By Mark Pantoja

People most in need, need the most help, my father used to say. That’s what I thought when I saw the Corporate bleeding on my porch that night. I gave it a soft kick. It didn’t move, just lay broken in the firelight coming through my front door. But something moved inside the wound in its something. Way down inside. A tree root. It shied away from the light and dug itself deeper into the Corporate’s meat. Marija and Cadia stood on either side of the body they’d dragged up onto my porch from the forest.

“Alive?” I said though I knew it probably was. I’d grown up listening to the oldtimers’ stories about fighting the Corporates. Father used to tell me and Milio stories about the Corporates running into oncoming fire as they jumped off their dropships. Said they wouldn’t go down so easy and had to shoot off their arms and legs. And still they’d try to bite you if you got too close.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “It breathes.” She knelt down next to the offworlder. Watery blood seeped out from cracks in the armor. It smelled like moist, like meat. Marija pulled the Corp’s face-plate up. She put her crystal-faced watch near the soldier’s nose. It huffed up, ever so little, but it huffed up.

“See?” Marija said.

“Ayo,” I said. I got down close and looked at the root. It had twisted itself into an overhand knot. Which was no good. They’re covered in a thick mucus and once they worked themselves into an overhand knot it was just about impossible to get a grip on them. “Why bring this to me?”

Marija and Cadia looked at each other and then Cadia said, “It told us if we helped it–”

“You spoke to it?” I said.

“Ayo,” Cadia said.

I shook my head. “What about? A reward? How you going to spend it after the hill boys string you up once they hear you’re rich? You think they won’t notice?”

“We can take it back,” Marija said. “Leave it in the forest. The trees will eat it.”

“Use your head, Marija,” I said. “You say you talked to it? It knows what you look like? What happens if the boys find it and it starts talking about you? Or worse, it survives. Then, what, it’ll come after you for breach of contract, take everything you own.”

“They already have everything I own,” Marija said.

“Then it’ll bury your whole family in debt.” I chewed my bottom lip.

Right then, I had to assume everybody knew. About Marija and Cadia and the Corporate and them bringing it to my shack. Killing it wouldn’t stop the hill boys from stringing us up. Not bringing it to the boys first was a death sentence, especially for me. No way my brother Milio could let a traitorous sister live.

And if the Corporation knew we had it, killing it now would damn us all to generations of debt and servitude for destruction of stolen property. The only move we had was to cut a deal that would protect us. And for that, we needed it to keep breathing.

“We have to save it,” I said. “So let’s drown out that root.”

I pulled the big tub out into the center of my shack.

My place was pretty small, but it was mine. That and the ten acres of land that I managed to hold on to. The Corporation took most of the rest after the banks collapsed, along with the tractors and robots. Just a humble little shack. Fireplace, kerosene stove, and loft bed. The fireplace is for burning trash and fuel-logs the Land Trust doles out during winter.

Marija hefted the Corporate up and inside the tub.

It was small. Looked like a child in her arms, but for its tactical armor.

Marija was strong from years in the middens and quarries with nothing but pick-ax and shovel to mine pot-coal. And she’d taken on the look of her work. Thick neck, round shoulders, swollen arms. She could bust open as many seams of pot-coal as a man. And on days when she wasn’t hung over, she could bust more. But those days were rare.

There was not time to heat the water, so it was a cold bath for the Corporate. Figured that was the least of its worries. Plus, fuck it. Save it we might, but no reason to make it comfortable. We rinsed it of blood and mud and grime and then filled the tub with salted-water, you know, to clean the wound some.

Cadia cradled the Soldier’s head from the water. It was murky, but I could see little stalks start to rise out of the wound, reaching for the surface and fresh air. I snipped them with a pair of garden shears.

A dark lazy cloud of blood billowed out of the wound. I couldn’t really see anything so I just chopped up the water with the shears. Then the root unfurled itself and extended its main body out of the water. It was still anchored in the Corporate. I grabbed it with a pair of tongs but it thrashed and pulled the tongs into the water.

“Shit!” I said. “It’s gonna go back inside!”

Then Marija just grabbed it.

She got a good grip, and she squeezed it tight in her hand, thick slime squirting out from between her fingers. It shot out all of its needley stalks at once, turning Marija’s hand into a pin cushion.

She held still.

“Cut it,” she said in a flat voice, like it was no big deal.

I cut the root in half with the shears and blood-sap sprayed into the water.

Marija calmly got up and walked to the fire with the root embedded in her hand.

I turned back what was left inside and saw a few more stalks poke out of the water and snipped them. After a few seconds the other half of the root floated up to the surface. I splashed it out of the tub and Cadia stomped it.

I heard hissing and saw Marija at the fire place holding a bloody knife. Her hand was crimson, but empty and the root lay sizzling in the fire.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Ayo,” Marija said.

Cadia drained the tub, letting the water pour through the slatted floor, while I cleaned and dressed Marija’s hand.

After I was done she kept her hand raised up in the air.

“Nobody saw us,” she said. “We brought her the long way.”

“I think it’s a he,” Cadia said.

“Oh, yeah?” I said. “That what you think?” I went over to the Corporate and yanked open the front of its cod-piece. We all looked inside.

Marija swore and said: “I told you it was a girl.”

“That look like a girl to you?” I said. Where there’s usually genitalia there was nothing. Just a smooth mound with a tiny little pee-hole. No rod, no slit, nothing. “They ain’t like us. They ain’t man or woman. They ain’t human. They’re their own thing.”

“They really don’t have sex,” Marija said, as if this was the first she’d heard of this.

“Some do,” I said. “but not these. These birth in crèche-batches.” Each Corporation had their own propriety reproductive strategy, you know, to retain market share. DynaStar, Instlr, was one giant species spread out across the stars.

“Craziest thing I ever seen,” Cadia said. She was young. It’s crazy, don’t get me wrong, but not the craziest.

After all that, I needed a smoke. I retrieved my father’s pipe box from the shelf and sat down at my kitchen table (my only table) and opened it. Father had intended for Milio to have the pipe, but he wasn’t around when father died. He’d run off with a bunch of the other boys to act hero and get himself killed fighting the Corporates. So it was mine. I earned it. Just like the farm. I took care of it. It was mine.

I rubbed the pipe in the firelight. It was made of wood and ivory and polished warm from years of use. Course it wasn’t real ivory. Nor was it real wood. That’d be crazy expensive. All the real earth wood was grown in greenhouse forests run by Arbory, for terraforming. Rich folks got to use the “bad” wood that’s culled annually for houses and art and the like. Everyone else got to use local stone, mud, or cheap plastic.

That pipe was all native. The “wood” was bark-flesh, culled from the native forests while they slept, a desiccated keratinized flesh you could carve. The ivory was bone dug out of the forest middens, where the local trees deposited their refuse, bones and fur and teeth of small prey that wandered into their hungry branches. All the trees in an area deposited in the same midden for centuries.

“There’s no reward,” I said. “What you made with that thing was a contract. That’s how they do things. If you don’t follow through, you’ll be in breach. So, what did you agree to?”

“Well,” Marija said. “We didn’t get that far. Just said we would help, for a reward.”

I packed the pipe and lit it. I puffed it until it got going.

“Well,” I said. “Hopefully, that means the terms are negotiable. You sure no one saw you?”

Marija shook her head. “No one saw us.”

“Might could track you.”

“Track us?” Marija said with a laugh. It was true, she had good forest-feet. Her and Cadia both. Not like me and Milio, though. Father raised us as forest-kin. We could walk through a grimly.

“Exactly how was it you came across it?”

Cadia looked down. “I was out mushroom hunting.”

“Mushroom hunting?” I said. “Now? With the fighting and the forest agitated, you decide that now was a good time to go hunting for mushies?”

She didn’t respond. She was a kid. She’d snuck out to see the fighting. The hill boys had shot down a Corporate transport last night and were hunting down survivors.

I puffed my pipe and said: “They’re coming, mind you. It’s people. Have to deal with the boy’s rocket nests, but they’re coming. Probably carpet bomb the hills, then swarm in. But that ain’t happening for a few days. Maybe a week.” Took a puff. “You gotta trade with their kind. That’s the only way. They are their word, though they have forked tongues. There ain’t no reward, there ain’t no shares for this. Just survival. Ours. Get it to its people and out of our hair. That’s it. You better pray it survives and will trade.”

“We’ll trade,” said a thin voice from the tub. The Corporate had opened its glassy eyes and stared at us with its head lolled off to the side.

Marija stepped forward, knife at the ready.

“What, now you’re going to kill it?” I said. Marija looked at the knife, like she didn’t even know she held it. “Let’s hear it’s offer.”

“We can offer up to an equivalent of our own value.”

“And what is your value?” I said.

“Well, that remains negotiable,” it said with a bloody smile.


You know the one about the farmer?

There’s this farmer, see, old coot, been working the land his whole life. One day this Corporate walks up and says, “Hey there! We want to buy all your goods!” Soy, corn, extract gluten, they want it all. The farmer, he’s old school, Trusty, doesn’t deal with Corporates. He says to it: “The only thing I’ll sell to you is my shit.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Agreed. But you can only sell to us and we want all your shit from here on out.” They offer the farmer one Point per shit. Farmer takes two to three shits a day, so he agrees. Easy money. He laughs every time he’s on the pot. All he has to do is put his droppings into little boxes the Corporation sends him. At first, it all works out great. Farmer puts each shit in a box and then he starts to think, you know, it doesn’t matter how big each dump is, a dump is a dump, so he puts one shit in two boxes and so on. You know, as one would. Then one day, in the middle of the hotmonths, the Corporation stops coming by to pick up the shits. Now, it’s like record heat those months and those little boxes they’re made of paper, so the farmer’s dumps start to stink up real bad. He calls the Corporation, no answer. So he tosses his dumps. Very next day, the Corporation shows up and starts going through the farmer’s shit. Audits his shit and find there’s shit missing. “Where’s the shit?” they ask. Farmer explains, “Hey, you didn’t pick up my shit, it started stinking, what am I supposed to do?” Corporate explains, as per the contract, that shit is their shit as soon as it leaves the farmer’s ass. There’s an accounting and farmer comes out owning a few Points. Sure enough the next week, nobody shows up to pick up his shit. He calls, he writes, he complains, but he knows better to throw his shit out cause it’s not his shit anymore, it’s their shit. Finally, the original Corporate shows up, the one the farmer dealt with the first time, and the farmer says to it: “Finally, you’re here. This place stinks! Take your shit outta here.” Corporate says to the farmer: “Well, now, that was never our contract. We said we’d buy your shit, but we never promised to pick it up.” The farmer screams. “What? Are you crazy? You gotta get this shit outta here.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Sure. We’ll haul your shit. For three Points per shit.”

That’s what I was thinking about when we were negotiating with the Corporate. It’s name was Gee En Three Dash Seven Dot El Kay Oh, Mid Level, Acquisitions Field Team. I called it Gen.

“Well, there’s real and actual value,” it said. It was trying to downplay what it was worth, of course. “Really, we have an opportunity to structure an earn-out, because your perceived valued is probably higher than the buyer’s budget.” It paused and caught its breath. Ironically, our oxygen rich air was harder for offworlders to breath. The extra oxygen and pressure actually made it harder for air to get into the blood and caused fluid to build in the lungs. Long ago, our ancestors tweaked themselves to breath the air. “Specifically,” the Corporate continued, “DynaStar Interstellar has an exact accounting of our worth–”

“What are you offering us to not kill you?” I said and puffed my pipe.

It smiled.

“See, now, that’s just not true,” it said. “You can’t kill us. Our people already know we’re here, that you’re helping us. Through our uplink.” It tapped the side of its head.

“Now, that’s just not true,” I said. “I know the boys can track you by your uplink. You wouldn’t be stupid enough to have it on right now.”

“Very smart,” it said. “Yes, and by boys we take it you mean the terrorists?”

“Trusties,” I said.

“Separatists,” Gen said, with a diplomatic tone. “It’s true, they can track us via the uplink, so we run black when we’re down here.”

“So then no one knows you’re here,” Marija said.

“Not exactly. See, when we die, we send out an emergency beacon, automatically. Since we haven’t released our final transmission our people know we’re still alive. And in the area. But kill us and they’ll know exactly where we’re at.”

No one said anything, just took this in.

“So, let’s not pretend anyone is killing anybody. You’ve already saved us, you’ve invested in us, why not see a return?”

“The only return you can offer us is privacy,” I said. “We can’t ever spend any money you give us.” I glanced over at Cadia. “The only thing you can do is keep our names, descriptions, locations, all personal information out of your Corporate databases. Forget about us.”

“Our mind is an extension of all–”

“Yeah, I know, I’ve heard that before. But you all have secrecy clauses. I know that.”

It thought for a moment. Data mining was a lucrative market for DynaStar. Hell, it could sell our names to the Land Trust or blackmail us. But if I could get it to promise us we would remain anonymous, we might be safe. “Agreed,” it said. “So, then you’ll hide us until our people–”

“No can do,” I said. “The hill boys are going to want every body that was on that transport. Living or dead. It’s only a matter of time before they start searching houses.”

“If we can contact our people safely, we can protect you,” the Corporate said.

“And what happens after you leave?”

“We can offer to move you to StarCity, get you employment in the Corporation–”

“Gen, friend, listen close. You ever suggest me or any of us joining up with your Corporation again, I’ll have Marija over there open up your stomach and I fill it with roots myself, emergency beacon or no.”

“It was only a suggest–”

“I’m an independent settler. My father was a member of the Land Trust. My mother, she was third generation settler. Her grandmother was in the original Landing Party and came here aboard the Esperanxa. I’ve fought your kind for years holding on to this miserable piece of dirt. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Understood,” Gen said.

It didn’t go unnoticed by me that Cadia perked up a bit at the suggestion of working for DynaStar, Instlr. Her family had lost everything. The only bright future that remained for some was working for the Corporations. They had all the nice things. They traveled the stars, which was glamorous to some. I didn’t get it though. Working for them was enslavement. Debt and wage enslavement. The only bright future I could see was kicking DynaStar off our miserable little mud-ball and back into the cold dark where they came.

“So, where does that leave us?” the Corporate asked.

I puffed my pipe and then said, “We kill you, we die. We stay here, we die. We only got one option. Get you to your people.”

“Where’s that?” Cadia said.

“There’s a Franchise office in Bug River Creek, three valleys east,” Marija said. “Get there in five days.”

“Then that’s where we’ll head,” I said. I looked at the Corporate. It nodded.

“Agreed,” it said. “Now, do you think one of you could help sew us up?”

People say all sorts of stuff about Corporates. Most of it superstitious lies, like they eat excrement or they’re telepathic or they bathe by licking each other. Anything to make them seem like boogeymen. They don’t seem to help it much cause they don’t ever deny anything.

Truth is they are different. Like how even deeply wounded Gen could walk around like nothing was wrong. Or its total lack of modesty. When we helped out of the tub and its broken armor, it didn’t even ask for anything to cover up, despite the chill.

It had an elfin little body. That’s the word for it. Elfin. It was thin and graceful and totally without gender. Flat chest and long neck and squarish hips. It moved delicately, but with precision.

It lay down and allowed Cadia to sew it up. It didn’t complain or even wince.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I said as Cadia finished up.

“Of course,” it said.

“Doesn’t seem to slow you down any.”

“We’re just like you,” it said. “Only we compartmentalize better. The pain and the bleeding. Box it up, put it in the back of my mind. You wouldn’t have anything to eat, would you?”

And by anything, it meant anything. Fruit, nuts, rinds, yesterday’s chicken bones. It even asked for uncooked rice and raw flour. I gave it what I could. Wanted to see if it would really eat the flour. It did, licking its fingers clean.

“We leave first thing,” I said after giving it some farming clothes and a blanket for the corner near the fire.

“Understood,” it said, taking a pause between monster chugs of water.

“You’ll be ready?”

“We’ll have to be.”

I left it alone in the corner but gave Marija a little nod. She was on first watch. Last we thing we needed was for Gen to stumble out or run off and get caught and blab about our deal.

I sat at the table next to Cadia. “You round up all its stuff. Everything. Armor, clothes, anything you might have kept. You get all that stuff together and you take it and dump it in the forest on the other side of the hamlet. Take the long way, through the trees, past the Ruas’ farm. But be careful. Forest is agitated. I can hear it.”

She nodded.

“Now go. And get back here quick. Don’t let anyone see you.”

She started to gather up the bits of armor and plating.

“And, Cadia. No souvenirs.” She nodded and walked into the night.


He smoked the same pipe-weed as father. And me. And I caught him on the wind as I was out back dumping breakfast scraps in the composter behind my shack.

When I got back round to the front my brother and three other hill boys were walking up to the porch. Milio stopped at the first step and the boys flanked out.

They were grubby, dirty, dressed in rags and tree leather. One of the boys rested the butt of his rifle on his hip.

The hill boys were a group of self-appointed militia. A gang, really, of young and old, men and women, the desperate and angry left in the wake of economic collapse of the takeover. They had nothing, no land, no money, nothing to lose.

Milio pulled his pipe out of his mouth and said, “Morning, Ro.” He smiled, but there was nothing behind it, nothing warm about him. He was wild, always was, eager to pull out his knife and stick someone.

I looked up and around, at the gray overcast sky, sun blocked by a heavy algae cloud. I made sure to drop the compost bucket with a bang and say a bit loudly: “What’s so good about it?”

“Didn’t say there was anything good about it,” Milio said. “Just said ‘morning.'”

“What do you want, Milio?” I asked.

“What? I can’t come and say ‘hi’ to my sister?”

“You were never the sentimental type.”

“Ha,” he said and looked down. Ground his boot into the grit on the step. “That’s true. Never was. I came to see what you heard.”


“Bout the fighting down in the valley night before last.”

“Heard you shot down a transport.”

“Ayo, we did. We did at that. That all you heard?”

“Ayo,” I said.

“Didn’t hear anything else, like about someone helping out a survivor, a Corporate?”

“Nope,” I said.

“Just running the farm,” Milio said. “Just like pop, huh. Mind your own business, stay out of the fight.”

“Is there something you want?” I said.

“Idiots were flying so low, we had to shoot them down. Killed most onboard. Few got away, ran into the trees.” He chuckled. “Fools. Found most of them, or what was left of them. But one of them managed to make it out. We tracked it for a while and then boom, gone.”

“Guess they’re getting tricky.”

“It wasn’t a trick. Someone helped it. At least two of them, we think. They covered their tracks. Did a good job. Just not good enough.”

I was quiet, but inside I cursed Marija. Fucking Marija. She’s never as cautious as she thinks. Big galoot.

“You came here to tell me you lost the trail?”

“No, big sister. We didn’t lose the shiteater. It’s in this valley somewhere.”

“And you think I helped it? After everything they’ve done?”

“No. At least, I hope not. It’s just, people around here they look up to you. Come to you for advice. Maybe you heard something.”

“Nope,” I said. “Haven’t heard a thing. Been here all night. Marija and Cadia, too.”

“Marija and Cadia–” Milio cut himself off.

“We ain’t seen a thing. Ask them.” I opened the door and looked in. Marija and Cadia were both at the table, like they were in the middle of a conversation. I looked, but the Corporate out of sight. Those two had squirreled it away under the plastic floor slats. They came out onto the porch.

“You all’ve been here all night?” Milio said.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “We come to help Ro with her run.” That was the story we rehearsed.

Milio chewed his pipe and then spat. “What run?”

“Monthly run,” I said. “Seed, grain, fertilizer starter kit. Gotta get the soil ready. You forget how to farm?”

“So, then, you won’t mind if we take a look around?” Milio said. One of his boys, the scrawny one dressed leaf-skin gave an “ayo,” of impatience.

“I do mind,” I said, trying to sound merely annoyed. “I don’t have the time.”

“We’ll just be a second, sis.”

“I don’t think so. You got no right coming here after all this time. I stayed and I looked after the place, I get to say who comes in to my house.”

“I think I might have to insist.” He put his palm on the butt of his pistol and took a step up. One step away from me.

That’s why he was really there. To bully. That’s why he joined up with the hill boys in the first place. He was the same angry little boy with a hot temper and no control. So I had to treat him just like I did when we were little.

I head butted him. Right on the bridge of his nose.

He shrieked and his hands flew to his face. I took a step back and push-kicked him square in the gut. He sailed back and landed on his ass hard, in the mud. He crabwalked backwards and then got to his feet.

The boys guffawed.

He held the bridge of his nose. “Damn you, Ro,” he said. He was all clogged up and his voice muffled and thick. Father taught me a word for that: stomatolalia. Don’t get to use that much.

“I came to warn, you,” Milio said. “The trees are waking. The Corps woke a grimly.”

“Please. You come to play big man in front of your boys.”

He stared at me while the boys chuckled.

Then I saw his eyes. I saw his hand itching for his gun. He was about to reach for it.

And then Cadia said, “I seen something.”

“Quiet,” I hissed.

“What?” Milio said. “What’d you say?”

“The last night,” Cadia said. “On my way over. There was something in the forest, moving around.”

“A Corporate?” one of the boys said.

“No, I don’t know. I didn’t see much, but I think I saw some blue, plastic looking, like they wear.”

“Where?” Milio said.

“Past the Ruas. I can show you.”

“Yeah, you can. And you,” he said. “This ain’t over. I’ll be coming back.”

“I ain’t waiting around for you, Milio. Got a farm to run.”

“We’ll be talking,” he said. “Real soon.” He pointed at Cadia. “Let’s go.”

They moved off, the boys and Cadia.

Marija told me that she and Cadia had discussed her leading the boys off to where she stashed Gen’s armor while Milio and I talked.

It was smart. A good plan.

Still, watching Cadia go off with those boys left me worried. They had that look in their eye, the same that all boys had, man or woman. Angry hunger.


We made good time on the trail to Bug River Creek. It was overcast and cold, as usual, but no storm sign.

We stayed as close to the creeks and rocky paths as we could to minimize our tracks and off the main road, but still out of the predatory forest. Marija brought up the rear, brushing the ground behind us of our tracks and sign, while I showed Gen how to walk in my steps.

It wasn’t enough.

Milio’d soon figure he was going down a cold trail. After Cadia led him to the armor the trail would grow cold and Milio come back looking this way, if he wasn’t already.

All we could do now was get this over with quick.

I was worried about how fast we could go, what with the corporate having such new tree feet and fresh lungs. But Gen kept up.

Corporates adapt quicklike. I could see it happening immediately. By the end of the first day, it was already faster, took bigger strides, adapted its breathing. Its back seemed straighter and shoulders a bit more pronounced.

Our meals were light, but it didn’t seem to bother Gen any. Nothing did.

It watched and learned. Everything here is poisonous to offworlders. That’s something the Corporates never respected. How much we changed ourselves to live here.

We earned this. We settlers. We adapted, injected ourselves with heritable modifications, learned to drink the toxic water and breath the rich air. Learned to refine tree-meat to make it edible. We were the ones who learned to cull the floating plankton and algae from the skies. We earned this planet.

The Corporates just showed up with the deed and brought everything they needed with them. All they did was take.

But now, the Corporate had to learn some respect.

Surface water being scarce as it is, we stopped at the first little tired puddle we found. Marija kept watched while I scooped up a cup of dark water and filtered it. Gen watched as I treated the water and seemed to appreciate my efforts when I handed it a clean cup of water.

We camped that night in a gully. Marija dug up a little berm around us. A little wall to protect us from slithering roots, the hungry young of the sleeping trees. The blind little critters turn around as soon as they encounter any obstruction.

We woke with the morning sun and I saw a thin column of smoke behind us.

Might could be farmer. But I knew it was Milio. They weren’t far behind.

By late morning we made it halfway up a little hill that led to a bigger hill that lead to a small ridge. We had a good look of the valley off to our left. It was thick with trees. You could hear their agitated whispers.

I kept glancing back behind us, so concerned about our pursuers that I came around a bend and stumbled right into view of a group of hill boys atop the ridge we were to ascend.

Gen was the one who stopped me, hand on my shoulder. “Who’s that?”

At top the ridge sat a little party of hill boys, their morning fire a lazy pillar in the overcast sky. I pulled Gen down behind a scratchweed bush.

Marija belly crawled up next to me with her binoculars out.

“Three of them,” she said and handed me the binoculars.

I brushed aside part of the scratchweed bush. I was too big for it to eat, so it was trying to sting me away. I ignored it, but its urdicating hairs caused me some welts later.

Through the binocs I saw three people, two men, one woman armed with rifles, milling about on top of the ridge in front of us, right smack between us and Bug River Creek. They were hill boys all right. Had that twitchy, hungry look.

“Coincidence?” Marija said.

“First thing Milio did was block the roads,” I said. “They’re out in the open. They want to be seen. They’re here to slow us down.”

“Can we go around?” Gen asked.

“Only way around is back the way we came,” I said. “Course, we turn around now and we’ll fall right into the arms of those following us. We’re pickled in.”

“Not necessarily,” Marija said. “You could cut straight down the hill.”

She was right. The hill was small and its face was broken sandstone. It was slippery and steep, but we could slide down quick and jump into the forest, the hungry forest. It was dangerous in there. Not so much for me, but for Gen. And we couldn’t do it unseen. I told Marija as much.

She squinted at the hill boys.

“Well,” she said. “I might could distract them. Walk right up to them and then break right. You guys go down the hill when they come after me. Meet up with you later.”

“And if they catch you?”

“What can they do?” Marija said. “I’m just on my way to Bug River Creek, picking up supplies like any old farmer. A Corporate you say? No, haven’t seen one.” She gave a toothy smile. “I’ll lead them off. Maybe even take those behind us.”

I didn’t like the idea of losing yet another friend. Or of jumping into the trees. But I couldn’t see any other way. And every moment we sat there, those chasing us were closing in.

I took one more look and then said. “Ayo. You might could. Okay.”

Her smile got bigger. “Let me get ready.”

She gave us her water and extra rations. More tea and oats. Got her pack light for running.

She squeezed my shoulder and wished me luck.

Gen and I watched from the bushes as Marija grew smaller until she went up the hill. She was bug-sized by the time she waved hello at the boys.

“Get ready,” I said to Gen. It checked its pack straps and got ready to bolt. “When she breaks right, we go.”

“Roger,” the Corporate said.

I took a deep breath and relaxed my muscles, getting ready to run.

Marija started to veer away from the group, as if to walk around them. I saw them stand up and point at her. Heard some distant shouting. She broke off into a run.

“Let’s go–” I said and Gen bolted, right when I heard a shot ring out.

When I looked, there was already a cloud of smoke, a few seconds older than the sound it made. But I didn’t see Marija. Anywhere.

Gen came back and grabbed. “We have to go. Come on.”

It yanked me hard, towards steepness.

We slid down the hillface, sandstone pebbles raining down around us. Anyone close enough would’ve seen the dust we kicked up. Nothing we could do about it then.

Once we hit flatness we ran into the forests, but stopped just inside the tree cover. I whispered for Gen to catch its breath. Have to be quiet when walking through the trees, they pick up everything they hear.

We weren’t in the thick of the forest yet, but still had to watch our step. Walking through trees really isn’t that hard as long as you’re careful and avoid stepping on trigger roots and keep an eye for danglers budding on their parent branch.

Marija! I thought.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Gen whispered.

I didn’t respond, just kept my eyes where I stepped. Made Gen stay close.

“Was probably a warning shot,” it said. “Besides, there’s nothing we could have done–”

“Spare me your corporate morality,” I said. “You’re protecting your neck. Which is fine, I get it. But Marija I’ve known my whole life–You wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh?” Gen said. “And why is that?”

“Everyone is either a consumer or a product to you. Right now, you’re probably thinking about what product to market to me or how to box up my pain and sell it to someone else. You don’t know how to relate to others, just to profit.”

“Hunh,” it said. “We misjudged you. You really think we don’t feel? We’ve been bred to feel, to love. That’s how we maintain our society in the dark years between stars. You think we’re not human, and you’re right. We’re more than human. We’re the next step. It’s we who travel the stars and visit worlds and write the next chapter of history, while you people sit on this rock and bury your heads and pretend all this is so important and the center of the universe, when it’s really just another in a billion balls of mud spinning around a fire.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be part of a crèche-batch. We watched nearly all of them die in a hillbilly attack by a bunch of cowards afraid of change. And now we’re hunted by the very people that we’ve invited to join us in the future. You think because we don’t cry we don’t feel? There’s no time for tears. We’re not going to die on some forgotten mud world lost in the armpit of the galaxy.”

“You talk too much,” I said. “The forest is listening.”

The trees mimic what they hear, creating the susurrus of the forest. People used to say it was the old Gale spirits whispering, but it’s just the trees trying to trick you. The constant echoes and birdsong and snippets of words can distract and lure prey, and confuse birds and bugs that echolocate. Even confuses people at times. You know, like old tales of people going treeways and getting lost or getting forestsick and cutting up their whole family. Tales of settlers going mad on their cursed planet.

I told Gen not to use names. Oldtimers, hermits, tree-kin who live on the edge of the forest, they listen to the rustle and report the new they hear. Rumors, mostly, and garbled sentences. But some information comes out, now and again. And I didn’t need anyone knowing I was helping Gen out. It laughed at me and refused to believe me.

To be honest I find the whispers comforting. It’s a constant layer that’s always there. Lets you know exactly where you are. And if you’re careful and real quiet, so is the forest. Lot’s of people don’t get that. Tree-foot is an art. One which Gen wasn’t very good at at first. It nearly stepped on a snake-vine and almost walked into a hungry branch. I had to show it how to spot stalk-trops, you know, the thin barbed spikey roots that point up like nails.

I had to take it by the hand when we got to denser parts of the forest. I’d have rather it walked in front of me so I could keep an eye, but it’d have stepped on something eventually. Its grip was strong and hard, but smooth and warm at the same time. It felt capable.

But like everything else, Gen adapted quickly.

“Whoa,” Gen said as it pulled me low, saving me from an aerial root that was fishing for ground prey.

“Shhh,” I said and the forest repeated after me. “I would have seen it,” I said. I didn’t like being saved by a Corporate. And it surprised me with its strength.

“Sorry,” it said, as an offering. I could have handled an aerial root, but still, it saved my neck and knew it.

I took a moment and then said, “No. You keep doing what you’re doing. I’m just not used to such a quick learn. Another day and it’ll be like you grew up in the forest. How is it you people ever had any trouble walking through the forests?”

“Never had anyone to teach us before,” it said. “Can’t be a quick learn if no one teaches you. Plus, we’ve been working on an adap,” it said.


“An adaptation. Sorta like a rules of thumb we can teach our minds. It filters out the low-level tree buzz. We put a gate on the lower sound frequency, cuts out most of the din.”

“So, you don’t hear the tree whispers?”

“Basically. The adap brings attention to sounds that seem out of place. Which is how we heard that aerial root. Once you filter out all the noise, you can hear the trees moving pretty clearly.”

“The whispers are my favorite part,” I said. “I love how it covers me, like a heavy blanket.”

It stared at me for a second and then said: “I have no response to that.”

Later, we found a little gully away from the trees. Gen made a dirt berm without me even asking.

I pulled my jacket tight and held myself to keep warm. It got down pretty cold that night and it wasn’t too long before I huddled up to the Corporate. They run hot. Or at least that one did. People call them snakes and bugs and whatnot, but the truth is, Gen was a good companion. It worked hard, stayed alert, and listened close.

Somewhere in the night, it dropped an arm around me. When I woke, I lifted its arm off and pushed away to shiver in the early morning murk.

Gray and overcast as usual.

It got up and stretched while I boiled some water.

It took off the ragged shirt I gave it and wetted it, gave itself what my father used to call a hooker bath: splash some water on your face, neck, chest, and armpits. It’s the minimum amount of freshening up that one can call a bath.

It looked stronger, its shoulders a bit more broad. It looked like it’d put on weight. It caught me staring and I looked away.

“We got oats and tea,” I said while I pulled out the packets of each.

“Well, then, we’ll have some tea and oats,” it said. I didn’t even have to look, I knew it was smiling.

It put its shirt back on and sat across from me while I folded up the cups.

“Can I help?” It reached out and took one of the paper-flat pieces of plastic that origamied into a drinking mug from my hand. It left it there too long. Its hand was warm. It was rough, but familiar and I felt something that pulled me. It was like in those stories, when one person touches the other and they know right then how they feel.

“You’re a man,” I said. It was a pure thought and I knew it was true as soon as I said it.

His smile broke.

“Yes,” he said. He didn’t make eye contact. He pulled his hand away and concentrated on folding the plastic into a cup.

“I thought you were an instar.”

He finished the cup and set it on the ground next to the stove.

“I was,” he said.


He was quiet for a second. “We are instars when we are amongst our own people. Our scent, it keeps us all the same. Equal. Zero sexual competition. Corporate tranquility. Until we are promoted or… are separated.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“We adapt, Ro. We’re designed to insure our continued survival by becoming sexually opportunistic. If I’d been around males I would have–”

“You’re trying to start a franchise.”

“It’s not like that–”

“You’re a sexual infection. You infect people with the next generation of little Corporate workers.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“So, you thought that with most of the men dead or off fighting your kind you could come into deep territory and knock up all us ignorant hick women?”

“We would never try — It’s our body, Ro. That’s all. It’s an automatic response.” Gen looked at me and tried to take my hand but I pulled away.

“You people are monsters.”


I kept my distance the rest of the day and into the night. There was no more huddling. And yet, even in my revulsion I kept stealing glances at him, finding myself near him. I was drawn to him. And that made me angrier.

What most girls felt about men, I just… didn’t. I don’t really feel that way about anybody. Never have. A boy kissed me in grade six and it just felt slimy. I knew I was supposed to like it. Or be excited about it. Or at least talk about, but I just wanted to forget it and never do it again. But I lied and told my friend Fiorina that I thought the boy was cute. He wasn’t. He smelled and threw rocks at frogs.

Later on, when most of the men went off to fight and didn’t come back, there were a lot of cold nights and lonely women. One night I was invited to stay over on a farm a couple of valleys over. I don’t really feel comfortable saying who it was, so I won’t, but it was not the worst experience. I stayed the night because, well, because I was curious. Figured I might like the company of women in that way. But I don’t. It was better than kissing boys, but not by much. Everything tickled and felt funny.

See, thing is, when you get right down to it, people are just kinda gross. I know that’s not how everyone sees it, but I think frankly most people are just blinded by their loneliness. We deep down feel lonely and small and we distract ourselves by “connecting” with others. It’s a trick.

But on that trip, being alone with Gen, I felt drawn to him. Physically. I didn’t feel it in my heart, just my body. He looked and smelled good.

“You’re doing something to me,” I said when we stopped to sit on rocks sip cups of soup in the afternoon murk.

He didn’t respond. Just looked up at a sleeping buck-toothed pine.

“It’s funny that you call them trees,” he said.

“What else would we call them?”

“Back home, trees are plantlife that don’t move, don’t get up and walk around and hunt. We get why you call them trees, what with the sedentary torpor period and the roots and the growing out of the ground, but these aren’t trees. Discussing non-terrestrial life-forms using terrestrial categories of life– flora, fauna, fungi–is ineffective. But, still, trust us, these are no trees.”

I thought about this for a second. “You mean like the Arbory trees. Earth trees. Only rich folk have seen them. And none of them are around here. To us, these are trees.”

He nodded his head. “That’s a fair point. Most of your plantlife is floating around in your atmosphere.”

“Oxygen buoyancy,” I said.

“Ayo,” he said, and I looked at him, but he didn’t seem to notice. That was our word, not a Corporate word. “This is why your world is so important to us.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“Because,” he said. “Everywhere else, the terraformed worlds, they’re mostly the same. This world and the handful of other non-terraformed planets offer up a host of new and unique bio-product lines. Why when we got here we moved quick to snatch up the intellectual property of this planet.”

I was quiet for a second. This is was the DynaStar, Instlr story, the story of Big Corporology. They arrived with talk of buy-ins and shares of the future coming out their mouths, but in their hand they had the original charter bought and paid for. Bought it up from the Esperanxa Settlement Expedition investors back on Earth. They owned it all. They forced buyouts and then charged people to live on their own land.

But it was still our home, our land. The Corporates hardly ever set foot on the surface. We lived here, we earned it.

“Just cause you own it,” I said. “Don’t make it yours.”


Gen could have taken the lead at that point. He slipped between the trees and over traps like a quiet wind. But I stayed in front. Can’t have a Corporate leading me through the forest.

We wove through the sleeping forest into the night, my low-glow lamp lighting up the dark canopy. The thick forest wasn’t a great place to sleep, so we had to keep going that night until we found a clearing.

But we were stopped short, when I walked into the butt of a rifle.

I caught a blur of movement in my lamp-light and then I was on my back. My right eye was filled with something wet. Blood.

I looked up and saw over me stood a hill boy. I recognized her. I don’t remember her name, but I knew she was from Rough And Ready, a hamlet in a valley just west.

She’d been hiding behind the trunk of the large claw-oak that reached up over us when I battered-up for her. She held her rifle by the barrel in triumph.

I tried to say something, don’t even know what, just something. I was rattled.

She said something to Gen, but I couldn’t make out what.

I tried to get up and felt a trigger vine squirm underneath me. The branches of the claw-oak started to stretch awake.

“Wait,” I finally managed. The world came back in agitated whispers. The trees were listening. “The tree, it–”

The boy stepped hard on my stomach. “That one I’m supposed to take back alive,” she said with a nod towards Gen. “But you,” she turned the rifle around, maw of the barrel in my face, “I can deal with you right now, Pig.”

Gen moved so fast. He was streak of movement as he tackled the boy.

They hit the ground in a tangle of limbs. I got up to my feet, swayed around, knees wobbly, except my knees weren’t wobbly– the ground was shaking.

The claw-oak ripped out a buried leg-root.

The woman rolled Gen off of her and they both jumped to their feet. As soon as they did the boy swung her rifle like a club.

The Corporate caught it like it was nothing, didn’t even flinch, just a loud smack as the rifle butt hit into the palm of his hand. Then he stepped forward and threw a kick deep into the boy’s stomach, tossing her back.

“No,” I screamed but it was too late. She fell back and was scooped up into a waiting tree branch. She grunted as the heavy branches came down on her arms and legs. The tree lifted her off the ground. She didn’t say nothing, or scream, even as the claw-oak drove a feeding branch through her back. She just gasped and looked surprised.

She’d stay like that for a few days, somewhere between life and death. It would keep her breathing, keep her fresh as it digested her from the inside out. She’d have killed me a moment before, it’s true, but that’s a hard way for anyone to go. Besides, she was one of us. No matter what else.

The whispers started to rise up around us. The trees could smell a fresh kill. The trees, see, they share things. Kinda like a group or society, I don’t really know. But when one feeds, others around it get a taste. Through the roots I’ve been told. They’re all networked up, until they start moving, but when they do, when they swarm, when they go grimly, they move as a huge mass. Not a stampede quite, but like one giant tree.

And that’s what started happening around us. The crash, the fighting, the Corporates who ran into the woods, that hill boy from Rough And Ready, the blood from my eye spilling onto dry soil. It all came together, boiled up the forest’s hunger. The trees went grimly.

I got to my feet and yelled for Gen to run. We ran and ran, blind for while. I lost my torch, but I could see shapes moving in the dark.

I spotted a bare little cliff off the ridge up a head, silhouetted by the stars. I tried to keep that in front of us, hoping to reach it and climb out of the frenzied trees.

I found a gap that opened up to the foot of the cliff. It was a small cliff, an eroding face of sandstone. But there was enough for us to climb up. And up we went.

Halfway up, I heard a hiss from below. A small tree, a sapling of one of the quicker species. A razor-fur or a thorn-willow, I don’t know, but it was hiss-targeting us.

I told Gen to hurry, but I needn’t have. He was soon level with me and then above.

I tried to keep up, but the sandstone was crumbly, and the rock I grabbed fell apart into pebbles. Lost my grip and reeled. I could hear the young tree below us, waiting, tasting me on the wind.

But Gen caught my other arm. He pulled and I managed to grab the edge of the outcrop he was reaching down from. I scrambled over the lip and caught my breath on my back, my skin hot and sweaty in the cool night air.

The outcrop big enough that we could sleep there that night and wait for the grimly to move on for prey or fall back asleep.

I got up and peeked over the edge. The clouds had broke some, thinning as they do at night.

Tree branches glistened and leaves shook in the dim light of the silver moon. We could see most of the valley. Gen watched the forest. It moved, like in those old terran movies of the ocean. It rippled. And in the middle of it all, striding through other trees and towering over them was a grimly. A tree of trees. A huge wave in the ocean.

“We read the reports,” Gen said. “But, we just didn’t understand until now.”

“It’s a big one,” I said.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Migratory Cascade Event. We’ve never seen anything like it on over forty different worlds in thirty different systems.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it,” I said.

“What do you mean?” the Corporate said without taking its eyes off the grimly.

But I didn’t say anything.

The grimly isn’t a thing, really. It’s all these different parts working together to exploit any bounty that comes its way. Each branch is like a franchise. Each skewered animal another planet. Cut a branch off and it’ll plant itself and make roots and grow big and strong. Cut off a Corporate from its people and it became a sexual disease, infecting the planet with its brood. Gen admired it.

And now Gen knew about the trees and how to walk through them. He would teach his kind, spread all our secrets.

Gen never took his eyes off the creature. Didn’t notice as I came up behind him. I didn’t hate him personally, but I did hate him. And his kind. I might could have lost him in the forest, or Marija and I could have pounced on him, but they are strong, those Corporates. Survivors. Might have fought us off as easily as he did that boy. Right then, on that outcrop, that was the opportunity I’d been waiting for.

He was calm. Happy even. And I was glad for that.

Unaware, as I braced myself and then and kicked him square in the back.

Gen sailed off the cliff with only a grunt. The Corporate didn’t scream or cry, made no sound as he fell into hungry branches below. Gen got to find out about the grimly first hand.

Maybe our home was just a backwater mud-ball spinning through space. And maybe Gen was just one naïve Corporate in a species that spanned the stars. But we don’t have much more than our mud-ball here. The Corporates left us with little more than nothing. If we were going to keep our planet, then it was settlers that needed the most help from each other. Nobody was going to give it to us.


Copyright 2015 Mark Pantoja 

Mark Pantoja is a writer and musician living in San Francisco. His stories have appeared in Tales from the Zombie War and Lightspeed. His short story collection Other Possibilities came out in 2013.

by E. Catherine Tobler

In those moments before, in the dark of the woods, we were near perfect likenesses of each other: faces round and curious, not having lost the plumpness of youth; eyes brightened by the possibility that lay at the end of our journey; coats buttoned up proper and bags carrying all we thought we needed still neatly zippered closed.

One might look at we four and say sisters, but we were not. Beneath our exteriors, we were as different as sun and moon, as Earth and Mars. Each might hang in the same sky, but one burned with its own light while the other could only reflect what was thrown its direction; one exploded with water and life while the other hung as a dry husk, millennia dead.

Moon was what my mother called me, bundling me like a crescent within her arms as she rocked me to sleep on the back porch night after night. Her weathered hands smoothed over my cheeks as she told me there was no man in the moon, but a girl, round and plump, gleaming pale as moonlight itself. Moon was what I was, then—in those moments before.

I didn’t possess my own light, but readily reflected and studied that of others.


  1. Strays

The woods were not lovely, though I would grant them both dark and deep as we wound our way closer to Philadelphia to see Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. It was the best of all possible worlds: Halloween had come and gone, but the weekend stretched ahead and with it, a chunk of treasured, unsupervised adventuring.

My sister Audrey, seventeen, slim, and perfect, had kicked us out of the faded tomato-red Rambler still on the Jersey side of the river. She was supposed to take us straight to the circus, but left us before we’d even hit the old rail bridge. It wasn’t right, but after seeing the empty look in her eyes, none of us said a word. We slid out and she was gone almost before the door latched shut. We would end up like the boy in the box, Norma whispered, but Trudy slapped her arm and for a long while we stood in silence, daylight running out around us.

Two nights ago Audrey and I sat at the very intersection we shuffled out of now; the Rambler rumbled as it always had and Audrey stared down the road, like she could see all manner of things I couldn’t. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse, held one unlit between her lips, and just stared. Joel wasn’t supposed to…he was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy. The cigarette had bobbed, drawing a long shadow over her chin, her neck. In the half light of the streetlight, she was just shadows. She never did light that cigarette.

Four shadows stretched across the road now as we nodded at each other, resolved, and left the pavement for the woods trailing along the Delaware River. Five miles to the bridge? More? I didn’t know, had never been there on foot before, and wasn’t sure why Audrey had been.

The Delaware River growled a distant rumble to our left. The day was not yet over, but sunlight struggled to reach the ground here, leaving the mulch in dappled in vague shadows. I placed my foot in every slight mark Rum left ahead of me, as she followed Trudy. I glanced over my shoulder to make certain of Norma. She was still there, though lagging behind, the tall grass plucking at the frilled hem of her skirt.

“They are not putting a dog in space.”

Norma, who tended to cringe every time she heard a male voice, cringed now, even though there were no boys or men close. Her head came up sharply at Rum’s words. Her eyes were as dark as the woods, but I could see the confusion in them. I looked forward again, to the set of Rum’s slight shoulders, to the bounce of Trudy’s copper pompadour turned umber in the forest gloom.

“Lu, you tell her—dogs don’t go in space. People don’t go in space, tell her.”

I kept pace with Rum and Trudy, but also held my silence for a minute. The Russians had a bomb stored up for every man, woman, and child in America. Why wouldn’t they shoot a dog into space for kicks?

“They’re doing no such thing,” Rum said again around the gob of chewing gum in her mouth. “No one would put a dog in outer space, for crying out loud. What good’s a dog gonna be up there? Not like they can do experiments—”

“You aren’t listening to me, Rum. They can be experiments,” Trudy said. Her own gum sounded like a sharp gunshot as she chewed the air out of a bubble. “They’re going to see what happens to the dog, right? Next step, probably people. In space.” She lifted her hands into the gloomy air and wriggled her fingers, the silent explosion of a billion rockets. While provoking the others seemed like a thing that gave Trudy glee, there was more to it than that. I had seen the way she blushed when Norma looked at her. It was the same way Audrey blushed when Joel looked her way.

“God wouldn’t like a dog in space,” Norma muttered as she came up alongside me, like there was comfort in being closer. She jabbed her hands into her coat pockets like they were faces and she was punching them in. “If dogs were meant to go to space, they would already be there. God put them on the ground for a reason. Just like we’re on the ground. A reason.”

Rum’s shoulders bowed a little. Then, she turned around and walked backwards, eyes on me all the while like I was the only known spot on a map. Her face was round and trusting, a cherub, dark hair hanging in glossy ringlets against her cheeks. “Lu, you tell me, they wouldn’t put a dog in space…would they?”

Rum was a year younger than us, thirteen. She claimed she was a runaway from the Amish in Lancaster and while we weren’t sure how possible it was—we had never seen any black Amish—we couldn’t disprove it, and Norma had tried three times. I alone knew her name wasn’t Rum—it was Hannah Fisher, a thing she’d sworn me to silence about.

Rum didn’t have family anywhere local, that was for sure. She had lived at the children’s home with the nuns for a good bit now, but the world remained exceedingly strange for her; everything was horribly possible all at once because she didn’t know any better. Maybe shooting dogs into space was a thing.

I was the one she asked; even above the sisters at the school, she trusted my word, even though I was a writer, and skilled at making things up. Especially stories where people, dogs, and insects went into space on ships named Presley and Haley, and loved it there.

“They’re Russians, Rum,” I said. “No telling what they’d do.” I pictured my sister sitting with her unlit cigarette, remembered the flutter of her pulse in her throat as she sat and stared into the night. Joel wasn’t supposed to…

Rum’s gaze swung back to Trudy. Waiting. Trudy nodded and stopped walking, to shift her pack into her hands where she could unzip it. Inside were crammed magazines, their paper and ink scent sharply filling the evening air. We each stopped in our tracks to wonder at what was in there. I felt some things would be certain: magazine covers of Elvis, newspaper clippings about Paul Anka, her transistor radio that she likely smuggled out.

“Sunday morning, going to shoot her straight into the stars,” Trudy said. “See here.” She might have been a librarian with the ease her fingers found across the magazine spines and edges, to pluck a rumpled newspaper free. Mars Bars wrappers crinkled in its wake.

Rum’s hand shot out to take the newspaper. Such things were still small miracles to her, she who claimed to have run away from her folks because she refused to be married. I supposed if people could catapult a dog into space, other people could try to marry off their child of a daughter. Amish were much like Russians in my head; as alien as the creatures I spent hours writing about.

The story about the dog was made suddenly worse with the unfurling of the newspaper. The dog had a name, an image, a set of bright eyes that one could get lost in. I refused to look overly long at the grainy image, but Rum couldn’t look away.

“Laika,” Rum read. “She was a stray!” Her eyes shot up to Trudy who only nodded again, justifiably smug now that she had produced newsprint evidence. Rum scoured the article, assuring us she would read only the germane bits, which seemed to be every word on the page. They were launching the dog into space on Sunday, to study the effects of space on a living creature.

Rum’s shoulders sank and she started to walk, eyes still riveted to the paper. I elbowed Trudy as she zipped her bag shut, but it was Norma’s voice that filled the long silence with reprimands as Rum walked away.

“Just a stray—still a creature of God, like Rum if you think about it long enough. Runaway, stray, not much different. What do they think’s going to happen to it? The dog, not Rum.”

“Nobody knows,” Trudy said, and they both fell back into step behind Rum. “That’s the point.”

I followed, but slower, because my mind was coming up with all sorts of things that could happen to that poor dog. Asphyxiation. Alien abduction. Rocket could fall into the moon or back into the ocean, gravity depending. Rocket could fall apart before it even left the launch pad and what of the dog then? Mostly, I wondered if we Americans would try to shoot the rocket down, thinking it was a bomb, thinking that we were going to blow them up before they could blow us up.

We walked in silence until Norma started singing “Sandman.”

“Bum, bum, bum…”

One by one, we chimed in. It was a song we practiced for no good reason—”because we could” didn’t seem to please our parents enough. They found us silly as we tried to harmonize the way the Chordettes did, but mostly we didn’t care. Singing to the mythical Sandman brought its own rewards, even if the lyrics were ridiculous. Trudy refused to sing beyond providing the “yeees?” when the Sandman finally appeared; said it was degrading to dream only of a man, which made Rum kick it up even higher.

“And lots of wavy hair like Lib-er-ace!” Rum fairly hollered as we walked ever toward the still-distant bridge in the growing dark.

The dog came out of nowhere. It was like the darkness peeled a part of itself away and lunged for Rum. Later, Trudy would say the dog didn’t want her singing, either, but mostly I think it was on account of her being loud and small, seemingly easy prey, but for we who closed in (after a good stretch of mindless shrieking, make no mistake).

Rum was on the ground before I knew what had happened, Trudy and Norma leaping back, stumbling into trees and each other. I stopped altogether, staring at the twist of dark forms in the growing dark of the woods. I couldn’t tell Rum from the animal at first, didn’t even know it was a dog until I swung my bag and caught it in the nose. It reeled back with a whine and I grabbed Rum by the arm, pulling her out of biting distance.

She was so still and quiet, especially in the wake of Trudy and Norma screaming at the dog. They chased it into the trees and I hauled Rum into my lap, trying to ignore the way my thighs shook, the way my hands were covered in blood from where Rum had been bitten.


Rum was not given to prayer, despite being roped into a covenant school, nor was I. Oh, we all went to church every Sunday, and sat proper and listened to words that were supposed to encourage thought and reflection, but mostly we wanted to be tromping through the woods, setting up forts, brushing out each other’s hair, making firm denials that any of us were growing up ever. We were not curving in new places, we were not asking our mothers to buy us bras or feminine hygiene products and the world was a still one long, continual summer afternoon where anything but these strange things was possible.

“Get your coat off,” I said and my voice was strangely thick, like I had been crying and yelling and I wouldn’t admit to either.

I helped peel Rum’s coat off to see the blood well up from her forearm. “Jesus Christ,” I bit out.

The screams in the woods grew more distant, the crash of undergrowth and fallen branches and who knew what else. I reached for my bag, the zipper hard to work with bloodied fingers, but eventually got it open. I grabbed the first thing I came to, rolled knee socks, white, splattered with purple polka dots. They were my favorite, a birthday gift from Audrey. I unbundled them and tied each one tight around Rum’s arm, paying no mind to the way she hollered.

“We are going back,” I said, and made to move away, to get her coat and my bag and Rum caught me before I could do anything.

“We are not.”

I could picture a hundred things going wrong with Rum’s arm. It could get infected. It could bleed itself dry and wither right off at her elbow and when it dropped off, the dog that bit her would be there to pick it up in its awful maw and carry it away for dinner, for a toy, for a trophy.

“Makes no sense going back,” Rum said, “just like it makes no sense to shoot a dog into the moon. Into space. Wherever she’s going.” Her voice dropped low and her fingers uncurled from my arm. “We’re not going back. Wrap my nightgown around my arm. Put my coat back on. They don’t need to know. I need to go.”

They would know, I thought, but I opened Rum’s bag, found her nightgown (butter yellow with a tiny pink ribbon rose at the neckline), and wrapped it around my socks which already bound her arm. We stuffed her into her coat with grunts and groans and by the time Trudy and Norma came back, breathless and sweaty, we had washed ourselves clean with the water from Rum’s canteen.

“Don’t know where it went,” Norma said. She bent over, hands on knees as she tried to breathe.

“Away is good enough,” Trudy said. She glanced at the sky, then back down to Rum. She laughed. “Maybe Laika’s spirit crawled into that dog, came to tell you she wants to go, huh?”

“Spirits don’t work that way—dogs don’t even have souls. Spirits certainly don’t crawl, what do they tell you in that church of yours,” Norma began, but Rum cut her off with a “bum, bum, bum, Mr. Sandman!”

Norma threw her hands up and stalked into the woods, back on the path we’d been keeping to as if there had never been a dog, a chase. Trudy hefted her own pack and gave me a wide smile before following her. I gave the still-singing Rum a hand up from the ground and we followed.

“German shepherd?” Norma asked once the singing had settled down, and the dark rose more firmly above us. We would have to stop soon. “Bloodhound? It was big. Smelled bad. Like it had been out here a long time. Saint Bernard?”

I hadn’t noticed any smell, but I hoped the dog hadn’t been sick. It was too easy to picture Rum getting sick, turning green or purple or some other hideous color as her body began to rot. Maybe she would turn into a dog and then there’d be no hiding it.

Behind us, I heard a sound like a dog walking through leaves. Crunch, crunch, pause, crunch, snuffle. I looked back, but it was too dark to see anything. I rooted in my bag until I came up with my flashlight, then shone it on the path behind us.

“What’s there?” Rum asked.

I had turned to walk backwards, still shining my light behind us. “Nothing,” I said, just as my light skimmed past a pair of eyes that lit up like small, exploding suns.

We screamed.

This only set the dog off, digging paws into the earth to charge us. God, it was huge. I wanted to brain it with my flashlight, but kept hold of it against all instincts shrieking otherwise. The light bounced through the trees as I ran; falling stars, ricocheting headlights, the sunlight in a wavering mirror.

“Into the trees!” I screamed. “Into the trees!”

The trees weren’t made for climbing, but we did our best with what we’d been given. The bark bit into my hands and knees, and by the time I’d gone as high as I could go, I’d wedged the flashlight in my shirt, in the slim strap of my bra where it crossed between my breasts. First thing it had been good for.

