. “Not a morning person – no matter what part of the day serves as morning. Sometimes I think she still lives on Amsterdam time.”

“Amsterdam? She’s… Dutch?”

“Sure. This ship isn’t a territorial, so mainly we get Nordamericanos and a couple of real spacers. But there’s no reason not to have a Dutch junior engineer – so we’ve got one.”

“We have spacers? That’s rare.”

“You haven’t met the Serious Girls yet – you will. Believe me – you will.”

He grabbed a couple of sandwiches, while Darlene dithered for a moment before selecting a third for herself. Sitting down, she saw him looking at the pile of food on her plate.

“I get it from my mother,” she said.

“Get what?”

“The hollow leg.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“Touché.”

They ate in silence through Darlene’s first two sandwiches. “Are you going back to Engineering after your lunch? If so, mind if I tag along?”

“New third officer volunteers to come to my bailiwick – I am not going to turn down an offer like that,” he laughed. “Sure. We’ll give you the good tour.” And he actually winked at her when he said it.

The ship’s Engine Hall was divided into halves and then halves again to house the four F-575 fusion engines. It represented a lot of power, more than she’d expected on a cargo ship.

“They’re not quite the very latest version,” the chief engineer said. “For which I am eternally grateful. There’s enough innovation on the Evensong as it is.”

“You wouldn’t want another Galen Roads on your hand.”

It was the perfect thing to say to the sixty-three-year-old engineer. “I was fifteen when the Galen Roads nova’d. Outside watching the ship on its first boost through my telescope – I saw it go up.”

“A telescope? It’s a wonder you weren’t blinded.”

Camp touched his right temple. “I was. They had to grow me a new one. I was quite the hit in high school. Nearly everyone thought it was cool. And,” he smiled slightly at the memory, “some of the girls were very sympathetic. But I worried it’d keep me out of the service.”

“My. Touched by a historical moment.”

“And one technological disaster I have no interest in repeating – on this ship or any other.”

“Hope you’re right. Uh, because you were saying this ship is very innovative,” she added hastily.

“Completely different situation. The Galen Roads was the end result of making ships bigger and more powerful without understanding how complexity scales up. They never had a chance. If the engines hadn’t gone, they still wouldn’t have finished their maiden voyage. Too many things were going wrong all over, which the brain trust on board just figured were glitches from the shipyard. Idiots to the end from the designers to the bridge.”

Towards the end of her tour, Darlene saw a tall dark blond woman officer enter and immediately take a seat at one of the consoles. “Excuse me, captain,” Darlene told the chief engineer. When she got closer and could read the lieutenant (junior grade) badges on the newcomer’s uniform, Darlene put two-and-two together.

“You must be my roommate, Lt. Van Zoeren. We shook hands earlier. I’m Darlene Charles.”

“Yes, of course. I recognize your…vivacious personality.”

“Sorry about earlier. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be in the other bunk at that hour.”

“Something to consider in the future – you never know what sort of schedule a new roommate might be on.”

“Right. The Academy was more regimented.”

Kirsten nodded. “Yes. That makes sense. However a starship operates around the clock. Not very like a school schedule at all.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Actually,” Kirsten said with an impish smirk, “I think you shall.”

Returning from Engineering, Darlene stopped suddenly in a long corridor when the deck plate she was crossing creaked alarmingly and she momentarily thought her feet were sliding out from under her. Once she’d regained her balance, she stepped back and forth on the offending plate. She could generate the noise several times, but not the motion. Though there was no marking on the deck, the walls were painted with gray striping and bore a declaration this was another expansion joint. To her relief, the air pressure remained steady, but she chose to close two bulkhead hatches on either side of this segment and set a pressure monitor.

Only then did she touch her comm link. “Maintenance.”

“Van Zoeren here.”

“Kirsten – this is Darlene. You do Maintenance, too?”

“Engineering is engineering. As I said, everyone does multiple duty.”

“Yes, of course.” She explained about the noisy expansion joint.

“Sounds like the joint plates need to be relubricated.”

“I’ve never heard a noise from an expansion joint before, to say nothing of nearly being knocked off my feet.”

“This ship is more flexible than you’d think. If the joint plates seized up due to lack of lubrication, they could unload with a certain amount of bound energy. Walking could trigger such a shift. However, it shouldn’t be particularly dangerous. But to be safe, I shall check out the situation shortly. You’ve closed the bulkheads – you needn’t remain in the area. Van Zoeren out.”

Darlene did not like the sound of a flexible ship. Especially one where she could shift a deck plate just by walking. But if she was told it wasn’t a problem, she’d have to go along until she found out differently.

In the corridor outside the wardroom she met a crewman dressed in white serving attire, busily moving large covered trays from a robocart to the small galley kitchen unit.

“Hey, there,” Darlene said. “What’s for dinner?”

“Veal scaloppini – and I don’t have time for chit-chat. Sir.”

“Uh, carry on then.” Slightly embarrassed, Darlene entered the wardroom. This time the table was fully set and some of her fellow officers were already taking seats.

“I wouldn’t get too comfortable, Mister Charles,” Nancy said. “You’ve got Dead Man’s Watch on the bridge.”

“Junior officer always gets the short end,” Kirsten said, slipping in behind Darlene. “Thankfully, I am no long the junior officer aboard.”

“Gee, thanks,” Darlene said.

“And I checked your expansion joint on the way over. As I suspected, it’s a lubrication problem. Nothing to worry about.”

Which actually didn’t reassure Darlene very much.

The bridge of the USFS Evensong was cool, dark and quiet. Darlene had been on a bridge exactly once, for real, plus all the training at the Academy, so she didn’t exactly have a lot of examples to compare this to. She supposed in the long run, it looked like a bridge. Obviously the command staff wasn’t expecting anything to happen sitting here docked to the station. Truthfully, she acknowledged nothing should be happening.

A tall chair off to the side swiveled. The man with the sly smile had to be the second officer – Roman numeral twos gleamed at his collar. “Lt. Glenard McMurray. Don’t ask about the Glenard – if you have to call me by a first name, it’s Rich. Don’t ask about that either. And you are…?”

She managed not to jump. Of course she’d not be alone on the bridge – they wouldn’t leave the bridge empty at any time. “Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles.”

“That would be Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles relieving you, sir.” The sly smile remained.

Darlene repeated his words.

“Then I stand relieved,” he said, turning around long enough to grab a databoard from its storage slot and signing his name before handing it to Darlene. “You ever stood watch on a starship bridge before?”

“Uh, no sir,” she said, taking a short breath before affixing her signature to the databoard’s screen. The update informed her that responsibility for the safety and operation of the ship was hers and hers alone.

“Thought so. This has to be one of Mister Kramer’s little inside jokes. You’ll find she’s hilarious, once you get to know her deadpan style. And she probably hates your guts until you prove yourself – so don’t screw up.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”

“You don’t seem particularly scared by our first officer?”

“I’m already on her shit list, I’m afraid. Pretty much for breathing.”

“Okay. Relax. This is just a Dead Man’s Watch.”

“The commander said that,” Darlene said. “I’m not sure what that means.”

“Yeah, why tell the hired help anything? We’re in port and not planning on moving until the end of next week. Still, anything can happen. Warrant Officer Juliette Capri is over there on the forward mount. She’s our quartermaster – our senior navigator. If it comes to that, I guess I’m the number two navigator on this ship. The engines are cold, but the maneuvering thrusters can be up and running inside of thirteen seconds. You have to remember to authorize active maneuvering systems before they can be used. And for other crises, there’s always a fire and damage control party assigned, you can access them with those comm buttons.

“But,” he said getting ready to leave, “it’ll never come to you having to order anything. Despite the fact that you’ve just naïvely signed for and are now responsible for an entire starship, if something – anything – happens, there’s the panic button. We’ve got the Big Button preprogrammed at all times to bring in someone senior in an emergency. In this case, it calls the X.O. Do not be afraid to use it – Nancy’ll rip you up harder for not calling than if you waste her time.”

And then she was alone and in charge. Darlene looked around, taking in the low ceiling, the safety straps for use in emergency zero-gee, rows of consoles and screens, overhead racks of controls. And in the forward part of the bridge were the two maneuvering mounts – the helmsman seat on the left occupied by a tall thin graceful looking black woman.

“We meet at last, ensign,” the navigator said as Darlene threaded her way between the stations.

“Don’t get up, Quartermaster Capri.”

“Not regulation while I’m on the mount.”

“I suppose congratulations are in order – they said you’d just been promoted.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“So… tell me what I need to know about running the Evensong.”

Juliette laughed. “Despite it being a cargo ship, she’s really a dream to fly. Turns out that precision docking capability is important in a cargo ship – surprised me. A year ago I thought destroyers were pretty neat to fly. Hard to believe I’m in love with a shiny new cargo ship.”

“And the big engines?”

“Pretty much the same as a cruiser, sir. Thirty-two gee acceleration and all. Fourteen days even to jump speed. When the military wants its priority supplies, they brook no delay or expense.” Juliette paused. “Do you have a question, sir?”

“Yes. Do we get dinner sent up here during this watch?”

The next morning Darlene got up early to find an empty wardroom, but a full coffee pot, a crock of oatmeal and a smaller one of grits, a toaster and a machine which turned chilled whole eggs into whatever kind of cooked eggs she selected. The grits were a nice touch, even if she wasn’t the only Southerner in the wardroom – she was sure they weren’t for her sake.

“It’s 0603 hours,” Kirsten said with a yawn, staggering in after Darlene had begun eating. “How did you get here so early?”

Darlene shrugged. “First full day on the job. I’ve always been an early riser.”

“Looks like you’re hungry, too,” Kirsten said, sitting down with only a single mug of black coffee.

You might have dined on veal scaloppini last night – but I was on the bridge. The galley sent us up a pepperoni pizza.”

“Vincent makes a very fine pepperoni pizza.”

“Vincent…?”

“There’s only twenty other people on this ship, Darlene. Surely you memorized the roster?”

“First thing on my to-do this morning,” Darlene said hopefully.

“Specialist 2 Vincent Mandelini, our esteemed cook.”

“Not much taller than myself, serious looking eyebrows?”

“That is our Vincent.”

“I met him in the corridor. He was carrying… your dinner.”

“You were expecting a serving staff? This is a small crew, Darlene. Everyone performs multiple duties,” Kirsten said, pausing to sip at her coffee. “Even third officers, who already are in charge of everything.”

“I suspect especially third officers,” Darlene said. “Which is why I need a good breakfast.”

Though they were expecting no one, with the great space doors now open to the dock, Darlene was ordered to stand as podium officer. The sole guard on duty in the hangar bay, dressed from helmet to boot in soft armor, shouldered his weapon and came over to talk.

“You American, ensign?” he asked.

“Uh, and you are?” Darlene glanced for a nameplate, but it was covered by a black stealth flap. Interesting, she thought. She had no idea the security setting for this operation was rated so high. Though there had been a class on Security procedures back at the Academy which talked about denying troublemakers information to maintain control, Darlene didn’t have nearly the experience to figure out if it was true.

“Vincent. Vincent Mandelini. Specialist 2 Vincent Mandelini if you want to be specific – I’m the ship’s cook and bosun’s mate. And I asked if you were an American.”

“Yes,” Darlene said. “From Aiken, South Carolina. And you?”

“Close enough,” Vincent shrugged. “I’m Canadian. You got any food allergies or religious or dietary issues I need to know about?”

“Uh, no.”

“You like Italian?”

Darlene was astute enough to understand he meant Italian food. “Yes. I like Italian very much.”

“Good. Because that’s what I cook. And I’m pretty damned good at it.”

“Glad to hear that. I enjoy eating.”

“Okay,” Vincent said. “Go ahead and ask.”

“Ask what?”

“‘How’d a Canadian get into Fleet?’”

“There are no citizenship restrictions. And not everyone in Fleet is an American – and I’m not even talking about the territorials with their all-regional crews from around the Earth.”

“But as a Canadian, I could’ve gone into the Commonwealth or Royal Space Navy.”

“You could’ve, but you didn’t.”

Vincent folded his arms, cocking his head to one side as he squinted at the ensign. “You’re not going to ask, are you?”

“Bad habit of not allowing myself to be maneuvered by others – superior offices excepted, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Gives me the illusion that I have some control in my life. Besides, I have the feeling you’re dying to tell me, Mandelini.”

“How can I resist? I had a nice place in Calgary, good steady business, but I got restless. Decided to open a restaurant on the Moon – Luna City.”

“What was it like?”

“Great food, but no atmosphere. Cutthroat competition. Lost my shirt on the deal.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The thing of it was… I wasn’t ready to go back home. So I signed up.”

“And here you are.”

“And here I am.”

Darlene saw Mandelini straighten to attention, so as she turned around to see who was coming, she was already prepared to come to attention herself and salute. The captain, first and second officers were in their dress whites. Nancy paused long enough to scribble something on Darlene’s databoard at the podium.

“We shall be gone for perhaps an hour, ensign. Required social visit to the warship Guarder.”

“Very good, sir,” Darlene said, already astute enough to find the box and sign for the ship in the absence of the senior command officers.

“Carry on,” Nancy said, hurrying after the other two officers.

Not five minutes later three crewmen entered the hangar, dressed in clean black and white uniforms. They saluted the flag and moved to sign off the ship. Darlene stopped them.

“Let’s see who we have here,” she said. “Engineer’s Mate Morton, Cybernetics Specialist 1 Rooney and Spaceman Hachem.”

“Ship’s Clerk,” Edward Hachem reminded her.

“You’re still a spaceman, Hachem. And where do you think you’re going? There’s no shore leave authorized for anyone.”

“Mister Charles,” the lone woman, Tammy Rooney said, “we’re in port and it’s just to get a beer.”

“In a word… no.”

“Have a heart, sir.”

“I’m sorry, gentlemen,” Darlene stood firm. “You think you can play just because the cat’s away, but there’s a new mouse in charge.”

“We’re not trying to game you.”

“Stow it, Hachem. Everyone heard the announcement that the top three command officers were now leaving the ship. The only question for me, is do I summon the bosun or the master chief?”

“Sir, if you’re not comfortable using your authority, we understand…”

“Chief of the Boat it is,” Darlene said, picking up a secure handset. “Chief of the Boat to the podium.”

The three crewmen were suddenly apologetic, talking over one another as they first backed up, then turned and walked as quickly as decorum allowed back into the ship.

“Nice touch, ensign,” Mandelini said. “What you gonna tell the master chief when she gets here?”

Darlene held out the secure handset, clearly showing her thumb over the DISCONNECT button. “Who says I called her?”

“Are you going to report them?”

“Report what, Mandelini?”

The bosun’s mate and cook smiled. “Clever. I think I’m going to like serving with you, sir.”

Darlene still was feeling good about her handling of the crewmen some seventeen minutes later when a good sized young man came into the docking area. Burdened with two space duffels, a shopping bag from the space station concourse, a full M366e spacesuit with all its environmental gear slung over his back and a small case which probably held an instrument or personal item, he paused before trudging up the angled safety grip plates of the docking ramp.

Reaching the top of the ramp and the threshold bumpers between station and starship, he seemed confused as to what to do – unable to salute the flag or the officer while bearing his loads.

“You could try setting your things on the deck first,” Darlene suggested.

“Oh, yessir,” he seemed relieved. All his items slumped to the deck, but once freed the young man straightened up to attention, crisply saluted the flag, then pivoted and saluted the ensign. “Permission to come aboard, sir.”

She’d already glanced down the list of notes left for the podium officer. “You must be Basic Spaceman Brian Todd.”

“Yessir,” the polite young man said, saluting again.

