by Caroline M. Yoachim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Tripp was six, his uncle took him to see the wall of gods. It should have been his parents to take him, but his mother was dead and she had never spoken of his father.

“This is an important moment in your young life,” Uncle Sariff said. “You will not make your god until you are twelve, but you must collect your paper and plan. The sooner you choose the form of your god, the better.”

Uncle Sariff’s god was a monkey. It perched on his shoulder and picked through his hair as they walked to the temple.

“Different forms call to different gods,” the monkey said. “Think about what you want in a god, and choose carefully.”

The monkey gave good advice, but Tripp had trouble taking it seriously because it kept eating bits of fluff that it picked out of Uncle Sariff’s hair. He studied the road as they walked, so that he could avoid watching the disgusting monkey.

The temple was out beyond the outskirts of town, on a black-stone road that was built by the forsaken ones. Many years ago, the sides of the road were littered with ancient treasures. Even in his mother’s day, a little digging often turned up something useful. She’d found the white plastic pipe that her god perched on somewhere along the road.

The temple itself was a relic of those older times. The building was an enormous rectangle, with a vast expanse of black-stone spread all around it. Part of the roof had collapsed, but one room was completely intact — a room as big as Tripp’s mother’s house, with a large window made of glass. It was the biggest piece of uncracked glass that anyone in Tripp’s town had ever seen, even Granny Aura, who had seen a lot of things. On either side of the doorway that led to the wall of gods hung faded tapestries carefully embroidered with symbols that no one remembered how to read.

“Respect,” the monkey whispered as they approached the room. “Images of gods prefer silence.”

Uncle Sariff opened the door for Tripp, and he stepped into the temple. On his right was the window, stretching nearly the entire length of the wall. On his left was the wall of gods — every inch of its surface was covered in a strange material, white like paper and crisscrossed with black lines to form an uneven grid. Each box of the grid contained an animal, not a live animal, but not exactly a picture either. The entire wall writhed with the movement of animals scurrying or climbing, waddling or flying. A few animals slept, and others swam.

Several children sat quietly on the floor, studying the gods. Tripp made no move to join them, but instead walked right next to the wall, to get a closer look at the animals. Most were familiar — birds and lizards and small mammals. A few were grander gods, that Tripp had heard of, but never seen. After all, who could collect enough paper to make a rhinoceros? Even Tripp, only six years old, knew better than to attempt such a thing.

He shook his head as he walked, dismissing each animal as too grand or too plain, too ugly or too extravagant. Then something caught his eye. A small but prickly creature, covered in black spines with white tips. It was a god he had never seen in the town.

Tripp reached out to touch the wall, but before his fingers could brush up against it someone grabbed his shoulder and pushed him away.

He yelped.

“Don’t ever touch the wall of gods. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” Uncle Sariff had never laid a hand on Tripp before, and though his voice was quiet out of respect for the temple, Tripp could tell that he was angry.

Tripp hung his head. He should have known better. He would be banned from the temple for weeks now, maybe more. As his Uncle pulled him away, he snuck one last look at what would one day be his god. He didn’t even know what the creature was called.

One look at his uncle was enough for him to know that this was not the proper time to ask.

As punishment, Tripp was forbidden from entering the temple until four years had passed. This despite the fact that he had not actually touched the wall. He supposed he should be grateful to Uncle Sariff for stopping him, since if he had actually touched the wall he might have been banned for life.

Still, his punishment was harsh. While the others studied their gods and planned their construction, Tripp got further and further behind, knowing only that he should collect his paper in black and white.

Smoke was some help to him. She was making good progress on her flamingo, and if she was feeling particularly generous she would sometimes study his god and answer his questions about some little thing. There was so much he still didn’t know, although he had finally learned his god’s name. Porcupine, his uncle said, a few months after Tripp had been banned.

Some children took several visits to the temple to decide on a god, and many changed their minds early on. But Tripp was sure. It was the perfect god, all in black and white, covered in thousands of long needles. To do it properly, he would need a lot of paper.

Four years passed slowly, and Tripp gathered black and white paper as best he could. He could not go to the temple and meditate on the plan for his god, but he knew that he was far short of the paper he needed. When he was finally allowed back into the temple, he sat respectfully on the floor with the other children and studied his god. His heart sank. His paltry supply of paper was nowhere near enough. Paper was hard enough to come by for children who took anything — he had spurned anything colorful, anything dirty, anything damaged or torn. Somehow he had to find more.

As he emerged from the temple, filled with despair, he saw Smoke walking down the dirt road, her canvas collection bag slung over her shoulder.

“I’m going to walk the road to the dead city, will you come?” Smoke asked.

It sounded like a waste of time to Tripp. He had planned to watch Kale assemble his god, in hopes that there would be scraps of paper that would not fit. Kale had given a scrap of paper to Autumn yesterday, when it was clear that he had no use for it.

“Most of Kale’s paper is green, you wouldn’t want it anyway,” Smoke said, guessing the reason for his hesitation. “We might find something you can use in the city.”

Smoke had a knack for getting him to do what she wanted. He didn’t mind, really. She wasn’t as bad as most of the other kids. Her eyes were even kind of pretty, colorless and gray. She caught him looking and made a face.

“Fine.” Tripp said. “But I call dibs on everything that’s black and white.”

Smoke considered his offer.

“I still need some black,” she said.

“Do you want me to come or not?” he replied. She didn’t answer. For a while neither of them moved. He wondered if there was really a lot of paper in the dead city. Finally he relented. “I get all the white, and half of the black.”

“Deal.” Smoke laughed. “I’m hoping for mostly pink, anyway.”

Smoke was going to make a flamingo. Tripp thought it was ridiculous, but you didn’t go around questioning other people’s gods. It was a strange choice, though. Everyone else wanted the best animal, the most paper, the powerful gods. Tripp had asked Smoke once, before he was old enough to know better, why she wanted a flamingo. She’d simply shrugged and said she thought it suited her.

It took them a couple hours to get to the dead city, trudging along on the black-stone road. Smoke chattered the entire time, but Tripp didn’t pay much attention. The abandoned buildings here were bigger than the ones in his village, but fewer of them were intact. Nearly all of them had collapsed, and the ground was covered in gray rock rubble and sparkling piles of shattered glass.

It was a terrible place to look for paper. He turned to tell Smoke as much, but she had vanished. He peered up and down the road. There was no way to move forward, with the mountains of debris blocking the way. There was no sign of Smoke behind him, on the road back home.

“There won’t be any paper up there,” she called. Her head was poking out of what looked like a window, cut into the concrete at the bottom of a pile of twisted steel beams. “I’m not handing over half the black if all you’re going to do is stand up there and gawk.”

He squeezed himself through the window. He took a few tentative steps past Smoke and into the middle of the room. His movement triggered some technology from the time of the forsaken, and suddenly the room was lit nearly as bright as outside.

He jumped backwards, bumping into Smoke in his haste to get back to the window. Smoke laughed. “Lily told me about this place, once she had enough paper. There’s a whole maze of rooms down here, and most of them still have lights!”

“You could have told me,” he grumbled, and started towards the nearest door.

Smoke ran up behind him and grabbed his arm. “Sorry. Lily laughed at me the first time I came. I guess it wasn’t that funny to me, then.”

She handed him a bit of chalk. “Mark your path with arrows or something, and don’t get lost. We have to meet back here in time to walk back to the village for supper, so don’t go too far.”

Tripp snatched the chalk and walked briskly away. Smoke called something after him, but he ignored her. She should have warned him about the lights. It wasn’t funny.

He had gone through several rooms before he realized he hadn’t marked his path. He knelt at the door he’d just come through and drew an arrow pointing back the way he’d come. He thought about backtracking to mark the rest of his path, but it since it was a straight line of doors he was reasonably sure he could find his way.

He looked around. Like most things from forsaken times, he couldn’t make heads or tails of the room he was standing in. It was filled with machines, tall boxy things with switches and display panels. None of them appeared to be working, although Tripp wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell if they were. Certainly they were quiet and dark, and none of them were moving. He stood on tiptoe and reached up to brush the top of one. His hand came away covered in dust.

The next room had more machines, although these were more varied in shape than the previous ones. There was a table made entirely out of metal, and a cylindrical bin woven from wires. The bin was empty, but Tripp rather liked the odd container, so he stooped to pick it up, and when he bent over, he noticed a tiny strip of black along the bottom of the wall.

Higher up, someone had hung a decorative piece of cloth, a quilt or a tapestry, not unlike the ones that decorated the entryway to the wall of gods. There, the wall hangings framed the door, and Tripp could see scratches on the floor where someone had moved a file cabinet to see if there was an opening next to the quilt. But whoever it was hadn’t thought to look behind the quilt itself. Tripp pried one side of the quilt away from the wall, carefully placing the metal fasteners on top of the file cabinet.

He smiled to see the black door against the white wall. A hidden treasure, black and white, as though it was put there just for him.

When the lights came on in that next room, Tripp dropped the bin to the floor. The metal clanged against the tiles, but Tripp hardly heard it. One of the walls was lined with shelves, and one of the shelves was full of books.

Books. Each with hundreds of sheets of paper inside. He had never seen one before, he’d only heard the stories Granny Aura told. But they were unmistakable. The whole room even smelled of musty paper. It was intoxicating.

He ran back to get Smoke, carefully marking the entire path with arrows to be absolutely sure they wouldn’t lose the way to the treasure.

“It’s a holy place, we shouldn’t touch them.” Smoke said.

“No one has been here in a long time.” Tripp had been too excited to think it through, but of course Smoke was right. At some point, this had been a holy place. Otherwise why would it be behind the quilt? “And it’s a lot of paper.”

Smoke sat on the floor and studied the books, much like everyone studied the gods at the temple.

“We came here to find paper.” He wheedled. “And now that we’ve found it you don’t want it?”

“It doesn’t feel right to take them,” she answered. “Lily found a few loose scraps, I thought it’d be more like that. These are books. Do you actually think you could take one apart just to get the paper out?”

Tripp marched up to the shelf and pulled down a book. He opened it, and before he had a chance to think about it, he carefully pulled on the first sheet, slightly yellowed with age, but definitely white. It came free from the book with an ugly ripping noise. He stared at the jagged-edged sheet of paper in his hand, his emotions a mixture of pride and regret.

Smoke was nearly in tears. She ran from the room and out of sight. Tripp sighed. He placed the mutilated book into the wire bin he’d taken from the other room, and then stacked several other books in with it. There were still dozens of others on the shelf, but once Tripp returned with his loot the other kids would find this place and raid it for paper. One of the books on the lower shelf caught his eye. The cover was pink, and sure enough some of the pages inside were printed with pink castles and peachy-pink butterflies. His bin was full, but he took out one of his precious black-and-white books to make room for the pink monstrosity. He wanted Smoke to have something for helping him find all the books, even if she had gone all soft once they’d found them.

The town hall was packed full of every adult in the village, and, of course, their gods. Everyone was seated in no particular order, and gods slithered or scampered or flitted about, sometimes pausing to whisper something to their humans or to each other. Children, being godless creatures, were not normally allowed in the hall, but since Tripp and Smoke had found the books, they were permitted to stay.

“The books shall be displayed in the temple, alongside the wall of gods.” Tripp’s uncle was with the group that favored preserving the books intact, and his monkey was proclaiming such to anyone who would listen, as though it had already been decided.

Granny Aura’s guinea pig sidled up to Tripp. “Books?”

Tripp nodded, unsure of what the guinea pig was after.

“Books,” the guinea pig mused. “Books books books. Paper bound, blocked like bricks, boring boring block-bound bricks.”

Tripp continued nodding, hoping the guinea pig would leave.

“Free the bound! Break the bricks! Set them free and hope it sticks!”

Granny Aura, perhaps noticing Tripp’s discomfort, came to collect her god. “She gives good advice,” Granny said, “but she can get a little over-excited sometimes.”

The meeting went on for hours, with Granny Aura and her followers calling for the paper to be used to freshen the supply and make god-bodies, and Uncle Sariff and his lot calling for the books to be preserved and worshipped. In the end, it was the preservationists that won out, over the screaming protests of Granny Aura’s guinea pig.

Tripp handed over the books that he had brought back from the dead city. All of them but two — the book that he had damaged and Smoke’s pink book were hidden safely away in his mother’s old abandoned house, under the bed where she had died.

Tripp saved the books, his and Smoke’s, until the spring before they turned twelve. He knew that Smoke had mixed feelings about the book, but he wanted her to take it. He waited to give it to her until he was sure she would need the pink paper to make her Flamingo.

“I don’t want it.” Smoke stared at the book in his hand, refusing even to touch it. He should have expected her response, but he had hoped that once the other books were in the temple she’d be more enthusiastic.

“You need pink,” he said, “this has pink.”

“I won’t destroy it.”

He could see that she meant it. Still, there was no way Smoke would have enough paper to make the god she wanted if she didn’t take it. He didn’t want her to have an ugly patchwork god, like his mother’s. She was the only one in the village who was nice to him, and she deserved a pretty god. So Tripp took the little pink book back to his mother’s house and used a knife he borrowed from his Uncle to carefully slice out each individual page.

He worked methodically, cutting a dozen or so pages at once, concentrating on keeping the cuts clean and straight. He put the pages in a neat stack. Then he looked at the cover and nearly burst into tears. He had cut the pages as close to the cover as he could, but thin strands of paper clung to the spine. When he had torn the single page from his book, it had looked much the same afterwards, once the book was closed. But this was different. The cover was empty, and it closed in on itself, mangled, hollow, incomplete. He resisted the urge to shove the papers back in. The paper would have new life in Smoke’s flamingo. How could that be wrong? Granny Aura’s god had wanted it that way, paper was better used than sitting bound in a book.

His hands trembled as he carried the paper down the road to Smoke.

She took it from him.

He waited for her to speak, but she said nothing. She stared down at the stack of paper with a sad expression, as though what she held was not precious pink paper but some sort of dying god.

“I thought. . .” He wanted to explain how she ought to have the best paper, the prettiest pink, so that she could make a beautiful god, but the words seemed shallow and empty in his mouth.

She shook her head and walked away without ever having spoken a word.

The last months before his godsummer were lonely. Smoke had been his only friend, and she wouldn’t speak to him now.

He sat near her when she studied the god wall at the temple, and of course they both went to collect paper when Parna died. Tripp was lucky enough to grab several sheets of black paper, but when he tried to give one to Smoke she refused to take it.

When summer finally came, Tripp and Smoke and the village’s four other twelve-year-olds buried themselves completely in the tedious task of building bodies for their gods. They all sat together in the town hall, a space too big for a group so small, and rolled and folded and smoothed their papers into shape. Adults came in to monitor their progress, and some days younger children came to watch, in hopes of a scrap of unused paper.

Day in and day out the twelve-year-olds sat together in silence, their god-bodies growing larger in front of them and their piles of paper shrinking behind them. Tripp often watched Smoke work as he rolled his paper. His god was mostly quills, which required a lot of rolling. The work was mindless, once he got into a rhythm. Black quills tipped with white, roll and roll the paper tight. He packed the paper rolls close together all around his god body, rolled so tight they were sharp. His fingers were laced with tiny cuts from the rolling and pinprick dots where he’d jabbed himself on the quills. Here and there the white paper bore stains of his blood, but his god would make its body pure, once it was summoned. It would absorb the blood and that would only serve to bind them closer.

Smoke, unlike Tripp, never looked up from her god. She worked carefully, but quickly, her hands flying over her paper to shape intricate feathers in shades of peach and pink and white. Tripp had seen her god on the wall, and thought it a gangly, awkward sort of beast, but in person it looked tall and stately, with long legs and a neatly curved black beak. Even the color was not so terrible. Tripp looked for the paper that he had given to Smoke, but could not find it in among the feathers.

For several days he watched for it, as he rolled his quills, packing them over the body of his god while Smoke mirrored his work in pink feathers. Even when she had finished, there was no sign of the paper he had given her.

He had destroyed a book for her, and she hadn’t even used it.

Her work finished, she sat quietly in the hall. Even without work to draw her attention away, she did not look at him.

Finally, without her flamingo to distract him, he focused on his god-body. In his inattention, he had packed his quills too close together. The effect was actually rather nice, it made the body of his god look fuller and more elaborate. But the effect on his paper supply was devastating. He had rolled far too many quills, and he had only a few dozen sheets of paper left to make legs for his god. Not nearly enough to support the over-packed quill-heavy weight of its body, and there was still a bare spot near the tail that needed more quills.

Worse, he was running out of time.

He laid out his remaining sheets, trying to think what to do. There wasn’t enough time to thin the quills and unroll them and press them flat and use them for legs. There wasn’t enough paper to make four legs. Or even two. He had enough to make a single leg, and what good would that be?

He rolled his last precious sheets of paper into quills and filled in the bare patch on his god-body’s tail. He wondered if anyone had ever created such a pitiful body before, and whether anyone had ever done so poorly as to not attract a god at all. He was so absorbed in this line of thought that he didn’t notice Smoke approaching until she touched his elbow.

“Here,” she said. It was the paper he had cut from her book, still neatly stacked and untouched.

It was pink.

He shook his head. He didn’t want the sort of god that would inhabit a pink-legged porcupine; he would rather carry his god wherever it wished to go. He hoped that there was a god that would understand his choice, and be willing to inhabit a legless body.

The disembodied gods began to arrive at sunrise on the last day of summer. They examined each of the god bodies in turn — Smoke’s flamingo, Tripp’s legless porcupine, Pike’s rainbow patchwork crow, Coral’s potbelly pig, and the twins with their matching set of geckoes.

Outside of any body, the gods were like smoke or mist, hazy wisps that drifted about, sometimes suggesting a human form, other times looking more like one animal or another. They were graceful, and at dawn the room was filled so full of them that Tripp couldn’t see the ceiling or the walls.

But very quickly some gods decided that they didn’t fit the bodies that were offered. Soon the air began to thin, as hundreds of gods became dozens, and dozens dwindled down to ten. Two gods were particularly intrigued by the matching geckoes of the twins, and as they were without competition, they settled in, one in each body, and their respective humans splintered off a piece of their soul to bind the god to the body and the body to themselves.

Two gods were interested in the potbelly pig, and they hovered for a moment in front of Coral before somehow settling the dispute. One drifted off, and the other became Coral’s god.

Two gods wanted the patchwork rainbow crow as well, although Tripp had no idea why. It was an ugly thing, with bright and garish colors that didn’t match. They too settled their dispute, with one taking the body and the other drifting away. Neither of the losing gods even came to look at his body before leaving, and there were only four gods left.

All four of them were gathered around Smoke’s flamingo, and these were more persistent or more stubborn than the others. Here, at least, Tripp could see that the god-body was worth fighting for. The flamingo was beautifully made with paper carefully matched and different shades of pink and peach scattered just right to make the body look natural. It had a subtlety that the patchwork crow lacked, that even his own god body would not have attained even had he managed to finish it. And Smoke, of course, would be a good human to have, if one were a god.

When none of the gods showed any signs of leaving, Smoke approached them. She whispered something, and two gods left. Neither came to Tripp’s legless porcupine. After a long pause, Smoke selected one of the two remaining. It swooped gleefully into her flamingo, and the remaining god hovered. Slowly, sadly, it came to hang before Tripp.

Tripp looked over at Smoke, but she was busy binding her god. What had she whispered, to make the first two leave? Had she coerced this god to come to him, if it was not chosen for her flamingo? He did not want an unwilling god, but he had little choice. It was this god or none at all, and he bound it to his pathetic legless porcupine.

“Take me to the dead city,” Porcupine said.

“Why?” Tripp asked.

“Because I don’t have legs to walk there myself.”

Tripp sighed. “I meant why do you want to go.”

Porcupine didn’t answer, and Tripp picked him up and put him on the newly-constructed wagon. “What do you think?”

“The wood is a little hard.”

“I’ll try to find a blanket.”

All Tripp’s agemates had bonded well with their gods, and they were comfortable with each other’s presence. Tripp, on the other hand, could never escape the guilt he felt for trapping a reluctant god in a legless body. It didn’t help that Porcupine was always bringing it up.

He walked to the dead city, pulling Porcupine in a wagon behind him. Porcupine made a big show of moaning and groaning any time there was even a slight bump. When they passed the temple, Porcupine said, “let’s go in. I want to look at the wall.”

Porcupine loved to look at the diagram on the god-wall that showed what he was supposed to look like. He sighed over his missing legs, and took no comfort from the fact that his quills were far lovelier than what was shown in the picture.

“Do you want me to take you to the dead city or not?” Tripp asked.

“Fine.” Porcupine said, then mumbled, “I am a god, you know.”

They walked in silence after that, until they got to the building where he and smoke had found the books.

“I want to go in.” Porcupine said. “You’ll have to carry me.”

Tripp picked up his god and carried him down through the narrow window that opened underneath the jumbled steel bars and concrete rubble. He took Porcupine through the maze of rooms until they found the door behind the tapestry, and went inside. The books were gone, of course — all taken back to the temple where they could be worshipped.

“This is where you found them?” Porcupine asked.

Tripp nodded.

Porcupine sniffed the air and studied the shelves. “Only one shelf with books, you said?”

“That one.” Tripp pointed it out.

“There were more. On other shelves.”

“No –” Tripp began.

“Oh yes. There were lots. I can smell them.”

Following Porcupine’s directions, Tripp went deeper into the forsaken building. Porcupine was awkward to carry, and his arms were soon covered in tiny pink lines where the quills scratched his skin.

Mostly, Porcupine led him down. There were stairways scattered here and there through the mazes of rooms, and they would travel down a few flights on one, then it would be blocked off and they would find another.

Tripp saw room after room of tall block-shaped machines. The ones up high were silent, but as they descended some of them were humming slightly.

“This one is mine,” Porcupine said, forcing Tripp to stop for several minutes beside a machine that looked exactly like all the others. What connection Porcupine had to that particular machine, Tripp didn’t know, but he had no choice but to wait since he hadn’t brought any chalk and he couldn’t remember how they’d gotten down here.

At last they moved on, winding through several more machine-rooms until suddenly they came through a doorway into the biggest open space that Tripp had ever seen. It was filled with shelves, and the shelves were full of books.

“There must be a million sheets of paper down here. Ten million, maybe,” Tripp said, awed.

“Yes.” Porcupine answered. “We used to call places like this libraries.”

They stood staring at the books.

“You can use them to make more gods.” Porcupine said.

“More gods?”

“Yes, why should you have only one? You saw the machines, there are plenty of gods waiting.”

“But how would I bind them? I only have so much self, and I must use a piece to tie my god to its body.” Tripp puzzled through his thoughts, speaking them aloud. “And besides, a god can only be made in a human’s twelfth summer, and called on the last day of summer.”

Porcupine snorted. “I don’t know where that started. Gods can take a body at any time, and they needn’t be bound to humans. But that’s no matter. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. First I’ll need my legs.”

Tripp looked down at Porcupine, who he’d set down on the floor. It was forbidden to add to your god body once it held a god, but was that restriction merely to make sure the children had enough paper? For here was paper enough to make an army of gods, and Porcupine needed legs.

“I think they should be black.” Porcupine said.

Tripp had hoped that once Porcupine was complete he would be less whiny, but apparently complaining was simply a part of his nature. The new legs were sturdy and held Porcupine up off the ground, but there was something wrong with them — they didn’t move. In between long tirades about the sad state of his defective legs, Porcupine berated Tripp to work faster at building new gods. Tripp was going as fast as he could — after a bit of exploring they had found a short route to the surface, and now he only stopped to go up and find food, or relieve himself, or to go to the temple and study the diagrams on the wall of gods. He even slept in the library. Working like this, he could make a god in a week.

The first god he made, on Porcupine’s instructions, was a monkey.

“He’ll have hands,” Porcupine explained. “So he can help you make the other gods.”

Most of the books in the great library were black text printed on yellowing white paper, and the monkey was made entirely from this. From a distance he looked yellowish gray, which Tripp thought was rather unappealing. Worse, the monkey did not move. Porcupine was furious, but he insisted that Tripp keep working.

More animals followed, getting bigger and grander as they went — a poodle and a bobcat, an ox and a horse and a cow, a striking black-and-white zebra, and finally an elephant so large that Tripp had to move a few of the shelves out of the way to make room for it. How it would get out, Tripp didn’t know, but Porcupine had become quite confident in his instructions, and Tripp felt like he was finally making up for his failure to give Porcupine legs.

But the new animals, small and large, remained stiff and lifeless, and not a single disembodied god came to look at them.

“You’re missing something.” Porcupine said.

“Maybe we have to go to the town hall?” Tripp asked. “Or it’s just the wrong time. We always call the gods in the summer, and it is winter now.”

Porcupine kept at him to build more gods, and Tripp did the best he could, although now his fingers hurt from all the tiny cuts, and his eyes hurt from working all the detailed folds in the dim light of the underground room. Still he kept working and working until finally he was interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Oh, Tripp.” Smoke stood at the entryway, ignoring the many shelves of books and instead looking only at the animals that Tripp had made. Her flamingo stood behind her, craning its neck this way and that to take in the room.

“It’s the porcupine’s fault,” the flamingo said.

Porcupine bristled and hissed, but since his legs couldn’t move, the threat was empty.

“Do you know which one is his?” the flamingo asked. “Which of the machines?”

Tripp tried to remember. They had not returned to that room after the first time, but there would be tracks in the dust. He backtracked along their trail until he found it, leaving Porcupine behind in the room with all the books.

“They sent me here to find you,” Smoke said, softly. “Some of them are angry, but the others are only worried for you.”

“Which are you?” Tripp asked.

“Worried.”

Flamingo was circling the machine, much as Porcupine had. Then he began to peck furiously against the casing with his beak, making a frightful clanging noise that echoed through the room. The casing fell away to reveal a tangle of brightly colored wires.

“Don’t do it, Flamingo, it’ll hurt the boy.” Porcupine called from the library.

“Is that true?” Smoke asked.

“Yes,” the flamingo answered, “but the boy is already hurting.”

“What will happen to me?” Tripp asked. “What about Porcupine?” Porcupine wasn’t a very good god, but he was his god.

“You will lose the part of yourself that binds him. He will lose all of himself.”

“Because we tried to make other gods?”

“It is not the way of things. One human and one god, bound together at the height of summer. What he wants will destroy the balance of the world.”

“So you will destroy him? There must be another way.”

“He cannot be allowed to build an army. When summer comes, the gods will take the bodies you have made, and they will remake the world to suit them. It has happened before.” Flamingo said.

“And why do you care, if you’re a god too?” Smoke asked.

“Because I am your god, and I am part of you and you are part of me. If Porcupine gets his way, both of us will be destroyed.”

“What if I just destroy the other god-bodies, and stop building new ones?” Tripp asked. He didn’t want to harm Smoke, but it didn’t seem fair to hurt Porcupine either, even if he was whiny.

“Porcupine would find a way to convince you again.”

“I will leave him here.” Tripp said.

“That would be worse than what I want to do — such a solitary existence might not be the mercy you intend.”

“He should have the choice,” Tripp said. “I will ask him.”

Back in the library, Tripp explained to Porcupine. “He’s wrong,” Porcupine sulked, “it wouldn’t hurt Smoke, or you, or anyone.”

Tripp wanted to believe his god, but he had known all along that building the other animals was wrong. Porcupine had led him down the wrong path, and now he had to make it right. “You have to choose, Porcupine. Stay here in the library, or let flamingo break the machine?”

“I don’t want to die,” Porcupine whispered.

“Then I won’t let them kill you.” Tripp replied.

Tripp took apart the paper god bodies sheet by sheet, smoothing each paper and stacking it in tidy piles on the library shelves. Last of all he took back Porcupine’s legs, though he wished he could leave his god at least that much. Smoke and her flamingo watched them closely the entire time, to make sure that Porcupine did not regain his influence.

When all the work was done, Porcupine said, “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to stay here.”

“If you do not stay, we will destroy you,” Flamingo said.

Porcupine turned his attention to Tripp. “Flamingo says I must be killed, because I would have killed people. But I never killed anything. We made things, you and I. Beautiful things. We could remake them, all the grandest animals to house the most magnificent gods –”

“No, Porcupine,” Tripp said. He had wanted that, once. He had spent his entire childhood dreaming of the perfect animal and the most fantastic god, but he had never meant for things to come out like this. He was surrounded by the evidence of his bad choices. Stacks of paper filled the shelves and empty book spines littered the floor. And still, in the midst of it all, was Porcupine, urging him even now to build more bodies.

Tripp looked at Smoke and Flamingo, waiting quietly for him to decide. He barely knew Flamingo, and yet already he trusted Flamingo more than he trusted his own god. Or maybe he simply trusted Smoke more than he trusted himself. They both knew that Porcupine was too dangerous, and that Tripp was too easily influenced. Tripp forced himself to admit it, and to say aloud, “I’m sorry, Porcupine. If you don’t want to stay locked away down here, we have to destroy you.”

“Destroy me, then,” Porcupine said. “I have backups, stored on machines all around the world. All I will lose is this sorry excuse of a body.”

Flamingo went to Porcupine’s machine, but Tripp stopped him.

“He is my god, I will do it. Tell me how.”

So he followed Flamingo’s instructions, pulling wires here and there, and when he was finished, he felt that bit of himself that held him to Porcupine dissolve away. He ran back to the library for a final goodbye — misguided as he was, Porcupine was still his god — but when he got there all that remained was a pile of paper.

Tripp walked back along the black-rock road with Smoke and Flamingo, keenly aware of his missing god. “It was my fault as much as his. I trapped him in a broken body. If he had been whole, he might have been content.”

To his surprise, Smoke put her hand on his shoulder. “When the gods came on the last day of summer, I did something foolish. I saw that none of the gods had chosen your porcupine, and so many wanted my flamingo. So I asked that whichever one I didn’t choose go and be your god.”

Flamingo stopped and gave her a hard look.

“Flamingo told me later that it wasn’t a request, but a command,” she said, “but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was asking. Either way, it’s my fault that your god was trapped in a broken body. Your god was so sure that I would choose him, he was willing to risk being stuck in a broken body.”

Tripp turned to Flamingo, “And you were also sure?”

“No,” Flamingo said, “I hoped for Smoke, of course, but I am not like Porcupine. I would have gone to you willingly if Smoke would not have me.”

Tripp wondered what it would have been like, to have Flamingo as his god. It didn’t matter, he supposed. Now he would be the only adult in the village without a god at all. “And now I’m broken, just like Porcupine was. I lost a piece of my soul and I don’t even have a god. I don’t know why I’m even going back. No one will want a godless man in their village.”

“You destroyed your god because you knew it was the right thing to do. There will be at least some people who appreciate that.” Smoke said. She reached out and held his hand. Even before Tripp had a god, his obsession with building the perfect god had gotten in the way of his friendship with Smoke. He’d lost his god, but regained his friend.

There was a town meeting not long after he returned. Tripp was not allowed inside to attend the meeting, but when the council had reached a decision, they called him in.

“It isn’t right to have a godless man in our village,” Granny Aura began, and Tripp’s heart fell. He stared at the old woman. Her guinea pig grinned up at him from her feet.

“We cannot have a godless man,” Granny Aura repeated, “but we will give you a second chance to make your god.”

Granny Aura beckoned, and Smoke stepped into view. In her hands she held a stack of paper.

“The only condition is that you must only use the paper that you had available to you on your twelfth summer,” she continued, “and you must use all of that paper.”

Granny Aura’s guinea pig, no longer able to contain itself, bounded over to Smoke and did an excited little hopping dance around her legs. Smoke smiled at Tripp, but also fanned out the paper so that he could see, in the middle of the stack, the pink paper she had offered him when all his black and white was gone. It had been available to him then, and he would have to use it now.

Strangely, the idea of a partly pink god no longer bothered him. He accepted the conditions of the council, and when the summer came, he sat amongst the twelve-year-olds, and built himself a god.

He made another porcupine, for there had been little time to plan and a porcupine was the only body he knew that used the right amount of paper. It would be another layer to his punishment, to look each day upon the god he had once destroyed. He packed the black-and-white quills tight around its body, and used the pink paper from Smoke to make short sturdy legs. It was not as beautiful as Smoke’s flamingo, but it was whole, and when the gods came to choose their bodies, one of them selected it.

At his new porcupine’s suggestion, Tripp collected all the paper from the disassembled army of gods. It was hard work, but rewarding to think that he was making up for his past mistakes. Every day for months on end, Tripp walked back and forth from the city, carrying stacks of paper in his basket made of wire mesh. He moved the paper to a small storage room in the temple, to be shared out amongst the village children. Even Uncle Sariff agreed that the paper should be put to use since the books had already been destroyed. With Porcupine’s encouragement, Tripp labored without complaint until it had all been moved — ten million sheets of paper, all in black and white.

____
Copyright 2013 Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Seattle, Washington. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and was nominated for a Nebula Award for her 2010 novelette, “Stone Wall Truth.” Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

by Cat Rambo and Ben Burgis

They said the Marielitas were escoria – scum. The abuelitas muttered it to each other, and the young girls coming home from school clustered together like butterflies, looking thrilled and worried whenever the wind whistled at them. The newspapers said Miami was under siege, that Castro had loosed the worst from the Cuban prisons and madhouses.

The respectable Cubans already in Miami – the ones who weren’t driving the boats to bring over their cousins and brothers and grandparents who’d managed to flee to the port of Mariel – were quick to repudiate the incoming. Some of them put bumper stickers on their ten-year-old town cars: No me digas Marielito.

The crease-browed TV news anchors said the Marielitas “contained a disproportionate amount” of drug addicts and the criminally insane. They predicted crimes, rapes, murders. In the evenings, they showed us it was already starting: a kid kicked to death over a pair of sneakers, a bosomy young woman with her tongue cut out. The baby that…

Some things are too hard to dwell on.

But I wasn’t too worried about the Marielitas. Petty criminals, drug runners, the occasional voodoo priest.

What I was worried about wasn’t human.

Liberty City was hot, sweltering, loose veins of traffic stitching the city’s languid body together. Tempers flared in the heat, producing bloody clots of violence and murder, stunned bruises of aftermath.

Sister Premonition had sent me to the bar, Cowboy Queso. The place was trying to be different by combining a hint of western with a dose of quirk, but no one was buying. There was more glitter than sawdust, and who cared about the longhorn skulls on the walls as long as they could get a gramito de cariño in the lariat-marked restroom. A silk-shirted man slid up, slithered away when I indicated I wasn’t interested.

Some guy arrived, flashed a baseball-sized lump of cash, bought everyone drinks. Ten minutes later he was two tables away, doing lines off the mirrored surface of the table top while disco ball sparkles danced off the back of his dark-haired head. I stood outside the snowfall, watching. Welcome to Miami, Sir. His pale skin marked him either a drug dealer from the East Coast or a nightwalker. Given how many people were coming to talk to him, it was a toss-up.

Pretty men and women glided by. I caught a few looks, but at the far side of thirty, it’s hard to stack up next to long-legged shy of two decades, no matter how good you look in high heels.

Then my eye went so cold in my head that I thought my brain would shatter.

The Powers of Light didn’t care much how they alerted me. Only one of the many things I hated about my life.

My attention snapped towards the cigarette-hazed entrance. She had smoke-textured hair, almost blending with the air except for the dress like a silver fish-scale shimmy.

She paused by the half-light of the entry-way and looked over the room, expressionless as a minnow. I observed her observing the room. I didn’t dip my gaze when her eyes met mine. Hers widened, attention caught by the challenge, an instinctual internal shudder like an eel caught in the moss of a neglected tank. Out of nowhere, I remembered about Wittgenstein saying that if fishes could speak, we wouldn’t understand what they said. No, wait. That wasn’t quite right.

She started towards me through the thump and drum of the club. When she got to me, the music was deafening. She tried to shout over it. I tilted my head forward, pantomiming my lack of comprehension.

She held out her hand.

I reached forward. A small round thing passed between our hands with a weird little squirm, like a moist newtling or unborn mouse.

She staggered forward as someone pushed past her, a guy with a bright pink shirt and a Native American profile.

He turned, black eyes glittering. Alarmed by something near her, but I couldn’t tell what.

His hand flashed out at waist height. She recoiled.

I stood up, gestured at the bartender, occupied eight red leather stools down.

She reeled away through the crowd, frantic long swoops through the sea of people that finally cast her towards the entrance. A scarlet stain swam down over the silver dress, falling on the heel of her shoe.

The pink-shirted guy snarled, staring after her. Then he turned to sweep the room, saw me, saw my gesture to the bartender, saw the bartender stepping forward. Then he was gone too, gone back into the sultry Miami night even as the bartender came to my elbow.

I shrugged him away before uncurling my fingers.

Centered in my palm, rolling along the crease of my life line, was an inch-wide black pearl. What they call a peacock pearl, a secret whispered from the ocean’s heart, full of blue and purple gleams. I closed my fingers over it again before it captured some pickpocket’s magpie attention. My vision had returned to normal.

What. The. Hell.

When I got back to the bike shop, I poured hot tap water in a cup and added a jasmine tea bag. I sniffed the delicate aroma, shrugged, and added a half mug’s worth of sooty liquid from the coffeepot, ink and rusty bolts thick. It would wake me up enough to decide my next move, before someone came looking for…

“You.”

I looked up. Standing in the doorway was tall, dark, and pink shirt. A lot of women would have melted under the force of those black eyes, crows-wing eyebrows, lashes like a smolder of incense. But something about the flatness of his stare, his hair’s swamp-water shine, gave me the creeps.

“Me,” I said, half question, half challenge. “Violet Twilight, specifically, being me. And you are?”

“Violet Twilight,” he repeated, stretching out every syllable.

“No, that’s my name. What I asked was yours.”

Pink Shirt snorted. “Sounds like a stripper name.”

I sipped my tea and smiled my very thinnest smile. Why me, why was I the one who couldn’t just live a quiet life with my bike shop, but had to seek out thugs who always said the same thing?

“A brilliant and insightful observation, which I have of course never heard before. But I’m guessing you’re not in my shop to discuss my mother’s naming skills.”

He glanced around at the clutter of parts, the pegboarded tools, the skull and crossbone neon behind the front counter. “Where is it?”

I flicked a menthol out of the pack on the counter, and stuck it in my mouth. With the amount of adrenaline I was generating au natural right now, I didn’t really need the nicotine, but it was a good excuse not to talk for a bit while I searched my pocket for the lighter and then got it going.

“’It’ is an interesting word. By remaining totally general and failing to rule anything out, it totally fails to fix reference to any particular object. You should read some philosophers of language. Wittgenstein. Kripke. They’ll help you get a lot clearer about the use of referents.”

My visitor made the kind of rumbling, sub-vocal noise I didn’t think mammals could make.

I shut up and took another drag of my cigarette, savoring the minty taste.

When he spoke, he drew out every syllable like something a little threatening and a lot obscene. “It. Is. The. Pearl.”

I blew out a mouthful of smoke, and gave him a blasé shrug.

“Do I look like the kind of girl who wears a lot of pearls to you? I own a bike shop.”

For the first time in our conversation, intelligence flickered behind the cold stare.

“So you do. How’s your insurance?”

Here are some interesting facts about me. Before I opened up Twilight Wheels, I was a waitress, and then a bike mechanic working for this guy Carlos…well, the less said about him the better.

Before any of that, though, the thing that I did for the longest and enjoyed the most was grad school. I wrote esoteric papers on paraconsistent logic, enjoying the feel of understanding and control that comes from manipulating long strings of symbols and deluding myself into thinking that my…condition…wouldn’t stop me from getting a tenure-track job when I got out.

I got my PhD. A diploma hangs in my office to prove it. I do enjoy that. Far from sounding like a stripper name “Dr. Twilight” sounds like something out of Marvel Comics.

Sadly, that’s about all that diploma does for me these days. It turns out that the job prospects for people who specialize in paraconsistent logic are not great.

They’re even worse if your glass eye is one of the Thirteen Artifacts of Power, and the damned thing is prone to sending waves of pain through your body when the Powers of Light decide they need you for something halfway through an interview.

I still subscribe to the professional journals, I still pretend I could have a normal life. I keep up my philosophical reading in my spare time. It’s fun.