I pulled the light out and aimed it to the ground, searching for the beast. It was there, making circles around the trees. It was huge, didn’t look like a proper dog at all. Drool gleamed down its jaw, ceaseless as it stalked us. It didn’t bark, only cast its gaze upward, watching. Waiting.

I shone the light into the other trees, looking for the girls. I found them one by one, clinging as I did to a branch that seemed only just wide enough to not break right off. Rum’s eyes were wide with terror, Norma’s too, but Trudy, she was laughing as she wrapped herself more tightly around the tree.

“Now there’s a dog that needs to be in space,” she said.


  1. Gently Down the Stream

It was probably a Saint Bernard, but hard to say.

Come morning—a Saturday that was trying to rain, when we should have been in our own homes, having syrupy pancakes—Rum and I were still in the tree tops, the dog sleeping beneath us. It was possibly white at one time, but had been so long in the woods, it was now the color of the woods themselves, blotchy brown and gold and black. It had no collar, so no tag.

Rum was in the tree closest to me and she was the color of old, dried mud. She was shaking as she tried to hold on to the tree and maybe this wasn’t going to end well, but surely it had to end soon. I looked for Trudy and Norma, but saw no sign of them. Had they already climbed down? I looked back at the dog. Had it eaten them? A thing like that, you’d think we might hear it.

“Rum, we need to climb down,” I said.

“There’s a… There’s a dog down there, Lu.” She yawned and I could see how paper-dry her lips were.

“There is not a dog down there,” I said. I adjusted my bag, checked the flashlight in my bra, and began to climb down the tree. “There is a fairy trapped in the body of a dog—a fairy who doesn’t know any better than to plow into four girls who’re walking to the city to see the circus. What does she know about anything in that body?” I paused on the next too-thin branch, listening to it crackle. Rum hadn’t moved. “Let’s find out, Rum. Come on, climb down with me. Bet you can’t beat me.”

That was enough to get her moving. I exhaled and said nothing more as we moved down from the trees. No branches broke; I found if I moved fast enough, they just didn’t have time. When my feet touched the ground, the dog lifted its massive head to look at me, but didn’t move. Its eyes were chocolate brown, curious but not hostile like last night.

I moved toward Rum’s tree, to clasp her by a foot and help her down to the ground. Like my mother would have, I pressed a hand to her head, thinking I would be assaulted with a veritable book of information about what ailed her. No such book came, but I was certain she felt warmer than she should have, especially with the misting rain.

“Here.” I uncapped my canteen and handed it to her. She drank like she’d never had a sip of anything in her life. I wanted to unwrap her arm and take a look at it, but also didn’t, because that meant admitting we had a problem bigger than a dog possessed by a fairy.

“S’fairy?” she asked, wiping her hand over her mouth.

I nodded and looked at the dog. “Only explanation.” Of course there were a hundred others, though the dog didn’t look sick. I crouched down to study it and its ears perked forward, tail worming through the damp leaves. “Maybe she’s forgotten how to talk—given that drooling mouth, you can’t actually blame her…”

There was an empty wrapper near one paw and the dog’s tongue lolled out, to curl around a tattered chunk of Mars Bar. Leaves came with it, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, swallowing everything in one gulp. The tail scrabbled in the leaves again, happy, eager, dog-like. I couldn’t quite convince myself it was a dog, all things considered.

Rum had crouched down beside me and tipped forward to her knees, to bend almost entirely to the ground as she studied the dog.

“Laika?” she whispered.

The dog’s entire body wriggled, but it made no move toward Rum. This was not Laika; it bore no resemblance to the dog in the paper. As Norma said, souls didn’t work that way and Laika was in Russia, getting ready to head to the stars. Whatever this was, it wasn’t that. This close, the dog did smell weird; syrup, shave cream, and chocolate.

Rum whispered, “Free, free, a trip to Mars, for nine-hundred empty jars. Burma-Shave,” and reached a trembling hand out.

“Rum, I don’t think you should—”

The dog’s tongue spooled out again, this time around Rum’s hand in a slobbery lick. Every part of me was poised to jump at her and haul her back, but the tongue withdrew without taking her hand off. The dog leaned forward and Rum scratched it between its eyes.

I stepped backward, into Trudy and Norma who had returned. Their arms were full of sticks and rocks, and I helped them clear a space to make a small fire. Norma ringed the rocks, I tented the sticks, and Trudy pulled a magazine and a lighter from her bag. She tore pages from the back of the magazine, carefully along the spine edge. Only the advertisements, though even this left the first couple of pages loose. She tucked them carefully away before setting fire to the pages balled under the sticks.


Norma offered up a bag of marshmallows. This kind of thing was tradition; when our parents let us go on a weekend, we were on our own for all things. While we had pocket money for food and circus admissions, we had packed a good many things we weren’t normally allowed to eat. Root beer and melted marshmallows for breakfast, for example. Trudy passed out bottles of Hires, but not even that was enough to get Rum to join us.

“Dog didn’t do anything when we climbed down,” Trudy said as she leaned a bottle of Hires against the log for Rum if she wanted. She then skewered a marshmallow on the end of a stick and held it into the flames. “Gave him a Mars Bar though, just in case.”

“Dogs shouldn’t eat candy,” Norma said.

“Well, he did eat it.” I glanced away from Rum and the dog, back to Norma with her strict set of rules and Trudy with her distinct lack of them. In the humid morning, Norma’s curls had turned into a brown cotton ball while Trudy’s pompadour curved almost flat against her skull.

“Found a cardboard box out there,” Norma said. “Flat, wet.”

No one said anything to that, but we were all thinking the same thing. That poor little dead boy the police had found, that no one stepped up to claim. Wrapped in a plaid blanket and just left there. Left in a box. Dead, dead, dead. I burned my tongue with my marshmallow and took a long swallow of root beer.

“How far are we?”

The question came from Rum. She pulled herself up from the leaves and came to sit by my side. The dog padded along side her, flanking me. It looked at our staked marshmallows and then back to Rum.

Trudy palmed her hair out of her eyes. “Not too far, few more miles up the river to the bridge—”

“The rail bridge?” Norma asked. “We can’t cross there—that’s for trains.”

“Might as well cross there—no sense in walking five more miles.” Trudy twirled her marshmallow in the flames until it was a dripping black mess, then brought it to her mouth.

Norma hunched her shoulders in her coat and let her marshmallow catch fire; it dripped into the sticks, long strands of white instantly blackened.

“And what about this stupid dog?” Rum tried her best to sound angry about it, but somehow didn’t. She also didn’t sound scared. I think I would have been scared, having no good idea about the dog or the wound it had inflicted.

“It doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave.” Trudy lobbed a stone toward the dog’s paws; it landed short and the dog didn’t even spook.

Even as we smothered the fire and packed our bags, the dog stayed with us, and once back on the trail, it lopped slightly ahead, as if leading the way. I tried not to think too hard on that, worried about Rum. She didn’t look any worse, and was walking as normal as anyone, but I couldn’t forget the blood on her arm last night or the muddy color to her cheeks this morning.

“Well, did he put his arm around you?”

Ahead of me and Rum, Trudy and Norma walked with shoulders nearly together, but at this question, Norma took a step away.

“He did not,” Norma said. “Once you let a boy put his arm around you, he knows exactly how far he may go. He wanted to, but…no. He did not.”

Trudy pressed. “Did you want him to?”

Trudy was forever wanting to know about boys, about dancing and holding hands and arms scooped around shoulders. She dreamed of kissing, no matter that everyone told her if she turned her gorgeous fall of copper curls into a pompadour, she would never be kissed by a boy ever. She didn’t seem too upset, only wanted to know about kissing. The news that Norma had been within touching distance of a boy who wanted to put his arm around her was special indeed. I hadn’t been kissed. Trudy hadn’t been kissed. Rum said she never wanted a thing to do with boys, which led Trudy to believe she had been kissed and often. That our rule-following Catholic Norma had been so close to a boy was revolutionary.

Norma didn’t answer Trudy and Trudy laughed. Laughed so loud she startled birds from the wet trees. Norma shoved her and walked a little faster down the trail, arms clasped around herself.

“That wasn’t very nice, Tru,” I murmured, but Trudy only laughed more.

“No, it wasn’t,” she agreed.

“Bum, bum, bum,” Rum sang, but no one joined in just then.

We walked in silence and eventually Rum’s hand slipped into mine. She was tiring and cold from the rain that never quite fell. The sky was a sheet of gray beyond the trees that were half-empty of leaves. It seemed we should have been to the bridge hours ago, the woods stretching out impossibly far. I questioned how far we had actually gone and glanced back only to see endless woods on that side of us too. The birds had gone strangely quiet and so had the river, as if we were farther from it and the bridge than we ever had been. Where had Audrey left us? A shiver slid down my spine and when the dog barked, I nearly jumped out of my skin. My hand tightened around Rum’s.

Above us, high above the canopy of trees, a dark shadow circled. This had caught the dog’s attention, setting him to barking and capering further down the sodden trail. I couldn’t tell if it was excitement or annoyance, but he didn’t stop barking as he tore off the path and into the trees. I stopped walking and Rum, still clinging to my hand (or did I cling to her?), stopped too. We looked up and watched this strange shape trace paths in the sky.

It was too big to be a bird—unless it was a vulture, but even at that, I had never seen vultures here and it was bigger beyond that. But it moved like a bird, wings dipping down to propel itself higher against the gray sky.

“What is that, Lu?” Rum whispered. “Another fairy?”

I squeezed her hand and started walking again. “Absolutely. You saw how the dog reacted.” I looked ahead for the dog, but saw no sign of him. Still, I heard him barking. “Clearly they’re related, maybe she’s come to pull the fairy out and put things proper.” Maybe she could look at your arm, I wanted to add, but didn’t, because again, that meant allowing we had problems and there were no problems here, nope.

Proving me right about our utter lack of problems was the revelation of the river and the shadow of the looming rail bridge ahead. I felt more than a little relieved at the sight of both; even Norma and Trudy looked comforted by the bridge’s old, black bulk.

Beyond the tangle of half-bare trees and gray-sticked shrubs that clung to the riverbank, the bridge stood stark against the gloomy sky, latticed iron bracing the longer girders. It looked drawn onto the sky with watercolors that were beginning to run to the color of rust, of time. The iron was supported by columns reaching into the water where they were encased in old stones; even from this distance, I could see they were colored with moss, lined with grit where the water had constantly licked past. Down the bridge’s center, the railroad tracks which would guide us to the Philadelphia side.

“There’s something…” Trudy bravely picked her way closer to the river. She lost her footing part way through, and grabbed a low tree branch to keep herself up right and out of the cold mud. “People? There are people down there. Wait.”

We didn’t exactly wait. We came to Trudy’s side, stepping through leaves and mud to look ahead at what she had found. Trudy shushed us, but we had already fallen silent.

Down the riverbank, where the stones and pylon anchored the bridge into the ground, there huddled a group of people. At first glance, they looked like an extension of the wood’s underbrush, half-dressed in leaves and half-bare to the uncaring sky. But as my eyes grew accustomed to their shapes, individuals made themselves known. A twig was an arm; a trunk was a torso. I counted a dozen different forms, or maybe there were fewer; it remained strangely hard to tell, but the important thing remained true: they were gathered around another form that floated in the river.

It was too big. Big and small in the same instant, deflated and drained of everything. A discarded Halloween costume, I thought, that’s all it was, but none of us could resist in getting a closer look, not even Norma who proved true to her Catholic roots when it came to her fascination with the dead and all that accompanied them. Eyes on a plate, thorns around a disembodied heart, carry on.

I was certain it hadn’t ever been human, but the way it spread in the water, it recalled a thing that had been human and no longer was. Its fingers were too long, trailing out nearly like tentacles, some curled around the dried weeds of the riverbank. If it ever wore clothes, they were long gone; the body pooled pale and utterly flat on the river’s surface. It shouldn’t have been flat; it should have bloated up, with water, with disease, with something, but it was like a sheet of plastic that a person could peel off and shake dry.

The worst thing was the face. Being that flat, you think of nothing like a face, until you start to look at it the way maybe Picasso would, with disgorged eyes and malformed mouths. It still had its teeth in its mouth (mouths, oh god there was more than one), but these were also somehow flat, screams pressed into a book for safe-keeping. The memory of a nose, colorless eyes. Male or female, I couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter; whatever shape might have given it form was just gone. Deflated.

Among the mourners that ringed the body sat the dog that had accompanied us. He tipped his head back, howled, and then bolted out of the water, scattering mud and water up the bank.

Rum swayed and I wrapped an arm around her to keep her upright. Norma clutched Trudy’s sleeve, and we all four hovered there, not daring to breathe or do anything that might bring that dog back to us. We didn’t want them to see us, no matter the cold water that seeped its way into my loafers, creeping ever up my socks.

They lifted the body from the water and it came up like plastic wrap from the molded gelatin salads our gran liked to bring over. The body made a sucking sound and resisted, like it didn’t want to peel away. Suction from the edges—where it clung most desperately to the water—made ripples course through the skin, if it was skin. These ripples smoothed out the more the people pulled, the body going so thin I could see the water through it. Norma’s shoulders pulled tight, inching toward her ears until I thought she might swallow herself.


At this single word from a man in the group, the others let the body go. It slipped back to the river with a sigh. Norma nearly deflated, too; the breath she let go sounded like a sob. She buckled to her knees and we all reached for her.


“She shouldn’t have gotten up,” Norma sobbed. Blindly, she clutched at us, tears streaming down her red cheeks as she kneeled in the cold river mud. “She s-shouldn’t have… She should have stayed d-down, let it hap— happen and pass the w-way the r-river…”

We all knew—people talked, but not us. We never questioned, never wondered aloud, it was a known fact. It wasn’t our place, but it could be. Norma was like any of us, raised in a household with siblings, with a mother, with a father. There were rules; every person had their place and lines were not to be crossed. Dogs didn’t go into space—women didn’t overstep their boundaries. The hard part was knowing where those lines were; understanding the boundary of water and earth was easy, other things less so when they changed at a man’s whim.

I wanted to touch Norma’s shoulder, to let her know it was all right, that though her mother had been torn and flattened by her husband’s hands, it didn’t have to be that way. But touching Norma was crossing the boundary erected around her by father, by brothers.

The shadow in the sky returned, but this time skimmed low to the water. It was a bird, I saw, but also a woman, and I felt something inside me stir at the sight of her. She flew across the river, filling her mouth with water until at last she alone could scoop the body from its wet mooring. The body came away effortlessly, cradled in the water of the bird’s mouth as she lifted into the sky. She dipped under the shadow of the bridge, then up and up into the clouded sky with a hundred smaller birds in her wake. It was then the clouds broke, rain streaming coldly down.

The figures left the river and we withdrew, too, to the meager shelter of a thin tree where we settled Norma and let her cry herself empty. We wiped her knees clean of mud and pressed a root beer into her hands and without a word resumed our walk to the bridge. The circus wasn’t far now.

The dog waited for us at the mouth of the bridge, paws wet and muddy. He shook himself once, then vanished into the bridge, as if trusting us to follow. Maybe it was a fairy trapped inside, I thought, because what else could explain such a strange creature? Maybe, maybe, maybe it was Laika after all, eager to see what the circus had to offer before she took to the stars.

“What’s today?” Rum asked as we set foot on the railroad ties where the rain beaded.

“Saturday,” Trudy said. She rummaged through her bag to pull out her radio. “Saturday and the whole of a circus before us.”

Saturday, and Laika goes tomorrow. Tomorrow.

“I hope they have c-cotton candy.” This from Norma, Norma who had never voiced a hope before, only the cold facts she’d been raised with.

She had never tasted cotton candy, I was certain, and made equally certain to be sure that if she wanted, Norma could eat her weight in spun sugar before we left the circus grounds.


  1. Idle

The bridge was old, built so long before any of us had been born it seemed to me a relic that should have been at the bottom of a sea somewhere, gathering moss and turning into a coral reef. It was sturdy as anything, but that didn’t keep the wood from creaking under our feet as we made our way through. Latticed iron arced above us and provided just enough of a roof to make the Everly Brothers that crackled from Trudy’s radio echo all around us.

Trudy sang along, following behind the dog, who followed Norma and Rum. I brought up the rear, suddenly hating “Wake Up Little Susie,” because it made me think of Audrey waking up in a place she shouldn’t be waking up, of her dark profile in the Rambler and the way she never lit that cigarette. Joel wasn’t supposed to…he was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy.

Joel had been a part of our lives as long as I could remember, a grade or two ahead. He lived five minutes away from our house if you took the back way to get there, over fences and across lawns to bypass the dead ends and cul-du-sacs. Audrey took the back way a lot, sneaking out after we had been tucked in, swearing me to secrecy. I followed her twice. The first time, she’d met him in the park and spent an hour making out with him under a tree. The second time, they had taken off in the Ford Fairlane his father had bought him, sleek and black like oil running down the road. The car came back with windows fogged.

Sometimes we liked him, sometimes we didn’t; he was popular, got good grades, pleased his parents at every turn, and had a headful of golden hair like any Greek god might. What wasn’t to like, Audrey often asked. Usually, I couldn’t be fussed to remember when we were supposed to like him and when we were supposed to hate him, but I was sure I wouldn’t ever forget the first time he made Audrey cry, or the way she eventually stopped crying and just held that cigarette between her lips. Waiting for something that never came.

It was a regular part of life, waiting for things. Waiting for school to start, waiting for school to stop, waiting for the new Elvis song, waiting for the weekend and the cocktail parties our parents would often take us to, waiting for breasts to come in like they were something on order from the department store, waiting for cheekbones to pop out, or blood to flow so that we might actually Become Women, or…

He was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy.

We all knew what it could mean, if you waited for a thing and it didn’t show up. School always came, whether you were ready or not, but blood wasn’t quite so constant. We had been told what it could mean, if the blood didn’t come.

“…when they say ooo la la…”

Either thing held its own amount of terror, bleeding or not. Audrey held my hand the first time, told me how things were supposed to go. I thought of her profile in the Rambler and wished I had held her hand, because I was beginning to think a thing I didn’t want to think at all. The nights she snuck out to be with Joel, the nights she didn’t come home till early in the mornings. I couldn’t remember when they started going steady, Joel had just always been there. Until he wasn’t.

“Maybe they were circus people,” Rum said from the head of the line when that awful song finally finished. The dog barked as if it agreed with her. “Was just like a piece of wet paper, wasn’t it? Didn’t fall apart though. Maybe plastic.”

Plastic, that body in the water. I swallowed hard, thinking about bodies and blood and the way that body hadn’t seemed to have a drop left inside it.

“Maybe,” Trudy said. “Here.”

She had turned around, to walk backwards while she extended a pack of cigarettes toward Rum and Norma. Norma’s first inclination was to shake her off—the pack moved toward Rum, who took one, and then Norma, to everyone’s surprise, reached for one, too. Trudy’s mouth quirked up in a grin and she tossed one back to me. I caught it before it could hit the narrow shoulder we walked on.

We had to stop to light them and the dog walked in impatient circles around us as we did. The tobacco was dry and it crackled under the sudden warmth of the lighter flame. Norma took a hard pull on hers and doubled over coughing. Trudy slapped her on the back and then we were off again. I didn’t actually smoke my cigarette; the smoke made my nose wrinkle. Rum lipped the end of hers like it might bite her, and spit out tobacco flakes, while Trudy attempted to show Norma exactly how to smoke without choking. Mostly, it seemed an excuse to get close to Norma and watch her mouth around the cigarette butt.

Eventually, I flicked mine through the bridge lattice and into the river below. It vanished into the water without a sound.

“Does that happen, to bodies? Often?” Rum asked. She picked tobacco from her tongue and made a face that set Trudy to laughing.

“Wasn’t natural, what happened to that body,” Norma said and Rum’s eyes flicked to me, silently questioning.

I nodded in agreement, though maybe it was just a kind of nature we didn’t yet know. Who’s to say? Much like the Russians, there was plenty about nature we didn’t know.

Coming out of the bridge on the other side, the Pennsylvania side, it seemed like everything should have been different, but it wasn’t much. Another tangle of woods, though this time we moved away from the river and train tracks, setting up camp a short way in so that we could have lunch. There was bread and Kraft Singles and a fire set up to combine into toasted, melted perfection.

The problem with walking so long in the woods was having to eventually pee in the woods. Being that we were all girls, it wasn’t so strange to wander off a ways, so as camp was set up, I wandered. Our canine companion had also wandered off and so did Rum. I watched her vanish safely behind a bush, then turned to find my own.

My own was already occupied, by a tall, hairy man.

But for the filthy hair, he seemed naked, naked and peeing in a bush, and I opened my mouth to say something stupid like “excuse me,” but nothing came out, nothing at all. Despite that, he heard me, maybe my feet in the leaves or the way I sucked in a breath and made to choke like I was still holding a cigarette. He looked over his shoulder—his eyes were brown and kind and startled—and his cheeks flooded with color and before either of us could say a word, he was just gone. He ran and I let him go, standing there, still needing to pee very much.

I managed, shaking all the while. The idea that he would come back, jump on me, and drag me into the bushes was foremost in my mind. I held a roll of paper in one hand and my flashlight in the other, dragged warm out of my bra where my heart still pounded like it was going to war. I would brain him. I would take him down before he could take me. Why was a man peeing in these woods, for the love of—


I couldn’t say how long I had been gone, but they were hollering for me. When I got back to camp, Rum poured water over my hands so I could wash, and I sat near the fire to rub them dry. Trudy offered me a cheese sandwich, but hesitated before actually giving it to me.

“Look like you saw a ghost,” she said and I shook my head, but knew I had to tell them.

The dog padded up to Rum’s side as I told them about the man peeing in the woods. From that moment on, some of the joy went out of the lunch, because we were all on our guard, watching the trees around us. Was he alone? Was he hunting with friends? Were they out roaming the woods looking for girls to abduct? The dog, seeming to pick up on our moods, whined and paced a circle around us and the fire.

“Probably shouldn’t stay here too long,” Norma said. She shoved the rest of her sandwich indelicately into her mouth, chewing more than she comfortably could. Although I wanted to laugh, I didn’t, because her point was sound. Much like the dog in the woods the day before, we had no idea what or who else was out here.

As we packed camp to go, our mood stayed low, quiet. Our eyes were never off the woods for long, and I felt suddenly foolish for taking part in this journey. I wondered if this was what growing up meant. Never knowing what was around the next corner but fearing it would be something I’d be incapable of dealing with or explaining to anyone other than my closest friends. No one would believe that body, or that man, or even this dog who still padded alongside us as we packed, smothered the fire, and left.

Worry ensured that we made good time through these woods; soon enough, the dirt paths turned to paved roads and signs of civilization began to assure us that we were getting closer to our destination. When at last we could see the city rising against the gray sky in the distance, I think we all blew out a breath of relief.

“It’s like that on all the outer planets of the system,” I said as we walked, our steps still quicker than normal and still that stupid dog at Rum’s side like it was trying to apologize for nearly taking her arm off. She looked better, but not so much better that I had stopped worrying.

“Not so many people, right,” I continued, “so when you turn a corner and find another person, there’s that moment of shock, that instant when you don’t recognize them as a person at all but something hostile in your space, something that means to stop you from where you were actually going. Doesn’t matter that they might be just as shocked to see you—they probably are, might welcome a hello or a drink after the places they’ve been, but mostly, it’s that heart-hammering fear that they’re going to turn on you, or come back after they’ve run away, and do you some harm.”

Everyone stayed quiet as I told the story—maybe it calmed them as much as it did me. Not the content of the story itself, just the sound of a voice that has something to share and knows where it’s going. Fiction was like that. Point A always led to point B. Real life wasn’t so much like that.

“Jupiter’s the best,” I said, “because it’s the biggest and because of the clouds. Picture all that low-hanging fog, no other soul in sight for months. You’d just be a speck up there, like a grain of sugar tossed into coffee. So tiny. If you didn’t melt, you’d surely be all squashed and rounded on the edges, rolling through fog, all alone till— Hello, what’s this, another person? Edges all rounded off just like yours, but still strange because you’d weigh twice as much up there, maybe more. You both probably look like squash in the end and it’s not like you’d be able to run, weighing that much, so maybe you’d roll away in your surprise, and then— Well, Red Spot, right?” I smiled now, carried away with the idea. “Probably a hole, straight to the middle of the world—”

“And what’s inside?” Rum asked.

“Oh, more clouds. Always clouds.”

“Like cotton candy,” she said. “Falling forever.”

Neighborhoods made themselves known as we walked; clusters of houses and stone tenements that rose along the paved streets. Rain glossed the streets and made everything look like one long piece of licorice, stretched beyond all its means. The deeper into this neighborhood we wandered, the first thing that hit us was the smell—it was popped corn and burnt sugar, roasted nuts and rain-wet animals.

But among the cars that lined the road through these gloomful tenements where only the occasional light glowed from a window, sat a car I knew, a car we all knew, the faded tomato-red Rambler, and though we walked past, my eyes fixed firmly to it. It was empty, windows rolled shut against the rain, but there was Audrey’s discarded cigarette on the dashboard, and the dent in the driver’s side door where I opened the door into a tree the first time Audrey let me drive, and the rounded corner of the small green sticker we’d never been able to get off the windshield glass.

In the building behind the Rambler, a small light burned in one window, but the door was shut and it was no place I knew. A sign beside the doorbell directed people to the back entrance.

The other girls didn’t pause—I don’t think they looked at the car, because they were so intent on following their noses to the tents and booths that sprawled through a space that had once been an empty field. It was muddy now, meager grass stomped into the mud that had come with the rains. Undaunted, countless people frolicked within the temporary fence that ringed it all. The entrance gate was staffed by two figures, each so extraordinary they drove Audrey from my mind.

The first was a woman who towered as tall as the entry gate itself. She was the largest person I had ever seen, and felt as though she possessed her own gravity; we were drawn in by her, to her massive figure which was given shape by a corset of burnished copper. Black layered skirts and a blouse frothed from either end and did little to disguise the ribbons of indigo ink that marked the giantess’s skin. She plucked money from those who entered and the dollars seemed small in her hands, hands that could have easily gathered all four of us into one palm.

The creature by her side was something I had no words for. It was one being, two bodies that merged into one at the waist. They wore dark trousers to make this clear—there was but one set of legs—one torso clad in red, the other in white. Wings flared up behind both bodies, the straight fall of ginger-red hair interrupted by braids of black ribbons throughout. I could not say until I passed them by whether the wings they wore were real or part of their costuming, but after obtaining tickets, and stepping through the entry gate, the warmth of those feathers brushed my cheek, and I knew. If ever I lived on Jupiter, I would remember that brief touch.

Inside the circus grounds, we all started to change. Looking back, I suppose it wasn’t a thing that happened gradually; it was swift. Probably we had started to change the minute Audrey kicked us out of the Rambler and made us walk, but only inside the circus did it become more evident.

Trudy seemed to glow and Norma stood straighter than she ever had before, like her shoulders were no longer bowed by some awful weight. Rum kept her hand in mine at first, but I could tell she was more confident too, her nose working overtime to take in everything she had never smelled before. She was also due a good gorging on cotton candy, I thought, but the more she ate through the day, she changed all over again.

With everything she consumed—pickles, cotton candy, and bag after bag of popcorn—Rum seemed to get a little slower, a little more muddy around the edges. She tugged her hand out of mine to better hold her cup of soda, but I could see the way her fingers crumpled the paper cup, like she still couldn’t quite get a grip on it.

When Norma and Trudy stepped up to the Ferris wheel to ride, Rum shook her head, said she couldn’t do it. I stayed with her on a bench, watching the other girls wheel up into the cloudy sky.

“Let me see your arm,” I said, even though the words stuck in my throat like dry toast.

Rum refused and when I reached for her, curling a hand into her coat sleeve, she flinched, then flung her soda at me. The top popped off and I was doused in dark, sweet, cola. I’m not sure who was more surprised, Rum or me, but Rum bolted from the bench without her bag, fleeing into the circus with a cry.


She vanished into the crowds, probably expert at doing so given she’d run away from so much in her life. Didn’t have to be Amish she had run from, but the girl knew how to cover ground. Lest I lose them too, I waited for Trudy and Norma to come down and told them Rum had gone. Showed them her abandoned bag as if that was proof, when her just being gone was proof enough.

We each had watches, so made sure they were synchronized before parting ways. We could cover more ground this way and meet back up at the Ferris wheel when the hour struck. If we hadn’t found Rum by then, we could do it again, and again. The circus wasn’t without its limits, I told myself as I stalked through the muddy grounds. Of course, she might leave those limits, might wander deeper into Philadelphia, a city I knew as little about as I did the Amish. She might get hit by a bus. She might encounter that stupid dog again.

That stupid dog. I stopped in my tracks when I realized I had lost track of the dog. Had it come into the circus with us? I kept an eye out as I wandered, loitering by the steak on a stake booth for a long while, thinking the dog might try to get some meat. But there was no sign of it, and my hour to search was growing thin. I walked a slow circle around the outer layer of tents, the Ferris wheel in sight all the while, but there was no dog and no Rum.

I turned back to the Ferris wheel as rain began to fall more earnestly. I wished I’d brought an umbrella—of all the things to forget—and was wondering if they had any for sale as I stepped into the shelter of a tent. The tent smelled like damp straw and wet dog and I turned, thinking to find that Saint Bernard, but it was the hairy man who’d been peeing in the bushes. He was dressed this time, in jeans a shirt that was somehow too well-pressed, and walking toward me. My mouth gaped open and I made to move, but felt frozen.

“Don’t run,” he said. “Please don’t run.”

Once, I would have run. Now, I started telling myself a story in my head, because one didn’t just encounter the same hairy man twice, not without him following or stalking or—

“You bit Rum,” I said.

At that, he stopped walking. His face seemed a mixture of dismay and guilt and he scrubbed a hairy hand across his mouth, as if he could wipe the expression away. He was still the color of the woods, browns and golds, and his eyes—They were the eyes of that dog, chocolate and desperate to explain. I clutched Rum’s bag a little closer.

“Didn’t mean to,” he said and glanced at the crowds which passed us by. He took a step closer to me then, so close I could smell his wet…fur? Hair? He smelled like he’d been rolling in the woods. “Sometimes…I get so hungry, and Thurmond was dead and I was carrying all that grief, and there were animals—girls in the woods, and I just…” He covered his mouth again, eyes closing. I didn’t know if he was going to cry or be sick. “I’m sorry about the bush. Couldn’t keep my form anymore, needed to breathe, needed to p— But where is she? Is she getting sick? I need to help her.”

I didn’t know if I was going to cry or be sick, either. I just stared at him, trying to understand anything that was happening.


  1. Night Like a River

I launched into him and he let me pummel him. I hit him as hard as I could, confusion over everything pouring through my balled fists. Rum’s sickness and Audrey being close for no reason that could be good, and this man who thought he was a dog, and Norma’s parents and Trudy’s longing for her. Everything came out and by the time I finished, I was sobbing, inconsolable as he pulled me into the empty tent and had me sit on top of a bale of straw. He shushed me and tried to wrap an arm around me before he thought better of it and simply patted my hands, never quite letting them go. The touch was both alien and comforting. He was so warm and the rain had chilled me.

“Take me to Rum. I need to see her.”

My head came up and I stared at him. I was still shaking, like my body didn’t know what to do with itself in the wake of the anger.

“Take me to—”

“You’re telling me that you’re a dog?” I spat the question at him. I threw his hands off of me, no matter their warmth and slid to the edge of the bale. I wanted to walk away, but there was no way my legs were carrying me. “How crazy do you think I have to be to believ—”

“Stalked you in the woods,” he said. “Rum was the smallest, even with that coat on. I wanted to tell you—when you found me in the bushes, but…” Color flooded his cheeks, no doubt hot. “Well. I couldn’t. I figured that here, here I could get here what she needed.”

“And what does she need? Other than a proper doctor to tend her—”

“Proper doctor won’t be any help.” He stood from the bale and a shudder ran through him, shaking every bit of hair that sprouted from his skin. “I don’t mean her harm. Any more harm. Blast it.”

He walked away from me, pacing in slow circles. He kept trying to convince me, but he didn’t have to. If he was that dog—and why couldn’t he be that dog? It explained a lot of things—then it made sense, him knowing what needed doing for Rum. And I was being an idiot to delay things, because she wasn’t well.

“I don’t know where she is,” I finally said when he paused in his pleading. He stared at me like I was the crazy one now. “She ran off when I asked to look at her arm—her arm which you bit and made her bleed and who does that, dog or not?” I came off the bale now, striding toward him. “How dare you stalk us in the woods?”

His chin came up and he bristled. I’ve seen cats get fluffy but never dogs. Dog-people. His lip curled, to reveal his teeth, but he didn’t move. Only nodded at me.

“It was a thing that happened,” I said eventually. “Can’t change that. Can only change where we go from here. Is Rum…” Oh, my writer’s mind was running now. “Is she going to change into a dog? Like you? Is her arm going to wither up and fall off? We need to find her, whatever you think is going to happen—and how to you mean to help her? You have medicine? A way to keep her from changing?”

To keep her from growing up. To keep all of us from growing up and being Audrey sitting in that dark car, the cigarette dangling from her lips. He was supposed to be there… Joel hadn’t been there for Audrey, but this guy was here and he was stepping up. Doing what needed doing, even if I didn’t know what it was. I looked at my watch.

“I’m late for rendezvous,” I said. “At the Ferris wheel. We split up to look for Rum.” My eyes narrowed and I lifted Rum’s bag toward the man who claimed he was a dog. He didn’t question me, only bent his head and took a long smell of it. His eyes never left mine; it felt like a challenge—prove it, I will so prove it.

With Rum’s scent in his nose, he grabbed my arm and launched us back into the circus.

The circus felt twice as big as it should have been, containing three times as many people as it did when we arrived. But me and the…dog?…cut a path through the crowds like they weren’t quite there. I noticed we had support from up above too; there were two forms flying above us, one smaller than the other, both black against the darkening sky. How hard could it be to find a sick little girl, I wondered. But then Rum was experienced at both running and hiding and I felt like my heart would break if we never found her again.

She would be missed at the children’s home—she probably already had been missed, not getting permission to run away for a weekend ever, and that idea was like a knife in my gut. I clung to the dog-man’s hand, terrified we wouldn’t find her, but outside a tent that claimed to contain the country’s only living mermaid, he stopped and took a deep breath.

I didn’t have to breathe to know Rum was here. The small body that vanished into the tent was familiar by sight alone; the scrap of butter-yellow nightgown that peeked from the cuff of her coat was like a signal flare. I tugged the dog-man after me, after Rum.

She was so intent on her destination, she didn’t hear us. We followed her into the tent, past the fabric wall that divided it into two spaces. Within the second space was a gloomy tank of water, illuminated by a bed of strange stones in its bottom. Rum reached for the water tank like she didn’t know what it was, and maybe she didn’t. Her hand trembled as she pressed it to the glass.

A face swam out of the gloomy water, vicious and astounding in the same instant. If it was a mermaid, I couldn’t say; it was a woman, though, of flesh and scale and flowing green hair. Her webbed and clawed hand reached for Rum’s, pressing against the other side of the glass. They looked like strange reflections of each other, Rum growing wavery like she was also underwater. Her knees buckled and the dog-man released my hand to catch her before she could hit the ground.

He carried Rum to the circus train, where it gleamed under the rain on the tracks that ran behind the field. He kicked the door to the caboose open and through the unexpected scents of oranges and yeast, I followed him, watching as he lay Rum on a padded bench. The space seemed like storage and a kitchen both, full of cupboards that bulged with strange things. I thought I saw a jar full of fractured rainbows and another packed with tiny, tiny red-brown hearts, and a thousand-thousand jars besides, but mostly my focus was on Rum and the way her breath rattled in her mouth.

“Have to get Beth,” he whispered to me. “Stay here.”

There wasn’t anywhere else I would have gone. I sat beside Rum and took up her hand in mine. She was clammy and hot, and I pulled her coat off so I could unwrap the damp nightgown around her arm. I expected it to be soaked with blood, but it was mostly sweat I found. The bite on her arm hadn’t healed though; it was raw and red and angry as anything. It hadn’t started to sprout hair or anything. I threaded my fingers through hers and bowed my head. I didn’t pray, only hoped for the dog-man to get back here.

When he returned, he had a woman with him. She was an instant part of this place, and it was as if the place knew her, breathed easier with her inside of it. I could not explain the sigh of breath I heard, only knew it did not come from any of we four.

Beth kneeled beside the bench and reached for Rum. My hand came up to block hers and she looked at me curiously as our fingers brushed. Her eyes held something I couldn’t understand, but her expression relaxed and she nodded a little.

“Just want to hold her hand,” Beth said and drew her fingers back from mine.

I drew back, too, watching her take up Rum’s hand. Here, she shook her head.

“Not her time,” she murmured. She withdrew and turned to rummage through her cupboards. “Probably going to be changed, but… Here, take this.”

Beth pushed a jar into my hands. It was filled with a coiled braid of hair, black as the stormy night that descended above us. Beth told me to wrap Rum’s arm in the braid, but sliding it out of the jar was unlike anything I’ve done before. It was alive, slimy under my touch, pliant like my fingers pressed into a fish belly and not a length of dry hair. I retched while touching it, the scent of death and dirt beginning to fill the caboose.

The dog-man caught the jar before it could fall to the floor. My hands were filled with the strange braid and I found myself biting my bottom lip, struggling to wrap the thing around Rum’s injured arm.

“And this. Pour it over.”

Before I had even finished, Beth was giving me another jar, forcing me to wrangle the braid into some kind of order—was it my imagination or did it struggle as I tried to fold it around Rum’s arm? I grit my teeth together, tucked the end of the braid into itself so it would stay, and took the second jar.

It was marked “angel tears,” but it seemed more like sewer water. It was cloudy gray and filled with bits of eggshell, branches, seeds. I uncapped it and the smell of honey poured out. There should have been a wetness when I poured; the liquid should have run straight through the braid, but instead it clouded up like fog, streaming light so bright I had to look away. Beth hooked a finger into the lip of the jar and reclaimed it before I could empty it.

“And this, Dean.”

The third jar was offered to the dog-man. He looked at it with revulsion, but uncapped it and drank the gray liquid down. It wasn’t liquid against his mouth, either; as I watched, it turned to ash, threatening to choke him. Dean retched, bowing his head close to Rum’s hand. The thick paste that poured out of him smothered the bright cloud, sank into the braid, and bound the entire thing to Rum like a cast.

“Now, we wait.”

            Joel wasn’t supposed to…

            He was supposed to be there.

            Supposed to take me, Lucy.

My limit on waiting ended. I couldn’t, Audrey pressed against my heart like it might explode. I ran from the caboose, the back steps slick with rain. I slid down them more than walking, pushing past Trudy and Norma who were running toward the caboose (and did their lips look swollen from kissing and kissing and kissing or was it a trick of the stringed lights that had flickered on all over the circus?), and running toward the entrance gate. There were as many people as ever, but they parted like water for me and it was only when I’d hit the paved street again that I realized Dean-as-dog was with me.

He didn’t stop me, so I didn’t care that he came. I ran until it felt like my lungs would burst, until I reached that street where Audrey’s Rambler sat. I feared that it both would and wouldn’t be there. If it was gone, she was done doing the thing she had wanted to do with Joel…if it was there and she wasn’t yet done…

But it was there and she was hunched over the steering wheel, sobbing the way I had sobbed inside the empty tent with Dean. I pulled the door open, not caring that I startled her, and reached for her. She slumped into my arms and clung to me the way I never thought she would, and there was blood—so much blood. Her pants were dark, but stained darker down her thighs.

At the sight of all that blood, I froze and for a long while, time seemed to spool without end. We would forever hang between all that had come before and all that should have followed behind. If I couldn’t move, we were stuck. But the sun and the moon were never still; they were often eclipsed, but always emerged from those shadows. And how big those shadows! Surely this one was not so terrible.

But it was Audrey. It was my sister. It was a shadow that had weight and pressed me down until all I could feel was the warm shaking of her against me, until all I could see was the blood soaking her pants. Blood that should not be. This was illegal, we had been told time and again. This was why you didn’t let boys touch you. This was why there were no kisses or dancing unsupervised. This was why you dressed like a proper girl, so that boys weren’t tempted. This is why you didn’t get into a car with a boy. Every single lecture was hollow in this moment. When Audrey looked up at me, her face creased in pain, I knew nothing was so simple as we had been told.

Big and small in the same moment, deflated, drained of everything.

“Lu, I c-can’t. J-Joel isn’t…”

“He isn’t here,” I whispered, “but I am.”

I pulled her from the car as gently as I could. Audrey had a coat draped over the backseat and I stuffed her into it. I belted it closed and kept her in my shaking arms as we shuffled up the street.

The circus wasn’t far, but it felt like forever. I didn’t know if Beth could help Audrey the way she had helped Rum, but knew I had to try. Dean, even as a dog, didn’t argue with me as we headed back that way. He loped ahead of us at the entry gate and the giantess and angels let us pass inside like they knew us. Audrey was cold and shaking by the time we reached the caboose and she grabbed my arms, shaking her head.

I guided Audrey up the caboose steps and into the warm strangeness of that room where Beth bundled her up, said it wasn’t her time, either, but that she had nothing more to give me but marmalade. And when Beth pressed that cool jar into my hands, radiating a strange orange light, I just stared. Beth walked away and closed the door behind her and I looked at Trudy and Norma and sleeping Rum, and had no clue what to do.

It was like this in stories, I told myself. A person is given a thing and just doesn’t know what to do with it. They either took the thing firm in hand and did what felt right, or they denied it. But what felt right? How did a person ever know?

I turned from my sister and friends and started rooting around in cupboards and drawers. I needed spoons, but failing that, anything to scoop, and in the end there were no spoons, only rainbows that flopped over when we held them and long sticks of spicy cinnamon that we all shied from. In the end, I poured a handful of the orange marmalade into my palm and no matter how strange it seemed, fed it to my sister. She swallowed it down with a grimace and I turned to Rum and did the same. I filled Trudy’s palm and Norma’s palm and then my own again and like we were drinking shots of booze at a party we had snuck into, we downed the marmalade.

With my eyes closed, it didn’t taste like oranges. It tasted like grit, like a far-away red planet that I would never quite walk on, but would still know my way around. It tasted like Jupiter and a moon that vomited water into space, of clouds and the memory of Audrey holding my hand; like the first time I dived into a pool and got water up my nose, and Audrey hauling me out. These strange things calmed me, told me that one way or another, everything and everyone was going to end up where it needed to be.

“Tastes like beer,” Norma murmured and I cracked an eye open to look at her, wondering exactly how she knew what beer tasted like.

“Tastes like Norma,” Trudy said and got Norma’s elbow in her ribs for the effort.

There came a sound then, a low groan that was almost a growl, and I thought Dean had come back, but this sound emanated from Rum, who had started to twist and turn on the bench, as if caught in some terrible nightmare. We three reached for her and in my panic, the marmalade jar fell to the floor, shattering. Glass and sweet oranges made our footing slippery as we sought to anchor Rum; the harder she bucked, the more we slipped.

“She’s g-going.” Rum sputtered the words and I didn’t know what she meant, not until her hand closed into my sleeve and she pulled me down. “She’s g-going to d-die.”

Audrey, Audrey, Audrey, my heart beat.

“L-Laika,” Rum whispered. Her eyes rolled back into her head—I could see only the whites of them as she struggled to form more words. Spittle flowed from her mouth, as if she were sick or possessed or both. “Going now. Rockets. F-fire. Clouds of fire. There she…there she…g-goes.” Rum’s body arched up, as if an unseen hand had grabbed her by the waist. We clung to her so that she would not be taken, lost, but when at last she screamed and reached for something we could not see, we fell back and could only watch.

The Rum we knew fell away, but it wasn’t the way I always pictured it being in story books. She didn’t shimmer beautifully from one being into another, but rather one was ripped away to replace what she had been. Even the cast that Beth had applied to her arm broke off and tumbled away. The girl who loved running and found amazement in the things we found common was gone. In a splatter of blood and skin, she was gone, swallowed up by the creature that clawed its way out of her—looking not so fierce when all was said and done, for it resembled nothing so much as a tiny poodle, confused as how it had come to be inside a caboose that smelled like spilled orange marmalade and blood.

No one said anything. We all sat there, looking at each other but mostly looking at Rum who wasn’t Rum, but a dog the way Dean could also be a dog. And then, an eruption of conversation, me trying to tell them how he’d bit her, them angry because I hadn’t told them, and how did a person turn into a dog anyhow, and how could she have known Laika was going up right then and well, Trudy managed to reason as the argument lulled, Russia was in a different time zone and maybe it was already Sunday there, and Norma screamed that it didn’t matter, dogs didn’t go into space and girls did not turn into dogs and when they finished, Norma was crying in Trudy’s arms, Trudy’s eyes locked to me.

“Tell us a story, Lu,” she whispered.

As if a story could banish what we’d seen.

Rum pressed herself down into the bench and licked the marmalade from my hand . I exhaled a low breath and reached for Audrey with my other hand. “Things never go the way stories say,” I whispered, “but I’ll tell you a story.”


  1. In a Barrel at Sea

The story I told Trudy and Norma was a story about four girls (sometimes five), who weren’t girls at all. The whole night through, they hovered between Here and There, the caboose seeming removed from both life and death, suspended the way orange peel was in marmalade. Because of that, inside the caboose things weren’t entirely real. Things could be said there that couldn’t be said anywhere else.

Had someone turned into a dog? That was okay, because bodies did strange things we couldn’t always explain. Messy things, things that made us want to vomit. Had a girl kissed another girl? It was okay too, because kissing happened. Love happened. Had someone (Audrey, Audrey, Audrey, said my heart) been a mother for a brief month before she realized she couldn’t do it on her own? That was okay, too. There was strength in saying you couldn’t do a thing.

No one ever had to know how strong you actually were—if they did, they would surely be scared. Inside the walls, you could be as strong as you were and no one would flinch because they’d be too busy exploring their own strength, their own light. Those girls could go into the deepest woods—see there how the wall of the caboose shimmered to show an expanse of trees?—and they’d never be lost because they didn’t need flashlights or breadcrumbs, they trusted their own two feet and hands and their hearts, no matter how clumsy each was.

They could go to Jupiter and never be lost, because Jupiter, just like Earth, was round, and no matter how far you walked across mountains and over rivers (What kind of rivers on Jupiter? they want to know. All the rivers: methane, lemonade, and one of your heart’s true blood) you were just walking in a big circle and eventually, you’d come back around to where you started. You might not know the place, but there would be something: a scent in the air, the way the leaves rippled in the sun, the way the water soaked through the toe of your shoe. You would know something. Just circles, after all.

Here, in these four walls packed with a thousand-thousand jars, they could float. A hand could rest in a hand, sure that this connection would remain even when those hands came apart. A mouth could taste another mouth and wonder at the perfection of it. A little girl could go from dog to girl and back again and again, and know that everyone would be waiting each time she came back. How did a person walk with four legs? It was twice as easy and you could cover twice as much ground, but you’d probably be twice as tired when you at last came to rest.

What if—


And the sometimes fifth girl who was also my sister wanted to know: But what happens when—


Questions were for outside. Inside was for being and floating. See that river and the way it breaks through the mountain? Those four girls who were not girls drank all night. Hydrogen, oxygen, electromagnetic waves. Was that thunder? No. No.


  1. Funnel Cloud

Rum was sitting outside the caboose come morning, poking a small fire with a stick. She wore her yellow nightgown, being that her clothes had been lost to last night’s transformations. The rain had stopped, but the clouds were low and thick. Still, the circus played on. There were shrieks of joy or fright—as it should be, it was hard to tell them apart. Trudy and Norma were out there somewhere, while Audrey slept on. And Rum didn’t look tired or sick. Her arm was unwrapped and looked healed, which I could not explain and did not try.

“It tasted like home, Lu,” Rum said before I could even ask her. She withdrew her stick from the fire, got a marshmallow, and stuck the sweet back into the low flames. “It tasted like figuring out where I was supposed to be.”

I still had the taste of marmalade against my tongue; still not the tang of orange, but the taste of a dry and distant world. Like figuring out where I was supposed to be. That’s what it was.

When the marshmallow was perfect, Rum gave me the stick. She put another together for herself and then said, “I felt Laika go or maybe I didn’t, but there was something. The press of all that gravity in that small space. They just shot her up and…” Rum’s eyes rolled to the cloudy sky. “She’s up there, either dead or alive and we’re…alive and I think I’m home and I’m staying, Lu. I’m staying here. Dean says I can. Please say I can.”

It mattered to her, that I tell her she could, but she already knew. She had granted herself the power last night, maybe even before that—the first time she had run away, from whatever she was running from. She was ready to stop.

“You can stay,” I said, and her shoulders eased under the weight she thought she still carried.

“Probably just saying that because…I mean…what does a person do with a girl who’s also a dog? Do you think that means Norma doesn’t believe in me anymore?” She grinned and jabbed her marshmallow into the flames. “Dean doesn’t even know, says he’s still trying to figure things out, but then I suppose we all are? How’s Audrey? How’s your sister?”

She never asked what happened and I never said and even when Audrey joined us at the fire, dressed in clean clothes she said were from Beth, she never told us where she had been. My brain filled in all the details just like Rum’s had for Laika: a small space with too much gravity.

Trudy and Norma came back to us with Dean in tow. Rum loaded each up with marshmallows, but Norma kept to her cotton candy, pulling tufts from the yellow, blue, and pink beehives she carried like a bouquet. Her eyes rested briefly on Rum, then flicked away and while I hoped Rum hadn’t seen, the brief downturn of her mouth said she had.

“Suppose you’re going to want a ride home,” Audrey said to me as she tossed her marshmallow stick into the fire.

I looked at the faces around the fire: Rum and Trudy and Norma, and though this was only Sunday, they were not the faces that had looked back at me on Friday. These were not the girls who would rather climb into the back of the Rambler and ride home safely. I thought of the body spread in the water, of the strange birds above us, the dog in the dark. Did Trudy and Norma know that Rum was staying? That she had found her home?

I reached for Audrey’s hand. “Not due ’till dinner,” I said. “We’ll be late, but we can get there, unless you want company.”

Audrey’s fingers closed warm around mine and I felt the way she was shaking. Way down inside where no one would ever know. “I think I can get there,” she said, soft as the clouds of cotton candy Norma inhaled.

Before, I wouldn’t have cared, my sister leaving us to head off on her own, but when she did now, it was a strange thing. Was it strange for the moon to always rise opposite the sun, to skirt through its shadow and then away again? It was only natural, what the sky did day in and out.

Leaving Rum was something entirely different. It was us leaving her in this strange place with its giants and dwarfs and dog-men and angels. I didn’t want to go, not until she held my hands and told me that sometimes, you just have to launch yourself into space. Sometimes you come back down and sometimes you don’t, and either is okay. Gravity was a thing, sometimes with us and sometimes not and fighting it was stupid, and it was that thought I held to as we left the circus and Rum and Dean and Beth and were swallowed up once more by the Philadelphia streets.

It was a quiet journey with quiet company. Outside the circus, Norma drew back into herself and Trudy kept her distance, too, and we crossed all the things we had already crossed: the woods, the bridge and its river now empty of its dead body, and the woods once more, and then slowly to home. Norma and Trudy split in different directions, Norma with Trudy’s transistor radio in hand, Trudy’s pompadour bouncing into the dusk as if untouched by all gravity.

And me, coming home to our white house that stood so tall and seemed so alien in the darkening night, I found Joel and Audrey on the porch and slowed my steps so as not to interrupt, but it was Audrey who drew her hands from Joel’s clumsy grasp and shook her head, interrupting whatever apologies he had been making.

I was walking up the drive as he was walking down and he blanched to see me. I offered him a smile that was just too cocky and angry, the memory of bleeding Audrey in my arms far too fresh. He should have been there, but should haves didn’t do anyone a lick of good.

“Sometimes you just have to launch yourself into space, Joel.”

I brushed past him, stepping into the house where my parents were hollering because I was late and what, had I run away with the circus? Been eaten by a wolf? Audrey needed to explain why she came home without me and surely only a wolf would have complicated the simple journey to the circus.

But that wasn’t the story I was interested in hearing. The story I found myself gravitating toward as I joined the shouted conversation and assured them I wasn’t, in fact, Little Lucy Hood, was a story that involved a girl who traveled to Mars and Jupiter and beyond without ever leaving Earth. The story of a girl who learned how to shine without anyone ever looking at her, shining simply because she did what she loved. She turned ordinary things into extraordinary things, and sent ships named Viking and Pioneer plunging into the solar system.

This girl studied the mountains of Mars and deconstructed the clouds of Jupiter, and fell in love with a tiny, tiny rock that she called Hannah Fisher and no one ever knew why and that was all right, because she knew. Sometimes gravity was with us and sometimes it wasn’t, but either way—I had to launch myself into space.

Copyright  2015 E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine Tobler has never been lost in strange woods, because she learned how to navigate via the sun and stars while in Girl Scouts. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award ballot. You can find her online at and @ecthetwit.

by Robert B Finegold, M.D.

“My soul yearneth, yea, even pineth for the courts of the LORD…”

The rap of metal upon metal rang within the small cabin, startling me. Knocking before entering was a courtesy the Jews on the transport neither expected nor received.

“Rabbi Makal? The Captain requests your presence.”

At sight of the officer, I nearly dropped my chumash, and the words of the Psalm were immediately forgotten.

“‘Requests’, Danel?” I asked.

The automaton’s face conveyed no emotion, but the human-like hesitation was unmistakable. Its voice softened. “‘Commands’ would be more accurate.” It paused, and then added, “It is good to see you, sir.”

When had I last seen him? Lyons in ’42? Paris in ’44? Yes, Paris; but then I’d been but one face among the many gathered at the grand exhibition of war machines. So many years ago…but–should I kvell? Look at him now: the pressed white suit with the ringed planet and dual stripes of an enseigne de la marine interstellaire de France on his epaulets, brass buttons as polished and gleaming as the unmarred silver skin of his face and hands. “It seems you’ve come far, Ensign,” I said, closing the chumash and placing the book in my jacket pocket.

“Creator, I’m…”

I raised a finger. “There is but one Creator, Danel, and He is in Heaven.”

The gold-leaved irises within the glass cylinders of his eyes cycled closed and then opened. “My apologies, Abba.”

I shook my head and took off my prayer shawl. Was he utilizing his programming to choose words to make me receptive to his orders? Not that I would have dared to refuse the Captain. Folding my tallis, I placed it in its blue velvet bag, and then rested my hands on the metal shelf that served as my desk. It was cool to touch and vibrated with the thrum of the great ship’s engines. “I may have built you, Danel, but I am not your father. You are a machine, not a man…” I waved a hand at his uniform. “…regardless of how they dress you.”

He chose not to reply. I buttoned my tweed jacket and gave my yarmulke a perfunctory check. It perpetually threatened to slip from atop my balding head, which wouldn’t do. The yellow badges of the Reich may have become history, but God forgive the Jew who failed to wear his or her identifying headpiece, for the New Europeans would certainly not. “Let us not keep the Captain waiting.”

“That would be wise, sir.”


Captain Emile Pétain stood as stiff as his handlebar mustache. His tall and square-jawed First Mate and Commanding Officer, Mr. Henri L’Hereux, belied his surname and gazed sullenly at the ship’s médicin conseil. The latter sat on the edge of a cot, the bell of his stethoscope pressed to the chest of its occupant.