“Permission granted.”

Brian crossed the painted yellow line on the hangar deck and waited patiently.

“Your paperwork?” Darlene asked.

“Oh yeah…,” Brian said, bending over and accessing a sealed pocket on one of the space duffels. “Here you go, sir.”

“Welcome to the USFS Evensong,” Darlene said. “And how did you end up in the Unified Star Fleet, Todd?”

“Grew up in scrub country. Finally tired of a job working at a meat processing plant on the edge of the Nebraska Desert.”

“That sounds fair.”

“Yessir.”

“Do you have any idea yet what sort of specialty you want to work towards? I’m not grilling you,” Darlene added hastily, seeing the stricken look on the boy’s face. “It’s just I’m sure one of the officers or chiefs is going to stick you with that question soon and I thought I’d advise you to perhaps have an answer ready.”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Absolutely, Mister Todd – this is just a casual conversation during check-in.” And if you only knew how green I am at this, Darlene mused to herself.

“I haven’t given it much thought – just so long as it doesn’t involve slaughtering chickens, pigs or cattle.”

“I think that can be arranged.” She got on the secure handset. “Chief of the Boat please… Master Chief, I have a new crewman checking in – a Basic Spaceman Brian Todd from the Nebraska Desert. I’m not sure who you were going to assign to shepherd him, but if you were to call Engineer’s Mate Morton, Cybernetics Specialist 1 Rooney and Ship’s Clerk Hachem, you might find a ready volunteer amongst those three.”

“Oh really?” Marilyn answered. “Should I ask what they’ve done or have my own fun?”

“I wouldn’t dream of denying the master chief her own entertainment.” Darlene heard a chuckle on the other end of the handset before the disconnect signal. “It’ll just be a couple of minutes, Mister Todd. If you could just wait over there, the bosun’s mate will run through a security check.”

In the cargo bay a half-dozen bots rolled slowly over the deck, cleaning the surface completely. Two spacemen – both women – took turns supervising the bots and lying on the deck doing nothing. Despite their somewhat dramatically tattooed faces, they stopped and saluted when Darlene approached.

“I see you both have the same home patch on your sleeves,” Darlene said, nodding at the odd constellation of stars against a black background. She knew the New Zealand flag had stars on it and a native population that believed in facial tattoos – but she was pretty sure this wasn’t it.

“We’re both Mongrels,” Spaceman Azi Leland explained.

“It’s like a nickname,” the second girl – Uril Mannet – said, seeing Darlene’s puzzled frown. “We’re from the same place.”

“And that is…?” Darlene asked.

The two spacemen thought it a hysterically funny question. “Oh you’re too serious, Mister Charles. But that’s our job. We’re supposed to be the Serious Girls around here.” Apparently that was very funny, too.

“So what exactly is the point of lying on the deck? Besides getting to goof off on the clock, that is.”

“Not goofing, sir.” Azi seemed insulted by the suggestion.

“Yeah,” Uril added. “We’ve got a scanner planted on the deck and then we use the smart glasses. We’re inspecting the ceiling.”

Darlene looked up. “Inspecting for what? And anyway, what’s that small pylon? There’s nothing else suspended from the ceiling anywhere else in this compartment.”

“That’s the center junction sensor, sir.”

“A tri-axial center junction sensor,” Uril corrected.

“Yes,” Azi giggled. “My mistake, sir. It’s the tri-axial center junction sensor. Part of the jump system.”

“I know what a center junction array is,” Darlene said. “What I’m wondering is what is it doing here and how do you know what it is?”

Azi shrugged. “I looked at the plaque.”

Darlene looked at Uril’s amused face, then down. The girl stood on a deck tile – TRI-AXIAL CENTER JUNCTION SENSOR DIRECTLY ABOVE / SERVICE LIFT BELOW.

“You are way too serious for us, sir.”

“And we’re supposed to be the Serious Girls.”

“So you said,” Darlene murmured, resigning herself to losing this round with a pair of spacemen. “Carry on.”

Still stung a bit by her failure to deal with the Serious Girls, Darlene almost ran into another woman who’d been lurking by the open airlock doors leading into the forward part of the ship.

“Ensign Charles – I’m Tech 5 Luanne Womat, Pharmacist’s Mate. And you were supposed to check in with me when you came aboard.”

“Um, I’m sorry, Womat.”

“Don’t worry about it too much. I think I slept for eleven hours after the last of the revelers left the 27th Century Party. But you were planning on checking in with Sick Bay, weren’t you?”

“Absolutely. As soon as I looked up the doctor.”

“No doctor, I’m afraid. I’m your complete health care provider on this ship,” Luanne almost apologized. “That and your first-aid training, plus whatever help the autobots are.”

“With thousands of colonists aboard?”

“We don’t normally do many colony runs. Anyway, they’ll all be in hybernation.”

“What if there’s a problem?”

“Hybernation is very safe, sir. I wouldn’t worry about the hybe tanks.”

“It’s my job to worry about everything and everyone,” Darlene pointed out. “And being responsible for several thousand colonists without a doctor sounds like asking for it.”

“The colonists should have their own doctor, sir,” Luanne said. “It’s all under control.”

“A new ship and a new crew for me – plus an unknown bunch of civilians who may or may not have medical supervision,” Darlene said with a sigh. “I am so relieved, Womat. Let’s go get me checked in.”

Sick Bay was barely larger than her stateroom. Three medical bunks lay stacked against the one side, each behind a glass cover. Womat explained how a bed could be swung out and down for treatment.

“What happens if you need to treat more than one?” Darlene asked.

“We can swing two trays down at a time.”

“All right – what about three?”

“If we need to treat three or more, we start folding out the gurneys in the corridor.” Womat must’ve sensed the disquiet rumbling through Darlene’s mind. “I do make house calls, sir, for a lot of the usual downtimes. We try to keep Sick Bay clear for emergencies. And anything I can’t handle, we have medical stasis tubes and let Fleet Medical deal with it some other time.”

“What’s for dinner?” Darlene asked as she took her seat at the wardroom table. This was her first real dinner aboard and she smiled at the heavy real china and silver service which lay atop the starched white tablecloths. It was elegant, professional and, at least here in the wardroom, everything the Academy had promised upon joining the corps of officers in the Unified Star Fleet.

“Vincent?” the captain asked, as the cook came in. “What’s for dinner? Our young ensign is either starving or dying to know.”

“We have Earth Alaskan salmon filets,” Vincent said, bringing in a large serving platter, “marinated in real Vermont maple syrup for two days.”

“Salmon? My goodness,” Darlene sounded pleased. “And you told me you did Italian.”

“I never said I only did Italian,” Vincent smiled. “But this is a special occasion. Captain informed me we are back up to full complement today and I’ve had these fixings rattling around the galley for a couple of months.”

“We should get a new crewman more often,” Kirsten observed. “Fish is nice.”

“Here’s to Basic Spaceman Brian Todd – the man with two first names,” Rich quipped.

Hear-hear!” the table declared.

“Maple syrup on salmon?” Rich asked, getting back to their dinner.

“More like maple syrup in salmon,” Vincent replied.

“Candied salmon?”

“Sure,” Vincent agreed.

Rich half rose from his chair, placed one hand over his diaphragm and dramatically held out his other and sang in a deep baritone, “Salmon candied evening…”

“That, Mister McMurray,” the captain said, “is enough of that.”

“Yessir,” he said, quickly taking his seat. But Darlene noted that both were still smiling. Perhaps, despite a bit of a rough start, she was going to really like serving on this ship. After six months bouncing around the real Fleet, Darlene dared to hope she’d finally found a home.

“Don’t go just yet, ensign,” the captain said as Darlene left her napkin at her place and started to stand after her meal and two desserts. The first officer remained as well while others filed out. “You did well on the Dead Man’s Watch last evening.”

“Yessir.”

“You seem polite, willing to learn and so far have exhibited no bad habits. This doesn’t exactly match your service record.”

“No sir,” Darlene said, inwardly wincing at the forcefulness of her reply.

“Then how do you explain this?”

“My first superior officer didn’t like Southern white women. There were two of us in the group kept out of hybernation to work on the boost from Mars. Lt. Commander Oxwell managed to find cause to dismiss both of us after an unfortunately short amount of time.”

“Mister Oxwell is a Southerner. A white Southern male.”

“Yes. Strange, isn’t it?” Darlene wondered how they knew so much and what else they knew.

“What’s your evaluation of yourself? Your worst features.”

This was always a dangerous interview question, but Darlene addressed it head on. “I suppose I’m a perfectionist. My second superior officer decided I wasn’t learning fast enough. I thought I was doing everything I could to not make any mistakes.”

“That doesn’t get you fired in five days.”

“The well was poisoned, sir,” Darlene said.

“I doubt that Nancy is buying this,” the captain said, without even looking at her executive officer. “But I base my evaluation reports solely on your performance on my ship. Your geographic or planetary origins and previous postings are not my concern. You are dismissed, ensign.”

Nancy spoke for the first time. “You have the midnight bridge watch – don’t be late. You’ll be relieving me.”

“Aye-aye, sir.” After standing and saluting, Darlene hoped her ears weren’t shining too bright red.

Monday morning at 0800 hours the cargo bay began its miraculous transformation. Loader after loader began packing in space shipping containers of a dozen different sizes, stacked in the closest packed formation possible. Keeping to the safety-striped zones on the deck, Darlene watched the preprogrammed ballet. While it became clear it would take time to fill the entire compartment, she was impressed with the rapidity and ease with which the loaders performed.

“The largest containers are full of vehicles and heavy machinery,” Senior Chief Sammy Hortez explained.

“I am assuming it’s all been load balanced?” Darlene asked.

“Manifest is sliced sixteen ways to Sunday and recalculated from stem to stern,” the cargo bay chief said.

“It’s all very impressive,” Darlene admitted.

“Yeah, it sure is.”

An alarm bell rang and Darlene’s attention was drawn to the end of the safety zone. Huge panels with flashing yellow warning lights began to fold out from what she’d thought was the end wall. Now she realized the cargo bay would itself be sliced up into sections. A cargo bay whose compartments were assembled after the fact, rather than built into solid bulkheads.

Innovative design indeed – she began to see the possibilities.

Stark space black butted against the pale glow from the planet’s atmosphere below. The view through the quad-glazed plex took Darlene’s breath away. She’d merely come here to find a quiet place to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and instead found one of the few compartments aboard with windows. Now she sat cross-legged on top of the large conference table so she could see more of the dark brown planet turning underneath.

“I’m glad you found the in-port conference room,” the first officer said conversationally from the back of the room. “It’s one of my favorite places when we’re in orbit.”

“It is beautiful,” Darlene said, willing herself not to leap up and spoil the peaceful moment. “One tends to forget about space sometimes. The stars, the planets. We get very tied up inside the ship.”

Nancy came and stopped next to her, arms crossed, gazing out the long clear windows. “Usually it takes longer for a newbie to realize how internalized our lives become on a starship.”

“I was bounced around a lot during my long lost migration.”

“Mmm. Well, finish your coffee.”

“All done, sir,” Darlene said, taking that one last slightly bitter swallow.

“We have an appointment in the starboard hangar airlock.”

Darlene expected to be given a full vacuum check-out of her new spacesuit. But she was surprised to see Nancy stepping into her own white command suit – and the chief of the boat as well.

“Anticipating your question, ensign,” Nancy said, “there’s a one-hour per month zero-gee full vacuum training requirement on this ship. That’s for everyone. Might as well escort you onto the hull and make my time as well. Once we’re underway I always seem to have too much crap on my plate to make time for my own drills.”

Sealing up and pressurizing, then cycling through the airlock, Darlene noticed Marilyn setting a safety line next to the control panel. “You’re not coming?”

“First and third officers are buddies on this run,” Marilyn said. “I’m your safety.”

“Right.” Vacuum drills while at the Academy usually involved so many personnel that the safety crews were practically ignored as everyone poured out of the locks. “Law of small numbers.”

Stepping across the zebra stripes at the hatch onto a small shelf plate outside, Darlene could feel the artificial gravity field weakening. By the time she’d joined the first officer on the sloping curve of the hull, Darlene was weightless inside her suit.

“So what have you learned recently, ensign?”

“I learned that our two spacer girls in the spaceman ranks think they’re pretty funny. I thought they were trying to tell me they were serious girls, which didn’t jibe with their cut-up attitude. Then I finally had time to read the crew’s service records. Now I know they are Sirius Girls.”

“Grew up together with their families around Sirius B.”

“The Dog Star,” Darlene said. “Constellation Canis Major. Which is why they’re Mongrels. It’s really quite clever wordplay – and I should’ve put it together earlier.”

“Catch that lock ring. Keep a safety line in place at all times,” Nancy reminded her. “Yes. It takes a while to work your way through the crew manifest, even on a small ship. And especially when we keep you jumping during your first forty-eight hours.”

“More like seventy-two… My, what a view.”

The two women, boots magnetized to the line of black metal tiles they’d been ascending. Though there was technically no up or down in space, Fleet called this the dorsal hull. Darlene’s orientation made her believe that she now stood on top of the Evensong. Whitish-gray ceramic shield and armor panels spread and curved away far to the forward. The hull appeared almost clean at this time, with nearly all the antennas and telescopes stowed neatly out of the way, unlike all the gear festooned on the space station hull ahead. Warships all had a long tapered wedge shape to lower visibility head-on. The Evensong was thicker and had a rounded nose, not a sharp point, at the bow. Four massive bells for the fusor engines lay aft.

“I’m told this isn’t a very pleasant planet,” Darlene said, looking away towards the colored disk below. “You can’t rightly tell from seven hundred kilometers.”

“See the silvery lake? That’s mercury. The planetary scientists nearly had a heart attack when they realized you could have an open pool of mercury that large on a planet. It’s a nasty industrial world and ninety percent of the workforce uses remotes from orbit.”

“People back home would have no idea why we’re here.”

“The station is a crossroads. Good a place as any to organize a colony run somewhere else.”

“Yes, but why?”

Nancy was likely smiling behind the darkened visor of her helmet. “No one jumps ship and goes planetside here.”

As the cargo bay filled and sections of it were closed off by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of moving wall panels, a new construction project caught Darlene by surprise. Huge plex sections as thick as a man’s arm and supported on wide girder feet were being bolted together to form a massive gang hybernation tank. When completed, it would measure thirty meters long, eighteen wide and eight meters high.

“I knew the colonists would travel in hybe,” Darlene said to the chief engineer. “I guess I assumed we carried hybe tanks, but… we aren’t usually in the colony moving business.”

“That’s right,” Herb said. “All told there’ll be five thousand colonists in this tank.”

“Anyone ever hear about putting all of one’s eggs in one basket?” Darlene mused. Then she caught herself, as the chief engineer glared at her.

“Ensign – I assemble what they tell me to assemble. I don’t get to choose which level of technology gets used for an application like this.”

“I’m sorry…”

“Don’t be. Anyway, this is the heaviest, most overbuilt section of the cargo bay – right off the hangar. So this hybe tank is protected by the strongest part of the cargo bay’s frame.”

“And I suppose it’s easier than trying to bring aboard five thousand stasis tubes,” Darlene said. “More compact.”

“And cheaper.” He nodded to a white container being slid into the other side of the cargo bay. “That’s livestock. You’d think they were more valuable than the colonists – the cows travel in stasis chambers.”

“I’m sure they are valuable,” Darlene said. “But it’s just as likely that Fleet doesn’t want to deal with drowning live cows in hybe fluid. I imagine they’d be a little fussy about that. And it’s hard to explain things to a cow.”

The chief engineer laughed. “Mister Charles – you do have a point there.”