Systems of logic are like motorcycles. You can ride them without knowing much about how they work, but to understand when and why they break down, you have to know what the pieces are and how they fit together.

Example: Let P and Q be sentences, any sentences. Maybe P is “Ron Reagan will win the election next year” and Q is “Violet’s store will be burned down by the creep in the pink shirt.” In logic we say that Q follows from P if every time P is true, Q is true too. The fancy way of saying that is that the inference is valid because it preserves truth.

In classical logic, any Q follows from any statement “P and not-P,” even though they have nothing to do with each other, because classical logic works on the assumption that ”P and not-P” is never true for any P. The claim that Reagan both will and will not win can’t be true, because nothing like that is ever true.

Sure, P can be true in one sense and false in another one, but nothing can be both true and false in exactly the same way at exactly the same time. Aristotle said that, thousands of years ago in a book called The Prior Analytics. Since then pretty much everyone’s agreed with him. You can see why, and if you’re talking about a normal sentence like the one about Reagan winning the election, it sounds pretty fucking undeniably reasonable.

Here’s the problem, here’s why I’m not part of that “pretty much everyone” who agrees with Aristotle and why I spent my grad school career looking into weird non-classical systems of logic where there are different rules about contradictions.

Let’s say I take a playing card with all the print worn off. I take out a ballpoint pen, and on one side of the card, I write, “1. The sentence on the other side of this card is true.” On the other side, I write, “2. The sentence on the other side of this card is false.”

Is 1 true or false? Well, if it’s true, then 2 is true, but if 2 is true, then 1 is false. If 1 is false, then 2 is true, but if 2 is true, then 1 is true too, because what 1 says is that 2 is true.

One way or the other, the stuff I wrote is both true and false, both true and not-true, and that’s just as much of a contradiction as Ron Reagan winning and not winning the election. It might seem inconsequential, silly, a party trick, a ridiculous reason to have to abandon thousands of years of western philosophy that was based on everybody agreeing with Aristotle, but that’s exactly what it is.

I broke logic with a faded playing card and a ballpoint pen. Pretty cool, right?

Pink shirt had been staring the whole time I explained this. First confused and then angrier and angrier as he figured out none of this had anything to do with the pearl. He asked the insurance question again, almost shouting this time.

I made an elaborate show of not responding to that. Slowly, I turned around to slip the playing card I’d marked up for my little logic lecture into my purse. Then I put my game face on, turned back to the bastard and stared him down.

I don’t like people pushing me. That’s just how I’ve always worked. When the Powers of Light first selected me to be a messenger, they started out with dreams and portents. A one-eyed crow, a purple moon. I ignored them.

They tried nightmares and a ghostly sending that kept appearing on my breakfast table, its head on the table next to its body, reading the paper that the hands held up to it. I started sleeping less and bought an extra kitchen chair so I didn’t have to sit on the ghost’s lap.

A kelpie appeared out of a fountain and tried to talk to me. Then a ki-rin, a selkie, and an I-shit-you-not flying horse that spoke in rhymed couplets. I ignored them all. Bottom line, I’m the kind of girl who cares a lot more about logical arguments and cost/benefit analysis than destiny and theatrics.

It wasn’t until a dragon swooped down, grabbed me in its claws and dragged me to a cloud-covered, half-metaphorical mountain that I had to listen.

Even then, it took a lot of arguing.

Now, rolling in the hollow ache of my left eye-socket is a purple orb that once resided in the purple skull of a toad god. It lets me see things that Normally Walk Unseen and spot lies more easily than most. It also does some other stuff, but when I can, I prefer to solve my problems with talking.

This guy was pushing me, but he wasn’t lying. He genuinely thought I should be scared of him, which meant that he was either over-estimating himself or underestimating me.

With people that didn’t know me, it was usually the latter.

I stubbed my cigarette into the once-white ashtray on my desk. “I think I misheard you.”

Tall, dark and stupid started again. “I asked you, how your insurance was.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought you said. Don’t say that.”

He growled and took a long step towards me, arms held out as though reasoning with a small child.

“Give me the pearl, and we don’t have a problem. You never have to see me again.”

One more step and he’d be close enough to kiss. I clenched my teeth and got ready to do my thing. I hated it when I had to do shit like this in my shop, where expensive tools and bike parts could get hurt.

I closed my real eye and concentrated. A beam of red light shot out of my glass eye and hit him in the shoulder.

I blinked before the hole in the pink shirt was much bigger than a cigarette burn. The skin under it would itch for a while, but that was it. Just enough to calm him down before he did anything stupid.

It wasn’t working.

Sweat poured down his forehead. His teeth chattered. He stumbled forward until he was directly in front of me.

His breath smelled like rotting vegetation in a humid night while he whispered in my ear. “You. Stupid. Bitch. You shouldn’t have pissed me off.”

I shoved him hard, and he collapsed onto his knees. He was still sweating faster than I’d ever seen a human being, or anything else, perspire.

“Seriously, dude? You’re going to give me the Bruce Banner line after what I just did? Really?”

He titled his head up and opened his mouth, but if he meant what came next to take the form of actual words, it didn’t work out that way. There was a blur of color, pink and brown, black and green, flailing arms and scales.

Oh yes. Scales. A pile of tattered clothes on the floor.

OK, this was new.

A long, greenish-black alligator stretched across the floor of my shop. Its snout opened and closed to expose rows of gleaming teeth.

A guttural croak came out of the thing. Random meaningless noise, probably, but for just a second, it sounded a lot like “I told you.”

Fire shot from my eye. Scales charred. The alligator caught my ankle and dragged me down. I twisted away, trailing blood over the floor.

He lurched and snapped. I punched and flamed. My shop got torn to shit.

Truth was, my insurance sucked.

I rolled away and scrambled to my feet.

We circled around each other, looking for openings.

I got ready to do my thing. The gator tensed.

The door to my shop swung open. With its one lousy ceiling fan, Twilight Wheels is never cool, and on a night this humid, warm wind should have come in every time any one came in or out.

This time it didn’t.

A wave of cold swept through the shop.

You know the way your head feels when you gobble up ice cream too fast? Multiply that by a hundred. All over my body. My goddamned soul.

This was the kind of cold that the ice and snow of all the cold places in the world are just silly imitations of. It was cold with a point, temperature with a message. It wanted you to know that no one ever really loved you, and you would die alone.

I fell on my ass. Across the room, the gator writhed.

Something walked between us, cloven hooves going clickety-clack on the cement. A cape swept behind it, made of a patchwork of animal fur and what I was fairly sure was human skin. Black horns jutted out of its head.

When it spoke, its lips moved like a regular human person talking, but the smooth unaccented voice came from everywhere at once.

“Which one of you has the pearl?”

“He does,” I said, pointing at the gator.

It must have had some sort of inborn lie detector like the one in my glass eye, because it snarled and lunged.

I fell back against the gator. Only the cold slowing its reflexes prevented it from taking off my hand at the wrist. Teeth scored my skin as I pulled my arm free of its mouth.

The demon landed on me from the side, clawing for my face. I couldn’t get a break. My foot collided with the gator’s stomach, and I pushed off and back against the wall, slamming the air out of the demon with a sulfurous puff. It flew up towards the ceiling as black smoke. Only moments before it reconstituted itself, as strong as ever.

I didn’t look back to see what the gator did. I made my way through the bathroom and out the tiny alley-facing window, landing next to the urine-scented dumpster.

I hailed a taxi. Sister Premonition had a lot to answer for.

She worked as a cleaner for a retirement home. But not just any retirement home.

I signed in at the front gate. She was with her favorite client, cleaning out the three room, one bath, and patio suite accorded him as a former star of a popular series still garnering considerable money in television reruns. She was in the kitchen trying to make him a lemon and mint drink that he’d like more than Lipton’s diet sweetened forced on him by his diabetes. The battle had been going on, by my estimate, for about a decade.

He bared his teeth and hooted in the direction of the kitchen as I entered through the sliding glass patio door. On the television screen, Tarzan signaled to an elephant.

“I’m here” I called.

I held out my hand with two sugar-free candies in it. Cheetah sniffed them and took the treats with a certain resignation. He crossed to the chest of drawers across the room, painted in bright primary colors, and slid open a tiny blue drawer in order to drop the candies in.

He turned to look at the TV as a younger version of himself came onto the screen. His lips twitched wide, he smiled, before turning back to stare out the glass door of the patio.

Chimpanzees are only used in television and movies until they reach adulthood. After that they’re considered too dangerous to be used and are retired, some to circuses or zoos, others to places like this retirement home for stage and screen animals, which housed six other chimps, two elephants, a shifting number of dogs and cats, and a horse that had been in all three episodes of an immediately –canceled and long-forgotten attempt to bring back Mr. Ed.

Cheetah and I both jolted at a plonk against the thick glass of the patio’s sliding door. A swallow lay twitching on the red bricks outside.

Sister Premonition came to the doorway and stared at me through strands of bone white hair, thick as a mop. Her eye shadow was blue and layered thick. The air smelled of artificial pine.

“Did you get it?” she rasped.

“Get what?”

“The pearl.”

“Maybe. The one you didn’t mention? So what about the gator and subsequent demon?”

She didn’t blink, just kept staring. Finally she huffed out a breath, reminding me of nothing so much as an ancient carriage horse, and went back into the kitchenette.

Cheetah hooted at me.

I said to him, “What’s up, old man?”

He gestured at the patio, signed, bad days ahead.

Sister Premonition came out with frosted cylinders of unsweetened lemon and mint. I drank half of mine down. Cheetah sipped his, lips puckering.

She said, eyes swiveling between Cheetah and myself to gauge reaction to both words and drink, “The pearl is an artifact.”

“Of course it is.”

She reached in the pocket of her apron, slid out a greasy Tarot deck. You could get a deck that looks a bit like hers, if you didn’t know enough to tell the difference, at a knick-knack store in Coconut Grove, not two blocks from Twilight Wheels.

The real thing has a lot of cards you might recognize, the Lovers and the Chariot, Hermit and the Magician and the Fool, but it doesn’t have the Fat Man. It doesn’t have the Murdering Sisters or the Emperor of Hell. It certainly doesn’t have the Clock of Skulls, which Sister Premonition turned over to find out that the last boats permitted out of Mariel would leave in a few short weeks, on October 31st. It doesn’t have the Thirteen Artifacts, which she turned over before announcing where the pearl belonged.

Which was a place that it was vitally important that I go, immediately, to return the pearl before the cloven-hooved demon or something worse got ahold of it. And which was a destination that I could now look forward to explaining to some boat driver when he asked me why I wanted a ride in that direction. The pop-culture Tarot does have the Tower, which was the deck’s reply to my question about what would happen to the world if the demon got the pearl, and which required no explanation.

“Well, fuck.”

Sister Premonition just nodded.

Cheetah looked up at me with big, sad eyes.

You’ll be fine, he signed.

I wished, not for the first time, that my glass eye wasn’t quite so good at detecting lies.

Cuba was like Miami on the other end of a fun-house mirror. The same palm trees swayed in the same hot wind. Life had the same languid pace and scantily-clad people talked and flirted the same way at outdoor bars. The same lilting Spanish filled the air, but without Miami’s ever-present contrasting stream of English.

On my first day in Havana, I kept doing double-takes as I stared at billboards that by all rights should be encouraging people to ENJOY COCA-COLA but were instead full of pictures of Che Guevara and slogans about la revolución and the ongoing struggle against yanquis imperialistas.

Che had been killed more than ten years earlier by the CIA in Bolivia, and if he hadn’t been he would have been in his fifties by now, wrinkles creasing his face and gray in his hair. On the billboards, though, he was perpetually young and confident, his beard jet black and his eyes, a few inches beneath the ever-present beret, cast ahead as if staring straight into some bright communist future only he could see.

On my first night in Havana, alone in a dingy hotel whose manager complimented me on my stilted Spanish–as far as he knew, I was a tourist from the Ukraine–I dreamed of Che. We sat together on the beach, under a blank blue sky, and shared a cigar spliffed with ganja.

He asked how I was enjoying my stay in his country. I took a puff and pretended to be confused.

Wasn’t he born in Argentina, I asked him as I passed him the cigar. Was this truly his country?

Instead of becoming prickly or defensive as I expected him to be, perhaps hoped that he would be, he surprised me by telling an old-fashioned joke, folksy and complicated, about an Argentinian and a Cuban arguing about the price of a chicken.

The joke was silly, its punchline barely a pun, but I laughed as if I had never heard a joke. Well, I thought, he is very handsome. Besides, I reasoned, the ganja was probably getting to me. No doubt it was mostly the ganja.

We sat, this young Che and I, in companionable silence as we smoked. Finally, I asked if he had killed a lot of people in the revolution here, or in the revolution he had been trying to start in Argentina. He shrugged, unmoved but unoffended, and asked me what I thought.

Was it all worth it, I asked him? Was what he died for worth it? I looked him in those striking eyes. Although this whole time we’d been speaking Spanish, he answered me in heavily accented English. “What about you, Violet Twilight? What you came here to die for, is that going to be worth it?”

But what sort of life did I have, at the beck and call of powers I didn’t even really understand?

What I had come to die for was to die.

On my second day in Havana, I started to puzzle out the clues Sister Premonition was able to give me about where I was supposed to return the pearl.

I had a few ideas, but mostly she’d provided vague and unhelpfully poetic stuff about the ocean and a river, something about “the place where the mighty fall.”

The whole island was a place where the mighty fell–the Spanish Empire was driven out in the Spanish-American war, the Batista dictatorship and its American backers were humbled by communist guerillas sixty years later.

I was pretty sure it had to be in the capital city. I just hoped the Powers of Light didn’t expect me to drop off the pearl in some mansion, historically important for some mighty-falling reason but now occupied by one of Castro’s generals. I was having enough trouble as it was avoiding contact with the communist policía and their thousand inevitable and utterly unanswerable questions about who I was and what I was doing in Cuba.

But an elementary school happened to be in a position relative to the ocean and one of the biggest local rivers that lined up perfectly with what Sister Premonition had mumbled to me.

There weren’t the armed guards at the doors that my fevered imaginings about Life Under Castro made me half-expect, but I got a lot of funny looks as I wandered the halls, passing by rooms full of bright-eyed children babbling away in Spanish and little conference rooms populated by teachers on their free periods, huddled together to drink from paper cups of café con leche and bitch about the kind of petty complaints that seemed to be the common lot of all the world’s teachers. When I saw an middle-aged woman point me out to a tall man in an official-looking suit, both their faces drawn in concern, I made my exit.

No sign of any mystical resting-place for my pearl there. Of course not. That would have been far too easy.

Frustrated, annoyed and increasingly hungry–I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, had barely eaten since I arrived–I beat a hasty retreat from the school. I ended up in a corner café a block up from my hotel, where I sat outside, sweating in the heat and eating down a breakfast of beans and rice, fried sweet plantains and black sugary Cuban coffee.

At first I people-watched as I took slow bites, still thinking through the next place I could check Ocean, river, the mighty fall, God damn it, Violet, think harder. After a while, I was just eating, gobbling down hot plantains gulping coffee and utterly focused on spearing bits of black bean with my fork.

It took me a long beat to notice the man standing in front of my table, casting his shadow onto my plate.

He was wearing a black shirt now, but there was no mistaking who it was. Tall. Dark. Sometimes turned into an alligator.

I tensed up. He laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant noise. “Not here, sweetheart. I don’t think that would be a good idea for either one of us.”

I nodded, conceding the point.

“So you still have my pearl, or are you here following it back too?”

“Your pearl?”

“You know fish girl stole it, right? Her tribe isn’t supposed to have it. It belongs to us.”

The glass eye let ”fish girl stole it” pass, but did its itchy lie-detection thing for ”it belongs to us.” No surprises there.

“It doesn’t belong to either of you. When the demon comes for it, you won’t be able to protect it from him. You won’t be able to protect it, and that’s going to be bad news for all of us.”

He puffed up his chest. “We’ll be able to protect it. We can handle ourselves.”

I didn’t quite get an itch from that, but the glass eye didn’t like it. It could tell gator-man didn’t know if it was true.

“It doesn’t belong to you,” I repeated.

For a second, I thought he’d lash out right there and then. He didn’t. He turned aside, spit on the dusty ground, and looked back at me. He spoke more slowly now, measuring his words. “Maybe, sweetheart. Maybe not. But if I find out that you’ve got the pearl, next time I see you alone I’m going to do my goddamndest to put you in the ground.”

With that, he turned heel and walked back into the hazy-bright Havana afternoon, knowing damn well that I knew that what he’d told me wasn’t a lie.

My second night in Havana, I dreamed about logic. I stood in front of a chalkboard full of P’s and Q’s and connecting symbols. Cheetah was there, wearing a suit and tie, and one of those Groucho Marx fake-mustache-and-big-fake-glasses combos. I held a piece of chalk, but I had no idea what to write next.

I can’t believe you haven’t figured it out yet, Cheetah signed at me. His hands flew up in more complicated signs that I’d ever seen him make, but I understood them. All of your fancy human philosophical training, and you can’t figure out a simple turn of phrase? For shame, Dr. Twilight.

Sister Premonition sat on the floor, shuffling and re-shuffling her deck as elaborately as a card shark in Vegas. “Pick a card,” she told me. “Any card.”

I reached for one in the middle of the deck. She stopped me. “Not that card.” She handed me the one on the top. “Pick this card.”

It was the Three Murdering Sisters, their young faces splattered with blood. I squinted at it, and cartoon-y speech balloons appeared next to each sister’s mouth. “The sister to my right” is lying, the one on the far left was saying. “The sister to my left is telling the truth,” the sister in the middle explained. “Please figure out where to put the pearl,” the one on the far right implored. “Please figure it out, Violet. I don’t want to die.”

On my third day in Havana, I woke up in my sweaty hotel sheets and ate my breakfast downstairs before the break of dawn. I pulled my Ukranian-tourist routine well enough to get a marked-up map of the city, and spent the entire day going from possible-pearl-resting-place to possible-pearl-resting-place, each one with a more tenuous connection to the original clues than the last.

Twice I saw gator-man, on the other side of a street or standing across a crowded room. We nodded at each other, wary, and left it at that.

Wandering around a park, I thought I saw the girl from Liberty City, smoke-textured hair and all, and I did a double take. Not the same girl. A few years older, less skinny and less skittish and more sure of herself. She saw me looking at her and smiled, genially confused.

By sundown, I’d resigned myself to the inevitable. I was going to have to start going to Big Official Historically-Important Buildings. Ones with guards and forms and questions, and why didn’t I have my Ukranian travel documents again? Why was it that I wanted to speak to the General? Why shouldn’t this strange woman with the world’s least-convincing accent simply be thrown into jail while we figure out who she is?

Damn it.

I wolfed down something with beans and pork and hot bread and went up to my room early, prepared to get as much sleep as possible before more than likely getting my ass tossed in a Cuban jail. When I opened the door, I saw, sitting on my bed, calm and composed, the woman who I’d mistaken for the girl who’d given me the pearl.

I leaned against the wall and looked at her.

She met my stare.

“Buenas noches,” I finally said. “¿Cómo está usted?”

“My sister gave you our pearl for safe keeping,” she responded in unaccented English. “In Miami, in the city of Liberty, she gave it to you to keep it safe from the men who become the lizards.”

“Yeah. Except it’s not really your pearl, is it?”

“It’s certainly not the lizards’.”

Suddenly even more tired, I slumped down on the floor. “You won’t be able to keep it safe from the demon.”

She let the silence stretch after that, and when she responded it wasn’t exactly a response. “You want to return it to where it came from.”

“Yes.”

“Very well.”

I nodded, immensely relieved. “Do you know where it came from?”

“No. But we will find it. Together..”

When I finally closed my eyes, I tried not to think about tomorrow at all.

That night, I dreamed about fixing bikes. I was in Twilight Wheels. Not only was the shop not trashed from my fight with gator-man and the demon, it was somehow glistening, like everything in it was shined-up with three layers of wax. I was reassembling the parts of a Kawasaki Z1900, the first Japanese super-bike when it came out six years ago and to this day one of the most beautiful machines I’d ever seen. Whatever had been wrong with this bike when it came into my shop, it was perfect now, or it could be. I couldn’t make a single mistake in the reassembly. I had to make it just as flawless as it was when it rolled off the factory floor.

It took me a long time, and when I was done, I kept running my hand, reverently, over the bike’s shimmering flank. I’d done it. Every part of it fit with every other part. If you just followed the logic.

I woke up with a start.

I knew where the pearl went.

Even after I roused fish-woman and we trekked back to the elementary school, it was still pitch-black outside. Mentally, I kicked myself over and over for my mistake. The place where the mighty fall, not where the mighty fell. No reason why it had to be historically important. It was present-tense. The demon was mighty, and if I returned the pearl, his plans would crumble, and the school fit every clue but that. It was such a simple puzzle, and I’d taken so long to figure it out. The place where the mighty fall.

On a roll, I went with my hunch about why I hadn’t seen anything interesting last time I was there. I popped out my glass eye, took the pearl out of my pocket–prompting a little gasp from fish-woman–and stuck it in my eye socket.

A wave of dizziness hit me. I was almost off my feet with the disorientation of seeing two completely different scenes at once. The deserted halls of the elementary school, and a cavern suffused in reddish light.

I closed my real eye and stared ahead. I held out my hand, and fish-woman took it without question. I stepped forward as the floor of the cavern curved up beneath me, fairly sure the floor the school was staying flat.

I turned to glance through the pearl at fish-woman. She stood with me on the elevated ground, silent but looking around in shocked awe. I let go of her hand, squinted with my real eye, then opened it all the way. No more double-vision. Just the cavern.

A few more steps brought us to a plateau. As we climbed onto it, I could see a stone platform emerging from a pool of water. On top of the platform, a shell was glowing so brightly it hurt my eyes. Damn thing might as well have had “insert pearl here” written on it.

And, standing half-submerged in the water, in between me and the shell, was the cloven-footed demon.

Gator-man had made it before me too. He’d come early, seen the demon and started to transform to fight him. I could see his alligator body, floating in the water by the demon’s knees, a few feet away from his bobbing severed human head.

Mental inventory of the contents of my pockets:

One glass eye, not in my eye socket where it can do the most good.

A faded playing card with paradoxical sentences written on the opposite sides.

Some crumpled-up Cuban money.

Basically, nothing.

“I can start eating your head and spit out the pearl into the palm of my hand before you’ve even lost consciousness.” The demon says this as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing bike repair. “You know I can do this.”

Just barely, I managed to unfreeze long enough to nod.

“If you just give me the pearl, I won’t tell you that I’ll spare you your life, that you’ll live to a ripe old age and die in your sleep, surrounded by fat and happy grandchildren. You can tell lies almost as well as I can.” I nodded again, more quick and jerky this time, desperate to keep the demon talking.

Something about that promise.

“I will assure you of this. Give me the pearl, and you will be the last human to die.”

I popped the pearl out of my eye socket, dug my glass eye out of my pocket. If I was going to pretend, I couldn’t actually say anything. He could detect lies.

He could detect lies.

For all my time in grad school studying paradoxes and weird logic, I’d never tested this. My eye only knew verbally-expressed lies, and only when someone else knowingly told them. Still, I was fairly sure that, if the eye was responding to someone it wasn’t attached to telling a lie that was also true, also not a lie, it would go haywire. If that could be combined with whatever reaction the demon’s internal system had to it, then maybe, just maybe.

I held up the pearl. Fish-woman let out a moan of longing. The demon stepped forward to take it.

In one motion, I swapped the glass eye into my hand and put it in the demon’s hand. I started running at the glowing shell.

“THIS SENTENCE,” I screamed, getting the words out in a rush as I ran, trying with everything I had to get them out before the demon dropped my eye. “THISSENTENCETHATIAMSAYINGRIGHTNOWISALIE.”

I released the pearl. The shell sucked it into itself like a vacuum. White flames engulfed the demon’s body. He kept trying to toss the eye onto the ground.

It was too late.

On the afternoon of October 31st, All Hallow’s Eve 1979, after a week in a Cuban hospital telling increasingly desperate lies to increasingly suspicious doctors, I stand on the deck of a boat speeding me and dozens of Cuban refugees to Key West from the Port of Mariel. The sun has just barely begun to set.

I sip rusty coffee from a thermos and look out at the water. I wear an eye patch, and I’m still having trouble with depth perception, but I’m getting more used to it with every passing day.

A long silver fish swims along the side of the boat. I stare in frank appreciation. Later, when no one’s watching, she’ll finish her swim and return to her human form. Later still, she’ll reunite with her sister in Miami. I’m looking forward to that part. I’ve lost my link to the Powers of Light, but it’s only a matter of time before they find a new way to reach me.

Dream-Che wasn’t entirely wrong about that.

I fought like hell to resist the Powers’ plans for me, once upon a time. I’d thought, more than once over the years while wallowing in self-pity after some botched job interview, or nursing my wounds after the Powers had sent me into some mess, that accepting that glass eye and everything that went with it had ruined my life.

But dream-Che was right. What happened to me in Cuba was a kind of dying.

A snatch of poetry I’d read as an undergraduate pops into my head. From Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot. “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”

Change is dying. And it’s life.

Any minute now we’ll see the landmass of Florida stretching out in front of us. In Miami, children will be going from door to door asking for candy. Grown-ups will get drunk at Halloween parties and make passes at each other. Television stations will play hokey old horror movies deep into the night. People will fall asleep on their couches watching those movies, unaware of the real monsters and the real magic alive in the unknown corners of the night.

Respectable Miami Cubans will still drive around with their “No me digas Marielito” bumper stickers for a while, and then they won’t. They’ll get used to the new arrivals, like people always get used to these things. The Marielitos themselves will adjust to their new life, the end of the world they knew and the beginning of life in America. I’ll adjust to my life, the monsters and the magic in the night, and the occasional mermaid swimming beside me.

I’ve seen death. I’ve seen birth. I know they aren’t different.

___
Copyright 2013 Ben Burgis and Cat Rambo

by Patty Jansen

The ship glided into the dock, into the care of grappling arms and snaking robotic leads.

Clang, click, contact.

The navigation hub flashed with the station control override. The screen showed a logo, but no inbound or outbound communication.

Seated next to the pilot, in the bluish glow of the controls, Zhyara didn’t realise how tightly he’d been gripping the edge of the seat, all the way while they’d drifted past the scratched surface of the station, all the way while he listened to the pinging of their unanswered broadbeam probes. His instinct, after being cut off from his associates on Zhiminda station for so long, ached for confirmation that personal networks were still intact.

“I think they could have provided some better damn light in here.” The pilot’s voice pierced the tense silence. The remark, no doubt intended to be light-hearted, fell flat. Everyone aboard the ship was tense.

“But I guess things could have been worse,” the pilot added into the heavy silence.

“Much worse,” Zhyara confirmed.

He breathed out tension. At least someone was still alive aboard the mining station. At too many other stations, they’d found nothing except dead husks of metal, where the emptiness of space had erased evidence of the living.

The floor shook and juddered in time with harsh metallic clangs.

“They’ve used hard-dock,” the pilot observed, unnecessarily; the team knew all the sounds.

“Certainly, we’re not going to get out in a hurry,” Zhyara said.

The pilot glanced aside, a reflection of blue light in gold-flecked black eyes. “Do you think we need to?”

Zhyara didn’t reply to that. Right now, he feared anything was possible.

“Damn,” someone behind him said. “We’re the only ship in this place.”

The dockside image feed, when it flickered into life, showed that three people waited outside.

Zhayra glanced over his shoulder at his seconds, and behind them, their seconds and the third layer of associates behind that. A neat pyramid of order. Eight technicians, four supervisors, two leaders, and him at the top. They were his people, his small branch of the loyalty network. They knew their places and functions down to the smallest flick of an eyebrow.

Aboard this station, his equal, his zhayma, was a woman called Emiru. She would fill him in on the station’s running. Both of them as a team answered to Asha Domiri, the stationmaster; that was how his part of the network slotted together.

But the people out there were all male.

“Who are those guys?” The unease in Zhyara’s mind grew.

“They’re not our associates,” said a technician at the back, reading data from the ID tags on the screen. “Names are unknown. No rank or affiliation known.”

“What happened to Asha Domiri or Emiru Azimi?”

“Truly, anyone’s guess is as good as mine.”

That held no good promise. An unknown man meant Zhyara would have to trace matters of superiority. A normal stationmaster would have been Third Circle, like Zhyara, and there would have been some prior contact, some precedent through which to trace rank. By rights, a stationmaster would have superiority over Zhyara. That was the way things were supposed to be.

The air lock flashed ready. Zhyara got up from his seat. “Is there anything good to report besides that the station is not completely dead?” What if we’ve disturbed the killers of the station halfway through their grisly job?

“Not at the moment. Most of the station functions are unresponsive.”

The door hissed open. With the cold tang of station air came wan light, and shadows of silhouettes on the dock, slowly walking towards the ship. Zhyara breathed the air, but could detect no offensive or challenging hormonal scents.

“They seem keen to meet us,” Chiaru said. She was strapping her gun bracket to her upper arm, ready to assume her position as Zhyara’s guard. If anything, she was exuding a challenging scent.

“Or board us,” a technician added.

“No one will be boarding anything. We’ll be happy to provide off-station transport, but first we need to know that we’re not letting aboard some kind of alien killer disease along with any passengers. Arrange a guard.”

His associates nodded assent; additional weapons were retrieved from storage places. The team’s obedience and their defensive scents brought Zhyara comfort.

He walked down the extended walkway into the cold and utterly silent docks. Only tiny pinpricks of emergency lights punctuated the huge curving hall. No ships, no people anywhere.

The three figures waited. One stood forward, the other two behind him, a classic triangle formation. They looked… normal, if unfamiliar. No sign of wounds or diseases. They weren’t alien like some of the inhabitants they had found on distant worlds. Some of those looked Coldi enough, in terms of body shape, numbers of eyes and hands and legs, but they had little or no social structure and showed unrestrained curiosity, anger and fear like Coldi toddlers. These three people were, without a doubt, Coldi, Asto people, but unfamiliar ones.

“Well met,” Zhyara said, tight like a spring.

The man bowed, his hands by his sides, a subservient greeting. He was thin, gaunt, and his hair, which should be black and glossy with a metallic sheen, was dull. His station uniform looked like he’d been wearing it continuously for a long time, the collar and sleeves tainted with grime. Zhyara could now detect a faint scent in the air, but it was a pacifying flavour, not the strong musk of a leader. In fact, one of the associates had a stronger scent.

The man didn’t look into Zhyara’s eyes. If he did, instinct would trigger and they would have to settle the matter of superiority immediately. With someone unknown like this, there could be a fight. Zhyara had led a protected life recently and was woefully out of fighting practice. Besides, he didn’t want to fight. Not before he knew what was going on, and not even afterwards. If he fought, he might win, and he didn’t want to be stuck with the command of this sick and limping station.

“Well met, network coordinator,” the man said.

“I’m Zhyara.”

The man nodded; he would know. Zhyara’s name would appear as network coordinator on all communication the station received from Athyl.

“And you are…”

“Desya.” Still no eye contact. His earlobes were bare, with little pinpricks of holes where he had removed his clan earrings.

Zhyara didn’t wear his clan designation either; it threw up too many questions, but the Ezmi clan name would also be displayed on all the records. This man didn’t smell like he was Ezmi, and the only other clan that didn’t always display colours…

“Omi?” Another clan of mainly workers. Unlike the Ezmi, they usually lived happily in the overcrowded cities of Asto and worked obediently in factories and offices; Omi had the reputation of being dumb and without ambition.

Desya nodded, again, still looking away. Not at the floor, like one who recognises subservience, but at the opposite wall. The stale air carried another whiff of his hormonal scent. Not subservient, not dominant either… confusing.

Zhyara rolled out his spiel. “We’ve been sent by the Mining Exploration Board at Athyl for your failure to send your scheduled report. We were worried.”

“Yes. We’ve had some problems,” Desya said. He hesitated.

“Problems?”

“Come with me, we can talk about this with all staff.”

Zhyara exchanged glances with his seconds. Chiaru tapped her gun, as if to assure him that they could handle the situation.

Zhyara nodded, not sure if guns could provide a solution. They followed Desya and his two silent associates into a corridor that led into the bowels of the station. With each step, his unease grew. Discussing with the staff? You didn’t discuss things with your staff; you told them what to do and they did it. Just who was in charge of this place? He hadn’t seen either of the man’s two unnamed associates make eye contact either. Not with him and his team or with their own leader.

This reminded him of something that had happened before he left.

“So, what are you doing here?” His mother’s voice held no warmth.

She sat across from Zhyara at the table of her one-room house. Her fingers were going lightning-fast over her embroidery work, pushing the needle in, out, in, out.

“I wanted to see you,” Zhyara said.

“You never come just to see us.” She tied off the thread and bit the end off with her front teeth–brown and worn to stumps. Her work was some sort of picture with patterns of leaves and thorns, likely a belt panel for a zeyshi desert rebel.

Zhyara shrugged and blew out a breath through his nostrils. She always behaved like this, and he would do well not to let himself get riled up by it. “Well…”

“You’ve come to tell Xiya off again for illegal skim-racing? I guess you know that I can stay in his house–much as it is a dump in your eyes–only because of the money he earns?”

“I’m sorry that I did that, and I’ve already said this many times.” Every time he’d visited since that ill-considered action of his, in fact.

Zhyara sighed again, letting his gaze roam the rickety shelves on the wall behind her, with carefully-stacked, mismatched bowls and plates and boxes containing small treasures like buttons and sewing needles. She was not making this easy. “I’ve come because…”

She raised her eyebrows.

He hesitated. Carefully-rehearsed words evaporated like water poured in the desert sand outside his mother’s door. The heat and the sounds of the street outside–people talking and merchants yelling–suddenly became very loud. “I’ve come because I may not come back.”

That got her attention. She lowered her work. “What? You’re moving to the colonies? I thought you were all set with your associations and networks?”

He detected a measure of glee in her words. At times, he couldn’t work out whether she and his brother hated or were jealous of his proper association, and the thought that his mother rejoiced at the thought of it breaking up brought anger perilously close to the surface. He sat stiff, clamping his mouth to stop himself shouting Fuck you, I’m trying!

She raised her embroidery work again.

“I am the Mining Exploration Board’s network control manager,” he said, forcing his voice to calm. “I travel to all the mining stations throughout Coldi colonised space.”

She flicked her eyebrows as if she wanted to say Tell me something new, but the fact was that out here, in the Outer Circle, where poverty prevented people even buying a train ticket into the Inner Circle–if their permits would allow them to travel there, which they did not–people did not grasp the concept of interstellar travel, of the space port, of the Exchange network and anpar lines. Every time in the past when he had assumed his mother understood, he had found that she did not.

“Lately, there have been a number of mining stations failing to report in. When that happened, I…” and his associates, but he judged it better not to mention them, “… have travelled there to find out what was going on. Each time, and there have been three such occasions, the station was dead, destroyed, with no sign of the inhabitants.”

Again, that tell me something I don’t know expression.

He frowned at her. “You’ve heard the news?” Those few news channels that had coverage in the Outer Circle only broadcast local gossip, and betting information, lots of that.

She said, “Who do you think were the workers in those stations, lost while valiantly defending Asto and its colonies?” The last words were spoken with an intense mocking tone. “They were people off the streets from around here. Vashya from the workshop–but you will know him–has lost his brother. He only found out because he works in Eighth Circle and travels on the train every day. He’s been trying to find out what happened ever since.”

I have been trying to find out.”

“And?” She continued her embroidery.

“It seems like out there on the edges of Coldi civilisation, we’ve run into something hostile, something that doesn’t like us being there, but leaves no trace when wiping us out. This is why I’m here. There has been a fourth report, this time from a station at Zhiminda, which is… the furthest you can travel and stay within Coldi-colonised space. Ever since the first station was wiped out, I’ve feared that one day, I’m going to travel somewhere and run into the aliens who are wiping us out. I fear this may be the time. Zhiminda is nine anpar jumps away from here. It is deep into unfamiliar territory.”

She let a silence lapse in which she clearly expected him to say something.

He did not, so she said, “So? What are you going to do about that?”

“Be as careful as possible.”

She snorted. Not the answer she expected, obviously. “Son of mine, have you considered not going to these dreadful places? There is no one who says that you have to go risk your life for people who don’t deserve it.”

“Vashya’s brother doesn’t deserve it?”

“Vashya’s brother is dead. It’s the Third Circle bosses who are still running those evil places. They don’t deserve it.”

“How can you say that? Those people are my associates.” Most were as much bosses as they were subordinates.

She snorted. “Sometimes I’d think those associates are more important to you than we are.”

“They’re not. They’re just…” Associates. He’d known they were associates the first time when he met each and every one of them. He’d met Chiaru’s eyes in Third Circle training and they’d both known that instant that their relationship was meant to be. She’d brought to the association Diliya the pilot and his equal, his zhayma, and together, they had actively looked for someone to be Chiaru’s zhayma. When he ran into Eyana in the canteen, they both knew it was right, and Chiaru knew it was right, because Eyana smelled right, and the way he looked at Chiaru was right and the way he was subservient to Zhyara was right. The same applied to Menya, who he shared his apartment with, and everyone else in his social network. Choice did not come into the decision. In a similar way, he did not have a choice about checking on the stations. It was his job. His superior had told him to do it, because it was important, because the stations were part of the network.

His mother put her embroidery on the table. She rose and opened the door to the small cabinet on the wall behind her.

She took out a small box that looked very dusty and old and set it on the table before Zhyara and sat back down. “Since you’re so keen to get yourself killed, I may as well give you these. Your father had two pairs made when he came into some money. One pair for each of you. I’ve given Xiya his, so it’s only fair that I give you yours.”

Zhyara heard, I’m not sure you deserve this and he hated how she liked to use the word deserve as a weapon, as a wedge to drive between him and his brother. Did she even care about him?

He opened the box and found, as he more or less expected, a set of earrings. They were beautifully made, silver filigree with the amber stone that symbolised the Ezmi clan within. They must have cost a fortune.

Most children in the city were issued with clan earrings the moment they left the house on their own, usually to attend education. But in the Outer Circle, no one attended education, and if you walked the street with something valuable while looking unarmed, you were likely relieved of your possessions.

He turned the box, and the stone glittered in the light coming in through the open door.

“They are beautiful.” And they were, but the leaf and thorn filigree screamed zeyshi, desert rebels, people who rejected the city’s structure and lived in secret underground warrens, stealing water and food.

“Come on, then, put them in.”

Zhyara did, reluctantly, maybe just for now; he’d take them off again in the train. Zeyshi might wander relatively free into this part of the city, but there was no way he could wear these into the Mining Exploration Board office.

His mother smiled, but it looked forced.

“Thank you,” he said, and he rose. “I don’t have much time. I have to be back at work this afternoon. I brought you a bottle of medicine. Please use it when the water makes you ill again. Next time, I’ll see if I can bring a small purifier.”

She said nothing. He pushed the rickety chair back against the table, feeling its familiar worn surface under his hands.

“I’d like to see Xiya. Where is he?”

“To say goodbye to him? Iyamichu ata, huh?” she said. It was the pledge of loyalty to the Asto leadership, the confirmation of alignment to the ultimate loyalty network with the Coordinator at the top, a pledge normally taken by soldiers before going off to battle.

But her voice was mocking. “If you had any sense, you’d ask him for a place to hide so that you could escape your slave masters.”

“Mother…” Always needling him. “Please can you just tell me where he is?” Now he was getting worried. If his brother could arrange places to hide, then what was he getting involved with these days?

“He went to the Forum, but I can’t guarantee you’ll find him there. You know your brother. Hard to tie down to one place.”

The corridors of the station were empty, with long eerie shadows in the fitful light of emergency lamps, a mark of a low power situation. Again, there was no damage, no sign of a struggle or indeed anything that might have caused the near-catastrophic failure of the habitat.

The control room. Even that was virtually empty, many seats at the hub unoccupied.

“Where is everyone?” Zhyara asked, and the question seemed to sink in space.

