by Annie Bellet

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

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

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

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

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

Out-ski? Damnit, she could fly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screw it. She needed to ski.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asavarma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even with recorded evidence, Kayi knew she’d still have to make it down to the finish to have a hope of accusing anyone of anything. They had to know that she was right next to their men, however. What else had they rigged out there? There were more ways to die on a course like this than just avalanche. Snipers, worse come to worse, could probably hoversled into the course and just pick her off. Once she was dead, arranging an accident or the disappearance of Andy and Gem probably wouldn’t be that difficult. They were safe now because of the race, because they were surrounded by people. Later, if she died, if she failed, they’d have no protection.
Pleasant thoughts.

Kayi grimaced and refocused on the conversation, risking looking around the spire again. Coraline was half turned away, studying a tablet. She tapped a pink finger onto the screen and told them she wanted to be dropped off there. Kayi prayed that Gem had gotten the message in time to record all that.

It would have to be good enough because Coraline and her escort slipped out from the overhang and after a long moment, Kayi heard the whirring of a hoversled. She stayed pressed against the cold stone until it was gone and silence reigned again.

Kayi ducked quickly into the illusory shelter of the overhang. She was still hours of hard skiing away from being in a position to help Gem or Andy. She just hoped they were figuring out some of what was going on. Hoped they weren’t already kidnapped or assassinated or something awful.

She had to trust that they could manage and take care of herself. That was Gem’s rule number one. Always play with the cards you actually have.

First thing, minimize the risk of being tracked too easily. Kayi sucked down a goo packet, the tart lingonberry flavored gel soothing her raw throat. She pulled the rest of the packets out and set them onto a little ledge in the stone.

Next she removed the first aid kit and opened her outer ski suit, then peeled back the insulating under-suit down off her injured shoulder with as little jostling as she could manage. The freezing air felt good, giving her a shock but numbing the exposed shoulder in a way that wasn’t awful. She pressed the Velcro-like morphine patch into her skin. The tiny teeth set and relief washed through her in a tangible wave, radiated out from the little blue patch.

Kayi slid the suit up and closed the insulating layer. She unsnapped her bindings and stepped out of her skis. Her outer suit had to go. The chip that allowed the satellites to easily track and lock her position was sewn into it and the bright orange, designed to be so easily seen against snowy mountain terrain, had become a liability. The quilted, white fabric in her under suit would have to suffice, despite its less than waterproof nature.

Play the cards you have, she reminded herself.

Shivering a little as her wind-breaking layer slid off, Kayi balled up the suit and shoved it into a crevice in the spire. It wouldn’t hold anyone off for long, and she didn’t dare go out without her glare and wind-blocking mask on, so the camera feed would still be there. The hood part of her mask was silver, thank god. She prayed these measures could buy her a little time and breathing room. Her gloves had to stay on, but she turned them inside out, hoping the grey inner layer would be camouflage enough. Nothing she could do about the boots or her skis so she shoved the nagging doubt from her mind.

She snapped back into her bindings and tucked the first aid kit and three packets of goo into the one pocket on her inner suit. Then she took up her pole, took a deep breath, and set out into the Spires.

Kayi skied in silence; her eyes focused on the quickest path through, watching for telling dark patches and odd shadows that might denote caving beneath unstable snow and thinly covered rocks and other dangers. Her ears strained for the sound of a hoversled and her mind kept trying to feed her gruesome imagery of her own mangled body or what the hood of her mask would look like when a sniper bullet exploded her brains all over.

She just wanted to get down the mountain. There was no race anymore. The allure of skiing the virgin snows and dangerous slopes of the tallest ascendable mountains in the known universe had died with the last of her sportsman instincts. Died with Arthur Kyoto in a crushing ocean of snow.

A different fire lit her now, pushing her even as she crisscrossed slopes between the blue and green and black towering stones. She wanted to live, not to beat the mountains, but to beat the people who’d tried to kill her in the name of ratings and profits. They were no less impersonal than the rocks and ice and cold.

The deck was deeply stacked against her, but damnit, Kayi suddenly felt a desperate need to win. Not from bitterness now about equipment or training or the money and ability to ski on more than one little planet.

The slowly rising sun caught the refractive surfaces of quartz spurs jutting like giant diamonds from the granite spires and drew webs of iridescent light between the stones. In the back of her mind, Kayi hoped that Gem was still recording. Was still able to record. She shoved that thought away.

She skied out of Loki’s Spires and turned to the north. She and her team had plotted out multiple courses on the flight to Asgard. They had even plotted the optimal path, what they jokingly had called the “as the crow flies but everyone else dies” course. Through the Spires and then to the north, shooting down a linked maze of steep ravines and directly into the crevasse-laden Thor’s Hammer. From the Hammer there was another steep slope, more of a cliff with an almost vertical slope that could drop her onto the straight shot down to the finish just above Shangri-la.

They’d ruled out that course as suicide. Even if the crevasses didn’t eat her, the hours of extreme carving needed to drop the thousands of vertical feet down the final descent would probably be beyond anyone after the hours of hard exercise preceding.

Kayi pulled her lips into a snarl as she shot down into the ravine maze. Her frazzled brain couldn’t recall what stupid name had been bestowed on this place. Win. This path, if she could survive it, it would beat even cheating. Probably. They couldn’t risk exposure by using the hoversleds too much or by having Coraline show up improbably early. Reporters might be sycophantic glory hounds, but they couldn’t be counted on to be reliable idiots either.

She was onto the final long stretch before Thor’s Hammer when she felt the snow vibrate beneath her and a sonic wave crackle in the air. Kayi screamed, more in fury than fear, and aimed her skis sideways, trying to shoot across the breaking snow.

Then the mountain broke away under her and she found herself perched in the middle of the avalanche plate like a grain of sand resting on the tension of water.

She rode the plate as it hissed and burbled, the edges peeling away as the snow gained speed, surging down toward the glacial blue scars of Thor’s Hammer below. Icy mists clouded up around her and for a brief moment she felt as though she was flying inside a storm cloud.

Just before the crumbling edges of the plate caught up her skis, the world dropped away, taking the deadly snow with it.

Kayi sailed through the air on her own now, the avalanche speed flinging her out over the deep crevasse that opened beneath, swallowing the mountain’s might. She tucked forward by habit more than by conscious design. Ahead was the edge of the crevasse. She strained her whole body toward it.

Not that it mattered; she wasn’t going to make it.

Kayi clutched her pole and thrust herself forward, arms against her side. She was just going to miss, the edge so close and yet her ski tips were dropping.

Her tips caught the edge. For an instant she thought she might be okay. Then the lip crumbled under her, frothing as the weak layer of snow broke. Her forward momentum died with a rough jolt and she started to fall backward.

Kayi jabbed her pole out and threw herself as far forward as she could. The pole caught and she gripped it with both hands, ignoring the sudden sharp bite of pain as her injured shoulder woke up from its drugged haze. The pole caught ice and stuck and suddenly she slid just enough forward that her skis caught and did their job.

Another raw scream broke out of her throat, followed by a stream of good Norwegian curses telling the cheating, malicious bastards where they could stick it and how.

The rest of the Hammer was a blur. Sometimes her skis left the ground as she flew over gaps and irregularities, but Kayi was beyond caring. Her shoulder made gravelly sounds and renewed its stabbing complaints with every landing, every sharp turn until finally, blessedly, her right arm went utterly numb.

She almost overshot the final descent but managed to check her speed and drop down onto the nearly vertical face. Each jamming turn was a tiny reminder of the hellish exhaustion she felt from her toes to her teeth. Her suit was soon soaked through and only the exertion itself kept her warm now. She wasn’t sure when she noticed that the snow below was no longer a far-off vertigo-causing shadow and instead had detail and glittering nearness. By the time she did see the far gentler slope and the clot of dark shapes off in the distance where the finish line lay, she was only a hundred feet or so off the curving final descent.

Kayi made a decision and dropped off the mountain. She flew down the last seventy feet; letting her spasming knees take a final jolt as she landed in nearly hip-deep powder soft enough to take a nap in.

The dull roar of excited voices grew as she approached. She hoped from the response that she’d made it down first. To win, then to expose this murderous charade.

The crowd took on colors and shape as she approached, skiing upright through sheer will. Her body felt dead, her right arm entirely unresponsive. It didn’t matter.

Once she won. . . Kayi stopped that thought. Winning meant she’d be mobbed by press. Maybe the Grinder Galaxy folks would find a way to twist it all up, find time to get some story straight. Winning wasn’t quite the answer.

With a hard jerk, Kayi twisted sideways and skidded to stop only feet from the finish line.

She stood there, leaning heavily onto her remaining pole, her eyes scanning the crowd, looking for her team. She didn’t see them at first and then suddenly both Andy and Gem shoved their way through the insectile horde of reporters and stockholders. Gem had his computer perched on one huge arm and hope lifted Kayi’s head as she drew on the last gasp of her reserves.

The crowd had grown silent, chatter dying away as they realized she wasn’t coming across the finish line on purpose. She slowly caught her breath and then pulled off her mask, letting her dark braid drop onto her shoulders.

“This,” she tried to say, but it came out as a raw croak and she stopped, swallowed painfully, and tried again, “This race is a lie, is murder. Kyoto died because of Grinder Galaxy.”

“Five,” Andy called out. “Five racers are dead.”

Kayi shivered and clung harder to her pole. Five. She strained to raise her voice, spitting out the words like broken glass. “It’s a lie. A set-up. Fixed. Manipulated. You aren’t watching reality or fairness.”

Gem smiled at her, teeth flashing white beneath his black beard. He did something on his little computer and suddenly the huge plastic view screens that had been showing her own exhausted image a moment before flashed to a shaky, somewhat fuzzy image of Coraline in her pink plaid glory, her whining, thready voice asking about routes and where the hoversled could drop her off.

For a moment, only Coraline’s damning questions reigned in the dead silence the recording brought on, as though everyone stood in the eye of a storm. The storm broke, people yelling, asking questions. Beyond Gem, the Grinder Galaxy officials who’d been coming out to try to shoo her team back halted on their snowshoes and froze like rabbits in the eagle’s shadow.

Kayi smiled at Gem and raised her left hand, finally releasing the pole. She slowly signed the letters to him. Asavakkit. I love you.

Did you fly? His hands formed the familiar question.

Kayii Tingiyok, she signed back.

She let her legs collapse, dropping into the snow. Yes, she thought as she closed her eyes, Kayi is flying.

______
Copyright 2012 Annie Bellet

Annie Bellet writes speculative fiction full-time. She holds degrees in English and in Medieval Studies and speaks a smattering of useful languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Welsh.

Her short fiction has appeared in AlienSkin Magazine, Digital Science Fiction, and Daily Science Fiction and is available in multiple e-book collections. A Heart in Sun & Shadow, a fantasy novel set in an ancient Wales that never was, is available now as both an e-book and in trade paperback.

Her other interests include rock climbing, reading, horse-back riding, video games, comic books, table-top RPGs and many other nerdy pursuits. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and a very demanding Bengal cat.

Find out more about her and her books by going to http://www.anniebellet.com or find her on her blog at http://overactive.wordpress.com/

by Francesca Forrest

“I have a song for you,” the girl said, appearing in Anj’s study unannounced. The two bluetails in the cage by the window trilled a welcome.

Anj looked past the girl to the outer chamber. Where was Shen? He was supposed to keep things like this from happening.

“Your servant is striking a bargain to get your roof repaired,” the girl said, joining Anj in looking into the outer room. Then she leaned across Anj’s desk, so the two were practically nose to nose. “He’ll probably overpay,” she said. She smelled of goat. Anj leaned back slightly, but then the girl herself pulled away and stood up straight.

“Here’s my song,” she said. She clasped her hands together and began to sing, full voiced, as if she were out on a hillside, among the goats and the clouds, and not in a tiny room filled with the accoutrements of a civil servant from the Empire of Cinnabar.

Anj considered herself fluent in the language of the tribes of the Cloud Mountains, but she couldn’t understand a word the girl was singing. The tune rose and then fell, fell, fell, turned and bounced like a mountain stream, fast and fresh. Was it the melody? The girl’s face as she sang? The knuckles of girl’s hands, white from the intensity with which one hand gripped the other? Whatever it was, it made Anj’s eyes sting with the threat of tears. She quickly turned her mind to the census and the requests from the commander of the Southwestern Army.

The song was over. The girl stood silent in front of the desk, hands still clasped and eyes distant. Then those eyes met Anj’s own.

Hastily, Anj pulled a couple of coins out of her jacket pocket, but the girl frowned. She took a step toward the window and opened the door to the bluetails’ cage. For a minute Anj thought the girl intended to free the birds, but no, now she was shutting the door again. She had taken from the bottom of the cage a feather whose bright blue hue matched her headscarf. She smoothed it, made it catch the light from the window, and smiled, then turned to go.

“That was a lovely song,” Anj said.

“I wanted you to know me,” the girl said, tracing the door jamb with the feather. “Now you know who I am.” Then she was gone.

Anj heard the creak of the outer door, then laughter and men’s voices. Shen entered, followed by two of the locals, one tall and broad, with a thick beard, and the other smaller in all dimensions.

“So Tilia Songbird paid you a visit,” said the larger man. “Sang for you, didn’t she.” Before Anj could respond, he continued, “It’s good luck when she does–not as good luck as some other things she does, though, eh Cousin Ezmah? That’s the real good luck.” He barked a laugh and gave the smaller man a clap on the back that ought to have made him stagger, but Ezmah didn’t budge, just clenched his jaw.

“Spirits move through Tilia Songbird,” Ezmah said, meeting Anj’s eyes briefly and then looking at his feet.

Women didn’t hold positions of authority here among the mountain tribes, and the only way the mountain people could accept Anj was to view her as a man, a fiction that was more difficult for some than others. “It’s a blessing when the spirits walk among us,” he mumbled.

“She blesses some more generously than others, that’s all I’m saying,” said the bigger man to Ezmah, and then it was his turn to meet Anj’s eyes, and he didn’t drop his gaze. “Not that I understand her choices. Like you, Your Excellency. Why did she pick you, I wonder. You people from Cinnabar don’t even believe in the spirits.” With each sentence his voice grew louder; the last rang like an accusation.

“Worthy Kehan and Worthy Ezmah will repair the roof,” intervened Shen. “We agreed on ten coppers each.”

Whatever storm had been brewing in Kehan dissipated at those words. He cleared his throat and said in an ordinary voice, “We’ll do it for you tomorrow. Have it finished by midday.”

“Very good,” said Anj. She rose and took a small chest down from one of the shelves along the back wall. Inside the chest were copper and silver coins, but also small obsidian disks, each with the imperial star chiseled in the center. Anj took out the necessary coins and also two of the disks, which she held up.

“These are for your families. Any service rendered to a servant of Cinnabar is service rendered to the Empire of Cinnabar. These disks are tokens of imperial acknowledgement.”

The men both bowed low, wished the spirits’ blessings upon Anj and the Empire of Cinnabar, and backed out of the inner room.

“Hah! I can’t wait to see that son of a jackal Nilma’s face when I wave this in front of him,” Anj heard Kehan say, and then the outer door squeaked shut. Anj and Shen smiled at each other. Each obsidian disk represented an increase in Cinnabar’s influence here in the wilds.

Shen paused by the inner door, and when he spoke, it wasn’t to mention the census or the arrival of a homing pigeon from the Western Capital or even to comment on the roof repairs.

“What was Tilia Songbird’s song like? Did you feel anything special?” he asked.

“Her song? It was– I couldn’t understand any of the words. I wonder if she was singing in some other dialect.”

“She doesn’t sing in words. Just nonsense syllables. But the people here say–well, you heard what they say. So I was just wondering. . .”

Anj thought back. The song. That liquid stream of sound. The tears they summoned to the gates of Anj’s eyes. But then there were Worthy Kehan’s insinuations. “I heard what they said. It’s shameful. The girl must be out of balance in the mind.”

“Well, if spirits fill you, you may not behave like an ordinary person,” said Shen mildly.

“’If spirits fill you’!” Anj scoffed. “You believe in spirits, now?”

“Oh no, not me. I know the foreign service code, and I value my job. But if you think as the people here do, then–”

“I don’t want to think as the people here do; I want to think as an effective adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary of the Cinnabar Empire, so I can get promoted to someplace more civilized. So let’s put aside Tilia Songbird and spirits and turn to business. Any news this morning from the Western Capital? Anything from Commander Tak?”

Shen shook his head. “Nothing this morning, but I-“ he paused, eyes on the scene outside the window.

“What is it?” Anj asked. She glanced out the window. A stranger was talking with Ezmah.

Shen sighed. “It looks as if we can’t turn away from Tilia Songbird just yet. Do you see that young man, the one talking with Worthy Ezmah? He’s from the Thunder Tribe, arrived yesterday. The chieftain himself is hosting him, and from what I understand, his business has to do with Tilia Songbird. I gather she’s from the Thunder Tribe originally, and this man wants to take her back with him.”

Shen frowned. Voices floated in through the window. Worthy Ezmah was all evasions, head shaking, hands raised, and finally, he started moving off, leaving the stranger standing alone, glowering.

“It appears the chieftain is reluctant to turn her over,” Shen continued. “So now this man from the Thunder Tribe is coming to you. To Cinnabar, as it were.”

Anj raised her eyebrows. As far as she knew, neither of her predecessors had had any dealings with the Thunder Tribe. And now one of their people was coming to seek a favor? It was possibly the first positive development since Anj had taken up her post.

Anj turned to Shen. “All right,” she said. “You go invite him in to the outer room. Have him wait there; serve him some of the best of the local tea but also break out some of the persimmon wine. That’s something he won’t have had before. And, hmmm . . . what else . . . I know: that palm sugar confection from the Jasmine Islands. Put that out too. When he’s had some tea, call me, and I’ll come in.”

Shen hurried out. Anj gave her medallion of office a perfunctory polish with the edge of her jacket and glanced at herself in the circular mirror hanging near the shelving on the back wall.

She was wearing local clothes, presents from the chieftain, men’s garments. The silky wool of the local goats had been woven into the fine, soft cloth from which her overshirt and trousers had been sewn; the goats’ hides, stitched together, made the long jacket. Strong yarn, brightly dyed, had been used to embroider geometric designs along the edges of the jacket–as much embroidery as on the chieftain’s jacket. In keeping with local custom, she wore a dagger in the sash at her waist, but a Cinnabar blade, not a local one.

Men here wore their hair shoulder length and loose, so Anj did too, though hers fell smooth and straight, while theirs twisted and curled. Anj turned sideways. She was of a height to look most of the men in the eye, but even with the goatskin jacket, she was slight beside them. She threw back her shoulders. Never mind. She had Cinnabar’s treasury and its imperial authority behind her.

Sometime later Shen opened the door and announced,

“His Excellency Adjunct Gubernatorial Undersecretary Anj.”

Anj entered the outer room and sat down on a cushion, local style, across a low table from the visitor. His eyebrows shot up when she had seated herself, and he looked over at Shen, standing by the door. Shen remained impassive and announced, “Worthy Siiar, from the Thunder Tribe, brings a petition, Your Excellency.”

“Worthy Siiar. May your days be reigned by balance. How can this servant of Cinnabar help you?”

At the sound of Anj’s voice, Siiar started. He stared openly at Anj for a moment, caught himself, shot another furtive glance at Shen, then dropped his gaze to the untouched sweet on his plate.

The Thunder Tribe must not know that the new adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary is actually a woman, Anj thought. And no one here bothered to inform this young man. Were they hoping he’d make a fool of himself?

Maybe the thought was occurring to Siiar, too; the visitor lifted his still sparsely bearded chin and spoke resolutely. “Your Excellency. May the spirits bless your days. I come on behalf of my brother, Chieftain Zara of the Thunder Tribe. There is one of our people here who needs to be brought home.”

Anj took a tiny bite of her sweet and tried not to cough. The vagaries of a three-month journey from the coast had rendered a supposedly chewy delicacy chalklike. She took a quick sip of wine. “The one they call Tilia Songbird,” she said.

“Tilia is her name, yes.”

“And you have taken the matter up with Chieftain Rosan, have you not?”

“I did, but Chieftain Rosan and Chieftain Zara are rivals. I didn’t expect satisfaction.”

“Chieftain Rosan refuses to turn over Tilia because . . . he wishes the blessings of the spirits she hosts to remain with the Freshet Tribe?” hazarded Anj.

“Blessings? It’s not spirit blessings that Chieftain Rosan or any of the others are after. It’s nothing more than . . . than the favors of a wanton vagabond.”

“I see. So why expend effort to bring such a one back home with you?” asked Anj, lacing her fingers on the table between them.

“Her behavior is a stain on my brother’s honor and a humiliation to the Thunder Tribe– Chieftain Rosan and all the worthies of the Freshet tribe mock us through her! And so.” Siiar reached for his glass of wine and downed it in a gulp. “And so she needs to be brought home. And dealt with.” Shen silently refilled Siiar’s glass, and Siiar took another drink.

Anj inclined her head. “Worthy Siiar, what are you asking of Cinnabar, exactly? You want me to compel Chieftain Rosan to turn the girl over to you?”

“Yes. Your Excellency.”

“I sympathize with your distress. The situation you describe is unpleasant, I agree. It does not, however, merit imperial intervention. Chieftain Rosan and the Freshet Tribe are Cinnabar’s hosts in this region. I’m afraid it would take an issue of somewhat greater significance to induce me to risk damaging the warm relations Cinnabar has established with the Freshet Tribe.”

Siiar started to speak, but Anj held up a hand.

“But that’s not to say that I have nothing to offer by way of redress. I could, for example, perhaps arrange for the girl to be sent away somewhere where she would not cause any more harm to Chieftain Zara’s honor or the standing of the Thunder Tribe.”

Siiar scowled.

“No more harm? The damage is already done. She was my brother’s wife! And now, word comes back to us, how she carries on here . . . by rights I should find her and cut her down where she stands!”

Anj thought of the narrow-shouldered girl, her song, the bluetail feather glinting in the sunlight. Cut down? She felt sick.

“But if I do,” Siiar was saying, voice low, “my brother’s shame will be even more public. There won’t be a tribe in the Cloud Mountains that won’t have heard the story by winter’s end. So I have to take her out of here–which Chieftain Rosan won’t permit.” He turned the stem of his wine glass round and round between his thumb and fingers. “Cinnabar should stand for virtue, shouldn’t it? And justice?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the wine glass.

“Cinnabar does stand for virtue and justice, but also for power, Worthy Siiar, power based on judicious action. It’s by choosing the right action at the right time that Cinnabar makes itself invincible.”

“Helping me is the right action at the right time,” insisted Siiar, looking up at Anj again. “You’re mistaken to put your faith in the Freshet Tribe and its allies.”

Anj sighed inwardly. If Siiar only knew how little the Empire of Cinnabar cared about any of the tribes of the Cloud Mountains–which was why its adjunct gubernatorial undersecretary was left to while away her days in a tiny house with a leaky roof.

“These eastern tribes are all Cinnabar facing,” Siiar was saying. “If you want to advance in the Cloud Mountains, you should align with the Thunder Tribe. My brother knows all the mountain passes. He’s led raiding parties into the Gate of the Mountain itself. What if your Southwestern Army knew about those passes? Forget sea battles–Cinnabar could sweep down on the Kingdom of the Plains from the mountains.”

Anj stared at Siiar in astonishment. The sea war was beginning to seem like a stalemate–did he know that? How did he know that? But not even Commander Tak thought seriously of advancing over the mountains; no pass was large enough. But many small passes? Could it be done?

“So. Upon further consideration, is it maybe Cinnabar’s pleasure to help me?” Siiar’s tone was positively challenging. Anj bought time by taking a sip of her wine.

“Possibly.” From the corner of her eye, she could see Shen stiffen, but she ignored him. She took another sip of wine.

“I will consider the matter and return you an answer in two days. Please do not act before then.”

Siiar bowed his head. “Thank you, Your Excellency.” His voice shook slightly. Relief? Anj gave a slight nod. The audience was over.

“People here are full of boasts and big claims,” said Shen, clearing away the stale sweets and empty glasses once the two of them were alone again. “But reality is often smaller. I wouldn’t let yourself be dazzled by Worthy Siiar’s last-ditch offers. No one tribe controls all the passes, and he would have promised the moon if he thought it would incline you toward him.”

He followed Anj into the back room; she could feel him hovering as she opened the chest that had the survey maps in it and dumped them on the desk.

“Did Bis make any overtures to the tribes in the west?” she asked. “Or Hum?”

“Neither of your predecessors did. The western tribes were hostile to the survey teams,” said Shen.

Anj found the area, colored purple, indicating the wintering grounds and summer pastures of the Thunder Tribe, stretching west along the Cloud Mountains just north of the small kingdom called Gate of the Mountain. The Gate of the Mountain was the logical stepping stone to the Kingdom of the Plains; it was getting a force of any size as far as the Gate of the Mountain that posed the problem. But if the Thunder Tribe controlled even some of the passes Siiar claimed, if Chieftain Zara really had raided into the territory of the Gate of the Mountain . . .

If either of those things were true, then Anj wouldn’t need to bide her time until she could be promoted away to someplace more promising. She could make history happen here.

“You’re not really contemplating trading Tilia Songbird away for the phantom of a possibility of advancement for Cinnabar, are you?” Shen had perfected the art of remonstration: hard words, gentle tone.

Tilia, who sings mountain streams into small rooms. Anj shut the door firmly on that thought–tried to, anyway. “My duty out in this wilderness is to advance Cinnabar’s cause. Even if it involves sacrifices.”

Shen folded his arms. “Ruthless doesn’t suit you.”

“Weren’t you just saying something about thinking like the locals? You and I might think it extreme to condemn someone to death for unseemly behavior, but if. . .” It was no good. Shen was right; ruthless was a coat she couldn’t wear. Maybe cunning would fit better. “Maybe there’s a way to keep Tilia safe and still see if Worthy Siiar is more than empty talk,” she said. “He just needs to believe she’s dead; she doesn’t really have to die.”

“He’s not going to settle for your word on the matter. I’ve seen this sort of thing before–he’ll want to accomplish the deed himself. At the very least he’ll require incontrovertible proof.”

It seemed to Anj that at some point during this conversation an invisible band of metal had been fastened round her head, and now unseen torturers were slowly tightening it. She rubbed her fingers across her eyebrows, massaged her temples a little.

“I’ll figure out something. You work on the census totals for now. Commander Tak’s expecting them. I’m going to take one of the ponies and ride up the western road a bit. See what the way to Thunder Tribe territory looks like.”

It was good to be outside, to feel the breeze and watch the dancing light of the Cloud Mountains, always changing as the configuration of clouds passing over the sun changed. Yesterday’s rains had given the air a scrubbed-clean feeling, and in the ample valley that was the Freshet Tribe’s wintering ground, people were harvesting millet. Now that those who had traveled with the goats to the summer pastures were back for the winter, the village and the hillsides were more lively. Passing one homestead shortly after turning onto the western road, Anj found herself the object of interest and excitement for a knot of siblings, who ran up to the roadside.

“Look, it’s the outlander, the woman-man,” the tallest boy called over his shoulder to a brother and sister, who came running up, followed by a barefoot little one in just a shirt, who toddled after the others, hands uplifted, calling, “Me too, me! Meeram too!” They waved, then ran off shrieking and laughing when Anj waved back.

Anj smiled to herself, but the smile faded as her thoughts turned to Tilia. What to do. She tried to array the elements of this problem in her mind: Siiar, his offers, Tilia. But at Tilia her thoughts veered off. A blue feather. A song like water.

The world grew perceptibly brighter as a rack of cloud that had been covering the sun moved away, and with the sun came the liquid sound from Anj’s memory, following her up the road. Anj looked back, and there by the road, back at the homestead where the children had waved, stood Tilia herself, holding a chicken and singing. When their eyes met, Tilia smiled, singing all the while.

Anj turned the pony (named, wishfully, Fortune) around and headed back down the road. Tilia was handing the chicken to the smallest of the four children, whose siblings were nowhere in sight, but it fluttered out of the little one’s arms and back toward the house. The child’s eyes grew wide as Anj dismounted and led Fortune over to the tall poplar where Tilia was standing. He turned and ran in the same direction as the chicken, calling his siblings.

“That hen won’t lay,” Tilia said, watching as the child tripped over it in his hurry to get into the house.

“Will your singing help it?”

Tilia shrugged. “Maybe. I held it, and a song came out. Maybe the song will heal it. I don’t know.”

A breeze caught at the poplar leaves; they flashed their pale undersides like a thousand signal mirrors. Tilia’s eyes were on them. Her hands moved away from her sides, fluttered like the leaves. A response.

“Tilia!” One of the older children was trotting toward them from the house, but slowed to a walk when he saw Anj. “Mama wanted you to have these,” he said, passing three grape leaf rolls to Tilia while staring at Anj.

Tilia popped one of the rolls into her mouth right away. “Thank you! Tell her thank you,” she said between bites. The boy grinned, waited expectantly, hopefully. She rested a hand on his shoulder and bent to kiss him on his cheek, right by his ear. His grin broadened, and he put his arms round Tilia’s neck and kissed her back, then dashed back to the house.

“Are you always so generous with kisses?” Anj asked.

Tilia laughed.

“That? It’s no more than what the wind does, is it?” she asked, gulping down the next grape leaf roll. “A light, light touch.” She tipped her head back, and the breeze pulled at her headscarf. She closed her eyes, smiled, then opened them again.

“So light,” she murmured. “Would you like one?”

“I–”

Tilia’s lips brushed Anj’s cheek, barely touched it, but Anj felt the touch in the pit of her stomach, and gasped.

Tilia popped the last of the grape leaf rolls in her mouth, swallowed, and sighed.

“Those were so good. I was so hungry all yesterday and today.” She looked back down the road toward the valley, then took a couple of steps toward Anj and Fortune.

“I promised I would watch Worthy Ezmah’s goats today,” she said, stroking Fortune’s cheek and letting the pony nuzzle her neck and chin. “Maybe his wife will have something for me too. She usually does. I’m still a little hungry.”

“Have you ever given Worthy Ezmah one of your kisses?” Anj asked, thinking of the morning’s conversations.

Tilia ran a hand along the edge of her scarf, tucking in a stray strand of hair.

“I sang for him once,” she said. “It was when his wife was very ill, this past spring, after bearing a third child so late in life. She could barely take care of the baby, and their daughter had just gone as a bride to Worthy Sunan. His wife couldn’t plant the fields, so Worthy Ezmah decided not to take their goats to the summer pastures or go on any raids. When he announced his decision, the men all mocked him . . . They called him small, not much of a man. But that’s wrong. He’s small in size but big in heart. I went to see him, and a song came out from me–his heart called it, full of love for his wife and their new baby. No one calls him a small man now.”

“But no kisses?”

“Maybe one kiss. I don’t remember.”

“You may not, but other people do. Other people feel jealous.”

Tilia’s face clouded, and she hugged herself.

“I know,” she said, hunching her shoulders. “Why, though? The wind touches everyone’s cheeks, but they’re not jealous of the wind. The rain wraps people up with its wetness, but they’re not jealous of the rain. But a kiss . . . And the jealous ones don’t wait to be given one of their own; they just demand and take . . . I need to go watch the goats.” She started walking down the road toward the valley.

Anj hurried after her. “Here, you climb onto Fortune; I’ll take you to watch Worthy Ezmah’s goats,” Anj said. She got Tilia settled on the pony and walked alongside, holding the bridle. Three, four, five leisurely paces in silence. Time to broach the subject of Siiar. “Tilia,” Anj said, “did you know that a man from your tribe has come looking for you?”

Tilia regarded her soberly but didn’t reply.

“You ran away from your husband, yes? The chieftain of the Thunder Tribe? He’s unhappy with the tales that travel back to him about you. Your songs and kisses–he feels disgraced. He’s sent one of his brothers to take you back, and from the way that one talks, I think he intends to have you pay for his disgrace with your life.”

Tilia murmured something inaudible.

“What?”

“Which brother?” Tilia repeated, only slightly louder.

“Siiar. Worthy Siiar.”

Tilia nodded, startling Anj with a flash of a smile that dissolved into trembling lips and closed eyes, but no sobs, no tears. Just wet lashes when she opened her eyes again.

“Siiar is my true love, and I’m his. He wouldn’t ever hurt me.”

“What?”

“My father did give me to Chieftain Zara. He couldn’t very well refuse the chieftain’s request. It was a huge honor.” Tilia shrugged. “I don’t know why Chieftain Zara wanted to marry me. He already has a wife, a rich and beautiful one . . . But some people, you know, every small thing that takes their fancy, they want to have for their own, and they won’t be denied.

“I went to stay at his house, in the women’s quarters, before the wedding, so I could get to know Adayla, his first wife, and learn what my duties in the household would be. I didn’t like it. The servants had hard eyes and spoke coldly. I spilled tea and Adayla slapped me . . . soon there were almost no songs in me at all–just, sometimes, when I would see the homing pigeons coming back to the dovecote in the evening, I’d find a song coming. Their wings are like leaves in the sun.” Her hands moved like the poplar leaves again, and she smiled.

“The birds are Siiar’s. He trains both the hunting birds and the homing pigeons. One time when I was singing, he asked me if I wanted to help feed the pigeons, up in the dovecote. I went with him up there, and–“

“I can guess the rest of the story,” said Anj, quickly.

Tilia nodded. Her right hand drifted to her face, her fingers finding her jaw, her cheek, her lips, as if either the hand or the face were someone else’s.

“I never knew, before, what ‘Tilia’ was,” she said. “Before, there were clouds, rain, leaves, birds, wind, sun, blossoms. . . Those things, they have songs, and when I come near them, their songs come out of me, too–there’s no boundary between us. But Siiar traced the exact borders of me. When he put his hands like this, when he held me, it was Tilia, just Tilia, he was holding. He said, ‘You are so precious. I will always treasure you.’ It was to Tilia he said it. Me.”

Tears were running down Tilia’s cheeks now, but her voice remained steady.

“Chieftain Zara has a sharp nose and a sharp mind. I was sure he’d sniff my scent on Siiar or his on me. So I ran away. I came here and went back to being Tilia without any borders.” She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Siiar can’t really mean to harm me.” A trickle of uncertainty dampened Tilia’s words. “I wish I could— maybe if I see him—“

“No, you mustn’t!” By rights I should find her and cut her down. Siiar’s words still rang in Anj’s ears.

“But if-”

“No! Listen,” said Anj. “Tonight, when you’re done helping Worthy Ezmah and his family, I want you to come back to the regional outpost–the house where I stay. All right? I’d like you to stay at the outpost, just for tonight and tomorrow. The next day Worthy Siiar will come back to see me. You sit in the back room while we have our conversation in the front room. If you feel like speaking with him after that, you may. All right?”

By now they were reentering the valley, and the fresh smell of the cut millet blew past on the breeze. Tilia didn’t respond; her eyes were on the millet.

“Worthy Nilma’s fields,” she said. “He takes his time and does things properly.”

“Tilia! Will you promise not to look for Siiar? And come to the Cinnabar outpost tonight, and stay there until I’ve talked with him?”

Still Tilia didn’t answer, or even meet Anj’s eyes. The splashing of Fortune’s hooves in the puddles seemed the louder for Tilia’s silence. Anj gritted her teeth. Trying to keep hold of Tilia’s attention was like trying to keep hold of water.

“Tilia? Will you promise?”

“I won’t look for him,” Tilia said at last. “And I’ll come to your house.”

Anj let out a sigh of relief.

“Look,” said Tilia, pointing. “There’s Worthy Ezmah, in Worthy Kehan’s fields. He’s indebted to Worthy Kehan, and Worthy Kehan never lets him rest.” She made a face. “And there’s Worthy Kehan, lording it over all the laborers. He always has to be the best and have the most. See how he’s already put the millet straw in his barns? It’s because he wants to be ahead of Worthy Nilma, but it’s been rainy, and I’ll bet the straw’s not all dry. It’ll molder, and then his goats will sicken in the winter.” She waved at Ezmah, who straightened up from his work and made his way over to the road, sickle still in hand.

“Look,” said Tilia, grinning. “His Excellency has put me on a pony!”

Ezmah smiled back. “You’re quite the fine lady.”

“Shall I take the goats to the meadow beyond the mulberry stand?”

“That would be a big help, Tilia. Thank you.” His voice was warm with affection. He glanced at Anj and frowned, hesitated, then spoke.

“The chieftain’s brother from the Thunder Tribe came to see you.”

“Yes.”

“I hope- I hope . . . whatever he asked . . . you’ll do nothing that would put Tilia in harm’s way.”

“I hope to ensure that harm doesn’t come to her, Worthy Ezmah.”

The man’s face relaxed. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

“Cousin!” called Worthy Kehan. “I didn’t sow grain in the road and don’t need you harvesting what you find there. Let’s have your sickle back where it’s of some use.” Ezmah returned to the field, but Kehan continued to stare at Anj and Tilia. Time to move along. Anj set a brisk pace, and soon they had put Kehan’s fields well behind them.

Eventually they turned onto a side path that climbed again into the hills, and arrived at Ezmah’s homestead. Tilia slid down from Fortune, waved to Ezmah’s wife, who was hoeing a patch of vegetables, her baby tied to her back, then went to collect the goats, several of whom she greeted with hugs.

Anj watched Tilia drive the goats up the slope behind Ezmah’s house, then mounted Fortune and headed back past the fields and houses of the Freshet Tribe, this time at a canter. She was nearly back to the western road when she became aware of hoofbeats behind her. She reined in, wheeled round, and was face to face with Siiar, who pulled in so close that their shoulders practically touched.

“Decided against helping me, then? Cinnabar’s ambitions can be put aside for a song? Or was it more than a song?”

“On the contrary, I’d still very much like to advance Cinnabar’s ambitions, and I’d even be willing to help you with your current predicament. Your actual predicament, that is, not the disgraceful fabrications you wove for me this morning.”

Siiar growled and lunged for Anj, who leaned into him with the aim of grabbing him by the sash and arm and unseating him–but Siiar threw his free arm around Anj’s shoulders and they fell together to the ground, where they rolled free of their startled ponies’ dancing hooves and into the roadside flowers. Siiar had the advantage of weight, but Anj moved quickly, and just as Siiar managed to fling himself across her chest, she brought her dagger up beneath his jaw, cutting, but not too deeply. Just enough to startle.

Siiar gasped and fell back. Anj slipped free, and the two of them faced each other again, crouched and panting, Siiar with a hand pressed to his neck. “You’re playing with me,” he said. “You say you would be willing to help me–then why were you escorting Tilia through the valley today?”

“Who’s playing with whom? You neglected to mention to me that you were Tilia’s first indiscretion. You came to me as an aggrieved brother when really you’re no more than a jealous lover.”

Siiar looked as if Anj had struck him. “Tilia’s behavior among the Freshet people is still wrong, still shames my brother,” he said, voice unsteady.

“More wrong than yours? You betrayed your chieftain and your brother. Whatever she’s done since coming here, Tilia may well have saved your life by leaving your brother’s house when she did. She certainly could have ended it by denouncing you. Isn’t that worth anything to you?”

Siiar pressed both his bloodied hand and his clean one to his forehead, shut his eyes.

“I loved her,” he said, his fingers closing round his hair as he spoke. “And then one day she disappeared without a word. And later, the stories that came to us from the Freshet Tribe. . . my love must have meant nothing to her. Even knowing that, sometimes I fear I might still love her–but I refuse to! I refuse to. I can atone for the wrong I did my brother, wipe out the stain on our family’s honor, and cut out the disease from my own heart, all at once.”

Spoken like a general who promises victory in the face of an overwhelming enemy, thought Anj. Then, thinking on generals, she asked, “Your offer–access to the passes–was that Chieftain Zara’s idea, or yours?”

“Mine. But my brother will honor my promises. He’ll understand what an alliance with Cinnabar means–but he’ll do it as much to spite Chieftain Rosan as for any other reason.”

“How did you know about the sea war? These mountains are months away from the sea.”

He didn’t respond.

“You would have to have seen the messages from Commander Tak. Tilia said you raise hunting birds. And homing pigeons. That’s it, isn’t it. You were intercepting our messenger birds.”

Now a corner of his mouth quirked upward, almost a half smile.

“Yes. I trained one of my falcons to catch your birds without killing them. I read the messages, then sent the birds on their way.”

Anj nodded. “Clever. So you can read the Cinnabar tongue. I guess we’ll have to start using code.” Commander Tak had been wrong to dismiss encryption as a needless precaution. Clearly not everyone in the Cloud Mountains was unlettered. Anj sheathed her dagger and sighed.

“You have the wisdom to see the importance of Cinnabar’s plans and the perseverance to make yourself part of them. I won’t give you Tilia, but you don’t need Tilia to persuade your brother that the stain on his honor has been removed. A torn and bloodied headscarf, along with your testimony and mine, will be enough. If you can put aside killing Tilia, I can help you bring your brother true fame and glory, enough to make him forget any injury he suffered because of her.”

“And you’ll hide Tilia away somewhere, as you said before.” The hint of a smile had disappeared from Siiar’s face; it was bleak now, his voice bitter. “Somewhere only you know– your own private prize.”

“That is a ridiculous idea,” said Anj, heat rising in her cheeks.

“Oh? You don’t want her? You don’t love her? Then maybe it will take another song, or maybe two–or maybe you all have wooden hearts, in Cinnabar. All the better for you if you do. Better than to love, when the love can’t be returned.” He shook his head. “You might as well love the wind, that doesn’t care where it bestows its caresses.”

“But Tilia does love you,” murmured Anj.

“Yes, like the wind. She loves everyone. Anyone.”

“She loves you differently.” Anj felt a tickle on her cheeks, went to brush it away and found her fingers wet. Tears. Siiar tilted his head, his eyes lingering on Anj’s damp cheeks.

“Truly?” So much hope and doubt in one word.

“Yes.”

Simultaneously the two of them got to their feet, brushed themselves off.

“Come to the Cinnabar outpost the day after tomorrow, as we arranged,” said Anj. “Perhaps you can see Tilia one more time, before we carry out our vanishing act.”

First the sun left the valleys, but the hills and high peaks of the Cloud Mountains still glowed rose and violet, and then the light left the mountains too, and Tilia still did not arrive at the Cinnabar outpost.

“You’re likely to wear a groove in the floor,” remarked Shen, as Anj paced the length of the outer chamber.

“Siiar was persuaded,” Anj said. “He wouldn’t suddenly have changed his mind. Would he?” She chewed a thumbnail. “Or perhaps Tilia’s wandered off somewhere? Or forgot?” Anj was at the door. “I’m going to find her. I’ll take Glory this time.”

A near-full moon gave the landscape a ghostly brilliance, and the air shimmered with the tones of a multitude of unseen insects. Tilia probably sings with them, thought Anj, and urged Glory to a trot, aiming for Worthy Ezmah’s homestead. He might know where to find the girl.

Passing Worthy Kehan’s fields, a different sound caught Anj’s ear: movement, cautious, deliberate. Anj slowed and scanned the road and the surrounding fields, but the sounds had ceased.

The hairs on the back of Anj’s neck rose to attention, pushing at her shirt collar.

And what was this? A slim shadow, moving down a hillside track up ahead, crossing the road, descending into the field, and heading for the barn.

Tilia?

“Tilia!” Anj called.

The figure hesitated. Anj dismounted and hurried to meet her.

“What are you doing out here? You were supposed to come to my house tonight.”

“I know,” said Tilia. The moonlight shone in her solemn eyes. “But I had to come here first.”

Her voice shook. “It’s Worthy Kehan. I heard him tell Worthy Ezmah that he was going lure Siiar out to the big barn. He said . . . he was going to stop Siiar from making any trouble. He’s going to hurt him, Your Excellency, maybe even . . . I have to warn him.” She pressed her hands, one clasping the other tightly, to her chest.

The notion of Tilia trying to protect the man whom everyone else was intent on protecting her from might have made Anj laugh, if just then the door to the barn hadn’t opened. Four men jumped out, two tackling Tilia and two heading for Anj. Anj threw herself to the ground, drew her dagger, and sliced the ankle tendons of one assailant, who howled a curse as he fell, then curled up, moaning. The other aimed a kick at Anj’s head that she narrowly avoided. She caught his foot under her free arm and wrenched him down, but before she could take her dagger to him, a blow from behind caught her in the small of the back, winding her, and as she lay gasping, strong arms pulled her into the barn.

A heavy, rank scent, almost alcoholic, enveloped her. Coughing, she squinted into the murky dark. The large shape over there, that must be Worthy Kehan. The shape on the floor, still whimpering, with another kneeling beside him, must be the man she had wounded. And that must be Tilia, twisting in a fourth man’s grasp, heedless of the dagger he was attempting to hold to her throat.

“She’s cut herself; she’s bleeding!” the man whispered, frantic.

“Foolish girl doesn’t understand what’s good for her. No sense! Seeking out a boy who wants to kill her.” There was anger and impatience in Kehan’s voice. “Tie her feet and put something in her mouth; that’ll shut her up. Sorry you had to wander into this, Your Excellency, but now I’m afraid you’ll have to stay too, until we’re done with that Thunder Tribe boy. Then we’ll send you back to your little house and you can just forget all this ever happened.”

“That’s a bad plan, Worthy Kehan,” Anj said, speaking in level tones, though she too had a blade pressed to her throat. “You don’t want to start a blood feud with the Thunder Tribe, do you? Let me handle Siiar.”

Slowly and deliberately, she pushed away the threatening dagger.

“You don’t want a feud with Cinnabar, either,” she added, glancing at the man who held her. Then, to Kehan,

“Untie Tilia. How can you mistreat someone you seek to protect? You should be ashamed.”

“I don’t need your scolding or your orders, Your Excellency,” Kehan sneered. “You think because you’ve gotten cozy with Tilia that you know what’s best for her? Well, you don’t. Freak.”

Anj coughed again. The alcoholic odor was becoming overwhelming, and there was something else now, a sharpness that tickled her nose. . .

Smoke? Tilia had said that Kehan put up the millet straw too early, and wet straw was known to catch fire unaccountably sometimes.

“I think we’d all better get out of here,” Anj said. “I think your straw’s about to–”

“Father, listen! It’s him,” whispered the man by Tilia, nodding toward the barn door and drawing his dagger.

Anj could hear the crunch of millet stubble beneath footfalls. Then a pause. Anj started forward, but the man holding her yanked her back and clapped a hand over her mouth. The door to the barn swung open, and for the barest fraction of a moment, Siiar was visible, silhouetted against the moonlight. Then there was a sudden whoosh, like an invisible flock of birds taking wing, as the straw in the barn burst into flame.

The man holding Anj screamed as fire seized the edge of his jacket. He released her and ran for the door, but the flames there, fed by the rich night air, were dancing the fiercest.

“The back, out through the back,” someone shouted, and another voice cried, “Uncle, Tavat, help me with Sarban!”

The fire didn’t illuminate; it blinded, and each breath Anj drew seared her lungs. She pulled her jacket over her head and crawled toward Tilia. “Let’s go–this way!” she shouted, cutting the twine around Tilia’s ankles. “Use your jacket as a shield.”

There was a noise like thunder as a portion of the roof gave way. Flames leapt up to greet the stars.

“Hurry!” said Anj. The flames hissed and snapped; somewhere up above, something groaned and creaked. Then came a loud crack, and a thick beam, flames running its length, fell to the ground, striking Tilia and pinning her. The girl screamed and struggled, but couldn’t pull free.

Wrapping her hands in her jacket, Anj tried first to lift and then to push the beam away, to no avail. She looked about in desperation, but Kehan and his sons and nephews must already have made their escape. And now Tilia was no longer struggling; no, she was lying quite still.

“Tilia . . .” But there could be no tears in that furnace. And now the flames were coming to claim Anj’s jacket.

Anj let the burning jacket fall. She covered her face with her hands and peered out through her fingers, searching for the rear door.

And there, coming through the inferno toward her, was familiar silhouette: Siiar.

“Help me free Tilia,” Anj croaked.

Together they were able to lift the beam enough to pull Tilia free. They managed to stumble several paces away from the barn before Anj collapsed, coughing. Even after the coughing ended, she didn’t move, just lay with her face pressed to the cool and dewy ground, with no thoughts beyond the miracle of breathing.

“I think . . . I think she’s gone,” she heard Siiar say.

With effort, Anj sat up. Siiar was kneeling beside Tilia, ear to her chest. He raised his head and turned to Anj. “I let myself believe in your scheme,” he said, in wretched tones. “I found reasons, excuses, for putting aside my brother’s dishonor and shrugging off my own guilt. But then, when that swaggering loudmouth approached me, saying he could arrange for Tilia to meet me this evening–as if she’s at his beck and call–all my doubts and shame returned. So I came, vowing I’d be true to my original purpose.

“And now this. She’s been snatched away even better than you could have managed. My brother’s honor is avenged, and I haven’t lifted a finger. And all I want, all I want with all my heart and all my strength and all my will, is to have it not be so.”

His last words were barely audible, lost in soundless sobs.

Something like a ripple passed through Tilia, erupting into a spasm of coughing. Siiar sprang back an arm’s length, eyes wild.

“She’s alive–she’s just swallowed too much smoke,” Anj cried.

Siiar drew near again and extended a trembling hand toward one of Tilia’s.

Tilia’s eyes opened. Another wave of coughing claimed her, but at last she caught her breath. Her gaze traveled from Anj to Siiar.

“Your Excellency . . . Si- Siiar.”

Siiar gripped her hand tightly.

“His Excellency said you wanted to kill me,” Tilia whispered.

Siiar’s face contorted, as if many different answers were battling for his voice. “I won’t ever harm you,” he said at last.

“Tilia,” said Anj, watching the flames of the engulfed barn reaching for the dome of the sky, “Do you feel well enough to get up? Do you think you can walk? No broken bones?”

Tilia pushed herself up on an elbow. “No broken bones,” she said.

Remarkable. Anj felt a pang, but said, “Good. You need to leave here right now, before anyone–”

“She can’t go anywhere yet,” Siiar protested. “She–”

Anj spoke over him. “–before anyone from the Freshet Tribe comes to investigate the fire. Then Siiar can tell your husband you died in it, and no one will know otherwise.” It had, after all, very nearly been so. “No one will come after you ever again. But you have to stay unknown and unremarked on–I want you to go into Cinnabar.”

“No!” said Siiar.

More painful was Tilia’s own refusal. “I can’t go there. I can’t ever leave these mountains and skies.”

Anj felt arguments rise to her tongue, but what good was arguing with Tilia? Anj swallowed them. “All right. Go west, then, but stay clear of Thunder territory.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Siiar. “Just for a little bit, a little way–just to see you safe, just–”

“You’ll only endanger yourself and Tilia if you do that,” said Anj. “People will be suspicious if you disappear, after being sent here on this task.”

“Even just for a day,” said Siiar. Was he insisting? Pleading?

“Feel the breeze right now!” said Tilia, head tilted back. “It’s gone all soft.”

“Tilia,” said Siiar, touching her cheek. “You’re already floating away from me on that breeze, aren’t you. Will I ever find you again?”

Tilia put her hands over his and closed her eyes. “Without you, there wouldn’t be any me. Only you know where I begin and end. Of course you’ll find me.”

Somewhat unsteadily, she got to her feet. Siiar caught her in his arms, an embrace that was one last plea. But then he let go.

“You’re wrong, Tilia,” he said, speaking slowly. “There is a you, even without me. It’s the you I fell in love with–you, without any beginning or end.”

Tilia became very still for a moment, then leaned toward Siiar and kissed him full on the lips. She turned to Anj.

No, Anj wanted to say. No kisses! But there it was, a light touch, just by the ear. Then Tilia was off, turning back once to wave before disappearing into the darkness.

____
Copyright 2012 Francesca Forrest

Francesca Forrest has lived near the coast of Dorset, England, and by a bamboo grove in Japan, but has spent the last ten years within walking distance of the Quabbin Reservoir, in Massachusetts. Her short stories and poems hide out in various corners of the Internet.

by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Thursday 1 January 2601 (Earth Relative Time)

Ensign Darlene Charles took a deep breath to quell her nerves. This is my last chance to make a good impression. Because a third strike would not be a good career move in the Unified Star Fleet. As she picked her way through the dimly lit mess littering the docking bay, the quantity of unwashed bottles and glasses heaped in bins testified to the magnitude of the party. A sour stench from trash containers suggested many partied too well, an unfortunate reminder of some early college mornings. Ahead, the starship Evensong’s giant hangar doors were closed, unusual in port. But a smaller man-sized hatch remained open allowing her to step through into bright lights and a fresh, cleaner smell.

“Hullo?” Her tentative voice might’ve echoed in the vast chamber, but in truth the sound was more swallowed up by the emptiness. Darlene had never seen a single cargo compartment stretch off in the distance for more than one hundred meters, and it had to be fully sixty meters wide. Thick armored doors separating the cargo bay from the hangar bay were opened all the way, as were smaller compartments aft of the hangar adding to the space. Short, blond and still a very new ensign, she felt tiny. Intimidated by a military cargo ship was not how she’d expected to start this day. She’d looked up the USFS Evensong in the Fleet registry and found she’d be one of just eight officers in a crew of twenty-two. This ship was a lot bigger than she’d thought it’d be.

All she could say was, “Wow.”

Overhead something creaked. Startled, she glanced up to stare at a sign on the hangar bay ceiling which said Flexi-Seams, with arrows running in two perpendicular directions. No doubt that was what she’d heard, expansion joints of some sort shifting as ship and station moved between dayside and nightside. When no alarms were triggered, she assumed it was safe enough.

Nearby three crewmen worked on stacking folding chairs and tables onto robocarts. One lone male worked a databoard, checking off each load. None held a rank higher than spaceman.

“Excuse me,” Darlene said in her best professional officer’s voice, with just a hint of Southern charm. “Who do I check in with?”

The spaceman with the databoard nodded into the larger cargo bay. “You’ll find Mister Grimsley at the far end, sir.”

At least he’d been polite and said sir. Darlene didn’t know what to think of the absence of anyone else around. There should’ve been an officer, or at least an NCO, at a check-in podium. But there wasn’t even a podium set up in the hangar. Of course the huge banner still hanging in the empty cargo bay – WELCOME TO THE 27TH CENTURY – might’ve been instructive, along with the debris outside on the dock. And indeed, walking to the far end of the cargo bay Darlene approached a middle-aged woman in dress uniform, sitting casually on a lone folding chair, wine glass in hand and one last bottle of red wine on the deck. She was tall and still what one would politely call handsome, but clearly much older than Darlene. Her nametag read GRIMSLEY, so Darlene felt confident she’d found the right person.

“Ensign Darlene Charles, reporting for duty, sir.”

“Are you insane?” The question seemed so unprofessional and unreasonable Darlene chose not to answer. But the look on the seated woman’s face told her she seemed to think this was a reasonable question. “For one thing I’m not a sir. If you’re real nice, you might be able to call me Marilyn. But I don’t think we’ll be on a first name speaking basis for a while, ensign. For another thing, it’s New Year’s goddamn Day – which just happens to follow New Year’s Eve and in most jurisdictions, squashed up in-between is the big ol’ zero-hundred hours midnight. We are off duty today.”

“A Unified Star Fleet ship is considered in service and ready for action at all times.” The words from the manual came without bidding and Darlene tried not to wince as she said them.

“This is a Fleet cargo ship,” Marilyn said, with less annoyance than Darlene expected. “Our next assignment is assisting a civilian colonial deployment and – trust me on this one, Mister Ensign Charles – I’m pretty sure the civilians are not working on New Year’s.”

Something about this wasn’t right. Was the woman drunk?

“I know everything about you,” Marilyn continued, “though the reverse clearly isn’t true. Because you don’t seem to have noticed the sleeves to this uniform which say I’m a master chief petty officer. Or the stripes which mean I have decades of experience over your newbie self. Or the gold keys on my lapels, which should’ve told you I am the Chief of the Boat. This is my starship you’re on, ensign, and I’d rather you didn’t forget that.”