“I thought we didn’t have a Marine detachment aboard,” Darlene said at breakfast.

“We don’t,” Rich said.

“Then I wouldn’t go to the overlook and take a peek down into the hangar,” Darlene said to the second officer. “There’s a Marine unit with full armored space suits and all their gear.”

“We transport Marines though,” Rich said. “That’s a colonial deployment unit.”

“Oh, I see. They’ll go into the hybe tank with the colonists?”

“No – some stasis tubes are being installed in a forward section of the cargo bay.”

In the cargo bay? Do you mean we treat them like cargo?”

“In a manner of speaking – yes. Besides, there aren’t a lot of other places to put them.”

“I suppose,” Darlene said. “And like livestock, there’s no point in feeding them on the way out.”

“Nope. Put them on ice or gray them out – hybe or stasis.”

“Hi, I’m the ship’s third officer, Ensign Darlene Charles,” she said with a welcoming hand.

“Lt. Colonel Maxwell, ensign,” the Marine officer said as they shook hands. “693rd Colonial Deployment Force, 1203rd Detachment. At your service.”

Darlene broke into a big smile. “Do I detect a proper South Carolina accent, colonel?”

“Indeed it is, ma’am,” Maxwell said, touching the brim of his cap. “So how can I help you?”

“This is my first colony run. I wanted to find out how the Marines figure into all this – understand what your capabilities are.”

“You’re new, aren’t you?”

“Yessir. Don’t be fooled by these third officer badges.”

“I wasn’t,” Maxwell smiled. “Ma’am, let me introduce you to Lt. Mays. Robbie!”

Second Lieutenant Robert Mays was tall blond and handsome, his dashing good looks somewhat distorted by wearing his oversized powered armor without a helmet. “And you’re Ensign Darlene Charles.”

“That’s right,” Darlene said, a bit confused. “How…”

“But you’ve forgotten that I know who you are.”

“You do?”

“I roomed with Marine Cadet Wilkinson at the Academy. You may recall he escorted you to the Solstice Ball.”

“I recall Mister Wilkinson and I definitely recall a memorable evening at the Ball. But I’m afraid I don’t remember you.”

“Uh-huh. Blinded by Curt’s natural beauty, I’m sure.”

Darlene hoped she’d have an easy duty before dinner. But forty-five minutes later she heard a commotion and saw a Marine blocking a middle-aged stocky woman, who was not in line, from boarding.

“Step aside, young man,” the woman said, raising her voice to make sure everyone in the hangar bay heard. “I have business on this ship.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I have my orders.”

“We’ll see about that.” The woman peered around and spotted Darlene. “You there – come here!”

Darlene was already on her way, so tried not to let it rankle if this woman wanted to make it seem as though she were in charge here. “How may I assist you, ma’am?”

I am Councilor Mary Elisabeth Wallace.”

Checking her databoard, Darlene found no mention of Councilor Wallace. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. I don’t have any orders regarding you. Do you have any paperwork?”

Councilor Wallace seemed insulted. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“Yes, ma’am. You are Councilor Mary Elisabeth Wallace.”

“Are you being flippant with me, young lady?”

“No, ma’am. I know who you are and I’ve verified that you are indeed a member of the Inter Stellar Council, a fact which you failed to mention by the way. That’s all the information I have on you and I still do not have any clearance for you to board this ship.”

“Miss Charles – the Inter Stellar Council owns the Star Fleet.

“I very much doubt that, ma’am.”

“It means I own you.”

“See, that’s the thing about Fleet, ma’am, which most people don’t understand. There are multiple national and planetary interests, but not one of them is sole owner. Nobody owns it – and everyone does.”

“You aren’t really so naïve you believe such things, are you, dearie?” the woman asked.

“You aren’t likely to be so naïve to believe that you wouldn’t be here unless the Unified Star Fleet invited you aboard the Evensong. Ma’am.” Darlene forced herself to add a pleasant smile.

“Well!” the woman exclaimed. “I want to talk to your superiors.”

“That is your right, ma’am.” Darlene pulled a secure handset from the podium, touching the comm button for the bridge. “Officer of the Deck – this is Third Officer Charles at the check-in podium. I request the presence of the captain and executive officer for an Inter Stellar Council matter.”

“Acknowledged, Mister Charles.”

Darlene knew that having all three of them here on an active hangar would violate officer safekeeping rules, but expected only one of her superiors to show. Frankly, she assumed it would be Nancy who’d come – she wasn’t expecting the captain.

“Councilor Wallace, I’m Captain Angela Dessin. This is my boat you’re standing on,” the captain said smiling. “And I don’t quite appreciate it when someone of your standing comes onto my boat and starts trying to push people around. It is unbecoming and unprofessional.

“Now, we’ve both had our little bluster – and it hasn’t done either one of us any good. How about we go to my in-port office and have a cup of coffee, and in the quiet calm of reason you can tell me what you’re really here for and I’ll see if I can’t accommodate you, Councilor Wallace.”

Angela’s shift in tone was extraordinarily effective. Darlene couldn’t believe the aggressive stance at first, but now she knew how this woman had come to earn the trust of Fleet Command.

Loading the colonists took two days, even with an orderly procedure set up. Darlene had traveled in hybe several times on her journey out here, but she was military and it was expected. She had to admire the calmness amongst the civilians. It wouldn’t be easy to ride the lift to the top of a huge tank filled with trays of dead looking people. Five thousand was a lot of people to cram into one liquid filled tank, with children, too.

By the time the last sleeping colonist got wet and was submerged in the cold blue fluid, the rest of the cargo bay was finally filled. Only the Marines who’d helped out with the hybernation sequence were left to load and they had to file back to their temporary stasis compartment and one-by-one, disappear behind the gray veil of their own stasis tubes. Then panel by panel the massive armored doors sealed off the cargo bay, leaving the hangar bay just a hangar.

The captain and first officer moved quickly through the inspection hallways of the cargo bay. After the captain signed off on the work, the first officer linked to the All Hands. “Gentlemen – a fine effort securing our cargo and passengers. Departure is set for 0800 hours tomorrow. That is all.”

“Did you take care of Councilor Blowhard?” Angela asked Darlene. “I notice she’s not been darkening my world lately.”

“Yessir,” Darlene answered with as straight a face as she could muster. “Councilor Wallace observed the final operations and we reserved the last tray position for her.”

“Didn’t object too much to going in with the colonists?”

“No sir. Apparently you’d already pointed out that we were just a cargo ship and didn’t have suitable facilities for her comfort. I assured her she’d be the first to be revived and we’d make sure she was clean, dry and dressed before the colonial manager or any of his staff were awake.”

“Good thinking,” Angela said. “Though it’d be good for the old cow to have to stand cold and naked before five thousand colonists and knock a few centimeters off that chip on her shoulder. But… you didn’t hear me say that, ensign.”

“Excuse me, captain. What were you saying?”

“Good girl,” Angela smiled. “Carry on, Mister Charles.”

A conspiracy of silence between the captain and third officer – Darlene could’ve floated away even in the artificial gravity.

“Oh and your presence is required on the bridge at 0800 hours for departure. Now that we’re loaded, it’s time we went back to being a cargo ship and about time you started earning your paycheck. Bring a spacesuit – you’ll be the designated safety officer.”

“All ahead one-quarter.”

Darlene Charles felt a slight shifting in the bridge deck plates under her feet. “Did anyone just feel that?” she asked as casually as she could.

“Engines came up, ensign,” the captain said. “The keel shifted – that’s all.”

No one seemed concerned with the motion. All the lore she’d heard at the Academy on Mars said that you never felt any motion on a starship when it was underway due to the acceleration dampeners. But this ship flexed and moved. And this was still part of the innovative new design?

She had no duty at the moment other than to observe bridge procedures, so Darlene took a seat by the control mounts. Both were occupied – Quartermaster Capri on the left and Spaceman Azi Leland on the right.

Rrrrr-ik!

Darlene looked startled. “What in the Sam Hell was that?” she asked in a louder voice.

“Bridge isolation box flex joint, sir,” Juliette said. “The hull is cold soaking as we move away from the sun. You’ll get used to it.”

“I’ve never heard of that happening on a starship before.”

“There are always expansion joints on starships.”

“I know that,” Darlene said with some irritability. “What I said was that I’ve never heard of them making such a sound.”

“Thus speaks the expert on star travel,” Azi remarked.

“What was that?” Darlene demanded of the Sirius Girl.

“Nothing, sir.”

The first officer wandered over. “Mister Charles – this ship has a very thin profile and an open interior design. It’s designed to flex a lot more than most starships, especially your heavier warships. Perfectly all right.”

“If you say so,” Darlene said. But even though everyone seemed to be singing the same song, she didn’t sound convinced.

“Nancy says you’re skeptical of our little flexible starship,” Marilyn said. “So we’re going to take you ‘tween decks for a little maintenance job. Call it part of your education.”

“Yes, master chief.”

They donned clean hooded jumpsuits and disappeared through a hatch between decks.

“Where are we exactly, master chief?” Lying on her back in a narrow crawlspace, Darlene was staring at several massive sets of springs and shock absorbers.

“We’re underneath the bridge box,” Marilyn said. “And since you’ve complained about the noise, you get to relubricate the joints.”

“So all the strange noises I keep hearing are just maintenance issues. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“You learn fast,” Marilyn said. “But you still get to do the dirty work this time.”

“Of course.”

“Mister Charles, sir, what’s going on?”

“I’m just putting together a light supper, Mandelini,” Darlene said, clean and famished after spending several hours sliding around under the bridge.

“You’re not supposed to be cooking in here.”

“Who’s cooking? There was a lovely tomato minestrone soup leftover from dinner and I’m having that with a grilled cheese sandwich. Well, actually three grilled cheese sandwiches – but who’s counting? Do you want one?”

“Sure,” Vincent said.

Darlene began to assemble a fourth sandwich on the griddle. Shaking his head, he poured two bowls of soup. When the sandwiches were done, Darlene slid one onto a plate and handed it to the Spec 2 Cook. The rest went onto her own plate.

Seated at the wardroom table, Vincent watched in fascination as the young woman ate. “Mister Charles – don’t take this the wrong way, but just how many calories do you consume a day?”

“Oh, don’t mind me. It’s my metabolism. I’m a bottomless pit.”

“It’s not a problem, except our food reserves are whatever we are carrying. I’m supposed to be feeding twenty-two aboard – if you eat like this all the time…”

“Oh yes.”

“… then I’m serving one or two extra folks I didn’t know about.”

“It’s not a problem. The supplies are fine.”

“Sir, with all due respect, our emergency reserves are carefully calculated.”

“Nonsense,” Darlene said. “If we were to have a catastrophic emergency out in deep space, we could easily lose half the crew or half the food supply. Either way, that would be a crisis. Reserves are estimates and you know that. Besides, if I were a 150-kg ex-linebacker and ate three grilled cheese sandwiches at a time, you’d think nothing of it.” She took another bite of sandwich. “And a 150-kg ex-linebacker is already figured in your food supplies and emergency reserves. So consider that ex-linebacker billet filled, Mandelini, and don’t you dare give me any more grief about it.”

Darlene didn’t bother to mention she was pretty sure Basic Spaceman Brian Todd also qualified as a 150-kg ex-linebacker, which meant there were two new big eaters in the crew.

They’d boosted to near the speed of light in two weeks and made the leap into jumpspace. On the second leg of their four-jump route to the new colony, they had to refuel. Dropping back to normal space, the maneuver involved scooping hydrogen from a star at relativistic speeds. A common procedure, it still sounded insane every time Darlene had to think about it.

“I think I should’ve practiced in this suit more,” Darlene said. “I feel very awkward.”

“You’re here as emergency backup,” the captain said. “Which means you get to seal up. Sit over there and observe the refueling operation.”

“Watch and learn. Yessir.”

Darlene sealed and locked her helmet, then the gloves. A slight hiss told her the air supply had come on and the indicators showed all was operating correctly.

It was difficult to watch either the forward screens or the trajectory charts – the Evensong would be just grazing this star, but it looked to be certain death.

“Hyper-radar scanning,” the captain ordered. “I don’t want to run into anything we weren’t planning on running into.”

Even with her suit on, Darlene could feel and hear the groan as the ship again flexed due to the stresses. Everything she’d been taught told her this wasn’t right. She swallowed hard, steeling herself to let it ride. To act normally.

“Contact in three… two… one…”

Without warning she felt herself slide forward and down. Despite running into the limits of her seat restraints, she still ran into the console in front of her, or at least the chest pack of her spacesuit did. And after tilting, the bridge fell again and abruptly stopped. Something banged into Darlene’s helmet as all the lights went out. Then more things.

“Stop it!” Darlene shouted, bringing her arms up to protect her helmet. “Stop it! End run!”

The bridge had… fallen?

In the sudden dim, mainly lit by red warning telltales, Darlene did the first thing she could think of. “Engineering – emergency transfer of control. The bridge is down!

Emergency lighting came on, casting eerie shadows not usually seen on the bridge. An awful lot of the overhead equipment panels had come loose, scattering forward.

“Bridge – this is Engineering. Control is transferred. What’s going on up there? I’ve got numerous faults on my board for bridge systems. Bridge… acknowledge.”

“Third Officer Charles here,” Darlene said. “Did we hit something?”

“Negative. What’s your status there? We’re getting no environmental readouts.”

Darlene glanced at the wrist telltales on her spacesuit. “Negative on any atmospheric leak. Air is clean and breathable. No toxics, no particulates, no smoke. Emergency lighting just came on.”

“This is the first officer – sound off on the bridge. Captain.”

Relieved to hear from Nancy, Darlene unstrapped herself and clambered over the console. The captain’s chair was gone – ripped from its support. “Captain is down, commander. I’m making my way to the front of the compartment.”

“Third officer has reported,” Nancy went calmly on. “Quartermaster.”

“Quartermaster is very seriously injured,” Darlene said, picking her way down the steep incline. “She’s not moving. I think she may be dead.”

“Chief of the Boat.”

“Master Chief Grimsley reporting,” Marilyn said slowly from the far side of the bridge. “I’m okay – shaken – and trapped in some debris. The goddamned overhead equipment boxes all broke their restraining straps. We have fallen shit all over the place. Emergency teams requested.”

“Acknowledged. They’re on the way,” Nancy said. “Spaceman Leland.”

There was silence.

“She’s definitely dead,” Darlene said, now that she could see. “One of those loose equipment boxes… decapitation.”

“Steady now, Charles…”

“Yessir. Uh, did we get the fuel secured, sir?”

Nancy’s voice softened, almost a hint of a chuckle. “Spoken like a true spacer, ensign. Yes – the fuel load is confirmed and secured.”

Continuing her descent, Darlene made it to the front – the bottom – of the bridge. Her boot splashed into a pool of something, as she found Captain Dessin.

“How bad are we?” the captain asked, wincing as she looked up. “Did we hit something?”

“We’re flooding. There’s no evidence we ran into anything hard. Don’t move, Captain, I think your leg is broken at the very least. Engineering, I need that medical and rescue team ASAP.”

“They’ve arrived,” Nancy reported. “Ensign, can you go and open the bridge hatch for the rescue teams?”

Darlene looked up the sloping deck. Of course, the bridge hatch locks from the inside.

Before she could reply, Marilyn broke in. “I’ve got it – I’m closer.”

“Flooding?” The chief engineer, who’d been monitoring the conversation, wasn’t convinced. “All water lines in and out of the bridge are double-guillotine closure valves – you can’t be flooding.”