I’d seen the captain and first mate upon boarding, of course, scowling down at us from a catwalk above the great hold where we’d lined up holding our two permitted carry-ons. The bosun had identified them as our temporary gods for the duration of the voyage to HD 10307 before reading the edict of expulsion and the rules of conduct for which no transgression would be permitted upon the frigate Joan d’Arc.

“Doctor Makal, thank you for coming,” said the seated man. His voice was high-pitched, and squeaked like an adolescent undergoing the change. He stood, a small gesture of respect, but he did not extend his hand. He was short, round-faced, with pince-nez spectacles perched on an upturned nose. His uniform was unbuttoned at the neck and splayed open to accommodate his extra chins.

I inclined my head to the Captain and First Mate and then to the ship’s physician. “How may I be of service…” I looked at his I.D. plate. “…Doctor Eugène?”

Mr. L’Heureux interrupted, his words clipped as one used to barking orders. “The doctor is stymied. He suggested you might be of use.” His tone indicated skepticism.

“Of course,” I said. “Whatever I can do.”

I stepped toward the cot but halted when Doctor Eugène moved aside and I saw the patient.

“Lieutenant Haran was found upon D deck,” the doctor said, “away from the, ah, passenger quarters.” His eyes flickered beneath his lenses like fish behind aquarium glass, first toward the Captain and his CO and then to me. The two officers’ scrutiny was a tangible pressure on the back of my head. I had the urge to check that my yarmulke was secure but stilled it. “He was in the state pretty much as you see him now,” said Dr. Eugène.

And I saw him very well. Lieutenant Haran was a wiry middle-aged man with ringlets of thick ebon hair streaked gray at the temples. He was thin but not scrawny. His navy issue white tee molded to his chest; his bare arms bulged with muscle under the tawny skin but lay flaccid at his sides, one trailing an intravenous line. It was neither the golden brown color of his skin or his lax open mouth that arrested my movement, nor the dark walnut eyes staring sightlessly through the cabin roof, outer decks, and ship’s hull to the endless dark of space beyond, but the tattooed necklace of linked black scimitars encircling his neck–one for each Jew he’d murdered in the sack of Palestine.

Or its reclamation. It depended on your point of view. How they could call it that when Haifa, the jewel of the Mediterranean, with its bright new schools and hospitals, its cultivated farms and young forests, blazed and turned to cinders, I couldn’t fathom. The thick pillar of smoke rising from the city could be seen from the deck of the Cyprian rescue ship for days, and the taste of ash had never left my tongue.

My mouth went dry and my vision blurred. I fought against the flashback, but failed.

Ruthie smiled through the open window, and the warm honey smell of fresh baked challah wafted into the yard where I sat on the grass with Hannah. Our child, our sheyna medele, stood petulantly in front of me, hands on her tiny hips and her lips pursed in disapproval. The perfect cat’s cradle she’d passed me dangled like twisted tzitzit from my fingers. “No, Abba!”

Nails scoring my palms, and the image faded. I unclenched my hands. Doctor Eugène wore a worried expression, his herring eyes darting again between me and the two command officers. Small beads of sweat glistened like oil on his brow.

I took a penlight from my pocket and sat on the edge of the cot. Lieutenant Haran had no pupillary response. He displayed no bruises or any sign of recent physical injury. I leaned forward and sniffed. No fruity breath to suggest ketoacidosis. No asymmetrical laxity in his facial muscles or body tone to suggest stroke. His limbs gave no resistance when I moved them. In fact, they’d maintain any position in which they were placed, like a manikin or an inactive automaton. From the corner of my eye I noted Danel standing in the shadow of his superiors, respectful, vigilant, observant.

I looked under the lieutenant’s eyelids, pressed upon his abdomen, and questioned Dr. Eugène about his medical history and lab results. His replies provided nothing of significance.

“How long has he been like this?” I extended my hand and Dr. Eugène suspended his stethoscope upon my palm.

“Three days,” said Dr. Eugène.

“Truly? No response to stimuli at all? Not the slightest resistance to movement?”

The doctor shook his head.

“As limp as a jellyfish,” the First Mate said and then demanded. “What’s wrong with him?”

I listened to the Lieutenant’s chest and then sat back. “I’d say he’s in a catatonic stupor, or possibly suffered a severe stroke.” I shook my head, dissatisfied. “The signs are mixed.” I checked the Lieutenant’s pulse. It was thready, but he displayed no other signs of going into shock. I took the pillow from beneath his head and elevated his feet, and then I checked the i.v. bottle suspended above the head of the cot, opening it further. “His pulse is weak.”

“…and growing weaker,” Dr. Eugène said.

“Have you administered vasopressors?”

Dr. Eugène’s lips pressed together and he didn’t answer.

“He needs norepinephrine,” I said.

“No Jew drugs,” the First Mate said. “It must be as God wills.”

Goyim.   “His God or yours?” I said, the words slipping out before I could stop them. Mr. L’Hereux’s eyes widened. I thought he would strike me, but he mastered himself.

“Captain Pétain?” I asked. The older man’s face was as unemotional and unreadable as Danel’s, but then he glanced upon the stricken Lieutenant and his imperiousness crumbled like halvah. He lowered his eyes and shook his head.

I sighed and stood. “As God wills then.”

Danel returned me to my quarters. Lieutenant Haran died the next day.

Dr. Eugène requested that I be present for the autopsy. The infirmary was more a laboratory than a hospital. New European medical science had made grudging, and begrudged, advances in medical analysis and clinical diagnosis despite the restrictions on interventional treatments. The Holy Emperor was as keen on the prevention of illness as he was on submission to God’s Will once a person was afflicted.

We found no sign of malady in the Lieutenant. No pathogen, occult injury, or predisposing congenital defect, merely a nonspecific mild elevation in his white blood cell count, and a slight inflammatory response in his nose and lungs. A mild cold or allergy perhaps, though his antibody counts were normal. His body was in great physical condition, not even a hangnail or pimple, which made the cause of his death the more perplexing.

Danel remained quiet while we worked. It was not until hours later, when tired and annoyingly befuddled, I again stood outside my cabin door, that he finally spoke.

“Sir?” he said, stopping me before I entered my small berth.

Down the passageway past an open bulkhead, a number of young Jews gathered near the curtained entrance to the converted cargo hold. Leaning against the walls like school chums, they kibbutzed and laughed. That would change once word spread of the lieutenant’s death.

“Yes, Danel?”

“The crew will be concerned that a natural cause of death could not be found.”

“I am as well.”

His golden irises cycled open and closed. “There are some…who are not happy with the reassignment of this ship.”

“Or its cargo?”

“As you say, sir. Interstellar travel is new to la marine France. Most of the crew have served only interplanetary.” He became silent and his glass bottle eyes continued to study me. For the first time, I found this disconcerting. I should have made him eyelids so he could blink. “Few have sailed the Deep Dark,” he said.

“Have you, Danel?”

“Yes, sir.” He turned from me in an oddly human characteristic of recollection. “It is…” He stopped, seemingly lost in thought.

“Dark?” I suggested.

“Wondrous,” he said, almost in a whisper, and then my voice, though a much younger voice, emitted from the metal grille of his mouth. “‘What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him?’”

And this time I couldn’t speak.

“The crew is not fond of your people, sir. While they approve of the expulsion edict, they resent being tasked to perform it. And the Deep Dark…is unsettling to some. Please take care, sir.”

I slid open the door of my cabin, but before I could enter, Danel barred my way. “Lieutenant Haran…” he began.

I suppressed my irritation and the sudden rush of anger at the thought of the Arab lieutenant. Was I angry at him? Or at the First Mate and Captain and the foolish prohibition against medical therapy?

“Yes, Danel?”

“He volunteered for this voyage.”

“Reveling in it, I suppose.” I took hold of his arm and tried to push it away, but it was like pushing against the ship’s hull.

“No, sir. He felt remorse over the deaths he caused as a youth in Palestine.”

I again yanked ineffectually at his arm but only pulled loose my own frustration. “And yet he proudly displayed his tattoo of all those he murdered!” The words echoed down the hall.

Silence followed in their wake. Like shadows, my kinsmen slipped through the heavy curtained doors and disappeared into the hold.

Gently, Danel slid back the cuff of my jacket to display the numbers tattooed upon my forearm. “As you would not forget your past,” he said, “neither would he.” He lowered his arm, and I rushed into the tiny sanctuary of my cabin.

Before I could close the door, I heard Danel say to himself, “It was as if all his programming had been erased.”


The planet was named Zion, and the irony that it was mostly swamp, barren waste, and rocky hills with no resources valuable to New Europe was not lost among the exiles upon the Joan d’Arc. Yet, it would be ours–or so it had been promised. We need but reach it. When a second crewman, a mere matelot, was discovered with a malady alike to that which killed the first, it seemed more likely we’d be spaced instead. Who would shed a tear?

Danel came for me at Dr. Eugène’s behest. The seaman, a lad really, with freckles still dotting his cheeks and an unruly sprig of red hair sprouting from the back of his head like an antenna, demonstrated the same listlessness, sightless gaze, and nonresponse to external stimuli as had the late Lieutenant.

Mr. L’Hereux’s surliness was even more abrasive, but the way he hovered around the infirmary whenever his duties permitted bespoke of a concern greater than that of the CO for a crewman, and Dr. Eugène confided to me that the boy, Henrique Delacroix, was L’Hereux’s nephew. After two days of the same deterioration of vital signs that we had witnessed with Lieutenant Haran, I again suggested the use of pharmacological agents and was rewarded with a voluminous stream of thick-voweled curses betraying the First Mate’s rural Belgian upbringing.

Mr. L’Hereux pressed us for answers, to try something, anything–anything permissible. He did not object to electric shock therapy, though I was hesitant to suggest it. I doubted it would be efficacious, and this proved the case. The boy died two days later.

Mr. L’Hereux knelt by the lad’s bedside, so silent and still that for a moment I grew concerned that the affliction perhaps was transferrable. But then the CO stood and tugged on the hem of his jacket to straighten its creases, his eyes still locked on the boy’s. When he turned them upon Dr. Eugène, they displayed no animation; yet they ignited when they set upon me. The lines of his face tightened in anger and despair. He spat upon me.

Génie Juif de Saint-Germain!” he mocked, “Génie Juif!” He walked stiffly from the room.

Dr. Eugène said nothing in the silence that followed the CO’s departure. He would not look at me. Instead, he turned and began preparing the boy’s body for transport to the morgue. Danel, however, watched me closely.

The Genius Jew of Saint-Germain. Rabbi, physician, mathematician, inventor of calculating machines and the weaponizing of la puissance de l’atome.

“That will be all for now, Albert,” Dr. Eugène said to me. He removed the boy’s intravenous line and crossed the lad’s arms across his chest. I was struck by how little had changed in the young man’s expression with his passing. “Get some rest and meet me in the lab at 1400,” he added, pulling the bed sheets over the boy’s head.

I nodded and left. Danel followed.

On our descent of the stairs to C deck, Danel stopped me upon the landing. “It was unjust of Monsieur L’Hereux to mock you.”

“You caught that, Danel?” I withheld any intimation of bitterness from my voice. “You’ve come far in comprehending human sarcasm.”

“You taught me to listen. Not only to what people say, but how they say it. To deduce what they do not put into words. To place human speech and action into context with the events that initiates them. It has been…” He paused. “…challenging.”

“This is not something you could do when we lived at Saint-Germain.”

“I’ve observed and experienced much since then.”

“So have we all.” This time my acerbity slipped through.

The clang of a door opening followed by rapid footfalls echoed up the stairwell. We pressed ourselves against the wall as a half-dozen crewmen in jogging outfits ran past us. At sight of me, their eyes narrowed, their distrust unfeigned. Their suspicions slithered toward Danel by association, but their eyes lowered at the sight of his officer insignia. Danel was the product of my invention but few had knowledge of this below the command level. To the general populace, such an achievement as Danel was only possible by a true Frenchman and a man of God. In this case, the honorable and distinguished Monseigneur Remond of Nice, descendent of kings. For the many years after Danel and Michal had been taken from me, and until the priest’s untimely and foolish death, Remond had served as their stepfather and the public icon for unequaled French ingenuity.

And I as its corruptor.

Danel observed the sailors until the turn of the stairwell hid them. “They are ill at ease. That may pose a problem, sir. I detect insubordination. I will need to inform the Captain.” He began to descend again and I followed.

“I suspect he’s aware, Danel. And as long as you hover around me, you’ll acquire guilt by association. And by being different. That, at least, is an experience you’ll always share with my tribesmen and me.” We exited the stairwell to D Deck.

Interpersonal differences became sharper and more alarming when traveling the Dark. Space paranoia has been blamed for the derelicts and disasters that have plagued la marine interstellaire in its forays deeper and deeper away from the home planet, although the common sailors whispered of Deimons.

“It is unjust.”

“It is human.”

“Ab…Rabbi, you were hailed the Hero de France for ending the war with Germany.”

“That appellation was short-lived.” I whirled upon him. “And I don’t want to hear it repeated. Certainly your shipmates do not. Or do you not fully comprehend what you just witnessed?”

Danel’s irises cycled close and he shook his head. “I observe much,” he said. “But the capacity for human nature to recast good as evil and evil as good is beyond my programming.”

I sighed. “It is because we humans cannot keep our passions, or our fears, from influencing our actions. We do not possess your capacity to envision all potential repercussions before we act.”

“Such as when you deserted France to join the Zionists?”

His words held no recrimination. They were merely a question, but they stopped me cold. He halted and we stood alone in the long passage with only the wheeze of air compressors and the hum of electric lights in their wire cages.

“Yes,” I said.

That the Holy Emperor may have considered my unique knowledge and ingenuity within the new Zionist state a potential threat to his realm was not lost among the people to whom I was once hailed as a hero and was now a pariah. The blame for the well-armed and organized Arab invasion and the massacres of the second Shoah was laid upon my bald head as was our current expulsion to the end of the known universe where I, and the people who had produced me, could be no threat.

In silence, we proceeded to my cabin. The door was open. Inside, Mrs. Katz was restocking the shelf above the microwave with my weekly allotment of meal packets. She was a Jewish Quasimodo, so kyphotic from age and osteoporosis that she could not raise her head to see the shelf upon which she placed the ration boxes. She noticed us hovering in the doorway, however.

“Just a moment, Rebbe,” she said. Her smile was shy, almost coquettish, a remnant petal from the bloom of her youth. Her eyes were among the few of the ten thousand remnant Yehudi that did not look at me with scorn. Her liver-spotted left forearm bore a tattoo similar to mine, small black numbers like an oddly legged caterpillar. The few Survivors from the first Shoah saw me, saw the world, a little differently. She shuffled to the bunk at the rear of the room, moving slowly and majestically, like a Galapagos turtle. She began to change the linens. Her body was failing, and yet she maintained a definable dignity. She knew, like Moses, she would not live to enter the Promised Land, but even so, she had a grace, a living presence

I recalled Danel’s words.

“‘It is as if his programming had been erased…,’” I said aloud.

Danel picked up the conversation as if no time had passed since he’d made the observation. “Yes, sir. Neither Lieutenant Haran nor Seaman Delacroix demonstrated any volition, either conscious or unconscious. There was no recognition of input, processing of data, or function generation. No command comprehension, initiation, or completion at all. They were…” He paused. “…not who they were.”

He was correct. Both the Lieutenant and the First Mate’s nephew displayed no will, no anime. It was as if they’d been stripped of their élan vital.

I staggered as the thought triggered a kaleidoscopic flash. Danel’s visage shattered into scintillating fragments of silver and gold and white.

Hannah laughed as she spun, her Sabbath skirt twirling about her waist. Ruth picked her up and rubbed her nose in our daughter’s belly. Hannah squealed and pulled at her mother’s hair. Their shared laughter rose on a Mediterranean breeze and turned to cries; fire everywhere, ash falling from a steel gray sky like ebony snow.

“‘Amor est vitae essentia.’”

“Rabbi, are you well?” Danel’s hand rested upon my arm. I had fallen back against the door jamb.

“Huh? Yes, Danel. Thank you.” I stood straight and checked my hands for the soot covered burns long washed away. I was momentarily confused and struggled to recall our conversation. “Yes. I concur, Danel. They seemed emptied, brain dead patients. Their life essence gone, their souls fled.”

I shuddered and the world again began to blur. This time by ghostly images of dead-faced men and women standing barefoot in the snow, sexless in identical striped black and gray pajamas. Their soiled clothes hung off emaciated flesh and flapped like banners in a sirocco wind blowing hot and dry from the crematoriums near where we clustered for warmth… I pushed the vision back.

“It is as if their souls had fled,” I repeated, “…or been taken from them.”

“Taken, sir?” Danel said. “What could do that?”

I was about to answer, “Nothing. Humans are not machines that can be reformatted to completely forget who they are, what they are. I’m just talking nonsense,” when from the back of the cabin, a voice as dry and shrill as a rusty hinge said, “An erev-rav.”

The shell of Mrs. Katz’ back swiveled and revealed eyes like sapphires in shallow pools. “My bubbe would scold Yosef, my brother, and me when we were little nudniks,” she said. “‘Behave or the erev-rav will snatch you!’” She tittered fondly at the memory. “They would leave only shells she’d need crack and bury so dybbuks and mice wouldn’t infest them and make us a bigger nuisance.”

“That’s…” I began.

She cackled. “Schtuss? Ye. I know.”

Her job done, Mrs. Katz waddled down the length of the small berth and Danel and I parted like the Red Sea to make way for her. She stopped and twisted her body so one rheumy eye could gaze up at me. “But out here in the Dark, so far from God’s Earth, who knows? The Abyss is their abode.” She glanced at her arthritic fingers, knobby as tree roots with skin so thin and pale I could see her tendons and veins. “Will Adonai be able to keep them from devouring my soul when these farshtunken goyim toss my corpse into the Deep?”

I touched her hand. The skin was like soft papyrus. “You’ll be buried upon New Zion,” I said.

She patted my wrist. “You’re a good boychik with bad luck. Like Yosef.”

She raised the thin alabaster thread of one eyebrow at Danel. “I don’t know what you are. So let God decide. Nu?” She walked down the corridor, her movements so slow and measured she seemed to float. She called back, “Ask Reb Ludska. He knows souls.”

That he did, I thought.

The mystic Hassidic Rebbe Shlomo ben Yitzhak Ludska had made aliyah to Safed with three thousand followers to grow crops and to grow closer to God. The black-coats and hamantashen-shaped fur hats of the Ludskites mingled incongruously among the secular Zionist pioneers in their swim trunks and bikinis upon the golden shore of the Galilean Sea. And the incongruity disturbed none. The Holy Land was for all Jews, whatever their stripe–or shape of hat. Of Reb Ludska’s devoted flock, less than one hundred of his sheep survived the Assyrian assault to accompany him to New Zion. Yes, he knew souls very well, having lost so many.

After Mrs. Katz passed through the bulkhead and shambled slowly to the passenger hold, Danel asked, “Do you think Michal had a soul?”

The strangeness of the question drew my attention from my reverie, but there was nothing that could be read from the metallic mold of Danel’s face. The implication of his question was…but, no. No matter how he spoke or dressed, Danel was not human. And neither was Michal. Who would know better than I?

Michal was a thinking machine, my first, and I had turned him into an atomic bomb. Through me, he ended the lives of millions in Berlin and simultaneously the second world war, thus earning me both the appellations of Hero and Butcher. Michal had been the earliest success in the process to create Danel, to whom Michal was a good-natured Neanderthal by comparison. He could have never voiced or considered the question Danel asked.

I had never lied to them. It would have been fruitless in any case with Danel who could read the slightest stiffening of lip, the faintest blush, the millisecond of hesitancy in voice, and every other telltale. At Poque, Danel could never be bluffed. I studied him.

His eyes in the lamp light were like the sun’s corona around pupils black and unfathomable.

“Only God can create souls, Danel,” I said. “Machines, however wondrous, are the works of man and therefore flawed and imperfect.”

He thought upon this. I could imagine hearing the electronic synapses in his brain sparking as they cogitated. Then he asked, “God is perfect, no?”


“Man was created by God?”

“Yes, Danel, of course.”

“Is Man not flawed and imperfect?”

I blinked and struggled for an answer, fighting the resurgence of nightmare visions, but as the silence stretched between us, Danel again placed a comforting hand upon my arm and suggested, “Perhaps this is what God intends, sir. It is for His creations to perfect the gifts they’ve been given.”

I could only stare at him. What had happened in the years we’d been separated? Did Remond actually tamper with his programming? I would have thought that bathroom scientist couldn’t build a Ferris wheel out of Tinkertoys.

Danel continued, his tone identical to my own when long ago I’d instructed him in the dusty basement in Saint-Germaine. “Perhaps Michal felt he was achieving his perfection with his sacrifice. If he could bring an end to the evil that was destroying so many, that threatened the entire world…”

The automaton’s golden pupils slowly dilated, and I felt a twinge of vertigo.

“…the evil that had caused his creator such suffering and pain.”

He glanced down the corridor to where Mrs. Katz had disappeared. “The loss of a soul before achieving its perfection is the greatest tragedy; and if forcibly taken, the greatest evil. What could do this?”

“I–I do not know.”

“I would like to speak with this Reb Ludska,” Danel said.

I nodded. “Of course, Danel.”


I followed Danel into the echoing noise and stale smells of too many cooked meals and too many people crowded together. The converted cargo hold was a maze of stacked crate walls and sheet partitions hung on strung laundry line. The faces were a haunting mix of fear, irrational hope, and deliberate ignorance. Their mouths flowed with a constant babel, halting like crickets at sight of me and Danel, only to resume with increased tempo and hushed imprecations when we passed. Some made hand signs to ward off the evil eye.

Physically and emotionally depleted after years of expulsion, resettlement, and tragedy of a scope the world, including its Jewish remnant, could not or would not comprehend, these last ten thousand Jews of the continent milled, kibbutzed, and strove to weave dreams from nightmares. Their hands were rubbed raw in recalling past woes and anticipated future ones; yet their eyes were alight with an insane hope, that damnable incorrigible Yid hope, that this time, this new land, this new world would be different. Forty light-years to reach the new Promised Land? Feh! No problem. Indeed, the number was auspicious. Did not Noah traverse the great deep in forty days and nights to the freshly cleansed earth? Did not Moses and the Israelites wander forty years in the desert to reach Eretz Yisrael? The dual star that cast its brilliance in silver and carmine light upon their new home world…this star, this HD 10307…shone within the constellation the Gentiles named Andromeda. But it had another earlier name, a Babylonian one learned long ago in a former exile: Anunitum, the Lady of Heaven. And who was the Lady of Heaven, but God’s Shekinah? Nu? Is it not clear? HaShem still guided His People Israel, His Presence in His Shekinah still encompassing them. And as He brought them home to Eretz Yisrael from Babylon, one day He would do so again!

Such is Yid hope, Yid obstinacy, Yid eternal self-delusion.

The Seer of Safed was secluded in an inner chamber of a makeshift enclosure in a far corner of the cargo hold. Given the choice, he would not see me or the abomination of the automaton golem; but la marine interstellaire uniform and the officer’s insignia upon Danel’s shoulders he could not deny; and where Danel insisted I go, he could not gainsay. Reb Ludska was proud but not stupid.

His twelve closest disciples in their black frocks and pastry–shaped hats frowned at us in silence, their thin lips faint creases within their beards. One apostle guided us through seven successive rings of dyed ship linens hung on ropes as makeshift walls, like seven levels of a city, until we reached an immense rectangular shipping container converted into the Rebbe’s sanctuary and personal abode.

Our guide had us wait while he passed the final screening drapery, one painted with a Star of David encircled by arcane mystical symbols and the multifarious Hebrew names for God. A low rumble of voices came from inside, but the words were obscured by the clamor and hubbub of Jews arguing, petitioning, davening, and yelling at their children, sounds that a mere seven walls of bedclothes on clothesline could only muffle. Our Ludskite guide returned and held the starred curtain aside for Danel and me to enter, then closed it behind us.

To our left, the inside of the long container was obscured by darkness save for the wan orange glow of an atomic cell lamp that served as a ner tamid, God’s eternal light, watching above a makeshift ark. Upon a linen-shrouded table, I perceived the unmistakable oblong outline of a Torah scroll under the dyed sheets. The congregants would face astern when praying, toward Earth, toward Jerusalem. I wondered what they would do when settled upon New Zion, if any of us reached it.

On our right, the container was partitioned by another cloth divider, of a deep red, fluttering almost imperceptibly in a current of warm air. It was lit from behind and bright light leaked around its edges, like flames spouting briefly from embers. Passing through this last barrier, we entered the apartment of Reb Ludska.

Tapestries, actual tapestries, lined the walls and floor. Who among his minions had sacrificed their own baggage allotment to permit this, I did not know. Then again, it was not impossible that “exchanges” had been made with His Holy Emperor’s officials. Some of the Hasid sects had prodigious resources not evident in their penurious appearance. And, as was true with death, they could not take any riches into this last great exile. A half dozen fold out chairs lined both walls, and the Rebbe stood between them awaiting us.

Rebbe Shlomo ben Yitzhak Ludska , the Seer of Safed, had the chest of a scarecrow and the belly and tuchus of Behemoth, a little man seeming to rise from within the body of a larger one. By force of will I quenched the memory of the sweeping gaze of searchlights, the barking of dogs, and a child’s broken matryoshka doll shattered upon soot covered rails, the smaller dolls spilling from its belly like seeds from a smashed gourd.

The Rebbe was dressed in a tent of black: an ebon jacket, slacks, and vest of a material so non-reflective it seemed to absorb light. Only the twisted white fringes of his tallit katan broke free, loose threads squeezed from the constriction of his ballooning vest.

Behind him, a dark-haired boy in a red-knit yarmulke sat at a metal desk between a stack of old books and a small potted castor oil plant. He poured over a volume splayed open on the desk, his nose nearly touching the yellowed pages. His lips trembled as he read silently. I estimated he was either eight or nine, his round cheeks still plush with the cushion of childhood.

Reb Ludska did not offer his hand in greeting. He glared at Danel. He ignored me completely.

“Thank you for seeing us, Reb Ludska,” Danel said. “You are aware of the unfortunate incidents that have befallen two members of the crew?”

The Rebbe’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly to briefly show a ring of white around his irises, ice blue, and the bristles of his gray moustache rose with the flaring of his nostrils; but then weariness seemed to suffuse him. He sighed and motioned for us to sit. He settled himself upon a chair that squealed and groaned under his weight. We sat opposite him, the woven carpet embroidered with a kabbalistic tree of black circles and branches separating him from us.

“Unexplained deaths,” he said. His voice was rich and melodious yet hollow, like a monk singing hymns alone in a cathedral. A bitterness was in it as well, one I recognized too often in my own voice. “And here you are again,” he said to Danel.

“Again?” I asked.

A look of disdain crossed his face. “You’re supposed to be a genius, no?” He leaned forward. “When wells run dry or crops are poor…” He chuckled dryly. “When children go missing or the Plague blackens flesh, regardless that Gentile and Jew are equally afflicted…the blame for these they cast at our feet as kindling and set us afire.” His eyes burned as if seeing these flames. Then, seeing his own reflection in the mirror of Danel’s face, the flames went out and his shoulders sagged. “Are they blaming us yet again?” he asked, his voice weary, the question posed rhetorically.

Danel answered, “Yes.”

I was surprised by his candor. He voiced the threat, but there was no cruelty in it, merely truth. “Many are unhappy with this mission,” Danel said. “We are travelling to the edge of charted space. Few ships have voyaged so far across the Deep. Some have not returned.”

“‘Here there be monsters?’” I mocked.

“Exactly, sir. And some of the crew fears we carry the monsters with us.”

Reb Ludska bowed his head and mumbled a prayer.

“Danel,” I said, “That’s…”

“Some worry about a contagion you may have unknowingly brought on board or…” His glass eyes swiveled from the Rebbe to focus upon me. “…designed to specifically target the crew as a form of retribution.” My face betrayed my thoughts. He nodded. “Nonsense. I agree, sir. I am only providing you what I have heard in the hope to avert any further unfortunate incidents. Much has been said outside the Captain’s hearing. There are so many unsubstantiated and unlikely assertions that no single one has united the crew to independent action.”


“I fear it is possible, sir.”

“What else has been said?” I asked.

“The suppositions vary from a Zionist grudge against Arabs like Lieutenant Haran for the massacres in Palestine to a Jewish plot to commandeer the Joan d’Arc by killing the crew. Others among the more devout have rekindled old fears and superstitions concerning Jewish warlocks and witches.” His voice changed as he played a recorded voice whispering, “‘Spawn of their father the Devil.’” In his own voice, Danel continued, “My hope is Rabbi Ludska can help Chaplain Thévet deter this. The Chaplain has spoken out against such inflammatory statements, and the Captain has warned that such talk is sedition.”

“Bully for him,” I said. “So Reb Ludska is correct? They blame us for these deaths?”

“Not wholly, sir. Some blame Deimons. Others say it is merely a space psychosis brought out in travelling the Deep Dark.”

“Demons?” Reb Ludska’s face went pale.

Dei-mons, sir,” repeated Danel. “Another human superstition, I’m afraid. When la marine interstellaire established its base on Deimos, they discovered the moon riddled with tunnels and caves. Some argued these were made by alien intelligences whom they nick-named ‘Deimons’. The von Dänikens took this up but the whole idea was mostly ridiculed. That is until similar tunnels were discovered on Ceres, Tethys, and later Centaurin B. No artifacts of any sort or aliens have ever been discovered; and the xenogeologists claim extensive evidence indicates that these tunnels are natural phenomena for low G planetoids of a similar type. I concur.”

“Sailors are not so easily divested of their superstitions,” I said.

“Correct, sir. Deimons replaced…” He paused, then said, “…‘gremlins’ as the cause of any unexplained mishaps occurring among the fleet and colonies.”

Reb Ludska’s lips twisted faintly into a wry smile. “Are they Jews then, these Deimons?”

“No Jews have been permitted in space until this voyage, Reb Ludska,” Danel said.

The Rebbe nodded. “See? And now these Deimons have competition. They must be scared of going the way of the, what you said, Gremlings.”

“This is not a humorous matter, Reb Ludska,” Danel said.

“I suppose not. But if we didn’t have humor, we’d have drowned the world in tears long ago.” He looked down at his hands. “‘Deimons,’” he muttered. “Such goyishe nonsense.”

“What is an erev-rav, Reb Ludska?” Danel asked.

The Rebbe’s eyes slid up to meet Danel’s.  “Erev-rav? Where’d you hear anything about…?” He clapped his hands and our Ludskite guide stepped briskly through the curtain, glancing at Danel and me warily.

“Aaron!” The Rebbe called to the boy sitting at the desk. Aaron raised his head from his studies, his eyes veiled behind bangs of straight black hair. “Go with Reb Ephrem. Stay with him until I call for you.”

The boy slid off his chair without a word and passed between us and the Rebbe. He was small for his age. He reached up and took Ephrem’s hand. The man blanched slightly under Danel’s scrutiny, then he parted the curtain and they left. The Rebbe waited until he heard the susurrus of muffled chatter from the cargo hold rise and fall as Ephrem and the boy passed through the bedsheet partitions of the perimeter. “Such discussions, however foolish, are not for the ears of children,” he said. He sat back and folded his hands upon his lap.

“Foolish?” asked Danel.

“Yes. Dybbuks, ibbur, lilin, ruhotra, golems…” he pointed at Danel, “…erev-rav are found in whispered warnings by parents frightening their children to behave; and in the aggadot of the Talmud to extort obedience from ignorant Jews in the keeping of HaShem’s mitzvot; and in shtetl stories to assuage the helplessness we’ve felt under Gentile oppression by imagining fantasies where the goyim instead fear us!” He ran his hands through his hair, closing his eyes as he did so. Opening them, he saw Danel unmoved and impassive. “You would continue with this narrishkeit?” he asked.

Danel waited.

The Rebbe sighed. “An erev-rav is the consequence of the mixed seed of Adam and Lilith.”

“Lilith was a demon, a female spirit of the sitra ahra…the other side, the realms of Darkness,” I said to Danel. “A succubus who purportedly stole the seed of men and the breath of infants. She was blamed for sudden infant death syndrome.”

The Rebbe nodded. “Just so. Silly, isn’t it, doctor?” To Danel, he said. “Like Lilith, the erev-rav are spirit thieves, vampyrs who revel in the spreading of the dark which is their abode. Nu? Nonsense.”

“There is no greater dark than that upon which we sail,” said Danel.

Reb Ludska’s eyes rolled upward and he shook his hands at Heaven. “Oif a nar iz kain kasheh nit tsu fregen un kain pshat nit tsu zogen!

You should not ask a fool a question, or give him an explanation! He leaned forward again, as if by his will alone he could pierce the automaton’s metal skin. I was struck by the incongruity of the rabbi striving to have a machine see reason, be logical. “The nukba di-tehoma rabba, the maw of the Great Abyss, is all around us,” he said with passion, as if giving a sermon to the sad remnant of his flock. He slapped both hands against his chest. “But it is what is inside us that matters! Man with his God-given capacity to reason, to hope, and to love is all that stands between HaShem’s Creation and the Abyss.”

Danel said nothing. He returned the old man’s gaze. They seemed joined in some hidden battle of wills, or just petulantly engaged in a child’s staring contest.

It was Reb Ludska who first lowered his eyes, sinking slowly back onto his chair. He waved a hand dismissively. “But you are not a man. You can never comprehend.”

In the subsequent silence I could hear the distant cries of a woman screaming at her wailing child. These faded leaving no sound save for the soft buzz emitted by the Eternal Lamp in the dark sanctuary beyond.

“What attracts an erev-rav?” Danel asked.

The Rebbe’s face blushed. He stood, his body shaking. “It’s a fairy tale,” he yelled. “A fable, a chain around our necks forged by our own fears. We must break them! We must make a fresh start and not drown in our own drek! And you, Reb scientist,” he shouted at me. “You believe in this? The greatest Jewish scientist of the age should ask such questions? Folklore! Myth! Bubbemeisers!” He stabbed his finger toward me. I noted he was one who bites his nails. “You cannot, Mr. Rabbi Scientist, make a pilpul study of that which is imaginary. What is the weight of a thought? How many centimeters is a dream?”

The curtain parted and two identical black-garbed Ludskite men peered in, faces goatish with alarm at the Rebbe’s shouting.

Reb Ludska walked between them and into the darkness of the sanctuary. Beneath the faint orange glow of the Ner Tamid, he pulled a prayer shawl over his head, a tallis of silvery luminescence, and began to daven, rocking slowly back and forth, head bent before God, murmuring a rolling litany of prayer.

The Rebbe’s two guardians motioned for us to leave.

Danel remained silent until we stood again outside my cabin. “Sir, may I ask your impression of Reb Ludska.”

“A beaten man,” I said. “But a Jew’s Jew. One who grows roses from his crown of thorns and braids his hair shirt. He won’t forget or forgive past wrongs, but he will not be ruled by them as long as he has a single sheep to lead. ‘To save a single Jewish life, or any life, is to save the world.’ And for us, that world is to be New Zion.”

Danel stared at me with the same inhuman impassivity that Reb Ludska had found so unnerving. I was used to it, however. I opened the door to the cabin and then paused, reflecting. “His ardent dismissal of Jewish mystical beliefs was…somewhat surprising. I am pleased he shares my views on such claptrap. But it is odd that the famed Seer of Safed should be so dismissive. To quote another sage, albeit a Gentile one, ‘Methinks he doth protest too much.’” I shrugged. “But with all your talk of the crew’s superstitions concerning Jews and Deimons, he may be trying to dispel such fears. Goodnight, Danel.”

But Danel did not leave. Instead, he said, “That may be true, but…” He stopped, studying me, and for the first time his impassionate stare made me uncomfortable.

“Do you think he was lying?” I asked.

“I detected no indication of untruth.” He hesitated again.


He looked away. “Do you recall Marcel the Marvelous, sir?” he said with uncertainty.

I chuckled. “The stage magician?”

I had taken Danel to The Moulin Rouge where Marcel performed while the late night patrons gathered and ordered drinks before the can-can girls made their appearance. We sat in the back, furthest from the stage, where there was little light and Danel was hidden behind his hat, gloves, and winter scarf.

“Yes, sir. The magician. There was no untruth in him as well.”

Danel’s lenses fixed upon me and I felt like a butterfly under the scrutiny of a lepidopterist.

“And yet he deceived,” he said.


I saw Danel for the last time three days later.

Beneath the unfaltering hums and steady vibrations of the ship’s engines and the clockwork sibilant hiss of ventilation compressors, a growing sense of fear and ill-ease infiltrated the rhythm of life upon the Joan D’Arc. It was seen in the wariness of the crew delivering supplies to the colonists, the number of guards that accompanied them, and the diminishing of what little small talk there had been between Gentile and Jew. It was evident in a rising wariness among the shipmen toward their passengers who outnumbered them fifty to one, and in a growing wildness in the eyes of the colonists who woke to the knowledge that they were yet again penned in, crowded together in the immense hold, and restricted to D Deck; an environment reminiscent of the Displaced Persons facilities–and the concentration camps. I again thought of the Rebbe struggling to protect his vestigial flock and willing to say anything, even deny his beliefs, to save their lives as Peter denied Jesus to save his. And like sheep, my tribesmen herded even closer together within their makeshift shtetl and no longer ventured outside to the permitted encircling hall of D Deck, with few exceptions.

The cacophony of Yiddisher kvetching and shrayen condensed to white noise and faded ten meters from the curtained cargo access. The corridor was devoid of Jews. The usual crowd of Yids was absent. Teens and young men and women no longer leaned against the hallway walls seeking haven from the noodging of their parents. Couples wishing to whisper endearments that would otherwise be drowned in the raucous clamor of the mishpocha no longer traversed the passage to and from the viewing ports that lined the outer hull. On the wall beneath one of the many red-lit fire warning switches, some child had scrawled in yellow crayon three circles, two with radiating lines, one with branches and buds sprouting from its top…two stars and a world with…an apple tree? No. “‘V’yashvoo, eesh tachat gap’no vtachat t’aynato.’”

‘But they shall sit, every man under his vine and under his fig tree.’

I pulled my tallis over my head and my chumash from my pocket. At the intersection with the starboard corridor, I turned aft, turning the Bible’s pages as I walked, seeking words, seeking something behind them. But I saw only random black lines and curves interweaving like the tattoo around Lieutenant Haran’s neck or the one forcibly inscribed upon my forearm; vowels and punctuation like the series of binary input I fed to Michal, simple loyal Michal, for his terminal flight to Berlin; verse and chapter numbers like the endless rows of numerals tallying all who perished in that world-shattering detonation. Devastation beyond all human conception paradoxically conceived to stop devastation–and genocide.

The words, letters, and numbers blurred and faded. Only blank pages remained, white paper so thin it appeared translucent, a match for the pallor of my skin in the photographs of the victory parade down the Champs-Élysées with captions declaring the Hero de France. Later, other captioned photos proclaimed “Traître!” and “Boucher de Berlin!” when I’d escaped France to join the Zionists in Palestine after the only country who deigned to forgive my being a Jew reneged on returning Danel to me.


I stopped short. My tallis slid off my head and gathered around my neck like a winter scarf.

“You need to stop surprising me, Danel.”

“My apologies, sir.”

Danel stood in front of one of the observation ports. The actinic glow of the sluice stream that flowed over the hull shone like moonlight and silhouetted the right half of his head and uniform, the latter neatly pressed with brass buttons like tiny stars. His metal skin gleamed like quicksilver. The glass cylinders of his eyes sparkled and cast prismatic shadows across his face.

“I have information,” he said.

I waited but he did not speak.

“Yes, Danel?”

He said, “I have not shared this with Captain Pétain or Mr. L’Hereux. I would not have harm come to y-…any of you. I fear…”

“Fear? You fear, Danel?”

He was silent.

I moved closer, imagining a tingle upon my face as I stepped into the beam of light with him. “Tell me,” I said.

“Lieutenant Haran was one of the fedayeen who led the massacre of Safed.”

“In the slaughter of the Ludskite community?” I blew out my cheeks and exhaled. “You think that someone…the Rebbe himself perhaps, recognized him?”

“This is what I fear.”

This is what I fear. The words projected from the small mesh screen of his mouth, little different than the grille of a radio, yet emotive, personal.

“Even so, Danel. We do not know how Haran died or…”

“The plant on the Rebbe’s desk. Did you recognize it?”

“The castor oil plant?”

“The Ludskites cultivated it in Palestine. Why?”

“It’s a versatile shrub. It can be used to create lotions, soaps, lubricants, insecticides, even fuel oil… Oh.” I stopped.

The castor bean, lovingly known as the Palm of Christ, was the source for ricin, a subtle and fatal poison that suppressed respiration and blood pressure… But the catatonia and bradycardia? No. It didn’t fit. And why young Henrique Delacroix? The nephew of Mr. L’Hereux? He’d at best have been an infant during the second Holocaust. “We must speak to Reb Ludska,” I said.


The pounding of my heart in my ears resolved into the slapping of running feet. The Rebbe’s grandson Aaron appeared, face swollen raw with tears, fear, and exhaustion.

“Help! Please! Come help!” He collapsed at Danel’s feet, his breath whistling through his teeth. Danel extended a hand and the boy grasped it, shuddered, and staggered to his feet. “It’s the Rebbe!” Aaron’s hair was disheveled. Somewhere he’d lost his yarmulke. “He’s collapsed! Come quick. Please!”

The lad pulled on Danel’s hand and led us in a run down the long corridor. We traversed long stretches of twilit halls severed by beams of light from the observation windows. We were further aft than I had gone before. The hum of the engines grew louder and its vibrations pulsed along the floor. And on the floor, lit by the glow emanating from a hull window, lay the sprawled monstrous form of Reb Shlomo ben Yitzchak Ludska; Leviathan washed up upon the shore at the End of Days. Just beyond him was a heavily secured airlock door bathed in the red light of a caged lamp above it.

The boy gave a cry and released Danel, falling to the side of the Rebbe next to whom he appeared no more than a guppy.

The Rebbe lay on his back, arms cast to either side as if in crucifixion. They twitched spasmodically.

I quickly knelt beside him. He was breathing, although erratically. His face was flushed. Lifting his eyelids revealed a glassy stare but the pupils reacted to my penlight.

“Quick. Tell me what happened,” I said.

The boy started to sob. I raised my hand to slap him, but Danel stepped forward and rested his hands on Aaron’s shoulders. Gently he said, “Aaron. Please. We’re here. Tell us what happened.”

Aaron sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. I placed my ear against Reb Ludska’s chest and heard, Baruch HaShem, a steady if slow rhythm.

“We were just doing our walk before Sabbath. We’d never gone so far before. He kept saying he was sorry. I didn’t understand…”

I checked the pulse in the Rebbe’s wrist and his hand spasmed again, fingers extending momentarily open before clenching. I spread his fingers. In his palm a castor oil seed stared at me like a crocodile’s eye.

Picking it up, I grabbed Aaron’s chin and showed it to him. “Did he swallow any of these?” The boy’s eyes welled with tears. “Did he?” I demanded, shaking him.

“I…I don’t know.”

I let him go. “If he ingested them…”

“What is the antidote, sir?”

“There is none.” I stood. “We need to get him to the infirmary. Pump his stomach. Hydrate the bejesus out of him.” I doubted Danel understood the allusion to the Palm of Jesus but he did not press me with further questions.

“The Rebbe is too heavy for me to lift, sir. Please stay while I fetch help.”

The boy grasped Danel’s hands. It was a surreal image, Raphaelian. Danel standing tall and garbed in white holding hands with the kneeling boy whose face was contorted in sorrow and pain, both of them shimmering in the blue-white light streaming through the hull window.

“I’ll go,” I said. “Stay with the boy. I’ll fetch Dr. Eugène and help.”

I ran, passing in and out of shadow, light fluttering across my vision like movie theater newsreels during the war. Ghosts seeped from my memory. I clenched my teeth and stabbed each of them. My tallis stayed draped around my neck, and I clung to either end as I ran like a man carrying a heavy burden upon his back. Run! Get Eugène. Save Reb Ludska.

My lips set. Save him so he can be sacrificed; the scapegoat for Gentile justice so the last remnant could live.

A glimpse of movement and I had to grab the person in front of me or topple over them. I heard a gasp of surprise and was enveloped in the homely aromas of soap and soup.

I had nearly bowled over Mrs. Katz.

We spun together down the hall. I instinctively lifted her, light as a soul, to keep my balance and slammed back against the wall dispersing my momentum, holding her safe in front of me. Beside us the small red light of a fire alarm box blinked.

My heart thudded against my chest. There was no other sound but my wheezing. Then a voice said breathlessly, “I used to get ten centimes a dance.”

I set her down. “My apologies, Mrs. Katz,” I said. “I must go. It’s an emergency.”

She tilted her head, one viscid eye searching my face. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Reb Ludska. He’s taken poison. Tell his assistants.   And let them know the Rebbe’s grandson is with him.”

I took a stumbling step away from her.

“Grandson?” she said. “Reb Ludska has no grandson.”

There was a sigh, and cool air blew down upon us from an air vent. The hairs at the back of my neck stiffened.


She shook her head sadly. “All his poor family died in Palestine. He has no son, no grandson.”

I took a faltering step toward her, then another. Her eyes buried within folds of wrinkled flesh gazed at me quizzically, like a rook with head cocked, its claws clasping some dead thing at the side of the road. I smashed the fire alarm box on the wall behind her and then began to run back the way I had come.

I passed through streaming gusts from the ventilation system like cobwebs. A cold chill passed through me, stirring the ashes deep within. This time I could not stop them.

The gray photographs of broken rubble that was once Berlin; the blackened fragments of bone to which clung desiccated remnants of flesh like Z’roa on a seder plate; the pervasive smell of boiling corpse fat saturating the air with a sickly caramel scent that sank like oil into one’s flesh and rags; the near surgical red-mouthed wounds exposing ribs like teeth across Ruth’s floral blouse and gaping wide across Hannah’s throat as if sliced by a shochet; the sky blackened and roiling with smoke quenching the sun and obscuring Heaven. Times of fire and darkness, repeated again and again, declared there could be no God, testing me like Job. But unlike with Job, succeeding. Words of prayer falling lifeless from my lips, dry and empty of hope; without answers, without expecting an answer. There were no angels to protect us, no devils but Man, and no God. The years after I escaped from Buchenwald, I searched for Him…not in Scripture, but in molecules and atoms, yet I discovered no Design and no morality, only indifferent forces and whims. And finally I disproved Him with Michal and Danel. If a man could create self-aware life, the proclaimed sole prerogative of the Lord Almighty, then there could be no God; no justice, no mercy. I challenged Him and received only silence. No proof He cared. No proof He was.

Danel lay supine upon the deck and Aaron knelt upon his chest. His tiny hands clutched the automaton’s cheeks and sank into them. When the boy raised his head to welcome me, his smile was cold, predatory; the plush lips pulled wide as if hefted upward by his peyos, parting to reveal teeth that glistened in the actinic sluice light. His eyes held no white. They were holes of nothingness, blacker than the Dark outside. Not a single gleam of light shone within them.

“Come help,” he said, his voice ice. “Please come help.” What had assumed the shape of the boy, summoned by the mystic Seer of Safed to kill the fida’i officer responsible for the murder of the Rebbe’s flock and family, and over whom it seemed the Hasid master had then lost control, withdrew his hands from Danel’s face as if drawing them from a pool of water.

With a spiderlike agility, Aaron leapt upward from Danel’s chest to cling to the hull wall, and then skittered rapidly across it, arching to the ceiling before falling upon me.

It was disconcertingly like catching a puppy or a small child, he was so light. Hannah had been so like this…

His hands fastened upon my cheeks, fingers melting into my flesh to slide along my teeth like a mallet along xylophone keys. I felt no pain, only a numbing coldness, a spectral tingle along the base of my skull. His small nose touched mine until all I could see were the black wells of his eyes, bottomless, empty, and longing.

And the thing, Deimon or erev-rav, saw the same in my own.

It shuddered and released me, falling to the floor to lie stunned upon its back. Its face contorted from a vulturine hunger to puzzled confusion.

Approaching footfalls cascaded down the corridor.

The creature the Rebbe named Aaron righted itself and kneeled in front of me, peering around my knees like a child seeking protection from a parent. It hesitated, uncertain whether to attack or flee. In that moment, I pulled my tallis from my shoulders, wrapped it around the boy’s neck, and lifted him from the floor.

He uttered a garbled scream and clawed at my fingers, the silk noose sliding tight around his throat.

“Hey! Ho there! What are you doing!” Mr. L’Hereux yelled, a squad of men trailing in his wake, including a winded Dr. Eugène. The CO scowled and strode toward me pulling a wooden baton from his belt and raising it. Before he could strike me, Dr. Eugène grasped his arm. But there was no need. Mr. L’Hereux halted, eyes widening as the boy I held shimmered and changed into the form of the First Mate’s dead nephew.

“Uncle, help me,” Henrique Delacroix croaked, extending a hand toward his uncle.

The men gasped and took a step back.

“Open the airlock!” I said.

Blank stares.

Do it!

Delacroix twisted in my hands, features blurring again. The men continued to stare, shocked still, except for Dr. Eugène. He dragged Mr. L’Hereux forward and demanded, “The access code. Enter it. Now!”

The CO looked dazed, “Wha…?”

Dr. Eugène slapped him, drawing his attention and anger, but then Mr. L’Hereux nodded. His finger stabbed at a key pad beside the airlock and then he grasped the wheel on the door with two hands and spun it. With a faint hiss and gust of stale air, the heavy door opened.

The lad shimmered and Aaron screamed and fell limp in my arms, gaining weight. I shifted my grip, one hand still holding the ends of the knotted tallis. It loosened around the boy’s neck when my remaining hand slid behind his back to support him. Aaron coughed, and inhaled, and coughed again.

“It’s g-gone,” he said, hoarsely, in barely a whisper. Then more strongly and with relief, “Bless HaShem! It’s gone!” Aaron’s eyes were normal again, hazel irises rimmed with white. He smiled weakly and raised one hand to the red welt made by the tallis around his throat. “Th-thank you.”

I nodded and held him close. His small arms encircled my neck. “It is all right,” I said. “It’s over. It’s not your fault.” Rocking him gently, I stepped toward Dr. Eugene.

The good doctor reached forward to take the boy; but I nudged him aside, flung Aaron into the airlock, and slammed the door. The wheel automatically revolved and locked.

Before the men around me could act, I punched the green-lit “Cycle” button.

There was the sound of air compressors, a muffled clang, and a shuddering rolled under our feet like a weak seismic tremor.

The corridor erupted in startled exclamations and I was dragged from the airlock door. Mr. L’Heureux’s face was flushed with anger, confusion, and fear. For all these reasons, or for the lack of reason, his arm rose brandishing its sleek black baton. I had just a moment to think that there was nowhere I could replace my tallis before the baton struck.


Danel’s fingers drummed against the table top. I typed in another code and he stopped.

I was alone in the makeshift workroom Captain Pétain had assigned me. His engineers had provided me every piece of equipment that I requested. One even brought me a sandwich and a glass of wine. The sandwich was ham from the officers’ mess, but the wine was a fine Bordeaux.

Danel lay supine upon the aluminum table like a medieval bishop carved in stone atop his sarcophagus. Stripped of his spotless white uniform and every vestige of human clothing, Danel looked like the machine he was, a metallic manikin for some Austrian clock steeple whose gears had frozen, who could no longer count time.

I rested my forehead upon the metal table top. It was cool and smelled of disinfectant and lubricant.

The Captain and Mr. L’Hereux, the latter who gruffly offered an apology, likely at the Captain’s request, questioned me about the events at the airlock, the creature that looked first like a Jewish child and then like Seaman Delacroix, and its relationship to the death of the seaman, Lt. Haran, and Rabbi Ludska. They did not mention Danel, assuming his was a malfunction that I could correct.

I answered that nothing could be certain, and questioned them in return about past port calls for the Joan D’Arc, confirming that “yes”, she’d spent time at Deimos, Tethys, and Ceres, though not Centaurin B. I nodded and said the small size and light weight of the creature, its ability to conceal itself by assuming any human form, and its equal disregard for the lives of marine and Jew suggested we’d had our first contact with a Deimon. I proceeded to provide the data I’d collected and the conclusions I’d derived regarding the unique physical qualities of the alien, the texture of its skin, mass alteration, scent, and potential biochemical secretion of a compound similar to that of ricin–and I kept a straight face through all of it.

“And yet you threw the only proof out the airlock,” L’Hereux said skeptically.

I said nothing but gazed at the Captain. Our eyes met and held.

“Perhaps not the only proof,” the Captain said. “There could be others.”

“I can provide you a test to confirm or exclude this,” I said.

He nodded. “Do it.”

Sometimes it helps to be known as a genius.

No one in the crew or the colonists tested positive. And that left Danel.

Lifting my head from the table, I picked up the half-empty glass of Bordeaux and finished it. There were some among the crew who had begun to suggest that perhaps they should keep a Jew upon the Joan D’Arc, perhaps on every ship. I peered through the wine glass at Danel’s face, always still since his creation, but now lifeless. The erev-rav had drained him as I had drained the glass of wine.

I was not sure what was more surprising. That it seemed, after all, Danel had a soul…or that somewhere, sometime, amidst the endless ashes and rubble, I had lost my own.

Danel’s appraising eyes and strong voice welled up in my mind, and I opened myself to his memory, welcomed it. “‘The loss of a soul before achieving its perfection is the greatest tragedy; and, if forcibly taken, the greatest evil.’”

“No, Danel,” I said aloud. “What is even greater is giving it up.” And tears came.

I reached out and took hold of my metal son’s hand. And in that cold infirmary upon a ship treading the Deep Dark to a distant star, I felt another comforting hand upon my own even though Danel and I were alone.

Copyright 2015 Robert B. Finegold

Robert B Finegold, M.D. is a radiologist living in Maine.  He has an undergraduate degree in English (Creative Writing and British Literature), has been a university newspaper cartoonist, and served as a Major in the U.S. Army during the first Gulf War. He is a two-time Writers of the Future Contest Finalist whose work has appeared in Flashquake: A Literary Journal, STRAEON 2: Part Deus, and is forthcoming in an anthology of WOTF winners and finalists tentatively entitled 1st &Starlight.  On Facebook, find him at:  Robert B Finegold Kvells and Kvetchings

by Patricia Russo


Three o’clock in the morning, and Ria could hear the baby crying from all the way at the other end of the hall. Never mind paper-thin walls; the units in this building could have been constructed from eggshells. All it took was the slightest bump or knock for cracks to appear in the one coat of hastily rolled-on light-green paint that covered the drywall that was the only partition not only between one room and another, but one apartment and the next.

Never rent from relatives. That one should have been high on the How Not To Be a Dumbass list, right next to never do business with friends. Tano, her clan uncle, was a scamming bastard and she’d always known it. But when the choices were couch-surfing with increasingly unfriendly friends, giving up altogether and just go squat in a bus shelter somewhere, or accepting your clan uncle’s offer–“I’ve got a room. I’ll let you have it cheap. You’re family, after all”–then what were you going to do? There was pride, and there was stupidity.

Sometimes Ria thought her whole life could be summed up as a tug-of-war between her pride and her stupidity.

So far, stupidity seemed to be winning.