“Master Chief…”

“I’m not done,” Marilyn said, finishing her wine with a flourish and then standing up. She was much taller than Darlene. “You’ve broken seventeen Fleet regulations so far starting with getting the dock chief to let you aboard even though the dock is closed right now, because this ship is off duty. But that’s not so surprising. You graduated from the Academy in June and you’ve been in transport for 144 days – and that’s after getting bounced from two postings already. Jesus, you got fired from a job five days after you started boosting from Mars, woman. If that’s not a record, then surely you’ve made the top five of Fleet’s hall of shame.”

Darlene swallowed hard, but managed to stare straight ahead at the master chief. Technically as an officer – even the most junior of officers – Darlene outranked Marilyn. But you took on master chiefs at your own peril. Everyone at the Academy had said so. And a chief of the boat? Marilyn Grimsley was right. This was her ship. Even a commanding officer would ask her opinion as a matter of course.

“At least,” the master chief continued in a less threatening tone, “you didn’t come a few hours ago. Assholes in charge of this station took one look at my empty cargo bay the other day and decided then and there we had to host the Party of the Century. Whoo-hoo… what a thrill.” As Marilyn feigned enthusiasm for the party, Darlene had to smile. Despite an initial minute of terror, she began to like this Master Chief Grimsley. “Now everyone else who has any sense is asleep. What bright idiot station-side sent you over now?”

“That would be the Fleet station chief,” Darlene said. “A Mister Marlowe.”

“Ah. A man of substantially finite genius, I’m afraid. What we’ll never know is whether his sending you over now was his sense of humor or his feeble attempt to help. I’m being charitable in assuming he isn’t just completely incompetent as well.” Marilyn tried looking across the cargo bay back towards the hangar. “Is all your gear with you?”

“My spacesuit is coming later.”

“Sure it is,” Marilyn sighed. “Come on. The captain will want to see you now.”

“And he is…?”

“You haven’t looked up the roster yet, have you? Must be nice to be so new and fresh and green in that uniform. Our commanding officer is Captain Angela Dessin. And she isn’t a he. Neither is Lt. Commander Nancy Kramer, our X.O.”

Was this is the way Fleet really works? You put all the women on a cargo ship? Darlene had seen only one male crewman aboard so far.

Her face betrayed her thoughts. “You think this is punishment? Segregation?” Marilyn seemed particularly angry. “I’ve put in twenty-nine years – I’ve worked my way here. This is the modern, new and improved 27th century Fleet, Mister Charles, and the crew of a cargo ship is small. You build a company of officers for a ship like this, especially this ship.”

“Why? I mean, I don’t understand – why this ship?”

Clearly Darlene had finally asked a right question. “This is a prototype of things to come, Mister Charles. See this huge open space? New design. The pride of the Sebring Ship Foundry. In fact, they oh-so-cleverly managed to get the shipbuilder’s name in the class designation – SSF-91 USFS Evensong.” She paused long enough to add some real emotion to her voice. “My father is a welder for Sebring. He helped build this ship. I came into Fleet with a welding specialty, though of course I had to add all the others to make master chief.”

“My daddy welds, too,” Darlene said.

“Really? Did he teach you?”

“Yes, ma’am. A hot torch and a good bead solves most problems, Daddy always said.”

“A wise man.”

“I always thought so.”

“Starships?”

“No, Earth-based. He has a small Electroglide dealership and does customizations.”

“A biker,” Marilyn said, laughing. “I think I already like him more than I like you. You have a tattoo?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“But you’re not going to show me, are you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No, ma’am,” Darlene said with good-natured force.

“You’re not very good at this game yet, Mister Charles. I’m neither a sir or a ma’am in this Fleet.” Marilyn rolled her eyes upward. “O save me, Lord, from newbie ensigns.”

Captain Dessin couldn’t have looked more different than her tall and angular chief of the boat. Instead, Angela Dessin was short, wide, sixtyish. Her short graying hair lay flat against her scalp, cut as if almost done as an afterthought. There was the air of the no-nonsense about her. Any idea this woman had been booted to cargo ships evaporated at the brag shelf of awards, framed photographs and certificates. She looked to be a plankholder, an original crew member, of at least seven new ships – four of them as commanding officer. The Evensong was the only cargo ship of the lot – the rest were warships.

“We’re supposed to have a crew complement of twenty-two,” the captain said. “But with recent promotions and transfers, we’re down two people. A basic spaceman is supposed to report tomorrow – that means we have two rookies aboard.” She looked straight at Darlene when she said this last bit. “Unfortunately, our Quartermaster got promoted to Warrant Officer 1 so we’re only allowed seven commissioned officers now. That means you will have to be third officer – don’t let it go to your head. You’re a green ensign and you are not ready to take over this ship in an emergency except on paper.”

Darlene barely heard anything after her appointment to third officer. It seemed unbelievable to make a command position. Then she understood. “You’re completely correct, Captain. I’m not ready to lead.”

“Of course I’m right,” Angela said with some irritation. “It was never up for debate. For the moment though, take your assignments from the X.O. Dismissed.”

Darlene saluted and went looking for the executive officer. She found Lt. Commander Nancy Kramer in the hangar bay working at the recently wheeled out check-in podium and executed the best salute she could. Already the ship seemed more alive. “Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles reporting for duty, sir.”

The prim, proper and tough looking X.O. – forty-ish to fifty-ish, to judge by her slightly salt and pepper hair – held up a datapad. “I don’t like you, ensign. According to this, you have near perfect grades in all subjects over four years at the Academy. Your training performances in maintenance, logistics, navigation – both dead reckoning and relativistic/jump – and engineering are all above satisfactory. But you’ve received decidedly insufficient performance reviews in the real world. You’ve annoyed my chief of the boat and confused my captain. In short, your record stinks and you’re a very green junior officer who knows nothing, yet Fleet has seen fit to give you authority to screw up my ship. For now you get all orders approved by me before issuing them. Understood?”

Darlene didn’t understand how every order could be handled this way, but she wasn’t in charge here. “Yes, sir.”

“Where’s your gear?”

“My space duffel is on the dock,” Darlene said.

“No it isn’t. We’ve taken care of it. Docks aren’t controlled space – a Fleet starship is. Remember that. Where’s your spacesuit?”

“It’s being shipped over,” Darlene said, pulling a plastic tab from a front pocket. “Here’s the receipt.”

“Unfortunately the Strosser has already reported they can’t find your suit. That’s usually shorthand for Gee that was an easy way to steal a suit from a green ensign. You should’ve checked it personally before you left the Strosser – now God knows where it is. Hope you didn’t have any personal gear stowed in the suit pockets. See the Cargo Officer and have him issue you a new one.”

“You’re from the South,” Lt. Jake Henning drawled as soon as Darlene introduced herself. “I’m from Mississippi myself.”

“Aiken, South Carolina, sir.”

“Well that’s just right fine,” he beamed, swiveling slightly as he leaned back in his office chair. “Now what can I do for the pretty lady from the great and humble state of South Carolina?”

“Apparently I am out one M400 spacesuit. Neither the chief of the boat or the X.O. thinks it’ll ever show up from the Strosser. As third officer – strange as that sounds – I suppose I need to be issued a white command suit if you’ve got one.”

“We all get white command suits,” he said. “M400C. But I’ll be sure to come up with those third officer badges when I have the suit pulled from stores. You can report to the suit tech tomorrow and have the fitting adjusted.”

“Tomorrow? I was told by the first officer to get a suit today.”

The lieutenant waggled a finger at Darlene. “No-ooo. I s’pect the good commander told you to see me today. Fact is, there’s hardly a soul standing on this ship after last night. Not a helluva lot of work is getting done on New Year’s Day, I can assure you.”

“What exactly did happen last night?”

“Ah,” Lt. Henning said, leaning forward again. “Now there’s a tale to tell. By virtue of that magnificent wide open and obstruction free cargo bay of mine, the station’s senior Fleet officer decreed that said cargo space was to be used for a 27th Century Party to usher in the new year, decade and century. There’s about ten Fleet ships in port right now – everyone had a very good time, I can assure you.”

“And I missed it,” Darlene said wistfully.

“Oh, I’m positive they made sure you missed it. Otherwise, they’d have no one to stand watch today,” he said with a wink. “Meanwhile, if you need a spacesuit, there’s plenty of emergency lockers everywhere you look with perfectly maintained baggie suits. Now, if you were smart, I’d suggest you find out where you’re bunking tonight, because that’s where we both hope the rest of your gear is. Before someone calls and comes up with another assignment, of course.”

“Of course, sir,” she answered.

Jake chuckled. “You may be green, Mister Charles, but my oh my, the South does teach its officers to be polite.”

She only got lost twice on the way to her compartment and had to query the corridor screens for directions. When she got there, the doorplate read THIRD OFFICER / JUNIOR ENGINEER. Darlene didn’t mind a roommate – it was expected – and perhaps it’d make adjusting to life on the Evensong a little easier. With satisfaction, she noted the keypad responded to her standard access code, but when she reached for the hatch lever it clicked before her hand was set and locked her out. Slightly chagrined, she worked faster so the second time she pushed open the hatch with her other hand while the green light still glowed on the keypad. Apparently it wasn’t the same lock module timing she was used to.

Fifteen thousand ships in Fleet, she thought, and practically all of them are different. New design, indeed.

Inside, the compartment was just as ruthlessly efficient and compact as she’d expected, so this was not really a problem. She was off in space to serve, not spend all day hanging out in a cozy compartment. But the best thing that’d happened so far this New Year’s Day 2601 was a freshly charged datapad centered on her tiny fold-down desk. It accepted her ID sliver automatically and had been configured for third officer duty.

“Yes!” she said under her breath and smiled.

“Would you watch that light?” a new voice demanded when Darlene clicked the room lights on.

“Oh sorry,” Darlene said, killing the main lights and figuring out which switch turned on the task light centered on her desk.

“You must be the new vegetable of the month,” the other person said in a voice resigned to not getting instantly back to sleep.

“New vegetable… oh, you mean I’m the new green ensign. Yessir – guilty as charged.”

A hand snaked out of the wad of bedclothes on the lower bunk. There was a distinct lumpiness to the bed, but so far Darlene hadn’t actually seen her roommate. “Lt. Kirsten Van Zoeren.” The voice spoke perfectly acceptable Interstellar English, but with a clipped, European accent Darlene didn’t know enough to place. “I’m the junior engineer on this barge. And since we’re not going anywhere at the moment, the Evil Triumvirate decided I wasn’t needed in Engineering and so was assigned a double-watch overnight on the bridge while everyone else partied.”

“Evil Triumvirate. You must be talking about our esteemed captain, first officer and chief of the boat,” Darlene said.

“Those would be the ones.”

“Ensign Darlene Charles at your service. And you do know the Evil Triumvirate, as you called them, have made me third officer?”

“Sure. That’s why you’re standing in the third officer’s stateroom. And if you were in command, on the bridge, I’d probably salute you and say yessir and aye-aye, sir. But right now I outrank you and I’m trying to get some sleep.”

“Right. Sorry. I’ve located my bunk. My space duffels have somehow magically arrived here and the seals are still valid. I can come back later and unpack.”

“That would be nice. It’s nothing personal.”

“Quite understandable under the circumstances.” Darlene removed her standard cover and found her safety hat at the top of her duffel. She should probably change, but her gray khaki skirt and jacket uniform would have to do for the moment. “I’ll just be going…”

But there was no response from the lower bunk.

Darlene’s datapad gave her directions to any place on the ship, so she found the wardroom without any difficulty. If the officers of the Evensong were expected to have a scheduled sit-down luncheon, there was no evidence of it in the wardroom. Instead a coffee urn and a large cold tray stacked with sandwiches seemed to be the offering. From the state of the tray, others had already been through here.

She’d already placed two sandwiches on a plate when an older man in a clean uniform jumpsuit stepped in. “Looks like they’re still feeding us leftovers from last night.”

“Sorry – I just got here. I wouldn’t know.”

“It wasn’t a question, ensign,” he said. “You must be the new girl.”

Trying not to bristle that at twenty-eight, some male colleague was going to call her a girl, Darlene instead introduced herself. Still, he was old enough to be her father.

“Camp. Captain Herb Camp, Chief Engineer,” he replied and offered a firm handshake.

“I think I’ve met your assistant, Lt. Van Zoeren. At least I’m assuming that was her under the covers.”

Herb laughed. “Not a morning person – no matter what part of the day serves as morning. Sometimes I think she still lives on Amsterdam time.”

“Amsterdam? She’s… Dutch?”

“Sure. This ship isn’t a territorial, so mainly we get Nordamericanos and a couple of real spacers. But there’s no reason not to have a Dutch junior engineer – so we’ve got one.”

“We have spacers? That’s rare.”

“You haven’t met the Serious Girls yet – you will. Believe me – you will.”

He grabbed a couple of sandwiches, while Darlene dithered for a moment before selecting a third for herself. Sitting down, she saw him looking at the pile of food on her plate.

“I get it from my mother,” she said.

“Get what?”

“The hollow leg.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“Touché.”

They ate in silence through Darlene’s first two sandwiches. “Are you going back to Engineering after your lunch? If so, mind if I tag along?”

“New third officer volunteers to come to my bailiwick – I am not going to turn down an offer like that,” he laughed. “Sure. We’ll give you the good tour.” And he actually winked at her when he said it.

The ship’s Engine Hall was divided into halves and then halves again to house the four F-575 fusion engines. It represented a lot of power, more than she’d expected on a cargo ship.

“They’re not quite the very latest version,” the chief engineer said. “For which I am eternally grateful. There’s enough innovation on the Evensong as it is.”

“You wouldn’t want another Galen Roads on your hand.”

It was the perfect thing to say to the sixty-three-year-old engineer. “I was fifteen when the Galen Roads nova’d. Outside watching the ship on its first boost through my telescope – I saw it go up.”

“A telescope? It’s a wonder you weren’t blinded.”

Camp touched his right temple. “I was. They had to grow me a new one. I was quite the hit in high school. Nearly everyone thought it was cool. And,” he smiled slightly at the memory, “some of the girls were very sympathetic. But I worried it’d keep me out of the service.”

“My. Touched by a historical moment.”

“And one technological disaster I have no interest in repeating – on this ship or any other.”

“Hope you’re right. Uh, because you were saying this ship is very innovative,” she added hastily.

“Completely different situation. The Galen Roads was the end result of making ships bigger and more powerful without understanding how complexity scales up. They never had a chance. If the engines hadn’t gone, they still wouldn’t have finished their maiden voyage. Too many things were going wrong all over, which the brain trust on board just figured were glitches from the shipyard. Idiots to the end from the designers to the bridge.”

Towards the end of her tour, Darlene saw a tall dark blond woman officer enter and immediately take a seat at one of the consoles. “Excuse me, captain,” Darlene told the chief engineer. When she got closer and could read the lieutenant (junior grade) badges on the newcomer’s uniform, Darlene put two-and-two together.

“You must be my roommate, Lt. Van Zoeren. We shook hands earlier. I’m Darlene Charles.”

“Yes, of course. I recognize your…vivacious personality.”

“Sorry about earlier. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be in the other bunk at that hour.”

“Something to consider in the future – you never know what sort of schedule a new roommate might be on.”

“Right. The Academy was more regimented.”

Kirsten nodded. “Yes. That makes sense. However a starship operates around the clock. Not very like a school schedule at all.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Actually,” Kirsten said with an impish smirk, “I think you shall.”

Returning from Engineering, Darlene stopped suddenly in a long corridor when the deck plate she was crossing creaked alarmingly and she momentarily thought her feet were sliding out from under her. Once she’d regained her balance, she stepped back and forth on the offending plate. She could generate the noise several times, but not the motion. Though there was no marking on the deck, the walls were painted with gray striping and bore a declaration this was another expansion joint. To her relief, the air pressure remained steady, but she chose to close two bulkhead hatches on either side of this segment and set a pressure monitor.

Only then did she touch her comm link. “Maintenance.”

“Van Zoeren here.”

“Kirsten – this is Darlene. You do Maintenance, too?”

“Engineering is engineering. As I said, everyone does multiple duty.”

“Yes, of course.” She explained about the noisy expansion joint.

“Sounds like the joint plates need to be relubricated.”

“I’ve never heard a noise from an expansion joint before, to say nothing of nearly being knocked off my feet.”

“This ship is more flexible than you’d think. If the joint plates seized up due to lack of lubrication, they could unload with a certain amount of bound energy. Walking could trigger such a shift. However, it shouldn’t be particularly dangerous. But to be safe, I shall check out the situation shortly. You’ve closed the bulkheads – you needn’t remain in the area. Van Zoeren out.”

Darlene did not like the sound of a flexible ship. Especially one where she could shift a deck plate just by walking. But if she was told it wasn’t a problem, she’d have to go along until she found out differently.

In the corridor outside the wardroom she met a crewman dressed in white serving attire, busily moving large covered trays from a robocart to the small galley kitchen unit.

“Hey, there,” Darlene said. “What’s for dinner?”

“Veal scaloppini – and I don’t have time for chit-chat. Sir.”

“Uh, carry on then.” Slightly embarrassed, Darlene entered the wardroom. This time the table was fully set and some of her fellow officers were already taking seats.

“I wouldn’t get too comfortable, Mister Charles,” Nancy said. “You’ve got Dead Man’s Watch on the bridge.”

“Junior officer always gets the short end,” Kirsten said, slipping in behind Darlene. “Thankfully, I am no long the junior officer aboard.”

“Gee, thanks,” Darlene said.

“And I checked your expansion joint on the way over. As I suspected, it’s a lubrication problem. Nothing to worry about.”

Which actually didn’t reassure Darlene very much.

The bridge of the USFS Evensong was cool, dark and quiet. Darlene had been on a bridge exactly once, for real, plus all the training at the Academy, so she didn’t exactly have a lot of examples to compare this to. She supposed in the long run, it looked like a bridge. Obviously the command staff wasn’t expecting anything to happen sitting here docked to the station. Truthfully, she acknowledged nothing should be happening.

A tall chair off to the side swiveled. The man with the sly smile had to be the second officer – Roman numeral twos gleamed at his collar. “Lt. Glenard McMurray. Don’t ask about the Glenard – if you have to call me by a first name, it’s Rich. Don’t ask about that either. And you are…?”

She managed not to jump. Of course she’d not be alone on the bridge – they wouldn’t leave the bridge empty at any time. “Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles.”

“That would be Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles relieving you, sir.” The sly smile remained.

Darlene repeated his words.

“Then I stand relieved,” he said, turning around long enough to grab a databoard from its storage slot and signing his name before handing it to Darlene. “You ever stood watch on a starship bridge before?”

“Uh, no sir,” she said, taking a short breath before affixing her signature to the databoard’s screen. The update informed her that responsibility for the safety and operation of the ship was hers and hers alone.

“Thought so. This has to be one of Mister Kramer’s little inside jokes. You’ll find she’s hilarious, once you get to know her deadpan style. And she probably hates your guts until you prove yourself – so don’t screw up.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”

“You don’t seem particularly scared by our first officer?”

“I’m already on her shit list, I’m afraid. Pretty much for breathing.”

“Okay. Relax. This is just a Dead Man’s Watch.”

“The commander said that,” Darlene said. “I’m not sure what that means.”

“Yeah, why tell the hired help anything? We’re in port and not planning on moving until the end of next week. Still, anything can happen. Warrant Officer Juliette Capri is over there on the forward mount. She’s our quartermaster – our senior navigator. If it comes to that, I guess I’m the number two navigator on this ship. The engines are cold, but the maneuvering thrusters can be up and running inside of thirteen seconds. You have to remember to authorize active maneuvering systems before they can be used. And for other crises, there’s always a fire and damage control party assigned, you can access them with those comm buttons.

“But,” he said getting ready to leave, “it’ll never come to you having to order anything. Despite the fact that you’ve just naïvely signed for and are now responsible for an entire starship, if something – anything – happens, there’s the panic button. We’ve got the Big Button preprogrammed at all times to bring in someone senior in an emergency. In this case, it calls the X.O. Do not be afraid to use it – Nancy’ll rip you up harder for not calling than if you waste her time.”

And then she was alone and in charge. Darlene looked around, taking in the low ceiling, the safety straps for use in emergency zero-gee, rows of consoles and screens, overhead racks of controls. And in the forward part of the bridge were the two maneuvering mounts – the helmsman seat on the left occupied by a tall thin graceful looking black woman.

“We meet at last, ensign,” the navigator said as Darlene threaded her way between the stations.

“Don’t get up, Quartermaster Capri.”

“Not regulation while I’m on the mount.”

“I suppose congratulations are in order – they said you’d just been promoted.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“So… tell me what I need to know about running the Evensong.”

Juliette laughed. “Despite it being a cargo ship, she’s really a dream to fly. Turns out that precision docking capability is important in a cargo ship – surprised me. A year ago I thought destroyers were pretty neat to fly. Hard to believe I’m in love with a shiny new cargo ship.”

“And the big engines?”

“Pretty much the same as a cruiser, sir. Thirty-two gee acceleration and all. Fourteen days even to jump speed. When the military wants its priority supplies, they brook no delay or expense.” Juliette paused. “Do you have a question, sir?”

“Yes. Do we get dinner sent up here during this watch?”

The next morning Darlene got up early to find an empty wardroom, but a full coffee pot, a crock of oatmeal and a smaller one of grits, a toaster and a machine which turned chilled whole eggs into whatever kind of cooked eggs she selected. The grits were a nice touch, even if she wasn’t the only Southerner in the wardroom – she was sure they weren’t for her sake.

“It’s 0603 hours,” Kirsten said with a yawn, staggering in after Darlene had begun eating. “How did you get here so early?”

Darlene shrugged. “First full day on the job. I’ve always been an early riser.”

“Looks like you’re hungry, too,” Kirsten said, sitting down with only a single mug of black coffee.

You might have dined on veal scaloppini last night – but I was on the bridge. The galley sent us up a pepperoni pizza.”

“Vincent makes a very fine pepperoni pizza.”

“Vincent…?”

“There’s only twenty other people on this ship, Darlene. Surely you memorized the roster?”

“First thing on my to-do this morning,” Darlene said hopefully.

“Specialist 2 Vincent Mandelini, our esteemed cook.”

“Not much taller than myself, serious looking eyebrows?”

“That is our Vincent.”

“I met him in the corridor. He was carrying… your dinner.”

“You were expecting a serving staff? This is a small crew, Darlene. Everyone performs multiple duties,” Kirsten said, pausing to sip at her coffee. “Even third officers, who already are in charge of everything.”

“I suspect especially third officers,” Darlene said. “Which is why I need a good breakfast.”

Though they were expecting no one, with the great space doors now open to the dock, Darlene was ordered to stand as podium officer. The sole guard on duty in the hangar bay, dressed from helmet to boot in soft armor, shouldered his weapon and came over to talk.

“You American, ensign?” he asked.

“Uh, and you are?” Darlene glanced for a nameplate, but it was covered by a black stealth flap. Interesting, she thought. She had no idea the security setting for this operation was rated so high. Though there had been a class on Security procedures back at the Academy which talked about denying troublemakers information to maintain control, Darlene didn’t have nearly the experience to figure out if it was true.

“Vincent. Vincent Mandelini. Specialist 2 Vincent Mandelini if you want to be specific – I’m the ship’s cook and bosun’s mate. And I asked if you were an American.”

“Yes,” Darlene said. “From Aiken, South Carolina. And you?”

“Close enough,” Vincent shrugged. “I’m Canadian. You got any food allergies or religious or dietary issues I need to know about?”

“Uh, no.”

“You like Italian?”

Darlene was astute enough to understand he meant Italian food. “Yes. I like Italian very much.”

“Good. Because that’s what I cook. And I’m pretty damned good at it.”

“Glad to hear that. I enjoy eating.”

“Okay,” Vincent said. “Go ahead and ask.”

“Ask what?”

“‘How’d a Canadian get into Fleet?’”

“There are no citizenship restrictions. And not everyone in Fleet is an American – and I’m not even talking about the territorials with their all-regional crews from around the Earth.”

“But as a Canadian, I could’ve gone into the Commonwealth or Royal Space Navy.”

“You could’ve, but you didn’t.”

Vincent folded his arms, cocking his head to one side as he squinted at the ensign. “You’re not going to ask, are you?”

“Bad habit of not allowing myself to be maneuvered by others – superior offices excepted, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Gives me the illusion that I have some control in my life. Besides, I have the feeling you’re dying to tell me, Mandelini.”

“How can I resist? I had a nice place in Calgary, good steady business, but I got restless. Decided to open a restaurant on the Moon – Luna City.”

“What was it like?”

“Great food, but no atmosphere. Cutthroat competition. Lost my shirt on the deal.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The thing of it was… I wasn’t ready to go back home. So I signed up.”

“And here you are.”

“And here I am.”

Darlene saw Mandelini straighten to attention, so as she turned around to see who was coming, she was already prepared to come to attention herself and salute. The captain, first and second officers were in their dress whites. Nancy paused long enough to scribble something on Darlene’s databoard at the podium.

“We shall be gone for perhaps an hour, ensign. Required social visit to the warship Guarder.”

“Very good, sir,” Darlene said, already astute enough to find the box and sign for the ship in the absence of the senior command officers.

“Carry on,” Nancy said, hurrying after the other two officers.

Not five minutes later three crewmen entered the hangar, dressed in clean black and white uniforms. They saluted the flag and moved to sign off the ship. Darlene stopped them.

“Let’s see who we have here,” she said. “Engineer’s Mate Morton, Cybernetics Specialist 1 Rooney and Spaceman Hachem.”

“Ship’s Clerk,” Edward Hachem reminded her.

“You’re still a spaceman, Hachem. And where do you think you’re going? There’s no shore leave authorized for anyone.”

“Mister Charles,” the lone woman, Tammy Rooney said, “we’re in port and it’s just to get a beer.”

“In a word… no.”

“Have a heart, sir.”

“I’m sorry, gentlemen,” Darlene stood firm. “You think you can play just because the cat’s away, but there’s a new mouse in charge.”

“We’re not trying to game you.”

“Stow it, Hachem. Everyone heard the announcement that the top three command officers were now leaving the ship. The only question for me, is do I summon the bosun or the master chief?”

“Sir, if you’re not comfortable using your authority, we understand…”

“Chief of the Boat it is,” Darlene said, picking up a secure handset. “Chief of the Boat to the podium.”

The three crewmen were suddenly apologetic, talking over one another as they first backed up, then turned and walked as quickly as decorum allowed back into the ship.

“Nice touch, ensign,” Mandelini said. “What you gonna tell the master chief when she gets here?”

Darlene held out the secure handset, clearly showing her thumb over the DISCONNECT button. “Who says I called her?”

“Are you going to report them?”

“Report what, Mandelini?”

The bosun’s mate and cook smiled. “Clever. I think I’m going to like serving with you, sir.”

Darlene still was feeling good about her handling of the crewmen some seventeen minutes later when a good sized young man came into the docking area. Burdened with two space duffels, a shopping bag from the space station concourse, a full M366e spacesuit with all its environmental gear slung over his back and a small case which probably held an instrument or personal item, he paused before trudging up the angled safety grip plates of the docking ramp.

Reaching the top of the ramp and the threshold bumpers between station and starship, he seemed confused as to what to do – unable to salute the flag or the officer while bearing his loads.

“You could try setting your things on the deck first,” Darlene suggested.

“Oh, yessir,” he seemed relieved. All his items slumped to the deck, but once freed the young man straightened up to attention, crisply saluted the flag, then pivoted and saluted the ensign. “Permission to come aboard, sir.”

She’d already glanced down the list of notes left for the podium officer. “You must be Basic Spaceman Brian Todd.”

“Yessir,” the polite young man said, saluting again.

“Permission granted.”

Brian crossed the painted yellow line on the hangar deck and waited patiently.

“Your paperwork?” Darlene asked.

“Oh yeah…,” Brian said, bending over and accessing a sealed pocket on one of the space duffels. “Here you go, sir.”

“Welcome to the USFS Evensong,” Darlene said. “And how did you end up in the Unified Star Fleet, Todd?”

“Grew up in scrub country. Finally tired of a job working at a meat processing plant on the edge of the Nebraska Desert.”

“That sounds fair.”

“Yessir.”

“Do you have any idea yet what sort of specialty you want to work towards? I’m not grilling you,” Darlene added hastily, seeing the stricken look on the boy’s face. “It’s just I’m sure one of the officers or chiefs is going to stick you with that question soon and I thought I’d advise you to perhaps have an answer ready.”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Absolutely, Mister Todd – this is just a casual conversation during check-in.” And if you only knew how green I am at this, Darlene mused to herself.

“I haven’t given it much thought – just so long as it doesn’t involve slaughtering chickens, pigs or cattle.”

“I think that can be arranged.” She got on the secure handset. “Chief of the Boat please… Master Chief, I have a new crewman checking in – a Basic Spaceman Brian Todd from the Nebraska Desert. I’m not sure who you were going to assign to shepherd him, but if you were to call Engineer’s Mate Morton, Cybernetics Specialist 1 Rooney and Ship’s Clerk Hachem, you might find a ready volunteer amongst those three.”

“Oh really?” Marilyn answered. “Should I ask what they’ve done or have my own fun?”

“I wouldn’t dream of denying the master chief her own entertainment.” Darlene heard a chuckle on the other end of the handset before the disconnect signal. “It’ll just be a couple of minutes, Mister Todd. If you could just wait over there, the bosun’s mate will run through a security check.”

In the cargo bay a half-dozen bots rolled slowly over the deck, cleaning the surface completely. Two spacemen – both women – took turns supervising the bots and lying on the deck doing nothing. Despite their somewhat dramatically tattooed faces, they stopped and saluted when Darlene approached.

“I see you both have the same home patch on your sleeves,” Darlene said, nodding at the odd constellation of stars against a black background. She knew the New Zealand flag had stars on it and a native population that believed in facial tattoos – but she was pretty sure this wasn’t it.

“We’re both Mongrels,” Spaceman Azi Leland explained.

“It’s like a nickname,” the second girl – Uril Mannet – said, seeing Darlene’s puzzled frown. “We’re from the same place.”

“And that is…?” Darlene asked.

The two spacemen thought it a hysterically funny question. “Oh you’re too serious, Mister Charles. But that’s our job. We’re supposed to be the Serious Girls around here.” Apparently that was very funny, too.

“So what exactly is the point of lying on the deck? Besides getting to goof off on the clock, that is.”

“Not goofing, sir.” Azi seemed insulted by the suggestion.

“Yeah,” Uril added. “We’ve got a scanner planted on the deck and then we use the smart glasses. We’re inspecting the ceiling.”

Darlene looked up. “Inspecting for what? And anyway, what’s that small pylon? There’s nothing else suspended from the ceiling anywhere else in this compartment.”

“That’s the center junction sensor, sir.”

“A tri-axial center junction sensor,” Uril corrected.

“Yes,” Azi giggled. “My mistake, sir. It’s the tri-axial center junction sensor. Part of the jump system.”

“I know what a center junction array is,” Darlene said. “What I’m wondering is what is it doing here and how do you know what it is?”

Azi shrugged. “I looked at the plaque.”

Darlene looked at Uril’s amused face, then down. The girl stood on a deck tile – TRI-AXIAL CENTER JUNCTION SENSOR DIRECTLY ABOVE / SERVICE LIFT BELOW.

“You are way too serious for us, sir.”

“And we’re supposed to be the Serious Girls.”

“So you said,” Darlene murmured, resigning herself to losing this round with a pair of spacemen. “Carry on.”

Still stung a bit by her failure to deal with the Serious Girls, Darlene almost ran into another woman who’d been lurking by the open airlock doors leading into the forward part of the ship.

“Ensign Charles – I’m Tech 5 Luanne Womat, Pharmacist’s Mate. And you were supposed to check in with me when you came aboard.”

“Um, I’m sorry, Womat.”

“Don’t worry about it too much. I think I slept for eleven hours after the last of the revelers left the 27th Century Party. But you were planning on checking in with Sick Bay, weren’t you?”

“Absolutely. As soon as I looked up the doctor.”

“No doctor, I’m afraid. I’m your complete health care provider on this ship,” Luanne almost apologized. “That and your first-aid training, plus whatever help the autobots are.”

“With thousands of colonists aboard?”

“We don’t normally do many colony runs. Anyway, they’ll all be in hybernation.”

“What if there’s a problem?”

“Hybernation is very safe, sir. I wouldn’t worry about the hybe tanks.”

“It’s my job to worry about everything and everyone,” Darlene pointed out. “And being responsible for several thousand colonists without a doctor sounds like asking for it.”

“The colonists should have their own doctor, sir,” Luanne said. “It’s all under control.”

“A new ship and a new crew for me – plus an unknown bunch of civilians who may or may not have medical supervision,” Darlene said with a sigh. “I am so relieved, Womat. Let’s go get me checked in.”

Sick Bay was barely larger than her stateroom. Three medical bunks lay stacked against the one side, each behind a glass cover. Womat explained how a bed could be swung out and down for treatment.

“What happens if you need to treat more than one?” Darlene asked.

“We can swing two trays down at a time.”

“All right – what about three?”

“If we need to treat three or more, we start folding out the gurneys in the corridor.” Womat must’ve sensed the disquiet rumbling through Darlene’s mind. “I do make house calls, sir, for a lot of the usual downtimes. We try to keep Sick Bay clear for emergencies. And anything I can’t handle, we have medical stasis tubes and let Fleet Medical deal with it some other time.”

“What’s for dinner?” Darlene asked as she took her seat at the wardroom table. This was her first real dinner aboard and she smiled at the heavy real china and silver service which lay atop the starched white tablecloths. It was elegant, professional and, at least here in the wardroom, everything the Academy had promised upon joining the corps of officers in the Unified Star Fleet.

“Vincent?” the captain asked, as the cook came in. “What’s for dinner? Our young ensign is either starving or dying to know.”

“We have Earth Alaskan salmon filets,” Vincent said, bringing in a large serving platter, “marinated in real Vermont maple syrup for two days.”

“Salmon? My goodness,” Darlene sounded pleased. “And you told me you did Italian.”

“I never said I only did Italian,” Vincent smiled. “But this is a special occasion. Captain informed me we are back up to full complement today and I’ve had these fixings rattling around the galley for a couple of months.”

“We should get a new crewman more often,” Kirsten observed. “Fish is nice.”

“Here’s to Basic Spaceman Brian Todd – the man with two first names,” Rich quipped.

Hear-hear!” the table declared.

“Maple syrup on salmon?” Rich asked, getting back to their dinner.

“More like maple syrup in salmon,” Vincent replied.

“Candied salmon?”

“Sure,” Vincent agreed.

Rich half rose from his chair, placed one hand over his diaphragm and dramatically held out his other and sang in a deep baritone, “Salmon candied evening…”

“That, Mister McMurray,” the captain said, “is enough of that.”

“Yessir,” he said, quickly taking his seat. But Darlene noted that both were still smiling. Perhaps, despite a bit of a rough start, she was going to really like serving on this ship. After six months bouncing around the real Fleet, Darlene dared to hope she’d finally found a home.

“Don’t go just yet, ensign,” the captain said as Darlene left her napkin at her place and started to stand after her meal and two desserts. The first officer remained as well while others filed out. “You did well on the Dead Man’s Watch last evening.”

“Yessir.”

“You seem polite, willing to learn and so far have exhibited no bad habits. This doesn’t exactly match your service record.”

“No sir,” Darlene said, inwardly wincing at the forcefulness of her reply.

“Then how do you explain this?”

“My first superior officer didn’t like Southern white women. There were two of us in the group kept out of hybernation to work on the boost from Mars. Lt. Commander Oxwell managed to find cause to dismiss both of us after an unfortunately short amount of time.”

“Mister Oxwell is a Southerner. A white Southern male.”

“Yes. Strange, isn’t it?” Darlene wondered how they knew so much and what else they knew.

“What’s your evaluation of yourself? Your worst features.”

This was always a dangerous interview question, but Darlene addressed it head on. “I suppose I’m a perfectionist. My second superior officer decided I wasn’t learning fast enough. I thought I was doing everything I could to not make any mistakes.”

“That doesn’t get you fired in five days.”

“The well was poisoned, sir,” Darlene said.

“I doubt that Nancy is buying this,” the captain said, without even looking at her executive officer. “But I base my evaluation reports solely on your performance on my ship. Your geographic or planetary origins and previous postings are not my concern. You are dismissed, ensign.”

Nancy spoke for the first time. “You have the midnight bridge watch – don’t be late. You’ll be relieving me.”

“Aye-aye, sir.” After standing and saluting, Darlene hoped her ears weren’t shining too bright red.

Monday morning at 0800 hours the cargo bay began its miraculous transformation. Loader after loader began packing in space shipping containers of a dozen different sizes, stacked in the closest packed formation possible. Keeping to the safety-striped zones on the deck, Darlene watched the preprogrammed ballet. While it became clear it would take time to fill the entire compartment, she was impressed with the rapidity and ease with which the loaders performed.

“The largest containers are full of vehicles and heavy machinery,” Senior Chief Sammy Hortez explained.

“I am assuming it’s all been load balanced?” Darlene asked.

“Manifest is sliced sixteen ways to Sunday and recalculated from stem to stern,” the cargo bay chief said.

“It’s all very impressive,” Darlene admitted.

“Yeah, it sure is.”

An alarm bell rang and Darlene’s attention was drawn to the end of the safety zone. Huge panels with flashing yellow warning lights began to fold out from what she’d thought was the end wall. Now she realized the cargo bay would itself be sliced up into sections. A cargo bay whose compartments were assembled after the fact, rather than built into solid bulkheads.

Innovative design indeed – she began to see the possibilities.

Stark space black butted against the pale glow from the planet’s atmosphere below. The view through the quad-glazed plex took Darlene’s breath away. She’d merely come here to find a quiet place to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and instead found one of the few compartments aboard with windows. Now she sat cross-legged on top of the large conference table so she could see more of the dark brown planet turning underneath.

“I’m glad you found the in-port conference room,” the first officer said conversationally from the back of the room. “It’s one of my favorite places when we’re in orbit.”

“It is beautiful,” Darlene said, willing herself not to leap up and spoil the peaceful moment. “One tends to forget about space sometimes. The stars, the planets. We get very tied up inside the ship.”

Nancy came and stopped next to her, arms crossed, gazing out the long clear windows. “Usually it takes longer for a newbie to realize how internalized our lives become on a starship.”

“I was bounced around a lot during my long lost migration.”

“Mmm. Well, finish your coffee.”

“All done, sir,” Darlene said, taking that one last slightly bitter swallow.

“We have an appointment in the starboard hangar airlock.”

Darlene expected to be given a full vacuum check-out of her new spacesuit. But she was surprised to see Nancy stepping into her own white command suit – and the chief of the boat as well.

“Anticipating your question, ensign,” Nancy said, “there’s a one-hour per month zero-gee full vacuum training requirement on this ship. That’s for everyone. Might as well escort you onto the hull and make my time as well. Once we’re underway I always seem to have too much crap on my plate to make time for my own drills.”

Sealing up and pressurizing, then cycling through the airlock, Darlene noticed Marilyn setting a safety line next to the control panel. “You’re not coming?”

“First and third officers are buddies on this run,” Marilyn said. “I’m your safety.”

“Right.” Vacuum drills while at the Academy usually involved so many personnel that the safety crews were practically ignored as everyone poured out of the locks. “Law of small numbers.”

Stepping across the zebra stripes at the hatch onto a small shelf plate outside, Darlene could feel the artificial gravity field weakening. By the time she’d joined the first officer on the sloping curve of the hull, Darlene was weightless inside her suit.

“So what have you learned recently, ensign?”

“I learned that our two spacer girls in the spaceman ranks think they’re pretty funny. I thought they were trying to tell me they were serious girls, which didn’t jibe with their cut-up attitude. Then I finally had time to read the crew’s service records. Now I know they are Sirius Girls.”

“Grew up together with their families around Sirius B.”

“The Dog Star,” Darlene said. “Constellation Canis Major. Which is why they’re Mongrels. It’s really quite clever wordplay – and I should’ve put it together earlier.”

“Catch that lock ring. Keep a safety line in place at all times,” Nancy reminded her. “Yes. It takes a while to work your way through the crew manifest, even on a small ship. And especially when we keep you jumping during your first forty-eight hours.”

“More like seventy-two… My, what a view.”

The two women, boots magnetized to the line of black metal tiles they’d been ascending. Though there was technically no up or down in space, Fleet called this the dorsal hull. Darlene’s orientation made her believe that she now stood on top of the Evensong. Whitish-gray ceramic shield and armor panels spread and curved away far to the forward. The hull appeared almost clean at this time, with nearly all the antennas and telescopes stowed neatly out of the way, unlike all the gear festooned on the space station hull ahead. Warships all had a long tapered wedge shape to lower visibility head-on. The Evensong was thicker and had a rounded nose, not a sharp point, at the bow. Four massive bells for the fusor engines lay aft.

“I’m told this isn’t a very pleasant planet,” Darlene said, looking away towards the colored disk below. “You can’t rightly tell from seven hundred kilometers.”

“See the silvery lake? That’s mercury. The planetary scientists nearly had a heart attack when they realized you could have an open pool of mercury that large on a planet. It’s a nasty industrial world and ninety percent of the workforce uses remotes from orbit.”

“People back home would have no idea why we’re here.”

“The station is a crossroads. Good a place as any to organize a colony run somewhere else.”

“Yes, but why?”

Nancy was likely smiling behind the darkened visor of her helmet. “No one jumps ship and goes planetside here.”

As the cargo bay filled and sections of it were closed off by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of moving wall panels, a new construction project caught Darlene by surprise. Huge plex sections as thick as a man’s arm and supported on wide girder feet were being bolted together to form a massive gang hybernation tank. When completed, it would measure thirty meters long, eighteen wide and eight meters high.

“I knew the colonists would travel in hybe,” Darlene said to the chief engineer. “I guess I assumed we carried hybe tanks, but… we aren’t usually in the colony moving business.”

“That’s right,” Herb said. “All told there’ll be five thousand colonists in this tank.”

“Anyone ever hear about putting all of one’s eggs in one basket?” Darlene mused. Then she caught herself, as the chief engineer glared at her.

“Ensign – I assemble what they tell me to assemble. I don’t get to choose which level of technology gets used for an application like this.”

“I’m sorry…”

“Don’t be. Anyway, this is the heaviest, most overbuilt section of the cargo bay – right off the hangar. So this hybe tank is protected by the strongest part of the cargo bay’s frame.”

“And I suppose it’s easier than trying to bring aboard five thousand stasis tubes,” Darlene said. “More compact.”

“And cheaper.” He nodded to a white container being slid into the other side of the cargo bay. “That’s livestock. You’d think they were more valuable than the colonists – the cows travel in stasis chambers.”

“I’m sure they are valuable,” Darlene said. “But it’s just as likely that Fleet doesn’t want to deal with drowning live cows in hybe fluid. I imagine they’d be a little fussy about that. And it’s hard to explain things to a cow.”

The chief engineer laughed. “Mister Charles – you do have a point there.”

“I thought we didn’t have a Marine detachment aboard,” Darlene said at breakfast.

“We don’t,” Rich said.

“Then I wouldn’t go to the overlook and take a peek down into the hangar,” Darlene said to the second officer. “There’s a Marine unit with full armored space suits and all their gear.”

“We transport Marines though,” Rich said. “That’s a colonial deployment unit.”

“Oh, I see. They’ll go into the hybe tank with the colonists?”

“No – some stasis tubes are being installed in a forward section of the cargo bay.”

In the cargo bay? Do you mean we treat them like cargo?”

“In a manner of speaking – yes. Besides, there aren’t a lot of other places to put them.”

“I suppose,” Darlene said. “And like livestock, there’s no point in feeding them on the way out.”

“Nope. Put them on ice or gray them out – hybe or stasis.”

“Hi, I’m the ship’s third officer, Ensign Darlene Charles,” she said with a welcoming hand.

“Lt. Colonel Maxwell, ensign,” the Marine officer said as they shook hands. “693rd Colonial Deployment Force, 1203rd Detachment. At your service.”

Darlene broke into a big smile. “Do I detect a proper South Carolina accent, colonel?”

“Indeed it is, ma’am,” Maxwell said, touching the brim of his cap. “So how can I help you?”

“This is my first colony run. I wanted to find out how the Marines figure into all this – understand what your capabilities are.”

“You’re new, aren’t you?”

“Yessir. Don’t be fooled by these third officer badges.”

“I wasn’t,” Maxwell smiled. “Ma’am, let me introduce you to Lt. Mays. Robbie!”

Second Lieutenant Robert Mays was tall blond and handsome, his dashing good looks somewhat distorted by wearing his oversized powered armor without a helmet. “And you’re Ensign Darlene Charles.”

“That’s right,” Darlene said, a bit confused. “How…”

“But you’ve forgotten that I know who you are.”

“You do?”

“I roomed with Marine Cadet Wilkinson at the Academy. You may recall he escorted you to the Solstice Ball.”

“I recall Mister Wilkinson and I definitely recall a memorable evening at the Ball. But I’m afraid I don’t remember you.”

“Uh-huh. Blinded by Curt’s natural beauty, I’m sure.”

Darlene hoped she’d have an easy duty before dinner. But forty-five minutes later she heard a commotion and saw a Marine blocking a middle-aged stocky woman, who was not in line, from boarding.

“Step aside, young man,” the woman said, raising her voice to make sure everyone in the hangar bay heard. “I have business on this ship.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I have my orders.”

“We’ll see about that.” The woman peered around and spotted Darlene. “You there – come here!”

Darlene was already on her way, so tried not to let it rankle if this woman wanted to make it seem as though she were in charge here. “How may I assist you, ma’am?”

I am Councilor Mary Elisabeth Wallace.”

Checking her databoard, Darlene found no mention of Councilor Wallace. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. I don’t have any orders regarding you. Do you have any paperwork?”

Councilor Wallace seemed insulted. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“Yes, ma’am. You are Councilor Mary Elisabeth Wallace.”

“Are you being flippant with me, young lady?”

“No, ma’am. I know who you are and I’ve verified that you are indeed a member of the Inter Stellar Council, a fact which you failed to mention by the way. That’s all the information I have on you and I still do not have any clearance for you to board this ship.”

“Miss Charles – the Inter Stellar Council owns the Star Fleet.

“I very much doubt that, ma’am.”

“It means I own you.”

“See, that’s the thing about Fleet, ma’am, which most people don’t understand. There are multiple national and planetary interests, but not one of them is sole owner. Nobody owns it – and everyone does.”

“You aren’t really so naïve you believe such things, are you, dearie?” the woman asked.

“You aren’t likely to be so naïve to believe that you wouldn’t be here unless the Unified Star Fleet invited you aboard the Evensong. Ma’am.” Darlene forced herself to add a pleasant smile.

“Well!” the woman exclaimed. “I want to talk to your superiors.”

“That is your right, ma’am.” Darlene pulled a secure handset from the podium, touching the comm button for the bridge. “Officer of the Deck – this is Third Officer Charles at the check-in podium. I request the presence of the captain and executive officer for an Inter Stellar Council matter.”

“Acknowledged, Mister Charles.”

Darlene knew that having all three of them here on an active hangar would violate officer safekeeping rules, but expected only one of her superiors to show. Frankly, she assumed it would be Nancy who’d come – she wasn’t expecting the captain.

“Councilor Wallace, I’m Captain Angela Dessin. This is my boat you’re standing on,” the captain said smiling. “And I don’t quite appreciate it when someone of your standing comes onto my boat and starts trying to push people around. It is unbecoming and unprofessional.

“Now, we’ve both had our little bluster – and it hasn’t done either one of us any good. How about we go to my in-port office and have a cup of coffee, and in the quiet calm of reason you can tell me what you’re really here for and I’ll see if I can’t accommodate you, Councilor Wallace.”

Angela’s shift in tone was extraordinarily effective. Darlene couldn’t believe the aggressive stance at first, but now she knew how this woman had come to earn the trust of Fleet Command.

Loading the colonists took two days, even with an orderly procedure set up. Darlene had traveled in hybe several times on her journey out here, but she was military and it was expected. She had to admire the calmness amongst the civilians. It wouldn’t be easy to ride the lift to the top of a huge tank filled with trays of dead looking people. Five thousand was a lot of people to cram into one liquid filled tank, with children, too.

By the time the last sleeping colonist got wet and was submerged in the cold blue fluid, the rest of the cargo bay was finally filled. Only the Marines who’d helped out with the hybernation sequence were left to load and they had to file back to their temporary stasis compartment and one-by-one, disappear behind the gray veil of their own stasis tubes. Then panel by panel the massive armored doors sealed off the cargo bay, leaving the hangar bay just a hangar.

The captain and first officer moved quickly through the inspection hallways of the cargo bay. After the captain signed off on the work, the first officer linked to the All Hands. “Gentlemen – a fine effort securing our cargo and passengers. Departure is set for 0800 hours tomorrow. That is all.”

“Did you take care of Councilor Blowhard?” Angela asked Darlene. “I notice she’s not been darkening my world lately.”

“Yessir,” Darlene answered with as straight a face as she could muster. “Councilor Wallace observed the final operations and we reserved the last tray position for her.”

“Didn’t object too much to going in with the colonists?”

“No sir. Apparently you’d already pointed out that we were just a cargo ship and didn’t have suitable facilities for her comfort. I assured her she’d be the first to be revived and we’d make sure she was clean, dry and dressed before the colonial manager or any of his staff were awake.”

“Good thinking,” Angela said. “Though it’d be good for the old cow to have to stand cold and naked before five thousand colonists and knock a few centimeters off that chip on her shoulder. But… you didn’t hear me say that, ensign.”

“Excuse me, captain. What were you saying?”

“Good girl,” Angela smiled. “Carry on, Mister Charles.”

A conspiracy of silence between the captain and third officer – Darlene could’ve floated away even in the artificial gravity.

“Oh and your presence is required on the bridge at 0800 hours for departure. Now that we’re loaded, it’s time we went back to being a cargo ship and about time you started earning your paycheck. Bring a spacesuit – you’ll be the designated safety officer.”

“All ahead one-quarter.”

Darlene Charles felt a slight shifting in the bridge deck plates under her feet. “Did anyone just feel that?” she asked as casually as she could.

“Engines came up, ensign,” the captain said. “The keel shifted – that’s all.”

No one seemed concerned with the motion. All the lore she’d heard at the Academy on Mars said that you never felt any motion on a starship when it was underway due to the acceleration dampeners. But this ship flexed and moved. And this was still part of the innovative new design?

She had no duty at the moment other than to observe bridge procedures, so Darlene took a seat by the control mounts. Both were occupied – Quartermaster Capri on the left and Spaceman Azi Leland on the right.

Rrrrr-ik!

Darlene looked startled. “What in the Sam Hell was that?” she asked in a louder voice.

“Bridge isolation box flex joint, sir,” Juliette said. “The hull is cold soaking as we move away from the sun. You’ll get used to it.”

“I’ve never heard of that happening on a starship before.”

“There are always expansion joints on starships.”

“I know that,” Darlene said with some irritability. “What I said was that I’ve never heard of them making such a sound.”

“Thus speaks the expert on star travel,” Azi remarked.

“What was that?” Darlene demanded of the Sirius Girl.

“Nothing, sir.”

The first officer wandered over. “Mister Charles – this ship has a very thin profile and an open interior design. It’s designed to flex a lot more than most starships, especially your heavier warships. Perfectly all right.”

“If you say so,” Darlene said. But even though everyone seemed to be singing the same song, she didn’t sound convinced.

“Nancy says you’re skeptical of our little flexible starship,” Marilyn said. “So we’re going to take you ‘tween decks for a little maintenance job. Call it part of your education.”

“Yes, master chief.”

They donned clean hooded jumpsuits and disappeared through a hatch between decks.

“Where are we exactly, master chief?” Lying on her back in a narrow crawlspace, Darlene was staring at several massive sets of springs and shock absorbers.

“We’re underneath the bridge box,” Marilyn said. “And since you’ve complained about the noise, you get to relubricate the joints.”

“So all the strange noises I keep hearing are just maintenance issues. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“You learn fast,” Marilyn said. “But you still get to do the dirty work this time.”

“Of course.”

“Mister Charles, sir, what’s going on?”

“I’m just putting together a light supper, Mandelini,” Darlene said, clean and famished after spending several hours sliding around under the bridge.

“You’re not supposed to be cooking in here.”

“Who’s cooking? There was a lovely tomato minestrone soup leftover from dinner and I’m having that with a grilled cheese sandwich. Well, actually three grilled cheese sandwiches – but who’s counting? Do you want one?”

“Sure,” Vincent said.

Darlene began to assemble a fourth sandwich on the griddle. Shaking his head, he poured two bowls of soup. When the sandwiches were done, Darlene slid one onto a plate and handed it to the Spec 2 Cook. The rest went onto her own plate.

Seated at the wardroom table, Vincent watched in fascination as the young woman ate. “Mister Charles – don’t take this the wrong way, but just how many calories do you consume a day?”

“Oh, don’t mind me. It’s my metabolism. I’m a bottomless pit.”

“It’s not a problem, except our food reserves are whatever we are carrying. I’m supposed to be feeding twenty-two aboard – if you eat like this all the time…”

“Oh yes.”

“… then I’m serving one or two extra folks I didn’t know about.”

“It’s not a problem. The supplies are fine.”

“Sir, with all due respect, our emergency reserves are carefully calculated.”

“Nonsense,” Darlene said. “If we were to have a catastrophic emergency out in deep space, we could easily lose half the crew or half the food supply. Either way, that would be a crisis. Reserves are estimates and you know that. Besides, if I were a 150-kg ex-linebacker and ate three grilled cheese sandwiches at a time, you’d think nothing of it.” She took another bite of sandwich. “And a 150-kg ex-linebacker is already figured in your food supplies and emergency reserves. So consider that ex-linebacker billet filled, Mandelini, and don’t you dare give me any more grief about it.”

Darlene didn’t bother to mention she was pretty sure Basic Spaceman Brian Todd also qualified as a 150-kg ex-linebacker, which meant there were two new big eaters in the crew.

They’d boosted to near the speed of light in two weeks and made the leap into jumpspace. On the second leg of their four-jump route to the new colony, they had to refuel. Dropping back to normal space, the maneuver involved scooping hydrogen from a star at relativistic speeds. A common procedure, it still sounded insane every time Darlene had to think about it.

“I think I should’ve practiced in this suit more,” Darlene said. “I feel very awkward.”

“You’re here as emergency backup,” the captain said. “Which means you get to seal up. Sit over there and observe the refueling operation.”

“Watch and learn. Yessir.”

Darlene sealed and locked her helmet, then the gloves. A slight hiss told her the air supply had come on and the indicators showed all was operating correctly.

It was difficult to watch either the forward screens or the trajectory charts – the Evensong would be just grazing this star, but it looked to be certain death.

“Hyper-radar scanning,” the captain ordered. “I don’t want to run into anything we weren’t planning on running into.”

Even with her suit on, Darlene could feel and hear the groan as the ship again flexed due to the stresses. Everything she’d been taught told her this wasn’t right. She swallowed hard, steeling herself to let it ride. To act normally.

“Contact in three… two… one…”

Without warning she felt herself slide forward and down. Despite running into the limits of her seat restraints, she still ran into the console in front of her, or at least the chest pack of her spacesuit did. And after tilting, the bridge fell again and abruptly stopped. Something banged into Darlene’s helmet as all the lights went out. Then more things.

“Stop it!” Darlene shouted, bringing her arms up to protect her helmet. “Stop it! End run!”

The bridge had… fallen?

In the sudden dim, mainly lit by red warning telltales, Darlene did the first thing she could think of. “Engineering – emergency transfer of control. The bridge is down!

Emergency lighting came on, casting eerie shadows not usually seen on the bridge. An awful lot of the overhead equipment panels had come loose, scattering forward.

“Bridge – this is Engineering. Control is transferred. What’s going on up there? I’ve got numerous faults on my board for bridge systems. Bridge… acknowledge.”

“Third Officer Charles here,” Darlene said. “Did we hit something?”

“Negative. What’s your status there? We’re getting no environmental readouts.”

Darlene glanced at the wrist telltales on her spacesuit. “Negative on any atmospheric leak. Air is clean and breathable. No toxics, no particulates, no smoke. Emergency lighting just came on.”