“It’s not water, it’s blue… somewhat viscous,” Darlene said, the horror creeping slightly into her voice. “Engineering, we’ve fallen into the hybe tank. Someone needs to get into the cargo bay right away.”

No wonder there’d been a tri-axis center junction sensor in the cargo bay and not here. The bridge, the most protected box on the ship, lay over the cargo bay, off-axis. And right over the five thousand colonists in hybernation.

“The second officer was in the hangar and cargo bays during our maneuvering,” Nancy said.

“Lt. McMurray,” Darlene said. “I need a situation report on the hybe tank.”

When she didn’t get an answer, Darlene repeated her call.

“Bosun!” Nancy called out. “Are you in contact with the second officer?”

“Negative, sir. Cannot reach the second officer,” the bosun reported.

“Where was he last?” Angela asked.

“Last report had him in the hangar bay – full suit.”

“If he was there, then he might’ve been inspecting the cargo bay, too, checking on the hybe tank. Send someone down there.”

“Vincent! Hybe tank area – be careful. A lot of the systems are not responding to the automatic net queries. Based on the bridge, there’s gotta be a lot of damage down there.”

“Acknowledged. Reporting to hybe tank.”

When Pharmacist’s Mate Womat came down into the bridge dangling from a safety line, Darlene could finally breathe.

“Thank God you’re here.”

“I’ve got it, sir. You did a great job of first aid here.”

“I need you down in the hybe tank,” Nancy said to Darlene. “You helped with the immersion of the colonists and our limited med capability is needed for the captain. I don’t want to lose any of the colonists, but they can’t run a starship.”

“Yessir,” Darlene said.

“Belay that,” Marilyn said. “Ensign, you’ve got quite a dent on your helmet. Have Womat check you out.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re fine when the pharmacist’s mate says you’re fine.”

Reluctantly removing her helmet, Darlene waited until Luanne came over and scanned her for signs of trauma. “You’re clear.”

Darlene took one last look at the captain getting treated and the master chief giving her a weak wave of dismissal. And then she climbed out of the tilted bridge.

Meanwhile the first officer was moving on to other issues. “We’re burning real time at a rate of 13-to-1 and I don’t know how well our space systems are performing. Chief Engineer, are we ready to jump?”

“Near as I can tell.”

“Prepare to jump.”

Darlene broke in. “Wait one! Mister Camp – do you have your own center junction sensor in Engineering?”

“Yes, but it’s only two-axis. I was going to use the remote to the three-axis.”

“The unit in the cargo bay may’ve shifted. I wouldn’t trust its alignment – and God knows it’s critical.”

“Good thinking, ensign. We’re on it.”

When Darlene finally made it down to the mess in the cargo bay, she was appalled by the carnage. Though the bulk of the walls of the mass hybe tank held, whole sections of the upper meter and a half were cracked, shattered and leaking. Ceiling panels were scattered everywhere along with thousands of liters of hybe fluid. The exposed shock mounted box which held the bridge compartment had crushed part of at least two rows of hybe trays. They wouldn’t know until they got in there. Injured and dead colonists both lay still like discarded dolls. Other than a disturbing creaking from the damaged and overloaded supports, it was eerily quiet.

Worse was the chunk of structural frame which had fallen on Lt. McMurray. The second officer was unquestionably dead – no one had yet made a move to extract his corpse. There were too many living to deal with. And some colonists, otherwise uninjured, were no longer submerged in the refrigerated blue liquid and required immediate attention.

“We’re too short of people down here,” Darlene reported. “We need to break the Marines out of stasis. They’re supposed to be trained in emergency hybe tank work.”

“How do you know that?”

“I talked with Lt. Colonel Maxwell the morning they came aboard.”

“Helluva time for the first officer to find out about that,” Nancy said. “Call out the Marines. We need them anyway.”

While the Marines were taking trays and either letting them fall to the bottom of the hybe tank, or pulling them out to have them spread on the hangar bay floor, Darlene watched a hastily assembled damage control team begin to jack the bridge up. It wasn’t going well.

“We need to relieve the strain off those hybe tank panels,” Darlene said. “But I’m not sure those remaining bridge supports will hold. That ceiling rail could collapse.”

“It’s going to take some time,” the cargo officer said.

“Why?”

“The lifts are trying to raise 22 tonnes of bridge.”

“Why are we working so hard? The bridge fell because it had full-Earth weight and wasn’t supported properly. If we’d just turn off the artificial gravity…”

“We can’t – the hybe tank is open to the air.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that.”

“However, we can ramp the gravity down.”

Nancy cut in. “Engineering, I think we need to keep the stress even. Lower the artificial gravity to twenty percent Earth-normal shipwide.”

“Aye-aye, commander. Gravity coming down – now.”

A warning klaxon sounded and the overhead speakers came on. “AG Field reduction. All-Hands, standby during gravity field reduction.”

The weight of Darlene’s M400C spacesuit suddenly dropped on her shoulder suspension pads.

“All-Hands, Low Gravity Alert. Be alert for sudden shifts. Avoid sudden moves. That is all.”

With the gravity reduced, the job suddenly became much easier. Lift pillars rose up one section at a time until the jacks made contact with the bridge isolation box. Immediately the low grade leaks from the tank stopped as the strain was taken off the hybe tank walls. As Darlene came around the corner, she found the chief of the boat giving instructions.

“We’re running new supports across those beams. I need a bead weld along those beams, ensign,” Marilyn said. The master chief was bruised but not seriously injured. Some of the blood on her uniform wasn’t hers. “I haven’t checked you out as a welder – so I hope you’re good. But you’re already been in those spaces.”

“Not in a spacesuit.”

“Ditch the suit. The hull doesn’t appear to be compromised.”

Surrounded by chaos, dangling by a safety line from a beam whose solidity Darlene wasn’t certain of, she soon began to weld. When the master chief came back, she admired Darlene’s efforts.

“Your daddy taught you good work.”

“Why thank you.”

“Unfortunately, you’ve only made and finished two welds here. I don’t need clean and polished. I need thirty linear meters of welding from you as fast as possible. Now put heat to welding rod and go to town.”

A little crestfallen, Darlene looked at her neat welds and then the length of the beams. “Yes, master chief.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes. Absolutely. But I was wondering what happened?”

“I don’t know, Darlene,” Marilyn said quietly. “It’s got to be a design flaw and a big one. Sonofabitch, but we can’t worry about that right now. Some of these poor people in that tank are dead and dying and they’ll never know about it.”

When Darlene came back out of the crawlspace, the marines had blocked off two areas on the hangar deck into shallow pools of blue hybe fluid to store bodies.

“Why is the fluid darker in this tank?” she asked.

Lt. Mays stood up from the deck, blue dripping from the long gloves he wore. “That wading pool is intact colonists,” he said, pointing to the other pool. “This one is the injured and the dead – we’re not quite sure which are which yet. The color is blood and guts. We can’t leave them like this for very long or they’ll all be dead.”

“Can’t they be revived?”

“You guys don’t have the medical facilities.” Mays looked around. “All this gear and we can’t really afford to bring these people out of hybe to treat their injuries. But we can’t keep them in hybe, they’ll die.”

“The cows,” Darlene suddenly said. “We’ve got to get the cows.”

“Ensign?”

“We’ve got cows in stasis – big white containers. There…,” Darlene pointed, “… in Section A13.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“We don’t have enough stasis or medical stasis for these people. At least if we put them in farm stasis they have a non-zero chance.”

“What do we do with the cows?”

“If we don’t have any place to keep them, we’ll have to kill them.”

“Does anyone aboard have any experience slaughtering cattle?”

“Yes,” Darlene said. “Basic Spaceman Todd.”

Into the unreality of the situation on the hangar deck came the protestations of cows, released in pairs from their stasis chambers, upset at the lowered gravity and the unfamiliar noises and smells. With the repeated crump! of a pulse rifle shot, though, that soon stopped.

“What are we going to do with all these cow corpses?” a Marine asked, powering down his rifle.

“Carcasses,” Basic Spaceman Todd said. “Dead cows are carcasses, not corpses.”

“We can’t stow them, we can’t space them – won’t they bloat up?”

“Don’t worry,” Todd said. “Give me two Marines from farms and I’ll take care of them.”

They held an impromptu departmental meeting in the hangar bay at 2100 hours.

“What’s the status of the colonists in the hybe tank?” Nancy asked.

Darlene didn’t even need to consult her datapad. “It’s hard to tell for sure, but we know that there are one-hundred-and-eighty-two casualties from the top tiers.”

“Dead?”

“The Marines have moved out forty-eight definites. We won’t know about the others until revival. We’re going to try to filter as much blood and waste from the hybe fluid as possible, but we can’t just put in chemicals to prevent any organism blooms. And we don’t have the facilities or resources to revive everyone and start over.”

“Damn.”

“How’s Captain Dessin?” Darlene asked.

“Fractured pelvis, collapsed lung. She’s in Sick Bay.”

Darlene and the chief engineer inspected a crawlspace atop the bridge box. Despite some buckled attachments, she couldn’t quite see what had caused the failure.

“I don’t understand,” Herb said. “The design clearly specifies there are safety straps to hold the box in place.”

“This is all torn up in here – how many safety straps are there?”

“There are supposed to be six safety straps holding the bridge in place.”

“Well you don’t have six now,” Darlene said. “I can’t see any at all on this end.”

“They snapped?”

“Yes,” she said, then slid into a smaller crevice. “No – this broken end is worn down, not frayed.”

“That’s not possible.”

“This is the Galen Roads all over again,” Darlene sighed.

Herb turned off his spotlight. “How so?”

Darlene shrugged. “Everyone said this is a new design for a cargo ship. That this will be utilized on destroyers and cruisers in the next three years. Maybe we’re just pushing the envelope too hard again.”

“This is structural failure,” he said, “due to the flexing. That big open cargo bay is nice for cargo, but it’s a problem. A warship would have closed compartments for both structural and security reasons – totally different inside.”

“But how did this happen? What broke?”

“I’m not sure anything broke,” Herb said. “My guess is that the flexing during the star diving run went too far – and the bridge isolation box pins slid off the front rails. It just fell off the track.”

“That’s crazy!”

“That’s life in the real world. Bet you a steak dinner at our next shore leave that there’ll be a simple fix for this – something the structural engineers should’ve caught in their modeling.”

“There’s no way we can make it to the deployment point,” the X.O. said to Darlene while pacing in her office, arms folded. “We need heavy maintenance and a hybe processing facility capable of saving the rest of the colonists. They won’t have that in place – they’re expecting intact colonial units needing minimal support. Suggestions?”

“Sir?” Darlene was startled. “You’re asking me?”

“Don’t look so surprised,” Nancy said, handing her two small metal badges. “Like it or not, with the death of Lt. McMurray, as second officer you have the most recent navigation experience. Nor do we have a quartermaster. You’re now also our senior navigator, Darlene.”

Quickly absorbing her sudden promotions represented by the Roman numeral II’s in her hand, Darlene glanced at the star charts displayed on the wall screens and tried to concentrate on their navigational situation. “What’s that station there?” she asked, unclipping the III’s from her lapels and changing to II’s. “Ambrose Miller Station? Isn’t that a Class Two maintenance facility? I’m sure I read that in a report somewhere…”

“Ambrose Miller Station it is,” Nancy said, holding out her hand for the Roman numeral III badges. “Let’s see if you learned anything in your Academy navigation courses. Set up a route change at GV-852 and run it by the captain, if she’s available. Then find me and I’ll check it.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” was all Darlene could think to say.

“Oh and do you know any of the Marine officers well enough to recommend a new third officer?”

“Um, you could try Robbie. That would be Lt. Mays, sir.”

“Get him here, ASAP.”

This was the first officer’s show, so Darlene stood quietly off to the side.

“2nd Lieutenant Robert Mays, USFMC, “B” Company, 1203rd Planetary Colonial Detachment. Reporting as ordered.”

“What do you know about running a starship, Mister Mays?” Nancy asked.

“I let the Navy handle that, sir.”

“Well, this Navy ship is short some officers. We need someone who can stand a watch, file paperwork and scream for help if anything untoward happens. Think you’re up for the job?”

Robbie hesitated, but only for a moment. “Sir, a Fleet Marine is ready to go in zero time, for any assignment, as needed.”

“That’s the line they always tell us. And you are needed.”

“Then I’m your man.”

“Congratulations, Lt. Mays – you are now the ship’s third officer. Don’t let it go to your head, I’m just filling in a position in the org chart. Since it was Ensign Charles who recommended you, and she’s now our second officer, I’ll put Darlene in charge of you for the moment.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Nancy smiled. “For what?”

Robbie smiled back. “Nothing, sir. Just happy to serve.”

“Uh-huh. Get out of here, lieutenant.” Nancy shook her head as she smirked at Darlene. “Marines.”

“They are paid to be very enthusiastic,” Darlene said. “And that’s what we need right now.”

When Robbie ran into Darlene later in the day still working the stacks in the hybe tank, she looked down and saw her old third officer badges on his lapel. “Congratulations, lieutenant. We may make an honest naval officer out of you yet.”

“Thank you, ensign. I still think you have a thing for Marines.”

“Well you do wear those snazzy dress uniforms well, don’t you just?” Darlene said, turning up the girlish Southern charm.

“Not right now I don’t,” he said, looking at the blue gel liquid dripping from her insulated suit.

“True. You better gear up. I need you in here to assist me.”

“I thought I was going to be assigned bridge watches.”

“You are – but after lunch. And I can’t get my lunch until I finish here.”

“And so on and so on,” Robbie nodded, looking around for a clean and dry hybe maintenance suit.

The clock display read 0206 hours ShipTime when Darlene made her way through the hangar bay one last time at the end of a very long day. The overhead lights had been dimmed and with the cargo bay doors left open, she could hear the hum of the new recirculation pump for the hybe tank.

But there was also a flickering glow from the far end, coming from behind a figure seated cross-legged on the safety decking. Two Marines on watch were ignoring this person, so it must’ve been approved by someone. Darlene had to go see.

The lone surviving Sirius Girl, Spaceman Uril Mannet, looked up at the ensign – she had six globes flickering in front of her. “Hey.”

“Hey, yourself,” Darlene said. “Mind if I join you?”

Uril shook her head, then patted the deck next to her.

“These are beautiful,” Darlene said after a few minutes of calm silence. “Are they for Azi?”

“Yeah. They’re flameballs – some people call them space candles.”

“Are they really lit?”

Uril nodded. “Perfectly safe. They’re pressurized. If the fuel were to leak out, it’d be very hard to catch fire.”

“Why six?”

This time the girl smiled. “The stages of Life, at least according to the gurus on the Dog Station: bump, birth, child, teen, adult, corpse.”

“That seems rather brutal.”

“Life is brutal. It comes and it goes. Azi was good people.”

“That she was.”

“And I’ll miss her.”

They sat quietly while Darlene paid her respects. But with only a few hours available for sleep, she finally headed for her bunk. There’d been no time to move her things to the second officer’s cabin. So she was surprised to see the stateroom she shared with Kirsten now tagged ACTING SECOND OFFICER / JUNIOR ENGINEER. But the sign wasn’t quite slipped into its slot straight. Pulling it out to reseat the sign, Darlene turned it over and had to smile. The ACTING SECOND OFFICER had been on the flip side of the THIRD OFFICER nameplate all this time. Fleet apparently anticipated many possibilities.

“The bridge is cleared for operation,” Nancy told Darlene. “The repairs have temporarily limited the complete freedom of movement of the isolation box and many of the minor systems, especially overhead control panels, have not been reattached or replaced. But all primary control and navigation functions have been restored.”

“Then we’re back in business, I suppose,” Darlene said.