Desya indicated a ring of chairs that surrounded the command chair. Desya did not sit in that chair, but left it unoccupied, like a sore in the middle of the room. There were only fourteen people. At capacity, the command centre would hold hundreds.

“Is this all that’s left of the station population?” Zhyara asked.

Desya nodded. A few others murmured words like terrible and unbelievable. Their faces were pale, mirroring unspeakable horrors. The air was full of conflicting scents. One young woman, slightly apart from others, had a fairly strong dominant scent, but her position–meek, with her hands in her lap–reflected none of that.

“We were sent to offer assistance.” Zhyara hesitated, not wanting to talk about the other dead stations he and his team had found. Just what sort of monsters had they run into at the edges of colonised space? “We can affect communication repairs so you can contact the Mining Exploration Board. We can offer our ship to take—”

“We didn’t ask for assistance,” Desya said. “We are coping.”

“Then where is everyone? My records say that you have more than ten thousand people aboard. I see only fourteen.”

There were a few moments of intense silence, and then one of the station workers broke the silence, against all protocol.

“There were… problems. We intercepted… signals. Hostile signals.” The man showed no deference, and looked Zhyara in the eyes.

“How were the signals hostile?” Zhyara did his best to ignore the itch in his head that told him to fight this man.

“There were alien ships. They pretended to hit us, and then swerved. When they passed, they fried our communication channels. The workers went to defend us. They took the harvesting rigs.”

Well, that explained the emptiness of the place. But… “You allowed so many of them to leave? You left no one of their associates here? And no ships, so you could evacuate?”

“There was a great hurry. We feared the aliens might… attack.”

“Who were these creatures exactly?”

“We didn’t see. There was no contact. But they destroyed one of our mining vessels.”

Zhyara filled in the blanks. “So you sent out an army, but they didn’t come back.”

“They haven’t… yet.”

“How long ago was this?”

“More than ten days.” Desya stared at his hands folded in his lap. “They vanished.” He didn’t look at anyone; no one looked at him. No one paid attention to him.

“Have you seen the attackers since?” Zhyara asked the talkative employee.

“No. We think our workers may have been taken prisoner, or possibly…” He glanced at Desya, who was still watching his hands; Zhyara sensed that there was an underlying disagreement, something else that shouldn’t happen, had the social structure been properly set up.

“We think they might have joined the alien force,” Desya added.

“What makes you think that?”

“Well, we noticed—” the employee began.

“No one knows what happened for sure,” Desya said over the top, his voice loud.

“Of course not,” the man said.

“What did you notice?” Zhyara pressed on.

“Well…” The employee cast another glance at Desya. A shrug. “He’s right. We don’t know what happened.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

Then Desya said, “The only thing we know for certain is that they left, and have not come back. Their beacons faded and became too weak for us to follow the craft. There were no explosions. We found no bodies. Wouldn’t you draw the conclusion that the workers have been taken alive?”

Zhyara remembered his father as a tall man–then again in the eyes of a four-year-old, anyone was tall. The only memory he had of his father’s face was of a grainy image his mother kept in one of her treasure boxes. It showed a man with uncommonly light eyes and a broad, flat nose. Whenever she took it out, his mother’s eyes went misty at seeing the picture, but he just felt… nothing.

Zhyara remembered hiding in the top bunk with his brother, pretending to be asleep when his father came in. His mother cried and threw herself in his father’s arms. They kissed and for a number of days after that, Zhyara had boasted to the other kids in the street that he’d seen his parents Doing It. Until an older kid told him that kissing was not It, and they teased him about that.

It seemed like a stupid memory to have of someone who was supposed to be important in his life.

Later he’d heard that his father had done times in jail. Mother never told him what the charges were; like so many things, she seemed to assume that he knew. Most likely, it would have been smuggling or evasion of some sort of duty, or any of the things young men and women were still being picked up for today. Skim racing, gambling, swearing at guards.

One thing he knew for sure: his father was not–and had never been–zeyshi. He had no tattoos and didn’t wear a shayka. His father’s brother and cousins lived in the Outer Circle, and not in the zeyshi warrens in the desert.

When Zhyara decided–much against his mother’s wishes–to try for the Eighth Circle exam, the officer had asked were there any zeyshi in his immediate family, and Zhyara had said no. It was the truth, and he felt proud of that. Poor Outer Circle people could be redeemed and educated; zeyshi were lost forever. They stole and murdered. They did not observe any social structure. Their lives were worth less than a cup of water, especially the young men.

So the question was this: why would his father have ordered expensive silver earrings made with leaf and thorn patterns?

He had promised his superior to be back for a meeting later in the afternoon, and time was short, too short possibly to try to find Xiya, but what his mother had said had disturbed him. Xiya was young and passionate, and could so easily follow the wrong examples.

He left his mother’s house for the dusty street, or the thoroughfare that passed for the street. Way back when the Inner Circle elite had grown sick of the eyesore of humanity that built up on the city’s fringes, someone in charge had ordered stone houses and streets to be built, but no one had thought to add any more buildings as the population grew. When people ran out of housing space, they built their own, lean-to shacks that were little more than glorified tents, and houses like his mother’s, built from second hand building materials. The streets suffered the same degree of neglect. No one cleaned or maintained them. Whatever paving had ever been present had been covered in layers of yellow desert sand. Street sellers occupying the sides swept their own little square every day, heaping the sand in big mounds, from where it blew away again in times of high winds.

Zhyara’s uniform gave him away as someone with money, so those street sellers followed him for as far as they dared stray from their wares. Most of the vendors were leather-skinned, deeply tanned older people. Grandmothers and aunties from the aquifer farming families trying to make some extra money over what the city’s food authorities paid by selling their produce direct. Their presence was illegal, but they came anyway.

They shouted at him, trying to sell their wares.

Mushrooms, sir? Very fresh, picked them myself this morning.

Two shirts for the price of one, sir. Quality material, sir. Real quality.

A group of street singers stood in a half-circle, chanting and clapping as sweeping rhythm. The song they were singing was an Ezmi clan chant, sung by adults at street gatherings, sung by his mother when he’d been little. He remembered Xiya banging the table with this little fists, as if the tabletop was daini drum.

Zhyara avoided meeting the singers’ eyes. Most of them were Ezmi people, wearing their amber stones with pride. The silver, zeyshi earrings felt like they were made of lead.

The Forum was one of those constructions built when this area had been settled. Originally intended as a covered marketplace, it had been used as such only until some stupid accident caused the explosion of a vat of zixas, and the deaths of hundreds of people from the resulting fumes. The building had stood empty and burnt-out, for many years. When Zhyara was little, older boys would crawl in through the gaps in the boarded-up windows and challenge each other to stay after dark, when the ghosts of the dead were said to come out.

Then one day there was a big raid by the First Circle guards. Zhyara remembered standing on the side of the street watching several zeyshi youths being marched from the building. In that time, people in shaykas were hardly ever seen in the Outer Circle. That night, he and Xiya had spent time trying to wind bedsheets from his waist to the left ankle, across the right shoulder to the right ankle, across the right shoulder back to the waist. And finding that he ran out of bedsheet less than halfway through.

Real zeyshi used huge lengths of thin fabric. The whole ensemble was held together with a broad belt, which could be plain fabric or metal, or made from beads or embroidered. Women’s shaykas crossed at the front, men’s at the back. This had a reason. Go figure.

Soon after that raid, a legal drinking house had moved into the building.

These days, all the building’s arched side entrances had been boarded up and the pink marble façade that had once looked grand was dusty and stained from years of neglect. The entrance on the corner was the only one still open, and out of this dark maw billowed a wall of heat and sound.

He lined up in the foyer, where people crowded to get in.

The people around him pretended they didn’t see him. In the Outer Circle, people did not do superiority greetings and they knew he had the power to arrest them for it, if he so wished.

When he had almost reached the door, he spotted two people, looking like a couple, leaning against the side wall of the foyer. The woman wore a tattered mechanic’s suit stained with grease, and the man non-descript dusty trousers and shirt such as worn by a lot of street sellers. Street sellers didn’t come here. They lived in the aquifer clefts and went to their families once they’d sold their wares. They wasted no money coming here. Street sellers didn’t have a head full of clean hair. Backyard mechanics didn’t have shoulders like they’d been in military training for years.

These were First Circle guards. Zhyara didn’t know them–their loyalty would branch off long before his, and they’d be connected through the Security and armed forces network that would loop back to someone in the Mining Exploration Board.

The two saw him. In his Third Circle uniform. Wearing damned zeyshi earrings. Double damn.

The woman smiled at him and gestured. Having travelled in First Circle company, Zhyara was familiar with the First Circle guard signs. She thought he was here on some undercover operation. Sure. Wearing his uniform and all that.

He nodded to her. Indicating what, he did not know. Bluff. Pretending that he had the matter under control, whatever matter they thought he was attending. He didn’t want them here. He didn’t want them anywhere near his brother.

Heart thudding, he went into the room, aware that the two were likely to follow. He’d make a round, then signal to them that he didn’t find what he was looking for, and then quietly sneak off to the station.

It was dark inside the Forum’s main room, and the air thick with the scent of bodies and vibrating with sharp staccato beats of the daini drums.

People bumped into him, dancing, talking and laughing. He did his best not to look at anyone, in case people would recognise him. He tried not to look behind him, in case the two guards were following. His head ached with the noise. At the back of the room, where there were tall tables where people stood drinking, the air was thick with the scent of zixas, a sharp and acidic scent that made his mouth tingle. You were not supposed to breathe the fumes.

He wanted to leave this place. He wanted to lose the guards. He didn’t feel at home here, and never had.

Then someone said, “Hey, brother, what are you doing here?”

Oh, no. Xiya.

His brother stood at one of the tables. All arms and legs like a typical adolescent, but with dust-ingrained skin, he looked wise as the desert itself. He wore his hair loose, and it hung past his shoulders in a tangle of metallic black curls. There were a couple of youths with him, and on the table between them lay a couple of sheets of waxy paper.

Zhyara groaned. His brother was arranging a race. Those pieces of paper were stakes, debts or other liabilities that racers wanted to be rid of. If a contestant won, the losers would pay off their debt. Usually they involved unpaid bills for rig maintenance–if workshops didn’t accept jobs by stake, they didn’t have much work–but sometimes there were more sinister things, like gambling debts. Of course all of this was illegal. And he turned up with two First Circle guards in tow.

Zhyara gestured with his eyes to where he suspected the two guards to be, while motioning for his brother to move the incriminating material out of sight.

Xiya’s eyebrows went up in a What are you being stupid about? kind of way.

Zhyara mouthed, Just for once listen the fuck to what I say.

But it was already too late. The pair of guards pushed past him and joined Xiya and his mates at the table.

“Hey,” said the woman. “I know this game. Can I challenge?”

“You race, huh?” Xiya said. He sounded so young, so naïve.

“Sure.” She flicked hair out of her face.

Zhyara wanted to scream Look at her shoulders, she’s a First Circle guard! but he could do nothing. He shook his head. The damn earrings felt like needles where they hit the soft skin of his neck.

Xiya ignored him. “Sure. What is your stake?”

“I’m not betting. I owe nobody anything, but my friend has a bet for you.”

The man produced a signature cube and set it on the table. “I got myself a contract, arranged by my family, but the woman’s a right bitch, and I’d be happy if someone paid half of what I paid to take her off my hands.”

Zhyara shook his head even more. First Circle contracts involved huge sums of money. Even half that was more than Xiya would ever see in his life. Besides, he was far too young for contracts.

But Xiya grinned, an innocent boyish grin. “I accept.”

“That’s a boy.” The man clapped him on the shoulder. Xiya wobbled visibly under the force of it.

“So what have you got as stake?” the woman asked. “Is it going to be worth the race?”

“I got something much better than you.” He extracted a piece of waxed paper from his pocket.

The woman picked it up and read. “Notice to report for work duty? ” She laughed. “A ticket? Is that worth a race for you?”

Ship-side quarters were cramped, and protocol dictated that visiting delegations were offered on-station hospitality. Zhyara had stayed in the station’s guest quarters before, but never had his party been the only one there. Mining stations normally bustled with visiting prospectors and others offering their services.

He ordered his people to take food supplies brought on their ship and instructed them not to touch any of the food provided by the station. He posted a guard at the entrance to their small apartment.

Normally, he would share his room with Emiru. They would talk over the latest news and bring each other up-to-date. She would talk about the station; he would talk about things happening in Athyl. Re-cementing loyalty networks over this huge distance. It would involve food, and many glasses of zixas and usually passionate lovemaking, because that was what associates were for, to make you feel loved and needed, and part of the network.

Now he was just alone. Too quiet. His associates in the next room only spoke in low voices, waiting for his orders. There were no other sounds from elsewhere in the station.

What if Desya’s story was true and aliens would come back and attack the station? They would be helpless. Too few to man weapons, if they had any, and most mining stations were woefully incapable of defending themselves. What if Desya saw him and his team as a threat, too? These rooms would be full of listening devices. He studied the ceiling and walls, examining every bump or depression.

Nothing.

He paced the room, past the desk, the cupboard, the bed–

Emiru, what had happened to her? The last time he’d been here, she’d ambushed him in this room, shutting the door behind her. Her cheeks had been red, her eyes bright, and through her gossamer-thin singlet, he could see the red tinge of her skin on her chest and shoulders. He’d been shocked; a woman only flushed when she wanted to conceive, and that only happened when contracts had been signed. But there she was, wanting, desperate and her reason clouded by the hormonal flush that she had allowed to happen. Shutting the door on him. Her expression saying come on, fuck me.

He’d protested, tried to tell her to get back to her quarters until the flush passed, but he was a man, evolved to react to her female scent. And react, he did, in a crazy and very satisfying way. He’d still been covered in bruises by the time he came home.

He’d never mentioned it to anyone, had been too embarrassed. It should not have happened, and he should not have given in. But what if there was a more sinister reason for her behaviour that he’d never thought to inquire about? He remembered asking, when lying exhausted in her arm, but she’d changed the subject.

Stupid. He should have insisted. Every woman with a permit to live on Asto had the right to have two children. No one gave that right away lightly. Not without contract, or payment, or both. Not on a mining station. Of course she’d been trying to tell him something.

He turned around and paced the other way.

This place was sending him up the wall. Too empty; the scents were all wrong.

He had to talk to someone.

In the small living area, the technicians were poring over the station’s communication logs which they had downloaded from the hub. Chiaru sat in the corner, staring in front of her and biting the end of her ponytail.

She looked up when he entered, eyes wide, like a startled animal.

He flicked his eyebrows and jerked his head towards the door.

She rose, her eyes still wide, and whispered past him into the room.

At home in Athyl, lower-ranking workers would never consort with their direct superiors. You just did not do that; it was abuse of power.

“I just need someone to talk to,” he said, by way of apology. That was wrong, too. You did not apologise to your seconds.

He shut the door, and then went to pour some drinks, his mind searching for a way to ask, What does it mean when a woman flushes for you without any agreement to do so? but failing. He was supposed to have all the answers, and he had none.

When turned back to the room, she sat on the couch, her hands jammed between her knees. One of her legs was jiggling up and down.

“Relax,” he said, putting the drinks on the table, and when she didn’t look convinced, he continued, “I just want to know what you think of this situation. What do you think happened?” He pulled his pad on his knees to open his report on the station.

“I… don’t know.” Her voice sounded oddly strangled.

“What is the matter–” He looked up from his pad just in time to see her charging at him, all muscle and fierce female strength.

His instinct fired immediately. He flung the pad aside and thrust up his arms. She crashed into him. He managed to get hold of one of her arms and deflected her direction away from him. She fell and dragged him off the couch. He rolled on top of her, and pinned her to the floor. Her chest heaved with panting breaths. There was nothing familiar in her eyes.

“Chiaru, what the hell was that about? Why did you do that?”

“I…” She shook her head. Confused. “What are you doing?” She craned her head to look at her hands, which he pressed against the floor.

“What am I doing? You looked like you were trying to kill me.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Her expression softened; she frowned. “I just… smelled nothing. No familiar scents at all. I… panicked. I don’t know…” Her eyes glittered with tears. “This place gives me the creeps.”

“Yes, me, too. Are you all right now?”

She nodded. “You smell right now.”

He let go of her and she sat up, rubbing her arms. “Can I… Can I please stay with you tonight?”

“I think we’ll all sleep in this room.” To keep an eye on each other. To keep his network strong.

He wanted to get out of here, and quick. He might have enough strength to bring his seconds back in line, but Chiaru might not be able to control hers.

Zhyara was powerless.

Xiya and the two undercover guards shook hands and handed their stakes to the racemaker, a young man who must be one of Xiya’s friends. Then they all left the Forum. At hearing that there was to be a race, all of the local ratbags crowded around the challengers, forming a wall of hot adolescent flesh, impenetrable to anyone not part of the group.

Zhyara ran after the group, furious. Why had his mother not told him that his brother had received a ticket? Zhyara could have helped his brother avoid duty–legally. Tickets were for poor Outer Circle people found loitering or otherwise having earned the displeasure of the authorities. They’d be sent to some place to work on a major project. Digging aquifers, building a sea wall to keep out the poisonous ocean water, constructing a train line across the desert, that sort of thing.

This woman was not racing to lose, and even if Xiya won, he would still lose. She wouldn’t take his ticket. She would arrest him, or hold him to the stupid bet with her colleague, or something else. It would cause him pain, literally or figuratively or both, or saddle him with insurmountable debts for the rest of his life.

That was her entire point of racing, to make an example out of him.

The procession came to the edge of the settlement. Unlike the Eighth Circle, the Outer Circle had no boundary wall or fence and slowly bled into the desert. Houses became less dense, streets petered out, mostly where the land became too rocky or steep to support the shacks.

The rumour of the impending race had preceded the contestants and a steady stream of people was already making its way zig-zagging up the side of the crater wall. Zhyara ran up, clambering through loose sand. The trail was only wide enough for one person at a time, and Zhyara had to venture into the dust and rocks to push past, which earned him raised eyebrows. Mostly men in dirty and dusty garb. Some were zeyshi, wearing their billowing shaykas without a care for who might see them. They wore fine belts, some with intricate metal work, some with more gruesome souvenirs, like teeth and talismans woven from human hair, or finger bones.

People elbowed each other, whispered in each other’s ear and pointed at him. He could almost hear their voices. Is that really Zhyara Ezmi? How dare he show his face here dressed like that?

Zhyara was too much in a hurry to allow himself to get angry at their comments. He could already hear the roaring of engines up at the crater rim; he could smell the cloying odour of the crater gas. And every time he came here, it frightened him how familiar it still felt.

He reached the crater rim, and even that felt like home. As well as the familiar path that led off to the left. And the view. He used to come up here as a young boy to get away, before he started racing. That was back in the time that Xiya had been such a pest, always arguing with Mother, never coming home when she had told him to. And then, all of a sudden, Xiya was her hero, and Zhyara, who was the oldest and had done something with his life besides illegal skim racing and gambling, was the cause of all ills in the world.

He hurried along the path. On one side, the steep curving abyss that fell away into the crater floor, invisible underneath a woolly mass of grey-purple gas. On the other side, the yellow sand of the desert bled into the pink buildings of the city. The sky was white overhead, the horizon dusty. To the left was the deep cleft of an aquifer, fenced off so that Outer Circle dwellers wouldn’t enter and steal the crops being grown there for the rich.

The city was like a multi-layered fruit. First came the Eighth Circle boundary, a stark wall higher than a house, with pointy metal spikes on top. Beyond that, the Seventh Circle boundary, a less stark presence, but still clearly visible. Beyond Fifth Circle, boundaries became less aggressive and less visible.

He could see the airport, rising from the buildings like a multi-pronged monster. The space port was in Third Circle. Third Circle was industry and commerce. The Mining Exploration Board was there, as was his apartment. A short ride in a rig, a slightly longer ride on the train, five check points, but for these people a lifetime away.

He came to the warm-up area at the crater rim, where the two rigs stood side-by-side.

The woman’s rig was, as he had expected, brand new, with a foldable canopy, now open, and beautiful seats of fresh green upholstery.

The other rig was the one that Zhyara spent many hours restoring. A low elegant shape with broad delta wings. Its surface shone silver, the open cabin upholstered in faded red fabric. Dusty and battered, but a mean machine. Familiarity hit him, heavy, unexpected. Damn it, that was his rig, in which he’d won many races. His brother had the engine panel open, checking the charge levels. Zhyara had hammered into his brother’s head, Don’t trust the gauge, it has a mind of its own.

“Xiya!”

Zhyara’s brother straightened. He raised his eyebrows. “Look who we have here.” But he wasn’t looking. His eyes were unnervingly black, devoid of any gold flecking, staring at some point in the distance, neither in obeisance nor defiance.

“Don’t race. It’s a trap,” Zhyara said.

Xiya didn’t move, but his eyes displayed an and? expression. The awkward silence stretched. Zhyara had never felt further removed from his family than this.

“They’re First Circle guards.” Look at me, damn you.

“You don’t say.”

“You actually want to race them? You’re crazy! They’ll lock you up if you lose.”

“Then I’d better not lose.”

“Xiya, please–”

Xiya laughed. “I’m going to race. I’ll win. They will eat their ticket.”

“Please, Xiya, don’t race–”

“Leave me alone, I have a race to fly.”

He turned his back.

Zhyara took a few steps across the dusty ground and hissed in his brother’s ear, “And you think that this stupid, criminal business is the only way you can have a life, huh?”

His brother’s hormonal scent hit him like a hot breeze. Blood rushed to his face. He was overwhelmingly aware how his heart thudded against his ribs. His ear registered little but the roaring of blood. He staggered back, jamming his hands in his pockets.

Xiya barely moved, although he must be aware of the effect. When had he grown up so much?

“We are skim racers,” Xiya said, with the emphasis on we.

I’m not. Not anymore.” Zhyara’s cheeks were on fire.

Xiya snorted. “Leave me alone, brother, with your superior moralising bullshit. Who are you to say what I can and can’t do? You don’t even live in the Outer Circle anymore.”

“You don’t have to live here either.” Zhyara put all his frustration in those words. “Please come with me. I’ll put in a good word with Eighth Circle instructors. I know people who work in the aircraft servicing plants. You’re smart. They’d be happy to have you. Then I’ll help you appeal to get out of your ticket. Legally.”

“You come all the way to tell me that? And you want me to live in your stuffy world, where there are rules about who I can talk to? And associations that tell me who I hang out with?”

“There are no rules. You just follow your–”

“You really don’t understand, do you?”

And Xiya still wasn’t meeting his eyes.

Zhyara, Chiaru and everyone who wasn’t on duty all slept in the same room. Chiaru slept in Zhyara’s bed, but he didn’t touch her besides letting her fall asleep against him, a warm and heavy weight.

He felt restless, and listened to the sounds of the station. From somewhere in the corner of the room came soft whispers and rustling of bedding. Someone was having fun there. He tried to repel feelings of intense jealousy. He couldn’t see who was in that corner, but he knew that all his associates had their zhaymas and he was the only one alone. He had not expected this: to be alone with the station still intact. He’d expected destruction. If not, he’d expected to have to deal with the fallout from his last visit, to be presented with a contract for Emiru’s child. Now, he lay in the dark wondering if that child had died before he had been aware of its existence. He imagined a small boy who would carry Emiru’s clan name and be unburdened by the fact that half the blood in his veins was Ezmi. His own family had never been taught the importance of loyalty networks. They didn’t understand and it was too late for them. But this baby, he’d teach him well, and he’d be successful, a well-respected member of society, free of his shameful heritage.

Staring in the dark, Zhyara gained and lost a son, letting the tears of grief stream down his face, until he was convinced that Desya was a killer and somehow at fault for what had happened.

And that was not a healthy line of thinking.

What if there were evil aliens out there? What if Desya and his remaining staff were so traumatised that they could not reform new alliances? What if they were scared not only of new aliens, but of Zhyara and his party and whatever punishment they could mete out?

He pushed himself up and left the room, carefully stepping over mattresses and legs.

In the apartment’s tiny hub, he found one of the technicians. The man quickly rose and took the subservient greeting pose. Zhyara touched his shoulder, making it all right for the man to meet his eyes. He noticed that the man had been working on the station logs.

“So, what did the logs say?” he asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. Since we were last here, there were sixty-three dockings of mining vessels. They unloaded ore and ice. They installed power satellites.”

“Any reports of alien sightings?”

“No. There was only one minor incident. A ship was put in quarantine on hold for a few days.”

“One of their own ships?”

“Yes. Station control said it was a contamination issue. They’d harvested ice and failed to follow decontamination procedures.”

“Let me have a look at that.”

The man displayed the information on the holo console.

The ship had been to the system’s asteroid ring, which occupied the habitable zone.

“I guess the asteroids show life signatures.” Any celestial body that contained water or ice almost always did.

“Microbial, yes.”

That was always the risk. If someone had told Zhyara at the start of his job, that he’d spend half his time observing procedures of quarantine, he would have laughed. These days, he would say Half? Is that all? “Do you think our killer could be microbial–no, there’d be bodies.”

“Desya would know. He might be telling stories about attacking aliens in order to hide shoddy quarantine procedures.”

“Might.”

Although the alien story was likely a lie, Zhyara wasn’t convinced. He was sure a microbial disease wiping out thousands would leave a much bigger trail, especially if only fourteen people were left to clean up the mess. With all the will in the universe, he couldn’t see fourteen people disposing of thousands of dead. But one thing about the suggestion did strike a chord with him.

“Whatever caused it the disappearances or deaths of the crew must have been random. If Desya had sent people to fight aliens, he would have sent whole associations, leaving an intact branch on-station.” Yes, that made sense. The fourteen didn’t show subservience to each other, because they had no relationships. And no new ones had been forged, because they were people thrown together by a random event, with no instincts firing between them.

So–could it be a microbial threat despite the absence of clear evidence?

He asked, “Tell me about this vessel that was refused.”

“It was just a mining craft.”

The holo display flickered and showed an open-cut image of a typical mining vessel, wide-hulled and square, with grappling arms down the sides. This ship had a crew of twelve. That seemed a little high. Twelve crew, four women, eight men. The number was wrong. If there had been a full network branch on board, there should have been seven on board, or fifteen.

“What was this vessel’s brief?”

“Gathering ice.”

“With twelve crew?”

What was more, the snapshot showed them all on the bridge, and none in the harvesting stations.

“What was the issue that caused the quarantine warning?”

“Station scans showed their water tanks to be contaminated with foreign organisms.”

He patched another scan. Clearly, bacterial life. Not in itself a reason to refuse the ship back.

“Did they order decontamination?”

“Yes.”

“And then, what happened?”

“Nothing, for two days. After that, the vessel was allowed to dock.”

“Was there any communication in those two days?” That seemed like an awfully long time for decontamination.

“No.”

“None at all?”

“Not that I can find.”

It’s been wiped, Zhyara realised with crystal clarity.

But what about the unusual crew configuration?

“Who were these people?”

“I don’t know. I could find out.”

“Please do.”

Surrounded by adolescent boys and girls who seemed to be his brother’s associates, Zhyara could do nothing. They didn’t look like normal associates, following a normal order. Several of them sported leaf-and-thorn tattoos, and everyone knew zeyshi didn’t do associations. They had this silly notion that everyone was equal, that the association instinct was some figment of the imagination. As a result, zeyshi were always brawling and had no clear long-term leaders, and Zhyara didn’t know how to appeal to any of these youths for help. Worse, they cheered; they helped unlash the rig’s teethers and shove the fuel canisters into the tubes. They liked seeing Xiya risk his life for this stupid race.

If Xiya was gone, then who would look after their mother? Zhyara had plenty of money and could apply for a bigger apartment so she could live with him, but she would never accept his help. People were allowed to live in circles higher than their qualification if they were dependents, but needed to carry permits everywhere, and were not allowed to work. That was not a solution; that would be prison to her. She never made much, and only sold a bit of embroidery at the markets, made zeyshi belts and fixed the dusty overalls of the builders and land workers from the aquifers, most of those garments already beyond repair. But her hands needed to be busy. Mother couldn’t look after herself if she got sick, or if people refused to pay, or came to extort money from her.

Xiya did that; she needed Xiya.

Zhyara scanned the onlookers for help. He saw his mother’s empty eyes in every face in the crowd. He also saw a lot of clean faces, and a lot of broad shoulders, a lot of Outer Circle people who… weren’t.

What was going on? What were they all doing here?

And here he was, in his uniform, standing out to them and to the locals.

A few rigs flew out slowly to mark the agreed race course, down into the crater where the blue murk swirled and eddied. Zhyara could almost smell the gas.

When you flew in that boundary between air and mist and engaged the landing gear, it boosted the craft’s speed. But woe betide the rigs that went too deep. The mist dragged on the wings. It made your voice go funny. A bit deeper, and you couldn’t breathe, and the engine would stall, and you would sink. No one knew how deep the crater was, but the bottom of it must be littered with dead stupid boys and their rigs. Stupid boys who had let the zeyshi criminals or murderous guards outsmart them, because few of the deaths were accidental. When the rigs left the mountaintop, all rules of flying and of civility were off.

A young boy with arms as thin as sticks and too-wide clothes beat the race gong. The thing was taller than him, and its sound made the very air vibrate.

Xiya climbed into the rig, slid in the pilot’s seat, his thin adolescent fingers on the controls of a machine that could kill him. That would kill him, if the woman in the shiny white rig had anything to do with it. At least if her rig was damaged, she had a canopy.

Zhyara wanted to scream at his brother to stop, to let him buy out his ticket. He wanted to point out the guards in the crowd, but they considered him to be loyal to them, and he was, of a sort. But he didn’t want anything to happen to his brother.

Xiya merely grinned, pulled the mask over his face and gunned the engines, hard. A cloud of pink dust billowed up.

The crowd cheered.

The youth hit the gong again, and with a roar, the rigs were off, diving into the crater.

The next morning, Zhyara felt exhausted. He would have liked to take a break, but owed it to his team to continue with the investigation and get out of the station as soon as possible.

One of the station’s nameless survivors came to collect him. He took Chiaru, and one of her seconds, and then was afraid that the station people would pick up on the fact that he’d left a relatively complete network on the ship.

But when he entered the oppressive atmosphere of the control room, it wasn’t distrust he sensed, but disorientation. All of the fourteen employees were doing things, but none of them exchanged looks or small gestures or fleeting touches that should have been common.

Desya appeared to be doing nothing. He sat in the same seat he had occupied the previous day, and still did not meet Zhyara’s eyes.

“You sit there.” He gestured at the empty command chair.

Zhyara bypassed the chair and took the seat he’d occupied yesterday. “I am not the station administrator. You need to appoint an administrator.”

Desya nodded, but Zhyara knew that it would not happen, at least not until the association had been repaired.

He continued into the silence, “We can offer you and your staff transport back to Athyl, once we have installed procedures that keep the station stable.” Leaving a station empty and unguarded would not please his superiors. “But for that to clear my boss’ approval, I’ll need to know exactly what happened. We’ve looked at the logs and can’t find any evidence of alien activity, save for one mining vessel that was held up in quarantine with alien bacteria in the water tank. The ship was help up for two days, without any communication to the station.”

“That was a technical problem. It has nothing to do with the attack.”

But Desya obviously remembered this otherwise insignificant occasion far too well.

“The problem is, we cannot find any evidence that an attack has ever happened. If you have anything, images, recordings, instrument readings, please give us access to them, so that we can help you.”

Desya nodded again, but said nothing, and none of the station crew moved.

Just what was going on here? Was he going to have to beat someone up in order to get to the truth?

Chiaru glanced aside; she would notice his aggressive scent. She made a small hand gesture. Calm down.

He sighed. “What sort of people were on board this ship?”

Surprise. “Just… workers.”

“Twelve of them?”

Desya’s eyes widened. He came very close to meeting Zhyara’s eyes, and Zhyara felt the heat of rage close to the surface. If Desya looked up, there would be a fight.

“Twelve is not a full association. A crew is three people, or seven, or fifteen, if you really need that many on a mining vessel. Twelve is not a crew.”

“We thought these people had gone to join the aliens. And then they came back, demanding access to the station.” Desya’s voice sounded strangled.

“There still is no evidence of aliens. These people were made to wait for two days. Either the communication between the station and their ship was absent, or, more likely, deleted from the logs.”

Another silence.

Zhyara repeated, “Who were the people aboard this ship?”

“As I said, just workers.” He sounded close to tears.

“Could we have a look in these workers’ dormitories?”

A slight hesitation. “Suppose. I don’t know what you expect to find there, they’re just dormitories. We’ve depressurised them, but we can pressurise one wing.”

“Please, do.”

Zhyara waited in tense silence while the crew opened the wing, and when pressure had equalised, Desya went with him.

The dormitory was dark and intensely cold. Vacuum conditions had done some interesting things with people’s possessions. A bottle of skin cream had burst and its contents snap-frozen and dried into hard globs. A bag had exploded, spilling underclothes all over the floor.

They walked past row after row of bunks.

Zhyara started at the very back, looking in each drawer and cabinet for personal possessions. In the third one, he found what he was looking for: a small marble carving with an amber stone. In the next one, he found an amber earring wrapped in a love letter. In the next one, a picture of a man with leaf and thorn tattoos. At another bunk he found a ticket taped to the wall, complete with marks for how many days the owner still had to go. He collected all these items in a pillowcase.

“What are you looking for?” Chiaru asked, her voice low.

Zhyara held the pillowcase open. She looked in; understanding hovered in her eyes.

The craft came out from nowhere and rammed into his brother’s rig. Zhyara saw it happen, and knew there was nothing he could do, not from all the way on the other side of the crater. There was an explosion of bits of metal. His brother’s rig was limping, losing speed while the First Circle woman raced on.

Zhyara cursed and pushed his brother’s astonished minders aside, then he was running, and jumped in the first rig he encountered. He ignored shouts, probably from the owner, yanked the mask over his face while gunning the engine. It roared under the floor. So familiar. He’d won so many races before he stopped racing, before he realised he was wasting his life doing something that would probably kill him.

The rig dived towards the cloud mass. He engaged the wing flaps and eased into the glide at that boundary between mist and air. The rig handled smoothly—he gathered its well-heeled owner would not be happy.

Ahead, his brother’s stricken craft was slowly sinking in the mist.

“Xiya!” Zhyara called out, his voice dark with the effects of the gas.

There was no movement in the craft.

For one heart-stopping moment, Zhyara feared his brother had fallen out, but then he spotted the slumped form in the pilot’s seat.

The idiot. He wasn’t even wearing a helmet.

Zhyara rammed the rig into hover mode, manoeuvring it as close to the familiar rig as he dared. He took the grappling iron and tossed it over the side.

It caught on the third try.

Then slowly, abandoning all pretence he was skim racing, he disengaged the flaps, gunned the flight engines and pulled the rig up.

The grappling mechanism emitted clangs and hisses. A small shudder, and the ship floated free of the station. The dockside viewscreen still showed Desya and his two nameless associates at the access tube; the outside screens showed the scratched side of the station. No real damage, just the normal weathering from micrometeorites and radiation.

A small backwards thrust and the pilot had fired the engines.

Zhyara checked the voice communication channel. The lights were off. Good. And it chilled him, too. He should not have any secrets from the people at the station. That was what loyalty networks were for.

“When you’ve engaged the autopilot, I want everyone here,” Zhyara said, from the command chair.

His people responded with assuring nods and soon gathered on the benches surrounding him. All at once, he felt at home and that thought filled him so much that emotion welled up in him. At home with his network of people who he could trust.

“Are you all right?” Chiaru asked, and her voice held concern.

“Uhm–yes. I am now. That group gives me the chills.”

“Me, too,” Chiaru said, and her zhayma Eyana squeezed her hand. The pilot, who was Chiaru’s second, put and arm on her shoulder, and the co-pilot, the pilot’s zhayma took his other hand, and so it went on, around the group, until everyone sat around Zhyara, and everyone touched one another. Zhyara held hands, touched cheeks, stroked arms, enveloped in familiar comforting scents from his people. A tear ran down Chiaru’s face. Zhyara wiped it off, but a new one formed. His vision blurred, too. He leaned on Eyana’s shoulder while holding Chiaru’s hand. Someone stroked his hair. Someone else sniffed.

This was associations were about. Not feeling ashamed. Feeling safe. He didn’t understand why anyone would reject this, but the fact was that all of his family did, and everyone in the Outer Circle did.

“All right,” he said when he sensed that everyone had calmed and relaxed. “I gave a number of you a task. Let’s hear what you have found out.”

His associates settled back into their seats, attentive expressions on their faces.

“There was no evidence of the use of any weapons against the station,” the pilot said. “I searched all the particle charge and radiation logs.”

Another reported, “The station workers were of all clans, but the mining crew were mostly Ezmi.”

Zhyara nodded; he’d suspected as much.

Chiaru eyed his empty earlobes, and shrugged. “Sorry.” She knew, of course, what clan he belonged to, but he had possibly never acknowledged it to her.

And she clearly wasn’t sure how to respond.

He wasn’t sure himself; for a long time after he left the Outer Circle, and possibly even before that time, a deep hole raged in his soul in the place where other people put their families. His family didn’t understand him, but he didn’t understand them either. He’d cringed at their chants, he’d refused to play the daini drums, he’d forgotten their stories.

And now his distant relatives were lost out there, and he had always denied them, never bothered to learn their clan chants, their lineages and their stories. And there were a lot, except none of them fitted inside what he considered respectable society. From his youth, he remembered the festive gatherings on the outskirts of the city. Rowdy songs played on homemade instruments. Robot-fighting contests. From a distance–from, say, Zhyara’s Third Circle apartment–Ezmi were eccentric, defiant, colourful. Easy to forget that they were real people. His cousins. And now ten thousand of them could be dead.

“I didn’t know the Mining Exploration Board used ticket holders to work in the stations,” she said.

He nodded; he had known. It was probably because so many new stations had been opened recently, and the Mining Exploration Board had found it hard to find workers.

He said, his voice thick, “Here is my theory: I don’t believe that anything attacked the station. I don’t believe that there were any aliens. I believe there was a disagreement and the workers left.”

“How can that be possible?” Chiaru asked. “We had all the loyalty networks in place.”

“I don’t know,” Zhyara said, and rubbed his hand over his face. “I just don’t know.” Surely, the Mining Exploration Board wouldn’t have put any of those Ezmi workers on the transport to this station if they had not yet formed associations? “It’s just that… I suspect that’s what happened. There was a fight, a break in associations, and they left.” Ezmi rejected associations. Their networks would have been weak, at best.

“I think that first a couple of them left–they were in that ship that was refused to dock. They found a place to live within this system, and they came back to collect the others. That’s where they’ve gone.” He let his shoulders slump.

“Are you… all right?” Chiaru’s voice was hesitant, scared almost.

He was their anchor and he needed to be strong to reaffirm their place in the network. “Yes, I’m just…” To him, finding the station in this state was barely better than finding it empty. The missing people included his family. They understood that; they feared how it affected him. Young men and women with amber stones in their earrings, but all of them in some way related to him.

Somewhere in a small box in his cabin he had the earrings his mother had given him, and right now, the felt an insane urge to jump up and get them.

But he sat and struggled to keep his breathing under control, to keep his face even.

In the forward viewscreen, the station was visibly shrinking in size. The engine hummed, the crew were busy at work.

The pilot asked, “Where do we look first? The vector showed that at least one ship has left outwards from the sun.”

Total change of subject.

Zhyara reviewed the information on the screen. “Do a total system scan.” Yes, he was going to find these people and bring them back.

The holo display behind the pilot’s seat cleared.

The system had seven planets. The sim shots showed him the approaches to each individual body. A diagram, then to scale, and then the planets one by one. The sim gave warnings for the innermost gas giant; the planet was very hot and had a violent magnetic field. It orbited so close to the primary that sunlight dimmed visibly when it passed in front, which it did no less than three times in each shipboard day cycle.

The second planet… was pretty much the same, minus the strong magnetic field. It had two smallish moons, rocky–the spectrum returned a high content of iron–and irregular in shape. The moons were too hot, too close to the sun to sustain the type of colony that could be plonked down in days.

The habitable zone contained only an asteroid belt, which was where the ship had been mining. Some of the larger bodies might support a small colony, rich as they were in metals.