“This is the first officer – sound off on the bridge. Captain.”

Relieved to hear from Nancy, Darlene unstrapped herself and clambered over the console. The captain’s chair was gone – ripped from its support. “Captain is down, commander. I’m making my way to the front of the compartment.”

“Third officer has reported,” Nancy went calmly on. “Quartermaster.”

“Quartermaster is very seriously injured,” Darlene said, picking her way down the steep incline. “She’s not moving. I think she may be dead.”

“Chief of the Boat.”

“Master Chief Grimsley reporting,” Marilyn said slowly from the far side of the bridge. “I’m okay – shaken – and trapped in some debris. The goddamned overhead equipment boxes all broke their restraining straps. We have fallen shit all over the place. Emergency teams requested.”

“Acknowledged. They’re on the way,” Nancy said. “Spaceman Leland.”

There was silence.

“She’s definitely dead,” Darlene said, now that she could see. “One of those loose equipment boxes… decapitation.”

“Steady now, Charles…”

“Yessir. Uh, did we get the fuel secured, sir?”

Nancy’s voice softened, almost a hint of a chuckle. “Spoken like a true spacer, ensign. Yes – the fuel load is confirmed and secured.”

Continuing her descent, Darlene made it to the front – the bottom – of the bridge. Her boot splashed into a pool of something, as she found Captain Dessin.

“How bad are we?” the captain asked, wincing as she looked up. “Did we hit something?”

“We’re flooding. There’s no evidence we ran into anything hard. Don’t move, Captain, I think your leg is broken at the very least. Engineering, I need that medical and rescue team ASAP.”

“They’ve arrived,” Nancy reported. “Ensign, can you go and open the bridge hatch for the rescue teams?”

Darlene looked up the sloping deck. Of course, the bridge hatch locks from the inside.

Before she could reply, Marilyn broke in. “I’ve got it – I’m closer.”

“Flooding?” The chief engineer, who’d been monitoring the conversation, wasn’t convinced. “All water lines in and out of the bridge are double-guillotine closure valves – you can’t be flooding.”

“It’s not water, it’s blue… somewhat viscous,” Darlene said, the horror creeping slightly into her voice. “Engineering, we’ve fallen into the hybe tank. Someone needs to get into the cargo bay right away.”

No wonder there’d been a tri-axis center junction sensor in the cargo bay and not here. The bridge, the most protected box on the ship, lay over the cargo bay, off-axis. And right over the five thousand colonists in hybernation.

“The second officer was in the hangar and cargo bays during our maneuvering,” Nancy said.

“Lt. McMurray,” Darlene said. “I need a situation report on the hybe tank.”

When she didn’t get an answer, Darlene repeated her call.

“Bosun!” Nancy called out. “Are you in contact with the second officer?”

“Negative, sir. Cannot reach the second officer,” the bosun reported.

“Where was he last?” Angela asked.

“Last report had him in the hangar bay – full suit.”

“If he was there, then he might’ve been inspecting the cargo bay, too, checking on the hybe tank. Send someone down there.”

“Vincent! Hybe tank area – be careful. A lot of the systems are not responding to the automatic net queries. Based on the bridge, there’s gotta be a lot of damage down there.”

“Acknowledged. Reporting to hybe tank.”

When Pharmacist’s Mate Womat came down into the bridge dangling from a safety line, Darlene could finally breathe.

“Thank God you’re here.”

“I’ve got it, sir. You did a great job of first aid here.”

“I need you down in the hybe tank,” Nancy said to Darlene. “You helped with the immersion of the colonists and our limited med capability is needed for the captain. I don’t want to lose any of the colonists, but they can’t run a starship.”

“Yessir,” Darlene said.

“Belay that,” Marilyn said. “Ensign, you’ve got quite a dent on your helmet. Have Womat check you out.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re fine when the pharmacist’s mate says you’re fine.”

Reluctantly removing her helmet, Darlene waited until Luanne came over and scanned her for signs of trauma. “You’re clear.”

Darlene took one last look at the captain getting treated and the master chief giving her a weak wave of dismissal. And then she climbed out of the tilted bridge.

Meanwhile the first officer was moving on to other issues. “We’re burning real time at a rate of 13-to-1 and I don’t know how well our space systems are performing. Chief Engineer, are we ready to jump?”

“Near as I can tell.”

“Prepare to jump.”

Darlene broke in. “Wait one! Mister Camp – do you have your own center junction sensor in Engineering?”

“Yes, but it’s only two-axis. I was going to use the remote to the three-axis.”

“The unit in the cargo bay may’ve shifted. I wouldn’t trust its alignment – and God knows it’s critical.”

“Good thinking, ensign. We’re on it.”

When Darlene finally made it down to the mess in the cargo bay, she was appalled by the carnage. Though the bulk of the walls of the mass hybe tank held, whole sections of the upper meter and a half were cracked, shattered and leaking. Ceiling panels were scattered everywhere along with thousands of liters of hybe fluid. The exposed shock mounted box which held the bridge compartment had crushed part of at least two rows of hybe trays. They wouldn’t know until they got in there. Injured and dead colonists both lay still like discarded dolls. Other than a disturbing creaking from the damaged and overloaded supports, it was eerily quiet.

Worse was the chunk of structural frame which had fallen on Lt. McMurray. The second officer was unquestionably dead – no one had yet made a move to extract his corpse. There were too many living to deal with. And some colonists, otherwise uninjured, were no longer submerged in the refrigerated blue liquid and required immediate attention.

“We’re too short of people down here,” Darlene reported. “We need to break the Marines out of stasis. They’re supposed to be trained in emergency hybe tank work.”

“How do you know that?”

“I talked with Lt. Colonel Maxwell the morning they came aboard.”

“Helluva time for the first officer to find out about that,” Nancy said. “Call out the Marines. We need them anyway.”

While the Marines were taking trays and either letting them fall to the bottom of the hybe tank, or pulling them out to have them spread on the hangar bay floor, Darlene watched a hastily assembled damage control team begin to jack the bridge up. It wasn’t going well.

“We need to relieve the strain off those hybe tank panels,” Darlene said. “But I’m not sure those remaining bridge supports will hold. That ceiling rail could collapse.”

“It’s going to take some time,” the cargo officer said.

“Why?”

“The lifts are trying to raise 22 tonnes of bridge.”

“Why are we working so hard? The bridge fell because it had full-Earth weight and wasn’t supported properly. If we’d just turn off the artificial gravity…”

“We can’t – the hybe tank is open to the air.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that.”

“However, we can ramp the gravity down.”

Nancy cut in. “Engineering, I think we need to keep the stress even. Lower the artificial gravity to twenty percent Earth-normal shipwide.”

“Aye-aye, commander. Gravity coming down – now.”

A warning klaxon sounded and the overhead speakers came on. “AG Field reduction. All-Hands, standby during gravity field reduction.”

The weight of Darlene’s M400C spacesuit suddenly dropped on her shoulder suspension pads.

“All-Hands, Low Gravity Alert. Be alert for sudden shifts. Avoid sudden moves. That is all.”

With the gravity reduced, the job suddenly became much easier. Lift pillars rose up one section at a time until the jacks made contact with the bridge isolation box. Immediately the low grade leaks from the tank stopped as the strain was taken off the hybe tank walls. As Darlene came around the corner, she found the chief of the boat giving instructions.

“We’re running new supports across those beams. I need a bead weld along those beams, ensign,” Marilyn said. The master chief was bruised but not seriously injured. Some of the blood on her uniform wasn’t hers. “I haven’t checked you out as a welder – so I hope you’re good. But you’re already been in those spaces.”

“Not in a spacesuit.”

“Ditch the suit. The hull doesn’t appear to be compromised.”

Surrounded by chaos, dangling by a safety line from a beam whose solidity Darlene wasn’t certain of, she soon began to weld. When the master chief came back, she admired Darlene’s efforts.

“Your daddy taught you good work.”

“Why thank you.”

“Unfortunately, you’ve only made and finished two welds here. I don’t need clean and polished. I need thirty linear meters of welding from you as fast as possible. Now put heat to welding rod and go to town.”

A little crestfallen, Darlene looked at her neat welds and then the length of the beams. “Yes, master chief.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes. Absolutely. But I was wondering what happened?”

“I don’t know, Darlene,” Marilyn said quietly. “It’s got to be a design flaw and a big one. Sonofabitch, but we can’t worry about that right now. Some of these poor people in that tank are dead and dying and they’ll never know about it.”

When Darlene came back out of the crawlspace, the marines had blocked off two areas on the hangar deck into shallow pools of blue hybe fluid to store bodies.

“Why is the fluid darker in this tank?” she asked.

Lt. Mays stood up from the deck, blue dripping from the long gloves he wore. “That wading pool is intact colonists,” he said, pointing to the other pool. “This one is the injured and the dead – we’re not quite sure which are which yet. The color is blood and guts. We can’t leave them like this for very long or they’ll all be dead.”

“Can’t they be revived?”

“You guys don’t have the medical facilities.” Mays looked around. “All this gear and we can’t really afford to bring these people out of hybe to treat their injuries. But we can’t keep them in hybe, they’ll die.”

“The cows,” Darlene suddenly said. “We’ve got to get the cows.”

“Ensign?”

“We’ve got cows in stasis – big white containers. There…,” Darlene pointed, “… in Section A13.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“We don’t have enough stasis or medical stasis for these people. At least if we put them in farm stasis they have a non-zero chance.”

“What do we do with the cows?”

“If we don’t have any place to keep them, we’ll have to kill them.”

“Does anyone aboard have any experience slaughtering cattle?”

“Yes,” Darlene said. “Basic Spaceman Todd.”

Into the unreality of the situation on the hangar deck came the protestations of cows, released in pairs from their stasis chambers, upset at the lowered gravity and the unfamiliar noises and smells. With the repeated crump! of a pulse rifle shot, though, that soon stopped.

“What are we going to do with all these cow corpses?” a Marine asked, powering down his rifle.

“Carcasses,” Basic Spaceman Todd said. “Dead cows are carcasses, not corpses.”

“We can’t stow them, we can’t space them – won’t they bloat up?”

“Don’t worry,” Todd said. “Give me two Marines from farms and I’ll take care of them.”

They held an impromptu departmental meeting in the hangar bay at 2100 hours.

“What’s the status of the colonists in the hybe tank?” Nancy asked.

Darlene didn’t even need to consult her datapad. “It’s hard to tell for sure, but we know that there are one-hundred-and-eighty-two casualties from the top tiers.”

“Dead?”

“The Marines have moved out forty-eight definites. We won’t know about the others until revival. We’re going to try to filter as much blood and waste from the hybe fluid as possible, but we can’t just put in chemicals to prevent any organism blooms. And we don’t have the facilities or resources to revive everyone and start over.”

“Damn.”

“How’s Captain Dessin?” Darlene asked.

“Fractured pelvis, collapsed lung. She’s in Sick Bay.”

Darlene and the chief engineer inspected a crawlspace atop the bridge box. Despite some buckled attachments, she couldn’t quite see what had caused the failure.

“I don’t understand,” Herb said. “The design clearly specifies there are safety straps to hold the box in place.”

“This is all torn up in here – how many safety straps are there?”

“There are supposed to be six safety straps holding the bridge in place.”

“Well you don’t have six now,” Darlene said. “I can’t see any at all on this end.”

“They snapped?”

“Yes,” she said, then slid into a smaller crevice. “No – this broken end is worn down, not frayed.”

“That’s not possible.”

“This is the Galen Roads all over again,” Darlene sighed.

Herb turned off his spotlight. “How so?”

Darlene shrugged. “Everyone said this is a new design for a cargo ship. That this will be utilized on destroyers and cruisers in the next three years. Maybe we’re just pushing the envelope too hard again.”

“This is structural failure,” he said, “due to the flexing. That big open cargo bay is nice for cargo, but it’s a problem. A warship would have closed compartments for both structural and security reasons – totally different inside.”

“But how did this happen? What broke?”

“I’m not sure anything broke,” Herb said. “My guess is that the flexing during the star diving run went too far – and the bridge isolation box pins slid off the front rails. It just fell off the track.”

“That’s crazy!”

“That’s life in the real world. Bet you a steak dinner at our next shore leave that there’ll be a simple fix for this – something the structural engineers should’ve caught in their modeling.”

“There’s no way we can make it to the deployment point,” the X.O. said to Darlene while pacing in her office, arms folded. “We need heavy maintenance and a hybe processing facility capable of saving the rest of the colonists. They won’t have that in place – they’re expecting intact colonial units needing minimal support. Suggestions?”

“Sir?” Darlene was startled. “You’re asking me?”

“Don’t look so surprised,” Nancy said, handing her two small metal badges. “Like it or not, with the death of Lt. McMurray, as second officer you have the most recent navigation experience. Nor do we have a quartermaster. You’re now also our senior navigator, Darlene.”

Quickly absorbing her sudden promotions represented by the Roman numeral II’s in her hand, Darlene glanced at the star charts displayed on the wall screens and tried to concentrate on their navigational situation. “What’s that station there?” she asked, unclipping the III’s from her lapels and changing to II’s. “Ambrose Miller Station? Isn’t that a Class Two maintenance facility? I’m sure I read that in a report somewhere…”

“Ambrose Miller Station it is,” Nancy said, holding out her hand for the Roman numeral III badges. “Let’s see if you learned anything in your Academy navigation courses. Set up a route change at GV-852 and run it by the captain, if she’s available. Then find me and I’ll check it.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” was all Darlene could think to say.

“Oh and do you know any of the Marine officers well enough to recommend a new third officer?”

“Um, you could try Robbie. That would be Lt. Mays, sir.”

“Get him here, ASAP.”

This was the first officer’s show, so Darlene stood quietly off to the side.

“2nd Lieutenant Robert Mays, USFMC, “B” Company, 1203rd Planetary Colonial Detachment. Reporting as ordered.”

“What do you know about running a starship, Mister Mays?” Nancy asked.

“I let the Navy handle that, sir.”

“Well, this Navy ship is short some officers. We need someone who can stand a watch, file paperwork and scream for help if anything untoward happens. Think you’re up for the job?”

Robbie hesitated, but only for a moment. “Sir, a Fleet Marine is ready to go in zero time, for any assignment, as needed.”

“That’s the line they always tell us. And you are needed.”

“Then I’m your man.”

“Congratulations, Lt. Mays – you are now the ship’s third officer. Don’t let it go to your head, I’m just filling in a position in the org chart. Since it was Ensign Charles who recommended you, and she’s now our second officer, I’ll put Darlene in charge of you for the moment.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Nancy smiled. “For what?”

Robbie smiled back. “Nothing, sir. Just happy to serve.”

“Uh-huh. Get out of here, lieutenant.” Nancy shook her head as she smirked at Darlene. “Marines.”

“They are paid to be very enthusiastic,” Darlene said. “And that’s what we need right now.”

When Robbie ran into Darlene later in the day still working the stacks in the hybe tank, she looked down and saw her old third officer badges on his lapel. “Congratulations, lieutenant. We may make an honest naval officer out of you yet.”

“Thank you, ensign. I still think you have a thing for Marines.”

“Well you do wear those snazzy dress uniforms well, don’t you just?” Darlene said, turning up the girlish Southern charm.

“Not right now I don’t,” he said, looking at the blue gel liquid dripping from her insulated suit.

“True. You better gear up. I need you in here to assist me.”

“I thought I was going to be assigned bridge watches.”

“You are – but after lunch. And I can’t get my lunch until I finish here.”

“And so on and so on,” Robbie nodded, looking around for a clean and dry hybe maintenance suit.

The clock display read 0206 hours ShipTime when Darlene made her way through the hangar bay one last time at the end of a very long day. The overhead lights had been dimmed and with the cargo bay doors left open, she could hear the hum of the new recirculation pump for the hybe tank.

But there was also a flickering glow from the far end, coming from behind a figure seated cross-legged on the safety decking. Two Marines on watch were ignoring this person, so it must’ve been approved by someone. Darlene had to go see.

The lone surviving Sirius Girl, Spaceman Uril Mannet, looked up at the ensign – she had six globes flickering in front of her. “Hey.”

“Hey, yourself,” Darlene said. “Mind if I join you?”

Uril shook her head, then patted the deck next to her.

“These are beautiful,” Darlene said after a few minutes of calm silence. “Are they for Azi?”

“Yeah. They’re flameballs – some people call them space candles.”

“Are they really lit?”

Uril nodded. “Perfectly safe. They’re pressurized. If the fuel were to leak out, it’d be very hard to catch fire.”

“Why six?”

This time the girl smiled. “The stages of Life, at least according to the gurus on the Dog Station: bump, birth, child, teen, adult, corpse.”

“That seems rather brutal.”

“Life is brutal. It comes and it goes. Azi was good people.”

“That she was.”

“And I’ll miss her.”

They sat quietly while Darlene paid her respects. But with only a few hours available for sleep, she finally headed for her bunk. There’d been no time to move her things to the second officer’s cabin. So she was surprised to see the stateroom she shared with Kirsten now tagged ACTING SECOND OFFICER / JUNIOR ENGINEER. But the sign wasn’t quite slipped into its slot straight. Pulling it out to reseat the sign, Darlene turned it over and had to smile. The ACTING SECOND OFFICER had been on the flip side of the THIRD OFFICER nameplate all this time. Fleet apparently anticipated many possibilities.

“The bridge is cleared for operation,” Nancy told Darlene. “The repairs have temporarily limited the complete freedom of movement of the isolation box and many of the minor systems, especially overhead control panels, have not been reattached or replaced. But all primary control and navigation functions have been restored.”

“Then we’re back in business, I suppose,” Darlene said.

“As much as we can be,” Nancy agreed.

“Captain! You’re up!” Darlene was surprised to see Angela Dessin in the wardroom.

“Temporary repairs, I assure you,” the captain said. “Bone glue and a support cast for now. But I won’t be standing watch for a while. Womat is a very skilled medic, but we don’t have a doctor.”

“We unfortunately loaded the colony’s two doctors in the top tray of the hybe tank,” Darlene said. “Just in case they were needed. Protocol’s failed us there. Here – don’t get up. Let me serve you.”

“Thanks, Darlene. You’ve done a helluva job on this run, ensign. One helluva job.”

Darlene beamed and tried hard not to blush.

The service for Lt. Glenard “Rich” McMurray, late second officer of the Evensong, was short yet poignant. Darlene had barely known the man, so was assigned the bridge watch. But she had the service on one of the command screens and followed along. Likewise Lt. Mays was on duty and he stopped in to check up on what needed covering.

“I never did find out why Lt. McMurray was called Rich,” Darlene said sadly. “I got the impression there was a story that went with that.”

“What will happen with the other dead?” Robbie asked. “The colonists.”

“The colonial authority will have to sort out if they’re related to any of the survivors. They’ll be shipped to the colony for burial. Otherwise, they go back to the Home System.”

“There should be a ceremony for all who died before they are taken off,” Robbie said with some certainty.

“Oh, there will,” Darlene said. “I heard that from the X.O. At least, there won’t be any of the Everlasting Electric Monuments down on the colony.” They were once very popular in Charleston and Savannah – you could still see the flickering glow from many of the cemeteries at night. “But I checked their inventory.”

“You don’t like them?”

“They’re a bit gaudy, even for the South,” Darlene said. “I like the Sirius flameballs better.”

“We’re coming into port,” the exec said, poking her head into Darlene’s compartment. “Do you want to take her in?”

Darlene took a deep breath. “Sure.”

“It is Friday the Thirteenth, in case that scares you.”

“Is it? I’d forgotten,” Darlene said. “I’d better set you up on the Button.”

“No,” Nancy said with a slight smile. “I think you can handle this all right. Lt. Van Zoeren is next on the duty roster – she’ll handle the emergency response.”

“I take it,” Darlene said, “that I’m off your shit list.”

“I suppose from your point of view you might say that.”

“You make it sound like I never was on your list.”

“Whoever said I kept a list? I’m the executive officer – it’s my job to maintain discipline aboard ship. That includes putting a little fear into the new, the young and the impressionable.”

Darlene wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“You’re due on the bridge to take her in, ensign,” Nancy reminded her. “Dismissed.”

Darlene was just scraping up the last mouthful of breakfast the next time she saw Nancy Kramer.

“It’s 0552 hours, ensign,” the first officer said sternly. “Aren’t you due on the podium at 0600?”

“Yessir,” Darlene said, swallowing her coffee in two gulps.

“You need to be in a spacesuit – and you’re not moving?”

“Two minutes to the hangar bay, five minutes to get suited and I’m there,” Darlene said brightly. “And if you excuse me, sir, I need to be on my way.”

“Carry on, ensign,” Nancy said with a little amusement. But Darlene was already gone.

She was actually logging into the podium station in the open hangar before 0600 hours. At the beginning of a shift, the only people likely to come up the ramp to the Evensong were delivery people and overachievers – something Darlene wryly noted she was familiar with.

She spotted the officer at the station’s barricade even before the podium’s signal light came on. Short, plain faced, Asian eyes, straight black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Standard khaki-gray uniform skirt and jacket, sturdy dress work shoes. A French flag on the sleeve. Darlene noticed these because the woman was burdened with both a space duffel and an M400 white spacesuit sans back and chest packs slung over her back. These items were laid down on the deck at the threshold before the woman saluted the flag and then came forward with her transfer packet.

“Second Officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Nina Jardins reporting to the USFS Evensong for duty,” the woman said, with only a hint of a French accent.

Darlene’s smile didn’t waver a bit, even as reality began to sink in. She was, after all, still an ensign early in her first year in Fleet and only aboard the Evensong a matter of weeks. It would’ve been too much to think she’d get to stay second officer – correction, acting second officer. She should remain third officer by all rights. Wasn’t that enough?

“I can log you as coming aboard, Lt. Jardins,” Darlene said. “However…”

Nina’s eyes widened as she spotted the Roman numeral II’s on Darlene’s lapels – the same emblems she was wearing herself. “I’m sorry, sir…”

“Nothing to apologize for, lieutenant,” Darlene said, skipping through the records which appeared on the podium’s screen. “You have valid orders. I’m just Acting Second Officer. But I cannot log you in as Second Officer Arriving – First Officer Kramer will have to do that. I’ll have a runner escort you in a minute.”

“Thank you, ensign.”

“It’s Darlene,” she smiled. “And may I be the first to say Welcome aboard?”

“Thanks.”

“And a Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“What?” Nina looked confused.

“It’s February fourteenth, Earth Relative Time. Happy Valentine’s Day.” The sound of a cutoff wheel from the cargo bay interrupted them. Workers reinforcing the supports for the bridge were already back at work at this early hour. “Apologies for the mess. We had a structural failure on this mission.”

“I see,” Nina said. “I was trying to figure out why a cargo ship needed a structural engineer aboard. Now I understand.”

Darlene did, too.

“I hope you’re all right with this,” Nancy said as Darlene stood at ease in front of the first officer’s desk.

“Perfectly, sir. Actually I feel a lot better now that Lt. Jardins’ aboard.”

“Even if all your welds are going to be replaced?” Nancy said with a trace of a smile.

“That was an emergency repair, sir. Nothing wrong with my welds.”

“It was a difficult job and you did well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Nina says the repairs will take six weeks. You need to make a schedule for everyone in the crew to take one week of leave – that includes yourself, it does not include the captain or second officer. I have you scheduled for a Dead Man’s Watch, which is a pretty good time to start on this project. You should start with the chief engineer – Herb doesn’t take leave much while aboard ship. Tell him that he gets first choice of dates and that you cannot proceed with the schedule until his slot is filled.”

“Yessir.”

“I don’t suppose I need to remind you that Mister Van Zoeren is not allowed to have the same week as Mister Camp.”

“Quite understandable.” The two woman shared the barest of smiles.

“By the way,” Nancy said, “I was reading the final bridge transcripts from the accident. At one point you were identified as saying,” she paused to pick up a datapad, “Stop it. Stop it. End run. Who were you talking to, ensign?”

Darlene’s cheeks colored slightly. “I’m afraid I was being battered by gear which came loose.”

“End run?”

“It’s what you tell the computers at the Academy to halt a simulation.”

“You understood you weren’t in a simulation situation?”

“I was… having a moment of panic, sir. But I quickly recovered.”

Nancy put the datapad back down. “You’re finally becoming the officer the Academy thought they were sending to the stars, Mister Charles.”

“Why thank you, sir.”

“Now don’t be a pill about it. Anything else?”

“Hmm.” Darlene thought for a moment, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. “So how did Captain Dessin know my first supervisor was himself a Southerner?”

“Because I told her.”

“Then how did you know?”

“The other ensign made a complaint to Fleet JAG – a complaint which upon investigation seemed to prove valid.”

“But I wasn’t called to testify or give a deposition.”

“We thought it best if you weren’t involved. Starting out in a military career is a delicate business – no point in adding to your difficulties.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Captain Dessin has some pull with Fleet Personnel. While they come down and yank some of our experienced people from time to time, we also get to choose the replacements.”

“You choose your replacements?”

“Funny world we live in sometimes, isn’t it?” Nancy said.

“I guess.” She could barely contain the thoughts racing through her head – or the questions which needed answering.

But Nancy had been through this before. “I think that’s more than enough truth for one day, ensign.”

Darlene started to go. “Do you think there’s time for me to get something to eat? I think so much better on a full stomach.”

“Go. You’re dismissed.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Darlene said, saluting. But just before she went through the hatch she turned back. “And thank you.”

Nancy Kramer smiled, but said nothing more.

___
Copyright 2012 Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon teaches Physics at Western Michigan University by day and writes of the great wars of the 29th century and elsewhen at night. In his first half century, he’s lived in the lake effect snow pattern of four of the five Great Lakes, from growing up in Western New York to getting a B.A. in Integrated Sciences (everything) at Northwestern and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Michigan Tech. His stories have been published on three continents on this planet, including “A Man in the Moon” in the 24th Writers of the Future anthology, “The Brother on the Shelf” in Analog, “Hail to the Victors” in Abyss & Apex, two stories translated to Greek, and Down Under, “Machine” and “In The Blink Of An Eye” appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. In April of 2012 his near-term SF story “The New Tenant” will appear in the U.K. anthology Rocket Science. Dr. Phil’s website is www.dr-phil-physics.com.

by Alex Jeffers

The second week, Emma discovered a tattoo parlor down an alley off the main square. The young man behind the counter took one look at her and said, in careful English, “You are too young for a tattoo.”

“I don’t want a tattoo. I don’t think I do. My brother does.”

The guy (his name sounded like Raf) asked how old Theo was—seventeen—and suggested she bring him in. Raf looked only a few years older than Theo. Emma liked the little blue-black glyph inked on the concave bone of his left temple between hairline and eyebrow. She thought it was meant to evoke a bird’s wing. But then Raf turned to change the CD and the tattoos on his shoulder and back, what wasn’t covered by his wifebeater, disappointed her. Koi fish, lotus blossoms, a whiskered Asian dragon—boring. As cliché as the horned skulls and flames and roses Theo dreamed about.

But when Raf returned his attention to her Emma decided he was good looking so she asked how he’d known to speak English. “You speak it very well,” she added. She wanted a moment to contemplate the image that had just come to her of Raf kissing her big brother, caressing Theo’s shoulder and arm. Raf’s long fingers left strokes of color on Theo’s skin, fire-breathing skulls, schools of glistening koi.

“You have the American look,” Raf said.

Emma didn’t believe he meant to sound condescending.

They’d come on vacation, Emma, Theo, Mom, Dad, but it promised to be a dreary sort of vacation because Mom and Dad had responsibilities—for them it was a working vacation. Every morning they took a train to the bigger town thirty kilometers away to do research in the university library, leaving their children to entertain themselves.

Theo wasn’t much entertainment even back home. In a foreign country where he didn’t know the language, he spent hours hunched over his laptop (he had terrible posture). Complaining to friends on Facebook, playing World of Warcraft, piecing together angsty doom-metal loops on GarageBand, which he never seemed to paste together into actual songs. Now and then he took a break to reach for his sketchbook, struck by another vision for the sleeve of tattoos he intended for his left arm as soon as he turned eighteen. If he wasn’t on the internet, he was usually in the home gym at the top of the house.

They’d traded houses with a professional couple, a dentist and a professor, who were abnormally fit for men in their forties: there were photos of them without shirts on all over the house. Theo made fake gross-out noises over the photos but he attacked their exercise machines with fervor and learned the metric system right away so he could keep track. When he didn’t smell of sweat, he smelled of the rank bodyspray TV commercials back home told him would attract girls. Not if they had functioning olfactory organs, Emma often almost told him. Emma thought her older brother might be more interesting if he were gay. Emma thought she’d make a better boy than Theo.

She had the guts to go out with her phrasebook and wander the town. Village—it was barely a town, surrounded by fields and pastures. Her guidebook to the country said the village had once been known for its livestock fair, but now the market ground had become a park and the abattoir municipal offices. She didn’t carry the guidebook with her because the village rated only half a page.

Emma walked through the park, noting the public pool for a future occasion, but she saw a cluster of girls her age who she could tell thought themselves too pretty to get wet. She had exactly as much use for girls like that as they would for her.

Walking the towpath beside the canal east of town, she imagined boarding a barge that would carry her upstream to the university or downstream a hundred twenty-five kilometers to the capital and the sea. On the far side of the water, a fence prevented golden-brown cattle from blundering into the deep canal. Approaching the fourteenth-century bridge, she startled a gang of teenage boys. They scuttled down the bank into the water. She saw several white butts before brown water hid them, before she noticed heaps of clothing by the towpath. Crouching in the shallows, the boys glowered up at her, and she wondered whether she found the notion of skinnydipping with a bunch of girlfriends appealing.

Not really. She couldn’t imagine any of the girls she knew being up for it. She wasn’t certain she would be. Public nudity was different for boys, she thought, though she still couldn’t imagine any of the boys she knew, American boys, willingly hanging out bareass with other bareass boys (certainly never Theo). But the image was oddly attractive. If she’d known these boys she might have gathered up their clothes and run off with them.

She didn’t know anybody in town yet. Raf at the tattoo shop wasn’t the only person to speak to her in English but he was the only one who knew right off his native language wouldn’t serve.

Walking on, leaving the boys to their fun, she recalled the dream she used to have of waking one morning to find herself a boy. Emma had read about gender dysphoria—she knew she didn’t suffer that. She had never felt any conviction that really she was a boy trapped in the wrong body, but if she played World of Warcraft she would choose a male avatar. All the best adventure stories, the heroes were boys who got to slay dragons or be apprenticed to wizards, embark on voyages of discovery or quests to rescue magical talismans (or tiresome princesses). Girls were tiresome, generally, the ones she knew. Although it was entirely likely, if she could penetrate the secret world of boys, incognita, she’d find they were also tiresome, consumed by trivial concerns she wouldn’t even comprehend because she lacked the context.

Theo was tiresome in just about every way but she had to admit he was pretty to look at when he forgot to look sullen. It was easy to place her brother’s face on the untried heroes of fantasy adventure novels, to populate the sweet fumblings of slash fanfic with Theo’s lithe body.

It would revolt him utterly to know that about her, the uses her imagination put him to.

Besides, Raf at the tattoo parlor was prettier, really, though she didn’t usually find blonds appealing. He didn’t give her that look, that startled, hungry, boy look, as if he’d just noticed you weren’t hideous and were a girl, so she thought probably he was gay.

The second time she visited the tattoo shop, she asked Raf if he’d like a soda or coffee from the café on the square. “You didn’t bring your brother,” he said.

Emma was used to boys being disappointed. She hadn’t even told Theo about Raf and the shop. “He’s afraid—” she thought he was—“to get inked while he still lives at home. Mom and Dad might get angry.”

“It’s not their affair, surely, what he does to his own body.”

Emma saw the hole. “Then it shouldn’t be anybody’s affair if I wanted a tattoo. I’m only two years younger than Theo.”

“But you don’t want one.” Cheery, Raf grinned. “I don’t even know why you’re here.”

“To talk to somebody friendly. To fetch you a cup of coffee or a Coca-Cola from the café.”

Raf went wide eyed in a charming, fake way. He glanced around the empty shop. The stop-start buzzing of an electric needle came from somewhere in back, behind the life-sized ventral and dorsal photos of a Japanese man vividly inked over every square centimeter of skin below the neck. “As you can see,” Raf said, “I have no customers presently clamoring for my artistry. I will walk with you to the café.”

When he turned to call in his own language to the invisible co-worker, Emma saw his ventral tattoos weren’t what she remembered. Glossy black spikes and blades pierced his pale skin and showed through the thin fabric of his shirt, looking like the crazy weapons of Star Trek Klingons, clashing. Tribal, she thought the aesthetic was called, just as clichéd as the dragon and fishes she must have imagined. She was relieved, when he came around the counter, that the wing glyph at his temple hadn’t changed, and startled by how short he was. The floor behind the counter must be raised. Theo would be a full head taller.

“Shall we?” Raf asked. “We’ll bring our treats back here, if you don’t mind. Better for Hender not to be interrupted.”

He walked beside her, asking how she and her brother came to be visiting this tiny, unimportant town. He knew the professor and the dentist—the dentist was his dentist, he’d done some of the professor’s ink. Emma found herself telling him more than she meant to, if she’d meant to tell him anything, on the short walk to the square. He was easy to talk to, dropping all the right hints to lead her on. Theo interested him but that was to be expected: Theo might be persuaded to drop a couple hundred euro on ink. If Raf was gay, he might find Theo attractive. Theo was attractive. Once again, the two boys were making out in the back of Emma’s mind, beautiful, almost innocent, so she was surprised when Raf opened the café door for her. Going in, she noticed a porcelainized plaque fixed to the wall beside the door, Delft-blue letters spelling words she couldn’t read.

Inside, it was noisy and cheerful, smelled of coffee, warm milk—spices and baking bread, hot sugar, mustard, salted meats. The odors were comforting, though Emma imagined they could also be nauseating as she realized she’d forgotten lunch. “Are you hungry?” she asked Raf.

“Are you?”

“Famished. I only noticed now.”

He smiled in a way she liked for a moment, then didn’t like so much as he walked right to the counter and spoke to the man behind it too fast for Emma to have any chance of understanding. She stepped up beside him. He was barely taller than she, still smiling, but the fellow behind the counter was taller than Theo and quite nice looking. “Perhaps ten minutes,” Raf said.

“I’m paying.”

“Not this time. You may dislike what I chose for you.”

“What?”

“A traditional hot sandwich and our traditional way of serving coffee. Hot milk and a taste of bitter chocolate.”

Coffee Guy (so she christened him) blinked, encouraging.

“Yummy.” Emma held out the ten-euro note in such a way Coffee Guy would have to fold it back into her hand or take it. Raf made falsely remonstrative noises but Coffee Guy took the bill with a smile.

Moving aside, Emma asked, “What does the sign by the door say?”

“Hmm?” Raf was still pretending pique. “It notes that this is an historic building, dating to the early sixteenth century, and that it was built over the site of the witch’s house. Excuse me.” Returning to Coffee Guy, he accepted a white paper bag and a cardboard caddy carrying three tall paper cups with plastic sippy lids.

“Witch’s house?”

Raf was leading her back to the door. Outside, he indicated two words on the plaque that Emma could now interpret—the languages were not so distantly related. “Another tradition,” Raf said, “older than the coffee or the sandwich.” He seemed in a hurry, brisk and brusque.

As he strode away and Emma hesitated, puzzled, it appeared to her the inky spikes and blades and flourishes on his back were writhing, contorting, blushing with blots of clear color, but when she blinked and looked again, hurrying after him, they had resolved into intricate flowers tangled in wreaths and garlands on his shoulder and upper arm. Scarlet poppies, indigo cornflowers, peonies, Japanese chrysanthemums—she didn’t recognize half of them.

“I become anxious about Hender,” Raf said when she caught up. “I’m sorry. He is not always good with people.”

“Your tattoos—”

“Yes? I like the flowers better as well.”

From across the street, through the plate-glass window of the shop Emma saw a customer waiting, back turned, peering at the display of photocopied flash as if each sheet were a painting on a museum’s wall. “An American,” said Raf.

“How can you tell?”

“I can tell. Perhaps your brother.”

“Theo has long hair. Halfway down his back.” She didn’t have to see him close up to see the American customer had barely the shadow of stubble on his skull.

Raf leapt the step to the door, pushed it open, and said in ringing English as the bell tinkled, “I’m sorry there was no-one here to welcome you.”

“He said you’d be right back, the other—” Turning from the wall of skulls and dragons, magickal symbols and WWII pinups, Theo froze when he saw his sister behind Raf. “Emma?”

“What happened to your hair?”

Triumphant, Raf grinned.

“What are you doing here? You’re too young for ink.”

Startled into petulance, Emma blurted, “So are you!”

“My friend Emma bought me coffee,” Raf said equably, placing cup caddy and sandwich bag on the counter. “That is why I wasn’t here to greet you. Let me just give Hender his and then we can discuss your plans and wishes.”

When he took one of the paper cups behind the curtain, Emma asked Theo again, “What happened to your hair?” It had been beautiful hair, wavy and lustrous—much prettier than hers.

“His friend?” Self conscious, Theo shifted his sketchpad from one hand to the other, then back. “Since when?”

First surprise passed, Emma imagined Theo was maybe even handsomer without all that hair distracting from the fineness of his features, the shocking paleness of his eyes. A queasy-making thought to have about her brother when he stood in front of her big as life, so she turned away. Incomprehensible voices sounded behind Hender’s curtain, three of them (she hadn’t seen Hender yet), and the thrumming of his needle. “How’d you find the place?”

“Google,” Theo said, but not as if she was stupid.

Distracted by annoyance, Emma didn’t often remember how shy he was. She took her cup from the counter and sipped through the vent in the plastic lid. The coffee wasn’t very sweet, not like cocoa—she tasted milk and coffee more than chocolate. “Why?”

“You know I want them.”

“Why now?”

When she looked over her shoulder, Theo was sitting on the bench below the display of flash. Staring at his clasped hands, he looked miserable. For an instant she felt sorry for him. “Why now?” she asked again.

“Simon got one. Bragging about it on Facebook.”

Simon and Theo were barely friends, back home. Simon had a guitar and people to jam with, not just GarageBand on his laptop. They were World of Warcraft rivals, though Emma didn’t really understand how that worked.

Your friend got one isn’t a good excuse for a tattoo,” Raf said, pushing through the curtain. He went straight for his coffee. “It’s a permanent alteration to your body—” Emma wondered about his, Raf’s, though—“you need to really want it.”

Theo raised his head. “I do!” His face was tragic.

“What did Simon get?” asked Emma, mildly curious.

“Line of kanji down his spine. Really hurt, he said.”

Emma snorted. “Bragged, you mean.”

“Close to the bone hurts more,” Raf said in the tone of a master craftsman imparting lessons to his apprentice. “I do not recommend it for your first experience. I won’t do kanji, either, by the way. It’s not my language—I don’t like to trust the published interpretations or the designs themselves. They’re often inaccurate.”

“Simon’s probably says happiness puppies,” Emma said, uncomfortably sympathetic, “instead of what he wanted.”

Theo looked down at his hands again. “Fight fierce, fight strong,” he mumbled.

“That’s possibly stupider than happiness puppies.”

“Your sandwich, Emma.” Somehow Raf had got it out of the bag and wrappings without her noticing, arranged nicely in little wedges on a pretty plate.

Emma’s hunger asserted itself. Ravenous, she stuffed a wedge into her mouth. It was still hot. Crunchy and buttery toasted bread enfolded molten cheese and shavings of something like prosciutto. Feeling guilty after bolting two, she looked up to offer a taste to Raf and Theo.

They sat side by side on the bench, knees nearly touching, Theo’s sketchbook between them. “Any of these might be executed to fine effect,” Raf said, flipping through the pages again. “But you can’t decide, am I correct?”

Emma edged closer. The uppermost page showed a disembodied arm (thicker, brawnier than Theo’s) encrusted with patterned lozenges like Turkish tiles, but Raf flipped it and the next arm was decorated with a menagerie of vivid zoo animals.

“I keep changing my mind,” Theo admitted, his voice mournful.

“Then I’m sorry to say you are not ready.”

Theo lifted his eyes, stared into Raf’s for a long moment. He looked ready to cry before he moved his gaze to Raf’s upper arm and shoulder. “Yours are…” he began.

Beautiful, Emma thought he meant to say, but beauty wasn’t a quality Theo could ascribe to another man. They were beautiful, Raf’s garlands of inked flowers. Theo raised one hand as if to caress them, another gesture halted as he abruptly rose to his feet. The sketchbook clattered to the floor. Raf looked up mildly.

“You’re right.” Theo crouched to retrieve his drawings. “I need to decide what I really want.” Without another word, he bolted out of the shop. The bell over the door tinkled gaily. Emma sat beside Raf and they shared the rest of her sandwich, except one sliver saved for Hender.

After the first bitter bite, Emma didn’t mind the needle chewing at her skin. She’d had to assume an awkward position on the settee to give Raf access to the fleshy inner surface of her upper arm, and the moment of removing her shirt had been disorienting. She’d never done it for a boy who wasn’t interested in what was inside her bra.

She had determined Raf wasn’t. He was interested in what was in her brother’s undershorts, but not in any urgent way—when Emma confessed her fantasy of Raf and Theo necking, Raf just laughed, delighted, and wondered aloud why it was so many women loved those images. When she decided, quite abruptly, she did want a tattoo, just a small one in an inconspicuous place, he wasn’t difficult to argue around after she told him what she wanted. He sketched the symbol for her, fast and decisive in colored inks, and Emma became even more determined to have it. He ushered her behind the curtain at the back of the shop. She got only a glimpse into one small room where a man in a white undershirt like Raf’s leaned over the jewelled serpent on the back of another man, before Raf waved her into the second. He gave her a moment to settle herself, ducking into the other room to give Hender his wodge of sandwich.

It didn’t actually take much time for Raf to inscribe the design on Emma’s arm three inches below where she shaved. She liked his hands on her, swabbing the skin with alcohol, then transferring the design, finally going to work, though she wished it was skin to skin uninhibited by his latex gloves. After a while, the rhythm of the stinging needle and regular pauses to wipe off blood and ink relaxed her into a kind of trance that blundered into memory.

Unfamiliar memory. Half-familiar memories. They were old, well worn, blurred around the edges as they bubbled up from among quite different memories she knew to be hers but that faded even as she reached after them. When her little brother Theo was small he couldn’t get his mouth around the four syllables of his big brother’s name. Emma, he called her, and had to be taught that Emma was a girl’s name. Theo’s brother’s name was Emmanuel, which didn’t admit of a convenient shortening like Theo for Theodore. (Theo had been Teddy until he turned ten.) What had their parents been thinking?

She remembered throwing a football for Theo, who was miserable at catching it—she remembered wrestling with him when they were nearer the same size—she remembered helping him with his algebra homework, impatient when he didn’t get it.

She remembered the first boy to kiss her (not the first she wanted to kiss), Steve, a nerdier nerd than her brother, who refused (at first) to suck her cock though he was extremely happy when she went to town on his. How old had she been? Fourteen. Almost nineteen now, lying still under Raf’s calm hands and the sting of his electric needle, she felt her dick plump up a bit in her boxers at the memory, felt her balls shift around.

She remembered the expression Theo got when she told him his big brother was gay. Liked other boys instead of girls. Liked their muscles (some of the boys she liked didn’t possess much muscle), their scratchy beards, their odor. Liked touching them, kissing them, sexing them up.

Theo didn’t so much recoil as subtly withdraw, bending his head so dark hair obscured his transparent eyes. “I’m still your brother,” Emma had said. “Nothing’s changed, except that little bit of dishonesty between us. You want me to be honest with you, right?”

Now Raf set the silent needle aside and swabbed her arm again. The evaporating film of alcohol tingled, its fumes fizzy in her nostrils. Raf stood, stretched, clenching and flexing the fingers of his right hand, and gazed down at her, his expression neutral, thoughtful. She wasn’t the type of boy he was attracted to.

Annoyed, Emma said, “Done?” The depth and richness of her voice distracted and pleased her.

“Yes. Do you wish to see?”

A big mirror hung on the wall but Raf reached for a hand mirror and held it for her. First, momentarily disconcerted, she noticed the aggressive growth of hair in her armpit that thinned only a little where it fanned out to mesh with the hair on her chest. The kind of boy she was attracted to would never shave his body hair. Raf shifted the mirror a fraction.

It was reversed in the glass, the symbol incised on the pale flesh of her inner arm, arrowheads pointing off past eleven o’clock instead of one. Inflammation blurred the outlines, seeping blood obscured careful gradation of tint and shading. It was probably stupid, overly obvious, but she liked it: paired Mars glyphs, unbroken circles interlinked, arrowheads parallel. Within indigo outlining, the rings and arrows were tinted like anodized aluminum. She liked it.

“I like it,” Emma said.

“Nice work, Raf,” said a new voice, more heavily accented speaking English than Raf’s.

Emma blinked away from the gleaming oval of the mirror as Raf said, “Hender—my new American friend Emmanuel, who bought your coffee.”

“And my tasty bit of sandwich? Thank you, Emmanuel. They were much appreciated.”

Hender appeared older than Raf, ten, fifteen years. Emmanuel didn’t find him especially handsome or his ear and facial piercings enticing, but his eyes, a brown so pale it was nearly gold, were compelling. The glyph on his left temple was larger and more complex than Raf’s, foliated, tendrils looping and extending into his hairline, onto his cheekbone, as if Raf’s were merely a preliminary sign, incomplete. Both stepped back when Emmanuel sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the settee. Hender placed a proprietary hand on Raf’s shoulder—his fingernails were unpleasantly long, lacquered black, and he wore too many gold rings—and smiled, exposing teeth that looked inhumanly sharp. Under his hand, the flowers on Raf’s shoulder appeared to catch fire.

Emmanuel blinked. Flickering flames resolved into stylized scrolls, yellow, orange, red, like the decals on an ancient muscle car’s fender, and she blinked again, disappointed.

“Show Emmanuel how to care for his new art while it heals,” Hender said, squeezed Raf’s shoulder again, and went away.

Before she allowed Raf to tend her wound, Emmanuel rose to her feet and regarded herself in the mirror, pleased by what she saw. Wide shoulders, expansive chest, trim, defined midsection, narrow hips. The logoed elastic of her boxers cut straight across her belly below the hips, cutting short the furry trail that led the gaze toward the meaty lump behind the fly of khaki shorts. It shifted, all by itself, buckling the fabric of the fly to reveal a flash of copper zipper, and Emmanuel grinned at her reflection.

Raf swabbed the tattoo with stinging alcohol again, smeared it with greasy antibiotic ointment—he gave her the tube, opened fresh, to slip in her pocket—taped over it a square of plastic film, explaining as he went along how to care for it so it would heal quickly and cleanly. Because she wanted him to, he kissed her, but it was an uninvolved, almost chilly kiss—he was more attracted to Theo—and he wouldn’t go further even after she groped his crotch and found him stiff. She didn’t have enough cash on her to pay the full price of the tattoo but he said it didn’t matter, she could cover the rest next time she dropped by.

Emmanuel liked being a boy. A man, really. Her voice was deeper and she was taller than her dad, outweighed him by twenty or thirty pounds. Nor was her hair thinning, though she kept it short and butch. Now and then she caught him staring at her, bemused by his big gorilla son or almost (she didn’t really think so) remembering his daughter.

She liked being a big brother. She half remembered watching out for Theo when he was a geeky high-school freshman with no friends and girly long hair—remembered intimidating the bullies who wanted to intimidate Theo. Those memories gradually became more vivid, washing out bleached memories of growing up a girl, Theo’s little sister. She remembered encouraging him to work out, get bigger and stronger so the bullies wouldn’t bother him. She had moved bench and free weights to the basement because she knew he was uncomfortable invading her bedroom to use them. What really made Theo uncomfortable in her room, she knew, was the home-made screensaver on her desktop monitor, endlessly cycling raw beefcake. The nerdling needed just to deal: his big brother—bigger in every way, not just a year and a half older—was gay and pretty happy about it.

Well, not so happy maybe about not having done much recently. She regretted not pushing harder with Raf. God, the blue balls when he finished with her and sent her home to the dentist’s and professor’s house. She’d had to beat off twice before she could sleep. The first experienced (she recalled earlier but it wasn’t clear they’d really happened) boy orgasm almost disappointed her. She kind of remembered girl orgasms being more profound, less localized and fleeting, if more effort to achieve. But she liked spunk. Splooge. Cum. Even the names were fun. As a girl, she’d thought it gross without much acquaintance—as a boy, she licked it off her hand, savoring the slimy texture, the salty-bitter taste, and rubbed it gummily into the hair on her belly and chest.

When she woke, early, she was delighted by the morning wood in her boxer shorts but needed to piss so she left it alone. She stumbled to the bathroom and remembered she could do it standing up, lifted the seat, fumbled her dick out. Unused to pissing while half hard (or maybe she just didn’t care), she made a mess. After brushing her teeth, washing hands and face, replacing the dressing under her arm, she went back to the bedroom and fired up the laptop. She pointed the browser to her favorite slashfic site. After only a few paragraphs she found the story insipid. The boys were insipid, dreamy and yearny, barely out of adolescence—big eyed and delicate like the figures in yaoi manga, for which she used to have more patience. When she was a girl. Without much trouble, she found a site more to her liking and, reading badly spelled, pedestrian porn, rubbed out another. She smeared the splooge over her abs, sucked the remnants off fingers and palm.

She pulled on a pair of b-ball shorts, stuffed her big feet into shoes, and climbed the stairs to the professor’s and dentist’s gym. She preferred free weights, which required more finesse and, by way of their instability, worked peripheral muscles as well as those directly involved, but the machines were all she had till they returned home.

She was benching, legs splayed wide while her arms pressed the bar up, when she heard her brother’s feet on the steps. She finished the set before looking toward the door. Theo gaped at her. “What?” Her shorts were too long for anything to be hanging out in public and perturbing his masculinity.

“What did you do to your arm?”

“Got Raf to give me a tattoo.” She sat up. “Wanna see it?”

Raf? That’s his name? He didn’t talk you out of it?”

“It was a sudden thing but I only had one idea, one small design, not dozens.”

“Just nine.”

Emmanuel peered at her brother. He was unhappy. “I’m going back today, if you’d like to come with me. Didn’t have enough cash to pay him yesterday.”

Aimless, Theo turned away. Running his hand along the white plaster wall, he paced until the descent of the peaked attic roof prevented further progress. “There’s no point if I can’t decide what I want.”

“I should have let you get yours first.” But then she’d still be a girl, and younger than Theo. It seemed likely, anyway.

“For once,” he agreed without turning, his voice thin with unsuppressed bitterness. It was hard for Theo, being younger, smaller, less. “Is he gay, Raf? Your summer-in-Europe boyfriend? He shouldn’t ask you to pay.”

“I’m not his type, as it turns out.” You are, Emmanuel didn’t say. “You should come with me anyway. Get out of the house. Maybe we’d meet a girl for you.”

Theo still didn’t turn. “Are you done? I want to work out.”

“Fine.” Irritated, Emmanuel got to her feet. She was done. Her brother smelled worse than usual, as if the bodyspray had rotted his skin overnight. “Have at it.”

“Wait,” Theo said when she was almost out the door. “When are you leaving?”

They walked along the towpath in hot sun, brother and brother. Strangely, after his shower Theo hadn’t fragranced himself to hell and back: he smelled of boy, soon of sweat. He smelled good. Emmanuel wanted to rub his head where pale scalp gleamed through dark stubble but figured it wasn’t a liberty she ought to take. She wanted to ask again why he’d cut it. Probably some fallout from his on-line rivalry with Simon, like the disappointing first visit to Raf’s shop.

“When I came along this way yesterday,” she said, “there was a bunch of kids skinnydipping in the canal.”

“Girls and boys? Or just boys?”

“Just boys.”

“Musta been a treat for you.”

Startled, Emmanuel laughed. She liked the sound of her own laughter nearly as much as the evidence her brother had a sense of humor. “Not much to see—they were in a hurry not to be seen. You ever done that?”

“Not really my thing.”

Theo didn’t like even just taking off his shirt in public. He was shy about it even with her, though she had her suspicions about that.

“You?” Theo asked, startling her again.

“Sure,” she said, not really sure. “Not here. Yet.”

“Wouldn’t try it here,” Theo muttered. “That water looks nasty.”

“Wanna find out?”

Before he could react, Emmanuel had him in a mild chokehold, lifting him against her chest. The stubble on her cheek rasped on the stubble of his skull.

“Fuck!” Theo grunted—she hadn’t cut off his air—grabbing at her arm with both hands. Somehow he twisted and heaved in her grasp. As she went off balance, unlikely pain ripped through her shoulder and then the ground came up and knocked the breath out of her lungs. In an instant, coughing, she was tumbling down the grassy bank. The water pounded her with a crash. She went under.

She came up spitting. When water cleared her eyes, she saw her brother down the bank, teetering on the verge. “Stupid!” he hollered. “You’ve got an open wound!”

“What—” The new tattoo.

When she struggled upright, the warm silty water only came to mid-thigh, dragging at her shorts as she floundered back to the bank. Theo wasn’t going to plunge in and help but he stood waiting, looking worried. “Jesus, Emmanuel, don’t surprise me like that.”

Emmanuel couldn’t help herself: she guffawed. “How’d you do that, anyway? Been sneaking out to some dojo, little bro, learning super-secret martial arts moves?”

“You surprised me.” He shook his head, extended his hand for her. “Are you okay?”

“Sodden,” she said, letting him help her onto the embankment. “Fine. Maybe more surprised than you. Who knew that was even possible? Let me sit for a minute.”

When she sank down onto the grass and pulled off one bucket of a shoe, Theo crouched at her side. “I’m not the whiny kid who gets beaten up at school anymore, you know. Are you sure you’re okay?”

She worked the other shoe off, turned them both upside down and set them aside. She didn’t expect further explanation for Theo’s mysterious superpowers. “Yeah, sure.” Testing the rotation of her shoulder, she felt the twinge but it wasn’t bad. “Prolly some bruises and a bit of stiffening up tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Glad to know you can defend yourself. And like you said, I shouldn’t have surprised you—my own fault.”

“Pick on someone your own size next time.”

Astonished again, Emmanuel choked on a laugh. Recovering, she said, “Excuse me, Theo, when did you turn into a human being?”

Regarding her gravely, her brother said, “Occasionally one has lapses.” Then he sat down properly by her side. “At the moment I’m worried about your tattoo. You don’t know what kind of bacteria were swimming in that water.”

Reminded of it, she felt the clammy suction of the tape and plastic on her inner arm. Except for her shorts and what was in them, the rest of her, exposed to sun and air, was practically dry already. Peeling at the tape, wincing when it ripped hairs from their follicles, she said, “I doctored it up pretty thick with hi-test antibiotic stuff. It’s greasy. Probably the germs couldn’t even get through the grease.”

“Still. I would be happier if you got it properly cleaned and tended. Soon.”

Looking up, Emmanuel caught him staring at her fingers picking at the dressing, at her hairy underarm—her hairy chest. She didn’t understand his expression.

“We’re closer to your friend’s shop than the house,” Theo went on. “He’ll know what to do. As soon as you’re ready.”

Raf was calm, undismayed—pleased to see them, Emmanuel thought. Pleased to see them both. With little fuss, he cleaned Emmanuel’s tattoo—the alcohol stung, weirdly worse than the first times, fizzes and pinpricks more irritating than her memory of the needle—anointed it with a dose of antibiotic, dressed it anew. He advised her to keep a close eye on it as it healed although he had never heard that the canal bred flesh-eating microbes. Indifferent, he accepted the damp euro notes she pressed on him and rang them into the register. And then they were at a loss.

While Raf tended Emmanuel, Theo had been leafing through a thick album of photos of the shop’s work, absorbed, intent—beautiful, really, as a studious child. He had failed to remark on Raf’s transformed tattoos but now that Emmanuel noticed the cheap stylized flames were gone, the garlands of flowers returned. The same flowers? Possibly not but near enough. Had Raf changed them back on Theo’s account?