“As much as we can be,” Nancy agreed.

“Captain! You’re up!” Darlene was surprised to see Angela Dessin in the wardroom.

“Temporary repairs, I assure you,” the captain said. “Bone glue and a support cast for now. But I won’t be standing watch for a while. Womat is a very skilled medic, but we don’t have a doctor.”

“We unfortunately loaded the colony’s two doctors in the top tray of the hybe tank,” Darlene said. “Just in case they were needed. Protocol’s failed us there. Here – don’t get up. Let me serve you.”

“Thanks, Darlene. You’ve done a helluva job on this run, ensign. One helluva job.”

Darlene beamed and tried hard not to blush.

The service for Lt. Glenard “Rich” McMurray, late second officer of the Evensong, was short yet poignant. Darlene had barely known the man, so was assigned the bridge watch. But she had the service on one of the command screens and followed along. Likewise Lt. Mays was on duty and he stopped in to check up on what needed covering.

“I never did find out why Lt. McMurray was called Rich,” Darlene said sadly. “I got the impression there was a story that went with that.”

“What will happen with the other dead?” Robbie asked. “The colonists.”

“The colonial authority will have to sort out if they’re related to any of the survivors. They’ll be shipped to the colony for burial. Otherwise, they go back to the Home System.”

“There should be a ceremony for all who died before they are taken off,” Robbie said with some certainty.

“Oh, there will,” Darlene said. “I heard that from the X.O. At least, there won’t be any of the Everlasting Electric Monuments down on the colony.” They were once very popular in Charleston and Savannah – you could still see the flickering glow from many of the cemeteries at night. “But I checked their inventory.”

“You don’t like them?”

“They’re a bit gaudy, even for the South,” Darlene said. “I like the Sirius flameballs better.”

“We’re coming into port,” the exec said, poking her head into Darlene’s compartment. “Do you want to take her in?”

Darlene took a deep breath. “Sure.”

“It is Friday the Thirteenth, in case that scares you.”

“Is it? I’d forgotten,” Darlene said. “I’d better set you up on the Button.”

“No,” Nancy said with a slight smile. “I think you can handle this all right. Lt. Van Zoeren is next on the duty roster – she’ll handle the emergency response.”

“I take it,” Darlene said, “that I’m off your shit list.”

“I suppose from your point of view you might say that.”

“You make it sound like I never was on your list.”

“Whoever said I kept a list? I’m the executive officer – it’s my job to maintain discipline aboard ship. That includes putting a little fear into the new, the young and the impressionable.”

Darlene wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“You’re due on the bridge to take her in, ensign,” Nancy reminded her. “Dismissed.”

Darlene was just scraping up the last mouthful of breakfast the next time she saw Nancy Kramer.

“It’s 0552 hours, ensign,” the first officer said sternly. “Aren’t you due on the podium at 0600?”

“Yessir,” Darlene said, swallowing her coffee in two gulps.

“You need to be in a spacesuit – and you’re not moving?”

“Two minutes to the hangar bay, five minutes to get suited and I’m there,” Darlene said brightly. “And if you excuse me, sir, I need to be on my way.”

“Carry on, ensign,” Nancy said with a little amusement. But Darlene was already gone.

She was actually logging into the podium station in the open hangar before 0600 hours. At the beginning of a shift, the only people likely to come up the ramp to the Evensong were delivery people and overachievers – something Darlene wryly noted she was familiar with.

She spotted the officer at the station’s barricade even before the podium’s signal light came on. Short, plain faced, Asian eyes, straight black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Standard khaki-gray uniform skirt and jacket, sturdy dress work shoes. A French flag on the sleeve. Darlene noticed these because the woman was burdened with both a space duffel and an M400 white spacesuit sans back and chest packs slung over her back. These items were laid down on the deck at the threshold before the woman saluted the flag and then came forward with her transfer packet.

“Second Officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Nina Jardins reporting to the USFS Evensong for duty,” the woman said, with only a hint of a French accent.

Darlene’s smile didn’t waver a bit, even as reality began to sink in. She was, after all, still an ensign early in her first year in Fleet and only aboard the Evensong a matter of weeks. It would’ve been too much to think she’d get to stay second officer – correction, acting second officer. She should remain third officer by all rights. Wasn’t that enough?

“I can log you as coming aboard, Lt. Jardins,” Darlene said. “However…”

Nina’s eyes widened as she spotted the Roman numeral II’s on Darlene’s lapels – the same emblems she was wearing herself. “I’m sorry, sir…”

“Nothing to apologize for, lieutenant,” Darlene said, skipping through the records which appeared on the podium’s screen. “You have valid orders. I’m just Acting Second Officer. But I cannot log you in as Second Officer Arriving – First Officer Kramer will have to do that. I’ll have a runner escort you in a minute.”

“Thank you, ensign.”

“It’s Darlene,” she smiled. “And may I be the first to say Welcome aboard?”

“Thanks.”

“And a Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“What?” Nina looked confused.

“It’s February fourteenth, Earth Relative Time. Happy Valentine’s Day.” The sound of a cutoff wheel from the cargo bay interrupted them. Workers reinforcing the supports for the bridge were already back at work at this early hour. “Apologies for the mess. We had a structural failure on this mission.”

“I see,” Nina said. “I was trying to figure out why a cargo ship needed a structural engineer aboard. Now I understand.”

Darlene did, too.

“I hope you’re all right with this,” Nancy said as Darlene stood at ease in front of the first officer’s desk.

“Perfectly, sir. Actually I feel a lot better now that Lt. Jardins’ aboard.”

“Even if all your welds are going to be replaced?” Nancy said with a trace of a smile.

“That was an emergency repair, sir. Nothing wrong with my welds.”

“It was a difficult job and you did well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Nina says the repairs will take six weeks. You need to make a schedule for everyone in the crew to take one week of leave – that includes yourself, it does not include the captain or second officer. I have you scheduled for a Dead Man’s Watch, which is a pretty good time to start on this project. You should start with the chief engineer – Herb doesn’t take leave much while aboard ship. Tell him that he gets first choice of dates and that you cannot proceed with the schedule until his slot is filled.”

“Yessir.”

“I don’t suppose I need to remind you that Mister Van Zoeren is not allowed to have the same week as Mister Camp.”

“Quite understandable.” The two woman shared the barest of smiles.

“By the way,” Nancy said, “I was reading the final bridge transcripts from the accident. At one point you were identified as saying,” she paused to pick up a datapad, “Stop it. Stop it. End run. Who were you talking to, ensign?”

Darlene’s cheeks colored slightly. “I’m afraid I was being battered by gear which came loose.”

“End run?”

“It’s what you tell the computers at the Academy to halt a simulation.”

“You understood you weren’t in a simulation situation?”

“I was… having a moment of panic, sir. But I quickly recovered.”

Nancy put the datapad back down. “You’re finally becoming the officer the Academy thought they were sending to the stars, Mister Charles.”

“Why thank you, sir.”

“Now don’t be a pill about it. Anything else?”

“Hmm.” Darlene thought for a moment, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. “So how did Captain Dessin know my first supervisor was himself a Southerner?”

“Because I told her.”

“Then how did you know?”

“The other ensign made a complaint to Fleet JAG – a complaint which upon investigation seemed to prove valid.”

“But I wasn’t called to testify or give a deposition.”

“We thought it best if you weren’t involved. Starting out in a military career is a delicate business – no point in adding to your difficulties.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Captain Dessin has some pull with Fleet Personnel. While they come down and yank some of our experienced people from time to time, we also get to choose the replacements.”

“You choose your replacements?”

“Funny world we live in sometimes, isn’t it?” Nancy said.

“I guess.” She could barely contain the thoughts racing through her head – or the questions which needed answering.

But Nancy had been through this before. “I think that’s more than enough truth for one day, ensign.”

Darlene started to go. “Do you think there’s time for me to get something to eat? I think so much better on a full stomach.”

“Go. You’re dismissed.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Darlene said, saluting. But just before she went through the hatch she turned back. “And thank you.”

Nancy Kramer smiled, but said nothing more.

___
Copyright 2012 Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon teaches Physics at Western Michigan University by day and writes of the great wars of the 29th century and elsewhen at night. In his first half century, he’s lived in the lake effect snow pattern of four of the five Great Lakes, from growing up in Western New York to getting a B.A. in Integrated Sciences (everything) at Northwestern and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Michigan Tech. His stories have been published on three continents on this planet, including “A Man in the Moon” in the 24th Writers of the Future anthology, “The Brother on the Shelf” in Analog, “Hail to the Victors” in Abyss & Apex, two stories translated to Greek, and Down Under, “Machine” and “In The Blink Of An Eye” appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. In April of 2012 his near-term SF story “The New Tenant” will appear in the U.K. anthology Rocket Science. Dr. Phil’s website is www.dr-phil-physics.com.

by Alex Jeffers

The second week, Emma discovered a tattoo parlor down an alley off the main square. The young man behind the counter took one look at her and said, in careful English, “You are too young for a tattoo.”

“I don’t want a tattoo. I don’t think I do. My brother does.”

The guy (his name sounded like Raf) asked how old Theo was—seventeen—and suggested she bring him in. Raf looked only a few years older than Theo. Emma liked the little blue-black glyph inked on the concave bone of his left temple between hairline and eyebrow. She thought it was meant to evoke a bird’s wing. But then Raf turned to change the CD and the tattoos on his shoulder and back, what wasn’t covered by his wifebeater, disappointed her. Koi fish, lotus blossoms, a whiskered Asian dragon—boring. As cliché as the horned skulls and flames and roses Theo dreamed about.

But when Raf returned his attention to her Emma decided he was good looking so she asked how he’d known to speak English. “You speak it very well,” she added. She wanted a moment to contemplate the image that had just come to her of Raf kissing her big brother, caressing Theo’s shoulder and arm. Raf’s long fingers left strokes of color on Theo’s skin, fire-breathing skulls, schools of glistening koi.

“You have the American look,” Raf said.

Emma didn’t believe he meant to sound condescending.

They’d come on vacation, Emma, Theo, Mom, Dad, but it promised to be a dreary sort of vacation because Mom and Dad had responsibilities—for them it was a working vacation. Every morning they took a train to the bigger town thirty kilometers away to do research in the university library, leaving their children to entertain themselves.

Theo wasn’t much entertainment even back home. In a foreign country where he didn’t know the language, he spent hours hunched over his laptop (he had terrible posture). Complaining to friends on Facebook, playing World of Warcraft, piecing together angsty doom-metal loops on GarageBand, which he never seemed to paste together into actual songs. Now and then he took a break to reach for his sketchbook, struck by another vision for the sleeve of tattoos he intended for his left arm as soon as he turned eighteen. If he wasn’t on the internet, he was usually in the home gym at the top of the house.

They’d traded houses with a professional couple, a dentist and a professor, who were abnormally fit for men in their forties: there were photos of them without shirts on all over the house. Theo made fake gross-out noises over the photos but he attacked their exercise machines with fervor and learned the metric system right away so he could keep track. When he didn’t smell of sweat, he smelled of the rank bodyspray TV commercials back home told him would attract girls. Not if they had functioning olfactory organs, Emma often almost told him. Emma thought her older brother might be more interesting if he were gay. Emma thought she’d make a better boy than Theo.

She had the guts to go out with her phrasebook and wander the town. Village—it was barely a town, surrounded by fields and pastures. Her guidebook to the country said the village had once been known for its livestock fair, but now the market ground had become a park and the abattoir municipal offices. She didn’t carry the guidebook with her because the village rated only half a page.

Emma walked through the park, noting the public pool for a future occasion, but she saw a cluster of girls her age who she could tell thought themselves too pretty to get wet. She had exactly as much use for girls like that as they would for her.

Walking the towpath beside the canal east of town, she imagined boarding a barge that would carry her upstream to the university or downstream a hundred twenty-five kilometers to the capital and the sea. On the far side of the water, a fence prevented golden-brown cattle from blundering into the deep canal. Approaching the fourteenth-century bridge, she startled a gang of teenage boys. They scuttled down the bank into the water. She saw several white butts before brown water hid them, before she noticed heaps of clothing by the towpath. Crouching in the shallows, the boys glowered up at her, and she wondered whether she found the notion of skinnydipping with a bunch of girlfriends appealing.

Not really. She couldn’t imagine any of the girls she knew being up for it. She wasn’t certain she would be. Public nudity was different for boys, she thought, though she still couldn’t imagine any of the boys she knew, American boys, willingly hanging out bareass with other bareass boys (certainly never Theo). But the image was oddly attractive. If she’d known these boys she might have gathered up their clothes and run off with them.

She didn’t know anybody in town yet. Raf at the tattoo shop wasn’t the only person to speak to her in English but he was the only one who knew right off his native language wouldn’t serve.

Walking on, leaving the boys to their fun, she recalled the dream she used to have of waking one morning to find herself a boy. Emma had read about gender dysphoria—she knew she didn’t suffer that. She had never felt any conviction that really she was a boy trapped in the wrong body, but if she played World of Warcraft she would choose a male avatar. All the best adventure stories, the heroes were boys who got to slay dragons or be apprenticed to wizards, embark on voyages of discovery or quests to rescue magical talismans (or tiresome princesses). Girls were tiresome, generally, the ones she knew. Although it was entirely likely, if she could penetrate the secret world of boys, incognita, she’d find they were also tiresome, consumed by trivial concerns she wouldn’t even comprehend because she lacked the context.

Theo was tiresome in just about every way but she had to admit he was pretty to look at when he forgot to look sullen. It was easy to place her brother’s face on the untried heroes of fantasy adventure novels, to populate the sweet fumblings of slash fanfic with Theo’s lithe body.

It would revolt him utterly to know that about her, the uses her imagination put him to.

Besides, Raf at the tattoo parlor was prettier, really, though she didn’t usually find blonds appealing. He didn’t give her that look, that startled, hungry, boy look, as if he’d just noticed you weren’t hideous and were a girl, so she thought probably he was gay.

The second time she visited the tattoo shop, she asked Raf if he’d like a soda or coffee from the café on the square. “You didn’t bring your brother,” he said.

Emma was used to boys being disappointed. She hadn’t even told Theo about Raf and the shop. “He’s afraid—” she thought he was—“to get inked while he still lives at home. Mom and Dad might get angry.”

“It’s not their affair, surely, what he does to his own body.”

Emma saw the hole. “Then it shouldn’t be anybody’s affair if I wanted a tattoo. I’m only two years younger than Theo.”

“But you don’t want one.” Cheery, Raf grinned. “I don’t even know why you’re here.”

“To talk to somebody friendly. To fetch you a cup of coffee or a Coca-Cola from the café.”

Raf went wide eyed in a charming, fake way. He glanced around the empty shop. The stop-start buzzing of an electric needle came from somewhere in back, behind the life-sized ventral and dorsal photos of a Japanese man vividly inked over every square centimeter of skin below the neck. “As you can see,” Raf said, “I have no customers presently clamoring for my artistry. I will walk with you to the café.”

When he turned to call in his own language to the invisible co-worker, Emma saw his ventral tattoos weren’t what she remembered. Glossy black spikes and blades pierced his pale skin and showed through the thin fabric of his shirt, looking like the crazy weapons of Star Trek Klingons, clashing. Tribal, she thought the aesthetic was called, just as clichéd as the dragon and fishes she must have imagined. She was relieved, when he came around the counter, that the wing glyph at his temple hadn’t changed, and startled by how short he was. The floor behind the counter must be raised. Theo would be a full head taller.

“Shall we?” Raf asked. “We’ll bring our treats back here, if you don’t mind. Better for Hender not to be interrupted.”