Three o’clock in the morning, but she was awake, had been awake before the baby resumed its apparently default mode of endless wailing, because of her tooth. The second molar from the back, on the left side, on the bottom. It hurt like a bastard, and had been hurting for three months, and the guy she did business with for the pain was not answering his goddamn phone and she was sick of leaving messages. Well, crap, what could you expect from a sketchy little fucker like him? Everything in the world was for sale, and if you took the time to look you could find a buyer for anything, but it had actually surprised her that the skinny little fuck was cool with buying a toothache. Other kinds of pain–that was easier to understand. Some other kinds of pain could be useful; once she’d known a man who’d bought the pain of a slap in the face, about two dozen a month, in order to be absolutely sure he woke up on time. Best alarm clock ever, he’d said. And some kinds of pain could even be fun, depending on the circumstances. But a toothache? Not fun, that was for sure. And not useful in any good way she could think of. So the skinny dude, who never gave his name and now wasn’t answering his phone, was probably just a middleman, buying the pain to sell to a curse-caster. Great. It had taken her three months to figure that out. Stupidity winning again. The curse had probably served its purpose, and the caster didn’t need another month’s supply of tooth-pain.

That was her screwed, then.

Almost, she threw the phone against the wall. But the wall had enough cracks in it already, and if she broke the phone, there was no way in hell she could afford another one.

The baby wasn’t helping.

The baby wasn’t helping one bit.

Not its fault, Ria told herself. Of course not. Babies cried. That’s what they did. Poor kid probably had the, what did you call it, the colics or something. Them down at the other end of the hall, two youngsters with a newborn–man. How much worse must it be for them. She could always go get her tooth pulled at the clinic at the dental school uptown. A crying baby you just had to put up with. No other choice.

Ria sat on her bed (a bedspring and bare mattress) and rocked herself, but that gave her no comfort. She wanted to pace, but if she did, she knew the old lady downstairs would take a broom to the ceiling.

Shut up, baby, shut up, baby, shut up, baby.

She tried the skinny dude’s number again. Nothing.

She’d found him–or he’d found her–at Underpass Market. There must have been a hundred places with that name over the centuries. Nowadays it was in the northeastern quadrant of the city, the open-air section taking up more space than the Grand Municipal Park, with no sign or remnant of an overpass anywhere, but the name stuck. Civilizations fell and rose and fell and rose again, and Underpass Market changed venues, but not reputation. Ria hadn’t expected to be able to sell her tooth-pain there. She had gone to hawk something completely different: a set (well, most of a set) of silver (or silverish) figurines of old-timey forest people, the gray folks with the six-fingered hands and the overly large eyes. There was supposed to be a whole family: mother, father, two children, a grandparent, and a pet, if Ria remembered correctly from her childhood. She was missing the pet and one of the children, but the rest of the pieces were in good condition. She’d acquired them by stealth, and wanted to get them off her hands as quickly as possible. But she wasn’t stupid enough to take the first offer. She hiked the length of the damn market, trying every jewelry place, silversmith, knick-knack stall, even the charm sellers (the gray folks, back when they used to live in the forest, had been believed to have powers that other people didn’t–surely the figurines could be used to fashion luck-drawers or evil-averters) but in the end she’d gotten only a couple of decent bids. It had been pride that had made her trek up and down and round and round Underpass Market; she realized that even as she was doing it. She sold the figurines in the end, for a lot less than she was sure they were worth, and was just about to head home when the skinny dude stepped in her path and smiled.


The baby would not stop wailing. That baby, Ria was becoming convinced, would howl forever. When did it sleep? The damn thing cried twenty-three hours out of twenty-four.

Middlemen bought and sold things.

Dawn would break in three hours. By tradition, Underpass Market opened for business one hour after sunrise. But that was for the general public. Behind the scenes, the market was like a perpetual motion machine. Contacts and contracts, deals and wheels, forever turning, forever in movement.

If that baby didn’t stop crying, she was going to lose her mind. Her tooth was throbbing anyway, but the high-pitched bawling made her clench her jaw, and the ouch! of that sent a bolt of bright blue pain straight through her head.

Ria picked up her phone again. Hit redial. This time, she left a different message. Not, “This is Ria, you know, the one with the tooth? Call me back,” which had been her first, or “Call me, you prick,” which had been her last. This time, she said, “Fine, so you don’t want to make any money. There’s something I want to buy, and I thought of you first. But I guess you’re too busy, so never mind.”

That would get the skinny bastard’s attention. The satisfaction of knowing that eased the pain in her molar for a second or two.

But other problems now presented themselves. The first was the practical matter of her possessing absolutely no cash. The second was an ethical issue. Ria had always despised people who put workings on others without the knowledge of the second party. And all right, yeah, she’d probably been selling the pain in her tooth as an ingredient for some revenge curse or torture-casting, but she hadn’t realized that at first, and anyway, you had to look at it as a question of survival. Paying the rent, buying food. Life or death, basically.

This was different. The baby’s parents would have to know. The baby’s parents would have to agree.

Most importantly, the baby’s parents would have to pay.

Ria got dressed quickly. She stuck her phone in her back pocket. He’d call, the skinny dude. And if he didn’t, well, Underpass Market would open in a few hours. Either way, all she had to do was sell the parents on the idea and hope to hell they had some cash or tradeables. Young folks living in a dump like this were probably not rolling in it, but she bet they both had families –certainly they both had clans, because everybody did–and friends. And family and friends would shell out, the first time you asked. Sometimes even the second or third, but almost always the first. And it would be for the baby, so an automatic extra helping of sympathy would come into play.

Ria went down the hallway quietly, even though anybody on this floor who could sleep through such a skull-piercing racket must have stone earplugs or be deaf to start with. No need to be conspicuous, though. And hey, put a smile on your face, she told herself. Even though it hurt. Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall, and I’m here to help. She was not the old lady who banged on the ceiling with a broom. She was a nice woman, concerned, friendly, offering a solution.


She knocked on the door of the apartment at the end of the hall, waited a few second, then knocked again. Come on, I know you’re awake in there. She looked at the peephole and smiled. Ouch. She waggled her fingers. She knocked again.

When the door opened, it was the man who answered it. Hard-faced. Suspicious. Defensive. Well, she couldn’t blame him. Ria forced herself to smile again. “I’m not here to complain,” she said. “Relax, okay? Really I’m not. My name is Ria and I live in 3B. I think I know a way to help.”

The man, who even sleepless and haggard looked closer to twenty than twenty-five, started to close the door. Ria opened her eyes in wide, honest appeal. “First babies are tough,” she said. “Believe me, everybody gets overwhelmed. You’re never sure you’re doing the right thing, are you, no matter how many pamphlets you read or parenting classes you take. And sometimes nothing you do works, right?”

The kid stopped closing the door. “My mother said to rub his belly,” he said. “Like this.” He made slow, gentle circles in the air.

“I’ve heard that one. And pat his back, rock him, take him for a drive if you have a damn car–”

“We don’t.”

“Yeah, well, neither do I.”

“The doctor says there’s nothing wrong.”

“Marto?” came a voice from inside the apartment. “Marto, who are you talking to?”

The man looked back over his shoulder. “A neighbor. It’s all right, Sija. She says she wants to help.”

Ria said, “I bet the doctor told you the baby would grow out of it.”

The man looked back at her. “Yeah.”

“Yeah. That’s what they always say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the baby won’t. Of course he will. But how long are you prepared to wait?”

“Marto? What’s going on?”

“I mean, how long can you stand it? And the baby’s suffering, too. Clearly. He wouldn’t be crying like that if something didn’t hurt.”

“It’s his stomach,” the man said. “Colic.”

“Very common,” Ria said, nodding. “Very common.”


“Sija, hold on a second.” To Ria, he said, “The doctor said to put a warm cloth on his belly.”

“Does it help?”

“Not really.”

“I know what he needs,” Ria said. “And what you need, too. And your wife.”

The man jumped aside as the door swung open wider. A young woman with blazing eyes and hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed for a week pushed past him and stuck her face into Ria’s. The girl was short and barefoot and smelled of used diapers. “Who the hell are you?” she said.

“Sija, please.”

The mother was always going to be the harder sell. You had to expect that. Ria made her face compassionate. “I think I know a way to help. What the baby needs.”

“Really? What does he need, then?”

“Sleep,” Ria said.

Marto took Sija’s arm. The girl scowled. “Sleep. Well, you’re a genius, aren’t you. Of course he needs sleep. The only time he’s quiet is when he’s asleep. But we are not drugging our baby.”

“Who said anything about drugs?” Ria kept her eyes wide, her face open and kind. Her tooth was killing her and the baby hadn’t stopped wailing for an instant, but she had the husband already three-quarters hooked. She just had to get the mother on board. “Only idiots do that. And you’re not an idiot. That’s plain to see. As I was telling Marto here, sometimes this just happens with babies. And they do grow out of it. Usually. Like in a few months. But wouldn’t it be better if your baby could sleep through the worst of it?”

“Sure, but…” Sija sounded uncertain now. “How?”

“May I come in?”

A crucial moment. They’d either let her in, or they’d slam the door in her face.

Smile, damn you, Ria told herself, and forced her lips to obey.

“I think it’s all right, Sija,” the man said. “I’ve seen her before. She does live in 3B.”

“I’ve seen her before, too.” Stepping back, Sija crossed her arms. “All right, then. Come in. But I swear, if you’re trying to pull something, you’re messing with the wrong people.”

“I just want to help.”

Sija went inside, and Marto nodded at Ria and opened the door wider for her. Ria nodded back, and entered as a guest would, murmuring, “Let this home know peace.”

Sija was standing in the middle of the front room, her back to them and her arms still crossed. In the back room, the baby bawled. Ria had a quick look at the furnishings. Not much–table, chairs, shelves. One picture on the wall, a print of the view from the bay. No electronics. A few paper books on one shelf. She wondered if they even had a phone.

“So,” Sija said. “How can you help?”

“You know Underpass Market.”

“We do,” Marto said.

“You know you can buy or sell anything there.”

Sija muttered something, but Marto just said, “Yes.”

“You can buy sleep,” Ria said. “You can buy an hour’s worth, two, ten. There are lots of people willing to sell their sleep. I don’t know why. I guess some people just like to stay awake. Now listen, I’m not talking about dreams or nightmares or anything like that. Simply sleep.”

“Do we look like we have money?” Sija said, her back still turned.

“We’ve never been to Underpass Market,” Marto said. Ria saw from his expression that the idea did appeal to him, but he was hesitant. “We wouldn’t know how…how to find a seller.”

“I have a contact,” Ria said.

“We don’t have any money,” Sija said loudly.

“We could ask my brother. Your brother. It’s for the baby, honey. They won’t say no.”

Sija turned around. “And what do you get out of it?” she asked Ria.

“Nothing,” Ria said, with all the innocence she could muster. “You won’t be dealing with me. I’ll set you up with my contact.” If the bastard ever called back. “You do the business with him.”

“What’s his name?”

“I only have a number. He’s a skinny little guy, short hair. He’s a–facilitator.” She gave a little shrug. “I’m sure he’ll take a cut. Everybody’s got to make a living. But I know him. I can vouch for him. You’ll get quality merchandise. I haven’t been disappointed yet.”

“You’ve done business with him?”


“But you don’t know his name.”

“Kid, that’s the way these people operate.”

“Sija,” Marco said. “I’ve heard of this. We can try it. Even if we buy only an hour or two. Nothing else is working.”

“I’m not asking my brother for more money.”

“Then I’ll ask mine.” Marto looked at Ria. “All right. Call this guy, this contact of yours.”

“Only if you’re both sure,” she said. Had to keep in character, had to play the part to the end. Doubts could still arise. Something could still go wrong.


“All right,” she said. “All right, goddamn it.”

Pride and stupidity. How could Ria have not recognized it? Sija was just like her, only younger and more ignorant. Ria should have known. Afterwards, she paced up and down her room, asking herself how she had failed to see it. And when the old lady with the broom whacked the ceiling, Ria just stomped down harder.

The skinny prick called back when Ria was still in Marto and Sija’s apartment. “Excuse me,” Ria said, and went out into the corridor. Eggshell walls and all, better to snatch hold of any speck of privacy one could. Besides, the baby’s shrieking would cover a lot of what she said, even if they had their ears pressed against the door.

The skinny dude was all apologetic about not getting back to her earlier–things had come up, she knew how it was. Yes, Ria thought, she certainly did. Briefly, she gave him the run down– incessantly crying baby, parents going out of their minds, would pay decently if not handsomely for some sleep. For the baby, she stressed. (The decently if not handsomely part she pulled out of her ass. Marto would get the money somehow, she figured.) The skinny dude said he understood exactly what was required and could provide it within the hour, if the cash was ready. The cash was in another location, Ria said. The daddy would meet him at Underpass Market at opening time, if that was convenient. By the south entrance, near the café. Did that work for him?

That worked for the skinny dude just fine.

“Now let’s talk about me,” Ria said.

“What about you?”

“My cut.”

“Hey, wait a minute.”

“Wait a minute, nothing. I brought you a client, so I get a cut. Business is business. And the dental school clinic ain’t free, you know. It’s cut-rate and all you get is first-years working on you, but they still charge.”

“Oh,” the skinny dude said. “That.” He paused, and there was a quality to his pause that made Ria decide to let it run its course. Her patience was rewarded. Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “I was just about to tell you. I’ve got good news. The order has been doubled. We’ll take two months this time.”

He’d just pulled that out of his own narrow ass, but she wasn’t about to challenge him on it. “Great,” she said, in her best neutral tone. She pushed him on the matter of her cut a little more, just for form’s sake, but she knew that that second month was all she was getting.

When she went back into Marto and Sija’s apartment, she discovered that each of them had a phone, and each of them was in the middle of a conversation. She nodded at Marto and gave him the thumb’s up. “Thanks,” he said into the phone. “See you soon.”

“Very soon, I hope,” Ria said. “My contact will meet you at Underpass Market in a couple of hours.” She described the meeting place, and she described the skinny dude, and reminded Marto that names were not commonly used by his sort. “Bring as much cash or tradeables as you can. You’re allowed to haggle, but you’ve got to be smart enough to know when a final offer is a final offer. You think you can do that?”

“Yes,” he said. He looked at Sija, who was still on the phone. She had her head down, and was talking very fast.

“All right, then,” Ria said. “Looks like everything’s set, then. Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Marto said. “Thank you so much.”

Ria went back to her apartment. Her toothache disappeared a couple of hours after dawn. The money transfer would appear in her account in a week; she knew that from the previous times. So that was the rent for next month taken care of. And if she was smart, she’d take the rest and just go to the dental clinic already. She’d think about that after she got some sleep, she decided. Shortly after the toothache vanished, the baby stopped crying, and she breathed a long sigh of relief. It had all worked out. Everything was fine.

She slept until mid-afternoon. When she woke up, the baby was still quiet.

It was still quiet the next day. And the next.

On the fourth day, Marto knocked on her door.

You’ve got to be kidding me, Ria thought, but she opened up.

The young man looked very worried. “He won’t wake up. Not even for a minute. Not even to nurse.”

“For fuck’s sake, man, how much sleep did you buy?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sija went, not me.”

And that was when Ria began to suspect that her bright idea of selling the parents on buying sleep might in reality have been one more occasion on which she had been very, very stupid.

The mother. Resisting too much. Protesting too much. Talking rapidly on the phone after saying she wouldn’t ask anyone for money. The mother, home with the screaming baby all day, while the father probably got a few hours respite at work, or going around looking for work. She hadn’t seemed like she was at the end of her rope, but then some people’s ropes were shorter than others.

“This is not my fault,” Ria said.

“Please. You said you could help.”

She went back with him to his apartment. No real choice. If she’d shut her door on him, he would have just kept pounding on it until she opened it again. She was the nice lady, the friendly neighbor. The one who said she could help.

“It can’t be true that he hasn’t woken up to nurse. Not for four days. He’d be dead if that was so.”

“Sija says he hasn’t.”

Then Sija was a bloody liar.

Ria fervently hoped she was.

She was holding the baby when Ria and Marto came in. It was the first time Ria had seen the baby, if a glimpse of a blanket-wrapped bundle with a tiny bald head sticking out of one end counted as seeing a baby. Sija turned away as soon as they entered.

“How much goddamn sleep did you buy?” Ria shouted. “Fuck, even if you bought a lot, you didn’t have to use it all at once. Don’t you have any sense at all?”

“Get out of my home. I don’t want you here.”

“Sija,” Marto pleaded. “Please.”

“Your husband said the baby doesn’t wake up to nurse. Either that’s not true, or what you’re holding there is a dead infant. So which is it?”

“He’s quiet.”

“Girl, I will slap you. So help me, I will. You said you were the wrong people to mess with? Well, believe me, I’m much wronger than you. So tell the truth. Is it dead?”

“No,” Marto moaned. “No. He can’t be. Sija. Let me see him. I’m begging you.”

“He’s fine.”

“Do something,” Marto said to Ria. “Please.”

I’ve done a shitload more than enough, don’t you think? Ria thought, but the young man still saw her as a helpful, friendly, a person he could turn to. “If he’s really not nursing, you’re going to have to take him to a hospital.”

“He’s fine,” Sija repeated.

“Show us,” Ria said. “Look at your husband. He’s terrified. Don’t do this to him. Show us the baby. Prove that he’s all right.”

Marto made to move toward Sija, but Ria put her hand on his shoulder. It was going to kill him to see his son dead, a limp, dehydrated sack of bones. Marto was going to fall to bits. There was no rush to get to that moment.

This is all my fault, Ria thought. I should have seen it. Seen what was hiding inside the girl. Why didn’t I? Because of a stupid, damn toothache?

Or because I’m just like her? Me first, and the hell with everybody, anybody else. I couldn’t see it because I was blinded by my own reflection.

Of course the skinny dude would have sold her as much as she wanted, no questions asked. Business was business.

“There might still be time,” Ria said, not because she believed it. It was a ploy to get Sija to turn around.

Marto moved forward again, and this time Ria didn’t stop him. Me and my big ideas, she thought. Me and my middlemen. What was it, now? Don’t rent from family. Don’t do business with friends. And don’t ever trust a single goddamn person on the planet, including yourself.

Ria had never seen a dead baby before, not in real life, and she didn’t want to see one now, but she made herself stand there and watch. Punishment. Or rather the first stage of her punishment. Marto would figure it out eventually. Turn on her. Blame her. And he’d be right. He’d be ninety-nine percent right.

Pride and stupidity. Now Ria’s pride told her, You’re going to take what’s coming to you. When that boy gets it into his head that you were the cause of all this and starts beating the crap out of you, you’re not even going to raise your arms to defend yourself.

She hoped he wouldn’t kill her. Her life might not have been much, but she still would rather be alive than not. Pain was a different matter. She’d had a lot of it in her life. And the pain of a beating, the pain of broken bones, well, those could be sold, if you had contacts. Even if you didn’t, bruises and broken bones healed, sooner or later. A child’s death created an abyss of pain that you had to fill in a grain of sand at a time over decades; you never reached the point when the abyss was full. If you were lucky, you could make it navigable. You could walk around the edges. Even tip-toe gingerly over the narrower sections. But it would exist for the rest of your life. I hope I live, she thought. And I am as sure as shit glad that I’m not either one of these two.

“Sija,” Marto said softly.

“Stop fussing,” Sija said. “Everything’s all right.”

“Then why won’t you let me see him?”

He put her hands on her then, and Ria expected Sija to scream, to fight, to kick and elbow and run, but she let Marto take the bundle from her arms. Then Ria expected Marto to scream, drop to his knees, howl at the universe. Marto just stood, holding the bundle, breathing hard, then turned to her with an expression of relief. “He’s sleeping,” Marto said. “He’s just sleeping.”

Wishful thinking?

“Let me see.”

Ria couldn’t believe it until she’d checked for herself, but the baby was indeed alive. Its respirations were shallow and its face thin, but it had been recently bathed. “When was the last time you fed him?”

Sija shrugged.

“He wakes up to nurse. You lied to your husband about that.”

“No. He doesn’t really wake up. He suckles in his sleep.”

“You have to suckle him more. Do you understand? He won’t grow otherwise. He’ll die otherwise.”

Marto took the baby from Ria. “Can you wake him up?”

“Me? It was her that gave him all the sleep at once.”

“She made a mistake.”

Ria doubted that, but there was no point saying so to Marto. “How much sleep did you buy, anyway, Sija? Tell us.”

Sija just shrugged again.

“If you can buy sleep, then surely you can buy wakefulness,” Marto said.

“I’m sure you can.”

“Your contact. If you could call him again. Please. I promise I’ll go myself this time.”

And for a second, Ria was tempted. The skinny fuck would have to cut her in if she set him up with a second business opportunity. But then the dread she’d felt when she was certain the baby was dead returned, a hard slap to the conscience. Do not embrace stupidity again, she told herself sternly. Just this once, don’t be an arrogant idiot. “Bought wakefulness on top of bought sleep? That’s dangerous, son. That’s like throwing a ball of flame into a dry forest, and hoping for a campfire.”

“And this isn’t dangerous?”

“Of course it’s dangerous. Your baby needs to be fed regularly, kept hydrated–you could still take him to a hospital. They could give him IV fluids.”

“No,” Sija said. “I know how to take care of my son.”

“Honey,” Marto said.

“I know what I’m doing!” Sija shouted.

“No, you don’t,” Ria said. “You should, but you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t. He’s quiet, and that’s good, but he’s so quiet you forget to feed him sometimes, don’t you? You put him in his crib and leave him there for hours, isn’t that right?”

“No,” Marto said. “She wouldn’t. Sija, tell her. She wouldn’t, I swear.”

“How much sleep, Sija?” Ria asked again. “Tell us.”

“Six months.”

Marto gasped, then looked at Ria in horror. “That’s not possible.”

Of course it was possible. Ria had just been the middleman to a middleman, but she could imagine a dozen different scenarios. The sleep didn’t all have to come from one person, for example. But the most likely one… “My contact. That skinny guy. You made the deal with him, right?”

Sija nodded.

“It’s an old man’s sleep, isn’t it? Or an old woman’s.”

“An old man’s. Your contact said the old man was selling his sleep because he wanted to spend as much of the time that he had left awake.”

“What did that cost?” Marto demanded. “Where did you get the money?”

Sija looked away.

It didn’t really matter. There were a whole hell of a lot of ways to get money–or tradeables–when you really, really wanted to.

Suddenly Marto said, “But people die without sleep. Don’t they?”

“They do,” Ria said.

“Sija, you really gave the baby six months of sleep all at once? All six months?”

She had. Ria could see it in her face.

Apparently Marto could, too. “Take it back,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Sija, you’re going to kill that old man. And the baby? Asleep for six months? How is he going to learn to sit up, to crawl, to do anything?”

Ria said, “I think once it is done, all poured out, if you like, you can’t…pour it back. They must have told you how to use it. Drop by drop, right?”

“It was heavy,” Sija said. “It was like a sack of bricks that I had to carry inside my head. I couldn’t hold them all.”

“What are we going to do?” Marto said. He looked at Ria with desperation. “There has to be something we can do.”

“You’re going to have to make sure she feeds the baby enough. And I guess you should move its arms and legs around, you know. So the muscles don’t waste away.” Guess being the big word there.

“That’s not what I meant. I meant to change this.”

“Sometimes you can change things. Lots of times, you can’t.”

“But you…” Marco said.

Here it comes, Ria thought. At least he’s still holding the baby. He probably won’t try to kill me until he puts it down.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t suggested buying sleep. It’s my fault. But I can’t change what’s been done, and I don’t know anyone who can.”

“It’s not your fault,” Marto said, which was the last thing Ria expected to come out of his mouth. “I should have gone to Underpass Market, not Sija. You heard her. It was too heavy for her. I should have been carrying it instead.”

Dear fuck, he wasn’t going to blame the girl, either? Ria felt a touch of awe. Could it be that she was actually standing in the presence of a nice guy?

More likely, he was just an idiot like everybody else. But if that was what was keeping him from bashing her brains in, then more power to stupidity.

“Wait a minute,” Marto said. “What happens when the old man dies? How long can you live without sleep, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Not months.”

“But what happens? If he dies–when he dies–what happens?” He gazed down at the baby.

Ria shook her head. “I know what you’re thinking. But the old man, whoever he was, he already sold it. It’s like–like you sell your car. You could drop dead the next day, but the car’s still sold.”

“It can’t work like that,” Marto said. “It makes no sense.”

Right, like so much in life did.

And Sija, the little bitch, smiled and said, “Six months is not that long.”

Marto didn’t get angry, even at that. “Why don’t you go rest now, sweetheart. Go lie down for a while, all right?”

Nice guy. Idiot. Maybe they were the same thing.

But when Sija had gone into the back room, Marto turned to Ria, and there was a different look in his eyes.

“We need to do some more business. Concerning sleep.”


“For the old man. So he doesn’t die. You have to call your contact. You have to explain what happened. We have to find the old man, and get him enough sleep so–so what we did doesn’t kill him.”

“How are you going to pay?”

“I’ll give him some of mine. And so will you. A couple of hours each, every day. That’ll do, won’t it?”

Ria looked at him for a long time. “All right. But there’ll still be a commission.”

“Your skinny guy?”


“Yeah. Nothing for nothing, even when lives are at stake. Don’t you hate this world?”

“Often,” Ria murmured.

“Commission. All right. Everybody says you can buy or sell anything at Underpass Market.”

“I’d agree with that,” Ria said.

“Then we’ll figure out a way to pay the commission.” He paused. “Sija must have done that. To pay for so much sleep, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Ria said.

“I love my wife. And I love our baby more than you can imagine. Sija made a mistake. I can forgive that. But I’ll never forgive myself if I let that old man die.”

“I’ll call my contact now,” Ria said. “Meanwhile, go see if you can get Sija to nurse the baby. She should do it every couple of hours, I think.”

“You’re going to help me with that, too,” Marto said. “Some days I pull twelve-hour shifts. So when I’m not here, you’re going to be.” A touch of steel in his voice.

Pride and stupidity had gotten her into this, as it had her into so many messes before. Time to change the pattern, she thought. To one of responsibility and duty. It might even be good for her.

And six months wasn’t really that long a stretch. It was going to be hell when her toothache came back, but she’d put up with it.

Six months without running away, ditching her clan-uncle’s shabby, slapped-together building and heading for the coast. What would she do there, anyway? Same stupid things she did in the city, probably.

“Yes,” she said. “I will.”

She took the phone out of her pocket. The battery was almost dead, but there was enough juice left to make a call and leave a message. She knew what to say. She’d had a lot of practice.

Within half an hour, she and Marto were on their way to Underpass Market. The skinny dude was waiting just where he said he’d be, with a big smile on his face.


Copyright 2015 Patricia Russo



by A.S. Diev

No retrospective of New Gonzo journalism would be complete without this well-known early example, a piece that saved the career of the woman who defined the genre. We reprint it here as it first appeared in the October 2027 issue of Crunch magazine.


At 7 a.m. on a bright Thursday morning last June, in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, 40-year-old Carlos Flores completed a week of double shifts at the shoe factory where he sometimes worked. He drove his rusted, powder blue Ford pickup a quarter mile through cinderblock neighborhoods to the Diosa Del Amor liquor store. There he purchased a carton of smokes, a 12-pack of beer, and a half pint of vodka. According to the police report, he drank one of the beers and all of the vodka while driving home. He pulled into the Rio Vista trailer park and waved to little Esperanza Delgado, who was walking along the dirt street in her school uniform and backpack.

As Carlos parked the truck in front of his trailer and climbed out, he heard the familiar sound of a herd approaching–the random bellowing of the cows, the turbine roar of the rancher’s engine. He looked up and saw a herd of about 30, moving at a good clip. Some were spotted, some a solid brown. A single, jet-black longhorn bull was flying in the lead.

They were so low in the morning sky that Carlos could see the lead bull’s dangling pizzle, the swinging udders of the cows, the sunglasses and white Stetson of the driver in a bright red air skiff behind them. The massive wings of the cattle pumped up and down in heavy, emphatic rhythms. Their legs jerked with each beat, kicking uselessly at the empty air beneath them. Each leathery wingstroke was a lunge upward, clawing at the air to climb a few feet, buying a little time in which to lift the heavy wings for the next cycle. From behind them Carlos heard country music playing on the skiff’s radio, cranked loud enough to be heard over the engine.

It had been a long week for Carlos, and the vodka was starting to loosen him up. He later explained to the police that he had worked too many hours and was just tired–of the grinding factory work, the petty supervisors, the low wages, the chronic debt. He was tired of American country music. And he was especially tired of cattle flying overhead, raining urine and feces onto the tin roofs and dirt yards of his trailer park as they flew northward and over the wall to the United States.

On impulse, he reached into the truck for his old U.S. Army surplus Springfield .30-06. It’s a bolt-action rifle, meaning that you have to take your hand off the trigger and slide a lever back and forth to load each bullet into the chamber. With a weapon like that, shooting wildly into the air without taking time to aim, you can fire three rounds in about five seconds. That’s how long it took Carlos to come to his senses.

“I didn’t mean to kill,” he told me when I interviewed him for this article. “I’m not a killer.” He says it a lot, like a mantra or an uncontrollable verbal tic, and when he says it he looks as though he is about to cry or vomit.

I asked him how he had felt in that life-changing moment.

“At first I felt happy, as light as air,” he said, “as if I could fly too. I didn’t mean to hit anything. I was just blowing off steam.”

One shot disappeared into the sky and was never accounted for. A second shot lodged in a cow’s leg near the hip–the sirloin, if you’re a chef–and the cow bawled in pain but managed to keep flying.

Another cow was not as lucky. The final shot pierced its thirteenth rib–the short rib, if you’re a butcher–traversed the lung, rebounded from the third thoracic vertebra, and severed an artery before sliding to a hot stop in the cow’s windpipe.

“I think it tried to scream,” Carlos told me through a hole in the plexiglass, sweating in the visitation area a few days before his trial. “But it couldn’t. And it couldn’t fly, either. It thrashed its wings, but was choking on the bullet and drowning in its own blood.”

The official report from the medical examiner states that the cow was still alive as it tumbled mutely out of the sky. If it could have remained aloft, it would have bled to death within a minute or two. But instead, its painful last moments were cut short when it landed on the one thing moving in Rio Vista trailer park at 7:30 that morning–small, pretty Esperanza Delgado, in her plaid skirt and backpack, on her morning walk to school.


Six weeks later, I answered an audio call at home and smiled at a familiar-sounding male voice.

“I’m looking for a writer who speaks Spanish, likes to travel, and isn’t super picky about, you know, jobs.”

“Speaking,” I said. Then I recognized the voice, and my smile faded.

“Attagirl,” he said. “Listen, there’s a murder trial next week in Mexico. It could turn out to be interesting, but we’re short-handed and can’t cover it. Someone suggested sending you down there. We have space for up to eight thousand words, if you can find a story in it. We can front you some expense money. But it has to be a real story.”

I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to work with Crunch again, even if I was getting desperate. And what I needed was a staff job at a real news outfit like CNN or AltNet, not a freelance assignment for a pop music monthly. But the only other call I’d had that week was from American Express. As soon as he mentioned expense money, all I heard was dollar signs.

“A real story,” he said again, or something like that.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a journalist, it’s that money makes things happen. The first thing that happened was that I told him I’d do it. The next thing was that I paid my rent and threw some money to the attack dogs at MasterCard. And then I bought myself a plane ticket to Laredo.

Before I left town, the money also arranged me an exclusive private meeting with Carlos Flores in prison. I’ll spare you the details, but a friend from my Wellesley days works at a Texas paper now, and she had a contact in the Zeta cartel who was able to set it up. After a brief exchange, an anonymous email instructed me to show up at the prison carrying a paper copy of Crunch with twenty 500-peso notes tucked into its pages.

So two days later in Nuevo Laredo, feeling very Brenda Starr, I arrived at the prison and cable-locked my rented Vespa to a meter in the visitor’s lot.

The Centro de Ejecución de Sanciones, or CEDES, is a tan-painted brick complex that occupies several city blocks, completely surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. At the gate, I showed the guard my Crunch credentials and California driver’s license, and he looked at me in surprise.

“A woman.” He frowned disapprovingly but waved me through to the visitor entrance.

I was met in the lobby by a pot-bellied guard with shiny black hair who had been told to expect a visitor. He relieved me of my magazine as well as half of the cigarettes I had brought for Flores, then walked me past the assorted visitors sitting in the plastic chairs of the waiting area. When we got to his work area, behind the information counter, he dropped his bribes on the desk.

Beside the office, near the entry to the prisoner area, stood the familiar frame of a low-res security scanner, the same model you see at convenience stores and nursery schools. I started to step in, but he shook his head.

“It’s broken,” he said. “I’ll need you to raise your arms above your head.”

“The lights are on,” I observed. “It looks okay.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” he replied with a shrug. “We can call this off if you prefer.”

I raised my arms and tried to think of Nellie Bly.

The frisking was thorough but inefficient. His breath reeked of cigars, fish tacos, and old cavities, and I squinted and looked away. I had imagined something like this, a show of power combined with cheap sexual bullying, but it was somehow worse when done in full view of the visitor’s area. A small, gray-haired woman with a leathery brown face and thin mustache observed the entire search, her gleaming black eyes watching without expression. I was glad to have an ally, if that’s what she was, but something unreadable in the depths of those dark eyes made me shiver.

This drew an appreciative chuckle from the guard.

“It would be better if this were done by a female guard in a private room,” he said, almost sympathetically. “But some of the guards were given the afternoon off. You understand how it is.”

When he was satisfied that I had no drugs or weapons–even extremely tiny ones–he handed me a pamphlet about how to survive my visit. Then, before I could open it, he led me through a portal of sliding steel bars that locked us in with a heavy click.

For a few minutes I chugged busily along behind him, clutching his pamphlet, my tablet, and the remaining carton of cigarettes, on some not-quite-sensible Kate Spade pumps I’d bought that morning because they matched the Vespa. Eventually he deposited me in a fluorescently-lit cinderblock room that someone had decorated with dirty linoleum, chipped Formica, and layers of green paint. I settled into a sticky plastic chair and switched on my tablet. For better or worse I had managed to get in. Now the problem was to find a story.

Through a thick plexiglass partition I watched a metal door swing open in an adjacent room. A guard escorted a small, sweating man through the doorway to a seat behind the plexiglass. Except for the fluorescent sheen and the dark circles, he looked just like his newspaper photos. I took a deep breath of the stale air and tried to smile.

“I didn’t mean to kill her,” Carlos said through the partition, before the guard had even gotten out the door. “I’m not a killer.”

I nodded to show that I believed him.

“Sometimes I drink too much,” he said.

I nodded again.

“And I was tired.”

He looked tired sitting there, too, like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Tired and scared, I realized. I had been worried about getting him to talk, but he was so glad to have company that he chattered non-stop until our half hour was up. I needn’t have bothered to bring the cigarettes.

Orphaned by a factory fire at age ten, Flores had grown up in foster homes and institutions. Soon after high school, he escaped the factories of Juarez by following a girlfriend to Nuevo Laredo, where he’d been working in factories ever since. Over the years he’d done a little jail time for the kinds of things people do when they drink too much–writing bad checks, playing loud music, resisting arrest. But he didn’t strike me as a killer, or even an angry drunk. Just a stereotype.

He had a girlfriend who sounded like another kind of stereotype.

“Her name is Maria,” he told me. “She’s the only good thing that ever happened to me.” Maria had been with him for years, putting up with his occasional gambling, sporadic infidelity, and steady drinking. In his eyes, this made her a saint.

“I’ve had no way to reach her since I was arrested,” he said. “She works in the fields, sometimes for weeks at a time. I never know when she will be at home. If you can find her, tell her that I love her, and I’m sorry. Tell her I’m not a killer.” He looked earnestly at me. “Can you remember all that?”

I made a note in my pad, more for his benefit than for mine. “Where would I find her?”

“If she’s not at my trailer, then I don’t know,” he replied miserably. “She’s a beewalker, and she’s usually working at one of the ranches. But if you see her, please tell her.”

In Carlos Flores’s mind, his entire life had been a series of lousy deals, and the accidental death of Esperanza Delgado was just the latest bum draw. Something unlucky had happened to him. It could’ve happened to anybody. He clearly felt bad for the girl and her family, but you could see that he knew his life would never be the same. His fear of what lay ahead left little room for any other thought.

We were running out of time, and I still didn’t have what anyone would call a real story. I used my tablet to snap a few pictures of the perspiring man behind the safety glass, and asked him about the trial. What did he think of the public defender who had been assigned to his case?

“He seems like a good man,” Flores said, as if trying to convince himself. “But he doesn’t have a plan, and I don’t think he can help me. I don’t think anyone can.”

“It looks bad for you,” I agreed. “You destroyed the property of one of the world’s most powerful men. He can’t let you get away with it. He, or the Consortium, will have to make an example of you.”

Carlos nodded. “I know. I’m an idiot. I wish I had never shot those cows.”

But as he said it, something unexpected happened. It was quick but unmistakable. For the briefest fraction of a second, despite all his remorse and fear, Carlos Flores couldn’t hold back a smile.

I made a note.


There are now almost a dozen herds of flying cattle in the world. The herd in this case–or the murder weapon, if you’re the prosecuting attorney–belonged to Big Bill Benjamin. A Wall Street Journal profile of Big Bill last year described him as (in this order) All-American wide receiver at Baylor, youngest CEO of a publicly-held energy company, and “spiritual leader of the new-energy brat pack known as the Consortium.”

The Consortium, of course, is the investment group that revolutionized energy and transportation with the development of the powerful, expensive new woven-carbon mesh fuels. Mesh is to gas, the ads say, as gas is to dinosaurs. The Consortium’s mega-rich members have since become famous for their flamboyant displays of wealth. Prominent among these was the sinking of millions of dollars of their own personal money into the development of flying cows–because, and here I’m quoting the Journal again, “we could.”

Although the Consortium is headquartered in Dallas, the actual genetic and surgical work of creating the flying bovines was done at a Consortium lab near Nuevo Laredo. You might expect advanced biomedical experiments to be done at an American university, but in Mexico there are fewer animal rights activists, and fewer obstacles to things like vivisection and unregistered genetic modifications.

I didn’t really expect to get any quotes from Benjamin on that subject, or any other, but I wanted to at least say in the article that he declined to comment. To do that, of course, you have to call and ask. So I did. And to my surprise, after an hour’s work I found myself talking to his secretary.

In the monitor she looked expensively dressed and perfectly groomed, in a very Southern and professional way, and I wished I had spent some time spiffing up before the call. I explained that I was in town to cover the trial, and held my old Crunch credentials up to the screen. She peered at the badge as I smiled and tried to look like my photo.

“Isn’t Crunch a rock-and-roll magazine?”

I nodded. “Yes, they are. I mean, we are. I mean, yes, it is.”

“Then why does your little card-thing say ‘Fashion Editor’? Do they have a fashion department?”

I hadn’t used the badge since I actually worked at Crunch, so I’d forgotten about that little bit of cleverness.

“Oh, that.” I tucked the badge back in my purse. “It’s just a title they gave me, sort of an inside joke. It doesn’t mean anything.”

She looked doubtful.

“Actually,” I volunteered, “years ago we had a very popular sports editor who mostly wrote about politics. It’s only a–”

“Are you here to write about politics?”

I laughed at the idea before I could stop myself. “No, ma’am. I’m really not a political person. At all. I’m just here to cover the trial.”

She started to give me a well-practiced brush-off, but a voice interrupted her and she looked off-screen. I heard a man speaking to her, his voice too low for me to make out the words.

“Seriously?” she said. The man said something I couldn’t decipher.

She frowned and said, “But she’s not even a real–“, and the male voice cut her off again. She shrugged and turned back to smile professionally at me through the monitor.

Big Bill would agree to an interview, she told me, on one condition. I must meet him at his ranch, south of Nuevo Laredo, and join him for an early evening ride with his herd. Before she could change her mind, I accepted her offer, signed off the call, and hopped on the Vespa to find a decent pair of cowboy boots.

The heat of the day was breaking when I arrived at the ranch. The secretary–just as chic, seamless, and intimidating in person as she had been on the monitor–met me out front. We walked around the large ranch house and past some low outbuildings to a fenced-in acre of packed dirt. As we rounded the corner of a dusty aluminum tack shed, I saw a sleek red turbo air skiff parked next to a mesh pump. The little skyboat looked too trim to carry enough gasoline to fly for more than a few minutes, but could probably zip around for hours on the much more highly-processed mesh fuel. I mentally estimated how much it would cost to fly a craft like that, in paychecks per hour, and tried to imagine being wealthy enough to use it for herding cows. As a hobby. And wondered why anyone would even want to.

Then I saw them for the first time. A few dozen of them stood in the corral, the animals that The New Yorker once called “the Frankenholsteins.” Of course, real Holsteins are spotted black and white, and some of these were, too. And I must say, there’s something funny and very friendly about cows with spotted wings. But most of these creatures were just cows of the plain brown variety. With wings. Huge, colossal, muscular wings that arched and twitched in anticipation of flight as the beasts paced restlessly around the yard making, you know, cow noises.

A hundred questions occurred to me at once. The one that popped out was the most obvious: “Why don’t they fly away?”

My escort shrugged without slowing down. “We think it’s a herd instinct. Or maybe it just doesn’t occur to them.”

Big Bill Benjamin stowed a cooler on the air skiff and turned to walk toward us as we approached. He as large as his name suggested, with big shoulders and a strong handshake. He appraised me from head to boots with the quick glance of an auctioneer and advised me to “just try to stay in the boat until we can get this show off the ground.” I looked for reassurance at the secretary, who nodded and made a dismissive gesture, shooing me toward a leather seat at the aft end of the skyboat. She walked away as I climbed aboard.

It took him a lot of shouting and running around the yard, plus some loud blasts from an air horn, to get the first animal into the air. The next few were easier to convince. Presently the entire herd was aloft, and Big Bill leaped into the idling skiff. He goosed the throttle, and with a sexy turbine roar we went up to meet them.

The herd slowly climbed to cruising altitude, and Bill gradually adjusted their course until the late-afternoon sun settled on our right. He guided his little flock with a lot of nerve-wracking skiff maneuvers, an occasional horn blast, and a steady stream of unembarrassed cursing. As pep talks go, I did not find it particularly elevating, but it seemed to have an uplifting effect on the cows.

Most of them seemed to struggle at flying, fighting for altitude like big-footed puppies trying to lunge out of a bathtub. But a few seemed to genuinely enjoy it. My eyes were drawn to one large black bull, its massive wings rising powerfully from its rippling back, that quickly established a dominant position at the front of the herd. It flew more easily and masterfully than the others, and was even able to coast a little from time to time.

“That’s Goliath. Isn’t he beautiful?”

Big Bill reached into the cooler, handed me a sweating bottle of Michelob, and started explaining why we were herding cattle through the Mexican sky in a flying boat.

“You have to understand what these things are, what they mean,” he said, taking a long pull on the beer.

“I always wanted to be a cowboy and go on one of the great cattle drives, but I was born in the wrong century. There are too many fences now, and packs of modified dogs guarding the border. You can’t herd cattle over the land for any distance. And if you could, you wouldn’t find any water.

“But one day, driving past the border fence, I had a crazy idea about cows that could jump over it. I found a few investors, and we hired some engineers and microscope jockeys to look into it. It took five years, and cost more than any of us will admit, but we pulled it off. We broke the goddamn laws of nature, bent her to our will, and created something new.”

He gestured at the herd with his beer bottle. “Look at those beauties. I can’t believe people make fun of them, or would ever want to shoot one. I know they’re ridiculous–maybe even ugly–but they’re ugly and ridiculous in a big, beautiful, badass way. They’re like Mount Rushmore or the Hoover Dam. The fact of their existence says that anything is possible–that a man can set his eyes on a goal, no matter how insane, and make it happen. Force it to happen. That’s the attitude that made America great–the attitude of explorers and cowboys, Rockefellers and Fords. It says that we will not only survive, but we will forge our own destiny.

“I built flying cows, damn it, the biggest living things in the air. I own them, and they serve me. They represent the triumph of the human will.”

He tossed his empty bottle over the side and reached into the cooler with a look in my direction.

“No, thanks, I’m fine,” I told him, showing him my half-full bottle, but he handed me another anyway. I stowed it in an unoccupied beverage holder in the arm of the plush leather seat.

An air skiff is usually a dirty, stripped-down, casual affair, more or less like an anorexic hovercraft or a Florida swamp boat with multiple downward-facing widemouth turbines. There’s a good chance of the boat tipping over and flying directly into the ground, and an equal chance of a passenger getting sucked into a turbine and, well, mistified. It’s the most dangerous and uncomfortable form of transportation in the world, with the possible exception of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel of dynamite. But Big Bill’s cherry red air skiff was in a class of its own, as if a hot little speedboat got drunk one night at an Air Force party, and nine months later, out popped this beautiful skyboat–fast, curvy, and hopelessly addicted to jet-quality carbon mesh.

Impatient with the plodding herd, he dropped her down to the cracked desert floor for a little exercise. We skimmed across the flats, racing past long evening shadows dotted here and there with startled ground squirrels. A few times the boat clipped the top of a tall cactus, and the wet smell of bruised succulent mingled briefly with the powdery incense of desert sage. We discovered an arroyo winding across the desert floor, and then nothing would do but to fly along its rambling path playing Star Wars, several times nearly hitting a rock wall. Bill, obviously enjoying himself, shared his personal observation that flying close to the ground provides a more visceral sense of speed. I wholeheartedly agreed, and drank the second beer to relax my viscera.

As I finished it, we neared a small settlement outside any obvious reach of municipal power, sewer, or police protection. It was an impromptu slum of plywood and corrugated metal, vaguely reminiscent of the decor of big-chain Mexican restaurants in the States. Big Bill swooped down so low that he almost grazed a tin roof, and an old man ran out from under it and glared up into our exhaust. I waved at him over the back of the boat as Bill started speaking again.

“We really did break the laws of nature, you know. Those babies were a mess to engineer, and they’re even more of a mess to maintain. Flying takes a lot more energy than walking, so you can’t just feed ’em grass. You have to feed ’em oats, alfalfa, and clover. Craploads of clover. And clover won’t grow without bees to pollinate it, so we have to bring in beewalkers.

“On top of that, clover is a legume, like beans, so it gives the cows gas. Gas! The damn things fart like cheerleaders, all night and day. If you give ’em too much clover, too rich of a mix, they get bloated–they literally fill up with gas and get round as a basketball. When that happens, you have to poke ’em to let the air out before their guts burst and they bleed to death. We lost a few before we figured it out.”

He smiled sideways at me as he finished his bottle. The look conveyed a real pride in his accomplishment, a winking appreciation of his earthy humor, and, I realized, a powerful affection for his muscular 2,000-pound flying lab rats.

I was feeling very mellow from a combination of the beers, the stories, the leather cushions, and the surprising beauty of a herd of cows flying in silhouette across a sinking red sun. It must be a principle of human nature that from a high enough altitude everything looks all right. I grabbed my pad to snap a few photos and made a note for the article: “One thing becomes very clear when you’re sailing over the Mexican desert in a yar little skyboat, drinking beers with a Texas billionaire. Flying cows are awesome. Nobody should shoot these things. People should worship them.” I tossed my empty brown beer bottle over the side and smiled at Big Bill.

He squinted into the setting sun and pointed at the herd. “Those cows are my babies. You understand?”

I nodded encouragingly and he continued, his voice getting lower, so I had to lean forward to hear him.

“Let me share something with you, honey.” He put his hand on my knee and I nodded again to show that he had my complete attention.

“Nobody crosses the Consortium.”

He gave my knee a little squeeze.

“Nobody crosses Big Bill Benjamin.”

He gave the knee a shake and showed me his strong white teeth. His voice was sharp and intimate, like a blade against a throat.

“And no pissant little Mexican factory drone is going to kill my cow and get away with it.”

He released his grip on me and leaned broadly back into the pilot’s seat.

“Oh,” I said. I brushed hair out of my eyes and blinked into the dry wind. Over the port bow I watched the cows struggling slowly across the sky, climbing and falling in the desert sunset. A series of black dots dropped away beneath one as it labored, its silhouette legs kicking helplessly at the air. I made another note: “Tonight I saw Mount Rushmore take a dump.”

Back at the motel that night, standing for a long time in a steaming hot shower, I noticed I was humming a folk song I had learned as a child. “Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing–onward, the sailors cry. Carry the lad who’s born to be king, over the sea to Skye.”

The Skye Boat Song, as it’s known, was inspired by a Scottish revolt against British rule, centuries ago. When I was a child, I loved that song, and because it was so pretty I was sad to learn that the revolt had failed.


The Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo sits just across the border from Laredo, Texas. Their combined metropolitan area is home to three-quarters of a million souls. The once-proud Rio Grande flows through it, reduced to a weak trickle after running a gauntlet of dams, canals, reservoirs, algae farms, and frack sites from Colorado to Texas. The local economy is fed by the maquiladoras–factories in a duty-free zone that use Mexican labor to assemble American products without paying import or export taxes. There, as along most of the border, a big slice of everything good ends up belonging to American corporations, or Los Zetas, or both. Life is not especially easy for the people of Nuevo Laredo.

But I’ll say this for them: they know how to put on a show, and they outdid themselves at the trial.

It began with a series of skirmishes over whether Carlos could get a fair trial in Nuevo Laredo at all. Then there was a prolonged bout of jury selection. That was followed by two judges recusing themselves, citing vague concerns about health and family. All of that just to get a court, judge, and jury. When we finally heard the opening arguments, they were almost anti-climactic.

It was obvious from the start that the prosecution had the advantage. There was no question that Carlos had shot the cow–he apologized for it to anyone who would listen–and everyone agreed that Esperanza had been crushed to death when the cow landed on her. This much could have been established in the first hour of the trial, but the press was in the gallery and careers were being made, so it took most of three days and required five expert witnesses.

In case the jury didn’t understand the law, we heard testimony on the legal definition of robo de ganado (cattle-rustling, a felony), and were instructed that if someone is killed in the commission of a felony (such as robo de ganado, we were reminded) the law calls it felony murder.

And to keep things from getting too clinical, we were shown photos of the beautiful little girl, Esperanza, and heard tearful testimony from her parents, her babysitter, and her teacher at Saint Ursula Academy. We even heard from the priest who had baptized her, listened to her confessions, and been preparing her for her first Holy Communion. I have to admit that it was moving, and I felt terrible for the family. But it merely charged up the jury without having any bearing at all on Carlos’s guilt or innocence. Why didn’t someone object?

It was no secret that, before the trial began, there had been a bitter struggle at the Tamaulipas state public defender’s office over who would defend Carlos. The loser, Carlos’s attorney, was a thin, nervous young man with a small chin and large nose in an oversized polyester-blend suit. During all this testimony he made careful notes, but after each witness he declined to ask any questions. I began to wonder if he had any strategy at all.

On the fourth day of the trial, the prosecution was wrapping things up. As the final condition of the case for felony murder, it was necessary to prove that the girl’s death was a foreseeable consequence of the alleged cattle-rustling. For this, the prosecution produced a university physics professor who testified about the mass of the cow and the force with which it had fallen on the girl–in foot-pounds, kilojoules, and patronizing metaphors.

When the prosecutor had finished with the physicist, Carlos’s attorney slowly rose and cleared his throat.

“Your honor, I would like to question this witness.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said the judge. “Please proceed.”

In a nervous voice, the thin public defender began asking simple, almost random questions about the effect of the wind, the drag created by the cow’s wings, and so on. Then he asked, “And how did you calculate the speed of the cow’s descent?”

“Well,” the physics professor explained, “the animals are worth a lot of money–several hundred thousand U.S. dollars apiece. So each cow has a tracking device embedded in its neck that transmits very precise location data. That’s how I know.”

“Precise data?”

“Yes, very precise.” The professor nodded.

“You can tell how fast the cow was going, and how high it was flying?”

The witness looked annoyed. “Mmm, yes, that’s what I said. My calculation of force was based on the recorded airspeed of 16 knots and an altitude of 100 meters.”

“One hundred meters,” repeated the defense attorney, like an idiot. “300 feet.”

“Yes. It’s beyond question. The devices are completely reliable, and I tested this one myself. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind.”

The defense attorney was looking a little shiny, and I realized he was sweating in that baggy suit. He closed his eyes and took a breath, as if in prayer. Then he turned to the judge and made his play.

“May it please the court, based on this testimony I would like to move for an immediate dismissal of all charges against my client.”

He paused to give people time to gasp–to his credit, a few actually did–before he continued.

“Your honor, the Mexican air authority has very clear regulations on the altitude of aircraft in flight. I quote: ‘Except when necessary for takeoff and landing, no person may operate an aircraft over any congested area at an altitude of less than 300 meters above the nearest vertical obstacle, or closer than 200 meters to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.’

“Since the cattle and Señor Benjamin’s skyboat were flying too low, and too close to buildings and people, the cows and driver were trespassing and posed a clear danger. It is no different than the case of someone driving cattle right through the trailer park. Señor Flores is not guilty of robo de ganado or any other crime. He was acting in self-defense.”

As his speech went on, the young lawyer warmed to his topic and even waved his arm a few times for emphasis.

“Furthermore, the danger of illegally flying so close was more foreseeable than the danger of shooting warning shots into the sky in self-defense. Thus the legal responsibility for the little girl’s death falls on the driver, Señor Bill Benjamin.”

“And so, your honor, I ask that you dismiss all charges against my client and order the arrest of Señor Benjamin on charges of criminal trespass, reckless endangerment, violation of civil airspace–”

He took a breath and turned to face the jury.

“–and felony murder.”

I have to admit I was impressed. For a moment the room was completely silent. Then someone in the gallery gave a low whistle, and near the back of the room an elderly woman with a small chin and prominent nose applauded for a few seconds, to the obvious mortification of the public defender. This caused the Fox cameraman sitting next to me to start snickering, and it took a couple of hard jabs with my elbow to shut him up. The judge’s eyes closed for a long moment as if in pain, and people started murmuring. The gavel banged down a few times, and the judge leaned forward to speak into his microphone in a low, sober tone.

“Bailiff, return the prisoner to holding. Lawyers, I will see you in my chambers. We’ll need to talk about this.

“That’s all for today, good people. The court is adjourned until ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”

He banged the gavel again, and then it was hard to see or hear over the excited crowd. Everyone was talking and moving in all directions at once. I caught glimpses of the sweating, smiling public defender shaking hands, and the uniformed officers escorting a dazed Carlos from the room in handcuffs. He blinked at the locals who reached out to touch him as he passed.

I’m not the largest or pushiest person I know. By the time I struggled out into the bright Mexican afternoon, other reporters had already picked over the crowd. All the experts, from ballistics to babysitting, had cameras and microphones in their faces, leaving no obvious players for me to interview. Journalism is a tough racket, and there’s no room for the slow. You always have to plan two moves ahead, and if you’re snoozing, you’re losing.

I walked away from the crowd, out to the farthest corner of the parking lot, and leaned against a rusted powder blue Ford pickup I had spotted on the way in.


I didn’t have to wait long until she appeared, a small woman hiding in a big hat and sunglasses. She was younger than I had anticipated, and prettier. I showed her my Crunch press card.

“Hello, Maria,” I said in Spanish. “I have a message from Carlos. Do you have some time to talk?”

Her shoulders slumped, confirming my guess that she had been hoping to avoid reporters. She sighed, then pressed her lips together and nodded. “But we have to go see my babies,” she said. “They’ve been working all day without me.”

We loaded the Vespa onto the back of the Ford and headed away from the crowded courthouse square.