“I think we should check those large asteroids.”

The ship’s engines increased their hum. At the back controls, the technicians engaged heat scanners and microwave receivers. There was comfort in the busy silence.

Zhyara went to his cabin and slept, alone. He was exhausted. But in his sleep, he saw Xiya’s face, and his empty expression, how his eyes had failed to meet Zhyara’s, how his scent had overwhelmed him. How his brother was unprepared for what was happening to him, and how he wasted the gift of network loyalties.

However, when he woke up, repeated beamsweep scans had turned up no signals, no engine signatures, no unexplained sources of heat, no emissions of any kind. There were some larger bodies that clung onto a tenuous atmosphere, some with a very small percentage of oxygen, but nowhere accessible. The asteroid belt was as dead as it looked.

Zhyara ordered the telescopes pointed outwards.

Three much smaller rocky planets orbited outside the habitable zone. One was rich in minerals, the other two were mainly rock and ice, but none of them had anything resembling an atmosphere. The scans were quick; they delivered nothing of interest.

Planet number six was a gas giant with a single huge moon, whose gravity constantly pulled and pushed the surface of the planet into asymmetrical shapes. One moment, the reddish bands would encircle the planet, the next moment, they would trail the moon before being sucked back into the planet. This strange dance of vast clouds of ions went on relentlessly. Zhyara had no doubt the moon was about to crash into the planet and the environment was beyond deadly for any living organism.

The seventh planet was perhaps the oddest of all. This planet, too, was a gas giant, blue-purple in colour, with a wide system of pretty rings. It had thirty-five moons, all of them either too small for a colony or too dangerously close to the rings. Many had erratic orbits. The planet described an elliptical orbit perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. And it moved backwards, spinning rapidly. More oddly, when the crew obtained a higher magnification scan, it showed that the planet wasn’t circular; it was more like a coagulating cloud.

“Does that thing even satisfy the requirements for the definition of a planet?” Chiaru asked.

“It’s… strange.” That was really all that could be said about it.

Then the pilot said, “The scan indicates life.”

Zhyara regarded the bluish misty outside of the cloud. It reminded him of the crater, and of skim racing. “If they’re anywhere, they will be on that one.”

Xiya hovered in and out of consciousness for two days.

Zhyara sat by his bed, while Mother spent most of the time crying. Occasionally he would lose his patience and snap at her. Not even in this time of distress did she call on her associates–who were they, anyway? Did she even have associates? His head hurt at the thought of being alone. Yet she and Xiya rejected him, time and time again.

Meanwhile, he knew he would have to do some talking to make up for his absence from his job. There would be questions. About what he’d done, about where he’d been. He would have to defend himself over and over again all the way down several levels of his carefully-built network. He would have to prove that while he might belong to the Ezmi clan and his family lived in the Outer Circle and didn’t have networks, he was 100% trustworthy. He sent messages to Chiaru. She spoke to his boss on his behalf. A bad accident in the family, he told her to report to his boss. He would understand better than his family might; Third Circle people had functioning family networks.

On the day Xiya regained consciousness, a group of scruffy youths filed into the house. They wore dirty clothes, missed limbs and had wounds and open festering sores. And thorn-and-leaf tattoos, plenty of those.

Zhyara sat in the corner in his Third Circle uniform pretending not to be there, but digging his nails into his palms. Did he feel ashamed of his neat clothes while his clansfolk were so poor, or did he feel angry at them for deliberately cutting themselves off from the loyalty networks in the city? They could be part of society if they wanted; they could be educated, get jobs and medicines; they chose filth, poverty and disease. For what reason?

Then another young came in and told a story of being chased by the First Circle law enforcers, but escaping into the maze of the Outer Circle.

Everyone in the room was laughing, and Zhyara could no longer contain his anger.

“That is what you get when you challenge the guards! They may not have caught you now, but they will, and then they’ll send you to a desert labour camp, or give you a ticket.” He turned to his brother, who sat, like a king, in his mother’s only comfortable chair at the table. “Why don’t you grow up, get sensible and get a proper network and find your rank in society? Then you won’t have to suffer like the people who get tickets. You can even bring something good to the miserable lives of your friends. I’ll be willing to stick out my neck for you; yes, I’m that stupid that I would do that for you, brother. Because I care for you, if only you get your shit together.”

Xiya narrowed his eyes and rose, slowly, from his chair. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

In two steps, Zhyara crossed the room, into the influence of his brother’s hormonal scent. He didn’t fight it this time. It was time to deal with it.

Mother screamed and the young men laughed.

Zhyara grabbed the front of his brother’s shirt. “Fight me, brother! Let’s have this over with.” His hands trembled. If only his brother would engage him so that they could settle where each of them fitted in the family association.

But Xiya only looked at the opposite side of the room and stood passively. Zhyara hit him in the face with all his strength. “Fight, damn it!” In all his life, this type of aggression had never failed to get a response.

But not in Xiya. He stood there, his cheek blossoming red.

Zhyara hit him again, and when his brother still did nothing, looped an arm around his brother’s neck.

Then his brother’s friends grabbed his arms and yanked Xiya from his grip.

Zhyara wrestled against their grip. “Let me go. I’ll kill him.”

But his brother’s friends kept a firm hold on him until he calmed down. A young man guided him to the other side of the room, out of his brother’s scent. He pushed Zhyara down until he sat on the floor and knelt in front, blocking his view of his brother. The man’s hair was long and loose, his skin tanned golden. He wore jewellery made of gold and silver, and had an amber gemstone set in his front teeth. He was dressed in a blue-green silk shayka and had several rows of thorn and leaf tattoos circling both arms.

“Yes, you would have killed him.” The tone in the young man’s voice sounded like that of a desert wise man.

Everyone in the room had fallen quiet. The young man smelled utterly like a leader, like his brother did, Zhyara realised. He looked down in the subservient pose.

“I love my brother,” Zhyara said, his voice choking both with anger and grief. “He’s not joining you, do you hear that. I forbid–”

“I think your brother can decide for himself.” His voice was clear and calm, and oozed authority. Zhyara fought the sense of being subservient to this man. Zeyshi for crying out loud. “I want the best for my brother.”

“The best for him is that you leave and stay out of his life.” A tanned hand entered Zhyara’s vision and pushed his chin up until his eyes met the fierce expression of the zeyshi man. “And stop this grovelling rubbish. No one owns you. Not your family, not your city bosses. Not even me.”

He let go of Zhyara’s chin, rose and spat on the ground. The wad of spit narrowly missed Zhyara’s right leg.

Zhyara left his mother’s house. Alone, he climbed onto the crater rim. He watched the blue mist swirl in the crater. A few young boys were throwing stones, as he and Xiya had often done when they were little. He cried. Later still, he slunk down to the station and caught the train back to his neat apartment in the Third Circle, back to the people he understood.

The world was a huge cloud, and from close-up, the ring system extensive. Zhyara counted twenty-seven bands in various colours. They were, inexplicably, not symmetrical, with ring material, ice mostly, accumulated more thickly in a couple of spots along the rings. The surface of the planet, if it could be called that… was an odd kind of blue-green and in the side turned away from the star, threaded through with fluorescent red auroras. The end-effect was luminescent purple.

The density was higher than one would expect for a gas planet. Much higher. But…

“It’s highly lumpy,” one of the technicians said. “There’s a circular area in the cloud mass that is very dense. The rest is much thinner.”

A bit later, another technician said, “That mass is moving.”

It was.

Zhyara replayed and replayed a recording of the dark spot. The dark mass looked like a shadow, but none of the moons were big enough to cast it, and besides, the system’s primary was on the wrong side.

Then he checked the read-outs again. The density wobbles. And he realised: the dark spot was a shadow indeed…

“I think,” he said, “…there’s something inside that cloud. Take us closer.”

So the pilot steered the craft closer. With each further measurement, it became more likely that Zhyara was right.

“It’s not really a planet. It’s a cloud of planets.”

“Rubble,” the pilot said. “It’s my guess that the planet was happily orbiting along in what’s now the asteroid belt, and a large rogue object struck it, not hard enough to fuse with it or destroy it, but hard enough to knock it out of orbit and do a lot of damage to the surface, or maybe a moon or two.”

By the time they were above the cloud tops, they knew more. There were two larger bodies inside the cloud, and a collection of smaller ones. The larger bodies were both large enough to be spheres. One consisted mainly of ice, and liquid water underneath. The second body was a rocky planet with a semi-molten core. The gassy ‘atmosphere’ enveloped them both. The cloud was probably unstable over a long period of time, but for now, it was replenished by huge outgassing cryovolcanoes on the ice planet.

“Fly into it,” Zhyara said.

“What?” the pilot turned to him, shock on his face. “I can’t do that. We don’t know what—”

“I’ll do it.” Zhyara pushed himself up.

The crew didn’t question his commands. The pilot slid out of his seat, and Zhyara took the controls, guiding the craft ever closer to the mist. The blue light shone eerily on the crew’s faces, which were wide-eyed with fear.

Once or twice, Zhyara spotted two of them talking to each other, but he knew they wouldn’t challenge him.

Still…

“You don’t need to worry,” he said. “One time, long ago, I used to be a skim racer in the crater outside Athyl.”

“For real?” the pilot said.

“For real.” Now that he had started, he wanted to tell them everything. For years he had hidden his background, never wearing his clan designation, always deflecting questions about where he came from.

But he needed his wits to fly the craft safely.

Further and further down they went.

The vision dimmed and blotted with dense cloud. The temperature of the craft’s outside rose, and rose. The extremities glowed orange. Updrafts and eddies buffeted the craft. Speed dropped.

Zhyara went through the motions. Slow down. Ease the craft onto the mist. The technician read out atmospheric measurements. Hydrogen, mostly. Something small thunked into the hull.

Several of his crew took sharp intakes of breath. Zhyara was sweating. It was like skim racing, but it was not. Yet, this was just the type of place where Ezmi people from the Outer Circle would have gone. Surely one of them would have been a skim racer.

He tried to un-cramp his hands, hoping they would hit nothing larger. The scans showed clear, but he wasn’t sure how well the results held up in this murk.

Then they were through the clouds. The mist cleared abruptly, the sky turned purple, and before them, in the feeble glow that filtered through the clouds, floated a planet and its huge white moon, orbiting each other in a tight circuit, inside the gas cloud. The moon showed as a crescent, and a huge glittering gout of gas spewed from its limb.

“Will you look at that,” the pilot muttered. “How in all the heavens is this possible?”

A few moments of stunned silence followed.

“I’m still getting heat readings on the hull,” a technician said.

“We’re in a bubble of air,” Zhyara said.

The tension was replaced by a long silence. The crew took measurements. Data readings scrolled over screens. Zhyara just observed the immense beauty of the strange world. Volcanic, rich in metals, clothed in velvet-black. There was water and breathable air, even signs of life, although how it survived in the dark was a mystery to him.

“This world couldn’t possibly be stable,” Chiaru said.

Zhyara agreed. “No, over thousands of years, it wouldn’t be.”

On the timeframe of a human life, however, it was stable. Surely this was where the workers had gone.

But scan after scan for radio or electric signals turned up negative.

Eventually, the technician shook his head. “It’s an interesting system, but there’s no one here.”

“Wait,” another technician said. “I’m getting a reading.”

A tense silence while he located the signal.

“It’s coming from outside.”

Zhyara flooded with relief. That was why they had found no one. The harvesting rigs were slow boats, and had taken much longer to reach the cloud planet.

“Let’s go to meet them.”

When Zhyara finally stepped off the train at the station in Third Circle, the day was turning golden. This was the time when the sky turned from white to deep orange and lengthening shadows grew distinct double edges, which were never as obvious at midday, when both Yaza and Beniz were overhead.

The plaza outside the station bustled with the usual busyness of people shopping and eating out and relaxing in general. There were no fights, and no beggars, and no rigs in the street, or mushroom-sellers. And no smell.

Home. And yet, it felt like something inside him had broken.

And he still didn’t understand why his brother would want to give all this up to join the zeyshi and starve in a hole in the ground. Xiya was good with engines. He was smart. The Third Circle Aircraft engineering Cooperative was always looking for good people. If he, boring, shy Zhyara, could do all the required exams to move from Eighth Circle to Third, then his brother could certainly do it. He wouldn’t even have the disadvantage of being the oldest in his classes, and if he took off his Ezmi earrings, no one would ask any questions about his origin.

He just did not understand it.

Many people had stopped work for the day, but he went to the Mining Exploration Board office, which was in the Third Circle’s vibrant commercial sector that surrounded the airport. Aircraft whizzed overhead, smaller local rigs and the occasional larger one from elsewhere on Asto, like the Beratha, or from Ceren, in-system, or other Coldi-colonised worlds.

In the huge hall of the Mining Exploration Board building, communicators sat in the glass-walled hub. A huge holographic in the centre of the room showed the locations of the Board’s stations, mostly supporting nearby planet-based colonies and their fledgling industries. Anpar lines flickered over the three-dimensional image, whenever communication took place.

Zhyara stopped briefly to watch. If only his brother could see the beauty of this, he would certainly want to come. But, without an Eighth Circle permit, Xiya wouldn’t even be allowed on the train. Why didn’t he want to try the exams?

Why, why, why?

He turned away and went into one of the cubicles that surrounded the central hub. Here, his local superior was at work. Valayu sat in her console, surrounded by images of cut-open technical drawings. She gave a brief greeting without looking up–as superior, she didn’t have to–and continued drawing on the transparent pad before her.

Zhyara took it as a sign that it was all right to sit next to her. He did and she said nothing for what seemed like a long time. The stylus tracked over the soft pad and glowed faintly where it touched the pad. Lines appeared on the holo-screen facing her, in three-dimensional projection. The soft glow lit her face.

“I’m sorry for being absent,” he said after a long silence.

‘It’s all right. It will be sorted out, one way or another.”

He wanted to say, Like how? but anything he said might bring his brother in danger. He wasn’t sure how much Chiaru had told her about his family, although most of it, she could probably guess.

He studied the hollow curved tube with supportive struts that she was drawing. Realisation clicked. “I didn’t know we were planning a new station.”

“At Beynazha. Has to be operational within a year.” Click, click, click went the stylus and a series of doors sprang into being.

Beynazha was where Zhyara had found the previous destroyed station. Memories of empty, airless passages sent a chill over his back. The station walls had peeled open like a fruit, all air and inhabitants sucked into the void.

“Is that wise? We don’t know yet why the station was destroyed, and now we have another station failing to report.”

“We must go on. We won’t give in to this alien menace. Now if we could get the personnel side sorted out…”

“Is there a problem?”

Click, click, click. Another wall with doors appeared. “Not my department, but yes, there is. We distributed tickets, but it appears that a young and charismatic zeyshi leader is convincing the Outer Circle residents that fleeing to the zeyshi is a better option.”

“That sounds… unwise.” Zhyara didn’t know what he was saying; his heart beat so furiously. Xiya had received a ticket. Both he and the young man who had told him off at his mother’s house had the strong hormonal scents of leaders. Xiya, who knew places to hide. What if his brother had already joined the zeyshi?

“Unwise, as you say. The only thing fleeing to the zeyshi will achieve is bringing forward the time of the next raid.”

Zhyara’s first thought was, No, Xiya! Raids meant huge numbers of troops coming into the Outer Circle and desert to weed out, gas, poison and destroy the zeyshi warrens, ostensibly to ‘clean up’ the Outer Circle. Raids meant bodies lined up in the street for all to see. Raids meant young men and women herded and taken away to jails and labour camps. His second thought was Of course, that’s why there were so many guards watching the race.

Zhyara and his crew found the source of the signal: an asteroid mining vessel, the hull battered and scratched, as these ships often tended to be. It was moving on a steady in-system pace, but on a vector directed out of the system, not aimed at the cloud planet. As with a ship that would not want to be seen, it projected no broadbeam signals, just the steady blip of the beacon, which couldn’t be turned off. Where did these people think they were going?

The pilot’s simple hail returned nothing but the most basic handshake command, nothing that required active pilot input. When they came close enough for a visual scan, it turned out that the ship’s lights were off. Worse, there was not much in the way of a heat signature.

Zhyara and his team suited up for vacuum. He chose to bring Chiaru and one of her immediate seconds. They opened the air lock and pilot matched speeds exactly with the mining vessel. As team leader, Zhyara went first. He unlocked his tether and jumped through open space to the miner’s emergency hatch.

This was why a leader needed reliable staff. He could only do these tricks of bravado because there was a tight team behind him, people bound to him through hormonal instinct, people he would trust with his life.

The emergency hatch’s outside control was dead, the lights dark and the panel unresponsive. He banged on the hatch, dread rising in him. By the time the rest of his team had arrived, there had been no reply from inside the ship, so Chiaru attached her power module to the control panel to force the door open.

This was the point at which the ship’s air lock should appear as a brightly-lit cubicle in the darkness of space. But when the hatch opened, it was dark inside.

“The ship’s dead,” Chiaru said, voicing what everyone already knew.

A victim of alien attacks? Zhyara had seen no damage to the hull.

They cycled through the air lock, the three of them crammed into the tiny cubicle.

As soon as the inner door opened, the environment scans on Zhyara’s suit blinked warnings. Low oxygen, high methane, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide. Cabin pressure higher than normal. And it was damn dark in here. The glow from Zhyara’s helmet light formed a beam of illuminated fine material—dust or haze he couldn’t tell. His analyser indicated that organic content was high. There was no one on the vessel’s bridge, and no one in the flight crew rooms. Zhayra floated from one compartment to another, finding nothing out of place, nothing that indicated what had happened or where the crew were hiding—

“Zhyara, please, come here!” Chiaru’s voice in his helmet comm had an oddly strangled quality to it.

In a moment of panic, Zhyara saw images of her being attacked by her technician in the way she had attacked him the day before yesterday. How dumb, he should have warned his team about this; he should have told them what happened.

Heart thudding, Zhyara pulled himself to the rear of the vessel, to the cargo hold, where the beam of his helmet light cut through a haze of thickening air. He grabbed the opposite door frame and shone his light in.

Chiaru was at the entrance of the cargo hold, her technician just inside the room. His first thought was one of relief that neither of them had attacked the other, but then he realised what the dark floating shapes in the room were.

Bodies floated in the cavernous space, most without suits, their skin and clothes horribly burned and blackened. Faces unrecognisable with black decay. Hands and feet bloated, skin split open. Foul globs of fluid floated in the air.

“How many?” Zhyara asked, feeling sick. As he turned to Chiaru, he noticed that her suit was coated with brown gunk.

“More than four hundred.”

“A flying sarcophagus,” Zhyara said, holding a hand over his faceplate of his helmet and imagined an unpleasant smell creeping into his mask, even though the suit was airtight and that was impossible. “This ship can’t carry this many passengers.” Overcrowding? Had they fled the station? Had they picked up refugees from another ship? He couldn’t see how they’d cram this many live people aboard a ship this size. And that gave him an awful thought. “How long have they been dead?”

“The ship log says the ship has been cold for more than fifteen days.”

Zhyara did a quick calculation. “That means…”

Chiaru completed, “They were killed inside the station.”

Third Circle was where Zhyara belonged. He had known that the moment he stepped off the train and smelled the faint scent of ozone that always hung around the airport. Now, on his way home, he saw it in the faces of the people, many of whom he knew. He could feel the power of the loyalty networks, and knew that it was right. The sight of the elegant building that held his apartment made his heart beat faster.

He almost ran across the street, and jiggled his hands in his pockets while the lift took him up to the top floor.

He went out onto the gallery, where the view over the city hit him more forcefully than usual. In the distance, behind the pronged landing platforms of the airport, he could see the white spires of the Inner Circle palaces. There was the seat of the Coordinator, to who all networks came back. Seveyu Palayi watched over all her little workers like a matron. She sat at her command post, enhanced with all technology to keep up with the demands of all het loyalty networks. Zhyara had three: his station network, his Mining Board network and his network of friends. Most people also had a family network. The Coordinator had hundreds. She was at the top of the Army, of the local government, of the wellbeing of her citizens, of the education, the guards. Every one of those networks would ask her for advice, and she would answer and delegate, often to more than one person at the same time, using three feeders at the same time to keep in contact with everyone. All her networks inter-linked and because of this, she stopped arguments before they had a chance to fracture society.

He had seen her in the flesh once, a woman not so much older than he was, carefully selected by the tests to be able to withstand the demands of so many networks. She had fought her rivals–fought and killed, as those at the very top often did, and every time Zhyara heard her name, he felt the need to look down and take the subservient pose. Ever since he came to Third Circle, it had been a comfort to him to know that someone at the top was in control and would decide to do what was best for the people.

And now he wondered how it could be that such a kind system was so badly failing a group of people he cared about.

When he opened the door to the apartment, there were fast footsteps in the hall and the next thing, Menya closed him in his arms.

Zhyara hugged his social zhyama back, and for a long time, neither of them said anything; they just breathed each other’s familiar scent. Then Zhyara went to change out of his uniform–the desert stains would need to be washed out–and returned to the living room in just a pair of shorts, where Menya had poured drinks. They sat on the couch facing the window, staring at the view.

“There was trouble,” Menya said. It was not a question.

“Xiya,” Zhyara said, and that was enough of a reply. Menya knew everything about Zhyara’s family. After a silence he added, “It’s worse than usual. I’m afraid he’s about to join the zeyshi, and there is going to be another raid.”

Menya tightened his grip on Zhyara’s hand.

Zhyara faced him. Menya’s earrings glittered in the golden light reflecting off the buildings of the city. Earrings with red stones.

“I love my family,” Zhyara said, his voice choking. “I just don’t know what I can do to help them.”

No longer just to help them overcome poverty, but to help them survive.

“And I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’m afraid that the raid will happen before I come back. Xiya has received a ticket, and he’ll be one of the ones sent to Beynazha station for sure… only to be killed by whatever is out there killing them. I’m out of ideas. Please help me.”

Menya said nothing. From previous discussions with him, Zhyara knew that people who had grown up inside the city, with proper networks, didn’t feel any responsibility towards those of the Outer Circle or the zeyshi. According to them, the Outer Circle people were never told that they could not do the Eighth Circle exams. In fact, the opposite was true. Industries always needed reliable workers. Organisations like the Mining Exploration Board paid for teachers in Eighth Circle. Many of them were even free. A steady stream of people, like Zhyara, did take the opportunity they offered. The ones who didn’t… well, it was their choice, wasn’t it?

But like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. Menya understood that. And if Zhyara had brought a tiny bit of understanding into an elite family like Menya’s, he felt he had achieved something.

Menya said, “You could, of course, warn them that a raid is about to happen.”

“I can’t go back. They’d kill me.”

“No, but I can.”

Zhyara met Menya’s dark eyes, the irises with tiny flecks of bronze, matching his earrings. He felt overwhelmed with emotion. He knew why he had a zhayma and why Menya did everything for him, and he would do everything for Menya. “I wouldn’t want you to put yourself in any danger.”

Menya shrugged. “There is no danger. I’m going to Eight Circle to pick up my rig from the workshop. I believe you know the man Vashya who runs the place. He’s talkative, and I might casually drop something about raids.”

Zhyara strode into the station’s control room at a pace just short of running. The few workers looked up, must have understood why he was here, tried to get up, but acted too slow.

Zhyara was already at Desya’s chair.

“Hey, what—” Desya’s eyes widened.

He grabbed Desya by the elbow and hissed in his ear, “What happened? Either you tell me the truth or we fight. In either case, I get to know.”

His fingers dug into thin flesh and twisted Desya to face him. Chiaru and Eyana had their weapons out in no time, but Desya didn’t resist. He hung limp in Zhyara’s grip.

“What is going on? There are thousands of bodies out there. You killed the workers and stowed their bodies into the cargo vessels and hoped we wouldn’t find them. You lied about attackers. There were never any attackers.”

“We had no choice! There was no one who could give us assistance. The workers had already killed everyone in the middle command. They had no ties of loyalty to anyone and there was no other way we could restore order—ow—I’m telling you the truth.”

But Zhyara heard nothing. “Those people were from my clan.” He dragged Desya from his chair by his collar. A few of the station workers rushed forward, but his seconds had their weapons out. There were flashes when weapons fired.

“They were people with families, people with lovers and brothers and sisters.” With every word, he lifted Desya up and slammed him into the control panel.

“Stop it, stop!” Someone, Chiaru he thought, pulled him back, leaving Desya on top of the panel, where lights flashed their protest. His nose was bleeding.

“You’ll kill him, and then we have no one to bring to court.”

Zhyara struggled through the red haze of hormonal anger. He took a long time to calm down. Desya’s breath rasped in the tense silence. A scent of ozone hung in the air, from discharged guns.

With great effort, Zhyara got control of his voice. “I’m guessing the trouble started when some of the Ezmi would not follow station orders?”

Desya nodded.

“I’m guessing that there was a breakdown of the loyalty chains within the station. A section of the population was never ready to conform to orders, most of those of the Ezmi clan.”

“They were useless zeyshi.”

Zhyara slapped him. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Desya wiped his cheek, but for once, his look was defiant. “They have no loyalty networks. Oh yes, some of them said that they did, but they were lying.”

Zhyara heard the voice of a charismatic zeyshi leader, Yes, you would have killed him. And he understood.

The zeyshi and many in the Outer Circle had no loyalty networks.

They had no need for them.

No need for leaders who took the job for life.

No need to fight to establish rank.

Zhyara took a deep breath and continued in a low voice, “They did not disobey because they don’t want to fit in, but because they can’t. Their instincts do not fire the way ours do; they are born that way and it seems that the Ezmi clan is heavily burdened with these people. Our instincts are programmed to see them as enemies. I know. I am Ezmi. I am not one of the instinct-deprived people, but once I almost killed my brother, who is.”

Why had no one realised that before?

He dissociated himself from the command hub, and everyone gathered there, and let his people deal with Desya. Anger and grief raged inside him. He should have seen this before, when it had stared him in the face.

He went to stand at the hub, staring at the three-dimensional display of the strange solar system.

They would have to take the remaining station workers to Athyl under arrest. He would have to put the station in sleep mode. Power down auxiliary processes, depressurise everything except the docks. The technicians would already have installed routines that would fire the station’s jets whenever it threatened to lose orbit. In time, there would be a new crew, and new workers… They were likely to be more ticket holders who only pretended to have loyalty networks, and the whole damn thing would start all over again.

It was wrong.

He looked over his shoulder.

Chiaru and Eyana were taking the station survivors’ details and arranging for them to be taken to the ship. It became more and more quiet in the command room.

Zhyara made the only decision that felt right to make.

Surrounded by silence, Zhyara called the station maintenance routine on the screen and turned off the orbit maintenance routines. Then he turned off the station’s beacon. With an unstable orbit like this, the station would have crashed into the sun by the time the Mining Board found it again. Then he focused on the cloud planet, and called up the coordinates. He wrote them on the waxy paper that held the dead worker’s ticket. At some time in the future, an astronomer might be interested in this strange planet.

Then he rose, and made his way to the ship where Desya and the others had been confined to cabins with whomever they were least likely to kill.

Chiaru and everyone else sat around the pilot and it was a while before Zhyara realised that something was off.

“Anything going on?” Zhyara asked, still feeling dazed.

The pilot frowned. “Listen to this.” He took off his earpiece and turned up the volume on the communication channel. It was a constantly repeating message. To all approaching ships. Parts of Third Circle airport are compromised. Do not use the western side of the airport, from prongs 3-576 ranging to 4-875. Doing so is likely to land you in rebel hands. Repeat…

Zhyara stared at the pilot, feeling stupid. “Rebels? Who are they?”

“It seemed that First Circle ordered a raid on the zeyshi, but they were prepared and set an ambush. They took the guards’ vehicles and flew into the city, and occupied a number of platforms.”

And just who had notified the zeyshi of the impending raid? He grew cold. “Show me.”

He slid behind the control and scanned through the news headlines.

Emergency situation.

Airport authority demands army action.

We cannot indiscriminately charge against our own people, administrator says.

…the young charismatic leader has struck a chord with many of the disenfranchised in the poorer parts of the city…

They are poor by their own choice, administrator says.

Zhyara raised his hand to cover his mouth. No, Xiya. When he had asked Menya to warn the zeyshi he’d merely wanted to save his brother’s life. He hadn’t thought he would start a rebellion.

By the time Zhyara and his group returned to Athyl, the occupation of the airport had developed into a siege, with part of the airport still functioning, busy and cramped, and another part sectioned off, as if it no longer existed. No one spoke about it, not even Zhyara’s boss to whom he delivered the traumatised station workers.

The Mining Exploration Board was in damage control mode, with outrage from the Outer Circle about the lost lives, and on top of that, Zhiminda station no longer sent in its automated beeps.

“We’ll lose the station,” Valayu said, seated in her console with the design of the new station in front.

Zhyara nodded. Yes, they would lose the station. A fitting end for a place where so many had died.

“Maybe we need to reconsider how we recruit staff for these projects,” he said, his voice measured and careful. “I wouldn’t mind working with some medical people to determine the pathology of this… defect of large parts of my clanspeople.”

She gave him a sharp look, and then her expression softened, as if she realised that his family would be affected. She sighed. “Yes.” And a while later again, “Yes.”

“Meanwhile, what is First Circle going to do about the zeyshi occupation?”

“What they usually do: they’ll ignore the issue until the occupiers decide to leave.” Did he detect some anger? She continued, “It’s a disgrace, and reflects poorly on the guards, but no one can talk to these people. There are no networks. And evicting them forcefully will make many other people angry. So they just wait until the zeyshi get hungry and leave of their own accord. It’s still a disgrace, and will not reflect well on them either. The next raid will be faster, and more vicious.”

That was right. Fighting someone was easy if there were no loyalty ties. But neither the zeyshi nor the Outer Circle was completely free of those ties, were they? There had to be hundreds of people like him, cut away from their families by this genetic flaw. Those people would not agree that there were no loyalty ties. The ties were one way, from Zhyara and others to their families, but they were present. And therefore, First Circle guards could not attack them where they were highly visible, but would have no qualms about attacking them in the desert where there were no witnesses.

He realised that Valayu was looking at him, probably expecting a further recommendation, or maybe a miracle solution. There wasn’t going to be one.

He shrugged. He’d better go back to Menya. A good cry, a bath and some action in the bedroom would make him feel better.

But wouldn’t help Xiya holed up at the airport.

Or his mother worried about her favourite son.

Or Vashya, whose business would be under strain if it became known that the warning had come through him.

As Zhyara rose from his chair, something crinkled in his pocket.

And he had an idea.

As soon as he left the building, he sent a message to Menya that he’d be a little while longer, and went to the airport.

Up on the third floor, he found the passage that led to platforms 3-566 to 3-600 barred by a couple of First Circle guards.

“Can’t go through here, Sir,” one man said after observing the proper greetings.

“I’ve been authorised to speak to the rebels.” When the guard raised his eyebrows, he added, “Xiya Ezmi is my brother.”

The guard’s face showed pity, but he let Zhyara through and he walked into the deserted corridor until he came to a closed gate, from where he could see the zeyshi camped out on the platform.

City people would see these young people as dirty, disgusting beggars, but to him, the figures in dust-stained shaykas with loose hair were familiar. He spotted a couple of familiar faces.

They sat in the shadow of a couple of larger troop-carrying craft that would belong to the First Circle guards. Craft with closed cabins that would be capable of reaching the anpar point. The zeyshi would have flown those craft here. Good.

Several of them, including Xiya, would be half-decent pilots. He wasn’t sure if they were up to the challenge he was going to give them, but he had to try.

He took the waxed paper from his pocket. He had nothing heavy to weigh it down except his timer. It was fairly new and had cost him a bundle–damn it–but it would be worth his brother’s freedom. He wrapped the paper around the device, and then yelled, “Oy!”

Several of the rebels looked in his direction.

He flung his missile over the fence. It bounced several times on the concrete. A young man ambled over to pick it up. He unfolded the paper, and then went to show it to his mates.

While Zhyara walked away, he retrieved his earrings from his front pocket and put them in. He went home, to his bath and Menya’s comforting arms.

They ate and drank and slept until late.

When Zhyara rose the next morning, he was not surprised to hear that the zeyshi had gone overnight, and had taken the First Circle ships.

No one knew where they had gone.

___
Copyright 2013 Patty Jansen

Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her story “This Peaceful State of War” placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. She has also sold fiction to genre magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Redstone SF and Aurealis. Her novels (available at ebook venues) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (middle grade SF), Charlotte’s Army (military SF), and Fire & Ice, Dust & Rain and Blood & Tears (Icefire Trilogy) (dark fantasy). Her novel Ambassador will be published by Ticonderoga Publication in 2013. Patty is a member of SFWA, and the cooperative that makes up Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and she has also written non-fiction. Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at: http://pattyjansen.com/

by Christopher Reynaga

This story is dedicated to Chuck Palahniuk, who helped me unlace the sutures in the skin to find the dark heart of it.

This is not about stitching a straight line through cloth like a seamstress. Not about the tight suture of a surgeon closing a wound. This is an art. This is about interweaving patterns of the fold and musk. An intricate lacework of innocence. Each tailor creates his own signature stitch unlike any other.

“Hand me the needle, girl,” said Papa. He took the curved steel from me, wetting the silvered thread through his lips to make it lie flat in the eye. “Now, hold her leg apart for me.”

He already had her other thigh parted with one callused hand and gripped the needle delicately with the other. The steel glinted under the oil lamps. My elbow wrapped around the girl’s knee and held the leg against me firmly. She was sixteen, a bit older and stouter than I, but I knew how to brace against her so she wouldn’t kick out in fear and rip the stitches. My other hand took her damp fingers. She looked at me, eyes wide and glistening. Her mouth squeezed shut, trying to be brave. Her family’s womenfolk surrounded her, the gelded aunts and sisters. Her mother wiped a damp rag across her forehead. The women stood in the back, singing the chants of celebration and maidenhood.

“It’s alright,” I said to her, pressing her hand against the upturned hem of her calico dress. The folks of Leedsville had pitched in, bought her such a pretty dress — cornflower blue with a bit of lace. “My papa’s the best tailor there is,” I said. “He’ll make you safe.”

The girl looked at me hard when I said it, and Papa’s eyes paused on me, needle poised just over her vulva.

“You’re no danger, Anna,” the mother said to her daughter, “You’re going to be a woman. You’re a woman and you’re not going to hurt anyone ever.”

The girl choked back a sob. “Please Mama, I don’t want to kill. Sew me up… Do it.” Tears ran as her mother squeezed her hand, hushed at her.

Do it!” she screamed at Papa.

Papa slipped the sharp steel through her vaginal lips and began to sew shut her womb. Her body jerked as the silver thread tugged through. I had that leg locked against me good, but something in her sobs shook me until I looked away from her face. Papa ran his thumb down her labia as he worked, wiping the blood away. He was a very good tailor.

When you sew shut a virgin-mother’s womb you use a polished, steel, taper-cut needle with a fishbone curve. The eye is threaded with silvered silk that holds a bend yet moves like butter.

A blacksmith’s son once told me what his father’s trade was like. I tried to imagine my hands forging the crude, silver rings. Piercing the blunt edge through the foreskin of a boy’s penis and sealing it tight. Tucking it around the scrotum and driving the metal through the hanging tendon until it was bound like a snake eating its own tail.

I reckon blacksmithing has its own grace and artistry, like tailoring, but both trades serve the same purpose. They keep the virgin-bound safe and all other folks from dying of their curse. The original sin of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Life. The curse the chapel priests say would strike if a virgin-mother and virgin-father had sex the way that animals do. A wrathful curse that kills everyone and swallows towns whole, leaving nothing but vast, haunted woods in their wake.

Woods like these.

Papa walked the edge of the path ahead, reaching his hand to brush a mossy trunk. My feet stayed in the center of the road, well away from the dark tangle of branches. Papa never was scared of the trees the way most folk were. As a tailor it was as much his job as a wood-cutter’s to keep the dark heart of the forest at bay. I trailed behind, slower than I’d usually walk in such a cursed place. I was in no hurry to get where we were going.

I saw the tumbledown walls of houses ahead in the trees. A splintered gray signpost tilted under the roots grown around it. Lexington. The root-tangled trunk that bound the sign was shaped like a woman, as if the tree had burst up and swallowed her. There was no face in the head-like burl, but the perfect grey lips of a hollow stretched in a surprised “O”, collecting the shimmer of dark rainwater.

“Papa?” I asked, stepping up next to him.

“What is it girl?” He shifted his gray felt hat to keep the dapple of sun out of his eye.

“I… don’t want to go to Portsmouth to see Tom.”

Papa’s face hardened and he started walking ahead, “I’m not arguing Elana. Jed Wayland’s son is a good man, from a good family of blacksmiths.”

“He’s only fourteen and I hardly know him,” I said, catching up.

“He’s a man of sixteen, and bound as a virgin father. His brothers have already left to take up their trades, and Tom’s ready to marry. Most firstborn girls your age are already sewn and married.”

“I don’t like him. He’s… he’s burnt across his face and can’t see out of one eye.”

“The boy knocked over a forge, Elana. It’s not his fault, any more than its your fault that you are what you are.” He stopped by a black oak with the vague shape of a woman gripping a misshapen burl as if it were a child. “You think this is easy, trying to find you a match when we have to pretend you’re gelded? Most towns we travel through would drive us out if they knew you were my firstborn. They’d look at you and see walking death. I can’t help that there’s no town or kin left to guard you. Sacramento is dead and gone, taken just like this place,” he said waving his hand at the trees.
“I don’t want to be…”

I swallowed. “I’m scared Papa.” The fear burned the inside of my belly. I glanced quickly at the dark silhouettes in the trees.

Papa’s face softened. “Look, this…” he looked around at the dark woods, “none of this is ever going to happen to you. It’s not a curse to be firstborn, Elana. It’s a blessing. You should have been raised in a town with all the honors and protection that a family gives to its virgin-mothers. We may have lost that home to the woods, but you still have the chance to marry out of this life of tailoring and hard roads. The road killed your mama, Elena, and I will not let it kill you.”

“Mama,” I whispered to myself. I reached up and touched her pendant on my neck, fingers tracing the way papa had etched her face into the wood with his needles. I could remember the stories he told of the way she would charm horses and pick their hooves and sing. Sometimes I could almost remember the sound of her voice, though her face was lost to me beyond this bit of wood. I felt the ache in my belly return, and the fear that chased it.

“You said Mama liked the freedom of the road,” I said.

“She thought she would,” said Papa, “but it was harder than she’d been raised to expect. She passed on that first hard winter, God bless her.” Papa looked away. I could hear the quake in his voice. “I never should have dragged you across the West Union territories like this,” he said at the trees, and then looked back at me. “But we do what we must to survive, and you must marry, Elana.”

“I just — Tom, he’s not the one, Papa.” The words caught in my throat. “Just give me one more season helping you with the needles and the girls. There’s time to find the right man — I haven’t had the change yet,” I tried to hide the quake in my own voice.

“No,” he said, and his voice carried the weight of a mountain. “It was easier to hide your secret when you were young, but you are growing up fast. You’re almost sixteen and your fertility is coming. I know it came late in your mama, but I won’t wait anymore — it’s dangerous.”

We passed a tangle of trunks like people clinging together. I put my hand on my belly and cringed. Papa pressed my head against him.

“If you come into your fertility on the road,” said Papa, “we’d be lucky to get you gelded before you were driven off to die. Not even Tom’s kin would have you if you were far enough along. The best you could hope for would be my own gelded fate. I don’t want you to become a tailor, Elana. Girls and their mothers screaming at you. Cold looks whenever you pass through town. Blacksmiths have it bad I’d wager, but no one likes knowing that you drew steel needles through their daughters. The world needs tailors and no one wants to live with us. It’s a hard life.”

Don’t leave me behind. My lips formed it, but I gave it no breath. I wanted to tell him a tailor’s life was all I’d known. That I liked the feeling of a needle in my hand far better than the feeling inside my belly. I wanted to tell him I would be gelded and stay. But I knew what things to push with him and which to leave be.