He walked beside her, asking how she and her brother came to be visiting this tiny, unimportant town. He knew the professor and the dentist—the dentist was his dentist, he’d done some of the professor’s ink. Emma found herself telling him more than she meant to, if she’d meant to tell him anything, on the short walk to the square. He was easy to talk to, dropping all the right hints to lead her on. Theo interested him but that was to be expected: Theo might be persuaded to drop a couple hundred euro on ink. If Raf was gay, he might find Theo attractive. Theo was attractive. Once again, the two boys were making out in the back of Emma’s mind, beautiful, almost innocent, so she was surprised when Raf opened the café door for her. Going in, she noticed a porcelainized plaque fixed to the wall beside the door, Delft-blue letters spelling words she couldn’t read.

Inside, it was noisy and cheerful, smelled of coffee, warm milk—spices and baking bread, hot sugar, mustard, salted meats. The odors were comforting, though Emma imagined they could also be nauseating as she realized she’d forgotten lunch. “Are you hungry?” she asked Raf.

“Are you?”

“Famished. I only noticed now.”

He smiled in a way she liked for a moment, then didn’t like so much as he walked right to the counter and spoke to the man behind it too fast for Emma to have any chance of understanding. She stepped up beside him. He was barely taller than she, still smiling, but the fellow behind the counter was taller than Theo and quite nice looking. “Perhaps ten minutes,” Raf said.

“I’m paying.”

“Not this time. You may dislike what I chose for you.”

“What?”

“A traditional hot sandwich and our traditional way of serving coffee. Hot milk and a taste of bitter chocolate.”

Coffee Guy (so she christened him) blinked, encouraging.

“Yummy.” Emma held out the ten-euro note in such a way Coffee Guy would have to fold it back into her hand or take it. Raf made falsely remonstrative noises but Coffee Guy took the bill with a smile.

Moving aside, Emma asked, “What does the sign by the door say?”

“Hmm?” Raf was still pretending pique. “It notes that this is an historic building, dating to the early sixteenth century, and that it was built over the site of the witch’s house. Excuse me.” Returning to Coffee Guy, he accepted a white paper bag and a cardboard caddy carrying three tall paper cups with plastic sippy lids.

“Witch’s house?”

Raf was leading her back to the door. Outside, he indicated two words on the plaque that Emma could now interpret—the languages were not so distantly related. “Another tradition,” Raf said, “older than the coffee or the sandwich.” He seemed in a hurry, brisk and brusque.

As he strode away and Emma hesitated, puzzled, it appeared to her the inky spikes and blades and flourishes on his back were writhing, contorting, blushing with blots of clear color, but when she blinked and looked again, hurrying after him, they had resolved into intricate flowers tangled in wreaths and garlands on his shoulder and upper arm. Scarlet poppies, indigo cornflowers, peonies, Japanese chrysanthemums—she didn’t recognize half of them.

“I become anxious about Hender,” Raf said when she caught up. “I’m sorry. He is not always good with people.”

“Your tattoos—”

“Yes? I like the flowers better as well.”

From across the street, through the plate-glass window of the shop Emma saw a customer waiting, back turned, peering at the display of photocopied flash as if each sheet were a painting on a museum’s wall. “An American,” said Raf.

“How can you tell?”

“I can tell. Perhaps your brother.”

“Theo has long hair. Halfway down his back.” She didn’t have to see him close up to see the American customer had barely the shadow of stubble on his skull.

Raf leapt the step to the door, pushed it open, and said in ringing English as the bell tinkled, “I’m sorry there was no-one here to welcome you.”

“He said you’d be right back, the other—” Turning from the wall of skulls and dragons, magickal symbols and WWII pinups, Theo froze when he saw his sister behind Raf. “Emma?”

“What happened to your hair?”

Triumphant, Raf grinned.

“What are you doing here? You’re too young for ink.”

Startled into petulance, Emma blurted, “So are you!”

“My friend Emma bought me coffee,” Raf said equably, placing cup caddy and sandwich bag on the counter. “That is why I wasn’t here to greet you. Let me just give Hender his and then we can discuss your plans and wishes.”

When he took one of the paper cups behind the curtain, Emma asked Theo again, “What happened to your hair?” It had been beautiful hair, wavy and lustrous—much prettier than hers.

“His friend?” Self conscious, Theo shifted his sketchpad from one hand to the other, then back. “Since when?”

First surprise passed, Emma imagined Theo was maybe even handsomer without all that hair distracting from the fineness of his features, the shocking paleness of his eyes. A queasy-making thought to have about her brother when he stood in front of her big as life, so she turned away. Incomprehensible voices sounded behind Hender’s curtain, three of them (she hadn’t seen Hender yet), and the thrumming of his needle. “How’d you find the place?”

“Google,” Theo said, but not as if she was stupid.

Distracted by annoyance, Emma didn’t often remember how shy he was. She took her cup from the counter and sipped through the vent in the plastic lid. The coffee wasn’t very sweet, not like cocoa—she tasted milk and coffee more than chocolate. “Why?”

“You know I want them.”

“Why now?”

When she looked over her shoulder, Theo was sitting on the bench below the display of flash. Staring at his clasped hands, he looked miserable. For an instant she felt sorry for him. “Why now?” she asked again.

“Simon got one. Bragging about it on Facebook.”

Simon and Theo were barely friends, back home. Simon had a guitar and people to jam with, not just GarageBand on his laptop. They were World of Warcraft rivals, though Emma didn’t really understand how that worked.

Your friend got one isn’t a good excuse for a tattoo,” Raf said, pushing through the curtain. He went straight for his coffee. “It’s a permanent alteration to your body—” Emma wondered about his, Raf’s, though—“you need to really want it.”

Theo raised his head. “I do!” His face was tragic.

“What did Simon get?” asked Emma, mildly curious.

“Line of kanji down his spine. Really hurt, he said.”

Emma snorted. “Bragged, you mean.”

“Close to the bone hurts more,” Raf said in the tone of a master craftsman imparting lessons to his apprentice. “I do not recommend it for your first experience. I won’t do kanji, either, by the way. It’s not my language—I don’t like to trust the published interpretations or the designs themselves. They’re often inaccurate.”

“Simon’s probably says happiness puppies,” Emma said, uncomfortably sympathetic, “instead of what he wanted.”

Theo looked down at his hands again. “Fight fierce, fight strong,” he mumbled.

“That’s possibly stupider than happiness puppies.”

“Your sandwich, Emma.” Somehow Raf had got it out of the bag and wrappings without her noticing, arranged nicely in little wedges on a pretty plate.

Emma’s hunger asserted itself. Ravenous, she stuffed a wedge into her mouth. It was still hot. Crunchy and buttery toasted bread enfolded molten cheese and shavings of something like prosciutto. Feeling guilty after bolting two, she looked up to offer a taste to Raf and Theo.

They sat side by side on the bench, knees nearly touching, Theo’s sketchbook between them. “Any of these might be executed to fine effect,” Raf said, flipping through the pages again. “But you can’t decide, am I correct?”

Emma edged closer. The uppermost page showed a disembodied arm (thicker, brawnier than Theo’s) encrusted with patterned lozenges like Turkish tiles, but Raf flipped it and the next arm was decorated with a menagerie of vivid zoo animals.

“I keep changing my mind,” Theo admitted, his voice mournful.

“Then I’m sorry to say you are not ready.”

Theo lifted his eyes, stared into Raf’s for a long moment. He looked ready to cry before he moved his gaze to Raf’s upper arm and shoulder. “Yours are…” he began.

Beautiful, Emma thought he meant to say, but beauty wasn’t a quality Theo could ascribe to another man. They were beautiful, Raf’s garlands of inked flowers. Theo raised one hand as if to caress them, another gesture halted as he abruptly rose to his feet. The sketchbook clattered to the floor. Raf looked up mildly.

“You’re right.” Theo crouched to retrieve his drawings. “I need to decide what I really want.” Without another word, he bolted out of the shop. The bell over the door tinkled gaily. Emma sat beside Raf and they shared the rest of her sandwich, except one sliver saved for Hender.

After the first bitter bite, Emma didn’t mind the needle chewing at her skin. She’d had to assume an awkward position on the settee to give Raf access to the fleshy inner surface of her upper arm, and the moment of removing her shirt had been disorienting. She’d never done it for a boy who wasn’t interested in what was inside her bra.

She had determined Raf wasn’t. He was interested in what was in her brother’s undershorts, but not in any urgent way—when Emma confessed her fantasy of Raf and Theo necking, Raf just laughed, delighted, and wondered aloud why it was so many women loved those images. When she decided, quite abruptly, she did want a tattoo, just a small one in an inconspicuous place, he wasn’t difficult to argue around after she told him what she wanted. He sketched the symbol for her, fast and decisive in colored inks, and Emma became even more determined to have it. He ushered her behind the curtain at the back of the shop. She got only a glimpse into one small room where a man in a white undershirt like Raf’s leaned over the jewelled serpent on the back of another man, before Raf waved her into the second. He gave her a moment to settle herself, ducking into the other room to give Hender his wodge of sandwich.

It didn’t actually take much time for Raf to inscribe the design on Emma’s arm three inches below where she shaved. She liked his hands on her, swabbing the skin with alcohol, then transferring the design, finally going to work, though she wished it was skin to skin uninhibited by his latex gloves. After a while, the rhythm of the stinging needle and regular pauses to wipe off blood and ink relaxed her into a kind of trance that blundered into memory.

Unfamiliar memory. Half-familiar memories. They were old, well worn, blurred around the edges as they bubbled up from among quite different memories she knew to be hers but that faded even as she reached after them. When her little brother Theo was small he couldn’t get his mouth around the four syllables of his big brother’s name. Emma, he called her, and had to be taught that Emma was a girl’s name. Theo’s brother’s name was Emmanuel, which didn’t admit of a convenient shortening like Theo for Theodore. (Theo had been Teddy until he turned ten.) What had their parents been thinking?

She remembered throwing a football for Theo, who was miserable at catching it—she remembered wrestling with him when they were nearer the same size—she remembered helping him with his algebra homework, impatient when he didn’t get it.

She remembered the first boy to kiss her (not the first she wanted to kiss), Steve, a nerdier nerd than her brother, who refused (at first) to suck her cock though he was extremely happy when she went to town on his. How old had she been? Fourteen. Almost nineteen now, lying still under Raf’s calm hands and the sting of his electric needle, she felt her dick plump up a bit in her boxers at the memory, felt her balls shift around.

She remembered the expression Theo got when she told him his big brother was gay. Liked other boys instead of girls. Liked their muscles (some of the boys she liked didn’t possess much muscle), their scratchy beards, their odor. Liked touching them, kissing them, sexing them up.

Theo didn’t so much recoil as subtly withdraw, bending his head so dark hair obscured his transparent eyes. “I’m still your brother,” Emma had said. “Nothing’s changed, except that little bit of dishonesty between us. You want me to be honest with you, right?”

Now Raf set the silent needle aside and swabbed her arm again. The evaporating film of alcohol tingled, its fumes fizzy in her nostrils. Raf stood, stretched, clenching and flexing the fingers of his right hand, and gazed down at her, his expression neutral, thoughtful. She wasn’t the type of boy he was attracted to.

Annoyed, Emma said, “Done?” The depth and richness of her voice distracted and pleased her.

“Yes. Do you wish to see?”

A big mirror hung on the wall but Raf reached for a hand mirror and held it for her. First, momentarily disconcerted, she noticed the aggressive growth of hair in her armpit that thinned only a little where it fanned out to mesh with the hair on her chest. The kind of boy she was attracted to would never shave his body hair. Raf shifted the mirror a fraction.

It was reversed in the glass, the symbol incised on the pale flesh of her inner arm, arrowheads pointing off past eleven o’clock instead of one. Inflammation blurred the outlines, seeping blood obscured careful gradation of tint and shading. It was probably stupid, overly obvious, but she liked it: paired Mars glyphs, unbroken circles interlinked, arrowheads parallel. Within indigo outlining, the rings and arrows were tinted like anodized aluminum. She liked it.

“I like it,” Emma said.

“Nice work, Raf,” said a new voice, more heavily accented speaking English than Raf’s.

Emma blinked away from the gleaming oval of the mirror as Raf said, “Hender—my new American friend Emmanuel, who bought your coffee.”

“And my tasty bit of sandwich? Thank you, Emmanuel. They were much appreciated.”

Hender appeared older than Raf, ten, fifteen years. Emmanuel didn’t find him especially handsome or his ear and facial piercings enticing, but his eyes, a brown so pale it was nearly gold, were compelling. The glyph on his left temple was larger and more complex than Raf’s, foliated, tendrils looping and extending into his hairline, onto his cheekbone, as if Raf’s were merely a preliminary sign, incomplete. Both stepped back when Emmanuel sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the settee. Hender placed a proprietary hand on Raf’s shoulder—his fingernails were unpleasantly long, lacquered black, and he wore too many gold rings—and smiled, exposing teeth that looked inhumanly sharp. Under his hand, the flowers on Raf’s shoulder appeared to catch fire.

Emmanuel blinked. Flickering flames resolved into stylized scrolls, yellow, orange, red, like the decals on an ancient muscle car’s fender, and she blinked again, disappointed.

“Show Emmanuel how to care for his new art while it heals,” Hender said, squeezed Raf’s shoulder again, and went away.

Before she allowed Raf to tend her wound, Emmanuel rose to her feet and regarded herself in the mirror, pleased by what she saw. Wide shoulders, expansive chest, trim, defined midsection, narrow hips. The logoed elastic of her boxers cut straight across her belly below the hips, cutting short the furry trail that led the gaze toward the meaty lump behind the fly of khaki shorts. It shifted, all by itself, buckling the fabric of the fly to reveal a flash of copper zipper, and Emmanuel grinned at her reflection.

Raf swabbed the tattoo with stinging alcohol again, smeared it with greasy antibiotic ointment—he gave her the tube, opened fresh, to slip in her pocket—taped over it a square of plastic film, explaining as he went along how to care for it so it would heal quickly and cleanly. Because she wanted him to, he kissed her, but it was an uninvolved, almost chilly kiss—he was more attracted to Theo—and he wouldn’t go further even after she groped his crotch and found him stiff. She didn’t have enough cash on her to pay the full price of the tattoo but he said it didn’t matter, she could cover the rest next time she dropped by.

Emmanuel liked being a boy. A man, really. Her voice was deeper and she was taller than her dad, outweighed him by twenty or thirty pounds. Nor was her hair thinning, though she kept it short and butch. Now and then she caught him staring at her, bemused by his big gorilla son or almost (she didn’t really think so) remembering his daughter.

She liked being a big brother. She half remembered watching out for Theo when he was a geeky high-school freshman with no friends and girly long hair—remembered intimidating the bullies who wanted to intimidate Theo. Those memories gradually became more vivid, washing out bleached memories of growing up a girl, Theo’s little sister. She remembered encouraging him to work out, get bigger and stronger so the bullies wouldn’t bother him. She had moved bench and free weights to the basement because she knew he was uncomfortable invading her bedroom to use them. What really made Theo uncomfortable in her room, she knew, was the home-made screensaver on her desktop monitor, endlessly cycling raw beefcake. The nerdling needed just to deal: his big brother—bigger in every way, not just a year and a half older—was gay and pretty happy about it.