He stepped away from Emmanuel to peer over Theo’s shoulder and point something out. The smile her brother turned up at him made her heart contract and then thump uncomfortably. They were too pretty together—like manga boys, they looked too alike. Theo was quite a bit taller and their coloring was different but it was the difference between African-American Barbie and the standard model.

Her tastes had changed, it seemed, since she became a boy herself. The thought of them getting it on was still attractive (the inevitability of it, it almost looked like) but what she wanted for herself was a bigger man, a big, hairy, muscly guy. Like her.

“Anybody want coffee?” she said, loud. “I’ll go get it.”

Theo started but Raf only glanced at her, his expression mild. “That would be very pleasant, Emmanuel.”

She half turned toward the door, then turned back. “Will somebody speak English?”

“Probably, but I’ll write it down for you, shall I?” Raf did that, his printing precise and legible, and coached her through the pronunciation.

For some reason that reminded her and she asked, “What was that about the witch’s house?”

“Witch?” asked Theo.

“Town legend,” Raf said. He appeared slightly put out. “Perhaps wizard would be the better term, in English. A learned man back in the fourteen hundreds, more learned than he had need or right to be, not being in holy orders, lived in the house where the café stands now. There were suspicions about him, rumors, but they came to nothing until it was noticed there were strangers, foreigners, living in the house whom nobody recalled arriving. He called them nephews, or sometimes visitors from the Holy Land.” Reciting, Raf’s voice was thin, precise, almost pained. “The scholar was abruptly wealthier than he had been. Some claimed to have seen peculiar lights and other manifestations about the house in the depths of night. A child died raving, inexplicably. Another, older child murdered her father some days after being seen conversing with the scholar and the foreigners. A youth claimed one of the strangers had bespelled him to perform an unnatural act. Signs, portents—there were others: stillborn or deformed livestock, blights, comets. The mob chose him and his guests as their scapegoats but the guests had vanished. Under torture, he called them, the three of them, angels or sometimes devils whom Lucifer had sent to tempt and aid him. Naturally, he was killed, burned alive. His house was demolished, the soil under it sown with salt. The town’s misfortunes eased. A hundred years later a new building was raised on the spot and eventually, say ten years ago, the café opened.”

“Whoa,” said Theo, fascinated. “We don’t have history like that back home.”

Raf regarded him soberly. “So you’re privileged to think. The stories weren’t written down, the storytellers died of smallpox and their languages disappeared, somebody built a Starbucks just like every other Starbucks on the salt-sown foundations of the forgotten wizard’s house. Here we do too much remembering. You Americans are fortunate to live in the present as it happens.” Turning away, he seemed to mutter, “I too prefer the now.”

Emmanuel left them to argue that out—or not. At the café, Coffee Guy behind the counter didn’t seem to recognize her (how could he?), but was charming, friendly, flirtatious, and spoke sufficient English that she didn’t have to wrestle with Raf’s language lesson. Taking her money, he touched her hand with his own in a way he didn’t need to and looked into her eyes with great promise. When he turned to prepare her coffee, it seemed he fumbled his white shirt open two buttons more so she could be sure of the interesting knotted tattoo on his chest, just below the left clavicle, its flourishes glowing through curly brown hair. Flowers twined through the knots, poppies and cornflowers—she wondered if it was Raf’s work. Surely it was, or Hender’s. The town was too small to support more than one tattoo shop. Handing over the three tall coffees, he said, “See you around,” as if he’d memorized the phrase but in a tone that made it both a question and a promise.

Walking back, Emmanuel pondered how to encounter him again without a counter and a transaction between them—how to discover his name. He was as tall as she, as substantial. She somehow didn’t wish to ask Raf, who would probably know. Spend an afternoon at the public pool swimming and tanning—he had a nice tan, perhaps that was where he’d acquired it. Loiter around the café until he went off shift. Google for the places gay guys congregated. For a few steps they were making out in the back of her mind, Coffee Guy and Emmanuel, necking and groping—chest hair caught in her teeth when she nibbled his nipple—but then the vision became Theo and Raf again, similarly pleasing in a voyeuristic way but interestingly different.

They weren’t necking when she stepped back into the shop, not that she’d really expected them to be. The front room was public space, windowed to the street. Theo was shy…wasn’t gay.

They were, however, too preoccupied to acknowledge her entrance after making sure it was her. Raf leaned over a large sheet of paper, delicately maneuvering his pencil. Theo watched—watched Raf’s hand but glanced up often at his face. Theo’s expression was dopey with intent, and something else.

Emmanuel set a cup before each. Raf offered her a distracted nod but Theo nothing. The drawing taking shape was a spidery branch of cherry blossoms. Emmanuel could imagine it spiralling up somebody’s arm, twining over biceps and triceps to spray blooms across the upper back, then up and over to deposit more on the round ball of the shoulder and a final profusion on the gentle swell of one pec. Raf paused, sketched in a butterfly alighting.

It was subtle, pretty. She wouldn’t have expected pretty of Theo. The designs he’d drawn were aggressive, mannered. “I thought you wanted a full sleeve,” she said, too loud and abrupt.

He glanced at her but didn’t seem to see her. “So did I.” He reached for his coffee.

“It’s just an idea,” murmured Raf, concentrating.

Emmanuel no longer had to imagine the tattoo: the spindly branch climbed Raf’s arm, looped onto his shoulder and back, under the translucent white strap of his wifebeater onto his chest. Blossoms blushed rose over the paler pink of his skin. Faint blue shadows made them stand out. Unopened buds and baby leaves were tender spring green. The butterfly was black, blue, purple, with shards of clear, bright yellow. Bruise colors, except it was precise and fine within its outlines, not blurred and sore. She could never manage a seduction so well. She didn’t have his talents.

She’d finished her coffee in fifteen, twenty minutes, and Theo and Raf hadn’t become any more entertaining. “See you around,” she said, echoing the object of her interest. Raf glanced up with a faint smile, Theo nodded absently. She left.

In the square, she waited a while on a bench across from the café, hoping Coffee Guy might emerge, but that would be too easy. Other people did come out. One of them she recognized as Hender. He recognized her as well, raised his paper cup in a salute, but didn’t come over. She wondered if he was going back to the shop—if he would be annoyed or jealous at the sudden rapport between his protégé and her brother. She wondered if she’d ever see Coffee Guy again. She went into the café but he was no longer there. Disappointed, she blundered out again without buying anything.

Google directed Emmanuel to a pub that, while not strictly a gay bar, was the next closest thing in this small town. Another reference suggested a grove in the park where sordid things might occur, and another told her to try the same café after midnight, when it was the only place still open. Overall, though, she’d be better off making a trip to the university town where her parents did their research. She filed all the information away for later.

It was Theo’s night to make dinner, something he was usually pretty responsible (if resentful) about, but he didn’t get home till twenty minutes before she expected their parents. He looked a little bruised around the eyes and—was she imagining it?—chafed around the lips. He looked halfway to exaltation and moved his left arm gingerly. “Did he do the whole thing in one go?” Emmanuel asked.

Theo grinned, open, delighted. “Just the outlines. Filling in and coloring later, couple of days.” Then he winced and looked a little worried. “Don’t tell the ’rents?”

“As if I would. They’re going to wonder about long sleeves, though.”

“Let them wonder.”

“I want to see it but I won’t ask you to get all unwrapped right now.”

Theo shook his head. “After dinner, maybe. Oh, hey, help me make dinner? I’m kinda running late.”

“You’ll owe me.”

He shook his head again. “Well, you know, I already owe you so what’s a little more.”

In the kitchen he got busy fast, pointing her at things he needed cleaned or peeled or chopped. It was going to be some kind of stir-fry, apparently. Slicing beef into thin strips, Theo ignored his brother, but when he had it marinating in soy sauce and the ginger she’d chopped he took a moment and just looked at her.

“What?”

“I’m, umm, going out after dinner. You want to come with so the parents don’t freak?”

Emmanuel set her knife down. “Out? Out where? You never go out.”

Looking away, he smiled. “Raf invited me to join him for a drink. He said you’d be welcome.”

“You’re underage.”

“Not here. Civilized country. I’m not planning to get drunk or anything. I’ll buy you a beer.”

“Raf? Huh.” Emmanuel snorted, keeping her delight to herself. “Am I to understand you’re not as straight as I’ve always been led to believe? Or is this not a date?”

Startled, Theo squeaked, “Date? It’s not—” He blushed, blinked a few times. “I guess maybe you could call it that. Hah. That’s a shocker.” Blush fading, he shook his head. “And I don’t quite know what I am because I still think girls are all kinds of sexy but kissing him was hella sexy too.”

“Well, good for you,” said Emmanuel in jovial, big-brother tones. “Sure, I’ll chaperone you, Teddy—” she hadn’t called her brother Teddy since he was a little kid—“if you promise not to put on any of that noxious bodyspray.”

“Lend me your big-boy cologne?” he suggested with a cock of his head both flirtatious and naïvely mocking.

After his shower, Teddy knocked on her door to show off his ink—get Emmanuel’s help doctoring it. She was less surprised by the delicate tracery of branches and shoots and bruises on his arm and shoulder than the unprecedented act of his coming to her room wearing only a towel hitched around his hips. The temptation to make it fall, discover what he had in the downstairs department to offer Raf, tested her resolve. He smelled of her cologne (he’d used too much), which she really felt smelled better on her.

With a kind of brusque tenderness, she swabbed the twigs and branches and uncolored blossoms with a pad steeped in alcohol. The softness of Teddy’s skin perturbed her. The hair on his forearms was translucent and there was none on his chest, just a faint glowy fuzz. Glancing at his legs, she noticed that shins and calves appeared only as downy as his arms. He noticed her noticing. “You got all the wild man of Borneo genes from Dad’s side. I take after Mom’s family. So I’ll never go bald.”

“Except on purpose.” Emmanuel seemed to remember her little brother being more hirsute. Not like her, maybe, but not like a girl either. Under her hand, the muscles of his arm and shoulder felt different than as recently as the morning, when he tossed her in the canal. Not flabbier, but less purposeful than simply useful. Perhaps it was just that he was at rest. She smeared on the greasy ointment. When he stood up to have her apply the dressings, he looked willowy standing before her, not lean and wiry. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She went back to work, taping squares of plastic like patchwork to his skin.

When that was finished, she told him to go get dressed if they were going out. At the door, he turned back fast and had to grab for the slipping towel. “You didn’t say what you think of your friend’s work.”

“It’s—” Emmanuel hesitated. “It’s not what I’d have expected for you. Not to say it isn’t very nicely done. When Raf completes it and it’s all healed up, it’ll be…lovely.”

Clutching the towel, Teddy frowned, but then he visibly let what he didn’t want to hear go and opened the door. Fifteen minutes later he was back, dressed, black shirt severely buttoned and tucked into black jeans, buzzed head making him look an ikon of severity. It was momentarily impossible to imagine him necking with Raf. In her mind Emmanuel stripped off the shirt, finished off the tattoos, and then all was well. She followed him downstairs happily enough, out. She had dressed equally thoughtfully if with different calculation: tight t-shirt was meant to showboat her build, low-slung shorts make it evident she’d chosen to go commando. She hoped to meet Coffee Guy, though another guy might do almost as handily.

Teddy knew the way. He had memorized Google’s map, she imagined. They walked through long summer twilight, bucolic suburb to mediaeval town alleys, not saying much until Teddy asked, “What’s it like? What guys do with guys, after the kissing?” So he had taken note of her outfit.

She peered at him. He had his head down, looking away. “It’s sex,” she said. “It’s big fun. I mean—” She turned her own head, not really embarrassed. “I mean, I’ve never done it with a girl so it’s not like I can compare and contrast.” She could, but not in a way that would be helpful.

“Me neither,” Teddy muttered, voice small but defiant.

“Really?” It was almost not a surprise.

Teddy half stumbled, recovered. “Not all the way.”

Brotherly, Emmanuel put her arm around his neck, holding him up. “It’ll be okay, Teddy. You don’t have to go through with it—you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Say no, easy as that.” Teddy was bigger than Raf.

“But I do want. I want to do everything. Will it hurt?”

Emmanuel released him, stepped away. “If you do that? For a moment or two, yeah. Not as much as tattoo needles.”

Her brother hurried to catch up, passed her, remained a few steps ahead until they reached the pub, where he held the door open for her as if she were a girl. They saw Raf right away, pale as an exotic orchid in the gloom. Strangely, he was talking with Coffee Guy, who beamed when he saw Emmanuel. His name was Thijs—he spelled it for her. He wasn’t wearing the collared white dress shirt and black slacks from the café but a dark green hoodie unzipped nearly to the waist so she could admire the furry expanse of his chest, his tattoo, the steel pin through his left nipple, and jeans worn so low she could make out his swimsuit tanline and be sure he, too, had foregone undershorts. It was all thrilling. By the time he’d bought her a beer that had so much flavor it astonished her she was entirely smitten and Raf and Teddy had vanished.

When the fact penetrated, she said, “Where’d they go? I have to look out for Teddy.”

“See over there,” said Thijs, soothing and calm. “Teddy is quite safe.”

Looking where he indicated, Emmanuel saw a line of private booths and the backs of the two heads, one buzzed to blue shadow, the other blond. “I should—”

“Teddy is quite safe,” Thijs said again. “Now and then Raf discovers an interest in women, particular women, an impulse that startles him so much he is extremely careful, gentle, easily dissuaded. Your sister will come to no harm.”

“Teddy—” But Emmanuel knew her sister would be furious, if it was something he really wanted, if Emmanuel barged in like a clumsy knight in shining armor to protect the damsel’s virtue. Still, she watched a moment longer, unsure, saw Raf’s fine long fingers caress Teddy’s skull and saw her sister turn his head for the kiss. He was beautiful, her little sister—the shorn scalp made his face at once stronger and more vulnerable. When he did it, their father, oddly pleased, said his daughter was prettier than Sinéad O’Connor and ran a Google Image search to show them how Teddy compared to the pop-star crush of his youth.

Thijs attracted her attention back to him by lifting her hand to his chest. One point of the steel pin, not quite sharp, poked her finger. Leaning to her ear, he said, “I also have a, what do you call it in English, a Prince Albert. Would you like to see?”

The sex was good. Not great. Perhaps they were nervous of each other, being so newly acquainted. Perhaps Thijs depended on the novelty of his PA in lieu of technique. She’d had a moment or two of wanting one for herself—he became inarticulate trying to express the sensations it gave him—but the desire passed. Rolling a condom over her own stiff dick, she’d felt a pang, thinking she ought to have said something to Teddy about the importance of birth control (she didn’t know if he was on the pill) but Thijs distracted her before the pang could bloom into panic, and she didn’t think of her sister again. Anyway, Thijs and Raf were housemates, it had turned out, sharing the big apartment two floors above the café on the square. Teddy was just down the hall. If he got scared, needed his big brother, he knew where she was.

But afterward, dozing on Thijs’s bed with Thijs spooned up against her back (his chest hair tickled her when he breathed, the metal in his nipple scraped), Emmanuel had what felt like a dream. She remembered growing up with, not an annoying little tomboy sister, but a nerdy, differently tiresome little brother. Theo. Not Teddy. Then her breath strangled in her throat as she recalled that Theo was Emma’s big brother and she, Emma, for almost sixteen years had been a girl.

She sat up abruptly. Thijs grumbled in his sleep. “Thirsty,” Emmanuel said, though she didn’t think he could hear her, and clambered off the bed. Still naked, she stumbled out of the room.

She thought she knew where she was going but ended up in the kitchen, where a low candle in a glass jar guttered on the breakfast table and somebody sat beyond it, face shadowed. “Thirsty,” she said again because she didn’t know who it was.

“Hard or soft?” The voice with its distinct accent was Hender’s. He leaned forward and candlelight caught his stark features, gilded the piercings at eyebrow, ear, cheek, lower lip. The baroque ink at his temple looked purple, like wine in a glass.

“Water.”

He stood. Emmanuel flinched back. “Sparkling or still?” Hender asked, stepping away from the table but not toward her. He was as nude as she. Thankfully, she couldn’t make out details in uncertain, wavery light.

Unthinking, she took another step toward the table. “Just water.”

“Sit, then. A moment.”

She was afraid he’d turn on an electric light or just open the refrigerator and she would have to look at him, but he rummaged through the cabinet for a glass without hesitation, filled it at the sink. Emmanuel sat. The polished wooden seat felt unpleasantly slick and cool under her bare flesh. Hender set the glass before her, stepped back. “Thanks,” she said. lifting it to her lips. As he turned to round the table, she caught a glint of heavy metal dangling below his crotch—another PA. Was Raf pierced down there as well?

“What did Raf do to my—to Theo?”

Hender sat down. “Raf wants an American wife.” Then Hender grinned broadly. Flickering light gleamed unhealthily on his teeth. “Well, actually, of course, he would prefer an American husband but the laws in your country mostly do not recognize that relationship and a husband could not help him emigrate. You aren’t concerned about what he did to you?”

“Why? Why not me? I was a girl…before.”

“He likes to complicate matters. You were too young. He felt you would enjoy being a boy.”

“I do!” The response came without thought but thinking only reinforced it. “I don’t want to go back. But Theo never wanted to be a girl. Or a gay boy, any man’s husband.”

“Are you certain?”

She wasn’t.

“It’s true Theo was more effort to…persuade.” Leaning forward—now the fluttering light made the design at his temple resemble blood, drawn in intricate patterns like the henna on an Indian bride’s hands—Hender shrugged. A billow in the shadow behind him made Emmanuel think of great black wings flexing with his shrug. “In any case, Raf’s altruism is erratic. He wasn’t attracted to you. To your brother, yes.”

“What are you? The two of you?”

“Three.”

“Thijs too?” she blurted, dismayed.

“We have been here so long,” murmured Hender, leaning back again. “But Thijs and I are relatively content. Of course, Thijs has no imagination. He lives in the moment—the future is an impossible destination for him. It would not have occurred to Thijs to take advantage of your possibilities before Raf manifested them. Raf—discontent defines him. It always has, longer than you can imagine. You see, we may not leave this place without a sincere invitation.”

“It wouldn’t be sincere!”

“Are you certain?” Hender asked again. “Raf has gone away before, several times. When the invitation expires, he must return. Not to America however. America interests him. He will be disappointed, of course, for all the world is an outskirt of America in this era, but one can’t reason with him. Come.”

When Hender rose to his feet the shadowy wings rose with him, pinions glittering like black knives. Emmanuel shrank back but he reached for her hand. His touch was chill, not like ice, colder, and she found herself upright, enfolded in his arms, his dank, oppressive wings that smelled like incense. “You make a handsome boy,” he murmured in her ear.

They stood in the doorway of Raf’s bedroom. Raf and Teddy lay on white sheets. Emmanuel looked away from her naked sister, looked back. Raf’s arm, crooked over Teddy’s rib cage as he spooned the young woman, lifted the breasts on Teddy’s chest, made them look larger, misshapen. Matched cherry-blossom tattoos seemed to grow together, one plant joining two bodies. Teddy began to stir and Raf, in sleep, tightened his grasp and pressed his lips to Teddy’s nape.

“It is not the time, Raf,” Hender said. The regret in his low, shuddering voice caused the world to flinch. “This is not the person.”

Shrugging off Raf’s arm with less effort than he’d taken to toss Emmanuel into the canal, Theo sat upright. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and planted his feet on the carpet, set wide. Emmanuel looked away again: her little brother’s dick, at rest, was bigger than hers.

“You were right,” Theo said, his voice foggy. “It hurt. But it was interesting.”

Behind him, Raf made a noise like ice breaking. Indigo wings thick as snowdrifts clapped, disturbing the air, lifted him. For just an eyeblink, Teddy became a girl again.

“Not now,” said Hender.

“Theo?”

Ignoring or unaware of angelic perturbation, Theo scratched sleepily at the flame-eyed skull inscribed on his left biceps. “Not really interesting enough, though. No offense, Emmanuel, but I think I really am straight.” He yawned, shuddering.

“I…I don’t need the competition.”

“Hah.” Theo blinked. “Where’s my clothes? We should go home. ’Rents probably shitting themselves with worry. Grounded for life,” he grumbled, blinked again, looked up at his brother and, as if properly comprehending her nakedness, glanced his eyes away. “Where’s your clothes? Did you have fun with wotzisname?”

Raf made another noise, like air collapsing, and settled back onto the bed. Theo shifted his seat unconsciously as the mattress settled. Great blue-black wings cloaked crouching Raf, abstracting him from sight. A fierce itch flared under the skin inside Emmanuel’s arm, but then was gone.

“But I liked Emmanuel!” protested Thijs.

So did I, Emma wanted to say. Her throat was frozen with disappointment and relief. She felt uncomfortable naked in a way she hadn’t a moment before.

Thijs’s wings were dull scarlet, not as impressive as Hender’s or Raf’s. His erection had been impressive but it wilted, dragged down by the weight of its metal, as he glared fiercely at the girl who had been Emmanuel. “He was handsome. And an excellent fuck.”

Emma felt another intolerable itch, but this erupted between her legs and when she reached to scratch it, horribly, trivially embarrassed, Emmanuel discovered his own proper prick hanging where it should. He clutched it in his hand. The heavy steel Prince Albert was chill, but warmed against his fingers.

It wasn’t nearly as late as they’d thought. Light hung in the west. As they walked the towpath back to the dentist’s and professor’s house, Theo asked, his voice merely curious, “Are you going to see him again?”

“Thijs?” Emmanuel shrugged, amused. “Probably. We’re here another four weeks. Not a professional visit, though, it’s not like I want him piercing anything else.”

“Yikes.”

Theo wanted not to sound appalled by his brother’s adventure in body modification, Emmanuel thought without being fooled. He’d offered to show the pretty thing to Theo.

“What about you? Going back to Hender?”

“Of course!” Craning his neck, Theo tried to look at his own arm. His shirtsleeve hid the ink, though, and he stumbled. “It’s not done yet! But I’m not interested in fooling around with him.”

“He wouldn’t mind, probably.”

“No.” Great sincerity thrummed in Theo’s voice. “I mean, I’ve had moments of curiosity since…since you told me you were gay, but it’s just not my thing.”

Emmanuel scratched at his jaw. His stubble wasn’t novel anymore but it still felt good. “Just as well,” he said. “More boys for me.”

“Seriously?” Theo was outraged. “You seriously think any guy wants into my shorts is going to be interested in a big hairy dude like you?” He threw a punch at his brother’s arm that made basically no impression. “Manny, bro, even I know better than that.”

Manny? As they scuffled, Emmanuel decided this new nickname was acceptable. “Fine, whatever.” Grappling Theo around the neck, he knuckled his brother’s bristly scalp.

“Besides, you’ve already got a summer boyfriend. Now you need to help me find a girl. That’s what gay big brothers are for, evolutionarily speaking.”

Laughing, Manny pushed Theo away. “You’re on.” It would be a challenge. Challenges were good. He relished a challenge.

____
Copyright Alex Jeffers 2012

Alex Jeffers‘s last story appeared in Chelsea Station #1 in November; his next will be out in the YA anthology Boys of Summer in May. Those two, this one, and some others will reappear in his collection You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home, due from Lethe Press in July. You can find more information and news at his website.

All of us here at GigaNotoSaurus would like to extend our congratulations to this year’s Nebula Nominees!

But perhaps we can be forgiven for being a bit more pleased about two particular entries on the list, both nominated for best novelette–“The Migratory Pattern of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow and “Sauerkraut Station” by Ferret Steinmetz. Obviously we’re fans of both those stories, but it pleases us tremendously that the voters liked them enough to recommend them. We’ll be watching the results of the voting with great interest, but no matter what happens, we’re extremely proud of Katie and Ferret. Congratulations, you two!

A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America

by Ken Liu

“All life is an experiment.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

“For an American, one’s entire life is spent as a game of chance, a time of revolution, a day of battle. “
— Alexis de Tocqueville

Idaho City

The Missouri Boys snuck into Idaho City around 4:30 AM, when everything was still dark and Isabelle’s Joy Club was the only house with a lit window.

Obee and Crick made straight for the Thirsty Fish. Earlier in the day, J.J. Kelly, the proprietor, had invited Obee and Crick out of his saloon with his Smith & Wesson revolver. With little effort and making no sound, Obee and Crick broke the latch on the door of the Thirsty Fish and quickly disappeared inside.

“I’ll show that little Irishman some manners,” Crick hissed. Through the alcoholic mist, his eyes could focus on only one image: the diminutive Kelly walking towards him, gun at the ready, and the jeering crowd behind him. We might just bury you under the new outhouse next time you show yourselves in Idaho City.

Though he was a little unsteady on his feet, he successfully tiptoed his way up the stairs to the family’s living quarters, an iron crowbar in hand.

Obee, less drunk, set about rectifying that situation promptly by jumping behind the bar and helping himself to the supplies. Carelessly, he took down bottles of various sizes and colors from the shelves around him, and having taken a sip from each, smashed the bottles against the counters or dashed them to the ground. Alcohol flowed freely everywhere, soaking into the floors and the furniture.
(more…)

by Patricia Russo

Mother doesn’t trust us anymore. She won’t let us leave the house. You just stay there where I can keep an eye on you, she says. No, you can’t go play in the yard. Don’t you move.

We’d noticed her starting to change a while ago. It worried us. When had she become different?

Bicky said she hadn’t. He said Mother had always been spiny-skinned, and the rest of us had just grown old enough to notice, was all. Besides which, she was teeter-wobble in the head. Anybody with so many kids had to be, Bicky said. It was just a fact. We thought Bicky was full of kak, and Verrie told him so to his face. Mother had always been hug-again, until recently. Verrie said he remembered tickles and kisses. He looked at us, and we nodded. And what about the squeezie-dolls, and the blankets crocheted out of for-real unraveled sweaters? Only a few of us nodded that time. Verrie still had his blanket. It was yellow partway and a bluey-gray the rest. Hill had one, too, but he had cut a hole in the middle and used it as a poncho now. It looked stupid, because it didn’t even reach down to his belly-button. Squeezie-dolls were harder to remember. Maybe Coy had had one. Maybe Nardo had broken it.

You can’t be sentimental, Bicky said. We’re doing something important. If Mother tries to stop us, we’re going to have to be hard.

Maybe if we explained it to her, Hill said.

She won’t listen, Bicky said. She’ll be scared. She’ll lock us in the house. Maybe do something worse.

We held this meeting under the sourbark trees, where Mother’s eye couldn’t reach, back when she was first starting to get suspicious. It was after the fourth or fifth time we’d met with the gray kiddies. We knew we weren’t supposed to go near them. We were supposed to run away if we saw even one. It wasn’t because they were gray, Mother explained. It wasn’t because they had six fingers, or eyes that were too big and too round. It was because they weren’t really people, and real people needed to stay away from things that looked almost like people but weren’t.

The gray kiddies didn’t talk. Not like us. They made sounds, but the sounds were only whistles and a chit-chit-chitter. And sometimes they tried to bite us. And they smelled like carrots that had gone black and oozy. And they kept running off to grub up these little plants with fat, ovalish leaves, and when they started chewing the leaves they wouldn’t listen to anything Bicky said. They can’t understand us even when they’re not chewing those leaves, Hill said, but Bicky said that wasn’t true. It was the gray kiddies who’d showed Bicky what he’d been doing wrong, when he was trying to scrape out the new light. One of them had just run out of the trees and poked a finger right into the hole and chit-chit-chittered and then run off again, but for a second the light came through really clear. Only for a second, and Bicky hadn’t been able to see what that gray kiddie had done, but after that Bicky was on fire. He was flying in the clouds. He couldn’t shut up, even after we were all supposed to be in bed and asleep. We got to get them on our side, he said. We got to train them, you know? To help us. Because I think the only way we’re going to do this is together.

The new light was a little scary. Verrie said that was only because anything new was scary. But the new light was very silver, and hot. And it was in the ground. We all knew from the stories that light was supposed to be in the sky. That was the old days, Hill said, before the clouds changed. And everything on the other side of the clouds, too, for all we knew. This is a different light, he said. Wouldn’t it be good to have a different light, a new light? There was only so much wood we could burn. There were only so many candles we could make. There were only so many batteries we could charge up with pedal power and endless cranking.

We can’t let Mother know, Bicky said. Believe me, all of you. She wouldn’t understand. Old people are like that. It’s just a fact.

So we tried to be careful, but Mother grew mistrustful anyway. We didn’t think she knew exactly what we were up to. She would’ve been a lot more spiny-skinned if that had been true. Locked us up, like Bicky said. At least yelled and switched our legs with sliver grass. Cried. It was so bad when she cried. But all she did was watch us, and watch us, and watch us. And then, today, she tells us not to leave the house.

You stay right there, she says. Don’t you move. No, you can’t go out to play. I want you where I can keep an eye on you.

And she takes off her eye, the one she wears around her neck on a yellow-metal chain, and hangs it on the big hook in the center of the wall, and goes outside. Maybe she’s going to the market, and will be gone for hours. Maybe she’s only going to pace around the yard, and slam back into the room in a few minutes.

That eye doesn’t work, Bicky says. Look at it. It’s all dull and rusty. I bet it hasn’t worked for years. I bet it never worked, and Mother just made pretend that it did.

We all look at the eye. It doesn’t wink, it doesn’t twitch, it doesn’t make any clicky sound. It just hangs there.

It used to work, Verrie says.

Bicky shakes his head.

Coy says, It does. Mother saw me take some red-dog jerky from the bin under the counter. So she made me kneel in the corner with my hands on my head for ever and ever.

She smelled the jerky on your breath, Bicky says, and you were in the corner for ten minutes, tops.

Good thing she doesn’t have an ear, too, Nardo mutters. The rest of us hold our breaths, wondering, What if she does? What if she does and she never told us? We don’t say anything, though. The older boys don’t like it if we interrupt.

Bicky stands up. He’s not allowed to do that. Mother said Don’t move. Bicky’s face is hard. Not spiny, but like the kind of glass that’s hard to break. The kind you have to hit over and over again with a rock to crack it. We found a piece of glass like that once, about as big as Nardo’s foot. Mother took it away from us before we hit it more than a couple of times.

The rest of us stay where we are, sitting on the floor of the big room. The littler ones quit shoving each other and play-wrestling.

What we’re doing is important, and, and, good, he says. We can’t let anybody stop us. The gray kiddies are going to be waiting. If we don’t show up, you think they’re going to hang around?

Nobody says anything, because we all know the gray kiddies are unpredictable. Sometimes they act like they understand everything Bicky says. Other times they throw rocks at us, or worse, and whistle really loud until we have to slap our hands over our ears. Sometimes the gray kiddies are at the place where Bicky started scratching in the dirt, and sometimes they’re not. Could be it wouldn’t matter at all if we missed today. Could be, if we missed today, the gray kiddies wouldn’t ever go back there again.

We’ve been working with the gray kiddies for weeks and weeks. We’d scraped up a lot of dirt. And now we get the new light for two or three seconds at a time, when everything comes together perfectly. It’s better when there were more of us than there are of them. Then the gray kiddies are calmer, mostly. Less biting and whistling and throwing muck.

Bicky stands up, right in front of the eye, and says, Come on. We’re going to the place.

We can’t, says Hill. Mother’ll know. We can’t march out right under her eye.

I’m going, Bicky says, and looks at us, all of us, one at a time. Quickly, though. Glance, glance, glance. He doesn’t linger on any of us, not even Verrie. Who’s coming with me? he asks.

We’re all frozen.

Can’t you see, Bicky says, and his glass-hard face takes on a glow. We’ve come so far. We’re really starting to work together. The grey kiddies are learning. And we’re learning, too. I’m learning.

He is swaying us. Even though the new light is a little bit scary, we want more of it. More than two or three seconds worth. Even Nardo, who was curious to see how hot it really was and ducked under Bicky’s arm and stuck his face right up against it, and got a blister on the tip of his nose, never said he thought we should quit.

We’re not scared of the grey kiddies anymore, despite how they like to jump on us. Grab hold of our shoulders, wrap their arms around our necks, make us give them piggy-back rides. That’s when they’re not rushing off to find the fat-leafed plant they like to chew. When the new light shines, they make a sound that’s not a whistle or a chit-chit-chitter. It’s more like a hoot. We think they like the new light. It can’t be because they like Bicky so much that they keep coming back to the place.

Gray kiddies, Mother says, and she’s standing right behind Bicky, she hasn’t come slamming it at all, but slipping in, a wind-shadow, barefooted and dark and swift, and we all know, know, know in our bones that however old and rusty and dead-looking her eye is, it for damn sure works, and she probably does have an ear, too, maybe hidden in the back part of the eye.

She’s not carrying anything, no sliver-grass switch, no axe handle, not even the Big Spoon, but she’s the farthest thing from hug-again that we have ever seen. If Bicky’s face is hard glass, then hers is stone, craggy and weathered, like the side of a mountain. I used to have daughters, she says. Before all of you. I used to have daughters, but they died. And now all I have are stupid, stupid boys.

We have heard this before, but never in the daytime. Before today, she only said it at night, when we’re all meant to be asleep. Sometimes she says lovely, lovely boys, but not often.

Bicky is still standing up. He is almost as tall as Mother.

We think the new light is important, is good, the way Bicky says, and now Mother will take that away. We can’t jump up and run out of the house. She’s standing right there. We can’t push her down. We can’t hit her. But we don’t want the new light to be lost. We don’t know what to do. Some of us start to cry.

Bicky hasn’t moved. He doesn’t want Mother to see his face. The hard glass is starting to crack. Mother, we found something, he says.

You’ve been playing with wild things, she says. Dirty things. Dangerous things. Her voice is thin and dry, as if she has not had a drink of water for a whole day.

We found something, Bicky says again. His voice is breaking, like his hard glass face. Something good. The gray kiddies are helping us learn how to make it – how to keep it – how to use it.

They’re not people, Mother says. How many times do I have to tell you? You can’t play with not-people. Not-people can’t be your friends. Even if they look like children. Even if they look like little girls.

Some of us glance at each other, surprised. We hadn’t thought the gray kiddies looked like little girls. They didn’t have penises, but that didn’t make them girls, did it? They were gray. Their skin was gray, and their hair was gray, and they had a lot of hair, on their arms and legs and backs and fronts and faces, too. And they bit. And they smelled like rotten carrots. And they whistled and chit-chit-chittered. And hooted sometimes.

We’re not playing, Bicky says. We’re working together. We’re teaching them –

You can’t teach them anything. They’re not people.

Why does that matter so much? Bicky’s shaking now. You don’t know what we’ve found.

I don’t care what you’ve found.

You don’t know what we’re doing –

What you’re doing is dangerous! Mother shouts. If you play with not-people, they will make you not-people, too!

Everybody goes very still. This is the first time we’ve heard that.

Suddenly Verrie speaks, surprising us all. Are they not-people, Mother, or new people?

Like the new light, Bicky whispers. His back is to Mother. Only we see his lips move.

Mother answers Verrie. Not people, she says, her voice gritty, stones rubbing together. People live in houses. People plant gardens. People crank batteries. People make clothes. People trade their goods. People have schools, even if some children don’t want to go. People talk.

People cut wood and build fires, Bicky says, to us. People boil fat and strain it and boil it again and strain it again to make candles. In the daytime, people walk and sit and talk and eat in a grayness twice as gray as the gray kiddies’ skins. At night there is only blackness, and little flickers of flame.

That’s the world, Mother says. If you’re going to cry about the world, you won’t stop until you’ve turned to dust. Now I’m going to send you to bed without any supper, and if there’s any backchat, there won’t be breakfast, either.

We look at each other. Bedtime isn’t for hours and hours yet. It would be awful to have to lie still and do nothing for all that time. And what if the gray kiddies are waiting for us, at the place? Maybe Bicky is right and if we let the gray kiddies down, they won’t trust us again. Maybe all the biting and the jumping and the hair-pulling and the kak-throwing is the gray kiddies’ way of being friendly. They bite and jump on each other, too. And they’re always throwing things, when they aren’t chewing those leaves. Or it could be that the biting and the jumping and all of that is the gray kiddies trying to drive us away, and if we don’t come back to the place, they’ll take the new light for themselves.

We found something, Verrie says. Can we tell you what we found?

No. I don’t care what you’ve found.

It’s something good, Verrie says.

There are no good things left. We used them all up. Now go to bed, all of you.

It’s something new.

New things are never good.

That’s when we’re sure Mother is wrong. Some of us are crying, because we love Mother, we really do. We remember tickles and kisses. We remember hot soup and long stories on cold winter nights. We remember lullabies and laughing in the garden, Mother making funnies about how the vegetables used to be big, and all different colors. We don’t all remember squeezie-toys, but there were many times she came back from the market with old, torn sweaters. It’s not her fault we wore out the blankets, or lost them. Bicky is wrong about Mother always being spiny. She’s spiny now, but that’s because she doesn’t understand.

Bicky doesn’t glance behind him. Who’s coming with me? he asks again.

Don’t you take a step, Mother says. Don’t you leave this house.

Can’t you trust us? Verrie says. Can’t you trust us a little bit?

And he stands up.

And Coy. And Nardo.

And some more, and then some more.

There are so many of us. She cannot stop us all. She can grab some. She can knock some of us down, drag us to the sleeping room, lock us in. But not all of us.

She doesn’t answer Verrie’s question.

Her stone face is cracking, like Bicky’s hard glass face cracked. Most of us have stood up, but Bicky is still trembling, though he’s trying to hide it.

He turns a little, but not so much that he can meet her eyes. We have to go, he says. We’ll be back.

Do I have to lose my boys, too, Mother says, and her voice is sand. All my lovely boys.

And we say No, no, no. Not all of us say it. Not Bicky, not Verrie. But almost everybody else. More of us are crying, and Bicky glares at the weepers.

Then Bicky says something very mean. You can have a couple more litters, can’t you, Mother? Maybe you’ll have girls again. Lovely girls.

We can see her face, though Bicky can’t. He’s looking at the door.
There is dust in her wrinkles. There is sand on her lips. The time for girls is over, she says. Can it be true? we wonder. Sometimes Mother says things just because she’s sad, or mad. Some of us have been to Underpass Settlement. There were girls there.

There must have been girls there.

Bicky walks around Mother and heads for the door. We follow him. Mother doesn’t try to snatch up any of us.

The gray kiddies are waiting at the place. They are not jumping around, or chewing leaves, or chit-chit-chittering. Some of them are sitting around in a loose circle. They whistle when they see us. A few of them are scraping away at the ground, but not where Bicky has been scratching, not where he first found the new light. The gray kiddies are scratching a short distance from there. They don’t whistle. One of them hoots, twice.

They don’t look like girls. But they don’t look like not-people, either. They used to look like not-people. The first time, when one helped Bicky, we were all scared. We knew we were supposed to run away.

Maybe they are new people, like Verrie said. Maybe they’re not not-people, and not new people either. Maybe they’re just what they are. But we’re not afraid of them anymore. We come closer, slowly. There are more of them than there are of us, this time. That’s usually trouble, but the gray kiddies seem calm. The ones sitting down whistle softly. Some of us say Hi, and wave.

What are you doing? Bicky asks the ones who are scraping and scratching in the different place. He looks at the excavation we’ve been working on for weeks. It is long, and wide, and shallow, because we have to move the dirt very carefully. The four or five gray kiddies digging a short distance away are digging faster, and deeper. They hoot. All of them this time, not just one.

Bicky takes a step toward them.

Wait, Hill says. Wait till we know what they’re up to. It could be anything. It could be a trick. A trap. He goes over to our excavation, and peers into it with a worried expression. He crouches, and puts a hand in, moves it the way we’ve seen Bicky move his, but there’s no new light, not even a teeny flash.

The gray kiddies sitting and waiting jump up. The ones digging hoot, and half of them sit down again. But the other half race to our excavation.

Don’t move, Bicky tells Hill. Don’t be scared. They’re not going to hurt you.

The gray kiddies jump on Hill, and jump over him, and pat his back, and bop-bop him on the head, and they’re chit-chit-chittering now, but not too loud, and they don’t pull his hair. One of them jumps on his back again and clings there, and three of them wrap their six-fingered hands around his left arm, and two more lower their hands into the hole we’ve been making for weeks, and they nudge Hill’s shoulder, and the new light suddenly bursts alive. Hill lets out a cry and squeezes his eyes shut. The gray kiddies whistle, very very loud, but for the first time ever, the sound doesn’t hurt. Our ears must’ve gotten used to it.

The new light is silver. That’s all right. It’s always been silver.

The new light is hot. We can feel its warmth from the little rise, where we’ve all been hanging back, all of us except Bicky and Hill. That’s all right. The new light has always been hot.

The new light doesn’t fade out in two seconds, or three seconds, or five seconds. We are counting our breaths; we are counting our heartbeats. The light glows steadily. The gray kiddies drag Hill away from the edge of the wound we have made in the ground; he has to scuttle sideways, on his knees and palms, because they won’t let him stand up.

The silver light continues to shine. We look around, at each other, at Bicky, at the world. We can see more colors than we have ever seen before.

The gray kiddies pile on Hill and hug him tight. He doesn’t protest; he doesn’t try to push them off; he doesn’t call for help. His eyes are still shut.

Hill, Bicky says. Hill. Did you see what they did? Do you understand how they made it work?

The silver light keeps on shining. The world is so full of colors. We hardly know what wonder to look at next.

The gray kiddies are still gray, though. The ones digging in the new space, the space they picked out, hoot at Bicky.

Verrie says, Mother said no new things are good. But she was wrong, wasn’t she? This is good.

Bicky’s face is not hard glass, but it is not peaceful, either. His cheek muscles twitch. He is not smiling. He is breathing hard, though all the rest of us have caught our breaths, after the long run from the house.

I think so, he says. I think this is good. Hill, are you all right?

Yes, Hill says, after a moment. Just a little…shaky.

The gray kiddies hoot at Bicky.

My turn, Bicky says quietly, and we see that he is scared. This is good, he said that it was good, but this new thing is newer than even the new light, and all of us are scared, too.

Bicky walks to the new place where the gray kiddies are scratching and scraping. They do not touch him. He kneels down among them, but does not put his hands into the hole. He stares down into it for a long time. What’s this, he says, but he isn’t talking to anyone, not the gray kiddies, not us. Maybe himself.

The gray kiddies make their six-fingered hands into fists, and thrust them down through the air. Miming hitting? Striking? One puts its hands together, as if holding something big and round. The others keep swinging their fists down through the empty air.

Hit it? Bicky says. Hit it with a rock?

They all hoot. They all hoot loud.

Me? Bicky asks. I should hit it?

They hoot louder. Two of them start jumping.

Verrie, Bicky calls. Get me a rock. A big one. A heavy one. Coy, you help him.

Bicky doesn’t tell the rest of us to do anything. Should we be standing guard? Should we find rocks of our own? Sticks? The only sort of wood we can’t burn is the wood from the sourbark trees, but we’re not allowed to play with any branches that drop off, even if they fall by themselves. But we worry that we are going to need weapons.

Because people are going to come. The silver light keeps pouring out of the hole. People are going to notice that. They are going to come to see what it is. Maybe they’ll be scared of it. Maybe they’d try to cover it up again, throw all the dirt we’d scraped out and piled up back in the hole. For sure they’ll chase the gray kiddies away.

The gray kiddies who are still sitting down slap the ground with their six-fingered hands and chit-chit-chitter like crazy. The ones all on and over Hill are hugging him like he’s the most hug-again thing ever. They’re pulling his hair, but not really pulling it. More like stroking it. They’re biting at his legs and arms and back and face, but not really biting. Play-biting.

Hill pats some of the gray kiddies on their backs. We don’t blame him for keeping his hands away from their faces. Even if the gray kiddies are only play-biting, their teeth are sharp.

The new light is so bright now we can see the dirt under our own fingernails, the petals of the little white flowers (they are white, really white) that grow close to the ground, the scars on our knees, each other’s eyelashes. We look up, and let out gasps. The new light not only spreads across the land, but rises, too. It rises so high it hits the clouds, and is reflected back down again.

The gray kiddies who are still sitting down wave at us who are standing where Bicky and Hill and Verrie and Coy left us. They have never waved before. But we waved first. Did they learn it from us? We wave back. They whistle, and point at the sky.

We don’t whistle. We nod, and point at the sky, too.

Hill is hunting around for a big rock, with Coy at his heels. Bicky hasn’t yelled at him to hurry up once. Bicky’s still staring into the hole the other gray kiddies have dug. Some of us can’t stand it any longer, and call to him. What is it? What do you see?

Something different, Bicky says. Something new.

Like the new light?

Like it, but not like it.

The gray kiddies with Bicky tug at his shoulder, point to us, then point to themselves, then the gray kiddies with Hill, then the ones sitting down. They bend over to look down into the hole, the way Bicky was doing. They look at him again. All these weeks and weeks, when we tried to talk to them, to teach them easy words like stop and get off and dirt, they made like words were no more than the sounds of water lapping against a boulder. Now they are acting like it was summer feast, the day when there was no trading or working, only dancing and singing and games, and clowns rushing around pulling faces and pretending they couldn’t speak, only pointing and gesturing and making shapes with their hands. The gray kiddies can’t have learned that from our people. They have to have thought it up all by themselves. Not-people, or new people, or whatever they are, they aren’t stupid.

We have to share, Bicky says. Us and the gray kiddies.

We understand that. It sounds fair.

There’s not going to be enough for everybody, Bicky says. We’re going to break it into little pieces, but some of us are not going to get a piece. Some of them, too.

That doesn’t sound so good. For sure the older ones are going to get all of the share that’s coming to us.

Verrie finally comes panting up, lugging a rock twice as big as his own head. Coy’s following him. We bet Coy hasn’t done anything other than tag along, but he’s going to get a piece of whatever the new new thing is, just because he’s there.

We look at the gray kiddies who are sitting down. They’re probably thinking the same thing we are.

Bicky looks at the gray kiddies with him, and says, All right? He means the rock. The gray kiddies pat it all over, and hoot softly. Then two of them take one side of it, and Bicky takes the other. Back away, Bicky tells Verrie and Coy. They’re not happy, but they do it, though they don’t come all the way to where the rest of us are.

The other gray kiddies at the new spot reach into the hole and lift out something that we can’t see. It must be small, despite the fact that it takes four of the gray kiddies to bring it out of the hole and set it on a flat bit of ground. Whatever it is, it’s heavy, but we figure that because it’s so small, when Bicky hits it with the rock, he’ll break it into two piece, or four at the most. We ready ourselves for disappointment.

Bicky and the two gray kiddies holding the other end of the rock look at each other, and they all nod at the same time, and they bring the rock down with all their might on the small thing we can’t see. Then they do it again. And again.

Meanwhile, some of us notice that there are more gray kiddies, many more, more than we’ve ever seen before, hiding in the trees at the bottom of the hill. Maybe they’ve been attracted by the new light, which is shining and shining, like it’s never going to stop. We hope it’s never going to stop. We look behind us, to see if any people are coming, too. Yes. We can’t see them yet, but we can hear a rumble, the rumble of angry olders, scared olders, excited olders.

Is Mother with them?

The light is so bright we can see the sweat on Bicky’s face. The gray kiddies don’t sweat. Or if they do, it’s hidden by all their hair.

Bicky and the two gray kiddies lift the rock and bash it down. We don’t know if they’ve noticed we’re going to have company soon.

Suddenly there’s a flash, not like when the new silver light shot out of the excavation we had scraped and scratched over for weeks, but a soft yellow flash, that doesn’t dazzle our eyes or make us flinch. Don’t be scared, Bicky says, but he doesn’t have to. We’re not scared. We haven’t been scared for a while, except maybe of what the olders are going to do when they see the new light. They’re going to be mad. Most of them think like Mother, that nothing new is good.

We want to know what this other new thing is, the small thing that Bicky and the gray kiddies have broken.

Remember we have to share, Bicky says, and everybody nods. He and the gray kiddies set the big rock aside. He’s sweating, but he’s smiling, too. If you don’t get a piece, don’t cry about it.

We are too far away to see how many pieces there are, but we can see the soft yellow light.

Are they hot? Verrie asks.

No, Bicky says. They’re not hot. Don’t be scared.

He lets the gray kiddies go first. One of them scoops up two handfuls of the pieces of not-hot yellow light, and races to the gray kiddies who are sitting down. Were sitting down. They instantly jump up and whistle and chit-chit-chitter and climb on each other and pull each other’s hair and act like they’re about to leap out of their skins.

Two handfuls, we think. That gray kiddie took two handfuls. There’ll be nothing left for us.

Then Bicky bends down and fills both his hands, too.

Then he walks over to us. He doesn’t go to Verrie, or Hill, or Coy. He comes to us, and says, Now behave like people. No jumping or shoving or punching, all right?

We stare at him. We are so surprised we don’t know what to say. He waits until we all nod, then begins giving out tiny, tiny pieces of soft yellow light. He puts one in the middle of each of our palms, until there are none left. He’s right, the pieces are not hot. They are all about the same size, like a pinky fingernail, and just as thin. Some of us don’t get one, but nobody cries.

Those who didn’t get one can’t help asking, Will there be more?

I don’t know, Bicky says.

The rest of us can’t help asking, How long will the little lights last?

I don’t know.

What about the big light?

I don’t know. But it’s good, isn’t it? And the gray kiddies aren’t scared of us anymore, and we’re not scared of them.

It’s good, we agree.

Verrie and Hill don’t look happy, and Coy kicks the ground, but they keep their lips closed.

The olders are coming, we tell Bicky.

Yes, he says. Come on.

We all go down and hide in the trees. The gray kiddies have disappeared, all of them. We never noticed them go. We can still smell them, the ones who were hiding in the trees before us, but that’s all right.

Close your hands, Bicky tells those of us who have a tiny piece of yellow light. We do, but some light leaks out. We’re in the trees, though, far at the bottom of the hill, and when the olders arrive, they all stare and point at the big silver light, and shout at each other.

They do that for a long time.

We look for Mother, but we don’t see her.

The olders argue and make loud about the new hot silver light, but we can see some of them looking around in wonder, too. At the colors, so clear and rich now. At the grains of dirt and blades of grass. At each other’s faces. At their own skins. Even far down the hill, hiding in the trees, the new silver light reaches us.

Bicky, Verrie says. Bicky.

Bicky is lying on his stomach, propped up on his elbows. He looks like he’s dreaming with his eyes open.

Bicky.

What, he says.

What do we do now?

Wait here until night.

I mean after that. Bicky, I mean what are we going to do next?

Bicky doesn’t answer. Maybe he doesn’t know. We all understand what Verrie means. The new silver light illuminates the whole hillside, but the hillside is not very close to where people live. The olders must have seen the reflection in the clouds and come to investigate, but even if they all finally decide that this new thing is a good thing, they can’t take it back with them. The little pieces of soft yellow light some of us are holding tight in our closed fists are good, too, beautiful little lights that we can carry around. Some of us whisper that we need to make little boxes to put the pieces of yellow light in, so we won’t lose them, and some think they can get hold of wire, good wire, and make frames or something like little cages, and then wear the pieces of light around their necks. But not everybody got a piece of yellow light. We want more.

We want more hot silver light, and we want more soft yellow lights. There might even be other kinds of new light that we can find. Us and the gray kiddies.

We want more.

Wait, Bicky says. Just be quiet and wait. He sounds tired.

More olders come, and some olders leave, and some more come, and some others leave, and all the time we watch for Mother, but she doesn’t come.

Night comes. The new silver light shines even more brightly in the blackness. A few of the olders have stayed. They sit together, not talking, just watching. We sneak around them, quietly, carefully. Keep your hands closed, Bicky tells those of us who have pieces of the yellow light, so we make our way home only by the glow that seeps through our fingers.

Mother hasn’t locked the door. She hasn’t put out any food for us, and we haven’t eaten since breakfast, but at least she hasn’t locked the door. She’s in her own room, with the door closed. We hear her in there, crying.

Go to bed now, Bicky says. Come on, all of you. We’ll talk to her tomorrow. And if any of you lose your pieces of light, I’m going to kick the living crap out of you.

We do what Bicky says. We all go to the sleeping room, and lie down. Some of us with pieces of yellow light open our hands. The light is beautiful, golden, wonderful.

Put those in your pockets, or your pouches, Bicky says. It’s all right to sleep in the dark. Come on, we’re all tired.

We obey. And we are all tired, and most of us fall asleep right away.

I wait until I’m sure everybody else is asleep. Absolutely, one hundred percent sure. Then I creep out of the sleeping room, slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully.

I go to Mother’s room. I open the door. She never locks her door, no matter how spiny she gets. She’s not sleeping. She’s sitting on the floor, with one candle burning beside her.

Mother, I say. Mother.

She doesn’t answer, but I come into the room anyway.

Her head is down. She doesn’t look at me.

I take her hand, and turn it, so her palm is facing up. Mother, I say, this is for you. I put my little piece of soft yellow light in her hand. I wait, while she looks at it, and looks at it. I say, It’s a new thing, and a good thing. It’s yours, Mother.

She doesn’t say anything.

I kiss her, and she raises her other hand, and touches me lightly on the cheek. But she still doesn’t say anything. I want her to say something, but she doesn’t. She keeps looking at the little piece of light.

I go out, and close the door. I hear something. I think she’s crying again.

I didn’t want to make her cry, and I almost cry, too, but then I think that maybe Mother needs to cry tonight. Some of the olders on the hillside cried, too. Tomorrow will be different, I think. Tomorrow will be new. And some new things are good.

Tomorrow will be new and good, I tell myself, and the almost-crying feeling goes away. I tip-toe back to the sleeping room.

That was nice of you, Bicky whispers.

I’m scared for a second, but only a second. Bicky’s not mad. He sounds hug-again, and Bicky never sounds like that.

She’s crying, I whisper back.

It’s all right. Go to bed now.

I go to my place, carefully, so I don’t wake anybody up, and I lie down. I wait for sleep. When I wake up, it will be tomorrow.

New.
___
Copyright 2012 Patricia Russo

Patricia Russo’s first collection, Shiny Thing, is available from Papaveria Press.

by Zen Cho

To the women of my family.

The house stood back from the road in an orchard. In the orchard, monitor lizards the length of a man’s arm stalked the branches of rambutan trees like tigers on the hunt. Behind the house was an abandoned rubber tree plantation, so proliferant with monkeys and leeches and spirits that it might as well have been a forest.

Inside the house lived the dead.

The first time she saw the boy across the classroom, Ah Lee knew she was in love because she tasted durian on her tongue. That was what happened–no poetry about it. She looked at a human boy one day and the creamy rank richness of durian filled her mouth. For a moment the ghost of its stench staggered on the edge of her teeth, and then it vanished.

She had not tasted fruit since before the baby came. Since before she was dead.

After school she went home and asked the aunts about it.

“Ah Ma,” she said, “can you taste anything besides people?”

It was evening–Ah Lee had had to stay late at school for marching drills–and the aunts were already cooking dinner. The scent of fried liver came from the wok wielded by Aunty Girl. It smelt exquisite, but where before the smell of fried garlic would have filled her mouth with saliva, now it was the liver that made Ah Lee’s post-death nose sit up and take interest. It would have smelt even better raw.

“Har?” said Ah Ma, who was busy chopping ginger.

“I mean,” said Ah Lee. “When you eat the ginger, can you taste it? Because I can’t. I can only taste people. Everything else got no taste. Like drinking water only.”

Disapproval rose from the aunts and floated just above their heads like a mist. The aunts avoided discussing their undeceased state. It was felt to be an indelicate subject. It was like talking about your bowel movements, or other people’s adultery.

“Why do you ask this kind of question?” said Ah Ma.

“Better focus on your homework,” said Tua Kim.

“I finished it already,” said Ah Lee. “But why do you put in all the spices when you cook, then? If it doesn’t make any difference?”

“It makes a difference,” said Aunty Girl.

“Why do you even cook the people?” said Ah Lee. “They’re nicest when they’re raw.”

“Ah girl,” said Ah Ma, “you don’t talk like that, please. We are not animals. Even if we are not alive, we are still human. As long as we are human we will eat like civilised people, not dogs in the forest. If you want to know why, that is why.”

There was a silence. The liver sizzled on the pan. Ah Ma diced more ginger than anyone would need, even if they could taste it.

“Is that why Sa Ee Poh chops intestines and fries them in batter to make them look like yu char kuay?” asked Ah Lee.

