by J. M. Sidorova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not an invincible man.

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

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

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

Then, “Are you?”

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

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


“’Cause it makes sense.”

“Lot of bullshit makes sense.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t.”

“Will not or can not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your point?”

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

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

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

“Can your people recharge it? The tower.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK. What’s your name?”

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


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

“I… did. More or less.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what about the meaning of life?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

They give me freaking shivers and palpitations, those memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 J. M. Sidorova

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

by Ian McHugh


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grief struck all over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the Sky retreated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he was gone.

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

“Must it be you?” she asked.

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

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

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

“But you cannot alone!”

“I will save myself,” another voice interrupted.

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

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

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

Tapa O had to look away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, brother,” he said.

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

“Come back to me,” she said.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should let me sing”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two more coconuts hit the ground.

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

Another coconut thumped down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her song was in his ears as unconsciousness claimed him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sit down,” she said, coolly.

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

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

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

“My turn, now,” said Kio Lea.

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes glistened, but she nodded.

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

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

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

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

“I miss Inu.”

“Ai,” he said. “Ai.”

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

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

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

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

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

A star fell from the constellation of the turtle.

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

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

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

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

“Two in one night,” he gasped.

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

They watched as the stars fell close beside each other.

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

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

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

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

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

Already, the first to fall were fading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ai, granddaughter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he said.

Kio Lea wept.

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

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

“Will a day get us there?” she asked.

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

“What will we do then?”

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


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

“I have not the strength,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“I will,” said the Sea.

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

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

Kio Lea nodded.

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

“Be brave,” he said.

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

The spark grew grew, strengthened, encompassed him.

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

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

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

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

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

Land. The realm of Earth.

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

Suddenly, he was wrenched backwards.

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

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

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

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

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

His granddaughter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ai,” he breathed.

A shadow fell across them. Tapa O looked up.

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

“Mother of us all,” Tapa O whispered.

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

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

“Rest, Navigator. Heal.”

He felt his eyelids drooping.

He drifted away. And back…

Kio Lea held him a long time, hugging fiercely.

“Goodbye,” she said. “Goodbye.”

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

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

“Take him home,” said the Sea.

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

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

He drifted…

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

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

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

Nona Lupe pushed him back. “Rest.”

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

She was beautiful.
Copyright 2012 Ian McHugh

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

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.


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 or find her on her blog at

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?”


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.


“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.”


“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.”


“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.


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!” 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.”


“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.”


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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.


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.


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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?”


“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.”


“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

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.”


“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.


“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.


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?”


“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.


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.”


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.

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.


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.

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:


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?”


“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.

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