Well, not so happy maybe about not having done much recently. She regretted not pushing harder with Raf. God, the blue balls when he finished with her and sent her home to the dentist’s and professor’s house. She’d had to beat off twice before she could sleep. The first experienced (she recalled earlier but it wasn’t clear they’d really happened) boy orgasm almost disappointed her. She kind of remembered girl orgasms being more profound, less localized and fleeting, if more effort to achieve. But she liked spunk. Splooge. Cum. Even the names were fun. As a girl, she’d thought it gross without much acquaintance—as a boy, she licked it off her hand, savoring the slimy texture, the salty-bitter taste, and rubbed it gummily into the hair on her belly and chest.

When she woke, early, she was delighted by the morning wood in her boxer shorts but needed to piss so she left it alone. She stumbled to the bathroom and remembered she could do it standing up, lifted the seat, fumbled her dick out. Unused to pissing while half hard (or maybe she just didn’t care), she made a mess. After brushing her teeth, washing hands and face, replacing the dressing under her arm, she went back to the bedroom and fired up the laptop. She pointed the browser to her favorite slashfic site. After only a few paragraphs she found the story insipid. The boys were insipid, dreamy and yearny, barely out of adolescence—big eyed and delicate like the figures in yaoi manga, for which she used to have more patience. When she was a girl. Without much trouble, she found a site more to her liking and, reading badly spelled, pedestrian porn, rubbed out another. She smeared the splooge over her abs, sucked the remnants off fingers and palm.

She pulled on a pair of b-ball shorts, stuffed her big feet into shoes, and climbed the stairs to the professor’s and dentist’s gym. She preferred free weights, which required more finesse and, by way of their instability, worked peripheral muscles as well as those directly involved, but the machines were all she had till they returned home.

She was benching, legs splayed wide while her arms pressed the bar up, when she heard her brother’s feet on the steps. She finished the set before looking toward the door. Theo gaped at her. “What?” Her shorts were too long for anything to be hanging out in public and perturbing his masculinity.

“What did you do to your arm?”

“Got Raf to give me a tattoo.” She sat up. “Wanna see it?”

Raf? That’s his name? He didn’t talk you out of it?”

“It was a sudden thing but I only had one idea, one small design, not dozens.”

“Just nine.”

Emmanuel peered at her brother. He was unhappy. “I’m going back today, if you’d like to come with me. Didn’t have enough cash to pay him yesterday.”

Aimless, Theo turned away. Running his hand along the white plaster wall, he paced until the descent of the peaked attic roof prevented further progress. “There’s no point if I can’t decide what I want.”

“I should have let you get yours first.” But then she’d still be a girl, and younger than Theo. It seemed likely, anyway.

“For once,” he agreed without turning, his voice thin with unsuppressed bitterness. It was hard for Theo, being younger, smaller, less. “Is he gay, Raf? Your summer-in-Europe boyfriend? He shouldn’t ask you to pay.”

“I’m not his type, as it turns out.” You are, Emmanuel didn’t say. “You should come with me anyway. Get out of the house. Maybe we’d meet a girl for you.”

Theo still didn’t turn. “Are you done? I want to work out.”

“Fine.” Irritated, Emmanuel got to her feet. She was done. Her brother smelled worse than usual, as if the bodyspray had rotted his skin overnight. “Have at it.”

“Wait,” Theo said when she was almost out the door. “When are you leaving?”

They walked along the towpath in hot sun, brother and brother. Strangely, after his shower Theo hadn’t fragranced himself to hell and back: he smelled of boy, soon of sweat. He smelled good. Emmanuel wanted to rub his head where pale scalp gleamed through dark stubble but figured it wasn’t a liberty she ought to take. She wanted to ask again why he’d cut it. Probably some fallout from his on-line rivalry with Simon, like the disappointing first visit to Raf’s shop.

“When I came along this way yesterday,” she said, “there was a bunch of kids skinnydipping in the canal.”

“Girls and boys? Or just boys?”

“Just boys.”

“Musta been a treat for you.”

Startled, Emmanuel laughed. She liked the sound of her own laughter nearly as much as the evidence her brother had a sense of humor. “Not much to see—they were in a hurry not to be seen. You ever done that?”

“Not really my thing.”

Theo didn’t like even just taking off his shirt in public. He was shy about it even with her, though she had her suspicions about that.

“You?” Theo asked, startling her again.

“Sure,” she said, not really sure. “Not here. Yet.”

“Wouldn’t try it here,” Theo muttered. “That water looks nasty.”

“Wanna find out?”

Before he could react, Emmanuel had him in a mild chokehold, lifting him against her chest. The stubble on her cheek rasped on the stubble of his skull.

“Fuck!” Theo grunted—she hadn’t cut off his air—grabbing at her arm with both hands. Somehow he twisted and heaved in her grasp. As she went off balance, unlikely pain ripped through her shoulder and then the ground came up and knocked the breath out of her lungs. In an instant, coughing, she was tumbling down the grassy bank. The water pounded her with a crash. She went under.

She came up spitting. When water cleared her eyes, she saw her brother down the bank, teetering on the verge. “Stupid!” he hollered. “You’ve got an open wound!”

“What—” The new tattoo.

When she struggled upright, the warm silty water only came to mid-thigh, dragging at her shorts as she floundered back to the bank. Theo wasn’t going to plunge in and help but he stood waiting, looking worried. “Jesus, Emmanuel, don’t surprise me like that.”

Emmanuel couldn’t help herself: she guffawed. “How’d you do that, anyway? Been sneaking out to some dojo, little bro, learning super-secret martial arts moves?”

“You surprised me.” He shook his head, extended his hand for her. “Are you okay?”

“Sodden,” she said, letting him help her onto the embankment. “Fine. Maybe more surprised than you. Who knew that was even possible? Let me sit for a minute.”

When she sank down onto the grass and pulled off one bucket of a shoe, Theo crouched at her side. “I’m not the whiny kid who gets beaten up at school anymore, you know. Are you sure you’re okay?”

She worked the other shoe off, turned them both upside down and set them aside. She didn’t expect further explanation for Theo’s mysterious superpowers. “Yeah, sure.” Testing the rotation of her shoulder, she felt the twinge but it wasn’t bad. “Prolly some bruises and a bit of stiffening up tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Glad to know you can defend yourself. And like you said, I shouldn’t have surprised you—my own fault.”

“Pick on someone your own size next time.”

Astonished again, Emmanuel choked on a laugh. Recovering, she said, “Excuse me, Theo, when did you turn into a human being?”

Regarding her gravely, her brother said, “Occasionally one has lapses.” Then he sat down properly by her side. “At the moment I’m worried about your tattoo. You don’t know what kind of bacteria were swimming in that water.”

Reminded of it, she felt the clammy suction of the tape and plastic on her inner arm. Except for her shorts and what was in them, the rest of her, exposed to sun and air, was practically dry already. Peeling at the tape, wincing when it ripped hairs from their follicles, she said, “I doctored it up pretty thick with hi-test antibiotic stuff. It’s greasy. Probably the germs couldn’t even get through the grease.”

“Still. I would be happier if you got it properly cleaned and tended. Soon.”

Looking up, Emmanuel caught him staring at her fingers picking at the dressing, at her hairy underarm—her hairy chest. She didn’t understand his expression.

“We’re closer to your friend’s shop than the house,” Theo went on. “He’ll know what to do. As soon as you’re ready.”

Raf was calm, undismayed—pleased to see them, Emmanuel thought. Pleased to see them both. With little fuss, he cleaned Emmanuel’s tattoo—the alcohol stung, weirdly worse than the first times, fizzes and pinpricks more irritating than her memory of the needle—anointed it with a dose of antibiotic, dressed it anew. He advised her to keep a close eye on it as it healed although he had never heard that the canal bred flesh-eating microbes. Indifferent, he accepted the damp euro notes she pressed on him and rang them into the register. And then they were at a loss.

While Raf tended Emmanuel, Theo had been leafing through a thick album of photos of the shop’s work, absorbed, intent—beautiful, really, as a studious child. He had failed to remark on Raf’s transformed tattoos but now that Emmanuel noticed the cheap stylized flames were gone, the garlands of flowers returned. The same flowers? Possibly not but near enough. Had Raf changed them back on Theo’s account?

He stepped away from Emmanuel to peer over Theo’s shoulder and point something out. The smile her brother turned up at him made her heart contract and then thump uncomfortably. They were too pretty together—like manga boys, they looked too alike. Theo was quite a bit taller and their coloring was different but it was the difference between African-American Barbie and the standard model.

Her tastes had changed, it seemed, since she became a boy herself. The thought of them getting it on was still attractive (the inevitability of it, it almost looked like) but what she wanted for herself was a bigger man, a big, hairy, muscly guy. Like her.

“Anybody want coffee?” she said, loud. “I’ll go get it.”

Theo started but Raf only glanced at her, his expression mild. “That would be very pleasant, Emmanuel.”

She half turned toward the door, then turned back. “Will somebody speak English?”

“Probably, but I’ll write it down for you, shall I?” Raf did that, his printing precise and legible, and coached her through the pronunciation.

For some reason that reminded her and she asked, “What was that about the witch’s house?”

“Witch?” asked Theo.

“Town legend,” Raf said. He appeared slightly put out. “Perhaps wizard would be the better term, in English. A learned man back in the fourteen hundreds, more learned than he had need or right to be, not being in holy orders, lived in the house where the café stands now. There were suspicions about him, rumors, but they came to nothing until it was noticed there were strangers, foreigners, living in the house whom nobody recalled arriving. He called them nephews, or sometimes visitors from the Holy Land.” Reciting, Raf’s voice was thin, precise, almost pained. “The scholar was abruptly wealthier than he had been. Some claimed to have seen peculiar lights and other manifestations about the house in the depths of night. A child died raving, inexplicably. Another, older child murdered her father some days after being seen conversing with the scholar and the foreigners. A youth claimed one of the strangers had bespelled him to perform an unnatural act. Signs, portents—there were others: stillborn or deformed livestock, blights, comets. The mob chose him and his guests as their scapegoats but the guests had vanished. Under torture, he called them, the three of them, angels or sometimes devils whom Lucifer had sent to tempt and aid him. Naturally, he was killed, burned alive. His house was demolished, the soil under it sown with salt. The town’s misfortunes eased. A hundred years later a new building was raised on the spot and eventually, say ten years ago, the café opened.”

“Whoa,” said Theo, fascinated. “We don’t have history like that back home.”

Raf regarded him soberly. “So you’re privileged to think. The stories weren’t written down, the storytellers died of smallpox and their languages disappeared, somebody built a Starbucks just like every other Starbucks on the salt-sown foundations of the forgotten wizard’s house. Here we do too much remembering. You Americans are fortunate to live in the present as it happens.” Turning away, he seemed to mutter, “I too prefer the now.”

Emmanuel left them to argue that out—or not. At the café, Coffee Guy behind the counter didn’t seem to recognize her (how could he?), but was charming, friendly, flirtatious, and spoke sufficient English that she didn’t have to wrestle with Raf’s language lesson. Taking her money, he touched her hand with his own in a way he didn’t need to and looked into her eyes with great promise. When he turned to prepare her coffee, it seemed he fumbled his white shirt open two buttons more so she could be sure of the interesting knotted tattoo on his chest, just below the left clavicle, its flourishes glowing through curly brown hair. Flowers twined through the knots, poppies and cornflowers—she wondered if it was Raf’s work. Surely it was, or Hender’s. The town was too small to support more than one tattoo shop. Handing over the three tall coffees, he said, “See you around,” as if he’d memorized the phrase but in a tone that made it both a question and a promise.

Walking back, Emmanuel pondered how to encounter him again without a counter and a transaction between them—how to discover his name. He was as tall as she, as substantial. She somehow didn’t wish to ask Raf, who would probably know. Spend an afternoon at the public pool swimming and tanning—he had a nice tan, perhaps that was where he’d acquired it. Loiter around the café until he went off shift. Google for the places gay guys congregated. For a few steps they were making out in the back of her mind, Coffee Guy and Emmanuel, necking and groping—chest hair caught in her teeth when she nibbled his nipple—but then the vision became Theo and Raf again, similarly pleasing in a voyeuristic way but interestingly different.

They weren’t necking when she stepped back into the shop, not that she’d really expected them to be. The front room was public space, windowed to the street. Theo was shy…wasn’t gay.

They were, however, too preoccupied to acknowledge her entrance after making sure it was her. Raf leaned over a large sheet of paper, delicately maneuvering his pencil. Theo watched—watched Raf’s hand but glanced up often at his face. Theo’s expression was dopey with intent, and something else.

Emmanuel set a cup before each. Raf offered her a distracted nod but Theo nothing. The drawing taking shape was a spidery branch of cherry blossoms. Emmanuel could imagine it spiralling up somebody’s arm, twining over biceps and triceps to spray blooms across the upper back, then up and over to deposit more on the round ball of the shoulder and a final profusion on the gentle swell of one pec. Raf paused, sketched in a butterfly alighting.

It was subtle, pretty. She wouldn’t have expected pretty of Theo. The designs he’d drawn were aggressive, mannered. “I thought you wanted a full sleeve,” she said, too loud and abrupt.

He glanced at her but didn’t seem to see her. “So did I.” He reached for his coffee.

“It’s just an idea,” murmured Raf, concentrating.

Emmanuel no longer had to imagine the tattoo: the spindly branch climbed Raf’s arm, looped onto his shoulder and back, under the translucent white strap of his wifebeater onto his chest. Blossoms blushed rose over the paler pink of his skin. Faint blue shadows made them stand out. Unopened buds and baby leaves were tender spring green. The butterfly was black, blue, purple, with shards of clear, bright yellow. Bruise colors, except it was precise and fine within its outlines, not blurred and sore. She could never manage a seduction so well. She didn’t have his talents.

She’d finished her coffee in fifteen, twenty minutes, and Theo and Raf hadn’t become any more entertaining. “See you around,” she said, echoing the object of her interest. Raf glanced up with a faint smile, Theo nodded absently. She left.

In the square, she waited a while on a bench across from the café, hoping Coffee Guy might emerge, but that would be too easy. Other people did come out. One of them she recognized as Hender. He recognized her as well, raised his paper cup in a salute, but didn’t come over. She wondered if he was going back to the shop—if he would be annoyed or jealous at the sudden rapport between his protégé and her brother. She wondered if she’d ever see Coffee Guy again. She went into the café but he was no longer there. Disappointed, she blundered out again without buying anything.

Google directed Emmanuel to a pub that, while not strictly a gay bar, was the next closest thing in this small town. Another reference suggested a grove in the park where sordid things might occur, and another told her to try the same café after midnight, when it was the only place still open. Overall, though, she’d be better off making a trip to the university town where her parents did their research. She filed all the information away for later.

It was Theo’s night to make dinner, something he was usually pretty responsible (if resentful) about, but he didn’t get home till twenty minutes before she expected their parents. He looked a little bruised around the eyes and—was she imagining it?—chafed around the lips. He looked halfway to exaltation and moved his left arm gingerly. “Did he do the whole thing in one go?” Emmanuel asked.

Theo grinned, open, delighted. “Just the outlines. Filling in and coloring later, couple of days.” Then he winced and looked a little worried. “Don’t tell the ’rents?”

“As if I would. They’re going to wonder about long sleeves, though.”

“Let them wonder.”

“I want to see it but I won’t ask you to get all unwrapped right now.”

Theo shook his head. “After dinner, maybe. Oh, hey, help me make dinner? I’m kinda running late.”

“You’ll owe me.”

He shook his head again. “Well, you know, I already owe you so what’s a little more.”

In the kitchen he got busy fast, pointing her at things he needed cleaned or peeled or chopped. It was going to be some kind of stir-fry, apparently. Slicing beef into thin strips, Theo ignored his brother, but when he had it marinating in soy sauce and the ginger she’d chopped he took a moment and just looked at her.

“What?”