We passed the center of town. The shells of houses caved from the weight of limbs. The chapel’s roof was broken outward from the branches of a massive black maple twisted up with the curtain roots of a strangler fig. A tangle of faces had sprouted from the bark.

My eyes looked to a little tree below it in the town square, a smooth white birch. The milk-white body stretched slender and perfect with the eyeless face of a young girl. Her arms lifted into branches as if in prayer. Her smile was ecstasy. I shivered and looked away.
We walked past a well overflowing with roots to where the road south should have been. One of the great old trees had fallen, crushing a few others. It blocked the road with a tumble of dying branches taller than our heads, leaving a great blue hole for the sun.

“Can we go around it, Papa?” I said, searching for a break in the thicket.

“Stay to the road, Elana,” said Papa, putting down his carpet bag and testing a trunk with his foot. “These trees won’t hurt us, but there are things out in that underbrush that might. Now, you hand up that bag when I’m ready.” I held the bags in my hands, but I stopped short of touching the pale bark, wrinkled like dead skin.

He stepped up on two branches and glanced back. “You don’t need to be afraid of them, Elana,” said Papa. “The curse has gone from them. They’re just trees that drop seeds like any other now.” He leaned against the wide trunk at the top, trying to see a foothold over.

“I think,” he said as he put his foot out. His other foot thrust downward suddenly with the crack of a branch breaking. He gave a sharp cry as he dragged his bleeding leg up. He gripped his ankle.

“Papa!” I shouted. I dropped the bags and clambered up the branches. “Are you alright?”

Breath escaped his teeth. He nodded and looked at the deadfall above him like it was some dog that had turned on him. He glanced back at the long way we’d come through the woods.

“Let’s go back to Leedsville, Papa. We can’t stay here.”

“There is a town…” he said, “not far east of the river from here. Applington. We can make it by nightfall if we hurry.”

“I ain’t heard of it Papa. The Eastland’s not our route.”

“You wouldn’t have. I don’t much like it, but there’s a road back down to Portsmouth from there.”

My heart weighed when he said it, but it was a few more days between us and Portsmouth to bide my time. His arm went round my shoulder and we hobbled past the tree-filled chapel until a weathered trail opened up, barely more than a path in the forest’s green light.

A tailor’s stitch needs a flex against the skin that never loses pattern. The stitch must allow for the flow of urine out, and when it’s time for children, allow the straw head of the surgeon’s seeding rod in. It doesn’t take much of a man’s seed to do it. Just the smallest green drop.

Green, like the sap that comes from a virgin-mother when she becomes fertile. The green of grass and heartwood. The color of life. The stitch anticipates this change, allows for its constant flow. It guides the sap through to the pads of cloth that a virgin-mother wears always, except for those times she’s pregnant with child.

When I go down to the streams to wash the blood from the linen bandages we use when we sew the girls, I wash the small green spots from my own.

Papa limped drag-step by the time we passed the clear-cut fields of weathered tree stumps and entered the apple orchard on the edge of town. Smoke painted the twilight, and I saw the flickering of some bonfire on the southern edge of the village. Voices cried out in the distance and I could hear a concertina and a fiddle over the laughter. Two boys leapt around the corner of the slump-roof barn, chasing each other. The smaller one slowed to look at us. He had a fat frog impaled on a stick, and its long hind legs twitched as he ran.

My head pressed against Papa’s shoulder and I moved forward, but he shushed me with a finger over my mouth and pointed his head off to the right.

“Up through that way,” he said, nodding between the barn and the shadow of the tall, dark chapel. He stopped me with a fierce grip when we stepped off the road and pressed his mouth to my ear.
“Listen and listen well. We’re leaving as soon as I get my foot bound up. Don’t you leave my side and don’t talk to anyone. The ways are different in the east, Elana. They don’t suffer firstborn strangers. If they found out you weren’t gelded, they wouldn’t drive you from town — they’d kill you.”

I stood, stunned, until he nudged me forward. We shuffled around the barn until we came to a tall white house on the edge of the orchard. A weathered surgeon’s pole curled its red and white ribbon up one of the front porch pillars. My feet balanced up the steps until my hand could slip away from his back and rap hesitantly on the front door.

It opened quite suddenly to a lit candle-stick and a man’s stout, balding head.

“What is it? I’m closed,” he said. He glanced back and forth at the both of us. “Who are you?”

He brought the candle closer to Papa. “Joshua?” he asked. Papa looked away.

He held the candle on me for a moment and stared as Papa sagged against me.

“Who is it?” called a woman’s voice from the hall. A head craned past the balding man’s shoulder, tangled black hair in a bonnet. Her eyes blinked when she saw me.

The man held the candle away from our faces. “No one. Go back to your room, Wendy,” said the man. “Now,” he snapped when she didn’t move. Her footsteps hurried down the hall with a creak of wood. The man stepped back and said in a low voice, “You’d better come in.”

We stepped through the threshold to a set of rolling doors, and into a dark surgery with tall windows. The cracked stone washbasin beneath them was chipped smooth on one corner. The man held the candle to the basin’s oil lamps and turned up the wicks until the room glowed. A black iron swivel chair craned in the center, surrounded by cabinets and wooden benches.

I dropped the carpet bags and swung Papa into the chair. It swiveled toward the man, who had draped a surgeon’s apron around his neck and rolled up his shirtsleeves.

“What happened?” he asked Papa.

“He hurt his foot crossing the woods,” I said. The surgeon considered me carefully as he picked up a bandage from a crooked stack and dipped it in the basin. He cranked up the chair’s leg-rest, and peeled back the torn trouser.

“Now, what were you doing in Lexington Wood?” he asked, looking at Papa’s leg, but somehow I felt the words come at me.

Papa coughed, cleared his throat. “Traveling my way to Portsmouth. The roadway south is blocked. Deadfall.”

“Lot of dead ends in the woods,” said the surgeon as he moved the ankle around slowly. “The trees are treacherous. We’ve been clearing eastward, burning the wood at the quarter-festivals. Someday it will all be gone.” He smiled. “Wouldn’t that be something to see Lexington with children running in the streets again?” He seemed to cast his gaze out the window, but I felt his eyes in the reflection as he squeezed blood from the cloth. “Pity it’s a crossroads to the west. Some say Lexington fell because it was tainted by those loose West Union ways,” said the surgeon as he squeezed the wound. Papa winced and looked away.

“Is he alright?” my voice creaked out, my feet stepping forward.

“Your daddy will be fine, girl,” the surgeon said. “It’s a bad sprain, but I doubt the bone’s broken. I’ll bind it up with a poultice. He’ll be able to walk on it fully in a day or two.” He turned and dug his hands into a jar of yellowed herbs on the cabinet shelf.

“I can pay,” I said. I dug through the bags until I pulled out a few fat bundles of red bills.

“Unionist dollars,” the man said, raising an eyebrow. “We don’t take those here, girl. They’re hardly worth blowing your nose on, even in the west. If you don’t have coin then you’re going to have to trade something.”

“I got some good venison jerky,” said Papa, “or smokehouse almonds. I have a spyglass with a good fire-making lens.”

“I think you’ve got something more valuable to trade here, Joshua,” said the man as he glanced at me. “This town would appreciate the services of a good tailor. We’ve got two fine girls of age this quarter festival. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to cut out their wombs if a tailor didn’t pass through by quarter next.”

Papa nodded slowly as the man wet the poultice and smeared it on his skin. “There is that,” Papa said.

“Step into the other room child,” said the surgeon without meeting my eye, “Your daddy and I have things to discuss.”

I felt my face go warm and I drew in a slow breath. Papa looked reluctant. “Go on, girl,” he said.

I walked into the hall and drew shut the sliding doors. Some dim spill of light came from another door down the hall and I could see the red floral pattern of the hall rug.

Papa’s voice echoed through the wood with the quick, hushed tones of the surgeon. I turned my head, ear drifting closer to the crack trying to make out the words. I was focused so hard on the sound that I almost cracked my head against the door when I saw the woman staring at me from down the hall.

The sliding doors next to me rattled open. I stumbled back, the surgeon’s face close to mine. He stepped after me and slid the door firmly shut behind him. The candle in his hand was the only light in the dark hallway. The woman was gone.

“What’s your name, girl?”

“Elana.”

“I am Mister Greely.” He looked at me as if he was expecting me to curtsy. I nodded.

“Your daddy has agreed to stay on a few days and lace up our virgins. He is still a practicing tailor, is he not?”

“Yes sir, best in the West Union. I’m his apprentice daughter.”

“You uh,” he licked his lips, “you have had your womb branches cut and tied by a surgeon?”

“Of course,” I said, face reddening. “A summer back, in Georgetown.”

He gazed at me a moment. “Shame about Georgetown,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said.

“The news only reached us a fortnight ago,” Mr. Greely, said reluctantly, “Georgetown was taken by the woods. Killed every man, woman and child. There’s nothing now but a forest sprung up over it as wide as a county.”

I blinked.

“West Union or not,” said Mr. Greely, “damn to hell the whores that ended that place.” He shook his head.

“How do you know my papa?” I asked slowly.

“How do I know your papa,” he repeated, his eyes trailing up my chest before continuing up to my lips and eyes. “You look just like your mama. She was a fine woman.”

“Did you know… Did they pass through here?”

Mr. Greely sniffed his nose. “Your mama, Daphne, was from right here in Applington. Your daddy was from Lexington. Least he used to be.”

My mouth felt too dry to form words, but I said “I’m sorry sir, my momma and papa were from a big town called Sacramento, far in the west.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” he said.

“It was taken by the woods a long time back.”

“Is that so? Where is your mama, girl?”

I looked away, “She died on the road when I was young.”

“Elana!” called papa’s voice.

Mr. Greely paused, his mouth wide like he’d been about to ask something. He reached back and slid the door open partway. “Your daddy’s going to rest in the chair tonight,” he said. “There’s a room for you across the hall here, next to mine.”

I could feel Papa’s eyes on me even though I didn’t look. “I’d rather rest in the room with my papa if it’s all the same to you, sir. To take care of him.”

Mr. Greely’s eyes ran down my belly to my feet.

“Suit yourself,” he said.

Every tailor creates a signature stitch unlike any other. Papa’s stitch is like arched branches, holding back the wind. My stitch is a series of lacy, interlocking hearts. I used to practice it in secret on the edges of raw steak, my fingers slick with blood and fat.

When I knew I would follow my Papa’s trade, I pulled out the simple cat’s cradle of little-girl stitch from my own body, and took to practicing my tailor’s stitch on myself. I’ve completed and pulled it out countless times, working in furtive moments. It feels good to bind the fear in my belly away with a thousand little stitches. I never let myself think that doing this was lying to Papa, or that Papa would ever lie to me.

The sharp points of stars glimmered in the tall windows. I stared restlessly at them until my vision began to go white and I saw points of black on the insides of my eyelids when I blinked. Papa snored in the chair, hat over his face. I pushed off the carpet bags and wrapped my hands around my feet. Mama’s pendent dropped from where I’d held it gently in my lips, and it dangled against my neck. I tasted the musk of its wood.

Your mama, Daphne, was from here in Applington.

The sharp creak of wood from somewhere in the hall startled me. I looked to Papa. He snorted but his breath stayed slow and even.

I stood up and crept to the sliding door. It was open just a fingers-breadth and the wheels squeaked as I pushed it open farther. Shadows filled the hall, but the red trellis of rug wound its flowers toward a light at the end. A doorway held the glow of a lamp on a kitchen basin. The other doors in the hall were firmly shut, save the one I’d seen the woman looking from. It was open, dark. I glanced back at Papa and stepped into the hall. My toes felt the rough weave of the rug through the holes in my stockings.

I tried not to breathe as I stepped by Greely’s door. I let my breath out when I was past, but the floor creaked under me as if the sound had escaped with my exhale. A chair scraped in the kitchen and the shadow on the wall stood up.

“Who’s there?” came the harsh whisper of a woman’s voice.

The woman stood by a table, knife in hand. The crimson rind of an apple curled off her plate. Her shoulders hunched like I’d caught her at something shameful. Her other arm came up to touch her face, and I realized the slender stump of it had no hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, almost stepping back.

“You shouldn’t be back here,” she said. Then she looked closer, lowering the knife. “You look just like her,” she said.

“Look like who?”

“Daphne. She’s your mama isn’t she?” she said. “I’m Wendy –Wendy Greely. Is your mama with you, down the hall?”

I tucked the pendant back into my shirt. “No, she’s… passed.”

The woman flinched and looked to the side. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just hoped when I saw you. I mean, your daddy showing up suddenly after all this time. Most folks around here thought she and Joshua were dead after they run off fifteen years back.”

“Why did they run?” I said, stepping into the kitchen.

“Didn’t your daddy tell you?

“I’m starting to think Papa never told me anything at all.” I gripped the back of one of the chairs.

Wendy looked at me. “I think maybe you should go. If Harlan comes home from the bonfire and sees me talking to you, he ain’t going to be happy.

“Tell me about my mama,” I whispered as I sat down at the table. “Please.”

After a moment she nodded. “Would you like some?” she said, pointing the knife at the apple. She pressed her stump into the dimple at the stem and sliced off the rest of the red skin.

“What happened to your hand?” I asked.

She hid the stump in the folds of her skirt. “Penance. I touched a boy’s thing. Y’ain’t supposed to do that.”

She brought the knife up again, sliced the apple in half. She put down the knife and picked up the white meat, bit into it.

“Daphne was a bit older than me,” she said. “We wasn’t the closest friends, you know, not like her and Harlan and Sarah Turnbuckle, but we all spent a lot of time together. Daphne was arranged to marry Joe Underhill, the preacher’s firstborn son from Lexington. She put up such a fight with her daddy. Had no idea why. He was a boy of good standing. It made the other suitors come right out of the woodwork, it did. No one expected your daddy.”

“He asked for her hand in marriage?” I said, picking up the wedge of apple.

“Hardly. Your daddy was secondborn, and a tailor’s apprentice at that.”

The apple slipped from my hand leaving a wet stain on the table’s edge as it skittered onto the floor. I reached for it but I ended up staring at my own shaking fingers. Wendy gazed at the lamp, eyes far away.

“Joshua was supposed to help his daddy stitch Daphne up for her wedding day,” said Wendy. “Instead he up and runs off with her. What a scandal. He was my age — just about to get gelded like me. She was in love with him, though. I brought her my daddy’s brass seeding rod from his surgery kit when she asked. Told her she was a fool to do it…” she trailed off. Blinked, looked at me.

“You’re her firstborn daughter, ain’t you?”

“No, no,” I said, “I’m just a tailor’s apprentice now. I’m gelded.”

“It’s ok,” Wendy said with a grin, “I know how to keep secrets. I remember when you were just a dot. Your mama bore you right in that surgery chair in the other room. She and your papa snuck back into town for that. Nobody knows about that but Harlan and me. I think you were the first baby Harlan ever done deliver. He didn’t let me or your daddy watch but I heard you cry through that door crack.”

“He helped my folks?”

“Course he did. They ran off from their kin into a world of trouble. Who else were they going to turn to?”

“What happened to my mama’s kin?”

“Well… Some of them lived in Lexington, and the rest, they were all there the night that… Well that the woods ate everything. That’s how Harlan tells it.”

I sat back in the chair, eyes on the glow of the oil lamp.

“Harlan, Mr. Greely, he’s your husband?”

“No,” her laugh a nervous bray. “Harlan’s my brother, he’s firstborn but he ain’t married no one yet, so he took up daddy’s trade when he died. I’m secondborn, gelded but I ain’t an apprentice like you. I just keep the house. Help out in the surgery room where I can. But you… you’re Daphne’s firstborn, ain’t you?”

I nodded.

“Must be frightening, being a virgin-mother with no town or kin to protect you.”

I felt a chill pass through me, and she must have seen it. She reached out her good hand and laid it over mine. “Only woman I ever met that wasn’t scared of nothing was your mama, so don’t you worry either.”

I heard a door slam open and she stood suddenly.

“Wendy?” Mr. Greely’s voice echoed down the hall. I heard the front door close.

Wendy’s jaw worked, but nothing came out. She picked up the knife and waved me back toward the wall next to the doorsill.

“I’m getting a bite to eat, Harlan,” she called. His heavy footsteps came down the rug. She pressed me up against the wall by the doorsill with her stump, and stepped into the doorway.

“What are you doing out of bed?” His voice slurred just outside the sill. I could smell the corn whisky from his breath.

“Hush, Harlan, you got guests, remember?”

There was silence, a long sniff.

“You stay away from them, you hear? Just a tailor passing through. He’ll do his work and be gone come festival end.”

“Yes, Harlan.”

I heard footsteps move away, the creak of the hall floor.

“Not a word about them to anyone, you hear?”

“Yes, Harlan.”

The click of a door swinging shut.

“You,” said Wendy, looking down the hall.”Back to your daddy. Don’t come out. Not till you’re done with your work and heading far away from this place.”

I looked down at her hand with the knife. Her fingers were gripped white on the handle.

She took up the lamp and left the knife in the basin. I traced her footsteps down the hall past Mr. Greely’s room. She gazed at me as she turned down the wick to nothing. I turned in the dark doorway and couldn’t tell if I had seen the glint of Papa’s eyes, watching from the chair.

The heart of every stitch is the heartstring — the thread that, when cut, causes the pattern to effortlessly slip aside for birthing. The whole stitch must slip wide when the baby’s head is ready to crown or it can strangle the child. A tangle in the pattern can tear out the stitches, letting the mother bleed to death. The pattern must be able to draw back together like a boot-lace the moment midwives lay the leafy green placenta into a hot iron skillet.

I’ve helped Papa rethread the heartstrings of virgin-mothers. It’s simple work, whether the stitch is another tailor’s or your own. Sometimes I dream I’m threading a woman’s heartstring and when I look up from my bloody fingers, her face is the one on my mama’s pendant. These dreams always comfort me.

The nightmare is when the face is my own.

My fingers threaded the needle, licking on a bit of spit to make it lay flat on the eye. I placed it with the others on the fold of cloth, and laid out the spools of silvered thread, the linens, and kettle of steaming water. Papa was quiet the way he’d been since he returned. Nothing more than orders and grunts.

I had awoken late morning to find him gone. I could hear the bass of his voice from a closed door down the hall, mixing with Greely’s drawling baritone. The sun had crawled past noon before papa returned with a bowl of fried chicken.

Papa didn’t meet my eyes as we ate in silence. He’d spent his time staring at the empty surgeon’s chair. There was a knock and Mr. Greely ushered in the first of the girls before I’d finished my last drumstick.

This girl had to be younger than me by a year. She lay in the iron chair, her fingers playing nervously with her bonnet string. The hem of her red velvet dress fanned up below her chin, and she had to stop herself from folding it down as she watched Papa wash his hands again and again in the stone basin. The room felt naked without the familiar group of womenfolk gathered round to chant and hold her hands. I didn’t know if Mr. Greely had arranged to keep the womenfolk away from Papa, or if this was just the way they did things in the east.

“Mr. Greely has left us some ether to use on the girls, to keep them calm,” said Papa as if the girl wasn’t laying right there, eyes nervous. Next to the bottles of alcohol and penicillin, a wadded rag lay tucked against the ether. On the table before it, Mr. Greely had laid out a white cloth with a line of gleaming scalpels.
“Remember child, a little ether goes a long way,” said Papa. He folded his sleeves back to the elbow.

“What are the knives for Papa?”

“Don’t you worry about them,” said Papa. “Easterners, they often cut… the girls before they sew them. I won’t do such things. You just tend to that ether. No more than a few drops now.”

“Yes, Papa.” I uncorked the bottle and turned toward the sink. I poured a big palm sized splash of ether onto the cloth and spread it around with my thumb.

The girl flinched as I pressed the cloth over her mouth and nose. She glanced between me and Papa sorting his needles. Within a breath, her eyes went unfocused and rolled slowly back into their lids. The room was very quiet.

“Papa?” I asked as I handed him the first needle.

“Yes, girl?” he said flexing the girl’s flesh carefully with his fingers to pucker the folds of skin just right. He didn’t even need to hold her leg.

“Did you and Mama birth me in Sacramento, or… after you escaped from it?” I said.

His eyes glanced sharply between the girl and me. “Elana Anne, this is no subject to be speaking on,” he said, his tone final.

“She can’t hear us talking Papa.” My hand lifted the cloth from the girl’s mouth, showing the smooth, slack face.

“That don’t matter. These aren’t questions to be asking a father.”

“I ain’t got no mama to ask these things to, Papa. You’re having me marry Tom Wayland in less than a fortnight. You’ve showed me how to sew a virgin-mother, but there are things about birth and the curse that Mama would have taught me by now.”

He sighed, suddenly small and weary. “We bore you on the road, but your mama and I conceived you the way that all parents do. With a jar of water and a brass seeding rod.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not if it’s done right.”

“What if it’s done wrong?”

Papa kept working, his fingers nimble.

The girl moaned. I checked her eye with my thumb and draped the cloth back over her mouth.

“I reckon I should have told you the birds and the bees by now,” said Papa, drawing the threads taught. “I’m sorry I’ve kept so much from you.”

I nodded.

“Imagine,” said Papa, “that you are a woman whose fertility has come. Your womb is like a little tree Elana. A little girl tree with two branches, heavy with fruit. Every seed a man puts inside will try to find one of those fruit. Every seed. Inseminate a woman with a drop of a man’s green seed diluted in a pint of water and you may bear a child, or two or three. Give a woman much more, and she becomes something unlike herself. The little tree inside starts to grow and take shape. There’s something in us Elana, something that can’t be put to sleep once it’s woken.”

“What does it have to do with the curse, Papa?”

“I don’t know that it rightly is a curse, Elana. The chapel hymns will tell you so. Your mama used to say that the Tree of Life was supposed to grant life eternal. That there was something holy about the trees if we could just find it. I loved your mama, but I can’t say I believed her way either. The trees don’t burst out of the ground at God’s call to punish people nor to grant them eternal life.”

“They don’t?” I whispered.

“No,” said Papa. His eyes grew distant. His fingers laced without looking, making the pattern distort.

“The people are the trees, Elana. The trees burst from inside of them. It spreads like wildfire the moment they’re caught by the branches and roots of those others that have been touched. Their skin splits and the roots rush everywhere. The sound of it is terrible.”

My back touched the lip of the stone basin as I shrank back from his words.

“How would you know what it sounds like unless you watched it happen, Papa?” I said, staring into his eyes. “You didn’t come from Sacramento. You and Mama saw it happen right here, didn’t you? In Lexington.”

Papa stared at me, stunned. He stood still, trapped with a taught thread in each hand. “Where did you even… Shut your mouth, girl.”

“No.”

“You will mind me.” he said.

“You can’t make me. You can’t even make me marry Tom. You and mama ran away from that fate yourself.”

“You have no right no right to be talking to me this way!”

“You gave me this right,” I screamed, “when you lied to me about everything!”

His slap stung my face. My head turned round slowly, lips shuddering. The needles swung back and forth on their threads below Rebecca’s bleeding labia. All of the tension in the thread had gone out.

I stumbled back toward the doors and ran.

“Elana,” Papa cried as I shoved through the sliding doors and out the front door. It slammed open so hard it bounced closed again.

I ran past the barn and through the apple trees, ran toward the main road and the sounds of music, the distant smell of wood smoke.

I slowed and stopped amidst the dark boughs, my back against the far side of a gnarled trunk. The tears came. The ache of it wracked me from head to belly. I crouched and gripped the little pendant at my neck till the cord bit my skin.

“What are you doing out here in the trees, girl?” a voice said by my ear. My breath leapt from my mouth. Mr. Greely came round the far side of the tree supported by his hand.

“Leave me alone,” I said.

“Aren’t you supposed to be helping your daddy with the debutantes?”

“No,” I croaked and stepped back from the tree.

“Where you going?” He said, stepping forward. A half smile played on his lips.

“I have to get back to my Papa.”

He gave a guttural sigh and leaned against the trunk, nodding as if this were some great revelation.

“You picked a fight with him didn’t you?” he beamed. “Don’t deny it. I can see it on your face.”

“No,” I said.

He laughed, “I thought you would. Now what did you fight about?”

I edged toward the road and the distant sound of laughter.

“Oh,” he said, not moving. “You asked about your mama, didn’t you?”

My feet stopped.

“Did he tell you where your mama is?” he said, voice growing earnest. “Tell me, girl. Tell me what happened to her.” His eyes searched my face.

“I don’t know,” I said in a fierce whisper.

His eyes burned into mine for second, but then he laughed, settled his whole weight back against the tree. I caught that faint sharpness of whisky over the mold of fallen apples.

“Did he tell you that he was supposed to stitch up your mama and that he stole away with her instead?”

“No,” I whispered. His smile grew wider.

“Did he tell you they came sneaking back one night when her belly was like a cow, begging me with nowhere else to turn? She was half starved and I was sure those babies in her had to be dead. You and your little brothers and sisters–all still-born except for you. Your daddy ruined her, made her an outcast. And I was the one that pulled those dead babies from her and told her I’d take care of her and bury her secrets. I told her if she begged to the town elders, I’d say that your daddy took her against her will. I told her I’d love her and make her an honest woman. And she said yes.” He pounded his fist on the trunk.

“No, she’d never…” I whispered.

“Oh she did,” he said, pushing himself off the tree slowly. “And you know what she told me when I pulled you out of the womb, live and wriggling?”

I could only shake my head.

“She told me to give you over and she damned me to hell for tempting her. So I reached down and ripped out that whore’s stitches. Told her she’d never survive the bleeding if she didn’t stay. I would have killed you then if your daddy hadn’t burst in. He didn’t know why she was screaming and clutching at you, but for all the blood and those dead babies on the floor. He promised to drag you both off and never return. But I knew she’d crawl back to me if she wanted to live a good life. So I let her go. And the next day, Lexington was gone. Just gone. And she’s gone.” A tear rolled down his quivering lip.

His hand grasped my elbow and yanked me forward. My knees skinned against tree roots, and I shrieked. He pressed himself against me. “You may be no virgin-mother like her, but you’re a lying whore just the same.”

I screamed into the sweaty cloth of his shirt as my skin dragged down the bark. His weight stabbed the wooden pendant into my skin and I choked under his hand and his corn-liquor breath.

His fingers tore at his belt and my skirts until I felt the crude, metal rings in his skin press against me. He fumbled at them, trying to twist the metal as I kicked him. Rings are forged to hold, but somehow he worked them loose quickly until his hardness slapped against my thigh. The barbed jag of the open metal hoop tore my skin as he slid against my stitches and failed to thrust inside. He was blurting my mother’s name over and over, and there was a gush of warmth from his seed. I felt it splash across my aching thighs.

“Crap,” he said, in a small voice.

I choked against his fat palm, feeling the terror in my belly as his seed dripped down the outside of my stitch, burning my skin like a rash. I froze, afraid to move even as the anger grew past fear and my teeth bit at his hand till he yanked it away.

“You bastard!” yelled a voice that I first thought was mine. Wendy was slapping at Greely, hitting him on the head. “Get off of her!” she yelled. “You can’t make her touch you the way you made me. Don’t you know what she is? She’s a virgin!”

I yelled and fought to push him off, no longer hearing Wendy’s shouting, just kicking and wrestling. His face changed from angry to empty to terrified. His hands came back, wrapped around my throat, choked off my scream.

Something rose through my terror and fury, something like a distant voice. It called my name with the urgency of a mother. I felt the deep well of power in my belly as I thrashed and choked and the sky went black. Mama’s voice was with me as I was dying, whispering my name, and the sound of what I could become.

I reached for that inner fire as his fingers crushed the last breath from my throat. My fingers scratched down his side until they slipped between us and gripped my aching stitches. I found the heartstring and ripped it. My fingers twitched in the dying light, then thrust the failed wetness of his seed inside of me.

The pain left instantly. The shadows became such a beautiful color I had never known. Blackgreen. My body filled with strength and wildfire, pushing him up.

He clutched at me and began to yell. Tried to get off and couldn’t. He just kept slipping and shuddering as the black veins burst from my belly and burrowed into his flesh.

As he threw himself back, his penis ripped free of his crotch. The little thing dangled in the roots that grew between my thighs, draped like a weed caught in driftwood. Wendy started screaming. Mr. Greely fell over and made no sound.

I wanted to hold this hatred, but it’s hard when the world is so beautiful. The sound inside my head was the verdant chorus of a thousand leaves. I basked in the shafts of sunset light, each caressing me like a kiss. The woman’s screams clashed against the song, so I put a hand out to stop her. The vines of my fingers burst through her mouth. Her body writhed as my flesh rooted into hers, joining her into our growing song. She fell on top of him, already wracked with his own becoming.

Mama’s voice was in me, I could hear her song clearly from the wooden pendant against my skin and know that Papa had carved it from her own wood. In a language without words the voice welcomed me home.

Another voice, just as familiar as Mama’s, called out through the orchard. It rose against the music of the distant bonfire.

“Elana! Elana where are you?” Papa called and the sound of his voice felt like the color of summer rain. He limped around the trunk of the apple tree.

My many tendrils wrapped around Papa.

“Papa,” I cried, as he yelled and struggled. “What happened to Momma?”

“No,” he cried, “No… Not like this.”

“Tell me what happened to her.” The budding limb of my arm reached out and touched him, brushed his hair softly.

He broke into a sob and the words came out in a rush. “She was bleeding to death. We tried to go back to our kin in Lexington, but they beat her and locked us up. They were going to kill us. Kill you.”

The tendrils cradled him as he whispered the words. “She wanted us to cause the wood together, to live forever where we could always be with you. I pulled… myself out of her when she stopped breathing. I thought she was dead. I broke right out of that room and ran with you. When I heard the sound of the trees tearing through the town behind us, I knew she must have still….”

“It’s ok, Papa, Mama’s here with us, and it’s so beautiful,” I whispered, feeling the quickening inside. The song surged beyond all control, a joyful goodbye to all anger and lies. To all cruelty and shame. To all stitches and rings.

I stretched in all directions, tunneling through wall and stone, wood and flames, men, women and screaming children.

“No. Please,” he whispered as I brought him home.

____
Copyright 2013 Christopher Reynaga

Christopher Reynaga is a first place winner for the 2012 Writers of the Future, recipient of the Bazzanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. He has stories appearing in such venues as Cemetery Dance, The Book of Cthulhu 2, Boys of Summer and Expanded Horizons. You can follow him into the dark heart of the woods at @ChrstphrReynaga and www.ChristopherReynaga.com

by A.J. Barr

Prologue: Preconceptions

“What’s taking them so long?” Maggie said, not even trying to be quiet.

George hissed at her. “Pipe down. It’s the Government. They have to be thorough.”

“Thorough!” She sucked in air.

George bumped her with his shoulder, flicking a glance at the door.

Maggie didn’t even notice. “What are they doing to Jackie in there? Are they hurting him? He must be frightened half to death! I wouldn’t put it past them–”

“What I wouldn’t put past them,” George whispered, barely moving his lips, “is putting a camera right”–He glanced at the clock above the door–“there. They could be evaluating us right now.”

“So?” said Maggie. “If they want mothers to put up with useless bureaucratic nonsense, I’m in trouble. What does this have to do with raising children?”

“Child Proactive Services treats every family the same,” George said. “They can’t just look at you and say, ‘Fine, you pass.’ They have rules; procedures. Tests we all have to take. It’s for the children. All children. Just think about the future, honey. This is for the best.”

Maggie glared at the poster that hung on the wall by the door. “Parenthood is a Privilege,” she read aloud in a sarcastic singsong. “CPS Cares.” She squinted. “And what you just said, in fine print. Verbatim.”

George flushed. “Not everyone is fit to be a parent,” he said.

“I am,” Maggie said firmly. “How long has it been?”

“Almost an hour,” George said.

“Fifty-seven minutes,” Maggie said. “I’ll tell you one thing. If this goes our way…It’s Day 16. I just might be ovulating right now. You’d better be ready.”

It sounded like a threat. George managed the expected response: “Always.” His voice wasn’t as steady as he’d hoped.

The door swung open. Maggie jumped. George bit his tongue.

The social worker led Jackie out of the examining room. As soon as he saw Maggie, he pulled free and ran to her as fast as his short legs would go.

“He certainly seems well cared for,” the social worker said. “And well adjusted.”

Maggie dropped to her knees. Jackie leaped into her arms.

A man in a white coat strolled in. “Good news, I take it?” he asked.

“I’m recommending a full parent license, Doctor,” the social worker said crisply.

Maggie made a sound. It was the happiest sob George had ever heard.

“When…” She cleared her throat. “When can I have my tubes opened?”

“Right now, if you like,” the doctor said. “If you’ll just step through here…”

Maggie looked up at George, her arms still tight around Jackie. George was dizzy; he wanted to laugh like a loon.

“You better be ready,” she whispered. This time it was a promise.

“Soon as they’re done,” George said. “Right here on the waiting-room floor.”

Maggie laughed, while the tears rolled down her face.

Jackie licked them off, wagging his tail.

Act I: Point and Click

“Did you do your homework?” asked Mom.

“Yes,” I said, glancing at the shotgun. “I downloaded Chekhov, and I thought about it.”

“That’s it?” Mom said.

“That’s it,” I said. “All of Chekhov.”

“Lucky you,” said Mom. “When I was your age, you had to read it, and write an essay. Life is so easy now. Point, click, think. Did you do enough thinking?”

“I did a lot of thinking,” I said. The shotgun was a double-barreled twelve-gauge pump-action Remington. The kind what would do a lot more than shoot your eye out. “I’m still thinking about it.”

“You must be hungry from all this thinking. Eat some herring,” said Grandma. “You like herring.”

The shotgun was propped on the mantel over the blocked-up fireplace, against the only wall without a wallscreen. The one other thing on that wall was an old digital frame with a single pixelated picture in it: a much younger Mom, a young and bashful Dad, and my little furry brother Jackie.

Jackie loved herring.

“No thanks,” I said to Grandma. “It smells funny.”

“You could go to Florida,” said Grandpa. “Why don’t you go to Florida? Used to take hours to go to Florida. Now you just point and click. If you knew what a fascinating woman I met in Florida!”

The shotgun was Grandpa’s. It had always been there. Nobody ever touched it or talked about it or acted as if it meant anything. It was just there.

“It isn’t really Florida,” said Grandma. “There isn’t any Florida any more. It all blew away.”

“Or you could go to a brothel,” said Grandpa. “Why don’t you go to a brothel? In my day it used to be a big deal. You wouldn’t believe what some people used to say about brothels. Now…”

“Just point and click,” I said. If I stood up and walked across the room, I could take the shotgun off the wall.

“Right,” said Grandpa. “Click–brothel. Click–Florida. If you knew what a fascinating woman I met in a brothel in Florida!”

“It’s all virtual,” I said. “No one goes anywhere any more.”

“Yes we do,” said Grandma. “I went to get a haircut. You need a haircut, too. Go get a haircut.”

“Go to the brothel first,” said Grandpa.

Grandma raised an eyebrow.

“On second thought,” said Grandpa. “Yes. Haircut. First, you need a haircut.”

“I just want to be alone,” I said.

Mom looked as if I’d said I wanted to open a brothel in our front parlor. “Don’t say that!”

“Why not?” I asked. I knew where the shells were. Grandpa kept them under his and Grandma’s bed. I could see it from the couch.

“We can’t afford another room,” Mom said. “I don’t know of anyone who can afford to be alone. Or anyone who isn’t an only child. Not since…”

“I was alone sometimes,” said Grandpa. “Back in the day.”

“Not since I’ve known you,” said Grandma sharply.

“I was,” said Grandpa. “Alone. Once or twice. Back in the day. Now… So many good things that we didn’t have, back in the day.”

Mom’s face shut down. When she did that, Grandma said she was crying inside. I didn’t see it, myself. That part of her died when Dad and Jackie did.

A lot of things died along about that time. Gone with the wind, so to speak. And twenty-four inches of rain in six hours.

Grandma sighed. Grandpa shifted in his seat. The shotgun stayed on the wall.

I stayed on the couch. Getting up wouldn’t change anything.

“You are right,” said Grandma. “The herring is going bad. Let’s finish it.”

Act II: Perception

“Another awkward silence,” I said.

I stared at the wallscreen. It was off. It didn’t matter. I still saw the rubble. And the faces: Mom, Grandma, Grandpa.

I couldn’t picture them buried in dust and grit and crumbled plaster. The couch, the dresser full of tchotchkes from the old country. Grandpa’s shotgun.

All gone. All fall down.

It was, literally, unimaginable. I kept reaching for the phone to call them. I got to the contact list once, before I shut it off. Sheila didn’t stop me.

That was hours ago. I didn’t know how many. I’d stopped counting.

“Not awkward,” Sheila said, responding to words I’d already forgotten I’d said, “and not really silence. We’re having a conversation. We weren’t this morning, but now we are.”

“Huh?” I said.

“Huh, what? This morning you were saying, ‘I couldn’t stand it at home any more but I don’t want to be here either, it’s all so crowded, everything’s so crowded, all those people crammed into all those tiny little boxes, why can’t everybody just leave me alone–‘”

“I was not!” I said.

“You were,” she said. “In your head, you were. So I left you alone. I flipped the wallscreen to news and Mother and I watched it, and you watched it too, but it wasn’t like we were watching it together because you weren’t up for any together. And then…when we saw…”

Sheila wasn’t the kind of girl who cried. But her voice sounded a little tight.

Mine was just fine. Not feeling anything. Just sort of existing. “Your mother must be in shock,” I said. “How long has she been in the bathroom? Should we be worried?”

“She’s perfectly all right,” Sheila said. “She’s giving us some privacy.”

“Why?” I said.

“Well,” said Sheila. “So we can have a conversation. You know, the one where you go, ‘This isn’t happening,’ and I go, ‘Good, then it isn’t hurting you,’ and you go, ‘I gotta get home,’ and I go, ‘Yeah,’ and you go, ‘I don’t have a home,’ and I go, ‘Yes you do, if you want one.'”

Sheila could make you dizzy, the way she got everything figured out and put it all out there and there it was. It was true, too. That was the thing about Sheila. Sheila knew things.

“I can’t stay here,” I said. “This place is barely big enough for one. What about your mother?”

“If she didn’t want you here, she wouldn’t still be in the bathroom.”

“People don’t just move in like this. I mean, it’s great that we hooked up online, and thank you for inviting me to visit, but–”

“Earthquakes don’t just hit Baltimore,” Sheila said. “Families don’t just get wiped out. Lots of things that don’t just happen, happen.”

Gray blank wallscreen. Gray blank mind. Nothing just happened. Nothing ever does.

“I don’t know if I miss them,” I said. “Or if I ever loved them.”

“Would you want it to be yesterday again?”

“Yes,” I said. “No. I don’t know.”

“I’ll go with ‘Yes,'” Sheila said. “That’s what you said without thinking.”

“Just like that,” I said. “You really want me to stay? It won’t be…uncomfortable?”

“Yes, we do, and no, it won’t,” she said. “We’ve an inflatable bed. Wash dishes tonight, and you’ll make both of us very happy.”

I felt the slow heat moving up along my skin. It was a weird feeling, but right, somehow. It reminded me I was alive. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll jump you in the middle of the night?”

“Aren’t you?” she shot back. “Girls have fantasies, too. There’s just one thing. Mother can’t sleep with lights on. She needs total darkness.”

“So?” I said.

“Try not to jump her by mistake.”

Act III: Deadman Switch

I was good at this. Scary good.

Sheila said I was in denial. “It beats being angry,” I said.

“Oh, you’re angry,” she said. “Staying up all night staring at drone feeds from the other side of the world, taking it out on those little blips on the wallscreen. Playing your war game that’s as real as shrinking land masses and rising seas and earthquakes that take out supposedly stable areas–except no area is stable anywhere any more. Racking up kill points as if they were just, you know, points. What’s that over there, in sector 6? An ambulance?”

“A delivery van,” I said. After a month and a half of roommates-with-benefits, I was so used to the way her mind worked, I didn’t even have to stop and fit the connections together. I zeroed in on the van and hit the zoom. “I’ve been tracking it all day. It hasn’t been near a hospital once. It’s made a lot of stops, picked up a lot of boxes.”