“I ate fried bread sticks for breakfast every morning in my life,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Just because I am like this, doesn’t mean I have to stop.”

“Enough, enough,” said Ah Chor. As the oldest of the aunts, she had the most authority. “No need to talk about this kind of thing. Ah Lee, come pick the roots off these tauge and don’t talk so much.”

The aunts had a horror of talking about death. In life this had been an understandable superstition, but it seemed peculiar to dislike the mention of death when you were dead.

Ah Lee kept running into the wall of the aunts’ disapproval head first. They were a family who believed that there was a right way to do things, and consequently a right way to think. Ah Lee always seemed to be thinking wrong.

She could see that as her caretakers the aunts had a right to determine where she went and what she did. But she objected to their attempts to change what she thought. After all, none of them had died before the age of fifty-five, while she was stuck at sixteen.

“It’s okay if I don’t follow you a hundred percent,” she told them one day in exasperation. “It’s called a generation gap.”

This came after Sa Ee Poh had spent half an hour marvelling over her capacity for disagreement. In Sa Ee Poh’s day, girls did not answer back. They listened to their elders, did their homework, came top in class, bought the groceries, washed the floor, and had enough time left over to learn to play the guzheng and volunteer for charity. When Sa Ee Poh had been a girl, she had positively delighted in submission. But children these days ….

Once an aunt got hold of an observation she did not let go of it until she had crunched its bones and sucked the marrow out, and saved the bones to make soup with later.

“Gap? What gap?” Sa Ee Poh said.

“It’s a branded clothing,” said Aunty Girl. She was the cool aunt. “American shop. They sell jeans, very expensive.”

The aunts surveyed Ah Lee with gentle disappointment.

“Why do you care so much about brands?” said Ah Ma. “If you want clothes, Ah Ma can make clothes for you. Better than the clothes in the shop also.”

So Ah Lee did not tell them about the boy. If the aunts could not handle her having thoughts, imagine how much worse they would be about her having feelings. Especially love–love, stealing into her life like a thief in the night, filling her dried out heart and plumping it out.

Being a vampire was not so bad. It was like eating steak every day, but when steak was your favourite food in the world. It wasn’t anything like the books and movies, though. In books and movies it seemed quite romantic to be a vampire, but Ah Lee and her aunts were clearly the wrong sort of people for the ruffled shirt and velvet jacket style of vampirism.

Undeath had not lent Ah Lee any mystical glamour. It had not imbued her with magical powers, gained her exotic new friends, or even done anything for her acne.

In fact Ah Lee’s life had become more boring post-death than it had been pre-, because at least when she was alive she had had friends. Now she just had aunts. She still went to school, but she was advised against fraternising with her schoolfellows for obvious reasons.

“Anyway, what is friends?” said the aunts. “Won’t last one. Only family will be there for you at the end of the day.”

The sayings of aunts filled her head till they poked out of her ears and nostrils.

Yet here came this boy one fine day, and suddenly her ears and nostrils were cleared. Her head was blown open. The sayings of the aunts fluttered away in the wind and dissolved with nothing to hold on to. Love was like swallowing a cili padi whole.

A classmate caught her staring at the boy the next day.

“Eh, see something very nice, is it?” said the classmate, her voice heavy with innuendo. She might as well have added, “Hur hur hur.”

Fortunately Ah Lee did not have quick social reflexes. Her face remained expressionless. She said contemplatively,

“I can’t remember whether today is my turn to clean the window or not. Sorry, you say what ah? You think that guy looks very nice, is it?”

The classmate retreated, embarrassed.

“No lah, just joking only,” she said.

“Who is that guy?” said Ah Lee, maintaining the facade of detachment. “Is he in our class? I never see him before.”

“Blur lah you,” said the classmate. “That one is Ridzual. He’s new. He just move here from KL.”

“He came to Lubuk Udang from KL?” said Ah Lee.

“I know, right,” said the classmate. This seemed an eccentric move to them both. Everyone had uncles and aunts, cousins, older brothers and sisters who lived in KL. Only grandparents stayed in Lubuk Udang. In three years, Ah Lee knew, none of the people sitting around her in the classroom would still be living there. Lubuk Udang was a place you moved away from when you were still young enough to have something to move for.

Fresh surprises awaited. The first time the boy opened his mouth in class, a strong Western accent came out. It said, “I don’t know” in answer to the obvious question the Add Maths teacher had posed him, but it made even that confession of ignorance sound glamorous.

People said Ridzual had been at an international school in KL. The nearest international school to Lubuk Udang was in Penang, a whole state and Strait away.

“He sounds like TV hor,” said the classmate. “Apparently he was born in US.”

Ridzual called natrium “sodium” and kalium “potassium”. For the duration of his first week at school he wore dazzlingly white hi-top leather sneakers instead of the whitewashed canvas shoes everyone else wore. The shoes didn’t last long–they were really too cool to be regulation. But it didn’t matter that Ridzual had to give them up to the discipline teacher a week after he had started. The aroma of leather hung around him forever after, even when he was only wearing Bata like the rest of the class.

Ah Lee had never been in love but she took to it like a natural despite her lack of practice. She spun secret fantasies about him: the things they would say to each other, the adventures they would have. She would reel off dazzling one-liners; he would gaze at her with intrigued longan seed eyes. She saw them sitting in a cafe unlike any kopitiam to be found in Lubuk Udang, with flowered wallpaper, tiny glossy mahogany tables, and brisk friendly waitresses who took your orders down in a little notebook and did not shout in the direction of the kitchen, “Milo O satu!”

They would sit together at a table, Ridzual’s curly head bent close to her smooth one. They would speak of serious things, but she would also make him laugh. Through this love she would be renewed, brilliant, special.

However lurid her fantasies got, her imagination never stretched beyond conversation. You could not imagine kissing a boy when you were never more than a room’s width away from an aunt. Ah Lee’s favourite time to dream was in that precious space of quiet between getting in bed and falling asleep. She could construct a pretty good Parisian cafe as she lay underneath her Donald Duck blanket. But cafes were one thing: kisses were another. No kiss could survive Ji Ee’s snores from the mattress across the room.

It was no big deal. There was time enough to imagine the later stages of her romance–after all, she had not even got to the overtures. Ah Lee came from a family that believed in being prepared. While staring at the back of Ridzual’s lovely head in class, she wove conversation openers, from the casual to the calculatedly cool.

She then made the fatal mistake of writing them down.

The aunts would have pulled it off if they had left everything to Ji Ee. In life Ji Ee had played the violin. She could have been a professional if her husband had not become envious and depressed, so that she had had to stop playing to keep him happy. She had not touched a violin since, but she still had the soul of an artist. It gave her sensibility.

She sat down next to Ah Lee one day and asked her what she was doing.

Ah Lee was trying to think of nonchalant ways to ask Ridzual what life meant to him.

“Bio homework,” she said. She snapped her exercise book shut.

“Good, good,” said Ji Ee. She looked dreamily into the distance.

They were sitting on the step outside the kitchen door. Behind them came the hiss and clang of Ah Chor making human stomach soup with bucketloads of pepper and coriander. In front of them stood the orchard.

It was one of those blindingly sunny days: the leaves of the trees shone with reflected sunlight, so bright that if you looked at them purple-green shapes remained imprinted on your eyes after you looked away. The heat was relieved by an occasional breeze that lifted the leaves and touched their faces like a caress.

A monitor lizard paused on the branch of a tree to look at them. It blinked and ran up the branch, out of sight.

“When you are young, you must focus,” said Ji Ee. “You must pay attention at school, study hard and become clever. When you are young, that is when you have the best chance. And you are young now, in this modern day, when women can do everything. Can be doctor, can be lawyer. You know none of us went to university. Your Ah Chor wasn’t allowed and when Ah Ma and Sa Ee Poh were young, during the war, everything was too kelam-kabut. I wasn’t clever enough. Aunty Girl’s family couldn’t afford it, so she could only get a diploma.

“But you, Ah Lee, you have all the opportunities. We have lived so long, we have saved enough money. Maybe if you study hard, if you get a scholarship, you could even go to England like my uncle the doctor, your Tua Tiao Kong. Your English is so good. You have a good chance.”

Ah Lee was used to such pep talks. The aunts never scolded; they did not believe in raising their voice. They only “told”. The benefits of only ever being told and not scolded were obvious, but the disadvantage of it was that while people only scolded when you had done something wrong, aunts got to tell all the time.

“I know, Ji Ee,” Ah Lee said. “You all have told me before.” In her daydream Ridzual had been on the point of tucking her hair behind her ear. She was impatient to return to it.

“You must not get distracted by anything,” said Ji Ee. “There will be time for other things when you are older. There is so much time ahead of you. Right now you must focus on your studies. Then we can tell all the neighbours about our clever girl.”

She put her soft hand on Ah Lee’s arm and stroked it. Love came up the arm and melted Ah Lee’s thorny teenaged heart. When Ji Ee said,

“You’ll listen to Ji Ee, ya?”

Ah Lee said pliantly, “Yes, Ji Ee.”

So she never heard the rest of the talk, planned if Ah Lee had proved intransigent, which went into alarming detail about the inadvisability of youthful romance.

The way Ji Ee had two-stepped around the subject matter, Ah Lee would never have known what she was talking about if not for everyone else. All the other aunts believed in the forthright approach, and not one of them could keep a secret.

When Ah Lee came home from school the day after Ji Ee had given her little talk, Ah Chor looked up from the dining table and said,

“Ah girl! Who is this Malay boy? What is he called already?” She turned to Ah Ma. “Ri–Li–Liwat or what?”

Ah Ma did not know any dirty words, and could not have told you what sodomy was if you’d asked her. She said unconcernedly, “Ridzwan, Ma. He is called Ridzwan. Isn’t that right, Ah Lee?”

“Cannot marry a Malay,” Ah Chor told Ah Lee. “They don’t know how to treat their women.”

Ah Lee was surfing the waves of outrage. She started to say, “You all read my diary?” Then she clamped her mouth shut in fury. Of course they had. She could just picture Ji Ee and Aunty Girl reading it out, translating the English and Malay to Hokkien as they went along for the benefit of Ah Chor and Ah Ma and Sa Ee Poh, who could not read. The aunts’ conception of the right to privacy went far enough to allow you to close the toilet door when you were peeing, but no further.

“Ah Ma saw you when you were being born,” Ah Ma said. No further explanation was required.

“Even if you think you will be so happy and the man is so good, you don’t know what can happen,” said Ah Chor. “Do you know or not, they can marry four wives? Malay men …. ”

“Si Gu had four wives. He wasn’t even Muslim,” said Aunty Girl.

Ah Chor said repressively, “Your uncle was a very naughty boy.”

“It wasn’t four wives, not four wives,” said Ah Ma. “Only one wife. The others were girlfriends only.”

“The laksa lady cannot even count as girlfriend,” sniffed Sa Ee Poh. “Remember how she threw a bowl of laksa in his face when he told her he wasn’t going to marry her. Even a laksa lady can put on airs like that.”

“She asked him to pay for it some more!” said Ah Ma. She realised they were enjoying reminiscing about her naughty brother’s adventures rather too much, and changed her face to look serious. “Ah Lee, this is what men are like.”

“Not all men,” said Ji Ee.

“Yes, all men,” said Sa Ee Poh.

“Only bad men,” said Ah Ma. “But when you are young you cannot tell whether a man is a good man or a bad man yet. You are too small. Now you must focus on your studies. Don’t think about this Ridzwan.”

“His name,” said Ah Lee, “is Ridzual.”

She stormed out of the kitchen.

From that day there was no respite for her. The aunts abounded in stories of bad men and the bad things they had done to good women.

“Look at your great-grandfather,” said Aunty Girl.

“Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” said Ah Ma piously. “He was your grandfather, Ah Girl. You should show respect.”

“No need to respect That Man,” said Ah Chor, who had been That Man’s wife.

“This is what happens when you marry too young,” she told Ah Lee. “That Man didn’t even deserve to be called husband. I was only 19 when I had my third child, your Sa Ee Poh, and already he had a second wife.”

“She lived in Ipoh,” Sa Ee Poh confirmed.

“When I found out, I told him, if you don’t stop seeing her, I will take my children and go,” said Ah Chor. “He promised he wouldn’t see her again. But all along after that, little did I know he was going back and forth between me and that other woman! My fourth child is the same age as her second child. He didn’t know how to feel shame! Never mind my heart. At least if she didn’t have children nobody would know. But he didn’t even care enough to save my face.”

Ah Ma was uncomfortable. “Ma, so long ago … it’s not good to speak bad of other people.”

“Ah Lee must know so she won’t make the same mistake,” said Ah Chor. “He didn’t even support the second wife properly, so she came to me asking for money. When I saw her with the baby, I packed up and brought all my children here. Don’t think this was your grandfather’s house! He was rich before he lost it all in gambling, but this was my parents’ home. His creditors couldn’t touch this. All this was my land. If That Man came on it without my permission, I could call the police on him.”

Ah Lee was interested despite herself. “Did you ever see him again?”

“Of course,” said Ah Chor. “Where do you think your four other great-uncles and great-aunts came from?”

“Ma says too much. Shouldn’t talk about such things,” said Ah Ma to Sa Ee Poh, but Sa Ee Poh only laughed.

“We all know this story already,” she said. “Let Ah Lee listen. Maybe she will learn something also.”

“But you said if he came on your land you would call the police,” Ah Lee said to Ah Chor.

“Oh, he was my husband, after all,” said Ah Chor. “I didn’t let him live here. Only visit. I told him, you can come and stay for good only after you get rid of that woman. But he didn’t, so even after he asked and asked, I never went back to him.

“It wasn’t easy, you know or not? Raising eight children with no husband. Lucky my mother was there to help me. That’s why you cannot think about this kind of thing at your age–men, romance. It’s too early.”

“But Ah Ma married Ah Kong when she was 16,” Ah Lee objected. “I am 17 already.”

“That’s not the same,” said Sa Ee Poh.

Ah Ma stared at her hands on the table.

“You forget, girl,” said Ji Ee gently. “There was a war then.”

Ji Ee’s husband wouldn’t let her play the violin, an iniquity long known to Ah Lee. Curiously, if anything was going to stop Ah Lee’s wayward heart from loving Ridzual, it was Ji Ee’s patience when she talked about Ji Tiao.

“He was a good husband. Men have their little ways. They have their likes and dislikes. As long as they are responsible, as long as they look after you and the children, there’s no harm in letting them have their way.”

Ah Lee was less impressed by the wickedness of Sa Ee Poh’s husband. Sa Ee Poh was the only one who spoke about her husband with the complacency of someone who had asked more of love and always received it. But she still complained about her husband’s vegetarianism.

“Sa Tiao Kong being a vegetarian doesn’t sound so bad,” Ah Lee objected. “How was that suffering for you?”

“You think what? I had to be vegetarian also!” Sa Ee Poh retorted. “You think he cooked for himself? I cooked for the two of us. Vegetarian a few times a year or for a few months, I don’t mind. Vegetarian all the time … for the rest of my life I never tasted garlic or onion!”

Ah Ma kept the story about her marriage for the right time. One night Ah Lee’s evening hunt had taken longer than usual, so she got home late and only managed to finish her Add Maths homework after 11. She was feeling creaky-jointed and lonely as she got ready for bed in a house full of night sounds. The beam of light under Ah Ma’s door came as a pleasant surprise.

She poked her head into Ah Ma’s room. “Not sleeping yet, Ah Ma?”

Ah Ma was lying propped up on the pillows, her eyes half-closed, but when Ah Lee spoke she sat bolt upright.

“No! Cannot sleep,” she said in a blatant lie. “Brushed your teeth already? Come sit down next to Ah Ma.”

Ah Lee climbed into bed to the soft melody of Ah Ma’s fussing: “Come under the blanket, you’ll get cold. Let Ah Ma feel your hands. Ah, see lah, so cold! Next time you mustn’t go out until so late. Not good to work so late at night. Why don’t you want to eat dinner with us?”

“I like to have fresh meat sometimes,” said Ah Lee.

“Then don’t be so picky. Ah Ma always tells you, eat the first man you see.”

“I did, Ah Ma,” Ah Lee protested. Now that she was under the blanket with Ah Ma’s bony arm around her and Ah Ma’s warm chest against her cheek, she felt drowsy, protected. “The guy had a motorbike. Didn’t know how to get rid of it.”

“So how? Did you manage to get rid of it in the end?”

“Yes. Flew out of town and dumped it in the middle of an oil palm plantation. No blood stains, and I took off the licence plate.” Ah Ma tsked.

“So difficult,” she said. “Next time just eat with us. We all have hunted for you already. And we are older than you so we know which people are the nicest to eat.”

“OK, OK,” mumbled Ah Lee.

They sat in silence for a while. Ah Lee half-shut her eyes to keep out the light from the lamp on the bedside table. Through the slits of her eyes she could see Ah Ma’s reading glasses and the container in which she kept her false teeth. The teeth floated in cloudy water, yellowed by coffee and blood.

The cicadas screeched. The ceiling fan hummed to itself. The air was cool enough that the breeze it created was a pleasure rather than the necessity it usually was. Ah Lee forgot the persistent sense of irritation she had had since the aunts had found her diary, which had felt as if she had sand in her underwear. She was almost asleep when Ah Ma spoke.

“Do you know why I married your Ah Kong?” she said.

Embarrassment woke Ah Lee up.

“Don’t know,” said Ah Lee. An expectant pause ensued. Ah Ma was waiting for a better attempt at an answer. “Er … you loved him?”

“Where got?” said Ah Ma. “I was 16, a little girl only. How to know what is love yet? Ah Ma washed your backside when you were a baby. Now that is love.”

“That’s different,” said Ah Lee. “You wouldn’t marry someone just because they didn’t mind washing your backside.”

“Don’t answer back to your elders,” said Ah Ma. “No, I married him because of the war. The Japanese soldiers used to come to everyone’s houses looking for young girls. So Ah Chor cut our hair and put us in our brothers’ clothes. It worked with Sa Ee Poh because she was younger and skinny, but you know when Ah Ma was young Ah Ma was so chubby-chubby. Even wearing boys’ clothes, I still looked like a girl.

“When the soldiers came Ah Chor would tell us to run to the forest behind the house and hide there until the soldiers went away. So horrible! Must lie in the mud. Cannot move even with mosquitoes biting your body. When I came back to the house my face looked like it had pimples all over it because of the mosquito bites, and my legs were covered with leeches. I had to sit down in the kitchen and Ah Chor would put salt on them, but you cannot take them off with your hand, you know? Must wait until they drop off. Then when they came off, my legs would bleed everywhere. So horrible.”

“That’s why you never let me play in the forest,” said Ah Lee. “Because you don’t like leeches.”

Ah Ma nodded.

“One day some soldiers came without warning to our house. I was in the kitchen cutting ubi kayu. Those days we had nothing much to eat, only tapioca that we grew ourselves. There was no time to run out to the forest, so I just tried to make myself look small, bent my head over the chopping board. Your Ah Chor was so scared, she offered them all the food: do you want Nescafe, do you want biscuit, this lah, that lah. And she talked. Usually when the soldiers came we didn’t talk so much. Scared they think we asked questions because we were spies or what. But Ah Chor didn’t want them to look at me, so she kept talking. Did they like Malaya? How was Japan like, not so hot? Her Japanese was not so good but she used every word she knew. When she ran out of words she knew, she repeated everything she’d already said.

“But the soldiers kept looking over at me. I was so scared I cut my finger instead of the ubi and the blood went all over the tapioca. And I didn’t even make a sound. The soldiers drank coffee. They talked to Ah Chor, very friendly. Then they finally got up to go. Suddenly their captain turned around and pointed at me. He said,

“‘Can we have that tapioca?’

“All along they were looking at the ubi kayu on the shelf above my head! We gave them all the ubi we harvested from our own plants, even though we went hungry for the next few days. Your great-grandfather said Ah Chor should have given me away instead.”

“That wasn’t very nice of him,” said Ah Lee.

“Men cannot stand having empty stomachs,” said Ah Ma. “After that your great-grandparents were very anxious to see me married. When your Ah Kong came to lodge with us he was already quite old–38 years old–and we only knew him a few weeks before he asked to marry me. But he was a teacher and an educated man and the Japanese respected him, so my mother and father said yes.”

A hush. Ah Lee said into it, “He wasn’t so bad, was he?” She remembered her grandfather as a benign figure, distant, but kindly enough when he was reminded of your existence.

“Your Ah Kong was a good father,” said Ah Ma. “All his students at his school looked up to him. Even the Japanese could see that he had a good character. And he knew how to be polite. He never said a bad word to me.

“But when a girl marries so young, to someone so much older … and he was educated, and I couldn’t even read. I could hold a pen but I could only draw pictures with it. Ah girl, you must never tell anybody this. But your Ah Kong did not respect me. Without love you can live a happy life. Love is something that will come after you live together with your husband, after you have children together. But a woman should not marry where there is no respect. Respect is the most important thing.

“So you must study hard and go to university. Now, at your age, is not the time to look at boys. Understand or not?”

“Yes,” said Ah Lee. But the mutinous thought rumbled to the surface of her mind: They’re the ones who don’t understand.

When she was a child Ah Lee had often wondered whether adults could read her mind. They seemed to have an uncanny ability to tell what she was thinking at any given moment. Ah Ma evinced this telepathy now:

“Ah, you’re angry already,” she said. “Don’t think so much. Listen to Ah Ma and do what you’re told. Now give me a kiss and go to bed.”

In the end it was not even Ah Lee’s doing. Suddenly, easily, without any need for imaginary cafes or prepared lines scribbled in exercise books, Ah Lee became friends with Ridzual.

It was because of Thursdays. Ji Ee and Aunty Girl were the only two of the aunts who could drive, so it was their job to pick Ah Lee up from school. But they had line dancing every Thursday and so they were an hour late.

Ah Lee usually waited for them in the canteen, doing homework if she felt like it and daydreaming if she didn’t. In the middle of the day there weren’t many people around, and it was pleasant, even quiet. It smelled of grease, heated metal from the car park, and the freshly-washed flesh of the afternoon session kids waiting for school to start.

The background hum of talk and the hiss of oil in frying pans made Ah Lee feel secure. She liked the feeling of being idle while others were busy, alone when others were talking.

It was at this peaceful moment, while Ah Lee was following a drop of condensation on her glass of iced soy bean milk with a finger and thinking about nothing much, that Ridzual tapped her on the shoulder. He said,

“Tamadun Awal, right?”

And that was how she met him. The boy who gave her back her sense of taste.

He dropped his schoolbag on the floor and sat on the bench next to her with an admirable lack of self-consciousness.

“Your name is Eng Ah Lee? Don’t worry, I’m not a stalker. I know ‘cos I was checking out all our team members in class. I’m using this project as an exercise to get to know people. My name’s Ridzual, I’m new. So what do you think of early civilisations? I don’t know shit about them.”

Despite her many fantasies, Ah Lee had not seriously considered ever actually talking to Ridzual. She waited for her throat to close and her muscles to freeze. But she found herself speaking naturally, as if to a friend whom she had known forever.

“It’s OK. I like this kind of thing,” she said. “Anyway, at least it’s not Persatuan Penulis or whatever.”

“Hah! Don’t even say that,” said Ridzual. “No, that’s true. At least with Tamadun Awal maybe we can dress up like Ancient Egyptians or something. I think I’d look good in eyeliner.”

“Nanti kena rotan by the discipline teacher then you know,” said Ah Lee. “You know Puan Aminah doesn’t even let us wear coloured watches. Must be black, plain black strap.” She showed him the watch she was wearing. “Metal watch also cannot. Too gaya konon.”

“Wah lau,” said Ridzual. He said it in a toneless accent Ah Lee found peculiarly charming. “I think that woman is just jealous. Like when she confiscated my shoes. She couldn’t stand looking at them, just got too jealous of my style.”

It would have been obnoxious if he had been serious. But Ridzual wore a perpetual embarrassed smile, an uncertainty around the eyes, that made it obvious that the hot air was just joking. Ah Lee liked vulnerability in a human, and she warmed to this.

“She took your shoes?” she said. They both looked down at his feet, now encased in boring white canvas. “Never give back meh?”

“I never saw them again,” said Ridzual. “I think she’s wearing them now. Sometimes if you look closely you can see the white flash under the hem of her baju ….

“Discipline teachers cannot stand me,” he said mournfully. “I remind them of what they can never achieve. At my last school there was one teacher like that. Encik Velu. He used to chase me around the school with a rotan. He said it’s because I ponteng or I made rude signs at the teacher or I kencing in the beaker or some garbage like that. But he couldn’t fool me. I knew it was because he wished he was like me when he was young, one million years ago.”

“You peed in the beaker?” said Ah Lee.

“Only once,” said Ridzual modestly. “It was for science. I wanted to titrat it but the kimia teacher stop me before I can do it.”

“International school got discipline teacher meh?” said Ah Lee.

“What makes you think I went to international school?” said Ridzual. Ah Lee went pink.

“Your slang,” she said. “You talk like Mat Salleh.”

“Oh, that,” said Ridzual. It was his turn to look embarrassed. “That’s called a Bangsar accent. But don’t hold it against me. I’m trying to be a Lubuk Udangite. A good prawn.”

“I’ve live in Lubuk Udang my whole life,” said Ah Lee.

“Right? What should I do to become a good Lubuk Udangite?”

“Don’t call us prawns,” said Ah Lee.

Ah Lee had not had a friend to spend break with since she’d started at that school. She did not eat during break. It had seemed simpler to avoid the crowd at the canteen, and find some out-of-the-way spot on the school grounds where she could read.

Of course, it had been different before she was dead. But that was before, in another life–and more importantly, at a different school.

Now that she and Ridzual were friends, Ah Lee bought a bag of keropok lekor in the canteen every day and ate them while Ridzual wolfed down a bowl of tomyam noodles.

She had loved the chewy fried fish sticks in life. Now she was dead they tasted of nothing. She ate slowly and threw the remaining keropok away when break was over. She felt bad about the waste of it–heart-pain, the aunts would have said. Ah Lee’s upbringing had trained her to a mindful parsimoniousness, so that it did almost feel like a physical pain to see the fish sticks tumbling into the bin.

She asked Tua Kim if she would disguise some innards for her to take to school.

Tua Kim considered her a moment in silence. Then she said,

“I’ll deep-fry them. They’ll look like chicken nugget.”

She turned back to her washing.

“Er, Tua Kim,” said Ah Lee. “Um, don’t tell the others, OK or not? Ah Chor and Ah Ma and all of them. Ah Ma will scold me for eating fried things. She’ll say I’ll get pimples.”

When Ah Lee saw Tua Kim’s face she felt foolish for the lie.

“This is because of your friend,” Tua Kim said, in the tone of one pointing out an obvious fact to a dim person.

Ah Lee looked down at her feet. Her smallest toes curled in embarrassment.

“I’m shy to be the one not eating,” she mumbled. “People like to eat together.”

“You need your own friends,” said Tua Kim. When Ah Lee peeked up she saw that Tua Kim’s face had not softened. She spoke almost sternly. It was not kindness in her face, but understanding.

“You need your own thing,” said Tua Kim. “Something that’s nothing to do with your family. You feel this especially when you’re young, but even for old people it’s important. Some people don’t understand this kind of thing. So it’s better not to talk so much about it.”

She wiped her hand on a dishcloth and started putting the clean dishes back in the cupboard. “I’ll put your snack in your backpack in the morning. Other people don’t need to see.”

“Thank you, Tua Kim,” said Ah Lee.

She had never thanked an aunt for anything before. It was understood that they would do things for her, that that was the way the world worked. She did not need to thank them any more than trees thanked the sun for shining or the earth thanked the clouds for rain. Ah Lee was not sure the aunts would have understood or even registered any attempt on her part to express gratitude for the many ways in which they cared for her.

It made her feel funny to say the words–stripped, somehow. Skinless and shy. To say it was to contemplate a world in which the aunts did not look after her.

Tua Kim only inclined her head slightly to show she had heard. She made no other response. That was one thing you could rely on Tua Kim for. She had a sense of the appropriateness of things.

The next day at school Ah Lee opened her plastic container and almost felt normal, eating fried kidney nuggets as if she were any ordinary kid at school. Ridzual sneaked looks at the nuggets as he was eating his tomyam noodles. When he had finished his noodles, he said casually,

“What’s that?”

Ah Lee had expected this. Food was for sharing. If she had been human she would have responded to his interest by offering him a nugget.

This simple unthinking generosity had been put beyond her power after her death–one reason why she had not bothered with friends until Ridzual. Fortunately there was a simple way of avoiding awkwardness.

“Pork,” she said. She ate another nugget.

“I’ve always wondered what pork tastes like,” said Ridzual to the air.

“I’ve always thought it’s very important to respect other people’s religion,” said Ah Lee to the nuggets.

“What is life if you don’t taste everything that the world has to offer?” said Ridzual.

“In this country we must accept other people’s customs,” said Ah Lee. “Not just tolerate, but respect. That is how to live together.”

Ridzual laughed and gave up.

“If you don’t want to share your nugget, say lah,” he said. “Why so shy to admit you’re greedy?”

“Who’s greedy now?” said Ah Lee. “One bowl of tomyam, how many otak-otak–tak cukup ke? Your mother and father don’t feed you?”

“I’m a man! Men need nutrition, OK,” said Ridzual with dignity. Ah Lee made jeering noises through a mouthful of nugget.

Of course perfect happiness could not be allowed to continue without an aunt stepping in to intervene. If anyone had ever dared to suggest to the aunts that children should be allowed to make their own mistakes and learn from them, it would have horrified the aunts.

Ah Lee was doing her Chemistry homework in the kitchen one afternoon when Aunty Girl said,

“Wah, studies so funny meh? Why are you smiling?”

Ah Lee started. She had been thinking about her conversation with Ridzual about nuggets, but she hadn’t realised she was smiling.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Must be that small boy,” said Ji Ee.

“No!” said Ah Lee a little too loudly. “Everything is Ridzual this, Ridzual that. You think that’s the only thing I think about, is it?”

Before this outburst, the aunts had been absorbed in their usual afternoon task of preparing dinner and had only been making chat for the sake of it. They squatted over their buckets of viscera, sorting the nice bits of the human innards (the intestines, the liver, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs) from the less nice bits (the spleen, the gallbladder, the oesophagus).

Now the aunts were all interested. Aunty Girl even washed her bloody hands and came to sit at the table with Ah Lee.

“Who’s this Ridzual?” said Ah Chor.

“She’s talking about that Malay boy, ma,” said Ah Ma. “What’s his name again–Ridzwan.”

“Oh, Ridzwan,” said Ah Chor. “Why, Ah Lee still likes this Ridzwan? I thought that was all finished already!”

“Ah Lee doesn’t so easily forget,” Ji Ee chided.

“That’s right,” said Aunty Girl. “She doesn’t stop liking things so fast. Remember when she was small, she liked that English show, what was it called–” she switched to English for the title: “‘My Little Horsie’. She had all those horse toys, with the long hair and the stars on the backside. She liked it for two years! From four until six.”

“It’s because she has a good memory,” said Ji Ee.

“Children usually don’t remember things for so long,” Ah Ma agreed. “Ah Lee only. Never forgets anything!”

“Men are not like My Little Heh Bee,” said Ah Chor reprovingly. “There’s no problem with liking little heh bee for a long time. But Ah Chor has already told you, so many problems come if you like a man.”

“You should use your good memory to remember what is in your textbooks, not for remembering your boyfriend,” said Sa Ee Poh.

“He is not my boyfriend,” said Ah Lee. “We are just friends. Can’t I have friends?”

“Ah Lee, friends are not a problem,” said Ji Ee.

“No, you cannot have friends,” said Ah Ma.

“Ma,” Ji Ee protested. “You let me have friends when I was Ah Lee’s age. There’s nothing wrong with boy friends–not sweethearts, not at this age, but boy friends are OK. That’s normal.”

“Your time was different,” said Ah Ma. “Ah Lee is not like you. Ah Lee is not normal.”

She looked up at Ah Lee.

“Ah Lee, you are not like any of us,” she said. “When we were young we could have boy friends.”

We couldn’t,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Not you and me. Never mind sweethearts. Ma didn’t even allow us just to be friends with boys.”

“Yes, I never let you,” Ah Chor agreed. “After a certain age, it doesn’t look nice for a good girl to be around boys too much.”

Ah Ma ignored them.

“When we were older we could get married, and everybody could come to our wedding,” she said. “There was nothing to hide. It’s not the same for you.

“Ah Ma wants you to get married some day. Ah Ma wants you to graduate from university. Maybe you will never have children, but you can be a good scholar and have a good job. Other people will admire you. Your husband will respect you.

“But for this to happen, people cannot know. You must be very careful. You have to go to school so you can study, but you must make sure people don’t remember you. No friends. Don’t talk too much to teachers. You remember we all told you this before you started school again.”

Ah Lee remembered. She stared at her exercise book. Ridzual had written “what does any of it MEAN” at the bottom of the page. She had whited it out with liquid eraser, but the words showed through after the white fluid had dried.

“If you are friends with Ridzual that is even worse than if you like him,” said Ah Ma tenderly. “You must not go around with him anymore.”

“Don’t do it suddenly,” said Ji Ee. “Slowly just become more distant. Don’t drop him immediately, but don’t need to talk to him so much. He will get the hint.”

“Things will change in the future,” said Aunty Girl. “When you are older, at university, it’ll be easier to hide. You can have friends there. But this place is too small. Everybody knows everybody’s business. It’s better to keep to yourself.”

“There’s no need to be so sad, girl,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Even if you hurt his feelings, he won’t remember you after a while. Young people recover very fast.”

I will remember, thought Ah Lee. She did not want to cry because the aunts made such a fuss when you cried. She gulped and squeezed her pen and looked at Tua Kim.

Tua Kim was sorting through the slippery organs, listening to the conversation but not part of it. She said, eyes still on the bucket, “Every woman has secrets.”

“Hah! Very true,” said Aunty Girl. “When you get married, you won’t be the only bride who knows something the groom doesn’t know. Cousin Kah Hoe didn’t even know his wife was pregnant until she had the baby six months after the wedding.”

“He never found out who the father was also,” said Sa Ee Poh.

“Shh! Eh, enough!” said Ah Chor, scandalised. “Shouldn’t talk about such things.”

“Don’t listen to your naughty aunties,” Ah Ma told Ah Lee.

How could you die and not be old enough to hear about premarital sex? How could you die and still not be allowed to fall in love or be honest? Surely not everything had to wait for university and a good job. Passion and truth had to trump even those things.

Still, it wasn’t a conscious decision on Ah Lee’s part to rebel. She was not even thinking about the many-aunted lecture when the urge to candour came to her.

It was a Thursday again, Ji Ee and Aunty Girl’s line dancing day, and Ah Lee and Ridzual were hanging around waiting for their respective rides home. They had found the perfect width of concrete ledge to sit on next to the monsoon drain outside their school. From here they had an unobstructed view of the road, and a big leafy flame-of-the-forest provided dappled shade.

It was so sunny the whole world gave off a metallic glare. Ah Lee and Ridzual sat on their ledge, squinting at the road.

Ah Lee surprised herself when she said,

“Ridzual, do you have any secrets?”

Once it was out she felt a great sense of relief. She knew she wanted to tell him. She was sick of keeping everything important to herself, hidden away from the piercing gaze of the aunts.

“Yah,” said Ridzual slowly. “Yes. Funny you should say that. I’ve been thinking I should tell you one of them.”

Ah Lee was nonplussed.

“Oh, but I was going to tell you–” she said. “Um, never mind.”

“Oh, if you were going to say something, then you should say first,” said Ridzual.

“No, it’s OK, you go first,” said Ah Lee.

“My secret isn’t very interesting,” said Ridzual. “You say first lah.”

“My one is very interesting,” said Ah Lee firmly. “It’ll take long time to tell. You go first.”

“Cannot,” said Ridzual. He got up off the ledge, fell into a squat, bent his head and put his hands in his hair.

Ah Lee started to feel worried. She had never seen Ridzual act like this before. Something seemed really wrong. Maybe something bad had happened at home. She got up and touched his shoulder.

“Eh, why like this? What’s wrong?”

“My life,” moaned Ridzual.

Ah Lee felt relieved. If Ridzual was in a good enough mood to whine then he was manageable.

“Eh! Merajuk already,” she said. “Don’t need to sulk like that. How old are you?”

When Ridzual lifted his head she saw his eyes were wet.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. “It’s nothing to you. There’s nothing wrong. I just like you, that’s all. That’s my big secret. Probably you know already, probably it is very obvious. You want you laugh lah. But it’s the first time I’ve ever been in l-love, so sorry if I want to make a big fuss about it.”

He shoved his head under his arm and sniffed.

Ah Lee did not know what face to make.

“Oh,” she said foolishly. “Oh–but–”

Ridzual threw up his hand.

“It’s OK!” he said. “Don’t say! I know the answer. I’ve embarrassed myself enough. Just out of the kindness of your heart, can you please don’t say anything?”

“But I–”

“For five minutes!” said Ridzual. “In five minutes my dignity will return. Just leave me in peace to enjoy my misery for five minutes, OK?”

Ah Lee began to frown.

“Don’t need to be so drama,” she said. “You think this is Cantonese serial or what? I had something to tell you too, remember?”

There was a pause in which Ridzual did not move or even show that he had heard. Then he rubbed his eyes. He rearranged his limbs, sat down on the ledge, and looked at her.

“Sorry,” he said. “That wasn’t so gallant of me.”

“No,” Ah Lee agreed. “Not gallant langsung.”

“I’m not so good at this love declaration stuff,” said Ridzual.

“Yeah, true.”

“You don’t have to agree when I kutuk myself!” said Ridzual. He gave her the sweetest half-smile. His eyes were red and his lashes were still wet.

“What did you want to tell me?” he said.

“I–” said Ah Lee.

She found she could not do it. It was absurd. She had promised herself that she would tell him that she liked him, and not just as a friend. She liked him liked him.

It had seemed so easy five minutes ago. It ought to be even easier now. She had only to say, “I like you back.” But what if Ridzual didn’t believe her? What if he thought she was just saying it to comfort him? What if, once she said it, he revealed that he had just been joking about liking her? Could she stand to give so much of herself away?

The words stuck in her throat. She said:

“I–”

Through a process of thought even she did not understand, she swerved and went for what felt like the less difficult truth. She said:

“I’m a vampire.”

It was not the most intelligent thing she had ever done.

“What?” said Ridzual.

“That’s why you can’t share my nuggets,” Ah Lee said wildly. “They’re not not-halal because they’re made of pork. They’re not halal because they’re made of human.”

At first Ridzual looked as if he might believe her. He looked at her for a long time, his mouth grim. His eyebrows knitted, his mouth twisted–then his face cleared and he laughed.

“You’re such a freak,” said Ridzual. “You’re the weirdest person I know. Is that how you always try to change the subject in an awkward situation? ”Scuse me, sir, your fly is undone. But don’t worry about it, I’m a werewolf!'”
He rubbed his eyes.

“Sorry ya,” he said. “I’ll be normal again soon.”

Ah Lee should have been relieved, or maybe touched, or any one of a number of benign emotions. Instead she felt vexed. You told someone the biggest secret you had and they didn’t even take you seriously!

“You know, everything is not about you,” she snapped. “I don’t say things just because of you. Men!”

She changed to show him. It was always too easy to change when she was angry.

What was she thinking? she asked herself later. She knew that love was supposed to make you act funny, but she did not know that it could actually deprive you of all common sense. Or kindness. It was not kind to show that to a human.

What Ridzual saw was a cold grey face, a face incontrovertibly dead. The features were Ah Lee’s own everyday features, but the skin did not have the comforting human glow–the flush in the cheek, the sweat on the upper lip. The texture of it was such that it did not even look like skin. Her face looked like it was made out of plastic.

The long black hair hung around the face lankly. The eyes were white. When her mouth opened, a musty inorganic smell gusted out. The tongue was bright red, the colour of fresh arterial blood, and it was too long.

The teeth were perfectly ordinary.

Maybe a part of her was hoping that he wouldn’t be horrified, that he would still like her. Most of her was the sensible Ah Lee she had always been, however, so it was with resignation that she watched Ridzual step back, drop his schoolbag, whimper and turn and run.

She watched him run down the road, his limbs flailing and growing smaller. When he reached the junction at the end of the road, he stopped and doubled over. He would be bathed in sweat–the sun was unforgiving today, and Ridzual always skipped PE classes. He paused and Ah Lee could almost see him wonder whether he should scrape up his dignity and come back to the forgiving shade, or keep jogging and probably have sunstroke.

She felt her tragedy crust over with awkwardness.

“Why this kind of thing always happen to me?” said Ah Lee miserably.

But then, thank all the gods that ever were, Ji Ee’s small brown Proton turned into the road. In five minutes Ah Lee would be able to get into the car and pretend she didn’t see Ridzual walking back to their spot next to the monsoon drain, his hand shielding his eyes, his eyes not looking in her direction.

Ah Lee could not bear to ask Ah Kim to stop making her fried human nuggets. The first day after her confession she took them to the canteen as usual.

But then it was an agony to be sitting alone. It took so long to chew each nugget when she wasn’t using her mouth for talking. She caught glimpses of Ridzual through the crowd, queueing up for his tomyam and awkwardly not looking at anyone because he didn’t have any friends except her. The nuggets tasted like paper. It was as if she was eating human food.

After that she avoided the canteen. Behind one of the school blocks there was a narrow channel that ran between the building and the wall that surrounded the school grounds. It had become a repository for unwanted things: buckets of dried paint were lined up along the wall, and broken old furniture came here to die. Ah Lee fit right in. Here she could sit and read in peace, just as she had done before she’d ever become friends with Ridzual.

A week after her life was ruined–five long, dreary days during which she and Ridzual carefully ignored each other at school–she had only got seven pages into her book. She was reading the eighth page at break, the words flying out of her mind the minute they entered through her eyes, when Ridzual said,

“Good book?”

Ah Lee jumped and punched Ridzual in the chin.

“Ow!” said Ridzual.

“What lah you, coming out of nowhere like that,” Ah Lee snapped, to cover her relief.

“Sorry lah,” said Ridzual in a mild complaining tone. He rubbed his jaw. “What is this, WWF? Man, you have a strong right hook.”

Awkwardness rose like a wall between them.

“It’s because I did taekwando since I was small,” said Ah Lee flatly. “Not because I died.”

Ridzual looked around for a chair, but failed to locate one. In a government school chairs only got rejected from classroom duty for a real fault, such as having a hole in the middle of the seat, or being in several pieces. He sat down on the ground instead.

“I didn’t even know such things were real,” he whispered. He did not look up at her. “How did you become a–a–”

“Vampire?” said Ah Lee.

“Is that what you call it?” said Ridzual. “Isn’t that a bit different?”

Ah Lee said, “You want to say it? You want to tell me what am I?”

Ah Lee never said her real name herself.

‘Vampire’ was safe. ‘Vampire’ was like Dracula, like goofy old black and white films, like pale ang moh boys who swooned over long-haired girls. Vampire was funny, or sexy, depending on which movie you watched.

The right word was not funny. It was not sexy. Most of all, it was not safe.

Ridzual had a boyish disregard for subtextual cues. He did not seem to notice how wound up Ah Lee was. He said, softly, as if he were speaking to himself,

“You know, I like you. I really like you.”

“Har,” said Ah Lee noncommittally.

“I’ve really never liked anyone as much as I like you,” said Ridzual. “In my life. Not even as a, a girl. I’ve never even had a friend I liked as much as you.

“When I’m with you I feel like life is exciting. Like everything has an interesting secret behind it, like nothing is normal or boring. That’s how you make me feel. Not even by doing anything. Just when I’m hanging out with you.”

Ah Lee said in a stifled voice, “That’s how I feel when I’m with you too.”

Ridzual reached down to into his pocket.

“That’s why you deserve this,” he said.

Ah Lee had just enough time to register that he had a long, rusty nail in his hand when Ridzual flung himself at her, aiming the nail at her throat.

When you are dead, certain things stop mattering as much as they do to the living. Time, weight, pain all lose some of their meaning.

The protein-high diet and frequent exercise in chasing down prey are also excellent for the muscles.

Ah Lee caught Ridzual’s lunging body and threw him with no trouble. While he lay on the ground, stunned, she slipped the nail out from between his fingers.

“What’s this?” she shouted. “What’s this? You trying to play the fool, is it?”

She felt as if the top of her head had come off.

Ridzual looked terrified.

“I was–I was–”

“What?” roared Ah Lee.

“I just–” Then Ridzual said, in one breath, “I googled and it said if I put a nail in your neck you would stop being a hantu and become a beautiful woman, and I thought maybe then we could be together, but turn out I wasn’t fast enough, I’m sorry–”

“How dare you?” gasped Ah Lee.

“I just wanted to save you, OK!” Ridzual rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it in time.”

“Who you think you’re talking to?” said Ah Lee. “There is no Ah Lee the vampire and Ah Lee your friend–the girl who use to be your friend. I am just one person. If you make not a vampire anymore, doesn’t mean we can be–be dating. If you make me not a vampire anymore, means there is no me anymore. You understand?”

She threw the nail on the ground. She wasn’t quite angry enough to aim it at Ridzual, but it pleased her in a horrible way when he flinched.

“And one more thing,” said Ah Lee. “I am already a beautiful woman, dungu!”

She stomped off without looking back.

Ah Lee felt strong and brave all day, big with her righteous anger like a balloon full of air. It took her through the rest of the school day and the ride home.

When she took off her shoes at the front door the air hit her nose, crowded with homey smells: coriander and hong yu and the stale scent of clean blankets. The balloon popped. Ah Lee drew in a huge breath and expelled it as a sob.

She sat down on the sofa in the living room and wept for half an hour.

“Girl, what’s the matter?” said Ji Ee.

“What’s happening?” said Ah Chor.

“Hao ah,” said Ah Ma. “Crying!”

“Crying?” said Ah Chor. “Ah Lee is crying?”

“You’re crying, is it?” said Sa Ee Poh.

The diagnosis bounced from aunt to aunt, each aunt repeating it to another for certainty.

“So old already still crying!” said Ah Chor.

“Nobody has died. Your stomach is not empty. What is there to cry about?” said Sa Ee Poh.

“Ah girl, don’t cry lah, ah girl,” said Ji Ee.

“Teacher scolded you, is it?” said Ah Ma. “Or is it because Ji Ee and Aunty Girl were late when they picked you up from school?”

“Ah, that’s it, late!” said Ah Chor sternly. “Always late! What’s the use of all this line-dancing? Now you are late to pick Ah Lee up and you have made her cry.”

“She is so big already. I thought she can look after herself for an hour,” said Aunty Girl, but she spoke with contrition, conscious that she was in the wrong.

“Ah girl, don’t cry,” said Ji Ee. “Ji Ee won’t be late anymore. We don’t need to go dancing. Ah, so old already, we won’t miss it!”

Ah Lee loved that Ji Ee and Aunty Girl danced. Her voice pushed through the terrible loneliness that locked her throat and said,

“It’s not that!”

“What is it?” said Aunty Girl.

“I never believed in all this dancing thing,” said Ah Chor. “In my time girls didn’t put themselves up there on the stage for people to look at it. It’s not so nice.”

“Ma, their dancing is not like cabaret,” said Sa Ee Poh. “It is exercise, like taichi or aerobic. Anyway the girls are so big already. Why not let them do it?”

“Ah Lee says it’s not that anyway,” said Ah Ma. “What is it, girl?”

But Ah Lee couldn’t say.

Tua Kim was the only one who had stayed in the kitchen when Ah Lee started crying. Now the sound of the tap running stopped and she came into the room, wiping her hands on a rag. A momentary lull had fallen as the aunts waited for Ah Lee to reply, so everyone heard Tua Kim when she spoke, even though her voice was as quiet as it always was.

“What did the boy do?” said Tua Kim.

The silence flattened out and grew solid.

In the hush, Tua Kim sat down on the sofa next to Ah Lee and put her arm around her. The aunts were not from a generation that hugged. Tua Kim did it in a detached, almost a clinical way. In the same way the aunts had picked Ah Lee up and carried her when she was too exhausted to walk, those first few hours after she died.

“Tell Tua Kim,” said Tua Kim.

So she did.

Ah Lee went to bed feeling pleasantly hollow and tired from crying so much. Her eyes were red and the skin around her nostrils was rough, but she felt clean and quiet inside. Aunt after aunt came into her room on some pretext, to lay their soft wrinkled hands on her head and make sure her blanket was tucked around her properly. She slept like the virtuous dead, dreamless and innocent.

The next morning she felt newly-minted, born again. She walked past Ridzual’s desk without a tremor, and went home feeling almost happy, feeling like maybe she could get over him and it would be OK some day.

It would start hurting again soon. The sense of invulnerability wouldn’t last forever. The aunts would stop spoiling her and start chiding her for still being upset about it. But some day she’d stop being upset, stop missing Ridzual at all, and when she was done with school she would go to university far away from Lubuk Udang, and maybe there she’d meet someone nicer than Ridzual.

She needed quiet to study Add Maths, so instead of working in the kitchen as usual, she sat down in her room and buried herself in exercises until the light turned. She switched on her desk lamp, and the action made her aware of a quietness in the house.

She got up and walked through the silent dark house, wondering. There was no one in the kitchen. The living room was empty. It was six thirty, past the hour when Sa Ee Poh’s favourite Cantonese serial would have begun–and yet the house was auntless.

They must have gone out hunting, though it was late for that. Ah Lee herself preferred to hunt at night, under the cover of darkness, but the aunts did not even think you should laugh loudly before going to bed, or it would give you nightmares. Hunting was considered far too stimulating an activity to engage in so close to bedtime. They preferred to hunt in the afternoon, when the household chores were done and the humans were dozy.

It was strange that they had all gone out at the same time. Even on the rare occasion that the aunts went out hunting in a body, one of them usually stayed at home–often Tua Kim, because Tua Kim disliked the mess and exertion of hunting. Somebody had to make sure Ah Lee had fed herself and did her homework. Somebody had to look after her.

With that thought, Ah Lee knew where the aunts had gone.

She didn’t bother going back to her room to turn off the lights, or changing out of her pasar malam T-shirt and faded grey shorts, or putting on shoes. She burst through the back door and leapt straight out in the evening sky.

Most of the time Ah Lee was a girl. Her body and her mind were more used to it. Being in vampire mode made her uncomfortable. She avoided it as much as she could.

But whenever she slipped into it, it was like putting on a pair of slippers after a long day of standing in high heels, like stepping out of a ferociously air-conditioned room into the welcoming warmth of the outside world.

Her whole self relaxed. Her body became a weapon: smells grew sharp, her vision cleared. Ordinary thoughts were big vague clouds, too complicated and light to bother about, and through the clouds thrust the one vital thing, red and pulsing like a fresh bruise–hunger.

Hovering above Lubuk Udang, she became invisible. The dying sunlight shone through her bones. The scents of the town floated up to her: a woman’s jasmine-scented hair, the stink of the underarms of a tired hawker stallholder, the smell of someone’s earwax. Anything else, anything not human, smelt pale in comparison, like water, but she could distinguish those scents if she concentrated hard enough, pulling them up from beneath the textured smells of humans.

The aunts would smell of nothing. But she knew Ridzual’s scent. She sorted through the scents coming to her on the wind; his wasn’t there. It might be too late already. How long had it been since they’d left? And once Ridzual was meat she wouldn’t be able to find him–he wouldn’t smell of himself anymore. He would just smell of food.

She dove through the sky, following her nose.

The sky was going grey and the sunlight was fading when Ridzual left school. His dad would be busy getting dinner ready and his mom was outstation, so he’d told his dad he would cycle home. It would take half an hour, but the air was soft and humid in the evening, cool enough to cycle.

He hated koku, but he’d stayed for the extra few hours of marching in his Scouts uniform, sweating under the blistering sun in a desperate attempt to fit in. It was probably worth it. If he didn’t go, he would probably fit in even less, whereas at least now people knew who he was. Last week one guy had even thwacked him on the back in a friendly way, yelling, “Oi! What’s up, Mohsein?”

Of course, he had then had to explain that he wasn’t Mohsein, which had dampened the atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie slightly. But they had recognised the name when he said, “I’m Ridzual,” or at least they had said, “Oh, Ridzwan, is it?”

Maybe he wasn’t friends the way the other guys were with each other. Maybe they didn’t shout, “Oi, macha!” when they saw him, or request that he “relaklah, brother!”, or imply heartily that he was gay in some sort of macho bonding ritual.

But Ridzual had never been the kind of guy who attracted that response from his fellow guys, and he was OK with that. He flew under the radar enough that he’d never been bullied. People let him do his own thing, and that was all he wanted. He hadn’t even really noticed not having friends. In KL he’d hung out with his cousins, who were used to him being the weird one and didn’t hold it against him, and here in Lubuk Udang there was Ah Lee.

Had been. There had been Ah Lee.

His brain had successfully been avoiding the subject of her for all of ten minutes, but now it slid back down the old path. He kept forgetting and thinking of her as his friend, as the girl he’d fallen in love with. And if you thought of her as a human being, it was horrific what he had done to her. He had been a prize asshole, an unmitigated jerk.

But before he could begin beating himself up for messing up the best thing that had ever happened to him, he’d remember that face she’d turned to him. And that made him not know how to feel again. That face had not been human. Kindness wasn’t a thing that lived in the same world as that face.

He’d been having nightmares ever since he saw it. The teeth, he’d think in the dream, struggling in the grip of terror, the teeth.

That was the scariest thing. The one mad, inexplicable thing in the whole mad, inexplicable situation that got to him.

How come there wasn’t anything wrong with her teeth?

They had been perfectly human teeth. Even, rounded at the edges, slightly yellow.

He had to stop thinking about this. There was nothing he could do about it. Maybe she wasn’t a vampire. Maybe she was deluded and he’d been hallucinating. Or maybe she was a vampire, but she wouldn’t kill and eat him as long as he left her alone. She knew he wouldn’t tell anyone. Who could he tell? Who believed in vampires anyway?

“Stupid,” said Ridzual aloud. The word wasn’t ‘vampire’. ‘Vampire’ wasn’t scary enough to describe the thing he’d seen. It was like calling a toyol a pixie.

“Not vampire,” said Ridzual. “The word is ‘pontianak’.”

The problem with Ridzual was that he was a city boy. He’d grown up watching Japanese superhero TV shows and reading Archie comics. He hadn’t really known his grandparents–they’d died when he was too little to hold conversations, much less be told scary stories.

So he knew nothing.

He didn’t recognise the scent that sprang out of the evening then, though he registered it as something floral. It reminded him of Ah Lee: it smelled of her. It was funny that it had never occurred to him that Ah Lee might use perfume.

He’d cycled on a little further when he heard the baby crying. A long wail, followed by a piteous sob-sob-sob that pierced the heart. It was startling how close it was–practically next to his ear. He braked by the side of the road and got off his bike.

It was an odd place for a baby to be. He was standing on the edge of a car park. Across the road was a row of shoplots, their signs still lit up, but the entrances were a line of closed grey faces.

The car park was an expanse of orange earth, dusty and crumbling and covered with weeds. It was fenced with rusting wire, and shrubs ran along its periphery. There weren’t many cars parked there, and the booth at the entrance was dark.

The falling light turned the place eerie. It was the kind of place where you could get done for khalwat, or be murdered, depending on who else was around.

It was the kind of place where you could dump a baby, if you needed to.

He’d read about baby-dumping in the newspapers. But you never thought you’d encounter such things yourself. And not in such a place as this, surely–a nice small town? This wasn’t KL.

Who would dump a baby? said a voice in Ridzual’s head. Someone young, who wasn’t supposed to be doing anything that would lead to a baby in the first place. Someone scared.

He parked his bike on the pavement and walked into the car park. The floral scent grew stronger, though there weren’t any flowers around that he could see–only the bushes, strung out around the car park like a salad God had started eating and left forgotten on His plate.

The baby would be somewhere in there, probably. But he couldn’t seem to work out where. The farther he walked in what he thought was the direction of the sound, the softer the baby’s cries got.