Our first stop was the trailer she sometimes shared with Carlos. It looked a lot like any trailer from back home in the States–shag carpet, faux paneling, printed photos of Maria’s family, a couch, a La-Z-Boy, a big Sony entertainer. An avocado Frigidaire contained a Tupperware full of mold, some Heinz ketchup, and eleven bottles of Bud. I was debating the ethics of snapping some pictures when Maria reappeared, transformed into a border-town cliché–a yellow Disney princess t-shirt, faded Levi’s cutoffs, and Nikes. The hat was gone and she had tied her black hair with a well-worn yellow bandanna, Rosie-the-Riveter style.

She was working that week at one of the Consortium ranches in the foothills south of town, near the Benjamin ranch. Most of the 20-minute drive passed in dusty, bumpy silence. We left the truck parked under an olive tree and started across a surprisingly green field.

“It’s irrigated,” she explained, and pointed to an underfed trickle of a stream, not far away. “Diverted from the Rio Grande.”

To get her talking, I asked about her work, trying to convince her that Crunch readers would be very interested in bees. I couldn’t tell if she believed me, but it was enough to get her started.

“I knew Carlos would not support us,” she told me, “so I had to find work. I had three choices: the maquiladoras, the Zetas, or beewalking.”

She pulled up the back of her t-shirt to show me a tattoo on the small of her back–a smiling female honeybee with big eyes, delicate wings, an improbable bosom, and a pert stinger that pointed suggestively down into Maria’s shorts. For the first time, it struck me as odd that people still picture bees with wings.

“That’s how they looked before the hive death, before jimo bees were invented,” she went on. She spoke a mixture of Spanish and English. In her accent the familiar term “jimo bee”, coined by Japanese marketing execs to make the bees seem cute and non-threatening, came out as “hemo bee”.

“That was when bees could still sting. And fly. Their wings made a buzzing sound.” As if I was too young to remember, she recited the familiar story of how global hive-death had led to the development of GMO bees, the first genetically-modified insects created for non-military use.

“It was necessary to make them flightless to stop the spread of disease,” she said, reciting a wistful catechism of the beewalker collective, “and to reassure the public that they are harmless.”

We were walking through a green pasture transplanted into the Mexican desert from the American Midwest. Fields of grass and clover, kept short by grazing cattle, were shaded by occasional olive and oak trees. The pastoral scene looked out of place against the distant desert foothills. I tried to imagine how much water it must take to keep this area green. On a nearby hillside, a few winged cattle stood munching on the scenery, creating a surreal, mythical atmosphere.

I was about to ask her where the bees were working when I became aware of subtle motion in the grass all around us. Maria laughed musically at my startled reaction, and smiled for the first time.

“I wondered when you would notice. Don’t be afraid, they’re harmless. They can’t sting, and they can’t fly or even make a sound. All they do is work and dance.”

She opened her hip pouch to show me her beewalker kit–five little bottles of scent in a small box. “Each smell has a different meaning to the bees,” she told me. “I use the scents to tell them where to work, where to nest, and what places to avoid. I can wake them up and put them to sleep with smells. They’re my babies, my little hard workers.”

She reached down into the grass and picked one up for my inspection. It didn’t look like the cute pictures of jimo bees that had been marketed to the American public, or the winking, buxom bee tattooed on Maria’s backside. It looked more like a large brown ant with big eyes and stripes of yellow fuzz. Reluctantly, I let her drop one onto my forearm.

The sensation was like an electric shock. By reflex I jerked and tried to shake it off of my arm. But it had an intense grip, and I couldn’t dislodge it. Maria laughed again and touched my shoulder reassuringly.

“It’s okay,” she said, “she won’t hurt you. She just has a strong grip, that’s all. She’s very strong from walking up and down blades of grass all day.” Maria gently plucked the bee from my outstretched arm and, with practiced ease, deposited it gently back on the ground. We resumed walking.

“Me and my babies, we spend a few days on each of the ranches around here in rotation. Sometimes I stay with them all night, and they keep me warm with their dancing. But usually I find them a nest and rub the night signal on it.” She opened one of the scent bottles and held it up for me to smell.


She nodded, smiling, and used a little swab to dab the scent among some rocks on the ground, being careful not to get any of the scent on herself. Looking closer, I could see a hole among the rocks, a sort of miniature cave formed by a crack in the dry earth.

“When they smell the cinnamon, they know to stop working and go inside for the night. They crawl in and start dancing to stay warm. They dance all night in shifts, and in the morning I come back and put them to work. After a few days I load them into a carrier and take them to another field.”

Most of the things she told me about the jimo bees are common knowledge. They pollinate fields on foot, covering remarkable distances during the day. By dancing all night they can survive surprisingly low temperatures. And they truly can’t sting anymore–I asked twice to be sure. Maria seemed defensive about it.

“It’s better this way,” she reasoned. “Stinging is stupid. Most bees, when they sting something, it tears out their guts and they die. It’s a sacrifice they make to defend the hive. But I don’t want my babies to die that way. Really, the jimo bees are better off without stingers.”

As she talked, the drifting scent of cinnamon began to create motion in the pasture. The grass seemed to ripple and shimmer, as if I could see through it to catch glimpses of another world below, an undercurrent beneath the scenery, in which something very large was moving slowly toward us. It was the bees, walking just below the grass.

Maria stood near the cinnamon-scented entrance to her improvised bee motel, humming a little tune and smiling. She put away the cinnamon and carefully dabbed one of the other scents around her eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. “They know my smell, too,” she told me. “You’ll see. They’ll say goodnight to me before they climb into the nest.”

And as I watched for the next few minutes, the bees flowed in from the pasture and gathered around her sneakers. They gradually climbed up her bare legs, past her shorts, up onto her Disney t-shirt, and soon completely covered her body, leaving parts of her face uncovered. The sight was eerie and alien, and I felt uncomfortable witnessing something so intensely intimate and private.

As more and more bees crawled up onto Maria’s body, I stepped farther back, until I was standing at a distance and Maria was just a tall hill of shimmering yellow and brown, rising out of a blanket of bees in a field of grass and clover. Only her eyes, and a few strands of black hair, were visible within the tower of moving bees. She blinked at me from within all that silent motion. I briefly wondered if she needed help, but she seemed to be smiling and her dark, gleaming eyes looked happy and strong. I made a note: “I am looking into the eyes of Mother Nature. Give or take.” I raised the tablet to snap a picture.

“Say queso,” I called to her, and her right arm reached slowly up to wave. I took a picture, and another, and another. Then the bees began to flow down her body and past her, toward the cinnamon smell, and pretty soon they had all left Maria and entered their little cave for the night. Presumably they were dancing in the darkness there, moved by some music I would never be able to hear.

With the bees put to bed, Maria drove me back to Nuevo Laredo, telling me stories about her childhood and her time at beewalker school. We arrived at my motel and unloaded my little scooter from the truck. As she climbed back up into the driver’s seat, I thanked her for an amazing experience. I had almost forgotten about the murder trial.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Wait! We had a deal,” she said. “Tell me about Carlos. How did he look?”

“What do you mean? You saw him in the courtroom today.”

“Not really. How does he look up close?”

“Well, he looks a little rough,” I told her. “He’s a celebrity, for now, and he worries that it might make him a target. I don’t think he’s sleeping well.”

“He should have thought of that before he got drunk and started shooting things.” She frowned as if she regretted saying it. “The trial went better today, don’t you think?”

“Better, yes. It was hopeful–more so than yesterday. At least his lawyer finally came up with an argument. But Carlos has made some very powerful enemies. The Consortium can’t afford to let people go shooting their herds out of the sky.”

She nodded. “You said he gave you a message for me. What is it?”

“He said he loves you, Maria, and that he’s sorry.”

She digested this. “That’s all?”

I shrugged. “He said he’s not a killer.” I managed to say it without thinking about little Esperanza.

“It’s a lie,” she said to the steering wheel, shifting the truck into gear. “What about me? He’s killing me.” Her brow wrinkled, and then her whole face, and then she was driving away before I could tell that she was crying.


At the courthouse the next morning, the pervading sense of theatre was gone, replaced by a grim, no-nonsense atmosphere. People leaned forward in their seats and didn’t talk much. I sat near the front of the room with some other journalists, using the opportunity to do a little networking.

I had heard that Bill Benjamin might make an appearance, and at the last minute he strolled in wearing a shiny, tailored gray suit and a bolo tie with a huge turquoise slide. He removed his white Stetson as he took a prominent seat near a back corner of the gallery, easily visible to everyone in the room. He actively looked around, smiling and nodding at people, but somehow managed to avoid eye contact with me.

I turned and smiled at Maria, sitting in the other corner. She had abandoned the hat and sunglasses, and her black hair was neatly tied in a bun. She had dressed attractively in a quiet blue skirt and white blouse, looking like a professional woman, not a field worker. Her worried dark eyes smiled back at me anxiously.

The first order of business was the defense attorney’s motion to dismiss. In carefully-chosen words, glancing frequently in the direction of Bill Benjamin, the judge reaffirmed that the shooting was the most proximate and foreseeable cause of the girl’s death, and therefore liable for criminal prosecution. Thus the motion was denied, and the trial would proceed. The prosecutor nodded as the judge made each point, and the defense attorney shook his head slowly but didn’t make any notes.

Next the physics professor was recalled to the stand. Under careful questioning by the prosecutor, he explained that he had reconsidered his testimony on the altitude of the cattle and the driver. Through a math error, he had mistaken the ground elevation of 100 meters above sea level for the altitude of the cattle above the ground. But in fact, he said, the cows were actually flying over 300 meters in the air.

There were murmurs in the gallery, and I heard whispers in the reporter’s section as we all made notes on our tablets. The defense attorney rose reluctantly to his feet, shaking his head.

“Apparently Señor Flores is a much better shot than we gave him credit for,” he said. “But please, Professor, can you explain to us how it is possible to confuse the ground elevation with the altitude of a flying cow?”

“It involves some sophisticated mathematics,” replied the physicist. “It would be hard to explain to a lay person.”

“I see. Then would it be possible to show us the figures from the tracking device?”

The professor cast a quick glance to the back of the room, then cleared his throat. “No, I’m afraid that would be impossible. The records were destroyed by a computer error.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. How did it happen?”

“It was an accident. It would be, mmm, hard to explain to a non-professional.”

The defense attorney aimed a frustrated look at the judge, who glanced again toward the back of the room before returning the attorney’s glare with a mild, impassive gaze. The attorney spread his hands, shrugged sadly, and touched Carlos apologetically on the shoulder as he returned to his chair.

And with that, really, it was all over but the part where somebody sings. After closing arguments, the jury members were ushered out to a sumptuous lunch that had been donated by an anonymous friend of the court. Then they retired to consider the merits of the case. By late afternoon, it was announced that a verdict had been reached, and the bailiffs marched us solemnly back into the courtroom to hear it.

The defendant, having been found guilty of illegal use of a firearm, destruction of property valued at almost a million Mexican pesos, and felony murder in the act of cattle-rustling, was sentenced to 30 years in prison plus restitution.

The gallery muttered and I think Maria gasped, but most people did not look surprised. The judge dismissed the jury and banged the gavel, and Carlos was led from the room blinking back tears. Maria stared at him, gray-faced, but did not try to fight through the gallery to embrace him.

A CNN stringer sitting behind me muttered, “He won’t last six months.” People around us rose to leave, and the Fox cameraman nudged me impatiently. I slowly stood up to join the crowd flowing toward the exits.

Out on the courthouse plaza, Big Bill Benjamin had actually left Goliath tethered to a hitching post, as if daring someone to rustle him. He apparently planned to fly back to his ranch on the beast’s saddled back. It was going to be quite a show, and people were gathering to study the bull from a safe distance. Word had spread that the big trial was over, and street vendors, anticipating a crowd, were arriving with beer and food. A rock band had set up some equipment on a small stage, and I wondered who was paying them. If I were good at describing things, you would hear someone tuning the bass and someone fooling around on the drums. You would see people talking in the square, admiring Goliath, waiting for the party to start. You would smell the tacos and fajitas, and the beer and cigars, and the bull.

Maria was standing at the base of the courthouse steps, hands in the pockets of her skirt. Thin-lipped and pale, she looked stricken to her soul, alone and small among the people clustering in the square. I walked up and hesitantly touched her shoulder.

“Are you okay?” I asked. I don’t care what you say, there really is such a thing as a stupid question.

“I didn’t honestly expect Carlos to go free,” she said, shaking her head. “But did you see that? They don’t even try to hide what they’re doing. Why do they have to make it so obvious?”

I shrugged as gently as I could.

“Look there.” She pointed at the Delgado girl’s parents, who were just leaving the courthouse. They were visibly upset by the sight of the huge winged animal tethered out in front, so much like the thing that had crushed their daughter.

“It’s not that they are bigger and stronger,” Maria said. “It’s not that they win every contest, and have more of everything, even while some of us truly don’t have enough.”She tugged at her neatly tied hair as she spoke, and shook it free.  Released from the tight bun, it fell loosely around her shoulders. I tried to read the flickering emotions on her face–grief and despair, I guessed, and something else, very old and dark.

“It’s that they still want more.”

Her voice was tired and flat, and I realized that she wasn’t complaining or asking me to agree. She was just explaining something, like when she explained why bees don’t have wings, or when Big Bill explained why cows can fly.

“They have to be above you, and step on you, and defecate on you,” she said. “They have to rub it in your face.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. She pulled her hands out of her pockets and impulsively stood on tiptoe to hug me, putting her arms around my neck.

“So watch this, pretty Americana,” she said in my ear. In the growing excitement of the crowd around us, no one else heard her. She backed out of the unexpected embrace and gave me a fierce, bitter smile. She was beautiful in the fading sunlight, with her nostrils flared and her black eyes gleaming under all that hair. Her fingers brushed my cheek, and moved by the gesture, my own hand went up to touch the spot.

She turned and walked directly toward the spot where Big Bill was climbing onto his surreal leather-winged steer, preparing for his grand exit.  In the long shadows of late afternoon, he might have been mounting a giant long-horned bat from hell.

Maria’s sauntering stride assumed an exaggerated athletic grace as she moved toward him, like the prowl of a mountain lioness or the rhythmic sway of a trailer-park girl on the make.

“Señor!” she shouted, waving at Big Bill. He spotted her emerging from the crowd and smiled at her wide-open sashay. She had walked her bees on his ranch any number of times, but he didn’t seem to recognize her. He leered at her like a cartoon cobra that has spotted a mouse.

“Señor!” she shouted again. She stood a few yards from him, hands in her pockets, with one hip cocked to the side. “Can I touch your bull?”

He laughed and waved her forward. “Sure,” he said loudly, grinning through those strong white teeth. “Come here and touch my bull.”

Some of the men in the crowd laughed, but the women were quiet. She walked up to the bull and began petting his head and broad neck. The bull seemed to enjoy the attention, rolling his head back and forth in appreciation, his wings twitching lightly. Maria massaged his head admiringly, gently touching his shining nostrils, stroking his long, sharp horns, rubbing the ears seductively, running her hands along the leather bridle. She looked up out of the corner of her eye to see if Big Bill was enjoying the show. Seated upon the bull’s broad back, he smiled a wolf’s toothy smile and reached down to stroke her gleaming black hair.

My hand came away from my cheek where Maria had touched it, and I was briefly distracted by a faint odor, hard to distinguish amid the smells of beer and frying food in the busy square. On the small stage, the rock band had started playing a distracting Tex-Mex rock beat, and a spiky-haired teenager was singing a little too loudly about love into a microphone. Above the music I could faintly hear some men in the crowd actively whistling and cat-calling, urging Bill on. He leaned down to say something to Maria. She shook her head and started to back away. He grabbed her hair and said something else, frowning. The bull, which had been standing peacefully and enjoying Maria’s affectionate stroking, suddenly stamped a hoof and twitched his massive head.

I touched my cheek again where she had brushed it, and smelled on my fingers a faint scent of cinnamon.

Maria slapped Big Bill’s hand and tried to pull back while dodging the long horns of the bull, which was becoming increasingly agitated. His hooves shuffled impatiently and he snorted, swinging his broad head back and forth, almost jerking the reins from Big Bill’s hand.

I remembered trying to shake the jimo bee from my forearm. They can’t fly, but their grip is very strong, like an electric shock. In my mind’s eye I could still see Maria’s hands coming out of her pockets and busily, intimately stroking the bull’s bridle, and ears, and nostrils.

Cinnamon, I remembered her explaining, is a signal to the bees. It tells them to crawl inside and dance.

From where I stood, I couldn’t see Maria’s flightless babies as they crawled from under the bridle straps, where she must have placed them, to where she had rubbed cinnamon around the bull’s ears and nostrils. But I knew. Without wanting to, I imagined how it would feel to have jimo bees on my face, crawling into my nose and ears.

The bull snorted frantically and plunged his head up and down to shake loose the bees with their electric grip. Big Bill released Maria’s hair to yank on the reins, trying vainly to control the bull. She started walking away, more slowly than she should have, her back proudly turned on the struggle behind her. I held my breath for the first few steps, wanting her safely out of reach of those long, swinging horns. She was magnificent. But she should have run.

Big Bill’s white Stetson tumbled from his head and rolled away in gusts of air beneath the beating wings. The bull started leaping up and down, landing stiff-legged, and Big Bill bounced red-faced like a rodeo cowboy with one arm flung upward and his neck jerking violently. The restless, desperate sweeps of the great leather wings created drafts that flipped Maria’s hair up around her face as she walked slowly and resolutely toward where I stood in the crowd. For a moment Goliath reared back on his hind legs behind her, bellowing and snorting, his wings arched, his cloven hooves clawing at the air for balance.

“Maria!” I shouted. She smiled crazily at me, and I saw terror and triumph in her shining black eyes. I found myself smiling back at her in awe and encouragement, for a long second. Behind her, Goliath stumbled forward to regain his balance, almost tripping. One of his horns glanced off of the pavement before swinging wildly up and making contact. Her eyes widened as it pierced her spine and burst through the front of her blouse. Her head snapped backward as the bull lifted her off the ground, then rolled forward again as he shook her off like a ragdoll. Blood erupted in a convulsive gush from her mouth, and she collapsed in a twisted heap on the ground.

The bull’s frantic agony drove him in alternation rapidly up into the air, then back to the ground, then forward to repeatedly ram his head against a granite courthouse pillar. During one of the short flights, Bill lost his grip and tumbled 20 feet to the paved surface, landing on his head and not rising. No one rushed to help him, or to aid Maria where she lay broken and still on the courthouse plaza. The band had stopped playing and joined the crowd, retreating a safe distance to escape the widening gyre of violent death.

In the relative quiet the tormented bull, having lost all sense, came down awkwardly on one wing with a sound like exploding firecrackers. Screaming, he rose to his feet and stumbled sideways at great speed, breaking the other wing against the courthouse wall. He roared and defecated, repeatedly slamming his horns into the courthouse, still unable to dislodge the bees. As he danced in pain and rage, his heavy, now-useless wings dragged repeatedly across the bodies of Bill and Maria, leaving gruesome streaks on the square.

Finally a man in uniform drew a pistol and began firing at the bull, and then another did the same, and then a third. Goliath sank to his knees, wheezing, and slowly slanted forward to collapse on the ground. When the guns were empty, the men stood at a respectful distance, reloading. Goliath’s legs kicked weakly. Terrible, quiet groans escaped his twitching nostrils. A pool of dark blood appeared beneath his massive bulk, gradually spreading on the pavement. At last he gave a soft cough, and the shattered wings stopped moving, and the light went out in his monstrous, beautiful, anything-is-possible eyes.


That’s the story.

If it were up to me, I’d stop there. I worked pretty hard on that paragraph about Goliath, and I think we could end with it. And if you’re like me, by that point you’ve had about enough fun and you’re ready for the story to be over so you can go home to San Francisco and crawl into bed for a week. But Crunch says they’ll take me back as a staff reporter if I just please give their article a proper ending. And times are hard for journalists.


By the next day, when it finally occurred to someone to have a forensic veterinarian examine the bull, the jimo bees had wandered away from the taped-off courthouse square in search of clover. Despite all the wall-to-wall coverage you saw on CNN, Fox, and AltNet, no one knew about the jimo bees or even suspected that a murder was committed–a real one this time. You can forget all that crap the pundits were spouting about spontaneous flying bovine madness. There’s no such thing as SFBM.

Speaking of the media, I’m also spectacularly unimpressed that no one went back to follow up on Carlos. A week after the trial he was found in the showers at CEDES, dead of rope poisoning. None of the factory news outlets covered it. The medical examiner ruled it a suicide, and theorized that Carlos couldn’t live with the deaths of Esperanza and Maria.

Personally, I don’t buy it. My first instinct was to blame the Zetas, but they didn’t have any reason to kill him. I’ve tried to come up with another organization that might want him dead, but what organization that would be, I really can’t say. Really. I can’t say.

So let’s just agree that if someone as talkative as Carlos didn’t leave a note, it suggests he didn’t go willingly. I hope so. I hope he gave them a good fight.

What else is there to tell?

The Diosa Del Amor put up a framed photo of Carlos Flores in the liquor store and called him a tragic victim of corporate power.

Saint Ursula put up a framed photo of Esperanza Delgado in the school lobby and called her a tragic victim of liquor.

And the Consortium put a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to announce a large new animal research facility in the Chihuahuan desert, a tribute to the memory of Big Bill Benjamin, a great man of science and a tragic victim of SFBM.

As for Maria, well, as far as I can tell no one is planning any kind of memorial for her. And that’s probably as it should be. After all, whether she intended it or not, in the end she was a killer.

But I’d like to think that maybe, for a while at least, on cold winter nights along the once-proud Rio Grande, in holes in the dirt near olive trees and lush fields of clover, she will be remembered by the jimo bees, her flightless babies, her little hard workers, as they dance in silence and wait for dawn.

Cody Watkins
Fashion Editor


Copyright 2015 A.S. Diev

A. S. Diev is a technical writer, musician, and sometime roboticist in Mountain View, CA.

by Ginger Weil    

Freshman Year

‘It’s a very strange matter, fair maiden,’ said he,      

‘I canna blaw my horn but ye call on me.      

‘But will ye go to yon greenwood side?      

If ye canna gang, I will cause you to ride.’

-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight 

My parents subscribed me to Out Magazine for my thirteenth birthday, but boycotted my eighth grade graduation because town rumor said the speaker was a magician. She was an economist with a perfectly respectable doctorate in fairy-human trade history.

They knew I liked girls, but they didn’t know I’d kissed my sister Rachael’s best friend. No one knew that, not even Rachael. And when it came to me and magic, my parents pretended not to know. They pretended so hard I ended up almost invisible.

Rachael felt bad I’d missed my own graduation. She invited me to a party she and her friends were having. One of those “don’t-tell-anyone” things that everyone knows about, a bonfire up in the woods, past the start of the Lye Brook access trail.

We hiked up before dark. My sister and her friends hoisted coolers of cheap beer over the rocks and tree roots. I carried the cardinal flints, the iron filings, and the canister of sea salt. People did still camp in the woods. But you made sure to set up camp before sundown.

The sun was low when we stopped. Slanting light painted the birches with honeyed streaks.

“Lay the circle, ‘Rene? You do it best.” Rachael was always casual. Not quite admitting I could do magic, not quite hiding from it. Besides, it gave me something to do while her friends talked about boys.

I didn’t want to talk about boys. “Shouldn’t we wait for Lucie?”

Rachael made a face. “You know how she is.”

Leaves crinkled behind me. The breeze carried the herbs and honey of Lucie’s body wash.

“I’m late again, aren’t I?” Lucie stepped past me as I laid a flint at cardinal west, steering so wide around me she hit a tree.

I mixed the iron filings and sea salt in my cupped palm. Where they touched my skin, the iron filings glowed. No one noticed.

Salt and iron blended to gray against the leafmold. I licked my thumb and spat to set the circle, then brushed my hands off over the fire.

Lucie leaned against Rachael, laughing. When Lucie turned away, Rachael threw me an apologetic look and a beer.

I couldn’t bear it. I knew I shouldn’t leave the circle. It’s one of those things mothers tell you, even mothers who hate magic as much as mine. Don’t take candy from strangers. Look both ways before crossing the street. Never listen when voices call your name from the dark, and never go in the woods alone at night.

Will o’ the wisps hung between the trees, thick as fireflies. Voices whispering in the dark didn’t fool me, but I couldn’t stay and listen to Lucie laughing. I crept behind a tree where Rachael couldn’t see, then stepped over the circle.

One of the things calling from outside the circle had Lucie’s voice. She hadn’t spoken to me in three weeks, and I missed that clear deep alto. I knew it wasn’t her, but I followed the voice anyway.

Our trees aren’t old. A hundred years ago this was pasture. Old fieldstone walls march beneath tree roots and down into streams. The darkness beneath was older than the branches that cast it. I’d only gone a few steps before shadows wove around me. I looked back and couldn’t see the firelight.

Nervous sparks jumped from my fingertips. I leaned against the scratchy bark of a pine, trying to fake calm. I popped the tab on my can because it seemed like the thing to do. Foam poured over my knuckles.

“ ‘Rene,” the voice called again. It didn’t sound so much like Lucie now, tenor more than alto. I came to my senses enough to know this was a mistake. I’d gone in to the woods alone. Maybe I wouldn’t come back, or I’d come back changed. I might go missing for seven years.

My knees locked. Not that running around will o’ the wisps was a good plan unless I wanted to wake up, at best, at the bottom of a ravine with a broken leg.

The dark pressed against me. It was almost a relief to be frightened of something beside the ache in my heart. I pulled an old silver necklace from my pocket. The metal links gleamed between my fingers.

In the dim light of old silver I could make out a shadow leaning against a tree a few feet from mine. Dark clothes shaded into dull gray bark. I heard the click of a lighter, flame and then ember lighting the edges of a face.

“You’re very young,” he said, “but then, you all look young to me now.”

I recognized him from locker room talk, something the other girls on the track team talked about while I half-listened and tried to look as if it were easy not to watch them changing. Not all Elfin Knights had started out human, but this one had. His name was Roland. He was supposed to be irresistible. Maybe it was the dim light, but he just looked shaggy and rumpled and a little sad to me.

“Lucie didn’t think I was too young.”

He stepped toward me, moldered leaves whispering beneath his feet. I flinched. He smelled like leather, cigarettes, and crumbling bark. He took the beer can from my hand, drained it, and grimaced. If I was going to want a boy, this should be the moment.

“How do you know?”

I knew.

“How do you know this Lucie doesn’t think you’re too young?” he asked again.

“She kissed me.” But she hadn’t talked to me since.

His face shifted. “She.” It was a reaction I’d gotten used to, but not one I hoped for. But then his face stilled.

“I’ve kissed a lot of girls.” He didn’t say it like he was bragging. I thought most boys would have. It was easy to forget he wasn’t exactly a boy, someone else who’d crept foolishly away from the campfire. “Some of them were definitely too young.”

Lucie was my sister’s age. Three years and eight months older than me. It hadn’t mattered to me. We’d been talking, leaning against the brick gymnasium wall behind the high school where I’d be a freshman next year. The sun was warm on my face, the brick warm against my back, and her body warm beside me. We leaned closer and closer.

Then she’d pulled away, started climbing up the brick wall, strong rock-climbing fingers gripping the ledges easily.

“She ran away, after.”

Roland lit another cigarette. “Sometimes they do that, after. I don’t know why. It doesn’t help.”

She’d dared me to follow her. Heights scared me but her laughter scared me more. And she smelled like honey, milk, and thyme. Marble cornerstones zipped the edges of the building together for the first few feet from the ground. After those first feet, smooth marble blocks gave way to thin rough lines of brick.

“I couldn’t climb up after her. I tried.”

Her hair fell in my face as she leaned over the edge. She grabbed my wrists and tugged me up. Her thumbs pressed between the bones, a sharp ache that made me want more. The skin around her eyes softened and her mouth leaned into mine.

Her lips were dry, scratchy. Her breath was hot against my teeth. I forgot I was halfway up a wall and stepped back.

“So it was a good kiss?”

I had a moment to decide if I would fall. I could have pushed back against the ground, held myself up. I could feel the magic waiting. If I’d used it, I could have kissed her again. But then she’d have known. And what if she didn’t want to kiss me, after she knew? So I let myself fall six feet to the ground. I used enough magic to keep it from hurting, that was all.

“It knocked the breath out of me.”

“Really good, or really bad, then.”

“And now she screens my calls, ignores my messages.”

She’d kissed me first. I knew about kissing. But I didn’t know what to do after. Roland couldn’t help me with that. Unless what came after was me walking with Lucie out into the middle of Bourne Brook and one of us drowning the other in the rust-clear water. Maybe we’d both drown. For a moment I wanted that. Our bodies would slide over the rocks and float face down to Benson’s Hole.

“Could be you’re too young.” Roland lit another cigarette off the end of the last one. I coughed, trying not to breathe in the reek of menthol and burning tar. “The last girl liked it better when I smoked. Then I got in the habit.”

“I’m not one of your girls.”

“That’s not up to me any more than it’s up to the mermaids. Cry seven salt tears into the ocean, get a mermaid. Be a not-even-barely legal girl alone and wanting in the woods at night, get an elfin knight.”

“I don’t want anything. I want it all to go away.” The silver chain blazed in my hand. Steam rose around my feet.

“What makes you think any of us get what we want? How old are you again?” He leaned toward me, blew smoke into my face. “I swear you get younger every year.”

Roland looked older than me. Everyone did, even Dave, and he was four months younger than me. “Fourteen. Almost.”

He ground the cigarette out beneath his heel. “Fourteen looks younger than it used to.” He reached for me. I should have run. Better to deal with the will o’ the wisps.

“Don’t run,” he said. “Please. If you run, I’ll have to chase you.” He grabbed my empty hand. “Can I help it if they always choose to run?”

Long fingers wrapped around my hand, turned my palm up. He didn’t kiss my hand. He sucked my fingers one by one, licked the little webs of skin between the fingers.

I stood there awkwardly and concentrated on not running away.

He put my hand down. “That’s really awful beer.”

“Yeah, well, that was a really gross kiss.” It might have been better if it were Lucie. Without the cigarettes or the cheap beer.

I pushed at his chest with the other hand, the one wrapped in spelled silver. “Back off.”

He stepped back. “Are you sure you don’t want me?” He looked happy. I’d always heard boys looked disappointed.

“It would be easier.”

“But no.” He took the chain out of my hand. It stopped glowing. He tucked it into my pocket, waiting for some reaction I didn’t give him. “I’ll walk you back to your fire,” he said. “There’s things in this wood that, if they chased you, it wouldn’t be your choice.”

He looped his arm through mine. After a few steps I could see the firelight again. In the moving shadows cast by maple branches and firelight, his face looked old, and lonely.

Sometimes they can cross salt lines, if they’re powerful enough. He stopped outside the circle.

He lit another cigarette. “You could come back some time,” he said. “It would be your choice.”

I stepped over the salt circle. When I turned around, I couldn’t see him. I sat down on a sawed off tree stump by the fire.

“I thought you’d wandered off,” my sister said. “If you hadn’t made it back, Mom and Dad wouldn’t have forgiven me.”

I laughed, though it wasn’t funny. “Mom and Dad would forgive you anything.”

Lucie didn’t even look at me.



Sophomore Year

‘My curse on those wha learn d thee;  

This night I weend ye’d gane wi me.’

The Elfin Knight


Rachael wanted me to be happy. If I was happy she could enjoy college and not feel guilty leaving me behind. But magic haunted my bones, and I didn’t know what happy should look like.  Drinking quieted the swirling pulse beneath my eyes, beneath my skin. If I was an angry drunk sometimes, at least plates and televisions didn’t tilt and sway when I was angry.

First day of winter break, Rachael hugged me and wrinkled her nose at the alcohol in my sweat.

“Does Mom know?”

Mom hadn’t hugged me since third grade, when I boiled a pot of water by touching it.

Lucie texted me from college, breaking nineteen months, one week, and three days of silence. “I hope U fnd some1.” I had to believe a stranger chose those words, awkward text speak an excuse for that abbreviated “fnd” that could be “found” or “find.”

Second day of winter break, Rachael stole the liquor bottles from my closet and poured them down the bathroom sink. I went to Dave’s, hoping he’d give me a drink and not make a pass. We’d been good friends in middle school. It still hurt to wonder where that had gone.

If I drank enough, sometimes the magic and I forgot each other for a little while. It didn’t always work, and it took a little more alcohol every time. Rachael wasn’t telling me anything new, tipping vodka down the sink. If I didn’t want to commit death by stupid, I’d have to figure out some other way of dealing with it. This was just till I figured out something else.

We tucked ourselves away in the old sugaring shack behind his dad’s house, playing remember when instead of truth or dare. I remembered why I liked Dave when we were both snot nosed kids who read comic books together because fantasy novels hit too close to home.

The fifth shot of raspberry vodka shut off his brain. He tried to wrap himself around me. Just holding might’ve been ok. I wanted to be held too. But his breath was hot against my neck in the cold room.

“You smell good.”

“You smell drunk,” I said, and pushed my arm between us. He slumped against me like he thought I’d change my mind if he just looked soft enough. He pissed me off, not trusting me to tell the truth.

I pushed him the way I’d pushed against the ground the day I fell off the gymnasium wall. If drinking still worked, nothing would’ve happened.

He slid away from me and smacked into the barnboard wall.

“You could have just said no thanks.” He rubbed his head.

“I said no thanks last summer. When I told you I liked Lucie.”

“You could like me too.”

My hands pressed into the rough boards as I did my best not to shake sense into him. I knew it wouldn’t work, but it was tempting.

“What is this about, Dave? I mean, really? Girls chase you.” I’d watched them do it for years, wondered on lonely nights if it was a trick I could learn. “So why chase me? Because I don’t say yes?”

“Look at you. You’re phenomenal. Who wouldn’t want you?”

Mom hadn’t hugged me in a decade. Lucie saw me maybe use magic and didn’t talk to me for a year and a half. And here was Dave, wanting everything they didn’t, and I didn’t want him.

He dragged himself up the wall, breath hissing through his teeth as he straightened. That was my fault, for thinking I was too drunk to hurt him.

Maybe I didn’t know. It felt rock solid inside me, but I’d thought I couldn’t hurt Dave too. Roland’s kiss in the woods made my skin crawl, but he was what he was: blood-stained fairy creature, not a boy at all.

“Maybe I don’t know,” I said, even though I did. And I pressed my lips to his.

Roland told me to find someone to share my secrets with. This wasn’t sharing anything. Dave’s body gave off its own heat in the small room, but I felt cold.

Dave pulled back. His hand touched my face. His fingers trembled, but unlike mine they didn’t spark.

He kissed me again. My lips sat quiet beneath his. He pulled away. “I’d rather have just kept hoping.”

“You asked.” I clenched my fists and tried not to cry.

Dave kicked over the bottle as he backed away from me. Artificial raspberry filled the air.

“Maybe you should,” he waved at the door. Tears edged his eyes.

“I guess so.” The door slammed loud behind me.

After that I didn’t drink with Dave anymore. The fun had gone out of stealing, but it wasn’t as if I could buy my own drinks. So I just took old things out of the back of Mom’s liquor cabinet.

I could try drinking more, but I’d gotten close to where drinking enough to kill the magic would kill me. I tried not sleeping. That was worse than drinking. Being tired made me angry all the time, or made it harder to ignore how angry I was. And it didn’t squash the magic at all – just took away my focus and left the magic to do what it wanted.

Christmas Eve dinner, Mom toasted Rachael’s first semester of college.

“To Rachael,” Mom and Dad chorused. They said it with so much excitement, as if they thought this was it, I’d never make it to college. Maybe they figured magic made me stupid. Never mind that I’d tutored Rachael through her last two years of history class.

I squeezed the stem of my sparkling cider glass and chorused “To Rachael” with the rest, because I was happy for her. I was, but it hurt.

Jealousy prickled under my skin, worse than lust or magic. I went cold with envy, hot with shame. And I hadn’t slept in a week. Ice coated the glass under my hand, the cider inside heated from cold fizz to rolling boil, and the bulb of the glass exploded, sending shards across the table.

No one was hurt, but dinner was ruined. Glass shards sparked like deadly garnish on the ham and potatoes. Dad let me walk away. Making me stay and clean up the mess would have meant talking about magic.

Dad turned on the oven for frozen pizza. I walked through the kitchen to my bedroom and lay facedown on my bed in the dark. Not sleeping hadn’t worked out for me. I passed out fully dressed on my bed and woke to Rachael shaking me.

The nap gave me back enough control that I didn’t throw her across the room by accident. Small mercies.

“Brown has a magic studies program now.” My shoulder pressed against her leg. She rubbed her knee, as if she wanted to rub my shoulder and didn’t quite dare. Maybe worried magic was catching, I thought, and felt guilty. Rachael wasn’t like that.

“Unh.” I wanted to lean in to her hand, but then she’d pull away and I’d feel worse. I knuckled my eyes.

“And there’s gossip on campus about teachers all over… y’know, a couple of Harvard Law Professors, a math prof at Beloit, a handful of foreign lit profs at Vassar who specialize in really foreign languages.”

She was trying to give me hope, I guess. “Mom and Dad can’t afford to send me to any of those schools. I’m not scholarship material.” Would she make me spell it out to her? My tall, thin, pretty, clear-skinned sister was a genius in the lab. The “my science fair project paid my way to college” kind of genius. Schools had bidding wars over her.

“Fine then. Not that I agree, but there’s at least one mage teaching at the community college down in Bennington.”

My jaw dropped. Mage was a dirty word in our house.

“He’s an alchemist, not a natural like you,” Rachael said.

In high school, Rachael was a keep your head down, just-get-by kind of girl. Except in the lab. She was there for me, but conflict was not her thing. One semester of college and she defied Mom’s years of silence.

Rachael brushed my hair back. “You should visit me on campus. Maybe not this semester. Between the drinking and the exploding, you’ve dug yourself in kind of deep there.”

She turned away from whatever she saw in my face. “Dad’s worried about you,” she said to the wall.

“Mom isn’t.”

“Mom’s… high school isn’t forever, ‘Rene.”

“Easy for you to say now you’ve graduated.”

“It’s not easy.” She cut herself off. “Go back to sleep, ok? I’ll talk to Dad about you visiting.” She kissed my forehead.

Rachael’s vacation ended too soon. She hugged me goodbye outside the Albany airport security checkpoint. Mom and Dad both had to work, so Dave drove us down even though he only had a permit. We hadn’t talked since the shed, and I wasn’t looking forward to the drive back.

Rachael passed me a piece of paper. “Drinking isn’t going to work,” she said. “This guy at school gave me an herbalist’s address.” She said it too casually, so I knew the guy meant something to her.

“If I could get out of state that easy, I’d just come visit you.”

She smiled like I’d given her a present.

“Erik’s from around here. He knew someone local.” I glanced at the paper, saw an 802 number, stuffed it in my pocket.

“I gotta go,” I said, “Dave’s waiting,” but when she hugged me I didn’t pull away.

Outside, Dave leaned against his third-hand Honda, smoking a cigarette. “That’s not going to make girls want you,” I said.

“You don’t get a vote,” Dave said, and stubbed out the cigarette.

So we were talking, but it was awkward. No more nights drinking in his dad’s shed for us, staring at the ceiling and talking in soft voices about poetry, about the future.

I fingered the paper in my pocket. Dave cursed through the snarl of highway between the airport and Troy.

“Rachael thinks I should see an herbalist,” I said, once we were safely up the hill on to Route 7.

“If it means – did you see that jerk? Nice signal – if you won’t throw me into walls anymore then I’m all for it.”

“That was one time.”

“One time is all it takes, Irene. Worth trying.”

It would be gray market, of course. Herbs from over the border got sold legally and illegally. Legal you bought at the official markets, and paid three times the base cost in taxes and transfer fees. Illegal you took your chances that what you bought wasn’t fake, or swopped for something else that was real enough, but didn’t do anything you’d ever want. In between were small time dealers and alchemists, who sold some things on the books and others under the table.

Erik’s friend sold me long threads of rank-smelling herbs that steeped purple and tasted worse than burdock tea. They made my skin feel thick and spongy, like a padded envelope. Somehow, the padding held the magic in. On the downside, I ran a constant fever and couldn’t bear to touch anything. Even my fingertips were puffy. I wore soft sweatsuits to school; jeans chafed my swollen flesh raw.

Six months later the guy fell in love with some girl from Boston who called herself Lily. He sold me the rest of his supply cheap and packed himself out of state. Smuggling over the fairy line was harder in Massachusetts, more people per square foot, so I hoped he knew what he was doing. He laughed when I said something about it. “Love, y’know? Things will work out.”


Junior Year

‘Cast off, cast off, my May Colven,      

All and your silken gown,      

For it’s oer good and oer costly      

To rot in the salt sea foam.’

-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight


By July my stash was running out. The last of the drug seeped out of my pores and ate away at my skin, covering my arms in oozing raw-meat blisters. School was out, and Mom didn’t care. Folks stared at the post office though. As long as I kept the sores thickly coated with calamine, they pretended to believe me when I said I’d gotten in a bad patch of poison oak.

I fell asleep one afternoon, hoping a nap would keep me from scratching my burning skin, and woke up in a bed rimed with ice. It felt cool against my skin. The fever I’d been ignoring for six months had disappeared. Frost coated every piece of glass in the room: the inside of my window, my Tiffany knock-off bedside lamp, the row of unicorn statues my grandmother gave me when I was little. The ice gave their eyes a hard glitter, much more like real unicorns than their usual soft pink stares.

The drugs were gone. Drinking didn’t work. I started to cry. I tried to keep it quiet, but I guess I didn’t succeed. Mom opened the door. Her fingertips melted through the white lace of frost on the doorknob. The look in her eyes frightened me more than the icicles in my hair.

“Don’t you knock?” I tried to look tough while rubbing trails of mucus off my nose.

“We should upgrade the whole house to the cast iron window frames,” she said, “I’ve never heard of frost fairies doing anything like this.”

She’d broken her own rule about never mentioning magic things. But everyone knew frost fairies didn’t come out around here till after August. September, maybe, but not July.

Rachael was right: hiding was stupid. “This isn’t frost fairies, Mom.” I stood up. Ice cracked and fell from my clothes.

She stepped back. I wondered how long she’d been afraid of me. I could see it in her face, so plain it would have been rude to say more.

I grabbed a cold bottle of wine from the fridge, staring at her the whole time. She didn’t say anything to stop me. I’d left my backpack and iron screwdriver in the bedroom, so I stuck a fistful of nails from the jar by the door in my pocket.

“I’m going to the woods,” I said.

“Be back by morning,” Mom said. Mothers who cared wanted their daughters to be back by dark. But she knew what I was.

Nightfall found me leaning against the metal fence that separated scrubby woods from the interstate. Woods one way, water another, and the occasional passing headlight to reflect off the green glass of my wine bottle. Cold steel mesh guarded my back.

Mom was scared of me. I was scared to go any deeper in to the woods. I heard horns as soon as I crossed the bridge. I told myself horns were all I heard, not the baying of hounds, not the high-pitched screams of a girl out of breath and out of time. The quiet after was worse. I listened to the water and the rush of tires and tried not to think.

A cigarette lighter clicked. Most humans weren’t stupid enough to go for a smoke this close to the bubble-thin edge of fairy. Not many elfin things smoked tobacco. The toasted brown smell mixed with the yellow of settling pollen and the raw green of cut weeds. Town road crews with sickles and weed whackers cut the growth back from the highway edge every week. Fairy bramble grew fast.

“Hey,” I tried not to feel relieved.

“I told you the woods weren’t safe for you.”

A semi rigged in lights blared past, highlighting wet patches on Roland’s face and hands. He licked his mouth. He didn’t mean me to notice.

My sweating hands clenched on to the rusting fence post as I stood. Aluminum wouldn’t rust, but aluminum was only good for keeping out deer, and this fence was meant to keep out other things.

The post was almost rusted through. The town should put new ones in. But bridge and highway workers out here got hazard pay for fear of trolls and gnomes. The town put off maintenance as long as it could.

My veins itched as magic washed away the last of whatever that foul purple stuff had been. My bones burned inside my skin, like X-rays gone wrong. The mesh fence around my fingers glowed sparkler-red. Grass leaning against the fence sizzled and died. They could save money and just send me out to deal with the weeds. No one would worry if trolls ate me.

I leaned against the fence and didn’t burn.

“I’m not safe outside the woods either,” I said.

Magecraft wasn’t exactly illegal. Alchemists, sorcerers, charm workers and witches could open up legal businesses, even if zoning codes kept them off main streets and away from schools. People liked their magic with rules that could be studied, results that could be measured and tested.

Naturals were born magic, and their magic had its own variable and internal rules. For people like my mom and Lucie, that made naturals not quite human. Like changelings, or werekin.

Roland had been human once. Cold iron was no barrier to him. He wrapped his blood-streaked hands around mine. The hair on his knuckles burned where it touched the fence.

“So did you come out here because you’re ready to help me? We could claim such a territory together. A white horse for you, and a black stallion for me, and we’d ride green roads up the spine of the Green Mountains till the oak trees trembled and the women fell at our feet.”

“You want me to be a monster.”

“Call it what you want. There are worse things than either of us in these woods.” He brushed a tear off my face. I could feel the sticky track his fingers left behind.

I felt safe. Not because he wouldn’t hurt me, but because I didn’t have to worry about hurting him. Throwing him across a room, freezing his skin, sending a shard of accidental glass through his eyes. He peeled my fingers free from the fence and led me down to a rock a few feet above Benson’s Hole.

He could have pushed me in, right then. I wouldn’t have fought. The water rushed clean and swift over the reddish rocks. Instead he folded himself down to sit beside me, graceful as always. “If you ride with me, it should be honestly,” he said. “I’ve drowned five maidens in that stream.” The water was shallow, but you didn’t need a lot of water to drown someone. And Benson’s Hole was deep. I knew he’d killed girls; how could I not know? But hearing him say it was different from knowing, different even from seeing the bloodstains on his hands, his teeth. He put an arm around me and I should have pulled away but I didn’t. July nights shouldn’t be so cold.

If Rachael had been home, I wouldn’t have said it. “My Mom… the way she looked at me. I wish I never had to go home.” There are things that wait and listen for wishes in the woods. Something listened to me.

“You heard her, knight,” the thing said, and I flinched. It spoke with my voice. The accent was wrong, distorted as if it came through a microphone suspended in a well. But it was my voice.

Roland shook me. “You little fool. If you didn’t have more power than–” He turned to the thing. “She didn’t know what she said.”

“She didn’t know, didn’t know. As if that mattered.” The thing rocked toward me. With every movement side to side its arms and legs lengthened and stretched. When it stopped in front of me it took up the same space I did.

My armpits prickled with sweat.

“It’s afraid,” the thing said with my voice.

“Fetch,” I said, and shivered. It started to shiver too. Its movements matched mine.

“Changeling fetch,” Roland agreed. “A spare. The spares go a little mad if they’re not used soon enough. Like plucked fruit rotting.”

“Have I gone mad?” my voice asked. “Maybe I’m a monster. Maybe I’m not human. Maybe my mother will never know what sleeps in her bed.” The thing swayed closer and closer. It wanted a kiss. Kisses sealed so many kinds of magic. I stuck cold hands in my pockets.

My finger scratched against the rusty edges of an old nail head.

It kissed me with my own cold lips. I stabbed it with a fistful of nails, then set the nails on fire. The fetch burned like dried bramble heaped on a bonfire.

Roland stalked off. I sat there shivering. “Oh good,” I thought, “I’ve driven him away too.”

Then I didn’t think anything for a while.

Roland came back with a sweater and wrapped it around me. We sat there till false dawn. Roland smoked cigarette after cigarette and collected the butts in a pile at his feet. I stared at the water and tried to let it wash my thoughts away.

Dawn came and I snuck home. I washed the blood and ashes out of my hair in the bathroom. The sweater was expensive cashmere, with a department store label and tasteful gold-knot buttons. I’d seen it before. I tried to tell myself someone had forgotten it in the woods.

Next day’s Bennington Banner confirmed my memory. Trinity Vendeur had disappeared earlier that week. The picture in the paper showed her wearing the same sweater. I buried the sweater in the back of my closet. Maybe I would have showed it to someone, but Trinity’s body turned up the next day, down near where Bourne Brook met the Battenkill, across from the post office. I left the sweater in my closet and kept out of the woods for the rest of the summer.


Senior Year

When he had told her these fair tales,      

To love him she began,      

Because he was in human shape,      

Much like unto a man.

-The Daemon Lover


I kept my head so far down, I actually started studying. Not just doing my homework, but studying after the homework was done. Halfway through senior year, the idea that I might go to college wasn’t impossible.

I sat alone in a lunchroom corner, staring at one of those “real students tell all” college guidebooks. I’d rather have sat outside, but the January thaw was over. A foot of snow covered the picnic tables.

My cocoa went cold while I read about Williams College. Not that I could afford to go to Williams. I should be looking for a college in the desert. Somewhere far from woods, trees, rivers. I looked around, then used a guilty edge of magic to reheat my cocoa. I hid my face in the steam and ignored the cell phone buzzing in my pocket. My sister kept texting to nag me about my college applications. I’d applied to three schools, but hadn’t told her. I didn’t want to get her hopes up.

I wanted coffee, but the stuff the dining hall called coffee wasn’t drinkable. Instant cocoa was safer. I stashed the college book and dragged out my history homework. The school hired a new AP History teacher over the summer, and she insisted on teaching an elective on the ethics and politics of magic. I signed up because the teacher was gorgeous and because it made me angry how many parents tried to get her fired when news about the elective leaked. The class was actually interesting.

The girl crossing the cafeteria toward me was more than interesting. Her back was straight and her hair wasn’t perfect but it looked like it would catch my fingers.

She dropped her tray on the table in front of me with a clatter of plastic cups and cheap aluminum tableware.

I stared at her spoon to try and keep from sneaking looks at her cleavage. There was this movement a couple years back to “arm” school students by giving us all iron and silver tableware, but that foundered when the school accountants started to price out four hundred silver table knives and the school lunchroom pointed out that iron forks would have to be washed by hand and oiled. Then the school attorney pointed out it was illegal to discriminate against werekin and changelings. Not that our school officially has either enrolled, since that info doesn’t get to be public record until you turn eighteen.

We still have aluminum cutlery and I stopped worrying about whether anyone would notice if I brought my own forks to school. I’m not allergic to iron or silver, but I didn’t need to be known as the girl with the glowing soup spoons.

“I heard you’re the person to ask for help with history,” she said.

I stabbed at a grape on my tray and watched it skittle away across the table like the Graeae’s lost eyeball. Late nights when I was trying not to drink, I watched a lot of old Ray Harryhausen animation.

“Heard from who?” I raised both eyebrows because I couldn’t raise just one.

She grinned. “I asked Mrs. S. She told me your essays were, what was it? Several standard deviations above the norm?”

Mrs. S. taught history but loved statistics.

“Busted, hunh?”

“And she said.”


“She said to tell you that if you wrote my essays for me the way you wrote that last one of your sister’s, she’d flunk us both.”

“What’s your name?” I asked, and she knew I’d given in.

“Amy, and you can never ask what it’s short for.”

“Noted.” She pulled out her books and we leaned over them together.

For a week, I looked forward to going to school. The feeling lasted till I showed up early one morning for a pre-class study session and saw Dave dropping Amy off by the back steps. She leaned across the seat to kiss him goodbye.

I know it shouldn’t have changed anything. Amy was smart and funny and charming, and Dave was my friend. It shouldn’t have changed anything, but it did.

Our town is too small to have a bus system or a full time truant officer. I turned around and started walking away from the school. If I stayed there, something would explode, or something would burn. I’d hurt someone. I didn’t think I wanted that. It had felt clearer when I was younger. Now I was caught between what I wanted and what I knew I should be ok with.

I remembered how easily the fetch caught fire, the feel of Trinity’s blood smeared across my face. The three miles from the school back to my house weren’t enough to cool my temper, even in the snow. Maybe that was why I turned up the Lye Brook trail.

Fat snowflakes drifted between the tree branches. The sun shone pale silver behind a thin scrim of cloud.

Branches lined in white stood out as sharp as runes written in marble. Off the path, a foot of new snow drifted over a crackling crust of old snow. Walking through it was hard enough work that I started to sweat. I took off my hat and unzipped my coat.

The snow must have hidden an old circle. People like to believe you have to see the circle, that you have to cross voluntarily. It’s pure myth. One step and those were just spaces between the snowflakes, glints of soft light reflecting off ice crystals that shook in the branches as birds took off at my approach. The next step and those spaces were the folds of white lace dresses, those glints the jewels woven crystal bright through long shadowed locks of hair.

Their feet barely dented the snow. My boots sank down to their drawstring tops. Their eyes were cold blue beneath long colorless lashes. If these were the ice fairies my mother worried about, I should have left the window open and prayed they would come in.

My cheeks flushed, breath puffing out in clouds. Their hands were long, clear skin over the blue rush of veins. I wanted to feel those cold hands beneath my scarf, against the hot beat of my heart.

The strings of their music wailed high and tight with cold. Brittle drums beat like soft feet skidding across the surface of a frozen pool.

A branch cracked behind me, loud discordant note in the music.

Roland stood behind me, with one foot in the circle. He reached out and I pulled away. I didn’t want to sit next to him in the snow, sexless and too young. I wanted to dance with those cold women till everything else fell away.

His smell changed first. The familiar reek of smoke and leather layered with something that made my pulse beat faster. I hadn’t realized my pulse had slowed to match the icy drumbeat of the dancers until it sped up. My fingers tingled with cold.

His hand closed around my wrist. His fingers felt different. Narrower knuckles, smoother skin, the same strong scarred palm against my wrist.

The dancers stole my breath, their bodies pale and perfect beneath snow-lace dresses.

Roland pulled me back and I sobbed, tears freezing on my face. There wasn’t anything I wanted more than I wanted to dance in that circle of ice and snow. Whatever made girls call out from their bedrooms, follow him into the woods, strip off their clothes and kiss him as they drowned, I’d never felt it. There were nights I wouldn’t have cared if I drowned, but it was never because I wanted him.

But Roland pulled me against his chest, soft beneath his leather jacket, and I wanted him. I peered up his neck at the planes of his face. Four years had made those shadowed edges familiar, but the jaw line above my face was smoothly strange.

The flat plane of his hips widened where he pressed behind me, and my whole body flushed. Roland’s hair had always been a long dark mess, but the locks that crossed my face carried a scent they’d never had before.

Breasts pressed against my back. Roland’s body burned warm behind me. I pushed away, longing mixed together in me for the dancers, for the body pressed against mine. Roland cursed and spun me around. The arms around me were still strong, corded with muscle. But I’d leaned against Roland on a dozen drunken nights, and this wasn’t the body I knew: rib cage too narrow, hips too wide, chest too soft, neck and chin too smooth, scent of skin and hair meltingly perfect.

Roland kissed me, rough lips against mine and her long fingers in my hair, my own hands tangled in those dark locks. Her breasts pressed against mine. She dragged me backward step by step. The muscles in her legs shifted as they moved between mine.

I’d been stupid and smug. Coming out in the woods, drinking with an elfin knight. Because his kiss left me cold, I thought I was safe. They had to seduce you before they drowned you. That was the rule. Roland had been mortal once, with mortal limitations. That was a long time ago.