“It looks like an ambulance to me,” she said. “Don’t they use the blue Star of David in Israel, instead of the red cross?”

She was right. The back of my neck prickled.

Ambulances don’t drive around picking up and delivering boxes. “IEDs,” I said. “Got to be.”

“IEDs didn’t take out Baltimore,” she said.

Some days I wondered why I didn’t hate her. It must be love was all I could figure. Sheila, plain and tall–she called herself that. I called her Sheila who was perfect the way she was.

She leaned on my shoulder, pointing toward the next sector on the satellite view. “What’s that?”

“That’s old news,” I said. “Qassam site–old-fashioned steel rockets. I found it last week, called it in, got it wiped before it fired. Earned me a cool thousand kill points and a commendation from Israeli High Command.”

She huffed lightly. Her eyes had wandered back to the other sector. “Where’s your ambulance going? Is that a hospital?”

It wasn’t my ambulance, but it would stand to reason that it would end up at a hospital.

With a load of boxes that might be IEDs?

OK, I was good. Sheila didn’t even try, and she was better. I yelped and hit the alarm code.

Ten thousand points, that got me. My total score tied the all-time WikiWar record. Twelve hundred lives saved in the hospital alone. And six positive terrorhadist IDs.

“You’re right,” I said to Sheila. “I am spending too much time on the web. It’s time to get real.”

The headset crackled.

“How you doing?” said Ari’s voice.

“OK,” I answered. I was alive and awake. The deadman switch Ari’d hooked up to the throttle stopped the Teaspoon every time I fell asleep at the wheel. Which must have been more than a few, or he wouldn’t be calling.

“Want anything?” Ari said. “Coffee?”

“No coffee,” I said. I was running out of diapers. “How am I doing?”

“If you keep this up, thirty more hours.”

Thirty more hours. Ninety more rems. Give or take. Things start getting serious over two hundred rems. Give or take.

“You sure you want to do this?” Ari had asked, a lifetime ago. Or two days ago, depending.

“You got a choice?” I asked.

“We don’t. You do. I can’t order you to do the work of twenty people. Or take the exposure of twenty people, either,” Ari said.

“You don’t have twenty people,” I said. “You have me. And the sea is rising. It’s do or die.”

“It’s do and die here,” Ari said. “But usually we do first.”

“Nineteen Teaspoon operators just died.” I nodded toward the pile of radioactive rubble. “Didn’t get a chance to do anything first.”

I’d volunteered to drive for all of Yom Kippur; that’s six shifts. I was supposed to get the next week off. The sea wall would be finished by the end of it. It had to be; the sea would not wait.

All the other Teaspoon drivers were in the dormitory when the truck bomb hit. Story of my life: People in. People out. Rubble every time.

“You could die, too,” said Ari. “Radiation sickness–”

I shrugged. “Do and die, right? I’ll just have to work fast.”

“Fast,” he said. “Yes. Very fast.”

To the north, coastal cliffs stretched all the way past Tel Aviv, making the sea wall unnecessary there. The hills stretching from the coast to the Judean mountains would stop the water from flooding the heartland. If I stopped work now, only three cities would sink beneath the sea.

The headset crackled again.

“You are making good time,” said Ari.

“Anything new on the bombers?” I asked.

I heard Ari sigh; I almost heard him shrug. “Not yet. But whoever it is–”

“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” I said. “If they’re Arab, why would they want to drown Gaza? And if they’re Israeli, why inundate Ashdod and Ashqelon?”

“Welcome to the Middle East,” said Ari.

The Teaspoon grabbed another scoop of earth, pivoted to drop it a hundred feet inland. The berm grew ten thousand tons an hour. Only a nuke could do that: a leaky light-water job pulled from an old Russian sub.

I didn’t have a dosimeter on me. Because what it told me wouldn’t change what I did.

The Army had escorted us to the work site through silent Arab villages. Doors were shut, streets empty. The few people we saw turned their backs on us.

I hadn’t run under an open sky since Florida drowned. The simulator training sessions for the Teaspoon were the longest stretches of time I’d been alone in a room since I was born.

That part? Bliss. It actually made up for the other part. The one with the dosimeter I didn’t have, and the silent, invisible killer that was taking my blood and bones apart with every minute I spent in the Teaspoon.

Do and die. Welcome to the Middle East.

And if I lived? Between hazard pay and overtime I could buy a lot of land.

I could buy Connecticut.

Not all of it; just a part of the broad swath from Old Lyme to Hartford, still radioactive from the Yankee meltdown. Only five rems a year if I didn’t eat local food. Not completely abandoned, but real estate there cost next to nothing. And neighbors were few and far between.

Alone, I thought. At last.

“Ten hours,” Ari said.

I’d split in two by then. Part of me was building berm just past the edge of the lapping water. The rest was striding though green fields past herds of six-legged cattle, little dog bounding in ecstatic circles around my feet, shotgun cradled on my arm–same model as Grandpa’s, with a mantel back in the farmhouse to prop it on after I’d done my rounds. There wasn’t a human being anywhere in sight.

I came back fast enough, once I had to. “Ten hours? Clock says fourteen.”

“The leak is getting worse,” Ari said. “You’ll max out in nine hours, fifty-three minutes, forty-seven seconds. Forty-six. Forty–”

“I get it,” I said. “I looked it up. After Hiroshima, some survivors lived for decades. You can’t predict–”

“They weren’t sitting directly on top of the bomb,” Ari said. “You’ve got as long as you’ve got. If you don’t finish, don’t try to be a hero. Let us pull you out.”

“I’ll push as hard as I can,” I said.

“Don’t blow it up,” he said. “You’ll take out half the coast.”

That would be ironic, wouldn’t it? I shook the sweat out of my eyes. Ari had shut up, but the clock was counting down.

Minutes and hours against the relentless creep of water. Israel was dying by inches. So was I–but I’d go faster.

I grinned at the marching waves. Almost there. Almost.

“Near enough for government work,” I said.

Act IV: Lebensraum

The cattle had four legs each, but there was something weird about the horns. Tooners were holding them hostage on the island that used to be East Rock when there was still a city of New Haven. Half a dozen Coast Guard cutters circled, firing an occasional salvo from their bullhorns. “NOW HEAR THIS! NOW HEAR THIS! SURRENDER AND NO ONE WILL BE HARMED.”

The custom stem-cell treatments had worked as well as they were going to. I was starting to walk again. I was functional, more or less. And rich.

I’d made out better than I expected, back in Israel. Amazing what the gratitude of a nation will do when you’re mostly dead in a hospital bed. I was the proud owner of all that was left of Connecticut. This island here? Belonged to me. Along with a few hundred thousand acres of moderately radioactive, not too soggy land.

“Look,” said the captain of the cutter I’d come in on. “Those Pontooners are armed, and they’re pissed. They won’t listen to you just because you talk nice. At least wait for the Guard unit to get here.”

He was right, of course. But I wasn’t afraid to get hurt. Or dead, either. “Leave me at the dock,” I said. “I’ll send up a flare when I’m done.”

“What will you do if you get dead first?” the captain muttered. But he had his orders. He did what the crazy man said.

I knew that shotgun. I knew the woman who leveled it at my chest, too. Sheila, tall and only plain if you cared about those things.

“Where did you find the gun?” I asked.

She squinted at me down the length of the barrel. “Ebay,” she said.

“You did not.”

“Did so.”

“Did not.”

The squint opened wide. “You’re the evil capitalist hero?”

“Looks like it,” I said. “You’re the wild-eyed Tooner rabblerouser?”

“Passionate defender of human rights,” she said.

“I don’t suppose you’ll talk?” I asked.

“I’ll listen,” she said.

“You and my Grandpa’s shotgun?”

It stayed exactly where it was. “Trade you for it,” she said. “This island and everything on it, and a full legal allowance for every person living here.”

“I could just take it,” I said, “and call in the EPA. Clear you out and take what’s mine.”

“You could,” she said. “But you won’t.”

I could feel them closing in around me. Tooners, big and burly, armed with everything from a boathook to a police special.

I honestly didn’t care what they did to me. The two things I did care about were right there: the shotgun, and Sheila.

Not necessarily in that order.

“All right,” I said. “Deal.”

“Yours or mine?”

“Ours,” I said.

“You won’t get rich cutting deals like that,” she said.

It was night, with stars: piercingly clear overhead. The pontoon boat rocked under us. Somewhere onshore, one of the cattle moaned to itself.

“I’m already rich,” I said.

“Not rich enough.”

I looked into her face. Its angles were as sharp as the mind behind them. “I hope your fellow radicals never hear you say that.”

She shook her head, eyes squeezed shut. “Think of all the things you can do. You saved Israel. How would you like to save this part of the world?”

“I just want to be alone,” I said.

“I know how I would do it,” she said. Her eyes opened, staring straight through me. “I even know how you can have what you want.”

“No one person can save the whole world.”

“Maybe not. But he can do an awful lot with a few million nuEuros and a workable plan.”

It all came down to the shotgun. I’d spent years staring at it and never asking what it meant. She’d dug it out of the rubble, cleaned it up, and put it to use.

“I only saved Israel because there was no one else left to do it,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

Act V: Paragon

“Absolutely not,” said Sheila, her voice ringing clear and forthright through the speakers. “We are categorically opposed to violence.”

“How did you clear out the pontoon parks, then?” Morrison asked.

Morrison was as pretty as a newsreader needed to be, but he was smarter than most; smart enough to catch a lie. Not that we’d give him anything but the truth. That’s what we’d brought him here for.

“Common sense,” said Sheila. “We set up labor cooperatives, called in the EPA to help with the fishing rights and the waste disposal, got CPS to certify that the children were being brought up in a safe environment, and funded it all with grants from a wide range of sources. Everybody from the Fed to the Genius Foundation had a stake in what we did. It all came together just about the time the Macon Condominium completed the new tower.”

“Perfect timing,” said Morrison. “And as the prime contractor for Macon Metro…”

“…we completed the job on time, under budget, and got a Green Seal,” Sheila said.

“You’re paragons of social consciousness,” Morrison said, quoting one of our more popular promos–as far as I could tell, without irony.

His eyes had a tendency to wander, though they kept roving back toward Sheila. They only caught once, on the wall display behind her: an old-fashioned wooden mantelpiece with an antique shotgun propped on it, wildly out of place in that ultramodern, streamlined, minimalist room.

Sheila smiled when it was clear he wasn’t looking: a smile meant for me.

“This house is Green, too,” she said. “As are all the office buildings in Sunny Isles highrises. Upper floors alternate: office space, gardens, solar panels, solar heaters, wind turbines on the roof. Below the high-water mark, cafeterias and lounges with views much like this one.” She pointed toward the glass wall. “Deepwater coolers are at the very bottom; and of course every building has a closed water cycle. Luxury, perhaps, but socially responsible luxury.”

Sheila balanced on the edge of her desk and ran her hands through her hair. The naked sun would have struck its platinum to incandescence, but here it picked up the pale green shimmer of underwater light. Green sparks dancing in her eyes, green-washed pale skin, green highlights on her skintight suit: she looked like a mermaid drifting in the sea.

Morrison was well and truly hooked. He was no longer even trying to take in anything else.

Sheila read people better than she read reports, and she read those better than just about anyone. And she’d learned how to be beautiful. Quite recently, in fact.

Beauty, in the right context, is as effective a weapon as an ambulance full of IEDs. I still didn’t totally buy that argument, but she’d battled me to a standstill. We were building a mythos here, and this was an essential part. Beauty and the radiation-scarred, pathologically reclusive, never-seen Beast.

Morrison was a weapon, too, with his chiseled face and his anchor contract with Worldwide Rants. He was here for a reason, and he was playing the part we’d scripted for him, line for line. By the time we were done with him, he’d be completely ours, and we’d have a voice wherever we needed it most.

“And your partner?” he asked after a pause. “What part does he play in all of this? Is he just the bankroll? Or…?”

“He is the heart and soul of this enterprise,” Sheila said. “We couldn’t have begun to do it without him. It’s in his very genes. One of the first generation of licensed births, born and raised in the Baltimore Condo…”

“…self-taught, self-effacing–do you know what they call him?” Morrison asked. “The Man Without a Face. Burned off on the beaches of Israel, it’s said; no grafts would ever take, and no transplants would hold. But I’ve done a little digging. I know it’s not his face that got burned off. Wouldn’t you let me see him, talk to him? I promise I won’t make anything public without your full consent.”

“No,” Sheila said. Flat; final.

Morrison sighed with studied pathos. “But I came all this way, in person. Nobody does anything in person. Surely that’s worth–”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for me,” Sheila said. Her tone had a distinct and beautifully honed edge.

I wondered if he knew how effectively she’d played him. “I most definitely would not call it settling,” he said. “Tell me–what exactly is your role in this organization? Are you his partner? Co-owner? Princess consort?”

He flashed a dimple at that, as studied a reflex as the lift of the chin with which she laid him flat. “We don’t believe in titles,” Sheila said, “or job descriptions. It’s been our philosophy from the beginning: If something needs doing, find someone who’d do it for free, and then overpay them. And respect them. Always respect.”

“And right now, you are doing what you want to do?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I am.”

She’d studied acting, singing, dance. She’d learned to walk, to sit, to talk, with perfect and studied control. But the smile was all her own.

It started in the eyes, a slow light that swelled to fill the whole of her face. The lips were always last, but you never noticed that; you just felt warmed right through. You’d do anything then to keep from losing that marvelous warmth.

Morrison couldn’t have resisted even if he’d known how to.

“I hope you don’t feel you’ve made the trip for nothing,” she said.

“No,” Morrison said. “Oh, no. To be here, surrounded by such beauty…”

He spread his arms to take it all in: the woman, the sea, the curved walls of glass that kept the two apart.

I turned away from the wallscreen to stare through my own glass wall. A grouper stared back at me. Another poked at coral-encrusted vehicles lined up along what used to be Ocean Drive. Smaller fish darted in and out of cars and ruined buildings, then swirled together in iridescent clouds.

My wall faces west; I’m not a morning person. Sheila’s faces east, because she is.

I turned back to the screen. It had taken Sheila a scant second to step into Morrison’s arms.

The waves on the water’s surface made ripples in the filtered and refracted beams of sunlight. Morrison and Sheila seemed to shiver as they kissed. I felt that shiver in my damaged body, in my crumbling bones.

I zoomed in on their faces. Sheila’s was slack with pleasure, but her eyes were wide and sharply focused. She knew exactly what she was doing, and why, and what it would gain us.

I have videos of her in that same room with a number of different people. And videos of her watching these videos, and several of the two of us, watching these other videos together.

“But…” Morrison breathed in her ear, right above the mic implant. “I thought…you and he…”

“Beauty and the Beast?” She laughed in her throat. “Oh, but which of us is which?”

Morrison hesitated, drawing back to stare, to ask–who knew? Who cared?

“I told you,” she said. “We don’t believe in titles, or in job descriptions.”

“Are you sure…” Morrison whispered hoarsely, “…this won’t make…trouble for you?”

She loves the videos. She’ll still be beautiful on the screen, she says, long after even the most carefully constructed beauty has fallen into rubble.

“Of course not,” she replied. “We like…to see our people…enjoy themselves.”

Coda: Inconceivable

Sheila disappeared one morning. Signed out a corporate jet, took off. No note, no explanation. Nothing. Just gone.

After anger comes depression. Then you accept what you can’t change.

Until it did.

I got a ping.

“Where are you?” I asked–just a little breathless.

“Israel,” she answered. Cool, calm. Collected.

“What’s in Israel?”

“Your stem cells,” she said.

“That’s thoughtful of you,” I said. “But I don’t need any more–”

“If you throw hormones at them,” she said, “they turn into spermatozoa.”

“Oh,” I said. And: “Oh!

“It’s a girl,” she said.

___
Copyright 2012 A.J. Barr

“A. J. Barr” is a paradox (a Ph.D. and an M.D. collaborating). Both are located in North America, and both deal with obstinate juveniles by day and obstreperous plot lines by night.

by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

It is the aftermath of the world’s end, and nine birds–nine suns–lie dead while Houyi cradles the curve of her bow, her fingers locking around the taut hardness of its string. The tenth sun, the last, has fled. Chastise them, Dijun said, a father’s plea. But there is the land and the horror and the dryness, desiccated corpses in empty dust trenches that were rivers not long ago. There are dead dragons, too, and snake women with bright eyes–and is it not right to bring down the suns, is it not what Houyi is meant to do? She is a god who protects; she is a god given a duty.

The birds are dead. They no longer burn, but the places where they have fallen will long after be black scorch marks, indelible. There will be consequences. It does not matter that her first shot meant to warn: wing clipped, the eldest sun plunged and shattered on the earth. Seeing their brother fall they attacked, and she had to defend herself.

Behind her Chang’e is inhaling and exhaling shallow scraps of air. They will not let this pass. What will you do now? Where will we go?

And the archer whispers, I saved them all.

She knows, as she has known since she notched that first of nine arrows–even in the firestorm of their rage she was a peerless shot, one arrow per bird all she needed–that for her there will be no thanks. They have transgressed enough, wife and wife, and this shall be the final insult tolerated.

So Houyi only takes Chang’e’s hand and says, I am sorry.

Night comes, and with it the first drops of rain. Somewhere a dragon king or queen serpent stirs and tastes the air with a forked tongue. The Sea Mother sifts sand out of her eyes, which have been so parched, so dry. Out of their bellies and mouths rivers will surge forth, tides will rise bright-green with brine, and the world can go on as it did before the convening of ten triple-legged suns. This is their duty, as the murder of sun-crows has been hers.

Houyi sometimes thought she might have been mortal. But all she remembered was the bow and slivers of wind which she soon learned to pin to wood with arrowheads. Neither mother nor father commanded her early recall.

Easily enough she was accepted under the jade roof, for new yearly new deities swelled the court. When the time came to instate her, some consternation arose. What she was, ought to be, seemed evident from the divine weapon and quiver on her back. Whether she should be titled accordingly was a matter of debate. Archer-God denoted a militarial register: should she be appointed general, marshal, or captain in the bargain as other deities of similar associations were? Wasn’t there a young man from the realm below, skilled with the same weapon? Houyi could perform as his follower, his hunter, and she could keep the bow.

In the end Meng, who attended court rarely and spoke up less, pointed out the obvious solution. Let the god-to-be compete with the boy and decide thereby which deserved the title. The boy was summoned, Houyi matter-of-fact defeated him, and that settled the matter. Out of respect for Meng–who had abandoned gleaming nacre and ever-blooming gardens, and agreed to a duty of doling out oblivion in hell–the emperor did not gainsay the result, and out of fear too that the Old Woman of Forgetting might leave her hell-post in pique. Few were suited to it, fewer still willing. Brewing amnesia had become a woman’s work: no male of his court would stoop to it, and no goddess would leave the hard-won comforts of paradise.

Houyi became the divinity within the sacred instant between tautness and letting fly. But she remained merely Houyi the Archer. The army’s marksman division continued headless, making do with reporting to the artillery chief, whose main passion was vested in ballistae and who had little appreciation for the finesse of arrows.

All agreed, however, that the engineer’s eccentricities and injustices were preferable to Houyi. She endured this as she would endure other slights in the knowledge that she stood one excuse away from demotion. The archer might be new to celestial ways, but she’d seen how other women acted–the wives, the mothers, the sisters–and how they were acted toward: no fault of theirs, but it was a strict and narrow path they walked. Houyi was nothing if not a quick study.

“And where might I live, Your Majesty?” she asked of the emperor, kneeling in her men’s clothes.

An absence of answer from the man on the throne. He didn’t appear young, the emperor, though he took care to look in his prime: oiled hair, oiled mustache, earlobes lengthened to denote wisdom. A crown that dripped sapphires orange, blue, green.. “It’ll have to wait,” he said imprecisely, “for the masons need to rebuild the palace wings Dijun’s crow-sons burned down. They were most enthusiastic their last visit to our court, but who may deny a father his sons?”

“Yes, Majesty.”

She descended to the earth, passing through storms and sky-lakes, and sought out lairs of great beasts. One tiger, of some nine centuries in age and known for his cunning, fell to her after seven nights and seven days of tracking and trapping. An angry typhoon, manifesting in a litter of foxes joined to one mind, surrendered its flesh to her after she’d pierced the hearts of its bodies one by one. Her fame grew, almost incidentally, in the demons’ realms.

It couldn’t be helped that she was seen by mortals and that they began to chronicle her, imagining for her an origin rooted in one of their own. In one province they said she was a warrior hermit; in another they insisted she was the son of a goatherd, and in the capital they linked her to the royal lineage, calling her a prince.

Houyi considered correcting them, but she was busy drawing up the plans of her house. In any case the hearts of mortals were obedient. When she appeared to scholars in person, she was certain, they would immediately rewrite their manuscripts to match the facts of her existence. Academics must be empirical, or else what were they for?

She made the pillars of her home out of tiger femurs. The roof was the ribs of foxes, delicately strong, and the lattices of her windows were the finest in heaven, put together from the bones of immense sharks that feasted on the flesh of fishermen. Hardened feathers and scales of demonic owls and lizards became the tiles on her roof. Her methods of construction were barbaric, but when the house was completed few were able to say it was not exquisite. Her deeds, too, secured her position. Was it intended? None could tell, for she was indifferent to all–the praises more grudging than respect, her own skill, her effortless slaying of wicked spirits–and kept her thoughts hid and close.

The emperor was said to pay her a personal visit, telling her, “This is most excellent work.”

“I’m honored, Majesty.”

“You could consider the office of our chief architect. Building and making are the noblest of arts, the most dependable of sciences. We need nobility and dependability, Houyi. For look: many of the court are happy to range abroad and subjugate heaven’s enemies, yet when we call for solidity and wisdom, who provide but a rare handful?”

“Demons,” Houyi was reported to have said, “require killing, Majesty. It’s a fact that they are fecund and breed without need or care for the natural process of things. Quell one and five more rise to replace it, springing full-grown out of filth and mud.”

“That is a truth.”

“I am grateful, Majesty, that you thought me fit for a post so exalted. But while the matter of masonry and the laying of pillars may wait, the multiplying of devils can only be regulated through hard labor and vigilance. I give myself to this work so that another may enjoy the privilege and comforts of being your chief architect.”

And perhaps the emperor smiled behind his sleeve, half in chagrin. It might be that he took her answer for insolence and that it would explain what transpired in the following years. For the time being, he merely left her be in her house of bone and fur and scales. She cupped her hand over her fist and bowed to him as he departed.

The suitors started then. Houyi couldn’t pinpoint why men suddenly took up the fashion of wooing her, nor where the idea had started and caught hold of them like fire on dry grass.

First Xuanwu, a monarch in his own right, riding to her home astride the snake that had been his guts, the turtle that had been his stomach. He’d made himself young for her, donning a skin luminous as pearls and robes redder than wounds. Houyi did not receive him beneath her window: instead she took him to a howling gulf between two cloud-cliffs, where she honed herself by shooting sunlight, separating each beam into seven colors. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth rainbows she asked, “Why is it that you want a wife?”

On the turtle’s back he sat, placid; no marksman himself, he was content to watch and admire. “In my mortal years I never wedded.”

“That seems a fair enough rationale,” she allowed. “But I don’t think I will suit your court.”

“It is small, true, and solemn. Still I am a martial being and we ought to complement. I shall have your bow done over in hematite, and your arrows tipped in black diamonds. In your lap furs and feathers and scales shall be piled high, dyed black and obsidian-beaded. You shall be queen over the north, feared for your wisdom and prowess. As my wife you may hunt as many evil spirits as you like and, in the sunless hours, pour their blood into the rivers of my domain.”

“That’s most generous, Xuanwu, for a husband.” She didn’t mention that hematite was not much good to grip and that diamond arrowheads would defeat the point of her practice. “Yet I’m few in years and have not had examples: I do not know how to be a wife, much less a queen. I’ve a love for bright colors besides, which is why I’ve made my house as I did. Will you allow me to remake your palace? I’ll be most careful, papering the walls with the eyes of wolves and the bellies of peacocks, making lamps out of deep-sea beryls, draperies out of sunset skies. That is my requirement, Xuanwu, for what wife may tolerate a house not done in substances and style to her desires?”

He admitted that, certainly, a wife had every right on that matter; he also admitted he wasn’t willing to compromise, for he found the brightness she enjoyed distracting. They parted on good terms, over what was–or what he was led to think was–a philosophical difference.

Marshal Tianpeng, after that. He visited her drunk, as was his wont, gourd clasped under one arm. His fondness for women was legendary: if this one dressed more like one of his soldiers than the girls he chased, he readily discounted that. “For,” he roared, “what’s existence that does not vary? Boring, that’s what. Come with me, Houyi, and I’ll dig you a lake filled with the best wine. I’m a builder too, and have a deft hand with carpentry. I will take apart my abode and you may do it over, in any color and material you like. How is that?”

“Most magnanimous,” she was reported to have said.

“All I ask, lovely Houyi, is that once in a while you wear soft silks and hairpins. Oh, not much, not often–but perhaps one day out of a year, or even five? The rest of the months and hours are yours. You can practice with my men, if you like, to show them just why it is you are named heaven’s best archer and feared by all the wicked.”

The archer sipped the wine he’d poured her. “That sounds very well, Marshal. Then on those days you will also wear soft silks, hairpins, maybe even bangles on your wrists?”

Tianpeng paused his drinking. “What?”

“It is both your custom and mine to dress martially, and you wish me to spend a few days every year changed. Therefore it seems logical that on those same days you will alter yours so that we can be well-matched. It’s not orderly otherwise, and as wife and husband we’ll be subjected to ridicule. Or so I gather, being yet new to existence and not tutored in the ways of our kind.”

He stared into his gourd for a long time. Upending it he found the last drop gone. “I’m not sure it works like that, Houyi.”

“Why not, Marshal?”

In the end Tianpeng left to seek more liquor, more befuddled than angry, having spent an hour trying to expound on the logic of garments and the attributes of matrimony. His own rhetoric turned around to gulp him whole, for he’d never been scholarly. He wrote the archer off as a lost cause. Other girls were abundant, more voluptuous and pliable than she. Also, most women comprehended clothes.

Others followed, half-hearted attempts to make a bride out of Houyi. Not from any real yearning, she realized, but because she must be placed somehow, being fatherless, brotherless, unmarried, and not motherly in any way. But the tide ebbed. No mortal origin in her, so perhaps she was not dissimilar to Guanyin: meant to be celibate. The white goddess had even been known to take on a masculine aspect.

The suns’ father alone did not relent. Dijun watched her and sometimes they encountered one another at court, exchanging passing words and obligatory greetings. He had his avian sons, who lit the world with their heat, track her when she left the safety of celestial confines–to kill, to find new and sharp things with which to make arrows, to collect sounds and smells in her bowstring. Houyi did not require help and, with the wariness of a born hunter, knew when the presiding sun monitored her from his mother’s chariot. Infidelity in the hatching, and abetted unwittingly by Dijun’s own wife. She contemplated telling Xihe of this, but found no opportunity. The suns’ mother was remote, rejoicing only in her distance and abhorring any society not her sons’. And though Houyi was fearless, she could not fly so high, nor endure the birds’ fire.

She prepared herself, close-lipped, for one last courtship.

He came to her armed in the glory of himself, whose seed had made possible the winged conflagrations that were his sons, whose incandescence had captured aloof Xihe for ten fleeting moments. Even the emperor was not so resplendent: Dijun was gold of skin and mouth, and flame threaded through his hair and the fabric of his robe. When he found her, he knelt as though she was empress, as though she were not merely an archer.

Houyi tried not to cringe from the heat. She grimaced, in that subtle way she’d mastered, with only the crinkling of her eyes and the slightest shift in the angle of her brows. To most it did not show; to Dijun, clothed in brilliance, it was invisible.

“I have long admired your grace,” he began.

“You do not have to kneel,” she interrupted.

“I wish to submit and supplicate–to tell you that of you I will ask nothing, no silk or hairpin, no surrendering of your bow, no parting with your house. I will come to yours, if you will have me, and sleep where you point. I do not offer you jewels, for I know you crave none. I give myself and beg you to accept.”

The archer glanced skyward. “You have a wife.”

“Xihe and I had children to give humans life. We had children because we were alone. We had children because fires burned within us that had to be birthed, given shape. There’s ever been only duty, Houyi, and when my wife speaks it is only to our sons. They are her world; I am nothing.”

“I cannot mother the crows, Dijun, nor chariot them to their ascent. I’m not made of such material that can withstand the edged branches of Fusang. I cannot give them my breast to rest their heads when they tire.”

“You do not have to. Xihe loves her sons, and they will remain hers. I will forfeit her and forfeit my office. It will be my contentment simply to be yours, my peace to know your embrace.” Dijun opened his hands, and flame like molten gold fell, scorching the bones with which Houyi had paved her garden paths. “Please.”

She knew there would be consequences. She knew Dijun could not be crossed. She knew he could not be deterred, or brushed off, or misled. In the face of all this, she pulled him to his feet–she was strong–and said, “No.”

He looked at her, eye to eye. They were of a height, mandated to be tall. “Why?”

“Because,” she said very softly, “I do not wish to be your wife. This is not due to any shortcoming of yours, nor mine. I simply do not wish this, and ask that you seek elsewhere for a bride.”

In silence, Dijun gazed at her. In silence, Dijun took leave.

On the day Houyi returns to face judgment the court is gravid with the weight of immortals from every rank, celestial and ascendant, sage and disciple, even half-mortal apprentices. Divine beasts wind themselves around palace pillars, lending the gleam of their scales and seven-hued wings to the polish of everlasting wood. They shy away from Houyi, remembering well how she loves to adorn her quiver and house.

Today she does not see them. Grime and red sand cling to archer and mortal woman; they leave dirty footprints wet with the blood of birds, fringed with feathers and ashes. Though Houyi moves with the same grace she always has, and Chang’e with the same light steps, nothing in them is seemly. The archer tastes dust in her mouth, and death of shriveling and peeling, of flesh thinned to paper. Here the air is cool and sweet, the lakes fresh and full. Ten suns rose; nine fell before their scorching blast could reach these lands.

They kneel, wife and wife, before their monarch.

Who speaks. It was ill-done, Houyi.

Yes, Majesty.

He gives sentence. Her bow will be taken from her: quiver, arrows, string. She will be Houyi the Archer no longer but must take on another name, after which a goddess will take charge of her, to instruct her in the worth of wisdom and forbearance. On these qualities she must contemplate. In a few centuries, should she be deemed adequate, she may be restored to her former station.

Chang’e is widening her eyes, angry. Even so she recognizes that this may be borne. It could have been terrible and final, and it is not. She touches her wife, takes comfort, but Houyi remains wary. The archer knows predators and prey both.

Then: No, Majesty. No.

Distant Xihe, whose bare arms are muscled like an archer’s from eons of charioteering and the weight of her children; aloof Xihe, who rides in the silence of the sky, above and beyond the emperor’s regard. Where she walks the tiles blister. When she speaks the air sizzles. She does not kneel, and this breach of decorum draws forth a shuddering collective gasp. My sons, save one, are lost. I shall not suffer their murderer among our ranks, and if you decree that must be so, then I am quit of heavens. Better to seek refuge in the demons’ nation, for there at least justice of a sort may be seized.

The emperor shakes his head, admonishment. Justice is not a series of strikes dealt back and forth. It is not a duel, a skirmish, a war. Justice is weighed on a scale, right against wrong, wrong against wrong. Your sons were not blameless and there must be an accounting. What’s done is blood-hot, but righteous. Years of labor are ahead for all of us to repair and restore. The dragons shall weep until they bleed from their eyes to water the land. Who knows when the sea may brim again, may throng again with their thousand thousand lives?

She holds her head high, the mother of suns. I birthed them because I had to, and loved them in spite of that. They were children. They were only children.

Houyi is not a mother, does not intend ever to be. But she remembers that the crows soared and danced in the skies, and ignored her as children ignore interruptions to their play. She remembers their beauty and how their joy gripped her even as she brought down the eldest. They broke on a ground too cracked to cushion them, in lakes too empty to buoy their fall. They tried to burn her, but she fired the first shot; what else could they have done?

There is something in Xihe’s magnificence that hurts her.

And Houyi rises, while Chang’e grips her wrist whispering, No, no, please no, Houyi. It’s enough.

Majesty, she begins and Chang’e is trying not to cry, I did commit a wrong. Their deaths were at my hand. This too is a crime that must, on its own, be weighed.

My sentence has been given says the man on the throne. My word is final.

Xihe deserves better.

The emperor leans back into his vast, living throne, and when he exhales it is a long tumultuous sigh: like storms dying down. He looks from one goddess to one who will soon no longer be. Very well.

In the crowd, his flame swallowed, Dijun watches.

The feast nominally honored victory, but the palace thrived on a collective impulse for feasts, and any excuse would have done. Houyi ate with enthusiasm but drank sparingly, and chuckled at Marshal Tianpeng’s loudness. When the dancers–girls not yet ascendants but disciples of goddesses–appeared to undulate and sing, the marshal’s laughter crested to a rumbling that shook his table and his companions’ seats.

She allowed herself a smile that did not show on her lips, and gave Xuanwu a polite nod as he passed by. The lion she had fought was many-headed and ferocious, and she’d put its whiskers into the wood of her bow for hardiness, its deep-throated growl for flexibility. More than the hunt, and very much more than the revelry, this had been her true delight.

The court had grown accustomed to her, too, and she was surprised that she enjoyed the company of goddesses. They shared stories; Houyi had few of her own, and was therefore interested best when Xiangu told her of her mortal years. “Not,” the ascendant hastened to add, “that I had many of those.”

“It is no shame,” Houyi offered, “to have many or few. It is all experience and memory, wealth of the rarest and highest sort.”

Xiangu flushed, laughing. “You have such ideas. Do you not believe then in enlightenment, the discarding of the self?”

“I have no opinion. Sometimes I think it would be good if I could be mortal for a few years, so I can see for myself what it is like and thereby decide whether purity suits me.”

The goddess fell quiet. “You wouldn’t.”

“No?”

“Unless you can manifest as a man, you would hate such a life viciously.” She laughed again, sour this time. “Being a woman in the realm of men is… not easy. Certainly it’s not simple here, either, save perhaps for you and the great Guanyin. Yet even for me, for those dancers and serving girls, this is far better. This is the riches we dreamed of, this is the wealth and goodness.”

Houyi frowned. She was not oblivious, and had an inkling of what Xiangu meant. In the abstract: she couldn’t imagine the reality of it, the days and nights of living on earth. “Do you think I should consider taking a pupil? A mortal girl?”

“Yes! Oh, yes.” Xiangu presses her fingers to her lips. “Do you notice, so many more boys than girls are raised to immortality? I was never really taken in as anyone’s disciple. I had guidance, yes, but it’s not the same as tutelage, which makes all the difference. You would have much to teach.”

“I don’t believe I do, in truth, but it is a thought.”

A dash of ceramic on floor tiles. Houyi looked, found a servant standing over a ruin of shards and spilled soup. Her face pale, her eyes wide, and her lips taut over a cry that she had bitten in half.

The silence deafened, and filled Houyi’s ears with endless ringing.

One of the goddesses hissed into that quiet, and rose to grip the servant by her arm, chastisement–threats–on the tip of her tongue. Grim-faced too, the goddess bowed and pushed the girl to bow with her. The mirrors she wore, armor-like, clinked. “Majesty. She is one of mine. I knew she would… I shall send her back to her parents.”

Houyi stood. “My lord, might I beg for her pardon? It is a feast that honors my deed, and I wouldn’t wish to see it marred by severity for a mishap so little.”

The incident was small, and after all so was her request: the emperor granted it, as rich men granted trifles.

She did not dwell on the event or her part in it. So when the dining and performing were done, she did not expect to find a stranger waiting at her door. “I am Chang’e,” the girl said, “and my mistress Tianmu bade me seek you and give you thanks for sparing Wenlan, the servant who disgraced herself at your feast.”

“The feast wasn’t truly mine. You are one of Tianmu’s acolytes?”

The girl’s smile was balanced on a precipice. “I should be so fortunate. No, I was brought here to serve; she doesn’t accept followers. I haven’t the fortitude or the talent even if she did. The Lady Tianmu has been most kind to me, even so.”

Houyi opened her door. “Have you eaten?”

“I… haven’t, no.”

“I’m not much of a cook, but there are some buns I can steam, lotus seeds I can boil in syrup.”

Chang’e shook her head. “I’m not meant to touch celestial food. I eat with other servants. I don’t mean to be ungracious or ungrateful, only…”

“You are of earth?”

She looked down at the hem of her dress, a hint of color on her cheeks made gold by lantern light. “Yes. I serve. I haven’t earned ascendance.”

“I never had to earn it, technically,” the archer mused. “Might there be a difference between divinity earned and divinity inborn? If you put it in a box, the shape of it, the texture? But come in. The lotuses didn’t grow here. They are wild; I picked them while I was abroad. Unless you don’t like sweet things? I can boil them in ginger instead. Or you could eat them as they are, but they aren’t fresh anymore.”

The girl gazed down, up, and down again. “With the syrup would be fine. More than fine. Or anything, really. Please. And thank you.”

Chang’e waited as Houyi ignited the lamps and exhaled softly when she saw the house. Her fingers flowed over the porous tibia cross-sections, the chimeral overlap of mammal and reptile, the twisting curling horns that upheld the roof. When she ate the lotus seeds she did so reverent. “It tastes of home.”

The archer ladled boiling water into the teapot, reasonably certain that rainwater wasn’t beyond the strictures permitted to Chang’e. “Do you miss it? Your life?”

“Heaven is perfect beyond words. There’s no hardship here, no starving. There was a dry season when I was young, and I remember my mother weeping as she goaded our one ox to plow the field, weeping over food that was not and would not be. Over the empty bowls, empty plates. But it was home.” She splayed her fingers over sugared steam. “Though there’s much I don’t miss.”

“Such as?”

“Being a daughter. Being a sister.” Chang’e shook herself. “I didn’t mean to waste your time with all this. It’s unworthy of your attention. You are divine and I’m just–myself.”

The archer poured tea. She’d put a pickled plum in each cup, a hint of spice and salt. “I would like to know, unless you’d rather speak of something else.”

Reluctant, then freely, Chang’e spoke. Her childhood, in part, and many matters strange and new to Houyi. Playing in the river, trying and failing to spear fish with a sharpened stick, sleeping on a mat so thin it barely existed. Brothers came up in brief, sporadic mentions, creatures better valued than she was and who weren’t afraid to let her know this was the case. Hot with tea she revealed, in fragments, the red bridal gown and red bridal veil; of how she’d fled both into a night choked with thunder and there was found by Tianmu.

Later, emptied of words long lidded, Chang’e drowsed and drifted off. The archer found her a bed and went to her own, thinking of the puzzles she’d learned and thinking, more than a little, of the girl who had taught them to her.

Houyi asked for and obtained Tianmu’s reluctant permission to take Chang’e through sky and sea, and even to the demons’ world. Though not unafraid, Chang’e trusted the archer and, laughing, would pet glittering eels in one of the dragon kings’ homes. She asked Houyi to teach her to shoot, to cut, for they seemed to her useful things; lessons were given and Houyi made her a knife from the horn of an ox devil.

Once Chang’e pinched Houyi’s cheek. “You should smile more. I’ve never seen you laugh.”

“Neither have I.”

“Does nothing amuse you? Bring you joy? It’d make you look so lovely.” Chang’e reddened. “Not that you don’t already.”

They were standing underneath a tree whose trunk was silver, whose fruits were golden hands fringed with black petals at the wrists. Chang’e turned rigid, at first, when Houyi kissed her. Soon that changed, and when they were no longer breathing from one another’s mouths, the archer drew back and softly laughed.

Chang’e stayed silent for a long time, her breath quivering in her throat. At length she spluttered, “Well I was right. You are beautiful. I don’t know about what we just–” She tangled her fingers in the folds of her robes. “Though I would like to try it again. Maybe. Sometime. Sometime tomorrow. Oh and… I lied.”

“Yes?”