It was getting darker. The world was a pale purply-blue, and the moon showed clear in the sky. The car park was full of dark shapes–empty cars, rustling bushes. The cicadas were screaming their heads off, and the baby was getting so soft he could hardly hear it through the insects–but it was still crying, a long drawn-out wail, trailing off in a hopeless series of hiccups.

He was terrified, but if he was scared, how would an abandoned baby feel?

He found something behind the next bush. It wasn’t a baby, though. It was an old lady, lying crumpled on the ground in a pathetic heap of batik and grey hair.

“Shit,” said Ridzual without thinking. He bent down and reached out to touch the lady’s shoulder: “Sorry, mak cik. Are you OK?”

The face the mak cik turned to him was a normal mak cik face. She was a Chinese lady with fluffy white hair and a mole on her left cheek. She looked like any other auntie you might see at the pasar basah. Her teeth were perfectly ordinary. She was dead.

Ridzual stumbled back. He was shaking so hard his teeth rattled in his head.

Teeth! Of course there was nothing wrong with the teeth. Teeth was vampires. Pontianak didn’t pierce the neck with fangs. They didn’t drink your blood.

The mak cik held her hands out to Ridzual, as if she was going to hug him, pet his hair. Her hands were small and delicate. The fingernails were long, curving and yellow–and blunt.

It would take a long time for those fingernails to pierce his belly, for them to scoop out the intestines. It would hurt.

The others came out of the bushes one by one. They were all little old ladies–little old Chinese ladies in those Chinese old lady clothes that looked like pajamas. All with long, blunt fingernails. All dead.

All hungry.

“No,” someone whimpered. Ridzual thought of the baby before realising it was his own voice. “No, no, please, no–”

He turned and went running, crashing through the bushes. Somewhere in the distance a baby was screaming breathlessly, but he knew the wail was issuing from six dry old dead mouths, and it grew softer and softer the closer they were.

His chest was a great flame of pain. He banged his hand against the side-mirror of a car and knew it would hurt later (if there was a later), but it felt like nothing now. He couldn’t hear the baby anymore.

A weight hit him in the back and he went down, sobbing. The fingernails dug into his side. Cold musty breath gusted on his ear. He was going to die. He was sorry for everything. The fingernails cut into his skin, raising welts, and he opened his mouth to scream.

The next minute his mouth was full of earth and pebbles. Something had hit the creature on his back a full-body blow, the impact driving Ridzual’s face into the ground. The pontianak rolled off his back, ripping his T-shirt in the process.

They must be fighting over him. There wasn’t enough of him to go around, even if they were small. Old ladies didn’t usually have much of an appetite, but pontianak were probably different. He had a second while they were distracted, but no more. He struggled to his feet, willing his limbs to move.

It came as something of a surprise to hear one of the pontianak saying, in an angry mak cik croak,

“Ah girl, what you doing here? You go home right now! So late already!”

He should run.

He turned around slowly.

It was Ah Lee, glaring at the old lady who had been about to eat him.

“Who ask you to eat my schoolmate?” she said shrilly. “How’m I suppose to go back to school now? So lose face!”

The pontianak crowded around. Weirdly, they had lost all their eldritch horror: they looked like ordinary mak cik now. They were definitely talking like aunties, in indignant high-pitched Hokkien.

“And what are you doing?” snapped Ah Lee.

“Me? What am I doing? What are you doing?” said Ridzual.

“Standing around like this! You want to be eaten, is it?” said Ah Lee.

“No!” said Ridzual.

“Go away,” said Ah Lee.

Ridzual had one last chance. He didn’t understand everything that had just happened–in fact, it would be more accurate to say that he didn’t understand anything that had just happened. But she’d saved his life, and not, it appeared, because she wanted to eat him herself.

You wouldn’t save someone’s life if you were a monster, would you?

You wouldn’t save someone if you thought they were a monster.

“Ah Lee,” said Ridzual. “We need to talk.”

“Not now,” said Ah Lee. Her voice was a door closing. “I need to talk to my family.”

The last he saw of her, in that dwindling light, was her gallant back moving away from him, and the cloud of aunts drawing in around her.

Ah Lee decided to try something new.

In the morning she waited outside the school gate until Ridzual arrived. When his parents’ car had driven off, she said,

“Let’s go.”

They couldn’t go to a kopitiam or mamak restaurant in their school uniforms, so they went to a nearby park. It was early, cool enough to walk. They didn’t talk much on the way.

There were a couple of people in the park–an uncle and an auntie, walking in circles with serious intent looks on their faces. But the kids’ playground was empty and they settled down on the swings there. Ridzual broke the silence first.

“What happened last night, after I went?”

“Oh. Nothing much,” said Ah Lee.

“Was it–” Ridzual hesitated. “Did they–?”

Ah Lee stared at him mutely.

Dealing with the aunts had actually been less difficult than she had expected. They had told her off for not staying home and doing her homework, but it was a half-hearted telling off. The aunts knew they had forfeited the moral high ground by trying to eat her classmate. Ah Lee had listened without saying a word to their unconvinced lectures as they flew home.

At the door, she had turned and said to the aunts:

“We are not dogs in the forest.”

She had gone straight to bed without speaking to anybody.

She felt guilty about it in the morning–she had said too much. The aunts had already known that they’d overstepped the line, broken the rules by which they operated. The aunts seemed to feel equally ashamed, tiptoeing around her at breakfast.

She had kissed Ah Ma with special tenderness before leaving for school, particularly as she was already planning to ponteng and knew how shocked the aunts would be at that. Non-attendance at school would probably seem a worse crime to them than eating humans.

She didn’t know how to explain any of this to Ridzual. It all seemed too complicated.

“Did you have to fight, or–I don’t know–something,” said Ridzual. Ah Lee could tell that he was already feeling foolish about having asked. “I mean–never mind.”

He paused.

“Do you really eat people?”

“Not really people,” said Ah Lee. “Only their, you know, their usus all that. Their entrails.” She tapped her belly. “We don’t like all the other part.”

Ridzual screwed up his mouth. But he only said:

“Thanks for not eating me. And not letting those others eat me.”

Ah Lee shrugged. “Usually they won’t eat you anyway. We don’t eat people we know. They all were just angry only.”

Ridzual looked down at his feet. He was scratching shapes in the sand with the toe of one shoe.

“You guys can’t eat anything else?” he said. “Like, animal intestines?”

“No.”

“Do you eat good people as well, or only bad people, or–?”

“We don’t eat women,” said Ah Lee. “And we don’t eat people we know. That’s all. I don’t pick and choose, depending if I like your face or I don’t like your face so much.”

“Not women?” said Ridzual. “I didn’t realise vampires did affirmative action.”

“It’s already suffering enough to be a woman,” Ah Lee recited. “Don’t need people to eat you some more.”

This was Ah Chor’s line, but the aunts were unanimous on this. Hadn’t Ah Ma told Ah Lee how she had cried whenever she gave birth to a daughter, because she knew what sorrow lay in her future?

“After all there’s enough men around,” added Ah Lee.

Ridzual grinned, but he looked a little sick.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” he said. “At all?”

Ah Lee stared into the distance. It was hard to explain. She had felt differently about these things when she was living.

“I know what you are trying to say,” she said. “But it’s like animals.”

“You feel it’s like eating animals?”

“No!” said Ah Lee. “It’s like I’m the animal now. After I die I kind of became an animal. When I’m hungry, when I eat, there’s no feeling. Afterwards maybe some feeling, I feel a bit bad. But that’s why we don’t simply just eat people. We process them first. My aunties like to make pepper soup. You know too thor t’ng? Pig stomach soup? Like that, but not with pig stomach.”

“Oh,” said Ridzual faintly. “Wait, all those old ladies last night–they’re your aunties?”

“One is my grandma and one is my great-grandma,” said Ah Lee. “The others are my aunties. But don’t you think it’s a bit weird if there’s so many vampire in a small town like this and they don’t know each other?”

Ridzual opened his mouth. Then he closed it, his throat working.

“That’s definitely weird,” he said in a strangled voice.

“Anyway, don’t worry about my aunties. They won’t eat you,” said Ah Lee. “I told them already. And I won’t eat you. Never never.”

“I know,” said Ridzual.

Ah Lee looked at the ground. She felt her eyes start to prickle, so she said it quickly.

“Are you going to try to nail me?”

She was startled and not a little offended when Ridzual started chortling.

“What’s so funny?” Ah Lee demanded.

“Er,” said Ridzual. “It’s an American thing. Maybe I’ll tell you some day.”

“This is suppose to be serious!” said Ah Lee.

“Sorry, sorry.” Ridzual wiped his eyes. “I’m not going to nail you. No.”

Saying it seemed to sober him up.

“I’m sorry I tried it,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Ah Lee. Now the next thing. “You don’t have to be friend with me anymore. I won’t be offended. I’ll understand.”

She had to say it. Then it would be done, finished, and they could both go back to their respective lives with all of this behind them.

“It was kind of worth it.” Ah Lee kept her eyes on the ground. She would be too shy to say it if she looked at Ridzual. “Ever since I became like this, I didn’t really have friends. It was a bit lonely. So it was nice having you.”

“I don’t want to be friends with you,” said Ridzual.

Ah Lee had expected this answer, but she was still taken aback by how much it hurt to hear it. She had been sad about him enough, she told herself sternly. All the aunts had said that.

“Don’t waste so many tears on one man,” they had scolded, as if it would have been all right to spread the tears over several men, but not to allocate so many to only one person.

Ah Lee, having been brought up to hate waste, agreed with them. She locked her hands together and blinked furiously. Her chest ached.

“OK,” she said.

Ridzual touched her hand. Ah Lee clenched it into a fist so he couldn’t take it, but then he tried to pry her fingers apart one by one. Of course it didn’t work. Ah Lee started giggling.

“Ah, I give up,” said Ridzual, exasperated. “I’m a moron to try to fight a pontianak. But look, ‘I don’t want to be your friend’ doesn’t mean ‘I don’t want to hang out with you’. There can be another meaning.”

“What another meaning?” said Ah Lee. She looked up when he didn’t answer.

Ridzual was looking at her with a kind of glow in his eyes. It was the way her mother and father used to look at her, back when she was alive, before all the bad things had happened–as if she was something special. Something precious. Ah Lee’s ex-boyfriend had never looked at her like that.

Ridzual had always had this look, Ah Lee realised. He had always looked at her as if she was the sunrise after a long dark night.

“Oh,” said Ah Lee.

“You don’t have to not want to be my friend back,” said Ridzual.

Ah Lee hesitated. But there was a perfect way to say yes and still sound cool.

“I don’t mind,” she said.

Ridzual turned his face away, but he was too slow. Ah Lee already knew he was beaming. She reached out and took his hand, encountering less trouble than he had done.

“OK,” said Ridzual. “That works.”

They smiled stupidly for a while, shedding radiance on the slide and sandbox, showering incidental romance on the speed-walking uncle and auntie.

“Only one thing,” said Ah Lee.

“Oh, there’s something else on top of the vampire mak cik and the human pig stomach soup?” said Ridzual. “What more is there? I have to fight a werewolf first before I can date you, is it?”

“No lah, there’s no such thing as werewolf,” said Ah Lee. “It’s a small thing only. But–‘vampire’ is OK. The other word, please don’t use. Is that OK?”

“Why?” said Ridzual.

“It’s not such a nice word,” said Ah Lee.

“OK,” said Ridzual. “OK.”

Then he said, “Can I use it one last time?”

Ah Lee nodded. She knew what was coming.

“Will you tell me how you became a pontianak?”

Sitting there with him in the park, Ah Lee told him. She had not told anyone else the story before. He didn’t let go of her hand.

Her grandmother watched her being born. Her grandmother watched her die.

Who died of childbirth in the twenty-first century? It didn’t happen, not if you were middle class in Malaysia, not if you’d followed the rules and paid attention at school and listened to your parents.

Not if you’d been a good girl.

By the time her parents had suspected, it hadn’t been too late. That was the thing. The worst thing–worse than being dumped by the boy who’d given her the baby, though that had felt terrible when it’d happened.

But it was nowhere near as bad as her parents’ carefully expressionless faces, as they had gone from day to day pretending nothing was happening. The day she fainted because she’d thrown up all her breakfast and had hidden in her room and refused to eat–they hadn’t said anything. When she choked on her food because things tasted different now she was pregnant, they didn’t say anything. She stopped going to school. Her parents stopped talking to her. Her world contracted.

It was like being invisible. It was as if she had died and no one had noticed.

Months of it, months of feeling sad and ashamed, but now that it had become serious enough that even her parents could not ignore it, now that she was in the hospital and somebody was looking after her, Ah Lee did not feel free, or relieved.

She felt angry. She resented her parents wildly for breaking their promise that they would protect her, for failing to love her no matter what.

And still she was sorry that the secret had to come out–the baby had to come out–and they would lose face. She wished she could be dying in some less embarrassing way. She could have drowned in a monsoon drain. She could have been run over by a car.

She felt bad for them. But she wished they would stop hanging over her bed and crying.

“I’m sorry, girl. Mummy’s so sorry, girl.”

Sorry no cure, Ah Lee wanted to say.

After a while it stopped. Somebody took her parents away. Ah Lee regretted her silent fury. She missed them. Somebody was doing something pointless down there. She was bleeding.

When she died someone was holding her hand. Not a mother or a father, with their enormous burden of expectation. Someone calmer, their hands softer, wrinklier-skinned. At the very last moment Ah Lee opened her eyes and saw her grandmother, waiting for her.

After death:

The scent of frangipani–the stench of decay–revenge a red flame at the heart–

Her hair whipped against her face, smelling of the mulch in a graveyard. Her nails were long and yellow. Her body was free. She got up on the bed and nothing hurt.

She had lost all sense of the disgusting. She had bled so much that she would never flinch from blood again. She was made for tearing out kidneys, feasting on livers, pulling out strings of intestines. It would never again be her own blood that was spilt, her insides that were pulled inside out.

She flew down the corridors of the hospital and there was no pain, or everything was pain, but it spun outwards, knocking people over, ripping heads off. Blood sprayed on the walls. People were screaming.

Someone grabbed the wrists of the hurricane. Someone slapped the face of the typhoon.

“Enough! Stop now!” The voice was as familiar to her as her mother’s. She would have killed anyone else, but the voice brought her down.

“Angry already, har,” said the voice.

“Just because you’re angry doesn’t mean everybody else must suffer,” scolded another voice.

Blood was rolling down from her eyes. She blinked, but her eyes stung. The world was a smear. She couldn’t see a thing.

“Quieting down already.”

“Can listen now.”

“Can see now.”

“Close your eyes, Ah Lee.”

“Close your eyes, girl.”

Someone brushed a damp cloth over her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, she saw who it was.

“No need to cry,” said Ah Ma. “No need for all this. Come, we are going somewhere else. Then you can lie down, rest first. You’ll feel nicer after that.”

“Where are we going?” said Ah Lee. Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper, scraping her throat. It was sore from the screaming. “Where’s Mummy and Daddy?”

“Mummy and Daddy have to look after your brothers and sister,” said an old lady in a baju kebaya. Ah Lee had never seen her before, but she leant her head trustingly against the old lady’s chest when the old lady picked her up.

She felt as tired as if she had just been born.

“What about the baby?” she whispered.

“The baby’s gone,” said Ah Chor. It was the first time they met. “Don’t worry. We’ll look after you now.”

“Ji Ee?” said Ah Lee blearily, as her eyes began to pick out familiar faces. “Tua Kim? Aunty Girl?”

“I don’t have children,” said Ji Ee.

“My children are all grown up,” said Tua Kim.

“How to let you go alone?” said Aunty Girl. “Now you don’t need to worry. We’ll be with you.”

There was something to tell them.

“Ah Ma,” said Ah Lee.

“Yes, girl?”

Shame washed over her. It had been bad enough with her parents. How could you tell your grandmother something like this?

“The baby,” she said. “The father. I didn’t purposely–at the start, I wasn’t thinking about all that. I just liked him. We were dating, and it just happened. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t know what to do. I was scared to tell anybody. And then, Mummy and Daddy–”

She didn’t know what to say about that worst betrayal. She still felt sorry. She had not had the chance to apologise, to explain.

“Can you tell them?” she said. “Tell them it was an accident. I didn’t purposely–I just didn’t think. I didn’t think this would happen. Tell them I’m sorry.”

They were walking down the hospital corridor. Ah Chor cradled Ah Lee to her chest, stepping over the bodies.

“Ah Ma already said there’s no need to cry,” said Ah Ma. “It’s not your fault. Your Mummy and Daddy should have looked after you. Ah Ma tried to teach your Mummy to bring up her children right, but there’s no need to be so strict. You are her daughter, whether you are good or naughty. Ah Ma should have explained.”

“We all should be saying sorry,” said Sa Ee Poh. She didn’t mean just the aunts. “You are only a child.”

“Never mind. It’s over already,” said Ah Chor. “Don’t worry about it anymore.”

When they had reached the stairwell at the end of the corridor, Ah Lee was already half-asleep. When they smashed through the glass and jumped out the window, seven floors up, she was sleeping. She didn’t feel the night wind on her skin, or see the starlight on the aunts’ faces.

When she woke up she was a new person. She was dead, but she wasn’t alone. There was nothing to be scared of in this new life. With six aunts behind you, you can be anything.

____
Copyright Zen Cho 2011

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer.

by Ferrett Steinmetz

“The sauerkraut is what makes us special,” Lizzie explained as she opened up the plastic door to show Themba the hydroponic units.  She scooped a pale green head of cabbage from the moist sand and placed it gently into Themba’s cupped hands.

She held her breath as Themba cradled it in his palm, hoping: Please.  Please don’t tell me that stuff grows everywhere at home.

Themba ran a dark brown finger along the cabbage’s veins, then let loose a sigh of wonder.  “That’s marvelous,” he said.

Lizzie puffed out her chest.  Themba had passed her final test.  At ten years old, Themba was two years younger, six inches shorter, and eight shades darker than Lizzie was, and she’d known him for a record three days and nine hours.  That made him her best friend ever.

Themba leaned in through the access hatch to grab for another cabbage, but one of his escorts hauled him back out by the scruff of his red-and-gold kaftan.  Lizzie was sure Themba would protest this time, but he ignored them as always.  “You grow that stuff in here?” he asked her.  “In space?”

“Yup,” Lizzie said proudly, watching the escorts inspect the hydroponic basin for traps.  “Momma says there are thousands of refill stations across the Western Spiral, but only we have genuine, home-made sauerkraut — one jar for ten indo-dollars, four for thirty.  I know captains who chart an extra point on their jump-charts just to take some of our kim-chi home with ‘em, yessiree.”

“You gotta tell me how to make this stuff!”  Themba stuck a thumb inside the jar of sauerkraut – the escorts had already tested it – and licked the juice off.  “I mean, if it’s not a trade secret or anything.”

“It’s pretty simple,” Lizzie said – though secretly, she wondered if Momma would mind her sharing.  “I can show you now, if the stoops don’t get in my way.”

“Aw, they’re good eggs.  Come on, fellas, give us some room.  It’s been three days, it’s not like she’s going to go all homi on me now.”

The escorts squeezed reluctantly back out of the station kitchen, a convenience nook just large enough to allow two people to defrost prefabbed meals for the daily guests.  Lizzie could see their muscles flex as they squatted on the aluminum cafeteria benches outside, glaring at Lizzie through the serving window.

Themba’s escorts creeped Lizzie out; they had wrinkle-free faces that never smiled.  They were utterly unlike Themba, whose broad, flat-nosed face was so expressive it flickered from mischievous grins to repentant sadness in the twinkle of an eye.  Themba wore colorful, flowing robes, his cornrowed hair dotted with beads; his guards wore crisp, gunmetal-gray uniforms.

“I’ve never cooked!” said Themba, rubbing his hands together at the unexpected freedom.  “All my food gets brought to me.  So when I’m staying with the Gineer heads of state, I’ll make sauerkraut for them.  They’ll all ask, ‘Where did you learn this amazing recipe?’ and I’ll say, ‘In space.’”

“That’ll impress them?”

“You kidding?  To hear that actual, grown food came from an outpost?  In a system with no habitable planets?  When I’m done, they’ll all be begging to live in space stations.”

“Themba, you are awesome,” laughed Lizzie.  “I hope your ship’s busted forever.”

Themba blushed.  “I love it here, but I need to get to my reward.”

“What’s your reward?”

“I’m gonna be – “

One of the guards stood up, so fast he banged his knee against the cafeteria tables.  Themba glanced over nervously.

“It’s a secret,” he whispered.  “A state secret.  But it’s gonna be awesome.”

If Themba said it was awesome, Lizzie believed him.  Themba was the only visitor to Sauerkraut Station who’d ever understood just how awesome her home was.

It was one of Lizzie’s duties to show their guests’ children around for the handful of hours it took Gemma and Momma to resupply their ships.  Space travel was both expensive and time-consuming, so the kids were spoiled and cranky.  Most wrinkled their noses and told her it stank in here, which it most certainly did not – Lizzie had lived her all her life, and she was sure she would have noticed any funny smells.

Determined to prove how glorious life in space was, she always took them on the full tour, displaying all the miracles that kept her family alive in the void.

Lizzie took them for a walk all the way around the main hallway, explaining how the central, cigar-like axis rotated to give Sauerkraut Station its artificial gravity.  She told them why the station looked like a big umbrella –Lizzie didn’t know what an umbrella was, but the dirters always nodded – it was because the axis had a great, solar-paneled thermal hood on the end that shielded them from the sun.  That hood simultaneously kept the heat off so they weren’t boiled alive and generated electricity to keep their servers running – a clever design that her great-great-Gemma had pioneered.

To finish, she showed them the cabbages, which took a lot of time and precious energy to grow.

“We have cabbages at home,” they yawned.  “Can’t we go for a spacewalk?  Or watch the ships dock?”

Of course they couldn’t go outside.  Lizzie only got her first spacewalk after months of training – and considering Sauerkraut Station only entertained five ships a week during the busy season, they weren’t likely to see any other ships.

So her guests inevitably went down to press their noses against the observation deck window – the only window on the station looking outside.  That baffled her; why would anyone want to look at a boring old dust belt?  They didn’t even know the constellations.

Themba hadn’t wrinkled his nose.

Momma had towed Themba’s crippled ship down off the edge of the system’s gravity well.  He’d entered the station with a cautious wonder bordering on reverence.  And when Lizzie had showed Themba the banks of magnets that kept the worst of the radiation off, he’d asked all sorts of questions.

When she’d offered to show him the EVAC suits, which Lizzie had never done before, Themba held up his hand to stop her.

“My Dad says tourist stuff’s all the same,” he’d said.  “Ships are ships.  What’s important is the people who run it.  What do you do for fun?”

So she’d taken him to the observation deck to point out her Daddy’s body.  She told him how he orbited by once every forty-seven days, and they always held up a candle for him.

Themba saluted Lizzie’s father, real solemn and sad, like a soldier.  He didn’t tell her it was creepy; instead, he asked what Daddy had been like.

So Lizzie showed him Daddy’s constellation.  She traced the family shapes on the narrow, scratched porthole of the observation deck:  Daddy’s bear-constellation, Gemma’s turbine-constellation, Momma’s battleship.  Themba started making up his own constellations until Lizzie explained that you only got to pick your own constellation when you turned thirteen.

He stopped.  She’d liked that.

So Lizzie showed him how to make wishes off the microshields, where you said a question out loud three times and if a meteoroid got zapped before you could count to thirty, your wish would come true.  And by the time Themba and Lizzie were done, Lizzie’s last wish was that Themba would stay here forever.

Even though he was two years younger, he seemed older, because his Dad hauled him around the galaxy on diplomatic trips.  He had lots of crazy stories.  And though Lizzie wasn’t too clear on how life actually worked on a planet, Themba never got tired of answering her questions.

Which was why Lizzie would show Themba how to make sauerkraut.  Maybe Momma didn’t want Themba to know; maybe it was a secret.  But Themba was worth Momma’s anger.

“Okay,” Lizzie said.  She put Themba’s cabbage head down on the cutting surface and reached for a knife.  “You – “

One of Themba’s escorts grabbed her wrist.  Lizzie cried out, dropping the knife.  She looked at the cafeteria – how could they have gotten through the kitchen door that fast?

“Fellas, fellas!” Themba shouted, waving them off.  “Come on, it’s a kitchen, there’s knives, what’s the problem?”

The escort kicked the knife over to the other, who examined it closely.

“You okay, Lizzie?” Themba rubbed her hand.  His fingers were pleasantly warm.

“It’s fine,” Lizzie said.  And really, it was.  If his escorts weren’t so stupidly paranoid, they’d have let Gemma repair their ship in the mechbay instead of waiting for their own customized mechanics to arrive.  And then Themba would have been gone in seven hours, not ninety-one.

“Come on,” Themba begged them.  “Give me the knife.”

The escorts exchanged flat glances.  Then they shoved her back into a corner, interposing themselves between Lizzie and Themba, then handed him the knife handle-first.

“I guess that’s okay,” Themba shrugged.  “What do I do with this?”

“Take the cabbage,” Lizzie said, craning her head to look out from underneath the escort’s armpit.  “Cut it in thirds…”

Lizzie had never taught anyone before, but even so she thought Themba was a little clumsy.  He would have cut himself twice — but his escorts reached out, quick as a meteoroid, to grab the blade before it cut him.

“You’re doing well,” Lizzie said.  Themba smiled.  Even with the escorts in between them, it felt – well, special.  It was simple work, chopping and canning, but making sauerkraut was like the metal beams that framed the station, fundamental and strong; she’d never shared that part of herself before.

“This is fun,” Themba said.  “Now I put in, what?  Carrots?”

Themba dumped the last of the ingredients into a plastic tub, then proudly hoisted his special sauerkraut.

“What now?”

“Well,” she said.  “It’s gotta ferment.”

Themba bit his lip.  “How long’s that take?”  And when Lizzie hesitated, knowing that it was longer than they had, Themba grabbed her arm.

“Promise me you’ll keep it,” he said, looking absurdly serious.  “Keep it here until I come back.  Please?”

“I’ll have to hide it,” Lizzie said.  “Otherwise, Momma will sell it.”

“Show me where.”

They squeezed past the escorts and darted into the tiny airlock to the fermenting chambers, which were kept on a separate circulation vent.  As it was, the damp, yogurty-vinegar sour smell almost made Themba topple over.

The chambers were small and cool, stacked with giant plastic tubs that bubbled over with foam-flecked sauerkraut.  Lizzie hunted for the perfect space to store Themba’s batch.  His escorts bumped heads, fighting to peer through the tiny porthole.

“Come with me when I leave, Lizzie,” Themba whispered.  “They don’t want you along, but I bet if I begged they’d bring you.”

Lizzie froze; it had never occurred to her that she could go anywhere else.  She was going to grow up and die on Sauerkraut Station, just like five generations of Denahues before her.

“Where – where are you going?”

“I’m gonna be a hostage,” Themba said, and from the dreamy way he said it Lizzie just knew it was the best thing in the whole ‘verse.  “They’ll give me the softest beds and the nicest food and all the games I want while Daddy talks to the Gineer.  He says I’ll be treated like a king while he’s gone, but it could be years.  It’ll be lonely.  With you, we could cook, we could play VR hockey…”

Lizzie fumbled for a marker and scrawled a big “T” on the top of Themba’s tub.

“You like me that much?”

“Everyone’s all stiff where I live,” Themba said.  “Grab the wrong fork at dinner, they talk for months.  But you, you’re just… cool.”

Lizzie blushed as she shoved Themba’s tub underneath a pile of well-aged kraut containers.  No one had ever called her cool.  But now all she could think of was Momma and Gemma, and how they’d just gotten Lizzie up to speed to take her slot on this three-man station.  Momma should have hired someone new to take Daddy’s place when he’d died five years back.  Gemma had harangued Momma enough to get someone new, but Momma was firm: the family would get by without outsiders.

Fortunately, that was when Themba’s escorts forced their way through the airlock, running a med-scanner over Themba’s body.

For the rest of the day, Themba acted like he hadn’t said anything, but Lizzie felt like she’d eaten a sugar bar.  By the time she went to bed, she was vibrating with the secret.

Momma combed Lizzie’s hair, as she always did before bedtime.

“What’s gotten into you, Elizabeth?” Momma asked.  “You’re all snarls and tangles, and not just in your hair.”

Gemma had tried combing once, and even though Gemma was great with engines and cuddles, she was terrible with hair.  But Momma was coolly methodical, softly tugging each snarl, and when she was done she left Lizzie with the cleanest, freest hair you could imagine.  It was the most soothing feeling, being in Momma’s hands.

But ever since Daddy had launched himself into orbit, Momma had gotten brittle.  Daddy’s death wasn’t Momma’s fault, Lizzie had understood that even when she was six – Daddy was just a cook, and should never have been out on the hull.  But Momma had been dreadful ill thanks to a flu she’d caught from some inbound flight; Daddy had been dumb enough to try and do a woman’s job repairing air leaks, and in his haste he’d forgotten to tether himself.

Back then, Momma had hugged; now, she gave orders.  The only sign of the old, loving Momma was in that careful combing, and Lizzie was afraid that if she left – or even mentioned leaving – Momma might stop combing her hair.

“You lose someone dear to you, you start making distance,” Gemma had told her.  “She still loves you, but she’s terrible afraid of losing you.  You gotta approach her just right, or she’ll shut down on you like a crashed server.”

Lizzie tried to think of a nice way to put it, but nothing came to mind.  So she blurted it out: “Themba wants me to be a hostage.”

Momma’s brush stopped in mid-stroke.  “Does he.”

Lizzie leaned back into her Momma, hoping to restart the brushing, but nothing came.  So she turned around and said, “He says he wants the company.”  That didn’t seem like enough reason to leave the station, so she added: “He’s my best friend, Momma.”

“I’m sure he is, Lizzie.”  Momma was looking at the dented metal of the bedroom wall, like she often did these days.

“I’ll need you here,” Momma concluded.  Lizzie’s heart sank — but the brush started moving through her hair again, comforting and careful.  “I’ll be ordering some hydroponic prefab farms tomorrow morning; you’ll need to help install them.  And it’s time you learned how to pilot.”

That was an expected bonus; she’d been bugging Mom to let her learn to fly for years, but Momma said that girls under fourteen shouldn’t fly unassisted near a dust belt.  It was about as close as the new Momma came to an apology.

“That’s real nice of you, Momma,” Lizzie said politely.

“Changes are coming,” Momma replied, and kissed her on the cheek.  Lizzie nearly forgotten what that felt like.

The next afternoon, Themba’s special-ordered mechanics docked at the station in a big mil-spec ship that bristled with gun ports.  Lizzie had hoped that maybe it would take the techs weeks to fix Themba’s ship, but Gemma had already told her it was a simple repair; they just wouldn’t let Gemma touch it without a Level IV Gineer security clearance.

Sure enough, six hours after the mechanics arrived, Themba came to say his goodbyes.  She squeezed him tight, trying to store the memory away for future nights.

“So you gonna come?” he whispered.

“I can’t.  My family needs me.”

He nodded.  “I thought so,” he said.  “But it’s good, I guess.  I’m helping my Daddy forge friendships, you’re helping your Momma stay in business.  Our parents need us.  That’s good, isn’t it?”

Lizzie tried to say yes, but she burst out in tears instead, and then Themba buried his face in her neck.  “Come back when you’re done?”

Themba put his hand on the bright breast of his kaftan and promised that he would.  And then Lizzie watched her best friend of four whole days, eighteen hours, and twenty-three minutes leave.

She hoped she’d see him again, but she doubted it.  Things had a way of disappearing in space.

The guests at Sauerkraut Station told Lizzie stories of a world without maintenance.  It seemed incomprehensible to Lizzie.  How could a garden just spring up when you weren’t looking?

When she was younger, she’d asked the customers about these worlds, expecting that if she asked enough people then one would eventually relent and admit that yeah, it was all a lie, just like the Vacuum Vipers that Dad had told her nestled inside incautious little girls’ spacesuits, waiting to bite anyone who didn’t check their EVA suits carefully.

But no; somber businessmen and travelling artists alike assured her that yes, water dripped freely down from the air, and helper faerie-bees flew seeds into every crevice.  Gemma had even taken Lizzie down to the rec room, where customers paid money to kick their feet up on one of eight overstuffed footrests and pull a rented screenmask down over their heads, to show Lizzie the videos she’d taken of her planetside adventures.  It had taken some convincing before Lizzie had believed that it wasn’t a special effects trick.

What would it be like to live in a world that could get by without you?  Lizzie’s world was held together by checklists of chores and maintenance.  Lizzie’s world needed her.

For the first time, though, her needful world didn’t feel like enough.

In every room, she found something she’d forgotten to tell Themba.  Her daily tasklist became a litany of things she should have said to Themba, a constant ache of wondering what he would have thought.

When she straightened the cramped sliding-cabinet beds of the twelve guest chambers, she would have told Themba of all the crazy things people left behind — ansibles, encrypted veindrives, even a needler-rifle once.  When she re-tightened the U-bends of the shower stalls, which provided luke-warm dribbles of water to customers for a nominal fee, she thought about how Themba would have wanted to see the central heating system, would have squirmed into the central axis to look at the boiler.  And her worst chore of all would have been a joy with Themba there; normally, Lizzie hated pushing all the spare part bins away from the walls of Gemma’s repair bay so she could scan the walls for metal fatigue.

But with Themba, she would have tugged up the heavy metal plate in the floor to expose the hidden compartment full of emergency supplies.  Then she would have whispered about the hidden hidden compartment below that they never dared open, lest they disturb the dust at the bottom.

Then, afterwards, she and Themba and Gemma would have all clambered into the punctured ship that was crammed edgewise into the beams of the dockbay’s ceiling – that contentious collection of parts that Momma called a junker, and that Gemma insisted was a classic waiting to be restored.  And Gemma would have hugged them both as she told Themba the story of Great-Gemma and the Pirates.

But that was stupid.  Themba’s father had brought him to hundreds of planets.  Why would he be impressed by a secret compartment?  Sauerkraut was a novelty to Themba the first time — but when his hands stung from chopping a hundred heads of cabbage, would he still smile?  When his shoulders ached from serving defrosted sausages and Insta-Ryz buns to six-hour guests, would he still want to stay?

Of course he wouldn’t.  He had chefs now.

And when Momma’s voice boomed down from the conning tower to alert her that a new collection of guests was on its way, Lizzie took her place by the station’s airlock with new vision.  Momma always told her that the guests were weary from nearly a month in the transit-ships — they wanted a happy smile, a home-cooked meal, a touch on the shoulder.  Lizzie had seen them as just another chore.

Now, when the airlock hissed and let in that first blast of body-odor-and-ganja laced air, Lizzie sniffed deep.  As the guests emerged, stretching their arms and looking around in blink-eyed wonder, Lizzie saw them not as chores, but as people.  Where had they come from?  Where they were headed to, and what would it be like to stand in those strange and beautiful places?

As she drifted off to sleep, Lizzie pressed her face against the air vent, imagining a breeze – a wind stirred by no fan, only the goodness of the world itself.  And she longed, burned, to feel that wind on her skin, to feel sunshine unfiltered by glassteel faceplates.

She needed to talk to Gemma.

Gemma was busy reducing the leakage on the junker’s engine.  Still, she dropped down the knotted chain ladder to invite her up into the cramped cockpit — their private talking-to space.  Gemma took off her protective facemask, shook out her long gray hair, and patted the lap of her oily coveralls.

Lizzie curled up into Gemma’s hug, resting her boots on the curve of the junker’s dashboard.  Momma was practical, giving Lizzie the biology-talk of why you never played doctor with the customers – but Gemma was the one who told her how Momma and Daddy had fallen in love and made Lizzie.

“Gemma,” she asked, “What was it like, when you ran away?”

“Sounds like someone has a case of Station Fever,” said Gemma.  “You counted the walls yet, girl?”

“228,” said Lizzie.

“Only 228 walls in Sauerkraut Station,” Gemma nodded, clucking her tongue in sympathy.  “All the walls you’ve ever seen.  And each of those walls feels like it’s squeezing you.  There’s gotta be someplace bigger out there, and you’re gonna die if you don’t step into it.  That it?”

Lizzie nodded eagerly, feeling like Gemma had just opened an airlock inside her.

“Perfectly normal at your age,” Gemma concluded.  “Is it that kid you liked?”

“Themba.”

Gemma waved her hand in the air, like she was trying to clear away smoke.  “Themba, whatever.  He’s not important in the specific — for me, it was a merchant marine.  Sea-green hair, storm-gray eyes, all adventure and spitfire.  The important thing is that he made me think of someplace else.  And then I had to go.”

“Daddy said you made your Momma furious,” Lizzie said.

“Oh, how I did!” Gemma’s titanium-gray eyes twinkled.  “Left her with just my brother — a two-man crew for a three-man station.  It was years before they forgave me.”

“I guess it would be mean to leave you with all that work,” Lizzie said.  But Gemma planted her finger right in the center of Lizzie’s chest.

“My happiness shouldn’t enter into it, Lizzie,” she said firmly.  “Only you know what’s gonna make you happy.  That’s why you should go if you need to, Lizzie — you have to follow your own dreams.”

Lizzie felt absurdly grateful.

But planets are big and careless,” Gemma continued.  “I’ll tell you what I told your Momma: You get swallowed up there.  There’s so much room to spare that people just wander away.  They don’t need you like station folk do.

“And us spacers are fools down there, Lizzie; you’ve seen how they make us look in the VDRs.  They laughed at me for recycling waste urine, for refusing to bathe more’n once a month, for jumping when the wind whistled.  Eventually the loneliness ate me up inside, and I crept back home to take my licks.  My family forgave me — that’s what families do — but I never forgave myself.”

Lizzie thought how easy Themba had made it seem.  Gemma pursed her lips thoughtfully, then added:

“I hate to say it, Lizzie, but Themba’s probably forgotten you by now.”

“Themba would never forget me!”

Lizzie hadn’t meant to yell.  Gemma just nodded wearily.

“That’s exactly what I thought about my merchant marine, ‘Lizabeth.”

Lizzie knew Gemma didn’t really mean that.  Whenever Gemma talked about the nameless merchant marine who was her Momma’s pa, it was always with such a regretful fondness.  It was a hurt, Lizzie could tell, but a useful hurt, like the way your muscles ached after a long day of wiping off solar panels.

But Momma must have noticed her loneliness, because within a few days the chores started racking up.  Shipments of wiring and water tanks arrived, and Lizzie spent whole days in her EVA-suit tethering vacuum-safe cargo packs to the surface storage hooks.

Then one day she saw a gigantic construct-tug blotting out the stars, a ship big enough to hold whole stations inside its belly, and soon after that a ferry-trawler dragged two huge shiny new rooms towards them, gleaming in the sun.  Momma explained that the new hydroponics modules were here, two new rooms and twelve new walls for Lizzie to check.

It was exciting and dangerous work, since adding any new chambers to the station’s architecture could cause any number of dangers; hull breaches, orbit eccentricity, brownouts.  The last time they’d added a room was well before Lizzie was born.

“Why do we need more hydroponics, Momma?”

“We’re gonna need more independence,” Momma said.  “This’ll give us extra oxygen and more food once the shortages start coming.”

“What shortages?” But Momma refused to talk about it.  Gemma nodded grimly in agreement.

Prepping for the addition was a lot of work: Lizzie and Momma had to go over the hull with electrostatic rags to clear it of grit, and then pushed a layer of fresh sealant over everything so the surface was smooth and ready.  Then, all three of them maneuvered the bulky units to the hull carefully so the new units almost touched — one bump might cause it to fuse in the wrong place — then clamped and vacuum-welded the metal.

Then the real welding started, which Momma wouldn’t let Lizzie do because the torches could burn through the sleeve of an EVAC suit.

Next, they filled the chambers with cheap test helium to see whether there was any leakage, which of course there was, leading to tedious sealant application.  And then there was the big danger when they closed down the station for a day; they air-locked off the rest of the station, broke the vacuum-seal on the new rooms, then carefully opened up the old rooms one by one until they were sure the bond would hold and they wouldn’t lose any expensive oxygen.  Lizzie’s ears popped until they pumped in enough fresh O2 to regain equilibrium.

Lizzie was exhausted, because it wasn’t like her other chores had stopped.  She still had to greet the incoming guests and fill the sauerkraut vats and serve meals.  At one point Lizzie fell asleep on the counter, right in the middle of serving dinner.  She woke to find Momma, smiling as if she hadn’t just put in a twenty-hour day, handing plates of thawed bratwurst to grateful travelers… And Lizzie felt shamed for being so weak, even though Momma never mentioned it, that she worked triple-shifts.

When that was done, they had to prime the hydroponics — filling the circulation system with nutrient water, lining the trays with diahydro grit, planting the seedlets.  They even installed locks, which was weird; the old chamber never had locks.

On the day of the new hydroponics opening, Lizzie was thrilled to find that Momma had splurged for a sugar-cake.  Everyone wore the celebration hats from storage, and Momma gave Lizzie some wonderful news: Lizzie was in charge of all the hydroponics.

“You grew those cabbages better than I could,” Momma said proudly.  “You got your Daddy’s native thumb.” That made Lizzie beam with pride, and she stayed up after shutdown cycle tending to the tender shoots of soybeans and oxyvines.

When she harvested her first ear of corn, she went to the observation deck and duct-taped it to the window so Daddy would see it on his next orbit.

Yet every day, she wondered what Themba was doing.  She asked Momma about sending him a text, but Momma said intra-planet textbursts were expensive.  All their money was tied up in the new hydroponics, anyway.

That was when the Gineer arrived.

Lizzie went to greet the incoming customers, but when the airlocks cycled, it didn’t smell of BO and pot; it stank of ozone and WD-40.  She started to say, “Welcome to Sauerkraut Station, the homiest place in the stars,” like always, but as she did there was a “HUP!” from the inside and ten soldiers came tramping out in a neat line.

It was almost like a dance, the way they came out; each soldier had the same bulging foreheads of Themba’s escorts, a sure sign of vat-grown folks.  And like Themba’s escorts, they wore reflective jet-blue uniforms with plastic gold piping on the shoulders, though these uniforms had a dullness to them; some of them had tiny, ragged holes.

Unlike Themba’s escorts, they clasped black needlers.  They fanned out before the airlock in a triangle pattern, and when their eyes moved the tip of their rifles followed their gaze, ready to spray death at whatever they saw.  Lizzie trembled as those rifle-barrels swept across her, but she locked her knees, determined not to show disrespect to a paying guest.

When they were done, they yelled “CLEAR!”  The commander came striding out of the back, as calm as her troops were nervous.  She was flat-foreheaded, tight-skinned as a drum, with a long rope of braided red hair tied neatly around her waist.  Her suit was spotless, which could have meant she’d never seen combat, but to Lizzie that seemed unthinkable; she was thin, sharp, attendant.

The commander bowed deeply, palms touching.

“Hold no fear, little one,” said the commander.  “Your reinforcements have arrived, free of charge and ready to sacrifice health for safety.  Would you escort me to your mother, Elizabeth, so I might formally inform her of the transfer?”

Lizzie matched the commander’s stern politeness.  But when Lizzie ushered the commander into the comm room, Momma stiffened.  She stood up to her full height to greet the commander — though the top of her head barely reached the commander’s neck.

“I thank you for your assistance, commander,” Momma said.  “But I also regret to tell you that we shan’t need it.”

“I think you’ll find that you will have great need of our aid in the months to come.  I have tales of the depredations the Intraconnected Web have inflicted upon defenseless locales.  But could I share these cautionary warnings in private, without…?”  And the commander jerked her chin towards Lizzie.

“My daughter is my tertiary command structure, and is privy to all conversations,” Momma snapped back, which surprised Lizzie.  “And while I appreciate what you’re trying to do, it’ll only tear us apart.”

“You know war’s been declared, Mrs. Denahue,” said the commander.  “You chose your position well; you’re one of three stations that stand between the Gineer empire and the Trifold Manifest.  That’s been beneficial for tourism, but when war comes – well, do you really think the Intraconnected Web will respect your home-grown capitalism?”

“Actually, it was my great-gramma chose the location,” Momma said tightly.  “And you know we support the Gineer.  But if you surround us with gunships, then you make us not a waypoint, but a target.  The Web might respect our neutrality, they might not, but they sure as hell will shoot if you contest us.  You might win that battle, but we’ll lose everything.”

“We have a new line of ships specially designed to defend stations such as this,” the commander said.  “And if something happens, we’ll reimburse you for any combat losses…”

Momma barked out a laugh.  “And then we’ll be known as a Gineer station, and be drawn into every war after that.  No offense, commander, but you think short-term.  My family’s been here for five generations; I want it here for five more.  I’m not getting drawn in.”

The commander pursed her lips.  “And if we decide to garrison this station?”

Lizzie didn’t know what garrisoning meant, but the intent was clear enough  Lizzie froze.  But Momma simply looked sad, like she did when they caught customers trying to hack free time from the VDR machines.

“It’s that desperate?” she asked.  “This soon?”

“We’re confident in our chances.  But it would help to take this place.”

Momma eased her hand down into her pocket, gripping something.

“My faith is in the Gineer,” she said.  “But my hand is always on the self-destruct switch.”

The commander frowned, pulling new creases into pristine skin.

“Look,” Momma added quickly, thumping her left breast.  “I support you folks, my heart to God.  As long as you don’t go bandying it about, I’ll give you folks six percent off of any refueling costs I have, to give you an edge on that Web menace.”

“Twenty.”

“Twenty’s a lot in wartime.  We could – Elizabeth, would you mind fetching the commander some sauerkraut?”

The negotiations took several hours.  Momma called Gemma up to help set the terms, leaving Lizzie to serve hot dogs and kraut to the soldiers.  But the soldiers didn’t relax; they ate like they expected someone to snatch it away from them at any moment, then asked for seconds.

By the time they took off, everyone was exhausted.  Momma still took the time to comb Lizzie’s hair.

“I hate them,” Lizzie said.  “They’re mean.”

“Who?” Momma asked, surprised.  “The Gineer?”

“They were mean to you, and mean to Themba.  They tried to take our home.”

“Actually, sweetie, I meant it when I said the Web are bad news.  Themba’s people are no better…”

Themba wouldn’t try to rule our station.”

Momma shrugged.  “We don’t choose allies,” she said.  “That’s how we weather storms.  Some day you’ll understand.”

Still, Lizzie felt her hatred of the Gineer burning in her.  They were cruel, cruel people, and suddenly she feared for Themba.

Over the next few weeks, traffic picked up and ships docked every day, carrying harried-looking people away from the upcoming war.  Momma had to start rationing fuel.

Predictably, the Gineer started shouting when Momma said she could only spare enough fissionable material to get them to Swayback Station, a mere five systems over.  And when they stopped shouting they started begging, thrusting handfuls of cash at Momma, certain that everything was for sale.  But Momma couldn’t afford to stock up too heavily on any one currency.

The Web folks were disappointed, but took the news with a grim resignation.  They were used to shortages.

Web or Gineer, though, every guest was desperate for food – especially when Lizzie explained that sauerkraut didn’t go bad.  They bought huge jars, so Lizzie had to stay up late at night chopping more cabbage.

But the Web folks seemed disheartened at having to spend money for food; they’d sigh, their pockmarked faces faded to a pale, overmilked coffee color thanks to weeks locked inside darkened ships.

“The Intraconnected used to provide for its citizens,” they said, gesturing to their families huddled miserably behind them.  “I’m a stamp-press mechanic, not a soldier!  They tried to make me switch tasks.  They said my children would be provided for in the unlikely event of my sacrifice – but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t risk it…”

They were so polite, so peaceful, so like Themba, that Lizzie gave them extra dollops of sauerkraut.

The Gineer were pushier.  Their smooth faces were plastered with makeup, men and women alike, pancaking their cheeks to hide the blemishes that had cropped up once they couldn’t get their weekly gene-treatments.  Lizzie didn’t see anything wrong with a pimple, but tell that to the Gineer.  They held up suitcases packed with useless stuff — gameboxes and electric hair-curlers — and lamented that this was all they could carry.

Yet in their suitcases they carried photos of their families.  They were eager to tell Lizzie stories about the  beautiful house they’d saved for, the beloved husband they’d negotiated so cleverly for to get their marriage authorization.  They stroked the pictures with their fingers when they talked about the past, as if they were rubbing a genie’s lamp for a wish – and then told Lizzie how the house had been bombed to splinters, the husband crunched under rubble.

Lizzie tried to tell herself that the Gineer had it coming.  But then she imagined losing her home, seeing her Momma dead, and her anger dissolved into pity.

“You can’t listen to their stories, Lizzie,” said Momma.  “It takes too much time.  We need to get them out of the station as soon as possible.”

Then there were the soldiers.  Whether they were Web or Gineer, they were all lean-limbed, clean-cut, eager; they each told Lizzie how the other side had started it, and they pumped their fists at the idea of dispensing proper justice.

Lizzie bit her lip when the Gineer soldiers trash-talked the Web.  Smart-mouthing was bad for business.

After a few months, a sour-looking Gineer with a bushy white mustache limped out of the airlock.  His patched white suit hung in unflattering rags off his stick-thin frame.  He chomped at a ganja cigar with malice, his wrinkled cheeks pulling in and out like a pump.

He sniffed the air and scowled.

“Smells like ass in here,” he said.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Lizzie shot back, forgetting to be polite.  “And if there was a smell, I would have noticed.”

The man chuckled, bemused; it set Lizzie’s hackles on edge.  “You vacuum rats are so superbly cute,” he said, ruffling her hair.  “I’m Doc Ventrager.  You must be my apprentice, Elizabeth.  Inform your Momma of my presence, and update her that I shan’t physic anyone in this sauerkraut fart of a place until I get a fresh deodorizer in my quarters.”

Momma was slumped over her comm unit, half asleep.  “That’s right,” she said, gulping a cup of tea.  “I forgot he was arriving.  It’s time you learned medicine, Lizzie; in these times, it’s good to have a sawbones handy.  From now on, your spare time will be spent with Doc Ventrager.”

Lizzie nearly suffocated from the unfairness of it all.  “But I was supposed to learn how to fly!”

“Circumstances have changed, and so must you, Elizabeth.  Instead of paying us rent, the doc is earning his keep teaching you to set bones – and you’ll both do good business here, sadly enough.  Now show him to the medbay.”

Though Lizzie had dutifully run their syscheck routines once a month, she had no idea what all of the headsets and plastic wands in the medbay actually did — but judging from the harrumphing noises Doc Ventrager made as he picked them up and slapped them back down, he wasn’t impressed.  Momma stood behind him anxiously, chewing her lip.  The Doc had Lizzie unlock the doors to the medicine cabinet, then peered in at the neat rows of antibiotics, opiates, and sutures.

“Well, at least that’s well-stocked,” he said.

“My great-grandma installed all this herself, after the pirates came,” Lizzie protested.  “It all works.”

He flicked ash on the floor.  “Thank the stars that despite their predilection for genegineering, the Gineer haven’t altered the core organs of the human body in the past century.”  He turned to Momma.  “Install that deodorizer and give me a free hand over pricing, and I’ll educate your offspring with these antiques.”

“Sold,” said Momma.  Lizzie said nothing.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be under Doc Ventrager’s tutelage.

As it turned out, Doc Ventrager had brought his own equipment, and he expected Lizzie to carry it all for him.  He pointed out where the leather satchels and tanks should go as Lizzie struggled under their weight.  As she ferried them out from the ship, Doc Ventrager seemed to sum up everything that was wrong about Gineer folks — even if Ventrager’s pockmarked face meant he wasn’t exactly a normal Gineer.

The next morning, she checked the hydroponics and then went to the medlab.  “Right,” the Doc said.  He pointed to a tank, where child-sized things with gray, wrinkled flesh floated in a stinking green fluid.  “Let’s see what you’re made of.  Fish one out, deposit it ‘pon the table.”

They were so small that at first Lizzie thought they were children – and then she realized their ears and noses were funny.  Lizzie ran her palm across the stiffened flesh, feeling its hard, horned hands, its antenna-like ears, the little snippet of flesh on its butt that looked like a leftover from a bad vaccuforming job.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Pigs,” said the Doc.  “A lot cheaper than anatomy clones, that’s for damn sure.”

She frowned.  “I thought you were supposed to teach me about humans.”

“Pig bones and organs are close enough to hum-spec for the rudiments of injury repair,” the Doc said, absent-mindedly cleaning a sharp knife on his gown.  “You know how to stitch a wound?  To set a bone?”

“No.”

He handed her the knife.  “Time you learned.  Now cut.”

Doc Ventrager was a hard but efficient taskmaster; Lizzie learned that he’d spent years training girls and boys at stations all around the ‘verse.

“You’re damn lucky,” he said, after a long day treating simulated decompression injuries.  “Most kids have to learn this all in theory.  They can’t call me when someone’s EVA suit rips; it’d take three weeks to get there.  So their first major field operation is on their dying Momma – holding her down while she’s thrashing, shrieking, soaked crimson in blood…”

Lizzie sensed the test buried in the Doc’s words; he was trying to frighten her with thoughts of her Momma.  She said nothing.

The Doc nodded and took a long drag off of his reefer cigarette, blowing the sweet smoke into the room to overwhelm the “gangrenous reek” he smelled.

“But you, missy,” he said, tipping his cigar at her, “Will acquire a chance to watch the real show.  By the time this conflict’s ebbed its course, you shall be qualified to teach.”

She found out what he meant when the first Gineer warship arrived, one engine nearly shot to splinters.

Gemma immediately started working up an repair estimate, but the sergeant was more interested in cornering Doc.  “We received some specially withering fire in a rear-guard action,” he explained.  “We had to escape before resupplying, and so several soldiers have severe infections.  What’s the charge to cleanse gangrene?”

“Allow me a gander,” the Doc said, looking satisfied for the first time since Lizzie had known him.  Doc walked, preening, into the ship, but Lizzie almost threw up from the smell.

Twenty soldiers rested on pallets against the wall, most with broken limbs that had healed in horrid ways.  They bit down on pieces of plastic, trying not to shriek; the last of the painkillers had been used up weeks ago.

“Oh, that’s a fine mess,” the Doc said, rubbing his hands together.  “The quote is one-ninety per head.”

One-ninety?” the sergeant said.  “That’s three times normal rate.”

“You possess superior alternatives?” the Doc said.  “No.  You do not.  You can sew ‘em up now and have ‘em heal en route to the next battle… or you can keep your funds walleted and remove them from your roster.  Either way’s acceptable to me.”

“One-ninety’s blackmail.”

“Excuse me,” Lizzie said politely, ostensibly to Doc Ventrager but speaking loud enough that the sergeant could overhear her, “Don’t forget that Momma said the Gineer get eight percent off at Sauerkraut Station.”

“I never heard of that.  Even if I had, it wouldn’t apply to me.”

“You’re on the station, aren’t you?”

“Goddammit,” he said.  “I will speak with your Momma.”  But didn’t; instead, he went down to one-seventy.  Lizzie felt a malicious price at seeing the Doc’s greed quashed.

And she felt pride when she cleaned her first batch of wounds.  Though she’d drained pus on the dead pigs, Lizzie hadn’t been sure how she’d take to it once she was working on live men.  Judging from the sergeant’s pleased reactions, she did a fine job.

The Doc grumbled at having to work for such low rates, snarling at everyone like their injuries were their own damn fault.  “You went to war,” he snapped.  Lizzie, on the other hand, tried to be nicer, even if they were stupid, Themba-hating soldiers.

More ships came in, Web and Gineer alike, each carrying loads of injured people, so fast that Lizzie almost forgot to tend to the hydroponics.  She diagnosed complications arising from welding burns, set broken legs from failed rig-drops, irrigated chemical lung-burns, treated vacuum explosions.  When she rinsed off the cabbages, flecks of blood washed off her hands.

She wanted to take pleasure in the Gineer soldiers’ agony, telling herself that it was just punishment for picking on the Web.  But all soldiers screamed when they were hurt, and when they were dying they all wanted to talk to their Momma or their brother or their husband.  They all wanted to see their families one last time.

Lizzie cried so much, she felt like her whole body was drying up.  But never in front of the soldiers.