I didn’t feel safe anymore. I kissed Roland back, her mouth hot against mine, my skin flushed. My cold hand wrapped around the warm skin of her neck.

Her chest flattened. Ribs rippled and pushed beneath her skin. The madness gripping me faded a little.

“I’d forgotten how much this hurts,” Roland gasped, and her voice cracked on every word.

Everything I’d known I shouldn’t feel when I watched Dave kiss Amy, that was nothing to the betrayal I felt staring down into Roland’s ridiculous lashes.


Her bones cracked again. I told myself I didn’t care. Heat poured out of me, melting the snow into a steaming puddle of leaf mold and sodden black twigs.

“Magic. Power. I was honest about that.” Roland’s voice cracked and dropped again as his ribcage reformed. “Together we’d have a queen’s territory. I spent years guarding you. I wouldn’t let you die now. But you’d already crossed the circle. Nothing else would call you back. You little fool.”

“I thought we were friends.”

“Weren’t we friends? I killed for you. I protected you. I listened to you. Again and again I saved your life.” His fingers were hot against mine, but the heat didn’t mean anything. For the other Roland, I’d strip off my clothes and wade at midnight into the deep water, and I’d be happy to do it.

“You lied to me.” I wanted to scream.

“You never asked.” He lay there, bones still again, his leather coat soaking with melted snow.

“You said you were not the most dangerous thing in these woods.”

“I don’t chase what doesn’t want me.”

I leaned my forehead against a tree. “I know. You were honest about that. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry I didn’t chase you?”

I leaned down and kissed him. He tasted of cigarettes, liquor, and blood. Nothing else. “Sorry I won’t be coming back.”

Sooner or later, he’d shift again. And I wanted her. And she would chase me, because that was what she did. Sooner or later.

Walking out of the woods was easier than walking in. The snow melted in a wide circle around me as I walked. I crossed over the bridge. I needed a dry change of clothes, and then I’d have to ask Dad to give me a ride back to school before he left for work.


College – Freshman year 

‘O whare are ye gaun?’ quo the false knight,             

And false, false was his rede:      

‘I’m gaun to the scule,’ says the pretty little boy,             

And still, still he stude.

-The Fause Knight on the Road


For graduation, my sister Rachael gave me ten rings of twined iron and silver. I gave her a packet that held copies of all my college application letters. The SUNY system had just opened a new campus, one with a whole academic program in magic studies. I’d gone to apply in person. My presentation had been better than my essays, I figured, since that was the only school to offer me a scholarship.

My dorm room looked out over the woods. The residential advisor had been apologetic about it. “Some students aren’t comfortable with the exposure. We’ve put in charmed window frames. And you can always call for an escort after dark. Your roommate said she’d be checking in late.”

I’d have a roommate. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought through that part. I’d gotten the form and everything. I sat nervously on my mattress and waited for her to come in the door.

My roommate let herself in without knocking. She was the only one in the hallway, no parents hovering behind her.

She braided her hair with feathers. That took the whole “make yourself over in college” thing a bit far for the first day. She walked up to me, stood in front of the window with her hands on her hips.

The feathers weren’t braided in.

“I’m werekin. And kind of nocturnal. If that’s going to be a problem, tell me now. The RA said he could reassign me.”

That explained why she’d gotten here so late. It was probably early morning to her.

“Are you loud at night?”

She turned her head to stare at me with one sharp eye. Her nose had a great hook, and I tried not to think things that would only lead to trouble.

“Look, is this going to be a problem?”

Rachael had been right. This was college. I could set my own rules. “I’m a mage. And gay. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Do you blow stuff up?”

“Not lately.”

“Blow my laptop up and it’s a problem. Mages are hell on electronics. Do you want to bunk the beds? I like sleeping high up.”

I stood up and started dragging my bed frame across the room.

After that it was easy. We walked across campus to the dining hall. The rest of the floor huddled behind the resident advisor like ducklings as we walked under spreading old oak trees. The setting sun sparked on the leaves and picked out purple highlights in my roommates feathered hair. There were faces in the oak trees; there were voices in the brooks. I’d been in the woods before. I’d be fine.

Copyright  2015 Ginger Weil

Ginger Weil grew up in Vermont at the edge of the woods. She spends her spare time in libraries, can usually be tempted by caffeine, and often commits experimental baking. Her fiction has also appeared in Apex Magazine. She is on twitter as @gingerweil.

By Tracy Canfield

The false-gravity observation deck offered a spectacular view of the incandescent whorls and fronds of the Zeepardjes Nebula, but Vro Vrolik, a Solarium School of Business alumnus at heart, was more inspired by the spinning sign of the Golden Nebula Casino.

The only other human on the premises, Vro’s former classmate Nurt Çubiry, slumped against a deck-mounted viewscope. “Six months of spinning my wheels here. Zero-gravity slot tournaments. Payout tables so complex they’d make a cryptographer weep. Pheromone-drenched ad campaigns that left my office smelling like a French whorehouse. We’re the first, and only, modern casino in Boldengurd space, but I just can’t scratch up a profit.” Why can’t a Solarium grad succeed with an opportunity like this? thought Vro. It broke his heart.

Nurt’s alumnus badge was splotched with unnoticed mustard. If Solarium’s honor was to be salvaged, Vro would have to be the one to do it. And, of course, his future consulting career prospects would be limited if he couldn’t get a perfectly good casino into the black. He dabbed the mustard away with his cuff.

“Hi, boss,” drawled a voice from Vro’s wristpad. “Don’t you get offended, but can I cut in on your human groomin’ ritual?”

“Vro’s the boss here now,” said Nurt. “I’m just a guest.”

The Boldengurd who’d spoken through the translator software stood out from the crowd of tourists gawking at the nebula, thanks to the gleaming pompadour wig perched on his braincase and the rhinestones belted around his limbless body. Vro quelled his instinct to anthropomorphize the Boldengurd’s posture. The species’ supple white bodies were always roughly horizontal, and the candy-red braincase at the flared end never rose more than a few centimeters above the floor. Elvis wasn’t kowtowing. It just looked that way.

The Boldengurd clacked. “Came to tell you the time has come for me to pack up and move on,” said the translator. “Got me a new gig in the Rangifer Belt.”

“What? Wait, what? You can’t expect me to run a casino without Elvis,” said Vro.

A Universal Teapot trotted past. Elvis extended a manipulatory tendril to the Teapot’s dial and ordered up a steaming globe of some beverage suited for his physiology. “The Interstellar Guild of Elvis Tribute Artists can prob’ly send you a replacement,” he clacked

“I’d appreciate it,” said Vro.

“Takin’ care of business.” Elvis wriggled off towards the elevators.

“In a way I’m relieved the casino’s losing money,” said Nurt. “Makes it easier to walk away.”

Vro grabbed his friend’s shoulder with a fierceness that surprised them both. “Don’t say that,” he said. “You’ve put me in charge – you have to keep believing in the bottom line. Remember the Solarium fight song!”

Money demands of you the highest virtues, if you wish to make it or to keep it,” Nurt chanted.

“That’s more like it. Have some pride! What if someone from Polophylax heard you saying you’re relieved to lose money?” Polophylax Business College was Solarium’s archrival.

“Vro, Building Brand Loyalty 150 was about establishing a brand, not devoting yourself to someone else’s,” said Nurt. “Here comes my VP of Finance. Well, your VP, as of five minutes ago. Vro, meet Sirteg.” A Boldengurd with the Golden Nebula logo sprayed across its flat back bobbed a friendly tendril.

“I look forward to a remunerative working relationship,” said Sirteg. Vro still couldn’t tell Boldengurds apart if they weren’t dressed like Elvis. He configured his wristpad to tag every Boldengurd its cameras picked up.

“First priority: new Elvis,” said Vro.

“Is this a human religious matter?” said Sirteg. The translator’s intonation suggested curiosity.

“Not religion, just tradition.” Vro peered across the casino’s cheery iridescent hull, its peacock hues chosen to outshine the nebula’s. “What’s that red thing coupled to the parking garage?” Even alongside the casino neon, that ungainly bulge with the crimson lights zipping along its fuselage reached hitherto unknown pinnacles of garishness.

“Never seen it before,” said Nurt.

Vro straightened his tie. “Okay, second change we’re making? Is getting rid of that thing.”

He waved his wristpad at the nearest viewscope and paid a credit to zoom in on the crimson-lit pustule, revealing a tacky neon caduceus alternating with the words Party Bus in a variety of languages.

Boldengurd tourists squirmed over to see what the fuss was about. Black tendrils hesitantly pointed out the bus.

“That horror can’t be seen from the rest of the casino, right?” said Vro. “Sirteg, clear this place out while I take care of this.” He sprinted for the elevator, his wristpad scanner placidly tagging Boldengurd customers as he vaulted past.

Out onto the concourse he raced, past the buffet line, past the theater holos advertising Nibklung the Magnificent, past Boldengurd employees handing out comp-tracking bracelets for manipulatory tentacles. Past neglected slot machines warbling their ineffective enticements. Past the bear habitat, where the large, round Boldengurd predator’s fanged mouth and ten taloned limbs would have been intimidating if the beast hadn’t been sucking its paw. Past the Boldengurd dealers and croupiers waiting for customers to wrap themselves into the empty seats.

Vro hurled himself through the parking garage door like a jackpot coin from a slot machine’s hopper. Strapping young Boldengurd valet parkers wriggled their tendrils in confusion.

The functional gray pressformed parking garage was tarted up with glittering glowtubes and a viewing window that framed the observation deck. Too many of the expensive docking spots nearest the casino entrance were empty.

At the only airlock gate in this section where the seal light was a profitable green, a human woman in a miniskirted business suit with a blond Mohawk was shaking out a self-standing screen. Virtual Z-list celebrities from throughout the galaxy waved out at Vro. PARTY BUS – MORNING-AFTER RELIEF FOR THE STARS! trumpeted a built-in speaker. WE SCRUB YOUR INTERNAL FLUIDS CLEAN OF ALL KNOWN RECREATIONAL SUBSTANCES AND THEIR HARMFUL METABOLITES! A line of elderly Boldengurd already snaked in through the Party Bus entrance.

The woman looked Vro efficiently up and down. “Hello, good-looking. Overdo the complimentary drinks?” she said. “Fear not, the Party Bus isn’t just for Boldengurds. It’s configurable for over ninety-nine percent of the Galactic alliance’s sentient species. In humans, we can counteract hangovers, fatigue, overeating, and that sore spot you get on your ass after twelve hours of blackjack. Today’s special is a blood filtering and a whiff of citrus, jasmine, or clove-scented oxygen. I’m Jaffi Jiffert, proprietor.”

“Get out of my casino,” said Vro.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Jaffi. “The MAEH and MAEH-II interstellar treaties specifically forbid non-military space stations to refuse available docking to newly-arrived long-hop starships, as defined in section XXXIV. A minimum of thirty standard hours notice is required for eviction, which may be appealed by petition to –”

She stepped aside for a Boldengurd customer exiting the bus. “Delightful,” cooed Vro’s translator on the Boldengurd’s behalf. The alien was so old its braincase had faded to a rosy pink. “My nodes haven’t felt this full since my grandkids were hatched. And the autodoc says my fluid pressure is magnificent.”

“Tell all your friends back home to ask for the Party Bus!” said Jaffi.

Vro glanced at his wristpad. Its tagger suggested none of the eager customers were hung over, or even buzzed; they were just old Boldengurds wanting their aches and pains coddled.

A Boldengurd with a security badge hurried over. Or at least Vro assumed it was hurrying by the standards of its species. Its gentle undulations put Vro in mind of a drifting sea of milk.

“I got your call, sir. Is everyone all right?” said the security guard. “Did someone sprain a tendril?”

Vro hadn’t decided what image he wanted for the Golden Nebula, but “sleazy celebrity-trash party hotspot” and “Boldengurd retirement home” weren’t in the running. He looked over his shoulder at the casino sign and composed himself.

“I will get this Party Bus out of here,” said Vro, “if I have to weaponize the casino to do it. This is a high-class establishment.”

“I don’t care what kind of establishment it is,” said Jaffi. Elvis inched past behind her. “I care about making money.”

Vro turned back to the sign and pictured all his tension draining away, like he’d learned in Internal Management Techniques 201. A creative man, he recited, is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others. Running a casino could be expected to have its little problems, like Jaffi Jiffert; but she was only a little problem.

In the distance, the observation deck exploded.

“Rand on a bender at an open bar!” Vro yelped. He ducked reflexively despite the six inches of bomb-resistant plexisteel and twelve stories of empty space between him and the white-hot wreckage spraying frictionlessly in every direction. A chunk of girder sailed smoothly into the casino sign, which exploded obligingly.

“Don’t look at me,” said Jaffi. “I never even left the garage.” She tapped her wristpad. The prices advertised on the Party Bus flexscreen doubled.

At least we’d evacuated the deck, so there shouldn’t be any injuries. Vro sighed with relief. Or lawsuits. But just in case. He touched his wristpad to Jaffi’s. “The casino will cover treatment for any injuries due to the malfunction of the observation deck.”

“I feel a little shaken,” said the Boldengurd who’d been talking about her nodes. Vro forced a smile. His wristpad queried the casino records and identified the alien as Umrelk, a repeat customer with a room in the Lagoon Tower, with demographics more than one standard deviation over the average Boldengurd lifespan. Exactly the kind of customer Vro wasn’t looking to attract.

Vro’s wristpad beeped with a message from Sirteg, his diligent new VP. Observation deck completely destroyed. No injuries.

Vro tapped out a quick reply. If anyone seems upset, give them a free pass to the buffet.

“I’ll get you out of this casino if I have to pry your fingers off the airlock seal,” Vro told Jaffi sternly. “I’ll sic Legal on your ass.”

Jaffi beamed back. “I was wondering how to raise the topic of asses. Yours isn’t bad.”

Vro stared, nonplussed, at the remains of the sign, which now read GO D NO.

“This wasn’t an accident,” he said. “Someone’s sending us a message. Looks like the third thing we do is deal with the terrorists.”


Vro came huffing and puffing into the casino theater in time for Nibklung the Magnificent’s finale. Sirteg coiled on a floor cushion in a private box. The alien VP might have adjusted her body towards Vro when she came in. Or she might not have. Boldengurds didn’t have faces or front ends, which made them hard to read.

Vro sat on the floor, level with Sirteg. “So the casino’s losing money,” he said. He brought up his business AI, licensed by the Solarium School of Business to all new grads, and fed it the demographics data that the wristpad had recorded for every Boldengurd he’d passed. “I need some data on the Boldengurd lifecycle and cultural norms.”

Sirteg touched her own pad to his. A Universal Teapot ambled by and Vro grabbed a cup of human-compatible tea.

On the stage below, Nibklung scuttled prissily around a large glass box. The Banyakangrem magician looked, to Vro, like a footstool-sized cross between a millipede and a scorpion. The act had been carefully choreographed so the hyperactive Nibklung and his slow-moving Boldengurd assistant could both end up in place at the beginning of each trick.

“Okay, initial analysis.” A graph bloomed into view on Vro’s wristpad, bulging at the right hand edge. “Aha. Most of our customers are elderly. That’s one of the great universals, like hydrogen and natural selection – old people of every species love to work up that little thrill that the body’s stopped providing in other ways. The only Boldengurds in this theater who are under a hundred and forty local years of age are Nibklung’s beautiful assistant, and you.”

Nibklung effortlessly scaled the glass box and whipped out an icy-smooth card trick, goggling at his own cleverness, while his assistant slowly escorted a Boldengurd volunteer to the stage. Vro’s wristpad had tagged that ancient Boldengurd before – this was Umrelk, the Party Bus’s first customer. Apparently the exploding deck had unsettled her enough to require a free physical, but not enough to keep her from participating in a magic act. “Sirteg, give me a sanity check on what I’m seeing here. Boldengurds begin their lives as eggs. I’m guessing eggs don’t have any disposable income. In time they hatch into juveniles, which don’t seem to earn any money either.”

“That is in accordance with my experience,” said Sirteg.

“Then they reach adulthood, and get jobs.” Vro’s tea was salty. “That’s good, because they could be spending their cash up here. They’ll be our primary market.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Sirteg. Onstage, the assistant helped Umrelk into the glass box, and Nibklung covered it with a billowing cloth.

“Eventually Boldengurds mate to produce their own egg clutches.” Vro ordered up another cup of tea. It smelled like fried chicken. “Sounds like a good secondary market. Surely mated adults want to get away from eggs and baby Boldengurds from time to time.”

“Boldengurds with clutches are quite territorial,” said Sirteg. “They won’t want to leave them for long. But I agree that one does sometimes wish for a respite from the demands of juveniles.”

“Mating is clearly a key event in Boldengurd life.” Vro checked a revenue report. “And yet no one’s using the chapel. Isn’t there a ritual associated with choosing a mate?”

“There is,” said Sirteg. “But we mate for life. Our older customers presumably mated many years before this casino was built.”

Vro nodded. “Most of them are in the final life stage, after the kids have grown up and left the nest. Whatever you’d call it. The clutch. The – the home. That’s the market we’re seeing. We need to appeal to the younger generations.” He rubbed his chin. “Nibklung’s razzle-dazzle magic act is pretty standard. What’s the other show like? Foot-Long Ovipositors?”

“It’s very popular. There are dancers,” said Sirteg. “Their braincases are painted to fluoresce red under the lights, and the females wear tasseled extenders on their ovipositors –”

“I get the idea. Younger Boldengurds should like it just fine. Nibklung’s act, on the other hand, makes the Zeepardjes Nebula look fresh and timely. So the first thing we change –”

“First thing: we get Elvis,” said Sirteg with tendril tap on her pad.

“The next thing. This is a new thing.”

“The fourth thing,” said Sirteg.

“The fourth thing. We get a new show. A blockbuster. The kids will be lined up from here to the far side of the planet to see it. There’s gonna be music. There’s gonna be explosions. There’s gonna be bears punching bears.”

Sirteg’s body language was unreadable.

“The bears are wearing little fezzes,” said Vro. Sirteg retracted her tendrils fractionally.

“One other thing,” Vro went on.

“The fifth thing?”

“If you say so.” He tapped the wristpad. “I’m telling my Solarium AI to find a legal way to get Jaffi Jiffert off board.”

Below, Nibklung waved his pincers joyfully and whipped the curtain from the box. The elderly Boldengurd was gone; in her place sat an enormous bear, scratching ten embarrassing itches with its various paws. The audience spritzed water from their tendrils in appreciation.

“I’ve reserved these same seats for Foot-Long Ovipositors,” said Sirteg.

“I’m afraid I’m too busy to see it,” said Vro with an involuntary shudder. He hoped Sirteg was as clueless about his body language as he was about hers.


The theater exit opened directly onto the slots with the highest jackpot and the lowest chance of paying it out. An enormous mass of green cuprosklodowskite crystals in a radiation-proof thrusteel case loomed over the banks of gaudy machines. The crystals’ unpredictable radioactive emissions provided the slots’ random-number generation, and the continually-updated jackpot total was projected holographically above them. As the crowd made their gradual exit, Vro’s translator picked up Umrelk, the superannuated Boldengurd Vro couldn’t seem to avoid, chattering with her elderly friends.

“What was it like?” said a male Boldengurd nearly as ancient as Umrelk herself. “Being turned into a bear?”

Her answer sounded hesitant. “It wasn’t what I expected.”

Vro was gratified to see so many of the departing audience members taking places at the slots. “I like the display,” he told Sirteg. The Boldengurd numbers – the only Boldengurd that Vro could read without a translator – showed a mighty seventeen-billion credit payout. “But that crystal is dull. It just sits there. And I’d rather not have a huge chunk of radioactive rock around while we’re dealing with whatever terrorists blew up my sign. We need a new theme.”

Vro’s pad continued to relate Umrelk’s conversation. “I’ve seen Foot-Long Ovipositors five times now,” she said, “and the last time, I got home and my granddaughter had laid a clutch with fourteen eggs!” Vro tightened the radius on the translator so he wouldn’t have to hear any more of that.

“Shall we get some dinner before I lose my appetite?” he said to Sirteg.


The Boldengurd buffet tables were low to the floor, of course, and filled with dainty, odorless crystals, sculpted with impeccable artistry. Vro helped himself to a ribeye Béarnaise and creamed spinach from the human-compatible table.

“Pardon me,” his translator chirped, “but could you tell me when the observation platform will re-open? What happened, anyway?”

Vro was unsurprised to be addressed by Umrelk, who seemed to have become his elderly Boldengurd shadow.

“Planned demolition,” he said. “We’ll be installing a free-flight dance floor with variable gravity. Your grandkids will love it!”

“Oh,” said Umrelk. She inched away.

Vro set his pad to translate the latest Boldengurd entertainment news and sliced into his perfectly medium-rare synthetic steak. “What do young Boldengurds like? What do you like, Sirteg? You’re young.”

“Me? Politics, mostly,” said Sirteg. She tucked a crystal into a tiny mouth. Vro felt, by comparison, like a prehistoric monster stuffing reeking, slimy food into a vast maw.

“I mean fun stuff,” he said. “People go on vacation to get away from serious stuff.” His wristpad had collated some intriguing headlines from the planet below. “Who’s this gal everyone’s talking about – Higota? Just got a million-credit deal for endorsing some pre-mating pheromone?”

Sirteg waved a tendril. “She’s a celebrity,” she said. “Improvises narrative songs about Boldengurd life.” The wristpad displayed a synonym too tentative to vocalize: ingénue.

“Do young people like her? Post-clutch, pre-mating age people?”

“That would be her audience, yes.”

“Males want to mate with her, females want to be her?”

“Well put.”

“I think that’s another universal. Get her manager on the line, bring her up here for a big promotional event. And while you’re at it, tell Nibklung to start training those bears for their new roles.”

“You seem very certain about this show,” said Sirteg.

“After the intermission, the bears make their entrance above the audience. On bungee cords. And they punch each other.”

“I suppose I can see the appeal.”

Vro’s wristpad chirped. “Okay, one problem solved.”

“Would this be the sixth thing?”

“No, this is the – it’s one of the other things.”


Vro found Jaffi Jiffert in the bar, sipping aquamarine liquor from a glass in the shape of the Zeepardjes Nebula. A second glass sat on the table, already empty except for a neon peacock feather flashing GOLDEN NEBULA CASINO in English and, presumably, Boldengurd.

“Get your party bus out of my parking garage, Jafferts. Jibberts. Whoever you are.” Vro thunked his wristpad against hers. In authoritative red, it scrolled out a recent addendum which superseded treaties MAEH and MAEH-II for registered commercial enterprises.

“Give my software, oh, fifteen seconds to respond,” she said brightly. “In the meantime, do you want a drink?”

Vro liked the idea of discussing their disagreements over a friendly drink, like civilized professionals, until he spotted the badge on her chest. Proud Alumna of Polophylax Business College. Solarium’s sworn rival. Her AI beeped and he tapped it for the update.

“Your Polophylax AI is making a pretty big assumption,” he said. “You’re not going to get permission –”

Nurt strolled up to the table and took a swig from the peacock-garnished drink. “Vro!” he said. “Let me introduce Jaffi Jiffert. She has all kinds of interesting ideas for the casino. I told her to talk to you. Want a drink? These King Creoles are awesome.”

“Nurt asked Sirteg to let me hook the Party Bus up to an airlock in the main concourse,” said Jaffi. “So it is, in fact, out of your parking garage. And it’s obviously legal for me to stay as long as I have the VP’s permission. I don’t even need my AI to figure that out.” Nurt grinned dopily at her.

“Nurt,” said Vro desperately, “have some Solarium pride.”

Too damn many things were bothering Vro at that moment, but the worst was the way this Polophylax grad didn’t give a Boldengurd fart about their schools’ historic and cherished rivalry.


One Boldengurd day later, a youthful crowd was waiting for the hot (by Boldengurd standards) young star Higota to unveil the new themed slots. In a moment of inspiration, Vro had hidden the machines under a curtain inspired by the nebula’s gauzy spirals. Higota and her entourage had been in the theater dressing rooms for an hour and were expected out any minute. The casino was booked solid.

Nibklung the Magnificent had asked to tear away the curtain with what he called his “usual showbiz pizzazz.” Vro turned him down, hoping that unlike Nibklung and Elvis, the new bear act would be headache free. After a long day spent punching each other, they’d probably be happy to go back to their habitat and nap. That reminded him: he still needed a new Elvis.

Vro waved at the shrieking crowd, then messaged Sirteg discreetly: Increase on-planet publicity budget by 30%. Get ads on Higota program.

“Pardon me,” said the translator. “Would you be Vro Vrolik? The casino president?”

The spindly Yarath’s nametag identified her as Pimiaweben. She had her species’ distinctive facial bladders and wore a crisp Galactic Peacekeepers uniform. A nearby Universal Teapot moseyed over and offered her an appropriate beverage.

“Indeed I am,” said Vro. “How can I help you? There’s no, uh, unrest around here, is there?”

“Oh, I’m not a soldier. I’m an anthropologist.” She sipped whatever she was sipping. “Investigating the local cultural-capitalist ecology.”

“Ah. Is there a problem with Higota?”

“Well, there’s the problem that her music’s crap.” Pimiaweben’s facial bladders deflated. “But since she’s not the result of outsiders manipulating the local culture, I can ignore her, thank God.”

“Homegrown crap is okay, I take it. What do you think of the Party Bus?” Vro said hopefully. “The Boldengurd don’t have any substance abuse issues that I’m aware of. Could the bus be creating a drug culture? Normalizing it or something?”

Vro halfway wanted the Galactic Peacekeepers to haul Jaffi off in gelcuffs. He was extraordinarily annoyed with the half of himself that didn’t want them to.

The audience’s cheers were giving way to impatient grumbles. On Vro’s wristpad, a message popped up from Sirteg. Higota can’t make it. Meet me at the chapel after the unveiling.

Vro responded. I’ll cover for Higota. He thought a moment, and added, Please be clear that I am not at liberty to get married to anyone at present. The clarification might conceivably break Sirteg’s alien heart, but Vro had no desire to end up inadvertently united with a Boldengurd in the eyes of the law.

He tapped a command to the casino AI. Nanobots dissolved the curtain into wisps of sweet-smelling gas, revealing the new Higota-themed progressive slots. The younger Boldengurds, according to Vro’s wristpad, were cheering again. The older ones weren’t.

Good, he thought. The more the older generation hates something, the more the younger generation will love it.

His translator murmured. “I expected more when I saw the nebula on the tarp,” Umrelk was saying. “Why would anyone play those?” Vro checked her customer records. Umrelk’s room was booked for another ten Boldengurd days. He had a feeling he’d be seeing a lot of the elderly Boldengurd during her stay. Such seemed to be his fate.

As a consolation, he had the AI run a quick calculation. Even if he lost all the elderly guests while keeping the young ones, he’d end up with more customers than Nurt had ever brought in.

More and more of the Boldengurds’ sensory tendrils were pointed away from the slots. From his human height, Vro could easily see Nibklung flowing through the knee-high crowd.

The magician snipped his pincers. The elderly Boldengurds around him clacked so deafeningly they overwhelmed Vro’s translation software. Vro set it to automatically summarize the crowd’s comments – they were running about 40% Love Nibklung’s show and 35% how often they’d seen it – and render Nibklung as voice.

Nibklung pranced up to Vro, pincers spread wide. Another universal, or damn close. Life forms make themselves look larger when they feel threatened. Vro felt a little threatened himself; those pincers were coming dangerously near parts of himself that he didn’t want pinced.

“So instead of me,” said the arthropod magician, “you’re going to feature this newly-hatched little singer?”

“Higota is very popular,” said Vro. “Very, uh, pheromonal.”

“Filth,” said Nibklung, in his prissy arthropod way. The translator reported that his elderly fans were 100% in agreement.

“We don’t have to get rid of your show.” Vro tried to take a step back and thumped against a slot machine. “We’ll … we’ll move you into the lounge.”

“The lounge is always a crap gig,” said Nibklung. “I quit. I just quit.”

Vro was privately delighted. Maybe Nibklung’s elderly fans would follow him wherever he went next.

Umrelk pointed her tendrils forcefully at Vro and clacked loud enough to bring down the walls. Vro reluctantly re-enabled translation for her. “I had tickets for the next eight performances,” she said unhappily.

“There’ll be bears punching bears,” said Vro.

“We want Nibklung!” shouted Umrelk. The senior Boldengurds took up the cry until their node pressure dropped too low, or whatever it was that wore them out. Nibklung preened his epicuticle like some sort of dapper krill.

“Are you Nurt?” said Umrelk, more quietly. “Or the other one? Vro?”

“I’m Vro.”

She waved her sensory tendril up and down Vro’s body. “I’m told that this one’s hindquarters are aesthetically pleasing to his species,” she told her friends confidentially. The other seniors crowded around Vro, pointing their tendrils at his ass.

“Jaffi Jiffert told me about his hindquarters,” Umrelk said cheerfully, “when she was testing my fluid pressures after that awful explosion. She and Vro are different human genders, you know. They could procreate together! Think how cute human babies must be! Like teeny tiny gurshpequats. I wonder how humans mate?”

“I have some pictures on my wristpad,” said Nibklung.

Vro dialed up a Scotch and water from the Universal Teapot, but he just got tea.

“The bears ride little motorcycles,” he said, “and punch each other off them.” He was still far from expert on Boldengurd body language, but Umrelk seemed unimpressed.

Vro’s wristpad buzzed. Chapel? said Sirteg.

On my way, Vro responded.

“I apologize, valued Golden Nebula customers,” he said, “but I must rush off to optimize your customer experience.”

Sirteg was waiting outside the chapel, along with a Boldengurd who Vro didn’t recognize, and, annoyingly, Jaffi, who was gazing at the waterfall filled with dancing Boldengurd seaweeds.

“Isn’t it romantic?” she said, with an appreciative look at Vro. He tugged on the hem of his jacket to make sure it wasn’t riding up over his ass.

“Sirteg,” said Vro, “please tell me you didn’t call me up here to marry Jaffi Jiffert.”

“I actually called about Higota,” said Sirteg. “She’s in the chapel.”

“She got married?” said Vro hopefully.

“Oh, probably,” said Sirteg. “But that isn’t why I called.” She pointed a tendril.

Now Vro saw the gobbets of mucus spattering the chapel, and the ropy gray objects lying across the cushioned indentations the Boldengurd used as pews. Egg cases, he realized, and Higota herself was coiled up smack in the middle of them. She’d laid a clutch.

Vro started into the chapel. Higota waved the narrow end of her body and clacked like a truckful of ScandSynthetic office furniture being dumped into a box canyon, which Vro had actually heard at his previous consulting job.

“Don’t you know who I am?” shrieked his wristpad translator. “My recording company will sue you into subatomic particles!” Vro took a step back – not quite fast enough to dodge a gold-plated datapad to his forehead.

“Boldengurds are very territorial about their clutches,” said Sirteg. “May I introduce Higota’s manager?”

“I’ve made every arrangement,” said the other Boldengurd. “You won’t have to raise a tendril. A construction crew is already en route to cut the room out and ship it back planetside.”

“Wait, what?” Vro stammered.

“Don’t worry,” said the manager. “The eggs won’t be addled in the least.”

“Let’s open some negotiations vis-à-vis the use of our chapel.” Vro rubbed his forehead. “Could we at least charge fans to see Higota’s eggs?”

The manager’s tendrils patted the air. “I was hoping you’d keep this quiet. Being a mated parent isn’t consistent with her public image, after all. The pheromone company she represents would be unhappy.”

“Higota’s contract has a contingency that allows her to modify the venue in the event of health-related developments,” said Sirteg.

Vro sighed. At least he’d gotten the slot tie-in and a promotional appearance of sorts.

“On the bright side,” said the manager, “everyone knows Golden Nebula has a terrorist problem. You can just say the terrorists blew up the wedding chapel.”

“I will give your suggestion the consideration it deserves,” said Vro through gritted teeth.

“Shall I make the announcement the new sixth thing?” said Sirteg.

“Make the consideration the new sixth thing,” said Vro. “Let’s not rush to do anything that’d scare off the rest of the customers.” He made sure he was well clear of the chapel threshold and called out “Congratulations.”

Higota started slowly towards the door. Vro was halfway down the hall when a jerk on his jacket sleeve brought him to an abrupt halt.

“You don’t have to go,” said Jaffi. “Boldengurds are just territorial about the eggs, not their own personal space.”

“Is that what you study at Polophylax these days?” said Vro. “Xenobiology? When do you find time for Advanced Accounting?”

“My Party Bus customers have been telling me about their great-grandclutches,” said Jaffi. “It’s market research.”

Higota undulated out of the chapel. Her manager quickly locked the door behind her.

A crowd collected around their tiny caravan of two humans, two Boldengurds, and a Universal Teapot that had decided to tag along. Cameras flashed. Pimiaweben aimed a scanner at them as they passed, the facial bladders on her cheeks puffing occasionally.

“Higota, dear, shall we give the paparazzi one last pose before you go?” said her manager.

The singer arched herself delicately and artistically beside a slot machine emblazoned with her picture. She waved her datapad. The reels spun – and lined up three twinkling nebulae.

Ten thousand simulated bells sang out. Pheromones misted the hall. The machine’s screen flashed JACKPOT. The crowd clacked joyfully and spritzed water from their tentacles.

“Quite the celebratory mood,” said Jaffi. “I should get back to the Party Bus and prep for incoming customers.” She dialed herself up a drink from the Universal Teapot.

Seven-sided Boldengurd coins tumbled out of the slot machine – not seventeen billion credits’ worth, but enough to make the crowd boggle. Vro’s wristpad sounded a siren loud enough to carry over the general din.


Unmerciful Rand, thought Vro, we’re bankrupt. He groaned.

“See you later,” said Jaffi. She took a sip of tea and collapsed in a heap on the golden carpet.

“Security!” clacked Sirteg. “Get this human to the medical center!”

“No, wait!” Vro’s thoughts raced. “I’m not sure we can trust the medical center.” He checked Jaffi’s breath – it was ragged and shallow. “Whoever poisoned the Teapots had access to the casino’s security codes – they may have sabotaged the med center too. Recall all the Teapots and shut down the buffet.”

“The buffet line is all the way out to the blackjack tables,” said Sirteg.

“All the more reason.”

Jaffi lay spasming on the floor.”I believe she needs assistance,” said Sirteg.

“She’s going to get it.” He hoisted her over his shoulder. “Like she says, she should get back to the Party Bus.”


Vro gazed out at the nebula’s ancient, blazing billows, light-years away but partly concealed behind the shattered casino sign. In the sunken heart-shaped bed, Jaffi gasped awake at last.

“Romantic spot,” she said. She tossed the portable Party Bus medical cleanse unit onto the pink satin cushions. “Imagine the alien passion that’s writhed in this very bed.”

“There’s no need to. As I understand it, Boldengurds just sleep in their beds,” said Vro. “They would actually mate in that heart-shaped mud tub, if they ever used the honeymoon suite. Which they don’t. I figured it was the best place for some uninterrupted privacy.”

“It’s very private,” said Jaffi. She patted a cushion. “Comfy, too. So where were we?”

“I ran diagnostics on the Universal Teapots,” said Vro. “They’d all been compromised – but just on the human setting. Boldengurds would have gotten normal Boldengurd beverages; Nurt and I – and you – would get poison. ”

“What about Banyakangrem?”


“Like Nibklung.”

“He would have been fine.”

“Well, thank Rand for that,” said Jaffi. “I love his act.”

“Uh, okay. While your Party Bus machines scrubbed your blood, I analyzed the casino’s ledgers.”

He tapped his wristpad to hers. “The casino AIs thought our finances were fine, until they tried to pay out a jackpot and found the accounts were tapped out. I’ve turned the Solarium School of Business AI loose on the data, but it’s running in circles, confused –churning without identifying the problem, like a QuentaCorp Bloodhound following its own scent.”

“Do QuentaCorp Bloodhounds actually do that?”

“I dealt with it all the time at my last job.” Vro frowned. “I knew the casino was losing money, but the AIs should never have let that jackpot get too high to pay out. Someone was cooking the books.”

Jaffi rolled over coyly. “Do you want me,” she said, “to have the Polophylax AI take a look?”

“Only if it can cryptographically sign a non-disclosure agreement that’ll keep its report from going anywhere except my wristpad.”


They tapped wristpads again. Vro scanned the automatically generated contract with a practiced eye. Wherever the phrase “to any other being, intelligence, or program” appeared, he redundantly appended “including Jaffi Jiffert.” He signed with his thumbprint and the Polophylax AI added its own mathematical equivalent.

“I should’ve known something was wrong when I saw the Elvis impersonator leaving.” Jaffi patted her squashed Mohawk into a facsimile of its former shape. “Elvises have a special sense for failing casinos. It’s like rats leaving a leaking starship. Ever notice how some people say ‘Elvi’ when there’s more than one Elvis? But if you wanted a Latin plural it should be Elvēs. Like ‘pelvis’ – it means ‘basin’ – its plural is pelvēs. That’s just the nominative –”

Vro sat bolt upright. “You’re right,” he said.

“Of course I’m right. Polophylax has a first-rate classics department.”

“No, I mean you’re right. Elvis left the building before the observation deck blew up.”

“I hate it when people work ‘Elvis has left the building’ into every conversation about the King. That, and ‘Thank you, thank you very much’.”

“I’ll take that under advisement. But here’s the thing. The casino was already near bankruptcy when the Elvis impersonator left – before the terrorist attacks. Nurt had no idea how bad things were, because the casino AIs were hiding the truth from him. And who’s responsible for the casino’s accounting?” He slapped the floor. “The VP of Finance. Sirteg. She’s been robbing the casino blind.”

He queried his wristpad’s demographics. “Sirteg’s in the theater. Let’s go down and confront her.”

“If she doesn’t just bug out now that the casino’s gone under.”

“Jaffi, she’s a Boldengurd. We have legs. We’ll get there in time.”


Vro’s wristpad navigated them along the employees-only access tunnels, through a dressing room full of flustered Foot-Long Ovipositors dancers, and onto the theater’s antigrav stage where the bears would punch each other in free fall for the big finale.

Sirteg was sitting in the front row. She spritzed water from her tendrils.

“That spritzing means you’re happy, right?” said Vro. “Because you shouldn’t be.”

“It’s sarcastic,” said Sirteg. “Like the human slow clap.”

“We’re on to you, Sirteg,” Vro said managerially. “Making yourself rich on other people’s work. You’re nothing but a dirty looter.” He tapped a command into his wristpad.

Me?” said Sirteg. “You’re parking a space station in front of our sacred nebula.”

“Sacred nebula?” said Vro. “Wait, what?”

“You’ve turned our fertility rites into a tacky stage show, and our shamanic Boldengurd-into-bear ritual into … well, a tacky stage show. The mystical oracle crystals are just a random number generator for your slot machines. You’re exploiting our pious elders, and I am putting a stop to it right now.”

Twenty Boldengurd swung down from the overhead rigging on the bungee cords Vro had installed for the bears. They were leaking biological fluids, but since they were armed and Vro and Jaffi weren’t, they were quite intimidating.

“Meet the Religious Freedom Army. I told you I was political.” She writhed onto the stage. A terrorist peeled the Golden Casino logo from her back. “I blew up your observation tower, without harming any of our revered elders in the process. And now your own mismanagement has finished the job for me. You humans have been ruined by your own scheme. The seventh change we’re making will be getting rid of you.”

“Whatever you do,” said Vro, “please stop numbering everything.”

“I’m just a medical freelancer,” said Jaffi. “I don’t work here.”

“Oh, you’re okay,” said Sirteg.

“She is not!” said Vro.

A second voice rang out from Vro’s translator.

“Stop,” it boomed, “in the name of Galactic Peacekeepers! Refrain from using any weapons or natural biological defenses.”

A dozen Galactic Peacekeepers burst through the theater doors. Soldiers at the flanks tossed web grenades into the wings and exits, sealing off all the other escape routes, and raced up to the stage.

“Oh, thank Rand,” said Vro. “These terrorists were about to execute me.”

“You’re under arrest,” said Pimiaweben. The anthropologist’s facial bladders flared a no-nonsense blue. “For commercial exploitation of the Boldengurd religion.”

“Wait, me?” said Vro.

“If you don’t mind waiting, we were going to blow him up,” said Sirteg.

“Don’t do that,” said the nearest soldier.

“Let me check the local politico-legal ecology,” said Pimiaweben.

“Wait, what?” said Vro

Jaffi took a seat next to Sirteg. “I thought of something,” Jaffi said. “You guys poisoned the Universal Teapot’s human setting, right? So you’re the ones who nearly killed me.”

“Sorry about that,” said Sirteg. “We were trying to get Vro.”

“That’s okay, then,” said Jaffi.

“No, it is not!” said Vro.

“And you couldn’t buy better publicity for the Party Bus,” said Jaffi. “All’s well that ends well.”

Pimiaweben tossed a gel restraint that snaked out to envelop Vro’s arms. His wristpad beeped, as if in protest.

The theater doors slammed open. Umrelk ambled in at the head of a mob of geriatric tourists. Nurt dawdled along behind them.

“Bring back the crystal!” Umrelk shouted. “And Nibklung! Bring back the Boldengurd turning into a bear!”

“Rand damn you for a moocher, Nurt,” said Vro. “Why’d you go and monetize a local religion? Did you spend senior year sleeping through Galactic Regulations 540?”

“At Polophylax, that’s a freshman course,” said Jaffi.

“My granddaughter went to Polophylax,” said Umrelk. “And she just hatched fourteen young!”

“We’re throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, ma’am,” said Sirteg. “These aliens will no longer exploit your piety for crass materialist gain!”

“I know what you’re up to, Sirteg,” said Umrelk. “I’ve been following you everywhere. Well, don’t I get any say in whether I’m being exploited? This is way more fun than the old temple. I really like the way the new attendants bring you drinks instead of lecturing you. And they should have shielded that cuprosklodowskite crystal years ago.” She slithered over and snatched Vro’s wristpad off his arm. “I wonder if the legal AI has something to say about this.”

Vro hopped around to face Pimiaweben. “What they said. You heard them, they like it. Can’t you let me go?”

“Wait a minute,” said Umrelk’s voice, sounding strangely distant with the translating wristpad an unaccustomed three feet away. “You’re the human with the attractive hindquarters. The one who got rid of the crystal.”

“And he brought that tacky Higota girl here,” said another tourist.

“And he fired Nibklung!”

With a lusty mechanical groan the antigrav stage tilted. A dozen bears on miniature motorcycles roared down its slope, Nibklung perched atop the leader’s head. The bear’s fez was too large for the little magician to wear, and he swung it on his long segmented tail.

“Nibklung!” cheered the elderly tourists. “Turn us all into bears!”

“I won’t go quietly!” Nibklung shrieked. “I fight for dignity! For honor! For good, clean family entertainment!” Vro wished he could reach his wristpad and assign a less annoying voice to the tiny Banyakangrem. It wasn’t his fault Vro heard him that way.

What was his fault was the rampaging bear that was about to run Vro down.

“In the name of the Galactic Peacekeepers,” shouted Pimiaweben, “stop your bears!”

“Don’t you have to check on the local custom-value ecology?” said Vro.

The bears plowed through the crowd. Boldengurd terrorists and tourists alike twisted aside, splurting and squirting fluids in every direction. Soldiers fired shots into the air, but the bears – trained to perform beneath crowd-pleasing explosions – didn’t flinch. Pimiaweben got a close-up look at Boldengurd culture, or something, when she fell onto Umrelk and knocked Vro’s wristpad out of the elderly tourist’s manipulatory tendril.

The pad spun to a stop at Vro’s feet. With a grunt, he dropped to his knees and pressed his nose onto the pad, activating the command he’d tapped when he first entered the theater.

The stage’s antigrav hummed on, leaving the soldiers, Nibklung, the tourists, the terrorists, the bears, the motorcycles, and Jaffi Jiffert hanging in midair. One bear at the field boundary was yanked into a brief wheelie before falling clear. Its motorcycle clanged onto the footlights. The bear sat down heavily, confused, sucking its paw.

“Be quiet, everybody,” said Vro with whatever authority he could command while wrapped in a restraining gel. “Look at this.” He nodded at his pad.

“The Solarium School of Business AI couldn’t untangle the AI that was covering up the casino embezzlement,” said Vro. “That’s because the embezzler was using the exact same software. The Solarium AI can’t outsmart itself. But when I turned the Polophylax AI loose on the records, it discovered that Nurt was the thief all along. He knew that basing a casino on the Boldengurd religion would eventually bring the Galactic Peacekeepers to his door, and when it happened, he diverted all the cash into his own account. The casino was making a profit all the time. He didn’t hire me to save the casino; he hired me to take the fall for him.”

“Shit,” said Nurt. “I figured you were so irrationally loyal to Solarium that you wouldn’t try any other software until it was too late. But none of you are in any position to stop me from getting away.”

He pulled a photino pistol from his vest pocket and grabbed the nearest motorcycle’s tiny handlebars. The bear whipped its paw out of its mouth and punched him unconscious.


The robot-controlled construction ship threaded the last cable into place, and Vro threw the theatrically oversized switch to light up the new sign. TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN NEBULA, it said. 24-HOUR BUFFET. The elderly worshippers thronging the observation deck cheered.

Pimiaweben inflated her facial bladders. “Very anthropologically interesting topophilia,” she said. “I could get a book out of this.”

“It’s a good thing you’d programmed your wristpad to recognize your noseprint, Vro,” said Jaffi. She’d put on a hot pink business catsuit for the occasion and her Mohawk was sharp enough to scratch glass. “Do they teach you that at Solarium Business School?”

“Practical Computing 201,” said Vro. “And the new dedicated Bears Punching Bears theater will open next week. Want to move the Party Bus closer to it? It’ll draw a younger, heavier-drinking crowd than the religious attractions.”

Pimiaweben chittered in a minor key. “Galactic Peacekeepers is dealing with Nurt, but I’m still concerned about this Nibklung and his motorcycle-mounted bear platoon attack,” she said. “There are laws about endangering bears.”

“Let me consult with my Boldengurd legal advisor,” said Vro. “Umrelk?”

Umrelk fluttered a tentacle in what Vro now knew was the Boldengurd equivalent of a smile. “I’m giving him a raise,” she said.

“That settles that. Jaffi, want to join me in the bar? We just hired a Czoluru Elvis impersonator who sings 50s material with one throat and 70s material with the other. The Universal Bartender has Blue-Shifted Hawaiians for half price.”

“Your treat?” she said.

“You can afford it.”

She raised a blonde eyebrow. “It’s not a deductable business expense.”

“I think you’ll find that the Sattilebba Act allows medical providers to deduct up to one thousand credits per year of refreshments.”

Jaffi patted his ass. “Now you’re talking.”


Copyright 2015 Tracy Canfield

CNN once called Tracy Canfield a “Klingon scholar”. Her short science fiction and fantasy has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, and various other magazines and anthology. She’s a computational linguist who lives in the Midwest. She is on Twitter as @TracyCanfield.


by Phoebe Harris

It had taken me six years to grow my hair to my waist, where decent women kept it, but only five minutes for Lia to cut it, and now it lay scattered around her brother Mazi’s house like straw on a stable floor.

“Let me get a look at you, Ari.” Lia walked around me nodding. “By Brilliance! You look perfect. What do you think?”

I wiped my eyes, and then wiped my eyes again. In the mirror I saw a gawky, half-grown man, old enough to be out on his own, and young enough to want to be. It was the face of an intimate enemy, one I’d hoped never to see in the mirror again.

“Yes,” I said, closing my eyes. “You’re so smart to have figured this out. I can’t do it.”

“Of course you can. Tenacity, Ari, you’re the strongest, most confident woman I know. This should be easy for you.”

“You would think so,” I whispered. I opened my eyes, and stared into Lia’s face. Her sweet, round baby face had lengthened so much in the last year. This wasn’t the girl who’d followed me around the Fair Sight Inn like the little sister she wished she were. She was thirteen now, almost a grown woman — the same age I’d been when I arrived in Fortisma, ready for a new life on my own terms. “I’ll try. It’s a good idea, and I’m not yet ready to die.”

“Don’t worry, Aracin. It’ll work.” She paused. “But ‘Aracin’ won’t. How does ‘Araco’ sound?”

I shuddered. “I hate that name.”

“I just — Harmony, I call you ‘Ari’ most of the time anyway. And ‘Araco’ works with that.”

“Fine.” I shrugged. “It’s your plan.”

It was all unreal of course, as unreal as the moment Duke Krasnal and his Blood Crows entered the Fair Sight Inn. As unreal as a short-handed Ostigar sending his daughter into the hastily-cleared feast room, when Lia had never served actual soldiers before, much less a pack with reputations as poor as the Duke’s drunken vanguard. As unreal as the laugh and the smile and the flash of cleavage I gave Duke Krasnal to distract him from a cornered and overwhelmed Lia. But not as unreal as what happened after he grabbed me instead.

I have only a series of disconnected images: Duke Krasnal’s face near mine, laughter dripping from his wide smile like venom, my skirts pushed high and my terror rising higher as I realized his hand was between my legs, as what he’d find there could be my death. My left hand fumbling behind me until it found something solid I could fling at his face. A shining line of red drawn from his jaw to just shy of the corner of his eye, and the knife was in my hand, the Duke’s bloody table knife that seemed larger to me than even my father’s sword. There was no panic, only clarity, and I pinned the Duke’s right hand to the table with his traitorous knife, spun gracefully out of his slackened grasp and walked calmly to the kitchen before the drunken Duke could gather either the breath or wit to shout.

And then I ran.

“Meet me at Mazi’s house,” Lia had said, in the moment I took to grab my pack. And first I tried the city gates and first I tried seeing the witch Relnissa, but everywhere I went a Blood Crow had already been. So I met Lia at her brother’s and listened to her earnest explanations of her impossible scheme, while panic strangled me like smoke.

But I did as she said. Because after spending my life dancing thigh to thigh with impossibility, I knew the only moves worth taking are those with enough flash to be worth the failure.

So all evening and night and into the morning Lia watched me and drilled me and corrected me as I walked and talked and stood and posed and tried to do it all right all at the same time all while wearing Mazi’s clothes. The trick to acting like a man is to concentrate on straight lines and pushing down. Push down with the toe when you walk, instead of the heel, push down your voice till it’s flat and lifeless, push your hands down to your sides at all times, push your soul down into your shoes where it belongs and don’t worry about trampling it. And then widen your stance and your base, to support all that downward pressure.

I hated every moment, but could eventually do it all again without thinking, which satisfied my taskmistress.

“You look, you look fabulous,” Lia said at last.

“No,” I said. “I look fine. Men don’t look fabulous. Even when they do.”

She smiled absently as she continued to appraise me. “If only you had a sword. Then you’d be beyond question.”

“I do have a sword,” I admitted. “It’s rolled up in my pack. It’s, it’s my father’s sword. He served Duke Sornal, and…I can use it, too, or at least I could once. I haven’t touched it since I left home.”

“You’re just full of surprises. Why’d he give it to you?”

I shrugged. “I was his only child. He’d rather have had a real son, but I was all there was. We drilled together almost every day, until I was old enough to refuse. I hated it.”

“And yet,” Lia said, “you kept the sword.”

I shrugged again. “I had to keep something.”

Lia held the sword high and admired it, from the long double-edged blade to the upswept bronze wings of the crossguard to the wicked beak at the pommel. Then she belted it around my waist — clapping with glee at the results — and we left the house.

We hadn’t dared a fire, so the morning air tasted of the bitter leaves of childbane I choked down raw. The weight of the sword on my hip reawakened a swagger as we walked. My head was fuzzy with exhaustion, but I had gone on full alert and felt more aware of everything around me than I had in six years. Lia walked beside me so skittishly that I put my hand on her shoulder to settle her. There was a line at the gate, which was strange, but once we had snaked around the corner we could see why — the guards were interviewing everyone leaving the city.

And then the nerves hit. First I flushed and then I sweated and then I started to shake, and I could only hope the guards wouldn’t notice and I could keep my voice steadier than my thoughts. But all I could see were the Blood Crows in their dark red tabards, hung-over and glowering at everyone the guards questioned.

“Name?” asked the guardsman, and we were at the front of the line, and my mind was blank. Lia touched my shoulder, and said “For Patience’ sake, he’s talking to you.”

“Oh,” I stammered. “Araco.”

“What brought you to Fortisma, Araco?” he asked, and I realized that the guard was Kosicar. Kosicar with the easy laugh, and the long, strong fingers, and the unrelenting stamina. With the curly brown hair, and the muscular back, and the dimples that only appeared with his secret smile.


Lia punched my arm. “Is that any way to talk about me? He’s taking me to meet his family.”

“Mmm,” Kosicar answered. “And you are…?”

But Kosicar was a regular at the Fair Sight Inn, he knew Lia. He must have recognized us, and if he had, then there was nothing more to fear. My fate — whatever it was — had already been decided. I said, “That’s my girl Liasnerene. We’re going back home to see if she’s tough enough to meet my mother.”

“From everything you’ve said,” Lia added, “She sounds sweet.”

“And where is home?”

“Toricham. Not too far.”

Kosicar nodded. “And when will you return?”

My cheeks twitched, but I suppressed the smile as unmanly. “I don’t know. I guess it really depends on Mother.”

“Have a safe trip,” Kosicar said. “Araco, you’ll want to stay on the main road. The patrols keep the bandits away.”

“Good to know,” I said, making myself nod. “Thanks for your help.”

Our eyes met for an instant, and then I walked through the gate, Lia on my arm. The hardest part was not turning to see if we were followed.

Once we were out of sight of the gates, I turned off the path and into the woods.

“He said there were bandits,” Lia objected. “We should stay on the road.”

“No, he said Duke Krasnal had sent out patrols, so we need to leave the road to avoid them. Weren’t you listening?”


I knew the woods around Fortisma from hunting herbs for Relnissa. Relnissa was a witch, and a friend, maybe my best friend. She had shown me how to harvest blossoms of feverbright and sprigs of childbane and leaves of blackfern and seeds of leathertoe so I’d have a way to pay my debts to her. I must have done well, because soon after she’d offered me an apprenticeship, which I hadn’t quite accepted. Someday, I’d said, someday I’ll learn witchery, but not now, not when I can still lower my eyes and toss my hair and have any man I want follow me upstairs. And Relnissa smiled and shook her head and said she could wait.

It was strange to be in the woods without a basket on my arm, and even stranger to have a companion. Lia was excited and had trouble keeping her pace down to a walk, while I kept slowing down to evaluate the shade and soil for clumps of feverbright. And pausing near the fallen trees that harbor childbane. Everything felt incongruous, like the moment when two different dreams run together.

We stopped shortly after noon, when exhaustion hit. We camped at my favorite place to harvest blackfern, a cool and shady patch hidden by a tumult of boulders, almost impossible to find without your belly on the ground.

“Oh Purity!” Lia said crawling behind me. “I hate mud.”

“Then go home. Lia, you saved my life, and I thank you. But this isn’t your journey. Go home.”

“If I go home now,” she answered, “the Crows will be the ones asking questions. Besides, someone has to remind you not to sit like that.” She slapped my thigh and I spread my legs by an obscene amount.

“I was thinking that now we’re out of the city, I wouldn’t need to keep up the disguise.”

“In Prudence’ name! You were the one worried about patrols.”

“I know. I can’t even convince myself.”

“So,” Lia asked, “Olnexia or Rastikam?”

“Olnexia. Rastikam’s just too far. Don’t you think?”