“I’m, umm, going out after dinner. You want to come with so the parents don’t freak?”

Emmanuel set her knife down. “Out? Out where? You never go out.”

Looking away, he smiled. “Raf invited me to join him for a drink. He said you’d be welcome.”

“You’re underage.”

“Not here. Civilized country. I’m not planning to get drunk or anything. I’ll buy you a beer.”

“Raf? Huh.” Emmanuel snorted, keeping her delight to herself. “Am I to understand you’re not as straight as I’ve always been led to believe? Or is this not a date?”

Startled, Theo squeaked, “Date? It’s not—” He blushed, blinked a few times. “I guess maybe you could call it that. Hah. That’s a shocker.” Blush fading, he shook his head. “And I don’t quite know what I am because I still think girls are all kinds of sexy but kissing him was hella sexy too.”

“Well, good for you,” said Emmanuel in jovial, big-brother tones. “Sure, I’ll chaperone you, Teddy—” she hadn’t called her brother Teddy since he was a little kid—“if you promise not to put on any of that noxious bodyspray.”

“Lend me your big-boy cologne?” he suggested with a cock of his head both flirtatious and naïvely mocking.

After his shower, Teddy knocked on her door to show off his ink—get Emmanuel’s help doctoring it. She was less surprised by the delicate tracery of branches and shoots and bruises on his arm and shoulder than the unprecedented act of his coming to her room wearing only a towel hitched around his hips. The temptation to make it fall, discover what he had in the downstairs department to offer Raf, tested her resolve. He smelled of her cologne (he’d used too much), which she really felt smelled better on her.

With a kind of brusque tenderness, she swabbed the twigs and branches and uncolored blossoms with a pad steeped in alcohol. The softness of Teddy’s skin perturbed her. The hair on his forearms was translucent and there was none on his chest, just a faint glowy fuzz. Glancing at his legs, she noticed that shins and calves appeared only as downy as his arms. He noticed her noticing. “You got all the wild man of Borneo genes from Dad’s side. I take after Mom’s family. So I’ll never go bald.”

“Except on purpose.” Emmanuel seemed to remember her little brother being more hirsute. Not like her, maybe, but not like a girl either. Under her hand, the muscles of his arm and shoulder felt different than as recently as the morning, when he tossed her in the canal. Not flabbier, but less purposeful than simply useful. Perhaps it was just that he was at rest. She smeared on the greasy ointment. When he stood up to have her apply the dressings, he looked willowy standing before her, not lean and wiry. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She went back to work, taping squares of plastic like patchwork to his skin.

When that was finished, she told him to go get dressed if they were going out. At the door, he turned back fast and had to grab for the slipping towel. “You didn’t say what you think of your friend’s work.”

“It’s—” Emmanuel hesitated. “It’s not what I’d have expected for you. Not to say it isn’t very nicely done. When Raf completes it and it’s all healed up, it’ll be…lovely.”

Clutching the towel, Teddy frowned, but then he visibly let what he didn’t want to hear go and opened the door. Fifteen minutes later he was back, dressed, black shirt severely buttoned and tucked into black jeans, buzzed head making him look an ikon of severity. It was momentarily impossible to imagine him necking with Raf. In her mind Emmanuel stripped off the shirt, finished off the tattoos, and then all was well. She followed him downstairs happily enough, out. She had dressed equally thoughtfully if with different calculation: tight t-shirt was meant to showboat her build, low-slung shorts make it evident she’d chosen to go commando. She hoped to meet Coffee Guy, though another guy might do almost as handily.

Teddy knew the way. He had memorized Google’s map, she imagined. They walked through long summer twilight, bucolic suburb to mediaeval town alleys, not saying much until Teddy asked, “What’s it like? What guys do with guys, after the kissing?” So he had taken note of her outfit.

She peered at him. He had his head down, looking away. “It’s sex,” she said. “It’s big fun. I mean—” She turned her own head, not really embarrassed. “I mean, I’ve never done it with a girl so it’s not like I can compare and contrast.” She could, but not in a way that would be helpful.

“Me neither,” Teddy muttered, voice small but defiant.

“Really?” It was almost not a surprise.

Teddy half stumbled, recovered. “Not all the way.”

Brotherly, Emmanuel put her arm around his neck, holding him up. “It’ll be okay, Teddy. You don’t have to go through with it—you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Say no, easy as that.” Teddy was bigger than Raf.

“But I do want. I want to do everything. Will it hurt?”

Emmanuel released him, stepped away. “If you do that? For a moment or two, yeah. Not as much as tattoo needles.”

Her brother hurried to catch up, passed her, remained a few steps ahead until they reached the pub, where he held the door open for her as if she were a girl. They saw Raf right away, pale as an exotic orchid in the gloom. Strangely, he was talking with Coffee Guy, who beamed when he saw Emmanuel. His name was Thijs—he spelled it for her. He wasn’t wearing the collared white dress shirt and black slacks from the café but a dark green hoodie unzipped nearly to the waist so she could admire the furry expanse of his chest, his tattoo, the steel pin through his left nipple, and jeans worn so low she could make out his swimsuit tanline and be sure he, too, had foregone undershorts. It was all thrilling. By the time he’d bought her a beer that had so much flavor it astonished her she was entirely smitten and Raf and Teddy had vanished.

When the fact penetrated, she said, “Where’d they go? I have to look out for Teddy.”

“See over there,” said Thijs, soothing and calm. “Teddy is quite safe.”

Looking where he indicated, Emmanuel saw a line of private booths and the backs of the two heads, one buzzed to blue shadow, the other blond. “I should—”

“Teddy is quite safe,” Thijs said again. “Now and then Raf discovers an interest in women, particular women, an impulse that startles him so much he is extremely careful, gentle, easily dissuaded. Your sister will come to no harm.”

“Teddy—” But Emmanuel knew her sister would be furious, if it was something he really wanted, if Emmanuel barged in like a clumsy knight in shining armor to protect the damsel’s virtue. Still, she watched a moment longer, unsure, saw Raf’s fine long fingers caress Teddy’s skull and saw her sister turn his head for the kiss. He was beautiful, her little sister—the shorn scalp made his face at once stronger and more vulnerable. When he did it, their father, oddly pleased, said his daughter was prettier than Sinéad O’Connor and ran a Google Image search to show them how Teddy compared to the pop-star crush of his youth.

Thijs attracted her attention back to him by lifting her hand to his chest. One point of the steel pin, not quite sharp, poked her finger. Leaning to her ear, he said, “I also have a, what do you call it in English, a Prince Albert. Would you like to see?”

The sex was good. Not great. Perhaps they were nervous of each other, being so newly acquainted. Perhaps Thijs depended on the novelty of his PA in lieu of technique. She’d had a moment or two of wanting one for herself—he became inarticulate trying to express the sensations it gave him—but the desire passed. Rolling a condom over her own stiff dick, she’d felt a pang, thinking she ought to have said something to Teddy about the importance of birth control (she didn’t know if he was on the pill) but Thijs distracted her before the pang could bloom into panic, and she didn’t think of her sister again. Anyway, Thijs and Raf were housemates, it had turned out, sharing the big apartment two floors above the café on the square. Teddy was just down the hall. If he got scared, needed his big brother, he knew where she was.

But afterward, dozing on Thijs’s bed with Thijs spooned up against her back (his chest hair tickled her when he breathed, the metal in his nipple scraped), Emmanuel had what felt like a dream. She remembered growing up with, not an annoying little tomboy sister, but a nerdy, differently tiresome little brother. Theo. Not Teddy. Then her breath strangled in her throat as she recalled that Theo was Emma’s big brother and she, Emma, for almost sixteen years had been a girl.

She sat up abruptly. Thijs grumbled in his sleep. “Thirsty,” Emmanuel said, though she didn’t think he could hear her, and clambered off the bed. Still naked, she stumbled out of the room.

She thought she knew where she was going but ended up in the kitchen, where a low candle in a glass jar guttered on the breakfast table and somebody sat beyond it, face shadowed. “Thirsty,” she said again because she didn’t know who it was.

“Hard or soft?” The voice with its distinct accent was Hender’s. He leaned forward and candlelight caught his stark features, gilded the piercings at eyebrow, ear, cheek, lower lip. The baroque ink at his temple looked purple, like wine in a glass.

“Water.”

He stood. Emmanuel flinched back. “Sparkling or still?” Hender asked, stepping away from the table but not toward her. He was as nude as she. Thankfully, she couldn’t make out details in uncertain, wavery light.

Unthinking, she took another step toward the table. “Just water.”

“Sit, then. A moment.”

She was afraid he’d turn on an electric light or just open the refrigerator and she would have to look at him, but he rummaged through the cabinet for a glass without hesitation, filled it at the sink. Emmanuel sat. The polished wooden seat felt unpleasantly slick and cool under her bare flesh. Hender set the glass before her, stepped back. “Thanks,” she said. lifting it to her lips. As he turned to round the table, she caught a glint of heavy metal dangling below his crotch—another PA. Was Raf pierced down there as well?

“What did Raf do to my—to Theo?”

Hender sat down. “Raf wants an American wife.” Then Hender grinned broadly. Flickering light gleamed unhealthily on his teeth. “Well, actually, of course, he would prefer an American husband but the laws in your country mostly do not recognize that relationship and a husband could not help him emigrate. You aren’t concerned about what he did to you?”

“Why? Why not me? I was a girl…before.”

“He likes to complicate matters. You were too young. He felt you would enjoy being a boy.”

“I do!” The response came without thought but thinking only reinforced it. “I don’t want to go back. But Theo never wanted to be a girl. Or a gay boy, any man’s husband.”

“Are you certain?”

She wasn’t.

“It’s true Theo was more effort to…persuade.” Leaning forward—now the fluttering light made the design at his temple resemble blood, drawn in intricate patterns like the henna on an Indian bride’s hands—Hender shrugged. A billow in the shadow behind him made Emmanuel think of great black wings flexing with his shrug. “In any case, Raf’s altruism is erratic. He wasn’t attracted to you. To your brother, yes.”

“What are you? The two of you?”

“Three.”

“Thijs too?” she blurted, dismayed.

“We have been here so long,” murmured Hender, leaning back again. “But Thijs and I are relatively content. Of course, Thijs has no imagination. He lives in the moment—the future is an impossible destination for him. It would not have occurred to Thijs to take advantage of your possibilities before Raf manifested them. Raf—discontent defines him. It always has, longer than you can imagine. You see, we may not leave this place without a sincere invitation.”

“It wouldn’t be sincere!”

“Are you certain?” Hender asked again. “Raf has gone away before, several times. When the invitation expires, he must return. Not to America however. America interests him. He will be disappointed, of course, for all the world is an outskirt of America in this era, but one can’t reason with him. Come.”

When Hender rose to his feet the shadowy wings rose with him, pinions glittering like black knives. Emmanuel shrank back but he reached for her hand. His touch was chill, not like ice, colder, and she found herself upright, enfolded in his arms, his dank, oppressive wings that smelled like incense. “You make a handsome boy,” he murmured in her ear.

They stood in the doorway of Raf’s bedroom. Raf and Teddy lay on white sheets. Emmanuel looked away from her naked sister, looked back. Raf’s arm, crooked over Teddy’s rib cage as he spooned the young woman, lifted the breasts on Teddy’s chest, made them look larger, misshapen. Matched cherry-blossom tattoos seemed to grow together, one plant joining two bodies. Teddy began to stir and Raf, in sleep, tightened his grasp and pressed his lips to Teddy’s nape.

“It is not the time, Raf,” Hender said. The regret in his low, shuddering voice caused the world to flinch. “This is not the person.”

Shrugging off Raf’s arm with less effort than he’d taken to toss Emmanuel into the canal, Theo sat upright. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and planted his feet on the carpet, set wide. Emmanuel looked away again: her little brother’s dick, at rest, was bigger than hers.

“You were right,” Theo said, his voice foggy. “It hurt. But it was interesting.”

Behind him, Raf made a noise like ice breaking. Indigo wings thick as snowdrifts clapped, disturbing the air, lifted him. For just an eyeblink, Teddy became a girl again.

“Not now,” said Hender.

“Theo?”

Ignoring or unaware of angelic perturbation, Theo scratched sleepily at the flame-eyed skull inscribed on his left biceps. “Not really interesting enough, though. No offense, Emmanuel, but I think I really am straight.” He yawned, shuddering.

“I…I don’t need the competition.”

“Hah.” Theo blinked. “Where’s my clothes? We should go home. ’Rents probably shitting themselves with worry. Grounded for life,” he grumbled, blinked again, looked up at his brother and, as if properly comprehending her nakedness, glanced his eyes away. “Where’s your clothes? Did you have fun with wotzisname?”

Raf made another noise, like air collapsing, and settled back onto the bed. Theo shifted his seat unconsciously as the mattress settled. Great blue-black wings cloaked crouching Raf, abstracting him from sight. A fierce itch flared under the skin inside Emmanuel’s arm, but then was gone.

“But I liked Emmanuel!” protested Thijs.

So did I, Emma wanted to say. Her throat was frozen with disappointment and relief. She felt uncomfortable naked in a way she hadn’t a moment before.

Thijs’s wings were dull scarlet, not as impressive as Hender’s or Raf’s. His erection had been impressive but it wilted, dragged down by the weight of its metal, as he glared fiercely at the girl who had been Emmanuel. “He was handsome. And an excellent fuck.”

Emma felt another intolerable itch, but this erupted between her legs and when she reached to scratch it, horribly, trivially embarrassed, Emmanuel discovered his own proper prick hanging where it should. He clutched it in his hand. The heavy steel Prince Albert was chill, but warmed against his fingers.

It wasn’t nearly as late as they’d thought. Light hung in the west. As they walked the towpath back to the dentist’s and professor’s house, Theo asked, his voice merely curious, “Are you going to see him again?”

“Thijs?” Emmanuel shrugged, amused. “Probably. We’re here another four weeks. Not a professional visit, though, it’s not like I want him piercing anything else.”

“Yikes.”

Theo wanted not to sound appalled by his brother’s adventure in body modification, Emmanuel thought without being fooled. He’d offered to show the pretty thing to Theo.

“What about you? Going back to Hender?”

“Of course!” Craning his neck, Theo tried to look at his own arm. His shirtsleeve hid the ink, though, and he stumbled. “It’s not done yet! But I’m not interested in fooling around with him.”

“He wouldn’t mind, probably.”

“No.” Great sincerity thrummed in Theo’s voice. “I mean, I’ve had moments of curiosity since…since you told me you were gay, but it’s just not my thing.”

Emmanuel scratched at his jaw. His stubble wasn’t novel anymore but it still felt good. “Just as well,” he said. “More boys for me.”

“Seriously?” Theo was outraged. “You seriously think any guy wants into my shorts is going to be interested in a big hairy dude like you?” He threw a punch at his brother’s arm that made basically no impression. “Manny, bro, even I know better than that.”

Manny? As they scuffled, Emmanuel decided this new nickname was acceptable. “Fine, whatever.” Grappling Theo around the neck, he knuckled his brother’s bristly scalp.

“Besides, you’ve already got a summer boyfriend. Now you need to help me find a girl. That’s what gay big brothers are for, evolutionarily speaking.”

Laughing, Manny pushed Theo away. “You’re on.” It would be a challenge. Challenges were good. He relished a challenge.

____
Copyright Alex Jeffers 2012

Alex Jeffers‘s last story appeared in Chelsea Station #1 in November; his next will be out in the YA anthology Boys of Summer in May. Those two, this one, and some others will reappear in his collection You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home, due from Lethe Press in July. You can find more information and news at his website.

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