Momma combed her hair, told Lizzie how proud she was.  “But you have to get the Doc to work faster, Lizzie,” she said.  “They have to be out the next day.”

Lizzie hated letting down Momma, but if she rushed Doc Ventrager then people died.  When she was alone, she squeezed her fists tightly enough to leave half-moon cuts in the palms of her hands.

After a few months of surgical assistance, the Doc handed off the minor operations to Lizzie.  The Doc made it clear that even though she was doing doctor duties now, any profits from her surgeries went to him.  That was better; surgery was like any other repair work.  You took care, and measured twice before cutting once.  The fact that she’d spent four hours a day in surgery for the past five months helped – and now she could go at her own speed.

Still, the soldiers always panicked when the twelve-year-old girl hooked them up to the anesthetizer.  She reassured them that this was nothing, just removing a slug buried next to a lung, she’d done it twenty times before.  And if they struggled against the straps, their fellow soldiers laughed and said, hey, man, haven’t you heard about the Angel of Sauerkraut Station?  Settle down, man, she makes miracles.

But no matter how busy things got, every night Momma brushed Lizzie’s hair.

“Those ships are deathtraps, Momma,” she complained, anguished.  “There’s no supplies; they get cooped up in there, stew in their own disease.  Why don’t they just build one big ship with a medlab?”

“One atomic bomb would take it out,” she said.  “Or heck, one kamikaze run.  Spaceships are fragile, interconnected — like bodies, really.  The more chambers you add, the more possibility that one hit ripples across all of them.”

“But…”

Momma pursed her lips in disapproval.  “Little ships are easy to churn out, Lizzie.  They let you land soldiers across a wider area.  They’re built cheap and disposable, to carry cheap and disposable cargo.”

A thought occurred to Lizzie.  “We’ve had ships full of Web soldiers,” she said.  “And ships full of Gineer.”

Momma smiled in approval.  “You noticed.”

“But never at the same time.”

“Interstellar ships are very slow,” she said.  “The chances of two enemy fleets showing up on the same day are slim.”

“But if they did?”

Momma kissed Lizzie on the head.  “Why do you think I’ve been riding you so hard to get everyone out of the station?”

That thought kept Lizzie up at nights.  But not for too long, because between the surgeries and the sauerkraut and the hydroponics, Lizzie was working eighteen-hour days.  She slept deep.

She couldn’t sleep long, though; the station was so packed with folks that their groans kept her awake.  They slept fitfully in the hallways, with their heads on their backpacks, and when they woke it was always with a scream.  And when she woke, startled, Lizzie smelt the fresh stench of infected wounds, body odor, and – yes, there it was – sauerkraut wafting through the vents.  Its briny scent was stark against all the other recycled smells.

The Doc was right.  Sauerkraut Station did smell.  She hated him for revealing that.  And she hated the way he kept raising his prices.

“I possess a mere two hands,” he said after sending another Web soldier back to her doom.  “As such, my time’s at a premium.”

“It’d take you one hand and three minutes,” Lizzie shot back.  “All that girl needed was a proper implantation of bowel sealant.”

Lizzie was surprised at how blunt she was with Doc – but she was doing half the work these days, and most of the trickier stuff.

Doc just looked irritated.  “Why shouldn’t I make it worth my while?” he asked.  “I’m an old man.  War’s the only time I can fill my coffers.”

“I have to tend to the hydroponics,” Lizzie said, snapping off her surgical gloves.  She made her way down to the lounge where the wounded Web soldiers keened.  Their sergeants fed them watered-down painkillers – which wouldn’t stop their ruptured bowels from flooding their bodies with infection.

They were all bald, dark-skinned.  It was like seeing a row of Thembas, sweating in agony.

“Hush,” she said, kneeling down, taking the stolen hypodermic of sealant out from under her shirt.  “I’ll fix you.”

The look in their eyes was so pathetically grateful that it would be worth Momma’s anger.

The Doc had dragged Lizzie to the comm tower by her ear.

“The girl’s undercutting me!” he cried to Momma.  “She’s working for free!  The Web soldiers are waiting for her to treat them!”

Lizzie stood tall, ready for the slap.  Momma had only hit her twice in her life, both times for being careless around vacuum — but she’d never disobeyed anyone so flagrantly before.

Instead, a curl of a smile edged around Momma’s mouth.

“It’s free work,” she said.  “She’s an apprentice, no?”

Doc’s face flushed.  “Yeah – but…”

“She’s getting extra medical practice in.  That’s why I brought you on board, you remember – to teach her?”

“Not at my expense!  I didn’t come here to get into competition, goddammit – I arrived with the intent of a monopoly!”

“I never promised you’d be the only doctor here,” Momma said coolly.  “I promised you free room and board as long as you served as a doctor.  Check your contract.”

“That’s letter of the law,” the Doc snapped.  “That’s planetary talk.  I deserve better than – “

“I’ve been quite happy with your service here, Mister Ventrager,” Momma said, cutting him off.  “But if you’re not satisfied, there’s no time frame to your contract.”

Doc Ventrager’s hands twitched, as though he was thinking of taking a swing at Momma.  Momma’s hand dropped to her taser.

“Fine,” he said, biting down so hard on his cigar that it snapped in half.  “I hereby proffer you my summary resignation.”

“Best wishes, Mister Ventrager,” Momma said pleasantly to the Doc as he stormed out of the comm room.

Lizzie stepped forward to wrap her arms around Momma, but Momma looked suddenly solemn.  “Well, Lizzie,” she said.  “You’re the ship’s doctor, now.  Are you ready?”

Lizzie wasn’t sure.  But she realized she hadn’t left herself another choice.

The irony was that within weeks, Lizzie was charging prices as bad as Doc Ventrager’s.  But that wasn’t her fault; there just wasn’t the medicine.

The trade routes had dried up.  The freighters told her that pirates and privateers were running rampant.   Both Web and Gineer officials complained bitterly whenever the pirates struck — but everyone knew that the pirates were only allowed to operate if they gave a cut to their sponsoring government, and the privateers carried brands authorizing them to steal.

Thankfully, after what Great-Gemma had done to them long ago, the pirates wouldn’t touch Sauerkraut Station.  But Momma wondered how long that age-old story would keep the pirates at bay – especially now that things were getting desperate.

Meanwhile, Lizzie bargained hard on the rare occasions she found a merchant with a case of Baxitrin or Rosleep.  She got it for what passed for a good price these days.  Lizzie hated sending poverty-stricken soldiers off with untreated wounds, but Lizzie found it was easier to set a price and refuse anyone who couldn’t pay.  When Lizzie chose who to subsidize that week, it made her responsible for the dead.

Food was scarce, too.  The Web soldiers told rumors of other refill stations staffed by skeletal families, reduced to trading away fissionable materials in exchange for a case of protein bars.  Lizzie tended to the vegetables in the hydroponics chambers with extra-special care, grateful for Momma’s planning.

Occasionally, Lizzie stun-tagged hungry soldiers who pried at the food chamber locks – mostly Gineer scoundrels, as she’d expected.  She lectured the Web troopers, though, sending them back thoroughly ashamed.

Fortunately, there were fewer ships.  The war seemed to be spreading out.  But the soldiers were getting meaner.

In the beginning, they’d all been fresh-faced and kind, talking about home with a wistful attitude; these new soldiers’ faces were hidden under grizzled beards and puckered scars.  All they talked about was war.

The Gineer soldiers shouted at her because this God-damned dry waste of a station had no alcohol to buy.  The Web yelled because where had the Angel of Sauerkraut Station been when Ghalyela took a bullet to the head?

Lizzie tried to be nice, but “nice” just seemed to slide right off of them.  They’d lost something vital out there.

Both sides threatened her when Lizzie tried to explain that she they had to pay for the Baxitrin.  The Web grumbled, but the veterans were quick to explain that this was the Angel of Sauerkraut Station; Lizzie had done work for free, back when she could.  They pulled their friends away with an apology.

The Gineer soldiers, however, had only known her as Doc’s assistant.  And Doc Ventrager’s cruelty had become legendary.

“I can give you a six percent discount,” she always explained, looking as wide-eyed and kid-startled as she could.  “But there’s just not enough to go around.  You understand, don’t you?”

That worked until a soldier with a head wound took a swing at her.

Fortunately, Momma taught her how to use a stun gun back when she was six.  Lizzie pressed her back against the wall as the other eight wounded soldiers looked dully at the twitching man on the ground, then looked at Lizzie as she frantically tried to reload her stunner –

Finally they laughed, a scornful mirthless cough of a thing.

“Punked by a kid,” they chuckled, helping their friend up.  “No wonder this asshole needs medical attention.”

They joked about how maybe Freddie could get beaten up by a teddy bear for an encore.  But not a one of them seemed to think there was anything wrong with trying to beat up Lizzie.

Shaken, Lizzie worked on that whole troop for free, handing out precious supplies like they were sauerkraut.

She’d apologized to Momma for using up so much medicine at a net loss.  Momma just hugged her.  Lizzie froze with the newness of it all; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d smelled Momma’s hair.

“It’s getting bad,” Momma agreed.  “If I could, I’d install a deadman’s switch to dump knockout gas into the chambers to keep you safe, but…”

“Nobody has any,” Lizzie finished.

“It could be worse,” Momma said, putting the best face on it.  “Imagine what would have happened if Doc Ventrager had stayed.”

Still, Lizzie alternately hated herself for being paranoid, then hated the station for requiring paranoia.  Lizzie counted the people in the hallways now, moved quickly from room to room so she’d never be too outnumbered; she squeezed her taser’s rubberized grip until the bare metal poked through.  She sighed with relief every time they got the latest batch of ships out beyond the Oort cloud.

She was trying to catch up on sleep before the next patrolship of soldiers arrived, when she woke to a sizzling pop.  Her hair rippled; a soft current buzzed through her.  The vent next to her bed puffed stale ozone and wheezed to a halt.

When she opened her eyes, there was nothing to see.  Did that current blindme?

Then she heard the awful silence, a void so utterly complete it took a moment to put a name to it:

The motors had stopped.

There were no creaks from the gyros, no hiss of water through the pipes, no hum from the meteoroid shields.  It was the sound of space, a horrid nothing, dead and empty in a place that should have a million parts moving to keep her alive.

“Momma?” She tried to yell, but her mouth had gone dry.

Lizzie fumbled at the latches of her emergency supply case to get a flashlight, banging her knees.  This is a mechanical failure, she told herself; we’ll get this fixed, and everything will be fine.  Except there was no light reflected down the hallways.  The walls were shiny metal, each room normally ablaze with control panels and LEDs; she saw not a glimmer.

She clicked the flashlight on.  The LED stayed dark.

Momma!”  This time, it was a shriek.

“Circuit-friers!” came Gemma’s voice, echoing from down the hall.  “Gotta be pirates – goddammit, nobody’s supposed to use those on civilian targets!”

“Our systems are toast, Lizzie,” Momma yelled from the control tower.  “Even the self-destruct’s dead.  I’m going for the box.”

“What box?” Gemma asked, her voice sharp.  “Oh – no, love, too soon.  Don’t show your hand before we hear what they have to say.”

Lizzie swallowed back bile.  She reached out and wandered forward, hoping to hug Gemma, but without light the echoes in the hallways went every which way.

There was the dull clank of hull bashing hull.  Lizzie was flung into the opposite wall.  That wasn’t a gentle docking, when computers guided you in with micromovements; this was manual dock, a hard impact that crushed airlock collars and risked depressurization.  The central gyros creaked in protest.

Lizzie tried to make her way to the conn tower, but everything was jumping around in the dark.  She followed the walls as best she could, but the distances seemed infinitely large.  All the while Gemma yelled stay calm, we can talk…

More clanking.  A hiss.  She wasn’t by the conn tower, she’d blundered to the airlock.  She turned and ran, but a set of white-hot flashlight beams skittered along the walls, targeting her.  Something exploded against the wall, sending slivers of shrapnel into her legs –

“It’s a kid!” someone yelled.  “No fire!  No fire!”

Someone grabbed her shoulders, wrenched her arms behind her back.  Just before they pulled the hood over her head, she saw the camo-green uniform of a Web soldier.

The Web searched the halls with IR detectors, looking for other guests.  Gemma, Momma, and Lizzie sat in the cafeteria with their hands crossed primly on their laps, pointedly not looking at the soldiers who aimed needle-jets at their hearts.

When the soldiers smashed the locks off the kitchen cabinets, it hurt Lizzie like a blow; she’d installed those locks.  Momma winced, too.  Lizzie wanted to protest as the gaunt soldiers reached in with skeletal hands and chomped the raw cabbages with glee, but she didn’t dare.  In the harsh glare of the portable spotlights, the soldiers assigned to guard them looked envious and angry; they couldn’t keep their eyes off of the dancing shadows in the next room, where food was being wolfed down.  And when they looked at Lizzie and Gemma and Momma, who were skinny but not emaciated like they were, their dark brows narrowed.

The commander, a leonine black woman with gray streaks in her hair, walked in.  “Place is clear,” she said to the guards.  “Get in there and get your bellies full.  I’ll talk to our newest citizens.”

The commander had the ketone-scented breath of a starving woman, yet she pulled up a chair as though she had all the time in the world.

“Muh – maybe you should eat first,” Lizzie said.

The commander smiled and stroked Lizzie’s hair.  Her touch was light, delicate, comforting; a mother’s touch.

“Bless you, child,” she said.  “I’m afraid that yes, we will be eating your food.  That’s a philosophy you’re going to have to learn.”

Momma scowled.  “I take it the war’s not going well.”

“We’re staging a tactical retreat.  This way-station has been useful, but at this stage we can’t afford it to benefit our enemy.  If we just leave you here, you’ll give our enemy fissionables, food – we can’t have that.”

Behind her, her soldiers looted the kitchen.  The new arrivals dug into the tubs of sauerkraut with both hands, shoving their mouths full of shredded cabbage with a fierce and frightening satisfaction.  The ones with full bellies had begun toting the remaining food supplies back to the airlock, moving quickly.

“We won’t give them anything,” Lizzie begged.  “We’ve been rooting for you, we don’t want to help those awful Gineer…”

The commander smiled wearily.  “I know you mean that, child, but you can’t enforce it.  Refuse to sell it, and they’ll take it.  They’re as desperate as we are.  We can’t afford to leave you here.”

“So you’re going to kill us?” Momma asked, putting her arm around Lizzie.

“Despite the Gineer propaganda, we’re not barbarians,” the commander snapped.  “My troops will strip this outpost to bare metal – but we’ll take you with us.  We’ll escort you to the nearest free Web holding where you’ll be safe.”

“In between combat missions?  That could take years,” Gemma said.

“The Web’s more efficient than you give us credit for.  The good news is that we’ll consider your ship’s materiel your entry fee to the Intraconnected Collective – you’re citizens now.  It’ll be a better life, child; no more worrying about air, food, or clothing.”  She ruffled Lizzie’s hair, as though to prove what a wonderful world it would be.  “Just as you provided for us today, we will provide for you.  I’ll personally recommend you for a surgeon’s career when you hit planetfall.”

Lizzie felt like she’d been punched in the chest.  She’d had dreams about leaving, yes — but that left Sauerkraut Station where she could come back to it.  The commander was talking about forced relocation, putting her in a place full of strangers, and taking everything she’d loved as payment.

The soldiers smashed in the door to the fermentation chamber.  Momma and Gemma blinked back tears.  Lizzie knew why; Momma had installed that airlock when she was Lizzie’s age, the first time Gemma had trusted her with the welder.

Everything in this station was her birthright, purchased by one Denahue and installed by another.  The Web would take away this history to give her someone else’s hand-me-downs.  And everything that five generations of Denahues had built would be so much floating debris.

Choking back tears, Lizzie watched as the soldiers hauled the tubs of sauerkraut out – and then she saw it.

A small container with a scrawled “T.”

“NOT THAT ONE!” Lizzie yelled, leaping off the bench before anyone could stop her.

She tackled the soldier, sending a stack of tubs clattering to the floor; she clutched Themba’s sauerkraut and to her chest.

The commander bent her wrists back to make her let go; another soldier took it away.  “THAT’S THEMBA’S!” she yelled.  “YOU CAN’T HAVE THAT ONE!  I HAVE TO SAVE IT FOR HIM FOR WHEN HE – HE COMES BACK – ”

Lizzie was already sobbing as the commander carried her back to the table, dropping her into Momma’s arms.

“I understand the challenges of parenting,” the commander said stiffly to Momma.  “And your daughter’s proven herself an ally.  But you will settle her down, or it’s the cuffs.”  She unholstered a pair of handcuffs, swung them lightly off the end of one finger.

Momma stroked Lizzie’s hair, hugging her tight.  Lizzie cried until Themba’s container was out of sight – and then a thought occurred to her.

“Could you at least relocate us to Themba’s house?” she asked.  “He’s my best friend.”

The commander hesitated.  “A Web citizen was your best friend?  Is that why… why you were the Angel?”

“Oh yes,” Lizzie gushed.  “We played together for four whole days.  He asked me to come with him — he’ll be glad to show me around his home, I just know it.”

“It’s – an unusual request…”

Please,” she begged.  She looked to Momma for support, but Momma and Gemma were studying the tops of their boots.  “If I can be with Themba again, it’s… okay.”

“I can’t promise.  But… Themba’s a common name.  If Can you give me more details?”

“He was a hostage.”

The commander flinched.  The handcuffs fell to the floor.

Gemma let loose a choked cry.  Momma reached over, and both Momma and Gemma were crying now, and that scared Lizzie worse than anything.

“Sweetie…” The commander reached out to take Lizzie’s hands. “We gave our innocent sons to the Gineer as a token of our good will.  We thought showing them our beautiful children would help them deal in good faith.

“And… when the Gineer broke the treaties, they probably shot the hostages.  That’s how hostages work.”

Betrayed, Lizzie looked to Gemma and Momma.  “You knew?”

“She said ‘probably,’ love,” Gemma said, sniffling.  “We did news-scans, but never found his name…”

Lizzie felt the tears on her cheeks before she realized she was crying again, huge whoops of pain that seemed to erupt from her like air squirting into vacuum.  She’d been holding everything in, all the anguish of the war, and now that everything was lost she was flying apart into nothing, nothing at all.

“We’ll find someplace good for you,” the commander promised.  Lizzie slapped her.

“You killed everything!” she shrieked.  “You made everything dead!”

The commander touched her fingers to her swelling cheek in disbelief.  Behind her, her soldiers froze; they cradled the sauerkraut containers awkwardly, not sure whether to keep moving or go for their guns.

Momma, her arms protectively around Lizzie, glared them all down.

“You’ve taken everything from her, now,” she said.  “Every last illusion.  Will you take her home from her, too? Is that who you are?”

“You’d die!” the commander shot back, exasperated.  “Your circuits are blown.  And the Gineer are hot on our heels — so we can’t leave you with fissionables, or food, or medical supplies.  We have to leave now, and all you’ll have left is a metal tube with a puff of air.  Would you rather die in space than live in the Intraconnected Commonwealth?”

Lizzie turned to Momma, wondering what she’d say – but was surprised to find Momma was waiting for her answer.  And even though Momma’s face was patient and kind, Lizzie could see it in Momma’s eyes:

Momma would rather die here.

She had spent forty-three years in Sauerkraut Station.  Here, she was a commander; in the collective, she’d be a quirky neighbor.  Brought to dirt, Momma would become the stereotypical planetfaller that was the butt of every VDR comedy’s joke: terrified of the outdoors, obsessively closing every door behind her, frozen by the overwhelming choices at supermarkets.  Laughed at by everyone.

Yet Momma’s gaze told the truth: I would endure all of that.  For you.

Lizzie thought about that, then gripped her mother’s hand.  Her Momma gripped Gemma’s hand.  Three generations of Denahues turned to face the commander.

“This is our home,” said Lizzie.

The Web troops left, burying them in black.  In the darkness, Momma and Gemma hugged her tight.

“You’re a true Denahue,” Momma said, wetting Lizzie’s neck with tears.

“You did us proud, Lizzie,” Gemma assured her, enfolding them both inside her strong, stringy arms.

“But I’m gonna die a Denahue,” Lizzie said.  “We’re gonna suffocate inside a tin can…”

Momma sighed, a warm stream of breath that rustled Lizzie’s hair.  “We got hope, Lizzie.  Not a lot, but some.”

“What do you mean?”

Gemma took Lizzie by the hand and they fumbled their way carefully to the mech-bay.  She placed Lizzie’s palms at the back of the now-empty hidden storage crèche.

“Tell me, Lizzie,” Gemma said, her voice wavering.  “I know they found the hidden compartment.  But did they find the double-blind?”

The hidden hidden compartment!  Lizzie had forgotten.  And as she ran her hands along it, she whooped in happiness as she realized it was unopened.

“I guess it’s still there,” Momma said.  “Now we’ll see if the shielding held.”

“It’s shielded,” Gemma said firmly.  “My Momma made sure of that.”

“She couldn’t test it, though,” Momma replied.  “How could she, without frying the station?  And we haven’t checked the integrity of the backup hardware – well, since Lizzie was born, at least.”

Gemma was unconcerned.  “Momma stored stuff to last.”

Lizzie’s sweaty hands unbolted the last of the secret latches.  She tossed the panel aside with a clatter.  Come on, she thought, running fingertips around the edge of what felt like an emergency supply box.  She grabbed at what felt like a flashlight.

A blue flicker illuminated the mechbay.

“Goddammit, yes!” Lizzie cried, and Momma didn’t even cluck her tongue at the swearing.

The light was thin, barely enough to pierce the gloom, but Lizzie aimed it into the cramped cabinet.  Fit neatly like a puzzle was a set of oxygen tanks, two backup servers, a case of shielded fissionables, a set of power tools, a month’s supply of food, and a full meteoroid shielding kit.  Lizzie let out another whoop and turned to hug Momma.

Momma pushed her away, looking grim.

“Sweetie,” she whispered.  “We’re still probably gonna die.”

Lizzie shivered.  It was the truth.

The worst part about Momma and Gemma leaving was that Lizzie couldn’t even wave goodbye.  She stood on the other side of the welded door, doing the math one last time.  Math was all she’d been doing for the last ninety-four hours, and the end results were merciless.

As a rough guideline, Lizzie knew the average human exhausts the oxygen in about 500 cubic feet of air per day.  There were three of them.  The station had 99,360 cubic feet of air, not counting airlock losses.  Since the oxyscrubbers were fried along with everything else, that gave them two months before they suffocated on CO2.

They did not have two months’ worth of food.

Lizzie had begged hard, and the commander had left them with two weeks’ worth of rations.  There had been a year’s supply of protein bars stored in the double-blind, but mold had crept in and gnawed most of it into a dry, inedible fuzz.  Their water supplies were even worse: a mere thirty gallons.

And even that didn’t matter unless they could get the meteoroid shield back up and running.  Without that, as Gemma so colorfully put it, this place would be a tin shack on a firing range.  Their first order of business was to get that running — which took twenty sleepless hours.  (Thankfully, as Gemma pointed out, great-great-Gemma was wise indeed, spending the extra money for a shield that could be completely swapped out without ever leaving the ship’s confines.)

When they were done, Momma and Gemma collapsed into a four-hour nap that had to keep them awake for thirty, but Lizzie had an idea.  She felt her way out in darkness, conserving the power on her flashlight.

As she stepped out of the bunk room, she bonked her head against the door frame.

The station’s gravity was artificial, created by a near-frictionless rotating drum; judging from the new creaks the station had acquired and then lessening gravity, Lizzie judged the impact of the Web ship must have crushed something inside, creating drag.  A few days, and there would be no gravity at all.

Yet another deadline.

Lizzie carefully bobbed like a balloon down to the hydroponics room, then dunked her hands in the growing chambers.

Her wrists were engulfed in cold, moist sand.

She sighed with relief.  The Web had drained the water tanks, but they hadn’tremoved the water in the diatomaceous earth.  Lizzie didn’t know how much water was there precisely, but it was enough to feed the roots of seven hundred square feet of plants.  All she had to do was filter the silt out with a bedsheet and a bucket before the gravity stopped.

The next day, they looked at Gemma’s salvage ship, stuck so high in the rafters and looking so damaged that the Web had left it behind.  Gemma ran a quick test; a lot of it was fried, but the junker’s older circuits weren’t as finicky as the newer installs.

“Say it,” Gemma crowed.

Momma lowered her head. “It was a good idea to keep the junker, Momma.”

The junker had been designed for short hops out to the edge of the solar system, but in a pinch Gemma could rig it for cross-system travel… Assuming that there were enough supplies in the double-blind.  Assuming that a jury-rigged drive wouldn’t conk out in mid-jump, leaving them drifting through empty space – Lizzie knew the junker was already a hot zone, leaking scandalous amounts of waste energy.

Then Lizzie thought about how crowded it was in there when it was just her and Gemma cuddled inside the spaceship.  She pictured all three of them there crammed in there, plus the food and water to feed them, the oxyscrubbers straining under a triple load –

Even if, as Momma pointed out – if – they successfully made the jump to Swayback Station, there was no guarantee the Web hadn’t stripped Swayback as well.  Lizzie pointed out it was a leap hubward, away from Web territories – but Momma retorted that fissionable material had already been scarce.  There was no guarantee the Swaybacks, rumored to be a particularly mercenary family, would lend them fissionables for the week-long jump to Mekrong planetfall.

And Mekrong?  Did Mekrong have the supplies to refit Sauerkraut Station?  If they did, could Momma afford to buy it?

A single missed link meant either death or bankruptcy. Out here, the two were pretty much one and the same.

“And even if we could all squeeze in there,” Momma agonized, putting her face into her hands, “We couldn’t.  The Web were fleeing a pursuing force.  That means the Gineer will probably be here soon – we already know they wanted our station.  If we all stay here and wait for help, the Gineer aren’t any more likely to help us out than the Web was.  But if all three of us leave, the Gineer can jump our claim and refurbish our station for their needs.”

“That’s not a bad thing, staying behind,” Gemma mused.  “The station’s not comfortable, but it’s stable.  We got a working distress beacon in the closet.  They’ll hear it.”

“No guarantee they’ll stop, though,” Momma said.  “Not in war.  Not for a dead station.”

“True,” Lizzie said.  “But I bet they’d stop for a little girl.”

The silence was punctuated only by the groans of the ship’s axis slowing.

“Don’t say that, Lizzie.” Momma’s voice was hoarse.

“I have to, Momma,” Lizzie replied, feeling light-headed but oddly sure.  “You can take two weeks’ supplies on the ship with you – that gets you to Swayback.  And two people have to go to Swayback – without our usual bankfeed to draw from, one of you might have to stay behind at the station as insurance.  And someone has to stay here, or we might just as well have traded our station to the Web.  The math says one person stays.”

“That’s me,” she said, her voice only trembling a little bit.  “I’m smaller than you.  I eat less, I breathe less.  Leave me with all the protein bars and the water in the sand, and I bet I could last for – for three, maybe four months.  Someone’s sure to come before then.”

Lizzie tried to sound more certain than she was.  Her plan assumed that nothing further went wrong with the station.  That Lizzie didn’t go crazy from being cooped up in a lightless ship.  That the soldiers who answered her distress call weren’t soldiers who thought it was okay to beat up a little girl.  But Lizzie’s future was a teetering stack of uncertainties; this plan was the best of a bad batch.

Momma argued fiercely for a time – so furiously that Lizzie realized that Momma had already considered this plan.  She just hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it.  And when Momma was forced to admit there was no other way, Momma squeezed her tight and wept.  It was only the second time Lizzie had seen Momma weep since Daddy had died, and both times in the same day, and that scared her to the core.

Momma took Lizzie in her lap and combed her hair one last time while Gemma finished soldering the junker into shape.  “You know I love you, right?”

Lizzie did, but it was good to hear it now.  She buried her face in her mother’s chest, trying to inhale Momma’s scent so deeply it would carry her through blackness and terror.  All her life, Momma had always been just a couple of rooms away; now, Momma was going to be systems away, crossing the void in a half-dead ship, and Lizzie would have no way of knowing what happened.

“Maybe I should have gone to planetfall,” Momma muttered, rubbing her hands on her pants.  “Maybe I should have – ”

That questioning was the most terrible thing of all.  Momma never doubted.

“It’s okay,” Lizzie said.  “Daddy’s out there.  He’ll protect me.”

Momma looked sad, and then desperate, and then she floated with Lizzie to the observation window — the only native source of light in the whole station now — and spread her fingers across the scratched window.

Momma said other things before she left, but that was what Lizzie remembered: the terrifying fear and love as Momma said a silent prayer to Daddy, the stars reflected her eyes.

Without electricity, the airlocks didn’t work.  So Lizzie said her goodbyes, and then pressed her ear to the wall as Momma and Gemma welded themselves behind a door, then started up the ship, then rammed through a weakened hatch and into space.  The only confirmation she had of their leaving was the hollow metal thoom that resounded through the station walls.

She prayed they’d make it.  But whether they were alive or dead, for the first time in her life, Lizzie was alone.

Back when they’d had guests, Lizzie had bragged how even if all the servers crashed irrevocably, Sauerkraut Station would still remain a livable environment until rescue could arrive.  The thermal hood that covered the axis like a great, trembling umbrella was the brilliant part of Great-Great Gemma’s design.  It intercepted all the solar emanations that might otherwise cook the axis, transmitting both heat and electricity back into the station.  It was an elegant design that required little monitoring, and no complicated circuitry; the core of the station’s axis served as a boiler room, keeping the station heated to human-habitable temperatures even in the deep cold of space.

But, Lizzie thought after the first day, it made for lousy viewing.

She pressed her nose against the observation deck window, looking for signs of Momma and Gemma.  It was suffocatingly black; the thermal hood blocked all the sunlight, leaving Lizzie to strain her eyes to the faint illumination of reflected starlight.  The only real light came from the sporadic purple bursts of the meteoroid shields zapping another microparticle.

Yet that was the only place that had any light.  The rest of the ship, quite sanely, had no weak points to expose to the sucking vacuum outside.  Every corridor was a lightless prison.

On the first day, Lizzie had to dare herself not to turn on her flashlight.

She hugged the hard plastic to her chest, shivering.  For the first time in her life, nobody would answer if she called out for help.  The emptiness of the station seemed to have its own personality – a mocking smirk, hidden in darkness.

By the time Lizzie half-skipped, half-floated up to the observation deck on the second day – at least she thought it was the second day, it was hard to tell without the usual lightcycles – the observation deck was tinged with a strange glow.  It was her eyes adjusting, she knew that, but the deck felt like the ship’s lights during a brownout.

Part of Lizzie wanted to stay at the observation deck all the time.  A wiser part understood that if she stayed there in the light, eventually she’d be too terrified to venture back down into the chill void of Sauerkraut Station’s hallways – and so she forced herself, trembling, back to where the water supplies and her bed and the repair kits were.

On the fifth maybe-day, Lizzie almost died.

The gravity had finally dropped to near-zero, and she’d let go of the doorway to push herself off the wall.   But in the darkness, she’d misjudged her foot position, and instead of kicking off into space, she just stomped on empty air.

Lizzie tried to whirl around, to get ahold of something — but flailed and touched nothing but air.  She knew she must be drifting, slowly, down the middle of the main corridor, towards the observation deck.  But she could see nothing; this deep into the station, there was no difference between having her eyes open and her eyes shut.

From here, the observation deck was an eighth of a mile away.

How fast had she been going when she let go?  It couldn’t have been more than a couple of inches a minute.  She was drifting, slowly, like a speck of dust, down the middle of a long and empty hallway.

Lizzie shrieked.  Her voice echoed back, colder and shriller, as if the station itself was throwing her words back at her.  She punched, she clapped, she frog-kicked, hoping to feel the pain of her hands smashing against metal.  Her hands only slapped the globs of water hanging in the air.

There was nothing to push off of.  There was no way to get free.

“MOMMA!” she shrieked.  “GEMMA!”

Lizzie saw it all in her mind; she was drifting down the dead center of the hallway, slow as syrup.  She’d eventually brush up against the gentle curve of the western wall — but that might take weeks.

She might starve before her body bumped metal.

She pictured her dead body ragdolling slackly against the wall and rebounding, just another dead thing floating in a dead ship.  The doc had told her what happened to dead men when they rotted…

She was still screaming, but now she was shrieking at the stupid Web.  “I ROOTED FOR YOU!” she said.  “I TRUSTED YOU!  AND NOW YOU LEFT ME TO DIE, YOU STUPID… STUPID IDIOTS!  I HOPE YOU ALL DIE LIKE ME IN YOUR HORRIBLE WAR!”

Then she realized it was only five days maybe five days and Momma hadn’t thought the Gineer would show for weeks and she was going to die and bounce around this ship.

Lizzie didn’t know how long she hung there, yelling like a madwoman; it felt like hours.  But after too long a time it finally occurred to her: silly, just take off your clothes.  And once she flung her shoes away, that gave her enough motion to thump against a doorway a minute or two later.

It was a childish mistake, the kind of thing Daddy would have laughed at her for.  But the panic of that moment never left her.  From then on, she strapped herself to the bed when she slept, and she always carried a small canister of oxygen so she could jet herself to safety.

Without gravity, going to the bathroom was an abominable chore, a filthy thing that contaminated the very air.  The air stank of human waste and rotting sauerkraut.  That made eating a precursor to horror, so she ate only when she grew faint from hunger.  She stopped going to the observation deck because floating through the hallway’s splatters made her sick.

All she wanted to do was stay in bed.  But what would happen to her muscles?

Things started to coalesce from the blackness.

At first it was little sparkles here and there, but the sparkles turned into constellations, and then firespark-white lines connected the dots to turn them into great silver airlocks.  The airlocks hissed open.  And as Lizzie pushed her way past the glowing doorways, she glided into a vast hydroponics chambers, the skies ribbed with water-pipes hissing down clean cool rain.

She looked down, and her fingertips brushed across waxy, familiar goodness; rows of cabbages floated below her.  The cabbages danced joyfully, a strange and careful motion like two ships docking.  Thousands of pale green heads bobbed beneath her fingers, like little men bowing.

She saw a flash of braided brown hair.

Themba!” she cried.

“Play,” said Themba, his voice just as full of joy and life as always, and as his cornrowed skull dipped under the dancing cabbages, she realized that Themba was playing hide and seek with her.  She launched after him, laughing — and rammed into a cabinet.

As she shook off the sting of it, the blackness swallowed her up.

She tried to tether herself to the bed, but in the darkness she heard scuttlingthings coming for her.  She felt fine hairs brushing against her skin, hoping to find an anchor on her flesh to drill deep.

She shrieked, and the walls of the station fell away, and she was walking on the panels of the outside hull.

Daddy walked with her.

His desiccated hand was all rattly inside his punctured spacesuit, but he held her wrist like they were going for a walk around the corridors back in the good old days.  Lizzie didn’t have a suit, but that didn’t matter; it was a beautiful day.  She closed her eyes, felt warmth of the sun on her face.

“You’re dying, Lizzie,” Dad said.

“I know,” Lizzie shrugged.

“It’s only been two weeks.”  His face was smashed in like a crushed cabbage – but still kind.  “You gotta be strong.  Trust me, Lizziebutt, I know what you’re going through.”  He gestured up to point at himself, a dot far out in space.

“Aw, Daddy,” Lizzie said, hugging him tight.  Her squeeze sent a puff of dry, dead air shooting out through his cracked faceplate.

“It’s no good hugging you any more, Daddy,” she said.

He nodded.  “Only the living can give comfort,” he said.  “That’s why you gotta stay alive, Lizziebutt.”

“But you came for me,” she protested.

“That’s cause I know how empty things are.  You’ve been doing this for just fourteen days; I’ve been out here five years.  But I wouldn’t be out here drifting if I hadn’t screwed up.  I lost my footing, and drifted out, and wham – I was gone.  You know how hard it is to get a glimpse of you only once every seven weeks?”

“I miss you, Daddy,” she said, laying down on the panels and closing her eyes.  “It’s nice here.”

“You gotta do stuff, Lizzie.  Or you’re gonna go crazier than you already have.  So I’m gonna make things worse to give you something to do.  It might kill you, too.  But what wouldn’t, these days?”

Daddy knelt down and swept her up in an embrace, then he leapt off like a ballet dancer to launch himself into space.  He whirled around like a gyro and flung Lizzie back into the station.

She busted through the hull with a horrible pong noise, and there was a hiss as all the air came whooshing out, and Lizzie realized that she was struggling against her bedstraps.

There was new light in here.  A sliver of stars, shimmering behind a fluttering stream of purple.

Something had broken through the hull.

A very real hissing came from a finger-sized hole on the wall.  A meteoroid had punctured the alloyed metal like a bullet fired from space.  If that meteor had gone three feet to the right, it would have punctured Lizzie’s stomach.

She reached down for the emergency sealer-patch under her bed with the familiarity of practice of years of hull breach drills.  She turned on the flashlight, and her head exploded; the light made her just as blind with white as she’d been blind with black.

As she slapped the sealer on, she peered out the gap; the plasma hummed.  The shields were holding.

So why had a meteoroid made it through?

When she was done, she floated back to the observation deck.  It was almost too bright to see now, a strobing purple.

How could she have ever thought it was dark?  It was radiant in here.

But looking out the window, she saw meteoroids sizzling against the shields.  There was maybe one a minute – way more than usual.  She pressed her face to the window, trying to see what looked different.

Sure enough, Daddy’s bear-constellation had slipped off the side of the window, and she could only make out the top three stars of Great-Gemma’s turbine-constellation.  If the stars were changing position, then the station was drifting off-course – through the fringe of the dust belt and into the nearby asteroid belt.  The shields were designed to burn off small inbound particles… But large ones would still penetrate.  Without thrusters to prevent her from drifting into the denser part of the belt, the shields would fail.

Lizzie tried to get the thrusters back on-line, but it was no use; even if she’d had enough fissionables to start a reaction, the reactor itself was laced with yards of blown-out circuitry.  She’d thought about controlled hull breaches, maybe jetting her way to safety with air, but some calculations scrawled on a filthy whiteboard showed her that the displaced air wouldn’t be enough to significantly affect the station’s mass.  And even if she could have moved the station, she didn’t have a clear idea which way the ship was drifting.  She might knock it deeper into the field.

All her life, Momma had taught her that everything came down to guts and brains, but this put the lie to it: she was dice rattling around in a cup, her life determined by sheer randomness.  Nothing she had could prevent the larger meteoroids from breaking through.  Every punk! meant that a rock had blown through the hull, and by sheer dumb luck it hadn’t blown through her.

It was like trying to drift off to sleep with a gun pressed against your stomach.

Lizzie pulled herself around the station in an exhausted haze, her arms aching, trying to make herself a moving target.  The station seemed to expand and contract at will, the sign of some malicious intelligence; at times it felt like a vast dock and she was a bat, fluttering madly around inside emptiness.  Other times it was all walls, and the space outside compressed in.  Sometimes she’d fall asleep in mid-pull and not even realize it until the next ponk woke her up.

Ponk.  She’d survived.  Again.

She had 99,000 cubic feet of lightless air to protect.  Her universe was reduced to patching.  Her universe had always been patching.

There was no time for sleep; everything was a coma-fugue.  She had nightmares about patching horrible, howling holes, then realized she was awake.  Once, she fell asleep mid-weld and woke up with her hair on fire.

The station hissed like a boiling kettle.

All the while Daddy and Momma and Themba and Gemma and all the Web and Gineer commanders floated behind her like balloons on a string, babbling in languages that made no sense.  They told her the war was over, and everyone went home.  They told her to give up, the station was dying and so was she.  They told her that all her memories were dreams – there was just her in these stripped-out hallways, blind and numb, forever and ever.

Lizzie was dust.  She was air.  She was the taste of cabbages.

A flare of light came from the observation deck, so bright it filled the station.  She floated over to see, her eyes tearing up; Dad was there, pressing his collapsed face against the window, telling her that it was okay, a meteor was coming to end her misery…

…And it was the catastrophic clang, the big one, a huge sound like a hammer smashing all the metal in the world.  Lizzie was flung into the wall, bathed in light, enveloped in such pain and terror that she shrieked and shrieked and kept screaming until Daddy split in four and hauled her down to hell.

She opened her eyes.  It took an effort.

She was blinded by the soft glare of fluorescent lights.  A repetitive beep changed pitches, keeping time with her heart.

Turning her head to peer at the monitors raised a sweat underneath the stiff blue robe she was wearing.  She tried to slide her hand up off the starched bedsheets, but only managed to make her heart monitor spike. Gravity held her tight to the bed.

At least her vitals looked good.

“It’s my ship,” Lizzie protested, using all her strength to lift her head off the pillow.  “My home.”

“We know that.”

Lizzie jumped.  A nurse was dressed in a close-fit Gineer uniform with a blood-red cross-and-sickle emblazoned on the front, his long hair slicked back under a nurse’s cap.  He had a friendly smile.

“’My ship, my ship,” he said, placing a cool hand on her forehead.  “That’s all you’d said when we pulled you from the wreckage.  And after everything you went through to secure that glorious lifestyle of yours, Elizabeth, our most profound generals decided that we couldn’t remove it from you.  You are a hero.”

Hero? Lizzie thought.  She hadn’t done anything but survive.

But the nurse called in a couple of Web commanders, older women with sad eyes, and they told her that she’d been in an induced coma for almost two months while they restimulated bone growth and removed excess radiation from her body.  In that time, her story had been transmitted to all corners of the galaxy — the discovery of a small girl working diligently to keep her home alive for her family.  Elizabeth “Lizzie” Denahue, they said, was now known as an example of the tenacity that only family loyalty could generate.

“But I’m not Gineer,” Lizzie protested.

“Doesn’t matter,” said the nurse.  “It’s a nice story.  After all the consternation, people ache for a comforting tale.”

She thought about the word “nice,” and logically there was only one reason they could possibly think this was nice.

“So where’s Momma?”

“Smart girl,” one of the commanders said affectionately.  “She’s back on the station, refitting it with donated equipment.  We almost snuffed you out in towing it back, you know; we thought no one could be alive inside that, it had drifted so badly out of orbit.  We were just looking to refurbish it… But you were in there, Elizabeth.  There was barely any air left, but you were there.”

Lizzie nodded weakly.  “Can I see Momma?”

“Of course, sweetie,” said the nurse.  “We just have to fly her in from the station.”

Momma came about an hour later, looking haggard and scared and more beautiful than Lizzie could have imagined.  They hugged, though Momma had to help lift Lizzie’s arms around her waist.

“They told me what happened, Lizzie,” Momma said.  “We were on our way back, I swear – Gemma had to take a down-planet contract to pay for emergency supplies.  But the folks at Swayback were real helpful once I explained what happened.  We owe them a big one, Lizzie.”

Lizzie flipped her wrist at the room around them.  “So why are the Gineer…?”

“The war’s over, Lizzie.  The Web was using some real unconventional weaponry, and the Gineer did something… Well, equally unconventional to end it.  Something so big they’ve had to restructure the whole jumpweb around it.  On the bright side, that means there’s lots of contracting work building stations.  What you’re in right now is a rescue and refit ship designed to find stragglers like us.”

“The war’s over?”

Momma smiled and put a cool cloth on Lizzie’s head.  “Yep.”

“Who won?”

Her Momma sighed.  “Does it matter?”

Lizzie thought about it.  It didn’t.  She squeezed Momma’s hand, happy to have what counted.

There was a lot of cleanup to be done.

Lizzie was still weak from being weightless for almost two months, but the Gineer had muscle treatments – so as soon as Lizzie could walk within a day or two, Momma put her to work.  Internal circuitry had to be replaced, the hull had to be reinforced, the hydroponics rebuilt, the air scrubbed.  Thankfully, Momma and the charity mechanics had done the real work of getting the central gyros up and running; rebalancing a station was a job for ten people, not two.

It was hard.  The starvation and weightlessness had marked her permanently; her eyes now had deep hollows underneath them, and her arms sometimes went numb, especially when she was using a wrench.  Her legs swelled up fierce for no reason.

But now, when she went to bed, Momma combed her hair.  That was the only luxury she needed.

Gemma was stuck back on Mekrong for the time being.  Until the station was fully functional again, they needed cash.  Gemma was doing her part for the family by taking contract work and sending the money back home.  Lizzie wrote emails every day, and the charity ship tightbeamed them back for free.

But eventually the charity ship left and the ships started docking again.  The folks travelling now were odd mixes that Lizzie had never seen before; gladhanding carpetbaggers looking for new opportunities, grieving families on their way back to homes they weren’t sure still existed, scarred soldiers-turned-adrenaline junkies.

Gineer and Web folks mixed uneasily in the waiting rooms.  Sometimes shouting matches broke out.  And when voices were raised, Lizzie would limp in, and every person would go fall silent as the Angel of Sauerkraut Station glared at them.

“Your war’s done enough to me,” she said.

They stopped.

Some folks wanted to meet the little girl who’d survived in vacuum for nine weeks, and seemed disappointed when she wasn’t more visibly scarred.  Lizzie asked about that, and Momma got out the filthy gray coveralls they’d found Lizzie in.

“If you wear these,” Momma said, her face unreadable, “People will hand you their money.”

Lizzie looked at the rags.  They stank of memories.

“Not for all the money in the world,” she said.

Momma hugged her proudly.  “Good girl.”  And she tossed the rags into the incinerator and pushed the “on” button.

But Lizzie did notice that Sauerkraut Station was now being called Survivor Station.  Momma left up a few of the sturdier hull-patches Lizzie had made, and put plaques over them that noted where Elizabeth Denahue had made these patches to survive during her nine-week ordeal in the asteroid belt.  She also put donation boxes below them “To help rebuild the station.”  They filled up nicely.

A few weeks later, the prisoner exchanges started up, and station was once again filled with soldiers – this time miserable-looking wretches who barely spoke.  The handful of survivors had been kept in POW camps, and now they were being shipped back like embarrassing refuse.

They were suffering from scurvy, lice, malnutrition.  Most were too weak to move.  Lizzie wished she could have done more, but mostly what they needed was clean quarters and a steady supply of food.  Neither looked likely in their futures, sadly enough.

She was in one of the prisoner ships, wearing a newly-bought HAZMAT suit and using a viral scanner to double-check the POWs for communicable diseases, when she saw Themba.

He was curled up underneath a pile of bigger kids.  She was surprised to find him older – but where Lizzie had grown, Themba had shrunk.  His neat cornrows were crusted with sores, his fine robes replaced by a gray prisoner’s suit.

She pressed her hand against his forehead; she could feel his heat through the suit.

Themba was delirious, muttering something unintelligible over and over as though it was the only thing keeping him sane.

She hugged him, then turned angrily to the Web captain.  “What’s he doing here?” she demanded.  “He was a hostage!  You were supposed to take care of him!”

The captain shuffled uncomfortably.  “Of that, I know nothing,” he said, consulting the records.  “This says he’s an orphan.  We’re shipping him back to the collective.  They’ll find him a good home.”

“They most certainly will not,” Lizzie said, and thumbed open the airlock.  She took Themba in her arms, terrified by how easily she could lift him, and carried him off the ship.  She brought him to the single cot that passed for a medbay these days, got a cold water rag for his forehead.

Momma stormed in.  “Lizzie, what in blazes are you doing?  After everything we’ve been through to stay neutral, we’re not getting involved in politics now!”

“Momma,” she said, “It’s Themba.”

“Think I didn’t know that?  We’re not a charity ship, Lizzie.  We’re barely making enough to refit the station as it is.  Another mouth might put us under.”

“His dad’s dead!  Where’s he gonna go?”

“Back to the Web.  That’s where he belongs.”

“With strangers?”

Think, Lizzie.  The boy is – was – a diplomat’s son.  Outsiders are trouble on space stations.  They’re used to having endless space, used to having endless air.  They have all sorts of problem with a life like ours.  If they don’t make – make some dumb mistake that gets their ass killed, then they spend the entire time feeling cooped up and desperate.  I know you think you’re doing him a favor, Elizabeth, but trust me.  He’ll hate it.”

“He loved it here.”

“For a day.  A few months and he’ll beg us to leave.  And even if he doesn’t, we’d have to train him from scratch to teach him to survive – and even then he’ll never be as good as us…”

“He’s not that way, Momma – he – “

They were shouting – but somehow Themba’s high, whistling voice cut through the air, desperately repeating what he’d been muttering since he’d been put on the POW ship:

two heads sliced cabbage, fennel, salt water… two heads sliced cabbage, fennel, salt water….

Momma stopped, and her face scrunched up with a strange mixture of sorrow and happiness.  Then she turned to stare at the undecorated metal wall of the medbay – but Lizzie finally realized that Momma was staring past the walls, past the station, stroking her wedding band as she looked to the stars for an answer.

Momma swallowed, hard.

“I suppose this is the way of things,” she said, her voice so soft Lizzie could barely hear her.  “All right.  He’s crew.”

Momma knelt down, kissed Themba on his forehead.  Then she walked out of the room to bribe the captain, which would deplete their meager savings further — but Lizzie didn’t care.  She hugged her best friend, feeling the warmth of his skin on hers.

His eyes refocused, looked at her — and he laughed.

“Welcome home, Themba,” Lizzie whispered, not letting go.  “Welcome home.”

____
Copyright 2011 Ferrett Steinmetz

Ferrett Steinmetz wrote for twenty years, but wasn’t much good at it. Then he attended the 2008 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and was reborn. Since then he’s published seventeen stories in places ranging from Asimov’s to Beneath Ceaseless Skies to this extremely fine joint right here – a feat of which he’s especially proud, since a novella with the pitch of “Little House on the Prairie meets Space Stations” was a hard sell to begin with, and who woulda thought it would see print in a place he liked so much? He lives in Cleveland with his wife, a well-worn copy of Rock Band, and a friendly ghost. Visit his site atwww.theferrett.com (two Rs, two Ts) to see his latest blatherings on politics, polyamory, and puns.

by Eljay Daly

I don’t need a name, a past, a history, to draw a crowd. I’m nobody, and they watch to see me fail–but I don’t, and I laugh from the joy of it. I flash the bottles from hand to hand in the hot dawn, flash and catch, throw. Street jinks aren’t allowed to work the plaza since we lost the witch war all those years ago, and it’s mostly swells out here watching–waiting on the cobbles for the morning wagons. Later on, the carts and foot traffic will jam up like logs on a river, but at dawn the guards haven’t yet come out the big gate that separates the city into them and us. Catch, toss, catch; no coins in my hat, but soon, I hope. I try to entertain. I’ve had a lot of practice, and the bottles are full (which ought to impress them), good wine I snitched right from a swell vintner’s wagon before the drought started back in the spring. Flash, flash, hand to hand, catch the weight, drumbeat rhythm–smooth going ’til I spot the ghost.

He’s hovering on the shoulders of the crowd near the wall: a misty skin-male swell in a black robe, and I don’t need magic to see the hate in his icy eyes.

I fumble the catch, and smash! Green glass flies everywhere, slicing up my legs, and my pilfered wine splashes all over the cobbles like a great bucketful of blood. A good piece of thievery, wasted!

Ghosts are old time, history, gone with the rest of the magic the old brights used to do back before the witch war. A hundred years now, and who sees ghosts anymore?

Not the swells in the plaza. They smirk at my mess and wander off–except for one of them, skin-female and sorrowful, looking like a crow in her swell black robe and black boots and tight bun of black hair. She comes over, dragging a little boy, a baby crow, behind her. She gives me a handkerchief, and she tosses coins at my hat on the ground.

“Young man,” she says to me, even though she’s only middle thirties, maybe ten years older than me, “young man, surely even a Brute can find steadier work which doesn’t disturb the public peace.”

She’s looking at my hands, counting fingers probably, all twelve of them. Curious about us brights–or Brutes I think to myself, mocking her stilted swell accent, just like we say swells and they say Souls. Them, and us.

I crouch to pluck the coins from the wine-soggy hat. “Food’s dear with the drought and all, dama,” says I. “So I brought my act where the coin is.”

That ghost is blowing closer like a storm cloud, close enough that I can see the badge over his heart–a rune strangled in gold vines, the same rune from my broken bottles. Marro, the richest name in the city. An old, tragic name. Whichever Marro this is, he’s got only a few gray strands in his thick brown hair; it wasn’t old age that killed him. His ten fingers are squeezing a string of counting beads. The way he’s glaring at the swell woman I’m thinking he’s going to choke her with them.

She doesn’t see the murder gusting closer. A little smile tips the corners of her mouth, like it’s a nice surprise to find a resourceful Brute who doesn’t want to starve.

“I’ve started a bread kitchen,” she says. She gives me the address in Bright-town. “Tell your friends.”

“It’s free?”

“Certainly. I’ll look for you there. What’s your name?”

“Folks call me Nix.”

“A pleasure, Nix. I’m Terez.” The friendliness from a swell surprises me.

Terez pulls the little boy back across the plaza. He watches me over his shoulder the whole time.

The ghost follows them right until the gate closes in his face. Then he pivots and bares his teeth at me like it’s my fault they got away. My bowels turn to ice.

I bolt.

From the plaza, Wide Street is the cobbled spine of Bright-town. Left and right the alleys are ribs sloping down through mountains of blasted rock that used to be a city, a hundred years ago. Brights get only one lifetime since the witch war; that was our punishment for losing. Nobody wants to waste it on fixing up old rubble.

I find a crevice between two listing houses that touch shoulder to shoulder. Panting in the urine-stinking shadow, I peek around the corner.

There’s the damn ghost coming straight down the hill.

Don’t find me, I beg, and run all the way to the back of the alley. I squeeze my eyes hard, trying to disappear.

“What did she say?” comes the ghost’s growl in my ear.

I open my eyes. He’s right there. I jump. I try to back up but there’s nothing behind me but rock, hard and cold and final.

“Damo, it was nothing, just directions to a bread kitchen. Don’t eat me! I’m half-used anyway, and dirty for sure.”

He comes so close our faces nearly touch; it’s like nosing up to a slab of winter, so cold it sucks my breath away.

“That was my wife,” he says. “A month ago she murdered me. And you’re going to fix it.”

Murder? Murder? And a murdered swell, no less? If I help this ghost, if I interfere, I could end up in front of a judge–and when murder, swells, and a bright come together in a law court, guess who never wins?

“Find somebody else, damo!” I charge right through him. The cold’s like a punch to the gut. I get two steps before it seizes me up, and I smash onto the cobbles, teeth chattering and limbs twitching.

The ghost floats over to me, scowling. “Need convincing? All right, then. We’ll ask the next Brute that walks past this alley.”

I try to stop shuddering, but my muscles don’t listen. After a minute or so, the ghost smiles. I manage to arch my neck to look. A street bright, eight or nine, walking jauntier than somebody in rags ought to. “Run,” I try to tell her, but my frozen mouth just grunts.

“Ehhh?” She spots me on the ground and takes a step into the alley. “You all right, mistro?”

The ghost pounces, a fast-moving shadow, and squeezes her throat. I can see through his fingers, and there’s no sign of pressure; he’s not really choking her, not with his hands. Still, her eyes bulge and her hands jump up to her throat. Stop, I try to say, but I can’t, and he doesn’t. The girl fish-mouths, frantic for breath. Her head jerks side to side. She drops to her knees. Her eyes plead with me.

The ghost gloats as he brings his mouth close, as he swallows her soul. When he’s done, she collapses right through him to the cobbles. Her dead eyes accuse me.

I’m unfrozen enough to roll to the wall. The ghost waits. I haul myself to my feet, but I can’t look at the dead girl.

I need to get this bastard out of town, away from the rest of my people.

“You win, damo. I’ll hear you out. But not here. Out toward my place. This way.” I’m happy to see he looks startled that a bright would dare give him orders. I lurch out of the alley.

I’ll come back for the girl later. Unless, of course, I end up as dead as her.

My squat’s in the Comb part of Bright-town, tucked between the Bats and the meat-gardens. The Comb’s not as crowded as the Bats, but still there are brights hanging clothes on windowsills to bake out the stink in the summer heat, brights racked out on piles of rubble like sunning lizards, a bright chasing a rib-skinny dog away from a rocking cradle.

I take him right through to the meat-gardens. Those’ll be deserted for sure.