“I suppose. But we’d have to cross the Selanek.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not Duke Krasnal’s bridge.” I rubbed my hands together and asked. “How are we on food? On foot, off the road, we’re looking at two weeks’ travel.”

“I took what there was. It might last a week, Prosperity willing. We’ll need to stop at Toricham.”

I nodded, almost surprised my blood didn’t run cold at the suggestion. But I’d already begun preparing myself for it, guessing our supplies wouldn’t last the journey.

“Perhaps I’ll get to meet your mother after all,” Lia grinned.

“She’s dead. And even if my father isn’t, we won’t see him. Or anyone else I know. We’ll get supplies, and then we’ll go.”

“You’re going home. Isn’t there anyone you want to see?”

“Fortisma is my home,” I snapped. “Toricham’s just where I grew up.”

It took some work to get a fire going, but I felt much better once I had. Lia toasted some bread and cheese, tasty even over the pungent smells of smoke and blackfern. We were on an adventure. It wasn’t one I wanted, but the blood stirs regardless. We watched the sun set and the stars brighten, and talked about the woods and the weather and home.

“They probably didn’t even notice until this morning, when I wasn’t there to scrub the common room. They won’t raise a fuss — they’ll guess I’m with you and won’t want the guards asking questions”

“They’ll worry.”

“I’m sure your father worried about you when you left home, but it didn’t stop you from going.”

“Lia, when I left it just saved my father the trouble of throwing me out.” Whenever I thought of him, all I remembered was the look of shock and disgust on his face when he found me, barely conscious, blood still dripping down my thighs. He took me to Yranor, who saved my life, but after that I never saw him again. Or wanted to. “You’ve never disappointed your parents.”

“Or made them proud. They’ll miss you more, you know. Father’ll never find another serving girl like you.”

“Please,” I snorted. “There’s nothing special about me. Ostigar will have his pick of dozens — he might even end up with one he likes this time.”

“Comity, you can’t mean that?” Lia’s laughter was soft as fresh childbane. “He’s liked you from the moment you walked into the Fair Sight Inn and insisted on serving him lunch from his own kitchen. You told him you were the fairest sight in Fortisma, and that he’d be a fool not to hire you. He would have been, too.”

“I remember.” What I remembered was that I’d tried every other inn and tavern in Fortisma, and after his I’d have been out of money and prospects. “I couldn’t tell if he was mad or impressed. I just didn’t want him to ignore me.”

“Believe me, Ari, no one ever does.” Lia smiled. “I’d never seen anyone like you before. You were so tall and skinny, hair barely longer than now. You were just so, so — I’d never seen a woman talk to Father like that.”

I blushed. “I know. I wasn’t very polished back then.” I shivered and stood up, arms folded across my chest. “I’m going down to the stream to wash up,” I said. “I’m filthy.”

“The dirt hides the softness of your skin,” Lia said, touching my arm. “Leave it.”

“There’s no one to see,” I said, but I sat down again, facing the fire, knees hugged against my chest until Lia tapped me and I chose a more suitable pose. And I kept my silence and my seat while she cleaned up and made her bed next to the fire. “Good night, Araco,” she said at last, and that was when I made my pallet on her unprotected side, sword sheathed but at the ready, my back to her so she couldn’t read the shame on my face.


The journey to Toricham was unremarkable. The weather stayed clear and cool as it does in early spring, and the succession of light woods and meadows soon ran together. Lia and I relaxed into each other’s company and I even learned to smile at the way she scolded me like her half-grown son.

The night before we made Toricham we camped in a field of maidenskiss. I slept restlessly and woke early, my head aching from the sweet scent of the delicate pink blossoms. By the time Lia was up I’d already washed without scrubbing and set my tea to boiling, so she toasted the last of the bread, along with some mushrooms that — as I’d assured her — hadn’t killed us the night before. We ate in that comfortable waking wordlessness, until Lia snapped to attention.

“Men don’t drink that,” she said, looking at my tea.

“No they don’t. It’d be rather silly if they did. They’d end up looking awfully girly.”

“You should stop until we get to Olnexia. It’s a giveaway.”

“I hope you’re not that erratic taking yours,” I smiled. “That’s a good way to end up with a brat you weren’t expecting.”

“Chastity! I don’t need childbane.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not interested in that.”

“You will be soon, I suppose; you’re certainly old enough.”

“Old enough to know the last thing I want is some stinky man crawling all over me.” She wrinkled her nose as though garlanded with blackfern.

“Oh I don’t know. The crawling,” I winked, “can be the best part.”

Lia shook her head. “You’re hopeless. But I know this story. I have a brother. It starts with a man and a romp and then I’m serving him for the rest of my life. Fidelity knows I don’t want that.”

“Oh Lia, I’m not trying to marry you off. But things happen fast sometimes. After all, if I hadn’t been there, you might well be carrying Duke Krasnal’s bastard.”

It was the first thing I’d said all week that actually quieted her. Lia returned to packing up camp.

I sighed. “I need to see Yranor, Toricham’s witch, and get more childbane myself. Come with me and talk to her. Then I won’t say another word, whatever the two of you decide.”

“We can’t risk–”

“She’s a friend. You asked if I wanted to visit someone? Well, I should visit her.”


In the last six years, Toricham’s skin had been ravaged by sun and wind till it was aged and sagging, the faded wood buildings brightened by an occasional splash of fresh paint like rouge. But Toricham’s bones hadn’t changed. The spine still ran down the main road, from the Sheriff’s office at the head to the cluster of taverns at the ass. Houses stretched out on lanes like loosely-jointed limbs which spread into fringes of farms at the fingers and toes.

Yranor’s home was at the left elbow — far enough out she could gather materials, close enough for her patients to visit. All through town, Lia kept up a patter, nervously pointing out superficial details, while I played the protective beau. I could feel the whispers starting on the street ahead and swirling around us leaving questions in our wake. But I’d long ago trained myself to ignore such whispers for my own sanity. I assumed they were impugning my manhood and Lia’s virtue, as mocking travelers was one of Toricham’s few sources of entertainment.

It all came back as I opened Yranor’s door, and it was all the same — the ringing of the bells on the door handle, the smell of strange herbs I now recognized as rosemary and blackfern, Yranor sitting at her worktable with decanter to the left and scale to the right. Her eyes met mine, and I stood motionless on her threshold, trapped in her wordless stare.

“Well, Ari,” she said at last, “you’re certainly the last person I expected to walk through that door.”

“It’s complicated. I know it’s a strange time to come back, and an odd disguise. I’m being hunted, and Lia thought this would make me harder to find.”

“You have to admit,” Lia interjected, “it was a good idea. It’s taken work, but Grace, now she really could pass for a man.”

Lia didn’t know the quick twitch of the lip that meant Yranor was suppressing a smile, but I did. “You’re right,” Yranor replied, standing up. “She really could.”

And there were more lines around her eyes than I remembered, and more grey in her close-cropped hair, but she stood there with her arms crossed, leaning and staring, and it was the same, it was exactly the same. “We’re going to Olnexia, and you were on the way. I ran out of medicine — I wouldn’t bother you, but I ran out of medicine, and it’s another week–”

“So you’re only here because you need childbane?” she asked mildly.

“Yes. No! That’s not what I meant!” The tears were flowing now. “I shouldn’t be here at all, and you’ve done too much for me already. You’ve done — I’m sorry.” Without Yranor I would neither be alive, nor want to be. I turned towards the door. My vision was blurred beyond seeing, but I always know the way out.

Before I could take two steps, Yranor put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all right, Ari,” she said. “Just tell me what you need.”

For what was left of the morning and into early afternoon, we talked. I told Yranor about Fortisma and the Fair Sight Inn, and Lia told her about Duke Krasnal and our journey — making me sound far too heroic in the process. Lia fished for stories of my childhood, but Yranor ignored her and talked about work — the herbs people no longer wanted, the ones she could no longer find, and the new ones they preferred. She never mentioned anyone in town, and I certainly didn’t ask.

After lunch she took Lia into the back room for an examination and the lecture her mother should have given her. The bag of fresh green leaves Lia returned with was so different from the dried childbane I use that at first I didn’t recognize it, but when I did I grinned at her shy blushing smile. We were there most of the day, and I loved every moment and itched to leave.

“There are two witches in Olnexia,” Yranor said. “Henisen is the one you want to deal with. She’s a good woman, and doesn’t have an apprentice.”

“You never give up,” I said, hugging her quick. “But I enjoy being a serving girl. It’s what I want, it really is.”

“And a fine serving girl you are, I’m sure. Just talk to Henisen.”

“I will,” I promised. “Yranor, please visit me in Olnexia. Once you see my life, you won’t worry. You can see me in my real clothes, and — oh, I wish you could have seen my hair! It was so, so –” and I was crying again, but I took my hands from the side of my face and gave her one last hug. “I love you, Yranor.”

“And I love you, dear girl,” she said, pushing me towards the door. “Now go, or you’ll have to stay the night and I don’t have beds for you both.”

The bells rang as I opened the door, and I took one last look at Yranor at her worktable, pretending we’d already left, and then the bells rang again as the door closed behind us.

Leaving Yranor’s house felt like the first moment emerging from a pool of clear water — the air was chill but the sun was warm, and the world itself felt cleaner. I told Lia, “Let’s go to Dobirel’s for supplies,” and she just nodded, unaware that this morning I’d rather have bought food from Duke Krasnal himself.

But as we left the porch I heard a familiar voice behind me. “Seves told me he’d seen you in town. I guess I owe him an apology.”

“And a new shirt,” said another. “He’ll never get those bloodstains out.”

Two men were sitting on the old logs by the leathertoe bushes in Yranor’s side yard. Both wore the long leather coats of the Sheriff’s men — Toricham’s version of a town guard. “Hey Molanko,” I said. “How’ve you been?”

Molanko wasn’t any taller than I remembered, but he’d filled out with a man’s breadth, strong shoulders and chest, and no doubt a back as solid as the one I used to wrap my legs around.

“I’ve been better, Ari. Much better. It’s starting to look like a very bad day.”

Lia moved closer to me. “Araco, what’s happening?”

“Lia, this is Molanko, and Javino. Some old friends of mine.”

Molanko chuckled coldly. “Friends. Yes. I heard you were in town. I have to admit that I’m…”

“Curious,” Javino finished.

“Yes. Curious about why.”

“No mystery. Just stopping for supplies. I’m on my way to Olnexia. Going to start a new life there.”

“Really?” Molanko stood and stretched. “How many new lives do you need, Ari? Most of us manage with just the one.”

“Araco’s special,” Javino said, in a tone that reminded me what a whiny, jealous brat he was. “Surely you remember.”

“Oh I remember. I remember how the rules never seemed to apply. And I remember every lie Ari ever told me. Do you?” he asked.

“Mo, I never — I could never lie to you.”

“With a straight face, too. Impressive. I wonder, do you lie as easily to Lia?”

“Lia has nothing to do with this, Mo.”

Javino snorted.

“When you told me why you had to leave Toricham, I believed it. I didn’t like it, I didn’t understand it, but I believed it. I believed you. But now you dare,” Molanko said, “you dare come back, with her on your arm, and I see I’ve been taken for a fool. Did you really think I could ignore that, Ari?”

“Don’t hurt her,” I begged.

“Of course I won’t hurt her,” he roared, color rising into his cheeks, above his black beard. “Who do you think I am? But you, Ari. I’m done with you.”


“You have no idea how he stands up for you, Araco. No one’s dared say a word against you in the last six years. Not even,” Javino said, “your father.”

“Leave my father out of it, Javi-nosy. He’s no concern of yours. Or mine.” I knew better than to use the old taunt, but I’d never had any resistance to his jibes.

Javino bristled, and tensed, but Molanko put a hand on his arm. “Araco,” he said, “I see you still have your sword. It’s been a long time since we crossed blades.”

“Oh Valor!” cried Lia. “This is insane!”

“It’s been almost as long since I’ve held one.” And given the blood and price of that night, I hadn’t had the desire. “If you want to kill me, go ahead and do it without the show.”

“What I want,” Molanko growled, “has never much mattered. Draw your sword, Ari.”

Javino took Molanko’s coat, and stepped back. Molanko twisted a few times to stretch his back, his muscular, bare arms raised high. Everything I knew about myself I had learned in those arms.

“Stay back, Lia,” I said, my eyes never leaving Molanko’s. “It’s all right. Just stay back.”

He stood eight paces away, and when Lia had safely retreated he drew his blade and held it level with the ground, pointing towards my eyes. It was the stance he used when showing off.

“Can we–” The violent shake of his head warned me off. I deepened my stance and tried to think back six years and more. My hand rested on the bronze hilt, the rough carved feathers pressing against my palm, strangely familiar after so many years. On an exhale, I drew my blade cleanly into a standard guard position.

The instant I was set, Molanko aimed a blow for my left side. I parried, and stepped back — “Move first!” I hissed to myself, hearing my father’s voice in my head — and he immediately threw a blow at my right cheek. As I blocked, I realized both blows had been so gentle they wouldn’t have broken skin.

His next blow was at my left calf, and then my right thigh, and suddenly it was a pattern my father had drilled into us — left then right, up then down, over and over again — and my blade lurched into the old rhythm. Rusty and slow, but I hit my marks, retreating and blocking, blocking and retreating, around and around in a wide circle.

I tried not to look at my blade, or his, but to stay focused on Molanko’s face. His eyes told me nothing, and I could no longer read his expression now that a beard covered the contours I’d known so well. His face had always been clean-shaven, though never smooth — I’d run my fingers over those cheeks many times, feeling the stubble which scoured my face when we kissed. “You’ll grow your own soon,” he’d told me once, with a twinkle, never guessing the horror that ran through my blood like acid at his words. Somehow, that hadn’t occurred to me before. It was that sudden horror, more than any other single thing, that pushed my life onto the track it had taken.

Molanko’s blows grew stronger and faster, and I was straining to keep my sword between us. I was mesmerized now, my sword flying entirely on its own bronze wings.

“Sah!” he cried, and broke the pattern with a sudden thrust to my chest. Quicker than thought I leaped aside with the automatic upwards cut that’s part of that defense. Molanko didn’t dodge or even twitch, and my blade bit into his sword arm, the shallow slice quickly filling with blood.

Molanko smiled wickedly then, all the way into his eyes, and leaped forward with a panther’s snarl, throwing a feint to my head that turned into a vicious slash at my forward leg. I interposed my blade with the wrong parry — my wrist twisting with his blow, rather than against, running the risk that momentum would drive my own sword into my right thigh. We were close enough I could smell his sweat, and with our blades still engaged he struck me in the face with his left hand. I staggered back, and my right leg collapsed from where I’d cut into it, just as I feared.

I heard bells as Molanko kicked at my left leg, and I was on my back, hands empty, looking up at him. He held his blade half-sword style — hands at pommel and mid-blade — poised to drive it into my belly. I heard Yranor’s voice, barking orders, but her words were meaningless. All that mattered were Mo’s eyes, and I drowned in them, wishing, wishing, wishing I could truly have been the person I had once tried to be. Molanko lowered his sword. “Don’t come back, Araco,” he said.

Footsteps ran towards me, and Yranor said something about bleeding, and I felt Lia strip off my pants, already sticky with blood. There was a sharp, indrawn breath. “Oh Verity!” she gasped, while the world faded around me. “Sheer unrepentant Verity!”


And for a long time there were only vague impressions — darkness and distant pressure, lights and incomprehensible noise. These changed subtly to dreams, of the Fair Sight’s bustling common room, or endless trails stinking of blackfern. Part of me realized I was in Yranor’s sick room, like six years before, but most of my mind was elsewhere. There were flashes that were probably real — Lia slumping against the wall, eyes red-rimmed from crying — moments that were most likely memories — Yranor shaking her head, asking “What were you thinking, Ari?” while checking bandages — and things that were doubtless dreams.

My father sits at my bedside as he never has. “I just always thought,” he seems to say, “that there would be someone to carry on the line. Six generations of soldiers. My great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Vreskai, ‘with visage grim and spear held high’ as the song says. My father held the castle through the flame and fury of the Lanifar Uprising. I served in the vanguard of Duke Sornal the Swift through five campaigns — an original Blood Crow. We were the harriers of the battlefield, not the debauched braggarts under Sornal’s son. Sons! You raise them to serve, but they always blaze their own path, heedless of right or wrong, propriety or outcome. They always –” He pauses and I am aware of nothing so much as his missing teeth, his mouth half-full of their absence, aging him more than the papery skin of his forearms. “You were a good son, Ari, you always were. I was very proud. I just always thought that there would be someone to carry on the line. Six generations of soldiers…” And the image continues in my mind, lurching through the same words, left and right, up and down, over and over again. Words I’ve never heard my father speak.


Eventually the world stopped flashing between disconnected scenes, and I had a growing awareness of solidity surrounding me. Awareness that the presence I felt had a name, and it was Lia, and the fact that she was sitting there meant that I was probably alive, and most likely Ari. She looked so small and contained that I wanted to tease her mood away, but all that came out was a groan, and a hacking cough.

“It’s about time you woke up,” she said. “You’re not very interesting when you’re asleep.”

“I-I-I-I’m not much better when I’m awake, I’m afraid.”

“Oh I don’t know, I’ve found you full of surprises.” Lia winced. “Vitality, I’m sorry. I’ll get Yranor; she wanted to know as soon as you were awake.” And she melted from the room.

Yranor was professional as ever. She examined me so gently I scarcely realized what she was doing. “You’re going to rest a few more days,” she said, “and then I’ll work that leg so hard you’ll wish you could stay in bed. But you should heal well. Maybe a slight limp.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Yranor, I don’t know how — wait, how’s Lia? She seemed…”

“She’s been worried. And angry. And confused. You’re not easy on your friends, you know.”

“I know.” I took a deep breath and allowed myself to float through the maelstrom of guilt churning in my head. “She deserves better from me. I just don’t have better to give.”

“She needs time, is all. Just like all you need is rest.”

I nodded and lay back gratefully. Yranor smoothed the blankets over me, and I was asleep before she left the room.


Several days later, Yranor did indeed kick me out of bed. “Can’t have you just laying around,” she said, handing me a cane. “I want to see how much punishment that leg can take.” It wasn’t much, at first, so while Yranor did send me hobbling around fetching things, she also watched me like a crow and the moment my energy flagged, she’d sit me down with less strenuous work. I learned to wash herbs, and strip and grind them, and heard for the hundredth time that while the pulp inside tough leathertoe seeds makes a pleasant stimulant, tea from leathertoe leaves gives only unbearable stomach cramps. Yranor was so transparent in her desire that I learn witchery I couldn’t even be annoyed.

Lia helped by running errands and cooking, and the familiar fare of the Fair Sight Inn did wonders for my spirits. She didn’t avoid me, but felt distant in a way that made her presence hurt even more than her absence.

Soon the day came that I could walk from the leathertoe bushes to the maidenskiss patch and back without cane or pain. So that night, I told Lia and Yranor that I’d be leaving in the morning. Yranor looked startled, but nodded. “I suppose it is time.”

“I’ll go into town for supplies,” Lia said, “so we can leave straightaway.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, “you don’t have to–”

“It’s already done. I sent a message to Mazi. He’ll be in Olnexia in a few weeks, and I’ll ride back with him. And for Charity’s sake, you’ll need my help.”

I could only nod, as I hadn’t dared hope Lia would come with me.

When we left, it was without tears. Yranor held me tight, saying “The next time you decide to bleed to death, please do it somewhere else. Cleaning up after you is exhausting.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, then let go and said, “Henisen. No promises, Yranor, but I’ll see her at least.”

She nodded. “Good. You deserve happiness, Ari. Do what makes you happy. Please remember that you’re a most deserving girl.”

Perhaps I was wrong about the tears.

I turned towards the fields, but Lia insisted otherwise. “We can leave by the main road. Molanko said.”

“You spoke with him?”

“Once or twice. At Dobirel’s. He’s nice.” She paused. “No, Honesty, not nice. Not safe. But open. Admirably open. He said you’d be safe on the main road. Especially,” she grinned, “if it got you out of town faster.”

“Mo would say it like that. Well thank you. That will help. Maybe the road is safe all the way?”

Lia shook her head. “He also said two Blood Crows had been through a few days ago, asking for a woman named Aracin.”

My blood froze. “And?”

Lia shrugged. “No one here had ever heard of her.”

I coughed up laughter like blood. “Of course not.”


Lia and I tried to settle back into our comfortable routines, but they no longer fit. The weather was warmer, I was slower, and Lia was no longer as young. Several days passed in strained silence, until the third night Lia sat with me at the fire as I soothed my leg with blackfern.

“How many?” she asked. “How many people did you tell, without telling me?”

“In Fortisma? No one. Well, Relnissa knew from the first. But no one else.”

“Amity, Ari! What about Kosicar, or the others?”

“Oh,” I said, blushing. “Men. Well, that’s…I mean, there are things I do better than anyone in the Duchy. And there are things I don’t do at all.” I smiled. “And really, get a man in the dark and make him feel good enough and, well, he won’t notice as much as you’d think.”

“You don’t expect me to believe–”

“I’m serious. And I’m careful. I don’t take just anyone upstairs.” I paused, and then added in a whisper. “I’ve never asked any of my lovers what they think of me. I couldn’t bear to hear the answer. But they kept coming back, so that was enough.”

Lia said nothing for a long time. Then she said, “It’ll be different in Olnexia. It’s a real city, and no one knows you there.”

“It might be,” I admitted. “Of course, it doesn’t even matter with this hair. It looks like it belongs on a convict or in a convent.”

“I think it’s cute. You look ready to take on the world.”

Lia’s eyes shone like feverbright in the firelight, and I suddenly felt very stupid. “Would you,” I asked, “like me to cut yours?”

She nodded slowly, and so I gathered everything I needed — water, brush and comb, and a good sharp knife. “I could do a better job in Olnexia,” I said. “This’ll be pretty rough,” but she didn’t care. So I smoothed and cut, and combed and fretted, and in the end her glorious hair was scattered on the ground like shards in a nest. When I handed her the mirror, Lia whispered “Glory!” and stared at it until tears leaked from the edges of her eyes. Then she wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug.

“Thank you,” she whispered, breath warm against my skin. A moment later I felt her body soften against me, and relief washed over me like vertigo as I knew I’d been forgiven. Three breaths later, Lia’s fingers gently brushed my cheek. I looked down to see her staring at me, her cheeks the shade of maidenskiss, and I dearly wished I knew which Ari she was gazing at. I took her hand in both of mine and smiled.

“No,” I said, “thank you. For all your help and strength. I’d never have made it without you.” Then I stood and began straightening the camp. Lia watched me intently, her eyes almost clear, until she crawled miserably into her blankets, while I pretended not to notice.


Three mornings later we reached the Selanek River, which shouted its joy at our arrival. It was our companion for the morning, boisterous and swift, and into the afternoon, and it guided us to the road at the Selanek Bridge.

A guardpost stood beside the bridge, a small wooden cabin with two roans and a bay tied to the rail. Two Blood Crows sat in the shade and watched our approach while another leaned against a barricade at the bridge’s entrance.

“Who are you?” he asked, and “Why Olnexia?” and he accepted our answers with an acquiescence born more of boredom than belief. We thanked him and walked around the barricade, but he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

“Where,” he asked, “did you get that sword?”

Because its winged guard and beaked hilt matched his own.

“My father served with His Grace Sornal the Swift. When I came of age,” I replied, “he passed it to me.”

He frowned. “So why aren’t you in Duke Krasnal’s service? You obviously aren’t Blood Crow material, but one who bears that blade should be serving him somehow.”

“Oh, I served the Duke very recently. I’m afraid,” I said, “that I did a poor job of it. I don’t want to fight. As much as it shames my father, all I want to do is take care of, of my woman.” I looked to the ground and turned away from the Blood Crow’s sneer.

“He’s not ashamed,” Lia said. “He told me. Your father doesn’t like it, or understand it, but you’re serving your conscience with honor, and he respects that. Or by Loyalty, he’d have taken his sword back, useless as it is for the old gap-toothed crow.”

I stiffened and stared, but said nothing as the guard waved us on. “Try Count Selanek,” he spat. “That craven’s more your style. Maybe we’ll cross the river one of these days and take our blade back from your corpse.”

Olnexia lay at the other side, the open gates of the city but a few score yards from the bridge’s end. Soon we’d be inside, and I could bathe, and wear proper clothes — and burn these. Lia walked beside me, head held high and straight, eyes darting excitedly, a satisfied smile on her lips. I stopped short as I recognized the expression.

“You’re not going back with Mazi,” I said.

“I don’t think I am. I’ve a week to change my mind, but…I’ve been free. I can’t return to serving everyone but myself.”

I nodded. Then I unbuckled my belt. “Take this. I’ll never draw it again, and you might have need for a sword.”

Lia weighed it in her hand. “I can’t,” she said at last. “I don’t know how. I’m not a man.”

“So be a woman with a sword,” I shrugged. “Be yourself. And Liasnerene, for Integrity’s sake, be careful.”

She slung the belt over her shoulder like a bandolier, and clasped my hand. “All right, Aracin. By Integrity, I will.”

I hurried across the bridge to Olnexia, Lia beside me for one last moment, and then another, and then one more. The musky scent of blackfern rose from the river; I looked down to the bank where it grew, nestled around clumps of a pale blue flower I had never before seen. Someday, perhaps, I would learn its name.

Copyright 2015 Phoebe Harris

Phoebe Harris has a Stanford Linguistics degree and a CPA. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and the father of two. Phoebe currently works as a financial analyst and lives in West Michigan with her wife and other random assorted family members.

by Sara Puls

Luna Moon was filled with the umbers and ochers of murdermemories when she became the last Xenophon dancer in all of One Territory.

Becameas if this were by choice or appointment, but no. Luna was the last because Irene Katsaros was dead. Slit down the belly like a slippery fish in the Square. To Authority, Katsa’s death would be treated as a significant triumph—a major step toward achieving Severance. To Luna, it meant the loss of one of her mentors, one of her lovers. It meant the loss of images, spirits, and colorwhispers—of almost everything she held dear.

She found herself in a Hoyal Clan neighborhood on the other side of the Territory when it happened. With a helmet of wasps gilding her head, she’d been completely immersed in a collection whirl with that morning’s dead—twelve dancers blown to bits by a series of widow-drone strikes. Someone on the inside had revealed their location, that much she knew.

Luna did not need to see the blood-bloom of Katsa’s death to know it true. She felt the loss instantly—a typhoon of new rose-petal hues in the wind, a bitter sensation forever inked onto the underside of her skin. This was the price of closeness with another dancer, the price of sharing more than words. Pain, suffering, pleasure—all of it left a permanent mark of remembrance.

In the next instant, Luna stopped whirling, straightened her dress, and moved her body into the Second Position, for strength, then onto the Third Position, for dignity, and finally onto the Fifth. This last was more personal than the other salutes to the newly fallen; this was in honor of Katsa’s beauty.

After, with vermilions of pain following in her wake, Luna turned on her heels and headed for Resistance Base A. Her conversation with the morning’s dead would wait. For now, all she could do was leap forward, onto another, suddenly more pressing task.


Jeté—to leap in time, or to throw the weight of memory from one foot to the other.

Note: the memory space covered is not so much sideways as backward. It is possible to move forward while also looking backward, which would be the most dignified and sensible execution of existence.

– Excerpt from the Xenophon Dance Code, modified from the Manual of dancing steps with a compiled list of technique exercises and 39 original line drawings, by Elsa Pohl (the 1914th Year, Before Severance)


Back at base, Luna sought out Cass Uzun. He’d been second in command behind Katsa. It took only a moment to find him among the bodies milling about. He was a large, muscular man with eyes like the Night River and a voice of honeywine. Luna knew him well. Better than probably everyone else among them.

Always formal when surrounded by other eyes, she called to him now. “Commander Uzun.”

He turned to her and with one blink, his eyes flashed bright. By the next, they flickered with anguish. No doubt he’d already heard the messages over the horns. Authority had been cheering Katsa’s death since moments after it occurred, trumpeting the accomplishment throughout One Territory as if telling the results of a chess match or datawipe.

Seeing Uzun’s pain, Luna wished to press her shape into his, to weep with him over the loss of their partner and friend. Instead, she bowed deeply, unemotionally, then cleared her throat of residual color.

Uzun stepped closer. Already, his shoulders sagged.

“Uzun, I—” Her voice wavered, betraying her, and she paused. Luna had experienced enough loss to handle it with dignity. She would not let this one cause her to falter, fresh and heart-twisting though it was.

Instinctively, her body moved into Second Position—for strength. She took a breath, then began again. “What Authority broadcasts over the horns is true. Katsaros joins the dead.” This time, her voice remained flat, stoic. “I felt it. Feel it now still. Saw it like a sunspot stuck behind my eyes.”

The pain on Uzun’s face intensified, then all but disappeared. “Take two guards and visit the Archivist. Tonight. When you return, we will discuss—” he paused, searching for a painless word when there were none. “We’ll discuss the future.”

For a moment, Luna lost herself in depth of that single word. Who would she be tomorrow and the day after? What changes would this single event bring?

Uzun cleared his throat. “Moon?”

With a jolt, she looked up at him. “Right. Sorry. Of course. I’ll leave by midnight.”

He nodded and she bowed her goodbye. This was not the time or place for the affections of lovers.

Uzun would be the first of their leaders who was not also a dancer. The Resistance had the support of nearly one-third of the Territory’s population—Hoyal Clan and others too—but so far, the balance of power had not been in their favor. And there was no guarantee that either Uzun or Luna would be enough to tip the scales.

As she turned away, an Authority Message began playing throughout camp. She slowed her pace to listen. One can never know enough about how the enemy thinks.



You are essential to our survival. Your efforts to cleanse our Territory of specious histories, of exaggerations that would tear us apart, will be rewarded just as soon as total Severance has been achieved.

Until then, be advised: the dead speak in colors, not words. The dead cannot be trusted. Colors and whispers and memories deceive, just as the Remembrance Resistance wants to deceive you. Deceive us all.

Be advised, supporters: we must move forward, forging a new, united path!

– A Daily Message, Brought to you by Severance Authority, read by Prime One Alexander


As the sound faded, Luna shook her head—she could never quite believe the absurdity of those propaganda messages. Perhaps Authority leaders meant well, but they did more harm than good this way. Remembrance was not divisive and preservation was not dangerous. Most dangers, most hurts and wounds and betrayals, arose from the act of obscuring the truth. And yet, Authority sought to cure all society’s conflicts by erasing the past—wiping out consciousness of all injustices carried out at Authority’s hand. Severance fully realized, the Resistance stamped out, meant each citizen would have a new, collective mind. A mind absent of all the stories that give color to current power dynamics, a mind tuned and scoured at Authority’s whim. To Luna, to the Xenophon, and to all their supporters, this end was beyond unacceptable—it was to suffer a loss as great as death.

“Moon?” Again, this was Uzun’s voice, pulling her into the moment. Reality.

She looked back, over her shoulder. There was something like longing painted on his mouth. She understood how he felt, how torn he was between needing to hold her and knowing now was not the time.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Her teeth found her lower lip as she nodded. “I’ll be fine. So will you. We’ll just move on. That’s what we do. What we’ve always done.”

In her quarters—a dome of steel, innards of soil and grass—Luna shooed her helmet of wasps into their paper-spun hive and peeled the sundew dress from her frame. The dress, a living suit of armor hungry not for battle but for truth, shifted and writhed in her palms. Its bounty of cilia quivered with glistening drops of memorycolors—colors that Luna had collected during her earlier dance. She needed to store these away for later transmission and analysis. But exhaustion gnawed dully at her tissues and bones. The rainbows of history do not leave the dancer either quickly or easily. From shades of pale fruit to black beetles, they saturate; they take hold—indelible secrets imprinted onto the soul. So for now, she submerged the dress in its open-bottomed vase and watched as it inched into the soil to sleep.

After washing up and dressing in a simple tunic of butterfly fractals, Luna found herself beside a small flickering of fire with her knees drawn up to her chest, childlike. As her eyes closed, she found not comfort but instead the colors of monsters and the memory of blood-wetted blades.

Eventually, a woman called Alexis Mara handed her a cupful of tea.

“Drink up. For the nerves. And the cold.” It was summer, but the night air was nearly empty of the sun’s warmth.

Luna took the cup with a nod. The tea smelled of pine and winter wind but not much else. Still, it was good to have something to occupy her hands, to combat the empty aching of her belly. She took a long sip and let the heat mark her throat. Then she looked to the woman beside her and tried to summon the will to converse.

Alexis Mara had never danced herself but had children and a wife with the gift. Had. The last of them, a boy of fifteen, was among the twelve who expired that morning.

Luna found it difficult to look the woman in the eye. As the ranks of dancers thinned down to almost nothing, she held herself increasingly responsible for the fate of the Resistance and its soldiers.

Mara placed a dried mint leaf on her tongue. “So it’s true what they say? About Katsaros?”

“Yes,” Luna managed.

“I’m so sorry,” Mara said. Her voice held only a hint of sadness and no anger.

Luna hadn’t broadcast her relationship with their former leader, but she never hid it. Neither had Uzun. “We all are.”

“Mint?” Mara offered, a sympathetic curl on her lips. As if Luna were the only one in need of comfort, as if Mara herself had lost nothing, no one. But these days, of course, everyone had stories of losing someone—of too much fresh dirt over graves.

Luna selected a small mint leaf and placed it in the hollow beneath her tongue. The cool freshness belonged to the spring season—the season in which she met Katsa and Uzun both, a year after her mother’s death and just before the Carriage of Arms.

“Any rumor of new dancers?” Mara tried. “I heard Uzun sent out another search party just yesterday.”

“Not that I know of,” she replied.

“But there must be others out there with the ability. Don’t you think?” Mara’s voice was full of hope.

Luna shrugged, unsure now of what she believed. It had been so long since they found someone new.

Mara put a papery hand on Luna’s knee. “Well I certainly hope so. At the very least, your children—” At this her loss caught briefly in her throat. She swallowed, then started again. “At least your children will dance.”

Luna felt she should say something about Mara’s son, but somehow could not bring herself to form the words. Where does one begin when the horror is so great? When the loss so wrong?

Instead, when her lips finally moved, all they managed was, “I have hope of that, yes.”


When Luna last felt such emotion in her chest, she was just a girl. Her mother taught her to dance, in whispers more hushed than a black widow’s prowl, six months before Severance officially began. Already tensions were high in One Territory. Disagreements over the importance of the past had crowded out talk of almost all else. But this is why Luna needed to learn, her mother said. She had the gift; she was obliged to wield its power.

In the mirror room at the back of their little house, Luna’s mother taught her dances for deathmemories and dances for celebrationmemories, whirls for procuring tiny details and grand turns for absorption on a large scale. They worked every night, from the time Luna returned from academy until neither mother nor daughter could stand on her feet any longer.

Soon enough, Luna wasn’t merely dancing but was brushing up against the spirits like a honeybee brushes with pollen. Over and over and over again until she was one of the best, until she had deposited a hundred stories with the Archivist and seeded many corners of the Territory in the brassy hues of aggressions, the wet pinks of birthtales, the lemons of revenge.

Then Luna watched her mother die in the Square. A zealous, outspoken woman, she was one of the first blamed for the people’s obsession with old stories—with weaving meaning from the colorfabric of past wrongs and deeds and songs. Luna saw her mother’s dress bloom with red, like hot water soaking up pomegranate tea. But she did not shield her eyes or turn a blade upon her own flesh.

Her mother’s death meant she had to dance stronger, smarter, and more.

And now, four years later, Luna knew she would somehow have to become stronger and better still. Where once there were nine members of the Xenophon Council, only Luna and the Archivist remained. Before the war, the Council had been comprised of respected elders and young dancers alike, and power was spread evenly among them, like sunlight over an open field. Now, the Council as governing body had been subsumed by too many deaths into the Resistance Council. Luna’s mother had been a member, of course, and those still living looked to Luna to take her seat after that day in the Square.

At first, she had only listened as the other members discussed fortifying the walls around the Archive for added protection, and as they held heated debates on the propriety of using their skills to fight war. Later, she often took the lead in those debates, beside Katsa or the Archivist, advocating with passion and confidence for what she believed would bring just resolution to the chaos Authority had spun.


In recent centuries, a particular subset of Hoyal Clan members, known as the Xenophon, learned to channel through dance the bodies and memories of the past. According to Severance Authority, these open channels put society at risk of continued distrust, fragmentation, and war. What Authority does not tell you of is its role in the past. But those who enter here shall know.

– Archive inscription, North Wall of Truth


For the trip to the Archive, Uzun gave Luna a new weapon. A nightshade dagger, of purple teeth and shadow poisons, which she now gripped tightly at her side. Rarely were there breaches in these parts, but she could not afford injury or mistake. Not now.

Wearing her wasps to protect her mind from Authority memory nets, she walked briskly in the cover of rubble and ghosts. She was flanked on the right by First Guardian Ekene, a powerful woman of middle age, and on the left by the ever-smiling Guardian Parviz, a boy of no more than sixteen.

Crossing the bridge of lakes, and not even ten minutes into their journey, Ekene spotted in the distance two Authority Intelligencers—identifiable by their fire-red uniforms and the small stars they wielded as weapons. The outfits were brazen, but then, so were they.

“I will handle them,” Parviz offered.

Luna nodded, giving him approval, for she was a Lieutenant as well as Xenophon.

Seconds later, both Intelligencers fell, heart-pierced. Parviz was young and full of smiles, but deadly with his weapon of choice: a pair of bird’s beak spears.

As they approached, Luna winced. The Intelligencers’ deaths chameleoned through her—a terse, malachite green shifted into an achromatic grey, a striking opal faded to drab russet as it twisted around her neck. Standing above the bodies, she gave a small plié. She regretted the loss of even her enemies’ lives. But one could not hesitate in the presence of Authority operatives.

As the trio pressed on, she told herself it had to be done.


Dancing is a universal form of human expression. It took shape from early attempts at dramatic storytelling and for some, eventually evolved into its present rhythmic but painful nature. It is the pain, above all, that links us to the past, that makes us strive for a better future.

– Xenophon Council Aide-Mémoire No. 3


After this, Luna and her guards encountered no other obstacles. Before the hour turned, the Archive rose up before them, glimmering like a mirage. With everything crowding her head, the journey felt like nothing—a short slip of time. Not even long enough to catch her breath.

The walls outside the Archive were fortified with a century of memories—of Hoyal disappearances, and riots, and ill-accepted inter-clan marriages, fires set by Authority in villages where the gift of dance was strong. Maintained by the Archivist, the memorycolors here did not fade, but remained as they were when procured.

At the gates, Luna halted and turned to her guards. “Wait for me here. I won’t be long.”

Ekene opened her mouth to protest but stopped short. Despite Uzun’s precaution of sending guards, Luna could care for herself. She was skilled and disciplined in the art of war, just as she was in dance.

“Be quick, be graceful, and do no harm to the world,” Parviz said through a grin. This the Resistance farewell to dancers.

Luna placed her hand on the wall beside the gates and let it taste her identity. A moment later, as the structure permitted her passage, she turned first to Parviz, then Ekene. “Thank you. Thank you both.”

Inside the gates and beyond the walls, tunnels filled with kaleidoscopic traceries of memory led to the center of the Archive. One could spend years reading the colors, taking in the nuanced differences between rust and autumn red, sapphire and mid-ocean blue, without remembering even half of what came before.

As Luna walked with the nightshade dagger stretched out in front of her, she passed dozens of Resistance Guardians. Some bowed upon seeing her, others remained as stiff and tall as the Severance Obelisk. But all of them knew her and all would guard her as fiercely as they’d guard the Archivist, should the need arise.

Along the path, Luna’s eyes glittered with stories she hadn’t known before—the goldenrods of Hoyal Clan successes, crimsons of injustice, the cadet-blues of battle. The energy was palpable, like a feverish heartbeat, like blood pumping in veins. Eventually, after passing a final score of guards, she curled around an old man’s berry-black tale of the Carriage of Arms Massacre and found herself in the main room. The Life Room. Here the memories were heaviest of all, folding in on themselves like origami, each crease a different viewpoint of a story, and each shadow an emotion. Standing in an intricate swirl of blues, deftly sorting the color-filled air, was the Archivist.

A slender-bodied neutrois, the Archivist sang as they worked—ever the same song, a deep, melodic thing about a girl lost in a timeless world. The tune had a way of making the hair on Luna’s arms stand as straight as soldiers. She often wondered if these lyrics gave any insight into the Archivist’s own feelings. Never, though, had she asked.

As Luna stepped closer, she saw that today the stubble on the Archivist’s head hued shades of beet juice and lavender. There was so much knowledge inside them that some of it spilled out of its own accord—into their hair, their irises, the beds of their fingernails—and changed colors with the ticking of hours.

On their shoulders, they wore a wreath of black widows that moved in unison, a deadly cloud. Should anyone threaten the Archivist, the spiders would ensure the aggressor’s end. And this was as it should be.

The Archivist, more so than Luna, or Katsa or Uzun, or any other Resistance member, was the most important individual to the cause. They were the gatekeeper of all that Authority sought to lose forever in the name of forgiveness and unity and peace. They were the caretaker of meaning for the generations to come.

“Nur,” Luna spoke, just loud enough to grasp their attention, not so emphatic as to startle.

The Archivist turned. An elegant smile stretched out across their face and filled their eyes. “Luna Moon. A pleasure. Though I must say, this is sooner than I expected you again.” Their voice was gentle but commanding, neither male nor female in tone.

Luna curtsied. “I do apologize. But Commander Uzun sends me. I am now the last dancer of One Territory.”

The Archivist frowned. Their morning-frost eyes flickered with worry, surprise. Brushing a stray spider from their neck, they swallowed.

“Twelve died this past morning,” Luna continued. “Then Commander Katsaros expired just after dusk. Uzun thought it important I seek your counsel. Immediately.”

“It cuts me deeply to hear this, Luna Moon.” And then, when the silence had nearly filled the entirety of the Life Room, “What happened to Irene?”

“Several hours ago she was murdered by blade in the Square. I was not with her but felt the colors of it.”

The Archivist grimaced. They’d known Katsa for many, many years. The Archivist also knew the depth of sensation colorwhispers could bring. Knew the way residual color permanently marked those who had direct contact with the medium—they understood how Luna felt.

“I have not danced with her spirit yet,” Luna continued, watching the weight of spiders move across the Archivist’s collarbone. “In truth, I haven’t felt her since that moment. Until I do, you may examine the color beneath my skin. The feeling was strong. Unusually so, even in light of my relationship with her.”

While Luna was a Memorycolor Specialist herself, she had nowhere near the skills that Katsa did. And the Archivist surpassed them both by far. Beyond that, while Luna could feel the color beneath her skin, she could not read its tinges, its nuances. For that, they had to set it free.

“I’m afraid that you are right, soldier. We should start now, if you can manage it.”

Luna nodded.

“Very well. The arm?”

Again, Luna only nodded.

As the Archivist prepared their instruments, Luna tried to ignore the strange and growing sense of dread filling her body. She focused instead on the words and wisdom of her own mother. She focused on finding courage.


The dead are the strongest connection to the past. The dead do not change, their memories do not grey or distort with time. The dead are the best vaccination against Severance with Before.

– Resistance Message, read by Sonya K. Moon during her penultimate breach of One Territory’s horns.


Sitting back in the surgical chair, Luna outstretched her left arm and awaited the silver-toothed blade. She’d submitted to this procedure a few times before, but like dancing, it was never easy.

The Archivist worked quickly, minimizing the pain as much as possible. They knifed back Luna’s skin in translucent layers, Luna becoming the bloody pink of a red onion peel. Soon the shades shifted and a cloud of rose-petal red unspooled from her body. This color, complex and passionate but also heavy with deep pain, was the color of Katsa and no one else.

Luna glanced from the memorycolor to the Archivist and watched as their face twisted with confusion.

“Nur?” she whispered.

They did not look away from the cloud, from the story of Katsa hidden there.

Luna tried to swallow down the lump in her throat. It would not submit. “Nur, what is it? What do you read?”

The Archivist removed and disposed of their gloves, then ran a slender hand over their head. The deadly spiders stood still, as if frozen, as if also waiting for a response. “Katsaros has not perished, Luna Moon. I have no doubt.”

“But I…” Luna took a long breath, trying to make sense of the Archivist’s words. “But it’s right here. Her color. I know it as well as my own. How could that be?”

The Archivist’s eyes of song now looked a mournful jade. “This memorycolor is…is synthetic. Impeccably manufactured, but manufactured. By Authority.” They pointed to a curled edge of the color. “It is faint, but right here you can see Authority’s fleur-de-lis stamped into the memory. It is a clear tell. One they’d have left out if not so brazen.”

A sudden chill swept over the length of Luna’s skin. She ached to be held—by Uzun or her mother or even, oddly, Katsa.

“If I had to guess, I would say Irene has traded sides,” the Archivist said. “Truth for power.”

Luna did not respond as the meaning of this washed over her. Katsa had abandoned her. Katsa chose hegemony over bravery. Katsaros chose to forget all her pains and losses rather than use them, avenge them. Irene Katsaros revealed the location of the twelve Xenophon killed that morning—because who else would have done it? That woman, whatever else she really was, was a traitor and a fool.


Public memory today is as thin and sterile as gauze, whitewashed down to a sterile nothingness. And that is precisely how Authority wants it. We must do what we can, and go where the universe guides us, to fight the muddy shroud of lies that is Severance.

– Quote from Triumphant Resistance, by Sonya K. Moon


The first night they spent together, Katsa told Luna why she fought, why she danced.

“I’ve lost more than I care to remember,” Katsa began. She’d just stripped down to her underthings, tossing her uniform into a heap on the ground as if it were nothing. Watching her, Luna’s stomach nearly wrung itself into a new shape. To be so blithe—Luna had never been able to live that way.

“My mother and sister and uncle were all slaughtered by Authority before Severance began. My brother was taken prisoner just after we rebelled. I watched them execute him in the street—by memory nets, until all his mind was eaten, gone.”

Hearing this, Luna nearly forgot that the woman before her was half-naked, that they were almost certainly a few short minutes from making love for the first time. She went to where Katsa sat on her bed of grass and crouched down before her. After a moment, she took Katsa’s long, slim hands in hers and held them tight.

“That is why we have to win,” Katsa continued, squeezing Luna’s hands. “For them. So those horrors can never again happen. For your mother, too. So future memories can be of stars, not blood. Music, not gravestones.” As Katsa spoke this, her eyes gleamed bright and defiant, as though she would soon inherit the whole earth. Looking at her, Luna could see how much Katsa wanted—needed—to win.


Tour Saute—one step preparation and one hop, turning completely around in the same direction of step.

Note: Given the abrupt motion, as well as the defiance the tour saute conveys, this movement should be reserved for instances in which one has no choice but to change course entirely, due to some insurmountable obstacle. Otherwise, one may unsettle the dead.

– Excerpt from the Xenophon Dance Code


Now, for the first time, Luna wondered about that night, about the defiance in Katsaros’s words and eyes and posture. What was she really saying? How long had she been aligned with Authority? Could she have been planning this already when Luna met her? Perhaps now, so many years into battle, Katsa’s deep, almost unthinking need to win overtook her more reasoned desire to win on the side of what is right. Perhaps an end was all that mattered after so much loss.

Considering the possibilities, Luna felt a shiver tiptoe down her spine. Her thoughts tangled together like a mess of venomous snakes as they tugged her back into the Life Room.

Glancing down, she saw that the incision in her arm had been sewn shut. Also, someone was weeping, a loud and gut-twisting cry. Luna looked to the Archivist—to comfort them. But their face was dry and still—pristine, if not entirely at peace. Luna turned, wondering who else had joined them, and the sound shifted with her.

This is how she realized. She was the one crying, the one who had been crying all this time.


As Luna walked home from the Archive, Ekene and Parviz close beside her, several Authority messages played over the horns. She ignored them all, except one. Except the one she recognized instantly as being read in Katsaros’s voice.


SEVERANCE IS SALVATION. There is no turning back now, no redemption in remembering centuries’ worth of outdated tales. Every person who believes in freedom, in peace, must fight for Severance—for the preservation of the future, of One Territory, of themselves. I, myself, spent years searching for peace under the Resistance and never found it. One must forget to find peace, to find life. One must realize SEVERANCE IS SALVATION.

– A Daily Message, Brought to you by Severance Authority, read by Irene Katsaros


As soon as she crossed the lines into Base A, Luna summoned Uzun and the Resistance Council to a meeting. The Archivist, unable to leave the Archive in such dangerous times, channeled in on the tails of ghosts, in the tone of weeping willows and sated bees.

Luna had a plan. And she wasted no time in telling it. After explaining what the Archivist revealed and fielding a whirlwind of questions, she turned to her solution.

“I want to invoke Subpart IV.”

Uzun paled at her words. Several council members began murmuring among themselves.

“I can do it,” she said, raising her voice, making it firm like the Archive walls. “We need to put an end to this. To all of this. Look at what the war has cost us already. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, even the unborn. Countless Xenophon. Authority is weak as well. Now is the time.”

“We’ve never invoked Subpart IV,” someone muttered. “It is too dangerous. Too great a risk.”

“We’ve never invoked it because of the chance Authority would select one of our own in its place,” Luna reminded. “But this is different. Katsaros has chosen for us. Authority will choose her.”

Though reluctance marred his visage, Uzun was the next to speak through the soft hum of dissent. “It pains me to say this, but I fear Moon is right.”

He stood and continued. “Katsaros is bold enough to agree. If she carries any weight with Alexander, with Authority, and it is clear she does, they will almost certainly agree to invoke the provision.”

For a moment there was silence and then several nods.

“Unless anyone sees a better way,” he started, “I will send a message over the horns. Tonight.”

Not one of them spoke.


Disputes of territory and ideology may also be determined by dance, so long as each side agrees to this method of resolution. Both Hoyal Clan members and Authority may each chose a single dancer to participate. The winner shall be the individual who lives, who dances until the other is dead. Given the Hoyal Clan’s distinct advantage in this realm, it is agreed that Authority may, if it wishes, choose a Hoyal Clan member, namely a Xenophon dancer, to serve as its representative. Authority may make this choice unilaterally, without consent of Hoyal leaders or the individual chosen….

– Section III., Part A., Subpart iv. of the Authority-Hoyal Treaty of Year 2217, Before Severance


By midnight it was decided. Authority had agreed to invoke Subpart IV. Luna and Katsaros would dance in less than one day’s time.

Later still, as Luna slept in fitful spurts, she dreamt of killing her former lover and mentor and friend. With the nightshade dagger, she sliced Katsaros open, down the middle, mimicking the image Katsaros and Authority used to fake her death. Blood bubbled from Katsaros’s mouth, ran over her lips and down the slope of her strong chin. Through the blood, she spoke. The pain is too much, my little moon. Too vivid. I was never as strong as you. Never as strong.

When Luna awoke, it was with the taste of the same bitter, answerless questions on her tongue. Was that indeed why Katsa betrayed her? Because she’d lost hope? Grown tired of life on the losing side? Katsa had never been a coward. But this seemingly endless fight had taken its toll on everyone—whittled its way into veins and bones, a song of decay, a scream without hope. Most likely, Luna would never truly know Katsa’s reasons. Because war is never black or white but something in the middle, something impossibly sunless and bleak.

There was nothing to do but carry on, and by midafternoon, Luna had finished preparing herself for the task at hand. She had read through the entirety of Triumphant Resistance; reviewed her dance steps, focusing on those that required the least energy; and dressed in the attire of Xenophon. Only one thing remained to do before marching to the Square: she needed to apologize to Uzun.

She went to his quarters and let herself in without knocking.

He was there, as she expected, pacing the room like a young soldier on his first day of battle. Snakes, his animal-protector of choice, festooned the walls and ceiling vines like chains of garland or ribbon. Luna had never liked snakes—it was something in their eyes and the quick flick of their tongues more than their slithering nature. But Uzun had a way of making her appreciate almost anything, of helping her see all sides.

“I’m ready,” she said firmly.

Uzun stopped his pacing and turned to her. “You don’t have to do this.” His voice was barely a whisper.

“Yes,” she said. “I do.”

Uzun swallowed, hard. “It isn’t safe. What if you lose?” He filled his cheeks with air, then blew it out slowly.

It hurt—a deep, demon-grey sort of hurt—to see him this way. To see him in so much pain.

“The provision is obsolete,” he counseled through gritted teeth. “It’s…it’s—”

“Obsolete, maybe,” Luna agreed. “But still law. Besides, I won’t lose. She may be a better Memorycolor Specialist, and a better soldier, but I have always been the better dancer. You know that.”

Uzun sighed. “Yes, but what do you seek to accomplish? Even if you win, you are still the last dancer. It’s a losing battle either way.” Uzun stretched out his arm towards a large, yellow-eyed snake. The creature moved at his call, slithering across his arm and coming to rest as a golden ribbon across his shoulders. “What can revenge accomplish, now?”

“I don’t do this for revenge, Uzun.”

“Then for what?”

“For ceasefire. For peace.”

“Don’t be naïve,” he snapped. “You think winning this dance will put an end to the destruction and chaos and death? Not for long. A year, perhaps two. And then their intolerance will unfurl again.”

Luna stepped closer to him and reached out to touch the snake’s head with the back of two fingers—a demonstration of power and poise, a signal to Uzun that she was in control. “I think a ceasefire will buy us more time. Time to regroup. Time to find other dancers—in the outer provinces, in the nurseries, wherever. There must be more of us. There must. And if there aren’t, if I truly am the last, then buying time is all the more crucial. We need a new strategy.”

“If you are truly the last, buying time won’t save your traditions or your skills. Why risk your life for a mere chance?”

“For you, Uzun.” Luna made a wide gesture. “For all those people out there, fighting with me because I stand with history. Whatever becomes of me—those people deserve peace and the preservation of their minds, their identities.”


Luna put up a finger as she closed the space between them and took his face in her hands. He smiled, ever so slightly, and with feather-light lips, she kissed him. “Do not doubt me. If not this, then we have just more fighting ahead.”

“I know,” Uzun murmured, wrapping his arms around Luna’s waist. His voice still held heavy hints of fear, but the anger had faded. “I know.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, embracing Uzun fully. “That is what I came here to say. If I fail, know that I am sorry it had to be this way.”


Less than an hour later, with half the Resistance traveling behind her, including Uzun and Ekene and Parviz, Luna walked with steady pace to the Square. More than once she caught the face of Alexis Mara, whose bright eyes offered encouragement even while her wrinkle-worn mouth reminded of the seriousness of this venture.

Katsaros was already waiting with a sea of Authority Intelligencers behind her when Luna arrived.

She looked different. Like she’d peeled back a layer of skin and lies: this Irene Katsaros was someone new. Or was perhaps finally who she’d always been, revealed.

Luna wanted to look away but instead stared harder. She tried her best to ignore the pain of betrayal stuck in her heart like a splinter of wood, the pain coloring her vision as though she were staring at a white-hot sun.

This Irene Katsaros was not the woman Luna had known. This was not the woman who liked sex in the grass better than between sheets, not the woman who taught Luna that desire was as complex as history itself. This woman, with a force of black hair framing her face and nothing at all behind her eyes, was cold and tired and sad.

It didn’t seem fair to have to fight her. But then, war was never fair.

Luna glanced over her shoulder at Uzun. His face was without expression, unreadable. Guardians Ekene and Parviz stood in the glowing embrace of the sunset, just behind Uzun, each with a nightshade dagger drawn. Should anything go awry, should Authority breach the pact to settle this war by dance, these three—and the hundreds more behind them—would defend her.