“That Tianmu bade me seek you and thank you in her stead. Wenlan was to do it, but she was too shy and I took it upon myself. Without Lady Tianmu’s leave. She reprimanded me for days and gave me twice my usual chores. But it was worth every scrubbed wok.”

Outings followed, and more trees, and more words, during which Chang’e lost her awe of the god and gained in its place a wrenching want for the woman. It culminated in a visit to Guanyin, whom Houyi had a faint idea might be wise in this matter. The white goddess was seated at the edge of a river, attended by two children who would remain children in perpetuity. Guanyin did not acknowledge Houyi.

“Chang’e and I have decided we would wed. But she has misgivings and suggested I seek advice. Might you have any for us, great Guanyin?”

The goddess turned her attention from the waters. Fish that she’d been communing with dispersed, the children likewise. “My advice is to pursue it not, Houyi. It wouldn’t be taken very well by heaven at large.”

“I am a god,” the archer said, unnecessarily. “I would think that’d give me liberty to marry whomever I please.”

“Perhaps if you intend to become a man–that is doable, of course.” Guanyin looked, for a moment, like someone else: clothed in yellow instead of her customary white, tall and bearded with bristling brows. “For the ceremony’s duration at least and, for preference, several years afterward. So the idea would stick. Beyond that if you return to being a woman, why, that happens.”

“I don’t think I can, but even if I could, I feel no urge to become a man.”

“Then,” Guanyin said, flattening water reeds into neat rows, “I recommend against it. You will not be happy; neither will Chang’e.”

The archer pursed and unpursed her lips. “There are gods with a taste for men.”

“Oh yes, I know a dragon’s son who has a great fancy for sun-beaten farmers. But that is… looked upon differently and in any case he doesn’t mean to marry them. Wife and wife are unheard of and, as a rule, we are not fond of things too novel or strange. There are limits to what is permissible, archer, even for you–and your doings are more permissible than most. You do recognize that?”

“We could be less than open about it.” Compromising.

Guanyin drew out a handful of water and molded it, sculpting it into a pagoda around the ribs she’d made with reeds. “Heaven is full of loose lips. One would think it ought to be otherwise, we being what we are, but there it is. Do you mean to persist in this?”

“Chang’e and I are in accord, yes.”

“Then bring her and I will bless you both, though I don’t believe it will do much good in the end. For that, archer, I am sorry. Even I may not protect everything.”

Chang’e and Houyi wedded, with the same quiet of a mouse stealing through a room full of cats. But Guanyin was proven correct: secret became news. On her part the archer heard the beating of wings, and felt the heat of the sun as it slanted onto their ceremony–both of them in red, though veils, being redundant had been dispensed with–as though, for a moment, one of Dijun’s sons was gazing down at them.

Not long after that, the ten suns rose and Houyi was called to duty.

Houyi has never been mortal and, in ignorance, knows no terror. The emperor’s sentence sits on her but lightly.

The land is slow to heal. As though making up for that single searing day the sky broods, clouds churning thick as mud, crackling with flashes from Tianmu’s mirrors. Rain fills cracks in the soil, transmutes dirt to mud, deepening red sand to bruise, ivory sand to honey.

Chang’e shivers, tugging useless drenched silks to herself. Houyi doesn’t feel the cold and damp so keenly. Her senses have not adjusted, not convinced yet of mortal fragility. She puts her arm over her wife, a trade of warmth for chill. “You did not have to come. This is my punishment to endure. You shouldn’t have come.”

“I came because I wanted to. Never forget that, Houyi.” Chang’e interlaces her fingers with the archer’s. “Tianmu would be loath to take me back under her wing in any case.”

“Guanyin would shelter you.”

“Out of pity, and I’ve had enough of that. It is not love. It’s not even appreciation. Does it help that we can now grow old together? No, it wouldn’t, would it?” She tries uselessly to wring her sleeves dry. “If we head northeast… My eldest brother makes his home there. He is, or was, wealthy and our mother lives with him. It’ll make this almost bearable for you, Houyi. No paradise, but it is comfortable.”

Houyi doesn’t require comfort, but does not say so. Her wife’s mother. She imagines that. A family. That too is a difficult concept to grasp, she who has had none.

If she has lost her deific span, she hasn’t lost that curious way with which gods travel: a method that truncates distances, sidestepping conventional time. Houyi is subliminally aware she will forget the how of this soon, but for the moment she puts it to use and they are at the estate when morning dawns cool and clear. Perhaps Tianmu and her husband have tired for the moment, and the dragons have gone to rest.

The brother’s home has survived, shaded under ancient trees too obstinate to wither and subsisting on a well hidden deep underground. Haggard but alive, servants and family both come to greet Chang’e and Houyi.

The brother: “Back from heaven at last? It was good of you, to be so silent. Never sending word to ask how we fare.”

But Chang’e’s mother, Yunping, only embraces her with eyes gone wet and full. She is bent; Houyi recalls the story of the ox and the goading.

Introducing Houyi is complicated. Her mode of dress is glanced at sideways by the brother, who scrutinizes with scowl and sneer. His family (two wives, three sons, and an ignored girl named Meijie: young, ox-horn hair buns) follows suit, some without any real conviction. What the house’s master does it is best to copy.

“My companion,” Chang’e says coldly, “is of heaven.”

Her brother’s outlook changes abruptly. So does that of his sons, wives, and daughter. “Great sage.” Deep bows.

It suffices for the moment.

Meijie pays attention, despite not having any paid to her, and is the first to notice Houyi’s bow. “Lady,” she says one day, “I hear things from… that.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think bows are supposed to hiss and purr and bark.” Said with the perfect certainty of the very young.

“It’s not a fashion, no.” Houyi watches Meijie eye her knives. “These things fascinate you.”

“No they don’t. They are boy things. For my brothers.” A little belligerent Meijie straightens. “You look silly. You are silly. Big Mother says so.”

The archer cocks her head at the child. “Would you like to learn how to use knives?”

“I’m not a boy.”

“Neither am I. Nor do I want to be one.”

Unable to reconcile this paradox the girl sticks her tongue out and runs away.

Houyi contemplates the unfathomable minds of children and returns to the room she shares with her wife, to find Chang’e red-faced and trembling with rage. “My brother,” she says when she’s regained her composure. “He wanted to know when you would bring him luck and coin and make shark fins magically appear on the dining table thrice a day. You are only two more mouths to feed, he said. How does he dare?”

“Technically he’s right. I could hunt. There would be meat, of the stringy and fatless sort. As for sharks, I imagine they’re all dead.” The archer settles into her wife’s lap. It’s a close fit and she has to hold her weight just so, but they’ve had practice. “There’s more, though, isn’t there?”

Chang’e crumples almost into her old self, the silent girl under Tianmu’s charge. “He wants me to marry. There’s a governor who–the details aren’t important, though my brother thinks he has a pet sorcerer of some sort, which is how he went through this unscathed. Stores upon stores of food. If he was a rich man before he’s swimming in gold now. And my brother had a portrait of me sent to him. That’s all I’m good for, all I ever was.”

“I’m sorry, Chang’e. For making you return to this. I shouldn’t have–”

“You’ve already apologized. Five times. Ten! I told you it doesn’t matter. I told you I will not bear heaven, or anything else, without you.” More quietly she says, “This governor took four wives. Only one remains. The other three died, supposedly by accidents or… worse. I don’t know. The living one is striped, my mother says, from back to ankles. Always she weeps. If he cannot have me, he will take Meijie, and my brother has already given his consent. Meijie, Houyi, little Meijie. His own daughter. She’s not even twelve. She’s a long way from twelve.”

“Where does he make his home?”

Chang’e looks at her wife sharply. “You are mortal now.”

“Yes.”

They always lie close, breast to back. Tonight Houyi keeps a small distance so that when she rises in the deep of the night she doesn’t wake Chang’e. She takes her weapons and finds a few servants still up, and coaxes out of them the governor’s address. They give it pale-faced, half in hope; they think her much more than she is. She cannot correct them.

Her strides are long and she doesn’t yet know fatigue. The moon, half-full, lights her way.

The monster is a blot in the sky, crouching on the roof of the lord’s mansion, which curves around a lake brimming with sleek fish. Houyi does not hesitate. She lets fly as she always has, cleanly, precisely.

It might have heard the twitch of released tension, the letting go of bowstring. It might have reached out and gripped the passing wind, and used that to turn her shot aside. The fiend moves and the arrow penetrates not its eye but a spot between ear and horn. Cartilage parts, noiseless, into shivering shreds.

Houyi shoots once more–a shaft lodges in, and protrudes from, the beast’s throat–and it is before her, closing the distance in loping bounds. A knife in her hand, its point testing and triumphing against tender places: she twists and pulls, trailing gore and ligament from the inside of the demon’s elbow.

It shrieks in her face, a spume of sound and bile. She turns aside, the blade again finding and plunging into the softest of its flesh. Blood warms her, filling her mouth with the aroma of coins, as it sinks teeth into her flank and wraps her close with the snake of its tail. This is not new to Houyi: she’s fought, been wounded, carries scars. It’s never made her heart stutter, nor slowed her down. Until this moment.

There is a third arrow, buried deep in the demon’s back. It spasms alert, pausing in its chewing and savoring of Houyi. She drives the knife deep, and hard, into its stomach where she’s felt the beating of its heart. Her hand follows and grips the organ that gives it life. “Do you know who I am?” she whispers through lips flecked with devil ichor. “You do. Tell your master to ply his trade elsewhere, and tell his master to submit to a sage, live a life of piety and repentance. Make this happen, demon, or I shall travel to your realm and end not only you but your entire clan.”

Her fist tightens. A burst of gore. The fiend’s spirit leaps through its mouth in a green-black mist, speeding toward the governor’s estate. Houyi finds herself, without meaning to, on her knees. Beneath her the broken earth is saturated crimson.

Chang’e comes, bow in hand, and presses herself against Houyi as though by sheer determination she can staunch the blood and dull the pain.

“I am,” Houyi murmurs, “mortal now.”

By the next hour she has begun to age.

Ascending Mount Kunlun, where virtue dwells, is simplicity itself to gods. To mortals it is different, not journey but pilgrimage, to seek what they have not, to petition for what they believe is the desire of their hearts. At the mount’s foot, a town has sprung up.

The home of Chang’e’s brother is months past, and the quiet disbelief of her mother likewise. Shouldering the weight of a bloodied, torn Houyi home, Chang’e stammered to her mother finally that they were not companions or–what Yunping wanted to think–goddess and acolyte, but something else entirely different. That there is a reason they share their room. That their marriage, however distant now, was blessed by Guanyin herself, and shouldn’t that have been good enough?

Chang’e desperately misses the indifference of paradise. If their marriage was not celebrated, if Tianmu found it disquieting, if the emperor had winced at its mention–it was still preferable to this, this crushing grief she cannot understand, the disappointment of her mother. Who will care for you in your old age? And she said, We will care for each other, Mother, and my niece will burn houses and gold for us but it did no good.

A servant listening at the door: in that same night her brother screamed at them Get out, no matter her pleading that her wife was wounded, near death. Is she not of heaven? Little liar. Unnatural whore. They beat Houyi while Chang’e fought, costing one of his men an eye; only by Yunping’s begging was Chang’e spared. When they were finally done they dragged Houyi by the hair and flung her out.

All that is behind, but it is so raw and she cannot ask Houyi for comfort. Houyi who knows hunger and despair for the first time, who lay broken for so long, and ages months in a day.

The town itself is small, as yet nameless though many nicknames have been thought up and hung under eaves. Being where it is lets it prosper, profiting from aspirants hoping to scale Mount Kunlun and gain the attention of a sage, to become ones themselves. Being where it is makes it a target too: too many men, and not a few women, of the world believe that great deeds will raise them to ascendance, and what greater deeds than saving cities and villages from malicious beasts? Vengeance-hounded they come to the bottom of Kunlun, and vengeance-hounded they bring with them collections of teeth and talons, maws and mandibles like butcher-hooks. Sometimes the aspirants are adequate to meeting them. Sometimes they are wanting. In the first week of their stay alone Houyi has killed five threats. A few, realizing who she is, keep their distance from the town–a phenomenon that doesn’t go unnoticed by the barbers, hoteliers and traders. They give the couple board, food, shoes. A tailor brings them clothes: brocade gown and sash-pendants for Chang’e and, never asking why, men’s robes and trousers for Houyi.

“They adore you,” Chang’e tells her wife as they attend a dinner cooked exquisitely by a widower living in the shop under their room. Soup thick with crab meat, soft bean curd in hot paste and diced shrimp, turnip cakes fried crisp and brown. Lavish, but the town is grateful.

“I despise what I have become.”

Chang’e’s breath hitches. “Mortal?”

“No.” Houyi gazes into the liquid red of her tea. “Afraid.”

She liberates the cup from Houyi’s unresisting fingers, and takes the woman who was a god into her arms. “It doesn’t make you weak, Houyi. Even gods are afraid. Do you remember the looks on their faces when the suns rose? They were deathly frightened, even the emperor.”

“He was born mortal.”

I am mortal. I’ve always been. If I’ve learned anything in so short a life it is that fear keeps you alive and coaches you to survive. You are still Houyi the Archer and you save people, and you are the woman I love without limits or conditions.”

Houyi lowers her head to the crook of Chang’e’s neck, pressing her mouth to her wife’s skin: acknowledges the transience of the beating pulse that reflects her own. “Thank you.”

She has not said why it is that they have come to this town and Chang’e was too relieved to escape her brother’s to ask: any destination would have done, so long as it was away.

But now there is a box, which Houyi unearths from the untidy collection that is her belongings: the lid is ivory, carved into a likeness of Houyi’s house. She opens it–there is no lock save the trust that lies between wives–and lays down the feathers, sleek and black, warm and huge. On each is calligraphy so atrocious it can only have been written with talon-tips. The sun-crow, last of his kind, must have balanced himself precariously: two legs for his weight, the third dripping ink and poised over his own feathers spread out like manuscript pages.

The first reads, We both grieve.

The second reads, more confidently, It was for love that we rose.

Our father said, in passing only, that he would like to see his sons in their utterness subsuming the sky. He thought us our mother’s but never his–and what belongs to Dijun must be Dijun’s alone: you will have become wise of this, we’ve watched you turn by turn. None of us wished to forsake our mother, but we were hungry, so hungry, for his affection. It’s the nature of crows to be greedy. So on that day we decided, what harm could it do? We pulled one another, for without Mother’s chariot the ascent is difficult, and thought we would present ourselves as our father wanted. A moment. It would not hurt anyone.

But it was bright and sweet, and made us drunk. To burn together! As never before, and never again. We did not think. That is why we did not listen when you called to us until our eldest brother died, and then what was there to do but fight, in grief, in fury?

Death was a stranger, to us, to me. To my mother too. She’s never lost, in her absoluteness, her self-contained grace.

The final one is small, half the size of a hand, and says only, I do not ask forgiveness, as you have asked for none. Some things are beyond forgiving and absolving.

“We must bring this to His Majesty,” Chang’e says, though she hasn’t the remotest idea how. Mortals do not petition the celestial monarch, not directly, and who would sponsor Houyi? Not the final sun-crow. “How did these come to you?”

“Falling from the sky at dusk, one by one. I’d have shown them to you, but I wanted to be sure. To have the entire tale.” Houyi puts them back and shuts the box. “I’ve done enough harm to them. To take this to His Majesty will press him to punish the crow. But knowing, for a certainty now, that Dijun did as he did–it is not right, it is not just.”

“It never was, Houyi. There must be an authority to which you can appeal.”

“I mean to ascend Kunlun. Xiwangmu rules there and she has… treasures. I don’t think she will send us back to heaven, but she may grant us life everlasting.”

Chang’e’s pulse leaps. She cannot lie to herself that immortality is a luxury she’s never coveted but, “She will not give it freely.”

“We will earn it. Or I shall. You don’t have to. We wouldn’t be here in the first place if I hadn’t been–”

“Ridiculous but heartbreakingly earnest. Why else would I have consented to be yours? I will come with you, and we will do this together.” Chang’e brushes Houyi’s eyelid, lips to lashes, and does not tell her that back in heaven this plagued her: the gulf between them, the eternity that would be Houyi’s by right and hers never. “I will not say no to forever by your side, wandering and witnessing the world. Only make me one promise.”

“I would promise you anything.”

“When we have obtained this miracle, we find Dijun and settle the score.”

Houyi’s smile, which has become rarer than opals, is like the dawn. “You are not frightened of confronting the father of suns?”

“You were not frightened of refusing him. In all the heavens, and all the earth, there’s no woman braver than you.”

They share a laugh, and share a meal, and taste the desserts on the tips of each other’s tongue.

The paths to the summit of Kunlun are many, and a hundred times again as many maps chart the ways. In that little town the maps are sold, scrolls plain and gilded, striated like elephant hide and utter white, held in bamboo and silver tubes. Adventurous entrepreneurs extend the reach of their commerce through Kunlun’s roads, peddling liquor and glutinous rice, dried fruits and hundred-year eggs. Not a few used to be aspirants but, either in failure or realization, find fulfillment instead through the exchange of coins, in the trade of tales, and the wistful watching of others climbing the mount as they used to do.

There are rivers of fire, waterfalls of blades, and half-seen moths which sip breath and life from the ears of sleeping travelers. Kunlun, even a glimpse, must be purchased by torn flesh and shattered teeth, and blood like black pearls glinting in the night.

Houyi and Chang’e guard one another as flesh guards bone, burning tallow to lure and scorch the moths. When they fell a monster of hard hide they skin it, and sew it into armor against waterfalls. In deep pits they find aspirant carcasses, faces papered in yellow talismans, leaping futilely in death to an escape just out of reach. Houyi lights a torch and frees them from flesh and memory. Chang’e salvages their bones, fire-toughened, to fashion into raft and pole with which to cross the rivers that rise and ebb without rhythm or warning.

It makes them sharp, Kunlun; it is feral, for all its proximity to the virtuous court, and lessons them in wildness. A world is born between them where only they exist–Chang’e and Houyi, Houyi and Chang’e. Traders that they meet at all, for they avoid the mapped and trodden roads, are irrelevant. Sometimes conveniences, other times momentary irritants. Every few days one of them would have to remind her wife, We seek Xiwangmu and her treasures, which are said to confer unending life.

The air thins to needlepoints in their lungs and the rivers turn to rime. It is difficult to breathe, but the stairway that leads to the home of Xiwangmu shimmers in the distance: reachable, if only just. Out of an unspoken agreement they stop to gaze upon it, long and long, for though Xiwangmu’s house is not quite heaven, neither is it of mortals. And what will it be like to taste that air again, sleep under that sky, which looms beyond the one that men and women of the earth see, that roof of the world?

Making their way upward they fast, subsisting on bitter ice-water and each other’s heat: to gain entry to Xiwangmu’s home necessitates purification. Memories of rich warm food wear down until they are as thin and colorless as the cracked brittle road beneath their feet. They hold onto one another, charm against forgetting and hunger. Hand in hand they whisper the other’s name. They do not rest. Only the winds remain, and their hair crusted in frost whipping in the snow.

It is a lifetime, to mount the steps which are steep as walls and half again as tall. They cut apart monster hide and with it wrap their hands, their feet; even so each foothold and handhold draws blood, and the steps hoard every drop. Chill pulls at their eyes, draws tears that freeze on their cheeks as fast as they bead.

When they crest the topmost, the final step, the sky has changed and it is autumn. They are sinew, then, and bone: pushed and pulled by will, held up by the strength of one another’s arms.

Xiwangmu waits for them on the steps of her house, which is only a house, no larger than the needs of a woman content with her own company. Her fingertips are stained brown with soil; across her lap is a broom, its bristles tangled in twigs and leaves, moth wings and spider webs. She wears no regalia, no finery. Heaven’s empress could have been the wife of a merchant or a reclusive scholar.

“I know why you have come,” she says, “but that will wait. Inside: you will want something hot and balanced, and full of colors.”

There is no meat at Xiwangmu’s table, but it little matters. Chang’e and Houyi eat with the delicacy of those too long famished, without appetite, in bites they do not taste and sips they do not feel: hunger has infiltrated their arteries and it is easier to tolerate than to outright cure. If there are parameters and rules to what they should and should not touch, they are not told. When their hunger, conditioned into briefness by fasting, is sated the empress gives them steamed cakes dusted with sesame and studded in dried lychee. She offers tangerines in red papers that tell them it is the new year. Sweetness goes down easier.

“I know why you have come,” Xiwangmu repeats, “and I am willing to grant that which you desire, for it was taken from one of you unrightly.”

“It was never mine,” Chang’e says, and wishes she had not.

“You have equally earned the way: I will not grant it to one and deny the other. In return I ask for one favor. A mortal woman who served me passed and left in her wake an orphan son, Fengmeng. I would do her a good turn. Teach him the bow.”

The archer flexes her fingers, surprised to find them supple again so soon, stair-cuts turned to scars. The food was more than food, and the sweets more than a magic of fruit and flour. Beside her Chang’e grows quiet. “I have only ever taught my wife, Majesty. It seems trivial, that is true, and more than a fair exchange, but–”

“It is a favor, not a requirement.” Xiwangmu draws from her sleeve a casket no larger than her hand, and places it before the couple. “Within this is a single pill, the last of its kind. In its entirety it will tender divinity, if not acceptance at my husband’s palace, and deny death. Take half each and it will suspend: though it won’t heal flesh already broken, it will give you eternity side by side.”

Houyi’s hand hesitates over the casket. “Majesty.”

“Your loss of immortality came of your own doing, Houyi, of your arrogance. But you are only a child and making mistakes is what children do. My husband never interrogated Dijun, and that’s a galling lack of foresight. Take the pill, but delay its swallowing. It’s been made in a certain way, not meant for unpurified mortals, and it will take six turns of the moon breathing Kunlun before you are immune to its venom.”

Knowing exactly how acute her wife’s sense of duty can be, Chang’e makes herself speak. “Is there nothing I can offer, Majesty?”

“Were you not already a wife, and were I my husband, I would have demanded that you allowed Fengmeng to court you.” Xiwangmu ruffles Chang’e’s hair. “You are a good child. Once you have gained your wish, find your mother and tell her you are well. That you are happy. Whatever she might have felt at your marriage, it is the terror of all mothers to think their children dead.”

Inevitably Houyi agrees to train Fengmeng: the archer finds herself unable to accept Xiwangmu’s gift for nothing. He is a child of Kunlun, reserved and straining to look wise, and ought to have been taken as someone’s apprentice. The empress chooses otherwise. He must prove himself, like any other, and he cannot do that without being sent into the world to live. “So many ascendants are too young,” Xiwangmu tells Chang’e, “and I do not mean their years.”

The archer is not a lenient mentor. She forces Fengmeng away from the summit and makes him practice on the banks of burning rivers, tells him to aim at the leaping dead, pits him against ancient monsters. Xiwangmu has granted Houyi a seal with her name upon it, which lets the archer return to the empress’ house in a single step. But in the first week she informs Fengmeng he must climb the stairway, as though a petitioner. If Xiwangmu thinks this harsh she does not remark upon it. Fengmeng clenches his jaw and does as he is bidden.

Chang’e wheedles Xiwangmu into letting her pass onto girl petitioners what she’s gained from her own living and what she’s gained from Houyi. Difficult at first, for she’s little older than her pupils, even younger than some. Understanding is established slowly, respect slower, and eventually a connection emerges. Not quite the prescribed one of mistress and students, but no less true for that.

It occupies her and makes her happier, though she still paces the confines of the room Xiwangmu has given them, and stands at the edge of Kunlun’s summit to watch for her wife’s return. It is so easy to wait, an old habit of hers, from childhood to near-bride to serving Tianmu: and she remembers too how her brothers were the ones sent out to learn letters and make things, to apprentice and seize more than they were born with, while she waited to marry. Waiting, her mother educated her, is a woman’s lot. Waiting for a groom, waiting for a husband, waiting for a child to be born.

It is the first thing she tells her aspirants: You do not have to wait. Do what you must if they are necessary to keep your mothers or sisters warm and fed, but do not wait for luck or unluck to come to you. The second is: If, when, you ascend seek out Xiangu, Guanyin, Tianmu. There is protection, of a sort, and you may find it easier to be.

She observes Fengmeng, too, and what she sees indents her brow into a frown. “He is obsessed with your teaching,” she remarks as they undress for the night. Climbing Kunlun they have had to swathe themselves in layers of fabric, hide, worse; they have sorely missed heat sealed between the curves of their bodies, the immediacy of bare skin.

“That is a surprise, seeing that he nearly dies to it every other day.” Houyi, almost nude, hangs up her knives on the wall next to her bow. She has been cleaning the weapons while waiting for her hair to dry and, though it is routine, the sight of near-naked Houyi and unsheathed blades always excites Chang’e. She has never been able to tell if Houyi does it on purpose.

“He worships you, more than a little. The way he speaks, or doesn’t speak rather, around you. How he looks at you hold your bow. I think you’re the first woman he’s gotten close to.”

The archer makes a contemplative noise deep in her throat and, settling on her haunches, frames Chang’e’s face with her hands, which are callused, bas-reliefs of hunts in the pads of thumbs and joints. “Am I doing something wrong?”

That surprises Chang’e into a rueful grin. “I think I am only being jealous of your hours and I don’t much like the boy.”

“Fengmeng’s harmless. There are six months to put him into some kind of shape, and I want to be done with it within that span, no more. When Xiwangmu’s gift is safe we can both take it and leave him to his own devices.” Houyi climbs into the curtained bed. “I am grateful to her, but not that grateful. There’s such a life ahead of us and I’m impatient to meet it. But… before we get to that, do you want to go hunting?”

“Right now the only prey I want is you. Tomorrow? Yes, hunting will do.”

When Chang’e is not with her aspirants, then, she would be with Houyi keeping the wild beasts of Kunlun in check: they have a habit of proliferating beyond the quantity required to test those climbing the mountain. Fengmeng turns more withdrawn when he sees them ranging together; neither woman pays him heed.

Nearly half a year passes before a new petitioner arrives, bloodied, with a letter for Chang’e.

It is from Meijie and tells them that winter has been harsh on Yunping, and Meijie’s father is unwilling to send for a physician. The girl vows, in an unsure childish hand, that she will do what she can; she’s learned her letters, and enlisted the passing warrior to deliver this. She hopes that her aunt will be proud of her.

A week remains before the moon turns. “I can go ahead,” Chang’e says, worrying at the cheap paper with her nails.

Houyi shakes her head. “We will go together.”

They pay their respects, Chang’e making farewells to aspirants who hold her hands and tell her they will practice her advice. She promises to return to Kunlun when she is immortal, and the way forward and backward simpler for her to tread. For now she has Houyi, and a world to cup in her palms. “When I am here next,” she tells her students, “I will have more to impart. I will be less foolish.”

(As they depart Fengmeng tries to speak around the silence that sits in his mouth like a pebble, but they are gone before he is able to conquer it.)

Xiwangmu’s seal in hand, they are at the town at the foot of Kunlun in one step.

It is deserted.

Lantern light pools on the streets and ripples as they pass. In each shop chairs are empty, even though the shelves are as amply stocked as they ever were. At a teahouse the tables are set, bowls and chopsticks, soup-spoons and condiment jars. But the kitchen is silent, the chopping boards clean on their hooks.

They enter the widower’s shop, and find it too empty–would have walked on, if Houyi hasn’t heard the small noise they both recognize for hitched sobs muffled behind knuckles. When the archer uncovers her the girl screams, squeezing herself into the crevice that’s allowed her to hide between armoires, flailing and kicking as Houyi brings her out and Chang’e tries to soothe. Neither of them knows much about children, but by and by the girl realizes that the two are not demons. For it is demons, she tells them in a fractured tale pieced from glass sounds and shadow glimpses, that have emptied the houses. Her father, her aunts, her friends. Everything has been going wrong since the archer left.

Houyi examines the girl, closely, with a scrutiny that makes her burst into tears. “You are not one of them,” she says, at length. The disguises of children and maidens are the favorites of fiends and she has no intent of falling into such a trap. “Will you wait here? My wife and I will look for survivors.” But when Chang’e makes to leave the girl starts shrieking, clinging to her, brooking no attempts at disentanglement. The archer sighs and puts down their belongings. “I will be back quickly.”

When the archer has gone the child quiets down by degrees. Chang’e makes nonsense noises, one hand stroking the girl’s matted hair and the other clenched tight around the knife Houyi made for her. She tries very hard not to feel afraid.

She isn’t able to tell, exactly, when the unease begins. A lengthening of a shadow? A chill in the air that does not belong?

A shape on the wall, horned bull head and serpent tail. In a moment it is silhouette; in another it has bled through, tar ooze, and Chang’e remembers the first time she let fly at a beast without Houyi’s hands over her own. The first time Houyi bled, and feared.

Its grin is a wound, yellow mortification under a snout the color of rust.

“You have been slain before,” Chang’e says, and through will made fierce by Kunlun’s wildness, does not tremble. “I do not fear you.”

Its tail hisses derision, a soft wet sound of rotten meat parting.

“Do you remember what Houyi the Archer said? She will destroy you and all you love.”

Houyi the Archer is human. As are you.

It comes for her, a blur smearing across her vision.

If she isn’t as fleet as Houyi or as strong, still she has been tutored by the best. She dodges, and weaves, and draws it out of the house. Outside Houyi will hear; in the chilly night Houyi will come.

She is still thinking that when the monster’s broodmates, shadows given flesh, tear into her. Houyi will hear.

She is still thinking that when they pin her down, drawing blood-threads out of her skin as though for spooling and weaving, flaying and separating her flesh into strips as though for drying and preserving. Houyi will come.

And Houyi does come, when she can no longer see. But Chang’e hears a wail high and long: only that is not possible. Houyi does not make a sound like that, collected and graceful Houyi, who is always dignified and impervious even in deep pain, in deep grief. So it cannot be Houyi’s tears that burn Chang’e’s peeled nerves. It cannot be Houyi’s mouth which lets loose such cries.

Fingertips pry at her lips. Something small is slid through.

Awareness takes Chang’e like dry land takes a fish. Xiwangmu’s gift fills her, past capacity, past possibility. In her stomach it takes root, in her throat it blooms, and in her mouth it silences her scream.

The sky rushes toward her, and she is certain that the pill hasn’t lost its poison after all–that this is death, not apotheosis: and she is at peace with that, for divinity alone, divinity thieved, is nothing at all. She will die without having stolen immortality from Houyi, and that will be enough.

There are stars in her mouth, and night in her bones.

The moon is a mirror that swallows the sun-crow’s light, and gives it back–a miser’s jealousy–pale and drained in the night.

Chang’e doesn’t weep. She is past that, and in any case it is so cold that shedding tears hurts; it wrings too much out of her, heat and memories. Tirelessly she has walked its streets, for she is a god now and has transcended the limits of humanity–but though she has traced the paths, finding new ones and twists and turns she never saw before in those familiar, she cannot find a way out. She locates the moon’s edge and unthinking steps over to find herself back at the center. But she persists.

Once, during one of her explorations, she hears a voice like music and Dijun is there, seated on a carved stone bench. I have gone to Houyi and asked her, one last time, for her hand. She said no. But you–I can bring you to her, and for love of you she will consent. As my wife she’ll regain divinity, and you will both find I am not without mercy. You will see one another, at times of my choosing. Do you not desire this, girl?

Chang’e refuses with a knife that opens the sun-father’s cheek. His bone shines gold, and his blood gushes fire.

The rabbit tries to warm her as she navigates the city, telling her stories. It loves her desperately but it is small, and it is not Houyi. Accepting that, it tells her of a room with many windows, each panel painted black as in the court of Xuanwu. Each overlooks a different view, depending on the room’s whims and sometimes cruelty. Of the latter it warns: Please, please be careful.

She does not take caution. It is something. It is, by far, superior to nothing. Xiwangmu’s pill filled her with such lightness that she went up and up, until the moon caught her, and she woke. All her wounds were gone, save one. Existence without Houyi is an injury that festers deeper than apotheosis may overturn.

The moon is a labyrinth, its craggy mountains holding houses that have never been habited, palaces with empty thrones, stone gardens where black waters slosh in basins and ghost swans drift through the air. Through paths paved with calcified eyes the rabbit leads her, up and into a palace where lanterns are tasseled with peacock ligaments and feathers: and is that not a shadow of Houyi’s home, the one in paradise, which feels like many lives ago?

Please be careful. It will not amuse you, the sights. The city loves to deepen hurts. To kill without killing, if it may.

She opens one window and sees sunlight.

Houyi sits in a workshop full of canvas and cut bamboo surrounding her like pieces of a beast she’s slain and disassembled to craft into furniture and weapons. The bamboo ribs suggest the beginning of wings, or perhaps an immense sky lantern. Her lips move, though Chang’e hears only silence and she aches–it hurts, to see without hearing, to see without touching. But at least she sees.

Chang’e requires no sleep, and not much food, now. She holds the rabbit in her lap, and watches as the sky lantern inflates. It floats high into the night, and Houyi gazes after it until it is long out of sight.

The archer climbs a mount greater and higher than Kunlun, and there lays the foundations of a tower. It is built up, and up, but in the end it can bear only so much. Not quite collapsing but listing, and it is not anywhere near high enough.

She finds Chang’e’s mother in the capital and tells her, in words Chang’e reads from the parting and shutting of her mouth, Your daughter is a goddess now.

Yunping does not find any joy in this. She seems so much older, and doubly stooped, having survived but never recovered from that winter. Chang’e cannot remember how long it has been since their leave-taking of her brother’s house. There are lines in Houyi’s face, too, clustering thick at the corners of lips and eyes.

The archer asks after Meijie, and learns that it is now the girl who provides both for her mother and grandmother, a scholar of some means. If she doesn’t do as well as her male peers, she does well enough. The governor has been removed from his post, ensconced in a temple, white-haired and drifting toward a lonely deathbed.

Chang’e sees the Kunlun aspirants, some ascended now, others still seeking entry to heaven. Each does this in her own way, some by marrying a sage, others by the skin of their teeth. For none of them is the path simple or quick.

Between this, Houyi is joined by Fengmeng. She regards him distantly, him existing only at the furthest periphery of her vision and awareness–but her at the center of his. Chang’e can see it in his eyes, the same franticness with which the rabbit adores her but more dangerous, edged by humanity. By years spent out of Kunlun, perhaps, and he beats his fists against the earth crying Why can’t I best you? while Houyi stands aside, her bow clasped loosely. His he has snapped to halves then segments.

Later: Why do you want to best me?

Fengmeng holds himself small as though to protect his heart. To be worthy of having been your disciple; to be worthy of heaven–I cannot be lesser. Not to you.

That is not how the proving of worth functions; you want to be better than I am specifically, and that means nothing at all.

His glance at her face, furtive. You trained Chang’e.

My wife was the best that I ever taught. None compares. Without her I wouldn’t have overcome Kunlun’s trials.

Fengmeng’s hands have turned to fists. What if I’d met you before she did?

Another might have laughed, but Chang’e knows Houyi has always been too kind. It would have been no different. There’s no place for you; there never was. Why do you persist? I’m long done with suitors of any sort, and done with the obfuscations I fed them. They tired me when I was young. Doubly now they exhaust me.

Are you not afraid of being alone?

Solitude may be borne, with some patience. But she looks up at the sky where the sun-crow flies; where at night the moon would rise and she would glimpse the pits and etchings and, rarely, a woman’s shadow.

The last window opens to Houyi in a valley, surrounded on all sides by men gaunt with starvation, and Fengmeng in their midst whispering to them. She is of heaven; her liver, her hair–any piece of her will bring fortune and prosperity. It is an easy lie to believe for desperate men.

She grips her knives without tension, without fear; she was a protector god, forbidden once to harm humans, but she isn’t that anymore. She kills them with the sure knowledge that it is a slaughter, that none of them is a match for her. When it is down to just Fengmeng, who holds yet another bow having misshot again and again, who snivels on his knees begging for absolution–when it is down to him she only turns away, and tells him that he’s learned nothing from her instructions. For Xiwangmu’s sake I spare you. Nothing more. Of forgiveness she offers none.

The next time, the ambush is an army, amplified by the blood she spilled the first and second and third occasions. She is monster to their heroes, a god gone wrong, come down to earth to wreak ruin. And again there is Fengmeng with his lies, eliding always his own part, his unclean jealousy. She seeks godhood and toward that she has boiled young men in a great cauldron–from their blood, an elixir that’ll grant endless life. Your brothers, your sons.

This time there isn’t enough of Houyi, and too many of them.

This time Fengmeng does not miss, and when she falters for a moment between knife-slashes he takes aim.

He weeps as he loosens the bowstring. But even wracked by sobs and sickness and rage he does not miss. He did, after all, learn from the best.

Chang’e boards the windows shut, one by one, and then the door. She no longer seeks to escape the city.

Hell is red and black, and red and black, enough light to see yourself–what you have become–and the wounds the demons inflict upon you, with spears and thorn-trees, and long luxurious oil-baths in boiling brass cauldrons. For Houyi it is an arrow-shaft protruding from her breast, it is tears and gashes in her skin, and bruises where they beat her until her heart stopped.

She examines the shaft. She pulls it out slowly. There is pain; in this place there is nothing but. Enough to make her retch, though the archer does not. Within herself it is control that she values second after memories of her wife.

When the demons come, she is ready.

In her hand is only an arrow, stained in her own blood and Fengmeng’s sweat, but she remembers a knife and that is what it feels like, weighs like. Even in this light she is used to the finesse of cutting and tearing, and with the same precision she shoots she drives the knife into gaps between armor; she inserts its tip into eye sockets, and cuts off ears–horse ears, swine ears–with abattoir ease.

They give pause.

“I will go willingly,” she says to the soldiers of hell, who know who she is, who have lost kith and kin to her methodical massacres, “if you can show me that my name is on the registry of the dead.”

The one among them not armed, a capped and robed bureaucrat with a seahorse’s face, consults his scroll. On it unspools, collecting and puddling until it is up to the bureaucrat’s waist; when it has reached his shoulders he at last concedes Houyi’s name is not to be found. Still she must be placed, named and posited in the hierarchy of hell, and so they bring her to one of the high magistrates: a giant encased in bronze. His face is a mask, twisted into a deep scowl.

He asks, “Father?”

“My origins must be known to you. I have none.”

Ignoring her he goes on, “Mother? Sister? Husband?”

Thrice she says no; again she tells him that she was born of no parent, made only by the particular wants of heaven. Wants that seem to have expired, but nevertheless.

In the end she is sent to the Old Woman of Forgetting.

For expediency Meng makes her house by the gate under which all dead must pass. Its doors are always open, for hourly there are hundreds of men and women deceased who must be processed and made to drink Meng’s mixture. Some unwilling, but most embrace it and cradle the little cups she hands out as though it is salvation.

Meng receives Houyi privately, in a room full of earthenware and somnambulant lizards. When the archer has seated herself she is offered a cup. It is dainty, this cup, and no color at all–though its sheen reflects her face in rainbows, and behind her she can see the moon racing by.

She looks up and gazes into Meng’s age-soft face. “No.”

“It can buy you grace. You may start again a child. With parents and kin, and a life unwinding before you.”

“Chang’e is not part of this cycle. I’ll only make her grieve, watching from where she is knowing that I’ve discarded memories of her. It would be selfish.”

Meng withdraws the cup. “What will you do then?”

“Wait.” The archer fingers the arrow that is also a knife. “Watch.”

She sits by as the dead file through Meng’s parlor, sipping slow or gulping greedy. Houyi thinks she sees her wife’s mother among them once, but it is difficult to be sure. In the moment before they pass the gate a few become whole again, young again, and then are gone.

Houyi is a mindful guest. She helps with the brewing and distilling, though she’s careful never to inhale when steam bursts from beneath lids and wafts up in fragrant clouds. She also does the windows over so they would be draft- and fire-proof; Meng chuckles to see this, and asks what it is with her obsession with carpentry when first she was born with a bow. “It keeps me useful,” the archer answers. “It keeps my mind turning, my fingers nimble.”

It is when she is climbing up to patch Meng’s roof that the dragons come.