Brights have been planting their dead for a hundred years. It was part of the surrender. Those old brights told the swells, You win, but you keep your burnings and your temple; we’re taking all the hills north of the city and we’re burying our dead. Some brights, mostly old ones, still sneak off to burn their corpses and say temple-ish prayers. Most of us, though, even temple brats like me, can’t be bothered. Too much work when you’re scrambling for food. Easier to give the bodies to the clayhands and let them take care of things.

Folks mutter about the meat-gardens–curses and bad luck and witchery. Me? I kind of like the aloneness.

Birds scatter when I wade through the drought-brown grass. It reeks of neglect here: a hot dirt smell like a dusty attic. The place is full of whispers. The grass rustles, but you never see a mouse. The air drones with bugs. Even the trees are rotting and squat, trailing dead moss that tickles the death-heads on their stumps and spikes–crumbling busts poking up among the weeds, leaning close together, gossiping. There are thousands and thousands of death-heads in that maze of hills and forest.

Under every one of those busts is a bright buried on his feet. I’m walking on the heads of the dead.

When I stop, the ghost perches on one of the pedestals, next to a death-head. Now that we’re safe out of town I’m a little less panicked. If he wanted me dead, I’d be dead already, right?

“So how does a swell end up a ghost, damo? Shouldn’t you be having yourself a new body somewhere?” It’s what swells do; they get reborn–just like brights used to, back before the witch war. But not this swell.

“Don’t be disrespectful.” Under the snappishness I hear uncertainty. He doesn’t know the answer. He doesn’t know why he’s still around, after the dying and all.

“You want my help? I need someplace to start. So. It’s been a month, you said?”

“Yes, a month. These are death-heads, correct?” He rattles his beads at the busts all around us.

I nod. “Clayhands make ’em.”

“Terez gave me one the day she killed me.”

That’s surprising to hear. “Not a real one. Not from a clayhands, damo. Sorry.” Clayhands make the death-heads to honor the memory of our souls. Swells don’t need to honor their souls, ’cause they just keep getting born. No clayhands would waste time or talent on a dead swell.

“But this was more than simple artwork. A bust would have been chiseled marble, and this was whitewashed clay. It had the same shimmer to it as these have.” Clayhands put sparkle in the clay, part of their craft. On a sunny day the meat-gardens glitter. “It was crude, just like these. Ugly thing. Rough. She brought it into the house, then that very night I woke up feeling like I was stabbed in the chest. I couldn’t get my breath to scream, and all of a sudden I was looking down at my own eyes staring up at me. Terez just snored away until dawn.” He sounds bitter about it. I might have been, too.

He could have died from anything. The death-head thing, though–that’s odd. “Did she say why she brought a death-head?”

“For luck, she said, and she smiled at me like a simpleton. I was at the accounts. I’d been working around the clock; the vineyards are dying from the drought. Terez came into my study and held out the thing. ‘Get out,’ I told her, ‘I don’t have time for your nonsense.'”

“It was a fake, damo.” I’m thinking a jinx like me hammered together a lump of nothing and took Terez’s coin. If I’d known there was a market for it, I’d have done it myself.

“It was from a real clayhands. Terez knew one. He was teaching her magic.”

I’m shocked speechless for a half-dozen heartbeats. Swells can’t do magic. If they could, they wouldn’t have brought us brights here in the first place, and they certainly wouldn’t have had to set fire to Bright-town to win the war. Besides, there’s not a bright witch left to teach anybody anything: the war used up the magic. “Somebody was just stealing your wife’s coin.”

“Terez is certainly gullible, and she loves to waste Marro money on Brutes. But what if this Brute knew some old curse or other? What if it was an accident? Clearly something’s afoot, because I’m stuck here. This has to be looked into, and nobody can see me but you.”

“You’re sure she said magic?”

“Aurel said so. Our son. Yesterday he asked her if she was still learning magic from the clayhands. She hushed him and said she was done with such wickedness.”

“So she thought it was magic. Still, I don’t see what I can do for you, damo. I’m as magic as dirt.” Except, of course, for the suddenly seeing ghosts. “Anyways nobody can get unkilled.”

“No, but perhaps they can get unstuck. Look, this clayhands doesn’t have to unstick me for free. I’ll pay him more than Terez did, and I’ll pay you, as well.”

“Ghost coin doesn’t spend.”

“I’m a Marro, Eed Marro, richest Soul in the city. Terez has Marro jewels. I’ll show you where she keeps them. Sell them, and you can buy yourself the biggest house in Bright-town. Or you can refuse.” He smiles slow, his mouth a crack in the white ice of his face. I think of the dead girl, and I shiver.

Eed Marro. The Marro tragedy. Eed’s older brother, Bur, killed by some bright before I was born. The old brights still talk dark about it; the swells tore the town apart looking for the killer. Eed inherited the Marro fortune, so he’s not lying about being able to pay. “All right, damo. I’ll ask around. How do I reach you?”

“Come to the plaza,” he says, and he floats over, close enough to kiss me, although thankfully he doesn’t. His eyes are hungry black, and I shudder with the winter of him. “Dawn tomorrow,” he says. “You’ll have something by then, or I’ll come find you, Nix.” My name’s a frigid wind on his lips.

It’s too much. I scram, thrashing through the meat-gardens like a terror-blind deer.

By the time my steps slow I’m back in the Comb, panting like a dog and thinking about that dead girl. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t.

I can’t leave her there for the rats to chew. I ought to at least get her out in the open, out of the dark and the foul, where the swell guards can find her.

When I get to the alley, the guards have found her already.

A clayhands is loading the blanket-wrapped body onto a ramshackle cart. Of course the guards aren’t helping; instead, the pair of them lean against the wall, sullen and watchful in the morning heat.

The clayhands is young, maybe twenty. I wouldn’t have taken him for a clayhands at all, except for the clay disk on the cord around his neck. He looks good–cotton trous and vest that leaves his smooth arms bare, tea-colored hair corralled by a twist of rag. He appeals to me like nobody, skin-male or skin-female, has appealed since before the drought. Staying fed and watered doesn’t leave time or energy for touching.

When he glances at me there’s a spark of attraction. He flushes then quick goes back to his business.

I step over to the cart where he’s tying her down with crisscrossed rope. I like that he shows respect–that he tucks the blanket in around her body, that he pats her shoulder. “You need some help over the cobbles?” I ask.

“I’m used to them,” he says.

One of the guards interrupts us. “Body’s secured? Good.” He comes over and gives the clayhands a few coins. “Now get out of here, Brute.” They always make it an insult. The clayhands looks hurt. I wonder how he could have got to his age without realizing he’s scum.

He scurries to the front of the cart and grabs the poles. “I need a clayhands,” I say. He looks over his shoulder at me. When I step to the rear of the cart, between the wheels, he doesn’t order me away.

Grunting, we get the cart rolling up the hill. It’s not bad work with two of us, and the girl being slight, but it’s awkward and hot. We don’t say a word through the hills of the Comb, then we’re south of Wide Street, in the Bats.

The Bats is way worse than the Comb. Older, more desperate–more people, and more rubble. More shadows. Before the war, there were nice houses here, big mansions, and theaters and shops and a temple. Now the mansions are rotted, collapsed to their knees or fallen sideways–hulks of ancient monsters, burned and listing and dangerous. Stone pillars rest half-buried in the weeds like giants’ bones. Rats watch us, bold as day. Brights squint out from crooked windows, through the kudzu claiming the roofs and the gutters and choking the mountains of rock.

The clayhands’s squat used to be a little stable. Made of stone, it’s tucked between the carcass of a mansion and a crumbling wall. In the courtyard he sets down the cart handles then unties the girl and carries her behind the cottage. I follow. There’s a wood shack back there. After we put her inside, next to his shovels, he nudges his hair out of his eyes then offers me a clay-stained hand. “I’m Rine.”

“Nix. From the Comb.” His hand’s warm and a little damp. I like the strength in his fingers.

He gives me a little smile, a relaxed one. It feels like we’ve known each other a long time. “You need a clayhands, Nix?”

“I’m looking for one. Somebody who made a head of a swell, maybe a month, two months ago.”

The smile fades and he takes his hand away. “A clayhands did that?”

“So I’m told.”

“Who was the swell?”

“A vintner. Eed Marro?”

His fingers curl into fists. “It figures.”

“You know something?”

“The clayhands you’re looking for is Sojourn. Has to be. She’s got a shack way out past the old end of the meat-gardens, in a cleft between two hills. But you don’t want anything to do with her, Nix from the Comb. That bright, she dabbles in history.”

Sojourn’s shack looks accidental, a misshapen tumble of rocks. I tell myself she happened on that little glade among the trees, just a lucky accident, that she didn’t dig up the death-heads to carve herself a space–that there aren’t bright graves under the dead grass and the rotten trellis with its load of brown vines. But when I get closer to the shack, some of the stones look suspiciously round, and they’re weathered smooth.

What’s standing in the doorway must be Sojourn. The years have baked her to bone, all knobby through her rag of shirt and tattered trous. Her cheekbones are sharp, her chin pointed. Her skin’s sun-leathery and spotted, even the bald skull. She examines me, then she squints her hard black eyes. “At last, a bright who can see,” she says. She grabs my hand and jerks me inside. I’m too startled to resist, and it’s only as I’m looking around that it occurs to me how strong she is for an old bone.

The shack has one room. It smells like clay and goat and old shoes. There’s a nest of blankets by the hearth. To the right, under the window, sit a clay-stained table with a couple of stools, a bucket, and a head-shaped lump under a cloth. To the left a crooked shelf holds twigs, feathers, a chipped cup, a brass coin. Dangling from the wood beam over the shelf, like onions drying, are dozens of crystals, drops of color that catch the sunlight and toss it onto the mud-plastered walls. This place shivers with witchery. I’m suddenly as fear-chilled as if Eed Marro was breathing on my neck.

“You’re here to learn magic?” she rasps.

“There’s no such thing, mistra.” I say it hard.

“It’s growing back, like a burned forest. The right bright can learn it.”

“That’s not me.” I step toward the door.

“It is. You can see. It beams out of you.”

“Nothing’s beaming, mistra, trust me. I only came with a question. This swell named Terez Marro, she got a death-head of her husband, Eed, then he died. You know anything about that?”

“Depends who told you.”

“Somebody who thinks that head’s got more to it than clay. Maybe something murderish, or cursish.”

“And what if there was?”

“Then I need it uncursed.”

She laughs. “Unmagicking? Not me, no. You could, though. A bright who can see.”

“You’d show me how?” I ask her cautiously.

“I would, if you bring me that head. But first, you need your eyes opened.” She puts her hand on the covered lump on the table. “It has to be dawn. That’s when he speaks.”

“He?”

“Come back at dawn,” she says. “For your first lesson.”

My gut’s a knot when I get back to Bright-town. It’s getting on suppertime, too, and this morning’s dried meat and sour apple are long gone. There aren’t many places a bright can eat for free. I decide to visit Terez’s bread kitchen in the South Neat. There’s a public well there, too, so I stop at the squat for my empty bladders.

The crowd’s so thick by the well that there’s hardly air to breathe. Everybody stinks; there’s no spare water for washing. The swell guards nudge the brights along the street in a ragged queue. Exhausted, the people shuffle. I spot a commotion over by the wall: an old skin-female arguing with somebody I recognize: Rine, the clayhands. I jog over to them.

Rine looks up. He gives me a nod, but his attention’s mostly on the old bright, and he’s frowning. “Nix, this is Iyo. From the Bats. She won’t go to the new kitchen, and the old ones are already out of food.”

Iyo’s wearing crazy layers of cotton and lace and beads. Despite the filth and her age and her rat’s nest of gray hair, she’s got high cheekbones and a full mouth. She must have been pretty before street life ground her up and starved her down to just plain old and skinny. The hungry angles of her face seem familiar as she nods me a regal hello. “Pleased to acquaint,” she says, then turns back to Rine. “The temple doesn’t run the new place,” she whispers. “Swells run it. Swells want to kill me.”

“Kill you?” I’m surprised. “You’re just a bright! They won’t even notice you, mistra.”

She purses her lips and shakes her head, then clutches her water skins in front of her like a shield. Rine sighs. I wonder if she’s a relative. It would explain the worry clouding his face.

“What if we both take you?” I hear myself saying. “Me and Rine. We’ll walk either side of you, like a wall. They won’t see you tucked down between us.”

Iyo considers. “Well, I am hungry….” It’s a surrender.

Rine mouths me a thank-you. Iyo lets us split her full water skins between us to share out the weight, then we make our way to the food queue a quarter mile away.

The sun sinks. Terez’s place used to be a theater, once upon a time. Now the brick face is pocked with holes, the windows are boarded, and the roof’s sprouted weeds among the shingles. The queue inches. When we get close, Iyo stiffens like she changed her mind; before she can grind her heels in, me and Rine drag her through the door into the cool shadow.

Empty benches form half-circle rows. The chandelier’s fallen down on them–just rusty bones, no crystals, a great dead spider. Down in front, on the stage, are barrels and crates and a mountain of bread loaves. There’s a yeasty, wonderful food smell wafting up to me, and my mouth starts to water. Marro guards with their viney-rune badges scowl from the edge of the stage, making a fence with upright spears. Terez is there with her little crow–Aurel–and some other swells, doling out food and charitable smiles to the brights passing in front of the guards.

Rine stops in his tracks. The brights behind us mutter and shove. “Keep moving!” somebody shouts, and Terez glances up. She looks right at Rine. The loaf she’s holding hits the stage and bounces into the benches, and a half-dozen brights scurry for it.

“I should have known,” Rine growls. He turns and flails back upstream through the disgruntled crowd. Iyo wades after him without a glance at me.

It’s a dilemma. Follow, or stay? Stay, says my stomach; I don’t owe them a thing. I’m still debating when a guard grabs my arm. Despite my protests, he hauls me out of line, drags me down the aisle, and pushes me through a side door and up a dozen stairs.

The corridor’s black and tight. The guard shoves me into a tiny room with a mirror and a rocking chair, and he shuts the door. When I jerk it back open, here’s Terez coming down the tunnel with bread in her hand.

She follows me back into the room, looking at me, intense. “That Brute with you in line. I need to find him.”

“I don’t really know him, dama.”

“He’s not in any trouble.”

“I don’t think he wants to see you.”

“So you know him well enough to know what he wants?” She hands me the bread, then squints at me. “Aren’t you Nix, from the plaza this morning?”

I tear into the loaf. It’s bliss. I find myself suddenly inclined to like her. “What do you want with Rine?”

She kneads the base of her thumb and gives an embarrassed little shrug. “I owe him an apology.”

“Just that?”

“Just that.”

“What’s in it for me if I talk him into seeing you?”

“How about food any time you want?” She watches me chew, and I’m suddenly aware of how desperate I must look–like a starving dog. It makes me defensive and a little blustery.

“Bread, I can find for free, dama. But how’s this instead? Be my patron. Hire me for a year, let me jinks swell-side. On a stage, in the plaza, bit of garden, wherever. Pay me regular, introduce me around, set me up with a hole to live in, clothes, good food, clean water. One year, if I convince Rine to talk to you.”

It’s a bold request. She takes a long time to answer.

“Agreed,” she says finally. “But only if you bring him within the next day or two. After that, I may as well trust my guards to sniff him out.”

Tomorrow? That’s tricky. Still, it’s win-win for me, so I take the deal and we shake on it. She gives me a token to get us through the gate to swell-side, then she has one of her people stuff me a sack of food. “For three,” I tell him.

Win-win. As I leave the theater I wonder why, with my sudden prosperity, my conscience nags. She just wants to talk to him. Talk, that’s all. Nothing wrong with talk, nothing sinister. But my instincts keep on twitching.

Rine sure looked angry when he stormed out of the theater. What did Terez do, I wonder, that she needs to apologize? What if she wants to do it again?

Well, no matter. Since I’m the one getting Rine into this, I’m aiming to get him out, too. Whatever happens with Terez, I’ll be right there with him. She never said he had to talk to her alone.

The Bats menaces, in the hot night, so I keep alert. Predatory brights loiter. I spot them on the street corners, sitting on piles of rubble, hanging over balconies, looking down–escaping the heat inside their squats, ready to pounce. They’re pale in the dark, like backward shadows. Little embers and flames flicker: pipes, candles, the occasional bob of a torch in an alley.

The moonlight paints Rine’s courtyard silver. When I knock on his cottage door, there’s a rustling inside, then comes a wary “Who is it?”

“It’s Nix. I have food.”

He cracks the door and peeks, then opens it wide.

The cottage is pretty big: one room and a high ceiling. Only the window farthest from the street is open, which tells me Rine’s cautious. He’s got reason to be; his stuff is worn but rich, and he’s got a lot of it. Along with his clayhands tools on their wood shelves, there’s a bed, not a mat on the floor but an actual bed with bolsters and a frame. It’s draped in blue-green silk that flows down to a rug. Near the bed sits a basket of children’s toys–dolls and a bundle of jackstraws; juggling balls; a skip-rope. A copper lamp perches on a mosaic table, swell work. The most impressive thing, though, is what’s next to the lamp: a book, an actual book, laying open to show colored drawings and words like ants. I haven’t seen a book since I was a brat, eight or nine, in the temple waif-house. “You can read?” I ask him in surprise.

“Yes.” He doesn’t elaborate.

I put the bag on the table and hand him the waterskins. “Iyo’s water.”

“Iyo said you’d steal it. I told her you wouldn’t.” He loops the skins over the back of a chair and sits, then opens the bag and peeks inside. “Is this from Terez”

“For you and Iyo. How do you know her?”

“Iyo? We’re sort of family.” He deliberately misunderstands. I can tell by the way he stalls, pulling out the food and making careful piles. Bread here, bread there. Cheese here, cheese there.

“Not Iyo. Terez Marro.”

Instead of answering, he grabs a loaf of bread in both hands. They’re shaking. I let him eat for a minute before I go on. “She said she wants to apologize. She sounded sincere.”

“Oh, she’s sincere, all right. She throws herself into things with her whole heart. But she jumps out again just as quick.”

The way he says it, a little bitter, I realize one of the things she jumped into was him. I stare at him. “You were her lover? A swell?”

“It happens.” He flushes.

“It’s illegal! Castration and the work farms? Not worth the risk. Not to me, anyway.”

“We didn’t get caught. It was five years ago, anyway.”

I don’t know why I’m angry about it. It’s not my life. If he wants to cross the wall, it’s no matter to me. Then I realize it’s not that he hip-danced with a swell, although that’s rare enough.

It’s that it’s Rine.

I’m jealous over somebody I’ve known for a day.

I don’t like it. It’s dangerous and intimate and sudden, like lightning. It’s inexplicable and random. It’s unbalancing. I try to shift back to business–my Eed problem–but jealousy squeezes itself into that, too. “Was it Sojourn who introduced you to Terez?”

“Other way around. I met Terez in the temple. Her husband was a cold bastard, in love with his money. She used to volunteer in the waif-house just to get away from him. I was doing the same thing–working in the waif-house, to get away from Sojourn.”

“How’d you know Sojourn?”

“I was her apprentice. Clayhands. Although what she really wanted to teach me was magic.”

I nearly fall out of my chair. “Rine, are you out of your head, admitting that? Let ’em burn Sojourn if they want, but you can’t be blabbering about magic to strangers!”

“So that’s two secrets I told you.” There’s no guile in Rine. He smiles a little at me, not regretful, just…aware. He knows I’m worried. He knows I’m jealous. This thing between us, it resonates. His smile warms, becomes an invitation. I lean across the table and cover his fingers with mine; he rolls his hand over and brushes my thumb with his.

For a while I don’t think about the Marros at all.

The touching is good; it’s been a long time. Afterward we head to Iyo’s in the moonlight, me with my arm around Rine’s shoulders, and Rine carrying Iyo’s food and water. I’m feeling so relaxed that I don’t notice where we’re going until suddenly we’re in the worst part of the Bats: the west-end hill where the fallen mansions make a honeycomb of caves. We thread our way through ravines in the rubble to a curtain of ivy–a cave mouth that used to be a doorway. Rine calls through the ivy. “Iyo? Its Rine.”

After a minute she pokes her head out like an old turtle. She frowns at the water skins. “I gave up wine. Too dangerous.”

“It’s water,” Rine says.

“Water?”

Your water, from the well. And Nix brought food.”

“You should have said! Come on in.” She turns and scurries back inside.

That hole gives me the jitters. The caves around here are none too sturdy, and I’m not anxious to be buried. “I don’t want to go in,” I tell Rine.

“It’s bigger inside. Or are you worried about people? She lives by herself.”

That takes me aback, though I hadn’t been thinking in that direction. “A bright like her, squatting alone? Feeble-headed? That’s dangerous.”

“I told you, we’re in sort of a family. We look after one another.”

“Bats people.”

“No, wall-crossers. Brights who had swell lovers.”

“You’re kidding me. Iyo? With a swell?”

“Not now. When she was young.”

Now I want details, so I quash my nerves and follow Rine inside.

The mansion’s fallen into itself, and Iyo lives up in what used to be the ceiling. The floor’s made of rubble tamped down to gravel flatness. Tops of archways lead from room to room; bug-chewed crown moldings hang at eye level. With my head brushing the roof, I feel like a giant.

Iyo’s down the tunnel, holding aside a ratty curtain. “Hurry,” she whispers. “Before they see the light.”

We duck under the curtain. Iyo’s got one room, filled with rubbish: broken mirrors, stained cushions, the frame of an old window, a busted wagon wheel. The light comes from a tarnished candelabra as out of place as pearls on a pig. It’s dripping wax on the wood crate it’s resting on.

Rine drops the bag on the crate then sits cross-legged on the ground. The cushions look none too savory, so I join him on the bare floor.

“I wasn’t sure you’d be awake,” he tells Iyo.

She sits on a little stool and drags the bag into her lap. Her gnarled fingers unwork the knot. “Too hot for sleep. Besides, I was reading. It’s a good one. History of the war.” She toes a book out from behind the crate. On the cover is a painted peacock, copper and green. “Take it, when you’re done the one you’ve got now.”

I’m flabbergasted. Bizarre enough that a clayhands can read, but this old beggar, too? “Where are you even getting books?” I blurt.

She pats the wooden crate.

A whole chest full of books? “But from where?”

Iyo looks at Rine. “Does he know?” she asks.

“He knows.”

She looks at me. “Then you know.”

From her swell lover, that’s what her answer means. She had her trysts, and the lover gave her books. It occurs to me that that’s where Rine’s things came from, too–his silks and his table and his lamp. Gifts from swell-side, from Terez.

“I should get myself a swell,” I say.

“No. You shouldn’t.” Clutching her bag, Iyo gives me a grim, intense stare. “They’re murdering bastards.”

“Believe me, I know.” Before she or Rine can ask me why I’m so sure, I quick change the subject. “So what does your book say, anyway? About the war?”

The distraction works. Iyo peeks inside her bag and starts stacking food on the crate. “Says it was about inheritance.”

Rine picks up the book. He fingers the peacock on the cover. “It was. Sojourn told me. Swells brought the brights to the city to cast magic for soul-finding. A swell would hire a bright witch to do a soul-seeing after his death; the witch would bespell newborns until she found the dead swell’s soul, and that’s who’d inherit his money, instead of his sons and daughters. And other swells were always going to the witches and getting their newborns looked at, in case the baby turned out to be somebody rich.”

“So the sons and daughters started the fighting?” Makes sense to me. If somebody gave my fortune to some stranger’s baby, I’d fight.

But Iyo, nibbling at her bread, shakes her head. “The book says the brights got greedy. Offered to see things that weren’t there, if the price was right.”

“Sojourn said it wasn’t the brights,” Rine argues. “She said it was the swells. They started paying brights to make up lies, and other swells caught on, and it turned into a big mess. Instead of fighting each other the swells ended up trying to wipe out the brights. They would’ve, too, except that when the swells started setting fire to Bright-town, the brights tried one big magic to seal off the city. It took all the magic with it, and all the brights’ souls, and then after a while the spell failed anyway, and Bright-town burned.”

“If it took all the magic, how can Sojourn be teaching it?” I ask.

“I didn’t say she really teaches it; I said she claims to. Either way, I didn’t want anything to do with it, so she taught me clayhands instead. I dug the graves, and she showed me the craft stuff–how to mix the clay, how to make the likeness, how to fire it special–everything.”

“Would Terez have tried to learn magic from her?”

Iyo looks up from her bread and frowns. “Swells can’t do magic.”

I’m watching Rine. He doesn’t seem surprised by the idea of Terez studying magic, or believing she was. “Terez was taking lessons,” he says finally. “She loved brights, so I introduced her to Sojourn, who’s older than dirt and knows everything there is to know about us. After a while, a few months maybe, Sojourn started shooing me away when Terez came to the shack. I peeked in on them once and caught them at that creepy altar of Sojourn’s.”

“Sojourn was stealing from her.”

“I know! I was going to talk to Terez about it, but before I could, she told me we were finished. Sojourn and I had a huge fight over it, and that very day I left the shack and came to the Bats to live.”

“Terez seems to feel pretty guilty.”

His mouth sets, and he looks stubborn. “She made her bed.”

“You should let her apologize, Rine.”

“Why? It’s long over.”

I can’t think of any lie that’ll work better than the truth, so I tell him what she promised: to be my patron for a year, in return for a few minutes of Rine’s time.

He looks surprised. “She agreed to that?”

“I’m telling you, she feels bad. I’ll split the coin with you. And you can live swell-side with me, if you want.”

“I’m not for sale, Nix.”

“You are, for the right price,” Iyo says.

“And what’s that?” I ask her.

She whispers, like she’s sharing a secret. “Rine wants a child.”

That startles me, then I remember the toy chest in his squat. “You’d raise a kid in the Bats?” I ask him.

Rine blushes scarlet and looks away. “Hopefully I’ll save enough coin to get into the Comb,  maybe even the Neat. I work hard, Nix. I even bury bodies for the guards.” There’s determination in his voice. Iyo’s right. Rine’s ready for a child, and he wants one bad.

“Well, what’s the holdup?” Jealousy bubbles in my words a little, like a pot coming to boil.  “You got a mother picked out?”

“I haven’t met anybody I’d settle with, ’til….” He looks at me, then looks away again.

“What about the waif-house? There’s always orphans.”

“The temple swells want a bribe. I don’t have that kind of coin.”

“So here’s your answer, Rine. Marro money.”

Iyo screeches. She throws her nub of bread at me. It smacks me in the temple and bounces away. Still shrieking, she jumps to her feet, knocking the stool over behind her.

Rine scrambles up and grabs my arm. He pulls me toward the door. “She doesn’t like that name,” he says.

“You don’t say.”

Iyo’s swearing, her face twisted in rage, and purple, and I’m starting to worry that she’ll give herself a fit. Then she throws the candelabra. It thuds against the crown molding right by my head. In the sudden darkness, Rine and I stumble out of there.

“She’ll be all right,” he tells me. Still, it’s a silent walk back to his place. I’m thinking about Marros: my ghost, the cold bastard in love with his money. I don’t know what Rine’s thinking about. Maybe Iyo. Maybe Terez. Maybe the child he wants so bad. Maybe the dead girl in his shed; he’ll have to bury her tomorrow.

When we get to Rine’s cottage we share a drink of his precious water, then we lay on his bed. It’s too hot to touch more than fingers. After a while, Rine starts snoring. I can’t fall asleep, though. A couple of hours before dawn, I slip out of bed, wiggle into my clothes, and sneak out of the cottage.

I have a date with Sojourn. It’s growing back, she said. The magic. The right bright can learn it. I can’t help but wonder if her right bright really is me–and if it isn’t, then what am I going to do about Eed?

In the dark, Sojourn’s window is a square of flickering candlelight. The shack might look cozy if the trees weren’t looming like gnarled trolls and the death-heads weren’t watching from the shadows.

Sojourn yanks open the door. “It’s almost dawn,” she snaps. “There’s no time to waste.”

She drags me not to the altar shelf but to her clayhands table under the window. Smoke ribbons up from a nub of incense smoldering in a clay dish; it burns my nose. There’s twenty or more candles sitting in a pool of tallow, and in front of them is that cloth-covered head-shaped lump. The hair on my arms quivers like my skin’s trying to crawl away. Sojourn pushes me down to a stool, then she swishes the cloth away.

It’s the strangest death-head I’ve ever seen: not glittery white but black-streaked pink, fissured and bruised and eroded. In the candlelight it glistens and throbs. It lacks clear features–just a pinch for a nose, thumb pokes for eyes and mouth; still, I swear those eyeholes twinkle. That head’s watching me. “What’s it made of?” I ask. Somewhere between curious and disgusted and terrified, I stick a finger out to touch it.

She grabs my hand and presses it on top of the thing. I brace for a shock, expecting something maggoty-squirmy or soft like warm clay, but it doesn’t move. It’s unexpectedly cool, surprisingly dry. “He’ll show you how to see a soul. For starters, I’ll let him show you mine.”

“You’re a bright. You don’t have a soul.”

“Well, I have half a one. My father was a swell.”

Sojourn? Half-souled? It’s jarring to hear her admit the stigma so readily, even to a bright. The half-souled have one foot on either side of the wall–half-swell, half-bright, with the blessings of neither: they don’t get reborn, and they don’t get remembered. The swells don’t acknowledge them, the brights don’t trust them. They live, they die, they’re forgotten.

I try to tug my hand away but she’s pressing it down with that impossible strength in her bony fingers. She starts swaying and muttering a word over and over, a strange word that makes me dizzy just hearing it, like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff. The smoke’s burning my eyes, and the curtains are breathing in and out, and I feel a scream building in me when all of a sudden the head yields an image.

It rises between Sojourn and me like a ghost–an old swell in an old-fashioned hat, wrinkled skin, white winter breath. He’s glaring past my shoulder at something he sees in his ghost world. After two, three seconds the vision scatters. Sojourn slumps, panting, and she lets go of my hand. I check my fingers. They’re shaking and tingling, but they don’t look damaged. “Was it your father?” I ask Sojourn.

She shakes her head. “It was me, or a piece of me, a rag of soul-memory from back in history. That’s what a half-soul looks like. When you do a full swell, it’s like he’s in the room with you. They talk, even.”

Like he’s in the room with you? “You did something like that for Eed Marro?”

“No. No! Terez came looking for magic, it’s true. She wanted Eed’s vineyards to prosper. She thought he’d be happy.”

“You made the death-head for her. Since swells can’t do magic, if there’s anything cursish on it, you’re the one who did it.”

“It was a harmless charm, a nothing. Look, our friend here saw it all. Put your hand on his head and ask him to show you.”

She seems a little sly. I don’t trust her, but if all this thing does is show memories, I’ve got nothing to lose except ignorance. I touch the head gingerly.

“Say the word,” Sojourn orders. She means that slippery word, that cliff-edge, dizzy word. It takes me a few tries to wrap my tongue around it, then the head spits out another image.

This time it’s a younger swell. He’s bare-shouldered and looking down, at a lover I think because he’s smiling gently while he mouths words I can’t hear, while his black hair falls like a curtain from behind his ear. He pauses, listening maybe, then he laughs. He touches something below him–his lover’s face, I’m guessing. He’s the very image of Eed, if Eed were young and strong and happy. Then the image scatters like so much smoke, and I’m left panting for breath. My heart’s pounding like I ran up a hill. I guess I expected that, after seeing how it drained Sojourn, but what I don’t expect is the outraged glare on her face.

“That wasn’t me!” she says. “That was you.”

“I made the picture?”

“No, I mean that soul there, that was yours, Nix. You should have said you’re half-souled.”

I’m horrified. “I’m not! I’m a full bright, a temple brat.” But that image touched a truth, didn’t it, Nix, some deep piece of rightness, and suddenly my past, my history, my self is quaking underneath me.

“It looked like Eed Marro,” I argue. Maybe it’s not a soul-memory. Maybe it’s an Eed memory, something stuck in my head cause I’m fretting about him.

“It couldn’t have been. Eed was still using his soul when you were born. You’re twenty-four, twenty-five?”

“Give or take.”

She considers for an instant, then her eyes narrow. “The brother.”

“What?”

“Eed’s older brother, Bur.”

My heart starts hammering. I think I’d puke, if there was anything in me to come up. “What about him?”

Dawn claws through the window. The light brushes the pink clay and renders it dull, just another lump of rock. Sojourn retrieves the cloth from the floor and covers the head. “Eed didn’t die until a month ago, but the brother was killed twenty-five years back, just around when you were born. And no, don’t argue–I know a soul-memory when I see one. You know what this means? It means half your soul used to be Bur Marro. The heir to Marro. The one who was murdered all those years ago.”

“She lied,” Rine says. “It’s what she does.” He was awake when I ran into his courtyard, panting and gibbering and sobbing; now we’re sitting on the edge of his bed and he’s trying to calm me down.

“She’s not lying. I feel it. What she said, it’s true. I don’t know what to do.”

“Why do you have to do anything?”

He tucks my hair behind my ear and looks at me with exasperated worry. Before I know it, I’m spilling it all: the ghost, Terez and the death-head, the bright who Eed strangled. “I’m thinking the reason I can see Eed is ’cause I used to be his brother.”

Rine’s gone pale, shaken up. He’s drumming his fingers on his knee. “You can’t go back there.”

“I just want to get free of Eed–which means I need to take that death-head to Sojourn. Please, Rine. Come with me, let Terez speak her piece, I’ll grab the bust, and we’ll leave. Sojourn unmagics Eed’s soul, and you and I take Terez’s money, and that’s the end of it.”

He draws away a little and chides me with his eyes. “But it’s not. If I talk to her, then you’re hers for a full year. You’ll see her every day. I want nothing to do with that.” Nothing to do with me, he means. He’s making me choose: Terez’s money, or him.

He’s the first friend I’ve had in a long time, so long. When I look at his face I know I can’t lose him; already, he’s become that dear. But how do I say no to all that coin? A chance like this doesn’t come but once in a bright’s one lifetime.

Damn him for making me choose. Cruel or not, I loose the only arrow I’ve got. “It’s the only way you’ll have money for a child.”

He stares at me like I punched him. It’s done, I’m thinking. I’ve lost him. Then he looks away and blushes like he does, and I realize he doesn’t want to dump me, either.

He can be angry, though. “Five minutes,” he says, coolly. “I’ll give her five minutes. And Nix, you’ll work out some other deal. You hear me?”

It’s midmorning when Rine and I get to the plaza. Farmers are unloading their rickety wagons–bushel baskets only half-filled with wizened beans, bony pale carrots, stunted apples. Eed’s glaring at the farmers while he hovers by the wall twisting his beads. I eye Eed with my knew knowledge, but he still looks like a stranger. I’m happy about it, but oddly a little sad, too.

When we approach, Eed turns the glower on Rine. “Who’s this?”

“My friend Rine,” I say, and Rine jumps a little when I start talking to nothing. “A clayhands. Rine, this is damo Eed–no, not over there. Right here, by the wall.”

“Pleasure,” Rine says in the direction of Eed’s left shoulder. He doesn’t sound pleased, though. He sounds tight and nervous, talking to the ghost of his old lover’s husband. I give his fingers a squeeze.

“Is this the one who made the death-head?” Eed asks.

“No. His teacher did, though. If I take her the bust, she’ll be able to free you.”

“Good,” Eed says. “Let’s finish it, then.”

The guards at the gate scrutinize Terez’s token. I’m thinking they aren’t going to let us through, but after some discussion, they do. I walk through the tower tunnel and get my first glimpse of swell-side.

The cobbled plaza’s a half-circle mirror of ours, but what strikes me is what’s missing. Rubble, for one: no houses burnt to bones, because no soldiers came here to fire out the witches. No weeds, no broken glassy. Instead, clean cobbles, neat curbs. The wall and the guardhouses are whitewashed. There are trees. I smell flowers and, from an open window, baking bread.

No jinks or beggars. No rats. No crowds. There are people, sure, but a whole lot less of them, and all swells. Around the plaza, they saunter in and out of the shops, unhurried shadows in their black robes. They nod to one another–gracious, not desperate.

No dirt. Horses pull the wagons through the gate tunnel then head north and south on the cobbled roads. When a horse lifts a braided tail, a guard rushes over to whisk up the dung before it can offend.

From the half-moon plaza radiate streets like sunbeams, gentle lanes flanked by trees. The narrower ones are paved in tiles: mosaics, pictures of history–the old city, dead people in old-fashioned clothes. Marro guides us down one of those. We pass odd-shaped buildings with stained-glass windows; walled gardens, brown with the drought; iron statues; dry fountains; a library (“A place full of books,” Marro says). Useless, the lot of it; then I realize: if you know you’ll be born again, you make sure to leave yourself a place full of pretty.

Rine’s eyes aim straight ahead; his mouth is a tight line, his shoulders stone-stiff. I realize why when I see the trio of swells coming down the street from the other direction. They meet my eyes, then their expressions reorganize. In half a second, they’re looking right through us like we don’t exist. They’ve swept us away before we can offend.

Marro’s estate is a walled country all its own: brown rolling hills, a distant stone castle, and a ribbon of road alongside a lake. The lake’s nothing but a bowl of sludge crusted with mosquito eggs and fringed with dead cattails–then I start remembering.

The little boat bobbing under me, honeysuckle summer; all around me, blue water; by the distant shore a crowd of lily pads, and willows that finger the water’s surface, lazy in the breeze. I pull the oars then drift; pull, then drift.

The memory’s interrupted by ice stabbing through my ribs. It’s Eed charging past me at a run, although his boots don’t kick up any gravel. Teeth chattering, I collapse against Rine, and we follow Eed slowly.

Up at the house a couple of swell servants are unloading bottles from a cart while the harnessed horses swish their tails. I’m surprised we don’t see more servants; Eed answers, like he knows what I’m thinking. “Terez let the servants go, to save money. The vineyards are dying.” His voice accuses, like the drought’s Terez’s fault.

The two swells straighten up and frown at us, but I hold up Terez’s token. “The dama asked us here,” I say. They don’t look pleased, but they don’t challenge us, either, and we march right through the front door.

My feet know where they’re going. It’s disorienting. With Eed right there beside me and Rine a step behind, I head down a long marble hallway to a flight of stairs wider than my squat. The rug is red. On each step a gold bar traps it in place. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of empty birdcages. I remember.

The hall echoes with the chatter of birds. It’s redolent with the damp earthy smell from the watered plants on the landing, the waxy tang of polish. I hear distant mangled music–little brother Eed on his pianoforte…

I slam the door on the memories. The thought of Eed as a boy disarms me, and I can’t afford to be disarmed when he’s right here with me, at the top of the stairs, glaring murder.

“Dama?” I call.

Terez comes out of a doorway down the hall. Her hair’s a wispy mess and her black robe’s wrinkled. She’s holding a pen in ink-stained fingers.

“My ledgers!” Eed gusts past her into the room.

Terez is staring at Rine. The pen in her hand starts to shake. She grabs it with the other hand.

“I’ll give you and Rine a minute, dama,” I say. “Listen…you made a bust of your husband. Or Sojourn did.”

Distracted from Rine, she looks at me in surprise. “You know Sojourn?”

“She’d like the head back, dama, if you don’t mind.”

“Take it if you want it–down the hall, third door. It brought nothing but bad luck.”

Rine goes to her, slowly. She reaches for his hands. He lets her take them. The look on their faces twists me: it’s the same look, a questioning look, painful and vulnerable and childlike. So Rine never did get over her. All that anger of his was just posturing, just hiding from the truth.

It’s unexpected. It’s devastating. I walk away.

The third door leads to a dusty closet of a room with a window in a sloping bit of ceiling. On the windowsill are living plants in clay pots, well watered; a little jungle that hasn’t heard that brights are dying of thirst. The only other things in the room are a wood-paneled screen and an altar. The altar’s like Sojourn’s, but richer: a marble shelf, a crystal cup, a gold dish for the incense. Staring at me from the middle of that altar is Eed’s death-head, glittery gray, its mouth a sour slash.

A shape unfolds from behind the painted screen, a little boy shape, a baby crow. Aurel. He’s looking at my hands. “A Brute!” he says with surprise.

I wince. “Halfish.”

“Can I ask you something?” He’s polite, Aurel, with a dignity that’s old for a little boy. One hand grips the edge of the screen like a chubby crab, the other hangs at his side. There’s no fidget to him, no shuffling. He should be wiping his nose on the back of his hand, stealing apples from wagons, chasing around with other kids. Instead he stands there unsmiling, like his joy’s been trained away.

“I did something wrong,” he says.

His expression is so distressed that I find myself kneeling to meet him eye to eye. “It can’t be that wrong.”

“It is. It was magic.”

“Tell me.”

He starts with this: Hiding behind his screen, he saw Terez do magic.

“Well she can’t, you know. Not really. Swells–Souls–they can’t.”

“She did! She said a word that made my ears hurt, then she asked Papa to love her, but she wasn’t talking to Papa, she was talking to her altar. She wiped her eyes with a napkin and burned it and said ‘Take away my tears.’ That’s just what she said. I heard her. I didn’t want her to cry, so I did what she did, only I used raindrops instead ’cause I wasn’t crying. I caught them in a napkin and I burned it with a candle and I said ‘Take away her tears.’ Then I said the ear-hurting word.”

My belly twists with the rightness of it, that same lurch I got when Sojourn mentioned Bur. It’s a sickening sensation. “Aurel, has it rained since then?”

He shakes his head, then bites his knuckle. I pull his hand away from his mouth before he can chew right through it.

Aurel started the drought.

I’m shocked bone deep that a little boy could cause this kind of damage. But how? Swells can’t work magic.

But half-swells can.

The timing’s right. Five years ago, Terez crossed the wall. She crossed it with Rine. Eed isn’t Aurel’s father; Rine is.

Eed will be furious. He’ll go berserk. I think of the dead girl in the alley, and her accusing eyes. Aurel, Terez, Rine–they’re all at risk. I’m at risk. Every bright in the city’s at risk, because that’s what angry swells do: they burn us down.

“I’ll handle it, Aurel. Don’t say anything to anybody else, not even your mother. All right?”

I grab the bust. The best chance for all of us is to get Eed taken care of. There’ll be plenty of time after that to fix the drought, and to tell Rine he’s got his child after all.

Down the stairs, through the door, I run with the Eed-head tucked on my hip like a baby, past the startled swells with their wagon, down the gravel road.

I’m all the way to the lake when I hear footsteps pounding after me:. Rine, red-faced and coming fast. “Nix! Wait!” He doesn’t see Eed blowing after him, glowering murder, with his black robe flapping like wings.

“How dare you!” Eed howls. He’s howling at Rine.

Not good. Eed must have figured it out, watching Rine and Terez together–not about Aurel, maybe, but that Terez crossed the wall. If Eed catches up to Rine, Rine’s dead. If Eed gets time to think, he might work it out about Aurel, and then Aurel’s dead, too. I have to distract Eed.

I stop and wave the bust in the air. “I’m taking this to the clayhands,” I shout. “You’re finished!”

It gets Eed’s attention. He passes Rine and swoops over to me. Face to face with me, he bares his teeth; his ghost breath is cold as snow. “Put it down. I’ve decided it can stay here a while.”

With that soul-memory, that part of me that sees, I know what he’s thinking. Defiler, he’s thinking, and I understand that clear enough: Rine defiled the Marro name. Punish, he’s thinking, and it’s easy to see he means punish everybody concerned.

Brother, he’s thinking–and that one brings me up cold. He knows?

Eed enfolds me in darkness, swallows the world with his cloak until there’s nothing left but night and his icy voice. “Souls who couple with animals need putting down.”

I’m remembering.

The sound of gentle laughter, my laughter, me. Bur. I’m looking down at a face, a bright woman’s beautiful face on the pillows, and she smiles up at me but only for an instant before her expression changes to horror, then something grabs my throat, squeezes, drags me off her, chokes, crushes. I feel the cutting force of the counting beads garroting me, then darkness.

The pain of Bur’s death drives me to my knees, and all of a sudden I’m back in the world, kneeling in the gravel and looking up at Eed’s face. “A bright didn’t kill your brother. You did.”

I thought he was angry before, but now he hurricanes down, savage. The wind of him whips me, and his eyes come closer ’til all the world’s nothing but the black of his pupils, bloodshot lightning streaking outward, and I feel the brush of bones on my throat. Here it comes, I think. Death.

Then the neighing of horses cracks the shadow, scatters it, and I’m kneeling under lashing hooves while a horse’s body rears against the dry noon sky.

It’s Terez, driving the cart from the front of the house. I scream the word, the magic word, and Eed jumps back away like it burns him. Rine jumps down and tosses me into the back of the cart; then he crawls up in front with Terez, she snaps the reins, and Aurel and I have to hold on for our lives.

Eed recovers. He swoops behind us, shrieking. I curl around the death-head and try not to listen as we bump along. “As fast as you can, to Sojourn’s!” I shout.

The horses are as scared of Eed as I am. They charge through the gate and gallop up the road. Eed plunges after us.

Kill. The murder’s pouring off Eed like fever heat as he dives behind us. Punish. His rage slips under my skin, coursing through me like poison, pulsing. When I don’t respond, when I press my hands against my ears and pull my knees up to clutch the bust against my waist, he changes tack.

“Kill Terez,” he bellows. I grit my teeth and bounce. None of the others see Eed, but Aurel pats my shoulder, trying to comfort. Maybe he senses Eed somehow, with that bright magic part of him.

I scream the word at Eed to keep him at bay, again, again, but every time it’s harder, like I’m lifting a weight that’s just this side of too heavy. Every time, I need a few minutes longer to catch my breath.

By the time we get to the north edge of the meat-gardens, the horses are stumbling. They’re still terrified, looking back at Eed with rolling eyes.

I tumble out of the wagon. Kill her, Eed urges, sweeping down. My fingers are tightening on the bust. Terez is jumping down from the wagon, and how did I get so close to her? When did my hands lift the bust over my  head?

I scream at Eed again, then I take off through the trees. I hear the others thrashing after me, but Eed’s not going for them. He wants the death-head I’m clutching. He chases (Kill!), harries, and I holler back at him, trying to drown him out, until my voice is gravelly and I’m tasting blood. Roiling ink, a billowing cloud of poison intention, he goads me to slaughter, to kill Terez, to kill Rine. All the way to Sojourn’s, he besieges me.

Sojourn’s waiting by her shack, scowling down the ravine, and never was I so happy to see a decrepit old bone of a bright. All around the shack she’s planted hundreds of death-heads, some weathered and cracked, some clear-featured and new, all of them yanked right off their graves. It’s an army of heads, all staring outward. I try to negotiate through them at a run, but my feet catch. Eed’s head goes flying. I fall on the heads and a sharp crack in my ribs takes away what’s left of my breath. I roll to a stop, hugging my chest, and here comes Eed flying toward us, coming to swallow me.

Sojourn steps past me into the center of her army, and she points at Eed and hisses the alien word, then “Stop right there, Eed Marro!”

Shockingly, he does. Sojourn can see him. Eed looks as surprised as I am.

He growls and gathers himself, then launches at Sojourn, but her army of heads make a wall he can’t penetrate. He crashes against it and bounces back. Magic.

I try to stand up but I’m shaking too hard, and I dry-retch a little. I’m heaving into the dirt, clutching my ribs, when the rest of them show up behind Eed. Rine’s carrying Aurel.

Sojourn chants words that twist in the air like snakes, that snap and cut and hurt my ears. Eed freezes a minute, glowering, and in that instant Rine grabs Terez’s hand and hauls her in among the heads.

Sojourn looks at Rine then at Terez. Her eyes are narrowed, her back is stiff, and both of them look guilty. I feel the tension of their history, the three of them, like three jackstraws in a pile and you can’t draw one without touching the others: Terez learning magic, Rine learning clay, the two of them picking what piece of Sojourn they want, what piece of her brightness.

She turns her back on them. Without a word she retrieves Eed’s death-head and kneels next to me in the dry dirt.

“You can see him because you made the head?” I ask her.

She nods. She screws the bust into the ground. Right next to it is the tongue-pink head that showed me Bur’s image.

“I trapped his soul,” she says. “I gave him a taste of not being reborn. Let them feel it, the swells; let them feel what the brights feel.” Obstinate old bone. I know it then: she killed him. She killed Eed with her curse.

Eed’s still scowling at her, bared teeth and fury, but he’s stopped battering the invisible wall. Now he starts to circle, prowling, testing for weakness.

“Lay your hands on the clay like so,” Sojourn tells me, “and I’ll show you how to send him on.”

I start to, but Rine shouts out. He rushes over and pulls my hands away. “Make her do it herself, Nix. Or ask her the price.”

“There’s a price?”

Sojourn answers quick. “Nothing you’ll miss.” She grabs my hand.

For a second it’s tug-of-war between Rine and Sojourn with me in the middle, and in the struggle I realize what the price is. The seeing part of me knows.

It’s the same price as always, for doing magic. It’s why the swells can’t do magic themselves. It’s Bur’s afterlives, that’s the price. His rebirth. His soul. “My soul. You can do magic or you can get reborn, but you can’t do both.”

“What soul?” Terez asks. “You’re a Brute!”

Aurel corrects her. “Halfish.”

I yank my hand out of Sojourn’s.

She looks at me and pleads. “You’ll have one life only, but a long, long life, Nix.”

A long, long life like hers–until time sucks me dry, leaves nothing but an old bone and magic, a hairless skull, eyes as deep and black and used up as an ancient well.

Rine still has my other hand. He squeezes it hard, and I feel his fingers shaking. “And what’s he supposed to do with all those years after everybody who loves him is dead?”

“He’ll have me,” Sojourn says. She says it with stiff dignity, even though her knees are grinding into the dirt, even though she’s dressed in rags and filthy.

“Your apprentice?” I ask her.

Terez runs over and crouches right in front of Sojourn; she grabs both Sojourn’s shoulders. “Half-Souls have afterlives?” she asks fiercely. She glances at Aurel, over by the shack.

At Aurel, who’s Rine’s son, which makes him half-souled, like me. Like Sojourn.

“They do, dama,” I tell her. “My half-soul’s Bur Marro.”

If shock has a sound, it’s the rustling of mice in the grass, of a breeze through dead weeds.

Snarling like a rabid dog, Eed renews the attack, diving for me, pounding at the wall like a hammering shadow. He’d kill Bur again for the sin of loving across the wall. He’d kill again, to inherit all that money. Eed would kill again, just to kill. His soul is stone, hardened and unchangeable; the best thing I could do for him is send him to rebirth. Make him clean. Give him another chance.

Is one soul, even a brother’s soul, worth all my forevers?

Sojourn’s watching me watch Eed. “Don’t do it for him,” she says. “Do it for this.”

She spits in her palms and reaches for one of the death-heads–not Eed’s, but one of the old ones from her time-scarred army. She sings her alien word, then she cups the back of that stone head, and she hunches down and kisses it.

That kiss charges the air. I vibrate with the power of it–like lightning on its way to striking, like a dropped bowl right before it shatters. Then, smash!–the death-head explodes in her hands, knifing us both with shards.

It yields up a soul.

It’s an old bright, nudging his lank hair out of his eyes. I see deep wrinkles, age freckles, a stained white cap. I smell flour on him, and the tang of sweat. It’s just his shoulders and head, but he looks at me and gasps. I hear it. This bright, this old soul, is no vision.

Sojourn’s cut palms stream blood; she cups them beneath her chin and breathes the word into her hands. The old soul shivers. He looks at Sojourn, and he smiles a brown-toothed smile, and he keeps smiling, and while he’s watching her, he starts to fade.

It’s not a scattering like the memories in Sojourn’s shack, but a dissipation, like a smoke ring–expanding, stretching, thinning until finally you can’t see the smoke anymore. But the air still smells like smoke, and maybe where it used to be there’s a ghost of warmth.

The seeing part of me knows what happened: that old bright, he’s gone to someplace new.  Not to be reborn, like the swells are, but to something beyond bright, beyond soul, beyond graves and names and birthrights. That soul–Sojourn freed him. She unstuck him, so he could move on.

The heavy weight of my new understanding presses down on me, but it doesn’t crush me. Instead I push back up against it, and I find myself feeling lighter. Catch and throw. Balance. I know what I have to do.

The death heads are prisons. They hold trapped souls.

Thousands of them, nailed on their posts, driven into the dirt. Those heads are anchors pinning our souls to the ground. “There’s a bright in every bust,” I say. The wonder of it dizzies me.

“It’s where your long life will come from.” Sojourn sounds annoyed. She didn’t want to share the secret; she must have known for a hundred years. “Clayhands have been doing soul magic since the war. They never knew it. If they had, the swells would have killed them, so the old witches lied. They hid the teachings, disguised them in clayhands tricks, taught them, master to apprentice for a hundred years. They knew the magic would grow back, if they buried it. If they waited.”

“And I can free them? The brights?”

“A few every day.” It takes me a second or two to figure out why the words are so bitter, then I get it. Sojourn’s long life comes from that buried power, the dead brights; every one I free will steal some of the magic away, will make her life a little shorter. That’s how bad Sojourn wants a disciple: so bad that she’s willing to let her life be whittled down.

How lonely she must be. Am I willing to be so alone?

I spit in my hands.

I press them against Eed’s skull.

While Rine shouts next to me, begging me not to do it, I sing Sojourn’s word, over and over until I quiver with the force of it. Eed shrieks, not in rage, but in sudden terror. I grit my teeth. I send my screaming brother to his new skin, and my futures to the sun.

Eed shatters like stone into wind-borne dust.

Silence.

Sojourn stands up and reaches a hand to me, but I don’t take it. Instead, I stand up and walk over to Rine. He’s looking at me, shiny-eyed with unshed tears as he wraps his fingers in mine, and I realize Terez chased him down because he told her no. He told her no.

He’s mine, until his short bright life comes to its end.

The sudden joy makes it easier to say what I have to say to Sojourn, the lonely old bone. “The clayhands and me, we’ll figure it out without you.”

The brights. Rine and me. Us. Not Sojourn, not ever. Not somebody who knew all this but kept it secret ’til she could use it to get an apprentice.

She stares at me in shock. It never occurred to her, I guess, that I’d take her teaching and not take her, that I wouldn’t settle for whatever bits of craft and half-truths she decided to spoon me in the coming centuries.

Maybe she figures she’ll wait me out. I guess we’ll see. Forever’s a long time. Either way, she watches us, eyes full of sorrowful secrets, while me and Rine and Terez and Aurel pick our way through the death-heads and out into the meat-gardens.

While we trudge through the weeds Rine squeezes my hand as though our forevers would be the same size. “You’ll free them?” he asks. He’s peering around at all the death-heads guiltily, even though he had no idea he was trapping those souls away.

“As fast as I can, Rine. As many as I can.”

“You’ll be famous,” he says.

That’s the punishment. Not the reward.

The first thing we figure out, me and the clayhands, is how to make it rain again. Flooding’s a big problem now, but we’ll work it out. It distracts the swells, anyway, so they don’t see what we’re doing, we brights. Getting stronger. Getting witchier.

I’m guessing Sojourn’s still out there, searching for her posterity. I hear her shack’s gone empty. Maybe she bought a real house with all those crystals hanging over her altar–Terez’s gems, taken in payment for teaching. Ironic, that what Eed promised me was something Terez had already given away.

We live in the old theater. I juggle on stage now, catching, tossing, flashing my bottles, and offstage I juggle our odd little family: Terez with her charities, and me and Rine, and Aurel, who did magic of his own when he made the drought and will live as long as me. He helps me in the meat-gardens. Me and Aurel, we’re freeing brights together, as fast as we can, trying to shorten our forevers.

In the meantime, I throw, catch, flash, and I learn. Clayhands come from everywhere, with snippets of old wisdom to share, and This word, Nix, my father taught me it, is it magic? Or they beg me to free their dead: the souls of their lovers, their fathers, their mothers, their sons. They ask for me by name.

Iyo’s with us in the theater, because it turns out the swell she crossed the wall with was Bur Marro. But that’s another tale, just one more stick in our pile of jackstraws, our bright jumbled lives.

___

Copyright 2011 Eljay Daly

Eljay Daly lives and works somewhat northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. She’s an alumna of the Viable Paradise workshop and the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She likes big dogs, full moons, and sleeping in tents, but generally not all at the same time. You can find her on the web at www.eljaydaly.com.

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