Luna inched forward, toward Katsaros. “Why?” she demanded. “Why would you do this? What have you done?”

Katsaros blinked. Her eyes were like shadows, empty of yore. Then she set her jaw and firmed her stance, and Luna knew no response would come.

No matter. Luna already had enough of an answer within her. Katsaros was tired. Scared. Without courage. Hurt beyond repair. A victim. A decider of her own fate. Complicated. Complicated in a way that only Hoyal Clan Xenophon dancers could be.

Suddenly, a hundred memories washed over Luna, a wave of residual longing and love. She stretched out an arm and put her hand on Katsaros’s shoulder. Katsaros followed suit. For a moment, the two dancers stood like this, united by a strain of mutual burden. But at this close range, Luna refused to hold Katsaros’s eyes with hers. What was would never be again.

She took a deep breath that revealed neither nerves nor fear. Then, like a vine retreating from shade, Luna twisted away from Katsaros. Under Subpart IV, they would dance simultaneously, Luna adorned in her shimmering sundew dress, Katsaros in the austere Authority uniform, until one or the other could dance no more.

Cutting through the thick murmur of the crowd, Luna spoke one last time. “Be quick, be graceful, and do no harm to the world.”

The crowd hushed, awaiting Katsaros’s response. But again, no words came from her mouth. Instead, she gave a shallow bow, then backed away as well.

As the chimes of the dead rang alongside the clatter of Authority’s anthem, Luna closed her eyes. Behind them, she found a sea of grey, a thousand stories of pain and struggle.

The final bell tolled.

With the jewels of history inlaid as weapons in her heart, Luna moved into the Position of Strength. It was time for the battle to begin.

Copyright 2015 Sara Puls

Sara Puls spends most of her time lawyering, researching, writing, and editing. Her dreams frequently involve strange mash-ups of typography, fairy creatures, courtrooms, and blood. Sara’s stories have been published in Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, Penumbra, World Weaver Press’s Fae anthology, and elsewhere. She also co-edits Scigentasy, a gender- and identity-focused spec fic zine. On Twitter, she is @sarapuls.

by Judith Tarr

For Gwyndyn


The winter field was planted, the seedstones buried to the depth of a woman’s wrist. Any deeper and they might decline to sprout. Any shallower and…

Well. There were tales enough of that. Children stayed up all night for the terror of them.

So did women in this season, taking turn and turn, but not for tales. For the real danger that slept in this walled and barricaded field.

It had been a strange winter, cold and then summer-warm and then properly cold again. Trees budded and flowers tried to bloom, then a new frost withered them. Charis had even seen a bat flittering in the dusk, aimless and confused, roused by the warmth from its long winter’s sleep.

She stood guard on the wall. The spearshaft was light in her hand, the horn disproportionately heavy at her hip.

If she turned, she could see the circles of houses in the village, all dark now, and all within asleep. One of those houses was hers, the children in a pile like puppies, and probably a puppy or three in it too, and Deion their father snoring between them and the door. He had been with her when her turn on watch began, but only for company. Men could not guard this of all the fields. As dangerous as it could be for women, for men it was deadly.

She yawned and stretched, but cautiously. The springlike warmth made her skin prickle. She peered down into the field, scanning the neat furrows.

Nothing stirred. The earth was still. The seeds slept as they should, hoarding their strength for the true spring.


The men liked to think they were the lords of creation–even here, where they should have known better. They sat in their circle while the wind howled outside the Mother’s house and the snow piled high against the walls–where only yesterday the grass had been trying to grow. They were plotting wars, though when Charis passed on her way to the looms, Deion glanced at her and said a little too loudly, “For defense, of course. If the rivermen are hungry for spring lamb. Or the horsemen have run out of grazing lands again.”

“But nobody can touch us,” young Melas said. He was new to the circle, more by courtesy than by right, having handfasted the Mother’s fifth daughter at the autumn feast. “What we grow in the walled garden–it protects us. We don’t need to go out and fight.”

“Strength feeds strength,” said Aias the Bull. “Our strength of mind and will, their strength of–”

“Everything else,” Melas said. “Why do we need to go out at all? We can stay home and be at peace.”

“Do we?” asked Deion. Even knowing she heard. Maybe because she was there. “What if they won’t grow any more? Every year the women range farther in search of the seeds. What if there aren’t any more to be found? What then? Who will defend us?”

“We will,” Aias rumbled. “We are men. We fight. It’s what men do. Peace is for women.”

“But men can’t lead them,” said Melas. “Only women can.”

“That,” said Aias, “as Deion said, could change.”

Charis let her foot slide in the rushes scattered on the floor. They rattled quite satisfactorily.

The men started like the guilty children they were. She smiled and bent her head and left them to wonder what price they would pay for their foolishness.


“Every winter we hear the same nonsense,” the Mother said. She was threading a new loom with spun wool the color of winter branches. She barely paused for Charis’ recounting of the men’s conversation. “Every spring the crop sprouts and they remember their place.”

“What if this time they don’t?” Charis asked. “What if my man is right? What if we go out in summer and there are no seeds to find? What do we do then?”

The other women shook their heads in much the same way as she had shaken hers at the men. So would she, if she had been hearing this from someone else. But the small cold spirit-feet walking down her spine told her this was different.

No one else felt it. Even the Mother, who should have felt it more strongly than she, said, “You know what will happen, if it must. But it will not. Not this year. Not next. Not ever, as long as our strength holds.”

Charis should have bowed to the Mother’s wisdom, but her back was still cold, and her throat had locked shut. The latter kept her from saying what was in her mind, but not from thinking it.

And if it did not?

She reached for her loom with the deep green fabric half finished on it, stretched it out and slipped the spindle from the weaving and went mutely to work.


The baby was off the teat and off the leash but still inclined to wander if her minders were distracted. Which, the day after the great snow, they all were, between digging out the houses and reckoning the casualties among the animals.

Charis found her with the sheep. The flock had been penned near the Mother’s house, but so much snow had fallen that it had buried the fence. They had walked over it to take shelter in the lee of the wall that protected the winter field, and found enough forage there to be comfortable.

The baby had no name yet. She would get one in the spring, now she was her own person and no longer bound to her mother. Charis called her Thistle, because she was prickly and pretty and inclined to catch the wind and drift away.

She had drifted a great distance for a small person in deep snow. Her cheeks were bright red but she was warm, curled up in a nest of drowsing sheep. Charis plucked her out and hauled her unceremoniously back to the house where she belonged.

Only once she had the little monster barricaded in a corner and fetched her a knot of day-old bread to gnaw on did she see what Thistle clutched in her hand.

It was a seedstone. A small one, small enough to conceal in a young child’s fist, but those, like young scorpions, could be the most dangerous.

Thistle howled as her mother pried the stone out of her grip, but Charis could not afford mercy. The stone was warm from Thistle’s hand–but not, please Goddess, too warm.

It looked like the tooth of a great predatory beast, larger than a lion, larger than a bear, but turned to stone. Charis had seen far too many of its like to linger. She plunged back out in the cold, wading through the snow to the stone house where the seeds were kept.

It was true, they were becoming harder to find. When she was Thistle’s age she remembered seeing half a dozen wooden chests in the stone house, and every one full of seeds. Then the hunters only needed to go out in order to replace what had been planted. But even in those days, the older women talked of a dozen chests or more, and only needing to go out every third year, because the seeds were so plentiful.

Now there were three chests, and the one in which she laid Thistle’s seed was more than half empty.

How had Thistle found it, then? The door to the stone house was barred. It had taken a fair amount of strength for Charis to lift the bar, and she was neither a small woman nor a weak one.

Thistle had words, but not enough to answer Charis’ question. All she would say was that the sheep had it–which was not possible. More likely she had found it on the ground where the sheep were. But who would drop a seedstone outside the wall? And why?

All Charis could be sure of was that it portended nothing good.



She kept her troublesome thoughts to herself. Everyone else seemed content, or as much as was possible in winter. They had enough provisions to last until spring, and enough weaving and mending and making and child-minding to do that every day was full.

Charis began to tell herself that it was nothing. The seed had fallen by accident; or it was lifeless, as they sometimes were, and a bird had taken it, found it inedible, and dropped it outside the wall. It was small; it might not have had the power to sprout.

The strange weather continued, now almost summer-warm, now brutally cold and wild with storms. The field slept through it all. No more stray seeds appeared, and Charis made sure that if there had been any, Thistle would not be the one to find it.

At the new moon before the first moon of spring, the storms retreated for long enough that bands of hunters could go out and assure themselves and the people that none of their enemies was stirring. The river was still locked in ice and the plain beyond was empty of horsemen.

When the moon began to swell again, two women would stand guard on the wall at night, and both would carry strung bows as well as spears and the horns that would sound the alarm when the seedstones sprouted. No one expected them to wake so early, but the guard had always doubled after this moon, and therefore it was done.

Tonight, for the last night between now and summer, Charis did her duty alone. It was a fine night, brisk but with a hint of softness in the air. The stars were brilliant overhead.

The field was dark under the glittering vault of the sky. Snow glimmered in the hollows, but had melted from the center and down between the furrows. Along the south side, something stirred in the wind.

There was no wind tonight. Nor did anything grow in that field but what the women had planted there. There was no fog anywhere but in that one place: a thin, curling stream of something rising up out of the ground.

Something else was there with it. Something dark and hunched. It seemed small, but Charis’ years of night watch told her it was the size of a man. A man kneeling, digging in the earth, where no man could ever safely be.

She should run, raise the alarm, fetch the Mother. But something in the shape, the way it moved, sent her toward it rather than away.

She swung down off the wall. The earth rose to meet her. It surged like the river in flood. Life swelled beneath it, growling too deep for the ears to hear; but it rumbled in her bones.

It was too early. The surge was too strong.

The raving fool who had caused it had fallen flat on his face. Darkness sprouted beyond him, springing up out of the ground, unfolding with preternatural speed. It looked at first like a monstrous fern, as thick at the root as a young tree. Then it straightened, until it loomed above the sprawling figure of the man.

Starlight made everything seem larger, but this was half again as tall as a tall man. It stood on two legs and raised two arms, but the face that turned to the stars was closer kin to the lizards that skittered on the walls in summer than to any human creature.

Charis braced both feet on the earth and set the full force of her will on it, to make it stop; to be still. There were words that she should say, rites that she should perform, but there was no time. All she could do was open herself to earth and stars and hope it was enough.

The ground was quieter underfoot. She breathed in, all the way to the core of her, and essayed a step. Then another. And a third.

The child of earth stooped over the idiot who had roused it. Charis trilled as she would to one of the cattle, to catch its attention; to calm it.


Even as doubt struck, the child of earth stopped short of rending the man at its feet and turned.

Its long saurian face could shape no expression, but the eyes were wide and golden, with a fierce light in them, like a hawk’s, or an eagle’s. They were intelligent, those eyes. They met hers.

She spoke to it as to one of her children–willful Thistle, who could have been dangerous if she had not been so small. “It’s too early to be up,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”

The child of earth tilted its head. Its clawed hands flexed. Charis well knew what those could do: how they could gut a man in a single stroke and rend him limb from limb. So had the people’s enemies learned, year upon year; and most remembered. But too many forgot, or grew so desperate that they would brave even the dragon warriors to rob the people of their riches.

“In the true spring,” Charis said, almost crooning, “when the air is warm and sweet and the earth grows rich with greenery–then you may wake. Then you may feast to your heart’s content. But not now. Not tonight. Not before the winter ends.”

The great jaws opened. Ivory teeth gleamed. Every grain of sense that Charis had screamed at her to run while she could.

But no human creature was fast enough to escape this terrible hunter. She stood her ground. The earth, she observed distantly, had gone still. Only this one warrior had waked, of all that the women had sown. And that was a man’s fault, as such things tended to be.

“Rest,” she said. “Sleep. Let the earth embrace you, and make you grow and be strong.”

The yellow eyes blinked. The jaws gaped wider. Yawning. The tall feathered crest, so much like the plume of a warrior’s helmet, folded flat.

“Sleep,” Charis crooned. “Sleep, and dream of spring.”

The child of earth sank down on its haunches. Its long tail curled around it; it folded its arms and tucked in its head.

It was purring, a soft melodic sound. Softly, like waves lapping over a stone, the earth covered it up.

Charis stood very, very still. In the field around her, nothing moved. Not even a breath of wind stirred.

For this night at least, the danger was past. The people were safe from their own defenders.

Charis had done her duty, nothing more. But she would be glad never to have to do that part of it again.

She hooked her foot under the body of the man who had nearly destroyed them all, and half kicked, half pulled him onto his back.

She knew the heft of him, the feel, the smell. And yet she stared blankly at the face that turned to the stars. It could not be Deion of all people. Deion was never so complete a fool.

“I should have let the dragon eat you,” she said, though he was not conscious to hear. Her voice was still and cold.

She left him lying there. If the earth woke again while she did what she must, so be it.



The Mother and the elders carried him out of the field and locked him in the springhouse until morning. He was senseless but alive; if he woke, he would have water to drink. If he did not, no one greatly cared.

Charis felt nothing at all. She had children to tend and feed, without the second pair of hands that she was used to. They would want to know where their father was. She had no words to give them.


“I was trying to save us,” he said.

He was damp and bedraggled and blue with cold, but he was not particularly apologetic. They had made him stand in the open, in sight of the wall that he had defied all laws and common sense to climb. And he said, “The seeds are almost all gone. I wanted to see if there was a way to divide the roots instead, so that one can grow into several. Then there would be no need for the women to go hunting for more.”

Even the Mother sat speechless. His clear gaze, his earnest expression, wore the mask of sanity. His wide eyes implored the women who stood in judgment. “What will happen to us when the stones are gone? How will we live?”

“We will live,” the Mother said. “We will build a wall if we must. Our men will turn their vaunts to honest fighting. But that will not happen. We will be safe.”

“How can you say that? You’ve seen how few seeds are left!”

“Yes,” the Mother said. Her calm was unshakable.

Charis wished that hers could be. All the people were there, watching and listening and glancing at one another. Deion spoke for more of them than not. Even Charis, when she lay awake in the dark, had had such thoughts.

The world was changing. Everyone knew it. But what he had tried to do . . .

“Maybe,” Aias said, “it’s time for a new Mother. If the one we have can’t see–”

“I can see,” she said. “It is you who are blind. Maybe we rely too much on our ancient magic. Maybe it is time we looked to ourselves.”

Now that was terrifying.

“We can’t do that,” Deion said. “How will we survive?”

“How have other people survived?” the Mother asked. Oh, she was calm, like a sky full of storm before the wind and the rain came down. “That will be the price you pay. You will go; you will take what you can carry, and walk out into the world, and learn. When you have learned enough, if you still live, you may come back.”

Deion’s face was white with shock. Charis found she pitied him, but more for his stupidity than his plight. If he had stopped at all, if he had taken a moment to think–

“Who else?” Her voice rang out over the song of the wind. “Who put you up to it? Who agreed that it had to be done?”

For the first time since all this awfulness began, he looked at her. “No one,” he said. “I did it all myself.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“No one else was foolish enough,” he said.

“Now that I believe,” she said.

She turned her back on him. As she did it, her eyes raked across the faces of the men who were nearest, his friends. Aias. Melas. The ones who were always saying the things that he had acted on.

She would remember.

He left alone, with head up and shoulders straight. He did not weep or beg for mercy. Charis had not expected that he would.

For one of the people to be sent away was a terrible thing. Charis was too young to remember the last one, and no one ever spoke of that, even in whispers.

No one would speak of this, either. His name and transgression would be forgotten. His memory would be gone from among the people.

She would remember that, too. She was one great painful well of memory.


Charis was not a sacred dreamer. Her dreams were relentlessly ordinary: dreams of the everyday, both joys and fears, from which she woke to a world not terribly different. No one would ever have chosen her to be a shaman for the people, let alone to hold the Mother’s place above and beside them all.

This dream, the night of Deion’s departure, was as ordinary as any other. In it, Charis was standing guard over the winter field, as she did so often. It was neither winter nor spring; the air was cold but there was a hint of softness in the wind. The stars shone brilliant overhead. Somewhere far away, a wolf sang: a sound to bring terror to anyone not safe in walls.

She was safe from wolves here. The field below was still, though in her dream as in waking, she knew it would sprout soon.

There was something about the field that made her stop and look closer. At the same time, because this was a dream, she was lifted up on wings, rising above the dwindling oblong of wall and field.

She had climbed a mountain once when she was young and slender, before the children came. She had seen the world stretched out below as she saw it in this dream.

The village was a rough circle of circles and squares. The winter field barricaded the western side, facing the long roll of land that descended to the river. On the eastern side, a long arc of houses made a wall of sorts, with the twisting lines of paths and alleys in between.

Charis hung in the air, entranced. The wind caressed her face. She breathed deep of it and for a moment closed her eyes.

When she opened them, the world below was the same, but her sight had changed, grown sharper. She saw the bones of the earth under grass and trees and patches of snow. The ridge that rose to the east; the gradual slope toward the west. The knob of rock above the river, that the people called the Mother’s Teat, but the rivermen called the Dragon’s Horn.

The village lay atop something else, something buried: a roughly circular shape, like a bowl made of earth and stone. There were smaller things in it, if small was the size of a house.

Slowly Charis understood what her eyes were telling her. Beneath the village was a nest like that of a vast bird. Its mother slept in the center, under the Mother’s very house, with the flock of her young around her: some barely larger than the shells from which they had emerged, and others large enough to overwhelm the village if they had risen and walked.

Under the winter field lay a clutch of eggs. With the eyes of dream Charis could see through the shells to the forms within. Each tightly curled shape recalled the larger shapes beyond. In each pair of jaws were rows of fiercely curved teeth.

Charis knew those teeth. She had seen one in her daughter’s hand. They were seedstones. The earth beneath the field was full of them.


She slipped from dream to waking, up and out of her cold and lonely bed and into the frosty chill before dawn. She walked between the worlds, with her feet on the earth and her spirit still halfway to the sky. She went down to the winter field, to the place where Deion had been digging.

She could feel the bones beneath her, and the seedstones above them, taking root, preparing to swell and burst and unfurl into the terrible defenders of the people.

She looked up into the Mother’s face. “We could just dig,” she said.

“That would be easy,” said the Mother. She lowered herself slowly to her knees and laid her palms flat on the earth that Deion had disturbed. Maybe it shifted at her touch. Maybe that was the starlight playing tricks with Charis’ sight.

“We have been given a great gift,” the Mother said. “But too much ease makes any creature weak. If we have to struggle, if only a little, that makes us stronger.”

“And when there are no more stones within reach, that we’re allowed to find? What do we do then?”

“Then we find a new way to protect ourselves,” the Mother said.

“I don’t understand,” Charis said.

The Mother sat on her heels. “What happens to the defenders after they go out from the field?”

“They go out,” said Charis. The Mother knew this, of course she did. But this was a lesson. Charis recited it as the Mother wished her to do. “Whatever threatens us, they kill. Sometimes they feed. When the fields and the river are clear, when there is no danger left for us, they sink back into the earth. They become stone again, and sleep the sleep of stone, that nothing can wake.”

“So we are taught,” the Mother said.

“Is that teaching not true?”

“Magic,” said the Mother, “cares little for human whims or fancies. It simply is. What is under us: that is a great thing. We tell ourselves that it is our blessing, and belongs to us; but the truth is that it would be here with us or without us. It’s not our town that the warriors protect.”

“But,” said Charis, “we find the seeds. We plant them. There would be no warriors without us.”

“Would there?”

Charis knelt beside the Mother. “My head hurts,” she said.

The Mother’s smile was wry. “It is a great deal for our little minds to hold.”

Indeed it was. But Charis clung to one thing. “Deion was wrong. We will be safe.”

“We will,” said the Mother, “while we stand strong. No weakness. No complacence.”

If that meant that the winter field should come to lie fallow and the people be forced to defend themselves, then so be it. That was clear in the Mother’s face, and her voice that had no yielding in it. She would not use what was beneath, or use it up. She would continue as she and her ancestors always had, to protect and guard, and never to give way.

Charis wished for that: to be like stone, hard and unyielding. Not to wake in the nights, reaching for a body that was not there, and drying tears she had never intended to shed.



That winter was the most tenacious that even the oldest of the people could remember. Having dangled a promise of spring, it set in hard and bitter and cold. The earth withered once more; a deep snow fell just before planting–which was a blessing in its way. A day or two later and all the labor would have been for nothing, and seed lost that they could ill spare.

After the cold and the snow came a powerful thaw, and warmth that spoke more of summer than of early spring. More than the earth stirred then. Horsemen on the plain, boats on the river–“If I were one to gamble,” said Charis’ sister Ione, “I’d be hard put to choose which will fall on us first.”

“Maybe they’ll go past us,” Charis said, not believing it even while she said it. They were the largest village in these parts, and the richest, even at the end of a hard winter. They still had sheep, and the lambs were coming: twins, most of them, which in other years would have been looked on as a great good omen.

This year they were treasure, and rivermen and horsemen both were starving. “You can count every rib,” the scouts said, “on man and beast.”

The men sharpened their spears and their long knives. The women filled their quivers with arrows and restrung their bows. They still watched over the winter field, but all of them agreed without saying a word: maybe this would be the year that the defenders failed them.

Charis did not know what she thought. Now she knew what lay under the earth she walked on, she could see it always, a trove of bones and unripe seedstones that no Mother or seer would dare to touch. It brought her no comfort.

She fletched her arrows with grey doves’ feathers and painted them with her mark: a stripe of ocher, one of indigo, and one of the deep red that came from summer berries and the earth above the dragon’s nest.  Her bowstring was spun from her own long hair. She was as ready as she could be.

And the wind blew and the snow flew, and it seemed there would never be a spring.


After the snow came torrents of rain. The river swelled over its banks. The plain was a quagmire. The people’s lands drained quickly, as always; the ancestors had chosen well, even without what lay beneath.

They had enough cropland to plant, at last, and a little green forage for the sheep. The sowers spread the seed under guard, and prayed that this time it would not wash away.

It seemed their prayers were heard. The snow and the wind and the rain had blown far away. The air was soft and mild, the sun pleased to stay for day upon day–with brief intervals of rain for the crops’ sake.

The people welcomed the blessings and kept watch for the price. The winter field lay still. The scouts went out and came back with nothing. No news. Nothing human stirred from her proper place, whether it be river or village or plain.

The calm broke on a warm soft morning, when the fields were green and growing and the plain was in bloom. It came in the form of a man walking out of the east, wolf-lean and footsore. He was much thinner and there were strands of grey in his beard, and his eyes had seen more than most men of the people ever saw. But he was still Deion.

He stood outside the farthest edge of the village, making no move to enter. He lifted his voice so that the whole village could hear, if it had a mind. “They are coming.”

“Horsemen?” Aias had been throwing spears at targets near the place where Deion had stopped. He hefted one in his hand, as if to cast it at the exile.

Deion did not look as if he would have cared if Aias had done it. “Horsemen in hundreds. And women–riding or walking or bundled in wagons with the children and the old. It’s not just the warriors this time, raiding for treasure. It’s their whole world on the move, rolling down on us.”

The world had gone still. The people who had gathered–most of the village by now, drawn by the rumor of the exile’s return–stood mute.

If what he said was true, this was no raid. It was conquest.

“You will take scouts,” the Mother said, “and show them what you have seen.”

No one had heard her coming. She was a large woman, as a Mother should be, but soft on her feet. She held Deion with her gaze, which few could meet.

He met it. She nodded as if he had answered a question. “Show them,” she said again.

Aias stepped forward, and Melas, though his feet faltered. And Charis.

She had not intended to do such a thing at all. Her feet had a will of their own.

It was not for Deion she did it, but for the people.

Maybe for Deion–though whether to reassure him or punish him, she could not have said.

They took a little time to gather weapons and provisions. Long enough for Charis to remember that she had no man to look after the children. But Ione’s man had already thought of that.

“You go,” he said. “We’ll keep them safe.”

Charis hesitated a breath or two longer. They had lost their father already. If they lost her, too . . .

“I’ll only be gone a day or two,” she said.

“Or three,” Ione said. “Go on. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be back.”


Charis half hoped, half feared that Deion would have vanished when she made her way back to the outer field, but he was still there, scrupulously outside the boundary.

All the children had come to stand in a line and stare. Or glare, if they happened to be his. Their eyes, unlike the Mother’s, he could not or would not meet. He squatted on his heels, head down, and endured.

It was no more than he deserved. Charis stepped over the boundary. “Let’s go,” she said.


It had been a long time since Charis went scouting. She was strong enough from working the fields and practicing with weapons, but walking and skulking and sometimes moving at speed needed different muscles. They were not long out of sight of the village before she was sweating and breathing hard, but she would die before she asked anyone to slow down for her.

The thought occurred to her that Deion might be leading them into a trap. Who knew what was in his mind, after all? She certainly did not, who could have sworn that she knew him better than anyone, before she found him digging up the winter field.

He said nothing, simply led them out toward the plain. Aias and Melas fell behind–to guard the rear, Aias made sure to declare, but his face was as red as Charis’ felt. She gritted her teeth and stayed directly behind Deion, with as much of an eye on him as she could spare between scanning the horizon for signs of horsemen.

They knew how to move quietly; to avoid flushing birds in the dead brown grass, and to keep the hawks and the vultures from circling and so betraying them. Where the land rose in ridges, they stayed below the summits.

When the sun set, they camped below one such ridge. Then finally Deion spoke, after Melas asked, “How far away are they?”

“Three days’ walk when I last saw them,” he answered, “but they’ll be closer now.”


Horsemen on raids could run faster than the fastest human, but with women and children on foot or in wagons drawn by oxen, they barely advanced above walking pace. Midmorning of the second day found the scouts flat on their bellies in a mat of last year’s grass with new spring shoots barely hand-high within it, trying to count the horde that filled the plain.

“Hundreds and hundreds,” Melas said. He sounded more awed than afraid.

“And hundreds,” said Charis, “and hundreds beyond that. So it’s true. They’re moving their whole world westward.” She narrowed her eyes and peered past the horde to the eastern horizon. “What’s chasing them, then?”

“Winter,” Deion said.

“Winter comes every year,” she said.

“Not like this one.”

She had to nod, though she hated to agree with anything he said.

“We can’t fight this many even with our defenders,” Melas said.

Now he sounded scared. Charis leveled him with her stare. “We’ll make the village a rock for them to break against.”

“Or flow around, like an island in a flood.” Deion rose to a crouch, still keeping his body below the heads of the grass.  “If we start now, the people will have a day’s notice, maybe a little more. Time enough to wake the defenders.”

“If they wake,” Melas muttered. Aias flattened him with a fist, but he had only said what they were all thinking.



Compared to the rapid slog of the journey out to the plain, the journey back was a race. Charis found reserves she had not known she had. Her feet were blistered, her thighs rubbed raw, and there was a white stab of pain in her ribs. But she ran, only stopping to drink briefly from such streams as they passed, or to sip from her waterskin in between.

They slept a little after dark, but rose in the deep night, drank again, ate a little of what was left in their packs, and ran on. Melas wheezed and staggered but somehow kept the pace.

Charis wheezed as little as she could, and stayed more or less steady on her feet. It took all the will she had. Deion ran ahead of her as if he had been a dragon warrior himself: never changing his pace, and never tiring.

When the hills took on shapes that she knew well, she happened to be on her knees, drinking from a stream that tasted of midwinter. The rumbling in the earth felt at first like the pounding of blood in her veins, but it had a different rhythm.

Hoofbeats–many of them. Not as many as the horde she had seen, but these she recognized all too easily. A raiding party was coming down through the valley.

They were as lean as Deion had said, men and horses alike. They had the look of starving wolves: hungry enough to eat anything, or die trying.

A thought was forming inside Charis’ belly. It was born of her dream and her premonitions, and the anger in her that Deion had been an idiot and had been cast out. His coming back had only made her angrier.

There was a clarity in certain sorts of anger, a piercing brightness in the world, as if it were edged and honed like the head of a spear.

Thirty bone-thin men. Thirty horsemen. It was not the smallest raid that had ever descended on the people, or by far the largest. It was what one would expect after a hard winter. The children of earth could dispose of them easily, along with any stragglers who might follow.

If Charis had been a horseman, she would have intended exactly that. She would have sent a few mad boys to lure out the defenders, to run if they could and die if they must, and leave the village with its riches wide open to the horde.

Deion’s glance met hers. For an instant she forgot to be angry at him, as full as she was of anger at the horsemen. He nodded; she nodded back. They understood each other.

Melas grunted. Charis had forgotten him, too, and Aias beside him. He lay flat on his face. Aias was out in the open, running across the raiders’ path, bellowing like a bullcalf with a bee up his tail.

Melas pushed himself up on his elbows, spitting out a mouthful of grass and dirt. “I tried to stop him. I couldn’t–”

Deion pushed him back down. “Be quiet,” he said.

Melas tried to get up again. Charis sat on him.

Aias was managing to stay ahead of the horses, but only just. What he thought he was doing, except getting himself killed, she could not imagine.

She strung her bow and nocked an arrow to the string, but she did not need Deion’s hiss of warning to realize that if she shot either Aias or the horseman nearest him, she would betray the rest of them. All she could do was sit on Melas, who had stopped struggling, and watch while Aias ducked and weaved and darted.

He was trying to lure the raiders away from the village. As if one man could make the slightest difference, or give the horsemen more than a few dozen breaths’ pause.

They were herding him down the valley, letting him run himself into exhaustion while their horses kept on at the same plodding walk as before. They let him go until he was stumbling and gasping, and then a little longer. Where the valley opened onto the plain of the river, just about where they would be able to see the village with its cluster of houses and its wall and its fields, one of the horsemen kicked his mount into a shambling trot.

Aias turned to meet the spear. It was an awkward blow, with little strength behind it, but it caught him in the throat. He went down with his hands around the shaft, thrashing like a speared fish.

The horsemen rode on by. None spared him a glance, though one or two of the horses slanted an ear and sidled.


He was still alive when Charis dropped to her knees beside him. His face was swollen out of recognition; his mouth gaped. His eyes rolled. The spirit had left them already; it was only the body lying there, bleeding out upon the grass.

Deion’s knife was in his hand. Charis plucked it from fingers that only briefly resisted.

She gave Aias the same mercy she gave a lamb at the slaughter. One thrust, swift and unwavering, up below the breastbone into the heart. It surged against the blade, and then burst, taking his life with it.

She would mourn when there was time. Or they would all be dead and together in the Mother’s arms, and there would be no need.

Melas wanted to linger and weep, but Deion pulled him away. Charis paused a few moments to compose Aias’ limbs and close his eyes. When she left him, she took the spear.

It was surprisingly warm in her hand, and more surprisingly, not hostile. It was a living thing, shaped out of a sapling and hung with a red horsetail. Its weight suited her; its balance was perfect. In a different world it might have been made for her.

It gave her strength from the earth that had made it and the blood that had fed it. It lightened her feet, so that she ran side by side with Deion.

He still had Melas by the arm. Melas had enough to do to keep up; there was no room for tears or resistance.

None of them spoke. They all knew where they had to go: slanting away from the horsemen’s trail. It seemed these raiders were new to this country; they did not know how the plain dropped away before it came to the village. They would come to the edge soon enough, and realize that there was no quick way down for men on horses.

If Earth Mother was kind, they would need the rest of the day, and perhaps part of the night, to find the place where the ridge dipped down and the plain rose to meet it. That left more than time enough for three of the people on foot to make their way down the steep narrow track to the outermost sheep-pasture.

It was deserted; the flocks would not come up here until summer was well settled in. They paused to breathe and to drink from the spring, and Deion tried to leave Melas in the shepherd’s hut. But he would not stay.

“Even to keep watch?” Deion said.

“This isn’t where the fight will be,” Melas said.

Charis could hardly blame him. Her belly was on fire, too. She had had enough of waiting and dreading and dreaming.

She found she had a last sprint in her, down out of the pasture and through the fields and into the village. The men puffed and wheezed behind–even Deion, which gratified her more than was seemly.

People were doing what people did on a fine spring morning: tending cookpots, counting lambs, gathering weapons and keeping a calm but wary eye on the plain. Charis did not need to say anything. At sight of her as she wound and wove, circling through the village, all the young men and most of the women left what they were doing.

Other villages had learned to build walls that stood from season to season. The people only walled off the winter field. But they had defenses enough.

The outermost houses were built taller than the rest, and their walls were thick. The paths between them twisted and bent: no straight lines to feed a horseman’s speed. As they wound inward, they narrowed, until they were barely wide enough for a woman walking with a basket on her head, hemmed in with thick-woven hedges.

Every child of the people learned to thread that maze. Charis came through it into the open.

She stopped there. Deion stumbled past her and managed not quite to fall. When he had gone a handful of furrows’ length away from the last of the houses, he sat in the grass, apparently alone. But on the roof of every house were archers with bows strung, waiting. In among the alleys and the hedges, men and women with spears and knives had settled to watch and wait.

Charis sat on her heels. Her bow was light in her hand, an arrow ready for the string.

The sun was warm on her head and shoulders. The air was sweet. For today at least, full spring had come at last.

She had no memory of rising, but she was on her feet. Remembering a promise, and the creature to which she had made it.

If the children of earth woke, the women on watch over the field would do what was necessary. Charis had no need to tear herself in two: to be there instead of here.

If the defenders woke now, they would be done and gone before the invasion itself came down off the ridge. As it would. She could tell herself they would choose an easier way, raid more distant villages, but her bones knew better. The horde was coming here.

No one had ever tried to keep the children of earth from waking when it was their time. Spring came, raiders came, the defenders woke and swept the raiders away. That was the way it had been for as long as the people could remember.

Charis had not known she had any speed left. Desperation swept her forward; made her almost forget the ache in her thighs and the stitch in her side.

Some of the children and a dog or two ran after her, but they dropped away quickly. Their elders either got out of her way or stared as she darted around them.

As Charis passed her own house, she nearly collided with Ione, who was coming out. Charis got a grip on her wrist and kept going. She had no breath to ask after the children, but she might have caught a glimpse of Andros’ bushy beard just inside the door.

Ione dragged and squawked at first, but Charis held on. Soon enough Ione stopped fighting.

She had her bow with her, and a pair of long knives. What good they might be against the defenders’ waking, Charis could not imagine. But she did not tell Ione to drop them. They might be useful. Who knew?


There should have been at least two women on guard over the winter field, but the wall was deserted. Everyone who could fight must be either waiting for the horsemen or guarding the houses and the children, the sick and the old.

Charis wasted no time in climbing up to see if someone was tucked in a corner asleep. She paused by the gate, to breathe and to calm herself.

What she was doing had not been done that she had ever heard of. Always when the defenders woke, the wall was lined with guards, all with spears that served as much to shepherd as to fight.

The earth was still. The signs of sprouting were visible to eyes that knew what to see: low hillocks at intervals along the furrows, and grass and new-sprung weeds beginning to wither over them.

Where Deion had dug up the one defender, the hillock was higher, the growth on it shriveled and dead. Others near it were almost as far gone. To Charis’ eye, it seemed that the signs weakened as they spread outward, with the circle around this one the strongest, which meant they were the most likely to wake.

When she closed her eyes, her dream of dragons was as clear as it she dreamed it all over again. The ground’s solidity thinned until she saw through it to the sleepers beneath.

No old bones, these. They were alive, tightly coiled in their nests of earth. The farther away they were, the more unfinished they seemed. Those directly beneath were fully fledged, their claws sharp and long, and their jaws lined with deadly teeth.

The one under her feet was breathing long and slow. She knelt, but that did not feel like enough. She lay full length, face down, and embraced the earth. “Sleep,” she sang to what was beneath. “Soon you may wake. But not now. Not today.”

She felt the shift of air beside her. She turned her head. Ione was kneeling in the furrow.

“What are we doing?” her sister asked.

Charis liked the we. When they were younger, it had usually meant adventures. “Keeping them in the earth until the horsemen come.”

“Aren’t they coming now?”

“Not all of them,” Charis said.

Ione’s eyes widened slightly. “Deion was telling the truth.”

“If anything, he understated the case.”

Ione lay flat as Charis was doing. “Tell me what to say.”

“Sing them to sleep,” she said.

Ione was a much sweeter singer than Charis. She was a poet, too, and a charmer of birds.

These things beneath, they had feathers, though they had no wings. Maybe they would listen as the birds did, and do as they were told.

Charis did not stop her own singing, though she sounded to herself like a raven croaking, and her words were nothing beautiful or clever. Maybe there was no need for it at all. But she was not going to gamble the lives of the people for a niggle of doubt.



The young fools came to the cooking fires that night full of vaunting and boasting. They made a dance and a song out of it, winding in a skein from house to house.

“We drove off the horsemen, we the mighty, we the beautiful. We shot them with our arrows; we stabbed them with our spears. We drove them all far away.”

“And no dragons!” sang Phryne, who had the strongest voice. “Every hand was a human hand, and every stroke a mortal one.”

Charis had been trying to sleep. No one but Ione knew what other battle had raged while the horsemen were being so magnificently destroyed. No one celebrated that victory; no one sang her name or her praises.

She was wrung completely dry. There was nothing left in her but air and wind and the memory of the dragons under the earth.

The singing crept into her dream, along with the warm and breathing weights around and on top of her. The last was Thistle, who seemed to think that if she held Charis down with her whole body, her mother would never leave her again.

Her father slept outside the village. His coming had saved them, but the Mother had said nothing to revoke his exile. Nor had Charis asked it. Anger was still laired deep in her, wrapped around betrayal.

It was sleeping like the children of earth. What would happen when it woke…

In her dream, the warrior whom Deion had awakened stirred in its nest and opened its eyes.

In all the years that the people had been raising the dragon warriors and wielding them against invaders, none of them had ever thought of the defenders as anything but weapons. Weapons that walked; that could as easily turn against the people as against those who threatened them. They were no more to be reasoned with than a flood on the river or a fire on the plain.

There was more in those eyes than raw hunger for blood. They regarded her calmly, as if to commit her to memory. Not to kill and eat her, she thought. To know her. To understand what she was.

A thought unfolded inside her. A mad, a terrible thought. A thought that could be the end of her. But it would not go away.

This must be the demon that had possessed Deion. It was a subtle spirit. It felt like her own heart, beating in her breast, and her own belly clenching.

She slipped from beneath the children and the odd puppy. They murmured and fretted but closed in together without waking.


Deion was sitting just as he had been when Charis left him, upright with his legs folded. He must have been sleeping, but his eyes in the wan moonlight were clear.

She sat a little distance from him, as she had before the raiders came. Her hands were empty now, her weapons in the house. She regretted leaving the knife, but briefly. No human weapon would be of any use for what she meant to do.

Nor would Deion, but since she would most assuredly be cast out for this, she found his presence comforting.

“They’ll be here by morning,” he said.

Children of Earth? she almost asked.

Of course not. He meant the horsemen. “That soon?”

“If were their chieftain, and my raiders failed to come back, I’d know my diversion worked. I’d want to strike while the people were lazy and full of their victory.”

Tomorrow. Maybe not in the morning, with as many of them as there were, and the land making itself difficult for horses. But they would press hard while they thought themselves safe.

The Mother would know this. So would the elders. They would be doing nothing to rouse the defenders, because no one ever had done anything. The defenders woke when it was time.

The defender under the earth would listen if she spoke. And that was mad, too, and she knew it.

She could feel the horsemen coming. The earth carried the thunder of hooves and the rattle of cartwheels.

The defenders still slept. She had made sure of that yesterday. As deep as their sleep was, even a war might not wake them.

It would be easier if she could do this in the winter field. But that was guarded. She would be caught as Deion had been, and waste precious time with all the consequences.

Here she was, then. Where she sat happened to be directly above the curve of the great mother dragon’s skeletal wing, buried in earth and covered with grass. The mother’s children were not all under the field. They were asleep in their nests everywhere that the village was, and out toward the river.

She did not remember that from her dream.

If this failed–if she proved to be as misguided as Deion had been, but worse, far worse–

It was too late now to stop what had begun. The horsemen rolled toward them with the coming of the light, advancing in their hundreds and thousands.

Now, Charis said in her heart to the one she knew, the child of earth who lay in the heart of the winter field.

It was a she, that one, like the great mother of dragons. She rose up out of the ground as her kind had done for years out of count. Her sisters rose with her, while the guards on the wall sounded the horn and gathered the people and did all the things that they had done since the people’s memory began.

And that was good. The horn had roused the people from their houses, sent the small and the weak and the ill to safety in the heart of the village and brought the strong to the gathering place with all the weapons that they had.

They gathered in the summer field, the open space behind the wall. Only the guards held their places within sight of the children of earth. The one who had drawn black stone from the pot was charged with coming down off the wall, unbarring the gate and flinging it back, and then springing out of the way.

Usually she survived. Sometimes the defenders made their first meal of her before the wailing of horns and the beating of drums drove them down the long aisle of houses, in between the hedges and out onto the plain.

Melaina had drawn the black stone today. She was light and fast and might have escaped if the children of earth had pursued her, but they took no notice of her. They were following the one who had roused first, and she was coming to find Charis.

Charis was two people then. The one sitting in the grass, watching the horizon fill with horsemen and spill toward her, and the one hovering like a hawk above it all. The latter counted the defenders who streamed out of the winter field behind the tall one with the lofty crest.

Twenty, thirty, forty. Of ninety seedstones planted. A poor harvest, the people would be thinking, from a poor and feeble planting.

They were still terrible as they came, moving more quickly than any human or horse. They ran like huge wingless birds, skimming the ground with clawed feet.  Their plumes were erect and gleaming in the morning light, red and blue and green and gold.

The first of them emerged upon the plain. The others spread behind her.

Charis stayed where she was, sitting with Deion silent and wide-eyed just out of her reach. She had no weapon but her wits and her empty hands.

The child of earth approached her, stepping delicately. She heard the sharp hiss of Deion’s breath as the creature bent over her. Thank the Goddess he was too shocked or too prudent to move; if he had, she could not have promised that he would live.

She was safe. She should not be thinking that, with those claws so close to her throat. Each one was as long as her hand.

The eyes that met hers were cold and flat and alien, and yet they recognized something in her. Not magic or wisdom or power. Maybe only that she would defend this place and these people with her life.

In some strange way, they were kin. The land made them so, and what lay beneath the land.

She glanced past the plumed head at the wall of horsemen bearing down on them. The child of earth hissed. Its tail lashed. It spun, gape-jawed, and bellowed louder than any bull. It launched itself against the enemy.

Forty dragon warriors were swift and fierce and deadly, but there were a hundred horsemen for every one of them. The people with their spears and arrows took down horses and riders that won their way past the children of earth. And still the horsemen came.

Despair had a taste like bitter herbs. It caught at the throat. Deion had a spear; she had not seen where he got it.

She only had her knife. It would do for slitting throats when the horde came this far–and it would. A dozen children of earth were down and trampled. A dozen more fought through wounds that might not kill them quickly, but every passing moment cost them in blood and pain. The screaming of horses and humans and the roaring of dragon warriors filled air and earth and broke the sky.

Charis straightened. Her knees creaked; her back voiced an objection.

She sat as nearly upright as her body would allow. The horde was well within bowshot. Already a handful of loose horses had stampeded into the village.

All its defenses were barely enough to slow the tide. Well before the sun touched the zenith, the horsemen would overwhelm the village and destroy the people.

“No,” Charis said. She could barely hear herself through the cacophony of battle.

She set her teeth and her will. The earth’s voice was all confused. She could not see what was beneath, not any more. But she could still feel it.

She set the point of her knife to the long vein that ran from her wrist up her arm. Her life pulsed in it. A brief, craven fear of pain made her flinch, but she forced herself through it.

It was not so horrible after all. Childbearing was worse. Bloodier, too, if something went wrong.

Bright blood streamed from the long wound, pouring out on the earth. It was foolish, she knew; people were bleeding everywhere. But this was blood of sacrifice. Blood given freely to the dragon queen under the grass.

The queen’s life was done. She would never rise again. Her children . . .

Old bones turned to stone. Lives lived before the first human thing walked the earth. A world long gone, forgotten everywhere but in this one place.

It was as dead as the dragon queen. The magic of the seedstones was nearly gone; after this year’s harvest, there might never be another. That age of the world was fading fast.

Maybe. Charis was fading, too, as the blood flowed out of her. Horsemen streamed around her, shying away from Deion’s spear.

Stupid man. He would do better to help her bind up her arm before she lost any more blood. She would fight then, as they all would, and die with the rest of the people, but not before she took with her as many horsemen as she could.

She was growing dizzy. She struggled out of her shirt and wrapped it around her arm, clumsily. She should not be this weak, not yet, but there was no denying it. She was not at all sure she could stand if she tried.

The ground lurched. She looked for the horse that must have fallen hard, but all those near her were on their feet–veering, and one screamed.

These were dragons indeed. The children of earth were tiny beside them, like a flock of sparrows before an onslaught of eagles.

One rose up full in front of Charis, all feathers and fangs and talons. It seized the horse that had screamed and swallowed it whole.

Its eye rolled toward Charis. It could swallow her, too. She had no defense against it.

It was even more alien than the child of earth, even colder and even wilder. Her little bit of meat would barely blunt its hunger. And yet it saw in her . . . something. She belonged to this earth, this place from which it also came.

It turned away from her. There were horsemen in hundreds to feed on. Even fleeing, they were no match for its strength or its terrible speed.

She should stand up. There was still fighting to be done, wounded to dispatch, horses to herd into the most convenient enclosure, which happened to be the winter field.

She got her feet under her. Someone had dropped a spear. It made a decent enough support.

So did the hand that gripped her arm. Deion glared at her.

She glared back. He steadied her, firmly, and transformed her shirt in a bandage, wrapping it smooth and tight.

She was still shaky and dizzy, but she was no longer losing blood. She pressed forward.

Deion let her go, but stayed close by. So did Ione. Charis had not seen her come, but she was there, with her strong bow and her deadly speed with knife and spear.

They gave Charis strength. Yes, even Deion. Whom she was forgetting to hate.



The horde’s back was broken. Its chieftains were dead, its strongest warriors gone to feed the dragons. But there were still horsemen in hundreds, and they had nowhere to go. They turned in desperation; they fought for every drop of blood and every scrap of ground.

The dragons had eaten till they were sated. The children of earth, those that survived, for once had enough battle to fight, but even they were flagging.

The sun sank toward a horizon the color of blood. There was no order left, and no division, only flailing and tearing.

Charis was most of the way out of her body. She had dispatched a horseman whom the dragons had torn so badly that there was no healing him, and found herself attached somehow to his horse: a sturdy dun-colored creature that refused to be chased away.

The children of earth were driving the last of the horde into the river. They would go, too, after that, as they always had before, into the water or out upon the plain. No doubt the dragons would do the same. And that would be the end of it–for this year and maybe for years after.

Charis could rest then. She told herself that as she turned back toward the village, with the horse following like an enormous and persistent dog.

It felt wrong. Her feet wanted to take her away from her house rather than toward it. They yearned toward the river and the gnashing jaws and tossing plumes and the great beasts that had risen at her call.

She was doing what her people had always done. She should be content. Which had nothing to do with the fact that she had started walking, and had no power to stop until she was almost to the river.

The children of earth turned at her coming. One of them, the tall one, loosed a shrill cry, like a hawk’s grown large enough to fill the sky. It was a call, and the dragons came to it, striding over the torn and bloodied earth.

They were coming for her. She had roused them; now she would pay. Her blood would complete the spell.

She was ready. She faced them with her head up, too far gone to be afraid.

The horse snorted. No wonder it followed her; it was too stupid to run away from dragons. It flattened its ears and snaked its head and snapped teeth in the face of the tall child of earth.

The child of earth had eaten enough of its kind today that she had no appetite left. She blinked lazily at the horse, and hissed.

The horse lunged. Charis hauled it back.

They stood poised, she and the horse and the child of earth. The horse would kill if she let it, and be killed in return. And that might rid her of the meddlesome thing, but there would still be the rest of it to contend with.

They were all waiting for her to move, to speak–something. “Come home now,” she heard herself say as if they had been her children. “It’s time to sleep.”

That was the maddest thing she had said or done in all this mad season. The earth’s children never came home. They always went away. And that was a good thing, because if they had no horsemen to feed on, then they would turn on the people.

Not if she told them otherwise, the tall one’s gaze said. They would go back into the earth. They would sleep, as she bade them; and wake when she called, too, if the rivermen came. Or more horsemen. Or–

“Why?” she asked. “Why would you do it?”

The golden eyes lidded. The tall crest went flat. It was an answer, but not one her human mind could understand. The closest it could come was a vision, an image behind her eyes: young Thistle objecting strenuously to maternal discipline, but giving in in the end, because Charis was even stronger-willed than she.

“I’m not your mother!” she burst out.

Was that laughter? Could a dragon know such a thing?

Not their mother, no; that great power had never inhabited a frail human body. But she had something that no human had had before. She was not afraid of them.

“No,” she said. “I’m terrified.”

The child of earth opened its jaws and hissed. That was laughter, oh yes. Danger, too; teeth that could rend a horse in half and jaws that could swallow a human whole.

“Home,” she said, which was a surrender of sorts, and a command. If it wavered slightly, the children of earth seemed disinclined to notice. “Home, and sleep.”


The winter field was quiet again, the children of earth asleep beneath it. Where the dragons had come up out of the ground, the grass had already begun to grow.

The plain was empty once more, and as clean as the aftermath of a battle could be. The pyres of the dead had burned for a hand of days, until a storm came out of the east and quenched the flames. The people had a herd of horses now, which some of the more enterprising were already teaching themselves to ride.

The world was changed, but some things were still, in spite of everything, the same. Thistle, who could not be kept off the back of the dun horse that had followed Charis home. Deion, who refused to enter the village even yet. And Charis, who had come back in the dark with the children of earth, and told no one what she had done.

Charis began to think that she might breathe again. Maybe even forget her great transgression, since nothing had been said of it. No one but Deion and Ione appeared to know, and they kept it to themselves.

No one needed to know. The people were safe. Would be safe now for as long as she was alive.

She went out one morning when the heat was already rising, for the summer that year had come early and strong. Deion had a tent now, pitched in a fold of the ground so that the wind off the plain swept over it rather than through it. He had a campfire, and one way and another there was always something cooking over it. Much of it he hunted for himself; and people slipped him whatever they could spare.

He was not so thin now, but the brightness that had gone out of him had never come back. She saw the faintest glimmer of it as he glanced up from tending his fire, before his eyes lidded and his face locked shut.

She had brought a knob of sheep’s cheese and a basket of berries from the summer pasture. They went pleasantly with the rabbit that turned on a spit over the flames.

“You could leave,” she said as they shared the last of the bones, cracking them and sucking out the marrow.

“Is that a command?” he asked.

His voice was as flat as his expression. She had a sudden, powerful urge to slap him silly.

She tossed the last cracked bone into the fire. “Tell me why you stay.”

“Where else would I go?”

“Anywhere in the world,” she said.

“Do you want me to leave?”

“What would you do if I said yes?”

He prodded the embers until they burst into flame. His hand shook ever so slightly. “If you meant it, I would obey.”

“Of course I would mean it!”

“Then say it,” he said.

Her teeth clicked together. She would say it. She was long since finished with him. What he had done–

She had done worse. His sin was to try to save the people, but to fail at it. She had succeeded. Except that no one knew, except this man and her sister.

He paid every day for his transgression. She…

She stood without a word, turned and walked away.


The Mother heard her out in perfect and awful silence. The elders twitched and murmured at parts of the tale she told, but she was not speaking to them. She kept her eyes on the Mother’s face.

It gave her nothing back. Belief, disbelief–nothing.

“And now,” Charis said when she was done, “they sleep again beneath the earth. Even the children of the stones. In spring they’ll wake. Or sooner if there’s need. They promised me.”

Still, nothing.

“And I will go,” she said. “I know the penalty.”

“Do you?”

She was so steeped in the Mother’s silence that the words seemed to come out of the ground, with no lips or tongue to speak them. Her mind focused slowly. “I know what I did.”

“Do you?”

Every mother could drive her daughter to distraction; so could Charis. It was an art of mothers.

“Tell me what I don’t understand,” Charis said.

“Most things,” the Mother answered.

Charis could hardly argue with that. She stood in the elders’ circle, with the sun beating down even through the branches of the tree that had shaded their summer councils for time out of mind. People had wandered over, curious, or looking for a respite from the labor of making land and people whole again.

She wondered if any of them could feel the sleepers beneath. Every part of the village now had its defenders. A whole nest of them slept under the winter field, that would need no seedstones planted this autumn, or for many an autumn after.

Charis had done that. She would see to it that the Mother and the elders looked to Ione for the things that Charis would not be there to teach them. Ione knew what to do and say and sing when the time of waking came.

She opened her mouth to speak, but the Mother’s uplifted hand forestalled her. “I am not going to let you go,” she said. “That would be the easy thing, and the simple one. I command you to stay, and see us all through to the end of what you have done.”

“That could be a long sentence,” Charis said.

“Longer than your life,” said the Mother.

Charis shivered. Death was part of life; everyone knew that. But the Mother was binding her to this place as the defenders were–from life into life, down all the long years.

It was a fair price, all things considered. Terrible, but fair.

She bowed to it. There was a moment, a brief flicker of regret, that she would not be faring out into the wide world after all. It vanished quickly.

This was her place. Her people were here. Her kin; her children. The children of earth, who had bound themselves to her, or she to them. She was not entirely clear on the finer points of that.

She would learn. The Mother had made sure of it.


Deion was still sitting where she had left him. She had not been entirely sure he would be. If it had been she, she would have packed up and gone.

He had always been slower at the simmer.

“Take down your tent,” she said, “and cover the fire. You won’t be needing them any more.”

His breath caught: all the sign of shock that he would let her see. “And you?”

“I’m condemned to stay,” she said.

“I’m sure that grieves you.”

“As much as it would you.”

“That’s not my choice, is it?” he said.

“No.” She doused his fire with water from the skin that lay near it, and swept earth over it.

He stood stiff, watching her. She straightened. “Now the tent.”

“You hate me that much,” he said.

“That depends,” she said.

“On what?”

“On what you do with all this,” she said, “once it’s down and packed.”

“What can I do but leave?”

Idiot man. Maybe he should just go.

Then who would make her want to laugh or slap him in equal measure? And who would mind the children when she needed another set of hands?

“You can come back,” she said, and her voice was as steady as it needed to be.

His face went perfectly blank. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Have you tried?”

He opened his mouth. Shut it.

She set her hand to the tent. After a long count of breaths, so did he. When it was down, the poles wrapped in the painted felt and all lashed together, she left him to do what he would do.

She heard him behind her: the grunt as he lifted the bundle of tent and poles and balanced it on his shoulder. She would not slow or turn, but her ears strained. Dreading to hear him walking away.

He kept a steady distance–a few steps behind. Through the maze. Into the village. All the way to the house the two of them had built, not so far from the winter field.

He went past and around it to the lean-to in the back, where he stowed his bundle, along with the rest of the odds and bits that a man and a woman and their assortment of children might find useful. When he came out, he stood straighter, and the light was back in his eye: not so bright yet, but it would grow.

He was home. And so, at last, was she.

Copyright 2014 Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is the author of numerous novels and short stories including the World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and the Epona Sequence of “prehistorical” novels, which opens with White Mare’s Daughter. She is a member of Book View Cafe, the online authors’ cooperative; she lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses.

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