They pull a chariot, and upon the chariot are the mother of suns and her last child. If the demons give Houyi wide berth Xihe sends them outright scurrying, for she blazes and singes, and those who are so used to roasting souls like little to be roasted in turn.

Houyi is off the roof and on the ground even before Xihe’s eyes fall on her.

“Archer,” the goddess says as she steps out of her chariot. “Despite your new home you don’t seem especially tortured.”

Houyi does not speak of her mortal decades. “I’m sorry that I did not speak to you before. None dared approach you, and I could not myself reach so high.”

“I’m not here for your excuses. You seem adrift, archer, and in want of a new duty. So I’ve come to bring you to that.”

The archer gives her host thanks, promising to return and finish her work with the roof. Meng does not ask if this is what she’s been waiting for, and Houyi does not offer to explain.

Houyi touches the chariot; pulls her hand away from its metal to find blisters on her fingers. “It burns.”

“This was made for me, and drank in the fire of myself and my sons. You will absorb some, until the heat lives in your gums and your lungs, until you can illuminate a day mandated to be wan.” Xihe does not smile; her anger is beyond malice. “But it will always burn. Remember this, archer. Each dawn will hurt. This is punishment, not exaltation.”

“I do not fault you, lady.”

“Do not mistake me: I care little for Dijun’s faithlessness. We are barely spouses. I do not despise you out of puerile jealousy. It is the murder of my sons that I cannot forgive; it is for that you have been sentenced.”

“What I did is beyond forgiving.” Houyi touches the reins gingerly. It leaves a ruby welt on the heel of her palm. “But I would ask for a boon.”

Xihe looks at her, as though from a great height. “Why do you believe you deserve one, much less that I’d grant it?”

“It is not much.” The archer bows low, her humility an offering, lower than she ever bowed to the emperor. It is obeisance; it is a suspension of pride. “And I believe you might do, in recognition that we were all injured by the same blow.”

The goddess’ mouth twists. “Dijun keeps a scar from your wife’s hand. The first, for one so vain. He never understood why I forsook him, why the children are not his. It is a simple point. My sons could have spoken to me. Asked. I might have found them a safe way. I knew, I always knew, how tedious they found it to spend nine days out of every ten on Fusang. How they loved to be together.”

The one surviving son hides his face in the shadow of vast wings. He has grown thin and tattered in grief and singularity, in bleeding his light and heat, in rising alone and resting alone on Fusang’s empty branches. His wings droop, eyes like obsidian gone to dull stone, dry as baked prunes.

“I could have come and spoken to you. I did not. Of such silences are misfortunes built, I’ve learned, not fate or any decree greater than us.”

“Ah,” Xihe murmurs. Her eyes remain hard. “I will not forgive you. Understand this. I will never forgive you.”

“Yes,” Houyi says, and keeps her gaze trained on the dragons Xihe has tamed for her chariot. One rolls a limpid eye toward her, cautious, whiskers quivering.

“What is it that you want then? That you cannot grasp for yourself despite your conceit?”

She tells Xihe.

The moon is brittle spite and envy, and if it ever was a bird the memory of wings and flight is long past. The paths to it are hard, from it harder still. It is why those not quite of heaven, the chastised and the exiled like Chang’e, are sent here.

But the moon is hungry. It lusts for warmth, which slides past as though its jagged cliffs and mountains are sieves, and in that rare moment when the sun-crow comes near the moon lowers its guard. It drowses and basks, opening itself, a plea written across its barren city. The lanterns come alive all together, flickering into characters, tentative greetings.

Chang’e stands in one of the high courtyards. The rabbit curls in her arms, rejoicing that she–almost–smiles as chariot, dragons and crow pass overhead. From this distance the goddess’ figure is invisible.

This time the chariot pauses and lowers. City shadows cavort wild, unused to this abrupt change in light and temperature. The swans flee into ponds and lakes, some part of them recalling a day long ago where ten suns convened.

Houyi lands, lightly, on her feet. She climbs the path spiraling up to Chang’e in quick, long strides. There are tears in her eyes, the sun’s radiance on her skin.

“Oh,” Chang’e whispers, and, “oh, why are you crying?” Said even though she, too, gasps and her words are leaving her like broken glass.

When they embrace their cheeks are wet, salt-smeared and fever-warm. They touch and touch again to make certain the other exists. If they are seen, if they are watched, they do not care.

Houyi may not stay; her new duty tugs at her as hell tugs at the newly dead. But they have time to kiss, and love, and make each other laugh. Chang’e holds to her tight when it is time for Houyi to return to the chariot. “For now it will do,” she tells Houyi, “but you must come back soon. And write.”

The archer promises. “Always.”

On that night, the moon shines at its brightest: and mortals below see in that an auspice for newness and wonder, to be celebrated in rich cakes and lantern lights each night Houyi brings the chariot and finds her wife.

When they part, they do knowing that they will see one another again: a year to them is as short as an hour. And maybe, someday, they will find a path easier to travel, a freedom for Chang’e to come and go as she pleases. They plan for that, long days in sunlit grass and lotus seeds in syrup.

Nothing is beyond reach when they have come so far, and they are not afraid.

____
Copyright 2012 Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Benjanun Sriduangkaew splits her time between Hong Kong and Jakarta. She can be found blogging at A Bee Writes and tweeting as @bees_ja

by Ben Burgis

I live at the top of the world, and sell happiness for thirteen credits a pill. The product is worth every micro-credit, too, you can be sure of that. Take your chances buying from the gangsters and lowlifes on Gagarin Street or Sally Ride Boulevard, you’d best be prepared for some quality time rolling around in the cigarette butts and broken glass of an abandoned alleyway, repeating the same word ten thousand times while blood leaks out of your eyes. Here at the top of the world, we believe in quality control.

I rent a room on the five hundredth floor of one of the tallest buildings in the Sphere. Most mornings, I take my breakfast onto the roof. No seasons in our little artificial world, so I can eat outside all year long, smoking and brewing coffee and watching the sun rise from a perch so close to the glass, you can damn near see your reflection. Every seventh or eighth day, always right around eleven hundred hours, my re-supply guy floats down to join me.

Re-supply girl, if you want to get all technical about it. With long, curly red hair, pouting lips, bright, intelligent eyes, and the kind of curves that make you want to stand up and sing the praises of all-mighty God for having created them. She fucking hates me.

Something halfway between a parachute and a jet pack is strapped to her back as she floats down to the rooftop. It’s small enough to sneak onto the industrial supply ships she rides in as they make their stop-offs in the Sphere on their way from Earth to places like Mars and Jupiter and the Outer Planets, and powerful enough to make her runs once she gets here. After she un-straps herself, I hand her the cup of coffee I just finished percolating, and start up a fresh one for myself.

“Thanks.” She grunts the word with all the sincerity of a roomful of school kids reciting the Pledge first thing in the morning, all droning on in that lifeless sing-song way. We pledge allegiance to the Protector and his Generals. In all things, great and small, we honor and obey the Protector…

“Oh, think nothing of it.” I make a show of sniffing the air. “Do tell me, though, what lovely conveyance you came in on this morning. It wasn’t a…perfume merchant…by any chance?”

She looks at me and there’s this crazy moment where I actually think she’s going to start crying or maybe punch me in the face. Then she laughs. “Fish. They scoop them out of the ocean just before they leave the planet, cut ‘em up and can them right there on the ship.”

“Grand choice, that.”

“Arsehole.”

I give her a toothy smile. She starts scooping cloth bags out of her side pack, all business. I clear what’s left of breakfast off my little plastic table. “Arsehole though I may be, it does occur to me that you’re always giving me a hard time about my choice of profession.”

She looks up from the table, where she’s bent down lining her pills into neat little rows. “Aye…?”

“Well, it seems to me that, with a security clearance as impressively low as mine, if I was to abandon my fine and noble business, I might be a fish canner myself.”

“You might, at that.”

I gulp down the rest of my coffee. “I’m trying not to be too hurt by your indifference to that possibility.”

She reaches out an unpainted fingernail and punctures the top of a pill so I can sample the product.

I dig around in my jacket pocket until I find a loose cigarette. I sprinkle the tiniest dash of powder from the pill onto one end and spread it around with my fingers. Then I blink five times in succession to activate the computer in my contact lenses. I can’t afford more than a couple hours of Net time a month, so I usually keep the damn thing off. Still, this is an indispensible part of the process.

I bring the cigarette level with my eyes. My computer runs its clever little microscopic-view analysis, cross-referencing what it sees with whatever database of dangerous additives it’s hooked into. The pill gets a clean bill of health.

All that’s left is the subjective check. Now, don’t get the wrong idea here. I don’t use the stuff. People in my line of work tend not to live very long after they start using. I do, however, believe in quality control.

I stick the cigarette between my teeth, take a book of matches out of my pocket and light one up. I hold the lit match in the air for a dramatic pause.

Re-supply girl coughs and shifts in place, bored.

I make fire.

One day back on Earth, when I was seven years old, my Dad drove me five hours to see the ocean. We sang Party songs and played games on the way, counting the red cars and the blue cars and guessing how many of each we’d see before we got there. I never wanted that drive to end.

When we did get there, though? I felt like my eyes would pop out of my head from staring too hard. So much water, more than I’d ever imagined, stretching out forever and ever and sparkling in the sunshine. The warm ocean breeze, slapping against my face. Dad, laughing and pointing things out, spending more time with me than I can ever remember him doing before or since.

The next year, he was deported to the Sphere with me in tow. I never saw the ocean again, never saw any body of water that wasn’t man-made. That afternoon on the beach was and is my single best memory of Earth.

I’m twenty-five years old now. I was kicked out of school six years ago this spring. The last time I so much as spoke to my dad was before that.

But. Still. Sometimes, late at night, as I drift in and out of sleep, some fragment of that afternoon will slide up to the front of my mind. I’ll be in my sweaty cocoon of sheets and blankets, too exhausted to think, and that memory will sneak in and fill me with recollected warmth and happiness.

Take that feeling. Next, add in the way I felt the first time I got a blowjob. (Alexandra Q., the girl I’d been fantasizing about for a year, sucked me off under the downtown boardwalk the same afternoon I got expelled from school for selling product. In retrospect, her technique was a little on the toothy side, but at the time, when I blew my load, I thought my head would shatter into twenty thousand pieces from the pleasure of it all.) Now, double the combined feeling of those two experiences.

Got it?

Good.

Double it again.

That is how I feel after I take my puff. For about ten seconds. Then I’m down.

“Yeh,” I manage. “Izz pretty good.”

My eyes focus back in on re-supply girl. She’s giving me this look I can’t read. I pay her. She straps herself back into her contraption and starts warming it up.

I’ve almost got the pills scooped off the table and into my bag when she speaks again. “Truly, though, you’d be better off canning fish.”

“I would, would I?”

“Aye. You’d be doing useful work. Maybe you could be active in the fish-canner’s union or some such thing. Be part of the struggle that way.” She shrugs, as much as her shoulder straps allow. “Better that than helping addicts destroy themselves with garbage like this.”

“…says the woman who peddles said garbage to me. How exactly do you reconcile that one, I wonder?”

“You’re a drug dealer. I’m a fundraiser for the revolution.” Her contraption sparks to life, half-muffling her last words. “There is a difference.”

Later that morning, I recount the conversation to my business associate Crush. I add in some fake dialogue to make it a better story, and he starts laughing so hard he almost drops his gun.

It’s a big gun. It fires big bullets, precision-guided by a very small computer. Just being close to the thing makes me jumpy, but doing what I do and not having someone like Crush standing next to me on my rooftop would be a truly special kind of stupid. That, and he’s my friend.

“…and still smelling of fish. Grand.”

I nod. “Hardly even wanted to defile her, she smelled so bad.”

“Liar.”

I grin. He swats me on the shoulder. I wobble a bit, and re-gain my balance.

My first customer of the day shambles up to me. Then another, and another still. Business is good at the top of the world.

When the morning rush dies down, Crush and I have a cigarette. He likes to blow smoke rings. He does it so well, in fact, creating all manner of elaborate shapes and structures, that I’ve long suspected him of wasting precious Net time downloading training videos on his contacts.

For a time, we smoke in companionable silence. Then Crush blows three rings in a row, all in the form of exclamation points. When he gets his breath back, he says, “I have a thought.”

I nod. “I had surmised as much, yes.”

“Our supplier doesn’t like what we do.”

I wave my cigarette to indicate that this is indeed the case.

“And you want to get in her pants.”

“I’ve admitted that I wouldn’t be entirely adverse to that possibility, yes.”

Crush grins like he just made the winning move in a long and complicated game of chess. “Well, I bet she’d let you have a go if we joined up.”

I take a long drag before responding. “This again?”

“Aye.” The playfulness goes out of Crush’s eyes. “This. Again.”

“You truly think that instead of minding our own business and making a fine living doing exactly what we have been doing, which by the way benefits the resistance anyway, we should join up? Risk getting our heads burnt off for the sake of there being a Republic again and not a Protector? You think with a Republic, the sun would shine brighter in the day, the moons glimmer more beautifully at night? Perhaps the food would taste better?”

Crush lets out a ragged breath. “You know it’s the right thing. I know it’s the right thing. I just can’t work out why neither one of us is doing shit all about it.”

I take a short drag and let the smoke out real slow. “Have I ever told you about my father?”

That stops him short. “No…?”

“He was political. More political, in some ways, than the beauty who sells us our product. Near as I can tell, she’s just a normal republican. Dad, now, he was part of some splinter resistance faction, far far left-wing. So deep into it that he knew the difference between Stalinists and Trotskyists and actually gave a shit.”

“Aye?” Crush looks impressed.

“Aye. And it got us deported here.”

I toss my cigarette onto the ground, and stomp on it.

“You never know.”

That’s what my dad told me when I asked him if we were going to have to stay up in the Sphere forever. You never know.

I’d put off that question again and again in the first days after we were deported. I was terrified that the answer might be ‘yes.’ I just needed to know that it wasn’t so. I needed some kind of reassurance. “Are we going to stay here forever?”

“You never know.” Then some crap about how in 1916, Lenin said he didn’t think he’d live to see the revolution, but the Tsar was overthrown in February of the very next year and Lenin came back and led a second, communist revolution in October or November or some such shit. “You know, in a lot of ways our situation with the Protector and the mainline resistance groups is a lot like what the Bolsheviks were facing with the Tsar and the Mensheviks. There are, as I see it, three big differences…”

That’s seriously the way the man talked. All historical references and six resistance tactics and three big differences between two strategic situations and how to build up the revolutionary vanguard and on like that, even though I was a kid, just a fucking kid asking if we had to stay in the Sphere forever, because I missed my friends and I wanted to see the ocean again, and Dad couldn’t spent two minutes just being a father and by the time I was a teenager, I was selling product and getting kicked out of school and Dad barely even noticed and then he was shot by a soldier at some demonstration, years after I stopped talking to him, and I didn’t even hear about it until a month after it happened and now I can’t say any of this to him, can’t yell at him or take a swing at him or try to make things right because he’s dead and fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Fuck.

The next time I see my re-supply girl, her cheeks are flushed. She can barely stay in one place, so delighted she is. She bounces up and down on the balls of her feet. “It’s happening,” she tells me, so happy and excited she slips up and starts dropping her g’s, a thing she usually stops herself from doing. She’s so ecstatic she even forgets to insult me. “It’s happenin’ soon.”

Then she’s babbling away about military strategy and the Protector’s forces being all tied up with a rebellion in the Outer Planets and the need to strike when the iron is hot, whatever the fuck that means, and I’m sampling the product and I get too lost in my own private reverie to banter with her about politics.

Here’s what I know.

Doing what I do means having the long-term job security of a ball positioned at the top of a pyramid. It’s not that you might roll down or that there’s a risk of rolling. Sooner or later, you will roll down one side or the other.

For one thing, not all cops are corrupt. For another, when you make your living selling substances as seriously mind-altering as our little happiness pills, your core customers tend towards the erratic and unpredictable end of the spectrum.

Then there’s the competition. Most of the big organized gangs couldn’t care less about me and Crush and the little apartment rooftop where we sell expensive off-brand merchandise, any more than interplanetary fast food chains worry about competition from a guy with a corner bakery. On the other hand, if a misunderstanding were to occur, if stray fire were to be exchanged between Crush and one of their guys, they’d come down on us like the holy and unstoppable vengeance of the Lord.

And, of course, there are our fellow independents. About once every three or four weeks, some young idiot shows up on our rooftop, some wet-behind-the-ears motherfucker who doesn’t know his limits and figures we’ve got a pretty good spot and it’s easier to take it from us than find a rooftop of his very own. Nine times out of ten, all it takes is for Crush to turn around, bare his teeth and growl. The kid’ll turn tail and run. One time a few weeks ago, this happened and Crush had to fill me in about it later. I’d been too preoccupied talking to a customer to realize that anything was wrong. Crush is a really big guy.

Sometimes, though, the sight of my heavily-armed and caveman-large business associate doesn’t get it done. Sometimes the dealer who’s trying to move in on us will be one of God’s most special little retards, some stupid fuck who’s addled himself so silly with his own product that he sees Crush staring down at him, seven feet tall and growling and pointing that ridiculous gun in his direction, he sees this Viking berserker of a man and he thinks, “hey, maybe I can take him.” That’s when things get tricky.

Today is one of those days. The guy shoots round after round in the air, his hands so jittery that not a single bullet comes anywhere near Crush or myself. Customers curl up on the roof. They rock back and forth, muttering and trying to calm themselves down before their chemically-assisted happiness sours into something terrifying. Crush screams and rushes at our attacker. He just runs straight at him, not worried about getting shot. Crush barrels into the guy’s chest. They both go down. Crush gets up. He smashes his beast of a gun over the little fucker’s head.

No question, this guy should have lost consciousness after all that. He hasn’t. Whatever grotesque cocktail of his own product might be bubbling away in his bloodstream, he’s still writhing around, still screaming about how he’s gonna come back with his buddies and eat us for breakfast. Crush stares down at him, confused. He rubs his chin. You can all but see the gears turning in poor Crush’s head as he tries to work out what to do with the stupid fuck.

I clear my throat. Crush barely registers it with a wave of his hand. “Eh?”

I look at nowhere in particular. “You know what we have to do here.”

When the realization dawns, Crush shakes his head, decisive. “No. Way.”

I sigh. I want to point out that Crush has killed at least nine people I know about, probably a lot more. I want to point out that this is no different in principle, that this guy’s too far gone to smarten up and decide to leave us alone when he comes to. I don’t. There’s no point.

Of the two of us, one is intimidating and one is not. There’s a reason that Crush is in security and I handle sales. There’s a reason he gets the big gun. Me, I just have a little pocket thing, an officer’s side arm from a couple wars ago, sold on the black market with the identifying numbers filed off the side.

I take it out. Crush shakes his head again. I don’t argue.

The thing is, I can see all this from Crush’s point of view. The man on the ground might be the worst kind of live wire crazy fuck there is, and Crush knows that. This guy will try to muscle us out of our rooftop again if we let him go, and Crush knows that too. He just doesn’t care.

I cock the gun. It warms to life in my hand. Crush calls me a name. I ignore him. He turns heel and stalks away.

Bottom line, for Crush, a disarmed person on the ground is a disarmed person on the ground and there’s the end of it. Give him credit. The man has a code.

I don’t.

After I execute the dealer on the ground, Crush doesn’t speak to me for three long days. Then history lurches forward, and everything else stops mattering for a while.

The resistance takes the Sphere. The pitifully small “battalion” of Protectorate Forces that was left in charge of defending the place when everyone else rushed off to squash the rebellion in the Outer Planets is defeated and disarmed in a matter of hours. The officers are executed, the men given the choice between changing allegiances and going free.

If the Protector has any loyalists left after that, they must be awfully damn thin on the ground. From my rooftop perch, I watch the parades filling the streets. There are maybe a few hundred real outside resistance fighters in the mix. Everyone else is local. They chant and sing, hoisting flags and signs and handmade banners through the air.

Most of the flags are the usual republican tricolor, but the plain red flags of the extreme elements are out there too. Looking through a pair of viewing lenses on the first afternoon, I notice that a few of those red ones even bear the mark of Dad’s lot, the number four superimposed on a hammer & sickle emblem. Ancient, ancient history that. Can’t quite remember what it’s supposed to mean. When I try to call up the information, I just get a vague jumble of Dad going on about Trotsky and all the usual buzzwords. “Permanent revolution.” “The need for real workers’ democracy, in the cities and on the factory floor.” “A Fourth International.” Could be abstract poetry for all any of that means to me.

The sight of those red flags warms me, though, never mind that I can’t think of a single damn reason why it should. Then the feeling turns into something else at the pit of my stomach. I don’t realize at first that Crush is talking to me.

“What’s that?”

He gestures at the crowds below us. “You don’t suppose all this is going to be bad for business, do you? Everyone being all distracted?”

That brings me out of my funk. I laugh, long and deep. “Crush, my good friend, our line of work has many disadvantages, but we do command the kind of customer loyalty that other sorts of businessmen can only dream of. I would most definitely not worry about it.”

I always call the product we sell “happiness,” because calling it that cuts to the chase. That’s not to say, though, that happiness is the only thing those pills can deliver. You manipulate the chemical compound a bit, tamper with the molecular structure to shift things around just a touch in one direction or another, and you can produce all manner of effects beyond the usual euphoria. It can mess with your sense of location or produce a feeling of tremendous power. It can give you days and nights of vivid and beautiful hallucinations. It can help you forget the faces of dead people you used to love. There are chemists in the trade who daily play with new variations of the stuff, extracting a dash of this and beefing up the proportion of that with the open-hearted joy of jazzmen improvising together in a smoky club.

I can appreciate the allure of all that, I can, and I certainly admire anyone who’s that good at what they do, but me? I’ll stick with happiness.

That’s good enough, isn’t it? To make people happy? God knows it’s not as if that’s such a small thing. It’s not like someone else has devised a path to happiness that’s even half so reliable as the chemical shortcut we supply, half as straightforward as the pure and unadulterated happiness, the carefully quality-controlled happiness, that we sell for thirteen credits a pill.

Crush doesn’t abandon me. With the resistance so close, with uniformed resistance fighters walking around down on the streets below us, I’ve been sure he’d abandon me. He must know there’s a uniform of his very own waiting for him down there, any time he feels like taking the damn elevator to the bottom of our building. A cleanly-pressed uniform and slaps on the back and “welcome, comrade” and celebratory shots of off-world whiskey, any time he chooses to claim it all, and he’s been wanting those things since long before the resistance took the Sphere.

Still. He doesn’t go. He sticks by me. He stands guard while I sell product and he scares away our competitors, same as ever. Give him credit. The man’s loyal. He’s got a code.

It just doesn’t matter.

“One more time.” I glare at re-supply girl and light up another cigarette. Liza S., I should call her, since she’s my re-supply girl no more. She’s up on my rooftop with half a dozen heavily-armed resistance fighters. They all look tense. She just looks tired, and maybe a little sorry for me.

“Absolutely no exceptions,” she tells me for the third time in this conversation. “There’s no wiggle room in the directive.”

Everyone is getting shut down. No more corrupt, easily bribable Protectorate cops. The bright-eyed revolutionaries who rule the roost now understand that the drug trade Objectively Serves the Interests of the Enemy by keeping the masses too doped up and distracted to rebel. Never mind that the resistance itself had been supplying some of us with our product for years. That was then, this is now, and they intend to shut down all us “exploitive parasites” for the good of the people.

“You’ve been seeing what’s been going on, haven’t you?” Liza S. gestures vaguely at the street below her. “We have people out there shooting it out with the gangs, dragging dealers through the streets to face the justice of republican courts. You, we’re notifying peacefully. We’ve even been authorized to award you each a pretty grand credit transfer to tide you over until you find more productive work.”

“Touching, that.” I toss my cigarette and light up a new one. “What, I wonder, could account for that odd difference in approach?”

She looks pained as she mutters something about “past services to the Republic.” I give her my toothiest smile. “Quite. So nice to hear at least some acknowledgment of the fact that our vile, exploitive and, ah, parasitical trade paid for the weapons you’re currently waving in our faces.”

Even Crush, who’s been taking all of this far too well, rewards this last point with an appreciative snort. Liza S. spares him an irritated glance. He blows a huge round smoke ring and shrugs.

Liza S. puts her hands on her hips and looks me square in the eyes. “Take the money, gentlemen. Find somethin’ better to do with your lives.”

“History, in the end, gets down to economics no less than weather patterns get down to physics.” That’s one of the few full sentences I can remember from any of my father’s political rants. What he meant by it was all about how the Protectorate and the bosses and all didn’t do what they did because they’re evil or they have bad intentions. They did it because it was in their economic interests, helping the people at the top of society get richer and the people at the bottom stay in their place.

Dad could get frighteningly angry sometimes, debating grand questions of resistance strategy or talking about the “Russian question” or waxing all lyrical about the plight of the sentient AIs enslaved in the Outer Planets and how furious it made him that “some people who call themselves ‘revolutionaries’” were indifferent to that plight just because the victims weren’t human. That line about economics and weather patterns, though, he delivered that the way I’d tend to imagine a college professor might talk.

He said it in a conversation I heard him have with a new recruit to his resistance faction, one night around the dinner table when I when I was maybe sixteen. It was one of Dad’s usual “conversations” about politics, which is to say that he lectured and you nodded and maybe asked a question. Maybe.

I do remember that he had a great metaphor about cancer, about how if cancer cells were conscious and aware and intelligent, they’d do exactly what conscious and aware and intelligent beings always do and always have done since time immemorial. They’d come up with some line of bullshit to justify what were they going to do anyway, and make themselves out to be the heroes of the story. And they absolutely would find some way to convince themselves. It’s amazing. Hoping people won’t find a way to rationalize whats in their interests is like hoping the rain’s going to suddenly stop falling down and decide just for a lark to fall up for a while instead.

The Protector and his Generals no doubt think themselves great patriots, the bosses who squeeze every micro-credit out of their workers are surely convinced they simply do what they must to compete. None of that matters.

Dad’s argument was that under the surface, whatever any of those people told themselves, it was all about economics, and once he’d made that point, he’d start carrying on about workers’ control of factories and all that sort of nonsense, like he always did. Still, I’ve always thought that bit about cancer cells was one of the smartest things Dad ever said. People will always find a way to rationalize what they do, and a lot of that is about money.

Dad’s politics, though? That was like a pair of red-tinted contacts he never took off, making the whole world look red until he forgot he was wearing them. It limited his understanding.

Economics, money, it is important. No doubt about it. But at the end of the day, it’s incidental. We all want money because money buys things, and deep down, we think those things will save us from our darkest thoughts. History, human behavior, it isn’t about money. It’s about happiness.

“How are you doing, sir?”

I wiggle my fingers in front of my face. They leave ghostly white trails behind them in the air. I giggle.

“Sir?”

I lie naked on silk sheets. I haven’t shaved in weeks. I’m not sure who’s talking to me.

“Sir? I said, how are…”

“Am-az-ing.” I look around. Try and fail to locate the source of the voice. Give up. “I’m doing am-azi-ng.”

“Very good.”

The first time I holed up in one of these places, it was shut down by a resistance patrol a few weeks later. Crush and Liza S. paid me a visit while I was drying out. Tried to convince me to stop living like this. Such a smart fellow I was, and all those years seeing up-close and personal what this shit does to people. Why would I do this to myself?

When they came to visit me, Crush wore the same resistance uniform as Liza S., and they sat close enough together to make me certain they were fucking. I lay there and tried to decide whether that bothered me. The two of them took turns prattling on about my intelligence and my wasted potential and the like while I mulled.

“You seriously want to live like this?” Crush looked down at me with the kind of pity that would have infuriated me if I’d been sober. “You were always the brains of our…”

“S’OK.” I waved my hand in a dismissive little gesture. “I don’t mind. You can ‘ave ‘er.”

“What?”

“You can ‘ave her.” I propped myself up on my elbows and looked at Crush. Then the strain on my vision got to be too much and I collapsed back onto the sheets. “You can ‘ave her in, y’know, the naked way. Go nuts.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Crush give me one last look of unadulterated disgust before the two of them stalked off and left me to my squalor. Finding the next place I could hole up in to swallow happiness pills all day and all night? That took me almost twelve hours.

The resistance really is getting serious about its little war on the drug trade. It’s getting harder and harder to sell on the streets. That would be a problem, if they hadn’t given me quite such a generous payment on account of “past services to the Republic” when they shut me down. First time I saw it, after Liza S. gave us the bad news that day on the rooftop, I figured the computer in my contact lenses was malfunctioning. I thought it had to be some kind of mathematical error. Seems I’d underestimated the guilty generosity one can expect of revolutionaries who’ve found themselves involved in flagrant hypocrisy.

They are serious about the crack-down. No doubt about it. But expecting, even under the harshest enforcement regime, that people won’t find a way to get around it and experience the most efficient shortcut to happiness ever invented? Expecting that the happiness needs of those of us with credits to burn won’t be catered to by any means necessary? That’s not expecting rain to fall up. It’s expecting rain not to be rain.

For days, I float happily in a sea of green goo. I eat it. I swim in it. It jerks me off. The green goo of my fantasy is a full-service operation. Best of all, I don’t think about Crush. I don’t think about Liza S. I don’t even think about Dad.

The goo tastes like nicotine and mint chocolate and sunshine. It smells like the ocean. When you tease it with your finger, it moans. If someone were to swim up to me and ask my name, I’d be hard pressed to answer.

When I finally do come down, I lie in bed for hours without moving a muscle. I’m not still high, and I’m not sober either. I’m just sort of pleasantly washed out, and riding that.

When full-on sobriety does begin rear its ugly head, the kind of dangerous sobriety that, if left unchecked, will soon have me worrying about when I last ate or had a shower, I blink my computer to life and send a message to the always-obliging chemist who lives downstairs. I tell him I want something a bit different next time. I don’t care exactly what. ‘Surprise me.’ Meanwhile, I’d like a little bowl of standard-issue happiness pills to tide me over.

Right when I start worrying about whether I’d been clear enough in my message, whether I’d said what I’d meant to say at all or maybe I’d just rambled on about green goo tasting like mint chocolate and sunshine, the bowl of pills is delivered to my room. The man who brings it leaves the bowl right on my bedside table. He doesn’t look at me.

After careful consideration, I decide to snort the powder. The pills don’t last as long that way, but the rush is more immediate than the old ‘swallow and wait’ routine. I move the bowl to the edge of the bedside table, then break open a few pills and separate the powder into lines on top of it. After a few minutes of searching, I find a scrap of paper. I think it’s an old release form from one of my stints in jail. I roll it up and stick it in my nose.

“What about your mother?”

Crush asked me that a week after I’d told him about my father. “Was she political too?”

“Nah.” That’s all I told him. Truth is, I’d never understood how my parents stood each other’s company through a first coffee date, never mind having and raising a child. The Party was Dad’s life. He pulled no punches about anything, ever. Ask that man a child’s question about what happens after we die, and, depending on the time of day and his mood, he was liable to give you a lecture about how belief in an afterlife and supernatural entities Objectively Served the Interests of the Enemy by keeping people from demanding something better in this lifetime. That, or he’d sum it all up with a single derisive snort.

Mom got up at five in the morning, every chance she got. That way, she could go to go to Mass before breakfast. She had a simple and beautiful faith, a child’s faith, and I reveled in it. When I was six and seven years old, there were long and sunny afternoons when she’d take me to the park and we’d talk for hours about what Heaven must be like and about all the wonderful things I could expect to find when I got there. The question “what about Dad?” elicited a breezy “oh, your father doesn’t see things this way.” Something about her tone made me think Dad’s views were a sort of condition he suffered from, something it wasn’t quite polite to bring up.

As the years passed, if I’d had the chance, I’m sure I would have started arguing and baiting Mom about the holes in her theology, and generally giving her as hard a time as I ended up giving Dad about his politics. Mom got cancer and died when I was nine years old.

When I blink onto the Net, the invitation is waiting for me. I don’t know how Liza S. found my identity here, but she did, and she forwarded an official invitation to it.

I’m almost all-the-way sober when I read it. Even so, I have to re-read the words a few times. I can’t work out why the resistance is inviting me to a military funeral. It takes me what seems like an hour of concentration to put two and two together about the name of the deceased.

Herschel Levinson, better known for most of his adult life by the evocative nick-name “Crush,” is sent off by hundreds of grim-faced mourners. Whatever his past, these people consider him to have died a hero.

Crush’s body is badly burned. He was killed, Liza S. has informed me, after a Protectorate recognizance patrol infiltrated into the Sphere. It goes without saying that the patrol will soon be followed by an army, a flood of Protectorate troops freed up by their victory in the Outer Planets to rain down fire on our little resistance enclave. That much is as certain as night following day, rain falling down. No one here has any illusions.

When Liza S. and I leave the funeral parlor, oddly companionable for once, the air outside is chilly. That doesn’t make sense. There aren’t supposed to be any seasons in our strange artificial little world, and I can’t tell if the cold is some kind of early withdrawal symptom, or the Sphere’s weather control systems are on the fritz.

I walk with Liza S. and trade stories about Crush. I’m unsettled by the casual way she calls him “Herschel.” I’d vaguely known that was his real name, but I’d never really internalized the information.

She tells me that the Provisional Council of the Republic, which is what the main resistance group calls its governing body, is “bitterly divided” about their drug policy. I can’t sort out whether she’s making conversation here, or apologizing in a strange, roundabout way for shutting me down. I tell her that, from what I can remember of the arguments my father and his comrades used to have every Thursday night around our kitchen table, it seems to me that lefties are “bitterly divided” about damn near everything, pretty much as a matter of course.

Liza S. smiles tightly and goes on. It seems that some factions on the Provisional Council argue that substance use is a matter of personal choice, and that the new Republic can’t be seen as being more invasive of personal autonomy than the Protectorate. There’s even a compromise proposal being bandied about to cut the legs out from under the criminal traffic by legalizing a relatively weak strain, less prone to side effects and addiction.

“Grand. D’you suppose we’re gonna have time for any of that to happen?”

“You mean do I think we’re going to win? Hold on to the Sphere? Fight off the Protectorate?”

“Aye.”

“I believe we might.”

“It’s not rain falling up, I’ll give you that. But I’m asking if you think it’s going to rain.”

“Huh?”

I wave my hand, dismissing the analogy. “Never mind. Grant, indeed, that it is possible for you to win. How would you rate your chances? Better than one in two? Worse?”

We stop walking. She gives me a level stare. “Considerably worse.”

I nod. “So why bother?”

“Because… True enough, I might not live to see the final victory. Perhaps there won’t even be one. But even so. You’re thinkin’ about it wrong. Other things matter.”

I squint at her. “Other than what?”

She reaches up a surprisingly soft hand to touch my upper lip. It occurs to me that the recent signs of my habit must be painfully obvious there. With an effort, I hold still.

“Other than personal happiness.” She gives me a sad smile. “Truly, do you grasp that, at all? That there are other things?”

We talk and walk through what I’m now convinced really is an unnaturally cold afternoon. I don’t agree with everything she says, even when she isn’t sounding entirely too much like my father. She often seems to me to be naively sure about her cause. I often seem to her to be hiding behind a wall of exaggerated cynicism. She tells me that in so many words, more than once in our conversation.

Through it all, one idea sticks with me. It’s the first thing, and the simplest thing, that she said. It burrows into me and it starts to bother me and in the end, it decides me. “Other things matter.”

I’m not wrong about the weather control. The weeks pass, and before long, the resistance issues us entirely new uniforms. These ones include multiple layers. Flannel and long underwear. Fur hats emblazoned with the republican tricolor.

By sheer bloody-minded happenstance, Liza S. and I end up being assigned to my old rooftop. We man sniper positions up there, along with half a dozen others. We all carry big guns, the kind with big bullets precision-guided by very small computers. Each of us has been issued view lenses powerful enough that we can target approaching soldiers from miles away. We’re ready.

I lie there, flat on my belly at the top of the world, and smoke a cigarette. I focus on that, enjoying the simple pleasure of the warm air circulating in and out of my mouth, as I peer through the view lens at the empty streets below us. I see the sun rising over the Sphere, and my spirit lifts. Someone starts shouting orders. I cock my gun.

It’s time.

______
Copyright 2012 Ben Burgis

Ben Burgis writes speculative fiction and realist fiction and sometimes even grocery lists and rent checks and Facebook status updates. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast program in Maine, where he spent his residencies sitting in workshops during the day and sneaking bottles of whisky into swimming pools at night with degenerates like Zachary Jernigan and the lady sometimes known as Caspian Gray. These days, he enjoys a respectably bourgeois life as an adjunct community college professor in Florida.

His story “Smokestacks Like the Arms of Gods” was the first piece of full-length original fiction to run at Podcastle, and his story “Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence” appeared in Prime Books anthology People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy. He blogs at benburgis.livejournal.com.

by Jennifer Mason-Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are a fool, Genivieve.”

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

“Do not call me Genevieve.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All curiosity save Tiburon’s.

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

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

Provided, of course, the animals were female.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tiburon, I am not what you think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My offer still stands, Gen.”

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

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

“You speak as if it is certainty.”

He stared steadily at me, silent.

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

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

“A bastard, you mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Figures,” he said.

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

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

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

“Maybe I won’t let you in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You father would’ve—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could not wait to be measured and gone.

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

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

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

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

“I cannot take you along.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A woman?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of what sort?”

“Cattle. They were killed. Eaten.”

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

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

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

“Just three nights ago for the bull.”

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

“Thank you,” I said.

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

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

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

I would tell him. Just not quite yet.

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

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

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

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

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

“You ran her against King’s orders.”

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s none,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am a child of the Moon, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be well,” she said.

“You as well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I am woman now.”

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

“You knew,” I said.

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

“Jonas as well then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you come back?” I asked.

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

“Children do not interest me,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____
Copyright 2012 Jennifer Mason-Black

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

by J. M. Sidorova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not an invincible man.

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

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

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

Then, “Are you?”

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

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

“Why?”

“’Cause it makes sense.”

“Lot of bullshit makes sense.”

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t.”

“Will not or can not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your point?”

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

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

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

“Can your people recharge it? The tower.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK. What’s your name?”

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

“Smokescreen.”

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

“I… did. More or less.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what about the meaning of life?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

They give me freaking shivers and palpitations, those memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____
Copyright 2012 J. M. Sidorova

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

by Ian McHugh

ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grief struck all over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the Sky retreated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he was gone.

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

“Must it be you?” she asked.

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

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

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

“But you cannot alone!”

“I will save myself,” another voice interrupted.

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

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

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

Tapa O had to look away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, brother,” he said.

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

“Come back to me,” she said.

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

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

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

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

TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should let me sing”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two more coconuts hit the ground.

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

Another coconut thumped down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her song was in his ears as unconsciousness claimed him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sit down,” she said, coolly.

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

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

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

“My turn, now,” said Kio Lea.

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes glistened, but she nodded.

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

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

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

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

“I miss Inu.”

“Ai,” he said. “Ai.”

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

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

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

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

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

A star fell from the constellation of the turtle.

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

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

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

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

“Two in one night,” he gasped.

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

They watched as the stars fell close beside each other.

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

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

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

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

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

Already, the first to fall were fading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ai, granddaughter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he said.

Kio Lea wept.

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

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

“Will a day get us there?” she asked.

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

“What will we do then?”

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

THREE

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

“I have not the strength,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“I will,” said the Sea.

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

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

Kio Lea nodded.

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

“Be brave,” he said.

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

The spark grew grew, strengthened, encompassed him.

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

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

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

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

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

Land. The realm of Earth.

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

Suddenly, he was wrenched backwards.

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

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

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

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

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

His granddaughter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ai,” he breathed.

A shadow fell across them. Tapa O looked up.

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

“Mother of us all,” Tapa O whispered.

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

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

“Rest, Navigator. Heal.”

He felt his eyelids drooping.

He drifted away. And back…

Kio Lea held him a long time, hugging fiercely.

“Goodbye,” she said. “Goodbye.”

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

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

“Take him home,” said the Sea.

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

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

He drifted…

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

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

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

Nona Lupe pushed him back. “Rest.”

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

She was beautiful.
___
Copyright 2012 Ian McHugh

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

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